Transfixed on the blinking red light mounted to the seatstay of my partner, Lindsay Gauld's bike I noticed my vision beginning to blur as my eye lids succumbed to the 20 hours they had been open. Everything went black and a peace came over me as my body let go, giving into the sleep it so desperately needed. My legs on some kind of auto set continued to turn over a small gear while the rest of me went limp. Violently the handlebar jerked to the right as the front wheel caught the snow bank causing my 60-pound bike to lurch uncontrolled toward the ground. At the speed of light consciousness returned, bringing me back to the endless miles of spruce swamp that stood before me and the finish line of the Arrowhead 135 ultra.
I'd heard so much about the "Arrowhead", as it's called among those who know it personally. It seemed to be a race rich with mystery as well as many elements that cannot be controlled. 135 miles through the northern reaches of Minnesota in late January, when anything can happen. A lot of risk comes with a race like this. Months of training, planning, and consideration go into making the start line of such an event. I needed to do this.
Riding my bike throughout the entire year has been something I've considered normal for many years now, but I'd never entered an event that required me to ride a specific distance, while carrying a required amount of survival gear. Yes, survival gear! I often quietly complained to my wife about carrying all the gear that was on the mandatory list, reminding her that I would never use it. I never thought that I would be in a position, much less put myself in a position to use survival gear during a bike race. That was all about to change.
Arriving in International Falls, Minnesota where a whole bunch of people were gathered to do the same thing I was planning on doing was exciting and nerve racking at the same time. I moved through the steps necessary that would ultimately put me on the starting line. First, the gear check. Here race officials check through your required gear to ensure that you have all you need for emergency situations and they even take the liberty of asking you a few questions just to make sure you know how to operate your stove, etc. I knew I had all I needed as most of my gear was loaned to me by eight-time Arrowhead finisher, fellow DBD founding father, and good friend Charlie Farrow. Charlie had given me the "inside scoop" on the Arrowhead during the months leading up to where I stood during the gear check. But, like the smart kid in middle school math class, he didn't give me ALL the answers. He left some of those for me to figure out. Looking back now, it's as if he knew that I'd be faced with many questions during the race that only I could answer. He was right.
Standing on the start line with my wife, Amy off to the side wishing me good luck, I silently reviewed my plan, "Let the leaders go, spin an easy gear in the soft snow, control your heat output - it's really warm out, have fun, stay safe". I looked through the field of athletes, their thousands of dollars of gear and I thought about race director, Dave Pramann's words during the racer's meeting, "Half of you won't finish this race." I hoped he wasn't talking about me. My mind erased half of the people I saw straddling their bikes at the start line, I was still in the new picture my mind created. "You can do this", I said to myself.
18 - 20 hours was my goal finish time and I was giving myself some serious leeway. I felt I could knock out 135 miles on a bike without much difficulty. Hell, I've done 140 before with two water bottles and what I could carry in my jersey pockets. I wasn't really that worried about this distance. The thing is, I'm not a winter rider. Sure, I ride my winter bike on the trails in and around Duluth, Minnesota, but I do it for exercise and for fun. I'm just not that good at it. I don't know why, but I just don't seem to have a talent for it. Put me on a gravel road with a couple hundred miles in front of me and I seem to shine, put me on a fat tire bike with a 40-mile training ride in front of me and I complain. I can't figure it out. It's just the way it is. Nevertheless, I was willing to step outside my comfort zone and see what all the fuss was about.
An hour into the race and I was concerned with the conditions of the trail, which is what everything depends on when snow biking. Many think that the fat tire bikes can just go anywhere. They can't. They have great traction, but they cannot be efficiently ridden through very soft snow, much like four-wheel drive trucks really can't go anywhere, despite what their owners might say. I fast forwarded myself through the learning curve and quickly determined that it was imperative to keep my wheels in the tracks of the riders in front of me, not only to make the pedaling easier, but to keep the squirrels that seemed to live in my front tire from fighting each other. You see, when those squirrels got mad at me, they'd get pretty fiesty, causing my front wheel to swerve all over in the soft snow. Fighting to get the front wheel back on the five-inch wide track required a quick jolt of horse power to the back end of the bike, with some upper body and abdominal work to center the front wheel again. As the day wore on I did that "workout" thousands of times.
