A Beginner's Guide to the Iron Dog

John Faeo is Iron Dog's Brett Favre.
John Faeo is Iron Dog's Brett Favre.
Hannah Foslien, Getty Images

What's the difference between a pit bull and a snowmachine racer? A lot more than chapstick. Three months after the race for the White House is decided, Todd Palin and teammate Scott Davis (pictured above) will join dozens of other competitors in Wasilla, Alaska, for the 25th running of the world's longest and toughest snowmachine race. While the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is older and receives more attention, the Iron Dog has been establishing its own legacy since 1984.

The Race: The Iron Dog begins on the second Sunday in February and ends the following Saturday. Racers in the pro-class division travel in teams of two, starting in Wasilla and following the Iditarod Trail northwest to Nome. From there, they motor east to Fairbanks, the terminus of the 1,971-mile journey over frozen tundra.

Rules and Strategy:

Racers are required to rest a minimum number of hours at a minimum number of checkpoints along the course, and typically spend 35-55 hours on their snowmachines. Deciding when and where to rest and how fast to travel can make or break an Iron Dog team's chances of finishing first "“ or at all. While snowmachines can reach speeds over 100 mph, higher speeds increase the likelihood of suffering a crash or mechanical failure. Racers are no longer required to carry any and all of the spare parts they might need from the start, but rules limit the amount of outside help that teams may receive.

Double the Fun: In 1993, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Iron Dog, officials doubled the race's original length "“ from 1,100 miles to 2,200 "“ by making it a round-trip from Big Lake, which is near Wasilla, to Nome. "It's too crazy," racer Dan Zipay ominously told the Anchorage Daily News before the race. "It's too far." Zipay and teammate Evan Booth were in the lead and nearing the finish when Zipay clipped a pine tree and crashed his snowmachine. Of the 21 teams that started the race, 12 had dropped out by the time Bill Long and Scott Davis capitalized on Zipay's poor fortune and crossed the finish line first. The round-trip format was later abandoned and Fairbanks introduced as the race's finish, with Nome serving as the approximate halfway point.

The Prize: The prize for the winner has grown and shrunk since the race's inception, but the 2008 total purse was more than $100,000, with $25,000 going to winners Marc McKenna and Eric Quam. The entry fee is about $3,000 per racer.

Iron Dog's Brett Favre: John Faeo, a Wasilla native, won six of the first eight Iron Dogs, including the first-ever race as a 28-year old in 1984. Even before he won his record seventh Iron Dog in 1996, Faeo was threatening retirement, only to return each year in hopes of adding to his impressive resume. He finally called it quits after the 2007 race. Faeo, 52, raced in a record 23 Iron Dogs and, at least so far, has given no indication that he'll come out of retirement in 2009.

Other Past Champions: Only 20 individuals have experienced the Iron Dog winner's circle. Davis won the Iron Dog five times prior to teaming up with Palin to win his record-tying seventh title in 2007. Davis and Mark Carr won three straight Iron Dogs from 1997-1999, while Zipay won five total titles with two different partners. No one has won both the Iron Dog and the Iditarod, but three-time champion Dusty VanMeter won the Junior Iditarod in 1987. Switching partners is quite common in the small world of snowmachine racing.

This Is Dangerous, Dude: No racer has died during the Iron Dog, but accidents "“ some of them serious "“ are prevalent. During this year's Iron Dog, Palin's snowmachine hit a barrel hidden beneath the snow, launching him about 70 feet over the handlebars. Davis loaded his partner onto his snowmachine and rushed him to a nearby clinic. Palin, who was wearing a helmet and body armor per Iron Dog rules, was released with minor bruises and would eventually finish the race with Davis, well behind the winners. While the competition is fierce, the Iron Dog code of conduct does suggest that all participants stop and render aid if they come upon another team in a life-threatening situation.

Battle of the Brands: NASCAR has Ford, Chevy, Dodge and Toyota; snowmachine racing has Arctic Cat, Polaris, Ski-Doo, and Yamaha. Since the race's inception, Arctic Cat and Polaris have dominated the winner's circle. The competing manufacturers have offered bonuses in the past to teams who win the Iron Dog riding their machines. Iron Dog's last five winning teams have raced Arctic Cats.

