by Tommy Wells
Pete Kaiser is making history by winning the world’s toughest sled dog races.
On Sunday morning, the Bethel musher etched his name into Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race records by winning the state’s premier mid-distance race. And he did it in convincing fashion, finishing almost an hour ahead of the last year’s champion Matthew Failor to claim his fifth victory in the last six years. He finished the race at 8:46 a.m. and turned in an unofficial mark of 38:16:44 – over an hour ahead of Failor.
Failor placed second at 39:03:39.
For Kaiser, who previously won the race from 2015-2018 and trails only Jeff King in the total number of K300 wins, winning a fifth race was more a reflection on his team.
“This is really a good dog team,” he said. “We’ve learned a few things over the years. Really, this is a special dog team. I’m very lucky and privileged to drive them.”
His belief in his team paid off, especially following a trying start that featured a traditionally-slow start and a large number of teams running in a pack for much of the first half of the 300-mile race. The pack made it difficult for teams to get into a rhythm and set a pace.
Veteran Iditarod musher Joar Leifseth Ulsom agreed.
“That first night was tough,” said Ulsom, who finished fifth overall. “There were just a lot of teams running together.”
Kaiser said he wasn’t too concerned about running with the pack for the first part of the race. The congested start was more of a mix of great trail conditions and the overall talent of the teams and mushers entered into the event.
“I don’t think we set a blistering pace at the start,” he said. “We just tried to find the fastest speed the dogs could maintain all the way around. We definitely weren’t the fastest on the way out.”
The crowded trail didn’t begin to break apart until around Kalskag. From there Kaiser and his team began exerting their will.
“Traveling with a big line of teams is tough,” said Kaiser, who mushed his way across the finish line during the early morning hours. “It’s a lot nicer to get separated from a group like that. I’ve never mushed in a long lineup of teams for so many miles.”
After briefly giving up the lead to 9-time Kusko 300 winner Jeff King and Ulsom out of the Aniak checkpoint, Kaiser’s team hit stride. They quickly tracked down the two front-runners, passing them near the Kalskag checkpoint on the inbound trail and building a 13-minute lead heading into the Tuluksak checkpoint.
Aniak musher Richie Diehl said he could tell early on Kaiser’s team was running well.
“That team was wonderful,” he said. “They were rolling when they passed Tony (Browning) and I at Whitefish.”
Even in the lead, Kaiser refused to look ahead to the win. He said he continued to push his team over the final miles with the knowledge that anything could happen.
Kaiser said Mother Nature treated the K300 squads well this year. The trail, he said, was in great condition in most sections, including the Whitefish Loop section.
“You couldn’t have asked for a better trail,” he said. “There were a few rough spots but anyone who has been around the Kusko knows it wasn’t anything to complain about. It was one for the books, for sure.”
The 2020 race also featured its share of nail-biting drama at the finish line with a pair of down-to-the-wire races for second and fourth place.
Finishing second was anything but easy for Failor, a musher from Willow. He needed a late run to hold off a strong challenge from Diehl to hold onto the runner-up spot. The two went into the final 1,000 yards of the race just 15 seconds apart and running without headlamps so as to not give the other an opportunity to know their location coming out of No Man’s Land.
“I don’t think we were separated by more than 3 or 4 minutes the whole way,” said Failor of Diehl. “I knew he was there (behind him) and that we couldn’t slow down.”
Diehl, who matched his best-ever finish in the Kuskokwim 300 with his third-place finish, said he was pleased with his team’s efforts.
“We battled,” he said. They (his dogs) were right there with them (the leaders). We were close and I couldn’t have asked for more from them.”
King also had to finish strong to hold onto fourth. He narrowly edged out Ulsom over the final stretch. The two Iditarod veterans finished less than 1 minute apart at the finish line.
Kaiser, Failor, Diehl, King and Ulsom will all return to the trail in March when they participate in the 2020 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
There was also a proposal at the finish line. Failor, upon finishing the K300, proposed to his now-fiancee Liz Raines who said yes. Failor placed her engagement ring on her finger after carrying it with him throughout the race.
Fairbanks mushing legend Lance Mackey pulled in to the finishing chute on Sunday night at 10:23:23 with 6 dogs in 21st place to win the Red Lantern Award.
Mushers will receive their prizes at the Mushers Banquet on Monday, January 20th and share their tales from the trail.
2020 Kuskokwim 300 Race Results
Place/Musher Total Elapsed Time
1 Peter Kaiser 38:16:44
2 Matthew Failor 39:03:39
3 Richie Diehl 39:05:08
4 Jeff King 39:50:34
5 Joar Leifseth Ulsom 39:50:40
6 Wade Marrs 40:20:17
7 Ramey Smyth 40:24:03
8 Dave Turner 40:26:57
9 Tony Browning 40:41:00
10 Will Rhodes 41:18:30
11 Aaron Peck 41:42:54
12 Aaron Burmeister 41:49:16
13 Nicolas Petit 44:13:06
14 Paige Drobny 44:25:02
15 Joanna Jagow 44:41:04
16 Travis Beals 46:14:03
17 Dakota Schlosser 47:01:52
18 Dennis Kananowicz 47:35:13
19 Jim Lanier 48:02:34
20 Matthew Hall 49:39:39
21 Lance Mackey 52:03:33