NOME -- Like a man saved from drowning, Paul Gebhardt gasped for breath as he hunched over the handlebar of his sled early Thursday in Nome. The 58-year-old musher nearly collapsed, hanging onto his racing sled for balance as Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman discreetly sidled up, concern showing clearly on his face through its bushy cloak of gray.
"You winded?" Nordman whispered to Gebhardt, who moments earlier had crossed beneath the burled arch finish line for the 19th time in 20 Iditarod starts dating back to 1996.
"Yep," the musher said softly, his voice barely audible over the din of a handful of late-night revelers, family members and fans gathered near the finish line beneath a star-filled sky crossed by wispy green tendrils of aurora.
Gebhardt wearily raised his voice and repeated the word, only this time it was a command, not an answer. His dogs obliged, trotting out of the finishing chute and over to the dog lot, where musher and team finally found respite after what had been a harrowing battle against both man and nature.
The best race of Iditarod 2015 didn't take place in front of huge crowds or a live television audience. Instead, the battle for 12th place played out over 11 hours of dramatic racing featuring the most terrifying windstorm many mushers had ever witnessed, a cat-and-mouse game ending in a slow-motion doggie drag race on snow-covered streets and an otherworldly northern lights show produced by a massive solar storm.
And the only people who saw it happen were the mushers and dogs themselves, a handful of late-night partiers and a few fans drawn by the unusual sound of three successive sirens that hinted something wild was going down on Front Street.
A half-day before, Gebhardt left the White Mountain checkpoint knowing he was a marked musher. Although he had a 92-minute lead on a chase pack of four teams, the Kasilof resident figured he'd have to do everything he could over the last 80 miles of the race.
"They all knew, and so did I, that I was the slowest of the four," he said. "I knew they'd be catching me right about Nome."
But competitors weren't responsible for Gebhardt's first taste of trouble. Rather, it was the legendary winds over the Topkok Hills and down onto the Bering Sea coast. The trail from White Mountain to the penultimate checkpoint of Safety can be as brutal as it gets. Last year, race leader Jeff King bowed out on this stretch after getting stranded a few miles out of Safety.
The race's own description of this notorious area:
"This can be one of the most dangerous stretches on the race when the wind blows or a storm hits," cautions a narrative on the Iditarod website. "It can make or break champions, not to mention back-of-the-packers. Mushers have nearly died within what would normally be a few hours' easy running to Nome. In reasonable weather, this is a pleasant five- to eight-hour run; in the worst conditions, it can be impassable."
It wasn't impassable as Wednesday afternoon turned to evening, but it sure wasn't a cakewalk.
"If I would have let go of the sled, it would have been gone," Gebhardt said. "It was nasty. That's the hardest wind I've been in in Iditarod."
As he struggled to keep his team going in the crosswind, the competition was doing the same behind him. By then, no one was thinking about where they'd end up the standings.
Through the teeth of the storm
Kelly Maixner, a ginger-bearded 39-year-old, grew up in the tiny town of Golva, North Dakota, which boasts a year-round population of about 60 people.
Maixner is a pediatric dentist whose list of accomplishments make him sound like a cross between Forrest Gump and Chuck Norris. He's been a farmer, snowboard instructor, National Guardsman, bartender, doughnut maker, physical therapist for the NBA's Phoenix Suns, state champion boxer and semi-pro football player. He travels to Haiti each year to help out at a mission in the impoverished Caribbean nation, has completed four Iditarods and is a triathlete. He lives in Big Lake, where he runs a kennel with his wife, who said she snagged Kelly at the Talkeetna Bachelor Auction one year.
"I didn't pay for him," recalled Margaret Maixner. "I just took him later."
Maixner left White Mountain about 90 minutes after Gebhardt and less than 10 minutes behind Bethel's Pete Kaiser. Behind them were Australia's Christian Turner, running Dallas Seavey's puppy team, and Wasilla's Ray Redington Jr., grandson of race founder Joe Redington.
The four chase teams left within an hour of one another as the winds began to howl.
Maixner and Kaiser linked up coming over the hills and down onto the beach, where a whiteout demanded lead dogs that wouldn't balk at the prospect of trotting through hellish conditions.
Maixner said his leaders -- Wolverine and Beast -- are those kind of dogs. When he and Kaiser saw how bad the conditions were, Maixner said he'd take the lead.
"We were coming out of the hills and we could see it was bad out there," he said. "We were talking about if we should just stay where we were or just go. I said I'd rather do it in the daylight than the dark."
