The race is 2,028 miles across Alaska. The trail, when there is one, is faint, snaking across windblown tundra, snowmachine-busting willow forests and frozen rivers heaving with cracked, hollowed caves of ice. The temperature can drop to -50.
The Iron Dog snowmachine race bills itself as "the toughest race in the world," and racers say the description isn’t just promotional bluster.
"It's not just about winning," says Tyson Johnson, a 31-year-old who first ran the race with his father in 1997 and has participated every year since. "It's about surviving too."
Johnson and his partner, Tyler Akelstad, 25, have come in near the top of the pack in the past, placing second in 2007 and 2009.
"Frozen and miserable" is the way Akelstad describes some moments of the race, which snakes from Big Lake to Nome to Fairbanks. On the trail they spend 10-12 hours a day riding through rough terrain, subsisting on energy gel and water kept in an insulated bag. Nights are spent in villages or bivvy sacks, enduring cold that can be deadly.
There's one certainty: Things will go wrong on the trail. Machine breakdowns are common and mechanical ingenuity is as much a requirement as riding skill. Johnson has seen his sled catch fire and break down in a dozen different ways. Both in preparing for the race and on the trail, partners rely on each other.
"Just being out in the middle of nowhere and thinking if we get hurt or break down, besides another race team, there’s really nobody that travels this trail, you’re really on your own out there," says Johnson. "You have to rely on your partner and trust them 100 percent."
When Akelstad cut a deep gash in his leg in whiteout blizzard conditions near the tiny village of Nikolai, it was Johnson who helped him as they raced to get him medical treatment. Unlike races in the Lower 48, the Iron Dog's path cuts through some of the wildest places in North America.
"We’re not riding through ditches or fields," says Akelstad, who also races in the Lower 48. "We’re going into the unknown: rivers, mountains, crossing flats out to the ocean, along the ocean."
You have to remember that anything --- a mechanical breakdown, an injury -- can happen, says Akelstad.
That helps to keep the field open and the race interesting, Johnson said.
"I've had a 45 minute lead with 200 miles to go and come in fifth place," he says.
As they log marathon sessions getting their snowmachines ready for the event in an Eagle River garage, the veterans are readying themselves for a race that’s equal parts misery and bliss.
"The Iron Dog is one of those things, as you’re doing it, you're askin' yourself why you're doing it," says Johnson. "But as soon as the race is over, it’s instantly – well, we should have done this, we're gonna do this next year."
Todd Palin is one of the race's frontrunners, as well as its biggest nationally known name. He's also a veteran, having crossed the finish line in Fairbanks more than eight times – coming in first four of those times. This year, Palin will partner with Eric Quam, another race veteran and who finished first in 1999.
Palin grew up in the Interior town of Glennallen and in the Western Alaska village of Dillingham—both places where snowmachining was a way of life. As a kid, he snowmachined to school.
The Iron Dog, he says, is uniquely Alaskan, both in its rugged path and the fact that it draws racers from their early 20s to 50s and 60s.
"The terrain itself – going through two mountain ranges, hundreds of miles on the Yukon River, that in itself is such a huge river – it’s a difficult challenge for (people outside Alaska) to comprehend what we do," he says.
He's happy to see the race gain a higher profile.
"It's an Alaskan event that’s finally getting some national exposure," he says. "It's a deserving, extreme race."