NOME, Alaska (KTUU) - Norwegian musher Joar Leifseth Ulsom has won Iditarod XLVI, pulling into Nome a little after 3:00 a.m. Wednesday morning.
After years of hard work, Ulsom arrived under the burled arch in 9 days and 12 hours with eight dogs. "Awesome, fantastic, unreal," he said to a Channel 2 crew about winning.
The new truck that comes with a first-place finish for Iditarod couldn't come soon enough for Ulsom. Both tires and his rear axle fell off his truck while driving on a highway before the race start and three tow trucks were needed to bring it to a mechanic.For the estimated $50,000 in prize money, Ulsom said all of it would be going back to the dogs.
In lead for Ulsom were three-year-old Olive and four-year-old Russeren. A veterinarian told Ulsom that Russeren had parvo as a puppy, a much-feared virus for mushers that regularly proves fatal, and that the dog would not survive.
Nicolas Petit came in second to Nome and three-time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey is set to come third. Congratulations and messages of support came in for Ulsom from across the mushing world, including from four-time Iditarod champions Dallas Seavey and Jeff King.
Seavey’s Facebook page lit up with the hashtag #roarforjoar while King told a Channel 2 crew in Unalakleet that he was “rooting for Joar.” "[He] has shown an air of caution that is serving him well,” said King.
2018 is the first time a member of the Seavey family has not won Iditarod since John Baker took first in 2011. King said he was "ready for a new champion, as much as I love the Seavey dynasty."
Ulsom, 31, is also the second musher from Norway to come first in Iditarod after Robert Sørlie pulled off victories in 2003 and 2005. Ulsom spoke about the influence Sørlie had on him growing up. “I’ve been watching Iditarod ever since Robert won it, that was huge. I was a kid dreaming about one day maybe winning this race."
His victory is the first for his kennel Team Beringia and adds to his enviable record at the Last Great Race: He has started six times, finished six times and always placed seventh or higher. His first race in 2013 saw him place fourth, finish as the fastest rookie in the race’s history and win the coveted rookie of the year award.
The 2018 race for first place had been hotly contested by Ulsom, Petit and Seavey but it had not been entirely smooth sailing for the first three: The race leader got lost on the Bering Sea coast, a checkpoint was closed for layovers on the Yukon River and Ulsom enacted a risky strategy pushing on to the Iditarod checkpoint through soft snow for his 24-hour layover.
On Monday morning, Petit was comfortably leading when he took the wrong trail between Shaktoolik and Koyuk, costing him hours backtracking to the right trail. Ulsom was able to leapfrog Petit and pull into Koyuk a full hour in front of the French musher.
"He is going to be thinking about that for a long time," said Ulsom. The Norwegian had some words of encouragement for Petit, saying "he has an amazing team, he'll be back and do good."
Race director Mark Nordman said trailbreakers had put out lath to mark the trail but whiteout conditions on the Bering Sea coast are typical for the race. “That’s Iditarod,” said Nordman.
A second decisive moment occurred a few hours later: Ulsom left the Koyuk checkpoint only a few miles in front of Petit. He chose to blow through the Elim checkpoint telling the Iditarod insider crew that he “decided to keep going because [the team] looked so good.”
Petit rested for over two hours in Elim and arrived in White Mountain over three hours behind Ulsom.
After their mandatory 8-hour layovers in White Mountain, Ulsom set off with 12 dogs in harness for the final 77 mile push to Nome. Petit left White Mountain three hours later with 10 dogs, seemingly resigned to second place.
Earlier in the race, Ulsom didn’t seem quite so confident about his decision to push ahead from Ophir to Iditarod. "I was thinking like it was a really stupid move breaking trail and going so slow."
In a press conference after the race, Ulsom described that he had planned to stop for a long break in Ophir but pushed on regardless. He left so quickly that he forgot to pack food for himself. "I was like, wow, I am going to be a hungry guy."
He described the torturous conditions driving his team over a trail that had blown over with fresh snow. "I've been standing on one runner, kicking the whole freaking way. You know, it's a lot of pressure on one foot and it's like three million squats."
As Ulsom waited to complete his 24-hour layover, Petit and Seavey overtook him, allowing Petit to be the first musher into Anvik, the first checkpoint on the Yukon River.
A long push from Grayling to Kaltag saw Petit look to be in control of Iditarod XLVI.
Ulsom spoke to a Channel 2 crew in Grayling and seemed less confident about his position in the race. "I wouldn’t be surprised if we had a lot more mushers competing in this race because I think the teams with more rest are going to catch up pretty soon."
Petit arrived in Unalakleet almost four hours ahead of Seavey and Ulsom and prepared for a push up the coast. He told a Channel 2 crew in the coastal checkpoint that he had passed Seavey and Ulsom and got a boost in confidence. "I already know we have a fast dog team, we don't get passed too much."
Up the coast and Petit and Ulsom were pulling ahead of Seavey, turning a three-way fight into more of a duel. Seavey told an Iditarod insider crew in Elim that he "trained for a whole different kind of race."
Petit then had his disastrous run to Koyuk which was a full five hours longer than Ulsom's.
Arriving in White Mountain, Petit was reflective as he spoke to the Iditarod insider crew. He said the race would be a good preparation for next year and offered his congratulations to Ulsom.