Exploding through the subzero arctic at periodic speeds exceeding 90 miles an hour, leaving a snow trail stretching for miles, requires every muscle in one’s body and often leaves the rider baked in his coat, sautéed in sweat.
Racing snowmachines at such speeds forces Dusty VanMeter to quickly adjust to changing conditions, endure long periods of physical exhaustion paired with sleep deprivation and pick apart the dangerous landscape often disguised by flat, grey light and tired eyes.
It’s an almost obscene gesture perpetrated by Iron Dog racers as they travel from Big Lake to Nome to Fairbanks — more than 2,000 miles — as fast as they can against the will of Mother Nature in what is billed as the world’s toughest snowmachine race.
Riding the ragged edge, competitors chase something the brutal Alaskan tundra doesn’t often surrender.
Kasilof’s VanMeter almost attained as much in 2011 but fate had a different idea — one that left him pulling his sled from the icy waters of the Yukon River and pushing him back well short of a podium finish.
In February of this year, however, VanMeter, 43, and teammate Marc McKenna came as close to Iron Dog perfection as any team previously. They ran that race faster than anyone else previously, averaging 56.97 miles per hour and finishing with a total trail time of 35 hours, 39 minutes and 56 seconds. They bested Dwayne Drake and Andy George’s 2006 time of 35:48 even though that course was 60 miles shorter than the one VanMeter and McKenna raced this year.
“There are so many factors that can take you out completely that just to accomplish it, to finish and be done is huge,” said VanMeter, a Tesoro control board operator standing in his shop in mid-December. “There are so many emotional highs and lows out there. Like two years ago we went from as excited as can be, figured here is another win, we did everything went right. The training went right. The preparation went right. The sleds perfect. Then we go sploosh right into the river.”
In that respect, VanMeter said his last two races were eerily similar — he and McKenna had the lead coming through the area and they had won the race to the halfway point both times.
But in 2011, as the two came through the village of Nulato at midnight, 20 below, breaking trail as they went, tragedy struck — a hole in the river’s ice pack made by an excavation company digging for gravel at the bottom of the river had iced up just enough to be covered with a layer of snow.
VanMeter and his sled went in with only several hundred miles to go to Fairbanks freezing their chances for a win.
“It was horrible,” he said shaking his head. “No guarantees that we had it won, but anything can happen.”
After his near-perfect race this year, one aided by warm temperatures and strangely complicated by state record snowfalls, VanMeter considered retiring with his four Iron Dog titles, the most by any one rider since 2000. But he said he still wants to ride as long as he is competitive.
“Last year was kind of a surprise that we had the fastest time because we had issues on the first day where a shock went bad and it was the roughest I’ve ever seen it,” he said. “That first day was six, seven foot holes.”
This year, VanMeter said he does not feel pressure to best last year’s time, but as the snow continues to fall, he said he feels the desire to win again.
“Yeah, I think it is beatable, but it depends on the year,” he said of his time. “We could be six hours slower this year, 40 below the whole way with no snow.”
So what exactly does it take to be a record-setting snowmachiner? For VanMeter it is a mixture of logistics, endurance, mental focus, having a deep mechanical knowledge and a well-tested physical fortitude.
“The biggest thing is what is done right here in the shop, your preparation before the race,” he said. “But it all entails into that, your training, everything lets you know what is going to go on out there.”
For months before the Iron Dog, VanMeter will train on one of his two Ski-Doo MX Z X-RS Rotax E-TEC 600s by beating it up, taking it apart, putting it together again and again to make it just right. Then, he’ll take what changes he made to his training sled and make them to a new machine that will run the Iron Dog.
VanMeter said he is obsessive about his sled’s shocking.
“You’ve got to have the thing comfortable and have the confidence that it is not going to do anything funny to you through the speed and bumps because that is where you are going to have the trouble,” he said.
While other competitors might be more concerned about other aspects of improving their snowmachines, VanMeter isn’t much concerned with adding a mile per hour here or there as a result of, say, extensive clutch work. His motto? “It’ll only go as fast as it’ll go” — racers are limited to stock, 600cc engines.
He also credits extensive training in the area — at least 100 miles per day is his goal — and in Big Lake a few weeks before the race with McKenna. He said he tries to ride as hard as he can in training and then back off slightly during a race to maintain a sense of control.
“I’ve been doing it so long that the trails around here, to me, I just know them too good, every bump,” he said. “So for me training here and testing, I have to make myself drive through the bad stuff. I know if I go on the left side of the trail it would be smooth, but I make myself go on the right side of the trail to test the machine.”
Despite proper training, preparation and experience, there are always intangibles along the trail that prohibit attaining perfection, whether that’s a hole in the ice or single bolt from a critical area. In that respect, VanMeter said he relies on his training and summer work as a commercial fisherman.
“It is everything,” he said. “It is being fast-thinking. At a time, (fishing) is all we did for a living and you’ve got a month to make your money. Something breaks down and you’ve got to fix it right now because tomorrow could be the day that you make all your money. That mentality of just making it go, no matter what.”
VanMeter said the feeling of racing snowmachines is the same feeling he used to get racing sled dogs in his younger years.
“It is the same adrenaline rush racing dogs at 10, 15 miles an hour than it is running these (snowmachines) at 80 because you bred the dogs, you raised them, feed them, did everything to make them your team and you are out there racing against someone doing the same speed,” he said, noting he won the Junior Iditarod in 1987.
As for what exactly it feels like to win the Iron Dog faster than anyone else, VanMeter could only describe it as having “maxed your body out.”
“It’d be 40 below, I’d take my jacket off and I’d be drenched,” he said. “You are just taxing yourself so much. At the end of the race, it is an elated feeling of, ‘I did it.’ It is an accomplishment to even finish this race. Think about it — you are going 2,000 some miles across Alaska in the middle of nowhere.”
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.