Reunited with the dog she had feared dead, Gakona musher Zoya DeNure on Wednesday said she was done with the Iditarod for awhile but not done with sled dog racing.
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In fact, she's planning to enter the team -- minus a male named Miller -- in this weekend's Chatanika 200, a mid-distance race outside Fairbanks.
"You should see them. The dogs want to run. They've been training for the Iditarod. A 200-mile race is not going to faze them," DeNure said the day after she scratched from the Iditarod out of concern for one of her dogs.
Miller, a male believed to be 8 years old, collapsed in harness Monday night for reasons still unclear.
DeNure couldn't find a pulse and didn't get a response when she performed mouth-to-snout resuscitation on the dog. She thought Miller was dead. She put the animal in her sled basket and backtracked to the previous checkpoint at Rainy Pass, her heart in her throat and tears streaming down her face.
"My whole body was trembling," DeNure said. "I felt like it was my fault. I felt like the worst person in the world. I hated myself because I put him on the trail."
As DeNure mushed back to Rainy Pass, her team seemed to sense her urgency.
"Our team speed was really good anyway but it felt like they knew we had to get back to Rainy Pass. They flew. They didn't even hesitate. It was like, 'Yep, Mom, we know.' They knew there was an emergency. They hurried."
Near Rainy Pass, Miller opened his eyes and looked at her.
Once at the checkpoint, she carried a weak and shaking Miller inside.
"They put an IV in right away," DeNure said, and they covered the dog with blankets. For the rest of the night, Miller was weak -- even after 10 hours, he was unable to walk, DeNure said.
At 6 the next morning, DeNure scratched from the race -- even though, as some had reminded her, she could have dropped Miller and continued racing.
"I said, 'Is my dog going to make it?' They said they didn't know. I said, 'No, I'm going to stay with my dog.'
"These dogs are like my life. My life is built around these animals. We love them all. It doesn't matter if we've had them one year or 10. I'm responsible for him. I put him on the trail; I have the responsibility of getting him down the trail safely. No way was I going to dump him off and continue with my dogs."
Tuesday morning, Miller was flown to Big Lake, where DeNure's husband, John Schandelmeier, waited.
"When I got him yesterday morning, he was his normal Miller self," said Schandelmeier, a former Yukon Quest champion. "The vets gave him a 100 percent clean bill of health. He's hydrated and everything's fine."
But the vets didn't advance any theories on what might have happened to Miller. DeNure wonders if he was suffering from myopathy, a weakening of muscle tissue and sometimes organs that sometimes affects Iditarod dogs early in the race.
The mystery of Miller's collapse factored into DeNure's decision to quit. If the dog's problem had been diarrhea or a sore wrist or something else vets could pinpoint, dropping Miller and continuing down the trail would have been an option, she said.
"But it wasn't like that. I didn't know if he was going to make it," said DeNure, who didn't get a flight out of Rainy Pass until Wednesday, a day after Miller was flown out.
DeNure and Schandelmeier run a rescue kennel for sled dogs and Miller was one of five they took from a musher who could no longer afford to keep all of his animals.
"He's a dog we don't know a lot about," Schandelmeier said. "We traced him through his chips and from where we got him, and we sort of know some of his past history. He's about 8, in his prime or the tail of his prime. He completed two long races with us this year, the Tustumena and Copper Basin."
DeNure said that for the foreseeable future, races like the Tustumena 200, the Copper Basin 300 and the Chatanika 200 are what she plans to run.
She's in no hurry to return to the Iditarod, she said. She finished 53rd in her rookie run in 2008, skipped the 2009 race because that's the year her daughter Jona was born, and scratched last year.
"I had a lot of time in Rainy Pass to think, and I feel like the 200- and 300-mile races are more for me," said DeNure, 34. "It doesn't take so much time to train for those races and you have more time for your family.
"There's no way I'm going to stop racing. I absolutely love to train dogs. They live to run, and so do I. No way I'm going to stop -- it'd be like cutting off my arm."
Though she believes she had a competitive team this year and was happy with its performance through the first 160 miles or so of the 1,000-mile race to Nome, she doesn't regret scratching.
"I made a good decision. I made the best decision for my dog and my dog team," DeNure said. "I'm not going to jeopardize my dog team for a dog race. Miller's got a life, and he's going to live and be with us for a long time.
"I don't know if I could live with myself if he hadn't made it."
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG