WILLOW - Two weeks after completing a grueling course of chemotherapy, veteran musher DeeDee Jonrowe says she will take on another challenge - running the 2003 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
"The Iditarod is my wellness," said Jonrowe, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in July. "It represents what I love and what God has allowed me to do in my life."
Jonrowe, who began chemotherapy in mid August, also planned to run the Knik 200 Saturday to test an eight-dog team. Her husband Mike also planned to run a team.
Jonrowe, 49, said she is climbing out of a long ordeal that sometimes left her so weak she couldn't close her hands. Her memory is shot and so are her tastebuds. But her head has the fuzzy coating of newly emerging hair that a stranger in Seattle recently mistook for a hip haircut.
For a while, Jonrowe forgot how it felt to be healthy and brimming with the energy that carried her through 19 Iditarod finishes, twice in second place and often among the top five. Gone was the stamina that got her through countless extreme foot races, including a 3 1/2-mile trek from downtown Seward to the top of 3,022-foot Mount Marathon and back, and the Crow Pass Crossing, a 26-mile run through the wilds of Chugach State Park.
"I was slapped completely flat by cancer," Jonrowe said in an interview Wednesday at the Willow home she shares with her husband, seven dogs, three cats and two guinea pigs. Outside are the Jonrowe kennels and her 85 sled dogs.
A week before her diagnosis, Jonrowe ran the Mount Marathon race. "I felt lousy at the end instead of the usual adrenaline rush," she said.
She was dragging that summer, unable to muster the strength for her regular jogs.
Something was off months earlier, too, during the Iditarod, Jonrowe's fifth major sled dog race last winter. A hundred miles from the end of the 1,100 race, intense exhaustion forced her to drop out from among the leaders. Around the same time, one of her dogs collapsed, later dying during surgery to repair a stomach ulcer.
Jonrowe finished 16th.
"I had a tough winter last year. I was not strong, but I had raced hard - 2,500 miles in all," Jonrowe said. "I didn't think it was a health issue because that's double what I normally do."
Then she discovered a lump during a self-exam. By then, the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. Doctors now believe the cancer began as long as six years ago.
A week after diagnosis, Jonrowe had a double mastectomy. She began chemotherapy in mid August and continued to care for her dogs with the help of her husband and her handler, Kelly La Marre, a rookie in this year's Iditarod.
Jonrowe received at least 1,000 letters from fans and supporters across the country. She posted them all over the house, planning to take them down with her last chemotherapy session.
Toward the end of her therapy, Jonrowe learned she had to undergo an extra six weeks of treatments.
"I kind of got mad, so I burned (the letters)," she said.
Jonrowe went from monthly to weekly treatments, which left her sapped and in excruciating pain. For a while, her lungs were so tight she had to sleep sitting up in order to breathe.
When she ended up in the emergency room last week, doctors decided to skip her final scheduled session.
"Up until two, three weeks ago, I was functioning," Jonrowe said. "I had been really upbeat about running the Iditarod, then I realized this is not in my control."
Those doubts were short-lived. Jonrowe finally could sleep lying down last Sunday night. She felt well enough last Monday to run four dogs 10 miles. Tuesday she took 10 dogs for a 35-mile run, the longest distance she's covered in three weeks.
Now she is testing new sleds and eager to tackle the Knik 200.
"It's a big one for me, to see how the dogs are doing," she said. "Normally they've plateaued by this time, but they're still in the building mode."
Among those rooting for Jonrowe in this year's Iditarod is her doctor Verneeda Spencer, an Anchorage oncologist. Spencer said a lot can happen, though, in the month before the March 1 start, so it's impossible to predict whether Jonrowe's health will match her determination.
"But she's an amazing lady and a hard worker," Spencer said. "She's quite dedicated and she loves what she's doing."
Also cheering Jonrowe on is Dale Martens, president of Denali Foods Inc., the owner of the state's 14 Taco Bell franchises. The company became Jonrowe's major sponsor last fall, months after longtime sponsor Eddie Bauer left to pursue other marketing ventures.
Martens said it was always understood that Jonrowe might not be able to race this year. And it didn't matter. The company still plans to distribute a DeeDee Jonrowe collector cup at its Taco Bell restaurants and has equipped Jonrowe in light-blue gear bearing the Taco Bell name.
"DeeDee's got a great attitude," Martens said. "She wants to run the Iditarod more than I want her to run the Iditarod."