ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Norwegian musher Thomas Waerner won the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race early on Wednesday, capturing victory in only his second attempt at the famous long-distance race across Alaska.
Waerner and his tail-wagging dogs reached the finish line in downtown Nome just after midnight, completing the 1,000-mile race in nine days, 10 hours and 37:47 minutes.
“It has always been a dream to come here and do the race,” said Waerner, who became fascinated by the Iditarod as an 11-year-old reading about mushing legends like Susan Butcher and Rick Swenson. “It’s amazing, I feel kind of speechless.”
A pared-down team of race officials and a small cluster of cheering fans, one waving a large Norwegian flag, greeted Waerner. The usual huge and raucous Nome finish-line crowd was absent, curtailed by the global coronavirus pandemic.
To reduce chances of contagion, the city of Nome canceled all its Iditarod-related events and discouraged visitors from out of town – a marked change from past years, when the town is packed with Iditarod revelers from around the world.
There was “social distancing” along the trail, too. Some of the Native villages that serve as race checkpoints moved those sites out of town, and officials barred spectator crowds at those places on the trail where mushers and their dogs take breaks.
With those adaptations, the Iditarod was able to continue, unlike other major sports events many of which have been canceled.
Waerner and his dogs were able to push though deep snow which slowed their closest competitors. He snatched the lead over the weekend from Jessie Royer, who was vying to become the first woman to win the Iditarod since 1990, and other top contenders.
The 47-year-old musher from Synnfjell, a mountainous town near Lillehammer, ran his first Iditarod in 2015. He finished in 17th place, the top spot that year for a rookie. While he is relatively new to the Iditarod, Waerner is an accomplished musher on the European circuit. Last year he won the 1,200-kilometer (745-mile) Finnmarksløpet, Europe’s longest dog-sled race.
Waerner is part of a growing Norwegian presence at the Iditarod. He is the third of his countrymen to win the famous race, following two-time champion Robert Sorlie and 2018 champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom.
Interviewed in the finish chute, Waerner said he had a message for other Norwegians.
“They should come here and do the race, also. It’s an amazing race. The nature you go through, the checkpoints, trails, this is the greatest race you can do,” he said. “So you in Norway, just start training.”
For his victory, Waerner won $51,000 and a new truck.
Fifty-seven mushers and their teams started the race on March 7 in Anchorage. As of early Wednesday, after Waerner crossed the finish line, 11 had dropped out but 45 more remained on the trail.
Reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky