To 2-year-old Jona Schandelmeier of Paxson, every musher she sees on TV is either "mommy" or "daddy."
The daughter of Zoya DeNure, who is making her third Iditarod attempt this weekend, Jona has grown up napping through the barking at a kennel dedicated to rehabilitating unwanted sled dogs. Dad is John Schandelmeier, a dog trainer and former Yukon Quest champion who watches Jona when his wife is training.
"She understands that mom has a job to do. 'Mom's doing dog training today,' " said DeNure, who will be the ninth musher to leave the race's ceremonial start today in downtown Anchorage.
DeNure finished 53rd in her first Iditarod in 2008. Last year she scratched in Rainy Pass -- fewer than 200 miles into the race. She'd been weaning her then 1-year-old daughter off of breast feeding and suffered a mastitis infection along the trail. A physician volunteering as a veterinarian tried to help, but DeNure's Iditarod was over.
"I was heartbroken," said DeNure, a former runway model who said her husband vowed to help her juggle parenthood and professional sled dog racing as they started a family.
Back for another try at Nome, the 34-year-old musher is among dozens of competitors who will leave Anchorage today with little or no chance of winning the sport's premier sled dog race. Yet their lives are a loop of training runs, poop scooping and meat cutting -- all leading to this weekend.
For many, like DeNure and Schandelmeier, who married seven years ago, it's the family profession.
"There's no way in the world that I can see that a single person can put an Iditarod team on the trail. Not a competitive team," Schandelmeier said.
The racing bug often spans generations.
On the trail this year are Mitch Seavey, 51, and son Dallas, 24. The elder musher was the 2004 Iditarod champion while the younger Seavey just won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest.
Even defending champion Lance Mackey has family on the trail. Stepson Cain Carter, 19, is running as a rookie with dogs from the Mackey kennel.
"I can win the Iditarod this year and it can be an amazing achievement, a great feeling, but I don't think it will be as rewarding as it will be watching Cain finish his first one," Mackey said.
Other mushers, such as DeNure, are saying goodbye to their kids for a 10-day to two-week tour of duty.
Willow musher Ramey Smyth, the father of two young children, always asks about Jona and John, DeNure said. "He knows how hard it is to train and be away from family."
Schandelmeier plans to try and fly with Jona -- a chatty girl who loves the ocean and paging through encyclopedias -- to the checkpoints of Unalakleet or White Mountain to catch DeNure along the trail.
The couple's dog truck, a double-decker of dog beds made of blue plywood, sat Thursday in the Millennium hotel parking lot on Spenard Road.
Schandelmeier lifted huskies into the beds, straw cracking under his bunny boots.
DeNure emerged from a Subaru parked nearby. "Here's some more booties. Is there room in here?" she asked.
Running the rescue kennel keeps the couple working together all day, every day, John said.
Jona is too young to tag along on a sled. And unless a dog handler can watch her, mom and dad are rarely able to train at the same time.
"The fantasy is being able to go out on a run together. But it isn't always realistic," said Schandelmeier, 59.
"I don't know if we've had a date night all season," he said.