DeeDee Jonrowe, the 64-year-old dog musher whose triumph over a trio of tragedies inspired countless fans, dropped out of her 36th and final Iditarod on Tuesday morning, suffering from flu-like symptoms and worried about caring for her dogs. “It’s retirement a few checkpoints too soon,” she said. She covered 153 of the roughly 1,000 miles before scratching.
Her love of dogs both fueled her Iditarod career — she was known as Iditarod’s “Iron Lady” — and ended it. Four days into this year’s race, she woke up at a checkpoint to discover a snowstorm had covered the trail with fresh powder. The reality of having to break trail while battling health concerns led her to conclude she might not be able to properly care for her team of 16 dogs. She didn’t want to leave the checkpoint, discover she was too sick to care for the team and have to push the “rescue” button on her sled.
Jonrowe said she was disappointed to have to quit but also relieved that she had no other viable option. “That makes my decision easy,” she said in an interview circulated by Iditarod.com. “They’re the most precious thing.”
While Jonrowe’s final long-distance race did not end the way she hoped, her early departure will not undo the legacy she has created in dog mushing. No woman ran the Iditarod as many times as she did, and only two men have. She had 16 finishes in the top 10, and her second-place finish in the 1998 race stood as the fastest time ever recorded by a woman until 2012.
But her Iditarod story goes much deeper than those successes. She became a model of perseverance. She raced in 1997 just five months after a car accident that killed her grandmother and left her in the hospital for two weeks; in 2003 just four weeks after finishing chemotherapy; and in 2016 after fire destroyed her home in Willow, Alaska. She used lessons she learned about perseverance on the dogsled to endure those tragedies and said her love of her dogs helped her in her darkest hours: “I think God gives us passions and then you use those passions to get through.”
Though she’s not retiring entirely from dog mushing — she’ll run sprint races and train dogs — she acknowledged that her final Iditarod marked an important turning point for her and prompted her to reflect on her place in the history of the race she loves. Fans will remember her as a survivor with an outsized personality and an unbreakable joie de vivre, and she said she treasures the relationships she formed with her dogs and people in the sport.
“I feel that way now more than ever. [Relationships] make life worthwhile. Am I able to contribute to somebody else’s journey? What am I leaving behind? I don’t want to be irrelevant,” she said. “I don’t want to be just a statistic on some list somewhere. I want to have left this sport better, or the world better, or somebody better, as a result of my journey.”