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Nome, Alaska, cheers for native son challenging to win Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

03/17/2015 09:07 EDT | Updated 05/17/2015 05:12 EDT
NOME, Alaska - There's a special excitement in the air in Nome as the lead mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race get close to the finish line in the Bering Sea coastal community.

Nome always goes all out to welcome the mushers, but this year, one of their own is vying for the championship.

Aaron Burmeister, 39, was in third place behind defending champion and race leader Dallas Seavey and his father, Mitch Seavey, who was in second place Tuesday afternoon.

Nome residents and visitors are known to leave the bars that populate Front Street in droves as the mushers come off the sea ice and come down the street at the end of the thousand-mile race. But a Burmeister victory could be an all-out celebration.

"We have a couple of mushers that race other ventures, but he's the only one that races Iditarod," resident Aaron Cooper said. "And I mean, it would be a pretty big celebration if Aaron won it."

People would be "pouring out of the bars, coming out the houses," he said. "Kind of a hometown hero, you could say."

Stan Hooley, the Iditarod's chief executive officer, said if someone from Nome were to win, "we'd see a celebration at the finish line like we've never seen before."

Dallas Seavey was the first musher into the checkpoint at White Mountain, where mushers and their dogs must take a mandatory eight-hour break. Seavey can begin the last 124 kilometres of the race to Nome at 6:10 p.m. Tuesday. If his three-hour lead holds up, that could put him into Nome early Wednesday morning.

But at the checkpoint, Seavey told Anchorage television station KTUU, "Anyone remember last year?"

Jeff King, a four-time champion, was in a similar position last year with a big lead. He was 40 kilometres from the finish line when a sudden snowstorm with unrelenting winds blew him out of the race.

"This is ominously too familiar," Seavey said. "A team out in front with a lot of speed was guaranteed to win it, and they didn't."

Seavey said he's not ready to claim victory.

"We just need to keep mushing, keep being smart and we'll get it," he said.

Behind Burmeister in the standings are Jessie Royer and Aliy Zirkle, who are trying to become the first female winner of the Iditarod since the late Susan Butcher won her fourth title in 1990.

Burmeister was born and raised in Nome and he lives there, even though he also trains an hour outside of Fairbanks. His father, Richard Burmeister, is an Iditarod veteran.

Aaron and his wife, Mandy, have two children. He's a certified teacher and works as a manager in the construction field.

What could a Burmeister win mean?

"Well that would be the golden ticket for him and his family," said resident Pat Booth. "'Cause he grew up here in Nome, and he's married to a girl from Nome, and so we just all are really cheering him."

Nome's mayor, Denise Michels, gave a hearty laugh when asked if a Burmeister victory could spell the end of her 12 years in office.

"More power to him," she joked with a double thumbs-up gesture.

"It would be so awesome if one of our own sons would be able to win the race," Michels said. "Of course, all the mushers, they're great, too, but I think that would make it just a perfect cherry topping for the nice snow that we have here if he was able to win."

Jason Campeau of Rocky Mountain House, Alta., is the top Canadian, sitting 12th. Michelle Phillips of Tagish, Yukon, is 17th, followed by Whitehorse's Rob Cooke (48th) and Brian Wilmshurst (49th) of Dawson City, Yukon.

Marcelle Fressineau is 56th and Yuka Honda is 60th. Both are from Whitehorse.

Poor weather and trail conditions south of the Alaska Range forced the start of the race over a mountain range to Fairbanks. There were 78 mushers at the start March 9. Eight mushers have scratched and one has been disqualified.

Two dogs have died in the race, including one on four-time champion Lance Mackey's team. The other was hit by a car after it got loose at the race's ceremonial start in Anchorage on March 7.

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