BETHEL - DeeDee Jonrowe charged out of the starting gate of the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race on Friday night with questions on her mind but a smile on her face as she began her cold, dark run up the frozen Kuskokwim River.
Recent tests suggest her battle with breast cancer may not be over, and the notoriously difficult race to Aniak and back will test Jonrowe's endurance. For nearly two days, she and 26 other mushers will enjoy little sleep, temperatures dipping toward 30 degrees below zero and bone-jarring trails of hard-packed snow and ice.
"How lucky am I," said the 50-year-old Willow musher.
The Kusko 300 is Jonrowe's favorite race, she said, and there have been times in recent months she thought she might not get to run it again. She accepts the cold and sleep deprivation but acknowledged, "I might have to take an extra rest."
Chasing Jonrowe up the trail Friday night was a near-record field of mushers from Alaska and beyond, all hoping to snatch the first-place prize of $20,000. The Kusko offers the largest purse of any mid-distance race in Alaska, with prizes totaling nearly $90,000.
Jeff King is vying for his eighth victory and fourth in a row.
King can expect strong competition from Martin Buser, the runner-up in 2002 and 2003. The Big Lake musher and four-time Iditarod winner said the icy Kuskokwim River will be a fast course that will make the dogs want to run full speed.
"You don't want to let them run," Buser said. After several days of minimal exercise since arriving in Bethel, "they want to go out and run themselves a little silly," he said. That could stress the animals' wrists and legs.
The key to winning, said Buser, who set the Kusko course record in 1994, is to pace the run carefully.
"You have to divide your energy," Buser said, taking care not to tire the dogs on the upriver run, yet not fall too far behind the leader. "People tend to go out too fast," then limp back to the finish line.
The leading musher was expected to reach Aniak Saturday and cross the finish line in Bethel on Sunday morning.
This year's field includes many well-known names in Alaska mushing, including 1996 Kusko winner Charlie Boulding of Manley Hot Springs, 1999 Yukon Quest champ Ramy Brooks of Healy, Mike Williams of Akiak, Jerry Riley of Nenana and Ed Iten of Kotzebue.
The race attracted several veteran mushers who are first-timers in Bethel, including Jon Little of Kasilof, Mitch Seavey of Sterling and Ken Anderson, who lives near Fairbanks and was fifth in last year's Iditarod.
Some of the loudest applause as mushers left the starting chute Friday night was for the drivers from Bethel and nearby villages - Ira Jackson and Willie Ekamrak, Tomas Israelsson and Anthony Olick, Nathan Underwood and Sam Jackson.
"The villages who have these local mushers running are extremely excited," said race manager Rich Gannon. Residents turn out to cheer them on, he said, which helps boost support for the Kusko 300 and its sister races, the Bogus Creek 150 and the Akiak Dash.
But few of the mushers create as much buzz as Jonrowe. She draws a crowd wherever she goes, and Friday was no different. Suited up in her familiar baby-blue cold-weather gear, she was thronged by well-wishers as the race start drew closer.
Earlier in the day she said recent tests have found spots on her liver and lung. Quoting her doctor, she said the spots show "no characteristics of malignancy at this time."
"We're just watching those for now," she said.
Two weeks ago, she completed the Copper River 300, and after this race she plans to participate in a 200-mile snowmachine ride for breast cancer awareness, driving from the Tokositna River to Anchorage.
Then comes another Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
So the difficult medical test news is taken with a grain of salt, Jonrowe said, and the conviction to keep driving her dogs.
"This time a year ago I was in the emergency room," she said. "I'm just so happy to be back."