"Hike" - get going
"Gee" - go right
"Ha" or "Hull" - go left
"Come ha" or "Come gee" - turn around
"Whoa" - stop
It was a normal day for 30-year-old Signal Mountain resident Zach Brown at his tree service business when the seed of world-class sledding was planted in his mind. As he was cutting a tree for family friend Jim Bardoner, they began talking about Brown's time in Alaska.
Brown spent some of his 20s in Alaska helping Chattanooga native Hugh Neff give dog-sled rides to tourists. Neff recently placed second in the Yukon Quest, considered the biggest dog-sled race in the world besides the Iditarod.
Bardoner pulled Brown around the corner of the house to see his kennel full of Husky puppies, which he plans to train to run the Iditarod in 2016. Bardoner saw a potential partner in Brown who could help him complete the famed race, which Bardoner attempted unsuccessfully with rented dogs in 2011.
Bardoner's hope is for Brown to run in three races next year with his dogs to qualify for the Iditarod in 2016, but it was his passion more than his plan that made Brown a believer.
"If he wasn't inspired, I never would have wanted to help out," Brown said. "This is nothing I would do on my own. Jim puts more in it than anyone. It's really a love of his. There's worse things to spend your money on."
Brown ran his first mid-distance race, the 150-mile John Beargrease race in Duluth, Minn., in February.
To train, Brown simply ate healthy and continued to work full time.
"Clearing trees had to have helped some," he said.
He arrived at the race site two weeks early with his sister, Heavenly Rose Giansanpe, who served as one of his handlers, to get the dogs acclimated to the cold.
"My brother has always been my hero, so going on a trip like that was magical," she said.
The handlers' job is to take care of the dogs while the musher rests. The dogs are given food and water and are inspected, massaged and stretched out.
"They're the athletes," Brown said.
Giansanpe said she white-knuckled the steering wheel as she followed her brother on the race in a four-wheel-drive truck. The most difficult part of the job was changing the dogs' four booties with bare hands at each checkpoint, she said.
Giansanpe is a raft guide on the Ocoee River and describes herself as an adventure-loving adrenaline junkie.
"Him and I are from the same glue," she said of her brother. "He's good at everything from plumbing to flying a plane."
Brown got off on the wrong foot for the race when he accidentally missed the initial mushers meeting, in which all the rules of the race were explained. Luckily, his fellow mushers were "some of the nicest people he had ever met," and he had no problem getting the details.
Another hardship was having to take out one of the dogs halfway through the race when Giansanpe noticed the dog was not touching one of her feet to the ground.
Mushers in the race had eight hours of mandatory rest time divided among three checkpoints. Little rest actually happened for Brown, who spent 11 hours racing, running uphill 30-40 miles in the snow. He tried not to sleep for any longer than 45 minutes, the point when your muscles start to repair themselves and begin to get sore.
"I was a little worried about him," Giansanpe said. "He stayed up for two days out in minus-40 [Fahrenheit] racing dogs all night long."
But Brown still managed to finish 13th out of 18 mushers, even winning awards for Best Sportsmanship and Most Loved Dogs.
Bardoner's dogs required most of the training, and the cold is not the biggest concern for a sled dog that grew up in the South.
"Our biggest disadvantage is not having a trail right outside the kennel," Brown said. "It makes it tougher to get more miles on the dogs."
Bardoner owns 40 dogs in all, including 10 adults, six yearlings and 16 puppies.
"Jim buys dog food by the pallet, $3,000-$4,000 at a time," Brown said. "It is ridiculous how much he has put toward the dogs. He could have had an $80,000 BMW paid off."
Brown said he cannot afford to get his own dogs.
"Timewise, it's a full-time job in itself," he said of caring for and training dogs.
He takes the dogs to the trails at Prentice Cooper State Forest, where they pull a four-wheeler over dry land for 8-10 hours per day several times a week during training season.
"They really need to have a lot of training so it doesn't stress them," Brown said. "It's not the race that worries me - it's not having the training and the miles on the dogs beforehand."
"He really knows his way around the dogs," Bardoner said of Brown. "They do things for him I don't think they would do for anyone else."
Half of the team Brown ran in the John Beargrease race were yearlings, while most teams were running dogs 3-4 years old.
"It's like taking a student teacher and getting a bunch of fourth-graders to run a marathon," Bardoner said.
Brown said the race was not that competitive, aside from the few who were in the standing to win the race's $3,500 prize.
"It's mainly for the dogs," he said. "Some people are in it for the money and would run their dogs until they die."
The mushing season runs through March. If the dogs are ready, he plans to do the marathon-length John Beargrease race, which has a $8,500 first prize, next year.
To qualify for the Iditarod, Brown needs to run one 250-mile race and two 300-milers.
"It's funny the musher is the one who qualifies when it's all about the dogs," he said.
Bardoner's dogs will be in their prime - 3-5 years old - when he hopes they attempt the Iditarod in 2016.
"It's all about making it fun for you and for the dogs," Bardoner said.
"It's a funny sport that has the potential to freeze your eyes shut," Brown said. "If the cold doesn't scare you and you like dogs, it's a great experience."
Contact Emily Crisman at email@example.com.