And they're off: 66 mushers begin trip to Nome

bbragg@adn.comMarch 2, 2013 

— Midway through the start order of this year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, you'll find the women's division -- six women starting back to back to back to back to back to back.

It was the luck of the draw that gave Jan Steves, Aliy Zirkle, DeeDee Jonrowe, Karin Hendrickson, Jessie Royer and Anna Berington consecutive bib numbers. Jonrowe, who is making her 31st Iditarod start, can't remember such a thing happening before.

"Every year is something new," she said, "and this is something new. And not only that, there's some talented women in that six. There's three of us -- Aliy, Jessie Royer and me -- who have all been in the top 10, and recently. I think it's cool."

Of course, there is no women's division in the Iditarod. Like auto racing, this is one of those rare sports where men and women compete head-to-head, on a level playing field.

There are no ladies tees on the Iditarod Trail. Even if there were, these ladies wouldn't play from them.

"It's great that women are out here, but I don't want to be the No. 1 woman," said Zirkle, 43, last year's runnerup. "I want to be the winner."

Jonrowe, 59, says the same thing.

"I'm not a woman, I'm a 31-year veteran," she said. "We're all on equal footing. I want to the be the fastest team. I don't want to be the oldest woman or the fastest woman.

"We're not women. We're mushers."

Nearly one out of four of this year's mushers are women -- 16 of the 66.

Jonrowe, Zirkle and Royer are all top-10 contenders. Jonrowe placed 10th last year and 11th the year before; in 28 finishes, she has bagged 15 top-10 finishes. Zirkle's second-place finish was her first top-10 in a dozen races, though she has been in the top 15 five times. Royer, 34, has three top-10 showings, including 10th in 2011 when she last raced.

Hendrickson was 36th last year and has two finishes in four starts; Berington placed 42nd in her rookie run last year; and Steves claimed the Red Lantern last year, finishing 52nd as a rookie.

"The one camaraderie thing with us is we don't have a wife at home organizing, and some of us wish we did have a wife at home organizing," said Zirkle, whose husband, Allen Moore, is also in the race.

 

Adventures in babysitting

James Volek is making his rookie run with a bunch of other rookies. He's driving Martin Buser's yearling team.

Volek, 25, said there's a specific plan for his race.

"My goal is to get all of them in lead at some point," he said. "We'll rest more than we travel. I want to make it fun for the dogs. I don't want them to not enjoy themselves on this trail."

Volek is from Michigan but this is his second year working at Buser's kennel in Big Lake.

"Some of these dogs, I've been with 'em since the day they were born," he said.

He even named some -- the "bird litter," four pups that he named after birds: Thrasher, Swift, Nighthawk and Lark. Thrasher and Swift will be in harness when the team lives Willow on Sunday.

 

This job stinks

The Iditarod Pee Team was out in force Saturday morning.

Maureen Chrysler and Karen Good were among the volunteers whose race credentials say "Pee Team." Their job was to collect urine from dogs so it can be tested for performance-enhancing drugs.

"Not too many people want to shake my hand," said Good, who was indeed barehanded as she handled the baggies used to collect urine.

The baggies are affixed to garter belts that are worn by dogs like diapers. That's an improvement from previous days, said head veterinarian Stu Nelson, who said before someone came up with the garter-belt idea, volunteers tried to catch urine in small cups attached to the ends of coat hangars.

Samples are sent to a lab in the Lower 48 and tested for a variety of PEDs, including painkillers, anti-inflammatories, stimulants and depressants, Nelson said.

The goal is to test four or five dogs in each team, he said. Random testing also occurs on the trail, and in Nome dogs from the top 20 are tested.

Nelson said it's unusual for a dog to test positive. If there is a confirmed positive team, he said, a committee appointed by the Board of Directors reviews the case and determines what action to take.

Chrysler has been on the Pee Team for more than 20 years and Good is a first-timer recruited by Chrysler. They work together at Providence, where Good is Chrysler's boss. But Chrysler has seniority on the Pee Team, so on Saturday she was her boss's boss.

That's why Good was handling the baggies filled with urine and Chrysler was holding a clipboard while standing guard by the cooler where samples were stored.

 

Seavey's strategy: start slow

Picked defending Iditarod champ in your office pool? Don't panic if he's not leading the pack in these first few days of the Iditarod.

Seavey said he plans to repeat his 2012 winning strategy of running and resting at a conservative pace early in the contest.

He calls this "building a monster" that can outpace rivals at the end of the trail. He doesn't expect to lead until the second half of the race.

"I'm not belittling or taking away from other mushers who have won very successful races by getting out in front and holding that lead, but that's not my style," Seavey said. "My focus on the first half of the race is building that monstrous dog team that has the ability to push and take the lead at the end."

 

A survivor's tale

Ken Stout wasn't supposed to be on 4th Avenue on Saturday.

Stout, the father of musher DeeDee Jonrowe and the former head of the Republican Party in Alaska, was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma a little more than a year ago. The grim prognosis was that he wouldn't live to see his daughter's 31st Iditarod start.

"I went to my doctor and told him, 'I don't think you're a very good doctor. You told me a year ago I wasn't gonna last a year, and here I am,' '' a robust-looking Stout said.

Cancer has been cruel to Jonrowe and her family. Jonrowe, 59, is in her 11th Iditarod since her 2002 breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent double mastectomy. Her mom Peg had the same procedure in 2010, some 30 years after she had been treated for uterine cancer.

Now it's her dad's turn.

While Jonrowe and Stout opted for treatment, Ken Stout eschewed chemotherapy.

"At 84 years old, who wants to get a lot of treatment?" he said. "I'd rather have the best quality of life I can than be drugged up with chemo."

Jonrowe said that although her parents have chosen different responses to the disease, "they're both fighting it with prayer."

 

A proud tradition

Fort Yukon musher Josh Cadzow will celebrate his 26th birthday on the trail, likely somewhere around Grayling or Anvik, on March 9.

One of more than half a dozen racers from Bush Alaska, Cadzow said he was inspired by Kotzebue musher John Baker. Now kids in his village are watching the young Athabascan musher.

"It makes me proud that it makes them proud that I do this," Cadzow said.

The rookie is making his second Iditarod attempt. His team became sick with kennel cough in the 2012 race, forcing him to scratch in Kaltag, said. "As soon as I got to Anchorage, last year, the whole team was coughing."

 

Swenson's out; his dogs aren't

Rick Swenson was an Iditarod no-show, but some of his dogs are racing.

Sonny Lindner said he brought seven or eight of Swenson's dogs with him from Two Rivers. Swenson, the race's only five-time champion, withdrew from the race a couple of weeks ago.

Lindner said he ran most of the Swenson dogs in the 2008 All-Alaska Sweepstakes, so he is familiar with them. That's more important than whether the Swenson dogs are familiar with the Lindner dogs.

"I'd rather they know me than each other," he said.

 

Beth Bragg can be reached at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335. Kyle Hopkins contributed to this report,

 

 

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