Up To No Good in Nome: Controversy rocked the Iron Dog in 1995. After defending champions Zipay and Evan Booth were initially penalized three minutes for using a pump provided to them by a race official to siphon bad gas out of their snowmachines, several teams threatened to boycott if a more serious penalty was not levied. As race officials met to discuss the incident, VanMeter commented to a local news reporter, "[It proves] they got some special favoritism going on. [Zipay and Booth] are going to win no matter what." Race officials ultimately decided to disqualify Zipay and Booth, as well as the team of VanMeter and Carr for VanMeter's disparaging remarks. The decision helped clear the way for Palin to win his first Iron Dog title with Drake.

Cancelled: A warm winter in 2003 left parts of the Iditarod Trail snow-less. Citing safety concerns and potential environmental damage, the Iron Dog board voted unanimously to cancel what would have been the 20th running of the event. Most racers, including Davis and Palin, were unhappy with the decision. "Gosh dang it," Davis told the Anchorage Daily News. "You probably can't print what I really want to say. Just when you think you've seen it all." Some lobbied for a shortened version of the race, while Palin argued to no avail that the poor trail conditions might actually lessen the chance of an accident.

The Song: Yes, the Iron Dog has its own song.

10 Things You Might Not Know About the Invictus Games

Harry How, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation
Harry How, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

Though the media tends to dwell on the private life of Prince Harry and his recent marriage to actor Meghan Markle, the Duke of Sussex has more on his mind than tabloids might suggest. Beginning October 20 in Sydney, Australia, and running through October 27, he'll be presenting the Invictus Games, a multi-sport competition he created in 2014 for wounded veterans. Athletes will participate in a variety of sports, including wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball, in an attempt to earn medals and, in Harry's words, "demonstrate life beyond disability."

For more on the history (and future) of the Games, check out our round-up below.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY AN AMERICAN COMPETITION.

Prince Harry talks to a Warrior Games representative in the United States
Arthur Edwards-Pool, Getty Images

While on a promotional tour of the United States to raise awareness for his charities, Prince Harry was invited to appear in support of the British team in the Warrior Games, a competition for wounded service veterans that was held in Colorado in 2013. Impressed by the camaraderie and enthusiasm shown by participants, he took the concept and created the Invictus (Latin for "unvanquished" or "unconquered") Games. The inaugural event was held in London in September 2014. "It was such a good idea by the Americans that it had to be stolen," he joked.

2. IT'S FUNDED IN PART BY BANK FINES.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stand on the sidelines
Chris Jackson, Getty Images

While the Invictus Games attract corporate sponsors—including Jaguar—to subsidize the operating costs of the event, funds for the 2014 installment also came from fines levied against British banks that were charged with manipulating currency exchange rates. Approximately £1 million (roughly $1,300,000) were made available from the fines, matching the £1 million Prince Harry donated via his Royal Foundation.

3. THE GAMES FEATURE INDOOR ROWING.

An athlete in the Invictus Games competes in indoor rowing
Steve Bardens, Getty Images for Invictus Games

Invictus invites athletes to compete across a range of adaptive sporting events—sports that have been modified to be all-inclusive for people with an array of physical challenges. In sitting volleyball, athletes have to keep one butt cheek touching the floor while touching the ball. In indoor rowing, athletes use a rowing machine to simulate outdoor rowing.

4. WHEELCHAIR RUGBY GETS INTENSE.

Invictus Games athletes participate in wheelchair rugby
Chris Jackson, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

If you have an impression that modified sports are somehow easier than their able-bodied counterparts, you're mistaken. In wheelchair rugby, athletes attempt to get a volleyball across a court and between two cones on the opposing team's side. They experience frequent collisions that appear to have more in common with demolition derbies than football, and participants are sometimes blindsided by the hits, which can bend wheels and axles.

5. IT'S NOT JUST FOR HUMANS.

A service dog shakes off water after a swim at the Invictus Games
Chris Jackson, Getty Images for Invictus

Because many disabled veterans rely on service dogs to assist in tasks of daily living, Games officials were more than willing to open their doors to the animals during the 2016 event in Orlando. At the last minute, organizers permitted the dogs to jump in the pool for an unofficial race. (Though it was held at Disney World, Pluto was not invited to participate in the doggy-paddle event.)

6. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN MADE AN APPEARANCE.

Bruce Springsteen shakes the hand of a war veteran at the Invictus Games
Chris Jackson, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

Prince Harry's involvement has contributed heavily to appearances by a number of well-known public figures at the Games. Former president Barack Obama and Joe Biden attended the 2017 competition; David Beckham was named the 2018 ambassador. In 2017, Bruce Springsteen closed out the event in Toronto with a solo set. He was later joined on stage by Bryan Adams.