A small part of me couldn't ignore how far back I was in the field. It frustrated me a bit, but I needed to stick to the plan. I was hearing comments from fellow competitors like, "Hey Tim, what are you doing back here?" I'd smile and tell them I was doing the best I could. Inside I'd say, "Don't worry, I'll see you later." Some of those riders I would see again, some I wouldn't.
The first check point was a mere 32 miles away. I was cruising comfortably when a nice surprise came my way. As I approached a highway crossing I heard my name being yelled out. "What, who knows me out here?", I questioned. Then, I saw Amy standing on the other side of the road waving to me. I stopped for a bit to talk and let her know things were going as planned. A quick smooch and I was back to the business at hand.
I wondered if there was some kind of mistake as far as the distance calculated to the first check point as it was taking forever for me to go 32 miles. I just never seemed to get there. At last, I heard cowbells clanging and people cheering. Farrow had told me to "Blow through the first check point", meaning don't stop and resupply. I wanted to take his advice, but given the soft snow conditions and the remarkably slow speed I was traveling I thought it best to at least top off my water supply. I was in and out of c.p. 1 in 5 minutes, with 40 miles or so to go to the next stop.
C.P. #2 was called MelGeorges Resort. This was clearly the main stopping point for the race, a completely outfitted rest stop for weary racers. It is also referred to by race director, Pramann, as the "black hole". Often times riders become so comfortable here that they stay too long or they simply quit the race. I vowed that I would make my MelGeorges stop as brief as I could.
I rode alone toward the second check point as the racers were spreading out along the course. I discovered that the edge of the trail was hardpacked from the "groomer", which maintains the snowmobile trail. Things were getting considerably easier now as far as the riding was concerned. I decided I'd make up some time. Clicking up a few gears I lifted my pace, in fact I felt like I was really hauling at times. Things were looking up. Soon I saw signs for Elephant Lake which is where Melgorges is located. I was knocking out some good time. "Hell, I can make up for a slow first half by pinning the second half with a harder pace. I might just come in under 18 hours", I thought.
Crossing Elephant Lake was an energy drain I did not need. The route was chewed up from snowmobiles and bike riders who were trying to find a good line. I tried to think about how cool it was that I was riding across a lake, but the squirrels in my front tire were pissed and demanding all of my attention.
The cabin that served as the checkpoint was buzzing with rushed volunteers waiting on sweaty athletes. "Be quick, be quick", I repeated to myself as I entered the cabin. Quickly, I surveyed the scene trying to figure myself into it. I needed food, a refill of my Camelback, coke, and food. Oh, one more thing I needed to be sure not to forget: FOOD! I was starving for real substance in my stomach. It was 5:00 p.m., I'd been riding steady since 7:00 a.m. in difficult conditions. There was no rest, ever, just constant pedaling and pushing the rig up hills. I felt pretty worked over. I smiled to myself when a volunteer made an announcement to the shelled men in the cabin, "If any of you need or want anything, raise your hand", I and about five other guys instantly raised our hands. In 20 minutes I got my camel back refilled and consumed, three grilled cheese sandwiches, a bowl of chicken wild rice soup, three M&M cookies, a bowl of potatoe chips, and five cokes. I was still hungry, but figured I needed to get out of there. While shoveling the above mentioned food into me a pivotal thing happened. I had been listening to a story being told by a polite gentleman on my left. He was small in stature, but alarmingly fit. He spoke in a manner in which only the important stuff came out, I liked that. He was the type of man that made me think, "I want to be like him some day". It was Lindsay Gauld. My friend Charlie had told me about Lindsay many times and he spoke of him in a way that put Lindsay up on a very high pedestal. As far as I'm concerned, it's Lindsay's world and we're all paying rent. He is a former 1972 Canadian cycling Olympian, he's in the Cycling Hall of Fame, and he's accomplished so many jaw dropping feats that he dines at the table of Mallory and Shackelton. I couldn't leave that cabin without introducing myself. "Excuse me, my name is Tim Ek, I'm a friend of Charlie Farrow's", I said intending to explain my interruption of his story further, but I couldn't. He immediately stated that he'd read stories of Charlie's that included me and that he was glad to meet me. We had a brief chat and I told him that I needed to move on down the trail. The 30 seconds I spent talking to Lindsay Gauld in that cabin would prove to be the most important 30 seconds of my day.
