Everything falls apart at 4am.
Parties wind down, cramming for exams becomes intolerable, sleepless nights become restless mornings. In this year's Arrowhead 4am is when the cold set in, the shelter was full, and wax wouldn't stick to my skis.
The first eight miles to the turnaround had gone well enough. As usual the flat terrain was trying my patience, but I knew that I'd have more than enough hills once I was past the Gateway Store at mile 35, not to mention if I made it past the halfway checkpoint at Melgeorges. Ten miles in I had re-waxed my skis to accommodate the warmer than expected snow. The temp at the start had been about 4f, but now the sun was melting the ice out of my beard (though only on the south side) and my skis weren't sticking like I wanted.
This year's mantra was 'fix it now, before it becomes a problem.' The year before I hadn't stopped to wax, or eat, or drink, figuring that I could make it just a little farther before I took a break. That hadn't worked. I had ended up effectively poling myself along for nearly 70 miles. By the time I had stopped I couldn't raise my arms above shoulder level. I couldn't let that happen again so I waxed. Much better. The one thing that I couldn't fix now was my boots. I knew that they didn't fit well. They gave me blisters on my toes and beat up my ankles leaving them bruised and swollen. Unfortunately I didn't have time before the race to get a new pair and break them in. I was just going to have to suffer with them (I found out later that the boots, though I had been using them for nearly four years, were actually two sizes too big).
At the Hagerman trail shelter, about 20 miles in I once again waxed (carefully, taking my time), ate, and drank. My feet were already in pain so I took some painkillers for it. Within minutes the pain was under control and after a short chat with runners Lara and Tim I was on the move.
As I skied on, feeling okay but slow, I met up with volunteer Ron Kadera. He told me I was looking good and had an efficient stride. At first I thought he was being too generous with his praise, but after thinking about it I changed my mind. As one of the few (four?) ski finishers of the Arrowhead I respect his opinion. He has always been accurate with mileages, unlike some snowmobile volunteers, and gives good advice in general.
I arrived at the Gateway store around 6pm or so. It's easy to spend too much time at the store so I set a goal of being out again in an hour. After eating some chili and a hot dog, drinking a Monster energy drink and refilling my water bottles (including 16oz of coffee). I put up my feet for a few minutes while I waxed once again. This time I layered a softer wax over cold in the expectation that the temperature would drop. It was my first time experimenting with layered waxes, but it worked out pretty well. I was off again in just over an hour.
Mike Stattelman and I left about the same time and leapfrogged on to the Ash River shelter. The trail starts to show some terrain around here and I was pleased to find that both my skills and the snow were better than the previous year. Since I had the right wax on I could climb most of the hills without trouble and on the downhills I could both turn and control my speed. In fact over all of the 70 miles I did this year I only crashed three times and once was intentional (to avoid a worse crash), a big improvement over last year.
It didn't seem like too long and we were at the shelter. It was about midnight and the shelter was already overflowing with sleeping competitors. Mike and I were both ready for a break so we skied a short way down the trail and sat down on our sleds to eat and don warmer clothes. Before long we were chilled and ready to get moving again.
Skiing through the night I found that I lost track of time. It seemed like forever to the next turn or the top of the next hill, but it once again seemed like no time and we were at Black Duck shelter, 56 miles and a two fifths of the way through the whole Arrowhead trail. Here's where the race came apart for me. I was tired and cold, it was 4am, and I could tell that my feet were in bad shape from my boots. I told Mike that I was going to take a nap and he went on without me. But the shelter was full here too. I decided to put on some warmer clothes, eat, wax the skis, then make a decision.
The first problem I had was that I couldn't open the tin of wax. I tugged and tugged but the lid was frozen on. With a final yank the lid popped off, sort of, the pins that hold the lid on had broken off in the wax. I knew that the pin would probably scratch up my skis, but at this point I didn't care. I pressed down and tried to crayon the wax on to the ski. It wouldn't happen. The wax was just too cold to go on. After pressing down harder and scrubbing the wax back and forth I got some of it down on the ski, but I knew it was clumpy. I tried to cork it in, but it didn't want to smooth out. I did my best given the temperature, but it wasn't good. I knew it would only work for a few miles before I had worn most of it off. Thinking back I should have started up my stove and used a pot of hot water to iron in the wax. But I wasn't thinking like that. I didn't want to take the time. I had forgotten my mantra of 'fix it now.'
By now I was awake and reasonably warm so I decided to go on. Lara had caught up to me as well and I really wanted to be faster than at least one runner this year (I really shouldn't have worried, I had passed at least ten sleeping racers). I was comfortable starting off, but in short order my down coat and snowpants were making me sweat. I thought I could slow down a bit to regulate my temperature, but I was already going my slowest. After just a few minutes of skiing my vision started to swim and I thought I might pass out. Finally remembering my mantra, I took off the coat, though not the pants, and continued on.
I was counting on the dawn, only a few hours away, to wake me up and get me in to Melgeorges in good time, but I knew that that with my feet as bad as they were I wouldn't be continuing on. I caught up with Mike and we skied together through some big hills, that I'm sure seemed bigger because we were tired. I started having to walk up quite a few of them. When dawn arrived it didn't energize me and it didn't seem to warm the air either. I had been right about my wax not lasting and I had to stop again. I tried to use a softer wax in anticipation of the warmer day, and hopes that it would cork in better, but I had most of the same problems I had had at Black Duck shelter. All the softer wax did was take away what little glide I had. It didn't matter much though as I was virtually walking already.
Because of the sun in the sky I had a better sense of time passing, but that wasn't a good thing. I felt like I was making little progress. I caught up with Mike sitting on the trail and leaning up against his sled. He looked pretty comfortable and he admitted to almost drifting off. We talked a little about how much further we had to go to Melgeorges and I estimated three miles. After our short break we found a sign just around the next bend that said five miles to Melgeorges. I wasn't surprised, but I was disappointed.
When we finally made it to Elephant lake it seemed to take forever to cross. By the time we could see Melgeorges we could see a big group of runners catching up to us. As we skied up to the checkpoint cabin I said to Mike that I was going to wait one hour before throwing in the towel. I probably had the energy to keep going, I really wanted to, but once I took off my boots I made up my mind. I had bloody blisters on most of my toes and red swollen ankles. I might have made it another ten miles, but I didn't want to be evacuated by snomobile as I had been two years before. I made up my mind and have been satisfied with the decision. If anything it has made me more certain that I can finish...with my new boots.
Matt with Nick Wethington in hotel before the event.