NOME - A Norwegian firefighter traversed one of the slushiest trails ever, dropping half his dog team along the way, to win a four-way surge to the finish line Wednesday in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Waving a Norwegian flag, Robert Sorlie, 47, crossed under the burled arch that serves as a finish line in Nome at 8:39 a.m., winning the 1,100-mile race across Alaska in nine days, 18 hours, 39 minutes and 31 seconds. It was his second victory in just three tries - and one of the closest races in years.
Sorlie was still in the winner's circle when Ed Iten, 51, of Kotzebue, crossed the finish line 34 minutes later, followed seven minutes later by 2004 winner Mitch Seavey, 45, of Seward. He was there to greet his 26-year-old nephew, Norwegian Bjornar Andersen, who finished fourth - the best rookie showing ever - at 9:50 a.m., 81 minutes behind his uncle.
"I was always worried about the other mushers," Sorlie said. "In the last three days I have slept one hour each night."
Sorlie won $72,066.67 and a pickup truck for his victory in the 33rd Iditarod. The top 30 finishers share most of the $750,000 total purse.
Unseasonably warm weather also made this year's race a greater test than his previous runs, race leaders said. Above-freezing temperatures turned much of the route into a wet, sloppy mess. The temperature had dropped to 25 degrees when Sorlie reached Nome, though locals trucked in snow to provide a fresh finish down Front Street.
Colder weather is easier on the dogs, which generally run best in a range from 20 degrees below zero to 20 degrees above. Lack of a solid snow base forced race officials to move the March 6 start from Wasilla to Willow, and patches of grass were visible along some stretches of trail.
"It was so warm in the race we could have used T-shirts," Sorlie said, laughing.
Seavey said the course was awful: "The trail was soft and punchy. We spent hours and hours and hours wallowing in deep snow."
Sorlie finished the race with eight dogs, having dropped eight sick, sore or tired dogs at checkpoints along the trail. It was half the 16 required at the start of the race, but the same number that pulled him to victory two years ago. His team traveled an average 4.65 mph this year.
The Iditarod is a fairly recent challenge for Sorlie, a three-time champion of Norway's premier long-distance sled dog race, the 600-mile Finnmarkslopet.
"I think I am an ambassador for the Iditarod in my country," Sorlie said. "This is good for the sport, it is good for me and for all the mushers."
This year's 1,100-mile trip from Anchorage to Nome, a town of 3,500 at the edge of the frozen Bering Sea, was Sorlie's third. He finished ninth on his first try in 2002 - a rookie record broken Wednesday by his nephew, though Sorlie's time in '02 was almost seven hours faster.
As in his 2003 victory, Sorlie grabbed the lead early. The owner of a small kennel, he fended off a strong field that included five other Iditarod champions, including Seavey, and seasoned veterans like runner-up Iten and Ramy Brooks of Healy, runner-up in 2002 and 2003.
Brooks, 36, finished fifth at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, followed 11 minutes later by John Baker of Kotzebue. Lance Mackey of Kasilof finished seventh at 2:21 p.m.- three weeks after winning the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. By midafternoon, he'd been followed by Jessie Royer of Fairbanks, Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof and No. 10 DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow.
Sorlie said he worried about the close competition on the last leg to Nome.
"I (strained) my neck because I kept looking back," he quipped.
Sorlie, from Hurdal, Norway, is the second Iditarod winner born outside the United States and the second non-Alaskan to win. Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., won four times and Martin Buser, a Swiss native who has lived in Alaska more than two decades, became a U.S. citizen after winning his fourth Iditarod in 2002.
Sorlie credited his team for the win. The dogs were chosen from a pool of 50 owned by himself, Andersen and fellow Norwegian Kjetil Backen, who placed third in '04 and served as an Iditarod handler this year.
Sorlie plans to sit out the 2006 race, but said his nephew will be back.
"This year was my time to take the best team," he said. "Next year will be for Bjornar."
Fifteen mushers have scratched from the original field of 79.
Two left the race Wednesday. Legally blind rookie Rachael Scdoris of Bend, Ore., quit at Eagle Island. Karen Ramstead of Perryvale, Alberta, dropped out at Unalakleet.