Bethel -- Jeff King had the full moon over his shoulder and Martin Buser comfortably behind him as he cruised to his third straight Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race victory in near-record time Sunday morning.
"This was particularly sweet," he told a small crowd of well-wishers gathered in the darkness on the frozen river. In addition to his seventh victory -- the most ever by any Kusko racer -- and a $20,000 check, he shared the first few miles of trail with his daughter Cali, an 18-year-old rookie.
"Only another parent can feel the pride" of watching a child follow their footsteps, he said.
Though he left Cali behind after the first checkpoint, King said they crossed paths again in Kalskag. "I'm really looking forward to welcoming her" back to Bethel, he said.
Cali, running in last place, probably won't arrive until today.
With a strong team and a fast trail, King finished in 38 hours, eight minutes. That time would be a record if race officials hadn't added another two hours of layover time this year, which counts toward the elapsed time.
Buser's time of 37 hours, 4 minutes, set in 1994, still stands as the fastest, although, as Buser would say later, "My record has an asterisk beside it."
If this year's Kusko 300 held multiple rewards for King, it was almost the opposite for Buser. One of his dogs died during the first leg of the race, which cast a pall on the remaining 250 miles and caused him to consider dropping out.
He didn't, staying well ahead of the rest of the pack and even pulling within six minutes of King at one checkpoint. Buser crossed the line in 39 hours, 30 minutes, good for second place and $15,000.
The earnings were small consolation, he said at the finish line. "I'd trade it back, if I could, for my dog."
The 2 1/2-year-old male named Onyx was an excellent athlete, Buser said, "probably the most ideal body in my dog yard. He would have been a great dog."
The dog died suddenly on the trail below Tuluksak, less than five hours after the start. Head veterinarian Jim Leach said a necropsy showed that a tumor or abscess on its liver had ruptured, causing severe internal bleeding.
"It probably didn't feel a thing," Leach said, adding that the dog likely died within a minute or two. "It could've happened in the dog yard or the race, there was no way to know," he said.
Buser said he had already put one injured dog in his sled when Onyx died. It shook his confidence, he said, and had him questioning himself and his training methods for the remainder of the trip up the river.
By the Aniak turnaround, however, he had talked himself out of his funk, Buser said. Mushers work with hundreds or thousands of dogs over the years, most of which benefit from the training and care they receive. Deaths are inevitable, he said, "But this particular incident had nothing to do with the Kuskokwim 300 or the sport of sled dog racing."
Although some speculated that Buser appeared to have lost his fire because of the incident, the musher said he never set out to win this year's race.
"My mission here was to find dogs for the Iditarod," he said.
Charlie Boulding, the 60-year-old Manley Hot Springs musher who is still undergoing chemotherapy in his battle against colon cancer, finished fourth behind Ed Iten of Kotzebue.
The two left the turnaround checkpoint in Aniak late Saturday afternoon within 30 minutes of each other. But Iten passed Boulding near Akiak, some 30 miles from the finish, to win third place and $10,000. Boulding won $7,000.
Iten, whose highest previous K-300 finish was second, said this was the hardest running he can recall, mainly because of the high-caliber competition. His strategy was to run his team conservatively, but stick close to the front-runners and hope some teams would burn out. It paid off when Boulding's dogs began to fade.
Boulding, a two-time Kusko winner, limped over the finish line with the minimum of five dogs. Before the race, he said he thought his team was perhaps the best he'd ever had and was looking forward to a quick run.
Afterward, Boulding said he felt fine, but added, "I wish my dogs felt as good as I did. If they had, I'd have been here four or five hours ago."
Boulding's last chemotherapy treatment is scheduled Thursday, and he says his Iditarod plans "are shaping up."
Ramy Brooks, of Healy, and Ray Redington Jr., of Two Rivers, finished in fifth and sixth, respectively, while Tomas Israelsson of Bethel was seventh overall and first among a pack of Bethel mushers.
Yet to finish late Sunday in the 24th annual race were Aaron Burmeister, Mike Williams, Ira Jackson, Andy Angstman, Roy Wade, Nathan Underwood and Cali King. Rookies Jan DeNapoli and Melody Sayles, both of Two Rivers, scratched before reaching the halfway point.
Reporter Joel Gay can be reached at 907-257-4310 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race
Standings at 9:30 p.m. Sunday
1) Jeff King, elapsed time of 38 hours, 8 minutes; 2) Martin Buser, 39 hours, 30 minutes; 3) Ed Iten, 40 hours, 30 minutes; 4) Charlie Boulding, 41 hours, 43 minutes; 5) Ramy Brooks, 42 hours, 15 minutes; 6) Ray Redington, Jr., 45 hours, 3 minutes; 7) Thomas Israelsson, 45 hours, 11 minutes; 8) Aaron Burmeister, 46 hours, 25 minutes; 9) Mike Williams, 48 hours, 26 minutes; 10) Andrew Angstman, 49 hours, 0 minutes; 11) Ira Jackson, 49 hours, 13 minutes.
Out of Kwethluk
12) Roy Wade, 7:01 p.m.
Out of Tuluksak
13) Nathan Underwood, 6:01 p.m.
14) Cali King, 7 p.m.
Jan DeNapoli, Melody Sayles