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Yukoner Michelle Phillips comes 2nd in Yukon Quest — her best finish yet

'I wanted to do well for the Yukon, for sure,' said Michelle Phillips, who came second in the 2020 Yukon Quest sled dog race — a personal best for the race veteran.

'I wanted to do well for the Yukon,' said Phillips, who crossed the finish line on Tuesday

Musher Michelle Phillips at the Yukon Quest finish line in Whitehorse on Tuesday evening. She finished second, a few hours behind champion Brent Sass. (Steve Silva/CBC)

She didn't claim the title, but musher Michelle Phillips feels just fine about her performance in this year's Yukon Quest sled dog race.

The Yukon musher was second across the finish line in Whitehorse on Tuesday evening. She was about four hours behind the winner, Brent Sass.

"I wanted to do well for the Yukon, for sure. I wanted to win. I wanted to win for women but you know, I tried my hardest," she said at the finish line.

"I'm happy that I beat my husband — his best finish is third. So that's important," she laughed.

Phillips's husband Ed Hopkins has run the Yukon Quest nine times, and last year ran the Iditarod in Alaska.

Phillips with her husband and fellow musher Ed Hopkins, at the end of the 2015 Yukon Quest. Hopkins finished third that year. (Pat Kane/Yukon Quest)

Before this year, Phillips's best Yukon Quest showing was a fourth place finish in 2009. She's entered the Quest seven times, and will run her tenth Iditarod next month.

Phillips, who grew up in Yukon, said she loves the Yukon Quest because it's on home turf. 

"You always have a lot more people around that you know, and care for you, and give you support. And it really helps you through the tough times."

There were definitely some tough times this year. Phillips said it's been a while since she's run the race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse — it switches directions on alternate years — and she found it more challenging. 

Mushers also had to contend with a lot of windy and snowy conditions, making it a "slog," according to Sass. 

Phillips led the race for a while early on, until Sass finally overtook her and maintained the lead for the second half of the race. Phillips said the two teams seemed evenly matched — until she lost her ski pole.

"When we were in the Chain Lakes, [Sass] pulled out a ski pole and he started poling," she said. "It was really a time that you needed a ski pole, you could kind of just push your team through with that snow. And I think that made a big difference."

Phillips trailed close behind Sass for the rest of the race. She arrived at the final checkpoint at Braeburn just a half hour behind Sass.

Sass pushed on through, headed for the finish, but Phillips decided to stop for a few hours.

Phillips trained as a figure skater when she was a teenager, then 'fell in love' with dog mushing after meeting Hopkins. (Alistair Maitland/Yukon Quest)

"For my team, I knew we needed to stop. So that was it, you know. And I was happy with that," she said.

Fifteen mushers started the race this year in Fairbanks, and four have since dropped out. Alaskan Cody Straithe claimed third place early Wednesday morning, with more mushers expected to finish later on Wednesday.

From figure skating to mushing

Phillips, 51, has been mushing dogs for about 22 years. She grew up in athletic family, and trained as a figure skater when she was a teenager.

She started mushing after she moved to Tagish and met Hopkins.

"I immediately fell in love with the sport," reads her biography on the Iditarod website. "After running my first Yukon Quest, I was hooked on long distance mushing and I've been doing it since." 

A small crowd of people greeted Phillips at the finish line in Whitehorse on Tuesday evening, including her mom, Barbara Phillips.

"All the grey hair in my head comes from Michelle — worrying about Michelle," Barbara said.

'I don't know where it came from, but Michelle has this drive to really push herself as far as she can,' said Michelle's mom, Barbara Phillips. (Steve Silva/CBC)

"While Michelle's racing, I get very little sleep. I'll fall asleep and wake up and have to look for the little dog on the map," she said referring to the race's live tracker online.

Barbara said she's amazed by her daughter's determination and endurance. 

"It's really hard to be the mother of a musher, of any endurance athlete, you know. They seem to have this inner drive to  push themselves to extremes, and normal people don't have it," she said.

"I don't know where it came from, but Michelle has this drive to really push herself as far as she can."

Written by Paul Tukker, with files from Steve Silva

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