Palin's Husband Races Across Alaska

VP pick's spouse: pro snowmobiler and four-time champ of the Iron Dog.

Aug. 30, 2008— -- Each year, they race 1,971 miles through the snow and ice of the Alaskan wilderness, weighed down by sleeping bags, a small tent, a stove that weathers the wind, flares, a hatchet and other gear they'll need to survive if conditions deteriorate.

From Wasilla, Alaska -- the hometown of John McCain's vice presidential pick, Sarah Palin -- northwest to Nome and then east to Fairbanks, two-person teams compete in the Iron Dog, the longest snowmobile race in the world.

While many Washington types and political families might never dream of subjecting themselves to those conditions, that's not the case for Palin and her husband, Todd.

A professional snowmobiler, Todd Palin is a four-time race champion, winning his last title in 2007 with competition partner Scott Davis.

And in the blistering cold, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has been found front and center to cheer him on, long after others have retreated to the warmth of their cars.

"She showed up and waved the flag at the start of the race out there," Jim Wilke, a member of the Iron Dog's board of directors, told on Friday. "It was 29 below when I pulled up at the lake, out at the starting line."

Two weeks ago, Todd Palin signed up for the February 2009 race, which would be his 16th run as a competitor.

And no matter where Sarah Palin's evolving political career takes her come November, those familiar with the competition say they expect the Palins to show up as planned again this winter.

"I would be surprised if he didn't," Wilke said. "They're quite a couple. They have not seemed to change their lifestyle a lot since she's been elected governor.

"She's perfectly at home and very comfortable in outdoor clothing," he added. "When she puts on her blue jeans, it's not like she just took 'em out of the box."

Todd Palin's Adventurous Race

Race entry materials for the February 2009 event lay out what it takes to compete in the Iron Dog.

"These participants will brave subzero cold, bad visibility and deep snow to push their snowmobiles and bodies to the limits to reach the finish line," says the entry form. "It is the world's longest, toughest snowmobile race, and it is a true test of human and equipment endurance." Indeed, last year's winning team took the top prize in 42 hours, 33 minutes and 40 seconds on the course, not counting time off the clock to sleep and eat in the freezing cold.

On Friday, the race's executive director, Laura Bedard, told that while there are several factors that make or break the results, Todd Palin has a key element of the race down pat.

"If you kind of look at the winner's circle, especially at Todd and Scott, Todd has won the Iron Dog four times and Scott has actually won the Iron Dog seven times," Bedard said. "Experience actually plays a key role in that."

To be sure, weathering tough conditions could take some getting used to. With GPS tracking devices on their snowmobiles, competitors navigate the elements. They need to plan their fuel consumption on the distance between stops where they can refill instead of carrying too much extra with them. They need to be prepared for an emergency.

"Cell phone service doesn't go everywhere," Bedard said. "They might be pinned down in a storm or a situation that might require them to go into survival mode."

Duos also need to complement each other's skills. For instance, one might be a good mechanic and the other a solid navigator.

"Todd's role has always been to be supportive and to be the more even-handed guy," Wilke said.

"He's known in snowmobiling circles as not being the fastest guy out there, but he's very steady, he's a very supportive teammate," he said.

The Competition's Controversial Past

The snowmobile competition has not been without its challenges. Because it follows the northern route of the famed Iditarod race to Nome, resistance to the route was met early on from dog mushers who didn't want the snowmobile race on the trail.

Wilke, who helped get the race off the ground in the mid 1980s, recalled Friday that problems with regulations and permits sparked an "organizational nightmare" warranting a series of Bureau of Land Management hearings.

Environmental Concerns

With the Alaska Range surrounding the Anchorage area in a ring, "there's only a couple ways outta here," Wilke said.

"You've got to get over those mountains somehow," he said. "That's why the Iditarod trail went the way it did."

"I don't think many people really understand the amount of effort and frustration it took to get the race started, it was a real knock-down, drag-out fight with the dog mushers the first couple of years," recalled founder Bob Kowalke before last year's race. "There were BLM advisory meetings, BLM hearings, lawsuits, court injunctions and we were vilified in the newspapers."

Others still question whether snowmobiles do too much damage to the environment, contributing to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Debate about whether to allow snowmobiles in national parks has coalesced most recently in a fight about whether to keep a pass in Yellowstone National Park open to snowmobiles in the winter.

A 2006 report from the National Parks Conservation Association said that motor vehicles in some places "collectively are the greatest polluters of the parks."

Meantime, federal public lands not designated as a national park, like the land through which the Iron Dog travels, is less restricted to snowmobilers. About 80 million acres in Alaska is federal public land, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

Bedard said that these days, "Snowmobiles are getting better and better on fuel economy," adding that they average about ten miles per gallon, though some are far more fuel efficient.

Will Palin Head for D.C. or Nome?

Meantime, Todd Palin and his competitors have set their sights on the race this February.

In addition to winning the 2007 race with Davis, Palin was part of a winning duo in 2000 and 2002, when he raced with Dusty Van Meter, and in 1995, with partner Dwayne Drake.

Still, should McCain and Sarah Palin take the White House in November, the trip back for a February 8 race start could be a bit more of an effort.

"I'd be interesting to follow up and see what would happen," Bedard said. "And that's going to be yet determined in November."