ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Norwegian musher Thomas Waerner easily won the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race across Alaska, one of the few U.S. sporting events not canceled by concerns over the coronavirus.
Waerner crossed the finish line in Nome, Alaska, early Wednesday morning.
"This is awesome,'' he told reporters at the finish line. "This is something special.''
It took him 9 days, 10 hours, 37 minutes and 47 seconds to travel nearly 1,000 miles across Alaska.
Waerner immediately thanked the 10 dogs in harness, petting and rubbing each, ending with his lead dogs, K2 and Bark. Then each dog got a snack. Waerner called K2 "an amazing dog. He has this inside engine that never stops.''
Bark, he said, is the tough one. "He's the one just charging through everything. It doesn't matter what comes, he will just go through it, storms or whatever. So the two together are an amazing team.''
Fans didn't employ social distancing as they poured out of bars and hotels to cheer Waerner as he drove the team off the Bering Sea ice and down Front Street to the finish line under the famed burled arch. He will earn a minimum of $50,000 and a pickup truck for winning the race. The actual cash amount will depend on how many mushers finish the race, a factor in how the prize money is divvied out.
The 47-year-old musher won the Iditarod in only his second attempt. He finished 17th in 2015, when he was named Rookie of the Year.
Waerner took command of this year's race in the late stages and steadily built an insurmountable lead. The closest musher to Waerner was three-time champion Mitch Seavey, who was about five hours behind.
Waerner becomes the third Norwegian to win the Iditarod. Joar Leifseth Ulsom won the 2018 race, and Robert Sorlie twice won the Iditarod, in 2003 and 2005. Waerner, who lives in Torpa, Norway, won the 745-mile Finnmarkslopet, the longest sled dog race in Europe, in 2019.
The Iditarod began March 8 just north of Anchorage for 57 mushers, the second-smallest field in two decades. They crossed two mountain ranges and mushed on the frozen Yukon River before reaching the Bering Sea. Since the race started, 11 mushers have withdrawn from the race.
Fears over the coronavirus prompted big changes along the trail for race officials. They asked fans not to fly to Nome for the finish after the city, like many in Alaska, closed public buildings. In some other villages, which serve as checkpoints along the nearly 1,000-mile course, official check-in points were moved outside the communities to limit contact. In one case, the checkpoint was held on the Yukon River.
Cash prizes have shrunk the past few years. Seavey won $71,250 for winning the 2017 race, while 2019 champion Pete Kaiser received only $51,299.
"This is a money-spending sport,'' Waerner said when accepting a $2,500 check from a sponsor Monday for being the first musher to reach the checkpoint in White Mountain, Alaska.