Arrowhead 135 - 2009
It was 4 am and I was struggling to push my 70 pound Surley Pugsley bike up one of the interminable hills and I found myself thinking about where this event fit in among the races I have done. Iíve found that there are two basic levels they fall into. This didnít reach the ď Please let me keep going for just 5 more minutes level.† It was more where I found myself asking why a supposedly sane and well adjusted 60 year old would want to do this to himself. For those of you whoíve read of some other race Iíve been in, youíll recognize a common theme but it once again seems totally appropriate to this event.
†I was participating in the Arrowhead 135 winter endurance race near International Falls, Minnesota. The event is the brainchild of Pierre and Cheryl (Madame Frog Dog)† Ostor and involves traveling 135 miles on the Arrowhead snowmobile trail by foot, ski or bicycle. I had heard of the event for several years but hadnít been able to consider it while I was having ongoing issues with a chronically dislocating shoulder.† All is well on the shoulder front now so I decided that this would be a worthy event to use as a return to competition. The old go big or go home mentality.
The Arrowhead is the smaller cousin to the Iditasport 350 or 1100 in Alaska. That race uses the same course as the famous Iditarod dogsled race. The Iditabike race resulted in many equipment developments as riders took to welding 2 rims side by side and modifying their frames to accommodate the extra width. This was all in the interest of having a much larger footprint for the tires to avoid sinking into the snow. The bike industry took note and there are now several versions of large tired winter bikes with the most common being the Surly Pugsley.
When I thought of doing this race, I immediately talked to Scot and Morgan at the store ( Olympia Cycle ) and had them order the frame and wheels and piece together the rest of the bike. It was a communal project at the store and I need to thank Liam, Greg, Luc and Morgan as well as Scot who let them spend time working on the bike and itís setup. I already have a Surly Karate Monkey on which Iíve ridden about 80,000 km in all kinds of weather while couriering.† Surly makes great durable bikes, which you obviously want when youíre out in the backcountry on your own.
There was along list of mandatory gear you had to carry on the bike at all times during the race. This included a† -30C sleeping bag, a tent or bivie sac, a thermarest, a stove, fire starter, 3 led lights, a headlamp or flashlight. And bike repair tools. There was no requirement for spare clothing but my previous experience with winter adventure racing made me take spare mitts, headgear, a set of underwear, as well as my old down jacket. The gear had to weigh at least 15 lbs. not including water. In order to build in an adequate margin of safety all competitors had to finish the race with at least 3,000 calories of food and 8 ounces of fuel for their stove.
I studied pictures of previous races to figure out how best to distribute the weight on the bike and ended up with a rack on front and back as well as a handlebar bag. I ended up with most of the gear on the rear. In my handlebar bag, I kept food, as I tend to want to continually eat to keep up my energy and stay warm.†† Water or other fluids are crucial and I saw that a number of bikes had insulated cases on the sides of their forks. I ended up with 3 nalgene 32 ounce bottles in insulated cases, 2 on the forks and the other in the usual place on the downtube. The scale at the store only went up to 50 lbs so I had to weigh the total beast by standing on a bathroom scale and subtracting the difference with and without the bike. Just over 70 lbs.
Our cold winter made for good preparation as I was spending 8 hours a day outside while couriering. The cold made me realize that I could have problems with both my hands and feet if we hit a real cold spell at race time.† To solve my foot issues, I went to platform pedals, hiking boots, xc ski overboots and finally Neos overboots. Iím truly ready for the arctic. For my hands, I ordered a pair of Moose Mitts on the Internet. These are overmitts that go on the handlebars of the bike .† You still wear mitts or gloves inside of them but they add at least 10 Ė 15 C in warmth.
As far as clothing for a long spell outside, I am truly a fan of Sporthill and itís 3SP material which claims to be windproof up to 35 MPH and yet it still breaths extremely well. For underwear, I have some old Swedish underwear called Ullfrotte as well as Craft Prowool. Both are high wool content. The new wicking products are good for a 3-hour event but this promised to be at least 20 hours and Iím a great believer in wool as it keeps you warm even when damp. I also wear wool next to my skin on both my feet and hands for the same reason.
Food for a long event was another issue and it was complicated by the cold and the need to carry items that would still be edible when frozen. Anyone whoís tried to eat a power bar in winter will agree that you probably burn more calories trying to chew it than you consume. Scot Miller gave me a recipe for homemade powerbars that works great. For winter, I simply add less protein powder and at is very soft at room temperature but firm and very easy to eat at cold temperatures. That was the staple of my diet but I also had some bagels,† Lays potato chips, Hammer gels, as well as a supply of Perogies from my official sponsor Elsie Szcklarczuk. I ate several on the trail but had a heaping plate of them at the checkpoint just past the halfway mark.
My good friend Blair ďBusterĒ Saunders got me on to Hammer nutrition products and I used a combination of Heed and Perpetuum the whole way. Itís excellent and my energy was pretty good throughout the event. Over the last number of years, I seem to have had cramping issues so I now take Succeed Electrolyte capsules at regular intervals during a long event and they seem to really help me. Iím the first person to complain about our society popping pills to stay ďhealthyí but Iím a regular junkie on race day.
The race was on Monday February 2nd starting any time between 7 and 8:30 am. This might seem strange but the race is on snowmobile trails and you wouldnít want to share the trail on the weekend. It is run with the local clubís blessing and the few sleds that I saw were very courteous.
Iím not good at tapering for most events but I took off from my courier job form Thursday afternoon on. Iím used to riding every day but I knew I needed to be well rested. My friend Ian Hall was coming down to help me and we left for International Falls on Saturday at noon. We arrived in the late afternoon and checked in at the Holiday Inn, which was the race headquarters. My wife Lynne describes it as getting together with my own kind as if we are some kind of unique species. In thinking support. He has a trailer, which heíll use there and I was hoping to see it but he opted not to use it for this event Iím pretty slow in getting around to writing about my events which means that Iíve just had the opportunity to read Mikeís piece on the AH 135. Its great writing and his pictures are wonderful.† (BIG WHEEL BUILDING A135 THE WHOLE STORY).
Sunday dawned with at least 3 inches of new snow and I immediately added at least 3 hours to my estimated finish time. Charlie had asked if I wanted to start with them about it, I suppose sheís right. There was a large hall where the gear check was being held and I saw some familiar faces in Charie Farrow and Dave Simmons . Both have raced in the Red Ass and it was good to see them again. My gear passed muster and we all got together in the restaurant for dinner and to swap war stories.
On Sunday, Ian and I drove to the start† and went for a short ride to check out the trail conditions. We also drove down to the 35 mile checkpoint at the Gateway restaurant as I wanted to know where to go and also to check out what was available there if I needed anything.
There was a race meeting at 3 pm. They explained the course intricacies and reviewed what was available at the checkpoints and answered any racerís questions. This was followed by a slide show by Mike Curiak. He is the closest thing to royalty in long distance winter ( and also summer )† mountain biking. His list of wins is impressive and is topped by several wins of the 1100 mile Iditabike race in Alaska. He showed us a beautiful range of slides from his numerous iditabike adventures. He was entered in our race but was using as a training run for a trip to Iditabike this March where he will attempt to do the whole 1100 miles with no but I was sure they would be going out far harder than my comfort range. As it was, I started several minutes in front of him and defending champion Dave Pramonn. I think I was barely out of sight of the start when they flew by at a pace that Iíd have trouble going for 2 hours, let alone 24. As Iíve gotten older, it has become easier to accept this horsepower deficiency and I happily watched them fly ahead. We went out for about 9 miles and the turned and retraced our route to the start. This allowed us to both participants and spectators. I was the 4th rider back to Hwy 53.
After crossing the highway, the track became a lot slower as there were only 3 tracks in front of me. Cyclists are always trying to ride the wheel but this offered a different slant on the term as you literally tried to stay in the same track the others had packed. I wasnít great at it so I spent enough time out of the track† to realize how much harder it was to break trail. This was a real learning experience and one of the lessons I came to understand was that it was better to let some air out of my tires. Iím a bit of a slow learner so I didnít get around to it until several miles before the 35-mile checkpoint at the Gateway store. It definitely tracked better.
