Three returning Kuskokwim 300 champions will race from the starting line tonight, Jan. 28, each eyeing another K300 victory.
The twist is that Bethel’s Pete Kaiser, Aniak’s Richie Diehl, and Willow’s Matthew Failor are not only each other’s top competition, but also really good friends who talk all the time.
“I think for the most part we’re pretty open about information and stuff like that,” said Kaiser. “It’s fun to be friends with some of your competitors.”
Kaiser is a five-time K300 champion. Diehl is the reigning champ, and Failor won the race in 2019.
The trio talk often in a group text that they started more than three years ago. It’s a place where they discuss dogs, gear, and family. They joke around and provide each other with support, said Failor.
“Every week or so we’ll say, ‘How’s it going? How’s training going? What are you doing?’” Failor said. “It’s nice to have that friend that you can lean on.”
Failor said that he feels like they all have grown together as mushers. But, to be clear, there are still some topics that are off limits.
“I mean, I don’t think we’re blatantly asking, ‘Hey, how far are you running?’” said Failor. “Or, ‘Hey, how many hours are you camping?’”
A couple years ago, they added a fourth musher to their group text: Joar Leifseth Ulsom. And, after Diehl’s victory last year, they changed the name of that long-running text thread to: “Kusko champs and Joar.”
It’s a playful dig at Leifseth Ulsom, who is also competing in this year’s race. He won the 2018 Iditarod, but has yet to take home the K300 title.
“He has one of the best Iditarod records,” said Failor with a laugh. “I think that’s why it’s so funny. He takes it well.”
Leifseth Ulsom really wants to win the K300 this year. All of the four friends do, but they will show each other no mercy on the trail.
“We’re not out to, I don’t know how you put it, screw each other over, you know,” said Diehl. “I mean, we’re going to be fair and have a clean race, but we want to beat each other. I mean, that’s what we’re in it for.”
The friends also have stiff competition from the other racers.
“It all comes down to your dog team and how you train, and everybody’s team is just a little different,” said Failor. “So a pinch of luck and a fast trail and see who has the best team.”