An old Iditarod dog's big moment in close race for 15th

bbragg@adn.comMarch 13, 2013 

After using his famous finishing kick to chase down Kasilof's Paul Gebhardt the first time Wednesday in the final 18 miles of the 1,000-mile Iditarod, Cim Smyth relied on his oldest, slowest dog to catch Gebhardt a second time.

With 10-year-old Squirt in the lead, the Big Lake musher found just enough speed to beat Gebhardt to the Nome finish line by 70 seconds and claim 15th place.

The old dog got his big moment when a younger, faster leader got confused by spectators once the team reached Nome's Front Street.

"People started cheering up on the road and one of my leaders thought that looked like it must be the finish line," Smyth said. "She's never been here before, and she's been coming into these checkpoints (where) the spot where people are cheering and clapping is always the spot you go sign in at.

"So she heard that and up the hill she started to go. She's real stubborn and I've learned never to argue with her, so I just stopped and put her back in the swing (position)."

He swapped her with Squirt, who has made the trip to Nome before. As Smyth made the change, Gebhardt's team caught up.

"He was halfway gone by the time I got (the team) lined out, and then I also had the slowest leader up there, the slowest dog on the whole team," Smyth said. "He knows exactly where we were going, but he wouldn't do anything but trot."

A slow-speed chase ensued. Undeterred by the noise and activity on Front Street, Squirt guided the team past Gebhardt and under the burled arch at the finish line.

It was a slow end to a swift run.

Smyth did the 18-mile run in 2 hours, 32 minutes to erase Gebhardt's seemingly giant 35-minute lead. The only faster time recorded on that stretch was the 2:19 by Smyth's brother Ramey, who passed 2011 champion John Baker on his run Wednesday to finish 20th.

"The Smyth brothers are notorious for that," said Gebhardt, who clocked 3:08 for the run. "I talked to him in White Mountain and he said he was planning on catching me. But it took him a little longer than he thought it would."

Smyth said he didn't see Gebhardt for the first 13 miles or so.

"I was just kinda hoping he'd have a slow run or something and I'd see him, and then I did," Smyth said. "I just saw a little tiny speck -- is that a dog team or is that just a rock? -- and I said, that's a dog team. So I started putting the hammer down and went after him."

The mushers were about 11/2miles from Nome when Smyth passed Gebhardt. Smyth estimated his team was traveling 15 to 16 mph -- this at the end of 1,000-mile race in which the best teams average speeds half that fast.

"I had such a head of steam that I rolled by him," he said. "I did holler at the dogs, I said, 'Go home!' and they rolled right on by and I thought, all right, I have him."

The difference between 15th place and 16th place is $1,500 -- $17,500 compared to $16,000. Gebhardt said it was a small price to pay for a whole lot of fun.

"As long as it's for 15th and 16th place and not first and second," he said. "The money is so minute it doesn't matter. It was just fun.

"That's just part of racing. It's the thrill of it all."

The Smyth-Gebhardt finish happened in daylight, at 10 a.m. Hours earlier, in the dark of night, an even closer finish unfolded.

Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Norway outdueled Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake by 16 seconds to grab seventh place at 3:34 a.m. Berkowitz left Safety with less than a minute's lead.

The 16 seconds made a difference of $2,400. Ulsom earned $33,200 and Berkowitz $30,800.

 

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

 

 

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