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NOME - Far ahead of everyone, Montanan Doug Swingley, who four years ago became the first non-Alaskan to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, won again early this morning, capturing the richest Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in history.
Swingley pulled in here at about 1:30 his morning before a cheering crowd on Front Street to complete his 1,100-mile run across Alaska in the unofficial time of 9 days, 14 hours and 31 minutes.
"This is just a great team . . . a phenonmenal dog team," Swingley said in Nome.
The runaway victory earned Swingley his second Iditarod crown at age 45, giving him, by a few months, the honor of being the oldest to win the world's longest and toughest sled dog race.
Swingley became the fifth musher to win more than one Iditarod, and his dominating performance could earn him as much as $107,000 in cash and prizes. That includes $60,000 for first place, a $38,000 truck and prizes for being the first musher to several checkpoints.
Swingley's victory has been increasingly clear since he grabbed a sizable lead at the halfway point in the abandoned village of Iditarod. His team took its mandatory, 24-hour rest there, while most of the other leaders sacked out 100 miles or more behind.
Many of them would not see Swingley again.
Over the second half of the race, he consistently posted some of the fastest times between checkpoints. His team not only had stamina, it had the kind of speed he showed four years ago in setting the Iditarod record of 9 days, 2 hours and 43 minutes.
By the White Mountain checkpoint, where mushers are required to take their last mandatory eight-hour rest, 77 miles from the finish, Swingley knew he had the victory sealed.
"I figure the race is over," Swingley said. "I'm just headed for the locker room."
Ahead of him, the trail was reported to be hard and fast all the way to Nome. Behind him, Buser was 71/2 hours off the winner's pace.
A thousand miles of often-bad trail was taking a toll on most of the front runners, but Swingley missed much of that.
Seeming to be graced with a halo of good weather, the Montana musher just missed storms that left teams behind him slogging through deep snow or fighting brutal headwinds and extreme cold.
Yukon River headwinds brought the team of Willow's DeeDee Jonrowe to a halt on the Yukon River. She went from running fourth to her first scratch in 17 Iditarods.
The same winds stalled the teams of Rick Swenson, the race's only five-time winner, and defending Iditarod champ Jeff King from Denali Park. They had to pull into a sheltered slough to wait for the wind to settle before they could go on.
Swingley's luck in missing the worst of the blow had mushers wondering whether divine intervention was at work in this victory.
"You just got to live right, I guess," Swingley said.
He praised his team of mostly young dogs and credited his win, in part, to long training runs near his home in Lincoln, Mont.
Frequently, he said, he'd driven his team to a spot 130 miles from his house, then run them home.
"I think their resilience came from pushing them so hard," he said.
That stamina showed when Swingley jumped into the lead at Iditarod, the race's halfway point. He took the race's required 24-hour rest about 100 miles farther down the trail than most of the other early leaders.
From then on, Swingley held the lead, collecting the halfway prize of $3,000 in gold nuggets as well as the First to the Yukon ($3,500) and the First to the Coast ($2,500) prizes.
Buser struggled to hang on. Down from 16 starters to 10 dogs by the time he reached Nikolai, about 300 miles from the start, he worried whether he would be able to finish. He carried bags of dog food in his sled from checkpoint to checkpoint in case his team shut down.
"Outwardly, I was confident," Buser said. "But inwardly, I was really worried whether I was even going to be able to finish."
He speculated that six of his dogs pooped out early because he overtrained them.
No team could match Swingley's speed. He consistently posted the fastest times from checkpoint to checkpoint.
By the coast, Swingley's lead was so large that he was able to ease back and let the team relax on the final stretch.
"We'll never know how fast this team could have gone," he said.
Swingley said the team, composed mostly of young dogs, didn't have the depth of the 1995 team with which he won his first Iditarod and set the race speed record.
Still, he said, a few dogs were standouts.
Cola, a 2-year-old female, led the team up the coast, he said. And Elmer, the only dog from his 1995 team, proved invaluable in leading the team into Yukon River headwinds; this might, however, have been the 8-year-old husky's last race.
Swingley said the old leader may soon retire.
"I'm going to have to consider that," he said.
Still, the Montana musher had his problems. A mile out of Wasilla, he crashed his sled and bruised or cracked his ribs. He struggled with that all the way to the finish line.
Worse trouble came on the way into the ghost town of Iditarod, when Swingley cracked a runner on his sled coming down an embankment.
With the sled damaged beyond repair, he had to get the approval of race officials to bring up a sled he had dropped earlier in the race. That battered sled was flown into Iditarod while Swingley did his 24-hour rest.
Though crudely patched, it held together the rest of the way.
In White Mountain, Swingley admired his handiwork in reinforcing a cracked stanchion with duct tape, hose clamps and a willow branch.
He planned to save the willow.
"I'm going to put that right up by my trophy," he said.
* Reporter S.J. Komarnitsky can be reached at email@example.com