I looked at my bike, heavy with all the gear I had been carrying and for the first time I considered the fact that I may have to sleep in the woods for the night. In a nanosecond thoughts began to cascade through my mind, “Amy will be so worried about you - no, she'll see mySpot tracker had stopped moving and she'll know I had to bivy - or, she'll think I'm hurt and laying out here, all those years in the woods with Dad, he taught you how to react in situations like this - you'll be able to get a fire going, I'll go under a balsam - the snow won't accumulate on me too much there, will things be any better in the morning or will they be worse? CALM DOWN!”. Just then a voice from behind yelled out, “Tim, is that you? It's Lindsay”. I spun around to see him approaching. He was cool, together, under control. 20 years my senior, Lindsay exuded safety and security. I felt myself come back down to earth. Together, we reviewed the situation we were in while standing on top of a rise in the middle of a wilderness so large that words cannot do it justice. He gave me an estimation of the distance to the checkpoint in kilometers (he is Canadian after all) and he rode out of my view. “21km to the check point. 21km! What does that even mean?” I tried to convert it to miles, but couldn't come up with an answer that made sense. 21 was a number I could handle and kilometers are smaller than miles. I felt I was in a better place mentally. I pushed on alone.
The hours rolled past like five minute blocks of time and the view in front of me was more of the same, hills. The riding conditions had deteriorated from horrible to abysmal. Pushing the bike on the flats was now the norm. I plodded along while the snow turned my blue jacket white. The snow was wet and heavy while the temperature hovered right around freezing. I told myself, “Dad always said that people don't die when it's zero out, they die when they're wet and it's 30.” Looking at my Windstopper jacket, I noticed the sleeves were beginning to freeze. I was soaked through my clothes now, all the way to the skin. The purpose my clothing served at this point was to act as a SCUBA suit trapping and heating the moisture. If I were to stop for any significant amount of time, hypothermia would come for me, as it were, it was already waiting in the wings. Fear reached up and grabbed me. I was so tired, soaking wet, and so far from safety that I did something I have never done before in a race. I went into my frame bag and pulled out my cell phone that I would only use if I were in an emergency situation. I opened it up and while I waited for it to boot up I took note of how the snow was piling on it. Things were looking very bad. “If I get service on the phone I'm going ask Amy to meet me at checkpoint three and I'll quit”, I thought. The phone finally fired up, my eyes immediately went to the top of the screen and there it was, a line through the symbol for service, meaning no coverage. My only choice now was to just make it to Ski Pulk, no matter what.
Lindsay stood alone at the top of a hill off in the distance working with his gear as I pushed toward him. Again, we assessed the situation and moved on together. I asked him if he minded us finishing out the leg as a team, he lifted my spirits by stating that “Two are always better than one”.
“LINDSAY, I CAN SEE LIGHTS!”, I yelled back to him, “I CAN SEE LIGHTS IN THE TREES, IT'S THE CHECKPOINT!”. Relieved we hurriedly pushed our bikes through the driving snow toward the two men who stood under the flood lights with concerned looks on their faces. “C'mon guys”, they shouted. It was late now and I was in a new kind of exhaustion. I had made a decision about an hour earlier that had me sitting down in the tent of the checkpoint. eating a bunch of food and drinking at least a liter of water, waiting 20 minutes, then making a decision about dropping out of this event. I reviewed this plan as I dragged myself up the climb toward the two volunteers and that's when I saw a figure of what appeared to be woman running toward me squinting through my headlight trying to see the number on my bike. “What is she doing? She must be worried about someone and thinks there's a chance I'm that someone.” I was right. It was Amy! When she saw the number 91 stuck to my sleeping pad mounted on the front of my bike I saw the relief wash over her face. She was there with our former neighbors who now live in Tower, Minnesota, my ultimate destination. I was two-and-a-half hours later than Amy's prediction of my arrival to this point. She put her hands on my arms in a gesture of affection and I felt the cold chill of my wet clothes against my skin. “I'm in trouble”, I said. “I'm not sure I can do this.” I tried to be polite to my neighbors, but the hurt I was feeling was hard to hide. I asked Amy how far away the car was, because I was pretty sure I was done. Then, I said it, “I want to quit. I'll never do this race again.” Amy firmly replied, “You won't have to, if you finish it. You can do this. If you finish, you'll never have to come back again.” It was what I needed to hear at that moment and I heard myself reviewing the next leg, “One major climb, then 25 miles of spruce swamp that's flat as a pancake.” I turned to Lindsay and asked him if he would consider doing the final leg with me. Without hesitation he turned to me and in his way of being sure of everything he says stated, “I could use the company.” We refitted and prepared to leave the checkpoint. As I got ready to leave I told Amy that if I head down that trail, there'd be no turning back, I'd be committed. She said she knew that. A few steps out ahead of Lindsay I heard her say, “Take care of him.” “We'll take care of each other”, was his reply.
