ANCHORAGE, Alaska — As a young boy growing up in Norway, Thomas Waerner spent idle hours thinking long and hard about two different kinds of iconic American modes of transportation: muscle cars and the sled dogs in the Iditarod.
Waerner, 47, made one of those dreams reality on Wednesday, winning the nearly 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race across Alaska. He took a commanding lead in the late stages of the race and held a five-hour advantage over the next closest musher, three-time champion Mitch Seavey.
Longtime Montana resident Jessie Royer, who lives part-time in Seeley Lake, was third. She arrived under the burled arch in Nome about seven hours behind Waerner and 92 minutes behind Seavey.
Royer's third-place finish matched her previous best set a year ago. She arrived at three checkpoints first, achieving the feat for the first time in her 18-year Iditarod career.
Waerner took his dog team over mountain ranges, on the frozen Yukon River and across treacherous Bering Sea ice to the finish line on Nome’s main street in 9 days, 10 hours, 37 minutes and 47 seconds.
“This is awesome,” Waerner said. “This is something special.”
The race started March 8 north of Anchorage and was one of the few sporting events in the U.S. that wasn’t canceled because of the new coronavirus.
The Iditarod encouraged fans not to travel to Nome for the finish as the city closed public buildings to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Events like the musher’s banquet were postponed.
But 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 Nome's Front Street to the finish line just after 12:30 a.m.
He will earn a minimum of $50,000 and a new pickup truck for winning the race. The actual cash amount will depend on how many mushers finish the race, a factor in how the prize money is divvied out.
Waerner immediately thanked the 10 dogs in harness, petting and rubbing each dog, ending his with lead dogs K2 and Bark before handing out treats.
He called K2 “an amazing dog."
"He has this inside engine that never stops,” Waerner said.
Bark is the tough one, the winning musher said.
“He's the one just charging through everything. It doesn't matter what comes, he will just go through it, storms or whatever," Waerner said. So the two together are an amazing team.”
Waerner, who began mushing in 1984, won the Iditarod in only his second attempt.
He finished 17th in 2015, when he earned Rookie of the Year honors. Wearner last year won the 745-mile (1,200-kilometer) Finnmarkslopet, the longest sled dog race in Europe.
As an 11-year-old boy in Norway, he read mushing magazines touting the achievements of some of the Iditarod’s most famous mushers of that era. Their ranks included the race’s only five-time winner, Rick Swenson, and a four-time winner, the late Susan Butcher, who in the 1985 race had to fight off an angry moose with an axe after it killed two of her dogs.
Waerner told reporters at the finish line that it was always his “dream to come here and do the race."
Waerner became the second Norwegian musher in the last three years and third this century to win the race. Joar Leifseth Ulsom won in 2018 and Robert Sorlie took titles 2003 and 2005.