This past Monday, February 4th, marked my return to the Arrowhead Ultra 135, an event that I first tried in 2007. Now 2007 didn’t go quite the way I had planned. Conditions were brutal with -30 degree air temperatures, poor snow conditions, and non-groomed trails.
That description doesn’t really do justice to what I experienced however. Quite simply it dished out the most frightening moments of my life. I was hypothermic, badly dehydrated, and exhausted and wound up needing a snow machine rescue when I was about 5 miles from the race’s midpoint cabin. It was a terrifying experience that is quite difficult to convey. It, and the race, taught me a lot about myself.
This year I hoped to return to the Arrowhead and finish the event. Call it a search for personal redemption I guess.
For those that don’t know me, I’m not an elite level athlete or some testosterone crazed adventure junkie. I’m definitely not a fast cyclist. I do like the outdoors a lot though, regardless of season. I’ve done some pretty fun things and camped in some pretty cold conditions, but the Arrowhead throws a wrinkle into the typical outdoor experience.
The Arrowhead Ultra 135 is a human powered event where participants bike, ski, or walk/run 135 miles on the Arrowhead snowmobile trail in northern Minnesota. You must haul your own supplies including 15 lbs of mandatory survival gear from start to finish. There are two food re-supply points you can utilize: a gas station at mile 38 and the midpoint cabin at mile 70.
The trail itself is sometimes flat, but at other times extremely steep and hilly, and snow conditions and temperature can have a huge impact on finish times. Consider that the winning time in 2007 doubled from the record time set in 2006 and you get a sense for the unpredictable nature of the event…no pun intended.
I was really hoping that 2008 wouldn’t bring a repeat of the cold that plagued the 2007 event. A couple weeks prior the temperatures were dipping that low and I wasn’t sure I’d even start if -30 was being called for. Bad things happen quickly in extreme cold. Luckily, temperatures were going to be much more mild for most of the event this year.
Saturday evening I drove up to International Falls with my parents. They wanted to see what the event was about firsthand, and I know they also were pretty concerned about me. It was nice to have them along as it provided some distraction from my anticipation.
Sunday morning I headed down to gear check. It went smoothly and we took a few hours to drive out to both the start point and the midway point to look at the snow conditions and to reserve a room for Monday night.
Back at the hotel I spent the next 4 hours preparing my bike and gear while watching the Giants knock off the Patriots in the Superbowl. Nice work there Giants! A Packer fan salutes you!
For the event I would ride a Surly Pugsley, which is a snow bike that runs almost 4" wide tires. I hadn’t changed anything on the bike since the previous year. In fact, all I’d ever done was lube the chain and throw in some larger tubes! I’m probably jinxing myself badly right now.
My gear was going into a frame bag and two Granite Gear tubular compression sacks. My mom had modified the front compression sack for me by sewing on two daisy chains, which lined up perfectly with my rack. I zip-tied the heck out of it so it couldn’t budge. The rear rack held my sleeping bag and bivy sack. My Nalgene water bottles were in Granite Gear insulated bottle holders zip-tied to the front rack and fork. The frame bag held my food, stove and fuel, some spare gloves and headgear, bike tools, and windbreaker.
It is amazing how fast you use up the space you have. By midnight I was in bed and trying to sleep with a 5am wake up call in place.
I woke up early and took a shower and then decided to skip the hot breakfast so I wouldn’t be so rushed, as I hoped to start the race right at 7am. We drove out to the start and unloaded in the darkness. Lots of skiers and walkers were heading out, and I got right into the mix at just after 7am.
Starting was where I faced my first emotional hurdle of the day. In the dark and pedaling my first few cranks, I had to fight off some tears as some bad memories from last year came into play. I’m not really sure if ’what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ or not.
The first part of the course is an out and back so after 16.5 miles you’ll find yourself right back where you started. Snow conditions were pretty good on this section and it took me 52 minutes for the first 8.25 miles. That was almost 40 minutes less than the previous year.
Back at the start point conditions rapidly deteriorated. Immediately after crossing over Hwy 53 the snow turned to unconsolidated powder the consistency of flour. You had to work hard to try to stay on a narrow ribbon of lightly packed snow on the extreme right side of the trail.
After about 4 miles of this eventual race winner Dave Pramann passed me. He is an absolute animal at this event but is a real pleasure to be around. No attitude or ego, just down to earth performance.
Hot on his tail was Charlie Farrow, another Arrowhead veteran. Charlie wasn’t riding a snow bike and throughout the day I’d see his tracks break through the snow and throw him off his line. He was riding a lot further distance than the rest of us who could better manage to hold a straight line. He’s fond of referring to snow bikes as ’clown bikes’ but this year had to have him looking at the big wide tracks and wishing. Join the dark side Charlie! You’ll be glad you did!
