Monday, January 18, 2010

John Baker wins Kusko

John Baker at K300 finish
photo by Ian Foulds

With 10 dogs out of 14 still on line John Baker won the race he has been trying to take for 15 years by placing first in the 2010 addition of the Kuskokwim 300. Baker, who placed 3rd in last years Iditarod has 10 top finishes in his 14 Iditarods but has never placed higher then 4th in the K300. Considering he has a small 35 dog kennel in Kotzebue, this demonstrates unequaled consistency for long distance dog sled racers. Baker began closing the deal 100 miles from the finish when he started putting some distance between himself and Iditarod winners Lance Mackey and Martin Buser. His lead dogs Velvet and Snickers helped him gain a 41 minute edge over the toughest portion of the trail between Kalskag and Tuluksak a 50 mile stretch where there was little snow and plenty of ultra smooth river ice to contend with. Even though he was still looking over his shoulder for his well qualified contenders by the time he got to Bethel, he had extended that lead to an hour and 36 minutes.

Following Baker, Martin Buser came in second, Lance Mackey was third, Dallas Seavey was fourth and Paul Gebhardt rounded out the top 5. Once again, weather was the big story for the Kusko with wind chill temperatures of minus-60 and howling winds during portions of the race. 3 time K300 winner Mitch Seavey scratched on Saturday with frozen eyeballs, according to a race official, and 8 time K300 winner Jeff King who has endured the full spectrum of weather in this race scratched before the race began.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Baker increases K300 lead over Mackey

Taking his 4 hour mandatory layover is tiny Tuluksak, Alaska, John Baker has the first chance to take a good look at his chief competition in the Kukskokwim 300 dogsled race in the past 9 hours. That competion is none other then 3 time Iditarod and 4 time Yukon Quest winner Lance Mackey. Mackey has never won the K300 race, however his brother Rick Mackey won it in 1985 and 1987. Baker has increased his lead from a virtual dead heat 50 miles ago in Kalskag to a 41 minute cushion. If he can hold on to that lead for 50 more miles, he will be crowned the 2010 K300 champion and claim the $20,00 first place prize money. You can be assured that mackey will not give it to him without a fight however.

The trail from Tuluksak takes a more southern route for 37 miles to the checkpoint at Kwethlu, and then the final 15 miles into Bethel. Martin Buser is currently running 3rd and Dallas Seavey is running 4th.

Baker and Mackey dual for the lead

John Baker arrives into Aniak
Photo by Dave Cannon

John Baker has been hanging with the Kuksokwim 300 leaders the entire race. Somewhere along the 30 miles from the turn around point at Napaimute and the second stop at the checkpoint in Napaimute he grabbed the lead from Lance Mackey. Mackey left Napaimute after only resting there for 2 minutes with a 46 minute lead. By the time they got back to Aniak, Baker, who only stopped at Napaimute for 1 minute, had practically reversed that spread arriving 39 minutes ahead of Mackey. Both chose to grab some rest again at Aniak with Baker stopping for 1 hour 44 minutes, and Mackey leaving at the same time only resting 1 hour 23 minutes. They both arrived in at the same time, 33 miles later at Kalskag, did their business, and left a few minutes later with Baker having a slim 2 minute lead. Mackey required a few extra minutes at that checkpoint to drop 2 dogs. He now has 8 on his team compared to 11 for Baker.

From here the trail runs to Tuluksak where a mandatory 4 hour layover is required. If the teams do not break until then, it will be a welcome break. In past years, teams have chosen to take about a 2 hour break on the return trip somewhere between Aniak and Kalskag. For these 2, the rest was cut short at Aniak, plus they are dealing with a longer course, so we'll see. After Tuluksak, the trail takes a different route then the outbound loop traveling to Kwethluk instead of Akiachak. There is a checkpoint at Kwethluk, so any sleep deprived musher who mistakenly misses that route will be disqualified.

