When Paul Gebhardt finally let his dogs trot down H Street on Saturday morning toward the ceremonial start of the 37th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race, sunlight flickered between the tall downtown buildings with a few slants playing off the musher's face.
Gebhardt's 13th Iditarod was under way and the Kasilof racer didn't have to look far for signs of optimism.
Among his team was Lieutenant, the speedy new 2-year-old leader and grandson of Gebhardt's former Golden Harness winner, Red Dog. A year ago, Lieutenant was on Gebhardt's eighth-place team.
Nestled beside Gebhardt, sharing space on the runners, was wife Evy. They wrapped arms around each other's waist as the team moved onto Fourth Avenue, celebrating their shared journey.
And Gebhardt felt like a new man himself at age 52. A new diet had helped him lose weight and gain energy. But most importantly, he stopped drinking 19 months ago.
"I'm really, really happy," he said, smiling. "I'll be mentally sharper, more upbeat and it affects the way my dogs are. They're happier than I've seen them in 12 years.
"I definitely think (a victory) is within reach."
There's not much time. Jeff King was 50 when he won in 2006, making the Denali Park musher the oldest Iditarod champion.
Already, Gebhardt is one of just four mushers in race history with more than one runner-up finish but lacking a victory.
Not far from Gebhardt's truck was another two-time bridesmaid, DeeDee Jonrowe, 55, of Willow, who was second in 1992 and 1998.
She also believes her chances are good this year.
"I really believe we are taking a team into this race that can win," said Jonrowe, dressed in a fuchsia parka lined in lamb and trimmed in wolf and wolverine.
The others pair of two-time runner-up finishers:
• The suspended Ramy Brooks (two hours behind Martin Buser's fastest-ever Iditarod in 2002, and second to Norwegian Robert Sorlie a year later.
• Warner Vent, who was second in 1974 and 1976 in the race's early days.
Gebhardt's two runner-ups came when he finished more than five hours behind Doug Swingley in 2000 and more than two hours behind Lance Mackey two years ago. The first time, he was happy as runner-up. Not the second.
"I actually left Unalakleet ahead of (Mackey). He passed me going into Shaktoolik (170 miles from Nome), where I broke a footpad off my sled.
"We virtually ran all the way from Iditarod together and were evenly matched. When I made the repair, I promised my dog team we'd lay down a couple of hours. (But) I think if I'd stayed with (Mackey), we'd have been in a footrace."
Over the years, Gebhardt has had his share of woes on and off the 1,000-mile trail from Willow to Nome.
Last year, amid the frontrunners, Gebhardt dozed off on his sled during the night. When he awoke, he was sure he'd passed the Cripple checkpoint midway through the race. He turned his team around and eventually passed Jonrowe -- two Iditarod racers going opposite directions -- before getting straightened out. "The (head)lights were so bright we couldn't see each other (as we passed)," Jonrowe said at the time.
The accidental loss of two of his best leaders has also set him back -- he lost Zanadoo in a 1996 encounter with an angry moose while training on the Kenai Peninsula that left the dog with crushed ribs and a collapsed lung; and Governor, a 4-year-old who perished after swallowing a quarter-size rock in November of 2007.
Without a mishap, Gebhardt expects his 2009 team will keep him in this year's race.
"I know everybody says it, but I feel like I've got the best team I've ever had," he said. "And, obviously, I have another year of experience too."
Gebhardt gushes over Lieutenant: "He's the strongest and probably the best leader I've every owned as far as wanting to please me and the drive he has."
But he knows that if the weather turns miserable and the trail becomes invisible, 7-year-old Houston, his long-time leader, is ready.
"He refuses to retire. They say dog years are like seven years of human life and ... we're virtually the same age. So I know how he feels. He doesn't want to give up, either."
Gebhardt likes his mix of young and old dogs. He likes the long-range Iditarod forecast that lacks the bitter sub-zero temperatures that plague some races. He thinks it may feel more like Kasilof than Kaltag to his dogs.
Now if he can just make sure he points them in the right direction.
Reporter Mike Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4329.
By MIKE CAMPBELL