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The 'First Dude' in his element

Behold Todd Palin's snow machine, dangling from a truck's winch in the icy gray murk of an Alaskan winter morning. The machine is gleaming, new, scarcely ridden. It is ­orange and black and pointy-nosed, with thin, tensile orange steel suspension arms jutting from its sides like the wings on a menacing insect. This is, no doubt, a machine that could inflict a nasty sting, but right now its engine is stilled, and a certain awed quietude prevails on Big Lake, outside Anchor­age, at the start of the 2009 Tesoro Iron Dog, a 2,000-mile snow-machine odys­sey that crashes through the Alaskan backcountry, northwest to Nome and then east to Fairbanks.

"That an Arctic Cat F600?" one bystander murmurs.

"Yup," says his bud.

"Ohlins shocks?"

"Yup."

Racers of lesser means did not arrive here with winches. No, they wrestled their 500-pound machines out of their pickups with the engines snarling, exhaust spewing everywhere as they heaved the things down little makeshift ramps. Palin's sled settles on the newly fallen snow soundlessly, and then he just stands beside it, buff, grinning and vigorously gnawing on chewing gum.

Yes, we are talking about that Todd Palin -- Sarah's husband, the First Dude -- and yes, the Dude is in his element here at the Dog. Forget the campaign trail, the whole black suit and sound-bite thing. Todd Palin grew up in rural Alaska, fishing in slime-­spattered rain pants, and for most of the past two decades he's worked in a British Petroleum plant on the frigid North Slope, monitoring turbines and pumps with a tool belt slung from his hip. Nothing else could have prepared him better for the rigors of the Dog -- the -60 degree cold snaps, the darkness, the mechanical breakdowns, the wipeouts at 95 mph. Palin, who has entered 15 of the 25 runnings of this annual race, has won four and placed second three times.

The Iron Dog is an accrued-time partner race, in which teams of two riders, each on his own sled, are clocked only when the rear guard arrives at a designated point. Since 2003 Palin, who's 44, has paired with another snow-machine celebrity, 49-year-old Scott Davis, who has won the Dog seven times (once with Palin) and run the race every year since its 1984 inception. The impresario of a large concrete business, Davis is, like Palin, a striking physical presence: chiseled and ­lantern-jawed, with the erect bearing of a resolute middle-aged mensch.

More snow machines roll out of pickups. The air thrums -- a high-pitched throttly scream here, a low bassy engine roar over there. Soon a 53-year-old knifemaker, Roger Comar, approaches Palin and Davis reverently. Comar has traveled from his home in Marion, N.C., expressly to give each rider (and Sarah, too) a custom-made jackknife whose blade is crafted from the metal of an Arctic Cat F600 drive chain. Each knife took Comar 20 hours of shop time, and in his moment of glory he tells Todd Palin, "You can skin a moose with this thing." Then he turns to Sarah and says, "This is a message from western North Carolina that we want you to make a run for president in 2012."

But then there's a political resonance to the whole scene. On two race sleds are bumper stickers reading AMERICA. LOVE IT, DEFEND IT, OR GET THE HELL OUT. On another there's a mock ALASKA TERRORIST HUNTING PERMIT, good through 2050, with the license number 9-11-01. Tina Fey is not here amid the wafting aroma of two-stroke motor oil. Neither is Michelle Obama.

And so Todd Palin is free to be ... the Dude. There are no Secret Service types shadowing him, no spin-­doctoring publicists. No, he's just another guy wandering the crowd, slapping old friends on the back, shooting the bull. And Sarah, too, is relaxed. Stylishly coiffed and hatless at 15 degrees, she takes a microphone and makes a few chummy remarks before praying that the snow machine's enjoy "God's protection." The Air Force Honor Guard plays The Star-Spangled Banner in formation on the frozen lake, and one by one 35 teams zoom away, over the ice and into the bush.

*****

The Iron Dog is a marathon punctuated by required rest stops. Long ones. Though the race takes six days (this year, Feb. 8-14), winners typically finish with elapsed time of about 40 hours. This ­includes "wrench time," which is critical. The course of the Dog -- over tree stumps, rocks and large, heaving berms on the first 1,000 miles, then over smaller, rattling wind drifts on the frozen Bering Sea and various rivers -- is so destructive to snow machines that, of the 600 or so teams that have started the race since 1984, only about 40 percent have finished. Most of the other drivers have broken bones or wearied of the cold or watched their engines fry under strain.