I knew that Joel Cahalan and Dave Gray had started late but expected them to catch me soon. They were contenders for the win and eventually Joel caught me. He was spinning steadily and looked comfortable. There was no sign of Grayboy though. Eventually he’d pass me at the gas station as he’d suffered his first flat earlier on.
There comes a point where time just seems to keep moving and progressing, one revolution of the cranks, or a few footsteps at a time. Every so often I’d see where someone had let their front wheel slip off the edge and into the soft stuff. Those mistakes resulted in immediate bike stoppage and the potential for a quick endo. The downhills were sketchy and holding a line was difficult. Every so often that front end would just wash out to one side or the other. I definitely have a tendency to wash out toward the left.
This was supposed to be the year of the skiers and a second skier caught me about six miles from the gas station. He was pulling a sled and moving fast but was bummed that he hadn’t worn a backpack like the lead skier. And yes, these folks were skate skiing, although there were some classic style skiers in the field as well.
I tapped out my 64 ounces of fluid that I’d started with about an hour before hitting the Gateway store (gas station). This was the first year that the Gateway had become a mandatory check-in site but to me if was a great decision by the organizers. Some of the fast folks don’t even dismount and just head right back out onto the course, but for others it is a great place for them to ask themselves if they can really continue or to take care of any pressing issues in comfort and safety.
For me, I turned the Gateway into a one-hour stop during which I tried to re-hydrate, filled my water bottles, and had a couple bowls of soup. The soup was nice and salty and I knew my body was craving the salt. I also attempted to dry out a bit as my base layer was soaked, and the fleece jacket over it was quite wet as well.
Temperatures at the start had been around 20 degrees but the day had gotten progressively warmer. I guess it reached into the low 30’s at some point although I never checked my thermometer the first day.
At 2pm I left and headed back toward the trail. For the next 6 hours I didn’t see any other racers, although there were a fair number of snow machines out on the trail. All day long I’d been anticipating the hills to come as they grow in intensity throughout the day. Many of these hills aren’t ride able. You simply have to dismount and push your 65 to 70 pounds of bicycle and gear to the top. For this year’s event, I had added a lot of walking to my preparation. I might as well say this now?if you don’t like pushing a heavy bike up steep hills don’t do this event, because pushing a heavy bike up steep hills is inevitable.
At about 8pm I caught up to singlespeeder Spencer Klaassen. We stayed together for most of the next two hours including a really fast stretch that logging trucks had been using. Light snow had been falling pretty much since sundown and it made visibility even more difficult on the moonless night. My headlamp couldn’t keep up with the speed of the descents.
I’d spent many hours wondering if I’d recognize the spot of my demise from the year before. Sure there were certain hills that I remembered but in the end many of them seemed tamed down. I don’t know if that is because I was familiar with them or because I was in better shape. Or maybe it was simply because life is that much more pleasant at 30 degrees above zero compared to 30 degrees below zero. At any rate, I didn’t recognize my dropout spot and it was probably a good thing.
Spencer and I hit Elephant Lake and rode across it to the cabin checkpoint. I ran into my folks outside and they were happy to see me in one piece and at least over my hurdle from the previous year.
At the cabin some racers were sleeping upstairs while others were preparing to head out onto the trail in the night. I talked to Grayboy as he loaded up his foodstuff and liquids. For those of you that don’t know Dave, this is what I can tell you. He is unique and unusual in his talents and abilities and this race is just one of them. He won it in 2007 in extreme conditions and had broken his femur later that winter. Here he was, much less than a year after that injury, heading out into the night after a couple hours rest. He is one of this event’s friendly tough guys.
As for me I downed a grilled cheese sandwich and then headed over to the bar for a half pound Elephant burger, fries, and root beer! Mmmmmmm protein! Mmmmmmm French fries! Mmmmmmm sugar! Seriously, I had no intention of going back on course in the night. For me, my goal was to finish the Arrowhead and I intended to put the warmth of Melgeorge’s resort to good use.
At about midnight I tried to go to sleep but my dad’s snoring just about killed me. I don’t know how my mother tunes it out but it is an impressive ability. I just lay there awake, listening, and debating whether I should continue the next day or not. In case you haven’t guessed, at this point some pretty serious muscle ache and crotch destruction has already set in.
7am rolled around and I blew off my intended start time. But by 8am I’d finished my internal argument. It boiled down to this: the temperature outside is 14 degrees and you might not get a better chance than this. If you don’t go out and try to finish this thing you don’t have any right to come back.
