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It's a boy! It's a boy this time!"
That was the gloating howl all along Nome's Front Street last Wednesday as the first musher hove into view from the finish line of the 1,168-mile Iditarod dogsled slog—billed far and wide as the Last Great Race. The reason for the deep-throated cheers was that for the first time in four seasons men would again be able to stride with pride through the saloons and snowy wastelands of the North Country, thanks to the derring-do of Joe Runyan, 40, a lean, weather-beaten loner from Nenana, Alaska, who had played a cross-tundra game of hide-and-seek with the other race leaders for almost two weeks. When he popped up in front at the end, males wept with pride at his triumph. No longer would Alaska be known in barroom conversations and T-shirt slogans as THE LAND OF BEAUTIFUL DOGS AND FAST WOMEN. Susan Butcher. 34, winner of three Iditarod races in a row, had been beaten at last.
Not that Butcher didn't go down fighting. She was hamstrung when her dog team came down with a debilitating bug that antibiotics couldn't overcome. Nonetheless, she finished second, just 64 minutes behind Runyan, who earned $50,000 for finishing first after 11 days, five hours, 24 minutes and 34 seconds on the trail—three hours and change shy of the record Butcher set in 1987. The much anticipated sled-to-sled duel between Butcher and her archrival, Rick Swenson, 38, had never materialized. Swenson, who had won the race in 1977, '79, '81 and '82, barely won third place, ahead of another woman, Dee Dee Jonrowe, whose dogs staged a lie-down strike just four miles from the finish line. They stayed there exhausted for five hours before getting up and trudging that last fraction to the burled spruce archway marking the end of the long, long trail. Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the race, in 1985, finished 16th.
"Susan ran a real nice race," Swenson said. "and she got beat by someone who ran a better race and had a better team." That was debatable. In the early going, out of Anchorage on March 4 and up through Wasilla and Rainy Pass, Butcher's dogs looked every bit a match for Runyan's. But on the fourth day of mushing, when most racers took their mandatory 24-hour rest period at Rohn Roadhouse, Runyan drove his team on, not stopping until he got to the village of McGrath, some 140 miles farther along the route. It was not until two days later that Butcher, who had stopped at Rohn, caught up with Runyan near the halfway point of the race, the ghost town of Iditarod. Indeed, Butcher even passed Runyan in the frigid forests between the Kuskokwim and Iditarod rivers to win the Halfway Trophy and $3,000 in silver ingots.
Perhaps it would have been better if she hadn't. Only once in the race's 17-year history has the leader at midpoint gone on to win. More significant, by pressing her dogs into a prolonged sprint to beat Runyan, she may have overstressed them, lowering their resistance to the diarrhea bug that struck them soon after.
Conversely, by avoiding the crowded checkpoints where most of the field of 49 teams snacked and rested, Runyan also may have avoided contaminating his dogs. His team was much larger, and he ran it much longer than any of the other competitors, keeping at least 16 huskies in harness most of the way (most teams average at least two dogs less). Other mushers took to referring to Runyan's team as "the zoo." His strategy was a simple one: longer runs broken up with longer rests than the other mushers. "No stutter-stopping and no wasting time," Runyan said of his plan. "When I was running, I was running. When I stopped, it was for long rests."
During the rests he checked his dogs for foot problems—the "splits" (cracks in the pads) and "strawberries" (ulcers on the pads) that can lead to a limping team—and carefully mixed their food with hot water. Dehydration is the major cause of a failing team. Runyan's dogs never dried out.
Iditarod seemed a fitting, if eerie, place for the fortunes of the 1989 race to turn. The town flourished during the Gold Rush, with 10,000 inhabitants in the years from 1908 into the 1920s, a period in which more than $35 million in ore was removed from the bald, windswept hills. Now all that remains in Iditarod is an abandoned brothel, the chassis of an ancient Ford sedan, a cog-railway engine flaking rust into the Iditarod River and a bank vault as paid out as the surrounding terrain. It was at Iditarod on March 9 that Butcher confronted the fact that she had a sick team.
With her background as a veterinarian's assistant, Butcher recognized the problem instantly. She dosed the dogs with the antibiotics Ampherol and Ampicil, dropped two of the sickest dogs from the traces and mushed on. Briefly, things looked better.
Swenson's sled was the first one into Anvik, 90 miles farther on. There a race sponsor. Clarion Hotels, had laid on a seven-course dinner for the leader, including steak flambé and Caesar salad, served with silver flatware and freshly starched linen, and with a candelabra ablaze with wax tapers. "Hey," Swenson deadpanned when he pulled into Anvik, "anyone know where a guy can get a cheeseburger around here?"