Weary, frostbitten DeeDee Jonrowe, iron lady of the Iditarod, finishes 30th race

NOME -- Her blistered, frostbitten fingertips covered in tape, the iron lady of Alaska sled dog racing collapsed into a snowbank early Thursday morning in Nome and let out a deep, satisfied sigh.

"It really feels good to get off my feet," said Willow's DeeDee Jonrowe, who finished 31st after nearly 11 days on the Iditarod trail.

With 30 Iditarod finishes behind her, perhaps the most beloved musher in the field had earned a break.

Clad in her omnipresent pink parka, Jonrowe took time in the predawn hours to discuss her sled dog racing legacy and reflect on her accomplishments during more than three decades of running Alaska huskies across the wild. Though she said she has no plans to retire, Jonrowe admitted this year's race was one of the toughest.

"This wasn't a bad race, just a hard race," she said.

Brutally cold temperatures during the trek from Fairbanks to Nome took a mighty toll on Jonrowe, who at age 61 remains the live-wire alpha female. She has inspired countless women – and plenty of men – to take up her cherished sport. After suffering from frostbite that caused painful blisters earlier in the race, she told reporters there was a chance she might lose parts of her fingers. After crossing the finish line, she said it was too early to tell if that will happen.

"They're sore," she said. "They'll need some attention. More than they've been getting."

Jonrowe's massive influence on the sport is undeniable. When the first Iditarod was run in 1973, there wasn't a single woman in the race. When Jonrowe first ran it in 1980, there were six. This year's field featured 25 female entrants, the most ever, including fourth-place finisher Jessie Royer and fifth-place Aliy Zirkle. The only other times two women placed in the top five, Jonrowe was one of them:

• In 1990, the last of the late, great Susan Butcher's four victories, when Jonrowe was fifth;

• In 1993, when Jonrowe was second and Butcher fourth.

Fittingly, when she arrived in Nome this year, Jonrowe was the fifth consecutive woman to cross under the burled arch.

"If I were to be retiring from the sport – which I'm not – but I look behind me and say, 'Look at these fine, fine young women who are coming behind me,'" she said. "I'm proud of what they do and how they do it."

Jonrowe said sled dog racing isn't like most sports. Mushers must rely on their wits, dog-running abilities, cunning and endurance far more than brute strength.

"It's not a sport that's defined by gender," she said. "… You have to prove yourself as an individual, and I think I did that, and I did that, and I did that, and I did it with my own individuality and personality."

A cancer survivor and marathoner whose Iditarod career includes 15 top 10 finishes, including a pair of runner-up runs, nobody would ever question Jonrowe's toughness. She's started every Iditarod since 1987 – even cancer couldn't keep her away -- and reached the finish line in 30 of her 33 starts. Her last runner-up finish came in 1998, when she was less than three hours behind four-time champion Jeff King. Only the winningest musher in Iditarod history, Rick Swenson, has more races under his belt -- 36 starts and 34 finishes.

And Jonrowe's neightbor, Martin Buser of Big Lake, is right there with her -- 32 starts, 32 finishes.

But this year's race did push Jonrowe near her limits. Temperatures plunging to minus 40 early in the race and wind in the latter portion that she called as bad as any she's experienced made for an often punishing trip.

"This is the first time in years and years that I really questioned my competitiveness," she said.

A trying Iditarod followed an equally difficult Kuskokwim 300 in January, where Jonrowe finished last for perhaps the only time in her career.

She called this year's race "bittersweet" since it was her first finish in two years. She had to pull out of the 2014 event after having trouble with awful trail conditions in the Dalzell Gorge. Reaching Nome this year was special if only because it allowed her to look back on all the stories she's heard and been a part of during more than three decades on the trail.

"Every time they mention something, I could tell you a story about something that happened there," she said before retelling an anecdote about holing up in a lightly-provisioned shelter cabin with three fellow mushers in 1988, her first top 10 finish.

That year Jonrowe, Lavon Barve, Rick Mackey and Jerry Austin rode out a storm together in less-than-ideal accommodations that had them boiling snow for drinking water and cursing the icy Arctic winds.

"I'll never forget it and I never want to be stuck there again," she said.

She was reminded of past storms when she and her team were forced to trudge through winds along the Bering Sea coast this year that many veteran mushers said were as bad as they've seen.

"I might have driven dogs yesterday out by Moses Point in the strongest winds I've ever done in Iditarod ever," she said.

Jonrowe got emotional as she described her dogs' ability to fight through the storm for her.

"I'm really awed that they knew what to do, because you couldn't tell them," she said.

She said she wouldn't trade her team for any in the race – not even Dallas Seavey's self-described "monster" team that ran away with the race on the homestretch.

"You could offer me Dallas' team and I'd say, 'Well that's very generous but I would like to keep my own team, thank you very much,'" she said. "… I have such a personal attachment to them. They're just an extension of my own personality."

After lying in a snowbank and talking with reporters for 10 minutes, she said she could probably curl up right there and go to sleep. All she was thinking about was a hot meal and a warm bed.

It's too early to decide how long she'll continue running the Iditarod. "You can't make a decision based on one tough race," she said.

Still, Jonrowe seemed satisfied with the legacy she's built as one of the true legends and a member of the Iditarod Hall of Fame.

"The sport is really healthy," she said, calling this year's crop of mushers one of the classiest bunch she's raced with. "That's really the legacy we've worked for for 30 years."

Anywhere she goes, Jonrowe remains an overwhelming crowd favorite. From the ceremonial start in Anchorage through the warm welcome in Huslia to the finish line in Nome, crowds and individuals lined the trail to cheer her on, wearing pink and chanting her iconic first name. She's been able to help inspire generations of sled dog racing fans while maintaining her infectious personality and feminine grace, something Jonrowe said she's most proud of.

"I always felt you didn't have to give up your femininity to be a gender-equal athlete," she said. "I'm not sure anybody cares about that, but it was important to me."

Matt Tunseth

Matt Tunseth is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and former editor of the Alaska Star.