Jessica Klejka was feeling great with a few miles to go in 2008 Junior Iditarod Sled Dog Race. She was leading, it was balmy outside and her team was running fast.
Maybe a little too fast for Nanook, one of her biggest dogs and hardest workers. Nanook is not a speed demon and the warm weather took a toll.
"He's a good dog, but we were just going really fast," Klejka said.
So with no other racers in sight, Klejka stopped and loaded her big dog into the sled for the stretch run.
And oh what a run it turned out to be.
Shortly after the stop, following a few tough hill climbs with less than a mile to go, the hard-charging team of Cain Carter, the 16-year-old step-son of Iditarod and Yukon Quest champ Lance Mackey, caught Klejka.
"I figured they'd be coming because I was loading my dog and he's a really big dog. The team slowed down dramatically when I put him in," Klejka said.
"When Cain caught me, I was thinking, 'Oh no, man, he's gonna pass me.' I yelled to the dogs 'OK guys, let's go! Let's just give it a good try.' "
As the finish line came into view, adrenaline kicked in for Klejka, Carter and their combined 19 dogs.
"We're both running, and then my dogs saw everybody at the finish line and they picked it up," Klejka said. "And his dogs saw everybody, so both teams are going really fast. It was really close."
How close? Try the closest finish in the race's 31-year history.
Klejka, a 17-year-old Bethel resident, edged Fairbanks' Carter by two seconds after 140 miles of racing to win her first Junior Iditarod title in her fourth attempt.
The smallest 1-2 gap prior to Sunday was 34 seconds, which happened twice: Tyrell Seavey got past Cali King in 2001 and Ramey Smyth beat out brother Cim by the same margin in 1993.
Nanook took in the scene from the sled and, despite the excitement, was in no hurry to get out.
"He was pretty happy when we finished," Klejka said. "He was content with where he was."
Kotzebue's Quinn Iten, son of Iditarod veteran Ed Iten, finished three minutes behind in third. Rounding out the top 5 were Wasilla's Wade Marrs and Two Rivers' Ava Lindner, daughter of former Yukon Quest champ Sonny Lindner.
Klejka's win capped an impressive climb since her 2005 Junior Iditarod debut, when she took home the Red Lantern as the last racer to finish.
"Since I'm from Bethel, my dogs aren't always used to running on groomed trails," said Klejka, who started mushing in the fifth grade. "The first year was just a new experience for all of us."
In her next attempt, she finished seventh and, with a lot of hard training, came in third last year with leaders Jesse and Pearl out front. Despite that positive momentum, six months ago Klejka was thinking she might not run the race this year.
Jesse, her team's undisputed top dog, fell ill two weeks before she was to give birth. Klejka's father, a doctor at Bethel's hospital, rescued the litter of eight puppies via C-section but couldn't save Jesse.
The death of Jesse put the young musher in a funk.
"I couldn't even see (racing in) Junior Iditarod," Klejka said. "She was the main dog that kept the team going fast. So we focused on training and I was switching dogs around.
"But we got here."
She found another leader in Myan and decided to give racing a go. She entered the Kuskokwim 300 but scratched after warm temperatures turned to slush and open water. And now Klejka has her first big mushing win just four days before her 18th birthday.
Klejka, who will head to college in the fall, earns a $5,000 scholarship and round trip tickets to the Iditarod Awards Banquet in Nome with her parents. She'll be the first musher out of the chute at Iditarod ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday.
Not a bad present but does she have party planned back in Bethel?
"I've got a lot of schoolwork to catch up on when I get home," she said.
For complete 2008 Junior Iditarod race results go to JrIditarod.com/racecurrent.php.