How do you prepare to run 30-40 miles uphill in the snow in minus-40 F weather? You don't - if you're 30-year-old Signal Mountain resident Zach Brown, who is new to the sport of mushing and recently competed in his first race.
The only physical work he did to prepare for the race was climb trees, he said, as his day job is in the tree removal and landscaping business. His other job is running dogs in Prentice Cooper State Park, where they pull a four-wheeler on dry land for about six hours several times a week in practice for races like the one they and Brown recently completed. The dogs are the true athletes of mushing. Most races consist of 50-mile legs, so to train, the dogs typically run 25-50 miles per day, Brown said.
He and his team placed 13th out of 19 mushers in the 150-mile mid-distance race of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. Brown said he plans to do the 420-mile Beargrease Marathon race next year. Located in Duluth, Minn., the race runs along the north shore of Lake Superior.
"Next year I hope to be in better shape," he said.
Brown spent some of his 20s in Alaska, where he worked in the tourist industry helping Chattanooga native Hugh Neff give dogsled rides. Neff recently placed second in the Yukon Quest, considered the biggest race in mushing next to the Iditarod.
After returning to his hometown of Signal Mountain, Brown was cutting a tree for family friend Jim Bardoner and told him about his dog sledding days in Alaska. Bardoner then pulled him around the corner of the house and showed him a kennel full of puppies he is raising to train for dog sled races and said he needed help.
All Brown's work with the dogs paid off - out of the 250-300 dogs that competed in the John Beargrease race, Brown's were voted "Most Loved" by the volunteer vets who manned the race's three checkpoints.
Brown also received the race's Best Sportsmanship Award, most likely for his Southern roots and perseverance in spite of losing one of his eight dogs halfway through the race. His 22-year-old sister Heavenly Rose Giansanpe, who served as one of his handlers, said she noticed one of the dogs keeping one of its feet off the ground, so they pulled Juliette from the line and kept on going.
In addition, Brown's dogs were yearlings, meaning they were only about a year old. He said a sled dog is in its prime is between 3-5 years old.
When he came to hills during the race, the dogs would often look back at him as if to say "What now?" So he ended up running up most hills in his tennis shoes in minus 10-20 degrees F.
"I knew I had a young team and they'd need help the last leg of the race," he said, adding that he didn't really mind the cold. "It's a funny sport that has the potential to freeze your eyes shut. If the cold doesn't scare you and you like dogs, it's a great experience."
He said he was most nervous just before the race. He missed the mushers' meeting in which all the rules and regulations of the race are explained.
The John Beargrease race served as a qualifier for Brown to participate in 200-mile races. He must complete one 250-mile race and two 300-mile races next year before he can qualify to compete in the Iditarod, which Bardoner plans for Brown to do in 2015. Bardoner tried himself to complete the 1,000-mile last year but withdrew after the halfway mark.
"It's not the race that worries me; it's not having the training and the miles on the dogs beforehand," said Brown. "[The dogs] really need to have a lot of training so it doesn't stress them."
Bardoner then wants Brown to help him achieve his dream of completing the Iditarod in 2016.
"It's nothing I would do on my own," Brown said. "Jim puts more in it than anyone."
To read more about Brown's experience, check the sports section of the Chattanooga Times Free Press Tuesday, Feb. 25.