Nome -- The siren piercing the darkness awakened Nome with the news that a champion was mushing onto Front Street early Wednesday morning.
And for the third year in a row, and the fourth time overall, the first dogs trotting down this community's main street were piloted by Doug Swingley.
Overcoming bare trail, deep snow, high winds and nights of little sleep, Swingley, the only musher to ever win from outside of Alaska, claimed the 29th annual Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
"The trail was very physically tough," said Swingley, who is the oldest musher to win the 1,100-mile race between Anchorage and Nome. "I'm 47 years old. It's getting physically tougher all of the time."
Swingley was in need of a shave and shower after taking 9 days, 19 hours, 56 minutes to cross Alaska, but he seemed nearly as fresh as the 11 dogs in harness who jogged into the finish chute at 6:55 a.m. and enriched him with the $63,000 first-place prize and a $39,000 Dodge truck.
There was a slight breeze and it was minus-1 on the thermometer as Swingley's team arrived under the famous finishing arch almost exactly 19 hours slower than he did on his record run last year.
"Welcome, Doug Swingley into Nome, and the history books of Iditarod," said Nome mayor Leo Rasmussen.
Swingley, of Lincoln, Mont., has now triumphed in four Iditarods -- 1995, 1999, 2000, and 2001. That trails only Rick Swenson of Two Rivers, with five victories, and equals Susan Butcher of Fairbanks on the all-time list. His streak of three victories in a row matches Butcher's streak 1986, 1987 and 1988.
Swingley mushed into town wearing an orange overgarment that made him resemble a creamsicle, and he was warmly greeted by girlfriend Melanie Shirilla. His lead dogs Stormy and Peppy and the other dogs seemed frisky enough to keep on for many more miles.
"The resiliency of this dog team is its biggest asset," said Swingley, who also received the 90-pound trophy named for Father of the Iditarod Joe Redington Sr.
Swingley bested Linwood Fiedler, 47, of Willow, a surprise second-place finisher, by almost exactly eight hours. Fiedler led the first half of the race and recorded his best-ever performance while completing the run in 10 days, 3 hours, 58 minutes.
Fiedler, who was 19th last year in nearly the identical time, was jubilant about his improved finish, engaging in an emotional hug under the arch with his wife Kathi and three children.
"It's a dream come true," said Fiedler. "There's a lot of years of pulling it together."
Fiedler said he trained hard and knew he had a top team, but he had to get past his own hesitancy to take the lead.
"I've not had the confidence before to have no sled tracks in front of me," Fiedler said. "This year I had the confidence to realize they (the dogs) were in the zone and to caplitalize on it."
Fiedler placed eighth in two previous races, but mostly he's hovered in the bottom half of the top 20. This year he set a fast pace and won the First Musher to the Yukon Award when he reached Anvik, 623 miles into the race. Hearing Anvik's church bell toll for him as he approached was a thrill.
"It just shook my soul," said Fiedler. "It felt so good."
Yet Swingley, who came into the Iditarod believing his main competition was three-time winner Jeff King of Denali Park, had the dog power to adjust, even deep into the race.
Not before a brief scare leaving Grayling into extraordinary high winds, however.
"The Yukon River was particularly devilish," said Swingley. "For the first time in my career I came within five seconds of turning around and going back to Grayling. It says something about how bad the conditions were."
Swingley, who was wearing five layers of clothing, said he told himself, "You got yourself into this, you get yourself out of it."
He did. And then, in the 90-mile stretch between Unalakleet and Kaltag, he broke the race open, losing Fiedler and King, who placed third Wednesday afternoon in 10 days, 7 hours, 20 minutes.
"I decided to take my foot off the brake and let them go," said Swingley. "They were having a blast."
The move discouraged King, who placed in the top three for the seventh time. When he realized how fast Swingley was moving he said, "If he can keep it up again, I can't catch him."
King marveled at Swingley's performance.
"He's got something figured out, for sure," said King, who was greeted at the finish line by his wife, Donna Gates, his children and some of their friends. The youngsters teased him by painting "We love you Jeff" on their bellies and lifted their shirts.
"We'll get the cowboy next year," King said.
Mushers have been saying that for a few years now, but Swingley, who received a congratulatory phone call from Gov. Tony Knowles, has baffled Alaskan rivals with his success. He was rookie-of-the-year in 1992 and has twice placed second, as well.
Wedded to his home state of Montana, he remains somewhat of an enigma. No one can figure out if training at altitude is the key, or taking 115-mile training runs, or pushing deep into the race before taking his mandatory 24-hour race. Swingley said he has no secrets and Shirilla, who also works with the dogs, said it is all about hard work.
"It is every day, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and I wouldn't have it any other way," said Shirilla.
Swingley said all of the contenders are motivated, Type-A personalities, and in a field that included past champions Swenson, King, Martin Buser, Jerry Riley and Rick Mackey he believed there were many mushers hungrier to win than he was.
"But I'm still here because I'm stubborn," said Swingley.
That trait clearly paid off on a rugged trail that busted sleds, dashed hopes, and slowed the race down tremendously from Swingley's own 2000 record pace. Yet all of the obstacles seemed to please Swingley more than another record would have because he was tired of hearing he'd had easy trail in the past.
"I'm really happy to come out ahead in a race that had so many pitfalls," said Swingley. "I feel I really earned it."
No one would dispute that.
Sports editor Lew Freedman can be reached at email@example.com.