At about the 30 mile mark I was passed by a train of guys including Lance Andre, Terry Brannick, Dennis Grelk and Chuck Lindner. By the time I reached Gateway theyíd all gone except Chuck. I filled all my bottles, bought a great bowl of soup and ate a fair amount of my food. Based on my pace to this point, I already realized that I was going to be out there at least 24 hours and didnít want to run short of fuel by rushing through this checkpoint.
As I headed out, 7 or 8 snowmobiles came down the trail towards me. As it turns out they were coming from where I was headed. When snowmobiles have just been over the trail it is much softer so my timing wasnít great. There were virtually no bike tracks left. Bummer!!
The last 10 miles before Gateway and the next 30 miles after are quite hilly. This led to another learning experience for me and that is that walking up hill after hill pushing my 70 lb. bike is HARD!!! It was very tiring and I found myself bent over with my chest virtually on the bars in an effort to take the pressure off my arms. I had only got the bike several weeks before the race and Iíd never gone up a hill on it either riding or pushing. I remember reading an article in the Duluth paper about Charlie doing hill repeats and not really understanding. Next year Iíll know better. The only issue for a Winnipegger is where to find any kind of hill.
Throughout the race, I was stopping every 5 miles to have a drink. With the loose snow it was impossible to drink on the fly. A lot of guys used camelbaks with insulated hoses but Iíd never used one in winter and was afraid it would freeze. Iíll have to work on that for next year as I probably stopped 30 Ė 35 times at an average of 3 minutes each. With a camelbak I might be able to cut it down to 10 or 15 which would save an hour. I learned a lot.
I had hoped to arrive at the Melgeorge checkpoint before dark† but that was not to be and as I headed across the lake† I was like a moth drawn to the cottage lights.† I arrived at 6:45 to find two other riders there ( Josh Peterson and Dennis Grelk ) I hoped to spend about an hour there. The checkpoint had hot soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, cookies, hot chocolate and I had all of those items as well as Elsieís perogies, which I fried up. They had a dryer and I dried my socks, headwear, and my jacket. I added a warmer layer of underwear Iíd been carrying as well as warmer mitts. I thought that the cold of night was coming and this would be coupled with a gradual lowering of my energy† stores. It would be much easier to open my jacket a bit if I was too warm than to stop and have to add clothing along the trail if I was too cold.
I guess it was just too comfortable or my sense of survival was too strong but my one hour stop turned into 1 hour and 35 minutes. Iím sure I could cut that down considerably. While I was there several other riders arrived ( Chuck Lindner, Greg Ames ,Dave Gray from Surly who won the bitterly cold race in 2007 and Bill Shand). Dennis Grelk whoíd been there when I arrived, headed out about Ĺ hour before I left. I thought about hurrying to go with him but reminded myself that I had at least 12 hours to go and needed to make sure I had enough fuel in me.
I headed out in full darkness for the long haul to the Tipi at Wakemup hill. It was a hilly stretch and I found myself outrunning my headlights on the downhills. Iím pretty sure my shoulder is solid now but elected to be cautious. There was no potential for a timely rescue if anything happened and a dislocation could literally be fatal. It cost very little time and made good sense.
†At one point I was pushing my bike up one of the many hills and saw that my computer was showing zero. In knew I was going slowly but this was ridiculous. Sure enough, the computer had stopped working at 87.68 miles. Those of you that know me will be surprised to know that I didnít stop on the spot, as Iím more than a little compulsive about recording every km. It did torment me for a while but I decided to drink every 40 minutes rather than every 5 miles and carried on. As I progressed along I saw Mike Curiakís Moots parked at the edge of the trail and could see where heíd headed into the bush to camp. Very impressive to have the discipline to do the prep for his long haul in Alaska.
†I figured the 39miles ( 62 kms ) should take me about 7 Ė 7.5 hours.† I started wondering where the checkpoint was at 3:30 am and by 4:30 I was at the end of my tether. Itís not like I needed a long stop but just a sense of actually making progress. I even wondered if Iíd somehow missed it. At this point, I remembered that my friend Vern Nelson had set up his GPS with many waypoints along the way including the Tipi. I took a water break and switched it on and was greatly comforted to see that I was very close.
