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Iditarod

After 32 Iditarods, DeeDee Jonrowe still looking forward

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 1, 2015

One of the most popular of Iditarod racers and a longtime competitor, DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow, Alaska, is one of a small number of mushers who have been involved in the sport full time for decades and have made it their livelihood.

Jonrowe, 60, is a graduate of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and has been mushing since 1979. Husband Mike, who always helps Jonrowe train the dogs in their kennel, is a commercial fisherman. This year's Iditarod will be Jonrowe's 33rd.

Although she has never won, Jonrowe has twice finished second, in 1993 and 1998. She owns 15 finishes in the top 10.

Jonrowe has twice won the Humanitarian Award, twice won the Most Inspirational musher award, and also won the Sportsmanship Award. Active in fundraising for charities and known for her strong religious commitment, Jonrowe has coped with and conquered breast cancer.

The veteran musher also owns nine Iditarod finishes in less than 10 days. But the 2014 race, however, was perhaps her most frustrating. Some horrible early-race trail conditions dumped Jonrowe from her sled, forcing her to scratch two days into the event.

This is excerpted from one chapter of "Iditarod Adventures" (2015, Alaska Northwest Books), in which 23 mushers and race officials talk about what the Last Great Race means to them. Illustrated by Jon Val Zyle.

My first Iditarod was in 1980 after I started running dogs in 1979 when I lived in Bethel. I don't think I ever would have imagined I would still be running dogs in 2014. I don't know if I could even have visualized 2014.

You can't stop if you're going to stay competitive. People who take a year or two off don't usually come back and do very well. Jeff King came back to a scratch and then to a good finish, but it's unusual to take any time off and stay competitive. The margins are so thin compared to the early days. Then, just good kibble could make the difference of a day. A day, not an hour, much less a plastic sled or Velcro booties compared to taping them on. That was a huge jump, a big time saver. Those are some examples of things that changed in a big way.

You look at drivers like Linwood Fiedler (of Willow) and Joe Garnie (of Teller), some of the guys, good drivers, who try to take time off and they can't ever get back in the saddle. The race just rushes by them in a thunderbolt and they just can't catch up.

Dog mushing is my career. And there was no such thing as this career when I started. Martin Buser and I talked about that. We are among the first to have this career. We developed the professional long-distance driver with the kennels and year-around program speaking, and all of the other pieces of the puzzle that go with being able to be a full-time musher, raising pups, training year-round, using dogs on a glacier. There was no such thing and there was no place to go and mentor somebody. There were no handlers, except a kennel partner that helped you run dogs, or a neighbor or family member. There was no concept of somebody coming and spending a winter with you as a handler ...

When I started in the Iditarod the sport was young. It's not the same as horse racing when times have not changed or come down for 20 years or so. There are not as many pieces of the puzzle to be tweaked in thoroughbred racing as there are in dog mushing. One event happens over a few minutes as opposed to an event that happens over days and one event happens on a contained track while the other one takes you across the Arctic. There are huge variables involved such as climate changes and trail changes...

We get to Nome faster because the dogs can recover. In my first Iditarod I finished in 24th place and it took more than 17 days. In my fastest Iditarod it took nine days and eight hours. Nutrition is not all of it, but it's a major component.

In 1980, when Martin and I were rookies, one of the best things you could do was to pull into a village and ask if there was any freshly trapped beaver. Then you would buy that carcass from the trapper and chop it up and give it to the dogs. That was the top-of-the-art thing in nutrition. Imagine how long it took for a dog to metabolically turn that into fuel as opposed to some of the foods we have now that we provide them with every two hours as they travel down the trail. Their blood levels and their nutritional levels never cave because we're providing something for them constantly. We understand them better. Same with the way we use booties. We used to put booties on a dog if it had a bad foot. Now you see full teams of dogs booted up at all times because it's better for them. They run faster.

