Montana's Doug Swingley claims third Iditarod victory

Posted: Wednesday, March 15, 2000

NOME, Alaska (AP) -- Montana musher Doug Swingley successfully defended his title Tuesday in the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, breaking his record by more than an hour and joining an elite group of Alaskan mushers.

Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof followed more than five hours later to take second place.

By driving his team first across the finish line in this Gold Rush town, Swingley, of Lincoln, Mont., won $60,000 of a record $525,000 purse and a new pickup truck worth more than $37,000. Gebhardt won $52,500. Race money was to be awarded to the first 30 finishers.

Swingley is the only non-Alaskan ever to win the race over its 28 years.

''I don't know if they want me,'' Swingley said of the other three-time winners, all Alaskans. But he wasn't going to be scared off.

''I'm not going anywhere,'' he said.

Swingley, of Lincoln, Mont., passed under the burled arch marking the finish line on Front Street 10:58 a.m. (AST). His team of 11 dogs trotted into the chute as a brisk wind blew and hundreds of cheering fans crowded the finish line.

''This is a great team, they just kept getting better and better,'' Swingley said, patting the dogs. ''I think camouflaged in this team was the same magnificent dog team I had the year before.''

Ten of the 11 dogs that crossed the finish line were on last year's team, he said.

Swingley completed the race in 9 days and 58 minutes. The previous race record, set by Swingley in 1995, was 9 days, 2 hours, 42 minutes.

He said he was fortunate this year that temperatures were balmy, resembling conditions in Montana where he trains. During the race, skies were often sunny and temperatures frequently climbed into the upper 30s. He joked that he should have packed sneakers and sweat pants instead of thermal wear.

If the team had encountered a foot or two of fresh snow, the outcome of the race could have been different, Swingley said. Eight of the 11 dogs on his team were females and not as strong as males at breaking trail.

''It would have been a race with more snow. I would have had a tough time,'' he said.

As Swingley was planning for this year's race, he calculated that, if everything went perfectly, it would take him 8 days and 17 hours to get from Anchorage to Nome.

''The run times were awful close to 'perfect world' stuff,'' he said. Swingley had hoped to be the first musher to finish the race in less than nine days.

''It would have been a milestone in Iditarod history,'' he said.

Swingley joins Jeff King of Denali Park and Martin Buser of Big Lake in the three-time winners circle. Susan Butcher of Manley, who last competed in 1994, has won four times. Rick Swenson of Two Rivers is the race's only five-time winner.

His second straight victory makes him the third musher to successfully defend his title. Butcher had consecutive victories in 1986, 1987 and 1988. Swenson had consecutive victories in 1981 and 1982.

''It hasn't been done for a long time. So it gave me a lot of motivation,'' Swingley said of his repeat win. ''With the competition that's out there, it's really difficult.''

Gebhardt crossed the finish line at 4:04 p.m. It took him nine days, six hours and four minutes.

Gebhardt, who finished sixth last year, led during the early part of the race and stayed close after relinquishing the lead just in case something went awry with Swingley's race.

''I figured I'd go out front and see what it was like,'' he said.

By the time Gebhardt reached White Mountain, 77 miles from the finish line, he was more than five hours behind.

''From day one he knew his team was faster than mine,'' Gebhardt said of Swingley's team.

A record 81 teams began the race, which had its ceremonial start in Anchorage on March 4. By the time Gebhardt finished, 67 teams remained on the trail.

Swingley broke out of the pack early in the race, pushing himself far ahead of the other frontrunners before taking his mandatory 24-hour break. It's a strategy that helped him win the race in 1995 and 1999.

He was the first musher to arrive in the Interior village of Ruby, the halfway mark on the trail, and he never relinquished his lead.

Gebhardt said second place was good enough this year but next year could be a different story.

''Every time you run a race you learn something,'' Gebhardt said. ''I'm not sure I learned enough to win it yet, but I'm close.''

Swingley said good dog breeding and a serious training regimen helped his team win. Swingley has a 150-mile training run near his Montana home to condition the dogs to go long distances.

He breeds dogs that have super endurance and when he trains, he doesn't hold the dogs back.

''I just let them go wide open,'' he said. ''They are really resilient.''

Swingley decided to try breaking his own record finish when he reached the Koyuk checkpoint, 171 miles from the finish line. He drove his team for more than 10 hours Monday to reach White Mountain, where teams are required to take an eight-hour rest.

Swingley said he never considered Gebhardt a threat.

''I'm way faster than he is,'' Swingley said. ''He didn't chase me very hard. I didn't even see him.''

The ever-confident Swingley didn't have much sympathy for the other mushers he left behind on the Iditarod trail.

''I gave them all an opportunity when the race started. We all had an even shot.''


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