They were essentially teammates at that point, just trying to keep each other alive.
"There's no more competition," he said. "I was breaking away from him at times, and I would stop. He would do the same for me. That's just the way it is … you're in a race, but you don't want someone to die."
Northern lights blasted me
Somehow all five teams made it into Safety, 22 miles from Nome. By then, Gebhardt's lead had been trimmed to 41 minutes over Maixner and Kaiser, with Turner and Redington not far back.
Gebhardt was doing everything he could to stay in front. As the final 22 miles ticked off, he could see two, then three headlamps behind him, bobbing ominously closer.
The wily Gebhardt has learned a few tricks during his career, which dates back to 1996 and includes a pair of runner-up performances. He dimmed his headlamp and made sure to click it off every time he looked back over his shoulder.
"I was real worried," Gebhardt said. "I looked back and there's all three of them, and they all got those super-bright lights and I was like holy s---."
What Gebhardt didn't know was that Maixner and Kaiser were now locked in their own private battle. Less than 10 miles out of Nome, Maixner called to his dogs in an effort to stay ahead of the three teams behind him. He was running hard as he reached Cape Nome when suddenly he thought he'd been caught as a bright flash of light lit up the icy expanse.
"It was crazy," Maixner said. "It was maybe four miles outside of Nome, (the northern lights) were kind of going a little bit and then all of a sudden I saw this light from behind me. I thought it was a headlamp. I thought Pete had snuck up on me and turned on his headlamp. But I looked back and I didn't see anything and I looked up at the sky and it was the northern lights just blasting me."
What Maixner saw was the result of a massive solar storm. Iditarod mushers see plenty of northern lights, but Maixner said this outburst was like nothing he'd ever witnessed.
"It was purple and pink and the whole sky was full," he said. "I've seen a lot of cool northern lights, but that one was ... wow."
The 11th hour
A siren sounds each time an Iditarod team passes Swanberg Dredge, which sits just outside town, about a 15-minute run to the finish line. Just after 1 a.m., Gebhardt's team went past and the first siren sounded, alerting Nome that a musher was coming. About a minute later, it went off again. Then again.
Curious onlookers trickled onto Front Street. Soon police lights lit up the street, and Gebhardt's leaders came into view. The team came slowly down the main thoroughfare, its driver pumping his boots furiously. About 200 yards from the finish line, the dogs veered toward the sidewalk and stopped. Gebhardt was forced to get off his sled and lead from the front, coaxing his animals toward the line. Maixner was closing fast. Fans started shouting.
About 20 yards separated the teams when Gebhardt finally got his team going. His leaders crossed the finish line 41 seconds before Wolverine and Beast.
Gebhardt was spent.
"That's all they had left; they were tired out," he said. "Just like me."
Maixner acknowledged that Gebhardt's gambit worked. He said he didn't know his dogs were closing so fast, and he didn't see the team ahead of him until the final drag race. He told Gebhardt as much when they met at the finish line.
"I didn't know you were up here until we were in the chute," Maixner said.
"Get out!" Gebhardt replied incredulously. "I guess I did a good job of hiding."
Five minutes later, Kaiser came in to place 14th, followed in quick succession by Turner and Redington. The few fans lucky enough to be there saw five teams arrive in 49 minutes.
Maixner said the wild finish was fitting for a race that featured every conceivable obstacle, from minus-50 temperatures to deep, punchy snow.
"This one was a lot of fun," he said. "I mean there was a lot of horrible things out there but it was pretty fun."
Fittingly, the race announcer added a final twist to the tale, mistakenly calling Maixner by Kaiser's name after he finished.
"In the mushing world, that's just the way it is," Maixner said.
As he reflected on the tale, Maixner was handed a cold can of Pabst Blue Ribbon as he talked with his wife, who had their three young children in tow. He wore a smile on his youthful face and a green knit University of North Dakota hat on his head.
"I'm just happy to be here," he said.
A man who's seen more than most in his 39 years, Maixner said this year's Iditarod will go down as one of the wildest experiences of his life.
"It was a long, crazy race," he said. "Nuts."
Racing for Pride and Cash
The close race to the Iditarod finish between Paul Gebhardt, Kelly Maixner, Pete Kaiser, Christian Turner and Ray Redington Jr. -- they finished just 49 minutes apart -- had financial implications too. Here's the difference in the payouts.