The King of the Kusko is back on his throne, but don’t expect Jeff King to spend too much time relaxing there. At age 56, he said his body feels better when it’s on the runners of a dogsled than when it’s resting in a recliner.
King captured his ninth Kuskokwim 300 championship Sunday, pulling into Bethel at 11 a.m. with a team of 12 tail-wagging dogs.
The victory was his first since 2006, and it gives the Denali Park musher a Kusko victory in each of the last three decades. His first triumph came in 1991.
“I know my way around the course and I have an aptitude for making a race with these rules and this distance,” King told KYUK radio of Bethel.
King has three times more Kusko victories than any other musher — Mitch Seavey has three and seven others have two apiece.
And as if that doesn’t make King dominant enough, he also owns four second-place finishes in the race that follows an old mail route along the Kuskokwim River between Bethel and Aniak.
King skipped the last couple of Kuskos, in part because after the 2010 Iditarod he sold many of his dogs and gave retirement a try.
It didn’t take.
“I have more aches and pains sitting around than I do out there,” he told KYUK. “If I sit in an easy chair, I feel sore; if I’m out on the trail, I feel great.”
Wearing bib No. 9 while racing to victory No. 9, King beat a loaded field of 21 mushers.
It was one of the biggest, most talented fields in years, in part because the Kusko’s weather and trail can help get an Iditarod team into shape, in part because of this year’s record purse of $110,000, and in part because sparse snow has cancelled several other mid-distance races this season.
King pocketed $22,000 for his victory.
Among his challengers were several members of mushing’s newest generation of stars — among them, defending champion Rohn Buser, 23, and local favorites Pete Kaiser, 24, and Mike Williams Jr., 27.
In the end, though, it was the AARP generation that led the way.
A little more than an hour after King finished, 55-year-old Tony Browning of Nenana claimed second place. It was his best Kusko finish in several appearances, topping his sixth-place showing back in 1996.
Next came Kaiser, followed by 56-year-old Paul Gebhart of Kasilof.
Buser, who finished sixth, dueled King for the lead for the first half of the race. King took command on the Whitefish Lake loop between Aniak and Kalskag and was unthreatened for the final 100 miles.
King said he had to hold back his team in order to ensure the dogs had enough finishing power.
“You need to take a look at my brake. It’s just trashed,” he told KYUK. “I haven’t had a brake for 150 miles because it just disintegrated with the full weight of myself and (the power of the dogs).
“Their natural instinct is to go faster than I want them to. Their power is tremendous. I had to try very hard to save it, to ration it, so I would have it at the end.”
The win was a gratifying one for a musher who’s not at all ready to give way to the younger crowd.
“I’m sick and tired of people thinking I’m old,” he said. “I feel great. I don’t have an ache or pain and I’ve never had a better dog team.”
King, a four-time Iditarod champion, started with 14 dogs and finished with 12, which represents half the number of dogs in his kennel. He downsized significantly during his flirtation with retirement.
“It’s half the size it used to be,” he said. “I don’t have the depth, but I don’t want the depth. I want 24 good ones.”
Browning, who picked up $16,500 for second place, ran a team of dogs from Aaron Burmeister’s Nenana kennel. Most of the dogs are expected to run on Burmeister’s Iditarod team.
“I knew what this team could do,” Browning told KYUK. “It had all the proper training. Really we just came over to put some good, hard miles on them. Because this is the place to do it.”
Reach Beth Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
Finishers as of 7 p.m. Sunday
1) Jeff King, Denali Park, 40:30:10; 2) Tony Browning, Nenana, 41:35:25; 3) Peter Kaiser, Bethel, 42:01:50; 4) Paul Gebhardt, Kasilof, 42:14:40; 5) Cim Smyth, Willow, 42:22:47; 6) Rohn Buser, Big Lake, 42:24:49; 7) Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Norway, 42:26:02; 8) Josh Cadzow, Fort Yukon, 43:27:12; 9) Ramey Smyth, Willow, 43:36:21; 10) Martin Buser, Big Lake, 44:42:15; 11) Katherine Keith, Kotzebue, 45:02:43; 12) John Baker, Kotzebue, 45:16:53; 13) Ken Anderson, Fairbanks, 45:44:13; 14) Ray Redington Jr., Wasilla, 47:15:40; 15) Mike Williams, Akiak, 47:46:38; 16) Richie Diehl, Aniak, 47:47:02.
Kuskokwim 300 champions
1980 - Rick Swenson
1981 - Jerry Austin
1982 - Jerry Austin
1983 - Myron Angstman
1984 - Rick Swenson
1985 - Rick Mackey
1986 - Myron Angstman
1987 - Rick Mackey
1988 - Susan Butcher
1989 - Sonny Russell
1990 - Sonny Russell
1991 - Jeff King
1992 - Jeff King
1993 - Jeff King
1994 - Martin Buser
1995 - Ramey Smyth
1996 - Charlie Boulding
1997 - Jeff King
1998 - Greg Swingley
1999 - Doug Swingley
2000 - Charlie Boulding
2001 - Jeff King
2002 - Jeff King
2003 - Jeff King
2004 - Ed Iten
2005 - Mitch Seavey
2006 - Jeff King
2007 - Martin Buser
2008 - Mitch Seavey
2009 - Mitch Seavey
2010 - John Baker
2011 - Paul Gebhardt
2012 - Rohn Buser
2013 - Jeff King