New Norwegian champ, Joar Ulsom wins 2018 Iditarod

Joar Ulsom at the Rainy Pass checkpoint early in the 2018 Iditarod. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media photo)

Joar Leifseth Ulsom has won his first championship in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. And for the first time in seven years, someone with a last name other than Seavey has won the race.

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The 31-year-old Ulsom, who ran his first Iditarod only five years ago, pulled under Nome’s Burled Arch early Wednesday morning at 3 a.m. with eight dogs to claim first place in Iditarod 46. Ulsom’s win makes him the first foreign-born musher to win the 1,000-mile sled dog race since fellow Norwegian Robert Sørlie in 2005. The older musher’s legacy has been a huge influence.

“It’s been a dream for me. Since he won it, I’ve been watching him,” Ulsom said after arriving on Front Street. “It’s just, it feels good.”

Ulsom’s first title comes after an upset on Monday when Girdwood musher Nicolas Petit, then in the lead, took a wrong turn down a stretch of trail on the Bering Sea coast between Shaktoolik and Koyuk. The mistake ultimately cost Petit about an hour and a half to get back on the right course and allowed Ulsom to take the lead, which he maintained for the remainder of the 200-plus miles to Nome.

Ulsom didn’t know how close Petit was to him at points.

“When I left Koyuk, he was sleeping, or pretending to be sleeping, so I had no idea he was coming out right behind me,” Ulsom explained.

Brutal winds and fresh snow slowed dog teams on the Yukon River, part of what Ulsom described as an overall challenging route this year.

“It was a slow trail, a soft trail. We had wind and it was just — every leg was more challenging than the other legs,” Ulsom said.

For the first time in five years, the trail took the southern route through the ghost town of Iditarod and three smaller Yukon River communities. Ulsom’s rookie year was the most recent running of that trail.

Ulsom has placed in the top ten in all of his six Iditarod finishes. Beginning with his 2013 rookie run, Ulsom’s rise to Iditarod champion has been swift. He took seventh place and Rookie of the Year in his first Iditarod. That year, he also set the record, which he still holds, for all-time-fastest rookie to finish the Last Great Race with a race time of 9 days, 12 hours and 34 minutes.

This year, he was only about a half-hour faster, with a total race time is 9 days and 12 hours, even.

Ulsom wins at least $50,000 and a new truck for his victory, along with prize-money from earlier awards along the trail.

Petit arrived in Nome a little more than two hours later in second place, pulling under the Burled Arch at 5:15 a.m. with 10 dogs. Defending champion Mitch Seavey arrived in third place a little after 8 a.m.

For even the top competitors, the 2018 Iditarod was one of the longer races in recent years. The last time a leader took more than nine days to reach Nome was 2013 along the same southern route.

Since 2012, Mitch Seavey and his son Dallas have traded off victories.