Norwegian wins Iditarod dogsled race

Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2003

NOME, Alaska (AP) -- Robert Sorlie, a Norwegian musher who lost and then regained the lead in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, was first across the finish line early Thursday.

Sorlie, a 45-year-old firefighter from Hurdahl, waved to the hundreds of cheering early-morning spectators on Front Street as he led his eight-dog team to victory at 1:47 a.m. ahead of Ramy Brooks of Healy and Jeff King of Denali Park, a three-time Iditarod champion.

Brooks crossed the finish line nearly two hours later.

''I'm feeling very well,'' Sorlie said, then hugged his wife, Elin Pedersen, waiting for him in the winner's circle.

Sorlie finished the race in nine days, 15 hours and 47 minutes.

For winning, Sorlie will take home $68,571 and a new truck.

''That truck is mine,'' he said before leaving the village of White Mountain on Wednesday afternoon for the 77-mile home stretch to Nome. Brooks conceded Sorlie had the victory when he left the checkpoint one and a half hours behind the Norwegian.

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

This would be his 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.

Sorlie is also 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. Last year he finished ninth in the Iditarod to post a new rookie record and was named rookie of the year.

This year Sorlie took the lead early, methodically pacing his dogs for a slow but steady pace with shorter rest stops than many of his competitors.

But Brooks forged ahead briefly on Tuesday. As Sorlie rested his team in the village of Koyuk, Brooks streaked into the checkpoint, stopped just long enough to grab some straw and food for himself and his team, then took off for Elim, 48 miles away.

Sorlie, startled by the move, passed Brooks on the trail and arrived first in Elim at 1:05 a.m. Wednesday. Brooks arrived 47 minutes later, but was gone one minute later. Sorlie chased after him two minutes later, quickly overtaking him.

Brooks, 34, also got rookie of the year recognition when he raced in his first Iditarod in 1994, finishing 17th. He has raced every year except in 1999 when he won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. His best finish in the Iditarod was second last year and he was expected to repeat that performance again Thursday.

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 -- where the real racing begins -- 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 decided to drop the last leg of the route 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 race between Anchorage and Nome began in 1973.

The initial route change was praised by some animal rights groups, who noted race officials' acknowledgment toward the dogs' safety and health. Other rights groups continue to criticize the race, however, even though scores of veterinarians examine the teams throughout the race.

Other top mushers this year include King, who left White Mountain at 11:37 p.m. Wednesday, and Buser, who was running fourth, arriving in White Mountain at 8:36 p.m. Ken Anderson was fifth, clocking in at White Mountain at 9:57 p.m.

In sixth place was John Baker, who reached White Mountain at 12:03 a.m. Thursday, followed two minutes later by Linwood Fiedler.

Completing the top 10 were Ramey Smyth, Ed Iten and Sonny Lindner. All had left Elim Wednesday night.

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