A Primer on Alaska’s 1,971-mile Tesoro Iron Dog Race
A Primer on Alaska’s Tesoro Iron Dog Race
By Daniel Duane and Martin Mulkeen
Though he and teammate Scott Davis finished a disappointing (for them) sixth this year, Todd Palin is a four-time winner of the Iron Dog, the world’s longest snowmobile race, held every February since 1984. The six-day race is a test of skill and endurance: 1,971 miles over some of Alaska’s fiercest terrain, at speeds that can reach 110 mph. This year’s winners claimed a $25,000 purse, with a course time of 37 hours, 19 minutes. It’s such a tough race that only 18 of the 35 teams in the pro class even finished. “Mental fatigue was the hardest part for me — keeping focused day after day,” says Kirk Hibbert, a veteran rider. “There’s some nasty elements, and it’s keeping your mind from wandering and getting scared. Fifty below zero and lost and snowing and blowing so hard you can’t see.”
For safety, racers have to ride in teams of two, each on his own machine. Six rest stops (six to 13 hours each) are required — time that is not counted against your course time. Other than at the turnaround point in Nome, where there’s a layover, any time spent repairing a machine is counted toward race time.
Regulations require abdominal body armor and hard plastic pads on shoulders, shins, and knees. And for good reason: Injuries this year alone included a broken pelvis, collarbone, back, and ribs. Palin himself broke his arm last year. For emergencies, each rider has to carry a sleeping bag rated to 20 below, a tent or bivy sac, a GPS unit, a hatchet or saw, a stove, two days’ worth of food, three signal flares, and 25 feet of 1,200-pound-test rope.
The motors are required to be stock and 600cc (horsepower is 110 to 120), but participants can add aftermarket skis and shocks. Riders will typically take apart and rebuild the machine before the race to tighten everything, since durability is key, and to add room for gear. The best racers are skilled mechanics who can repair or replace broken shocks or skis quickly in freezing weather.
Much of the course follows frozen rivers, but also goes through woods and over mountains. Trees, stumps, flooded ice, and rutted-out tracks are just a few of the obstacles. Glare from ice can blind riders so badly that certain sections are best run at night, when headlights better reveal undulations in snow. Some of the trickier spots:
1. Hells Gate: The Alaska Range often means freezing rain. Deep snow here leads to rutted-out tracks, causing machines to get stuck.
2. The Buffalo Tunnels: Named for the animals that graze here and deposit obstacles in the form of frozen pies. Small trees form a maze that snowmobiles can barely fit through. Twenty-five percent of teams break a ski or a suspension in this section.
3. The Farewell Burn: This area was scorched by forest fire in 1978. Errant stumps are a big obstacle.
4. The River: The race hits the Yukon River and really speeds up, with teams traveling at more than 100 mph.
5. Approach to Nome: Here riders will try to cut straight lines over swaths of frozen ocean. These trails can flood easily and quickly.
6. The Longest Stretch: At 120 miles, the farthest distance between checkpoints. Running out of fuel is common here.
7. The Final Push: Riders gather in the are released based on their course times, creating a 242-mile drag race to the finish line.
Read Daniel Duane’s profile of Todd Palin here.
This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Men’s Journal.