By Kalei Rupp of Alaska National Guard
CAMP DENALI, Alaska, Feb. 18, 2011 - The Alaska National Guard team is putting the finishing touches on its machines and logging the last training miles in preparation for the start of the "Iron Dog" snowmobile race Feb. 20.
Army Command Sgt. Maj. Pamela Harrington, of Palmer and Army Sgt. 1st Class Elaine Jackson of Anchorage will represent the Alaska National Guard in the pro-class division of what is known as the world's longest and toughest snowmobile race.
As the only all-female team among the 28 teams entered in this year's pro-class race, the two Guard soldiers will traverse more than 2,000 miles of Alaskan trails from Big Lake to Nome, then on to Fairbanks. If they finish, they will be only the second all-female team ever to finish the race, and the first since 2001.
For the first time, an ambassador team of riders, including an Alaska Army National Guardsman, will serve as goodwill ambassadors for the race, making public appearances in towns along the race route.
"The purpose of the team is to express the gratitude of both the Iron Dog race and the Alaska National Guard to all volunteers and local community members at each checkpoint along the race," said Lt. Col. Joseph Lawendowski, Alaska Army National Guard recruiting and retention commander and ambassador team rider. "We will be moving at the trail-class pace and start with the trail-class riders, but we will travel the entire route of the pro-class race from Big Lake to Nome to Fairbanks."
For the second straight year, the Alaska National Guard is the presenting partner for the Iron Dog. The Guard became the lead sponsor in 2009 to support a uniquely Alaska event and bolster the Alaska National Guard throughout the state and nation, officials said.
"We view the Alaska National Guard as an excellent partner to help us elevate the race and grow to the next level," said Kevin Kastner, Iron Dog executive director. "With the Guard, we have the opportunity to strengthen our relationships with the community and work on the education side to really connect on the ground with the youth. If we can engage and excite the communities out there, that's a huge benefit."
The Alaska National Guard team has put in hundreds of miles of training for the race and spent countless hours preparing their machines for the rugged terrain. But ultimately, they hope their experience as Guard members will give them an edge.
"An advantage we have as National Guardsmen is that we train for the mental aspect –- the stamina, the sleep deprivation, the perseverance," Harrington said. "You never quit, you never leave a fallen soldier behind. You know you will both prevail. That mental strategy is going to help us overcome any physical challenge."
Harrington and Jackson will be among 12 rookie teams and 27 rookie drivers.
"We're hungry and ready for the challenge," Jackson said.