About the time they were laying a garland of yellow victory roses around the lead dogs of this year's Iditarod winner, the cement finisher was trying to snuggle up to a snowbank to sleep, 712 icy miles and almost a week behind.
About the time the winner was tucking in for a 12-hour snooze after a hot bath, the cement finisher was trying to find enough kindling in 90�-below windchill to make a fire.
About the time the winner was giving his victory-banquet speech, five days after mushing his team up Front Street in Nome, Alaska, to an adoring five-deep crowd, the cement finisher was alone, trying to decide which ached worse: his freeze-dried 46-year-old body or his heart, from knowing he'd probably never get to run the Iditarod again.
The winner was the well-sponsored Doug Swingley, who was awarded more than $60,000 in cash and a new truck. He's the owner of one uncatchable dog team, two Iditarod feeder teams and the race record—just under nine days, three hours, set in 1995.
But a lot of people figured the cement finisher for the real hero of this Iditarod: twice-divorced loner Shane Goosen, an unsponsored, wind-gnarled Alaskan, winner of the same sum, $1,049, that all the way-back-in-the-pack racers got for finishing the race, owner of a beat-up house, a truck that doesn't work and—after blowing his last $20,000 on this race—bubkes in the bank.
"Shane probably won't ever have this chance again," says one bush pilot. The pilot, two mushers and a friend say Goosen has cancer. "Agghhh, I got some health things," Goosen said last Saturday as he fed his team pork in tiny Koyuk, 171 miles from Nome. "But it ain't cancer, and it ain't for publication."
O.K., so it's a coincidence that after breeding, driving and loving Alaskan huskies for the better part of 30 years, Goosen finally scratched up enough dogs and gear and cash to try mushing's Le Mans. "Well," he grumbled, "I had to do it once, didn't I?"
Put it this way: The cement finisher wasn't a heavy Vegas favorite. Where Swingley's sled cover bore big-corporation logos, Goosen's had GRETA'S GRILL GOODIES, CLAM GULCH, AK. Where Swingley dined on a seven-course gourmet meal at the Yukon checkpoint, Goosen ate one of the bags of pale spaghetti he'd sealed and shipped more than a month earlier. Where Swingley was greeted at stops by roars and schoolkids and documentary crews, Goosen would pull in to the resounding crescendo of one town dog barking. "Hell," Goosen said. "One time I got to a checkpoint and they'd already packed up the check-in tent. I had to wake up the checker."
Goosen wrecked his sled. Twice. One day his team took him a mile off course, chasing caribou. Another time he turned his head just long enough to get thumped off his sled by a low-hanging limb—and had to run a mile in the pitch black to catch his team. Exhausted, he fell asleep and off the runners "too many damn times to count." And he relished every second of it. "I didn't do this so much to race," he said. "I did this for me and my dogs."
The Iditarod will tell you more about yourself than a month of MRIs. No event in sports makes you feel less significant and yet so wildly human. Spend two weeks trying to keep you and 16 dogs alive out there with the whipping winds and wolves, and your other worries get small real quick. "Will I miss it?" Goosen said. "Hell, I'm already crying."