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Sorlie battles wins 1,770km Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

Thursday March 17, 2005

Sorlie battles wins 1,770km Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

NOME, Alaska (AP) - Norway's Robert Sorlie traversed one of the slushiest trails ever, overcoming insomnia and a dwindling dog team to win his second Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in one of the closest races in years. 

Waving a Norwegian flag, Sorlie crossed under the burled arch that serves as a finish line in Nome at 8:39 a.m. (1739 GMT), completing the 1,100-mile (1,770-kilometer) race across Alaska in nine days, 18 hours, 39 minutes and 31 seconds.  

It was his second victory in three tries in the grueling race. 

Sorlie was still in the winner's circle when Ed Iten crossed the line 34 minutes later. 

Norway's Robert Sorlie waves his country's flag as he drives his dog team across the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Nome, Alaska, Wednesday, March 16, 2005, to win his second Iditarod in only three tries. - AP Photo/ Al Grillo  

Seven minutes later, 2004 winner and fellow American Mitch Seavey finished. 

Sorlie, a 47-year-old firefighter, greeted his 26-year-old nephew, Norwegian Bjornar Andersen, who finished fourth, the best rookie showing ever, 81 minutes after he completed his winning run. 

"I was always worried about the other mushers,'' Sorlie said.  

"In the last three days, I have slept one hour each night.'' 

Sorlie won $72,066.67 (euro53,880) and a pickup truck for his victory in the 33rd Iditarod.  

The top 30 finishers share a $750,000 (euro560,830) purse. 

Unseasonably warm weather made this year's race a greater test than previous runs, race leaders said.  

Above-freezing temperatures turned much of the route into a wet, sloppy mess.  

The temperature had dropped to 25 degrees F (minus 3 C) when Sorlie reached Nome, but locals had trucked in snow to provide a fresh finish on Front Street. 

Colder weather is easier on the dogs, which generally run best in a range from 20 degrees below zero to 20 degrees above F (minus 28 to minus 6 C). 

Lack of a solid snow base forced race officials to move the March 6 start from Wasilla to Willow, and patches of grass were visible along some stretches of trail. 

"It was so warm in the race we could have used T-shirts,'' Sorlie said, laughing. Seavey said the course was awful. 

"The trail was soft and punchy,'' he said. 

"We spent hours and hours and hours wallowing in deep snow.'' 

Sorlie finished the race with eight dogs, having dropped eight sick, sore or tired dogs at checkpoints along the route. 

He completed the race with half the 16 required at the start, and with the same number that pulled him to victory two years ago.  

His winning team traveled an average 4.65 mph (7.48 kph). 

The Iditarod is a fairly recent challenge for Sorlie, a three-time champion of Norway's premier long-distance sled dog race, the 600-mile (965-kilometer) Finnmarkslopet. 

"I think I am an ambassador for the Iditarod in my country,'' Sorlie said. "This is good for the sport, it is good for me and for all the mushers.'' 

This year's 1,100-mile (1,770-kilometer) trip from Anchorage to Nome, a town of 3,500 at the edge of the frozen Bering Sea, was Sorlie's third. 

He finished almost seven hours faster and was ninth on his first try in 2002, a rookie record broken by his nephew on Wednesday. 

As in his 2003 victory, Sorlie grabbed the lead early. 

The owner of a small kennel, he fended off a strong field that included five former Iditarod champions, including Seavey, and seasoned veterans like runner-up Iten and Ramy Brooks, who was second in 2002 and '03. 

The 36-year-old Brooks finished fifth and was followed 11 minutes later by John Baker. Sorlie said he worried about the close competition on the last leg to Nome. 

"I (strained) my neck because I kept looking back,'' he said, joking. 

Sorlie, from Hurdal, Norway, is the second Iditarod winner born outside the United States and the second non-Alaskan to win. 

Doug Swingley won four times and Martin Buser, a Swiss native who has lived in Alaska for more than two decades, became a U.S. citizen after winning his fourth Iditarod in 2002. 

Sorlie credited his team for the win.  

The dogs were chosen from a pool of 50 he owns along with Andersen and fellow Norwegian Kjetil Backen, who placed third in '04 and served as an Iditarod handler this year. 

Sorlie plans to sit out the 2006 race, but said his nephew will be back. 

"This year was my time to take the best team,'' he said. "Next year will be for Bjornar.'' 

Thirteen mushers have scratched from the original field of 79. 

Legally blind rookie Rachael Scdoris was at the back of the pack on Wednesday, accompanied by Paul Ellering. 

Ellering is a former professional wrestler and former Iditarod competitor who is serving as Scdoris' "visual interpreter.'' - AP 

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