Twenty-four mushers, including six past champions will be at the starting line for the 35th running of the Kuskokwim 300.
The start is scheduled for 6:30 this evening, but an incoming winter storm could hold up the race.
The race’s food and staff had not been flown to checkpoints as of Thursday night. Crews may be able to drive out supplies. The race is expected to make a decision on delaying the start by early Friday afternoon.
Jeff King will attempt to defend his 2013 title and earn his record 10th victory wearing bib number 10. Past champions Martin Buser and son Rohn Buser are back, along with winners John Baker, Ramey Smyth, and Paul Gebhardt.
The 300-mile race from Bethel to Aniak and back will not follow the river for the first 50 miles. An unusually warm winter has made travel on the river unreliable and at times, dangerous. The trail will instead go across the tundra for the first 50 miles to the checkpoint of Tuluksak before going back on the river to Aniak.
Akiak musher Mike Williams Senior has run the race two dozen times and says the icy trails slowed his preparation.
“It has been a real terrible with no snow, raining all winter long, we had to be forced to go on the 4-wheeler because the conditions were so bad,” said Williams.
There is reported to be more snow and better trail upriver, and a few inches of snow this week improved the trail base. But that trail could change dramatically over the next couple days. A blizzard warning is in effect. That warm winter storm is forecast to bring above freezing temperatures that could drop a half foot of snow, plus there’s a chance of freezing rain and ice accumulation near Bethel. Mushers could face 30 to 40 mile an hour headwinds on Friday.
Besides the altered race route, new to 2014 is a change in layover rules. Instead of taking a 6-hour rest in Kalskag or Aniak, mushers will be able to split up those 6 hours in one hour increments between the checkpoints. Bethel racer Pete Kaiser says he doesn’t expect it to be a major change.
“It’s such a small amount of rest that no matter how you slice it it’s still a hard race and it’s still just 6 hours. I think it will be exciting just to have something different and have a few different strategies unfold, but in the end, everyone is probably going to take the same amount of rest in the front,” said Kaiser.
Kaiser has been able to get some extra miles this year. He and Aniak racer Richie Diehl travelled to Nenana for a month for better trail conditions.There will be no checkpoint at Akiachak. The race board also chose to postpone the 65-mile Akiak dash, a popular race with local mushers.
The race carries a $110,000 purse. The winner takes home $22,000.