ANCHORAGE, Alaska: A Norwegian musher won the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race early on Wednesday, notching the third victory ever for his home country in the 46-year history of the annual 1,000-mile (1609-km) trek across Alaska's wilderness.
Joar Leifseth Ulsom, the dogsled driver, arrived at the finish line shortly after 2:30 a.m. local time (1030 GMT) after nine days and 12 hours to become the second Norwegian to win the 1,000-mile Iditarod. Countryman Robert Sorlie won twice before - in 2003 and again in 2005.
Ulsom was greeted by Nome’s mayor and crowds of fans who lined Nome’s snow-covered Front Street, including one waving a Norwegian flag.
In the finish chute, Ulsom said he had dreamed of winning the Iditarod ever since Sorlie did.
“It’s pretty unreal that we pulled it off,” he said.
Deep snow and warmer weather, with temperatures at times topping the freezing mark, slowed the pace of this year's race. Last year, three-time winner Mitch Seavey set a record of eight days, three hours, 40 minutes and 13 seconds in hard-packed conditions.
Ulsom, driving a team of eight dogs, jumped into first place on Monday when he passed French native Nicolas Petit on the Bering Sea ice. Petit, who had held a comfortable lead, went astray as he ventured into blowing snow and lost the trail, forcing him to backtrack.
Petit told the Anchorage Daily News that he was led off-course by some markers left over from the Iron Dog snowmobile race.
By midday on Tuesday, Ulsom and Petit and their dogs had paused in the Inupiat Eskimo village of White Mountain, a mandatory eight-hour rest stop before the final dash to the finish line in Nome, a coastal Gold Rush town 77 miles (124 km)to the west.
The 31-year-old Ulsom, from the Norwegian town of Mo i Rana, just south of the Arctic Circle, has finished in the top seven in all of his past Iditarod races, and was the fastest-ever rookie in 2013.
Petit, 36, grew up in France's Normandy region and moved to Alaska in 1992. He lives in the ski town of Girdwood.
Sixty-seven mushers and their dogs started the Iditarod in Anchorage on March 3. As of Wednesday morning, eight had droppedout. Most Iditarod mushers are from Alaska, but each year several Norwegians compete in the race.
Ulsom and the other Iditarod mushers who follow him across the finish line over the next several hours and days will split a US$500,000 prize purse. As first-place champion, Ulsom also will get a new pickup truck.
Four-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey, Mitch Seavey's son, withdrew from this year's Iditarod following a dog-doping scandal. Four of his dogs tested positive for a banned opioid after last year's race. Seavey has said he is innocent, accused Iditarod officials of botching his case and suggested that he was the victim of sabotage.
Instead, the younger Seavey was in Norway during the Iditarod, where he was leading in the 1,100-kilometer (682-mile) Finnmarksløpet.
(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)