When the Dog began, it had a survivalist vibe. Racers would show up at the starting line with doubly reinforced steel sled skis and 50 pounds of spare parts roped to their tool bags. In recent years, though, a nimbler ethic has emerged. Snow machines now have independent front suspension, making them more stable and better able to endure the treacherous terrain, and race organizers allow riders to scare up spare parts at rest stops. Today, Iron Doggers can actually race.

Well, kind of. Davis and Palin are banking on an old-school approach. They're going around the hellacious berms, saving their sleds. They're riding with soft suspension -- not optimal for the course's undulating first half, but possibly a lifesaver on the small, sled-­wrecking bumps that stretch onward from Nome. Yes, ever since Arctic Cat sent them their sleds -- at a deep ­discount -- in November, Team 22 has tried to exercise hoary wisdom.

But brash youth is out on the trail as well, embodied most by two top pairs of twentysomethings who've cut their teeth on the hurly-burly, crash-heavy Alaskan sprint circuit, in races like the Klondike 150. Team 8 and Team 16 are friendly with Palin and Davis. Indeed, Todd Minnick, 25, the sturdy, no-­nonsense leader of Team 16, spent two summers on Palin's commercial fishing boat a decade ago; his teammate, builder Nick Olstad, also 25, trimmed out the Palin manse in Wasilla.

The young guys don't have the lean, gym-­sculpted physiques of Davis and Palin, who trained off-sled for the race, running and lifting to build quad and core strength. But it's unclear that this is significant. On last year's winning team was a self-­described "fat guy," Marc ­McKenna, who at this year's Dog was witnessed savoring a second helping of chicken-fried steak -- for breakfast.

As they take their first ­layover -- ­beyond Ptarmigan Pass in the Alaska Range, in the village of ­Unalakleet -- on Feb. 10, Palin and Davis are in sixth place. The kids are beating them, and Tyler Aklestad, a smirking, baby-faced 23-year-old on Team 8, is having a blast. Just before the village of Koyukuk, he flew along on the banks of the Yukon at 10 p.m. It was so cold, the snow dust was blue, and suddenly -- out of nowhere, in the ­darkness -- he saw a man sitting on his snow machine by the side of the trail, broken down and battling hypothermia. "I missed him by inches," says Aklestad, "and I just kept going at, like, 90 miles an hour."

*****

Snow machine marathons are not spectator-friendly. Basically, you watch each racer rocket by for, say, four seconds before he roars out of sight, swallowed by the wilderness, for hundreds of miles. All you can do after leaving Big Lake is fly to the halfway point, Nome, and kill time hanging out at Wilderness Skidoo, a shop that in Nome (pop. 3,500) has an almost holy aura.

The snow machine season in northwest Alaska lasts about seven months, and it begins, according to Wilderness Skidoo owner John Vahnke, in late September when the year's models arrive. "We fire 'em up," Vahnke says, "and then a lot of guys, they just stand around, just to get the smell of the oil burning." Vahnke's parts guy, Andy Peterson, adds, "I've had friends tell me that if there was a cologne that had that smell, they'd wear it. It's ... well, words cannot describe that smell."

"No," Vahnke corrects him, his eyes going dreamy. "It's like a woman wearing Chanel No. 5."

The race is a battle of brethren. All but two of the teams this year are Alaskan, and if you read the race program, nearly every rider is a hardworking fellow who, on weekends, enjoys fishing and hunting and riding snow machines through powder (a whole different sport). But not all racers are equal.

Some Iron Doggers have spent upwards of $30,000 to finance a once-in-a-lifetime run into the wild heart of Alaska. Tapping their credit cards, they've shelled out $10,000 each for a 2009 snow machine, $10,000 more for an identical training sled, $2,500 for the race entry fee and a few thousand more for trailing airplane support. Palin and Davis, in contrast, have spent almost nothing. They are prodigiously sponsored, with their names monogrammed in script on their matching Arctic Cat jackets. (Palin even has the names of his five kids and his wife, SARAH, THE GOV, appliquéd on his snow machine hood.) They give inspirational speeches at trade shows. They are both adored and reviled. They are the New York Yankees of snow machining.

*****

On Feb. 12 Palin and Davis pull into Nome for a 40-hour rest, now in fourth place, a surmountable two hours and eight minutes back. Davis kind of runs the show. Out on the trail he almost always leads, even as other teams switch off riding fore and aft. And here in Nome, where Team 22 has borrowed a king cab Chevy pickup, Davis ­always ­drives. When he and Palin go over the dings on their parked sleds, Davis directs.

"What do you think of this leak right here?" Palin asks.

"That one's going to need an exhaust manifold," Davis intones as Palin silently nods.

"All right, let's turn this thing over and check out the track."

