NOME — Eddie Burke Jr. claimed Rookie of the Year honors in the 2023 Iditarod, finishing in seventh place late Tuesday in Nome.
It’s the top rookie finish since Jessie Holmes also placed seventh in 2018.
Friends and family greeted Burke, including his daughter. Several wore custom sweatshirts with a silhouette of Burke’s face and his characteristic long, curly hair. Fans shouted, “Free the mullet!” from the side lines.
Burke, 34, said it was a hard-fought battle for the rookie honors with Hunter Keefe, who he ran close to for much of the race. He said it was a fun competition.
“Him and I both were just having a good time, but of course, I know he wanted Rookie of the Year as much as I do and it was fun battling it out,” Burke said at the finish line.
A former garbage truck driver and amateur boxer, Burke has only been competing in sled dog races for two years, but he already has an impressive resume. That includes a victory in the competitive Knik 200 earlier this year and third place in the Kuskokwim 300.
Burke grew up in Anchorage. He said he wrestled in high school and consistently ranked in the top three in the state in his weight class and was also an all-conference running back. When he was 17, he said, he started amateur boxing, earning as much as $1,500 for winning a fight at Anchorage’s Thursday Night at the Fights.
Burke said his interest in mushing started when he and a few friends visited the Iditarod banquet to bet on the race.
“One thing led to another, started running dogs, fell in love with it,” said Burke.
He met Aaron Burmeister and Tony Browning, two longtime mushers who train in Nenana. Burke ran Burmeister’s dogs in the Iditarod. Burmeister was at the finish to meet them.
Burke said his hopes for winning rookie honors were almost derailed when he fell off his sled on a stretch of trail on the Yukon River in subzero temperatures. He said he didn’t panic, but realized he wasn’t in a great situation —15 to 20 miles from the nearest checkpoint and without any way of communicating with race officials.
“I’ll try to keep it PG but it’s an ‘oh crap moment,’” he said.
Burke got a couple rides — including one from Keefe — while his team continued down the trail. He met the dogs at the next checkpoint.
“I’d say they were a little confused, but they were all healthy and okay,” he said.
Burke said he learned his lesson — to tie himself to his sled if he’s going to sleep on runs. He said he hopes he can take that lesson when he returns to the Iditarod next year.
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