ANCHORAGE — In the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, there’s always a heart-pounding thrill at the finish line in Nome, a rollicking frontier city on Alaska’s western coast.
The city’s siren blares as the winning team trots along Front Street at the edge of the Bering Sea. Spectators are heavily bundled against the bone-chilling cold as they cheer and chant the victor’s name. In the winner’s circle, the dogs are calm, standing nobly, like crossing almost 1,000 miles of punishing terrain was no great feat.
But some finishes have stood out among all others in the annual race that began in 1973. Here are five things to know about some of the Iditarod’s most memorable finishes.
WINNING BY THE BLINK OF AN EYE
Only one second separated the winner from the runner-up in 1978, the closest race ever. The frantic dash down Front Street left Dick Mackey as the winner over Rick Swenson, who went on to become the Iditarod’s only five-time champion.
QUEENS OF THE TRAIL
In 1985, Libby Riddles forged through a blinding ground blizzard nobody else dared to enter to become the first woman to win the race. It took 18 days and 20 minutes — the fourth slowest Iditarod on record. The late Susan Butcher, who would go on to win four Iditarods, was knocked out of the running that year when a moose ripped through her team, killing two dogs and severely injuring several others. Butcher defended her team using only her ax and parka against the moose, which was shot by another musher. Aliy Zirkle, who’s in second place now and was the runner-up the last two years, is hoping to become the third woman to win the race.
MASTERS OF MOMENTUM
The 2011 winner, John Baker, holds the record for the fastest Iditarod completed, clocking in at the Nome finish line in eight days, 18 hours and 46 minutes. That time was four hours faster than the previous record set by Martin Buser in 2002. Given the blistering pace of this year’s race, another record would not be out of the question.
EMPLOYING A LITTLE TRICKERY
Lance Mackey, the son of photo-finisher Dick Mackey, pulled off a stunt in 2008 that proved to be the turning point in his second victory of what would be four consecutive Iditarod wins. He could not shake four-time champion Jeff King for much of the trail until the two reached Elim, a checkpoint 123 miles from Nome. Mackey, who was leading by three minutes, made a show of settling in for a nap, telling checkpoint volunteers to wake him in an hour. With King soon snoring, Mackey sneaked out of the checkpoint 70 minutes ahead of his opponent, beating him to Nome by one hour and 19 minutes.
The Iditarod’s first winner, Dick Wilmarth, completed the race in a whopping 20 days and 49 minutes, followed by an even slower race the following year, when the winner took 20 days, 15 hours and one minute to reach the finish line. Winning times have gradually quickened, thanks to innovations in dog breeding and gear and stiffer competition among mushers. Times finally reached the nine-day mark in 1995. Even the last musher to reach Nome these days is often faster than the early winning teams. Last year’s recipient of the Red Lantern award for arriving last made the trek in 13 days, 22 hours and 36 minutes.