Women of the Iditarod 2017
The word “Iditarod” comes from an indigenous Athabascan word, meaning “distant place.” Although the course is not technically the same every year, the race is listed as being 1,049 miles… not because that’s the actual distance, but rather because Alaska is the 49th US state. Actually, the race is longer. Either way, the natives had it right: the “Last Great Race on Earth” is indeed an incredible distance.
There are 17 female entrants this year, and I thought it would be fun to learn a little more about these badass ladies. What kind of person is crazy enough to ride over 1,000 miles, in below-zero weather, over 8+ days on a freakin’ dog sled? What kind of women brave moose attacks, frostbitten corneas, broken pelvises and more… and why?
Before we get to this years line-up, let me give you a tiny bit of the history of ladies in dog sledding.
The first official endurance Iditarod was in 1973, and Mary Shields became the first lady finisher in 1974.
Next up, props to Libby Riddles, first woman to win the Iditarod in 1985. She has written a few books about the experience (for grown-ups: Race Across Alaska and for kids: Storm Run) and in 2007 she was inducted to the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.
And finally, no discussion of female mushers would be complete without giving mad props to Susan Butcher.
Susan would’ve given Libby a run for her money in ’85 if she hadn’t been attacked by a moose. Two of Susan’s dogs died in the attack and 13 others were injured (according to my calculations, that’s roughly all of them) forcing her to scratch from the race that year. But Iditarod ladies are not easily deterred, and Susan went on to win the race in ’86, ’87, ’88, and ’90 and came in second an additional four times over the course of her 16 races. Susan died from Leukemia at age 51, but her legacy lives on via her husband, fellow dog sledding champion, David Monson, who provides tours of their Trail Breaker Kennel in Fairbanks, Alaska for the Riverboat Discovery. The first Saturday of every March, the starting date of the Iditarod, is now commemorated in Alaska as Susan Butcher Day.
And while Susan probably still holds the title of most-badass-female-musher-of-all-time in the hearts of people worldwide, she just might have a little competition from this years crowd. So without further ado, the 2017 lineup of lady mushers: from figure skaters to fashion models, professors to postal workers, 2017 has got a little bit of something for everyone. In no particular order, I give you, the women in the 2017 Iditarod:
Michelle Phillips, age 47 • born and raised in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada
Michelle spent many years training as a figure skater and traveling the world before meeting her partner Ed Hopkins. He originally introduced her to the sport of dog mushing, though it wasn’t until after she ran her first Yukon Quest (you know, that other 1,000-ish mile dog sled race) that she was hooked. Michelle and Ed live in the Yukon with their 15-year-old son and up to 90 (90!) Alaskan Huskies at any given time. Their son, Keegan, has type 1 diabetes. When not training for races, Michelle and Ed work tirelessly to raise money to help find a cure. She has run six Yukon Quests and this is her eighth Iditarod.
Michelle’s Website: http://www.tagishlakekennel.com
Aliy Zirkle, age 47 • born in New Hampshire, USA
Aliy graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with degrees in Biology and Anthropology. She won the Yukon Quest (the “World’s Toughest Sled Dog Race”) in 2000 and has come in 2nd in the Iditarod three time in a row! She has been married to co-musher Allen Moore for 12 years and is incredibly passionate about her morning coffee (that’s my girl!). Keep your eyes on Aliy for a 2017 win! Watch Aliy mush below:
Aliy’s Website: http://www.SPKDogLog.com
Jessie Royer, age 40 • born in Idaho, USA
As far as we can tell, Jessie was meant to be a dog sledder. As a child, she harnessed her border collie to her goat with a horse harness and tried to get them to pull her around the Montana cattle ranch where she grew up. At age 17, she become the first female and youngest person ever to win Montana’s 500-mile Race to the Sky. She spent many years working with Susan Butcher and Dave Monson’s Riverboat Discovery demonstration in Fairbanks, AK. She was rookie of the year in 2001 with her 14th place finish and this year marks her 15th run in the Iditarod.
