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Woman is first legally blind musher to finish Iditarod

NOME, Alaska -- Rachael Scdoris and her Iditarod sled dog
team were navigating a treacherous cliff, crisscrossed with
switchbacks, when her sled slammed into a thick spruce tree.

"It was the worst run I've ever done," said the legally blind
musher, who finished the 1,100-mile race early Saturday in Nome.

Scdoris managed to recover from the fiasco in the Alaska Range
and crossed the Iditarod finish line in the post-midnight chill of
the old gold rush town, becoming the first legally blind musher to
bring a sled dog team more than 1,100 miles from Anchorage to Nome.

Scdoris is limited to seeing blurry shapes of objects more than
a few feet away and is acutely sensitive to bright lights. She is
color blind and has 20-200 vision.

The 21-year-old from Bend, Ore., scratched last year in her
first Iditarod attempt when her dogs caught a virus.

"Everything this year was just better," Scdoris said amid a
gathering of family and friends in the finish chute under Nome's
burled spruce arch. "I learned a lot last year. I was more
organized and more confident going into this year. I knew I could
do it."

Nome's main street largely was quiet as Scdoris and trail guide
Tim Osmar arrived almost side-by-side at 1:42 a.m. Curious
spectators left the saloons for a few minutes to watch and cheer as
Scdoris and Osmar arrived, before the cold drove them back inside.

Osmar arrived 56th and Scdoris was 57th in a field of 72 teams,
not counting 11 who scratched from the race. They completed the
race in 12 days, 11 hours, 42 minutes. Leading teams this year
finished in nine to 10 days.

The most harrowing segment of the Iditarod, both agreed,
occurred in the first quarter of the race, where dog teams plunge
blindly over the lip of a canyon onto a cliff called the Happy
River Steps.

As the two navigated the trail at night with only headlamps to
guide them, Scdoris rammed into a thick spruce tree, snapping the
line connecting her sled to her 16 dogs.

"When I heard her screaming I was real happy because I knew she
was alive," Osmar said.

The bushy-bearded Iditarod veteran caught Scdoris' dogs as they
took off down the trail and guided them and his own team to the
bottom of the steps, a steep slope with sudden switchbacks where
many mushers wipe out each year en route to the Rainy Pass
checkpoint in the Alaska Range. There are 24 checkpoints along the
trail.

Scdoris said she grabbed her sled and walked with it to the
bottom of the steps, where Osmar and another musher, Jim Warren,
had managed to halt the two teams.

"I figured if anybody could catch my dogs, it would be him,"
Scdoris said.

Osmar also thought he lost Scdoris one night on the sea ice
along the Bering Sea coast on the way to the village checkpoint of
Koyuk.
After waiting almost an hour, Osmar decided to complete the
remaining 2 miles to Koyuk, borrow a snowmobile and go out and find
her.
"I pictured snowmachines, helicopters the National Guard and
whatever," Osmar said. "But when I got there, she was already
there with straw laid down for the dogs."

Scdoris said she had fallen asleep on the sled, as many mushers
do, and veered off the trail.

"It was so flat and so early in the morning, it was hard not to
doze," Scdoris said. "I woke up in jumbled ice and no other dog
tracks."

Osmar said he wanted to help Scdoris because he admired her grit
in attempting the race last year. He also wasn't planning on being
very competitive this year because he was running a young,
inexperienced dog team.

"I was in the position to help her, so I did," he said.

The Iditarod Trail Committee until 2004 had been reluctant to
allow Scdoris to race. Several mushers had been worried for her
safety and said she wouldn't be able to carry out the demanding and
time-consuming dog care required along the trail.

"She did a heck of a great job with the dog care," said Osmar,
who has run the Iditarod 21 times.

Despite her accomplishment, Scdoris said she wasn't yet ready to
commit to another Iditarod.

"We made it," Scdoris said. "I'm just looking forward to
sleeping and taking a shower."