Later, over pizza, Palin is still quiet and stoical, even as the talk turns to the 2008 race, in which he hit a sunken oil drum and spilled 400 miles from the finish. Palin broke an arm then but still finished fourth, running the last 150 miles on a wrecked sled pulled by Davis. Didn't that hurt?

"Pain was the least of my worries," says Palin. "You talk to any active Alaskan, and you'll see that we all end up with a few bumps and bruises."

What about that Iron Dog a few years back in which his steering column buckled, pitching him onto the snow each time he took he a left turn? "Well, any time your snow machine can't turn and you're flying through the air, away from it, it's not good," Palin says. "It's bad."

There is something masterful about Todd Palin. He is almost invariably calm, and he is handsome and rock-steady in an affable, unobtrusive way. He is the perfect political husband. But he is also a sort of sphinx -- you keep trying to crack the enigma and glimpse the gears spinning away in his mind. You watch him.

One afternoon in Nome, Palin comes out of his bedroom in the little apartment that he and Davis are borrowing. Freshly showered, he lumbers toward the TV. "Let's see what's on," he says, twiddling at the remote. Grainy snow blasts onto the screen, so Palin flicks the thing off and just slumps on the couch. Silently, he stares out at the frozen Bering Sea, glittering in the sun, and you have to wonder: Is he thinking of what Herman Melville called the "dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows," or is he thinking of nothing at all?

Palin's sangfroid does crack, sometimes. Over drinks in Nome, an Arctic Cat mechanic, Calvin Nolan, tells a story about helping Palin and Davis ready their sleds for the race. "Todd was having rear suspension issues," Nolan says, "a lot of shock issues, and on bumps he was bottoming out. The studs in the track were puncturing his cooler, so his antifreeze seeped out. He overheated. Several times, he had to get towed back from Cow Lake. He was really frustrated."

What did Palin say?

Nolan shakes his head, laughing. "You don't want to print it," he says.

On the trail to Nome, Davis blew a shock himself, but he and Palin fixed it in the -45 degree splendor of a subarctic night, and they remain hopeful. Last year's ­winners -- the beefy ­McKenna and a brainy engineer named Eric Quam --were 90 minutes back at the midpoint. "It's a war of attrition," Davis says, noting that both of this year's leading teams scratched after Nome in 2008 because of mechanical problems. "When I was young," he says, "I did exactly what they're doing right now. I broke trail and ruined belts."

Davis hopes for a blizzard that will force everyone to ride blind, relying on poise and a deep memory of the terrain. "A storm would be great," he says. "Bad weather is an equalizer." Minnick, the lead driver of Team 16, says, "I'm hoping it doesn't snow. We just want to keep on keeping on." But the next morning, at the restart, leaden skies are dumping cold, dry snow. The racers press east through a swirling whiteout.

*****

Tanana (Pop. 300) is 250 miles from the Iron Dog finish. Like so many stops on the trail, it is a largely Native Alaskan village isolated from the state's road system. The most beloved Iron Dogger there is a rangy 23-year-old Athabascan, Tyler Huntington, who lives downriver in Galena. Huntington's granddad and several cousins reside in Tanana. When the principal at Maudrey J. Sommer School lets students out to watch Huntington's team come in, you expect banners and chants and tense finger-crossing out in the cold.

But the Iron Dog defies such maniacal fanhood. It's ­informal -- homey, even. Officials often time racers with analog watches lacking second hands, and refuel­ing is a funky proposition. If the village ­attendant likes the racer, it might go fast. But if he ­doesn't -- well, there's the tale about a guy whose gas cap was reattached crosswise, so that it jolted off and hit him in the face as he peeled out of a village.

The Tanana faithful mill quietly by the banks of the Yukon, and when Huntington's grandfather, Roy Folger, is asked how he might celebrate a family victory, he shrugs. "Oh, I don't know," he says. "Have another cup of coffee, I guess."

Huntington arrives moments ­later -- in fourth, and in an ill temper. The towrope tugging his idle sled broke off just outside of town. He retied it and now, at the checkpoint, says of his machine, "It run out of gas, and it was plumb full in Ruby!"

Davis and Palin pull in 53 minutes later, in sixth, niggled by more suspension hassles and out of the running. The leaders have been there for hours already. They're holed up in the spacious bed-and-­breakfast over the store, padding around in their long johns and gloating a bit. "I dare you guys to say, 'Hey, Todd, what took you so long?'" Aklestad quips, his voice a giddy whisper.

No one takes up the dare, and later ­Aklestad is deferential as Davis kvetches. "It's been an odd race," Davis says. "Not one of the top 10 teams has broken down." He blames it on the snow, which, he contends, didn't cut visibility enough and made the trail east from Nome cushier, less rattling to the stiffly shocked front-­runners. "This race isn't as tough as it used to be," he says.

