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Englishman takes dogs out for 1,161 mile walkies across the frozen north

SOME TIME today, if all goes according to plan, a lone exhausted Englishman and his 10 remaining sled dogs will stagger into the Alaskan town of Nome at the end of an epic 1,161-mile race through some of the worst weather the frozen north can throw.

Then again he could be stuck for days, as has happened before, waiting for a vicious storm to blow itself out, his dogs refusing to take the trail in blizzards.

This is the Iditarod, known as The Last Great Race on Earth, which every year runs through the mountains, frozen rivers and seared valleys in the old Yukon of gold rush fame. And the man is Max Hall, a businessman from Manchester and the only British competitor, or "musher".

After 11 days of hammering through the savage conditions on the trail, and having to retire six of his 16-dog team from the race, yesterday he was at the checkpoint of Elim, within striking distance of home. But his wife, Lena, waiting for him at the finishing line 123 miles away, was far from relaxed.

"This happened to him in 1995, when he was caught in a terrible storm and what should have taken him a few hours took days," she said.

"Another musher a few miles behind had to give up, after already travelling 1,000 miles. Max still has to get past some of the worst points on the trail, and even the old mushers have said they don't remember the weather being as bad as this."

Temperatures are minus 25F, but with wind chill factor this can at least double. Mr Hall, 49, is already suffering from frostbite on his hands and face.

"If he can finish this, then I will be elated," said Mrs Hall.

And finishing is now all there is to play for. Although Mr Hall is in a respectable 35th place, from a starting line-up of 56, the winner crossed the line on Wednesday to prize money of $100,000. He also missed most of the bad weather.

This is real Call of the Wild stuff, which has led to tales of extraordinary heroics. One winner had made a final 80-mile dash for the finish line to overhaul all the other front runners. In 1978, the two leading teams raced neck and neck down the main street of Nome for the closest finish. This year, as almost every year, with the half of the field still making for home, just getting to the end is the only thing that is important.

Mrs Hall has seen what they have to contend with at close quarters."I flew up to see him at one of the checkpoints, and on the way back the pilot flew low along the trail so that I could see the mushers," she said. "I just couldn't believe it. How they can cope with all that. The wind, the distances, the bleakness of it all."

Finishers are disorientated even after days of rest, but many come back year after year to repeat the experience. The event is now running for its 27th year, and this is Mr Hall's third attempt. His wife said: "I guess with Max it is the challenge. Once you have done it there is nothing else that can live up to it, that going through the finishing line. I'm not even thinking about whether he will be doing it again."

Mrs Hall inadvertently gave her husband the idea to compete, after she bought him two Siberian huskies as a birthday present. But he was bored with running them by the Mersey in Manchester, pulling a special three- wheeled rig. He wanted to try mushing for real.

When the chance came to be taken along the trail after the 1993 race, he jumped at it and he was hooked. He now leases a team of dogs for the event.

In 1985 the Iditarod had its first woman winner, but Mrs Hall is unlikely try her hand. "Absolutely not,"she said. "I am Swedish and I know better."