NOME -- Even the third-graders Sonny King and his wife, Mallie, speak to could identify the place that doesn't fit on a list of top 20 Iditarod mushers' hometowns.
Kasilof; Lincoln, Mont.; Denali Park; Atlin, British Columbia; Healy; Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Don't make us laugh. A musher from South Carolina? Have they ever seen snow there? Doesn't Santa Claus make deliveries in an SUV?
"I am," said King, "the local curiosity."
Spartanburg is kind of an exurb of Atlanta, 100 miles away and light years from the Iditarod Trail.
However, not only has the 53-year-old veterinarian made the connection, but when he crossed the finish line on Front Street on Wednesday afternoon, King became the unlikeliest high placer in the 28th annual 1,100-mile dash from Anchorage to Nome.
Racing for the fourth time, King recorded a best place (18th) and best time (10 days, 3 hours, 58 minutes). That cut four places and about 29 hours off his previous best. King would have been in the money even under the old structure of paying only the top 20.
How unlikely is this? Well, to find snow, King flies to Alberta. When his neighbors talk racing, they mention Dale Earnhart and Jeff Gordon, not Doug Swingley and Jeff King. According to Iditarod records, no musher living in a warm-weather state ever placed in the top 20 before.
Colorado? Yes. Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming? Sure. South of the Mason-Dixon line? Forget it.
A handful of foreigners from places that are not in Canada or Scandinavia did it, but let them compare heat indexes with Spartanburg.
When South Carolinians probe for the meaning of the Iditarod, King tries to explain that it's sort of like NASCAR. In NASCAR they go around and around; in the Iditarod they go straight. Close enough. Just add mukluks and parkas.
King's Iditarod involvement began as a volunteer vet. Then he thought he'd try the trail. He placed 42nd in 1997, 25th in 1998 and 22nd in 1999. Steady improvement, but when a guy who lives in the tropics takes home $10,750 in prize money, you've got to start taking him more seriously. Maybe he was just curious, but he's more than a curiosity now.
Surely there are many in South Carolina who think King is crazy. But he spreads the gospel of Iditarod and has created fans from the ground up.
Leading up to the race, King and Mallie gave 50 slide-show presentations to elementary or middle schools across South Carolina. They brought a sled and a favorite dog -- IBM, brother of Martin Buser's former champion leader D-2. Then they took the class outdoors, loaded the teacher into the sled and, using an 80-foot gangline, had the kids pull. The simulated sled dogs got a lesson.
"They learn they have to work together," Mallie King said. "We hope they learn to set a goal."
During the race, the Kings maintained an Internet site where the 16 team dogs "wrote" messages to the children.
Four years ago, King, an earnest man with a thick drawl, won the Iditarod's first Golden Stethoscope Award, presented by mushers to the vet who provides the most help along the trail.
He struck up friendships with some mushers, buying several dogs from Buser and others from Rick Swenson and Jeff King. For a while, he trained with 2000 champ Doug Swingley in Montana.
IBM was part of a litter of dogs that Buser called his "Magnificent 7." All seven got to Nome with him in 1991, and six were in his winning 1992 team.
"That's pretty good," Buser said of King's finish. "If you're really into it, you make it happen. It's exotic, but his professional training gives him lot of insight."
To make it happen, King adopted a backbreaking schedule. He maintained his vet practice in South Carolina but kept his dogs with musher Ross Adam in Grand Prairie, Alberta, and periodically trained them on visits of seven to 14 days. Each trip, King drove to Charlotte, N.C., then flew to Minneapolis, Edmonton and Grand Prairie. He accumulated plenty of frequent-flyer miles.
"I use 'em up as quick as I can," King said.
King likes to call himself "an experienced rookie," but after this, nobody will let him get away with that description, so he is amending the self-characterization to "an experienced amateur."
It's hard to say just how excited his fellow South Carolina citizens will get about this. Most of them still can't pronounce Iditarod, King said.
Well, maybe Spartanburg officials will give him the key to the city.
King just laughed at that idea. At least he can show all those doubters that he wasn't just running in circles.