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After an Enthusiastic Start, Long Runs and Stiff Competition Await Teams in Kobuk 440

Katherine Keith and John Baker, Kobuk 440 2016

The 2016 Kobuk 440 sled dog race got underway early this afternoon (Thursday). A mass start sent teams speeding east from the sea ice outside of Kotzebue, toward Kobuk, where they will turn around on the out-and-back route. The field is a mix of rookies and experienced mushers, and trail and weather conditions are prime for a fiercely competitive race.

It was an enthusiastic send-off for dog teams and mushers as they left the start line of the Kobuk 440.

Among 15 mushers driving teams in this year’s race is Noah Burmeister, who posted an impressive eleventh place finish in this year’s Iditarod, after nearly a decade away from the sport. He’s no stranger to the Kobuk 440.

“I ran it in ’07, so it’s been a few years.”

Burmeister hopes for a win, but he knows there’s plenty of stiff competition with the same goal.

“Yeah, there’s some good, solid teams, but it all depends on people’s strategy. Some of them are rookies up here on this race, so we’ll just see how it goes and take it as it comes.”

Nicolas Petit also placed well in last month’s Iditarod. He’s new to the Kobuk 440, and he says it’s refreshing to be a rookie again.

“It’s cool. This is my third race this year that I’ve never been to.”

Petit’s dogs are young and inexperienced, but he says he’s still racing in the last major competitive sled dog race of the season.

“We’ll do well, but it’s really warm out, and we have to be somewhat conservative, considering that they are really young dogs and they have a lot of miles ahead of them in future years, so I don’t want to ruin them for a 400-mile race, but we should — I think we’ll be moving right along.”

After plenty of mid- and back-of-the pack finishes in this and other races in the past, Katherine Keith is also looking to up her game in this year’s Kobuk 440.

“I want a high placing team. I want to be competitive. I think we’ve got great dogs this year, and I’ve had enough races now to get some experience, so I hope we can first have a great, fun race and enjoy the communities, but I want to — I’d like to race.”

Keith could be at an advantage. She and her partner, John Baker, run a kennel that sits just along the shoreline in Kotzebue, not too far from the start line.

“It’s really fun just to get out on our own trails and to be able to not have to travel for the race. It’s something we take for granted on this one, but we appreciate it.”

According to race officials, trail conditions are excellent. This year’s route is relatively flat, there’s reportedly plenty of snow and not too much open water, despite a spring season that is quickly settling in over the region. But Keith says none of that means the next few days will be easy.

KK: “It’s a competitive and really, really hard race, because you have four or five long runs, 80 or 90 miles, and even on the Iditarod, you don’t run that distance very often, and when you’re limited to your rest in the checkpoints, you can’t really break that up that much, so that will be a challenge.”

ES: “(So it’s) half the Iditarod, less than half the days?”

KK: “Very little rest, relatively speaking, yeah. It’s great that’s what’s good about the race, it’s hard: otherwise a lot of people would come up.”

Mushers left en masse from Kotzebue under a bright, midday sun.

The weather is forecast to remain warm, with day-time temperatures in the mid to upper 30’s, and warmer, which could pose a challenge for the large, thick coated and black dogs that make up many of the teams on the trail.