So at 9am I rolled out of Melgeorge’s and back into the hills. Three miles out I came upon The Crusher. A steep descent to a river valley then popped straight back up the other side. All I could think was ’how many more are there going to be like this one?’
These hills are steep enough that I needed to take frequent breaks while pushing up them. Soon enough my technique was perfected. Push uphill till you are panting. Then stick your rearward foot behind the rear wheel to stop it from rolling backwards. Catch your breath. Push ten more steps and repeat the process.
Fortunately, that crusher was the biggest climb of the course. There are others that are as steep or steeper, but they don’t last as long.
The day was beautiful. The sun was out, but it was colder, crisper, and there was a bit of wind. It wasn’t snowing either which was nice. I started to wonder whether I might wind up getting sunburn from the glare off the snow but it wasn’t to be. Snow conditions were much better as well making even the downhills much more controllable.
I started to catch up to the true nuts of the event: the walkers/runners. Now these folks are absolutely crazy. We started together but I’ve had a good break at the Gateway, a big burger and a so-so night’s sleep at Melgeorge’s, but they’ve been out there the whole time walking without a break. Mind boggling if you ask me. They are freaks but I mean that in a good way!
After I catch a few walkers I keep seeing footprints ahead of me so I know there is still one out there in front of me. It is incredible how fast they have been moving. After a while I catch the one I think is in the lead. He’s a chipper lad from the U.K. and he bids me a good ride.
Sure enough, I roll ahead and see there is still another set of footprints out there. Later I find out that they belong to John Storkamp. I finally catch him about 24 miles or so from the finish. He?s moving along steadily with his walking poles. I tell him ’Your absolutely flying!’ and he says ’I’m feeling pretty good!’
Freak! Freak…freak…freak. Impressive freak.
All this hasn’t been going on without eating and drinking of course. For two days I’ve been chowing on Pop Tarts, Hammer Gel’s, beef sticks (possibly my favorite food of the journey), peanut butter cups, and chocolate truffles. Plus, I’d been drinking Accelerade and Hammer Perpetuem, and scarfing down Endurolyte pills like nobody’s business. Oh yeah, throw in about 8 Advil too.
My undercarriage has passed beyond the tender stage quite a ways back too which makes walking seem even that much better of an option. Muscles are sore, but the only thing you can do at this point is just keep stepping, or pedaling, forward. I reach the top of the last hill about 30 minutes before sundown.
When darkness comes the stars come out and the temperature drops. The sky is ablaze with points of light. There are no other light sources out here. No cabins, no streetlights…nothing. No moon either. I stop and stare upwards a few times just trying to take it in.
For both days of riding I haven’t changed my clothing one bit:
Thin polypro liner sock with heavy wool sock over it and one-full-size-too-big winter hiking boots. Lycra knickers with a now destroyed, saddle sore-inducing chamois. Capilene tights and lycra Borah loose-fit tights. Patagonia base layer with an old REI fleece jacket with pit zips. Pearl Izumi wind vest with mesh back. And a Headsweats headband and some very lightweight wool gloves.
My hands get cold when I stop to try to drink my last Red Bull slushy. I stop and add over mitts. Soon enough the cold is also creeping into my legs so I stop and add my Patagonia windbreaker and a Pace balaclava. The stop makes my hands go cold so I add heat packs to my gloves and count the minutes till they kick in.
At that point, I know I’m going to finish. The heat packs will keep me warm for plenty of time so I just start walking. The chaffing has got the best of me. I ride standing up sometimes. Then walk and just look at the night sky and soak in the experience. The temperature has dropped below zero but I’m comfortable.
Some snow machines pass me and I notice reflective tape up ahead. Two miles to the finish. I get back on my bike and pedal all but the hills. I cross the highway and drop onto an access road, rolling through the corner and down through the finish.
The volunteer there grabs his camera and a stand-in trophy and takes my finish line shot. My parents are there to tell me well done, and with that it is finished. I eat some food but feel queasy from over extending myself. I enjoy a great conversation with Phillip Finzel, the record setting skier who finished a couple hours before me, and then it is time to pack up and go home.
I tell my parents that I don’t think I’ll do it again.
But now I’m not so sure. I’ve learned a lot and know even better what to expect. I know the changes and knowledge I need to improve, to go from being someone scraping by to someone that is in control. So I just may be back…but I’m not sure it will be when the temperature is 30 below again.
Be safe outdoors.
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I love being outside. I prefer to ride on dirt. Or snow. If I was born a hundred years earlier I might have been a polar explorer. There's a great natural world out there to see, smell, taste, listen to, and experience. Life slows down out there and the distractions we've created will disappear if you let them. Give me a backpack and let me go.