Beargrease preview: Wisconsin native goes from model to musherWisconsin native and Alaska resident Zoya DeNure has perhaps the most diverse resume of any of the racers starting Sunday’s 29th running of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.
By: Steve Kuchera, Duluth News Tribune
Wisconsin native and Alaska resident Zoya DeNure has perhaps the most diverse resume of any of the racers starting Sunday’s 29th running of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.
For 13 years, DeNure, 36, worked as a runway model in the U.S. and in cities like Shanghai and Milan.
Then, after returning from Italy to Wisconsin to take some time off in 1999, she met a woman who ran sled dogs. Within a year, she was running her own four-dog sprint team.
“I quickly realized I wanted more time with dogs; 12 minutes on the track wasn’t enough,” DeNure said. “I started reading about Alaska and the Iditarod, and that seemed to fit me. I thought, I want to feel what it is like to live and breathe dogs all the time. I felt it was a calling to go north.”
The Iditarod veteran is the guest speaker at Friday’s Beargrease gala and one of 10 marathon competitors starting the race Sunday. The field includes three past champions: Nathan Schroeder (2010); Keith Aili (2006); and Blake Freking (2004).
“We have a good field this year,” race coordinator Pat Olson said. “I think it is going to be a very competitive race. I am looking forward to see how they finish, with Zoya really being the wild card. We don’t know anything about her.”
If February’s UP 200 is any indication, DeNure could do well in the Beargrease. Four Beargrease marathoners finished in the Top 10 at the UP: Aili second, DeNure sixth, Schroeder eighth, and Amanda Vogel 10th.
“I am so excited; the Beargrease is our style of dog race and I think we will be a contender,” DeNure said. “I wouldn’t come all the way down here if I didn’t want to try to win it.”
In addition to the UP 200, DeNure ran last weekend’s CopperDog 150, a three-day stage race at Calumet, Mich. She placed 14th of 26 finishers; her husband, John Schandelmeier, finished 18th.
In a stage race, competitors run a set distance each day. The style of racing calls for a faster team than for a long-distance race like the Beargrease, where the mushers mostly decide when to run and how far.
“I have a fast-trotting dog team; I don’t have a stage race team,” DeNure said. “Last weekend we worked hard and we did OK, but that was tough, loping them for four hours.”
After the Beargrease the couple returns to Alaska, where DeNure is scheduled to run in the Kobuk 440 starting April 11. DeNure ran the Iditarod in 2008, placing 53rd among 78 finishers.
Without playing favorites, Olson said she wishes DeNure well in the Beargrease and hopes she enjoys her time in Minnesota.
“That whole model-turned-musher is very intriguing to me,” Olson said.
DeNure grew up in Black River Falls, Wis., where she volunteered at an animal shelter as a child and worked on a dairy farm as a teenager before being scouted by a modeling agent. Then came the years of modeling and fashion shows, which ended when she discovered dogsledding in 2000. In 2002 she moved to Alaska to handle dogs for Bill Kotter.
Kotter — the 1987 winner of the 1,000-mile long Yukon Quest sled dog race between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Whitehorse, Yukon — apparently liked DeNure’s energy and enthusiasm. Within a couple of months he asked if she would run a team in some mid-distance races.
“Heck, yeah, let’s do it,” she replied. “I was so excited. It was my dream.”
During her first Alaskan winter she ran 200-, 100-, and 60-mile races.
“I knew I was in trouble then, because I loved it,” she said.
She met two-time Yukon Quest champion Schandelmeier at the seven-dog, 120-mile Denali Dash. The two married in 2005 and have a 4-year-old daughter, Jona Ann Marie.
The couple owns and operates Crazy Dog Kennels in Delta Junction. About half of the 54 dogs in their kennel are animals they rescued or their offspring. Many of the dogs are available for adoption.
“We absolutely love dogs,” DeNure said. “I believe that every dog deserves a happy home.”
That includes sled dogs past their prime.
“It’s important to build a bridge from the mentality that these dogs are just working dogs,” she said. “They are really awesome dogs. They have their own personalities and they’re friendly.”
The support of an East Coast sponsor made it possible for DeNure, Schandelmeier, their daughter and 20 dogs to visit the Midwest this winter.
“I am really excited to be back in the Midwest,” she said. “It was my dream to go to Alaska. It’s another dream come true to be able to come back here and race my sled dogs and have my family with me and be able to meet all these great people. I love the Midwest.”
Sunday’s marathon begins at 1 p.m. off Riley Road, about a half-mile west of Jean Duluth Road. The 32 mid-distance racers begin their race after the marathoners. The races were originally scheduled to start Jan. 27, but a lack of snow and then rain forced organizers to postpone the event.
Trail conditions are not great, Olson said Tuesday.
“The (new) snow will help a little bit, but it sounds like the temperatures are going to be pretty warm toward the end of the week and over the weekend, and that is not going to help us,” she said. “There definitely is snow to run, but it’s not going to be ideal.”
Because of conditions, the marathoners will not go into Beaver Bay.