March 21, 2016 / 6:48 AM / 3 years ago

Rookie Iditarod musher battles to last-place finish in Alaska race

SEATTLE (Reuters) - A 32-year-old former Bible camp cook who lost her home in a wildfire last summer toughed out a last-place finish in Alaska’s punishing Iditarod sled-dog race after surviving sled breakdowns and wayward dogs.

A team heads out at the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to begin their near 1,000-mile (1,600-km) journey through Alaska’s frigid wilderness in downtown Anchorage, Alaska March 5, 2016. REUTERS/Nathaniel Wilder

Rookie contestant Mary Helwig and her team of 11 dogs crossed under the famed burled arch in Nome at 11:51 p.m. on Saturday before a cheering crowd, organizers wrote on the race’s website on Sunday. The finish earned her the so-called Red Lantern in recognition of her perseverance.

She finished about five days behind first-place finisher Dallas Seavey, who won his third straight title on Tuesday in the nearly 1,000-mile (1,600-km) marathon across the state’s frozen wilderness.

Now in its 44th year, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race commemorates a 1925 rescue mission that delivered diphtheria serum by sled-dog relay to the western coastal community of Nome on the Bering Sea.

Mushers in this year’s race, which began on March 6 in a town north of Anchorage, had to battle more than just the elements.

Third-place finisher Aliy Zirkle said on Thursday she was “terrified” during what she described as a prolonged attack by a man on a snowmobile that killed a dog and injured at least three others in the middle of the race.

Helwig managed to mush on past 14 teams that dropped out of the race. She ended up in 71st place with a time of 13 days, eight hours and 51 minutes.

By the time she reached the race checkpoint at Nikolai, about 250 miles (400 km) into the race, Helwig had already grappled with two of her dogs getting loose, losing the trail, and back-to-back sled breakdowns, race officials said. She had to finish the race on the sled of a musher who had dropped out.

She finished behind Cindy Gallea, 64, of Minnesota.

Helwig plans to return to the village of Unalakleet where she worked as a youth leader in a church and as Bible camp cook, according to a biography on the race’s website. She is training to be a veterinary technician.

Helwig, who grew up in Southern California, lost her home and possessions in a wildfire in Willow, Alaska, last June that threatened her dogs.

“If I can get myself through this disaster,” Helwig told the Alaska Dispatch News afterward, “I’ll feel that much more prepared to handle the difficulties of the trail.”

Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Frank McGurty and Peter Cooney

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