Blind Musher Takes On the Iditarod
By Karen Fanning
Jagged mountain ranges. Frozen rivers. Bone-numbing temperatures. For any musher, the Iditarod is a grueling race. But Rachael Scdoris is no ordinary musher. She is blind.
“I have a shortage of rods and cones in my eyes,” explains the 22-year-old from Bend, Oregon. Rachael was born with a vision disorder called congenital achromatopsia. “I have a lot of difficulty with fine detail and focusing on things. It’s not blurry. There’s not a lot of depth. Everything is pretty much flat.”
Despite her disability, even as a child, Rachael was determined to run “and finish” the Iditarod. On March 18, 2006, she made good on her promise. After 12 days, 10 hours, and 42 minutes on the trail, Rachael crossed the finish line in Nome, Alaska, becoming the first legally blind athlete to complete the Iditarod.
“Finishing the Iditarod was my lifelong dream,” she told reporters after conquering the Alaskan wilderness.
Rachael didn’t just complete the race—she competed. Of the 71 mushers who made it to Nome, Rachael finished 57th.
Try, Try Again
Rachael began mushing when she was no taller than the dogs. But it took eight years of begging before her father allowed her to go on a run by herself. Rachael ran her first race at age 11 and has been an active musher ever since.
Like all mushers, Rachael spent a lifetime dreaming of running the Iditarod. In June of 2003, the day after she graduated from high school, she called the Iditarod Trail Committee to ask permission to run the race with the help of two visual interpreters. Her request was denied.
“My wish list was to have two people on snow machines to tell me where to go,” says Rachael.
To follow the trail, mushers must look for markers along the way. Rachael would need someone to spot those markers for her.
“The mentality of the Iditarod is roughing it in the woods all alone, just you and the dogs, no help of any kind,” she says. “They thought I was asking for someone to come in and do everything for me, but I was just asking for someone to tell me where to go.”
Rachael wouldn’t take no for an answer. Three months later, she flew up to Alaska and met with the committee in person for six hours. She told them that she still needed assistance, but she didn’t want automatic entrance—she wanted to qualify. And that’s what she did.
Rachael ran two qualifying races in the winter of 2004. She was required to run at least 500 miles to qualify. Instead, she ran 700 miles.
A Historic Run
On March 5, 2005, Rachael lined up with dozens of the world’s top mushers at the Iditarod starting line in Anchorage, ready to take on “The Last Great Race on Earth.” Her visual interpreter, Paul Ellering, was at her side. But after traveling more than 700 miles, she was forced to drop out of the race when her dog team became ill with a virus. Rachael vowed to return in 2006. She did, and the rest is history.
As the first blind musher to run the Iditarod, Rachael received a lot of attention. She says she would rather not be thought of as “the blind musher.” Instead, she would like to be known as a “good musher with fast dogs.” Rachael refuses to waste a minute of her time feeling sorry for herself.
“Everybody has some sort of problem,” she says. “Some are more obvious than others, like mine. We have a choice. We can either sit back and say, ‘I’m blind, I’m deaf, I’m in a wheelchair, I have a short attention span’ and feel sorry for ourselves and say, ‘Poor me.’ Or we can just decide, this is what we are going to do, and if we have to work a little harder to get it done, so be it.”