GRAND LAKE - Iron Dog dreams began when Chris Tarr watched a segment about the Iron Dog snowmobile race in Alaska on the Discovery Channel.
"I remember seeing the video and thinking, 'This is crazy.' Then, a buddy of mine wanted to do a 200-mile snowmobile ride in Grand Lake and after we did it, we thought, 'This is pretty hard. Could we do it five days in a row?'"
That was four years ago.
The four-member team from Grand Lake that will compete in the February Iron Dog race is comprised of Chris Tarr, 43, Cory Ziegler, 23, Kevin Cox, 48, and Bruce Knight, 56.
"Our team registered for Iron Dog last year. Then Kevin Cox broke his foot so we had to postpone for a year," said Tarr. "We were pretty disappointed."
They are now signed up for the 2012 Iron Dog race that begins in Big Lake, Alaska, near Anchorage with a halfway stop in Nome, finishing in Fairbanks. It is the world's longest snowmobile race. The race course follows the Iditarod Northern Route of the Historic Iditarod Trail.
Tarr said the Alaska Range is crazy riding terrain with climbs, side-hilling, and they will even scale waterfalls. He said the trail conditions vary by year. Last year the race went on despite 70 miles of snow-free terrain.
The biggest fear, Tarr said, is that your machine can't cool down where there is no snow. If it gets too hot, the machine will stop.
The first 30 miles of the race are on highly used trail that is rough, similar to a four-wheel drive road, he said. The next section is a river where a third of the trail is frozen with ice and snow pack.
"The hardest stretch is the first 400 miles. When we get through that, the next challenge is weather and visibility. We will also be dealing with drifts or mounds of snow and debris," Tarr said.
"Coupled with the wind and light; it's a tough course. The light is at a weird angle; it's like riding at twilight all day and it's hard to get depth perception," he added.
The final third of the course is high plains and hill climbing with a lot of single track, trees, and willow presenting obstacles leading into the final stretch of the course along the ocean.
"We ride on sea ice. If the weather gets bad, a surge could break the ice and create overflow. This is why we need to practice on water. You can't stop riding or you could get water in the engine," Tarr said.
This is the reason the race is known as "The World's Longest, Toughest Snowmobile Race."
The team trains on the Grand Lake Trail system.
"We will pick a few places we've never been because we need to find new terrain with surprises," said Tarr.
He has been snowmobiling for 10 years but he knew the team needed to get stronger for the race.
"We needed to build muscle endurance since the terrain forces you to stand and you let the machine move underneath."
Part of the team's preparation includes gym time and taking private training sessions from fitness trainer Jackie Wright. They also need to practice riding over water.
In November, Dick Linke let the team use his ponds to practice water skipping.
"It's really a mental exercise to overcome the fear of water," Tarr said.
Tarr has spent 18 total days in Alaska getting comfortable with the climate and learning about the town and environment.
"Last year I went to Alaska four times and watched the start two years in a row," he said. "They start the race in a town as big as Granby and you start on ice. Eight to 10 planes come in for the start and the lead guys have to chase a plane."
Kevin Cox explained the research and relationship building that is preparing them for survival during the five-day race.
"We have been researching the race for four years. At first the people in Alaska didn't talk to us when we went up to watch the race each year," he said. "Our second year going to Alaska to watch the race, riders started talking to us since they knew we were serious. This is an extreme sport up there. You don't learn about how to race it from a website.
"Since there is more humidity in Alaska than in Colorado, we had to learn about preparation from Alaska racers. We had to get clothing and equipment that is not used in Colorado due to the extreme temperature variations," he added. "We learned about bunny boots, a military style boot that traps dead air space. They look like bunnies and all the racers out there wear them. You would never see them in Colorado."
Last December Tarr and Cox went to a first-timers meeting. They asked questions and learned more about the race. "They saw that we were serious, they respected us, and knew we were not going to be a hindrance, and we learned so much from them," said Cox.
The team plans to stay in homes along the course. They hope to end each day in a village. Some villages there are as small as just 12 inhabitants. Or they may sleep in a post office or on a sofa in a home.
"We are anticipating to make it to each town; however, Iron Dog sets the standard for winter survival," Cox said.
Some of the rules include carrying 2,200 calories in food rations, non-pressurized camp stove, a sleeping bag with a 30 below zero rating, and bivvy sack or four season tent. "There is a tech inspection where we have to show that we have all this stuff. If you don't pass, you don't race," Cox said.
"It's not about the time you complete the course. We are in the sport class. The sport class is a tester for the pro class. We may even leave our sleds in Alaska and see if we want to enter the pro class next year," said Cox.
"They say if you have a good experience, if your equipment stands, you feel good, and your team does well, you will get hooked on this race."
"Initially my motivation to enter the race was to go on this great adventure with my friends. It was something challenging to do together; we would sink or swim together," Tarr said. "But now I think it's about a once in a lifetime event that I will remember forever. The four of us will have this shared bond."
Tarr, Cox, and their teammates are getting in great shape, learning about mechanics and survival, and meeting people in Alaska and Colorado who know and understand the race.
"I definitely know I can do it, and I know it will be hard," said Tarr. "I need to put something hard out in front of me, it keeps me going."
"If you do the same thing every day you don't grow. Sometimes the best way to grow is to find something big, and just put it out there. To me, Iron Dog is a physical challenge and it's scary," said Tarr.
"I think everyone needs to do something scary, and do something they are not sure they can do. I don't know where this will lead me, but it's been fun so far."