Defending Iditarod champ Pete Kaiser says his race isn’t going as planned

Pete Kaiser resting at the Old Woman Cabin on Sunday, between Kaltag and Unalakleet. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

The defending Iditarod champion rested his team alongside a few others at Old Woman Cabin on Sunday afternoon. The tiny, cozy building sits in a stand of trees next to a steep hill between Kaltag and Unalakleet. Midway through the long portage run from the Yukon toward the Norton Sound coast, it’s a popular spot for mushers to stop.

Kaiser said he was disappointed. He’d gone into the race hoping to notch another victory. But, sickness slowed him down.

After running at the front of the pack for much of the race, he started having problems on the Yukon River.

“Caught some kind of stomach bug leaving Galena, I didn’t feel right, and it completely materialized leaving Kaltag, body aches and chills and all the stomach flu symptoms,” Kaiser said. “So I was hoping I could recover from my eight, but when I got done with my eight hours I didn’t feel good. I hadn’t been able to hold any water down or eat anything since Galena.”

He decided to stay longer in Kaltag, a small village at about race mile 630. Kaiser said he felt depleted and dehydrated, and didn’t think he had enough energy yet to take care of his team on trail. His eight-hour layover stretched to a nearly 14-hour stop.

Pete Kaiser feeding his team at the Old Woman Cabin on Sunday. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

“So I waited a few extra hours, tried to sip down some more water, tried not to throw it up, was finally able to get a couple of cups of water down without throwing it up. So that was kind of the reason for our big break,” he said. “Kind of a disappointing setback, but if I wouldn’t have taken care of myself there, we would have had a hell of a time taking care of the dogs.”

He wasn’t the only one having problems. Richie Diehl stayed in Nulato nearly three hours beyond his required eight-hour stop. His team wasn’t ready to leave, he said.

Richie Diehl at the Old Woman Cabin on Sunday. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

“I just had some issues with some dogs, and they needed a little longer break, so we gave ‘em a little longer break, and since then it seems to be going well,” he said. “We’re just slowly giving them a little more rest and just chipping away at it. At the end of the day, I can’t do what they don’t wanna do, so give ‘em a little more rest, and they’re just starting to really come around, which is really nice to see again.”

The delays dropped both Diehl and Kaiser back in the standings.

Related: While the coronavirus sidelines other sports, the Iditarod mushes on

Nearby on Sunday, four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey rested with his dog team. He’s been running near the front of the pack, but said he wasn’t paying attention to standings, just trying to have fun running a trail he knows well. This is his 16th Iditarod race.

Lance Mackey resting with his team at the Old Woman Cabin on Sunday. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

“I think we’re doing great,” he said. “Man. I, honest to God, don’t know what position we’re sitting in, I just know that the top 20 teams have been around me. The chances of a top 20 finish at this point look really good, and I haven’t had one of those in quite some time.”

Mackey placed 26th in the 2019 Iditarod, after taking two years off from the race. He dropped out of the Iditarod in 2016.

After feeding their teams and taking a rest, all three mushers left the cabin and continued on to Unalakleet.

By late Monday afternoon, Mackey and Kaiser were both resting in Shaktoolik at race mile 754. Diehl had dropped out of the race at the previous checkpoint. Race officials said in a statement that Diehl scratched in Unalakleet at 1:30 p.m. “in the best interest of his race team.”

Meanwhile, Norwegian musher Thomas Waerner was leading the pack. He and his 12 dogs had about 170 miles to the finish line in Nome. They were chased by Jessie Royer, Aaron Burmeister, Mitch Seavey and Brent Sass.

Related: Follow all of our coverage of the 2020 Iditarod here.

Alaska Public Media’s Tegan Hanlon contributed to this report.

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Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska. @ZachHughesAK About Zachariah

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