Arrowhead 2019 Galleries and Racer Blogs
Lots of good articles and photo galleries. This year’s Arrowhead was a media circus Tuesday and Wednesday. There are quite a few articles about the race and racers out in the world. I have a few here, but I think many media outlets just re-posted the AP and Reuters articles.
Audio clip at NPR All Things Considered. “Oh, hell no.”
Audio clip with Ken Krueger on BBC.
Article in MPR.
Another article in MPR with John Storkamp.
Article in CNN.
Article in TIME.
Article in Canadian Cycling.
Article in Reuters.
Article in REI.
Article in USA Today.
Audio interview with Leah Gruhn on BBC.
Article in Washington Post.
Article in RunUltra (UK).
Article in Duluth NewsTribune.
Article in CityPages.
Article in Grand Forks Herald.
CBC News interviews Dave Ristau.
Article in Business Insider.
Radio interview with Bill Bradley on NBRFM.
Photo in BoredPanda (#47).
Blog post by Robyn Reed (volunteer extraordinaire).
Blog post by Christopher Tassava.
Blog post by Huge Holstein.
Blog post by Daniel Slater.
Blog post by Ben Zvan.
Blog post by Ashley Heclo.
Blog post by Trenton J. Raygor.
Blog post by James Kiffmeyer.
Blog post by Patrick Greehan.
Photo gallery by Dave Markman
Photo gallery by Burgess Eberhardt.
Album of all finishers below. Some notes:
- These are in picture time order, not finish order.
- Not all finishers had pics taken, sorry about that…
- If you would like full-sized versions of these, let me know (via Contact Us page).
Album from International Falls Journal. We have originals (large size). Let us know if you would like the original pic:
My second Arrowhead DNF report.
It’s Wednesday afternoon, almost 3pm. I should be finishing soon. Instead I’m in the hotel room I’ve been in since Monday night. The mixture of emotions is difficult to handle. Northern Minnesota calls to me every winter but it’s a long and expensive trip to make just to fail repeatedly. Is it failure though? I’ve learned something every time.
You see, I finished the first time. Sometimes I think that was my greatest failure, because it came “easily” in hindsight. Although nothing comes easily on the Arrowhead Trail, that first year I came there was mild weather and a hard and fast trail. Last year was an unpredicted cold and a lack of training on my part. This year I was ready. Oh, except for that foot that’s been bugging me for 6 months or so. Not enough to stop me, although some days have had me in tears of frustration and pain, but enough that
I haven’t run since September in the hopes that I could arrive in International Falls with fitness and pain free. And I was for about 10 miles. The next 25 miles were spent with the mantra “not” on the left foot strike “real” on the right foot strike on repeat in my head and at times out loud. On flat ground I could almost convince myself that it was a pain I could take. One I could muscle through. But on even the slightest incline I found myself limping, the sensation of tearing and pulling all I could feel. “I can’t limp through -40 wind chill with the hills just continuing to multiply and elongate” I thought.
As the lengthy northern Minnesota dusk turned to full dark I made my way into the Gateway checkpoint at 35 miles, not even bothering to bring my thermoses inside with me. The volunteers there, whom I’ve come to know well over the last 3 years (plus one spectating), all tried very hard to change my mind but part of the difficulty of winter ultras is being smart enough to know when your time’s up. Some positive takeaways from this year are that my gear was pretty well dialed in finally.
I have to figure out a better pants system but of the 80% runner drops I was one of the few who didn’t have moisture issues. This makes me think that I very well could have been successful as I had several more layers available to me to get through the night. Also, something new I did this year, hot soup in a thermos is an amazing way to get fluids, calories and salt in. Will definitely be doing that again.
Some things I really need to work on are getting over my fear of carrying water on my person, either with a bladder or some soft flasks or something. Stopping to drink every hour is incredibly time consuming. Speaking of time, the next few months will need to be spent getting healthy so I am able to get fast enough to stay much further away from things like cutoffs. Although I got to Gateway with plenty of time to head back out I was definitely at my threshold as far as a maintainable pace for 3 days of effort. If I can get my walking pace closer to 15 min miles with a pulk, I’ll be much happier.
All in all I’m always happy to be in Minnesota, regardless of the season or the outcome and really glad to see some of my favorite people again. The crazies in a room of crazies.
AH 135 2019 Race Report
I’m writing because I like to put my memories down, and posting because there are probably some who like to read it. But 2019 AH 135 was almost more notable to me for what it wasn’t than what it was. First, it wasn’t unsupported, which was a decision I made the night before. I had made the goal of going unsupported at the finish line last year, and I knew I would regret switching to supported. And yes, I do regret the change. But I’m ok with that, I will in a better position next year to try. Just having another finish under my belt gave me a lot of experience and confidence that will help when going unsupported.
