White Mountain — Thomas Waerner and his 10-dog team left White Mountain at 1:35 p.m. Tuesday with an hours-long lead over the closest competitors and with just 77 miles to go to the finish line in Nome.
Waerner is on his way to victory in a competition hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic that led to moved checkpoints, shuttered schools and canceled race festivities as mushers dashed to the finish line.
Waerner has a generous five-hours edge over his closest competition, three-time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey. Ever since a marathon 12-hour run from Kaltag to Unalakleet, Waerner has been in control of the race, running 20 or more miles in front of the nearest teams.
As he took his mandatory eight-hour break in White Mountain on Tuesday, he said: “If you want to win, you have to try something.”
“You cannot just stay steady and just be wandering around, it will just be fighting for minutes. This time I wanted to get a gap and try to keep it,” he said.
He said he felt good about his lead.
“It’s just to go steady over, I have a lot of time now so I can go just slow, easy going for the dogs,” he said.
Anything can happen on the unpredictable Bering Sea coast, and leaders in the past have lost their race in the final miles. Behind lead sled dogs K2 and Bark, Waerner is running on a windy trail with fresh snow.
To secure the victory, Warner has a simple approach for a clean run to Nome: “It’s easy, stay on the trail, don’t go on the wrong trail, that’s the only thing,” he said.
Seavey, Jessie Royer, Brent Sass, and Aaron Burmeister round out the first five to White Mountain. The winner is expected to arrive in Nome overnight.
Thomas Waerner was the first musher to White Mountain early Tuesday morning, just 77 miles away from the finish line in Nome.
Waerner and his 12 dogs pulled in at 5:35 a.m. All teams must take an eight-hour rest at White Mountain. Waerner and his dog team can leave as early as 1:35 p.m. Tuesday for their final sprint to the finish.
For his first-place arrival to White Mountain, Waerner won $2,500 and a one-of-a-kind print by Anchorage artist Marianne Wieland.
This is only Waerner’s second Iditarod. In 2015, the Norwegian musher placed 17th and won the rookie of the year award.
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 an interview last Thursday, Waerner said he was on the trail when he first learned about the new U.S. travel restrictions affecting 26 European countries, including Norway, because of the coronavirus pandemic. He said his wife was supposed to meet him at the finish line but decided to fly home to Norway early.
On Tuesday, Waerner had a several-hour lead over his nearest competitor.
By 9 a.m., Waerner was still the only musher in White Mountain. On the way were three-time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey, Jessie Royer, Brent Sass and Aaron Burmeister.
A 2020 race champion is expected early Wednesday.