Following Mackey out of Kalskag 43 minutes later is Martin Buser. The next 2 teams coming down the trail come from some impressive bloodlines. 22 year old Dallas Seavey currently running in 4th place is son of Iditarod and 3-time K300 champion Mitch Seavey. Mitch himself is the son of Dan Seavey who placed 3rd and 5th in the first 2 Iditarods. Following Dallas is 18 year old Quinn Iten. Quinn is the son of Ed Iten who has won the K300 race before and finished 2nd in the 2005 Iditarod. Both are scheduled to run the Iditarod next month, Dallas for the 4th time and Quinn for his first.

Mackey dealing with wind going out from Aniak
Photo by Dave Cannon

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Mackey restores K300 lead

Lance Mackey who has never won the Kuskowim 300 dog sled race leapfrogged past race leader Pete Kaiser in Aniak to regain his lead 130 miles into this year's frigid icy K300 race. Kaiser had left the previous checkpoint in Kalskag first while Mackey and several others were taking their 6 hour layover. Kaiser appears to be taking his layover now in Aniak. 2 time K300 winner Martin Buser left Aniak 26 minutes after Mackey to claim the second spot with Kotzebue race John Baker following 14 minutes later.

Conditions for the race are being described as brutal. With lack of snow, frigid temps, and a strong head wind, dogs and racers are testing their limits. Reining K300 winner Mitch Seavey scratched at Kalskag after being lost early in the race and losing up to 2 hours on the leaders. For a race that mostly follows the second largest river in Alaska, it might seem odd that someone could get lost, but there is plenty of opportunity for that. Initial sections of the trail actually take an overland route, so that is one possibility. Also with little snow, sometimes trail markers don't stick and trails of previous teams are hard to find. I got lost on the a snowmobile trip once in the middle of some bends and islands on the Kuskokwim river at night when the visibility was bad enough that I couldn't make out the land features and I wasn't sure if I was headed downstream or upstream.

With lack of snow, the dogs get very little water via a technique known as "dipping". That is grabbing some snow with their tongues as they are running through it. As Because of that, it is very important to keep the dogs hydrated in other ways. Mushers have been taking coolers of water with them from checkpoints, and stopping along the trail to hydrate. While the dogs run faster on hard trail, these additional stops will slow down the overall time. With the course about 25 miles longer this year, we don't expect any race records.

Still within striking distance of the leaders is a closely packed group of 3 teams including Dallas Seavey, Ramey Smyth and Paul F. Gebhardt. Current temperature in Aniak is minus 15 with winds out of the north at 13 mph. From here the trail goes 30 miles to the native Village of Napaimute where our friend Mark Leary is waiting with a fresh pot of coffee. Mark drove the trail from Aniak to Napaimute yesterday, and we were hoping to get a trail report from him, but that hasn't happened yet, so stay tuned.

Mackey takes early K300 lead

Wearing bib number 1, Lance Mackey checked into the Kalskag checkpoint at the 98 mile marker of the Kuskokwim 300 dog sled race. Mackey left the starting chute first in Bethel at 6:30 pm on Friday January 16th, and checked into Kalskag at 4:40 am Saturday morning setting a fast pace at 10 miles an hour. 19 minutes later, wearing bib 10, Martin Buser checked in holding on to second place. Buser's start time was 8 minutes later then Mackey's and that difference will be made up at the 6 hour mandatory layover that all mushers are required to take in either Kalskag or Aniak on the inbound or outbound routes. As of this writing, there are 10 teams checked into Kalskag including pre-race favorites Paul Gebhardt, and Dallas Seavey. Running a very strong race currently in 3rd position is perennial K300 racer Mike Williams Jr from Akiak. No teams have checked out of Kalskag yet with the leaders now having been parked there for better then 3 hours.

The trail from Kalskag to Crow Village is 26 miles with another 7 miles from Crow Village to Aniak.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Thursday, January 14, 2010

K300 dog sled race begins tommorrow

At 6:30 pm on Friday January 15, the 30th annual Kukskokwim 300 dog sled race will begin in Bethel, Alaska. Arguably the highest regarded mid-distance dog sled race in the world, the race again features $100,000 in prize money with $20,000 going to the first place finisher. A world class group of mushers have signed on to claim their piece of that prize money. We'll try our best to handicap the favorites. Here are the top 5 in no particular order.

