WHITE MOUNTAIN - While Lance Mackey charged onto Front Street for his second straight Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race victory, more than a dozen teams rested 70 miles away early Wednesday morning here on the banks of the Fish River.
Mushers stayed busy tending to sore paws and feeding hungry stomachs. Others took naps inside White Mountain's City Hall before completing their mandatory eight-hour pit stop.
Among the group was Martin Buser of Big Lake, one of 13 teams here looking to crack the top 10. The four-time champion sat in a logjam for fourth place - 24 minutes behind Ramey Smyth of Willow, 14 minutes behind Ken Anderson of Fairbanks and three ahead of Canadian Hans Gatt.
"Ramey has been behind us to this point, but that's typical," Anderson said. "He's doing exactly what he does every year. He just sort of sandbags it."
The pecking order played out by midday Wednesday with Smyth using his athleticism to lead the pack down Front Street for a career-best third place.
Other close finishes were Anderson beating Buser by 44 seconds for fourth and Canadian Sebastian Schnuelle edging Zack Steer by 31 seconds for 10th - Schnuelle's first Top 10 finish. The Canadian has finished four Yukon Quests, with a career best sixth, and his previous best in the Iditarod was 22nd.
"Not in my wildest dreams would I think I'd be Top 10," said Schnuelle, who finished with eight dogs older than 8 years old.
Before all the craziness that comes with reaching Nome - meeting family members, talking to media and fans - mushers find respite for eight hours in this quiet village of about 200 people, the last chance to rest up before the city lights.
Just before noon Tuesday, Sterling's Mitch Seavey nodded off to sleep in a chair. The 2004 Iditarod champion waited for his wake-up call.
"Seems like a good day to finish this race, huh, Mitch?" said Kasilof's Paul Gebhardt.
"I've got seven minutes left and you're already harassing me?" Seavey asked. His head soon rolled backward and he fell asleep.
Outside, the only sound in the dog yard came from Buser. The 49-year-old native of Switzerland whistled a beautiful rendition of Cat Stevens' "Morning has Broken." As a kid, Buser took flute lessons for 12 years. Since then he's become a musher with mad whistling skills. The sound, he said, is soothing to the dogs.
"I can whistle just about anything," Buser said. "If it comes in my head I can whistle it."
Buser has an ongoing joke with his wife, Kathy, about his whistling. If things are going OK, the whistle comes out. If things aren't, silence.
"Things are OK," said Buser, cleaning the last of his dog dishes before packing his sled for the final stretch.
Earlier in the evening, Buser woke from a deep sleep in City Hall looking as if he'd been dragged in by the dogs. He found five-time Iditarod champion Rick Swenson sitting across the room, lacing his boots to go outside.
Buser was beat but not too tired to talk about the race for first place.
"Well, I guess the club didn't grow," Buser said, referring to King's failure to join Swenson as Iditarod's winningest mushers.
The close race between Mackey and King - Mackey left here with a 57-minute lead - fueled Buser's and Swenson's memories. These old hands relived the 1991 blizzard, one of the biggest weather events in Iditarod history, when Buser finished second to Swenson.
"It was some kind of event," Buser said. "If you dissect that whole storm, you could write a book about it. That race changed my life."
That year Susan Butcher was here in White Mountain, poised to become Iditarod's first five-time champion. But a ground blizzard forced her and several other top contenders to turn around. Swenson drove through it to win, taking nearly 24 hours to cover the 77 miles.
"You know the story about Rick's kennel name, Lightning Bolt Kennel?" Buser asked a group of volunteers. "A reporter once said, 'Hey Rick, what's it take to win the (1991) Iditarod this year?'
"So in Rick's friendly fashion, he said, 'Only lightning bolts could stop (Butcher)!' Hint: Lightning Bolt Kennel. It used to be called Trot Along."
"If only I had (lightning bolts) today," Swenson said. "I could be right up there (with Mackey and King)."
"I think the whole state was in mourning when you won," Buser joked.
"Half the state," Swenson muttered.
After suffering two straight years of career-worst finishes, Swenson's competitive flame was renewed this year. The 55-year-old finished 13th - his best race since 2004.
But one of the most touching stories Wednesday unfolded when Smyth passed under the burled arch with eight dogs for a career-best third-place finish. He got emotional, talking about his geriatric dogs who don't act their age.
Babe and Dude will turn 11 years old this spring. Smyth has lost count of how many Iditarods they've finished.
"It was a long, hard trudge," Smyth said. "They just needed to keep their noses to the wheel and they did - really good-hearted dogs that work hard no matter how hard it gets.
"They've been around a long time."