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Kusko 300 draws deep roster of Alaska's sled dog racing celebrities

Jillian RogersThe Arctic Sounder

In the dog-eat-dog world of competitive mushing, there are a few races that stand out as being extra grueling. The Kuskokwim 300 is one of those exceptionally challenging events.

But this year, the stakes are higher than usual with a remarkable roster including the state's top dog drivers. At most recent count, 28 mushers had officially signed on for the 34th running of K300. Not since 1994 has the Kusko seen so many entrants and race officials are ecstatic.

"I think this will have a big impact on the race," said K300 race manager Zach Fansler. "All the stars are coming out this year, and everybody's a threat."

And when Fansler says stars, he means it.

The winningest musher in K300 history, eight-time champion Jeff King, will be at the start line on Jan. 18 in Bethel, as will fellow four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champs Lance Mackey and Martin Buser. Rohn Buser, last year's winner of the K300, is on the roster, as is 2011 Iditarod winner John Baker of Kotzebue. Baker won the Kusko in 2010 and has finished 12 races in total, with nine top-10 finishes under his belt. Baker finished second to Rohn in last year's race. Katherine Keith, a Kusko rookie, will run Baker's second string.

2012 Iditarod runner-up Aliy Zirkle will test her mettle against the field as will 2012 Kobuk 440 champ Ken Anderson, who was the first to sign up for the 2013 Kusko.

"He's always a threat," Fansler said of Anderson. According to Anderson's website, he's switched his training in the hills north of Fairbanks to river running in order to prepare for the Kusko.

But no matter where the musher and team hail from, this is truly anybody's race, Fansler said.

"I think every team has a shot," Fanslser said. "We generally don't see many teams who just want to finish, these are competitive teams."

They want to win. And experience will pay off, he added.

"Anything and everything will happen on this race," Fansler added.

Fansler attributed the increase in racers to a few things.

Earlier this season the K300 race organization announced a 10 percent increase in the total purse, which makes the Kusko the richest race per mile in the state, according to Fansler.

The 10 percent increase will be distributed evenly throughout the top 20 finishers in the K300 and will see the total winnings go from $100,000 to $110,000. That means $22,000 for first place. But the nonprofit race organization is responsible for several other races — the Bogus Creek 150, which also begins on Jan. 18, and the Akiak Dash, which starts on January 19 - which will also see more prize money for finishers.

Another contributing factor to the influx of mushers is the January thaw that made short work of the trails in Knik and Willow, and forced race organizers to cancel the Knik 200 and the Don Bowers Memorial 200/300. The Don Bowers was to be held on the same weekend as the Kusko. While the cost to get to Bethel for the K300 is significantly higher than races on the road system, mushers are hungry for early-season events to test their dogs and themselves before the big 1,000-mile races.

A couple more late entries are possible, even with the entry fee doubling from $400 to $800 as of Jan. 1, said Fansler.

"I wouldn't be shocked if we broke the 30 mark," Fansler said. "Most mushers have a connection here and that's a big part of it as well..."

Organizers are also optimistic are about the trail conditions. So far, so good, Fansler said. Up to five inches of new snow fell over the weekend which makes for smooth trails. Plus, everything is frozen solid, with no signs of deep, open water. Overflow is common, especially on this race, and anything could change between now and race day, he stressed, but so far the teams will be running, not swimming, during the race oft dubbed the Kuskoswim 300.

"Everything we're seeing is above-average trail, knock on wood," he said. "Things can go awry quickly (because) you just can't predict the weather here."

The 28 mushers officially entered as of Tuesday are Ken Anderson, Aliy Zirkle, Allen Moore, Paul Gebhardt, Rohn Buser, Martin Buser, Ray Redington, Jr., Ramey Smyth, Tony Browning, Kristy Berington, Mike Williams, Jr., Mike Williams, Sr., Jeff King, Joe Garnie, Josh Cadzow, Cim Smyth, Scott Smith, Pete Kaiser, Lance Mackey, Richie Diehl, Mikhail Telpin, Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Louis Ambrose, Rudy Demoski, Jimmy Hurley, John Baker, Isaac Underwood and Katherine Keith.

For more information visit K300@alaska.com or call Fansler at 907-545-3300.

This article was originally published by The Arctic Sounder and is reprinted here with permission.