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The day the Iditarod came down to 1 second

It was the closest call of the Last Great Race.

At the end of the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1978, Dick Mackey edged defending champion Rick Swenson by a single second.

Judges ruled Mackey the winner because his dogs crossed the finish line ahead of Swenson's. Over three decades, Swenson would become the race's only five-time winner, while Mackey's sons Rick and Lance added their own championships to the family tree.

On Thursday, the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame inducted the photo finish as one of the state's great athletic moments.

In separate interviews last week, Swenson and Mackey told the story. Here's what happened, in their words:

Rick Swenson: Really the story begins the year before. 1977.

Because '76, and '77, Dick had really good teams and he led for a large amount of the race. And he ended up getting beat at the end for various reasons after he'd taken a lot, a lot of steam out of his team breaking trail.

I won (in 1977) so I was kind of the guy with the X on his back, right? And I'd traveled with Dick and (Joe Redington Sr.) since my very first Iditarod in 1976.

... I was good friends with Dick. I kind of looked up to him kind of like a father figure, in certain respects. Or at least a mentor, because he had more experience and stuff than I did.

Dick Mackey: He was the young guy, I was the old man and we enjoyed each other's company. And I thought he was a great up-and-coming musher and he regarded me as the old veteran, you know? And lo and behold if he didn't win, in '77.

Swenson: I think he kind of looked at the X on my back, or put the X on my back, and said, "I know he's got a good team. I'm going to stick with Swenson and see if I can wear him down and race at the end." And that's what we, that's what he did. We ran together, mostly with me leading, all the way from Rohn River ... Rainy Pass.

Mackey: We ended up at the same checkpoints. We camped on the trail together. And we challenged each other and checked each other out, and as the race progressed, we got to Unalakleet.

And we pretty much decided that we're not going to be quite so friendly: "You go your way and I'll go mine." ... Not in a bad situation. But we were competing. And by the time we got to White Mountain, we were dead serious. We weren't quite so friendly at the moment.

And then we ran into a bad storm. And we forgot all about racing, and worked to keep our teams going. And at one point, it got pretty dicey. And we thought ... "Maybe this is going to be tough."

And so I might go a mile in the lead, then he might go a mile in the lead. And first one team would stop, then the other team would stop.

When we got to the Solomon checkpoint, I mean we were at the height of the storm and it was bad. And Swenson said, "You know, this is crazy, we're going to die out here."

Swenson: You couldn't see your dogs, but you could see your markers. It was just blowing right down on the ground.

Mackey: I suspected that before we got to Cape Nome, we'd be out of that storm. And sure enough we did.

And now we're just tail-to-tail from each other. And we knew Nome was going to experience a finish that they had never seen before. And that's exactly what happened.

Swenson: It was such a different event back in those days. You know, and most of the teams I think kind of found some -- one or two other guys they were comfortable with to travel with. Because you know, we were building fires in those days. And snowshoeing and those things were pretty common.

So if you were going to try and do it all on your own, it was going to be pretty difficult for you unless you were going to be tail-dragging all the time.

Mackey: It was more of a stumble-bumble finish. When we left, we stopped at Hastings of all things. Just as it was breaking daylight and we had got out of the storm. And I can't remember the fella's name that lived in a cabin there. But he hollered to us and we went in and had coffee.

Well, you know, you step into a cabin with all that gear on, and the next thing you know, you're just relaxing. It's a wonder you can stand up again.

All of the sudden I let out a yell and I said, "Hey, we've been here 40 minutes." Which was an eternity. And out the door we went.

It was still just Swenson and I. ... He was young and thought he had his second win in the pocket. And I was just as determined that maybe it was my turn to win.

... Let me make sure you know this: Rick Swenson and I are good friends. But you have to remember, he was the defending champion. He was young, brash, had a good ego. But I guess we've all got egos. I think if you reach the top of your profession, you have to have some kind of drive to do that. And he was pretty well set that he was going to win this race.

And I was just as determined that maybe I was going to. And as we came up on to Front Street, he actually turned to me and said, "Now if you stay right there, we'll be first and second, 'kay?"

And I thought, "Well, bullcrap." You know. I mean, it may end up that way, but you're going to have to earn it. And a fight was on. (laughing.)

Swenson: His lead dogs were pretty much right behind my runners. I mean, I think if I kicked, they probably had to hold, shy their head back.

My dogs kind of went to the middle of the street or maybe even to the right-hand side of the street and he stayed on the left-hand side of the street. And back in those days, you know, we all carried whips and stuff, and that isn't because we were beating on our dogs, but we used them as signal whips. And he cracked his whip and his team took off.

He actually got a little bit ahead of me and then we got to the chute. And there was some camera guy there and I think Dick got a little bit tangled up in the guy's tripod and I kind of caught him and then he got going again and he got to the finish line, his dogs crossed the finish line and he collapsed.

That's the famous picture you always see.

Mackey: As soon as I knew that my dogs had crossed the finish line before his, well as soon as I saw that, I went to flop into my sled, and I missed it and fell on the ground.

And of course everybody thought I'd had a heart attack or whatever.

They tried to make a controversy out of the finish because under the Nome Kennel Club rules, from way back in sweepstakes days, you had to have your dogs, a sled and a driver go across the finish line. And every other race anywhere, other than Nome, all you had to do was break the plane of the finish line.

But you know, he could have just as well crossed the finish line a second in front of me, as I did him. Our teams were -- there wasn't an ounce of difference between them. He could have took my dogs and I could have taken his dogs and who knows?

Swenson: (The year before) they had told me that the sled had to cross the finish line to be the finisher. But they changed it. That's just the way it is.

... If something like that happened nowadays, there would have been a big protest. But that was what the judge decided and that was the end of it. I can't say that I was happy about it. But I wasn't like all pissed off. It wasn't like I could hold it against Dick, because it wasn't his decision."

... I think I was telling Dick, I said in my house at home, there's only two pictures of Iditarod finishes hanging up on the wall. One of them was from my first win in 1977. And the other one is from our photo finish in 1978.

For years, the only trophy that we had in the house any place where you could see was my second-place trophy from 1978, to remember that a second counts.

Twitter updates: twitter.com/iditarodlive. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or e-mail khopkins@adn.com.

By KYLE HOPKINS

khopkins@adn.com

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