Few events are as singularly identifiable with their sport as the Iditarod.
The annual 1,150-mile dog-sled race that is part marathon, part survival test through the frozen land of Alaska will have its ceremonial start today.
"One thousand miles is a long way, even in a car," Jennifer Bardoner said. "When I really think about it, I am terrified."
Bardoner's fear is personal; her father is entered. Dr. Jim Bardoner of Signal Mountain is trying to become the first Tennessee resident to finish the Iditarod.
It is not a race for the faint of heart; it's roughly a 10-day ordeal that requires at least one run of 24 consecutive hours and is made through freezing temperatures. The course is filled with hairpin turns and deep drops and whatever else nature can offer, depending on the elements.
Winning the race nets a new truck and about 10 percent of the $528,000 total purse, but those are concerns for a select few of the field of 62. Dr. Bardoner does not entertain thoughts of winning in his first try. He does not have a "made-for-TV" movie in mind or a Hollywood-script ending.
This simply is about one man's goal to finish a race - this race, the Iditarod - and in turn finish what he started seven years ago.
Vision or nightmare?
Celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary in 2004, Jim and Dianne Bardoner took a large chunk of their family - seven kids, Bardoner's father and two of his sisters - on an Alaskan cruise. There he was struck by Iditarod fever.
He was influenced early by a casual trip to Jeff King's Husky Homestead, a shrine and kennel for the Iditarod started by the four-time winner who has logged enough miles in a dog sled to wrap the globe four times.
Trips to Montana to train and race and practice. Journeys to Alaska to experience the Iditarod and volunteer - he said he was pretty much a traffic cop and a pooper-scooper - at races to get familiar with the enviroment.
"We have been working a long time," he said last month in a moment that was more reflection than response. "It has been what we've focused on and what I've worked toward for so long, that I'm not really sure what's after this, really.
"There's only been this and getting ready for it."
It's been a journey for the entire family.
"I don't think the reality of what my dad is doing has set in - maybe it won't or even can't unless you do it personally," said Jennifer Bardoner, who works for the Chattanooga Publishing Company. "I'm so proud of him for chasing down a dream, something he's always tried to empower us to do. Even if he doesn't finish it - but I think he will - I'll be glad when this is over.
Long trek here
Dr. Bardoner shredded his shoulder two years ago, costing him a full year on his planned schedule.
The injury he suffered during a race in January 2009 required extensive surgery. At that moment, the pain was as real and unstoppable as a rainstorm. The experience of persevering and surviving and of adapting with one goal - to finish the race - never has left.
Bardoner described the moment as "a survive-mentality kind of thing."
It was not the only hurdle. He totaled a friend's car after a race three years ago. He has battled through a chart full of injuries to almost every movable joint on his body. He set aside "$35,000-$40,000" for this endeavor, but supplies and the cost of caring for his dogs and a never-ending series of incidentals have pushed him beyond his original budget.
And that's not counting the physical price he has paid. His training - "I knew early on I had to get in much better shape to have a chance at doing this," he has said - has been comprehensive, thorough and transforming. He had a tough time doing a pull-up a couple of years ago, and now he's a gym rat.
"He's amazing," said Darrell Wyke, the head trainer at the Signal Mountain Athletic Club. "He's such a competitor, and I feel comfortable saying he's a true athlete now. His drive is unbelievable. Some days he pushes me to push him harder, and he surprises me all the time."
Bardoner has sacrificed, there's no question, and his effort and his money and his time have been fully invested for 10 days and a chance to day, "I did it." He said Dianne's support has served as an invaluable catalyst and reinforcement throughout the process.
And now the moment is here.
"There's no backing out now," Bardoner said.
Ready, set TO go
This year's Iditarod has its ceremonial start today in Anchorage, and a large chunk of the family is with Dr. Bardoner. The mushing starts in earnest Sunday at Willow, a town north of Anchorage.
This week, Bardoner has signed autographs and lived in the moment of being a competitor in the world's most famous dog-sledding race.
"This is my right of passage," he told reporters in Alaska this week. "God willing, I am getting to Nome with as many dogs that are healthy and happy as possible."
When he started his pursuit, he wanted to be the rookie of the year and be the first rookie to finish the race. Now the goal is just to finish. The race is the course, and the course is now the goal. It's about completion and finishing.
"I am so proud to call him my father," Jennifer said, "and it has nothing to do with the Iditarod itself."
Dr. Bardoner has chased this dream for almost a decade, riding the emotional swings from panic to pleasure and feelings of nerves to nirvana.
"All of the above," he said before leaving for Alaska. "A couple months back, when I had a lot of time on my hands, I was thinking, 'What am I doing?'
"I was getting myself worked up, but then I realized I'd already signed up and paid my money and done the training. The only thing left is to run the race."
Contact Jay Greeson at email@example.com or 423-757-6273.