KOTZEBUE — After a tight chase between two experienced mushers on Sunday morning, Hugh Neff won the annual Kobuk 440 sled dog race, outrunning Richie Diehl by just 2 minutes.
Neff, who has more than a dozen Yukon Quests and Iditarods under his belt, has been a prominent leader throughout this year’s Kobuk 440 race, which started Thursday and ran from Kotzebue to Kobuk and back.
“You run to the front of the pack and say, ‘This is my trail. Who’s gonna beat me?’” Neff said about his strategy. “I used to race with Lance Mackey and I’ve always believed in his philosophy.”
Crossing challenging Northwest Alaska terrain, Neff arrived at the checkpoint in Ambler first and left it about 1.5 hours earlier than Diehl. However, coming up to the end of the race, Diehl started gaining on Neff.
“I got to the top of the last hill here, before you drop down to Kotzebue and I saw him down on the ice,” Diehl said. “We tried to catch him but we never actually caught up to him.”
Neff said he saw Diehl approaching and sped up, realizing his competitor was getting closer.
“He was catching me and I knew he would be,” Neff said. “So while I’m snacking and I’m putting on booties, every time I put a booty on a dog’s foot, I looked back just to make sure he wasn’t there.”
The team Neff was running — dogs from Jim Lanier’s Northern Whites Kennel — were a major reason for his victory.
“Everybody who sees his team knows that it’s a very special team; it’s unlike any other team in the world,” he said. ”They were all telling me they wanted me to win, I could see it in their eyes.”
After Neff and Diehl crossed the finish line about 10:25 a.m., rookie Eddie Burke Jr. came in third at 11:46 a.m. Last year’s Kobuk 440 champion, Ryan Redington, arrived at Kotzebue at 4:38 p.m. As of 6 p.m. Sunday, the rest of the teams still racing were in or approaching Kiana.
While the race started with a fast hard trail, the conditions became more difficult by Friday night, with deep snow and soft, partially blown-in trail.
“I’ve done this race 15 times and this is probably the most brutal trail I’ve seen,” Neff said.
In Ambler, four of the teams — Jessie Holmes, Martin Early, DJ Starr and Deke Naaktgeboren — scratched from the race, citing challenges with their dog teams.
The second half of the trail wasn’t easier: Diehl said that after Noorvik, “there wasn’t much of a trail” on several patches, and mushers were “zigzagging around” to find their way.
Race marshal Ed Iten said that it’s typical for the trail conditions to change overnight, and “for 440, this is really good weather,” especially compared to last year’s race when only one musher completed the course.
The ADN’s Emily Mesner contributed to the story.