NOME, ALASKA – When winner of this years Iditarod, Dallas Seavey, 29, crossed the finish line under the burled arch to capture his fourth title Tuesday, that did not mean the race was over. In fact, it goes on for days until the last competitor reaches the lonely outpost of Nome on the frozen Bering Sea.
All the mushers who haven’t scratched are allowed to continue to Nome, and the city welcomes each until the red lantern — carried by the last place musher — arrives. Right now, that musher is 55-year-old Ellen Halverson of Wasilla, Alaska, who was nearly 563 kilometers (350 miles) from the finish line on Wednesday.
In most races, the lag between the first- and last-place musher reaching the finish line on city’s Front Street can take a long time. Last year, California musher Cindy Abbott took nearly 13½ days to reach Nome with the red lantern, almost five days longer than winner Dallas Seavey, who won his third race.
Every musher in between got a warm welcome to Nome, and that’s by design.
After the first Iditarod in 1973, a former Nome mayor said at the end of the musher’s banquet that everyone in the race who finished was a hero.
Also at that banquet was Howard Farley, 83, who helped establish Nome as the finish line. He says every musher has put in the same amount of time, trouble and money and dealt with the same treacherous conditions over the nearly 1,600 km (1,050 miles) of the race.
“To close the finish line, it’s just not how hospitality works, not in Nome anyway,” Farley said Wednesday.
“Every single person that comes in needs to be welcomed, he needs to be treated with respect, and he needs a banquet. And not a rubber chicken banquet,” Farley said.
The mushers’ banquet is held the weekend after the winner comes in, and menu items include prime rib.
“You need to eat like a king. You’re a hero,” said Farley, who competed in the 1973 race. “And if you’re not a hero to the public, you’re a hero to your wife and your children.”
Eighty-five mushers started the race March 6 just north of Anchorage. Since then, 12 mushers have scratched.
Many sports contests continue until every competitor has come in, but the lag in long distance mushing events like the Iditarod and the similarly long Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race just may be the longest in any sport.
The longest it took for the last place musher to reach Nome was more than 32 days. That record is held by John Schultz during the first race in 1973.
When mushers get close to Nome, whether they are frontrunners or back-of-the-packers, residents drive out the gravel highway, park and walk down to the frozen Bering Sea to take photos. Many greet the mushers with, “Welcome to Nome!”
The mushers and dog teams then receive a police escort once they come off the sea ice and ride snow-covered streets the last few blocks to the finish line. There, family, friends and race fans welcome the mushers. Nome Police Chief John Papasodora said the escort is partly a safety issue, but it’s also intended to honor the mushers.
“There’s still people out there coming to watch the mushers come across the finish line, whether first, 20th or last,” said the winner Seavey.
“It’s still an amazing 1,000-mile trail that these people have accomplished,” he said. “Reaching Nome is a huge accomplishment no matter what position.”
Musher Scott Janssen scratched this year after his dogs got a virus, but he still jumped on a plane from Anchorage to welcome in fellow mushers alongside Nome residents.
“The people of Nome, it’s amazing,” Janssen said. “They come up and they thank us for what we do in the race and for coming to Nome. It’s us that should be thanking them.”