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'Mission accomplished': Northland musher Nathan Schroeder talks about finishing Iditarod

Musher Nathan Schroeder of Chisholm is interviewed at the finish of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Wednesday morning in Nome, Alaska, in this image from video. Schroeder, a three-time champion of the Northland's John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, was the top rookie in this year's Iditarod and finished 17th overall. ( photo)

Traversing the ice along Alaska's forbidding Bering Sea coast this week, with no protection from swirling 40 mph winds pushing his sled in all directions, Northland musher Nathan Schroeder glanced back from his sled and caught a strange sight: His lead dogs.

The wind had pushed him ahead of his team.

"Wow," was his one-word assessment of that welcome-to-the-Iditarod moment, spoken Wednesday from Nome about five hours after finishing his first attempt at the legendary, grueling, nearly 1,000-mile race across the Alaskan wilderness.

Not only did he complete the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, but Schroeder, 36, of Chisholm, was this year's top rookie. And his 17th-place finish was among the best by any race rookie in the past two decades.

"Kind of worn-out, tired -- but mission accomplished," he told the News Tribune. "The whole way was very challenging. Every step was a challenge."

"A big sigh of relief," said Schroeder's father, Vern, who met his son at the finish line. "After the trail conditions and the bad weather -- it was good to see him get in in one piece."

Nathan Schroeder, a three-time champion of the Northland's John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, crossed the Iditarod finish line Wednesday at 8:52 a.m. Alaska time, or just before noon in Minnesota. He finished in 17th place of the 50 teams who have either finished or are still on the trail, with a time of 9 days, 17 hours, 52 minutes, 51 seconds. The race began with 69 teams on March 2 in Willow, north of Anchorage; it was plagued by a lack of snow and very rough trails near the start, and harsh weather near the finish -- including the winds that blew Schroeder around on his way to the Koyuk checkpoint.

Dallas Seavey won his second Iditarod in three years when he reached Nome on Tuesday in record time but in a chaotic finish, with the weather contributing to several lead changes in the final few dozen miles.

Schroeder and his team of 11 dogs left the Safety checkpoint, about 20 miles from the finish in Nome, at 6:15 a.m. Wednesday -- the same time as fellow rookie Abbie West and her team of eight. Schroeder and West traded the lead rookie spot for much of the race before Schroeder pulled ahead in the final leg.

Schroeder said that mushers aren't required to wear their race bibs in the middle of the race, but are required to don them at the start and finish. He said West apparently had tried to get hers on during the quick pause at Safety, but somehow it slipped off and fell on the trail just as she left for Nome.

Schroeder, virtually alongside with his team running, noticed and yelled to alert West so she wouldn't reach the finish line and be disqualified; she had to stop to retrieve the bib, and Schroeder gained a lead he wouldn't relinquish. He finished about 5½ minutes ahead of West, with his dogs in good condition and Schroeder himself suffering only from some frostbite on his nose and a lack of sleep.

Schroeder admitted Wednesday that while he had talked before the race about just wanting to finish, he had set a goal in his mind of being the top rookie.

"I knew I had the best team out there among the rookies," he said, including lead dogs Bandit and Fillmore.

And the secret to his success?

"Patience," Schroeder said. "I didn't go in racing hard. I wanted to, but I also wanted to finish."

Cindy Schroeder said her son "stuck to his guns" when it comes to strategy. He made sure he got plenty of rest at the beginning of the race, she said. Some of his fans were itching for him to pick things up.

When he did pick it up down the final stretch, supporters in the Northland kept an online vigil for the latest race updates.

"I was on pins and needles all night," said Cindy Schroeder, who planned to fly to Alaska to celebrate with her husband, Vern, and their son.

Nathan Schroeder left for Alaska shortly after winning the Beargrease in late January. He brought 24 dogs to Alaska and used 16 in the race, handler Kerry Nelson said. She was taking care of the extra and dropped dogs in Knik , 40 miles north of Anchorage and near the start of the race.

"I'm holding down the camp," she said. When weather allows, Schroeder and his father will fly with the dogs who finished from Nome to Anchorage, where Nelson will meet them. Nelson and Vern Schroeder will drive the team back to Minnesota, while Nathan Schroeder will fly back to see his wife and three kids in Chisholm after weeks away from home.

Linda Nervick, an organizer for the Beargrease, met up with Schroeder for the Iditarod start in Willow. On Wednesday, she was back at her job in downtown Duluth, watching Schroeder finish via an Internet feed.

"I am so proud of him," she said. Nervick said Schroeder was his typical humble self before the race, telling her he simply wanted to run a "clean race with healthy dogs" and to finish.

The top rookie finish brought Nervick out to East Superior Street, where she recorded herself howling and congratulating Schroeder and his team.

Completing the Iditarod fulfilled a lifelong dream for Schroeder, who first was introduced to sled dogs as a kid growing up in Warba , near Grand Rapids. Would he consider doing it again? "We'll see," was all he said Wednesday, wanting to recuperate a bit before thinking about the future.

"He said if you asked him right after the race, he'd say no to another one," Cindy Schroeder said. "A month later? He might think about another."