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Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Leading the pack

A battle is being waged across the frozen expanses of the Alaskan wilds, and it has nothing to do with the state's most recognizable political figure. There are, however, several women involved who are proving they have what it takes to run with the "big dogs."

Veteran musher DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow, Alaska sits in ninth place, while Jessie Royer of Fairbanks, Alaska currently holds 10th place in the final days of the race.

The Iditarod, known to Alaskans as "The Last Great Race," is an annual endurance adventure -- a 1,049-mile sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska that has been contested in its modern form since 1973. Co-founded by Dorothy G. Page and Joe Reddington, Sr., the race celebrates the art and sport of dog sledding while also commemorating the famous 1925 diphtheria serum relay that saved the town of Nome from a devastating outbreak. The first Iditarod was a men's race, but in 1974, two women joined in. Today, men and women compete on equal footing. This year's event began on March 5 and is projected to finish on the 17. Fifteen women are currently entered, constituting 24 percent of the 62-competitor field.

For rookie musher Angie Taggart, a 36-year-old teacher from Ketchikan, Alaska, the sport's reputation for attracting strong women inspired her to compete this year. Taggart is currently in 45th place.

"There are a lot of great role models for young women in the Iditarod," Taggart said a mere 24 hours before hitting the trail. She notes Iditarod royalty as her inspiration: Libby Riddles -- the first woman to win in 1985 -- and Susan Butcher-- the second female winner who won a total of four Iditarods. Jonrowe, Taggart's mentor and fellow competitor in this year's race, is also a major contender.

Jonrowe, 57, is racing her 28th Iditarod. Jonrowe, a two-time runner up in 1993 and 1998, has received the "Most Inspirational Musher" prize, as voted by her fellow competitors in recognition of her gutsy return to the trail after battling breast cancer. She is the favorite to place first among the women this year and can't be counted out for an overall win.

Despite podiums and placings, the grit and tenacity required of Iditarod women makes for a special athlete. Sleepless nights, 12 days driving a team of 16 dogs more than 1,000 miles in snow, ice, and dangerously frigid cold is not for the faint of heart. But then again, that's the draw of the race. "[We ladies] have shown that if you want to do something you can do it, regardless of whether it's considered more of a men's sport," Jonrowe said.

For official up-to-the-minute race standings, check out