Musher Hugh Neff defended a last-minute challenge from Richie Diehl to win his first Kobuk 440 on Sunday by just two minutes.
Neff and his nine-dog team crossed the finish line in Kotzebue around 10:25 a.m.
The Kobuk 440 is Alaska’s last major sled dog race of the season. It takes mushers on a roughly 400-mile trail from Kotzebue to Kobuk and back.
Neff led almost the entire race and had a comfortable hour lead on Diehl out of the Kiana checkpoint, just 80 or so miles from the finish.
Diehl charged through the night to try to catch Neff.
Neff said he was watching his back. Shortly before the finish, he stopped on a hill where he had a good view of the trail to snack his dogs. He said he didn’t spot Diehl. He then cruised into Kotzebue, thinking Diehl’s team was still miles behind.
“I’m like, ‘Man, I can’t believe I won this thing so easily.’ And then like, two minutes later, there’s Richie,” he said in a phone interview on Monday morning. “I looked back and I just started giggling. I just couldn’t believe it.”
In a Facebook Live video from the finish of the race on Sunday, Diehl said he was tired.
“I’m a little pooped out after that,” said Diehl, of Aniak. “It was a long night chasing Hugh. Darn, we couldn’t get him. But oh well.”
Neff is a longtime musher who currently lives in Anchorage. Neff said his Kobuk 440 dog team was similar to the team he took on this year’s Iditarod. The dogs are from veteran musher Jim Lanier’s Northern Whites Kennel based in Chugiak. Neff was forced to scratch from this year’s Iditarod after race officials raised concerns about the health of his dogs.
He said the Kobuk 440 win felt good.
“Vindication,” Neff said. “I don’t want to be in any type of battle with people. But unfortunately, I am in a battle that wasn’t of my choosing.”
Lanier surprised Neff by flying in to greet him at the finish.
Neff has raced the Kobuk 440 since 2003.
Among the challenges this year, he said: breaking trail. Neff and his team cut a path through 4 to 6 inches of fresh snow, plus drifts of up to a foot during an 85-mile chunk of trail on the way back to Kotzebue.
Also, the race started with temperatures that dipped under 30 below.
Neff credited the win to his 22-month-old dog Solo, who he had in lead for about 300 miles of the race.
“I put her up in front, we’re going at least two to three miles an hour faster, at least,” he said. “She’s really leggy. She’s got a really nice, mellow gait. So she’s very effortless. And she’s got that ‘it’ factor where she never gets tired.”
Neff said after a six-hour nap he was ready to go ice fishing for sheefish outside of Kotzebue. He’ll get a share of a $72,000 prize purse.
Eddie Burke Jr. finished in third place.