A month after a wrong turn cost him his lead in the 2018 Iditarod, Nicolas Petit was back on top. The French-born Girdwood musher claimed a decisive victory in the Kobuk 440, the prestigious last event of the Alaskan sled dog race season.
Petit rode across the finish line in Kotzebue eight minutes into Sunday, April 15. The 36-year-old said he would have liked to make it by midnight, but his second Kobuk 440 win felt good.
“Par for the course for this season. These dogs are kicking butt,” Petit said at the finish line.
The 440-mile race starts in Kotzebue and describes a loop via Noorvik, Selawik, Ambler, Shungnak, Kobuk, Kiana, Noorvik and back to Kotzebue. The 440 marked the end of a warm, snowy 2018 mushing season— a successful one for Petit, who won each of his mid-distance races, including the Copper Basin 300 and the Tustumena 200. He took second place in the 2018 Iditarod.
In the Kobuk 440, Petit pulled away from the pack after leaving Selawik, the second checkpoint. By the time he reached Ambler, he had a two-hour lead, which he’d made three by the end of the race. He said trail conditions under sunny, clear skies were ideal.
“Hard to imagine a better trail, really. A couple wind-blown spots, a couple punchy spots, but nothing bad.”
The trail may have even been too good.
“I guess from staring at all the scenery, I kind of sunburnt my eyelids. So that kind of hurts. Other than that, the scenery was great,” said Petit.
Petit’s total time of 59 hours, 38 minutes [39hours 38 minutes run time; 20 hours mandatory rest] is the fastest finish time since at least 2010 and about two hours faster than 2017 champion Jessie Holmes’.
Holmes scratched at his first Ambler stop. The Nenana musher and 2018 Iditarod rookie of the year said he pushed hard early in the race and got burned out.
“It’s kind of been a good year for me. I don’t really need to push it unless I tried really hard to win. Somehow Nic can do that, just keep going with it, and that’s impressive and amazing,” Holmes said.
Petit did just that: His dogs ran at an average speed of over 11 miles per hour, and he kept all 10 starters until the second-to-last checkpoint, Kiana, where he dropped three: “All the girls are here [at the finish]. I dropped the boys. They can’t do the fast stuff.”
Heat also put a strain on the dogs throughout the race, with daytime temperatures in the 20s°F.
Tony Browning of Nenana, who holds the record for most Kobuk 440 wins, was dealing with injuries to both himself and his team, but he said the larger obstacle was the weather.
Coming into Ambler for the second time, the Nenana musher said, “I only had, like, five dogs working. It was just too hot. They didn’t want to work in the heat. As soon as it started cooling off, they started powering up.”
The temperature dropped to 13°F that night, and Browning took second place. He rode into Kotzebue at 3:29 a.m. with six dogs, after pulling away from 26-year-old Ellen King in the last 180 miles.
Seven dogs brought King across the line at 5:42 a.m. in third place. She was greeted by her father, three-time Kobuk 440 and four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King. The elder King ran this year’s Kobuk with her—by snowmachine.
“I would have died if I had to stay home and not at least come along the trail,” he said.
Jessica Klejka finished in fourth place, reaching Kotzebue just before noon. Rookies Clara Kneringer and Blair Braverman arrived less than an hour later, within 15 minutes of each other. Kneringer finished with a run time of 51 hours, 23 minutes [plus 20 ours and 16 minutes rest]. However, race officials added a four-hour penalty to her time, bumping her to ninth place and giving Braverman fifth place.
The race was not just Kneringer’s first Kobuk 440, but her first sled dog race, period. The Austrian veterinary student began handling for Jessie Holmes in August 2017 and ran what she called the B-team.
She overtook Holmes on the first ride into Ambler and said it was strange for her—and the dogs—to pass him on the trail:
“Normally I should be way back there, and he should be here. The dogs and I both didn’t really want to pass him, so we were passing, stopping, passing, stopping, till I got a new leader in, and he took off then. It was a little bit stressful to change plans, especially for the dogs, because they were like, ‘He’s the boss. Why should we go with you up front? That’s not right!’”
Race officials said little about the penalty. A post in the official Kobuk 440 Facebook page, three days after the end of race, said only that the Race Marshall had added the time to penalize “outside assistance in the form of pacing,” from either a vehicle or dog team. Kneringer did not appeal the penalty.
Jesse Holmes and Chuck Schaeffer scratched in Ambler on the first pass.
A musher who is appealing sanctions—from the Yukon Quest—is Hugh Neff. Quest officials announced Neff would be banned from next year’s 1,000-mile international race just a week after the Kobuk, for what they deemed inadequate dog care. Neff has taken to social media and hired a lawyer to defend himself, telling reporters it’s been a brutal year.
But he was all smiles at the Kobuk finish line. He ran the race side-by-side with his wife, Olivia Shank Neff. They arrived in Kotzebue in seventh and eighth place, one minute apart, at around 3 p.m. on Sunday.
He said they accomplished exactly what they wanted to. “I got my wife ready and qualified to do the Yukon Quest!”
And she said added the experience has brought them closer: “You know, people have honeymoons, and they go to the beach and everything like that, and they’re all, like, ‘Oh, we’re going to have so much fun.’ I think you should climb a mountain with somebody. Then you can see all their emotions, and how they improvise—who they really are,” Olivia Shank Neff said.
Self-discovery, alongside adventure. For the sixteen teams that ran the 2018 Kobuk 440—newlyweds or not—the race offered the chance for both.
Results (times are the total including run and rest time)
- Nicholas Petit, 59 hours, 38 minutes
- Tony Browning, 62:59
- Ellen King, 65:12
- Jessica Klejka, 71:29
- Blair Braverman, 72:22
- Hugh Neff, 72:22
- Olivia Shank Neff, 74:47
- Jesse Salyer, 74:48
- Clara Kneringer, 75:39
- Kristin Bacon, 80:55
- Julie Flotlien, 85:34
- Maja Bernhoff, 85:34
- Kaci Murringer, 94:26
- Dempsey Woods, 98:52