Nome beckons Bicknell

Posted: Sunday, February 03, 2008

Juneau resident Deborah Bicknell is not your average 62-year-old woman. While many sexagenarians are pursuing their Alaska adventures aboard cruise ships or RVs, Bicknell is living her dream as a competitive sled dog racer.

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Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

"She's just living proof that as long as you want to and as long as you keep your interest up and your physical ability and training up, you can do it," her friend Chloie Watson said.

Bicknell, who has been involved in the sport for more than 50 years, is in Tagish, Yukon Territory, training with 22 dogs for her second entry in the world famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The ceremonial start of the roughly 1,100-mile race will be held on March 1 in Anchorage. The competitive start will be held the following day in Willow.

Bicknell made headlines as a 61-year-old rookie during last year's Iditarod race after getting temporarily lost on the trail. She reluctantly acted on the advice of a race official and eventually scratched from the race - something she later decided was a wise decision.

Bicknell told family and friends that her racing career that began in 1957 was over following last year's race. She decided she would not enter the 2008 Iditarod - but things changed.

"I said no. I said absolutely not, and my husband signed me up," she said. "But he's right."

Bicknell is in the midst of a rigorous training schedule in the hopes of reaching Nome and completing the grueling race this time around.

"It would finish my career," she said. "It would mean I've run every major race."

And regardless of the outcome, this really will be Bicknell's final competitive race, she said.

"I'm retiring after this no matter what happens," she said, adding that some friends and family don't necessarily believe her. "They say they've all heard that before."

"I don't see her slowing down any time soon," Watson said, laughing. "She just really enjoys life."

And Bicknell is going full-speed ahead with her training. She said the team has run about 1,700 miles during training already. Each week they do one long run that ranges between 50 and 200 miles. And they will also run between 30 and 40 miles each day roughly four times a week.

"We work on control, control, control," Bicknell said.

Bicknell and her team are also working on the logistics of the race, which include sending between 120- to 180-pounds of food and gear to each of the 18 checkpoints along the route. The loads include items such as coats, harnesses, food for herself and the dogs - as well as "all sorts of stuff" to cover what could go wrong.

"Because there's no one out there that's going to provide it for you," she said.

The race costs roughly $25,000 to participate in, Bicknell estimated.

Watson said she is impressed with the care and professionalism Bicknell puts into preparing for the race.

"Last year was a good case of where she showed how she knew exactly what she was doing and how to handle herself," Watson said. "I think she's extremely capable. She's not a risk taker. She knows what she can do and what she can't do and I don't ever see her pushing past that because her first concern is the animals' safety, as well as her own."

Bicknell said being on the trail with her dog team transports her to a magical place. People that are passionate about other outdoor endeavors, such as sailing or mountain climbing, can likely relate, she said.

"The dogs have always been my escape," she said. "When things get to be too much, I get my dogs and go for a ride."

Bicknell remained coy when asked how she feels about being called an inspiration to others.

"It's amazing some of the mail I get from people telling how much of an inspiration I've been to them," she said. "It's hard for me to think of myself that way, but I guess I am."

Her friend Marilyn Josephson said Bicknell has been an inspiration to many.

"It seems like there are a lot of people in town that know her and are really pulling for her," she said. "I just have a lot of admiration for her."

A fundraiser and celebration is planned for 6 p.m. on Feb. 16 at the Nugget Mall in honor of Bicknell's latest Iditarod attempt. Josephson said she hopes friends and fans will show up in great numbers in support of Bicknell.

"The more the merrier," she said.

Bicknell said she hopes people will attend, but not just because of the fundraiser aspect.

"I want to see them and thank them for all the support over the years," she said. "That's the important part."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.



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