Yukon Quest champion Sebastian Schnuelle talks about eating vacuum-packed McNuggets, cooking for canines, and taking on Lance Mackey.
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Native German Sebastian Schnuelle wowed the mushing world by smashing time records for the annual Yukon Quest, a 1,000+ mile journey from Whitehorse, Yukon to Fairbanks, Alaska. Despite stopping to help fellow competitors up the steep hills near the end of the race, the Schnuelle finished first in an astounding nine days, 23 hours, and 20 minutes, becoming the first person to cross the finish line in less than ten days. All this from a man that orders bloodwork for his dogs to make sure they’re healthy, but eats vacuum-packed McNuggets himself.
Outside’s Melanie Lidman caught up with Schnuelle before this weekend’s Iditarod.
Where are you from and how did you get involved in mushing?
I’m originally from Germany. I’m an industrial mechanic by trade but I also studied environmental engineering. I had a job in Ontario, Canada, and took a dog sled ride, and absolutely fell in love with the sport. In 1997, I immigrated to Canada and started working with as a dogsled guide, and I’ve been infected with the virus ever since. I opened my own tour business called Blue Kennels and did tours for many years. But at some point you want to find out, how good are your dogs? In 2004, I started racing and the racing bug really hit me. This was my fifth Quest. I’ve also raced four Iditarods. I’m going back to do the Iditarod in about a weekit’s too soon, I wish there was a little more time. We’re scrambling and preparing right now.
What exactly drew you to mushing?
I still can’t really pinpoint it, but right away after the trip I was like, “Man, this was really nice.” I’ve always been a really outdoorsy person, sailing up to Norway and Scandanavia. I’ve always been a winter person more than a summer person, but never had anything to do with dogs. So the dog element was a new part of it.
Describe what a day is like along the racecourse.
There’s really not much for separating between day and night. We’re traveling 24 hours a day. I have a rhythm where I like to be running dogs from 5 am to about noon, rest from noon to about 5 pm, and then I run again from 5 pm to midnight. I find it complements the natural schedule of the dogs. While I’m resting, I’m not necessarily sleeping. We have 14 dogs, I have to cook a hot meal for 14 dogs and melt snow. I have to check all their feet, which takes almost an hour and a half. So usually if I catch about two hours of sleep in five-to-six hours of break, I’m doing very well. Sleep deprivation is probably the biggest part of the race, trying to still function after four or five days into it.
What kind of food do you cook for the dogs?
It’s a raw meat soup diet of beef, chicken and horse meat. If it’s really cold, lamb and pork fat. I add fish oil and canola oil for even more energy. And then we feed them a commercial dry food, 35 percent protein, 25 percent fat. I feed about two pounds of dry food per feeding and two quarts of the meat soup for hydration. And they get two of those feedings per day. They also snack-warmed up fatty lamb meat, or some fish, along the way. They eat between 10,000 to 12,000 calories per day.
Do you also eat the meat soup?
No that’s not human meat, for sure not. I actually have freeze dried and precooked meals, anything thin and flat which I can thaw out in my dog food cooker. Vacuumed packed pizza or chicken wings, or some noodles, anything which can be eaten quick and kind of on the fly. Lots and lots of sweets, lots of chocolate. Anything with calories. I call it the “all you can eat diet.” Even eating as much chocolate as I want, I generally lose about a pound a day.
What was the highlight of the race?
This year we were blessed with very good weather right off the start. It was cool at the start, 35 or 40 below the first night. After that it was beautiful, 20 below Fahrenheit at night and 0 degrees during the day, which is pretty much optimal weather. It was very beautiful, a lot of sunshine. For me the run down the Yukon river is always my highlight because it’s so remote. We’re running in the footsteps of some real history here. On the eighth day, when I was still in fourth position and honestly didn’t even think about winning, I was with a competitor Brent Sass, and we were sitting on the Yukon river and saying to each other, “Man are we lucky to be here to be able to do this to be able to see this and doing this in such nice weather.” I realize that not many people get to see this, never mind in the depth of winter.
