Norwegian powerhouse musher Robert Sorlie, 56, is running the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race again, this time after a seven-year hiatus.
Widely recognized as someone who revolutionized the race, it will be the fifth Iditarod for the man called the "Silver Fox" and his first attempt at the northern route since his rookie run in 2002, when he placed ninth.
Two first-place finishes followed in 2003 and 2005, making him the only foreign musher to win the race. And with another strong team this year his chances at winning again have the other elite mushers talking.
Sorlie had not intended on returning. Not after the 2007 race. Even with the best winning percentage in The Last Great Race, Sorlie was so disappointed with his 12th-place finish that year that it was almost his last attempt.
"In 2007, I had not a good race," Sorlie said. "And I said, 'Never back again.' "
After all, it had cost more than $10,000 to ship dogs from his home in Hurdal, Norway, to Alaska. His dogs got sick early in that race, some of them were not as powerful as expected, and Sorlie suffered frostbite on his cheeks.
With two wins in four attempts, Sorlie believed he had accomplished enough. The price was too high. The other mushers had caught up with him.
"They are better," he said during the 2007 race, speaking of the frontrunners. "It's a higher level this year."
So he vowed not to return and went home to continue working as an airport firefighter.
Many Iditarod aficionados credit Sorlie's strategy in those earlier winning years -- long runs, a slower pace, short rest periods -- with changing how mushers have run the race ever since, elevating the competition.
Sorlie has a history of teaming up with fellow Norwegian mushers, who have worked together in the past training dogs, pooling them to form the best single team and taking turns running the all-star team in the biggest races.
They called it Team Norway in the past. This year's version is Team Elkonor, and having extra help from teammates Thomas Warner and Birgitte Nass Warner, convinced Sorlie to return to the Iditarod. He made the decision last May, he said, and in February he won the Femundlopet, a 600-kilometer race in Norway.
"It's too hard a job to train more than one team," Sorlie said. "We share teams. I take the best. The next year, Thomas Warner will take the best."
The team concept means more training miles for the dogs, allowing for longer runs between rest stops. "The dogs were used to it," Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman said. "He was able to bring a very well-trained dog team, and the conditions allowed him to run that type of race."
People are still learning what the dogs are capable of as their mileage increases, Nordman said.
"People used to think doing the (Yukon) Quest and then the Iditarod was a fool's errand. Now we know the dogs just keep improving," he said.
Of course, a lot of Sorlie's success comes from his drive. Like Dallas Seavey, he is a former wrestler with a competitive edge and focused approach. He is known for staying on a strict schedule, something that's not always easy when the Alaska wilderness and weather start throwing curve balls.
"He's got the best batting average of anybody in the Iditarod. You've really got to take him seriously," said Joe Runyan, the 1989 champ and author of Winning Strategies for Distance Mushers. "He's relentless. Basically, what he's done is trained his dogs to run at steady speeds, and then he rests very systematically. But he'll never let up on the hammer. That's what's dangerous about him. He'll set the pace for the race."
Or will he? Sorlie said he plans to employ a different strategy this year. The way he ran in the past is now well known, he said. He would not say anything more about his plans.
"Now I can do something else," Sorlie said. "You'll have to see."
Like many who have spent so much time and money to compete in the Iditarod, and who are under pressure to do well for their sponsors and supporters, Sorlie is gunning for a top finish. As he put it, "I'm not here like a tourist."
Other top mushers think Sorlie will be a major contender and that a hard, fast trail could favor his style. Runyan, who blogs for Iditarod.com, put Sorlie at the top of his list of elites, and wrote that his contacts in Norway described Sorlie's team this year as "super."
Sorlie's wins in the Iditarod have attracted other Norwegians to the race. Among those competing this year are 2013 Rookie of the Year Joar Leifseth Ulsom and Ralph Johannessen, who is new to the Iditarod but has won all of the long-distance races in Norway, according to his Iditarod biography.
"After Robert won, you know, I've been following him closely," said Ulsom, who placed seventh last year. "That's how I got to know about the Iditarod. Everyone (in Norway) knows who Robert is, and they always want to race over here."
Aliy Zirkle, the second place finisher in both 2012 and 2013, said having Sorlie back makes the race more competitive, and his effect of drawing Norwegians to the Iditarod adds a special vibe.
"I like seeing those guys come over, because they truly are like Viking spirits, in the fact that they're friggin' tough," she said. "They're tough, and they don't care about the limelight of being tough. They just are.
"I think (Sorlie) brings back the toughness."
Sorlie said he feels tough, even if a victory this year would make him the oldest winner in history, surpassing Mitch Seavey's accomplishment at age 53 last year.
Asked if he feels older than the last time he ran the Iditarod, Sorlie said no.
"I feel younger. I'm in good shape. I think I'm probably in better shape than the last time I was here," he said. "I'm glad to be back. I look forward to the race."
Complete Coverage: Iditarod 42
By CASEY GROVE