Seriously hurt musher waits days to quit race

IDITAROD: Threat of internal injuries led to Andersen's decision.

March 12, 2009 

TAKOTNA -- The hope of Team Norway in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race dropped out of the competition Thursday and headed for the hospital.

Bjornar Andersen suffered what appeared to be significant internal injures in a crash in the so-called Buffalo Tunnels just out of the Rohn checkpoint in the Alaska Range on Monday. He tried to keep going, but was advised by a doctor here to quit.

He was peeing blood and occasionally vomiting up the same.

Interviewed at the airport here on his way to the hospital, the two-time, Top 10 Iditarod finisher said he took a pretty good beating after his sled tipped near what mushers call "The Glacier," a series of frozen muskeg ponds that cascade down a steep hillside.

One of the first rules of mushing is to never let go of the handlebar in such a situation and Andersen hung on. Unfortunately, it took him a ways to get his dogs to stop, and he was dragged over stumps and rock-hard, frozen tussocks.

The dogs were fine, as was the sled, Andersen said. But the musher was not.

"I didn't know immediately how bad," he said. "I thought I'd try to continue and travel on for a couple of days."

Andersen arrived in Takotna at 5:21 a.m. Wednesday and began his mandatory 24-hour layover, hoping his condition would improve with rest. Instead, it worsened.

"I had blood in my urine and I was puking all the time," he said, "so I started to get worried.

"It's bad, but there's nothing I can do about it now."

Doctors warned Andersen he might have seriously injured a kidney.

Race judge John "Andy" Anderson said a doctor who examined the musher thought he "had some internal injuries, potentially really serious problems. He monitored him for 24 hours and he didn't seem to get any better."

The buffalo tunnels are named for the Farewell Burn bison herd that tends to winter in an area of thick spruce along the South Fork Kuskokwim River. In many places there, the Iditarod Trail is only about the width of a sled. The snow is usually shallow with patches of ice, frozen tussocks and stumps.

The trail is notorious for busting sleds. Often it is littered with broken parts and gear spilled when mushers crash.

Andersen tipped his sled going over glare ice before getting dragged.

"It seemed like it went on for a while," he said, "but maybe it was no more than a couple of minutes. I got knocked around pretty good on some of those big stumps."

He was making an appointment to get checked out at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center.

"For his own sake, he scratched," Anderson, the judge, said. "He knew it was the right thing to do, even though he had such a beautiful dog team. He had a winning dog team -- top five, easy."

The musher agreed, but said there was no way he could continue.

Andersen makes up Team Norway along with two-time Iditarod champion Robert Sorlie and Kjetil Backen. Over the past decade, the partners -- who switch off on the sled -- have always fielded top Iditarod teams, though Sorlie, a two-time winner, remains the only champion. Andersen had hoped to join Sorlie as a winner this year.

"Knowing his personality, his demeanor, he just doesn't have quit in his vocabulary," said Chas St. George, the Iditarod director of public relations. "He's a phenomenal competitor, very fierce. But he'd never jeopardize the status of his team."

A dejected Andersen said Thursday he now isn't sure if Team Norway will keep returning to the Iditarod. Since Sorlie's victory in 2005, the trio of mushers has finished no higher than Andersen's sixth place three years ago.

"I don't know what we'll do," Andersen said. "It gets harder and harder and more expensive with airplane tickets and all."

Medical bills can only compound the costs.

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