NOME — Norwegian musher Joar Leifseth Ulsom fulfilled his childhood dream early Wednesday when he and his eight-dog team crossed the finish line here, winning the 2018 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race after 9 days and 12 hours on the trail.
"It's unreal," said the 31-year-old musher who currently lives in Willow. "I dreamed about it for a long time and this (is) actually happening. I don't know what to say — it's going to sink in at some point."
Since his first Iditarod in 2013, Leifseth Ulsom has been a top performer in the race year after year. His worst finish is seventh. He placed fourth last year. He's steady. He's calm. He's quiet. He's consistent.
This year, he finally got his shot at victory. And he took it.
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At 3 a.m. Wednesday, Leifseth Ulsom drove a team of eight perky dogs, led by 3-year-old Olive and 4-year-old Russeren, down a snowy and spectator-lined Front Street in the 4-degree cold. Leifseth Ulsom smiled. The crowd cheered.
"It's pretty unreal that we pulled it off," he said. "It's out of this world."
A Norwegian flag waved in the background as Leifseth Ulsom collected hugs and congratulations in the finish chute.
"It's a great day," said his father, Gunnar Ulsom, who still lives in Norway but traveled to Alaska for the race. "I'm so proud of him."
The musher got a kiss from lead dog Olive, who wore garland of yellow roses and licked his forehead as they posed for photographs.
"She has done an awesome job," he said.
Leifseth Ulsom is the first Iditarod winner not named Seavey to win the race since 2011, when Kotzebue musher John Baker crossed the finish line first.
Girdwood musher Nicolas Petit, 38, placed second and three-time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey, 58, third. Seavey's son, four-time champ Dallas, is competing in Norway's Finnmarkslopet.
For his victory, Leifseth Ulsom won a new truck and a check for at least $50,000. The exact total will be calculated once it's known how many teams reach Nome, race officials said. The finishing teams will split $500,000.
For Leifseth Ulsom, the new truck couldn't have come at a better time. He said his 1999 pickup broke down right before the race.
[How Leifseth Ulsom claimed the Iditarod lead]
A wrong turn
Leifseth Ulsom is the winner of a race notable for deep snow that made the going slow and tough but relatively safe. Mushers faced snowstorms but told few horror stories about the trip over the Alaska Range and reported no nasty cases of frostbite along the 1,000-mile trail.
And yet Iditarod 46 nonetheless delivered on drama.
Petit, who seemed in command in Shaktoolik, 777 miles into the race, saw his lead vanish on Monday. The Girdwood musher, who won a string of mid-distance races this season, veered off course during a snowstorm while en route to Koyuk.
The mistake cost him about 90 minutes — and the lead.
Here's where things went wrong for then-Iditarod leader Nic Petit on the Bering Sea coast today. (Images from https://t.co/7pwNxJFmGm, used with permission)#Iditarod #Iditarod2018 pic.twitter.com/RUhXHkuNYV— ADN Iditarod (@ADNIditarod) March 12, 2018
While Petit was backtracking, Leifseth Ulsom unknowingly passed him, his team trotting by in the blowing snow. He didn't learn he was ahead of Petit until he reached Koyuk, and by that time it was game over.
"It was about 20 mph winds and snowing," Leifseth Ulsom said. "The trail was drifted in and the trail was probably marked on a nice sunny day and when you get there at night and it's snowing and blowing, it's not so easy to see the markers and follow the trail. So it was a hard time."
At 5:15 a.m. Wednesday, Petit and his 10-dog team pranced across the finish line in second place. Like Leifseth Ulsom, Petit arrived to loud cheers and hugs.
Petit walked down his line of dogs, handing them frozen chicken. He posed for photographs with his lead dog, Libby, and then headed to the Nome dog lot where finishing teams park.
Petit walked into a nearby building about an hour later to a standing ovation. He talked about losing his lead and the trail. He talked about later "bawling on the back of the sled" when he realized he couldn't get in front of Leifseth Ulsom again.
Then, he said, he stopped crying. He had to pull it together for the dogs.
"I'll be thinking about that wrong turn for probably the rest of my life," he said.
"My dog team is improving. We have to have a major problem not to get to the finish line first," Petit said.
"Good luck keeping up": Second-place Nic Petit reflects on his race and looks ahead to next year. (Loren Holmes / ADN)
Seavey and his nine dogs got to Nome at 8:11 a.m., greeted by his wife and father.
Deep snow slowed his team, he said. In places, he said, the dogs were wallowing in the snow as he was pushing, running and ski poling to propel them forward.
