The Leader of the Pack - Pacific Standard

The Leader of the Pack

Stories about athletes with flawed character are endless, but what about those who exceed our expectations?
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Brent Sass. (Photo: Sam Riches)

Brent Sass. (Photo: Sam Riches)

About 50 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Brent Sass dips a gloved hand into a garbage bag filled with straw. Fourteen sled dogs, in three stages of unrest, wait at his feet.

Some are hungry and their tongues hang loose, or curl up in waves of fleshy pink. Others are tired, and their jaws stretch open in pantomime howls. A few are restless, and they paw at the snow, leaving faint footprints behind.

Sass works his way down the gang-line. The frozen ground crunches under the weight of his steps. With one hand he drops down beds of straw—temporary sleeping quarters for the dogs; with the other he scratches between their ears. The moon is hanging low and full and now, in the dead of February and just past two in the morning, the sky is brighter than it's been all day.

Mushers compete against themselves before anyone else. They endure hallucinations on the trail due to exhaustion, extreme weather, injuries to themselves and their team, and broken equipment.

Sass talks to the dogs, thanks them for their effort. They dip their heads in response, and push forward into his hand. Their fur rises up between his fingers.

They are three days into the 2012 Yukon Quest, and will be on the trail—a thousand miles across Alaska and Yukon backcountry—for the next week. This checkpoint, in Circle City, is the coldest of the race. As Sass attends to his team, the temperature hovers around 60 below.

Across from the dog yard, other mushers and dog handlers and veterinarians and race volunteers are huddled inside a cement-floored, red-walled building that was once a single-cell jail and now serves as the community firehouse. A few people sit at a picnic table and eat from bowls of moose stew. Steam rises up and over their heads as they lower their faces close to the meal. Others lay out on the floor, their curled bodies wrapped in sleeping bags. One musher, reveling in the warmth of a heated space, climbs atop the roof of the fire truck. He lays on his back and his nose almost touches the ceiling. It’s warmest up here, he says.

The walls inside are decorated with a dozen or so colorful cardboard signs, courtesy of local schoolchildren. They write messages of encouragement and draw pictures of dogs and mountains and parka-clad figures. The mushers, swishing around the room in insulated coveralls, look for their names. When they find them they point and smile and, whether they were searching for it or not, discover another reason to keep racing.

In many areas of the north, mushers are celebrities, recipients of the same tropes that are attached to more conventional sports and athletes: transcendent of physical and mental barriers, dedicated to their craft with a puritan work ethic, role models. Heroes, even. It’s mostly all projection and hyperbole, but it’s part of the discourse of sport. It’s mythical and war-like and when the line between perception and reality vanishes, and an athlete’s flaws suddenly glare and the viewers recoil, the character breaks. The hero becomes human—usually for worse, but sometimes for better. This is one of those stories.

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The idea that participation in sport builds individuals of character is historic and popular but also largely debated. In 19th-century Britain sports were used as training exercises for soldiers and valued as a form of self-governance. Albert Camus once wrote that sport was where he had “his only lesson in ethics” and many of us learn early socialization skills through sport—but research indicates that as athletes rise in prominence, their level of character drops.

Jennifer Beller is one of the world’s leading experts in sport ethics, having studied the moral reasoning of more than 70,000 athletes over 20 years. Her findings reveal that non-athletes score significantly higher on moral aptitude tests than athletes, and that, overall, the longer an individual has a career in sport, the more likely their moral reasoning will be affected negatively.

(Photo: Sam Riches)

(Photo: Sam Riches)

The results aren’t without dispute, however. Critics argue that character is too ambiguous of a concept to measure and empirical attempts to capture it are therefore flawed, but even in accepting that rebuttal, the problem of character in sport is undeniable and attempts to understand it and grow the body of research surrounding it are important, even if the research, for some, is accompanied by an asterisk.

