‘It’s a dream position’: Norwegian musher Waerner leads Iditarod teams up the coast

Thomas Waerner’s sled dogs at the Unalakleet checkpoint on Sunday. Unalakleet is at race mile 714. (Ben Matheson/KNOM)

Unalakleet — The 2020 Iditarod has reached the Bering Sea coast. After seven days and 700 miles of racing, a handful of contenders are chasing a new race leader and preparing to show the world what their teams can do.

On Sunday afternoon, Norwegian musher Thomas Waerner rested his 12 dogs through the heat of the day in Unalakleet, the community on Norton Sound about 715 miles into the race.

“It’s too hot,” Waerner said.

He had the checkpoint all to himself after arriving from his marathon overnight run from Kaltag, the village about 85 miles away. For being first to the coast, Waerner earned $2,000 worth of gold nuggets. But, more importantly, he was a full five hours in front of the next team.

“It’s a dream position,” Waerner said. “I don’t think many times you can have a position like this. It’s amazing actually.”

Thomas Waerner booties his dogs at the Unalakleet checkpoint on Sunday. (Ben Matheson/KNOM)

Waerner’s next runs may be the most important of his life as he vies to win the Iditarod in just his second attempt. He competed in his only other Iditarod race in 2015, placing 17th and winning the rookie of the year award.

Related: Listen to our latest episode of the Iditapod podcast.

According to his race bio, Waerner runs an electrical company in Norway. He and his wife, who’s a veterinarian, have five children. He started mushing sled dogs in 1984, and started long-distance racing in 2003.

In Unalakleet, Waerner said he was planning to travel the last third of the race at what he calls his team’s training speed.

“I try not to ask them much, I just let them go themselves, and rest them when they need to rest to be able to do it,” he said. “And they are really honest, nice dogs. They really do the job.”

Thomas Waerner earlier in the race during his nearly five-hour stop in Cripple last week. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

After a few hours of meals and rest for his dogs, Waerner yanked the snow hook, pulled out of Unalakleet and headed to Shaktoolik.

After he left, team after team arrived in Unalakleet for a crucial break before chasing Waerner up the coast — a section of trail notorious for its harsh conditions. As dog teams track the coastline and cross the sea ice, they may encounter powerful winds, sudden snow squalls and flat, disorienting sea ice.

Jessie Royer in Unalakleet on Sunday. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

It’s in these conditions that Jessie Royer said she expects the race dynamic to change.

“Things are going to shake up on the coast, they alway do, they always change on the coast,” she said.

The 2020 race may see a new champion: None of the first five mushers to leave Unalakleet have ever won the race.

Among them was Wade Marrs. Marrs pulled into Unalakleet in second place on Sunday. He stopped for a five-hour break. He said he wanted time in the checkpoint after the work his team did to slingshot up the race standings.

“It’s pretty exciting to be up here, but I’m a little scared to know what I did to get here,” he said.

Wade Marrs earlier in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race, mushing into Nikolai last Tuesday. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Marrs made his move along the Yukon River by stringing together two long runs to cover the more than 130-mile stretch. He said he’s looking forward to the trail ahead.

“Once I’m in Shaktoolik, I’m in like go-mode,” he said. “The dogs seem to love that stretch for some reason. We’ll hope it’s the same this year.”

But it will be a different checkpoint in Shaktoolik this year. The community opted to have teams stop miles away at the old town site due to concerns about the spread of coronavirus.

Related: ‘Well that’s a little different’: Iditarod mushers learn about moved checkpoints, closed schools as coronavirus concerns grow

Shaktoolik residents banded together to quickly rehabilitate an abandoned house to make a warm stop for mushers outside of the village. But the typical team of veterinarians and other race volunteers won’t be stationed there.

While most of the Iditarod front-runners decided to stop in Unalakleet on Sunday before heading to the new Shaktoolik stop, Brent Sass quickly blasted out of the checkpoint.

Sass was the fifth musher into Unalakleet, but the second musher to leave. He has avoided resting at checkpoints throughout the race. In Unalakleet, he parked his dogs for just seven minutes, long enough to stuff straw into a giant bag so he could camp a few miles down the trail.

Sass is driving a team that won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest the past two years. He said he was thrilled by his dogs’ appetites before the run up the coast.

“They’re eating like wolves,” he said. “That’s been a highlight.”

As Aaron Burmeister prepared for his evening run out of Unalakleet on Sunday, he said he was being conservative while considering his end-game options.

Aaron Burmesiter in Unalakleet on Sunday. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

“I know the strength I have in my team, we’ve held them together very well and been very patient throughout the race,” he said. “I’m not going to make any bold moves at this point. I’m going to be conservative. The speed only comes at night. During the heat of the day, my team is going to walk.”

As the race moves up the coast, Iditarod teams must take an eight-hour break at White Mountain before racing the final 77 miles to the finish line in Nome.

By Monday afternoon, Waerner continued to lead the race with about 170 miles to Nome. Behind him were Royer, Burmeister, three-time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey, Marrs and Sass.

Related: Follow all of our coverage of the 2020 Iditarod here.

Alaska Public Media’s Tegan Hanlon contributed to this story.