Sixteen mushers and more than 100 sled dogs will dash from the starting line in Bethel on Friday kicking off the 2022 Kuskokwim 300.
It’s another competitive field of teams with three returning champions in the mix, all vying for their slice of more than $100,000 in prize money. And while the 300-mile race is back to its traditional, grueling route this year, some other parts of the competition will look a lot different because of COVID-19.
Here’s what to know about the 2022 K300.
When and where does the K300 start?
The K300 starts at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 28, in Bethel. It’ll be a staggered race start, with two teams racing out every two minutes from the frozen Kuskokwim River alongside town. They will be headed northeast to Aniak, their turnaround spot. The race is welcoming spectators at the start, but urges them to stay in their cars, said Paul Basile, K300 race manager. Social distancing is required if you’re outside your car, as are masks, in line with Bethel’s mask mandate.
“We really wanted to preserve as much of that as we could,” said Basile. “So it’s just really important to have the community down there in some fashion, if we can.”
Who’s racing this year?
Three former champions are gunning for another win: reigning champion Richie Diehl of Aniak; five-time champion Pete Kaiser of Bethel, who notched his last K300 victory in 2020 and who won the 2019 Iditarod; and Matthew Failor of Willow, the 2019 K300 champion.
Other top competitors include Aaron Burmeister of Nenana and Nome who placed second in last year’s Iditarod, and 2018 Iditarod champion Joar Leifseth-Ulsom of Willow.
There’s also a group of six mushers competing in the K300 for their first time. That group includes 2019 Bogus Creek 150 champion Jason Pavila of Kwethluk.
Read about all 16 mushers here.
How many dogs will each musher have?
Mushers must start the race with at least seven but no more than 12 dogs, according to race rules. They must cross the finish line back in Bethel with at least five dogs pulling the sled.
How has COVID-19 impacted the race?
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is experiencing its highest ever peak of COVID-19 cases. The spike in the highly-contagious omicron variant has forced race organizers to clamp down further on the competition in recent days. They canceled a concert planned for race weekend, and closed the awards banquet to the public. They also closed the indoor areas at the Tuluksak, Kalskag, and Aniak checkpoints to the public.
Basile, the race manager, said that it was a difficult decision, but one made in consultation with local health officials and communities along the trail.
“It was a decision that was made reluctantly,” he said. “It was the plan everybody agreed on, what was going to be the safest thing.”
All race mushers, staff, volunteers, and handlers must also be vaccinated against COVID-19. Race officials decided that last fall. Plus, all participants must take a series of COVID-19 tests before race day, testing negative on each one to compete. Handlers and race volunteers must get tested too.
What are trail conditions supposed to be like?
Basile was still gathering that intel three days before the race, but he said that “snow is pretty scant” around the Bethel area. Freezing rain over the weekend created a fresh layer of ice.
“It’s going to be a fast trail, that’s for sure, at least in the lower part of the river,” Basile said.
He said that he was told that there is more snow upriver.
As for the weather, strong winds are forecast along the trail during the race, which could push temperatures deep into the negatives, said Basile.
It’ll be another tough year, but “veteran K300 mushers have seen worse,” he said, punctuating the sentence with a laugh.
When are teams’ mandatory breaks?
Teams must take six hours of total rest between the checkpoints of Kalskag and Aniak. Those hours can be broken up between the checkpoints on the outgoing or incoming trail, however the musher would like. During those six hours they also take their time differential, making up for the differences in their start times.
Also, everybody has to take a four-hour stop at Tuluksak on the return trail, just under 50 miles from the finish line.
When might we see a K300 champion?
If it’s anything like the past few races, likely early in the morning of Sunday, Jan. 30. The last time the race ran its traditional route in 2020, Pete Kaiser of Bethel crossed the finish line at 8:46 a.m., winning his fifth K300 title.
What are teams competing for?
Teams are competing for their slice of the more than $100,000 purse. First place is a $25,000 prize; second place gets $17,000. The prize amounts decrease a bit for each place, rounding out at $4,000 for the 16th team.
Race officials had set prize amounts for additional places if there had been more mushers competing. Basile said that they aren’t planning to split up that money among the finishers like they have in prior years.
What about the Akiak Dash and Bogus Creek 150?
The roughly 60-mile Akiak Dash will begin with a mass start on the Kuskokwim River on Saturday, Jan. 29 at 2 p.m., with a winner expected that evening.
The 2022 Bogus Creek 150 is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 19.
How can I follow the races?