Meet the women of Iditarod

Courtesy of Aliy Zirkle

Aliy Zirkle, 42, is one of the top female mushers and has finished 11th twice in the Iditarod.

Alaska is a land of extremes. A quick trip into town can take six hours, while treacherous, 1,000-mile races that span 10 sleepless nights in sub-arctic temperatures are considered fun. It's also been called the place where "men are men and women win the Iditarod."

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a 1,049-mile race across Alaska from Anchorage to Nome, got its start in 1973 as a commemorative event celebrating the 1925 diphtheria serum run that saved the inhabitants of Nome from a potentially devastating outbreak. While the mushers' gear and training have become more sophisticated since the early years, the race's tradition remains the same.

Completing the race requires many things, including a sturdy -- perhaps even a little crazy -- mind; a team of eager, well-cared-for sled dogs; attention to detail when it comes to preparation; and a steely resolve to fearlessly face the challenges the trail can present.

This year's epic adventure starts Saturday, and 16 women have accepted the call to run "The Last Great Race on Earth." Among them is a 10-time veteran who could win it all, a former fashion model, a pair of identical twins with a ton of potential and a former zookeeper whose love for her dogs always trumps her placement amid the field.

The veteran: Aliy Zirkle

Courtesy of Aliy Zirkle

"I would like to win, to be honest," Aliy Zirkle says of the Iditarod. "Anything can happen in 1,000 miles, but my team is definitely of the caliber of winning. For [the next] nine or 10 days, we're going for it."

The 42-year-old New Hampshire native is one of the top female mushers. Lured to the frozen American outback by a love of animals and adventure, Zirkle said she "found home" when she arrived in Bettles, Alaska (population: 35), for an internship with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in biology and anthropology.

"I turned up in the tiniest town in Alaska, 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle, in May 1992 with two boxes stuffed with everything I owned," she said. "I adopted a dog right away, and that showed I was here to stay."

After four years in rural Alaska, Zirkle needed a change of scenery and moved to Two Rivers, Alaska, a town near Fairbanks that boasts more than 10 times the number of residents of Bettles -- 482 people. There, she was also faced with the reality that she needed to start making more money.

"In Alaska, you either become a fisherman or start building or bartending, so I chose construction," she said.

She met her husband, Allen Moore, on one of her construction jobs. "The best-looking guy on the site," Zirkle said.

Zirkle and Moore still do construction on the side, but their primary business is mushing and running SP Kennel. Their hard work has led to two 11th-place Iditarod finishes for Zirkle, who collected a $20,100 prize in 2011. This year, she's eyeing the podium.

"I would like to win, to be honest," Zirkle said. "Anything can happen in 1,000 miles, but my team is definitely of the caliber of winning. For [the next] nine or 10 days, we're going for it."

Fashionable finisher: Zoya DeNure

Slim and bright-eyed with a smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks, DeNure radiates fresh-faced beauty. Raised in Black River Falls, Wis., DeNure has girl-next-door appeal that caught the eye of a model scout at a shopping mall in St. Paul, Minn. DeNure, who was 13 at the time, spent the next nine years on a journey through the fashion houses and runways of Europe.

John Shandelmeier

Former model Zoya DeNure had to drop out of the race last year after one of her dogs developed a mysterious illness and she refused to continue without him.

As exciting as it was, over time the novelty of her dream-come-true modeling career fizzled.

"I was tired of the grind and the superficiality," DeNure said. "I was burned out. So I bought a dog and said, 'I'm going to stay in one place for a year and have a normal life.'"

It was around the same time DeNure, who had volunteered at an animal shelter as a kid, connected with a woman running sled dogs in Wisconsin.

"I got into it and I read about Alaska and the Iditarod and thought, 'Wow! Who could do this thing?'" DeNure said. "And from there it turned into a dream."

She moved to Alaska and started handling dogs for DeeDee Jonrowe and Susan Butcher, two legendary Iditarod racers. DeNure worked her way up to mushing.

