NOME, Alaska (CN) – A Norwegian flag waved in the background in the wee hours Wednesday, as Norway’s Joar Leifseth Ulsom crossed under the burled arch that marks the finish of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Leifseth Ulsom, 31, from Mo i Rana, Norway, is the second Norwegian in the 46-year history of the 1,000-mile race to claim the top spot. Robert Sorlie of Hurdal won the race in 2003 and 2005, and Leifseth Ulsom credits Sorlie for inspiring him as a youth.
“It’s pretty unreal that we pulled it off,” Leifseth Ulsom said at the finish. “It’s out of this world.”
Leifseth Ulsom wins $50,000 and a new Dodge vehicle.
Eight dogs in harness, out of 16 starters, brought Leifseth Ulsom down the snow covered Front Street after 9 days, 12 hours on the trail of what is dubbed the “last great race on earth.”
As friends and spectators gathered in 4-degree weather to cheer the 2018 champion, lead dog Olive licked Leifseth Ulsom’s forehead as they posed for pictures. “She has done an awesome job,” Leifseth Ulsom said of Olive.
In a bit of weather-induced drama on Monday, Leifseth Ulsom was running in second place and hours behind Nicolas Petit, who seemed poised to win after having been in the lead for most of the race until about 777-mile mark.
Leaving the checkpoint of Shaktoolik, a somewhat desolate spot on the Norton Sound coast, Petit lost sight of the trail markers in the blowing snow while crossing the ice heading to the next checkpoint of Koyuk. This part of the trail is known for ground blizzards and monotonous stretches of nothing but white ice where teams have stalled in past races
While the French-born Petit, 38, was backtracking to regain the trail, Leifseth Ulsom unknowingly took the lead. He found out he had passed Petit as he pulled in as the first team to Koyuk. Petit was unable to make up the lost time and finished second.
The deep snow and blowing whiteout conditions slowed this year’s race considerably from 2017 record time of 8 days, 3 hours when Mitch Seavey won. By early Wednesday, Seavey was nearing the finish in third place.
Leifseth Ulsom ran his first Iditarod in 2013, decisively claiming rookie of the year honors by not only being the fastest rookie that year but also the fastest rookie to have ever run Iditarod with a seventh-place finish. He has also placed among the top seven in all six of his Iditarod starts.
As a kid in Norway, Leifseth Ulsom got his start by borrowing his neighbor’s two house dogs to pull him around on skis. Watching Iditarod movies fueled his dreams and led him to build his own dog team.
In 2011, he moved to Alaska to begin training full-time with his small kennel of dogs – many brought directly from Norway to Alaska – and joined with Russian teammates as part of Team Racing Beringia.
Racing Beringia is an online education program for students in K-12 classrooms around the world to explore the region of Beringia, which spans from the Yukon in Canada across Alaska to Chukotka, Russia.
Leifseth Ulsom and his team have raced throughout the Beringia region including the Iditarod, the Yukon Quest, that runs between Alaska and Canada, and the Nadezhda Hope race in Chukotka, Russia. Leifseth Ulsom is a two-time winner of the later race.
This year 67 teams started the race on March 4. So far eight have “scratched,” calling an early end to their race due to their own personal injuries on the trail, dog illness or lack of enthusiasm. Racers will trickle in over the course of this week until the finisher’s banquet Sunday and the red lantern is doused to signify the last musher is off the trail.