For Gebhardt, Baker, Iditarod less than racing when friends race too

Posted: Monday, March 19, 2001

NOME -- For Paul Gebhardt and John Baker, this year's 1,161-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was 22 miles of fierce competition and 1,139 miles of friendship.

Gebhardt, of Kasilof, Alaska, and Baker, of Kotzebue, Alaska, were Iditarod rookies together in 1996 and have mushed together since then. This year, they were among 68 teams that started the race in Anchorage on March 3, both running in the top 10, and for the last 359 miles, they were trading places on the swift trek to Nome.

The two faced challenges along the way. Baker began the race sick and was suffering from a swollen leg that prevented him from running. Gebhardt was down to just seven dogs from his original 16 and struggled up the Bering Sea coast in wind that drifted over the trail.

''Johnny kept stopping for me so I could get through,'' Gebhardt said. ''He's a great guy.''

The men and dogs cooperated, and the men made a deal. Once they hit Safety, 22 miles from the finish, they would race.

Montana musher Doug Swingley had already won the race by then, finishing Wednesday to take his third consecutive and fourth overall Iditarod title.

Other top finishers were crossing the line. But fifth and sixth places were at stake for the two friends, the difference in paychecks about $3,200.

Both mushers clocked out of Safety at 4:47 a.m. Thursday. Through the steadily falling snow in early-morning darkness, they pushed.

Gebhardt, with his favorite leader Red Dog, made it to Nome first to take fifth place. Baker's pursuit was thwarted when he had to carry a weary dog in the basket. He finished 23 minutes behind Gebhardt for sixth place, but shrugged off any earlier sacrifices. To him, helping out a musher in poor weather is simply the right thing to do.

''Who knows, next time it might have been myself who needed support,'' he said.

Baker said the camaraderie and the high finishes made for a memorable race.

The Iditarod is held each year to commemorate a 1925 dash to Nome in which sled dogs and mushers delivered lifesaving diphtheria serum to this historic Gold Rush town. Forty-three teams remained on the trail at midday Friday. Eleven scratched or were withdrawn.

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