Jessie’s Website: http://www.huskypower.com/jessie
Katherine Keith, age 38 • born in Minnesota, USA
At age 21, Katherine drove an old ice cream truck up to Alaska to pursue her dreams, where she got a job giving dog sled rides to tourists. Katherine graduated from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks with a degree in Renewable Energy Engineering. She is a proud mom, rock climber, hiker of the PCT (before Wild made it cool), ironman triathlete, licensed pilot, EMT, and is now competing in her 4th Iditarod. Overall, she’s a badass. When not training for dog races, she uses her pilot license and education to meet the energy needs of rural Alaskan communitees via Remote Solutions. Wow.
Katherine’s Website: http://www.katherinekeith.com
Melissa Stewart, age 27 • born and raised in Nome, Alaska, USA
My dad ran the Iditarod the year I was born and mushing is in my blood.” – Melissa.
So it’s no surprise that the Nome native (the Iditarod finish line is in Nome) is the youngest female to ever complete an Iditarod. Melissa has a degree in Criminal Justice and is the owner of Alaska Soaps and Scents: hand-crafted goat milk soaps made in Alaska. This woman is jack of all trades, for sure.
Jodi Bailey, age 48 • grew up in Massachusetts, USA
I love my time with the dogs. When you are out there on the trail, you don’t have emails, work, laundry or anything but you and them and the miles ahead of you. It is a wonderful feeling.” – Jodi.
Jodi attended Emory University in Atlanta, where she received bachelors degrees in Theatre Studies and Anthropology. As soon as she graduated, she moved to Alaska where she met her husband, Yukon Quest and Iditarod veteran, Dan Kaduce. She made history in 2011 when she became the first-ever rookie to complete both the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest in the same year.
Jodi’s Website: http://www.dewclawkennel.com
Laura Neese, age 20 • born in Ohio, USA
In 2006, at age nine, her interest in dog sledding was piqued after following the Iditarod as part of a homeschool project. She has an associates degree in Veterinary Technology from Penn Foster College which allows her to take excellent care of her dogs. She ran the Yukon Quest in 2016 and this is her rookie year at the Iditarod. Laura likes to listen to country, Christian rock, and “songs that a 20 year old doesn’t usually know” while she’s putting in the miles on her sled.
Anna & Kristy Berington, age 33 • born in Wisconsin, USA
Twins!! Both of these 6″ tall sisters are competing in this years Iditarod! These ladies are the epitome of outdoorsy and adventurous. After high school, the girls joined the Army National Guard together, then tried the college thing for a stint, before eventually making their was up to Alaska in 2007. When not mushing, they run marathons (here they are in Runner’s World!) and work as carpenters, commercial fishermen, and dog handlers at fellow musher Scott Jansen’s kennel. As children, they also tried to hook up their border collie to a sled!
Anna and Kristy’s Website: www.seeingdoublesleddogracing.com
I was hit by a truck while training in 2014 and broke my back in three places. Luckily all my dogs were okay, but I wasn’t able to run in 2015.” – Karin
Um, whoa. But guess what? She ran in 2016 and is running again this year. In 2003, Karin quit her job as an air pollution analyst to “become a dog bum” (her words, not mine). She ran her first race in 2009, and 2017 marks her 8th Iditarod.
Karin’s Website: www.blueonblackdogs.com
Monica Zappa, age 33 • born and raised in Wisconsin, USA
Monica’s father’s dream was to run the Iditarod, but he died before making his dream come true. Monica, however, has completed the race every year since 2014. She holds a bachelors degree in Meterology and a masters in Geography. Since 2012, she has been mushing for a cause: to save the wild salmon populations of Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine. See: www.SaveBristolBay.org for more on that.
Monica’s Website: http://teamzappa.com
DeeDee Jonrowe, age 63 • born in Frankfurt, Germany
This chick is GOALS. DeeDee is the oldest runner in this years race and she has been running in the Iditarod since 1980. She has 16 top-ten finishes. See all the stats HERE and check out that half-million dollars in winnings at the bottom! In 2003 she placed 18th… three weeks after finishing chemotherapy for breast cancer. Seriously. DeeDee has a bachelors in Biological Sciences and Renewable Resources and has lived in Alaska since 1971.