DeNure, 34, lives in Gakona, Alaska, with her husband, musher John Schandelmeier, and 3-year-old daughter, Jona. They run Crazy Dog Kennel and Canine Rescue. Starting her third Iditarod this weekend, DeNure is hoping for a better result than 2011, when she had to scratch early in the race. One of her dogs developed a mysterious illness and she refused to continue without him. The dog ended up recovering but will spend this year's Iditarod in his new home. "I could never race him again, so I adopted him out to a friend who lives in Germany. It's a good home for him," she said.

Despite the happiness in her mushing life, DeNure said sometimes her former career creeps back in, but she's approaching opportunities that arise practically. "I'm getting casting calls for some commercials. That might pay for some dog food, so I may do it," she said.

This week, however, she's looking a few feet beyond her lead dog: "I think we can have a top-20 finish, maybe even better than that. They're capable of winning, but I don't have that experience yet."

Double take: Kristy and Anna Berington

Kat Berington

Kristy Berington is helping twin sister Anna get ready for her first Iditarod.

The Iditarod's first set of twins, 28-year-old Anna and Kristy Berington, are from Port Wing, Wis., and joined the Army National Guard after high school graduation. They live in Kasilof, Alaska, a place that, like the sport of mushing, captured their imagination and feeds their desire for adventure.

"Mushing is as close to a magic carpet ride as you can get," Kristy said. "You get to go places only dog teams can reach. You get to run over mountains and frozen rivers. It's quiet and peaceful, but the endorphins are firing when you're screaming down a mountain."

Kristy will run her third Iditarod in 2012, after a strong debut in 2010 and a top-30 finish in 2011. She works with Paul Gebhardt and his 80-dog Morning View Kennel while also helping Anna, who will race in her first Iditarod this week. Anna works with 1984 Iditarod champion Dean Osmar, caring for and training his dogs.

Though the twins are athletic and swim, run and enjoy other sports, Kristy and Anna said they don't specifically train for the ultra-endurance event. "It's the life that you live with the dogs. You get lots of exercise doing chores, lifting 60-pound dogs. It's definitely a good workout just to run them," Kristy said.

Though still in the early phases of their careers, the Beringtons show promise and could become the next generation of top female mushers.

Compassionate competitor: Colleen Robertia

Rounding out the short list of women who could contend at the Iditarod is zookeeper-turned-schoolteacher Colleen Robertia.

Ron Levy/Zuma Press/Icon SMI

Zookeeper-turned-schoolteacher Colleen Robertia is running in her second Iditarod.

Robertia, who is running in her second Iditarod, has also hiked the entire 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail. She got her start as a dog handler for Osmar and now runs her own kennel, Rogues Gallery Kennel.

Robertia, 35, is from North Attleboro, Mass., and graduated from St. Lawrence University in 1998 with a degree in environmental biology. She worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Georgia and later with a zoo in Jacksonville, Fla. Four time zones and a completely different climate away is her home of Kasilof, a "mushing mecca." Not long after Robertia moved to Alaska in 2003, she started running dogs.

Unlike some other mushers hitting the trail this weekend, Robertia does not have a robust list of sponsors and funds most of her 40-dog kennel. Money's tight, and Robertia said she will often scoop up the protective booties other mushers cast off along the trail to mend and reuse.

Just as she recycles gear, Robertia also refuses to dump dogs that are no longer able to perform in a racing capacity, an expensive proposition but one that could turn into a selling point for some potential sponsors.

Robertia's primary supporter is Kassik's Brewery in Kenai, Alaska. The company loved the story of Robertia's spunky lead dog, Penny -- who recovered from a car accident and fused ankle to complete the Iditarod -- so much that they brewed a porter and put Penny's picture on the label. Proceeds from the sale of "Penny Porter" and associated merchandise help Robertia feed the rest of the team.

Heading into the weekend, Robertia said she's "incredibly excited and anxious. Racing brings all your emotions to the surface. I've been training for a year, but I think it'll be a challenge to break the top 30. It's a competitive field this year, but what keeps me in the sport is my love of my dogs and this desire to show that you can do this competitively and lovingly and humanely."

Elaine K. Howley is an open-water swimmer and freelance writer in Boston.

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