7. THERE WAS A GAP YEAR.

Prince Harry talks to representatives at the Invictus Games
Gregory Shamus, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

After the 2014 Games in London, Orlando hosted the 2016 contest and Toronto held the 2017 installment. There was no 2015 edition—the Games used a gap year in order for Orlando to raise the funds to organize the event. The competition will also skip 2019, moving to the Hague in the Netherlands for the 2020 Games.

8. IT'S GETTING MORE VETERANS INVOLVED IN SPORTS.

A group of athletes huddle during the Invictus Games
Harry How, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

Members of the armed services don't need to compete in the Games to feel their influence. Following the inaugural 2014 event, Help for Heroes, which assisted in recruiting British athletes for competition, reported that there was a 463 percent increase in veterans signing up for archery talent assessments and a 633 percent increase in powerlifting enrollees.

9. THE GAMES WILL BE STUDIED BY SCIENCE.

An Invictus Games athlete holds up a trophy
Paul Thomas, Getty Images for Jaguar Land Rover

Participation in Invictus appears to be a significant boost for the overall morale of contestants. And thanks to a grant from the Forces in Mind Trust, we'll eventually have some objective evidence of it. For the next four years, researchers will follow 300 athletes to assess their overall well-being compared to non-participants. Such evidence of the benefits of adaptive sport will likely contribute to a greater number of participants—and funding—in the future.

10. A COMMEMORATIVE COIN WAS ISSUED IN BRAILLE.

An Invictus Games commemorative coin features text in Braille
Royal Australian Mint

In honor of the Invictus Games' vision-impaired contestants, the Royal Australian Mint issued its first-ever coin with Braille text. Intended to commemorate and publicize the 2018 event in Sydney, the coin features a disabled competitor and "Sydney '18" in Braille. The $1 AUD coin sells for $15 AUD (about $11) and is limited to a run of 30,000. A gold-plated version is limited to 2018 copies and sells for $150 AUD ($108).

The Mongolian Princess Who Challenged Her Suitors to a Wrestling Match—and Always Won

iStock.com / SarahWouters1960
iStock.com / SarahWouters1960

In a lot of fairy tales, a disapproving father or a witch's curse stops the princess from finding Prince Charming. But things were a little different in 13th-century Mongolia. Any single lad, regardless of status or wealth, could marry the khan's daughter, Khutulun. There was just one caveat, which the princess herself decreed—you couldn't take her hand in marriage until you took her down in a wrestling match. If you lost, you had to give her a handful of prize horses.

Sounds easy, right? Nope. After all, this is the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan we're talking about!

Born around 1260, Khutulun was an intimidating presence. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, the princess was "so well-made in all her limbs, and so tall and strongly built, that she might almost be taken for a giantess." She was also the picture of confidence. She had mastered archery and horsemanship in childhood and grew up to become a fearless warrior. Whenever her father, Kaidu—the leader of the Chagatai Khanate—went to battle, he usually turned to Khutulun (and not his 14 sons) for help.

Nothing scared her. Not only did Khutulun ride by her father's side into battle, she'd regularly charge headfirst into enemy lines to make "a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father," Marco Polo wrote. The 13th- and 14th-century historian Rashid al-Din was more direct, writing that she "often went on military campaigns, where she performed valiant deeds."

It's no surprise that Khutulun had suitors lining up and down the street asking for her hand in marriage. The princess, however, refused to marry any of them unless they managed to beat her in a wrestling match, stipulating that any loser would have to gift her anywhere between 10 to 100 horses.

Let's just put it this way: Khutulun came home with a lot of prize horses. (Some accounts say 10,000—enough to make even the emperor a little jealous.) As author Hannah Jewell writes in her book She Caused a Riot, "The Mongolian steppes were littered with the debris of shattered male egos."

On one occasion, a particularly confident suitor bet 1000 horses on a match. Khutulun's parents liked the fellow—they were itching to see their daughter get married—so they pulled the princess aside and asked her to throw the match. After carefully listening to her parents' advice, Khutulun entered the ring and, in Polo's words, "threw him right valiantly on the palace pavement." The 1000 horses became hers.

Khutulun would remain undefeated for life. According to legend, she eventually picked a husband on her own terms, settling for a man she never even wrestled. And centuries later, her story inspired François Pétis de La Croi to write the tale of Turandot, which eventually became a famed opera by the composer Giacomo Puccini. (Though the opera fudges the facts: The intrepid princess defeats her suitors with riddles, not powerslams.)

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