Norwegian wins Iditarod dogsled race

Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2003

NOME, Alaska (AP) -- Norway's Robert Sorlie cruised to victory Thursday in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race, after grabbing an early lead and fighting off a late challenge in the last 170-miles of the race.

Sorlie, a 45-year-old firefighter from Hurdal, waved to hundreds of cheering spectators on Nome's Front Street as he led his eight-dog team to victory at 1:47 a.m.

''I'm feeling very well,'' Sorlie said, then hugged his wife, Elin Pedersen, waiting for him under the burled arch that marks the finish line of the race in this Gold Rush town on the frozen Bering Sea. The temperature hovered near zero as Sorlie's team trotted into town.

Sorlie finished the race in nine days, 15 hours and 47 minutes. He will take home $68,571 and a new truck.

''This is now a world race, thanks to you,'' said Gov. Frank Murkowski, who was on hand to congratulate Sorlie at the finish line.

''It is for me, a dream come true,'' Sorlie said.

Sorlie battled blowing snow and bitterly cold temperatures on the last 77-mile leg of the race.

''It was a tough trail between White Mountain and Nome -- wind, cold, much wind-blown snow -- but I'm feeling good now,'' Sorlie said. ''It's good to come to Nome.''

Ramy Brooks of Healy finished second, reaching Nome at 3:37 a.m. Brooks staged a late challenge to Sorlie, passing him on the Bering Sea coast by cutting his rest time before eventually falling behind. It was Brooks' second consecutive, second-place finish.

This will be Sorlie's last Iditarod for at least two years. Sorlie has said that he promised his wife he would not run the race next year.

It was only the second time Sorlie had made the 1,100-mile trek to Nome, a town of 3,500 along the shore of the frozen Bering Sea. He finished his first Iditarod last year as the top rookie and set a new record for the fastest finish by a rookie.

Sorlie is only the second non-Alaskan to win the Iditarod and the second winner who was born outside the United States. The first non-Alaskan was four-time champion Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., and the first non-U.S. native was Martin Buser, a native of Switzerland who has lived in Alaska more than 20 years and became a U.S. citizen after winning his fourth Iditarod last year.

Sorlie is a three-time champion of Norway's premier long-distance sled dog race, the 600-mile Finnmarkslopet.

Hours behind Sorlie were some of Alaska's top mushers, including three-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park and defending champion and four-time winner Martin Buser of Big Lake.

King was in third place, leaving the Safety checkpoint, 22 miles from Nome, at 6:05 a.m. King said he was impressed with Sorlie's performance.

''He's a class act,'' King said at White Mountain. ''I'm very happy for him for pulling this off.''

Buser was in fourth place, leaving the White Mountain checkpoint at 4:36 a.m.

Sixty-four mushers signed up for the 2003 Iditarod to compete for a $600,000 purse. By late Wednesday, 15 mushers had scratched, leaving 49 mushers still in the race.

A lack of snow south of the Alaska Range and warm winter temperatures forced race officials to change the route of this year's race. Instead of canceling the entire event, the race's restart was moved north to Fairbanks.

The new route was 70 miles longer than the traditional trail and followed terrain that even veteran mushers weren't familiar with. Then, last weekend, race organizers decide to shorten the race, dropping a loop between Anvik and Shageluk because of poor trail conditions. That cut about 50 miles from the route.

The changes were the most drastic since the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome was first run in 1973.

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