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 20-year-old from Bend, Oregon. She 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 pretty much looks flat.”
Despite her disability, Rachael began mushing when she was just knee-high to 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.
Try, Try Again
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 all 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. 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' worth of qualifiers. Instead, she ran 700 miles.
A Historic Run
On March 5, Rachael will line 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.” Paul Ellering, a former WWF wrestler, will be at her side, serving as her visual interpreter.
“His job is to run the race with me and tell me to hit the deck when there’s a low-hanging branch, turn when it’s appropriate, and tell me when there is open water,” explains Rachael. “When he says duck, I’ll duck immediately. Sometimes, he might tell me about something 100 yards in advance. That’s as far as I want to know. I don’t want to stress myself out about it any sooner.”
As the first blind musher in Iditarod history, Rachael has received a lot of attention. But she says she’d rather not be thought of as “the blind musher.” Instead, she’d like to be known as a “good musher with fast dogs.” She refuses to waste a minute of her time feeling sorry for herself.
“Everybody has some sort of problem,” says Rachael. “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.”