What was it like to win a 1,000+ mile race by four minutes?
I ran it very carefully the last 50 miles. Fifty miles before the finish in our last checkpoint Two Rivers, Hugh Neff was about 35 minutes behind. I thought, if I see him, I will switch into another gear, but as long as I don’t see him I’m just going to run my same old speed. My regular speed is 8.2 miles an hour (we know because we have a GPS). When I didn’t see him three or four miles away from the finish line, that’s when it sank in, “Aw dammit. I’m going to win this thing.” It’s pretty exciting. I’ve put a lot of time and money and energy in this. To finally see it come to fruition, it’s very rewarding. The dogs can sense it too–not winning, but even just finishing they know they’ve done something extraordinary, and the whole energy of the team is very upbeat. When we finished they weren’t tired. They were barking to go, wondering, “Are we there yet?” Of course seeing a lot of friends and faces along the finishing line cheering me on it was very neat. The last 50 miles are through the suburbs of Fairbanks. One friend of mine who lives along the trail came out at five in the morning to cheer me on. It’s neat. There’s a lot of friendships built over the years. A lot of us dream about winning it and when finally they know one who does they identify themselves with it. It was very emotional. I’m normally a very level headed person but a couple of times tears came to my eyes.
What made the difference in breaking the 10-day mark?
It’s something for the longest time we thought was impossible but this year’s conditions were just so perfect. The normal storms and big snowfall and things that slow us down were not there. And the first three who were leading for 90 percent of the race. They set such a hellish pace. I still have German citizenship so I’m the first German to win it as well. So there’s a little bit of excitement going on over there. They’re asking, “How can a German squarehead pull that off?”
Before the checkpoint at Eagle Creek, you were 8.5 hours behind the leaders. What made you able to kick it up a notch?
There’s a big mountain called Eagle Summit which we always have to climb. The climb is incredibly steep, you have a hard time just walking up on your own. I’ve even taken an ice pick up there to have something to pull me up. So you have to have some reserve left in the dogs and in yourself to tackle that one. And on the way up, William Kleedehn already came back down to go back Central, the previous checkpoint, where he wanted to give up. I convinced William not to give up and to follow me up, and saw Hugh and Jon Little also stuck on the steepest part of the mountain. That’s when it dawned on me, “Wow, they spent a pretty uncomfortable night up on the mountain while I rested at the checkpoint.” I was 100 percent convinced that I had enough energy in my team to have an uneventful way up. I did anchor my team up top and went back to try to help William up, but I only got him halfway up the pitch when I realized I better start chasing those other two guys now or I’m going to be out of the mix. William and I are very good friends from Whitehorse. He was disappointed but he obviously understood. He was like, “Sebastian, you’re in a race, better get going.” Then Brent Sass, the guy who was behind me, he got William up the mountain so he didn’t have to scratch. I think he came in seventh.
So that kind of sportsmanship is that common? I can’t imagine that happening in the Boston Marathon-the third place marathoner helping the fourth place runner.
In mushing it is. Two years ago I got the sportsmanship award [and the Vet’s Choice Award as well] for doing exactly that same thing: I helped three other teams over the mountain. That time, I spent too much time doing so and I got out of the mix and ended up finishing seventh. If you’re in the marathon, you know you’re done with it in 2.5 or three hours. We’re out there for days and we’re really out there with no one to help us. If he had really been in trouble or hypothermic, I wouldn’t have left him, but the conditions were good. We have to rely on helping each other. Those three, William, Hugh and John, they traveled together for a long, long time and they did help each other quite a bit. Mushing definitely distinguishes itself from any other sport for that. Yes we’re on our own, but we do have to rely on each other. If William had said, “No Sebastian. Don’t leave, I really need you get me back down to treeline.” I would have done so.
What was the hardest point of the racewhere you wanted to scratch (give up)?
Actually this year I didn’t have one. Normally I always have those feelings where I’m tired and I want to scratch. There were points in the race where I was down and thought I couldn’t do as well as I wanted to, but there was never a time where I thought I would scratch just because the conditions were so beautiful.
