Wednesday, March 18, 1998
Copyright 1998 Anchorage Daily News
King makes it three
By DOUG O'HARRA and CRAIG MEDRED
Daily News reporters
Pounded by fierce coastal winds, Jeff King of Denali Park saw his chances for a record Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race blow away on Tuesday, but his team persevered to claim a third victory.
Only miles from the Nome finish line, King and his dogs were caught in a ground blizzard that cut visibility to almost nothing. He later said the weather was the worst he'd witnessed in six Iditarod races.
The wind was the kind of blow "I've only heard described by people. I could barely see Red (his lead dog) from my sled. It was the longest couple hours of my life."
Almost four hours passed between King's passage through the Safety checkpoint, 22 miles from Nome, and his arrival on Front Street. Under normal circumstances, front-running teams take about two to three hours to make that trip.
"If I'd known how tough today would have been," King said, "I would have declared my 24-hour (layover) in White Mountain. ...
"Without a doubt, the last 12 hours have been the toughest part of this race."
Arriving in second place at 7:39 p.m. with an elapsed time of 9 days, 8 hours, 49 minutes was Willow's DeeDee Jonrowe, greeted by handwritten signs reading "Go DeeDee Go!" Her time was just 12 minutes off last year's first-place time by Martin Buser of Big Lake.
Jonrowe, still seeking a win after 16 Iditarod races, also narrowly lost to King in 1993 - by only 32 minutes.
"It's not a first-place finish, but if they give the max, it's still first place to me," she said of her dogs. Second place pays $47,872.
Race veterinarian Stu Nelson said it was the first Iditarod he knew of where no dogs had died along the trial by the time a winner arrived at Nome.
After eight days of sunshine, cool nights and great trail, the 1,110-mile race met the real Alaska on the Bering Sea coast.
First came bad trail across snow-short tundra. Then the notorious coastal winds tore into the teams. A pace that had at one point been more than eight hours ahead of the Iditarod's northern route record started to slow.
Still, at White Mountain, 75 miles from the finish line, King and DeeDee Jonrowe were a couple hours ahead of the fastest time on the Iditarod's northern route, which passes through Ruby and heads down the Yukon River.
King set that northern-route record in 1996 when he finished in 9 days, 5 hours and 43 minutes.
He was nine minutes behind that time this year, finishing in 9 days, 5 hours and 52 minutes.
After collecting the $51,000 winner's check and the keys to the winner's new Dodge truck, he praised his dogs. A lesser team, he said, might have decided to stop and camp in the Topkok Hills between White Mountain and Nome.
On the climb into those rolling, wind-scoured coastal highlands, King said he promised the dogs they were enduring the last, hard pull. Then they came down out of the hills into "belly-deep, soft snow," he said. "There was just no bottom in it. ... the dogs, they were belly deep in it like they were wading in sand."
Meanwhile, the winds "about beat us to a pulp," King said. "I kept thinking, 'God, how bad do I really want that truck?' "
The dogs had little doubt. The veterans among them knew the finish line was close and kept pulling.
"Red was the one that really had the ship on course this trip," King added. "He's the veteran that really taught a lot of things to my team. ... I never had a better one."
When King pulled out of White Mountain at 5:30 a.m., Red was up front, alone in lead. A veteran of King's 1996 championship team, the 5-year-old husky had only recently developed into a lead dog.
King said he was keeping Jenna - a small, grayish, female - in reserve "to straighten things out" if Red began to falter.
Running with Bert in second swing, Jenna was ahead of Deer and Rhomba, a big black dog, in wheel, and behind Beta and Persian, the first set of swing dogs.
All night long, the storm had built. Asleep in a dark room at the White Mountain city hall, King awoke at one point to tell a race volunteer to "stop that chirping."
"I'm not chirping," the volunteer said.
"I think I'm lost," King said. Then he sprawled across a yellow beanbag chair to sleep another three hours.
By 4:40 a.m., he was up, packing and dressing. His eyes narrowed from lack of sleep, but were alert and focused. He filled his thermos and water bottle, and praised Jenna.
"I really need her to hang in there," he said. "That's tough on them in this wind. For them to maintain in the face of this wind and not know Nome is around the corner."
"Red knows," King said. "I just don't know if they talk."
Then he went out to look over his team. Ham, a dog that had been struggling with diarrhea, would stay with the veterinarians in the checkpoint. The others would go.
He got them in harness, petting them and talking to them, and lining them out on the river. At 5:30, the checker told him to go.
"Red," he said. "Ready. Hike. Hike."
Snow swirled as the team trotted into the dark.
Up in the city offices, Jonrowe - the only musher with even a slim hope of catching King - pulled on her boots and packed her food. Despite King's lead of more than 90 minutes and the gathering storm, the Willow musher was animated, excited and determined.
"I know it's irrational," she said. "I think we're going to see him again. ... I just think we're going to win this race. Not that I've ordered a storm or anything like that. ...
"If not, we gave it a good shot."
The runner-up to King's first victory in 1993, Jonrowe talked about 1991 when Susan Butcher led the race out into a storm, only to turn back and open the door for Rick Swenson to lead his team to an unprecedented fifth victory.
She talked about the constant wind, about her long and so-far unsuccessful quest to win the Iditarod, about her recovery from a severe automobile accident just before the Iditarod last year, about all the top-10 finishes and most of all about the effort her team had put out this year.
For almost 500 miles, she'd led the race off and on. Only in the last 150 miles had King pulled past, and then only incrementally, moving only a few seconds per mile faster.
"If Jeff wins this," she said, "it was no gift. There were so many good teams trained up and ready to compete using different strategies."
Many of them would be sitting in White Mountain later in the day watching King's finish on television as Jonrowe chased him futilely toward Nome.
They watched on the "sled-cam" as Anchorage's Channel 13 tracked King's progress down Front Street. They saw him stop and pick up 6-year-old daughter Ellen, who jumped on a runner.
"Turn it off," joked 1995 champ Doug Swingley from Lincoln, Mont. "Let's watch a Bulls' game."
"Ah, Doug, we all watched you when you won," said three-time champ Martin Buser of Big Lake.
"Yeah, but you probably didn't want to," Swingley said.
Then the power went out as an overloaded breaker snapped off. Someone said the mushers couldn't have the coffee pot, the microwave and the television on at the same time. A debate ensued about whether to run the microwave or the TV.
"I just want to watch Jeff ramble on and not make any sense," said Buser, well aware of the fogginess of sleep deprivation after nine days on the trail with little rest.
The television came back on. King was talking about altering his schedule of running and resting on the Yukon River to get a jump on Buser and the other top racers.
"Well," joked musher Vern Halter of Trapper Creek, "he made sense there."
On television, King was smiling and hugging his family. He had an espresso in one hand. Always television savvy, he'd pitched his mushing hat for a baseball cap sporting the logo of his Nebraska-based sponsor, Cabela's.
Soon he'd be showered and sleeping. His dogs would take a long and deserved sleep on fresh straw. For the others, all that awaited was 75 miles of storm and tough trail.
Copyright © 1996-1998 -- Anchorage Daily News -- All Rights Reserved
Comments to: -- email@example.com