Boulding zips into race lead

Veteran Iditarod musher jumps ahead at Unalakleet; dog from Backen's team dies near village

Posted: Monday, March 15, 2004

UNALAKLEET, Alaska - Charlie Boulding took the lead Sunday in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race by spending just four minutes in the checkpoint here before getting back on the trail.

Boulding, a 61-year-old musher from Manley who usually finishes in the top 10, decided not to stop long in Unalakleet after going 90 miles from Kaltag, the second longest stretch between checkpoints. He arrived at 4:19 p.m. and left at 4:23 p.m.

Norway's Kjetil Backen, who had been leading, moved into second place after spending about five hours in Unalakleet and leaving eight minutes after Boulding.

Three-time winner Jeff King of Denali Park was in third, about a half-hour behind the leader. He spent about 3 1/2 hours in Unalakleet before leaving at 4:57 p.m.

"My eyes are looking forward. Anybody wanting to get me from behind - more power to them. It won't be easy," King said.

From Unalakleet, teams head toward Shaktoolik 42 miles away. The trail parallels the coast but then turns inland and goes over some hills. Shaktoolik is 171 miles from the finish line in Nome.

Mitch Seavey of Seward, who arrived in Unalakleet one minute after Backen, was fourth out, at 5:16 p.m. - less than an hour behind the front-runners. He spent about six hours resting his team in Unalakleet.

For updated standings, look on the Web at www.iditarod.com.

Earlier Sunday, Backen stopped outside the checkpoint when one of his dogs collapsed and died. Backen beckoned for help from a reporter and photographer for The Associated Press who were on a snowmobile outside the checkpoint. Backen told them his dog had died and to go get race marshal Mark Nordman. He said he didn't want to carry the dead dog in his sled bag into the checkpoint.

When asked what happened, Backen said, "He sat down. I can't speak about it anymore," as he cradled the dead dog's muzzle in his hand. Backen said he'd never had a dog die on him before.

Backen, whose team is almost entirely made up of dogs from 2003 Iditarod winner and fellow Norwegian Robert Sorlie's team, is running in his second Iditarod. He came in 10th in 2002 during his rookie year. Sorlie is not racing this year.

After Nordman arrived, Backen informed him one of his dogs was dead and unzipped his sled bag to show him.

"Why?" asked a very distraught Backen, as Nordman put his hand on his shoulder to comfort him.

Nordman told Backen that the Unalakleet checkpoint was crowded with people waiting for his arrival.

"You have to put this out of your mind. You're doing a wonderful job," Nordman said. The black dog was pulled from the sled basket and placed in a duffel bag that Nordman had brought with him.

"It is a real tragedy for him and dog mushing as a whole," Nordman said later at a news conference. "He's devastated and trying to deal with it."

Nordman said Backen's team looked strong approaching Unalakleet and he would be allowed to continue the race. The dog's body would be sent to Anchorage for a necropsy. Results should be available sometime Monday, Nordman said.

Al Townshend, the head veterinarian at Unalakleet, said racing sled dogs can die suddenly from a number of causes, including aspirating the contents of their stomachs and gastric ulcers. He said the dogs remaining in Backen's team looked "pretty good." A vet at the previous checkpoint 90 miles away in Kaltag described them as "phenomenal."

Townshend said Backen's team also is especially well-conditioned, having 4,000 training miles on them to prepare for this year's Iditarod, about twice that of many other teams.

Once into Unalakleet, Backen put on a brave face, signing autographs for the many children gathered about and joshing a bit with Seavey.

"Maybe Mitch will be the rabbit for a while," Backen said. Seavey responded, "I like being just behind."

A record 87 mushers began the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome on March 6. Seven mushers have scratched, including four-time Iditarod winner Doug Swingley after the cold affected his eyes and he needed immediate medical attention.

This year's purse is more than $700,000 with a first-place prize of $69,000 and a new Dodge truck.



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