In a record-shattering Iditarod, the biggest applause at Sunday's awards banquet in Nome didn't go to the fastest musher, Mitch Seavey, but to a 40-year-old racer from Fairbanks who grew up on a Montana cattle ranch.
Jessie Royer took home both the Most Inspirational and the coveted Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian awards for her efforts in bringing all 16 dogs who started in Fairbanks to the Nome finish line.
Though Royer isn't the first to accomplish that feat, her fifth-place finish — just five minutes off the previous race record — with a full string of animals is unequaled.
"I've been running dogs for 25 years, and this is the first time I've received any award like this in any race," Royer said at the banquet. "It was just an awesome dog team this year that didn't require as much care as in other years.
"I saw both Nicolas' team and Mitch's team, and both of them looked excellent, too. Congratulations to anybody who got their dogs here; I know how much work it is."
Iditarod awards handed out Sunday night included:
• First Musher to the Yukon — Nicolas Petit received $3,500 and a five-course dinner prepared by sponsor Lakefront Anchorage hotel executive chef Roberto Sidro.
• Spirit of Alaska — Wade Marrs earned a Jon Van Zyle print and a $500 flight credit on PenAir, the sponsor.
• Dorothy G. Page Halfway — Race champion Mitch Seavey got $3,000 in gold nuggets and a trophy as the first musher to Huslia.
• Fish First — Mitch Seavey took home $2,000, 25 pounds of Bristol Bay salmon and a piece of artwork as the first musher to reach Kaltag.
• Gold Coast — Wade Marrs, the first musher to Unalakleet, earned $3,500 in gold nuggets and a trophy. As Marrs approached the Norton Sound Coast, the Willow musher debated with himself whether to go for the award, or rest his team to better challenge onrushing Mitch Seavey the rest of the way to Nome. He pushed on and after finishing sixth, is glad he did. "When I saw Mitch Seavey's team passing through Unalakleet," Marrs said while receiving the award, "there's no doubt I made the right decision."
•Fastest Time Safety to Nome — Nicolas Petit's time of 2 hours, 27 minutes was quickest. The record time on that 22-mile stretch is John Cooper's 1:59, set in 1984.
• Rookie of the Year — Sebastien Vergnaud got $2,000 and a trophy for finishing 23rd even though rookie Robert Redington finished one spot ahead of him. That's because Redington scratched in one other start and Iditarod rules say candidates for the award must be starting their first Iditarod.
• Winner's Truck Award — Anchorage Chrysler Dodge awarded Mitch Seavey a 2017 Dodge Ram valued at $40,000 to go with his prize money.
• Most Improved Musher — Among a field in which a dozen mushers improved their finishes, Ryan Redington leaped up 22 places to finish 14th, an effort that earned him $2,000.
• Sportsmanship — Allen Moore of Two Rivers, who finished 39th received $3,000 for helping other mushers on the trail.
• Most Inspirational Musher — Jessie Royer demonstrated "a whole new level of dog care and management" in bringing her 16-dog team across the finish line, according to Race Marshal Mark Nordman. "This musher did not only inspire her fans and her followers, but also mushers as a whole." For that, she gets free entry in the 2018 Iditarod, which this year was worth $4,000.
• Herbie Nayokpuk — An award to the musher most like the inspirational and popular Shishmaref musher who passed away in 2006 at age 77. He finished in the top-10 eight times, including a runner-up finish in 1980. His wife Elizabeth from Shishmaref was on hand with grandchildren and great-grandchildren to help present a jacket, seal-skin slippers and $1,049 to Michelle Phillips of the Yukon, who finished 13th.
• Golden Clipboard — The outstanding checkpoint, determined by racers, was Manley, one of six villages along the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail nominated. Nordman said that veteran musher and Manley resident Joee Redington and wife Pam rallied people from up and down the Tanana River to come and help out at the checkpoint.
• Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian — Considered by many mushers the most-valued award, it recognizes superior dog care — with the winner earning two roundtrip Alaska Airlines tickets. Trail veterinarians make first, second and third place votes, and all finishing teams are evaluated in the Nome dog lot after the race. Royer won for getting all 16 animals — what she called an "awesome dog team" —to Nome.
• Lolly Medley Golden Harness — Goes to the most outstanding lead dog, and originally presented by Lolly Medley, a Wasilla harness maker and one of two women to run the second Iditarod in 1974 (the first field was entirely men). Mitch Seavey's lead dog Pilot — a 5-year-old who weighs 65 pounds — joined the ranks of such famous leaders as Balto, Togo, Andy and Granite for leading the fastest run to Nome in Iditarod history. "Probably the best dog I ever owned," said Seavey, who first started racing the Iditarod in 1982. Pilot's prize: an embroidered gold-colored harness.
• Red Lantern — Final finisher Cindy Abbott earned her second red lantern — she also won two years ago. But this was a far stronger effort, 32 hours faster than the first and the fastest Red Lantern, by more than a day, in race history. In fact, Abbott's time of 12 days, 2 hours, 58 minutes would have won 14 of the 45 Iditarods. Her team was led by Banana, "my big boy who led every step of the way," Abbott said. "Two years ago, I was still out on the trail during the banquet."