Monday, January 22, 2007

A Lovely K300

With an enthusiastic crowd of fans cheering him on, Martin Buser won the 2007 Kuskokwim 300 yesterday afternoon. It was a beautiful blue-sky day with the temperature right at +12F; conditions were nearly perfect. Bu
ser was followed eight minutes later by Jeff King, who took second place.

King and Buser were the race leaders from early on. By the second half they had established a two hour lead over the rest of the field. When they left the last mandatory rest stop at Tuluksak, Buser
had a twenty minute lead over King. In the 5+ hours it takes to get to Bethel, King and his team worked hard to catch Buser, and managed to chip away at his lead by twelve minutes—which is huge. Both mushers have won this race numerous times; Buser holds the course record, set in 1994, of 37 hours 4 minutes. His winning time this year was 43 hours 52 minutes. Last year, Jeff King won both the K300 (for the eighth time) and the Iditarod (for the fourth time).

Martin Buser’s second team was run by his seventeen year old son, Rohn, who did very well with them. This was Rohn’s rookie race, and he finished in fourth place; any time a rookie finishes any race in the top ten, it is outstanding. The K300 is a very challenging race; to do it here is especially so. An interesting note is that both of Martin’s two sons, Nicholai and Rohn, are named after Iditarod checkpoints. They were born with mushing in their blood!

After the two leaders finished, the next seven teams were spaced well apart. It was fairly easy to predict ballpark finishing times based on the times out of Tuluksak (a little over five hours away) and Kwethluk (about two hours away). The K300 website was being updated on race stats every thirty minutes or so. I knew Aliy Zirkle arrived at Tuluksak at 11:45 am, so would have her mandatory four hour rest, leave at 3:45 pm, make Kwethluk around 7 pm and get to Bethel about 9 pm. What no one could predict was the incredibly exciting finish she had.

Dutch and Randy went out yesterday morning on snowmachines to get a close-up look at the race. I would have gone with them, but I knew Aliy would have dropped dogs coming in to Bethel in the afternoon that would need to be picked up and cared for, so I waved the guys goodbye to have a good time. They went all the way to Tuluksak (70 miles) and found Aliy just leaving the checkpoint. Dutch said both she and the team looked great—energetic, smiling, and with her characteristic good humor. She was happy to see a familiar face.

Aliy and Paul Gephart ran much of the race in close proximity to each other, leapfrogging back and forth for the lead between them. When they left Tuluksak, Aliy had a six minute lead on Paul. He passed her not far out of Kwethluk, and she stayed right behind him. He said several times, “You wanna pass?” But she said “No.” He had six dogs and she had nine; she felt that his were running just a little bit faster, and by keeping him right in front of her it speeded her team up.

Dutch and Randy got back to Bethel about 8 pm, and he and I headed for the river and the finish line about 8:30; I knew we’d be early by probably an hour or more. Joan showed up in her truck, and Randy and his wife arrived in their truck shortly after. We had a little tailgate party with hot tea and coffee while we waited. About 9:45, someone yelled “Mushers coming! I can see their
headlights!” We all peered into the darkness, and could just barely see two small lights very close together, bobbing in the darkness. The bobbing meant that both mushers were either poling or kicking (or both) to help their dogs.

We all watched, nearly mesmerized, as those two small points of lights came toward us with agonizing slowness. One seemed to stay right behind the other, and we knew the two teams had to be Paul and Aliy, but there was no way to know which was which.

The excitement in the crowd was at a fever pitch. Dutch and Joan and Randy and I were jumping up and down yelling “Go Aliy!” As we watched, the second headlight pulled to the side when the teams were about a hundred yards away. They kept coming side by side. The crowd was in a frenzy. The team on our right inched forward just a little. The dogs were running, the crowd was screaming, the mushers were yelling out, encouraging their dogs. They shot across the finish line in a burst, and Aliy’s lead dog was just six inches ahead of Paul’s lead dog. Her team beat his by a nose. They brought their teams to a halt and gave each other a big laughing hug. At last the race was over for them, and they were both glad for that. They finished at 10:04 pm with an elapsed time of 51 hours 33 minutes 57 seconds for Aliy and 51 hours 33 minutes 58 seconds for Paul.

The local radio station was covering the finish around the clock, so the guy with the microphone corralled Aliy and Paul for a quick interview while Dutch and I took booties off the dogs’ feet, removed harnesses and loaded dogs in the back of the truck. Joan and Randy helped us make short work of it, and got the sled loaded in Randy’s truck as well. We had the dogs home and bedded down in fresh straw in no time. The four dropped dogs which I had picked up earlier in the afternoon were glad to see their teammates.

Today Aliy is little the worse for wear. A bit stiff and sore, but not bad. She really is an outstanding athlete, as are all her dogs. At the moment she is enjoying an excellent massage from my favorite body worker. And she has been drinking water and Gatorade all day.

The final event of K300 weekend will be the Awards Banquet, held tonight at the Cultural Center. There will be a dinner for the mushers, their host families, and all the volunteers who make this race happen. After that will be the awards ceremony, in which all mushers from all three races (K300, Bogus 150, and Akiak Dash, a 50 mile sprint race held on Saturday which I haven’t written about) will come up, say a few words, tell a story from the trail, thank their sponsors, and accept their checks. Aliy’s check will be for $3,000 for a 10th place finish. For more info on the award amounts, go to the K300 website and click on “2007 Race Purses”.

Tomorrow will be an early start: Aliy’s dogs must be delivered to the cargo carrier by 6 am, and then her flight leaves at 8 am. It has been a delight and a joy to have her here, and I’m already looking forward to next year. Perhaps in the meantime Dutch and I will make a trip over to the Fairbanks area and visit Aliy and her husband Allen Moore at their place, SP Kennels in Two Rivers. I’d love to see her entire dog yard, and to meet Allen and her sister Kaz, who helps run their program.

So for those of you who have no interest in dog mushing, this little intensive is just about over. Thanks for your patience. We will shortly return you to Tundra Medicine Dream’s regular programming.

Photos by The Tundra PA. Martin Buser, Jeff King, and Paul Gebhardt at the pre-race draw for position. Surrealistic photos of Paul and Aliy's photo finish. More race photos on the K300 website linked above.



Blogger #1 Dinosaur said...

All I can say is thank you.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007 3:01:00 AM  
Anonymous cush said...

I think the linked comment above says it very well- thank you for a most interesting series of posts.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007 7:02:00 PM  
Blogger TheTundraPA said...

#1 Dino and cush--I so appreciate your comments! I had about decided that TMD readers must not be much interested in dog mushing, as there have been so few comments this past week. It has certainly been an intense dog experience around here!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007 8:38:00 PM  

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