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Down-to-the-wire winner

Dick Mackey runs in front of Rick Swenson in a sprint to the Iditarod finish in Nome in 1978.About Postcards From the Trail: In preparation for 2011 Iditarod 39, we'll be sending images from more than 30 years of Iditarod races leading up to the ceremonial start in Anchorage March 5, 2011. Rob Stapleton / Anchorage Daily News archive

For 800 miles, Dick Mackey and Rick Swenson rarely lost sight of each other. With a few others, they jockeyed for position along the length of Alaska. At the end, they found themselves out in front of everyone else and proceeded to stage the most spectacular finish the race has ever seen.

"By the time the two men reached the streets of Nome, they were virtually running side by side," Daily News reporter Doug O'Harra wrote. "One hundred yards out, they were even. By the time they entered the 50-yard chute, Mackey had a slight edge. Both men were running.

"Then Mackey's dogs trotted under the burled arch, the finish line." The dogs tangled. "His sled stopped just short of the finish line. Mackey collapsed.

"Swenson ... kept going and dragged his sled under the finish line. Though his leaders crossed second, Swenson himself crossed under the arch ahead of Mackey.

"Bedlam erupted."

The decision about who won the 1978 Iditarod is debated today whenever race fans gather. But the rules and race officials said it was the lead dog's nose, not the musher's behind, that determined the winner. They awarded Mackey the victory by one second.

That incredible finish may have been the highlight of Mackey's career, but it's only part of his history with the Iditarod.

Mackey was one of the first mushers to sign up for the initial race, and in his first five races, he never finished out of the top 10, all the while performing his organizational duties.

He didn't abandon the race when he stopped running himself, serving as race committee president, race manager, trail manager, banquet emcee and start and finish announcer.

"His voice became the public voice of the Iditarod, " wrote O'Harra, a member of the Hall of Fame selection committee.

Inducted 1997 Greatest accomplishment Helped organize the first Iditarod and, in 1978, won the closest race ever. Vital stats Born: Concord, N.H. Hometown: Nenana Age: 75 Best finish 1st -- 1978 Fastest time 1978 -- 14 days, 18 hours, 52 minutes Race record 1973 7th 1974 10th 1975 7th 1976 8th 1978 1st 1980 Scratched 1987 32nd