There was not a breath of wind blowing when two mushers appeared in Kaltag at first light on March 12. It was Runyan who reached the checkpoint first, at 6:45 a.m., with Butcher seconds behind. The others began arriving a half hour later—all except Swenson. He didn't show up until two hours later, saying he had found the northern lights so beautiful that he rested his team in the valley to enjoy them.
Runyan dropped one dog at Kaltag, so now he was down to 16 dogpower versus Butcher's 12. Jonrowe arrived at Unalakleet with her lead dog, Johnny, riding cozily in the basket of her sled. Although the scene made a humorous picture—Gary Larson would have loved it—the incident portended doom for Jonrowe's chances. It meant that her strongest dog was not pulling his own weight. Jonrowe said that the dog's "wrists" were sore and she had packed him in to rest them. Wishful thinking, as events would prove farther along the trail during the lie-down strike.
From Unalakleet the trail ran uphill and along the rugged coast. There was concern that the ice on Norton Bay would be too ridged and fractured to allow mushers to use the shortcut across the bay, from Shaktoolik to Koyuk, but again the fates smiled on the racers and their teams. "I've never seen the ice better," said race manager Jack Niggemyer. "Now if the wind behaves, we're home free."
Cooperate it did—for most of the mushers, that is. When Buser hit the ice, a ground blizzard blew up, and the trouble-plagued Swiss lost all hope. "Everyone said there is no wind," he said mournfully, "but when I get there, I run into a wind machine. My only chance is if all the others crash."
With less than 200 miles to go, that seemed unlikely. But stranger things have happened on the Iditarod. In 1987, Swenson dogged Butcher for most of the last 200 miles of the race along the coast of Norton Bay, staying behind her, hoping to press her into a $50,000 mistake. Butcher didn't bite, and her team didn't crash. Instead, it was Swenson's exhausted animals that needed to be rested at the ironically named Safety, the last checkpoint, just 22 miles from Nome.
This time it was Runyan's turn to worry. When he left the White Mountain checkpoint at 4:40 a.m. on March 15, he had a lead of just five minutes on Butcher—and 77 miles to go. At an average speed of 7 mph, he was less than 12 hours from the prize—but that was time enough for the defending champion to catch and pass him. He did not know that her dogs had again fallen victim to illness.
"I really didn't know where she was," Runyan said later. "A snowmobile would come by and say, 'She's a mile behind you and moving fast.' Then another would buzz past and say, "She's eight miles back and moving slow.' I had about four cases of apoplexy before I reached Safety."
Butcher, a realist, knew by now that 1989 was not to be her year. "Shortly out of White Mountain, I figured he'd have to have some real trouble if I was going to catch him," she said.
By Safety, Runyan could afford to pare down his team to 12 dogs for the sprint to the arch. Jogging up Nome's Front Street, past saloons with names like the Bering Sea and the Board of Trade, with 1,500 cheering sled-dog fans urging him on, Runyan led his lead dogs Rambo and Ferlan by their harnesses under the arch. On hand to greet him were his wife, Sherri, and his two-year-old daughter, Zetdi, who was prescient enough to be wearing a T-shirt that read MY DAD IS JOE RUNYAN, THE 1989 IDITAROD CHAMPION.