An inescapable duality of sport is that it can be brutal and aggressive, a stronghold for swaggering entitlement, while also teaching lessons of fairness and humility, grace and composure. Coaches can build lasting lessons into sport and teach young athletes how to channel emotions in positive ways—but they can also learn to react negatively. It’s an impossibly large space to paint with one brush—the morality of sport is nuanced and ultimately individual. In a practice that demands conformity, every experience is unique.

What separates sport, in contrast to games or play, are the rules; that rigidity allows it to operate effectively, most of the time. The outcome of a match can never be known until it’s played, which makes sport both exciting and dangerous. The variability of sport, the randomness it incurs, allows for an escape from life's banalities and calculability and bureaucracy, but it can also, as an institution, become enslaved to those same practices. It can, and often does, become the very thing it provides an escape from.

John Wooden, one of the greatest coaches in the history of American athletics, once said that sports don’t build character, they reveal it—and that seems a reasonable take on the matter. Brent Sass, a world-class musher, knows this as well as anyone, and quietly, in his corner of the world, he’s just demonstrated it again—on the biggest stage his sport offers.

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Mushers compete against themselves before anyone else. They endure hallucinations on the trail due to exhaustion, extreme weather, injuries to themselves and their team, and broken equipment, which can lead to hours of repair in isolation—and they do it all while facing the threat of wildlife and snow squalls and relentless cold. If they get lucky and win a couple of races, the purse rarely covers the costs of competing.

By its hardened nature, the sport—or lifestyle, rather—challenges its competitors. It attracts a formidable, strong-willed, eccentric type. The motivation isn’t found in defeating another. It comes in harnessing a full team of super-dogs and holding on, both literally and metaphorically.

Back at the Circle checkpoint, with his team bedded down, Sass tells me, between swigs of coffee, that his favorite part of the race was approaching: crossing over into the Yukon. "This is when the fun part begins,” he says. "We get away from civilization, get into the Yukon and disappear for a while.”

Sass refers to himself as a dreamer, and his conversations routinely return to his dogs. The face of his most famous dog, Silver, is emblazoned on the shirts he wears, and is tattooed onto his skin. Like any other walk of life, mushing has its flaws and its flawed practitioners, but any time spent around most mushers will reveal that they are in it for their dogs. For Sass, it’s immediately clear that is the case.

(Photo: Sam Riches)

(Photo: Sam Riches)

Last month, in a banquet hall filled with other battle-scarred mushers, Sass received an award—chosen by a team of international veterinarians—for the quality of his dog care. He was tearful in acceptance. “This means way more than winning,” he said. “It’s all about the dogs.”

One of the veteran mushers in the room, Hugh Neff—the same one sleeping on top of the fire truck—has been racing against Sass for the better half of the last decade. In 2012, they traded off first and second place during the first-half of the Yukon Quest.

"We were pretty much always in sight of one another,” Sass says. "I don't mind it with Hugh. I can tell him to screw off or I can let him go by. It's sort of an understanding between Hugh and I because we've traveled a lot of races together.”

Neff would go on to win the Quest that year, in a sprint finish, one of the closest in the history of the race. After leading for much of the first 500 miles, Sass placed fifth overall.

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The two premiere long-distance sled dog races in North America are the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod. They are separated by about three weeks on the calendar, but much more than that in history and style. The very best mushers win them both, some times consecutively. Up until last month, Sass hadn’t won either. Then, after nine and a half days on the Yukon Quest trail, and late on a Monday night, he glided across the finish line in first place.

He’d come close to victory before. In last year’s race he was running behind the leader before he dozed off and fell backwards onto ice. With less than 100 miles to go, Sass, quite literally, knocked himself out of the race.

In a Facebook post he shared later, Sass said he had difficulty thinking clearly after getting up and straightening his team.

I drove the team up off the lake ice to get to a warmer spot and stopped to regroup. I fired up the cooker and fed the dogs a warm meal while trying to figure out if I was ok. I just wasn't. My thoughts were cloudy and it was hard to string together a plan although I could still function well enough to feed the dogs.

