Disappointment At The Big Dance
Unlike a lot of folks, the Arrowhead Ultra 135 is basically one of two events I ride each year. As such, it is something I look forward to, even if there is sometimes a little dread mixed in with the anticipation.
In my previous two attempts Iíd experienced both failure and success. 2007 had crushed me and taught me a lot. Iíd made numerous poor decisions, which eventually had me dehydrated, exhausted, hypothermic, and taking a snowmobile rescue. It was without a doubt the most frightening experience of my life. 2008 had seen me fighting past tears at the start but eventually putting it all together and meeting my goal of finishing.
The goal of finishing is the one that most people should take for this event. Sure, there are a few folks in each category that have the potential to best the others they are competing against, but most folks should take the realistic approach to the event. If the goal is just to finish, then you take every opportunity to best ensure you do that.
I felt I had prepared adequately for the Arrowhead 2009. I felt confident in my gear and food choices. I knew the course from finishing the year before and set a personal goal of taking 6 hours of my finishing time from the year before.
That personal goal wasnít going to get in the way of the larger goal however. Just finishing remained my main goal.
I hit the trail at 7:38 AM after loading my gear onto my bike across the road from the trailhead. The start is always my least favorite thing about the Arrowhead. It is dark out and the traffic on Hwy 53 and cars and vans unloading racers just seems like a disaster waiting to happen. I like to get my stuff together and get the heck out of there.
I checked in and started riding. The day before the trail had been pure hardpack. Iíd told my parents that someone was going to set a new record. I even started wondering if I should have kept my front brake on the bike knowing how fast those downhillís might get. That had all changed overnight though. Three to four inches of fresh snow covered the trail.
I started to ride and caught up to Pierre who was the first person on course. The snow was slow going for me and I geared down till I felt I could keep that pace without working up a ton of sweat.
Marlin caught up to me soon enough and introduced himself. We rode along until I stopped to pee and he took the lead. Chuck went by as well. Then Pramann and Farrow hammered past. Holy cow, those guys were moving. Curiak went by as well. Eventually I got to see him coming toward me and boy does he have a smooth, controlled riding style. He looks like he can set the level he wants to ride at and put it on autopilot.
As usual I just kept getting passed. Iím not fast and never will be. There was a cold wind from the northwest and my upper arm on my left side could feel it biting. I also pulled my baselayer hood up over my ears to supplement the fleece hat I had on. Soon enough I was at the turnaround. Chuck and Marlin were both there still. I had a drink and ate some beef stick and kept riding. Immediately I was able to take off my base layer hood as the wind was at my back.
Because of the out and back you get to see all the other folks coming toward you on your way back to Hwy 53. It was nice to see everyone and their gear. In general I thought it looked like people were better prepared than some other years.
I was riding more slowly than in 2008.† I usually start to feel better after the first hour or two but it didnít seem to be happening in 2009. I had the race broken into pieces in my mind. ľ of the first day is just getting back to Hwy 53. Ĺ of the first day is getting to the Gateway Store. The first half of the race is getting to MelGeorgeís on Elephant Lake.
After finally crossing over Hwy 53 I leapfrogged with Marlin for a while. It was his first time in the event and he seemed to be doing well to me, mainly because he seemed to be trying to ride a nice steady pace. He was stopping to eat often. I was struggling to keep up with him.
At about 20 miles I asked him what his plan for the night was and he said he hoped to continue straight through the night. Iím not picking on Marlin here, but often folks have no idea how difficult it is going to become after a while. In 2008 I took advantage of both the Gateway and MelGeorgeís for a combined 12.5 hours off the bike.
Eventually Marlin left me behind. I was just struggling to turn over the pedals.† I was just tired. Soon enough I was yawning while riding and thought about finding a sunny place to sleep. The week before the Arrowhead Iíd chaperoned a 6th grade environmental camp and had caught a bug. It had crushed me a couple days before the event and I hoped it would pass.
Serious doubts starting creeping into my mind. I was stopping every few hundred yards as I just didnít have any energy. Iíd stand there in the sun and then eventually start either walking for a while or pedaling. The year before Iíd made it to MelGeorgeís using only my middle ring. This year Iíd been pedaling in my granny ring for almost the whole course thus far.
The Arrowhead becomes substantially more difficult following the Gateway Store at mile 38. I pondered this as I rode and walked and starting thinking about whether I had the energy to handle the section from there to MelGeorgeís. I already knew I didnít have enough to finish the event.
Dave Gray caught me and we stopped and talked for a while. He was sick too but is an animal all the same. He left me in his dust. Dave Simmons caught up to me and said that he was starting to feel better after a slow start. Both of them eventually dropped, as I would at the Gateway.
As someone who has experienced what it is like to be seriously overextended at 30-below zero, I had no desire to repeat that experience. I wasnít confident Iíd make it to MelGeorgeís and didnít feel it prudent to put myself at risk. Nor would it be fair for me to willingly put myself in a position of needing a rescue on course. That dark place Iíd been isnít some place that I want to revisit again.
So with that my Arrowhead was over. Not that the decision was easy. I thought it over at the Gateway for probably half and hour before finally pulling the plug. I felt the decision was a fair one. Of course, 48 hours later I couldnít remember how I felt and the disappointment was pretty overwhelming.
Dropping allowed me some fun though. I got to see the four leaders at MelGeorgeís. They are an impressive lot. I checked out their bikes while they ate and hydrated. My mom and I went out and saw Pramann riding at night about 7 miles after leaving the cabin. Iím sure he wondered who the heck was standing out there cheering.
Likewise, I got to talk with both Grayboy and Simmons. They are Arrowhead veterans and tough guys to boot. Their decisions to drop out impressed me because it proved more about them than pushing on and putting themselves in what I consider senseless risk. To me it was interesting because it seemed like veterans of the Arrowhead were making better decisions. Thatís a tough thing to do, but it is the right thing to do.
I wonít be in the Arrowhead in 2010 as I promised my wife Iíd take the year off. I did reserve the right to come back in 2011 and sure hope there is a spot for me then. It is a special event in a beautiful place and Iíd like to complete that trail one more time. As Pramann said ĎYou have to finish on a good note.í