Musher Jeff King pulls out of Iditarod because of health emergency, rookie handler will run his team

Jeff King at the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in downtown Anchorage in 2019, carrying U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski as a guest rider. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Champion musher Jeff King was rushed to the hospital late Monday night, and underwent an emergency surgery for a perforated intestine that likely saved his life. With months of recovery ahead, the four-time Iditarod winner will not be competing in this year’s race. But he’s still hoping his team will be out on the trail.

Kind said the pain started Monday morning. He had terrible stomach cramps that came and went as he was getting ready to drive south to Anchorage.

“I decided it was something I’d eaten,” King said from his hospital bed in Anchorage Tuesday afternoon. “It turned into a passable pain in my stomach.”

King lives in a sparsely-populated part of the Denali Borough, not far from the national park entrance. He was heading the roughly 230 miles to Anchorage in advance of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and to take part in an event sponsored by Alaska Public Media.

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“Going into Anchorage, I felt almost normal again, and thought, ‘surely it has passed,'” King said.

He made it through the 90-minute stage event with no major issues.

“During the program I was uncomfortable, but not debilitated,” he said.

Later that night though, things got bad. King was staying in town with two close friends who are both medical professionals. After informally examining him on the couch, they told him to head to the hospital.

“We went to the ER, only to be met by autograph-seekers who recognized me,” King said.

Doctors quickly started examining him. And at first it looked straightforward: The doctor diagnosed a hernia. King’s pain improved some. Still, the doctor went ahead and ordered a CAT scan.

“Clearly she didn’t expect it to show anything, nor did I,” King said.

At that point, King said, he was still thinking of equipment adjustments he could make for the upcoming race he still planned on running. “I felt pretty good.”

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But that is not what came back on the CAT scan.

“We were able to determine I had a perforated lower intestine,” King said.

That’s a hole in the wall of the gastrointestinal tract, which can quickly lead to sepsis and death.

“Shortly after, a surgeon walked in and said ‘I’m one of the three people that just looked at your CAT scan, and your problem is very serious. Your mortality rate is going down 10 percent with every eight hours. And we need you to get into surgery tonight,'” King recalled.

That’s what they did. According to King, the surgeon removed 10 inches of his lower intestine through a long incision down his chest. He’ll be out of the hospital in about a week. But recovery will take months.

That time frame doesn’t align with the racing event King’s kennel builds its calendar around: the 1,000-mile Iditarod, which starts in Anchorage this weekend. With his drop bags already shipped out, gear ready and dogs selected to compete, King is hoping his team might still be tenable without him. He asked the Iditarod Trail Committee if one of his handlers, a rookie who earlier this season finished his qualifying races, Sean Underwood, can run the team instead.

There’s no precedent for this kind of last-minute switch, said ITC Spokesman Chas St. George. But according to Underwood, on Tuesday evening the ITC told him that after evaluating his ability to safely manage himself and the team, they had decided he could join the race.

“It was mostly because I knew the dogs,” Underwood said of what determined the decision. He said he doesn’t plan on running a competitive race.

For his part, King thinks it was lucky he was in Anchorage when all this happened. Near his home there’s a barebones clinic, but not much else. The medical facility in Fairbanks is a few hours away.

“So I’m not sure I would have gone to any doctor until later. And man, I’m really glad I didn’t wait,” he said.

Through his kennel’s social media page, King asked in lieu of flowers or cards sent to his hospital room that anyone interested instead consider donating to a nonprofit.

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