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Let the real Iditarod begin, with champs, rookies, young and old competing

Jill Burke
Loren Holmes photo

The Iditarod, that great, famed Alaska race that lures novices and champions alike into a 1,000-mile wilderness competition is finally starting for real. And it's as exciting as ever. Fresh off a year when distance-mushing dynasties crumbled under a batch of eager up-and-comers, the presumed lead pack for 2013 is stacked with a deep bench of seasoned champs looking for another win as well as capable hopefuls aiming to prove themselves.

While past champs bring wisdom and experience earned over thousands of sled-worn miles, a younger generation of mushers has steadily gained steam, racking up higher and higher finishes. A year ago, Dallas Seavey of Willow became the youngest winner in race history at age 25 -- and an instant symbol of the belief that any musher who runs an ideal race can claim victory. Behind him in second, Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers offered hope for the first female victory in more than two decades. And hustling up in third place, Ramey Smyth offered pride in talented underdogs, mushers willing to do whatever it takes to come from behind.

The Iditarod tests the fortitude and stamina of mushers and their dogs. Magic happens when the right team, sharp tactics, and sled-driving skill align. Sometimes, though, even superior teams encounter obstacles they cannot overcome – be they illness, weather, or a bad crash. Sometimes, the dogs decide they've had enough and refuse to budge, something that happened for the first time last year to four-time champion Jeff King. Toward the end of the race, exhaustion invades many mushers’ bodies, leaving them to stumble through a slow, clumsy fog of fatigue in which they are vulnerable to error.

'Off and running' 

Career Iditarod musher DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow is back for her 31st race, and senses this could be her big year, with two leading men guiding the way. She's relying on Dragon, age 5, and Omni Star, 9-1/2, both Iditarod veterans, to guide her team to the finish line in Nome.

“I personally think I am poised … to be able to jump to the top again,” she said from her home in Willow Friday, where she was tending to a series of final details. “If I can get to Farewell Lake (in the notorious Farewell Burn, more than 200 miles from the start) uninjured and with dogs sound, I'm off and running.”

From 1988 to 1998, Jonrowe was a consistent top-10 finisher, twice coming in second and eight times among the top five. In the years since, she's mostly managed to stay in the top 20, pulling off a fourth-place finish in 2006 and 10th-place finishes in 2001, 2006 and 2012. Zirkle may prove to be formidable opposition, but if history is any guide, it's a rare feat for a second place finisher to come back the next year for a win. It's only happened four times, and not since 1992.

The village of Nikolai, some 250 miles from the start on the far side of the Farewell Burn, is Jonrowe's mental oasis. If she can get across the rugged Alaska Range uninjured and without a major equipment mishap, she believes she'll be in the mix. Last year, she broke a sled on the same section of trail.

Just days ago, the fat-tire cyclists of the Iditarod Trail Invitational comfortably negotiated the early portion of the Iditarod Trail, but Jonrowe said it’s difficult to draw a parallel between riding a bike and driving a sled.

“I think it is probably easier to take a fat-tired bike through the bottom of the (Dalzell) Gorge than a long, snaking dog team,” Jonrowe said. “On bicycle or foot, you are in control of speed. All we are doing is trying to hold a dog team back.”

A potential problem in the gorge developed earlier this fall when a freeze created high shelf ice. Low water levels, warmer temperatures and scant snow formed deep holes beneath the ice. “That's going to be spooky. If you fall in that hole, you're going six to eight feet down (and) you're going to have a heck of a time getting out of there,” Jonrowe said.

Top-notch women's field

She counts herself among an evolving field of mushers capable of strong finishes. Particularly impressive is the depth of the women’s field, which includes last year's second-place finisher Zirkle, Jodi Bailey of Chatanika, Jesse Royer of Montana and Michelle Phillips of Canada.

Good trail would certainly make life easier for the 13 Iditarod rookies, including Cindy Abbott of Irvine, Calif. As if sleep deprivation, physical and mental exhaustion, dog care and bitter cold temperatures weren't sufficient challenges, Abbott is also battling a rare illness. She takes 16 pills a day to keep the Wegner’s Granulomatosis she's afflicted with under control. The illness has already robbed her of vision in her left eye and causes her immune system to destroy her blood vessels. In the extreme, it could cause her to have a stroke. A more gradual “awakening” of the disease would cause fatigue and bruising. Neither scenario is good. And on Thursday, just days before the race start, she was nursing a chest cold she hoped would improve, not worsen, by the time she's on the Willow start line Sunday.

“I'm pretty in tune with my body,” she said.  “If something starts, I will definitely not continue racing. I don't have a death wish to prove a point.”

Yet proving a point is part of what brought her to Alaska to gain the tutelage of four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey, a throat cancer survivor. Both had life-threatening illnesses doctors told them would rule out many activities. No big adventures. No mushing. No life that the extreme athletes had imagined for themselves. Both rejected the advice. Not only did Mackey win the Iditarod four times in a row, he became the first and only musher to win the Yukon Quest and Iditarod back to back.

For her part, Abbott defied the odds by climbing Mount Everest in 2010. Three years later, she's in Alaska for another extreme endurance feat, one she says has proven more difficult than Everest.

Abbott's team is a blend of puppies and seasoned Iditarod champs, including Pimp and Rapper, 9-year old dogs from Mackey's field of winning Iditarod racers. She hopes to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack of 66 starting teams, healthy and with healthy dogs.

Smithsonian documenting Iditarod

Rookies and veterans alike share this combination of meticulous training, lofty aspiration and intense drive. This is the romance of the race, the call that beckons adventurous dreamers into the harsh realities of Alaska's winter wilderness. And it's not just an Alaska curiosity. The people who document history are taking note, too. And Jonrowe is among the living legends in their sights.

DeeDee Jonrowe has thrown herself into the Iditarod odyssey for three decades. Race fans know her as the competitor who overcame breast cancer and returned to the race as fierce as ever. On the trail, she's easily recognizable as her team in pink halters and booties, driven by the small blonde woman in a pink kuspuk, makes its way to Nome. But this year, attentive fans will notice her gliding through in a different shade of pink.

On Friday, a curator from the Smithsonian Institute was at the musher's kennel in Willow, and took possession of Jonrowe's trademark hot pink, custom-made, wolverine-ruffed kuspuk for a new exhibit on the Iditarod scheduled to open in 2014.

“I almost started crying,” Jonrowe said. “That's the first coat that's really meant something, that was designed culturally from the people that I loved. It's my first kuspuk, [one] celebrating my survival,” Jonrowe said.

Although it was sad to say goodbye to the well-worn coat, Jonrowe said handing it off was made easier by a deep sense of honor that the mushing career she's dedicated her life to will mean something.

The same hands that recently whisked the original ruby slippers from the “Wizard of Oz” out of London are now carrying Jonrowe's trademark kuspuk to a museum, where it will hang alongside legends from Alaska and beyond.

“My filthy, dirty little race coat is going to be hanging with the First Lady's gowns,” Jonrowe said with a laugh in the final hours of the countdown to her next big race. Once it's over, she'll have to say goodbye to yet another item from her competitor's arsenal. A space for one of her racing sleds is also reserved for that upcoming exhibit in the Smithsonian. 

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com