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An extra climb in the Iditarod


As a youngster, Rachael Scdoris turned to her dogs for comfort when cruel classmates taunted her. And it will be her dogs that the 20-year-old musher calls on today as she lines up to compete in her first Iditarod.

Each day, before she dips into her snack bag along the 1,150-mile trail, she'll feed her team. Before she massages her own weary feet, she will knead the soreness from 64 paws.

When both they and she are digging down for that last bit of energy, the Iditarod rookie will raise her voice in song - gospel and spiritual tunes she has known forever.

There is no place she would rather be.

"Running a team of dogs is the fun part. There is an electricity between us," she says.

On top of the hardships each of the other 78 Iditarod mushers will face, Scdoris has one more challenge. She is blind.

Congenital achromatopsia, a deficiency of the photoreceptors called cones and rods in her retinas, affects her depth perception, light sensitivity and ability to determine color. From the back of her sled, she can make out the fuzzy forms of her lead dogs, but little else.

Bright, white conditions along a snowy route are particularly difficult for her. Low-hanging tree branches or open water or wild animals are potentially life threatening.

In other races, she has been guided by a "visual interpreter," a scout on a snowmobile who radioed back warnings about when to duck and turn, much the way blind climber Erik Weihenmayer took directions from sighted teammates when he reached the summit of Mount Everest.

But the Iditarod Trail Committee initially rejected her application to compete because the idea of a gasoline machine running with the sleds was anathema. The committee relented in 2003, but attached a stipulation: her eyes would have to be a musher on a sled, not a snowmobile driver.

The ruling opened one door and closed another. Paying for an additional musher and dog team was financially impossible, and Scdoris was forced to withdraw from the 2004 race.

Ex-wrestler helps

This year, she has corporate sponsors and an experienced shadow. With her every step of the way will be "Precious" Paul Ellering, 51, a bear of a man with a huge mustache and shaved head who made his reputation as a tough-guy wrestler and coach in the World Wrestling Federation before he completed the 2001 Iditarod.

Naturally, there's grumbling.

The outdoors writer for the Anchorage Daily News predicted, "Once the race starts, she'll be no more than a well-financed, sled-riding spectator on the trail."

An opinion piece in the same newspaper complained about the "hype," and hinted that the Iditarod Trail Committee altered the rules to avoid a discrimination lawsuit.

If she manages to complete the race and collect prize money, the writer wondered whether Scdoris would deserve an asterisk next to her name to signify the help she got that other mushers did not.

Scdoris says that like her dogs, she will pull her own weight.

"I worked hard to get here, but so did everyone else. There are some things I can't do, like fly a plane and drive," she says. "The rest is fair game."

While Ellering can be her vision, he cannot be her muscle. Care of the dogs and managing the three tons of supplies dropped along the trail are Scdoris's responsibility. The dogs will be a lifeline she must sustain.

John Balzar, who completed Alaska's other distance race, the 1,023-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, recalled in his book, Yukon Alone:

"There is no choice but to hang on to the sled and give yourself over to the dogs. They drive themselves by instincts that are impossible for humans to decipher.

"Their trail sense and determination is all a person has. Without them, these mushers would be as helpless as babies out of a crib ...

"Tired, sore, cold and scared, a musher feels sobbing spasms of gratitude and admiration for these small, hard-muscled animals. You have led them here, and now they must lead you out."

To qualify for the Iditarod, Scdoris placed 11th in Montana's 350-mile "Race to the Sky," and sixth in the 430-mile John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in Minnesota last year.

"The Iditarod is just like those races; it's just a lot longer," she jokes.

The record, set in 2002, is 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes and 2 seconds. Scdoris believes she will need about two weeks to get from Anchorage to Nome.

There were early signs Scdoris was going to be a musher. At age 8, she announced her intentions to run in the Iditarod.

She soloed at 11

"I thought it was really cute and that it was wonderful that she had such a rich fantasy," recalls her father, Jerry Scdoris, who raises sled dogs and helps organize a 300-mile sled race each year near the family's home in Bend, Ore.

Rachael Scdoris took her first solo ride at 11 and completed her first race the next year. As she's grown older, she's taken up rock climbing and participated on her high school's track and field team.

The taunting by elementary school classmates only made her tougher, her father believes.

"I just see her as a great overachiever," Jerry Scdoris says. "It's easy for us as parents to do it ourselves. I think that's what I've learned from her, to step back and be supportive.

"It's been a whole lifetime of letting go, and now I don't have any choice."

Rachael doesn't understand what the fuss is about.

"I'm not anything special. I'm just out here running my dogs," she says.

Others say Scdoris is a role model, especially for blind children and adults.

"We all need somebody else to push the boundaries for us," says Barbara Pierce, director of public education for the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind.

"People like Rachael and Erik do that for us. They refuse to agree to live by the limitations. They give the rest of us permission to dream our dream and climb our own Everest."

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