WHITE MOUNTAIN -- As Montanan Doug Swingley prepared to enjoy the spoils of yet another victory in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Tuesday, the best of the also-rans sat down to a breakfast of pancakes, sausage and friendly banter courtesy of Manley's Charlie Boulding.
It was Boulding who convinced Iditarod race judge John "Andy" Anderson that a big breakfast and a view of the Iditarod finish on television was a checkpoint tradition here 77 miles from Nome.
A one-time short order cook, Anderson got a chance to display his skills for a group of some of history's best distance mushers: Five-time Iditarod champ Rick Swenson of Two Rivers and three-time champs Jeff King of Denali Park and Martin Buser from Big Lake.
Former champ Rick Mackey of Nenana was sacked out and snoring atop a beanbag chair down the hall in the community center.
Up-and-coming Iditarod musher Ramy Brooks of Healy -- hacking, bent over and beat up from trail -- grabbed a chair in his long johns. His mother, former Fur Rendezvous World Championships Sled Dog Race winner Roxy Wright, sat across from him.
On the television set next to the sink, the talking heads of Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson bantered away. No one paid much attention.
They were all awaiting live coverage of the Iditarod finish.
To fill the time as they waited, they debated the merits of sleep vs. a shower. Buser started the conversation.
"When I came in here," he said, "I thought somebody smelled bad."
Boulding confessed, "I chose the sleep" over a shower when the opportunity arose in Galena some 400-odd miles back down the trail.
"You don't want to choose the shower," Buser said.
"I'd chose the shower," said Wright, once one of the state's premier sprint mushers but a back-of-the-packer in her lone Iditarod run.
"It puts you to sleep," Buser said.
Wright countered that she found showers "refreshing."
Buser said he'd tried a shower in a previous Iditarod, and "it was a mistake."
Then he was distracted by a Victoria's Secrets lingerie commercial on television.
"I think I'm hallucinating now," he said.
There was laughter all around.
"How many times have you been asked about hallucinating?" Boulding asked.
"Charlie, grab a plate," Anderson said. "You shamed me into this."
"Hey, the tradition lives," Boulding said.
"We don't want the tradition to die," Anderson said.
"Martin, hand me the sausage," Brooks said.
"What's the tradition?" Buser asked.
Boulding explained that everyone was to eat hearty and watch the crowning of a new Iditarod champ on Front Street.
"That's a bad tradition," Buser said.
"Hey, I watched you once," Boulding said.
"I guess we have to welcome him (Swingley) to the three-timers club now, Jeff," Buser said.
King looked up from a big stack of pancakes and chuckled.
An Iditarod promo flashed on the television.
"Here we go," Buser said.
Everyone went quiet. Anderson turned from the gas stove in the corner. The promo ended with an announcement that Swingley was expected in Nome soon.
The conversation ranged back to the race, the rules, the trails and the weather.
"A few more nights like last night, and I'd keep going to Barrow," King said. "It was spectacular."
He went on, talking about a sparkling aurora borealis, a slick trail and mild temperatures. Swenson finally turned to Buser.
"Where were we?" he asked.
"We must have taken a different route," Buser said.
Only miles behind King, the two recounted how they had descended from a local ridgetop known as Little McKinley into a ground blizzard at Golovin Bay. It was cold and miserable, they said, with visibility down to nothing and snow swirling.
The night before, Kasilof's Paul Gebhardt had come through the same area just before King and arrived at this checkpoint mumbling about how bad the weather had been.
"My dogs were blowing sideways," he said. "My eyes kept getting plugged shut with snow. It was just cooking."
Somehow King missed the blow, as had Swingley, who'd come through just before Gebhardt. No one could explain it.
Strange things happen on the Iditarod Trail, said Gebhardt, who remembered former champs Mackey and Swenson discussing the race pace back in Cripple, halfway through the race to Nome.
"Mackey said he was going to have to quit smoking," Gebhardt said. "He said he'd prepared for a nine-day race and the way it was going it was going to be an eight-day race. Swenson said, 'Rick, it's a grueling race with a lightning pace.' I thought next he was going to start singing to him."
Gebhardt would be gone by breakfast - well on his way to a best-ever second-place finish. Until he left, his enthusiasm filled the community center and spilled out the doors.
He couldn't stop raving about his "big, red dog."
"I love that big red dog," he said. "That big red dog doesn't even sleep. He just always wants to go ... I'm excited. I got eight of his pups at home, and they're just like him."
By the time the third through eighth place mushers sat down to eat in the morning, Gebhardt was following his big, red dream dog to Nome.
He would miss the Doug Swingley Iditarod TV show when it finally ran.
So, too, would King, Brooks and Boulding. Their mandatory, eight-hour layovers here would be done before the television went live. But Buser and Swenson were still in the checkpoint, waiting.
"Well, that's it," Buser finally said. "I'm going to sleep." Seconds later, the television switched to downtown Nome. The picture flickered with a bad satellite transmission. Buser eased back into his chair.
"Here we go," he said.
There were reporters. There was chatter. There was no Swingley in the picture.
"C'mon, Swingley," Swenson said, "you better get going. You're costing me sleep."
Finally, Swingley's sled appeared. Color commentator Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the Iditarod, started talking about the finish and the winner's "feeling of regret that it's all over."
"Yeah, right," Buser said.
There was laughter again. These veterans of the trail and of victory thought "satisfaction" or "relief" might be better words.
"Looks like they've got plenty of snow there on the street in Nome," Swenson said, as Swingley struggled to push his dog sled up bare pavement behind the team.
Another chuckle. Then the room went silent. Everyone watched the finish and the finish-line chat with the winner. Then they went about their chores.
Buser, his face wind-burned and his hair tousled, pulled on his gear to go outside.
Dogs needed to be fed and watered, and there was still a little more racing to be done.