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Road to the Iditarod: Kuskokwim 300 Winner Pete Kaiser

BETHEL, Alaska -- Pete Kaiser, Yup’ik, and his team won the Kuskokwim 300, a highly regarded mid-distance sled dog race from Bethel to Aniak and back, crossing the finish line at 5:31 a.m. Jan. 18 with a time of 35 hours 1 minute 25 seconds -- 13 minutes 21 seconds ahead of defending two-time champ Rohn Buser.

The championship came with a prize of $22,000.

The Kusko 300 boasted a formidable field of 25 mushers and teams, among them several Iditarod champions: John Baker (2011), Martin Buser (1992, 1994, 1997, 2002), Jeff King (1993, 1996, 1998, 2006), and Lance Mackey (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010).

For much of the race, Kaiser, of Bethel, had Rohn Buser right in front of him and Jeff King, a nine-time K-300 champ, close on his heels. In this interview, Kaiser talks about the race, and how he and his team prevailed to win the championship.

ICT: You and your team were running at a steady clip through the whole race. How did you maintain that pace?

Kaiser: We just tried to pick a speed, starting the race, that I thought they could maintain and were comfortable with, and that’s hard to do over that many miles with that little bit of rest, but they handled it really well.

ICT: You and your team got your required rest out of the way fairly early. How important was the timing in when you rested?

Kaiser: I think it worked out in my favor there, with some fresh snow we got going up to Aniak, it allowed me to take a little more rest in Aniak and Kalskag.

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ICT: You closed the gap in Aniak and Kalskag. You dropped three dogs in Kalskag, arrived in Tuluksak seven minutes after Rohn Buser. How did you maintain that momentum?

Kaiser: All the dogs were just rolling really good and sometimes you get a team rolling like that and there’s not a lot you can do wrong to change how they’re moving. They just had a real steady, consistent speed that they wanted to be at and it didn’t change, so we just kind of slowly picked away at his lead there in the second half of the race.

ICT: It’s late night, early morning, Tuluksak to Bethel, it’s 49 miles — what were the trail conditions and weather like during that part of the run?

Kaiser: It was really nice. We got a little bit of snow so it took away some of the ice that we dealt with on the way up and cooled off -- I don’t know what the temperature was, probably around zero, but it was a beautiful night for a dog run.

Courtesy Kaiser Racing Kennel

A crowd eagerly awaits Pete Kaiser and team's arrival in Bethel, Jan. 18, at the Kuskokwim 300 finish line.

ICT: For much of the race, you’ve got Rohn Buser, the defending champ, right in front of you and nine-time champ Jeff King breathing down your neck. How do you stay focused on what you’ve got to do? How does what they do affect what you’re doing?

Kaiser: What they do doesn’t affect a whole lot of what you’re doing, but it is a kind of intimidating having a guy like Jeff behind you, and a guy like Rohn, who’s won two of the last three Kuskos right in front of you, so, it was real competitive but you’ve just got to focus on your team and what they’re capable of doing and try to get them to the finish line as fast as you can.

ICT: What happened between Tuluksak and Kwethluk, when you took the lead? Did you feel like you had to look over your shoulder much?

Kaiser: I felt like I had quite a bit more speed than him. He hung with me for a little while, then I kind of pulled a lead on him and at that point I just felt like as long as we were moving at a steady clip we were going to hopefully hold them off without any catastrophes.

ICT: You and I have talked about the challenges rural mushers have getting into competitive mushing. Wins like this – what do you hope this says to potential sponsors and to young mushers – particularly young Alaska Native mushers, to whom mushing and dogs are such an important part of their culture?

Kaiser: It’s something that if you’re going to do it, it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot effort, but it’s proof that if you put a lot of effort into something like that, big things can happen. This is something I’ve dreamt about since I was a little kid. [There’s] a lot of blood, sweat and tears behind this victory, and it feels like a weight’s been lifted off of my shoulders.

ICT: Looking ahead to the Iditarod, you have two top-10 finishes in five [Iditarods], you finished fifth in 2012, obviously off to a great start to this year. What will you and your team be doing between now and March 7 to get ready for the 2015 Iditarod?

Kaiser: We’ll just continue with our training and try to get this team as prepared as possible for a strong race and that’s about it.

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How other Alaska Native contenders in the 2015 Iditarod did in the Kuskokwim 300:

  • John Baker, Inupiaq, placed ninth for the second year in a row. In his Kusko 300 career, he has 11 top-10 finishes in 14 races, including the championship in 2010.
  • Richie Diehl, Dena’ina Athabaskan, placed 12th. In his six Kusko 300s, his best finish was fourth in 2012. He placed 14th in the 2014 Iditarod and was that race’s Most Improved Musher.
  • Chuck Schaeffer, Inupiaq, scratched at the halfway checkpoint of Aniak, citing shoulder injuries to more than one dog. He has two top-10 finishes in five Kusko 300s, placing second in 1991 and third in 1992. He raced in the 1985 and 1990 Iditarods.
  • Mike Williams Jr., Yup’ik, finished 11th, narrowly missing his fifth top-10 finish in his Kusko 300 career. He finished second in 2011. He finished 13th, 11th, and eighth in three of five Iditarods, and is skipping this year’s event to prepare for the 2016 race.
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