UPDATE, 9:32 p.m.: Thomas Waerner swiftly checked in and out of Safety around 9:15 p.m. Tuesday. The Nome finish line was 22 miles ahead of him and second-place Mitch Seavey was about 38 miles behind him.
NOME — Thomas Waerner left White Mountain with a five-hour cushion Tuesday afternoon, poised to become the third musher from Norway to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Waerner, 46, spent the necessary eight hours at the checkpoint and dropped two dogs before returning to the trail with a team of 10. He left at 1:35 p.m., with second-place Mitch Seavey of Seward on hold at the checkpoint until 6:49 p.m., when his eight-hour layover ends.
It was snowing in White Mountain when Waerner left and it was windy in Nome, 77 miles away. If he avoids trouble on the final stretch, Waerner could reach the finish line sometime late Tuesday or early Wednesday.
Whenever a winner comes down Front Street, it will be a scene far different from usual.
Typically, a huge crowd lines the finish chute to cheer and high-five the champion no matter what time he or she arrived. This year, the city asked people to stay away because of the coronavirus.
All associated Iditarod events have been canceled, including a popular basketball tournament, a crafts fair and the race’s awards banquet. The Nome Common Council will hold an emergency meeting Tuesday at 5 p.m. to consider other measures aimed at limiting person-to-person contact.
Waerner has practiced social distancing on the trail ever since he decided to skip rest on the 85-mile run between run Kaltag to Unalakleet. His overnight marathon put him at Unalakleet on Sunday morning more than five hours before anyone else.
“I think if you want to win, you have to take some chances,” he said in Unalakleet. “Maybe it pays off, maybe it doesn’t. That’s part of the game.”
Until Tuesday in White Mountain, Waerner had barely seen another musher since Saturday night.
On Monday, he left Koyuk one minute ahead of Jessie Royer of Fairbanks, and on Tuesday his time in White Mountain overlapped for a couple of hours with Mitch Seavey of Seward (second to the checkpoint at 10:49 a.m.) and Royer (third at 11:49 a.m.).
Waerner reached White Mountain at 5:35 a.m. and left at 1:35 p.m, nine minutes after Brent Sass of Eureka reached the checkpoint in fourth place.
If he can keep his lead all the way to Nome, he would be the third Iditarod champion from Norway. Robert Sorlie won in 2003 and 2005, and Joar Leifseth Ulsom won in 2018.
The rookie of the year in the 2015 Iditarod, Waerner is running his second Iditarod, but he’s no stranger to sled dog racing.
Last season, he won both of Norway’s major races, the 750-mile Finnmarkslopet and the 400-mile Femund Race, becoming the first person to win both in the same year.
Winning the Iditarod is his ultimate goal, one he didn’t think he would achieve this year, in part because he has only done the race once. He said the expense of traveling with his dogs from his home in Synnfjell, Norway, has limited his trips to Alaska.
“My goal for this year was to be competitive,” Waerner said in Unalakleet. “I didn’t plan on (winning) this year.”
Waerner is one five members of the Qrill Pet mushing team, which bills itself “the world’s first professional long distance dog sled team,” and also includes former Iditarod champions Leifseth Ulsom and Dallas Seavey.
Qrill Pet, a pet nutrition company, also organizes the newly launched Arctic World Series, or QPAWS. The initiative aims to grow interest in the sport worldwide by drawing attention to four distance sled dog races. Others are held in Norway, Russia and Minnesota.
The Daily News’ Marc Lester contributed from Nome.