Miller looked dead. Zoya DeNure couldn’t detect a heartbeat for her Alaskan Husky. She blew air into his lungs through his nose, not knowing if she was keeping him alive or not. Everything had gone wrong so quickly for DeNure on the Iditarod Trail. Now this former model, who had worked so hard to be taken seriously in dog sledding, was alone in the middle of the 1,131-mile course, trying to save her dog’s life.
DeNure replayed the last stretch in her head. As her team climbed out of Rainy Pass up a steep stretch of terrain, Miller began to look back. Something wasn’t right. DeNure turned the team around -- no easy task with 50 feet of dogs, rope and sled in soft snow. It was an hour and a half back to the last checkpoint at Puntilla Lake and veterinary help, but there was no other choice. DeNure turned around. The doubters would have a field day with this.
Miller fell on the run back, and that’s when DeNure rushed to his aid. Now she sat with him cradled in her arms as the team sprinted its way to the last checkpoint. Through a stream of tears, DeNure noticed a brief sign of life. Miller opened his eyes. At Puntilla Lake, the veterinarians took over. They gave the husky IVs, but were unable to diagnose what had happened. Even worse, they couldn’t tell DeNure if he was going to live. She laid down with her dog. Waiting. Hoping.
DeNure and the rest of her dogs could’ve gone back to the race. She’d lost a few hours, but that’s a small amount of time considering the Iditarod takes more than a week to complete. But she couldn’t leave Miller not knowing. What if she got to the next checkpoint and they tell her he’s dead?
DeNure scratched from the race. And not ever wanting to face the possibility of losing another dog, decided in that moment that her Iditarod days were over.
“I got off the trail," she says, "and I was like, ‘That’s it. I’m done.’”
Was this the former runway model's last run?
She was 12 when she heard the idea.
DeNure and her mother had just been approached by a woman while they were having lunch in St. Paul. The stranger said young Zoya could be a model. She presented a card for a school and walked off.
“I told my mom right then I wanted to be a model,” DeNure says.
The only problem was that they lived in Black River Falls, WI -- three hours away from St. Paul. It’s a town of just a few thousand people. “Everybody knew everybody,” she says. “If you got your haircut, everyone talked about it for a week.” DeNure's best childhood memories are of working on a farm. But even at a young age, she knew there was more to life than Black River Falls had to offer. Work was scarce, and the few jobs that did exist were in factories. She couldn’t wait to be old enough to leave. And this chance encounter seemed like her ticket out.
Her mother, a single parent, couldn’t really afford the school, but managed to set up a payment plan. And every Tuesday for 12 weeks, she made the six-hour round trip with her daughter for just two hours of class.
“We learned how to do our hair and makeup. And how to walk on the runway,” DeNure says. “That’s where I excelled.”
The school arranged a handful of jobs after graduation. When she was 14, DeNure modeled wedding dresses. Later she modeled spring collections for Sears and J.C. Penney. But her big break came when she turned 18. DeNure beat out thousands of girls at a Chicago audition to be among the eight that went to fashion week in China. Her success carried her to the runways of Italy as well.
But the lifestyle didn’t appeal to DeNure.
“A lot of girls around me were partying all the time and doing drugs. I didn’t do drugs. I could see trouble,” she says. “And just worrying all the time if I was beautiful enough or not, or if someone liked me because I was pretty -- it wrecks your head.”
DeNure found it difficult to be on the road so much. She got tired of never knowing where she was going to be next. So at the age of 21, she decided to take a year off. She needed time to think about the future.
“It hit me pretty hard that worrying about my hair and makeup wasn’t meaningful enough," she says.
Back in Black River Falls, DeNure found what was missing. She rented a luxury home, bought a dog, met a guy and fell in love. He, too, had a dog and shared her passion for the outdoors. They spent weekends in northern Wisconsin helping out at a kennel with 75 sled dogs. Seven months later, DeNure and her boyfriend rented a house outside of Madison and dove headlong into the trade themselves.
“We bought 16 sprint dogs, built houses and ran races together for about a year and a half,” she says. DeNure loved it. But eventually her boyfriend realized it wasn’t for him. They sold everything and parted ways.
DeNure ended up behind a desk. She didn’t want to go back to modeling. Her mother worked at a mortgage company and helped her land a job there. But DeNure quickly became restless. There was no way she was going to be working in an office when she turned 30. After about six months at the mortgage company, DeNure came to a realization: She was no longer going to dream through the pages of magazines like Outside and Backpacker.