Second, I had almost no issues that caused me to struggle during the race. My shifting got screwy, but I adjusted cable tension which solved that for the most part. I crashed going down a hill and snow packed into my rear brake, after which it was unreliable. Sometimes I could get it to work, other times not, so the big downhills were tricky since using front brake is a quick way to go down hard when descending on snow. But neither of these issues created any real difficulty, and I never felt in doubt about a finish during the race. That sense of “I might not be able to do this” is not actually something I want to avoid, my aim is to place myself in a race where a finish is not a given, so the switch to unsupported will help get me back there. Oh, and my Garmin messed up and distances were again totally unreliable. I will be getting rid of my Garmin Touch and switching to etrex 30 for next year, very unhappy with how unreliable the unit was, even after being replaced by Garmin last year.
Regarding the race itself, it was much more relaxing getting ready this year, since it was more about taking a step back from unsupported, rather than cramming tons of gear on to complete it without restocking. I still brought way too much gear, more than last year when temps were even colder, but that was fine. Travis and I biked the mile to the starting point, dropping gear off in a friend’s truck to take to the finish line. I learned from last year and brought a bottle of water in my pocket, which I chugged right before the start so I wouldn’t need to stop to drink for a while. I had spent about ten minutes looking for a friend who had tire pressure issues, which distracted me from taking my outer coat off. That meant about 15 minutes after the start I had to take that coat off, and then 20 minutes later I had to take my wind shirt off, but I’m proud I didn’t just push through longer without taking layers off, I arrived at Gateway without getting layers wet with sweat. The first section was mostly eventful for an absolutely gorgeous sunrise and snow dog that I regrettably didn’t stop to take a photo of. Speaking of photos, I didn’t take a single photo all race long, something I need to change next year.
Arriving at Gateway, I was only going to fill a bottle and immediately leave. But once I was inside I changed my mind and had a small bowl of chicken soup, and then put my still frozen headgear back on and headed out. It’s easy to get sucked into the checkpoints, so I made it my goal to spend less time at the stops this year. Leaving Gateway I felt strong, the trail was very fast for bikes, and I just kept a steady pace. It was easy to start looking ahead and thinking how fast I could be this year, to get overconfident, and then you hit the hills. It was my second year, I really should have known better, but I was still shocked at the size and slope of those hills. The extra weight on the bike really hurt when pushing up the hills, and picturing myself pushing up the hills with the additional weight when unsupported gave me a reality check for how hard those guys have it. By the time I got to the Elephant Lake the wind was blowing ice crystals into my eyes and I was much more wiped out than I expected. Instead of the short stop I desired, I headed into Mel George’s ready to dry off gear and eat all I could hold. A big bowl of wild rice soup, two grilled cheese sandwiches, a little pecan pie, lots of chips, etc, really was a huge lift to my spirits, those volunteers there are the best! My gear wasn’t soaked, but it was nice to dry off the back of my jacket which always builds up some ice, and my face gear. I had new gear I could have just put on, but I saved the second set for later in case it was needed. It was there an hour and 20 minutes, longer than my 45 minute goal, but I was happy to be under the almost 4 hours I spent there last year.
Coming out of Mel George’s I was feeling pretty good, I watched carefully for the right turn since my garmin wasn’t working, but with the little bit of fresh snow the turn was very obvious this year. About 10 miles out I met a biker walking his bike back, I asked if I could help, but he said he was finished. He had a flat and couldn’t get his spare tube to work, I regret not trying to see if I could fix it. The hills stack up through this section, and I started to feel the pace pushing back at me. I have been putting in good miles on the bike, so my leg muscles never gave me any issue, but my right knee needs surgery and something about the hills at AH cause problems. I also haven’t been going to the gym because of my knee pain, so my overall fitness has suffered greatly. I found my lungs couldn’t keep up with what my legs wanted to put out, and I just felt physically exhausted. Last year I had a lot more reserves overall, even though my legs were weaker. It hammers home the nature of the race that legs aren’t what gets you to the finish, overall fitness is just as important.
Without any gps info I had no way of knowing when Surly checkpoint would arrive, but I had a print out from Chris that at least gave me some idea of distances between shelters, etc, which was so much better than nothing. My stomach started acting up at some point along the way, and I stopped eating or drinking much at all. I knew the danger of that, and forced as much drinking as I could, and the Scratch in my drink meant I got some calories as well. But I knew I was on the lower edge of my water and calorie requirement to get the job done. I spent longer than I wanted at Surly, an hour and 20 minutes again. Still less than last year at Surly, but not by much. This stop was more about resting and getting my body ready, rather than drying gear and getting warm. I had dry gear I could have just put on and pack the icy stuff, but my body couldn’t handle the last 24 miles without a break. In hind sight, I probably should have stayed another 30 minutes, because after I left and started up the big hill out of Surly I realized just how exhausted I was. It was here I realized how hard I was pushing myself and appreciated the nature of the event. I was at my limit, at times I would slowly roll to a stop and hang my head, unable to keep moving. I knew I was going to slowly grind out the finish, but it wasn’t a steady ride and took longer than expected. I missed the sunrise of last year, I remember that fondly, the beauty of the swamps and pine trees with the sun coming up giving me fresh energy. I suppose the answer to that will be to go unsupported, which will slow me down and prevent a nighttime finish next year.
