The top dog teams in the Kobuk 440 are bedded down for their final major rest in Kiana, the second to last checkpoint on the trail. Teams have both lost and gained time on one another, enough so that the final push has become a fierce and unpredictable battle for the finish line in Kotzebue.
Girdwood musher Nicolas Petit has dominated the leaderboard for the majority of the race. He reflects, “it’s kind of nice not having a dog team in front of you the whole way.” One may think that, by leading the pack, Petit has enjoyed an untouched trail, but he had this to say about the course: “well, we deal with a beat up trail because of the snowmachines, because anytime you have a dog race, you’re going to have snowmachines tilling up the snow. But that’s how it is.”
There’s another benefit for the musher who arrives first into checkpoints. According to Petit, “every checkpoint, somebody gives me something.” Thinking back, Petit begins to list all the items he had been given: “well, I got a blanket, a pair of wolf mittens and hat that they’ll give me if I finish the race, from here and one more thing, little short glove things… wrist-warmers.” Petit is amazed by the value of all the gifts he has received; he states, “I was thinking, for a $500 entry fee, I got more than $500 dollars worth of stuff I need.”
But Petit’s lead has slowly dwindled. Mushers are required to take 20 hours of cumulative rest in checkpoints along the trail. When he arrived in Kiana, Petit still had to rest for nearly six hours — the most of any musher on the trail. When Noah Burmeister’s team arrived more than three hours later, he stated, “it’s a race, yeah, it’s definitely going to be a good race.” Burmeister still had a little over four hours of rest time to take, an hour more than Jason Mackey, who is making a push from behind. Looking ahead, Burmeister noted, “so, I think it will be all myself, Jason and Nick all racing pretty hard.”
Katherine Keith arrived only minutes behind Burmeister and remarked, “I’m going to be chasing their butts off. I’m going to be really working, so they better be afraid.” She also isn’t underestimating the teams behind her, including one driven by her partner, John Baker. Keith states, “I’ve got targets, and I kind of like it that way. I sort of set up my rest schedule so I would be leaving behind people, because it’s way more fun to be chasing than to be like looking behind all the time, so, yeah, it’s going to be fun going back home.”
Nick Petit is prepared to maintain his lead. He says he prepped his team for their arrival in Kotzebue. He says “I did a couple runs just showing them where the finish line is a couple times, so I don’t think they’ll turn towards the host family’s house. I think they’ll be fine. They know where we’re going.” Both Petit and Noah Burmeister are known to smoke cigarettes frequently along the trail, which became something of a joke in the checkpoint, especially when weighed against Katherine Keith’s experience competing in Ironman triathlons. Her athleticism doesn’t seem to faze Burmeister; however, he add, “I’ll be ski-poling like a mad man probably, just because I’m a smoker doesn’t mean I can’t run. I’m pretty stubborn.”
As the dog yard begins to fill up with mushers eager to finish and more than willing to compete, it’s clear the race is on — and who will finish first is anyone’s guess.