Winning the 2019 Iron Dog Race
“People don’t realize what a crazy race it is… you can’t even really put it into words”
Written by Lukas Eddy
Photos by James Wicken
Mike Morgan and Chris Olds of Iron Dog Team 10 have won the 2019 Iron Dog snowmobile race, making them the second team in history to win this race two years in a row. The last time any team achieved this was in 2013. Their victory at the end of the 2,000+ mile race is a testament to their skill, experience, machines, gear and incredible preparation.
There are two common misconceptions about the Iron Dog Race. First, it isn’t a survival race as much as it is a sprint race. At this level of competition, the top five teams are separated by mere minutes even after hundreds of miles of racing. In fact, Team 10 was leading the race by only five minutes at the halfway point of Nome, Alaska, after 1,000 miles of racing.
“It was awesome… it was close racing the whole time, we were surrounded by all the Ski-Doo teams,” Morgan said. “It was good for the fans, good for the race and good for us.”
Nowadays, teams travel as light as possible, no longer running heavy with every possible necessity stored on the sleds. Air support makes it possible to pack light. Even the auxiliary fuel tanks are only used when needed. Their biggest item is a sleeping bag, which they are required to carry for survival reasons, as temperatures can drop well into the subzero double digits and help is not always readily available.
The other thing people don’t realize is the immense preparation that happens before the race. Olds and Morgan estimate they spend roughly 100 man-hours in the shop building their race sleds. On a set of practice sleds, they ride hundreds of miles every weekend once the snow falls, giving them anywhere between 2,000-3,000 miles of practice and tuning before the race. Their 400-mile practice days can easily take 12 hours. On top of that, they’re maintaining the practice sleds, tuning suspension settings and valving constantly, spending around eight hours per week in the gym to maintain and increase fitness, and working with their sponsors. And the responsibilities for Team 10 come in addition to their full time jobs.
The sheer volume of effort going into preparation makes good performance in the race possible in the first place, but also that much more important.
Olds and Morgan started the race in last place, having drawn an unlucky start position while some “heavy hitters” got to start at the front of the pack. Whiteout conditions for the first day made the steady crawl towards the front of the field no easier, and Team 10 had to make it up through the pack efficiently to avoid losing any time to the talented riders at the front. Fortunately, starting behind the field, they didn’t have to break much trail through the first day. But as they took the lead, Olds estimated there were days they had to break trail for 80% of the time. There were stretches where they couldn’t even tell where the trail was through the trees, slowing them down even more during blizzard conditions.
Weather was the biggest challenge this year by far. Morgan said it’s always Mother Nature calling the shots, and they spent a lot of time riding in the dark through blowing snow. However, they were fortunate in not having any issues with their Polaris sleds. Part of this is due to preparing the machines correctly, part of it is the quality of the equipment, and part of it is smart riding.
“There’s a balance. Riding blind and fast is not a smart move. That’s a huge part of this race – you can’t just go out there blind and expect to bounce off everything just fine cause it’s not gonna happen,” Olds explained. “You gotta go a pace you know your sled can handle… At the same, time you can’t give up a bunch so you gotta keep your pace moving.”
This level of smart riding and experience actually makes it challenging for experienced riders like Olds and Morgan compete against inexperienced riders pushing their limits no matter what. When there are thick snow conditions like this year, it makes it easier for riskier riders to go faster with less regard for safety. The faster riders who take more risks will either do really well if things go right for them, or really poorly if things go bad, according to Olds. Morgan echoed the same sentiment on balanced riding.
“We know where we can ride hard… you gotta ride smart, you gotta pick your way through stuff,” Morgan said. “You gotta just keep a level head, everybody is going through the same thing.”
This consistency in their performance and their sleds is what they attribute to their victory.
“Consistency, man, we ran super consistent. Our sleds aren’t the fastest, they don’t do one thing the best,” Morgan said. “They do a lot of things really well, and they’re really consistent. We didn’t have to work on them and that’s how we won.”
Not needing to work on the sleds was extremely important. They did a short 4.5-minute preventative maintenance session in Nome, changed a few belts on the trail, and otherwise didn’t touch the machines. They rode the sleds at a pace they knew the machines could handle, and managed not to hit anything that would take a sled out for the entire 2,000-mile race course.
They recognize and appreciate the effort it took from their sponsors make it all happen. Despite the stellar results, Olds and Morgan agree they had room for improvements. Beyond drawing a better-than-last starting position, they still want to further dial in their suspension tuning and continue refining every last detail in their setup.
They both have been busy getting back to regular life after racing, but already the gears have been turning to get ready for the next Iron Dog. Both were quick to explain that preparations start, “right away… immediately,” – a hint of the intensity with which they pursue the longest, most gruelling snowmobile race on Earth.