Finishing AH was certainly a great feeling, and it was really fun to push myself and get a “fast” finish. I finished 17th this year, ahead of the 25th place last year, which is nice I suppose but not really something I care much about. I also finished in exactly 22 hours, which was well under my goal of under 24 hours. The temps ended up higher than expected, which combined with low wind Overall the race was simply what it is meant to be, a long slog through frigid temps and difficult conditions, challenging your body and your mind to tolerate discomfort and endure to the finish. I find it an experience worth seeking out, and am thankful for the chance to compete in this wonderful race.
What I love as much as the race itself, is the friendships and connections made being involved in AH. It was great spending time with Travis, who endured much more than I could have in his attempt to finish unsupported this year. I regret not joining him in that challenge as planned. I love the whole process, seeing friends at gear check and pre-race meeting, discussing other events, connecting with people I have known only online, and eating breakfast at Fortune Bay while being so hungry that simple biscuits and gravy seem to be the food of the gods. So many wonderful people are involved in this race, from the race director to the many volunteers, all great people and so fun to be around. It is truly a privilege to be there, and I respect so much the effort that goes into supporting us racers and keeping the event going smoothly. Mostly I appreciate my wife tolerating this hobby of mine, it takes me away for countless hours, the gear is not cheap, and it distracts from other priorities in life. I’m thankful for a family that supports my adventures, and for all the encouragement, support, and advice I’ve received from countless friends. Thanks much to Mark Weber for the use of his -50 sleeping bag and other gear, Thanks to Patrick for covering at work, thanks much to New Moon for the help in keeping my bike ready for these events, and thankful for all my biking friends who train with me and help me stay motivated to get out there biking in cold weather.
The Arrowhead 135 – Rookie Race Report
Moments after I finished checking in at the start line, the fireworks went off and about 150 of us were released onto the David Dill, Arrowhead State Trail. Charles Parsons and I were in the very back of the pack, right were we wanted to be, but trail conditions, as fast rolling as they were, had us moving up in the field immediately. Temperatures were hovering around -18 F. We new it was gonna be a frosty one, so we found a good pace to manage sweat. Spirits were high and we were feeling good. The only issue we ran into was freezing goggles, making visibility a challenge and causing us to stop every 15 minutes or so for a quick wipe down.
We rolled into Gateway (CP1) together at mile 35, I said some (probably dumb) things into a camera, filled my hydration pack, inhaled a roller dog, and chugged a drink. The woman behind the counter kept taking pictures of me. I guess I had some ice on my face. Charles and I exited Gateway and began passing a few racers as the hills started coming. The climbing wasn’t too bad, but we were doing some walking, talking and enjoying our day out there. We crested a particularly long climb out of a frozen marsh and even stopped to toast with some whiskey. Spirits are important on a race like this and so is tradition. We then joined up with Sveta Vold and pedaled into Melgeorge’s (CP2) together at mile 70 after putting in a solid effort through the headwind across Elephant Lake.
It was getting dark and temps were slowly beginning their drop toward what would be a low of -30 F later than night. The food and hospitality at the cabin was outstanding and more racers began showing up, but no one wanted to leave. I proceeded to settle in, but filled my hydration pack and kept fueling with the intent of eventually hitting the trail. After much deliberation, Charles decided that his legs didn’t have it in them and that he would do the responsible thing and call it a day. My left knee that I had injured three weeks earlier had begun stiffening up from all of our sitting around. I opted to take a quick spin around the cabin and the knee loosened up, so I made the choice to soldier on for a solo overnight into self-discovery and the unknown.
I hit the trail and began passing racers immediately as I worked the legs harder to warm everything back up. When the left knee would hurt, I would push harder with my right. There were a few big climbs, but the miles were flying by. I was feeling unstoppable..then I found the hills. I began pushing the bike up most every climb and then bombing down the other side in the dark. I was able to stomp a few of them harnessing my momentum, but had to be conservative with the speeds due to limited visibility, resulting in more walking than I would have liked. I didn’t want to end my race by hitting a tree. I ended up having to be extra careful when my brakes went out, dragging a foot on the descents to slow the bike down. The trail was bumpy and at one point I lost my big faux-fur hat off the back of the bike and had to backtrack on the trail to find it. I did a better job of strapping it down and moved on. That was a pain, but not as big of a pain as I was feeling in my knees. The left was bad and the right was starting to hurt as well. Dismounts and remounts were getting harder.
I stopped atop a hill after a hard push and stood there listening to the trees. It was quiet, but I knew life was all around me. Maybe that shadow, just feet off of the trail, was a den and a mama bear and her cubs were curled up hibernating. Maybe a great gray owl was perched in that tree after coming down from the north in search of warmer weather. Maybe a wolf was standing just beyond the light of my headlamp and had been running in the darkness through the trees all night, pacing me. People used to live here and walk these woods on cold winter nights hundreds of years ago. I looked at the crescent moon and the stars, breathed in a hit of some of the freshest air I’ve ever gotten high on and got back in the saddle. Finally, after hours of winding through the dark woods, I came upon a fire and a tee-pee.
