A snowmachine tradition
This year’s Iron Dog is anyone’s race to win
By MELISSA DEVAUGHN
AS SNOW CONTINUED TO FALL LIBERALLY ACROSS Alaska in December, it’s safe to say Iron Dog snowmachiners were eagerly anticipating the race to come just a few short weeks away. This year’s Iron Dog race is already a step ahead of past years, with a healthy amount of snowfall to enhance trail conditions, and a streamlined race course – racers are thrilled to see that the finish line has moved back to Pike’s Waterfront Lodge – among other details that maintain the event as the “World’s Longest, Toughest Snowmobile Race.”
“If there ever was a year to ‘shake things up’ this would be it,” said John Woodbury, Iron Dog’s new executive director. “We’ve had some spectacular obstacles this year, from a late freeze-up and snowfall, right down to the Nov. 30 earthquake. But, in true Iron Dog fashion, we’ve remained tenacious to overcome every challenge placed before us, even if that means changing the longtime start from Big Lake to Deshka Landing this year.”
And, oh, what a challenging race it’s going to be. Iron Dog 2019 features 24 teams comprised of 15 rookies and 33 veterans. Within those statistics lie some impressive names – last year’s winners Mike Morgan and Chris Olds will be back to defend their title, but they will have plenty of competition from such rugged veterans as Tyler Aklestad, Tyson Johnson, Todd Minnick and Nick Olstad, to name a few.
“There’s a lot of other teams that have a lot of talent – a lot of veterans and a lot of fast times to compete against,” said Olds, whose win last year made it three for him and a first for Morgan. “We will try to repeat, that’s what we want to do.”
Then there are the up-and-comers – such as 25-year-old Zach Weisz, who was on topplacing rookie Team 5 during last year’s Iron Dog, racing with teammate Andy Gocke. This year, he pairs with 26-year-old Willow rider Brett Lapham, who finished the 2015 and 2016 races in fifth and 11th places, respectively. Also worth eyeing are Anchorage racers Casey Boylan and Bryan Leslie, who last year placed fifth in only their second Iron Dog race, and were Rookies of the Year in their 2017 inaugural race.
“We’ve got 24 pro teams, and every one of them is an expert rider in their own right,” Woodbury said. “With seven former champs, it’s hard to pick a favorite. I don’t actually have a favorite team. All of the racers on this trail have an equal chance to win once the start flag drops.”
This year marks the 36th annual Iron Dog race, and the differences from this years race to last are notable. The 2018 race saw two dozen rookies entered, but this year, there are 15, meaning veterans outweigh the rookies more than 2-to-1. This could prove to be key, as the Iron Dog is a race where experience can outsmart young, brute strength. The lessons learned on this trail are hard-earned and come from enduring the bone-jarring abuse of racing at top speeds, on little sleep and lots of sleep deprivation.
“Each year (you race), you learn a little bit more about it,” Olds said, “and that helps you prepare. For me and Mike, we have a good combination. Still, you never know what can happen.”
In what could also be a race-history first, this year a father daughter team will compete together. Danielle Levine and her father, Dr. Larry Levine, represent Team 29. Although Danielle – Dani, as she’s known – is listed as the rookie of the pair (Larry has raced in three, and completed two Iron Dogs) Larry Levine readily admits that it is his daughter who is the natural competitor.
“She’s been doing Alaska Motor Mushers since she was 14, and she has done Arctic Man and much more racing than me,” said Levine, who took up racing in 2016 as a way “to keep up with my daughter.”
“She had planned on racing Iron Dog when she was a senior in high school, but she broke her throttle finger playing football and that put an end to it,” he added. “I’m thankful for the opportunity we have to do this together.”
Another difference between last year’s race and this year is the notable absence of riders from outside of Alaska. The 2017 race featured the largest field of Outside competitors in the race’s history, with 16 hailing from outside the state. And the 2018 race hosted a respectable five. This year, however, there are only two racers – Team 31’s Bobby Menne, from Virginia, Minn., has since moved to Alaska, after racing twice in Iron Dog, and this year pairs with Fairbanks’ Troy Conlan as he shoots for a Top-3 finish.
Team 15 includes Colorado racer Wesley Selby from Grand Lake – although he currently lives in Thief River Falls, Minn. He’s a rookie cross-country racer who is pairing with the very experienced Micah Huss of Big Lake, who has raced Iron Dog twice (finishing third in 2017) and has a 26-year history of cross-country racing under his belt.
“Iron Dog got a late start in letting riders know when we opened registration this year, so the normal influx of Outside riders is smaller due to a much tighter registration period,” Woodbury said. “We gave folks about a month to register in the Pro class this year, when typically there are months. I think it was just too tight of a window for riders outside of Alaska to make their plans.
“But, we are happy to have new racers and I do expect more to enter next year now that we all can plan a bit more ahead.”
While the “who will win” question lingers, organizers of Iron Dog are busy working out other important details. One key detail to figure out was finding a safe alternative to starting on the potentially earthquake-compromised ice of Big Lake.
“In the name of safety, we had to make the decision to move the start to Deshka Landing this year,” Woodbury said.
Also new this year – although not new to the race – is the return of the original finish line, directly in front of Pike’s Waterfront Lodge in Fairbanks.
“The downtown Fairbanks finish was a great place to wrap up the Iron Dog, but with the unofficial theme of “shake it up” we figured this would be a good year to return to the traditional finish line at Pike’s,” Woodbury said.
“This change reroutes the final leg of the race route,” noted Sarah Miller, Iron Dog’s key organizer, but otherwise the race checkpoints will stay the same .
Also returning this year is the Trail Class event, with 10 riders entered. This category allows for larger teams to band together and ride the first half of the race, from Big Lake to Nome, to get a feel for the conditions. It often is the stepping stone for future racers and an event that offers valuable experience and camaraderie among riders.
As with past years, Woodbury said this year’s race will be easy to follow thanks to technology. Iron Dog’s GPS tracking and minute-by-minute coverage of the racing keeps the event exciting even for those sitting on their couches at home. Visit www. irondog.org/live to get the best up-to-date coverage no matter where you happen to be.
As for the trails, in late-December and with two months still left for Mother Nature to continue her winter wonderland magic, Miller said organizers remain optimistic that this could be the snow year all snowmachiners dream of.
“It is still very early to tell what the race route will look like,” she said. “While we have had a large amount of snow in Southcentral, there have been slightly warmer temperatures and added insulation from the snow, making the rivers slower to freeze. We have heard from many trail markers that they are beginning to put in trail in their local areas. However there are still large sections that have not been broken out.”