As the 33 Iditarod teams are out mushing the first couple hundred miles of trail Monday, we’re working on another full episode of the Iditapod.
For now, though, we have a chat from before the race between our trail reporter Lex Treinen and defending Iditarod champ Brent Sass. The 43-year-old musher’s team faced off with five-time champion Dallas Seavey last year, claiming the victory in a nail-biting finish after eight days of racing.
Sass has continued to compete in mid-distance races this year, some with younger dogs. In the 550-mile Yukon Quest last month, Sass brought his A-team of mostly veteran dogs from his Iditarod win last year. He cruised to an easy Quest victory over some other top-tier competitors.
A couple days after his win, Sass sat down with Lex to talk about his hectic life at his homestead in Eureka, north of Fairbanks, about his newfound confidence going into this year’s Iditarod, and his philosophy about dog mushing.
Below is a transcript of a portion the Brent Sass interview, edited for length and clarity.
Lex Treinen: I heard you had a wild last couple of days getting back to your homestead after your Quest win. Can you tell me what happened?
Brent Sass: I had to rush back right after the finish of the 550 because I had Iditarod food drops due on Monday, and they were not complete yet so I had to get back. I decided to drive through the night to get home to Eureka, and then I had a broken down snowmachine when I got there.
It was frozen up. Outside it was -25F and blowing 20 miles an hour so there was no hope. It was, like, 3:30 in the morning. So again, like I’d been doing for the last give days, I slept in the truck. In the morning, my handlers, they came out with the heaters and all the stuff to try and get the machine going.
LT: So you got that all taken care of and did you get some sleep?
BS: Yeah, I did. I’ve gotten probably give hours of sleep — one good night — since the race. But it’s a huge check. The food drop is a huge deal for the Iditarod
LT: What did you learn about your dogs during the 550 Quest?
BS: The Quest was awesome. It was a perfect distance. Any time you can put the dogs through a race like that — basically, it’s like it gets us to 24-hour rest in the Iditarod — that really gives you a real close look at what the dogs are gonna look like coming into your 24. And any little nicks and dings that may be lying in the dog somewhere are gonna come out. I had 12 hard-pulling healthy dogs at the end, and that was what we were looking for. The two that I dropped are fine and healed up, but they won’t be in the Iditarod.
LT: You have quite a few veterans on your Iditarod team — not just Iditarod veterans but older dogs, 7 years old. Can you talk about just having the mix of different dogs? How does that play into it?
BS: Having the young dogs be able to run with these older ones. I mean, that’s what I did this season. You know, I’ve done five other races. And the whole goal for the season was to mix the teams up and and give some young dogs a chance to roam with those veterans and see how they did because just like anything, if you stick a young dog with an old dog, they’re gonna learn a lot and they’re also gonna rise to the occasion.
You run a 2 year old and a whole group of 2 year olds, you can’t really see their potential.
But you stick three or four or five 2 year olds in with a whole team of veterans, their maturity level just neatly goes up, I feel like.
LT: You mentioned Slater at the Quest finish. You said he’s maybe the best sled dog you’ll ever drive. Can you talk about what makes a sled dog have those qualities?
BS: It’s their head. I think mainly it’s just their mental ability, the ability to put their head down and go whenever you ask them to go.
With Slater, it’s the bond and connection I have with him that I think is just deeper. His grandpa Silver was with my original big furry sled dog that kinda got the whole kennel started. Slater carries that same sort of loyalty. He’s a dog that’ll just never stop. And you asked him to get up and go off that straw, and I don’t have any doubt that he’s just gonna jump up and go do that job.
LT: You talked about this a little bit last year with us when we interviewed you post Iditarod, the way that you like to have your dogs — I think you compared it to having a family — you bring them inside your house, for example. Can you talk a little bit more about that philosophy? How does that change the way the dog team works together?
BS: I think that this sport is all about the connection you have with your dogs and the more time you spend with the dogs, the more love and care and attention you give to them, the more they’re gonna give to you. I’ve based my entire career on that.
They live in the cabin. Last night I had all 16 of them in the cabin, and they still stay in the cabin most nights here up until Iditarod because it is a time to bond. It’s a time to just hang out and just be present with them as much as possible.
I’ve raised every single dog in this team from a puppy. I have four of Slater’s kids that are puppies this year that were living in the cabin with me during the season just to get them to start that bond early.
But you have to have a certain lifestyle. I mean, when you have 16 dogs, you have to really love it because it’s not for everybody now.
LT: You said you kinda run off five hours of sleep a night. Have you always been like that?
