NOME — Thomas Waerner of Norway returned to the real world early Wednesday morning when he arrived here as the champion of the 48th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Waerner, 47, crossed under the burled-arch finish line at 12:37 a.m. to the cheers of several hundred spectators who gathered amid concerns over the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus that has limited activities worldwide.
For more than nine days he had escaped everything but the trail and his dogs. Now his race was over, his dogs had been fed a finish-line snack, and Waerner was listening to a reporter’s question about current events and whether they had impacted his mood.
“We mushers are so lucky that we are in our own world,” Waerner replied. “We don’t think about anything. We just think about the dogs and the trail and the next checkpoint and the next thing you are going to do.
“So you are in, what do you call it, this balloon. You’re in a bubble.”
Reality will come soon enough. Waerner said it won’t be easy traveling back to Norway in the coronavirus era.
“I don’t think I will get home in a while. So that’s going to be next week,” he said. “There will be some problems getting home.”
Guided by lead dogs K2 and Bark, Waerner had few problems getting to Nome. He won the race in 9 days, 10 hours, 37 minutes, 47 seconds, becoming the fourth non-Alaskan and the third musher from Norway — the second in three years — to win the 1,000-mile race.
“This is awesome,” he said in the finish chute. “… This is something special.”
Nearly six hours later, at 6:15 a.m., Mitch Seavey of Seward drove his team down Front Street to finish second — his sixth top-3 finish in the last eight years. Seavey beat third-place Jessie Royer of Fairbanks by about 90 minutes.
“He got us by several hours, and I guess that’s not easy to do,” said Seavey, a three-time champion.
After Waerner reached the finish line, his dogs stayed on their feet as after walked from one to another, patting each of them before handing out treats that looked like raw bacon.
It was a breakfast of champions for a team that took control of the race three days earlier.
When he left White Mountain on Tuesday afternoon, Waerner had a cushion of more than five hours over Seavey and Royer, who had been running second and third the last couple of days.
He forged that lead on Saturday and Sunday by making a 12-hour overnight run from Kaltag to Unalakleet, an 85-mile marathon that separated him from what had, until then, been a sizable pack of front-runners.
“I was a little surprised that no one followed,” Waerner said of his game-changing run. “When I saw I had the lead I thought, ‘Now I have to keep it,' ’’ — something he said he did by listening to his dogs.
“I give them the rest they need and I give them the nutrition and listen to their signals,” he said. “If you listen to the dogs, you can actually do long runs and do things.”
Waerner was presented with a new truck and a $51,000 check for his victory. His dogs stood behind him as he was awarded his prizes, their tails wagging.
Among them was Bark, a leader for much of the race. Mushers like to say that sled dogs are born to run, but Bark is a sled dog who came from two dogs that didn’t want to run, at least not for a crucial interlude during the 2014 Iditarod.
Robert Sorlie of Norway was running the race that year with a team that included some of Waerner’s dogs, including a female named Kelly. When Kelly went into heat, her running mate took interest and nature took its course.
“So if you look at the times from 2014, Robert was taking his 8-hour (layover) but he took 8 hours and 30 minutes, because they had a little fun. And that’s actually Bark, so he was made in Ruby,” Waerner said.
This was the second Iditarod for Waerner, who finished 17th in 2015 to claim Rookie of the Year honors.
Other than in the early days of the 48th annual race, most Iditarod champions are the veterans of multiple races before they win. The only rookies to win came in the first three years of the race — Dick Wilmarth (1973), Carl Huntington (1974) and Emmitt Peters (1975). The only people to win the race in their second attempt are Waerner, Sorlie, Rick Swenson (1977) and Dean Osmar (1984).
Waerner, of Torpa, Norway, joins Robert Sorlie of Hurdal, who won in 2003 and 2005, and Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Mo i Rana, who won in 2018, on the list of mushers from Norway who have won mushing’s biggest race. The only other non-Alaskan to win the race is Doug Swingley of Montana, a four-time winner with victories in 1995 and three straight from 1999 to 2001.
As Waerner lingered in the finish chute, someone handed him a big Norwegian flag. He waved it over his head.
Waerner said he started dreaming about the Iditarod as a little boy, and that others in Scandinavia dream about it too.
“A lot of people … are dreaming about Alaska and Iditarod,” he said. “This is the biggest race, the greatest race, the race with the most history. It’s the ultimate thing you can do as a dog musher.
“I’ve been dreaming about this since I was 11 years old. I actually met Susan Butcher and Rick Swenson, so it’s kind of been a part of my history. My whole life, actually.”
Waerner’s dogs come from Alaska bloodlines — plus that accidental breeding in Ruby six years ago. He bought K2 from Ramy Brooks, and many of his other dogs come from lines developed by Joee Redington, Roxy Wright and Curtis Erhart. Some Norwegian/Greenland bloodlines also have been mixed in, he said.
Last season, Waerner 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. Coming into the Iditarod, Waerner thought he had a “fair chance” to win, but so did about 20 other teams, he said.
“It’s a high level of competition and dog care and dog welfare,” he said.
Fifty-seven teams started the race on March 8 at Willow Lake. As of 8 p.m. Wednesday, 14 teams had dropped out and one had been withdrawn.
Marc Lester reported from Nome and Beth Bragg from Anchorage.