Norwegian earns top rookie tag

Sorlie takes ninth

Posted: Thursday, March 14, 2002

NOME, Alaska -- At nearly every checkpoint along the trail, the two rookie mushers from Norway arrived and left within minutes of each other -- and sometimes simultaneously.

Their dog teams rested side by side.

Finally, on Tuesday evening, Robert Sorlie shook his traveling partner in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and arrived in Nome in ninth place to claim top rookie honors.

But just barely.

Kjetil Backen arrived at the finish line three minutes behind Sorlie.

Sorlie, a firefighter from Hurdal, Norway, reached Nome at 11:44 p.m. Tuesday. Backen, of Porsgrunn, finished at 11:47 p.m.

''It was good,'' Sorlie said of his first trip up the trail.

The two men congratulated each other under the burled arch that marks the finish line.

Despite the late hour, a brisk wind, and chilly temperatures, a small but enthusiastic crowd turned out to welcome the two to this Gold Rush town. Race fans at the Iditarod headquarters in Nome had been closely following the race-within-a-race.

Sorlie posted a new rookie record, finishing the race in nine days, 13 hours, 44 minutes. No rookie has ever finished the race in less than 10 days. Sorlie's ninth place finish was the highest finish by a rookie, since 1992, when Montana musher Doug Swingley also finished ninth.

Backen's finish also beat the previous rookie record of 10 days, eight minutes, set by Cim Smyth in 1996. Backen's finish is remarkable considering that he owns just 16 dogs -- just enough to make an Iditarod team.

After more than a thousand miles, the two finally began racing when they left the White Mountain checkpoint, 77 miles from Nome, Sorlie said.

Sorlie and Backen each have years of mushing experience and each has won Norway's premier long distance sled dog race, the 1,000-kilometer Finnmarkslopet. Each has spent about $50,000 to get to the starting line of the Iditarod -- a price tag that includes the cost of equipment; the cost of transporting themselves, their dogs and their handlers to Alaska; and the cost of supplies and food for themselves and their dogs as they traveled up the trail.

Their impressive performance has whetted their appetite for another Iditarod run and caught the attention of race officials and their fellow mushers.

Sorlie said he expects to be back next year.

Backen, who works for a company that produces assistive devices for handicapped people, also said he would like to run the Iditarod again. But Backen has promised his wife that he would take a break from mushing to spend more time at home with their two children.

Unless he can get sponsorship that would allow him to focus on mushing full time, Backen said he won't be back next year.

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