Iditarod veteran Jessie Holmes won the Kobuk 440 sled dog race in snowy Northwest Alaska on Sunday.
Holmes arrived in Kotzebue at 8:38 a.m., greeted by blue skies and frigid temperatures. Richie Diehl came in at 11:35 a.m. to capture second place, and Michelle Phillips took third, crossing the finish line at 12:36 p.m.
Holmes placed fifth in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in March. After a day of rest in Nome, he said he ran his team every day and competed in several other races. Ten of the 12 dogs he ran in the Kobuk 440 were also on his Iditarod team this year, he said.
“When you have that strong Iditarod team and finish with some gas in the tank,” he said, “it’s easy to get them prepared for this race to be at the top level.”
Diehl, an Aniak musher who was third in the Iditarod this year, secured his second straight Kobuk 440 second-place finish. Last year, Diehl was outrun by Hugh Neff by 2 minutes. This year, he said, he came back “for another shot” and was satisfied with the result.
“I’m definitely happy,” he said. “We did what we could, you know, and Jessie was faster than us. And that’s that. If we wanted to try to win, then we’ll probably have to come back again.”
For Holmes, who is featured on the reality show “Life Below Zero” on National Geographic, successfully running the Kobuk 440 is also an element of training for next year’s Iditarod.
“I feel like we set the team up to go win the Iditarod next year. That’s the goal,” he said. “This is the greatest training run in the sport to prepare you for Iditarod.”
Training his dogs wasn’t Holmes’ biggest challenge this year. In September, the musher was badly injured in Golovin while helping clean up damage from the massive Western Alaska storm. He suffered internal injuries, a broken wrist and broken ribs. He said he resumed his training a week after he was out of the hospital but maintaining his weight was hard. He started the Iditarod at about 147 pounds — about 75% of his normal weight, he said.
“It was the hardest thing I ever did. It was a real struggle,” he said. “After you go through what I went through and then you go and put in the amount of training that I did ... there’s no way you do that and you’re not doing something that you’re hungry for, that really fulfills you. So that replaced the need for all that strength, physical strength that I was lacking, and it actually made me a way better musher to not rely on just my physical strength.”
The Kobuk 440 mushers took off from Kotzebue at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, ran to Kobuk and back. On Sunday afternoon, five mushers were back in Kotzebue and more were approaching the finish.
The Northwest Arctic, which often treats mushers with perilous weather, has seen several major snowstorms this year. Sugary, windblown snow in parts of the trail made the race slower, Diehl said.
The temperatures dropped to 20- to 30-degrees below zero at night over the weekend, said one of the race organizers, Paul Hansen.
The amount of snow on the trail combined with a cold, slow pace and long distances between the checkpoints ― some of them between 11 and 13 hours long — made the race a challenge, said Holmes, who has run in multiple Kobuk 440 races and became a champion in 2017.
“This was definitely the toughest Kobuk 440 that I ran, and I almost want to say the toughest race I ever ran, really,” Holmes said. “It made the Iditarod seem a little bit more like a vacation to me.”
As much as the Kobuk 440 conditions tend to be tough, the reception at checkpoints along the trail is always hospitable, with residents volunteering to maintain the trails, taking care of the mushers and preparing handmade gifts for them — such as beaver mittens, beaver hats and sealskin slippers, “nice warm stuff, which they needed this year,” Hansen said.
“From the outside, it’s looking like a race but what it is is an awesome network of communities, people getting together and celebrating life in the Arctic, the culture of these villages, and the cultures of dog teams traveling through them,” Holmes said. “It is so rewarding to come here for connection with these people in this region that are just extremely generous and kind and caring and passionate — and like just about the same things that I do.
“That’s what the race is really about, you know. That’s why it keeps going.”