“WATCH CAESAR’S ears as we come up on this Y,” Swingley tells me. The ATV rumbles down the mountain at 20 miles per hour. Just before the road splits, the lead dog’s ears flip straight up.
“Gee!” Swingley yells. The team cuts right. “Good dog, Caesar!”
“That’s a hundred-percent-dependable lead dog,” he says. “If I said ‘gee’ right now”—gee is right, haw is left—”he’d cut straight over the ditch and into the trees.” As if calling his own bluff, Swingley hollers “Gee!” a few minutes later, and Caesar pitches us headlong into the woods. The point is to keep the leader’s ears pricked, so that he’s not caught off-guard by a surprise turn.
Since 1992 the Iditarod has been won by only three mushers: Swingley, Martin Buser, and Jeff King (three times each). In any given year about ten of the race’s 75 mushers have an honest shot at victory. (The elite corps includes veterans Swenson and Rick Mackey; Tanana River trapper Charlie Boulding; up-and-comers Paul Gebhardt and Ramy Brooks; and crowd favorite DeeDee Jonrowe.) It’s a long haul against tireless adversaries, requiring the stamina of an ultra-marathoner and the relentlessness of a Sherman tank. “Your whole body feels tingly and numb during the race, like when your hands fall asleep,” says Swingley, who loses as much as 20 pounds and sleeps, on average, less than three hours a night over the nine days of an Iditarod.
“There’s actually not a lot of time to think,” he continues. “You’re watching over 16 dogs, working the sled, keeping everyone out of moose holes.” The racer’s bane. When a moose crosses a trail it drills four postholes in the snow. If your lead dog hits one and hyperextends his leg, you’re down one engine. “You’re plotting your next move,” he adds. “The Iditarod is like playing chess on a board the size of Alaska.”
Mushers rarely know exactly where their competitors are. They usually rest their dogs at checkpoints, grab a cup of coffee and a faxed update from a race official, and steal a few minutes of cookstove warmth. Swingley loves to camp just outside checkpoints; it makes others think he’s running slower than he really is. “As I’m traveling down the trail in the 2000 race,” he says, “I’m already planning my 2001 race. I’ll take notes on good camping spots, on maybe replacing—” He cuts himself off.
“Fungus!” The one-eyed wheel dog—named for the infection that left him cycloptic—has made a mistake so minute only he and Swingley know it. He looks back sheepishly. Sorry, boss.
There’s an astonishing depth to Swingley’s operation. There is no part of the Iditarod, or the sled dog’s life, that he hasn’t analyzed down to near-molecular level. Take his dog food. For years Swingley worked with a nutritionist at Royal Canin, one of his sponsors, to develop the optimal mix of protein, fat, and carbs. He charted the passage of 30 tons of kibble per year, right down to the issue of, as they say in the trade, stool formation. “He’s stubborn, and he’s thorough,” says Greg Swingley. “Once he gets involved in something, he has to dig into every little thing.”
Victory lies in the details, but Swingley doesn’t ask for much. Only perfection. Perfect genes. Perfect training runs. Perfect teams. He talks of the perfect race like a surfer dreaming of the perfect wave. But after his ’95 win, he and his wife split up, and he found himself adrift. “Sometimes it takes that first win to make you realize you had the wrong goal all along,” he says. “You spend six years trying to win the thing. Then you win it. Then you’re faced with the question, Now what?”
Swingley regained his focus by learning to shed his hatred of losing. After second-place finishes in ’96 and ’97, he found himself once again competing for the two-spot during the ’98 race as Jeff King pulled away from him and Martin Buser along the Norton Sound coast. Instead of leading his dogs into a duel, Swingley did the math, decided to take the long view, and let King roll into Nome unchallenged. “If you’re pushing young, tired dogs along the coast, they’re gonna get a negative vibe about that critical part of the race,” Swingley explains. “So the next time they get to the coast, they’re like, ‘Oh God—this stretch again.'”
In the village of Elim, a mere 120 miles from Nome, Swingley sat his dogs down and watched second place go by. And third. And fourth. And fifth. By the time he left, 18 hours later, he was mushing for ninth place. But for the first time, he didn’t care. He was smiling. “My dogs were fired up along that last stretch,” he recalls. “They were having fun.” And so was he. The mushers around him were finishing the 1998 race. Swingley was racing for 1999.
Twelve months later, when Swingley’s huskies reached the coast in first place, they remembered: Bering Sea ice? Good times! A relaxed Swingley and a team he later described as “mentally bombproof” stretched an already sizable lead into an insurmountable nine-hour victory margin.