By Mark Thiessen The Associated Press
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Joar Ulsom of Norway won the world’s most famous sled dog race Wednesday after a grueling dash across Alaska’s rough terrain, but he earned tens of thousands of dollars less than last year’s top musher at the struggling Iditarod.
“It’s pretty unreal I pulled it off,” Ulsom told reporters at the finish line in Nome, Alaska.
After nearly 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometres), Ulsom and the eight dogs on his team came off the Bering Sea ice onto Nome’s main street. He slapped hands with fans who lined the streets and went under the finish line at 3 a.m. local time Wednesday.
“I don’t know what to say about it. It’s out of this world,” he said before hugging each of his dogs. His supporters crowded the finish line, one waving Norway’s flag.
Ulsom’s victory generated heavy media attention in Norway, a winter sports nation still basking in the glory of winning the most medals at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“This is completely insane. It’s fantastic to win this race here,” Ulsom said, according to Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “It was rather tough. It was hard to keep my tears back when I crossed the finish line.”
The 31-year-old, who took the lead Monday when Nicolas Petit got off course in a blizzard, became the third person born outside the U.S. to claim the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. He’s also the second Norwegian after Robert Sorlie, a two-time winner who cheered Ulsom’s progress along the trail.
Ulsom said he had no idea he had taken the lead when Petit got off course. He saw a sled track ahead of him, and figured he would find someone resting at the checkpoint.
It was a pleasant surprise when he found out he was the first musher to arrive, and figured he had “a good shot at taking it home then.”
Ulsom moved in 2011 from Norway to Willow, Alaska, the dog mushing capital of the U.S. He first entered the Iditarod in 2013, when he was named rookie of the year, and has never finished below seventh place. His previous best finishes were fourth-place rankings in both 2017 and 2014.
Ulsom picks up about $50,000, a drop from the 2017 winner’s earnings of more than $71,000.
The race, which began March 4, has been suffering financially and lost the Wells Fargo bank as a major sponsor over the last year. Organizers have blamed animal rights activists for putting pressure on sponsors.
The Iditarod also was marked by fallout from its first-ever dog doping scandal. Race officials announced that the team of four-time champion Dallas Seavey tested positive for the opioid painkiller tramadol after his second-place finish last March but said they could not prove he gave the drug to his dogs.
Officials did not punish Seavey but changed race rules to make mushers responsible for any positive drug tests. Seavey, who won four titles between 2012 and 2016, denied giving drugs to his dogs and sat out this year’s race in protest.
The Iditarod also reprimanded but did not fire the head of its drug testing program on Monday after a musher claimed Dr. Morrie Craig threatened him minutes before the race’s start.
Musher Wade Marrs said Craig threatened to expose him as another musher who had a positive drug test last year. Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George has said Seavey’s team had the only positive test.
Marrs, who is president of the Iditarod Official Finishers Club, said he felt Craig was trying to punish him for criticizing how the race handled Seavey’s case and to silence him before a mushers meeting this week.
The Iditarod said the context and intent of the conversation between Marrs and Craig differed but acknowledged that it was ill-timed. Officials also said Craig should only communicate test results to board members and that any further actions deemed detrimental to the race would result in further disciplinary action, including possible termination.
Sixty-seven mushers started the race north of Anchorage. Eight of those, including Marrs, left the race.