It was a year of many firsts for the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race.
It was the first year that checkpoints were set up outside of villages to avoid spreading COVID-19, which led to a modified, slightly shorter race course. It was also the first year that a musher won both the Kusko 300 and the Bogus Creek 150.
That musher: Aniak’s Richie Diehl.
Diehl and his sled-dog team landed a victory in the Kusko 300 on Valentine’s Day, at 6:38 a.m., finishing with a record-breaking time of 36 hours and 8 minutes.
After crossing the finish line in Bethel, Diehl received a rose from the crowd, which he handed to his fiancé, Emerie Fairbanks.
“I’m going to enjoy this,” Diehl said after his finish. “This is a race I grew up on, and I love it. It’s the biggest accomplishment in my mushing career right now.”
Diehl will be taking home $25,500 of the $143,500 purse for his first K300 victory.
It’s his second win in two weeks. Diehl just won the Bogus Creek 150 on Jan. 31, which followed a similar route to this year’s K300.
“I think the Bogus opened my eyes on what this team is capable of doing,” Diehl said.
“After doing the Bogus, I knew this is a team that could potentially win. And so I went out racing from the get-go. From start to here they went hard, and they did awesome.”
Diehl had run in a dozen K300s before his win.
His top finish before this year was third place in both 2017 and 2020. In both those years, he lost to 2019 Iditarod champion and five-time K300 champion Pete Kaiser.
Diehl said in an interview before the race that one of the reasons he got into mushing was because he lived with Kaiser in college. Hearing Kaiser’s plans to start mushing competitively after school inspired him to do so as well.
Diehl said that it was special to win against his friend, who has such a decorated mushing career.
“It’s pretty cool because he’s dominating the Kusko right now, and we want to race the best,” Diehl said. “He’s the best and he’s my best friend. But to beat him, it makes me feel better that I am racing the best right now. And he was in it, and he even told me, he said it was one of his best Kuskos.”
Kaiser finished second in this year’s K300, arriving 43 minutes after Diehl at 7:21 a.m.
The two friends both used the same run-rest strategy that Kaiser used to win the K300 in 2018, when the race followed a similar course to this year’s.
Kaiser said that’s not the only thing the two mushers share.
“I think we train very similarly. We talk a lot too, you know. We bounce ideas back and forth off,” Kaiser said. “So, what’s working for me one year he adopts, and what’s working for him one year I adopt, and we kind of just, you know, try to become better mushers by sharing information.”
Kaiser said his dogs and Diehl’s dogs share a lot genetically, too. Many of them are half-siblings or cousins.
Kaiser said he’s happy for Diehl’s victory.
“Obviously, I’m here to win, but you know, if I can’t do it, he’s at the top of the list of people I want to see win the race and it’s awesome. I mean, it’s almost as exciting as me winning myself,” Kaiser said.
After Diehl and Kaiser, French musher Nicolas Petit from Girdwood finished in third place at 7:39 a.m. Petit had lost some time just before the halfway checkpoint after veering off the race course. K300 organizers determined that a section of the trail had been poorly marked, causing Petit to get lost for about 15 minutes.
Organizers repaired the trail marking and deducted 10 minutes from his mandatory rest, resulting in Petit’s best finish in the K300.
In fourth place was Fr. Alexander Larson of Napaskiak, who finished at 8:15 a.m. This was Larson’s first 300-mile race. And at 59 years old, he said that it was a little longer than he expected.
“It was good, I had fun. I didn’t know how hard it was, becoming sleepy and all that tiredness. Toward the end, I was hearing things,” Larson said with a chuckle.
Larson started the second half of the race with eight dogs, and dropped another leader in Akiak on his way back to Bethel.
Larson, a trained sprint musher, said that fewer dogs can sometimes help to go fast.
“You got to know to have less dogs to do sprint,” Larson said.
Rounding out the top five was Isaac Underwood from Aniak, who arrived in Bethel 7 minutes after Larson at 8:22 a.m. Underwood’s best finish in the K300 prior to this year was 12th place in 2018. He said that running in the Bogus Creek two weeks ago was a big help for local mushers.
In sixth and seventh place were Jeff King and Matt Failor, both of whom have won the K300 before.
Failor held the previous record-finish for the K300, finishing the 2019 race in 36 hours and 32 minutes.
Four out of the top five finishers of the 2021 K300 are from communities along the Kuskokwim River.
Bethel’s Kaiser said that that was K300 godfather Myron Angstman’s vision: to cultivate local mushers who are then able to compete with the top mushers from around the state — and the world.