It's not just treatment, it is prevention. I had no idea what a chiropractor was until I moved onto the road system, much less a chiropractic adjustment for a dog. Acupuncture is the same thing. I never had a massage until I moved onto the road system, I guarantee you that. I didn't realize the concept of a sports massage for aching muscles. And we apply those to our canine athletes and that has made our times faster.

It's remarkable to me how much faster we go, but I can't spend too much time pondering the past or I'll be in the past. I've watched the race leave some guys alongside the trail. They're dwelling too much on the good old days and I have to be thinking about Dallas Seavey, the future days, the young up-and-comers. I can't rest on the past until I've decided to live in the past. That would be retirement ...

Now there are maybe 20 teams that can run up front, not just five or six of us. What has happened is mentoring -- these mushers are the kids of competitive mushers or were the handlers for them. They didn't develop their own bloodlines. Their bloodlines were already developed. They didn't have to develop the equipment. They didn't have to develop the food. All of those things were in place for them. They worked for competitive teams for a couple of years. They got littermates of those guys' teams and instantly they ran the race. They had state-of-the-art gear, nutrition, and dogs. They were young with state-of-the-art things. They have GPS systems and computers and throw all of the numbers together and it just comes down to their motivation. They didn't have judgment because you can't buy judgment. And experience can be incredibly important on the trail, especially if there are storms.

My experience helps me make good decisions. That's one thing I always feel good about. You know all of the good and you know all of the bad. It might make you more cautious. That could hold you back in one of those just-throw-caution-to-the-wind moves. If that's the case, so be it because I have to come home and look my dogs in the eyes and know I did right by them. I've done that for 35 years and I've learned to be at peace with my performance.

The Iditarod is more than a competition to me. It's a lifestyle, but it's also a training ground for the deep, dark, hard things in life. It's been a place to test my faith. It's tested my strength and my judgment and my resolve and all of those things came into play when I was in a serious car accident, when I was going through cancer, when I was taking my mom through cancer, and most recently the hardest thing I've done is to take care of my dad until he died from cancer. The hardest thing I've ever had happen is when my father was in hospice and I was the primary caregiver. That was horrible. It was a labor of love and resolve and the Iditarod trained me.

There have been hard times on the trail and quitting wasn't an option. I couldn't say to my father, "Dad, this is too hard, I can't do it." On the trail I couldn't do it to me and I couldn't do it to my dogs. I couldn't just give up. That did not change the circumstances. It doesn't change your reality. But the Iditarod has taught me over and over again not to give up …

I never expected 42 degrees and rain, but the hardest thing has been dead cold, a windchill of minus 100, with a headwind. That's cold. You're in survival mode taking care of the dogs and yourself. Some years I've done a better job, but one of the worst jobs I did was in 2002 when I ended up in the hospital in Nome. I got dehydrated in Golovin Bay and that was the year I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had health issues. I was in five different hospitals that year. That wasn't a good year.

But better years came. That's one thing when you have longevity in the race. You have bad years, but better years come. In 2012 and 2013 I felt really good and I thought it was pretty good to be 10 years older and feel that much better than I had 10 years ago. That kind of gift comes from cancer and recovery. I knew there was something major wrong. People were telling me I was just getting older and I said, "I didn't get this old this fast."

One funny thing from the perspective of being older and around the Iditarod a long time is that some of the young drivers are just babies behavior-wise. They want to know where they can plug in their rechargeable batteries. Are there extra outlets? Can we get more extension cords? Their GPS has got to be charged. They've got to recharge their GPS. Coming into Rohn, somebody wants to know if they can recharge their iPad. "There's no microwave in the checkpoint. How am I going to thaw my food? I don't have anything to eat because there's no microwave."

I look at (veteran) Sonny Lindner and we roll our eyes. I'm going, Get a life! I don't even know if I can stay in the cabin with you. I think, Where's your reality? That's not the image of the Iditarod. Those kinds of things make me go, "Arrgh!"