I haven’t had any amputations, but I have had severe frostbite on my fingers, cheeks and nose. I even frostbit my corneas some years ago.” – DeeDee
DeeDee’s Website: www.deedeejonrowe.com
Zoya DeNure, age 40 • born and raised in Wisconsin, USA
Zoya was a fashion model for 13 years before discovering dog mushing. Wait, a what?? She admits modeling and mushing aren’t exactly related, but frankly she wanted something different. Zoya is married to fellow dog driver John Schandelmeier, and they have two daughters. The family operates a rescue / rehab kennel that is “dedicated to the training and rehabilitation of unwanted sled dogs.
Imagine walking into your office every morning and having 40 some friends there to meet and greet you with a big smile— that is what it’s like in our kennel.” – Zoya
Zoya’s Website: www.dogsleddenali.com
Misha Wiljes, age 48 • Prague, Czech Republic
Do you ever suspect that someone you know with a totally normal day job leads a wild double life?? Misha is that person. Originally attending trade school in graphic design, Misha is now a postal worker by day and badass endurance athlete by… well, in March anyway. Though she successfully completed the Yukon Quest, 2017 marks her first Iditarod. Misha lives with her husband Gerhard, a cat named Lucy, a handful of chickens, and of course, a whole lot of dogs. Misha is passionate about traveling, sewing and fishing.
Misha’s Website: http://wwsleddogkennel.com
Kristin Bacon, age 43 • born in Ohio, USA
Kristin went to Ohio State University and graduated with a degree in Physical Therapy. In 1999, Kristin took a job with Providence Children’s Hospital in Alaska. It was at the hospital where she was introduced to a doctor with a dog sled team (only in Alaska, huh?). In 2005, she began volunteering for the Iditarod at the Skwentna checkpoint. After nearly a decade as a checkpoint volunteer, Kristin herself began mushing in 2011.
Kristin continues her work as a pediatric physical therapist and has combined her two loves by offering free dog sled rides to kids with special needs (the Ikidarod) and doing mushing activities with her kid-patients at Bacon’s Acres.
Kristin’s Website: www.baconsacres.com
Cindy Abbott, age 58 • born and raised in Nebraska
Cindy graduated from California State University, Fullerton with a masters in Kinesiology in 1996 and then went on to teach Health Sciences there for 23 years! Since her diagnosis with Wegener’s granulomatosis, Cindy has become an active rare disease advocate, for the National Organization of Rare Disorders (NORD). Oh, and she decided that she would summit Mt. Everest. In her first Iditarod, she hurt herself after only 20 miles. She continued until mile 630 before eventually dropping out, only to find she had a broken-in-two-places pelvis.
Cindy has written a book about her disease and her subsequent summit of Mt. Everest called, Reaching Beyond The Clouds.
For me, my husband, Larry, is a true hero, and I am so glad that we are traveling down the road of life together. Life is a gift and we are living it.” – Cindy
Cindy’s Website: www.reachingbeyondtheclouds.com
Ellen Halverson, age 56 • born and raised in North Dakota, USA
Ellen attended Concordia College in Minnesota and got degrees in Biology and Music Education before going on to medical school in North Dakota. Ellen now works as a psychiatrist. Her hobbies include her 13-year-old son, Peter, and Icelandic horses. She has the distinction of being the only person to win the Red Lantern award, twice. Though she’s not exactly proud of winning last place two times (Red Lantern = last one before they turn the lights out) I give her mad props for finishing at all. Many mushers drop out each year far before the finish line and only 700+ humans have finished. Ever. Plus Ellen’s bottom finishes were 13 and 16 days respectively, whereas the slowest red lantern of all time, John Schultz, spent 32 days on the trail in 1973!
Well, there you have it! The 17 women in the 2017 Iditarod. What do you think? Who’s the most inspiring? Favorites to win? Do you think you have what it takes?!
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For more about the history of dog sledding in Alaska and the origin of the Iditarod, I highly recommend reading: The Cruelest Miles