Nicolas Petit claims decisive win in 2018 Kobuk 440

Nicolas Petit in 2014 (Photo by Matthew Smith, KNOM)

Nicolas Petit has claimed a decisive victory in the 2018 Kobuk 440. Petit finished the 440-mile race from Kotzebue to Kobuk and back three hours ahead of the next musher.

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There’s still pale orange light in the western sky as the French-born Girdwood musher rides across the finish line at 12:08 Sunday morning. He has seven energetic dogs in harness.

The 36-year-old says he’d have liked to make it by midnight, but that this second Kobuk 440 win feels good.

“Par for the course for this season. These dogs are kicking butt,” Petit said.

It’s been a successful year for Petit, who has won each of his mid-distance races, including the Copper Basin 300 and the Tustumena 200. He took second place in the 2018 Iditarod.

Petit pulled away from the pack after leaving Selawik, the second checkpoint. By the time he reached Ambler, he had a three-hour lead that he never lost. He says good trail conditions under sunny, clear skies were ideal.

“Hard to imagine a better trail, really. A couple wind-blown spots, a couple punchy spots, but nothing bad,” Petit said.

Petit says the trail may have even been too good.

“I guess from staring at all the scenery, I kind of sunburnt my eyelids. So that kind of hurts,” Petit said. “Other than that, the scenery was great.”

Petit’s total race time of 59 hours, 38 minutes is the fastest since at least 2010 and about two hours faster than 2017 champion Jessie Holmes’.

Holmes scratched at his first Ambler stop. The Nenana musher and 2018 Iditarod rookie of the year says he pushed hard early in the race and got burned out.

“It’s kind of been a good year for me. I don’t really need to push it unless I tried really hard, race to win,” Holmes said. “Somehow Nic can do that, just keep going with it, and that’s impressive and amazing.”

And keep going Petit did: His dogs ran at an average speed of over 11 miles per hour. And he kept all 10 starters until the second-to-last checkpoint, Kiana, where he dropped three:

“All the girls (are) here,” Petit said. “I dropped the boys. They can’t do the fast stuff.”

The fast stuff earns Petit a prize of $15,000, 25 percent of the total pot, plus smaller checkpoint awards and gifts.

A few hours later, 59-year-old veteran Tony Browning took second place. He mushed into Kotzebue at 3:29 am with six dogs, after pulling away from 26-year-old Ellen King in the last 180 miles.

King pulled across the line at 5:42 am in third place, with seven dogs. She was greeted by her dad, Kobuk 440 and Iditarod champion Jeff King. The elder King ran with her — by snowmachine.

Another family pair on the trail was husband-and-wife team Hugh and Olivia Shank Neff. They finished in seventh and eighth place one minute apart, at around 3 pm. They say they accomplished exactly what they wanted to, and got closer while at it:

“I got my wife ready and qualified to do the Yukon Quest!” Hugh Neff said.

“And I’ve only been mushing since … December? And we were able to do both my qualifiers. That’s kind of crazy,” Olivia Neff said. “You know, people have honeymoons, and they go to the beach and everything like that, and they’re all, like, ‘Oh, we’re going to have so much fun.’ I think you should climb a mountain with somebody. Then you can see all their emotions, and how they improvise — who they really are.”

Nic Petit’s dogs wear their emotions on their booties at the finish. Even though they’ve just run nearly 500 miles, they’re perky, fighting over extra scraps of meat.

“I’m going to mush them home now, so if we could part the seas, I’m going to go on up there,” Petit said.

And just like that, the crowd parts, the dogs jump up, and they’re speeding off again into the night.