‘An actual dream’: Norwegian musher Thomas Waerner notches his first Iditarod victory

Thomas Waerner with his lead dogs K2 and Bark after winning the the 2020 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday, March 18, 2020.  (Kjersti McElwee/KNOM)

Norwegian musher Thomas Waerner won his first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race early Wednesday, crossing the finish line in Nome with a team of 10 dogs at 12:37 a.m.

Waerner arrived to an enthusiastic, though smaller-than-usual, crowd. The city had asked visitors to stay away because of concerns about the spread of coronavirus. His dog team, led by K2 and Bark, continued to bark and jump in their harnesses even after crossing the finish line.

“It’s an actual dream,” Waerner told the race marshal.

This is Waerner’s first Iditarod win, and only his second try. He placed 17th in the 2015 Iditarod, winning the rookie of the year award.

Waerner took control of the 2020 Iditarod more than halfway into the race with his 12-hour run from Kaltag to Unalakleet. For the rest of the race, he ran 20 or more miles in front of his nearest competitor.

He left White Mountain on Tuesday afternoon with a five-hour lead over the next team, three-time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey. Just 77 miles stood between him and victory.

Early Wednesday, in temperatures around 30 degrees, a smiling Waerner waved at the crowd as he pulled across the finish line.

“This is awesome,” Waerner said. “I’m a little out of words. Normally not. But this is something special.”

He posed for photographs with his two lead dogs, describing K2 as the “engine that never stops” and Bark as the tough one “just charging through everything.”

“The dogs are the performance athletes. We are the mushers and we get the credit and everything, but the dogs are incredible athletes,” he said. “Every time I look at the team it’s just amazing how they can perform, how they are able to do it, and being happy about it.”

Thomas Waerner at the finish line in Nome on Wednesday after claiming his first Iditarod victory.  (Kjersti McElwee/KNOM)

Waerner is the third musher from Norway to win the Iditarod. Robert Sorlie won the Iditarod in 2003 and 2005, and Joar Leifseth Ulsom won it in 2018.

According to his race bio, Waerner, 47, runs an electrical company in Norway. He and his wife, who’s a veterinarian, have five children. He started mushing sled dogs in 1984. He began sprint racing in Europe and Alaska, and started long-distance racing in 2003.

He also owns and runs a sled dog kennel based in Synnfjell, Norway, and is a member of the QRILL Pet Mushing team along with Leifseth Ulsom and four-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey. This past race season, Waerner won two major competitions in Norway: the 750-mile Finnmarksløpet and the 400-mile Femundløpet.

For his 2020 Iditarod victory, Waerner is expected to receive a check for at least $51,000 plus a new pickup truck.

Waerner is the winner of a race hobbled by the coronavirus, which became a global pandemic as mushers raced to the finish line.

Organizers set up the finish line in Nome. (Kjersti McElwee/KNOM)

The 57 teams set out on the trail on March 8 before Alaska had its first known coronavirus case. As they made it closer and closer to Nome, the state — and the globe — were swiftly changing.

Alaska had at least six known coronavirus cases by Tuesday evening. Public schools have been closed to students for the rest of the month. The public university system has moved most of its classes online and asked students to leave dorms. On Tuesday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy banned dine-in service at bars and restaurants statewide.

Meanwhile, the N.B.A. and NHL suspended their seasons, and the NCAA canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

For the Iditarod, the coronavirus has meant moving a checkpoint outside of town and shutting down another after the community asked racers to bypass their village to protect residents from the potential spread of the disease. Towns along the trail also closed their schools to visitors and canceled race-related events, including in Nome.

Thomas Waerner mushing into the Cripple checkpoint on Thursday, March 12, 2020. Cripple is about 425 miles into the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

It has also impacted Waerner personally: 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.

In an interview last week, he said that his wife, Guro, was supposed to meet him at the finish line, but decided to fly back to Norway early to avoid getting stuck away from home.

Related: While the coronavirus sidelines other sports, the Iditarod mushes on

After crossing the finish line, Waerner spoke with his wife over video, their conversation broadcast on Iditarod Insider. Guro was at home, in quarantine, she said.

2020 Iditarod champion Thomas Waerner speaks with wife, Guro, (bottom left) and a broadcaster after the race on Wednesday on Iditarod Insider. Guro flew back to their home in Norway early because of coronavirus-related travel restrictions. (Courtesy Iditarod Insider)

“I’m just super proud and really happy,” she told Waerner. “And I’m so sad I couldn’t be there and give you a big hug, but I’m looking forward to you getting home.”

“Yeah, that’ll be a little while,” Waerner said, and they both laughed.

Asked what Waerner was going to do after his Iditarod win, he said: “Now I will have to figure out next week if I can go home or not.”

Aside from the coronavirus, the 2020 Iditarod was notable for deep snow across the Alaska Range and a soft, warm trail along the Yukon River. Temperatures ranged from deep cold spells, reaching as low as negative-40 degrees in the early stages of the race, to just around the freezing point from Galena on toward the Norton Sound coast.

Waerner’s team was able to power through the slow conditions to become the new Iditarod champion after nearly 9 days and 11 hours on the trail to Nome.

Seavey and his 10-dog team crossed the finish line in second place at 6:15 a.m. Wednesday, followed by Jessie Royer and her 12 dogs in third place at 7:47 a.m. Brent Sass and his 13 dogs placed fourth at 8:57 a.m.

KNOM’s Ben Matheson contributed to this report.

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