Norwegian Robert Sorlie might seem to Alaskans to have come out of nowhere to snatch a Doug Swingley-style lead in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, but it's no surprise to those who know the international mushing scene.
The 45-year-old firefighter has trained and raced dogs since 1990, and over those years he has posted an unmatched record.
Of the 43 races Sorlie has entered, he has won 20 -- almost half. He was second in a dozen more. He three times won the 620-mile Finnmarkslopet, which Minnesota musher and Iditarod veteran Tim White describes as the Scandanavian Iditarod.
White knows the Iditarod well. He has been involved with the race in various forms since the early 1970s. For years, the Iditarod toboaggan sled was known as a "Tim White sled" in honor of the man who designed it.
In the past decade, White has shifted much of his energy to promoting sled-dog racing in South America and Europe. In that capacity, he couldn't avoid running into Sorlie, the man who might be considered the Rick Swenson, Martin Buser or Jeff King of Scandinavia.
On the international scene, particularly in Europe, Sorlie is well known, White said.
Norway is the Europe's hotbed of long-distance sled dog racing. It has the toughest competitions and the best mushers. That Sorlie came from Norway to grab a sizeable lead in this year's Iditarod comes as no shock "to me and many people," White said.
"People who knew him were saying last year, 'Why doesn't he jump out there?' " White added. "He was holding back."
Sorlie finished ninth in the 2002 race, tying him with Norway's Sven Engholm for the best-ever finish by a foreign musher. It was also the best finish by a rookie since Swingley in 1992. The Montanan went on to win the Iditarod three years, becoming the first musher from Outside to do so.
Swingley was runner-up in the race for the next two years, fell back to that magic number nine again in 1998, and then embarrassed Alaska mushers by running off a string of three straight victories.
No one had done that since Susan Butcher in the mid-1980s, and she was an Alaskan. Until Swingley came along, everyone involved with sled-dog sports believed that to compete against the world's best -- most of whom live in Alaska -- you had to train and live there too.
Swingley put the lie to that theory. Now Sorlie is trying to underline the statement.
Can he do it?
White and others think the Norwegian has a shot. He's put his team in position to win, and he has the experience to keep them going. But even Sorlie has admitted his Norwegian husky hounds are treading on foreign ground here.
Not so much in terms of the terrain -- 13 of the 16 dogs that started up the trail this year were in one of two Norwegian teams in the Iditarod last year -- but in terms of speed and distance.
Sorlie confessed to Norwegian writer Christian Engelschion before this race began that a bit of a gamble was planned. Here is what Engelschion wrote in a story that was later posted on Sorlie's website:
"... He will go for a slight speed increase. Not much when seen locally, but of great effect and importance when done the whole way from Fairbanks to Nome. Even small, almost infinitely small numbers, work out as larger numbers when repeated over a long term.
"It's all depending on endurance. Will the dogs be able to stand it and keep it all the way to Nome? If they do, we'll get very interesting news from the Alaskan trails in some weeks. If not, it'll still be exciting!"
Many Iditarod observers think it has been exciting already. Sorlie's sophisticated website is now referring to his style as "blitz-mushing," while projecting a finishing time of 8 days, 17 hours in Nome.
Such a time would almost certainly win the race. The question is: Can Sorlie hold the pace, or will he get chased down by other teams?
Coming off the race's one, mandatory 24-hour rest at Eagle Island on the Yukon River on Saturday, Sorlie looked to have a lead of about eight hours on Ramy Brooks of Nenana and about 10 hours on defending champ Martin Buser of Big Lake. But Sorlie had yet to take the eight-hour stop all mushers are required to make somewhere on the Yukon River.
When he does that, Brooks and Buser -- who have completed their eight-hour stops -- will be able to take a bit out of Sorlie's lead, but they won't be able to get all 8- to 10-hours back because all dog teams need to rest.
Meanwhile, Sorlie is down to 12 dogs. He has been forced to drop four that could not hold pace after suffering a variety of minor injuries through the first half of the race. Team size can make a difference if the dogs are required to plow through snow, but team size seldom matters on hard, fast trails.
In 1998, for instance, three-time champ Jeff King of Denali Park came into Cripple -- the halfway point for that race -- in 14th place with only 13 dogs, but went on to win. He beat runner-up DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow to the Nome finish by more than three hours despite the fact that he was by down to six dogs.
On the hard-packed, windswept trails along the Bering Sea Coast, it is not unusual for eight-dog teams, sometimes even six-dog teams, to beat 10-, 12- and even 14-dog teams.
And Brooks, Sorlie's closest pursuer, was down to 11 dogs Saturday.
Some mushers have argued that if the trails are good, a smaller team can actually be an advantage for two reasons:
A dog team can only go as fast as its slowest dog, and
Much less time and effort are required of the musher to tend to 10 bodies and 40 feet than 16 bodies and 64 feet.
Sorlie made note of such small things while running the Iditarod last year. Most mushers, he told Engelschion, waste precious minutes in checkpoints.
"He (Sorlie) will be thinking a lot more on compressing tasks to heighten the productivity," Engelschion said.
Norwegian productivity was looking pretty good as the Iditarod moves toward the coast.
Daily News outdoors editor Craig Medred can be reached at email@example.com, or at 907-257-4588.
On The Web: Robert Sorlie's website, http://hurdal.com