With only 2.6 inches of snow falling on Bethel in December, the trail which mostly follows the Kuskokwim River will cause icy conditions. Not only does that make for difficult conditions for the team, but adds complexity to the handicapping process for us since some of the conventional wisdom no longer applies. For instance Mitch Seavey who has won 3 out of the past 5 K300s has won those races under deep or wet snow conditions. With no snow in the forecast and temperatures predicted to be sub-zero, he won't likely see those types of conditions. He takes this race seriously though and tends to be pushed very hard by one of his offspring (see below), so he makes our top 5 list.

22 year old Dallas Seavey had a statement year in 2009 when he finished 6th in the Iditarod. He learned his craft from one of the best, and would certainly like to make a statement by beating his mentor (see above), so he get's a spot in the top 5 as well.

Paul Gebhardt has dabbled with the K300 on a few occasions in the past and is back for another go after skipping last year's race. Gebhardt's strategy in the past has been to charge hard from the getgo, and that may play well with a fast trail this year. If his team can handle the ice, and his luck holds out, the 2-time Iditarod runner-up should finish well.

Martin Buser has raced the K300 since Blue was a pup, and dueled with Jeff King for the lead in many of those years. Buser's game has been off a bit for a few years now, but you never know when his game might come into focus again. He still holds the record for the fastest Iditarod finish, so we certainly can't count him out.

Living his whole life in Bethel, nobody knows this area more then 22 year old Pete Kaiser who surprised everyone but himself with a 6th place finish in last year's K300. Pete is one of a select few who have been training on the icy Kuskokwim trail the entire season. He will be running his first Iditarod race this year, so hw will need to finish this race to qualify, but beyond that, he has an intense deisre to do well in front of his hometown crowd. Pete's small kennel works against him, but we are picking him as our sentimental favorite in the top 5.

Honorable mention:

I'm told that we can only pick 5 teams for the top 5 prediction, so with this loaded filed, some first rate teams were left off that list. Somehow, reining 3-time Iditarod winner Lance Mackey did not make our top 5. Mackey has not fared well in his occasional K300 races for some reason. Perhaps it is because he chooses to hold back here so his team is better prepared for the big race. It would not surprise us at all if he takes the reins and decides to dominate this race as well, so we might well wish we had picked him once the race is over.

8-time K300 winner Jeff King probably knows this race more then anyone, except we have a new longer and flatter course this year, and he hasn't seen a K300 race with this much ice before. After donating $50,000 to the 2010 Iditarod prize pool, Jeff is not in this race for the money. He is in it for the glory, and has handled every other curve-ball that the K300 has thrown at him before with great results, so look for him at the front of the pack. Jeff has withdrawn from the race this year so he moves out of the top 5 and Martin Buser takes his spot.

Monday, January 4, 2010

K300 has impressive field

An all-star cast is gearing up to take on the Kuskokwim 300 (K300) dogsled race slated to begin January 15th in Bethel, Alaska. Defending champ Mitch Seavey is back for a return engagement along with his hard charging son Dallas Seavey. 8 time K300 winner Jeff King is returning to restore his name on the leader board. Defending 3 time Iditarod winner Lance Mackey is scheduled to return after a year absence from the race. 4 time iditarod winner and 2 time K300 winner Martin Buser is back for the umpteenth consecutive year. Martin always runs a very competitive K300. Paul Gebhardt returns after a years absence to a race he had a commanding lead of in 2008 before busting his sled. And one of our favorites, Nathan Underwood returns after missing several years. The Aniak native Underwood was convinced to come out of retirement after the Sleetmute Native Association graciously agreed to cover his entry fee. Nathan returned the favor by providing the village with a giant batch of lush. Other Kuksokwim valley racers include Richie Diehl, Mike Williams Jr and Sr, and 22 year old Pete Kaiser who finished 6th in last year's competitive K300.

A change in the course this year put's the length of the race slightly over 300 miles as opposed to recent races where the total was closer to 260. Gone is the Pike Lake out and back loop, and added is the turn around checkpoint at the Native Village of Napaimute. We like this change, but it will force perennial K300 racers like King and Buser to rethink their strategy that has worked well for them with the Pike Lake loop. Look for our prediction of favorites here as the race draws closer, and as usual, we hope to have on-site reporters covering the action.