When I decided to go, I was so slow preparing the team and once we were ready and moving, I was not confident in my ability to drive the team and take good care of the dogs. The dogs knew I wasn't all there, they sensed my confusion and didn't seem to know what to do either. I was worried I could get them hurt by keeping going, so I stopped again and did all I could for the dogs, collected wood for a fire and crawled into my sleeping bag to hunker down for a while.

As I drifted in and out, I woke at one point to realize I had my arm and bare hand outside the sleeping bag and just laying on the frozen ground. I knew then that I could seriously harm myself and my dogs if I didn't get help.

After holding the rescue beacon in his hand for more than an hour, Sass finally decided to activate the signal. With that, the Canadian Rangers were dispatched to his location and his race, the best he’d ever run, was over. He was airlifted to Whitehorse, diagnosed with a concussion, and a little more than two weeks later, with his symptoms still lingering, he decided to pull out of the Iditarod.

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Sass has been recognized with the Quest's annual Sportsmanship Award, voted on by his peers, three times in his career. The case could be made, quite convincingly, that he deserves at least two more. Stories about his heroics on the trail seem more likely to be conjured up in a back-alley bar than displayed atop mountains, but at 35, in one of the world’s toughest races, he’s rightfully earned the reputation of a badass.

An abbreviated timeline:

  • In 2006, during his rookie race, Sass and his lead dog Silver guide two teams through whiteout conditions on Eagle Summit, a 3,650-foot peak. Silver found the trail despite four feet of snow drift covering the markers.
  • In 2009, after several teams had already passed by, Sass and Silver came upon another musher stranded on Eagle Summit. Once again, Sass and Silver led them to safety.
  • Two years later, Sass saved four-time Yukon Quest champion Hans Gatt, who was stuck on American Summit in whiteout conditions and suffering second-degree frostbite. In negative-50-degree temperatures, Gatt had fallen asleep in a wet sleeping bag. Later, he said, if it hadn't been for Sass, that might have been it.
  • In 2013, back on Eagle Summit, Sass led another stranded team over the peak. When word of what had happened reached the other competitors, nearly every musher treated the news the same, with a smile, a shake of their head, and some variation of again? muttered under their breath.
  • At the Quest’s 2011 awards banquet, a new honor was unveiled—The Silver Legacy Award, which recognizes dogs for feats of heroism. That year, the first award was handed to Silver and Sass. No one has won it since.
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When Sass crossed the Quest finish line in Fairbanks this year in first place, with a bright yellow ski helmet strapped to his head (a necessary precaution after last year’s crash) he immediately rushed to his dogs, and between tears on the podium, he praised them for everything they accomplished. The victory was long in the making, and even for casual followers of the sport, it seemed right. It takes many years and many races to build a strong dog team, and even then it’s not long before they begin to slide back down the other side of success. The window of opportunity is small and when it shuts, it slams.

Sass knows this, of course, and many expected another top finish for him in this month’s Iditarod, arguably the most important race of his career, but on the second day he was disqualified. The reason seemed juvenile, and the punishment needlessly heavy-handed.

Two-way communication devices are banned on the trail, and Sass had been traveling with an iPod Touch, capable of connecting to a Wi-Fi signal. Most every musher travels with an iPod, for music and movies, but no other bags were searched, no other mushers sent packing.

While shocked, Sass accepted his punishment with integrity and class. He didn’t fight it, didn't complain; instead, he took ownership of the mistake.

In an interview with Alaska Public Radio, he said he wanted his fans to know he wasn’t cheating. "I didn't use it and I had zero intent of using it for a Wi-Fi connection in checkpoints, but I was just completely clueless," Sass said. "I mean, I gave my dad my cell phone because I knew you couldn't have cell phones on this race specifically and I was just ignorant."

Then he brought it back to his dogs. His emotion slowed his words, made it hard to listen. “I let my dogs down once again, which is a real bummer. A real bummer. That, and for my fans and family and friends, it's gut-wrenching."

In response, Kelly Lynn Spiess, a friend of Sass’ from his hometown in Minnesota, created a crowdfunding campaign. The $15,000 goal was set to recoup some of the expenses of running the race. Within four days, that goal was exceeded.

The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.

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