I arrived at the Tipi and found two bikes parked there which gave me a little lift. I went in to use the fire to loosen the lid of my last nalgene bottle, which was frozen closed. Lance Andre and Dave Pramonn as well as the two volunteers were snug in their sleeping bags. I got the lid loose and ate a bagel with peanut butter and honey and then got on my way before I became too comfortable. It was 5:30 am, which meant that Iíd covered the last 62 kms in 9 hours for a startling 7 kms/hour. The amazing thing is that Iíd moved up from 8th into Melgeorges up to 4th. This of course is partly due to the fact that Mike Curiak was using it as a gear and systems shakedown for Alaska.
I remembered that Pierre had said that the last 25 miles was basically flat and that was the case. I was actually getting sleepy and had that nodding off feeling that weíve all experienced while driving. I was trying to stay in the riderís tracks but there were only three riders in front of me now so the track wasnít quite as defined. With my fatigue and resulting inattentiveness I spent more time out of their tracks than in them. The time rolled by and it was great to see the light starting to appear in the sky. There were long straight stretches and the corner ahead never seemed to get any closer. I carefully spaced out the remaining fluids I had and at 9 am I took a look at the GPS again to see how much time I had to go. Not too far.
†I finally passed the turnoff to the old finish at Bayview and started to see signs for Fortune Bay Casino. The last 3 or 4 kms were the best snow conditions of the whole race as the groomer had been out and it was firm and fast. I came around the corner and had one short uphill. With an event that can last anywhere from 16 hours to 60 you canít expect a crowd to cheer you in. The finish line was basically the back door to the casino. I came in at 10:11 for a total time of 26 hours and 40 minutes. Ian was up in race room as were Charlie, Dennis and the many cheerful volunteers. Pierre makes individual trophies for all the finishers. I had to pick out an arrowhead from a large supply of them and he turns it into a really attractive molded glass trophy. Iím looking forward to it.
I had come in 4th. The winner was Terry Brannick who blazed the course in 21 hours flat. In 2nd spot was my friend from Duluth Charlie Farrow who finished with Terry but started earlier and had an elapsed time of 21 hrs and 58 min. In 3rd was Dennis Grelk who finished in 25 hrs and 23 min. I was 1 hr and 17 minutes behind him which is almost like a photo finish in this type of event.
The next two finishers deserve special mention as they were two of the strongest guys in the race. Lance Andre ( who is from Iowa but now lives in Florida, not the ideal exercise ground for this )crossed in 5th† but disqualified himself for going off course and getting a ride back. He just flew by me and a lot of others early on. Dave Pramonn came in 5th officially in 28 hrs and 31 minutes. That tells little of the story of his race as he broke trail for all of the rest of us followers for the first 110 miles before he had to take a break at the tipi. Heís the course record holder and with that kind of power, Iím sure heíll be back on top again in the future.
I also want† to mention Bill Shand , my fellow Canadian from Red Lake Ontario . He came in at 31 hrs and 47 minutes. Bill has done this before as well as Alaska and a good deal of other adventures. Finally I want to say how impressed I am with Joel Austin from Iowa who came to the event with Lance Andre. Joel finished the event in 39 hours and 41 minutes on a Gary Fisher mountain bike. With that snow, I canít imagine doing the race on a regular bike and my hat would go off to him but it was simply too cold for that with my hair challenged head. I think you need to talk to Dave and the boys at Surly and come back better than ever next year.
I really enjoyed my return to racing after some lost years with my shoulder woes. This is a really well run event and all of the competitors are very supportive of each other. Before the race Rick from Fargo lent me an Esbit stove to save carrying weight and Lance Andre lent me some extra fuel tablets. Thereís truly a feeling that weíre all in it together .
Iím very satisfied with my result. I think I could save a couple of hours with a better water system and more organization at the checkpoints. For sure I will spend time riding hills before the race next year and I will also spend time pushing that fully loaded pig up hills. At 61 I donít expect to come back next year a whole lot faster but I can be a little better prepared.
I talked with Charlie about maybe going to the Iditabike in 2011. I think that sounds like a good
timetable. Next year Iím thinking that we should finish at the casino and then
turn around and ride back. Iím thinking either back to Melgeorges† (200 miles) or back to the start, which would
be 253 miles. It would be cruel punishment to do the out and back at that point
so we could perhaps ride down the highway into International Falls. Any takers?