With the sky still dark at 8:46 a.m. on Sunday, Bethel’s Pete Kaiser racked up his fifth victory in the Kuskokwim 300, mushing’s marquee mid-distance race.
Though he was met with a huge welcome from the hometown crowd, the real excitement was a little lower in the leaderboard, with dramatic sprints to the finish and an unexpected marriage proposal.
Kaiser maintained a solid lead for the last leg of the race, so it was not a surprise when he pulled into the race chute with nine dogs on the line.
After kissing his son, daughter and wife, he went to his dad, Ron Kaiser, who just a day before notched a second-place finish in the Bogus Creek 150 race.
“Nice job,” the elder Kaiser said during a hug.
Though Kaiser is a local mushing hero, his prominence is even greater since winning last year’s Iditarod. He was surrounded by family, friends and fans in the race chute, giving him hugs and posing for selfies.
Though the K300 is always competitive, Kaiser said that the field of elite mushers this year was especially fierce.
“It’s just a testament to the competition that comes out here,” Kaiser said in a post-race interview with KYUK. “Dog teams are getting better and better, and there’s more good dog drivers. I thought there could be 10 teams pulling into Tuluksak on the way down within minutes of each other.”
Kaiser credited his win to an exceptional dog team, made up mostly of 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds who are not only all Iditarod veterans, but familiar with the conditions along the Kuskokwim River.
After Kaiser, though, nobody was sure who the second-place musher would be.
“I don’t know who’s in the lead,” said K300 Race Manager Paul Basile over a speaker system rigged to the back of a truck. “We’re going to have a very close finish here.”
Matt Failor and Richie Diehl were running nose-to-nose in the dark. Even for those who could pull up the race-tracker map on their phones, the racers were too close to tell who was in front.
“There’s been other teams that have gone neck-and-neck, but this is pretty damn exciting,” said resident and former K300 musher Bev Hoffman, summing up the anticipation running through the crowd.
Out of the dark and into the race chute sped a long string of dogs and a musher in a big blue anorak with a frosty fur ruff.
“Looks like we have Matt Failor of Willow, Alaska, in the finisher chute,” announced Basile.
The 37-year-old won last year’s K300 and was coming off a second-place finish in the Copper Basin 300 just a week earlier using an entirely different set of dogs.
About 20 seconds later, Diehl of the nearby town of Aniak pulled directly behind Failor’s team, and the two gave each other a congratulatory hug.
For more than five hours after leaving Tuluksak, Failor said, it had been an all-out race.
“I’m really sweaty thanks to Richie. We left maybe 14 seconds apart, and I don’t think we were separated by more than three minutes the whole time,” he said. “Then for the last 20 miles he turned his headlamp off, so I thought he got lost. And I relaxed for a little bit. Then he turned his headlamp back on! And man, I started kicking and poling and running.”
Towards the very end of their race, as Diehl’s team was surging, he was well-positioned to pull ahead of Failor. But a last-minute snarl in the gangline thwarted that chance.
“It was playing out perfect,” Diehl said. “I wanted to get close to him coming through Steamboat Slough, and I did. And then, just had a little tangle.”
“Tired team, can’t ask the world of ‘em,” he added. “They did their best.”
As the finishers greeted people and snacked their dogs, there was another surprise: Failor proposed to his girlfriend, Liz Raines. The two met in 2018 when Raines was covering the Iditarod for KTVA News — she no longer reports on mushing and was not on assignment in Bethel.
Though they’d discussed the prospect, Raines said that the timing of the proposal came as a surprise.
“I did not really register what was happening at first,” she said after the hubbub.
“I don’t know where he put it,” she said of the ring. “His parka doesn’t have any pockets.”
As if all of this wasn’t enough excitement on a chilly Sunday morning, there was another nail-biter for fourth place and fifth place between two past Iditarod champions.
Jeff King and Joar Leifseth Ulsom were running so close that it was impossible to make out where one team of dogs ended and the other began.
By a distance of about 12 feet, Jeff King came in ahead of Leifseth Ulsom. Beneath a mustache frozen solid with ice, King said that it was basically an accident that he’d been able to maintain his lead.
“Joar kind of caught me napping. If he had had his (headlight) out earlier, I don’t think I’d have seen him until he caught me,” King said. “But that was fun.”
The K300 wraps up with a banquet on the night of Jan. 20.