BS: In the last 20 years, probably. If I get four hours of sleep during the season a night, that’s a win.
LT: A lot of people would think that’s insane. Where do you think that energy comes from?
BS: It’s the passion that I have for this sport in my lifestyle. And, I mean, I don’t have a choice because there’s too many things to do. A lot of it is the lifestyle I’ve chosen out in Eureka and being away from town and having a homestead to keep up and keep going and generators to fix and we’re creating our own power and we’re hauling everything in from Fairbanks. So that part of it takes a lot of sleep away.
Because that’s an extra effort that if you live in town and live on the grid and everything, you don’t have all of those extra chores to do. But you have distraction — you have friends, you have bars to go to and you have all that.
So I trade being social and going to the bar and going to events and all that for fixing generators and snowmachines and hauling things in and out like last night. We got done with our food drops and it’s not done once you get them all done, then you load them onto a snowmachine sled and you gotta haul them out to the road, where then you load them into a truck and then they come to Fairbanks. So there’s an extra step for everything when you’re living out there.
LT: Is there a physical or emotional or psychological toll of charging so hard in your life all the time? How long do you think you can do that for?
BS: We’ll see. I mean, I crash. Like, getting this food drop done, it’s a big moment. Now, the pressure is kind of off. I’ve got a couple more bigger runs I want to do with the dogs, but I’m going to sleep a lot more in the next month or three weeks leading up to the Iditarod for sure just to get my body at the highest performance I possibly can. Because I’m like anybody else. You’re going to wear out eventually. But I do feel like it’s the passion that just drives me. And genetics. My dad is 70 years old and going crazy. Everybody knows my dad out on the trail. So I think a lot of it is genetics, as well, just like the dogs — there are some genetics that can handle the races and do really well at them. I think, with humans, it’s the same way. I think my body and my genetics are just designed to be able to do something like this. And I’ve been able to find my passion.
LT: What has changed in your life since you won the Iditarod last year? Has it been easier to get sponsors? Have you changed your summer work?
BS: No, not really. I definitely have gotten a lot more people reaching out, a lot more fan base, definitely a lot more individual sponsors.
I’m not really huge into going after big corporate sponsors. Sponsors take a lot of work. They want something and they deserve something and they need something from you. Because of my lifestyle, I just don’t have a lot of time to give to sponsors…
I think more than anything, I just have more confidence in general, in the whole things. From my dog training. I’ve won the Quest and the Quest is a really big deal, and it’s my favorite race and always will be.
But when you win the Iditarod, it is the top. It’s the top of the food chain. I think the biggest change for me is that I came out of it going, you know what, ‘The last 10 years I did figure something out. I did learn from all those mistakes I’ve made over the years. And I have refined my training and my training program, for both me and the dogs.’ And so I have a lot more confidence going into this season knowing that what I’m doing works and that I just need to continue doing it.
LT: We all remember the epic battle of you and Dallas Seavey at the end of last year’s Iditarod and you keeping us on the edge of our seats. Dallas isn’t doing the Iditarod this year and it’s a smaller field in general. How does that feel to be racing when the Iditarod has its smallest field on record and you’re at the top of your game?
BS: It’s a smaller field, but just like everything, things are gonna ebb and flow and ebb and flow. We’re at a stage — and I think the Quest is seeing it too — is that a lot of the old guard have retired. And I think that’s what you’re seeing in the Iditarod.
Everyone says, ‘Oh, the sports in trouble and there’s not a lot of mushers,’ but when you look at it, there’s just a lot of guys that are getting old and retiring. And the fact of the matter is, I’m the old guy now, and I don’t even know when that happened. I feel like I’m still that young buck out there trying to make it happen but in the end I’m the old guy. So there’s a changing of the guard going on. And I ran five mid-distance races this year and three of the five were full — they had tons of people, 25, 35 mushers.
And a lot of names, I’ve never heard, which means there’s a lot of new folks coming up the road — whether they’re handlers for other mushers or whether they’re trying to build their own kennel like I did when I started. I feel like there’s still a lot of potential with the sport. There’s still plenty of people interested in it.
The financial part of things, I think that plays a role this year too. Everything is super expensive.
Keep our Iditarod coverage thriving! Your support today helps fund journalism at Alaska Public Media. Click here to donate.
For more Iditarod coverage visit alaskapublic.org/Iditarod and click here to subscribe to our free Iditarod newsletter, sent daily during the race. Also, listen to our prior episodes of the Iditapod at alaskapublic.org/Iditapod or wherever you get your podcasts.