He made it. And the first thing Tom Thurston did upon crossing the Iditarod finish line in Nome, Alaska, was pucker up for the engines that made it happen.
"The first thing I did," Thurston said Sunday night, relaxing indoors for the first time since he left Willow, Alaska, 14 days, 3 hours, 36 minutes and 22 seconds earlier, "is kiss my lead dogs."
Thurston flew down the last stretch of the monstrous race, making the 22 miles from the final checkpoint at Safety to the finish line. His team averaged nearly 10 miles an hour over that section of the course, which ran along the coastline and into the frozen-in seaside city of Nome.
Thurston couldn't thank the dogs enough.
"It's unbelievable," he said, describing his emotions upon skidding across the finish line, 44th out of the 67 racers that started the 1,130-mile trek. "The dogs are incredible. They were absolutely incredible."
Nine racers still were on the course late Sunday night, including former Steamboat Springs resident Heather Siirtola, who was in 51st place and making her way down the coast toward the final few checkpoints.
Thurston said he was happy with his finishing time. Before he left, he said he wasn't in it to win this year. Instead, he had planned all along to make the finish line with his team of young dogs in good health.
He finished with 12 of the 16 dogs he set out with. Only 12 of the 43 racers who finished ahead of Thurston did so with more than 12 of the 16 dogs each team started with.
He said he lost some crucial time late in the race when race officials prevented teams from leaving checkpoints as storms blew through.
Still, he didn't hesitate to sum up the experience as "awesome."
"Watching those dogs plow through 50 mph winds at 65 below with the wind blowing in your face going up the Yukon (River) - that was the best moment," he said. "They're basically allowing me to stay alive because the conditions are so horrific. You don't know if you're going to lose fingers, toes, a nose or your face, but the dogs just kept doing their thing to get us to the next checkpoint.
"It was an awesome experience."