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Norwegian musher takes lead in Iditarod as finish nears

Can-Am Crown Sled Dog Races

PORTAGE LAKE, ME - FEBRUARY 28: Christine Richardson of Canaan, N.H., makes her way across the terrain near Portage Lake during the Irving Woodlands CAC 250 during the Can-Am Crown sled dog races in Portage Lake, Maine on Saturday, Feb. 28, 2009. (Photo by Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Boston Globe via Getty Images

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) Deep snow is slowing down mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, but the leader has a secret for dealing with the difficult conditions.

“I’ve been training with 120 pounds of concrete and all the gear in the sled,” Thomas Waerner, 46, told a camera crew from the Iditarod Insider as he was preparing his sled to leave a checkpoint outside the Alaska community of Kaltag late Saturday.

“That’s perfect for these kind of conditions,” he said.

Waerner, a native of England living in Norway, was first to arrive at the next checkpoint - Unalakleet - on Sunday.

He said he’s not worried about other mushers or making a mistake in the world’s most famous sled dog race.

“I feel I just will continue what I’m doing, and that’s driving the team, looking at them and keeping my eye on the mental part of it,” Waerner said, adding that his dogs have been upbeat since the race started a week ago.

“The physical, I don’t have to worry about it, but when I see them going down mentally, that’s when you have to rest,” he said. “But they haven’t been down yet, so I’ve been lucky.”

The checkpoint in Kaltag is normally at a community hall, but this year it was set up outside the village of about 235 people, 629 miles (1,012 kilometers) miles into the nearly 1,000-mile (1,609-kilometer) race across Alaska.

The Iditarod, in consultation with community leaders, decided to bypass Kaltag over fears of the coronavirus. Similar precautions were made in the village of Nulato, where the checkpoint was moved from the village to the Yukon River.

The race is continuing, but officials have urged fans not to fly to watch the finish, especially those from outside Alaska. The winner is expected in the Bering Sea community of Nome sometime this week. Most public buildings in Nome have been closed to try to protect against the virus, and post-race activities like the musher’s banquet have been postponed.

The race started March 8 in Willow for 57 mushers, but six have since withdrawn. The latest to leave the race were Canadian rookie Martin Massicotte and veteran Alaska musher Linwood Fiedler.