One thing that dog mushers do that is different from other professional athletes is spend so much time out there encouraging young people, supporting causes. Mushers are athletes who get out making appearances in fund drives for kids that have special needs. They're involved in Special Olympics. I'm going to Unalakleet for a Blueberry Festival 5K. I'm going to Fairbanks to talk to Fort Yukon School District teachers. I did some stuff encouraging kids to read and I wasn't the only one ...

Nobody ever got rich doing the Iditarod. You've got to have supplemental sources of income, a half a dozen of them maybe, entrepreneurial things they bring to the table ...

There was a time when I used to travel that I had to explain what the Iditarod was. People asked, "What's the Iditarod?" Now people know what it is. They may not understand all of the concepts of it, but they know it's a long race in the winter in Alaska. That it's a great adventure ...

They say that the most difficult thing to do is to repeat a championship ... That's one reason it is so phenomenal what Lance Mackey did, winning the Iditarod four years in a row -- and two different long-distance races four times. Year after year. I haven't done the Yukon Quest yet. It's still out there. Still a goal yet unfulfilled. It just hadn't worked out yet.

Right now the focus of my life is my family and my mother has needed me. I won't do another 1,000-mile race in the same year as the Iditarod as long as she needs me. My dad (Ken Stout), who passed away last year, needed me, too. It reminds me how short time can be. It's Mom and Mike and if I had to make choices, dog racing would go to the back of the pack.

That affected my fall schedule. The prognosis on Dad wasn't good. He had six months to two years and he had a few things he wanted to do. Mom and Dad and I and my sister Linda and Mike went to Missouri. Dad wanted to relive all his memories with us. He showed us where our grandparents are buried, where he was born, where he and Mom dated. For two weeks we ran around the Springfield, Missouri, area meeting all his old friends.

We did all this stuff that was Dad's fun. Dad just had a blast and I saw the clock ticking, ticking, ticking until the end of September. I didn't start running dogs until the end of September and I reminded myself I couldn't be worried about that. Dad was the important thing. I was thinking it was probably going to be the only fall I would do this with him. I had a 10th-place finish and the training didn't matter because it was the same as the 10th-place finish from the year before. It was a different set of dogs, a different set of circumstances. I'm so pleased that I understood that Dad was the focus and thankful that Mike supported me in it ...

I have been a fishing guide on the Talkeetna River and done other things in the summer for jobs, but I went to work doing tour groups with Martin Buser in 2013. There were buses of people. Some of them came off cruises and some are their own tours. Martin has a really nice operation set up and he's building a visitors center that will make it even nicer. Martin and his son Rohn and I do the presentations and Kathy, Martin's wife, does all the scheduling. It's great fun. I love it.

Usually the visitors know who I am. Either because their tour guide told them about me or they've seen an Iditarod DVD, or they follow the race. We're able to give them a lot of stories and answer their questions. I enjoy it. People are interested. The slowest day of the week was 93 people. There are a lot of people interested and most of them are dog lovers. You should see them when we pull the puppies out. We talk about the dogs, and that's the focus of Martin's presentation. That's one reason why I enjoy working his tour so much ...

We educate them about Iditarod dogs. They understand when you give them the explanation about the kind of endurance athletes these dogs are as opposed to strength athletes that some of the bulkier, heavier dogs are. Then they understand that correlation. Then we hook the dogs up, seven dogs, for an exhibit, and Rohn runs on a sled with steel runners. The dogs are their own best advocates. They hug you like coworkers. They go to work with great eagerness ...

I still think I can win. My motivation for doing the Iditarod might morph as time goes by, but my motivation for quitting will always be the same and that will be when I don't think I can keep my dog team safe. When I present a danger to the safety of my team, that's when I need to consider stepping off the runners.

Right now I still go into the race thinking this one could be the one I win. I have the team and the backing, so I do believe that.

Lew Freedman is the former Anchorage Daily News sports editor, who spent 17 years at the paper. He has written several books about the Iditarod.

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