English-born musher Thomas Waerner easily won the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race across Alaska, one of the few US sporting events not canceled by concerns over the new coronavirus. Waerner, who grew up and lives in Norway and represents the country where he was raised, crossed the finish line in Nome, Alaska, early on Wednesday morning.
“This is awesome,” he told reporters at the finish line. “This is something special.” It took him nine days, 10 hours, 37 minutes and 47 seconds to travel nearly 1,000 miles across Alaska.
Waerner immediately thanked the 10 dogs in harness, petting and rubbing each one, ending with his lead dogs, K2 and Bark. Then each dog got a snack. Waerner called K2 “an amazing dog. He has this inside engine that never stops.” Bark, he said, is the tough one. “He’s the one just charging through everything. It doesn’t matter what comes, he will just go through it, storms or whatever. So they two together are an amazing team.”
Fans didn’t employ social distancing as they poured out of bars and hotels to cheer Waerner as he drove the team off the Bering Sea ice and down Front Street to the finish line under the famed burled arch. He will earn a minimum of $50,000 and a new pickup truck for winning the race. The final amount will depend on how many mushers finish the race, a factor in how the prize money is divvied out.
The 47-year-old musher won the Iditarod in only his second attempt. He finished 17th in 2015, when he was named rookie of the year. He is the fourth non-American to win the race, and the third Norwegian. Joar Leifseth Ulsom won the 2018 race and Robert Sorlie twice won the Iditarod, in 2003 and 2005. Wearner, who lives in Torpa, Norway, won the 745-mile Finnmarkslopet, the longest sled dog race in Europe, in 2019.
The Iditarod began on 8 March just north of Anchorage for 57 mushers, the second smallest field in two decades. They crossed two mountain ranges and mushed on the frozen Yukon River before reaching the Bering Sea. Since the race started, 11 mushers have withdrawn from the race.
Fears over the coronavirus outbreak prompted big changes along the trail for race officials. They asked fans not to fly to Nome for the finish after the city, like many in Alaska, closed public buildings. In some other villages, official check-in points were moved outside the communities to limit contact. In one case, the checkpoint was held on the Yukon River.
An animal welfare group took credit for two sponsors with Alaskan ties announcing they would drop sponsorship. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals claims more than 150 dogs have died painful deaths running the Iditarod since it began in 1973. The Iditarod disputes that number but has declined to provide its own count despite numerous requests by the Associated Press.