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JUNEAU, Alaska (Reuters) - Dee Dee Jonrowe, who will start the grueling Iditarod sled-dog race through Alaska's wilderness for the 34th time this year, has long been known as a survivor, having endured a deadly car crash, cancer, frostbite and numerous injuries on the trail.
But her reputation for resolve has taken on fresh meaning with this year's nearly 1,000-mile (1,600 km) test of endurance, which comes just months after a wildfire destroyed her home in the town of Willow and the kennel where she housed her dog team.
“This is the hardest year I’ve ever had - I mean the hardest,” she said before setting out on Sunday from Willow, the official starting point of the Iditarod. “I lost everything. I’ve done a lot of crying this last year.”
Willow, a sprawling area about an 80-mile drive north of Anchorage, is the hub of Alaska's dog-sledding community. More than 1,000 sled dogs were evacuated by residents during wildfires that eventually scorched 7,220 acres and engulfed more than 50 structures, according to local government assessments.
“My neighborhood was ground zero,” Jonrowe said.
“It was scary. It was, grab this dog, grab that dog, and doing it all over again,” the veteran musher remembered, describing frantic efforts to save her team as the blaze approached her compound last summer.
Jonrowe, 62, and her husband Mike were able to get all their working dogs to safety, according to her website, and they have since rebuilt their home of 35 years. Three other mushers also lost their homes to the wildfires only to return to Willow and resume training for this year's race.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which typically takes nine days or longer to complete, commemorates a 1925 rescue mission that delivered diphtheria serum by sled-dog relay to the Bering Sea coastal community of Nome. A ceremonial start was staged in Anchorage on Saturday.
Jonrowe, who ran her first Iditarod in 1980 and missed only two races since then, was among the top 10 finishers on 16 occasions. She has also recorded the fastest time of any woman who has ever participated.
She has compiled that record despite numerous setbacks, including breast cancer that was diagnosed in 2002. She had a double mastectomy and underwent chemotherapy to treat the disease, according to her website, but was able to keep racing.
In October 1996, she was injured in a car accident that killed her grandmother and left her husband with lifelong injuries. But that didn't stop Jonrowe from participating in the Iditarod the following March.
After last summer's fire, “it’s been creepy training on trails I’ve been riding for 34 years,” said Jonrowe, who typically logs 2,000 miles of training before a race. “They don’t look anything like they used to. It’s just a series of black holes.”
Even so, Jonrowe said there is no place else she’d rather be than in the race with her team of 16 dogs.
“For me the Iditarod is still a celebration,” she said. “It’s the celebration of the culture of Alaska.”
Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Alan Crosby