Do you have any special secret weapon, like a high-energy food that you eat along the way?
I really don’t. I’m actually a bad case when it comes to nutrition. I’m a junkfood-aholic. I vacuum-pack Chicken McNuggets from McDonalds. I really watch what the dogs eat, a week before I did bloodwork on the dogs to look at all the different blood levels and see if nutrition-wise everything was top notch. But when it comes to myself, well, I’m a little lenient with that.
What was the most challenging section of the race?
Once I caught up to those guys on Eagle Summit, I had to catch the other two in front. We did a long, non-stop 16-hour run, where normally I had a four hour break scheduled halfway through that. After sixteen hours I was feeling pretty worn out. I could feel every muscle in my body. I passed John and knew I was in second position. I never caught a glimpse of Hugh. Honestly I would have been happy with second place also, but that was definitely the most challenging: simply trying to stay awake so long at the end of the race and pushing so hard.
Lance Mackey has set a tall order winning both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod races for the past two years. Do you think you can do it as well?
Two years ago it was considered impossible to win both races. Now quite a few eyes are looking at me saying you won the Quest in record time, you’ve got to win the Iditarod too. I got tenth last year, so I’ve been getting closer. I set myself the goal of top ten. I don’t want to say I’ll win it because then I’m disappointed if I’m only fifth. If I can pull off a top ten then I’ll be very happy. I’m going to run very conservative at the beginning and do the schedule I set at the Quest. Last year in the Iditarod I was in 40th position for the longest time and worked my way up to 10th at the end. I’m the kind of guy that doesn’t push very hard early. If I’m challenging Lance, I love it. If I’m 8th or 10th, I’m happy with it.
What’s the most sketchy survival situation you’ve ever been in with your dogs?
I have to disappoint you: I don’t have any. I train in Paxson, AK, right on the Denali highway. We have some wicked conditions, 60 to 80 mph winds which scare the hell out of me. But it’s never gotten to the point where I got stuck in it and couldn’t find my way out. Possibly that is my strong point, that I don’t train in a very easy climate. We are very remote. Paxson has maybe about 30 people. There’s not much going on up here, but dog training-wise it’s superb. A lot of people come up here all the way from Anchorage just to train. But I stay here. So I’ve been in so many ugly situations but I’ve never broken through the ice big time or been stuck in bad weather.
You’re involved with Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the Iditarod. Do you have a competitive relationship?
Libby and me are partners. We met a couple of years ago on the Iditarod and it clicked. But we have a long-distance relationship. We’re both very extreme people so I think a long distance relationship works very well for us. Libby hasn’t raced since 1997, though she still has dogs and mushes occasionally. But once you win the Iditarod, how much better can you get? What do you have left to go? She’s definitely my mentor, she always gives me advice and we bounce ideas off each other, but we’re not competing. She has the understanding of the time commitment. I don’t get any whining and complaining from her about, “You don’t have time to go on a vacation with me.” Or, “You don’t have time for me,” because she knows what it takes. She obviously had that desire to do it herself, so she doesn’t hold it against me that at this point dogs are first.
What kind of dogs do you own?
They’re called “Alaskan Huskie,” which is a very nice name for street mutt. They have a lot of different breeds in them, from hunting dogs, pointers, to way back to setters and shephards. They’re the fastest and best dogs with the most stamina. In the interior Alaskan villages they’re called “village dogs.” They’ve been bred and raised in the villages as the toughest and the best.
My editor has a lab that’s totally out of control. Do you have any suggestions for obedience training?
There’s only one suggestion I can say over and over: routine. Once you say no once, it’s always no. I feed my dogs from the table but they’re always allowed it. So they’re not very pesky because they know it’s a normal thing in their life. But if I allow them sometimes yes, sometimes no, they would become sneaky and it’d be a pain in the ass. When you call a dog, you have to make sure the dog comes and not let it get away with not coming sometimes. It’s a consistency. I’m a stubborn German man and I’m very consistent. Yes is yes and no is no. Dogs take very well to that. They love the routine and they can read me like a book.