Pandemic Mutes Celebrations as Norwegian Wins Iditarod Dog Sled Race

NOME, Alaska (CN) — A Norwegian flag waved in the background for only the third time in the 48-year running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, as Norway’s Thomas Waerner pulled under the burled arch that marks the finish of the 1,000-mile race Wednesday.

Waerner, 47, who was born in England and grew up in Torpa, Norway, won the race in 9 days, 10 hours, 37 minutes, 47 seconds. He finished several hours ahead of the next closest competitor to win $51,000 and a new Dodge vehicle.

“This is awesome,” Waerner said at the finish. “This is something special.”

Thomas Waerner of Norway at the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Photo courtesy Albert Marquez / Planet Earth Adventures)

Ten dogs in harness, out of 14 starters, brought Waerner down snow covered Front Street in the northwestern Alaska city of Nome, at the end of the former gold rush trail on the Bering Sea coast. Albeit smaller than normal, a crowd of several hundred still gathered at the finish line to welcome the winner.

The Iditarod is the last of the live sporting events to continue despite coronavirus cancellations that have come one after another since the mushers began the race March 8 in Willow, two hours north of Alaska’s most populated city of Anchorage. When the race began there were no confirmed cases of the virus in the state; now there are four.

Despite the closing to nonessential staff and the public and moving of a few of the race checkpoints to locations outside of Alaska Native communities to protect elder residents from possible infection, the race continued. Race organizers postponed the annual finishing mushers’ meet-and-greet and the banquet to a date to be announced. Also, Nome officials canceled all of the many events and festivities that take place around the community during the weeklong period when residents and businesses welcome guests from all over the world, and advised travelers not to come this year.

“We mushers are so lucky that we are in our own world,” Waerner said, responding to media questions while handing out treats to his dogs at the finish line. “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.

Norwegian Thomas Waerner at the start of the 2020 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Julie St. Louis / CNS)

COVID-19 already impacted Waerner’s ability to celebrate with family by his side at the finish. With news of Norway closing its borders to travelers, his wife Guro returned home to their five children. Waerner said he expects it may take him longer than planned to return home with his dogs.

This is the second running of Iditarod for Waerner who took Rookie of the Year honors in 2015 with a 17th-place finish. Two other Norwegians have won Iditarod. Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Mo i Rana won in 2018 and Robert Sorlie of Hurdal won it twice, in 2003 and 2005.

This year 57 teams started the race. So far 12 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 red lantern is doused to signify the last musher is off the trail.


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