“I’m not going to read about other people’s awesome lives and their adventures anymore,” she says.
DeNure answered an ad to be a dog handler at the kennel of a well-known musher in Alaska. She talked over the decision with her mother, who was supportive. Next, she threw a dinner party to tell her girlfriends about her life-changing move, a few of which joked that she’d never come back.
They were right.
“I’m in deep now,” she says.
DeNure is 34. It’s been nine years since her big move. That first year as a handler was very humbling, especially after being so independent. “When you work for a kennel, the dogs’ needs come before yours,” DeNure says. “I’m glad I did it. I gave up a lot, but I was able to learn so much.”
Zoya and her husband, John Schandelmeier, now run the Crazy Dog Kennel near Paxson, about 250 miles from Anchorage. They met at a sled dog race he was organizing, hit it off and were married in 2003. The following year they started the kennel.
They specialize in Alaskan Huskies, and do a lot of rescue and rehabilitation work with unwanted sled dogs. Some have been mistreated. Some are simply shy. Some are even cast aside as the wrong color.
“It’s the dumbest excuse in the world,” DeNure says.
DeNure and her husband often rescue dogs from the euthanasia list at shelters. They’re willing to put in the time that others won’t. They also have an adoption program where they re-home dogs that just don’t want to race.
“We don’t force dogs to run. We like to leave it to the dog,” DeNure says. “Not everyone wants to be a marathon runner. Dogs are the same way. They’re all unique. By spending time with them and reading their body language, you can see that.”
Learning to be a good musher doesn’t happen overnight. DeNure says a lot of people have this romantic idea of dog teams gliding over the snow, but it takes more hard work and perseverance than most are willing to put in. Her kennel gets a lot of applications for handlers. But what makes a good musher can’t be found on a resume.
“We get a lot of people who are book smart. But if you’re not in tune with animals, you’re not gonna last,” DeNure says. “You don’t need book smarts. You can’t teach compassion. You either have it or you don’t.”
Her reward for that compassion and hard work is racing, which she does full-time. She’s competed in the Yukon Quest, Copper Basin 300, and U.P. 200 to name a few. But the biggest race of them all is the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. It covers 1,131 miles from Willow to Nome.
DeNure entered the monster race for the first time in 2008, with a team that included many rescue dogs. She was excited and admittedly naïve. But despite being sleep-deprived, windblown and on a broken sled, she finished in 12 days and 57 minutes, placing 53rd out of 90 mushers.
“There’s nothing like finishing the Iditarod. It’s a life changing event,” she says. “It’s a true bonding experience with your dogs.”
It’s one of the two proudest moments of her life. The other came a year later, when she gave birth to a daughter, Jona. DeNure didn’t run the Iditarod that year, yet was determined to finish stronger in 2010.
But after months of preparation, her race was cut short.
“I went back too soon. I had an infection and a doctor on the trail in Rainy Pass said I was too sick to continue,” she says. “I was pretty heartbroken.”
The memory of that scratch was all too present when she had to turn around this year.
“It takes all your money, all your energy, and all your time,” DeNure says. “It’s a huge sacrifice.”
Two weeks ago, John Baker turned down Front Street in Nome. He celebrated with fans as he crossed the finish line with a time of 8 days, 19 hours, and 46 minutes. It was a new Iditarod record.
Zoya DeNure was home in Paxson.
Miller had fully recovered. The same couldn’t be said for his owner. DeNure has fought her way along in the sled dog racing business. She’s worked to overcome the label of "model musher," even "the girl musher." It took her a long time to be taken seriously out on the trails, and the disappointments of the past two Iditarods weigh on her.
“I just want to be able to show the results of the hard work and years of dedication. I know I’m tough,” she says.“I just feel like I’ve been a little unlucky.”
Back at the Crazy Dog Kennel, DeNure is still trying to figure out what happened to Miller. The vets weren’t able to diagnose the problem. But watching him run around with the rest of her dogs has given her the itch again. The knee-jerk reaction after scratching two weeks ago is long gone. Her husband helped cooler heads prevail. She’s already thinking about the last race of this season. She’s already thinking about 2012.
“How could I not run Iditarod again? I have to go back and face the music,” she says. “I’m not here to sit on my couch and watch TV in Alaska. The sooner I get back on the trail, then I’ll feel more complete.”
Spoken like a true musher.