Iditarod champion Jeff King wasn’t planning to run the race to Nome this year. But that changed this week when a fellow musher had to drop out due to a positive COVID-19 test and asked King to race in his place.
Now, the four-time champion from Denali Park is gearing up to race the 50th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race that starts this weekend.
King, 66, spent Tuesday morning on the local radio program Talk of Alaska, speaking about how he planned on being part of the race’s trail sweep crew by snowmachine, instead of racing it himself. Later Tuesday, he was out with a dog team on the Denali Highway alongside handler Amanda Otto, who is racing King’s A-team dogs this year as a rookie.
But by afternoon, King saw a text message from veteran Big Lake musher Nicolas Petit.
“He said, ‘I’m in a pickle, I have COVID and my dogs are ready to go, and I can’t,’” King said by phone Wednesday morning.
Petit told King there was a short list of people he’d consider letting run his dog team and that King was at the top of the list.
King took 20 minutes to digest before texting him back. Conditions seemed ideal: The trail looks good and so does the forecast, plus King’s health is great, he said. Along with a nice dog team, how could he turn down the offer?
“I guess I’ve turned into a fair-weather musher,” he said.
In a Facebook post on Tuesday evening accompanied by a photo of two positive rapid tests, Petit wrote that he’d been careful and vaccinated — dodging moose but unable to dodge COVID-19.
“I made some calls fishing for the person most appropriate to take them kids to Nome I landed a big fish ... The King of the trails gets to take them cause well, I trust that guy to put the dogs first I trust him to take a team he knows from afar and go race them to their full ability I’m honored that he accepted my offer I’ll be arm chairing with you guys watching the progress with my pulse oximeter on my finger I hope he has fun with them I know they’ll have fun with him!” Petit wrote.
For Petit, the whole ordeal began at dinner with a friend a few nights ago, when he noticed his throat was feeling scratchy. After a night of cold sweats, Petit took a rapid test, which came back positive. So did another test taken six hours later. He wasn’t happy.
“I‘m like, I spent all this money putting all this stuff out there and I’m not a rich guy, but there goes a bunch of waste, and these dogs are awesome, and they should go down the trail,” Petit said. “So I started poking around, looking for somebody that is the right person to take them.”
The dogs that King will run are all descendants of a dog named Beamer, who was born at King’s kennel nearly 13 years ago. That’s one of the reasons Petit reached out, he said.
Petit said he wouldn’t have asked King if he hadn’t trusted him to make his own judgments during the race.
“I told him the general idea for how I might have done this race, but anytime I make a plan I change it on the way, so he’s free to do what he’s gonna do,” Petit said.
Missing the Iditarod start, Petit said, will be the hardest part.
But it won’t be the first race start Petit will have missed this season: He said his truck wouldn’t start before the Copper Basin 300. Since he couldn’t race, Petit said he did some online commentary, which he said he plans to do during the Iditarod as well.
The race, which is returning to Nome this year after last year’s COVID-altered out-and-back route, has implemented several precautionary measures, and all mushers, veterinarians and volunteers must be fully vaccinated.
King hopes he and handler Otto will end up on similar schedules during the race and that they might benefit from each other.
“I might be able to take get some warm fuzzies from her wonderful, youthful exuberance and she might be able to benefit a little bit from my trail experience,” he said.
King is no stranger to last-minute illness upending Iditarod plans. In 2020, he had to drop out of the race for emergency surgery. He then spent a year and a half recovering, with a third and final surgery last October, and said that recovery is the main reason he hasn’t raced.
King plans to meet the dogs and go out for a run Friday. Petit is writing up what’s in each drop bag and has written a description of each dog’s strengths, weaknesses and other preferences. King said the dogs will be running a much slower pace than what they would with Petit.
“Anybody can drive a racecar if you just back off on the gas a little bit,” King said.