The tee-pee was Surly (CP3) at mile 110. My dad, Mario, and Charles were all there cheering me on as I rolled in. It felt like quite the fanfare given what I had just emerged from. I went directly into the tent and began changing out of wet clothes into dry ones from my saddle trunk and filled my hydration pack. All of my digits were still toasty and now i just had to figure out the right combo of wet and dry clothes to get me 26 more miles in rapidly dropping temps. I shed a couple of wet layers and added a second pant, one of my “oh shit, I’m in trouble” jackets and that faux-fur hat I had briefly lost earlier. Then I hit the trails. Next stop, Fortune Bay.
There was one big climb and then flat to low grade climbing for the rest of the final segment. Somewhere about 10 miles in, I ran out of water. I had just filled it up, but knew I was dehydrated so had been drinking a lot. I had to keep eating to keep energy levels up, but it became more difficult as my mouth got dryer, so I began eating snow to supplement. I kept the cranks turning slowly and felt the temperature dropping which was now affecting my toes. I kept the self-talk positive and kept looking down at my spare bail out jacket and doing a mental inventory of what I was carrying. I didn’t want to get out the stove and boil snow, but I would if I had to. WAIT! I have that spare water in my saddle trunk! I dismounted, struggled with the clips, opened the trunk, and emptied everything out onto the trail. I grabbed the insulated container and unzipped it, revealing a clear container filled with, yes, LIQUID! I grabbed the cap and twisted. It wouldn’t budge. I twisted again…and again. Then it hit me. My hands were too weak to open it. There wasn’t a soul in sight, but I could see the lights of Fortune Bay a long way off in the distance. I quickly packed up my gear, got on the bike, put my head down, and began to time trial for what felt like forever. I knew I was putting in a massive effort for having little to no strength left and the miles were crawling by as the lights of the casino continued to dance above the trees. I entered a dark tunnel of trees and spied two blinky red lights. I knew I had to catch them so I picked up the pace. I caught up with my friends Leah Gruhn and Jere’ Mohr of Duluth about two tenths of a mile before the finish line and boy, were they a sight for sore eyes! We rolled across the finish line together 18th, 19th, and 20th after a little over 20 hours in the saddle. Leah was the first female finisher! My dad and Mario were there to take my bike and limp my shattered body into the gear check room.
As I write this, there are racers still out on the course. Nothing official yet, but it appears that out of the 150 that started, just over 50 of us will get to finish this Arrowhead. I have to say how grateful that I am to Ken and his crew for putting this race together. I’m grateful for my dad Joel and friend Mario Muro for spending their weekend crewing for me in one of the coldest places on earth. I’m grateful for Charles’ getting me to Melgeorge’s and for that special moment with Leah Gruhn and Jere’ at the finish line. I’m grateful for all of my friends who loaned me gear, gave me advice and to those who watched my tracker from the comfort of their warm office or couch at home. I’m grateful for my health. I’m in pain and on a road to recovery, knowing that this road might be a little bit longer than those passed. It might be because I’m getting older or maybe it’s because The Arrowhead 135 is one of the toughest races on the planet. Either way, I’m already thinking about next year.
I just finished my first Arrowhead 135. Wow! What an experience. When they said they were collecting race reports, I decided that I would write one. Diligent preparation for an event like this is a major key to success, in my opinion. I found prior race reports from other athletes incredibly helpful as part of my preparation. Learning about and from the positive and negative experiences of others was key to developing a successful plan, and my hope is that someone else will find some value in my experience. I don’t consider myself an expert, but I can tell you what worked for me, what didn’t, and why. I hope you find that information useful.
I have been fatbiking in Duluth, MN for years and had a good idea of what clothing I would likely use, but I still felt a need to test my plan. Therefore, I was particularly dismayed by the warm winter we had for most of the time leading up to the race. The temperature finally dipped below zero the weekend before the race, and I took advantage of those few days. That allowed me to identify a new problem this year. My feet sweat a ton and then get cold. My feet sweating wasn’t new. However, I haven’t had an issue with feeling cold until now. I had to experiment with several sock options in my Wolfgars. None worked in isolation, so I tried adding charcoal chemical heaters. This seemed to solve the problem, but I had to hope this solution would hold up over the entire duration of the race. Three or four hours is hardly long enough to serve as a real test. What would happen to my wet socks 5 hours into the race? 8 hours? We were going to find out.
The other piece of gear that I adopted this winter is the Cold Avenger face mask. In the past, I found the slightly restricted breathing left me with a claustrophobic feeling. (I still feel that way in temps above -5). However, by and large that has changed and I have become a convert.
The forecast called for really cold weather, with temperature of -25 to -30 degrees at the start. Several friends have done this race in the past, namely Todd McFadden, Ron Williams, and Dave Schuneman. They proved to be amazing resources for all of my questions, and they all agreed the forecast is typically inaccurate. It will be colder out there than any projected temperatures, particularly in the lowland areas of the course. Veterans of the race tell you how unforgiving this landscape and course can be, along with the weather. It can be easy to dismiss this as exaggeration. DON’T. Having finished the race in a “cold” year, I will tell you that the wise veterans are not exaggerating their tales. This race, in these conditions, does not tolerate mistakes. Mistakes, even minor ones, can have major consequences resulting in loss of fingers/toes from frostbite to hypothermia. People can and do lose digits to frostbite. I feel fortunate that despite making a few mistakes, I was able to avoid disaster.
