Aging racers: Five decades and still going

Mike Campbell
Jeff King celebrates his fourth Iditarod win as he heads down Front Street in Nome early in the morning on March 15, 2006.
MARC LESTER / Daily News archive 2006
Sonny Lindner of Two Rivers leaves the Ruby checkpoint past the Ruby Bible Church March 12 during the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News

When Jeff King triumphantly drove his dog team down Front Street in 2006, he joined an elite group of mushers with four or more victories in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

He also established a record he wanted no part of -- oldest champion in race history.

King was just a month past his 50th birthday that March evening. Though still a bit too young to start receiving Social Security checks, King was clearly top dog in one of the few sports crowning champions in their fifth decade of life.

He joked about the distinction. People, he said, had been telling him before the race that "you've won the Kusko, the (Kobuk) 440 and the Iditarod, but still, you're getting too old."

That may be, and the 55-year-old King is, in fact, sitting out this year's Iditarod.

But glance at some top racers chasing four-time defending champion Lance Mackey, and there's one characteristic many share: The tentacles of age have embraced them. Some have gray hair or no hair. Some have artificial hips. There are aches and pains in new spots. There have been health problems, some life threatening.

At an age when some find the rigors of jogging too taxing, these men and women pay serious money and devote much of their lives to spend more than a week without sleep while guiding dog teams across terrain so rugged and frigid that most Alaskans will never visit.

Why?

INNOVATIONS HELP

"I'm so drawn to it because of the dogs," DeeDee Jonrowe said. "Every year there's a new possibility -- a new dog coming up, or I can see the potential of the team coming together. You keep seeing that fantastic potential in them.

"You know, I have some injuries and I've had some surgeries. In my 30s, my back wasn't an issue. And I certainly hadn't been poisoned with chemotherapy. But we all have our personal crosses to bear."

Jonrowe was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2002, but ran the 2003 Iditarod three weeks after completing chemotherapy, finishing 18th.

She's not the only musher feeling her age. Even though Hans Gatt had perhaps the finest season of any distance musher last year, he struggles in severe cold.

"Years ago, that was never a problem for me," said Gatt, the four-time Quest champion who first ran that race in 1993. "I used to be able to handle 40- or 50-below fine. But the circulation is not what it used to be. I'm using a lot more hand warmers these days."

That's not the only accommodation aging mushers have made.

King pioneered the sit-down sled called a tail-dragger to get a break from standing on sled runners hours on end. While that innovation caught on, another King idea to comfort weary mushers -- a handlebar heated by the exhaust off a flaming can of Sterno -- fizzled.

71 AND SPEEDY

How long the Satchel Paiges of mushing continue is anybody's guess. Unlike golf, there's no senior division for mushers.

In 1988, Iditarod founder Joe Redington Sr. delivered the finest senior performance in Iditarod history, finishing fifth at age 71 after leading for a portion of the race.

"I was racing in that race, and that man was a good day and a half ahead of me," Jonrowe recalled. "I remind myself of that. He and Herbie (Nayokpuk) were sprinting on (Nome's Front Street) for fifth and sixth place."

Nayokpuk, of Shishmaref, was 68 at the time. So perhaps it's no surprise that Jonrowe expects to see a 60-year-old Iditarod champion some day.

"Absolutely, I think we'll see a champion in the 60s," she said. "Really, as a musher, you're more a player-coach."

SATISFYING AND ITCH

Joe May, the 1980 champion who is 75 now and living in Trapper Creek, believes something else is at work.

"The truth is most of the current geriatric cases weren't doing anything very important before they got into dogs," he said. "Dogs gave them more or less a claim to fame.

"I expect that was -- and is -- hard to let go of. I can't imagine being that cold and miserable that often for any other reason."

Though a champion, May was no mushing lifer. After winning, he ran one more Iditarod two years later and quit the Iditarod. For good.

"A few of us had a life before dogs and weren't fearful of not having a life after dogs, so we did what we did to satisfy an itch and moved on," he said. "I don't belittle their motives and I respect their tenacity, but I shudder at the thought of doing it for the sake of doing it over and over and over."

OLDER AND FASTER

Few people in any profession reach the heights of success in their youth and then again as elders -- particularly in a pursuit so physically demanding.

Swenson has started more Iditarods than anyone, 34. He's the youngest champion ever, as a 26-year-old in 1977. How sweet would it be to become the oldest?

That might be a stretch, but consider this: Swenson ran the third-fastest Iditarod of his life last year. But the race has speeded up so much during his career that his time of 9 days, 22 hours, 53 minutes was only good for 20th place. And that time was some 2 1/2 days quicker than the fastest of his five Iditarod victories.

Swenson isn't the only musher delivering impressive late-career performances.

Last year, Gatt had his best finish and fastest race, Sonny Lindner's 18th place was his fastest trip to Nome in 18 Iditarods stretching back to 1978 and Mitch Seavey's 10th place was his fastest in his 17 races -- 11 minutes quicker than his championship run.

But not everyone stays healthy long enough to benefit from advances in training that can add longevity to a career.

Linwood Fiedler, 57, of Willow, has started 18 Iditarods and signed up early for the 2011 race, only to pull out. He answered the phone in late January laying on his couch, recovering from ankle replacement surgery. A painful, balky ankle had dogged him for years, causing him to scratch from three of his last five Iditarods after a memorable runner-up finish in 2001. He talked about retiring from mushing, something he has tried -- and failed -- to do before.

"I had a real urge to come back," he said. "You've so immersed yourself in the sport, it becomes a description of who you are. To leave it is very hard."

Not for May. After ending his Iditarod career, he ran the 1985 and '86 Yukon Quests "to see the Yukon from both directions."

At the finish line in 1986, he burned his snowshoes and, shortly thereafter, bought a sailboat.

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at mcampbell@adn.com or 257-4329.

Oldest athletes

Wikipedia has compiled a list of oldest professional athletes by sport. Not listed is the late Norman Vaughan, who finished the Iditarod at age 85 in 1990; two years later, he started but scratched.

• National Football League: George Blanda, 48, in 1976

• Australian Rules Football: Sir Stanley Matthews, 50, in 1965

• Auto Racing: Buddy Helms, 87, in 2003

• Major League Baseball: Satchel Paige, 59, in 1966

• Boxing: Saoul Mamby, 60, in 2008

• Golf: Jerry Barber, 77, in 1994

• Ice Hockey: Gordie Howe, 52, in 1980*

• Tennis: Martina Navratilova, 49, in 2006

• Volleyball: Karach Kiraly, 46, in 2007

* Howe played one shift in 1997 at age 69.

Over 50

If any of these mushers win, they’ll have to break the Iditarod age record to do so.

Rick Swenson

The winningest musher in race history with five victories will be 60.

Martin Buser

The four-time champion from Big Lake will be 52.

Mitch Seavey

The 2004 champion from Sterling will be 51.

Paul Gebhardt

The two-time runner-up from Kasilof and recent Kuskokwim 300 champion will be 54.

DeeDee Jonrowe

Another two-time

runner-up from Willow will be 57.

Hans Gatt

Last year’s runner-up and the defending Yukon Quest champion from Whitehorse will be 52.

Sonny Lindner

A former Yukon Quest champion will be 61.


By MIKE CAMPBELL
mcampbell@adn.com