Former Iditarod champion helps blind musher

Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2008

KENAI - Joe Runyan is a name familiar to most fans of sled dog racing.

Jon Little /
Jon Little /

He is the 1989 Iditarod Sled Dog Race champion, and the only musher to win the Last Great Race, the Yukon Quest and the European Alpirod. Since his retirement from sled dog racing a decade and a half ago, he has stayed in the mushing loop by providing race commentary for, the Cabela's Web site, and numerous sports and media organizations.

However, this year the 59-year-old from Cliff, N.M., will once again be standing on a sled pulled by 16 high-energy huskies, and this time he won't be making the trip to Nome solely for himself. Runyan will be running the Iditarod to serve as the "visual interpreter" for Rachael Scdoris a legally blind musher from Bend, Ore.

"It's been 15 years since I was really on the runners, but so far it's been great," he said.

Runyan and Scdoris, whose vision is 20/200, have been staging out of Clam Gulch for the past few weeks to take advantage of training in the rugged Caribou Hills with Tim Osmar of Ninilchik, who served as Scdoris' visual interpreter in the 2006 Iditarod. That year, Osmar arrived 56th and Scdoris was 57th in a field of 72 teams, not counting 11 who scratched from the race. They completed the race in 12 days, 11 hours, 42 minutes.

The bushy-bearded Osmar having completed 23 Iditarods was an ideal candidate to lead Scdoris again this year, and their compelling story even caught the attention of film makers from the Discovery Channel who intended to make a documentary about their snowy sojourn, but then fate intervened.

In the summer of 2007, a 50,000-acre wildfire broke out in the Caribou Hills, and while Osmar was attempting to save his home and that of his father, Dean Osmar, the 1984 Iditarod champion, he was flung from a four-wheeler and shattered his right ankle.

Osmar has hoped his injury would heal in time for the Iditarod, but as summer turned to fall and fall to winter, it became apparent running this year's race was not in the best interest of Osmar's health.

That's where Runyan came in, and he said he's really looking forward to the experience of leading Scdoris on the Iditarod Trail.

"Leading Rachael, it's a different focus and goal than going at it alone, but at 59 and with three daughters of my own, I have the maturity to go to another level," Runyan said.

Also, the film project is still a go and Runyan said he is excited about being part of the Discovery Channel documentary that is being produced by Vikram Jayanti of Discovery Films.

"Vikram also did 'When We Were Kings,' (a documentary of the 1974 heavyweight championship bout in Zaire between champion George Foreman and underdog challenger Muhammad Ali) so he's no stranger to sporting events," he said.

To ensure nothing is missed for the documentary, Runyan said he and Scdoris will have point-of-view cameras attached to either themselves or the sleds, and filmmakers will be shooting from snowmachines and by helicopter. Despite this extensive coverage, Runyan said the documentary will chronicle more than just their trip to Nome.

"It's not just about a sporting event, so the project won't just describe our challenge and adventure. It'll also focus on the Iditarod and the people, place and culture of Alaska," Runyan said.

While the results of the project are still a longtime coming, the training for the endeavor is in the here and now, and Runyan said the transition back was a bit like the Iditarod itself - a little bumpy at first before it smoothed out.

"It's a good reality check, but I'm having a lot of fun. The Caribou Hills are big, steep country, but Rachael and I are getting used to running together and she's a real athlete. She negotiates those steep climbs and other technical things, and she keeps pushing me," he said.

Runyan said that while Osmar is down with his hurt leg, he's not entirely out of the project. Not only has he provided the dogs Runyan will run to Nome, but is also overseeing Runyan's and Scdoris' training regime.

"Timmy is gimped up, but he's actively involved. He's been calling the shots with training and it's been great to work with him and his dogs," Runyan said.

Runyan and Scdoris currently are running dog teams roughly 40 miles every other day, with lots of weight in the sleds to simulate the loads of gear and dog food they will haul during the Iditarod, which begins March 1 in Anchorage.

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