The snow piled up on our bikes in the form of inches while we repeated a pattern of riding for 15 minutes, then pushing for five. Lindsay took the role of leader as he plowed through the snow looking for the “track” while I stared at his rear wheel fighting the demons that danced in my head. The signs of sleep deprivation were playing a major role as I would see animals on the trail that weren't there, the glint of the snow flakes in my headlight had me seeing street lights, and deep yawns were overtaking me. Then, without warning Lindsay tipped over and fell into the snow. I dismounted and tried to help him to his feet. We both struggled with our heavy bikes and our exhausted bodies while I brushed the snow off his back. It was happening, the bond that occurs when two men work through a monumental struggle together. A mutual comfort formed that soon had us talking. “What was it like in the Olympics?”, I asked like a small boy sitting at the feet of his idol. I rode along in awe as my partner shared stories of his past, stories of the likes I'd only read about. I tried to share some of my experiences, but felt they paled in comparison, yet Lindsay was curious and interested. We were going to make it, I was becoming more and more sure of that.
As my head bobbed down toward my chest and my world began to turn black I thought about how it smelled like Christmas out there among the spruce swamp. Then, an involuntary snap of my head as I lost control of the bike for a split second. I was falling asleep while riding. It had never happened to me before, but it was now. I longed to lay down. I imagined laying down on the trail, even if for just a couple seconds. The need to sleep was stronger than I'd ever felt. Soon, I couldn't fight it any more and while following behind Lindsay, I quietly applied my brakes for fear that he'd hear me stop and wonder what was wrong. But, I managed to stop without him noticing. I let him ride into the distance a bit as I put my forearms on the grips of my bars and put my head down on the backs of my hands, while straddling my bike. I closed my eyes and in an instant I felt my body heading toward the deep sleep that it so craved. Moments before unconsciousness I reversed the momentum and jolted upright. Shoving my bike forward I started pedaling, but I cherished the ten seconds of sleep that I got.
A slight bend in the trail revealed a lighted tower in the distance. If it wasn't the Fortune Bay Casino/Finish, it was at least civilization. Excitedly, I asked Lindsay if that was the finish. In a reserved voice he told me that if his memory was accurate we'd be riding past that tower. My heart sank as we rode and walked, repeating that pattern for hours until an undeniable glow in the sky appeared ahead. It was the kind of glow that could only be a casino.
Lindsay began to struggle with a pedal that was too tight, resulting in him suddenly tipping over into the snow. I watched this happen over and over again eventually learning that his arms were getting so tired that he was having trouble recovering from minor bobbles in steering. My partner needed me. I began to take over the lead more now, checking on him as he checked on me earlier. Lindsay took me out of checkpoint three and now I would take him into the finish. Two beaten men looking out for each other, that's just the way it's done. We finally began the long winding road into the finish line. Lindsay fell further behind me as I would wait for him to reel me back in. There was nothing I could do for him as his pedal gave him fits resulting in an unneeded plunge back into the snow. All I could do was stand with my bike ahead of him until he was rolling again. We had a few blocks to go when we were passed by Dan Lockery, the son of Lindsay's friend. Dan exchanged pleasantries with us and before he pushed on I heard Lindsay tell him that “Tim is nursing me in.” Lindsay urged me to go on without him, but I wouldn't leave him. I rounded a corner to see Dan sitting still on the trail up ahead. Approaching him, I asked, “Are you waiting for us?” “Yes”, was his reply. I don't know if it had anything to do with what he saw happening between his Dad's friend and I, but I was happy he wanted to be a part of it. Lindsay and Dan talked while they pushed their bikes toward the final turn. I was out ahead, I guess I wanted to see that finishing sign that I'd only seen pictures of by myself. I pushed my bike up the final rise toward the volunteers working the finishing area. They cheered and coaxed me in, but they became perplexed when I stopped 20 feet before the line. The looks on their faces begged the question, “What are you doing?” My thoughts raced back to the spruce swamp when Lindsay told me that “When the conditions are good, we race each other. When the conditions are bad, we help each other.” I paused, looked back to Lindsay, then to the volunteers at the line I so desperately longed to step over and said, “I'm not crossing without him.”
We walked across together with a finishing time of 24 hours and 21 minutes.
I came to the Arrowhead worried that I wouldn't have a story to tell. I wasn't planning on racing the race, but merely finishing it. How could there be a story in that? I've never been more wrong in my life.
Thank you Lindsay Gauld for being my inspiration, my leader, and most importantly my friend on that cold, wet night. Thank you Amy for saying all the right things at exactly the right times. I'm certain that I wouldn't have finished this race if it weren't for what you said to me out there at checkpoint three. To send someone you love into a dangerous situation, trusting that they'll see you on the other side takes courage and a belief in them that I can't describe. Sometimes you know me better than I know myself. Thank you Salsa, my Mukluk never caused me an ounce of worry. Thank you Dave and Mary Pramann and all your wonderful volunteers. This event is top notch and a standard by which others can be judged.
This story first appeared on Tim's blog, The Eki Chronicles. Read more of Tim's adventures and follow along on Tim's journey there.
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Tim (Eki) Ek
Tim Ek was born and raised in Duluth, Minn., and still calls it home. He’s always had a passion for competition and seeking his own extremes. Tim's true love is the woods: Out in the wild is where he clears his head and finds his peace, and he prefers getting there by bike. Tim Ek: The Eki Chronicles, ekichronicles2.kinetic-fitness.com