To my surprise, on Monday morning it was only around 10 below zero outside. I dressed for the start. I chose wool liner sock, Defeet Woolie Boolie socks, and toe warmers inside my 45N Wolfgar boots. For the bottom half of my body, I donned Podiumwear Shorts (I feel that bibs in winter offer too much hassle to go the bathroom), a Craft wind brief (not for wind protection but for warmth), and Pearl Izumi Amfib pants. On top I wore a Smartwool 150 base layer with Smartwool arm warmers (I’m a big fan of wool arm warmers as a layer), a Specialized wool
jersey (I wanted the 3 pockets), a Smartwool 250 1/4 zip, and my Mammut Ultimate Hoodie jacket. My head and face were covered with a Surly Buff, Cold Avenger mask, and 45N Stovepipe hat. Very light Smartwool gloves covered my hands inside my 45N Cobrafist pogies. I had a heavy fleece liner made for them so they are much warmer than the stock model, which allowed me to ride 90% of the race without gloves.
I had also practiced getting “sweaty” and then venting my jacket to dry my layers while riding. I know I sweat, so I practiced this often. Finishing dry was a goal of mine all winter, regardless of the outside temp. I was confident I could do this successfully with my layers, but I had to execute race strategy correctly as well.
I was concerned about being a bit overdressed and anticipated stopping relatively early to shed the 3⁄4 zip layer. As it turns out, I was only half correct. After fireworks and the “release the hounds” command, the race started! I planned to go a bit harder than “race effort” at the start to help me warm up. This would also help keep me out of a large pack. Though I am a really social person and LOVE to talk, I don’t love riding in packs, in the dark with unfamiliar and nervous/excited riders. For the first hour, my average pace was around 10mph, which is beyond what I can hold for the duration this race. Somewhere around the time that I recognized this, we made the hard left turn onto the Arrowhead trail, only to be hit by a wave of cold. Whoa! Within minutes we all came to the same conclusion: -10 degrees at the start is a distant memory, and we will need to deal with the cold. Bike computers registered temperatures from -20 to -30 degrees. At that point, I was a bit wet but not concerned. The venting was working pretty well. I also decided to stick with that 1/4 zip wool layer a bit longer.
Two things happened to me on the first leg that served as warnings for the rest of the race. Within the first ten miles, I stopped to go to the bathroom. Shortly after my break, I noticed that I felt cold from the waist down. My feet were kind of chilly, and my thighs felt cold. As anyone who rides with me often knows, I frequently stop for bathroom breaks in the first few hours of a ride, and that is just how it goes. About an hour after my first “nature break” I stopped for my second. When I tried to unzip my fly, I realized there was no need: it was already down! I had ridden for an hour in temps somewhere between -20 and -30 with my fly open and was wondering why my legs and feet felt cold. I am not proud of this absurd moment, but it was an important part of my day, as it forced me to focus and think smarter. Many veterans of winter ultras have told me: “When a problem arises, fix it now.” When my legs were cold, I should have assessed the situation right away. Fortunately, things improved. An hour later, I felt dry and warmer and was riding along at a comfortable and sustainable 8 mph or so.
I am currently nursing a shoulder injury so could not wear a hydration pack. This required me to change my hydration strategy weeks before the race. My plan included two 32oz Hydroflask bottles on my fork legs in Equinox bottle cozies (rated to -20). I tested this on the three very cold nights we had prior to the race and it worked successfully. I planned to use those two bottles to fill my 20oz Thermos bottle, which I would store upside down in a Revelate feedbag. (Side note: These are the Thermos bottles whose tops pop open. I highly recommend these for general winter rides of a few hours as they don’t freeze if you keep the hinge dry, which is really easy). While the Thermos bottle is great for drinking, I did not anticipate the lid freezing so that I could not unscrew it and refill it. This had never happened to me, until it did at mile 25. I wasn’t overly concerned and opened a charcoal hand warmer to add to the feedbag with the bottle. I drank directly from a Hydroflask and continued. Thirty minutes later, when I stopped to drink, the Thermos bottle was no longer frozen. Problem solved! I kept a hand warmer in the feedbag from that point on. I had several extra charcoal hand warmers with me, which I highly recommend. While they can’t solve all your problems and shouldn’t be relied upon for something major, they can really come in handy to get out of a jam or to prevent one.
I realized that thirty miles into the race I had had already experienced two issues. While not major problems, I took them seriously. Both of these could have been major problems if not addressed, and both issues likely would be major problems 12 hours later. I was lucky that these things happened early in the race. I was lucky that the sun was out. I was lucky that despite the cold, warmer temps were on the horizon. If these mistakes had happened at 2am, I am not sure they would have been resolved as easily or readily. The reality of the situation is that in temperatures of this nature, you don’t get to make mistakes. Mistakes usually come with a high price tag—from frostbite to hypothermia. I was lucky. I adopted the mantra “When a problem arises, fix it now.” With that in my head, I made it the rest of the way to checkpoint one, The Gateway Store, without further incident.
