Right Decision, Wrong Reasons: My Story Of The 2014 Arrowhead 135

Today's Guest Blogger is Steve Yore. Steve is an accomplished ultra-endurance racer, as well as a Senior Functional and Technical Analyst for SAP at Quality Bicycle Products. -Kid

It’s midnight and I am sitting on the side of the Arrowhead trail in a six-foot by six-foot ice fishing shelter. There is a propane heater two feet in front of me, but it has little affect against the chill from the -30F outside temperatures. I have thrown up five times in the last ten minutes; equal to the number of times I have tried to eat and drink. Dehydration and the frigid temperatures have sucked the energy out of me, leaving me cold, wet, and nauseous. I have felt this way before in endurance races. I know how to turn it around; a little water, a little time, and I will feel better. Though this time feels different. I am in Northern Minnesota in the dead of winter. After 107 miles and 17 hours of racing, I have a decision to make: push through and finish my third Arrowhead 135 or quit…

Signing up for the Arrowhead 135 you must accept the fact that it could be cold…bitterly cold. I had heard the stories of frostbite, hypothermia and -45 below ambient temperatures, but that is the point of this race: to test yourself in the harshest conditions possible. The previous two Arrowhead races that I had completed were tough, but mild weather made them little more than exercises in endurance. 2014 would be my third Arrowhead, and while the first two had taught me much about racing fatbikes and the Arrowhead course, the temperatures had been in the 20’s for those races, thus I had learned little about racing bikes at -20F.

I started checking the 15-day forecast for race day in International Falls, Minnesota as soon as it was available. As the race drew near, I began checking it multiple times a day. A polar vortex had visited Minnesota early in January and predictions had it re-occurring toward the end of the month.

7AM start...

On race day, it was -27F at the start line; impressively cold. I lined up near the front of the pack and with the traditional call of “Release the hounds!” we were off. The first part of the race had a slight head/side wind and you could feel the raw cold. About 20 minutes in, I reached for my hydration hose to take a drink, and it was no surprise that is was frozen solid. I didn’t panic. When I started doing the Arrowhead I invested in a hydration system built for the extreme cold. It has a heating element that will melt the ice and allow you to drink. The previous two Arrowheads were mild enough that I had never needed to use it. This time around, I activated the system, waited five minutes, and… nothing; the hose did not thaw. I tried to cycle it through a few more times, but still the hose did not thaw. My initial panic led to a solution. I kept checking and trying to clear the hose, but also decided to stop every hour and remove my hydration pack to drink directly from the reservoir. This was complicated by the fact that I was wearing the pack underneath my outer layer. I had the water, but the delivery would be time consuming and a little clunky.

Six miles in and the sun will creep over the horizon soon...

Because I had stopped to drink, I had fallen off the leaders. I pretty quickly caught the lead chase group and moved to the front thinking that I would pull for a turn. After a few minutes of a very comfortable pace, I looked back and found myself riding alone. I knew that Jay Petervary was off the front ahead of me. I just focused on following his tire tracks, allowing him to pick the line. The trail was groomed and set up well from the cold. I was averaging ten miles an hour with very little effort. I had no delusions that I would catch JayP, but I was pretty sure I could keep the pace I had for a top three finish; the goal I had made for the race.

18 miles in and running in second...

I like to ride alone, but I rarely listen to music. When I ride, I am able to slowly quiet my mind and just focus on the small tasks of pedaling the bike, drinking, and eating. The silence of the Northwood’s in winter is awe inducing. The bitter cold changes what you hear and how you hear it. The snow becomes Styrofoam; sounds seem amplified and crisper. Riding in those conditions was surreal; I was in a flow and felt great.

I came around one corner and saw what I thought was a German Sheppard dog. I thought, ‘What the hell is a dog doing in the middle of nowhere?’ Then I saw five more of them, and it took just a fraction of second to realize that I was looking at a pack of wolves. They turned and ran the other way down the trail. It was a long straight away and I watched as they peeled off, one by one, into the woods until they were all gone. Moments like this are what make this race so incredibly special. There are few races in the world that you can ride with a pack of wolves.

