Nome welcomes home one of its own when Burmeister finishes 3rd

Aaron Burmeister proved you most certainly can go home again.

The 39-year-old veteran musher, who works as a construction general manager, lives in the City of Golden Beaches, though he spends his winters training in Nenana. And Burmeister got a hero's welcome under rapidly-clearing skies and bright sunshine just minutes before 10 a.m. on Wednesday.

"Welcome home Aaron!" yelled many onlookers on Front Street as Burmeister's team crossed the finish line in third place.

Burmeister fought it out with the big dogs of mushing all the way to Nome, only giving way to the son-father duo of Dallas and Mitch Seavey in the final miles of the race. He led the race to the Bering Sea coast in Unalakleet, but didn't have enough closing speed to finish them off. Still, he said the career-best run -- he was fourth in 2012 and has four top-10 finishes in 16 career races -- was nothing to sniff at.

"It's an awesome, awesome dog team," he told reporters after the race.

He said his squad of Alaskan huskies simply lost to a pair of phenomenal teams.

"Kudos to them," he said. "They executed great races."

Vehicles lined Front Street past the edge of downtown to watch Burmeister come off the sea ice and into the city, and the Nome Eskimo-St. Lawrence Island Dancers offered up traditional Native singing and drumming to welcome him back to familiar terrain.

"It's great coming home," he said, shortly before getting a smooch from his wife, Mandy.

That Burmeister was able to run at all this year is testament to the musher's toughness. He injured his knee so badly in last year's race that he had to have reconstructive surgery over the summer. But he persevered and thanked everyone -- family, fans, friends -- who helped get him to Nome.

"It's completely a team effort to make this happen," said Burmeister, who now lives in Nenana.

It's always been that way for Burmeister, even when he was a little tyke running the Junior Iditarod, so it was fitting that one of his early sponsors was in Nome to greet him with a hug. That would be Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the Iditarod in 1985 and one of the most beloved and well-known members of the distance-mushing community. She lived in the nearby community of Teller for years.

Riddles wasn't surprised to see such a spirited turnout for Burmeister.

"His roots are still here," said Riddles. His father, Richard Burmeister of Nome, finished 41st in two early Iditarods, which helped whet his son's interest.

And Riddles said Burmeister is a more-than-worthy representative of the Iditarod-crazed town.

"He did Nome proud," she said.

In fact, in each of Alaska's three major sled dog races of the winter, a hometown musher excelled -- first Bethel's Pete Kaiser, who captured the Kuskokwim 300; then Eureka's Brent Sass, rolling to victory on the Chena River in Fairbanks and capturing the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race; and now Burmeister.

Burmeister was the toast of the town as people clamored for hugs, shouted encouragement or took selfies with the burly race veteran whose career dates back to 1994.

Though Burmeister finished third in the duel up the coast, he can be consoled by the fact that he won $53,900 for his efforts. He also finished with a personal best time of eight days, 23 hours and 47 minutes, and admitted he stepped on the gas pedal in the closing miles to crack the nine-day barrier.

"We pushed a little harder the last 20 miles to make sure we made it by 10 a.m.," he said.

Though he's now finished no lower than 11th place in five finishes since 2009, Burmeister hinted he might take a break from distance mushing to spend more time with Mandy and their two kids, Hunter, 6, and Kiana, 2.

"It's time to spend a little time with my family," he said. "I'll certainly be back, but there's other things in life besides Iditarod."

And with that, the hometown boy from Nome mushed his team over to the dog lot, with young Hunter propped on the back of the sled. In his hand, Burmeister's son carried with him a small sign that seemed to sum up the feelings of the large crowd that came to see his dad return to town.

The message written on Hunter's sign?

"Nome Sweet Home."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Burmeister now lives in Nenana. Although he trains there part of the year, Burmeister considers Nome home.

Matt Tunseth

Matt Tunseth is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and former editor of the Alaska Star.