The Gateway store is a great place. I did a decent job of not getting sucked in and overstaying my welcome, which is easy to do at the warm checkpoints. I have been told to resist the urge to settle and move on. I did meet Joe Stiller here. What a positive force of nature he is! He was out in the parking lot giving words of encouragement to everyone who came in and out. I also saw my friend and fellow Duluthian, former course record holder Todd McFadden here. He was cheering racers on, as he was unable to race this year. (As a side note, my hat is off to him. His enthusiasm for this race is contagious and is a large part of why I was here. Despite being crushed by not being able to start, he turned that enthusiasm loose on the racers, encouraging everyone. He showed up at Gateway, Sheep Ranch Rd, Mel Georges, and Fortune Bay. Thanks, Todd!) Bolstered by words of encouragement from them, I headed out for checkpoint two, Mel Georges.
This leg was largely uneventful for me. A few miles outside of Gateway, around mile 40, I passed fellow Duluthian (and Women’s race winner) Leah Gruhn adjusting some gear. I did not see another human being until Sheep Ranch Road at mile 53. The weather was cold enough that the race directors, for the first time, decided to set up a heated tent at this trail crossing. I saw Ken Kreuger, Todd, and Charly Tri setting up the tent and informed them I hadn’t seen anyone in 20 miles or so. They chuckled and told me to “get used to it” as Kate Coward rode through. (I was confused when I saw Charly as I thought he was racing. I later learned he was sick and dropped out early. Sorry, Charly), I caught up to Kate, and we rode to Mel Georges together. For a fair amount of time, we also rode with Lindsay Gauld. They say you meet great people at the Arrowhead 135. I found that to be the case.
Throughout the 4 days I was there, I met great people. Kate and Lindsay were two of them. Both are certified badasses in my book. Last year, Kate did the “double” on foot. She ran/hiked from the finish to the start, then turned around and started the race back to the finish on foot. Badass. This year, she raced on a bike, a few short months after having a child. Badass. Lindsay is 70 years old and informed me on multiple occasions that “I’m old and don’t care for pushing my bike up the monster hills anymore.” That’s cool Lindsay. I’m 43 and was quite concerned you were going to beat me the top. He too is a badass. Did I mention he is a former Olympian for Team Canada as well? Badass. What was I doing with them??? Seriously.
We finally made it to Mel Georges…sweet, sweet, Mel Georges. It turned out to be a disorganized train wreck for me. My plan entering the checkpoint was: open toe & hand warmers (I was using hand warmers in my pogies at this point and not wearing gloves), take bottles off bike, go in and find drop bag, order grilled cheese, fill bottles with new drink mix, put back on bike, restock food, get new socks, hat, ColdAvenger, eat grilled cheese, change socks, hat, ColdAvenger, use bathroom, leave. I figured it would all take 30 minutes at most.
None of it went down that way. I arrived and had to use the bathroom, definitely the indoors bathroom. I talked to people in the house, sharing stories and waiting in line. After using the facilities, I realized 20 minutes had passed way too quickly. I went out to my bike to open hand/toe warmers and get my bottles, then came back inside to find my drop bag and mix bottles. Then I went back out and put them on my bike. I threw out trash and old food, went back in, got new food, then returned to the bike…Then it hit me: why am I walking around so much? And I realized I forgot to order my grilled cheese! I LOVE cheese and wanted one, so I went back in and ordered. Then it was back outside to get socks…seriously how many trips outside could I make? I changed and ate and was finally ready to leave. I picked up my bike and promptly dropped it, slamming the bottom bottle cage into my knee. The cage broke but was still functional. Seriously, how slow and clumsy could I be? I checked my hand warmers, only to find them as cold as can be. I had to dig out new hand warmers and open them for my pogies. I managed to roll out at last 65 minutes after arrival. Ugh.
Within the first mile I removed the hand warmers from my pogies to give them a shake to get them going. I launched one somewhere behind me into the snow. It was dark. The snow was white. The handwarmer was white. I needed to find it as I didn’t have too many left and knew I was heading into the longest, toughest, and coldest part of this race or any ride I have ever done. I stopped and searched the trail for it. I managed to find it, only to kick it when I tried to pick it up. Seriously. WTF? I had to tell myself to get my act together. My hands were cold and getting colder with these hijinks.
My mind went back to my mantra: “When a problem arises, fix it now”. I started the race wearing gloves that were now wet and useless because of sweat. As I was already stopped, I took this opportunity to bury those gloves in my bag and fish out my heavier gloves.
A second mantra came to mind. A good friend of mine, Chris McKernan, has a saying “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. Yep. I was doing none of that. In my rush out of Mel Georges I was sloppy. My history of breaking bottle cages, being disorganized, slinging hand warmers along the trail…not good. It was time to be slow and smooth. Thanks for the advice Chris.
The leg from Mel Georges to Surly had me nervous for months. I do not mind climbing, but I am not a runner or hiker. I understood that there would be some hike-a-bike sections here, specifically, 41 hills that to my understanding aren’t really rideable. As the miles started to pass I begin to notice two things. First, where are all these un-rideable hills? The realization was clear: at the end of this section. I never thought to ask that. Ok, cool, the last 20 or so miles heading into Surly were going to be tough.
