Kaiser, Klejka overcome weather, changes en route to strong Iditarod outings

by Tommy Wells

Iditarod musher Jessica Klejka wearing bib #41 is surrounded by her family at the ceremonial start of the 2020 Iditarod on March 7th, 2020. Photo courtesy of Beverly Hoffman

For Pete Kaiser, the 2020 Iditarod Trail led Dog Race was a tough and trying ordeal as he made his way to the finish line in Nome in 14th place. Admittedly, the race’s defending champion was expected to finish much higher.

Even with that, the 2020 race might well go down in the books as his finest hour in the 1,000-mile race. En route to posting his fifth straight top 15 finish, Kaiser overcome brutal weather conditions, illness and last-minute changes to the course.

“It was a rough year, for sure,” said Kaiser, after driving his team of nine dogs across the finish line on Front Street on March 18. “I’m happy to be here in decent position. If you told me before the race, we’d be 14th, I probably wouldn’t have been too happy but you go out there and kind of deal with things and things happen. You work around them and make good plans. Once you get here and see that those plans worked out, you have to be happy with that.”

Kaiser, who posted four straight top 10 finishes from 2016-19, finished the race in a time of 9 days, 22 hours, 56 minutes and 19 seconds. His time was about 12 hours behind the winning mark posted by Norway’s Thomas Waerner, who won the 2020 race with a time of 9 days, 10 hours, 27 minutes and 47 seconds.

Three-time Iditarod winner Mitch Seavey finished second. He finished approximately 6 hours behind Waerner.

One of the pre-race favorites, Kaiser cruised through the first half of the race, reaching the Galena checkpoint with the sixth-best time. Unfortunately, the trail threw more than a few obstacles at him from there.

Coming out of Galena, he came down ill with a stomach bug that sapped his energy levels. Despite his condition, he mushed on. After reaching Unalakleet, the weather and the COVID-19 pandemic scare forced teams to adjust their plans on the run. Cold and windy conditions made travel slow – and even forced some mushers to turn back to wait for a break in the weather. Kaiser, however, decided to push on in an effort to make it through a modified checkpoint outside of Shaktoolik.

Early in the race, the village of Shaktoolik was forced to make alternate plans for mushers in response to concern for the village’s health. As part of the decision, the traditional race checkpoint was moved to Old Shaktoolik. The checkpoint was also left unmanned, meaning mushers were forced to plan for an extended length of the trail that did not offer teams the opportunity to drop dogs or rest.

Kaiser and the other mushers took the news in stride.

“It’s the Iditarod and you just have to take it day by day,” said Aaron Burmeister, a native of Nome who finished fifth overall. “The change affects all of the mushers equally.”

Kaiser agreed.

“It was a number of different teams,” he said. “When you sign up for this race, you know there are so many things that can happen. Sometimes you get lucky and have a few of them (happen), and sometimes you have several of them. It was the little things for us, and they kept adding up. It’s the tough races that teach you more than the easier ones.”

Having recovered from the stomach illness, Kaiser’s team was among the faster teams over the final stages of the race. His team posted the fastest time over the final 22 miles, going from the Safety checkpoint to the finish line in just over 2 hours – more than 30 minutes faster than the time recorded over the same distance by Waerner.

Kaiser pushed his team across the finish line just before 1 p.m.

“I’m glad we made it here,” he said. “There were definitely some low moments but the team did well. I’m proud of the way they did.”

Like Kaiser, Bethel native Jessica Klejka also turned in a memorable effort on the trail. She raced her way to a career-best 22nd-place finish. She worked her way through tough conditions on the Bering Sea coast and drove her team of 10 dogs across the finish line at 4:25 p.m. on March 19 with a time of 11 days, 2 hours, 25 minutes and 55 seconds.

Her finish was nine places better than her rookie run of 2019 when she finished 31st.

Klejka, too, said she dealt with some issues on the trail, including having her team suffer from a bout with diarrhea and extreme cold.

“In Nikolai, the team came down with diarrhea and I became more conservative with our run/rest schedule so the team could feel better,” said Klejka on her Tailwind Kennels website. “Although they had diarrhea the dogs had great attitudes and continue to try and play with each other at each checkpoint when they were supposed to be napping.”

Klejka said her team dealt with cold temperatures near Nikolai.

“As I was leaving Nikolai, I noticed the temperature was cooling down and I put all the dogs insulated coats on to protect them from the cold,” she said. “When I arrived in McGrath, the temperature was around -35 degrees Fahrenheit with reports it had been closer to -45 on the Kuskokwim River.

While Kaiser and Klejka, who now works as a veterinarian in Willow, were able to finish the race, Aniak standout Richie Diehl was forced to cut his race short, scratching in Unalakleet due to concerns about his team’s health.

An eight-time Iditarod finisher, Diehl finished sixth in the race standings two years ago.

Also forced to drop out after reaching the Bering Sea coast were Matthew Failor, the 2019 Kuskokwim 300 race winner, and Nic Petit. Failor scratched out of White Mountain, while Petit scratched in Unalakleet.