Simpson hoists his Schwinn above the Greenwood Valley.
After more than a generation as the unofficial ambassador of Nelson County, Russ Simpson suddenly finds himself unrecognizable. The proprietor of a popular roadside stand along U.S. 29 has recently shed over 40 pounds, part of his quest to race a snowmobile across the frozen surface of the state once known as "Seward's Folly."
"My weight now is what it was in high school," says Simpson, laughing as he recalls a longtime Apple Shed customer asking him for the whereabouts of the owner.
"I recognized him," says another friend, Alan Van Clief. "But it's not the Russ Simpson I've been seeing for eight or 10 years."
Simpson is in the final days of training for the world's longest snowmobile race, the Iron Dog, an event whose four-time champion is Todd Palin. And Simpson says he got a phone call from Alaska's so-called "First Dude" after visiting Wasilla in search of a race partner.
"I thought it was my brother-in-law playing a joke," says Simpson.
As it turned out, Palin was trying to be helpful, but rookie racer Simpson won't get to compete with Palin this year. He'll have to content himself with the so-called "trail class," the mere 1,100-mile version of the Iron Dog. But for Simpson, there's something larger at stake than pride: his life.
Five years ago, he was diagnosed with Stage 2-B melanoma in his shoulder– "basically from standing in the sun when we were kids," explains the red-haired, fair-skinned Faber native, who declines to give his age.
After some surgeries, the man who now calls himself "Scardog" has set up an nonprofit called Iron Dog SCAR (for Skin Cancer Awareness Race) to raise money for the UVA melanoma cancer team led by Craig Slingluff. Events include a January 21 fundraiser and send-off party in Lovingston.
His friend Van Clief got to see some of the Simpson work ethic in action. Last February, the two took a multi-day snowmobiling trip across the wilds of central Maine.
"He gets on down the trail," says the still-surprised Van Clief. "We were hitting 55, 60 miles per hour in spots."
A chilly recent afternoon finds Simpson all smiles and sweat as he finishes a 46-mile bike circuit atop the Skyline Drive. He rides a heavy bike, a 1960s or '70s vintage Schwinn World.
"The beauty of it," he explains, "is it makes you work harder."
Such twice-weekly mountaintop journeys– along with four gym workouts per week– have Simpson feeling positive about the multi-day event that will start February 17 and follow the renowned Iditarod dog sled trail from Fair Lake to Nome.
"I feel 25," says Simpson. "People who know me know I don't make excuses."