NOME — Brent Sass has won the 50th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a first for the Eureka-based musher and three-time Yukon Quest champion.
Sass cruised to the finish line on Nome’s Front Street at 5:38 am Tuesday, wrapping up his nearly 1,000-mile journey in 8 days, 14 hours, 38 minutes and 43 seconds.
The 42-year-old, originally from Minnesota, had 11 dogs in harness when he crossed under the burled arch to cheers, whoops and whistles from the spectators lining the finish chute under a still-dark sky.
“It’s awesome,” Sass said when asked about his first win. “It’s a dream come true.”
He fed his dogs snacks and petted and congratulated them. He said he was “super, super, super proud” of his team: “It’s all on them. They did an excellent job the whole race.”
“Every one of these dogs I’ve raised from puppies, and we’ve been working towards this goal the whole time, and we’re here,” he said, his voice cracking. “It’s crazy.”
He was presented with an oversized check for $50,000 and posed for photos with his lead dogs, Slater and Morello.
Sass had ice in his beard when he stepped off his sled, and a massive grin on his face as he faced a jubilant crowd. He described severe winds on the run from White Mountain to Nome, saying “it was a lot of work, but a lot of fun.”
His dad, Mark Sass, stood near the burled arch in anticipation of his son’s pre-sunrise arrival and hugged him at the finish line.
“He’s worked really, really, really hard for this,” Mark Sass said.
Forty-nine mushers entered this year’s Iditarod, and five have dropped out so far. Sass’ closest and fiercest competitor, five-time champion Dallas Seavey, narrowed the gap between them early Tuesday but never got close enough to overtake Sass, who held the lead from the race’s midway point onward.
“Being able to sort of keep him at bay the whole entire race and race against the best guy in the business, that just makes this victory even sweeter,” Sass said.
Seavey, 35, arrived in Nome with seven dogs in harness an hour and eight minutes after Sass. Seavey’s father, Mitch, is a three-time champion who’s competing this year, and his grandfather Dan ran the first Iditarod in 1973. A victory would have given Dallas the record for most Iditarod wins, and he has said he plans to step back from the race after this year.
Behind Sass and Seavey, mushers in the chase pack were taking their mandatory eight-hour layovers at White Mountain, 77 miles from Nome, and weren’t expected to cross the finish line until nighttime.
Tuesday’s victory builds on Sass’ third-place finish in 2021, his best result since he entered his first Iditarod in 2012, when he finished in 13th and earned rookie of the year honors.
When he started mushing, he set out to win the thousand-mile Yukon Quest and the Iditarod. He’s worked toward that goal for years and can now, finally, check it off his list.
“It’s been overwhelming, the support I’ve gotten all over the state, all over the world the last six months,” Sass said Tuesday morning.
Born in Excelsior, Minnesota, and raised in the Twin Cities area, Sass came to Alaska in 1998 to attend college in Fairbanks, where he skied competitively.
Sass lives and runs his Wild and Free kennel year-round out of a homestead in Eureka, a remote area 150 miles from Fairbanks and 30 miles from the tiny town of Manley Hot Springs, the closest community.
This year, Sass closed up the homestead so he could live and train at a cabin near Fairbanks, in part so there were less chores to keep up with as he honed his dog team and competed in races.
Four of the 14 dogs Sass started this year’s Iditarod with are newbies that had never run to Nome. His leaders, Slater and Morello, come from litters named for characters from the 1993 Richard Linklater film “Dazed and Confused” and the Netflix show “Orange is the New Black,” respectively.
Before the start of this year’s race, Sass described what it would take to win the Iditarod.
“A lot of things have to come together,” he said during the ceremonial start in Anchorage. “You gotta have a lot of luck, you gotta be prepared and you gotta execute perfectly.”
This year marks the Iditarod finish’s return to Nome after last year’s route was altered to be an out-and-back trail from Deshka Landing, near Willow, in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In the finish area, Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach said that getting to Nome is the essence of the race’s journey.
”The energy here is tremendous,” Urbach said following Sass’ win.
Zachariah Hughes reported from Anchorage and Morgan Krakow reported from Nome. Marc Lester contributed reporting from Anchorage.