NOME -- Rachael Scdoris said Friday that sick dogs prevented her from realizing a dream of becoming the first legally blind musher to complete the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome.
"I was so disappointed and shed a lot of tears," Scdoris said after flying to Nome from the remote checkpoint of Eagle Island on the Yukon River in order to check out the Iditarod finish line. Unlike her heavily publicized Iditarod start, Scdoris' visit to the end of the trail attracted little media attention.
The 20-year-old musher from Bend, Ore., said her dogs were apparently infected with a diarrhea-causing virus that struck many teams. Race veterinarians wanted to pull four animals from her 10-dog team at Eagle Island.
Iditarod officials said they were concerned that she had some dogs that were underweight.
Faced with 420 miles to go and a small dog team to provide the power, Scdoris made the decision to withdraw from the race Wednesday.
Her father, Jerry Scdoris, was having dinner at a friend's house in Anchorage when Rachael called him just before 6 p.m. Wednesday to notify him of her decision. He said he was so upset he had to leave the meal.
He said Rachael cried at first and was worried that he'd be disappointed. But within five minutes, he said, she was talking about a strategy for Iditarod 2006.
"She's totally up," he said. "She'll do what she always does and move forward. What else can she do? She's only 20."
Part of the rookie musher's problem was the dogs' diet, which consisted of Atta Boy canned dog food, kibble, fat and some salmon, said fellow musher Paul Ellering, a former professional wrestler and Iditarod veteran who served as Scdoris' guide on the trail.
He thought her dogs should have started the race heavier and been fed meat throughout. Other Alaska mushers had offered similar advice to the Scdorises before the race.
Ellering, 51, of Grey Eagle, Minn., scratched soon after Scdoris but said Friday his dogs were fine. He simply chose to stay with Scdoris.
"I'm just the kind of guy who leaves with the girl he came to the dance with," Ellering said.
Scdoris said she had thought she could finish the race after having conquered some of the most challenging stretches of the trail. She said she plans to return.
"I learned a lot of stuff for next year," she said. "All the tough spots were tough, but I now know I can do it."
Along the trail, Ellering and Scdoris sometimes communicated with wireless radios or by shouting to each other.
It was Ellering's job to travel along the trail ahead of Scdoris and warn her of hazards, though she appeared capable of dealing with most problems herself.
Scdoris she needed him mostly as a navigator, since her limited eyesight does not allow her to see far enough ahead to judge her position by looking at surrounding mountains or other visual aids.
Three days into the race, fatigue set in for Scdoris, she said.
The last 100 miles before she scratched were grueling for the dogs, she added, with above-freezing temperatures turning the trail into a slow, soggy mess that challenged veterans and rookies alike.
Scdoris, who has a rare eye disorder, can see only shapes and shadows and is ultrasensitive to light. Her peripheral vision is good, but the central part of her vision is blurred as if looking through a smear of Vaseline.
She said her vision had nothing to do with her decision to drop out of the race.
"It was not an eye thing," she said. "It was a my-dogs-are-sick thing."
Responding to critics of who had questioned her participation in the world's premier long-distance sled dog race, Scdoris said, "Now I hope people see that I can do it."
Her father certainly does.
"She has totally established herself as a serious musher, which she already was," he said. "If anyone can doubt her ability now, maybe their vision should be examined."
The Oregonian and Daily News outdoor editor Craig Medred contributed to this report.