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Illness ends Iditarod quest

Naomi didn't want to quit, after all she had just led her teammates for most of 900 miles across the rugged interior of Alaska. A veteran of the Beargrease and other long races, the big husky knew this was just another checkpoint, not the finish ...

Naomi didn't want to quit, after all she had just led her teammates for most of 900 miles across the rugged interior of Alaska.
A veteran of the Beargrease and other long races, the big husky knew this was just another checkpoint, not the finish line.
Duluth musher Mark Black who drove the sled also didn't want to quit. He felt fine, conditions were ideal and the dogs were pulling hard.
But they hadn't been able to out run the sickness that caught Black's team and some others in the 2002 Iditarod. And though his leader had the heart to drive on and the rest of the team would follow, Black knew that for their sake, it was time to scratch.
"She was unbelievable," he said of his lead dog. "She ran single lead quite a bit. I'll never forget the look she gave me at Unalakleet."
After withdrawing from the race, Black had the sad task of leading his remaining nine dogs -- one by one -- from the race area to a building for pickup. He took Naomi last.
"I walked her up there and put her on that chain, she looked up at me, gave me this look like 'what are you doing, we're not done yet,' and I'll never, never forget that look she gave me."
The Duluth musher had been nursing his team for several days, trying various remedies and taking extra rest. His dogs had licked the diarrhea and other symptoms, but lost too much weight in the process and their appetites hadn't returned.
"They just didn't want to eat," Black said. "Lots of people had sick dogs, we had some of the sicker ones."
"They were coming out of the sickness pretty good," he said. "But they wouldn't eat, coming into Unalakleet no one would eat at all."
He noted that the teams of Minnesota mushers Keith Aili and Stan Passananti were also hit by sickness, but not as severe. They finished 32nd and 33rd.
Unalakleet is where the Iditarod Trail meets the Bering Sea, a cold windy place late in the race where dogs need all their strength.
{IMG2}Black has no doubts that his dogs would have left that checkpoint and trotted down the trail on empty stomachs. But with a 40 to 50 mph wind hitting the coast, he couldn't ask them to continue.
"They just got too thin on me," he said. "They were still performing, they were still working, but I don't know how much further they could have gone."
When they wouldn't eat after an eight hour rest, he decided to pull the plug. Black's dogs and gear were flown out and he followed the next day.
Black's Iditarod effort had started months earlier with fall training on dirt trails with his dogs pulling a four-wheeler instead of a sled. A lack of snow kept off him off the sled, but he continued to maintain a training routine around working full-time, replacing his dog truck and making other race preparations.
Running the Iditarod meant that for the first time in a decade, Black was absent from the John Beargrease Sled Dog Race.
After shipping up thousands of pounds of supplies, Black and a crew of helpers loaded up and drove from Duluth to Alaska. He took 18 dogs, several sleds and a full race team with two spares.
The race had just started when the first of his dogs got sick. By the time Black got to Finger Lake, 194 miles into the race, sickness had spread through the team.
His dogs seemed to perk up at McGrath, 413 miles in, where he took his mandatory 24 hour rest. But the sickness came back and appetites waned. He rested for 28 hours at another checkpoint before continuing on.
"Everything was going great except for the dogs being sick," said Black recounting the race. "I was felling great, I had all kinds of rest." He successfully navigated the notorious tough parts of the trail and found his checkpoint routine worked well and pre-race preparations paid off.
Several days after quitting the race, his dogs regained appetites and recovered their feisty ways.
Black is still digesting the event as a learning experience and plans to try the Iditarod again, probably in 2004. Next year, he and Naomi will be back in the Beargrease.

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