Jessie Holmes wins his third Kobuk 440 race: "This is my best racing season."

Apr. 8—Jessie Holmes won his third Kobuk 440 Sled Dog Race race on Sunday — his second win in a row traversing Northwest Alaska.

Ten mushers took off from Kotzebue on Thursday and ran through Noorvik, Selawik, Ambler, Shungnak and Kobuk, as well as Kiana on their way back. Holmes crossed the finish line in Kotzebue at 11:24 a.m. Sunday, more than 40 minutes earlier than second-place winner Hunter Keefe and over an hour faster than Eddie Burke Jr. who came in third.

Holmes — who is originally from Alabama, mushes out of Brushkana and is featured on the reality TV show "Life Below Zero" on National Geographic — won the Kobuk 440 title last year and in 2017. Earlier this March, he finished third in the Iditarod, which was his third-straight finish in the top five. He also finished second in the Copper Basin 300 race this season.

"To me, this is my best racing season as a whole yet because every race I was on the podium. .... That feels massively rewarding," Holmes said. "I feel like I'm learning so much, so rapidly right now just from all the work I've been putting in and all the races I've been running and the success that we're having. ... My main goal right now is to be very consistent."

For the Kobuk 440 race, Holmes decided to mix his veteran dogs with a few that he hadn't raced before, to allow them to practice.One of these younger dogs, Blossom, showed herself as a strong and promising leader.

"She came in with more intensity in a lead than she went out with after a long, long, tough race," Holmes said. "It was kind of like a graduation test. ... Any dog that finishes this race is the best dog in the world."

In Ambler on Saturday, Holmes told Kobuk 440 volunteers that "his dogs were doing amazing and his biggest roles on the trail are being the cheerleader and chef for his team."

"I'm just there, keeping them happy and keeping them healthy and, you know, making the meals, and they do the rest," he said in an interview on Sunday. 'If I can do that good, then they can do what they do best."

On the trail, for the first half of the race, Holmes was competing with Tony Browning who was running right behind him and even speeding past him on the way to Kobuk.

"Jessie was able to start pulling away from him on a particularly difficult section of the trail down to Kiana," said Paul Hansen, president of the Kobuk 440 Racing Association. "In the end, Jessie just had a stronger team. They were putting on quite a race there for all the fans for quite a while there."

The two mushers are friends, Holmes said, and Browning was borrowing one of Holmes' dogs for the race.

"There was a moment there," Holmes said, "I was like, man, am I gonna get beaten by my own dog?"

When Holmes was leaving Shungak, he was about 10 minutes ahead, but the trail was not set and he lost the path. He had to wait for Browning and trailbreakers. Farther on, the portion with a fast trail helped Holmes get his lead space back, he said.

"The more the race threw at us, the more answers we had," he said. "We just stayed steady."

Kotzebue area saw a winter storm right before the race, and while the weather calmed down before the start, fresh snow made the race slower for all mushers, Hansen said. The dogs handled the warmer softer conditions well, he said.

"The dogs are less likely to get injured when they're running slower," Hansen said. "It's been pretty uneventful, which is a good thing."

At village checkpoints, mushers enjoyed homemade food, warm welcome and gifts such as fur hats in Ambler, Hansen said.

For Holmes, almost every checkpoint felt like a finish line, with residents coming out to greet and cheer on the mushers.

"It's just such a big celebration in all these villages. ... It's incredible. I mean, they outdo every race up here, to be honest, with the hospitality and the excitement for the event. It's just It's so heartwarming," he said. "That right there in a nutshell is what mushing needs to survive and thrive."