After receiving direction on my exit strategy out of the cabin proper and back on course I made my way to my bike. Situated and riding the Arrowhead trail again, I reviewed what happened back in that small cabin on a lake I'd never heard of. "You just met a man who lives a life larger than most could ever dream of." It was pretty cool and I felt good about it. Now, Charlie warned me that this leg of the race was "hilly". I was ready and I knew all I had to do was push my bike up, then jump on and enjoy the downhill on the other side. Well, a few hills came and went, then things just settled into a very flat, long section. "That was no big deal", I thought. I was moving through the leg pretty well and had no worries. My mind wandered back to the discussion in the cabin. Another man seated at our table was talking about a weather forecast he'd seen that mentioned possibly three inches of snow between 9 p.m. and midnight. I wasn't worried because I'd be almost done by then anyway. If I had to ride for a few hours in some fresh snow, it would only be for a few hours.
It's weird when you ride for an entire day. An hour of time takes on a new perspective as if it's five minutes. In real life it's common to tell someone that you'll be there in ten minutes and think nothing of it. In an all day riding situation it lifts your spirits to consider that you'll be there in three hours. An hour becomes a small increment in time, that seems so insignificant. The hours were passing me by and I wasn't even aware of it. My whole existence had shrunk to the "black and white" winter world I lived in, the hill in front of me or the bend in the trail up ahead.
Dusk began to set in and the light went flat. I could no longer find the "track" in the snow that was now the most important thing to me. Without that track things became extremely difficult. I turned on my light and that only seemed to make things worse. "You're in that 'in between' time, it'll get better when it's totally dark", I told myself. The light of day left me without a care as the darkness of night wrapped me tightly in its arms. I stopped briefly at the top of a small hill to make some adjustments and get some food when I pulled my eyes away from the machine that had been under me for 13 hours to look around. I saw trees, brush, snow, and a ribbon of a 20-foot wide trail. I was alone in a hostile place and snow flakes were landing gently on the sleeping bag mounted to my handlebar.
The flat section I mentioned had come and gone. I was now deeply rooted in the "hills" of the Arrowhead. I understood these hills and respected them. I had estimated that the 40-mile section would take me approximately five hours. I couldn't have been more wrong. I encountered climbs that had me "kicking steps" like a mountaineer while straining against a gear laden bike that didn't want to go up. The relentless climbing was taking a toll on me and the snow that appeared so beautifully earlier was now beginning to accumulate. The squirrels awakened from their slumber and began to prepare for the night time leg of the Arrowhead. I fought the bike down the back side of every climb, reminding myself that I did not have a helmet on and getting hurt out here could mean a life and death situation. I stayed on the side of caution through each descent. Once at the bottom I would pedal a few strokes, then dismount for the push up the next hill. This pattern went on for hours and hours. My five-hour estimation came and went. I began to become increasingly concerned about how long it was taking and the snow fall had now turned into what I'd call a significant squall. Just when worry was creeping in I saw a blinking red light up in the distance, a rider pushing up a hill. I hustled to him hoping to get an estimation on how far to the "Ski Pulk check point". I was certain that I was within two miles. I met him half way up a huge climb, "Hey, how ya doin'?", I said. I tried to hide the stunned look on my face when he turned to look at me. He was so shelled that it was written all over him. "I don't have enough energy to make it up the rest of this climb", he said to me in such a matter of fact way that I didn't know how to respond. I chose not to acknowledge the statement. Instead, I asked, "Do you have any idea how far it is to the next checkpoint?" He smiled at me and tapped his GPS in order to light it up. The backlight came on and I thought to myself, "that's exactly like mine, too bad I left it at home". "About ten miles ...ten more miles of these hills", he muttered. I yelled an obscenity at the sky in front of this man I'd never met. In a minor state of panic I told him that I thought the checkpoint would be showing up any minute. Without saying goodbye I continued up the hill. Quickly reviewing my situation I surmised that with ten miles to go at 3-5 mph it would be at least two more hours before checkpoint three. I'd been on this leg for five hours and it was looking like that was going to turn into seven and a half. The squall had now become a full-blown snow storm.
----------Stay tuned for Part Two on Thursday...