UNALALKEET, Alaska (KTUU) - As Joar Ulsom and Nicolas Petit dart up the coast to Nome, two Iditarod champions were in Unalakleet, pondering what it means to be further back.
Four-time Iditarod champions Martin Buser, 60, and Jeff King, 62, were in the coastal checkpoint discussing how they’re reconciling with not being in winnings positions anymore.
King explained that the 2018 race has been difficult, he sent three of his leaders home and was forced to shelter from a “heck of a storm” while driving his team to the Iditarod checkpoint.
The race legend, who has notched up 20 top 10 finishes in an illustrious career, has adjusted his expectations. “I don’t really care how I get there, I just want to have fun.”
His focus now is on the next generation. He plans to take his youngest daughter Ellen for her first trip up the Iditarod trail in 2019.
King then spoke about an interaction he had with Jim Lanier, 77, who told him, “You know, mushing was never easy but now that I’m an old fart, it’s less easy than it was.”
Buser also spoke about Lanier, the oldest musher racing in 2018, as an inspiration. He said if he continues in the sport until the age of 75, he’ll have completed 50 Iditarods which he says is a good goal.
Buser, who is originally from Switzerland, said his life has been defined by the Iditarod and that he had intended to be “ultra-competitive” in the 2018 race. Now, sitting further back, he is trying to “enjoy the fact I’m not up front” but he says “stepping off that pedestal is hard.”
Buser describes that his decades-long connection with sled dog racing goes beyond winning races. He was part of the first generation of people who mushed professionally and along with the likes of King, he helped “mature” the sport and increase the strength and speed of the breed. “We trained the animals and now we can’t ride them.”
The Iditarod legend recounts that when he was heading to Unalakleet, he spotted a young woman in the beam of his headlamp running behind her sled, up hills headed toward the coast. “Yeah, I used to do that but I can’t do that anymore.”
Like King, Buser has a focus on those coming up. Matthew Failor, 34, trained with him at his Happy Trails kennel. Buser was impressed that Failor pushed on through Kaltag after having a horror run up the Yukon River. “Not only is he doing great, he’s making moves.”
For both veteran mushers, slowing down doesn’t mean stopping. Buser, who has never scratched from an Iditarod explained why he won’t quit: “The goal is to finish what you start. If you finish stuff, you have stuff. If you don’t finish, you have nothing.”
Correction: Previously, this article said that 26-year-old Matt Hall trained with Martin Buser. Instead, Matthew Failor, 34, was Buser's apprentice, not Hall.