Originally created 03/15/04

Dog dies in Iditarod leader's team

UNALAKLEET, Alaska -- A dog from the leading team in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race collapsed and died Sunday, but the musher kept a slim lead, arriving just a minute ahead of his closest competitor.

Norway's Kjetil Backen was less than a half-mile from the Unalakleet checkpoint, a 90-mile trek from the previous stop, when he beckoned for help from a reporter and photographer for The Associated Press who were on a snowmobile nearby.

Backen said his dog had died and asked for the race marshal. He said he didn't want to carry the dead dog in his sled bag into the checkpoint.

"I can't speak about it anymore," he said, cradling the dead dog's muzzle in his hand. Backen said he'd never had a dog die on him before.

The race marshal said Backen's team looked strong approaching Unalakleet and he would be allowed to continue the 1,100-mile race, which began March 6. The dog's body would be sent to Anchorage for a necropsy.

Backen arrived at the checkpoint just ahead of Mitch Seavey.

Al Townshend, the head veterinarian at Unalakleet, said Backen's team is well-conditioned, training about 4,000 miles to prepare for this year's race, about twice that of many other teams.

The checkpoint is 219 miles from the finish line in Nome.

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