It’s the first ever Kuskokwim 300 championship for Paul Gebhardt. The 54 year-old racer was able to out distance the young racer from Akiak, Mike Williams Jr., to claim victory in Bethel under wind chills that reached 70 degrees below zero.
Listen to the live finish and interviews with Gebhardt and Williams.
Listen to Pete Kaiser’s 3rd place finish and interview.
The two racers kept a small crowd, and a captive radio audience, guessing as the neared the finish line nearly neck to neck. Vehicles escorted them through howling gusts of wind registering up to 50 mph. It was Gebhardt who crossed the finish line first, clocking in at 9:47:20 am. Williams would finish at 9:48:20, exactly one minute later.
Gebhardt, who’s an eight-time veteran of the K300, says it was his dogs that made the difference this year. “I put them on cruise control and away they went,” Gebhardt told KYUK reporter Angela Denning-Barnes at the finish line.
Williams trailed Gebhardt for the second half of the race. It was during the last leg that Williams began to chip away at that lead.
When the two left Tuluksak, about 50 miles from the finish line, Gebhardt had a 24-minute lead. By the time they were in Kwethluk, just 12 miles from the finish line, Williams had cut the lead to 6 minutes.
Gebhardt was able to motivate his team to stay in front of Williams as the two raced over a hardened trail, made irregular by truck and ATV ruts.
As is usually the case in the K300, experience also played a part in the victory. Gebhardt said he used protectors to keep his male dogs from being frost bitten. To protect himself he wore goggles, a move also employed this year by Mitch Seavey, who scratched last year after his eye ball became frost bit in headwinds.
“The weather is just like the Kusko,” Gebhardt said at the finish line. “Something different each time.”
The wind may have helped to push the racers back down the trail. Gebhardt’s elapsed time of 39 hours 17 minutes and 20 seconds is officially the 8th fastest time on the record books for years where the complete route was used.
The win is biggest in Gephardt’s 19-year career as a musher. His only other big title other came in 2000 when he won Copper Basin 300.
The challenge put up by 26 year old Mike Williams of Jr. is sure to raise some eyebrows around the state. His performance is the best by any Y-K Delta racer in the modern era of the K300.
At the Tuluksask checkpoint Williams was pleased with his times. “It’s been my goal for some time now to finish in the top. So I’m not really surprised. I’m pretty content at this point.”
There’s a four-hour mandatory rest in Tuluksak before racers make their final push towards the finish line. Williams stayed two minutes past his break, however, because his dogs got off to a lethargic start. The two minutes could have made the difference, at least mathematically, in the race outcome.
Williams said at the finish line that his teams were better prepared for this race compared to previous years. “Training this year has been pretty good.”
Indeed, this is one of the few years where training in the Kuskowim region was preferable to many other areas of the state. That’s evidenced further by Pete Kaiser’s third place finish. Kaiser is from Bethel, where the K300 starts and ends.
Williams was racing with a veteran team which included two 3-year old dogs and the rest between 4 and 6 years of age. He plans on running the Iditarod this year.
Gebhardt has hopes of winning the Iditarod this year, and his performance on the Kuskokwim River bolsters his belief that his team of dogs is the fastest all-around team he’s ever had. “This team just totally gelled so good,” Gebhardt said at the finish line. “I’m totally jazzed about the Iditarod.