The second thing I noticed is that it is amazing out here. The last person I saw was around mile 75. It was dark–very dark. The kind of dark that I do not think I have experienced before. It was also quiet–very quiet. The kind of quiet that I do not think I have experienced before. When taken together, the darkness and quiet create a kind of solitude that is hard to describe. At this point in the race, you are really remote, and you KNOW it. The sky was clear. Every star seems as if it is trying to stand out, calling for your attention.
It is quiet but not silent. You can hear the sound of your tires rolling over the snow. You can hear your breathing. But more than that, you can hear the wind blowing through leafless branches. You can hear the sound of trees cracking in the cold. You can hear the sounds of woodland creatures scuttling around off the trail. Quiet? Yes. Silent? No. Between the darkness and quiet, you almost feel as if you are the only human on the planet. It was surreal and awesome in a way that I am still trying to process.
Back to the race…somewhere around mile 90 my quiet solitude was interrupted by an upset stomach. My food was making me nauseous. In retrospect, I believe that I had too much food on the sweet end of the spectrum and not enough on the salty side. Every bite of food that I took became harder and harder to swallow.
This was not good. I needed to keep eating for two reasons: energy to make it to the Surly Checkpoint and to stay warm. While appreciating the wonders of nature, I noticed the temperature dropping again. It was getting cold. I needed to eat, so I did. By mile 95 I was choking down small bites of food every 15 minutes or so. I was eating larger portions on the half hour throughout the race prior to this. I knew that my caloric consumption was not adequate, but I was doing the best that I could and hoped it would be enough. My drink had calories, but without knowing what lay ahead I did not want to run out of fluid. I conserved that while closely watching my miles.
At this point I was pushing my bike up hills. In all honesty, I can’t believe how steep these hills are. For someone who doesn’t enjoy running and isn’t a hiker, surprisingly I did not mind the pushing at this point. It allowed me to stretch my legs and force food into my system while walking at a slow pace with a 65lb bike.
Everyone talks about pushing uphill at the Arrowhead 135, rightfully so. The hills are massive. However, what goes up, must come down. The descents are equally insane. I love mountain biking and ripping downhill. This was different. It is a unique scenario to be biking down a hill that you cannot see the bottom of, at an incredibly fast pace, on snow, in the dark. While that was fun at first, I decide to back off. This point in the race is neither the place nor the time for a crash.
At the bottom of one of the hills I saw two sets of red blinking lights in front of me. People! I quickly decided this was good. I was forcing down food, afraid of bonking. I was unsure what lay ahead, other than what must be the hardest 15 miles of the race. It was getting colder. This was most certainly a good time to run into others. As I approached, I recognized fellow Duluthians Leah Gruhn and Jere Mohr. That was a huge boost! Leah and Jere are two of the most positive and inspiring people I know. Being at a low spot in my race, I couldn’t have been happier to encounter this amazing couple. To further the good news, Leah had Tums! Thanks Leah!
The three of us rode and pushed our way to the Surly Checkpoint together. Looking back, I am really grateful for their company. If I had been alone for miles 95-111 with my rapidly deteriorating gut, I am unsure how my day would have played out. It is easier to force yourself to eat when you are with others. It is easier to “suffer” another push up an absurdly large hill in the company of others doing the same. It easier to do both things after a few Tums.
The third leg of the Arrowhead 135 is no joke. It is cold, remote, dark, and by far the toughest terrain I have ever biked/hiked. There is little room for error here. I had to keep eating. I had to keep moving. I had to stay warm. The tent at the Surly Checkpoint was a welcome site.
At this point, I parted ways with my friends. Leah didn’t want to stop at all (she went on to win the Women’s race!!). Jere put some toe warmers in and headed out after her. I had a bit more to do. It was getting colder, and I had not changed since the morning. I wanted to add some long wool underwear, another Smartwool 3⁄4 zip, and my Smartwool puffy vest. My plan was to fill water, move food around, change, and leave. 20-30 minutes max. Right? I wish…
The water and food parts worked out great. My bike was ready to go in 5 mins. I dug out my change of clothes and headed into the tent to find a few other people and a wood stove. So far, “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” was working. I grabbed a seat and changed my socks, then stood up to put on my long underwear. SHIT!! Who the hell stands up on snow covered carpet in fresh socks? This guy. Now my last pair of socks was wet. (I was changing because my current socks were also wet.) I finished changing, then spent some time with my feet next to the stove to try to dry out my socks. After what seemed like just a few minutes but must have been longer, I realized this was not going to work in an acceptable timeframe. This brought up the last mantra of the day. Todd McFadden’s wife, Diana, who is much smarter than the two of us, has a saying. “If you’re dumb enough to get into trouble, you better be smart enough to get out.” I was dumb. Now it was time to be smarter. I did the math. If I put in toe warmers now they should get me to the finish in about 3 hours. I had two extra sets. I figured I would likely have to do more hiking and running to keep my toes from freezing. Oh well. I made this mess, but that should be enough to make it to the finish.