He had been sore for so long, it didn't even hurt anymore.
"I don't think I've gone that slow with a dog team in 15 years," Seavey said.
"We've been training to go faster and faster, and suddenly 6 mph was the norm and I had a hard time getting my head around that — that it's OK to go 6 mph," Seavey said. "But the dogs were happy with it. So that's fine. It worked out."
Seavey's team excels on a hard and fast trail, like the one in 2017 when he set a speed record of 8 days, 3 hours and 40 minutes. A year later, Leifseth Ulsom's winning time on this snowy southern route was the slowest since 2009, when Lance Mackey won in 9 days, 21 hours.
Calm after controversies
When Petit crossed the finish line, Leifseth Ulsom went out to Front Street to cheer him on. When Seavey arrived, Petit walked out to congratulate him.
For much of the race, the three men jockeyed for first place — almost in their very own race, ahead from the rest of the pack. They saw each other fairly often, Seavey said, bonding over their common battle against the snow and storms.
"We're all better friends than ever after having competed as hard as we possibly could against each other," he said. "So that's how it works out on the trail."
In Leifseth Ulsom, a new winner has emerged at a time when the Iditarod race committee is capping a year of controversies, some of which have fueled animal rights groups like PETA.
When Leifseth Ulsom arrived in Nome, four people held signs protesting the race near the finish line. While PETA has long tried to persuade sponsors to drop their support of the Iditarod, this year was the first time they took their protests to the start line and finish line.
A few people booed the protesters or told them to go home, but other than that, it was quiet.
Politics aside, Seavey said, he thought everyone should be proud "for having a great race again this year."
"We should all be proud of putting this race on a traditional trail, a snowy Alaskan winter trail," Seavey said. "And aside from all the politics — inside and outside the race — when we all come out here, it's good people, good country, it's a wonderful trail and the dogs are something that we're proud of."
Fried chicken and french fries
Leifseth Ulsom is the second European — both Norwegian — to win the Iditarod. Robert Sorlie of Hurdal won the race in 2003 and 2005, achievements that inspired a young Leifseth Ulsom.
"It's been a dream for me since he won it," he said.
Leifseth Ulsom, whose first name is pronounced "your," is from Mo i Rana in northern Norway. He said he always wanted a dog and by age 11 or 12, his parents agreed to let him get a mixed-breed named Tassen, who pulled him on skis. At age 16, he said, he moved out, "and then pretty soon I had four dogs of my own."
With a wooden sled, he learned to mush. In 2011, he moved to Alaska.
He has a visa to live in the United States as an athlete, he said. He races as a member of Racing Beringia — part of GoNorth! Adventure Learning, a nonprofit program that creates K-12 education plans based on expeditions such as the Iditarod, said his girlfriend, Mille Porsild, the nonprofit's executive director.
On Wednesday morning, Porsild sat next to Leifseth Ulsom while he talked to fans and reporters inside a building near the finish line, some in English and some in Norwegian. A takeout box of fried chicken, french fries and onion rings sat before him.
What does he like about dog mushing, he was asked.
"What is there not to like?" he replied. "You get to play with dogs all the time."
[WATCH: Iditarod winner Joar Leifseth Ulsom talks about his love for dogs]
Porsild described Leifseth Ulsom as "a dog man." At any one time, they have eight or 10 dogs in their small Willow apartment, she said.
"I feel so ecstatically happy because I know this was Joar's biggest dream," she said.
Nearby sat Dallas Seavey's wife, Jen.
Jen Seavey said she flew to Nome this week because she wanted to see Leifseth Ulsom win. Dallas and Joar are neighbors in Willow.
For years, Jen said, Leifseth Ulsom has been "a very legitimate threat to win the Iditarod." She described him as solid, steady and dependable. He's just not a guy who draws a lot of attention to himself, she said.
"Typically when you see someone who pursues excellence with the work ethic and the single-minded focus that Joar does, they're usually a little bit more outgoing, boisterous personality. So that's the paradox of him," she said.
"He's very understated and very patient and slowly just reeled in the race and wasn't in a hurry to make a bold move," she said.
When Leifseth Ulsom crossed the finish line to claim victory, his father and girlfriend greeted him. So too did his childhood idol, the two-time race champion Sorlie. Sorlie, 60, congratulated the young musher and told him he was proud.
As Leifseth Ulsom checked off his childhood dream Wednesday, fulfilling this particular wish does not mean he's done with the Iditarod, he said. He'll be back next year to try it again.