While the last great race is still months away, the Iditarod button design contest already has a champion: Ayla Knodel, a fourth-grader at Nome Elementary School.Ayla Knodel won the 2016 Iditarod button design contest. Her artwork will appear on the commemorative buttons sold along the trail this March. Photo: Laura Kraegel, KNOM.Knodel took first place in the annual contest that has Alaska students create artwork for the commemorative button sold along the trail each March. Having submitted her design early in the school year, though, she said she was surprised to learn of her victory late last month.“We were at the library, and Ms. T was like, ‘Remember the buttons we made? Guess who won?’ Everybody was like, ‘Who?’ and Ms. T grabbed me and gave me a big hug,” said Knodel. “I was so embarrassed, but everybody that day gave me a high five or a hug.”The 2016 Iditarod button, designed by Ayla Knodel. Artwork courtesy of the Iditarod Trail Committee.“Ms. T” is Teresa Johnson, Knodel’s fourth grade teacher. Johnson said she has all of her students design buttons as a class art project.“I do it every year with the kids, and it’s just an activity for us to feel connected to the rest of the state, the Iditarod trail, and the race. But I never had any anticipation or any thought of us winning,” said Johnson.Johnson said Nome Elementary students alone submitted hundreds of designs. And Starre Szelag — with the Iditarod Trail Committee — said many other students did too.“We solicit schools along the trail, and we had about seven or eight schools total [this year]. And then we just try to narrow it down,” said Szelag. “They’re all great to look through. It’s kind of hard to narrow down, actually.”Knodel’s winning design shows a sled dog racing across a snowy landscape with the northern lights overhead. As a big Iditarod fan, Knodel said it’s familiar sight.“My house is right by the finish line on Front Street and at two in the morning, it’s so loud,” she said. “There’s like 500 people out there, and they’re cheering. It keeps us up all night, but I like going out there. I run and give [the mushers] high-fives.”With her own first-place finish, Knodel will receive a plaque and a bag of the buttons she designed. The second-place design came from Chloe Sipary in Nulato, while Ulita Dale from McGarth finished third.