"What a great adventure," said Grand Lake resident Chris Tarr about his team's five-day Iron Dog race in Alaska in February.
The race offerend challenges, fun, interesting people, and "incredible things," he said.
"It wasn't a vacation, but it wasn't your normal life."
Thirty-one Pro teams and 10 Trail teams competed in the event. This four-member team from Grand Lake competed in the trail class.
They arrived in Alaska one week before the race and left 18 days later with a new perspective on life and racing.
"There was great snow this year, the trail conditions were better than some have ever seen," Tarr said.
January weather hit a low of 40 below in Alaska, then a warm spell hit when they arrived. Minus 10 was the lowest temperature the team encountered, he said.
"The weather was similar to Grand County, but there were no storms or wind. We were as lucky as we could get so we enjoyed it more."
After the first day riding 80 miles they were exhausted.
"It could've been much worse if we didn't have the training. Until you actually do it, words can't prepare for how hard it was," said Tarr.
Team members Tarr, Bruce Knight, Kevin Cox and Cory Ziegler - all from Grand Lake - started the race, but after mechanical problems only Tarr and Knight made it to Nome and the finish line.
On day one Tarr dropped into an 8-foot creek. It took 45 minutes to get out. After an 8-hour riding day they got stuck twice. On day two, near the Happy River, it felt like they were on Mars, Tarr said. This is where Kevin Cox earned his nick-name - MacGyver - when he wired back his machine. The failure on Cox and Ziegler's snowmobiles was due to a bolt sheared off from damaged rails. On day three they needed to make it to the next stop that had an airport to fly the machines out.
It is here that Cox and Ziegler had to scratch. Tarr and Knight continued on.
I watched the pros ride and talked to them, said Tarr.
"What does it take to be pro? I don't have that, I'm not driven enough to win. These guys are driven to win. They were better riders on the technical terrain and single track." As a father and business owner, Tarr said he isn't willing to take the risks.
"I did really well on trails similar to the ones in Colorado. When we got in sections that were foreign, I was slower."
"The race is misunderstood, people have no idea what it takes to do this race," said Cox. "It's not easy."
People who race this are a different breed, he said. After scratching, Cox and Ziegler watched the pros arrive. Cox remembers watching Todd Palin (husband of Sarah Palin) and his partner, Davis, arrive in McGarth at the layover.
"They were in 5th place at the time and they were flying into town, they were mirrored, right next to each other, and came up lights blazing."
They were going so fast, flying past. Later Cox found out that Palin was towing his partner because he blew a belt 20 miles out. Instead of making a mistake, they towed in.
"It was like art watching them. They were tight."
They practice towing each other for 60 miles and to keep the towing line taunt, Cox said.
"To keep that distance apart while towing at that speed, any bump will launch them, like a high speed train at 80 mph."
That is the level that was racing pro class, said Cox.
Wiser and able to appreciate more what the sport offers, Cox is looking at life differently, post-race.
He remembers the first time you learn to snowmobile and all the fears in your head.
"Now when I'm out riding in minus 40 temperatures, it isn't a big deal. I'm prepared for anything," he said.
Would the team race again?
"I'd love to do it again, but someone else will have to pay for it," said Tarr. He has other adventures in mind.
"It was magnificent going through a river pass and seeing mountain peaks raising up, and then you break a sled, you can't dial 911 or AAA - you need a dealer to piece together a part and give it to a pilot and drop it off at your location," said Cox. "It's surreal."
"I beat the hell out of myself, fell in a creek, crashed, flew parts in on the trail for snowmobile repair," said Tarr.
"I met strange and charming people and ate homemade smoked salmon and king crab caught that day on the Bering sea. I got the full package," he said.
Ziegler and Cox, although they didn't finish, walked away with a wonderful experience, too, said Carr.