Palin sits nearby, silently spitting chewing tobacco into a cup as he watches a TV show about the manufacturing of postage stamps. He sleeps well, and the next morning, over biscuits and gravy, someone notes that he doesn't seem that fazed by losing.

"What gives you that impression?" he snaps. "Maybe I don't express myself when I'm pissed off inside, but this race is very important to me. I wouldn't devote so much time to it -- I wouldn't spend so much time training and wrenching -- if it wasn't so frigging important." His eyes are electric. For a second you see the fire that has propelled him into the winner's circle and that flames up whenever, as he puts it, "that kangaroo court down in Juneau tries to ruin my wife's reputation." Todd Palin is irked.

But a second later he is the soul of cool bonhomie. "So," he shouts to his pals at the breakfast table, "we got a pool going on who's gonna win?"

*****

There is but a minute and 42 seconds separating the lead teams. Minnick and Olstad of Team 16 have been ahead almost from the get-go. But Team 8 -- Aklestad, the wisecracker, and his partner, an unassuming sheet-metal worker named Tyson Johnson, have been a close second the whole way. And now, leaving Tanana, they begin narrowing the gap.

Beyond Manley, 180 miles from the finish, Olstad breaks a stud on his track. Aklestad and Johnson pass him as he stoops over his damaged sled with a wrench. They come across his partner, Minnick, driving toward them to aid in repairs.

"It was looking good," Aklestad will say after the finish, "but about five minutes later I hit a wind drift about four feet tall." Aklestad launches at 90 mph. "I got like 10 feet of air," he will remember, "and I kicked the sled away from me." He lands on his back as his sled slams the ground, nose up. He slides. His head hurts. He can't get up. His partner runs toward him, to lift him up onto his sled -- and right then, he says, "I see Todd Minnick hit the same bump."

"I landed it," Minnick will say, "but my head hit the windshield real hard. It didn't hurt none, though, so I got back on the sled. It was purring like a kitten."

Both teams scramble forward, battered. Minnick has a cracked windshield. Aklestad's rear tension bolts are bent, so his track is loose and rattly as it churns over the snow.

The two teams meet again in the next town, Nenana, the last stop before Fairbanks. Minnick and Olstad get there first, but there isn't even a gas pump in Nenana. There's just a fuel truck waiting for racers down by the Tanana River, with a single nozzle. Minnick uses it as his father, a former racer, helps Olstad gas up from three five-gallon gas cans that he's brought (a perfectly legal maneuver). Meanwhile, the owner of the Fairbanks Skidoo shop, a sponsor of Aklestad and Johnson, begins funneling fuel into his riders' tanks. "But the jugs weren't filling our tanks good," Aklestad will lament. "We were in a hurry. Gas was spilling all over the place, and they were getting away from us."

But in the end the fumbling doesn't matter. Aklestad can go no faster than 80 mph with his wrecked track. Minnick and Olstad win by three minutes, with a time of 37:19:08, eclipsing Palin and Davis' course record by 49 minutes. They celebrate quietly. There is no champagne, no cigars.

Governor Palin is there, though, in her own monogrammed Arctic Cat jacket, and when Todd's team arrives, still in sixth, she is thrilled. "These guys are amazing!" she says, effervescent. Back in high school, she confides, her dream was to sit in the broadcast booth with Howard Cosell and do the play-by-play as her boyfriend, Todd, burned it up on the basketball court. "But this is better!" she adds. "These are my friends. This is my world." One of her earliest dates with Todd was snowmobiling in the hills of Eureka, Alaska, in the bright sun, in shirtsleeves, in the middle of May.

The TV reporters are circling by now, and someone hands Todd his infant son, Trig. Todd smiles as he pats the boy's head. A photographer leans in for the shot.

And then, a few hours later, Alaska's First Couple flies home to Wasilla, to resume normal life. Todd goes to his daughter Willow's basketball game. He tinkers with the boiler down in the basement, changes a water filter, and then gets together with Calvin Nolan, the Arctic Cat mechanic, to nail down what, exactly, went wrong.

A week after the race, on a clear, cold morning in Wasilla, Todd is pensive. "Scott and I just ran out of time this year because of our suspension setup," he says over the phone, "and we definitely wouldn't want a race like that one to be our last one. I'm ready to roll next year. I have to see how Trig's doing, and [grandson] Trip, and what Sarah's up to. But unless there's some kind of catastrophe ... "

"You don't think you're too old?" he is asked.

"Hell, no," says Todd Palin. "Hell, no."

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