Wolf tracks...and wolves...were in abundance this year...Steve wasn't the only racer to have a wolf encounter...

Checkpoint One at the Gateway Store is usually a roll-through, with no stop required. This year, because of the cold, racers were required to go inside to check in. This allowed volunteers to check for any signs of frostbite on racers. I was in and out in a minute. The -12F high for the day felt comfortable with the sun shining and a tailwind most of the time. I felt warm, strong, and other than the annoyance of having to stop and take off layers and my pack to get at my water, the race was going well.

Leaving checkpoint one...still feeling strong...

45 miles in...the hills have begun...

There are a few small hills before the second checkpoint at MelGeorge’s Resort. They are a nice break from the flats and a perfect preview of what is coming in the second half of the race, when the hills truly begin in earnest. The lake crossing leading to the checkpoint was straight into the wind. With the sun low and in the sky, and a 15 to 20 mph wind, I felt the real cold of Northern Minnesota for the first time in the race. I blinked as tears were freezing to my eyelashes. During one blink my contact popped partially out, immediately froze and broke in half. I would have half a contact lens in for the rest of the race. The wind-chill on the lake was -50F so the warmth of MelGeorge’s was most welcome. I stripped down to have all my clothes dried, sat back, ate and drank.

Crossing Elephant Lake to get to MelGeorge's resort was brutal this year...bitter cold, stong headwind, and soft snow out on the lake...

I left the checkpoint dry, warm, and well fed. I’d been able to thaw my hydration hose at the checkpoint, and had put the pack under two layers of clothing to try to keep it from freezing. I enjoyed exactly one drink from it before it refroze. The course between MelGeorge’s and the third checkpoint at Ski Pulk remains a mystery to me. It is always so much longer than I remember it. It also has some of the most fun riding in the race. Great rollers, where a grind up one side is rewarded with a screaming descent, often outrunning your headlamp down the other side. Because of the frozen hose, I was back to the pattern of stopping every hour, pulling off my two outer layers, removing my hydration pack, and drinking from the reservoir.

Although a nuisance, I was able to drink and stay slightly ahead of dehydration. As the night wore on it got colder, and I began to notice that after every stop to drink, it was taking longer to warm up when I got going again. At 8:45pm, assuming I was at most 1.5 hours from the checkpoint, I took my last drink of the night. After that drink I rode, and rode, and rode. I had grossly underestimated the remaining time to checkpoint three. It ended up taking more than three hours of riding to get there. I felt worse and worse as those three hours passed. But convinced that Ski Pulk was just around the next corner, I continued on as dehydration and low energy from being unable to eat was taking its toll. I blame part of my reluctance to address the issue with an experience from my first Arrowhead in 2012 when, with an empty hydration pack and feeling thirsty, I stopped and melted snow with my stove. That process had taken me 20 minutes, and I had gotten back on my bike and ridden five minutes before arriving at the checkpoint. Yes, I had stopped ½ mile short of the checkpoint to melt snow that year. Now, my mind numbed by the -25F temperatures, I had absolutely convinced myself that the checkpoint was close.

Shortly after midnight, I rolled into the Checkpoint Three, set my bike down, and stumbled into the shelter. I was sick, I was cold, I was wet…I was broken. I had a decision to make. I sat, I tried to eat and drink, I gave it time, and it was clear; I was done.

It was the right decision for all the wrong reasons. I say that because I have felt horrendous in races before. In fact, in 75% of the races that I do I want to quit at some point. Cramps, exhaustion, nausea, generally feeling like crap; it is a part of the game. Anyone who has done this type of racing knows this. I’ve been broken before. You push through. You overcome. I’ve finished races before when broken. I’ve won races that I swore I would quit at next checkpoint.

