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Blizzard defeats Iditarod frontrunners

By JEFF BERLINER

NOME, Alaska -- It looked like nothing could stop defending champ Susan Butcher from racing the last 77 miles to the Nome finish line first Thursday in the 1,163-mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race, nothing, that is, except a blizzard or losing the trail.

And that's exactly what happened.

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A blinding blizzard whipped across the Iditarod trail, forcing Butcher back to the White Mountain checkpoint after more than seven hours spent groping for the trail that disappeared in swirling snow.

Butcher, 36, possibly the world's greatest long-distance sled dog racer and on the verge of an unprecedented fifth Iditarod victory, was defeated by a blizzard in the home stretch.

Butcher had a good lead, 67 minutes, over her closest rival, Rick Swenson.

Swenson remained out in the blizzard, possibly trying to risk getting to Nome first, or perhaps looking for the trail back, or likely hunkered down with his huskies waiting for the storm to blow by.

Butcher and Swenson, the only mushers ever to win the Iditarod more than once - Swenson also has won four times - are arch-rivals, each single-mindedly seeking a fifth win and the $50,000 first prize.

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'Hopefully, if I know when it (the weather) breaks, I'll make up time,' Butcher said back in White Mountain. She suggested that if Swenson was waiting for the blizzard to lift or trying to drive on to Nome, then her rested huskies might be able to catch his storm-weakened team.

Another musher chasing Butcher, Joe Runyan, the only sled dog racer to beat Butcher in the last five years, in 1989, met Butcher retreating from the storm and joined her.

During their escape, they ran into fourth place Tim Osmar, who escaped with them.

The blizzard-battered trio met Swiss musher Martin Buser, running fifth and still heading toward the worst of the storm, but Buser kept driving toward Nome somewhere behind Swenson.

The backtracking mushers traveling close together said they could hardly see each other - a blizzard so severe that Alaskans call it 'whiteout,' white in every direction with near-zero visibility.

'My biggest concern was just getting in trouble out there in the weather,' Runyan said, calling the escape from the blizzard 'prudent' and saying the two mushers who remained on the trail were 'vulnerable.'

Iditarod rules require mushers to have survival gear, but Butcher said she turned back to keep her huskies in good condition for the final leg of the race, not for survival reasons.

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The leaders had been expected to cross the finish line by noon Thursday. Last year, when Butcher won in record time - and in good weather - she needed nine hours to race the last 77 miles from White Mountain to Nome. She left White Mountain at 1:31 a.m. Thursday, creeping just a few miles toward Nome before backtracking to the Eskimo village by 9 a.m. after traveling just a few miles.

All the mushers and their teams of huskies leaving White Mountain were strong because race rules requires a six-hour rest stop there before the last frenzied push to the finish line.

Bad weather rarely stops mushers in their tracks, though it certainly determines their speed.

But this is the second blizzard to hit the trail along the Bering Sea coast.

'It's been a long race and we're all weathered out,' Runyan said.

Winds of 30 mph drove the temperature down to 40 below zero, and churned up impenetrable whiteness everywhere, with gusts up to 50 mph.

'You put all this effort into a 10-day race,' Runyan said, 'then you get shut down by weather. But that's the way it goes.'

The National Weather Service said the storm would weaken and predicted better weather for Friday.

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But by then, the 19th annual Iditarod would be a whole new race.

Three of the leaders - Butcher, Runyan and Osmar - were together in White Mountain for the sprint to Nome. Swenson and Buser were the wild cards, out there getting beaten up by the weather, taking risks to beat Butcher to Nome.

Meanwhile other top contenders from among the 65 teams on the trail would be trying to get to White Mountain and could join the mad dash to the finish almost certain to be led by Butcher and her famously fast huskies when the trail reappears out of the white.

There was speculation at Iditarod headquarters in Nome that Swenson may be plotting the move that Libby Riddles made alone out into a fierce blizzard in 1985 ahead of the storm-bound leaders to become the first woman to win the race.

But more likely, Swenson simply wants to grab victory number five before Butcher, his nemesis, whom he hasn't been able to beat in years. Swenson also wants Iditarod victories in three decades. He won the Iditarod in 1977, 1979, 1981 and 1982 and lost by one second, a dog's nose, in 1978. Swenson has finished in the top 10 in the 14 Iditarods he has run.

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This latest blizzard seems to indicate that if the 'Last Great Race on Earth' had a motto, it might be, 'Anything can happen.'

Crowds in Nome, an historic Gold Rush town of 4,400, waited for weather to let someone escape to the Front Street finish line.

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