Fairbanks mushing couple Jeff and KattiJo Deeter already talk about the Iditarod all the time. But this year, they were talking about the long-distance sled dog race for two mushers, not one.
The race is Jeff’s sixth Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and KattiJo’s first.
“I don’t think that we’ve ever not talked Iditarod 24/7 — this race has been my passion for years and years,” said Jeff, whose 12th-place finish in the 2021 Iditarod was his best yet.
After years of helping Jeff train, KattiJo reached a point in which she felt ready for the next challenge and thought that she potentially had “the skills now that I could do this race,” she said.
They’re the only couple mushing this year, KattiJo said. It’s not too uncommon: Cantwell mushers Paige Drobny and Cody Strathe finished in 19th and 20th places respectively last year. Plenty of other couples who share homes and kennels have competed together in the race.
“It’s not something that I have sat down with Paige and Cody and been like, ‘Is this is crazy? Is this possible?’ ” she said.
Jeff and KattiJo initially talked about splitting their experienced sled dogs equally between the two teams, but that would mean Jeff would be running a less competitive race. She didn’t want to ask him to do that.
Her team is mostly made up of dogs that have never run a 1,000-mile race. Some haven’t even done a 300-miler, she said.
KattiJo and Jeff met in Juneau in 2010 while working at a dog sled tour company.
“I had been living all over the U.S. doing lots of random seasonal work,” KattiJo said. “And that was one of the jobs that I took.”
It was the one that stuck: being around sled dogs and being in Alaska.
At that point, Jeff had already completed the Iditarod once. But after finishing the race, he sold a lot of his dogs and tried to go to college.
“By the time I met him, he was sort of like, ‘I didn’t like college, I don’t really want to do that, but I don’t know what I want to do,’ ” she said.
KattiJo started working with sled dogs and saw that Jeff wanted to get back into that work as well, and by 2013 they had started rebuilding the racing team.
But while the husband and wife are both racing, they probably won’t see each other much along the trail. The two don’t always get along when it comes to training, she said.
“Being out on the trail together, we actually do a lot of training separately. Like, on purpose,” she said.
So they decided to race this year’s Iditarod separately.
They might see each other at their 24-hour rest, with KattiJo likely pulling in right as Jeff is leaving, she said before the race started. But as long as Jeff is racing well, they shouldn’t see each other at all. KattiJo plans on resting her dogs more frequently and keeping a slower pace.
On Wednesday morning, KattiJo was taking a pause in Nikolai in 44th position while Jeff was resting some 48 miles ahead in McGrath in 23rd place. According to checkpoint logs, the two had been in the same place only once, in Yentna for about seven minutes.
“She’s gonna be out on her own with her team, which I think is what this race is about,” Jeff said. “It’s like a personal challenge of you and your dogs accomplishing 1,000 miles.”