John Schandelmeier says he’s learning along with his dogs after entering the Iditarod in a last-minute switch with his wife

A selfie John Schandelmeier sent his wife, Zoya DeNure, from the Iditarod trail. (Courtesy Zoya DeNure)

Some Iditarod sled dog teams were already on the trail Sunday when John Schandelmeier decided to run this year’s race to Nome. His wife, Zoya DeNure, was late to the start in Willow when he got a call from his daughter saying that DeNure was at the hospital. Over the phone, Schandelemeir says he and DeNure debated a last-second switch.

“We decided I should go if I could,” he said. “So I started scrounging gear. So I have gear that belongs to everybody. I have no idea even who I borrowed everything from.”

Race Marshal Mark Nordman quickly gave Schandelmeier the go-ahead. But he still needed to decide whether to set off on the 1,000-mile race. 

“I just kind of set myself, I said, the only thing I’m lacking is a balaclava. If I get that in time, I’ll go ahead and go,” he said. 

He got the gear and was soon racing his first Iditarod in 27 years. Schandelmeier reached Takotna Wednesday and settled in for his 24-hour break. He said he’s spoken on the phone once with DeNure, who is now home from the hospital.

Related: Well that’s a little different’: Iditarod mushers learn about moved checkpoints, closed schools as coronavirus concerns grow

Schandelmeier has worked with dogs his entire life and is a two-time champion of the Yukon Quest. He entered the Iditarod once, in 1993, and scratched. He and DeNure now live in Paxon and run a sled dog rescue and rehabilitation kennel. 

“Everyone is focused the whole winter on dogs and getting ready for racing for whatever the race you’re going to run, Iditarod, the Quest or whatever,” he said. “We had food drops out and everything, we spent a lot of money and time getting ready for the race. And it’s our life, it’s not just an extra little race we’re going to run. This is what we do.”

All but three dogs are rookies, according to Schandelmeier, and haven’t been on a camping trip before. Thanks to a six-year break since his last race, Schandelmeier says he and the dogs both are learning on the fly.

“Remembering how to get picky dogs to eat, which you don’t have to do in the yard.  And how my care should be done, for me, so I can adequately take care of dogs,” he said. “A lot of the small details- if you asked me when I was sitting at home, I could probably give you a lot of answers, which may not be right when you come out here.”

By Saturday morning, Schandelmeier and his sled dogs had made it nearly halfway down the Iditarod trail. 

Related: Follow all of our coverage of the 2020 Iditarod here.

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Ben Matheson is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network.

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