It wasn’t until I got back to the hotel and took off my boots that I noticed my toes, at first ghostly white, and then quickly turning to purple. I knew exactly what I had done, but at that point had no idea of the severity. I had frostbitten five toes; two on the right, three on the left. Somewhere in those last three hours, and most likely due to my dehydration, my body had started to protect the core, narrowing capillaries to the extremities, sacrificing the small inconsequential appendages to save the body. I had no clue this was happening. My feet never felt cold. I never had any stinging or discomfort. Although I’d felt cold at times, I had never felt hypothermic. Had I continued on from Checkpoint Three, I’m sure I would have lost at least three toes.

Shortly after the race...

No race is worth losing toes, and every race where you learn more about yourself, your equipment, your plan, and what you did wrong, is a success. I had made the right decision, to quit, for reasons that I was not even aware of, frostbite.

After my first trip to the burn unit...

I will make a few changes for next year: a more freeze-resistant hydration system and possibly a backup supply of water. I am going to combine my water and nutrition so I do not have to eat and chew as many calories, but will be able to drink them instead. I am going to play around with vapor barrier socks and a vest to see if I can do a better job of moisture management. I will need to protect my feet even more in the future.

As for what worked; my bike, a Salsa Beargrease XX1 with HED carbon wheels and studded 45NRTH Dillinger tires. The only issue I have with this bike is a slight feeling of guilt that not everyone gets to ride one. It feels like I am cheating. The build I have is slightly under 24 pounds. After I add all the required gear the bike is around 42 pounds, a big difference from the 65 pounds of bike and gear that I rode in my first Arrowhead. I ran the HED Big Deal carbon wheels tubeless. I had put some miles in on the setup and was confident it would be fine, but having never ridden them at -30F, I decided to carry two tubes, just in case. They performed flawlessly. Dropping around two pounds of rotating weight per wheel was well worth the investment. The studded Dillingers were overkill, but ran just fine in the conditions. Between the bike and the wheels, I am giving a lot of thought to going fat year round.

The Arrowhead 135 leaves no margin for error. It is a race that gives back in the form of so many amazing experiences; a pack of wolves, a night sky crammed with stars, the sound of a wolf howling in the distance, and the immense feeling of accomplishment when you finish the race.

The price of this experience is some special equipment, months of training, a dialed plan, the ingenuity to solve issues when things go wrong, and finally, the ability to know when it’s time to walk away, even though it might be for all the wrong reasons.

It is only 11 months until the next Arrowhead. I can’t wait.

Toe update: It has been four weeks since the Arrowhead 135. I had my third appointment with the Hennepin County Medical Center burn unit last Wednesday. The healing process has been slow, but moving in the right direction, with the pinky toe being the most troublesome. I’ve been able to take some short rides outside.There is some discomfort from squishing my swollen left foot into my riding shoes, but a new Hotronic heating system keeps them toasty warm. I have been told I will be especially susceptible to freezing them again and will need to take precautions, which is just another factor that I will need to build into next year’s plan.

Three weeks after the race...


This post filed under topics: Beargrease Fatbike Guest Blogger Snow Biking Ultra Racing

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JayP | February 24th, 2014

nice words.
a respected ride with respectful decisions.

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ADahl | February 25th, 2014

Super fast and humble…glad to know you, bro!  I’ll be there with you in 2015.

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Jane Chadwick | February 25th, 2014

Brilliant words. The Arrowhead gets under your skin such an amazing event. Hopefully I will see you back there in 2015. Your feet look very much like my husbands. Heal fast x

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JoeFosbinder | February 25th, 2014

Great story, Steve! So VERY impressed!!

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Agulley | February 25th, 2014

Respect, Steve. Thanks for sharing a bit of what it takes for an undertaking like this. I know you’ll be right back up there next year.

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Tony Farrar | February 26th, 2014

Steve, you crazy bastard!!  Amazing story and all consuming.  So glad your toes are healing.
You think you had it bad, well me and team just finished 24 hrs in the old pueblo.  It got down to nearly 50 degrees at night and over 80 during the day!  You Minnesota folks think you have it rough?  So good to hear your still charging harder than ever…cheers to You and the family…Tony and Cheryl Farrar

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