Every Yukon Quest sled dog racer Ryne Olson has completed has presented its own unique set of challenges. The 2020 edition of the legendary race from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory in Canada was a nearly two-week slog for her and her team of 10 dogs.
Olson, a 2007 Durango High School graduate, broke off the trail numerous times because of weather and celebrated her 31st birthday a few days before the finish, as she went on to place sixth for her best finish yet in her seven starts of the Yukon Quest.
“I’ve never competed in a race that was so slow,” said Olson, who moved in 2010 to Two Rivers, Alasksa. “Certainly, there were times during a race where you are breaking off trail or will go though a blizzard, but its only a short section of the race. The majority of this race, we were going anywhere from 5.5-8 miles per hour, which is on the slower side of things. The dogs still worked incredibly hard, and for being so young, I thought they did great. It was a tough one, but this year’s race was known for the wind. It wasn’t that we’d get 40-50 mile per hour gusts, but it was consistent, so we kept being blown off trail.”
Brett Sass won the race in 11 days, while Michelle Phillips finished four hours behind him. Olson was a full day behind Sass, but opted to not push the dogs further when the team was inexperienced in 1,000-mile races.
“The whole strategy, deciding on how long you want to rest your team for, is crucial,” she said. “At the start of the race, I saw the leaders a lot, but as the gap began to grow, they went ahead. The young dogs in particular, the four-hour rests we’d do was a lot but they probably needed five or six. It’s a mental thing more than anything for them. After the rests, it would take them awhile to get into a groove, and there were aspects of the race where I could tell it was their first 1,000-mile race. Still, they were pretty incredible. They ate really well, and it was a super goofy group, so it was fun.”
Olson also was happy to see more wildlife than she had seen in previous editions including wolves, caribou, fox and moose. Her sixth-place finish came immediately on the heels of her third-place result at the Copper Basin 300-mile race in mid-January.
Olson, who owns Ryno Kennel, credited the team of dogs. Goblin, Cook and Dolly led the pack at the end. Other dogs included King Louis, Oryx, Thresher, Otis, Bull, Mario and Wingman. She would rotate the lead dog depending on weather, energy and other factors.
“Some dogs will run up and lead without really leading, so they’re trotting,” Olson said. “I try to find a dog up front who is really motivated and driven to get down the trail. Some dogs do better in certain conditions. In the Yukon, some didn’t like the uncertainty in those conditions. Elmer led a majority of the time on the Yukon River, and it didn’t seem to faze him at all. I had to save dogs for later on, and there’s a bigger mentality going up in front. Goblin didn’t really lead much early, and I’d rotate them around depending on who was feeling good and looked like would enjoying being up front and the extra responsibility. If they’re not as enthusiastic, just like humans, being in charge can get exhausting.”
Olson always gets excited when she surpasses first 250 miles, especially this year in her first time running the race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse. The race switches directions each year, and she had always run it the opposite way.
After leaving Circle, the fourth checkpoint, it’s the point of no return. If racers have to drop out after that, it’s nearly impossible for them and their teams to return without having to make an extra-long journey.
“Leaving Circle is always a pretty big jumping point,” Olson said. “The next point is Eagle, and it’s off the road system, so your handlers won’t be there, and it’s 36 hours without them. The next time you see them, you’re in Canada and you’re committed to doing the whole race. It’s tough if you scratch in Eagle, then you have to fly back. After that, you don’t see any signs of civilization. I love that section of the race, and you feel like you’re getting out of the remote corners of the state, and then you cross that border into Canada. It’s a pretty unique feeling.”
During the race, Olson’s mother, Katy, met her at the finish line, while her younger brother was watching the rest of the dogs at Ryno Kennel, where she is in charge of 43 dogs. Now that the race is over, she will focus on her other job, completing daylong and multiday expeditions with her travel company, Last Frontier Mushing Co-op. She said she is considering doing the Quest once again next year.
“Overall, I’m happy with how we finished and thought it was a fun race,” Olson said. “Now, we’re looking to have fun with the dogs and go on some fun expeditions.”