I put my boots and jacket back on, grabbed my gloves from the shelf on the stove where people were drying out gear, and…SHIT!! (I believe those are the only two times I swore during the entire event, which is good for me.) My gloves had been moved a bit too close to the really hot part of the stove and the fingertips of one glove burned off. It was below zero outside, and I had the choice of fingerless or wet/frozen/buried in my pack gloves for the rest of the ride.
I went to my bike and dug out my wet and now frozen solid gloves from this morning. I reentered the tent to hold them by the stove. After what seemed like 5 minutes but again must have been much longer, I realized this is not going to work in an acceptable time frame. I put those gloves in my back jersey pockets to keep them warm and possibly dry a bit. I grabbed my now fingerless gloves and put them in my pogies along with some handwarmers and headed out bare-handed, hoping I would not have a mechanical problem. If things went smoothly, I shouldn’t need gloves the rest of the way. To be safe, I moved a set of wool mittens and my last set of handwarmers to the end of my bag in case of emergency and set out for the last 25 miles.
I left the Surly checkpoint an hour and twelve minutes after I arrived. Ugh.
The fourth leg of the Arrowhead is interesting. You have Wakemup Mountain within the first mile or so, which is the last hike-a-bike section. Then you have a long gradual (think 1% grade) ascent to the finish at Fortune Bay Casino. The majority of this section is through a lowland swamp. It is amazingly beautiful at night. Without the large pine trees to block the view, the sky is amazing to behold. It would, perhaps, in other circumstances, be quite easy to become distracted by the sheer power of that sky.
That was not my reality. Lowland swamps, while offering great views of constellations, also offer something else. They are cold. Really really cold. There is nothing to block the wind, and as all Arrowhead 135 vets will tell you, the lowland areas are always colder than the forecast. I did not have a thermometer but have been told the temperature was somewhere between -20 and -30.
Things started to get real.
Miles 115 to 125, while beautiful, were miserable for me. The effect of the Tums had worn off, and my stomach was much worse than before. During that ten mile stretch I vomited three to four times? I am really not sure how many times, but that seems right. My still wet feet got cold early, really cold, the dangerous kind of cold, the kind of cold where I knew I can’t let them begin to hurt or I would be dancing with frostbitten toes.
“When a problem arises, fix it now” and “If you’re dumb enough to get into trouble, be smart enough to get out” entered my mind. This was not the time to be distracted. Distractions can lead to mistakes. Mistakes can lead to bonking and frostbitten toes. They can also lead to hypothermia. I had to have a plan and stick to it. To keep my feet warm, I had to walk my bike and exaggerate my ankle motion to move my toes. When that didn’t work, it was time to jog. Whoa! I do hate running. I hate it more with an upset stomach and frozen toes. I did start to warm up. Wait! Not too warm. I did not want to sweat and get wet; my core layers couldn’t get wet. Wet clothing gets cold fast, and outer layers can even freeze in these temperatures, leading to hypothermia. I had 2-3 hours more of this to go. That was plenty of time to bonk, get sweaty ,and get hypothermia and frosbite.
Those 10 miles were all hands on deck focus for me. I would ride about a mile, cooling down, then run about 100 yards to bring my feet back. As my core warmed up, it was back on the bike to spin and cool down (I did a nice job of not sweating here). All along the way the vomiting and force feeding myself more food (hoping it would stay down) continued.
Finally mile 125 arrived. 10 miles to go. At my pace I figured that should be less than 90 minutes and closer to an hour. I had been keeping a really good inventory of my drink mix situation. I knew that I had about 600 calories in my remaining fluid. The drink mix was not bothering my stomach. Finally, I felt I could stop eating and could drink my way to the finish line.
Now that I was done eating, miles 125-130 weren’t as bad. I was still running some every mile or so, but it was much more tolerable to do. Around mile 130 I saw a trail sign. I knew this sign! On Saturday, on our way to the start, Todd McFadden, Dan Luebke, and I rode a few miles to spin our legs out from Fortune Bay. I knew that I was within 5 miles of the finish! Whatever energy I had left went into the pedals. I think I only ran once during that time. I was “hammering” on the bike. (I was probably riding a whopping 10 miles per hour as I am exhausted and close to bonking, but don’t judge!) I was no longer concerned about sweating. I just wanted to be done. I could make it from here, and I knew it.
About a mile from the finish I ran into Leah and Jere again. I yelled words of encouragement to them as I passed, and they yelled something back. I couldn’t hear it. Later, I reflected on that; I should have tried harder. I hoped they didn’t need something! It would have unacceptable if I missed a request or didn’t hear about a problem.
Finally, 22 hours and 6 minutes after starting I crossed the finish line. Within a minute Todd was there to congratulate me and snap a few pics. It was 5:00 am. I honestly can’t believe he was there. Thanks for all of your help and support, Todd.
MY BOTTOM LINE
Arrowhead 135 is an amazing event. It is an honest effort in a harsh unforgiving environment. There is very little room for error, and if an error is made, it must be corrected quickly and efficiently. If you wait too long to deal with problems, you will likely encounter consequences that you do not want to pay.
On the other hand, it is a beautiful event. There are few places as scenic and peaceful. The rewards of the Arrowhead 135 are great, both the internal sense of accomplishment and experience of the serene wonders of the Northwoods.