NOME -- Although the excitement surrounding Dallas Seavey's win in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was clearly Wednesday's race highlight, throngs of people continued to gather along the finishing chute as the rest of the front-runners arrived in continually rising temperatures through the afternoon.
Montanan Jessie Royer capped a career year with a personal best fourth-place finish, crossing the line just before noon. Shortly afterward she was followed in by good friend Aliy Zirkle, whose string of three second-place finishes was broken as she finished fifth.
If Zirkle was bothered by slipping slightly in the standings, she didn't let it show. The perennial fan favorite flashed a huge smile at the adoring crowd, which chanted "Aliy! Aliy!" and may have been the most enthusiastic of the day.
"The state of Alaska and the people of Alaska are really fantastic to me," Zirkle said.
Zirkle took time out to congratulate the race winner as well as Royer, who she described as one of the best in the business.
"Jessie and I have always been great competitors," she said. "It seems like I beat her 50 percent of the time and she beats me 50 percent of the time."
Seeing Royer race to a career-best placement was fun for Zirkle, she said.
"It's kind of a nice camaraderie," she said.
Zirkle brushed back tears at several points during her post-race interview, choking up after sharing a lengthy hug with her leader, a 7-year-old named Scout. When asked why, she declined to comment, saying that was between her and her dog.
"I can't talk about that, I'll start crying," she said.
After Zirkle, Norwegian Joar Leifseth Ulsom became the first foreigner across the line in sixth, making his way down Front Street in the bright early afternoon sun. Ulsom may be a burgeoning star in the sport, having placed among the top seven mushers the past three years -- the only times he's entered.
Next was Iditarod Hall of Famer Jeff King, who said he briefly entertained thoughts of trying to chase the big Scandinavian out of Safety until he took into account the 28-year-old's stride length.
"I most certainly didn't feel like running up Cape Nome," said King, a 59-year-old who came in with 12 dogs in his team, another in the basket and a huge grin on his face.
King said this year was maybe as enjoyable as any he's had in his storied career, which includes four championships and 25 finishes.
"Lots of wonderful memories for this trip," he said.
Those memories included a run-in with a seal, a wolverine sighting earlier on Wednesday, a bloody nose from hitting his face on his handlebar and getting to run with a lead pack of mushers that he hailed as consummate sportsmen and women.
"I absolutely feel like I am a winner in a group of wonderful champions," he said.
With more stories to tell than usual, King said the race proved to be one for the memory bank.
"If you don't come up with some stories on 1,100 miles on a dog trail you're doing something wrong," he said.
He also said Mother Nature had a trick up her sleeve as he retraced his disastrous trek from a year ago, which left him stranded outside of Safety and forced to scratch. The wind picked up again, he said, almost as if someone was trying to remind him how fickle the mushing game can be.
"It was blowing out there pretty good today," he said. "I didn't know if it was a sick joke."
King was reflective when asked about his future in the sport. He said he'll continue to race as long as it's fun, but seemed to admit he's not as gung-ho about trying to win as he once was.
"I enjoy being in not as big a rush. I don't want to rush my whole life," he said.
During a wide-ranging interview, King went out of his way to praise winner Dallas Seavey.
"He's just a really cool kid with quite a family behind him," he said.
King even appeared to get emotional when talking about his competition in this year's race. The gray-bearded veteran said the caliber of this year's field showed him the sport he helped grow is alive and well. While waiting out his eight-hour layover in White Mountain, King said he made a point of watching every team ahead of him pull the hook.
"It really was a pleasure to be around these people," he said. "… I was proud to be a dog musher."
King couldn't resist getting in one challenge to the Seavey family, but it was clearly meant in the spirit of the day.
"I challenge the Seavey family to have Dan Sr. race next year and see if they can go 1-2-3."