Norwegian Thomas Wærner wins Iditarod 48
The American and Alaska flags lining Front Street in Nome were flapping busily in the 18 mph west wind when Norwegian musher Thomas Wærner became the 2020 champion of Iditarod 48.
Waerner finished the race in nine days, 10 hours and 37 minutes and 47 seconds. He arrived in Nome on Wednesday morning at 12:37 a.m. with ten enthusiastic dogs in harness.
The welcoming scene in Nome was quite different from previous Iditarod finishes when large crowds greeted the champion under the Burled Arch on Front Street.
Due to an aggressive campaign to keep non-essential travelers out of Nome for the Iditarod due to the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic, there were only a couple hundred fans who made it to the finish line as people are discouraged from attending mass gatherings or events. It may have been only a few fans, but they welcomed Wærner to Nome with gusto.
Just hours before Wærner finished his race, the Nome Common Council voted to significantly step up measures in hopes to slow the spread of the virus to Nome. Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach addressed the council, saying that the organization tries to limit its stay in Nome, moving mushers, their dogs and handlers out of Nome as soon as possible.
Celebrations of the mushers’ accomplishments that traditionally take place on the Sunday banquet and the Red Lantern banquet are canceled.
Mushers encountered heavy snow in the first stages of the race, then cold temperatures in the Alaska Range and toward the interior checkpoints. At the coast a series of warm storms began on Tuesday night with more severe storms and blizzards forecasted for the rest of the week.
Wærner took the lead when he left Kaltag as the first musher and did the 85-mile stretch to Unalakleet in one run. This gained him a lead of five hours that he managed to maintain until he reached Nome.
When media interviewed the newly crowned champion under the burled arch, he said he decided to take a long run from Kaltag to Unalakleet, as that long run could’ve taken the speed out of the team, but they did well and he didn’t loose any of their zip. It was amazing, he said. he was surprised that nobody followed him. He said he has confidence in the team. “As long as you give them the rest they need and the food and nutrition they need, and you always pay attention to the dogs, what they need, if you listen to the dogs, then you can go long runs and do things,” he said, while holding his lead dogs K2 and Bark on the championship podium.
He said he has been dreaming of running the Iditarod since he was 11 years old. “It’s the ultimate thing you can do as a dog musher,” he said. “Normally I can really speak, but I’m flat,” he said, overwhelmed with his victory. This was only his second Iditarod he entered and that he aimed to win the Iditarod maybe in three years. He spoke of the high caliber of competition that he observed around him, specifically mentioning Jessie Royer and her gift for dog care and “the feeling in the fingertips what the dogs need, the way she’s feeding and running them,” he said. Asked if he would be returning to the Iditarod next year, he said it’s very expensive, but that he will leave all his gear here in Alaska.
Waerner, 46, was born in England and raised in Norway. According to the musher profile on the Iditarod website, he started mushing with sled dogs in 1984. He was a dog handler for Iditarod musher Roger Legaard in 1990 as well as sprint mushing legends Charlie Champagne and Roxy Wright in 1991. He started long-distance racing in 2003 and ran the Iditarod in 2015, finishing in 17th place and garnering rookie of the year honors.
His team won both the Femund and Finnmark sled dog races last season. Waerner runs an electrical company with 14 employees.