The 2009 Arrowhead 135
The temperature is -28C. Itís 2:00am. I am crawling inside my sleeping bag trying close up the zippers before my hands go completely numb. This was not part of my race strategy.
The day started innocently enough; sunny, -18C, light winds, pretty much ideal conditions for winter cycling. This was no ordinary day though. This was the start of the 2009 Arrowhead 135, a 135 mile race through Northern Minnesota.
A few inches of fresh snow the night before was slowing down the fast guys out in front. Other than that, the trail was hard and fast. Like I said, pretty much ideal.
I wasnít paying any attention to the fast guys. This year I planned to ride my own race at my own pace. This race is basically in my backyard when compared with some of the events that I have entered so you would think that this would be the one that I do the best in. Yet, for some reason, I always have difficulty.
On my first attempt in 2005 I had a mechanical breakdown which delayed me for 15 hours. I still finished.
On my second attempt in 2007, I failed to eat and drink properly and managed to finish in 34 hours but I only improved my time by 2 hours from 2005.
This year I was determined to make a significant improvement. I planned to blow through the 30 hour mark and maybe even come in under 24 hours.
I started at 7:27am. The first section of the trail is a 9 mile in, 9 mile out flat section. It is a good opportunity to get all gear issues sorted out and make sure that everything is working properly. My gear was working great so I focused on maintaining my own pace and saying ďHiĒ to everyone that I passed. For most of the runners and skiers, this would be my only chance to see them.
I completed the ďout and backĒ section with no difficulty, crossed the highway and followed the trail as it turned south-east, directly into the sun. I removed some layers of clothing and kept moving at a moderate pace. It was a perfect day. Sun in my face, wind at my back, hard, smooth trail. Water and food were going down well and I felt strong. If I could keep this up, I would have a very good race.
The trail was hardest and fastest on either the far right or left side where the snow machines do not churn up the snow. I followed the tracks ahead of me not really paying much attention to what was going on when suddenly the entire bike dropped out from under me. I had accidentally gotten too close to the side of the trail. One second I was cruising along at 15 km/hr, the next I was buried in powder. It was like falling off a three foot curb that you didnít know was there. All I could do was laugh. I dusted myself off and heaved my 50lbs of bike and gear back onto the trail. For several miles after that, I noticed large indentations in the snow where others had fallen off the edge. Each time I had to laugh out loud.
The flat trail slowly turned to rolling hills and it was nice to stand on the pedals once in a while. By 1:00pm I was at the first checkpoint, a Gateway Store that intersects the trail. My plan for this checkpoint was simple: refill, eat, and leave. I refilled my Camelbac, purchased a Gatorade, a cup of hot chocolate, and a slice of pizza. It all tasted sooo good! Within a few minutes I was back on the trail. Only 35 miles to the next checkpoint.
The trail became more curving and rolling now but still great for cycling. I only had to walk a few of the steeper hills. The afternoon slowly faded away and I cruised along completely alone. Thatís the way I like it in these races. Itís fun to see everyone at the start but when that part is over, I prefer to be alone. I waited as long as I could before turning on my lights but the time finally came. The trail suddenly was bright again. This is always one of my favourite parts of any race. Iím not sure why. There is just something about riding into the darkness that I find appealing. Maybe itís because all of my equipment was now in use. My lights shone brightly and my pace stayed the same as when it was daylight.
The sign that indicates ď5 miles to MelgeorgesĒ soon came into view. I was really glad to see it. My ability to eat was slowly becoming a problem. Fatigue was setting in. My original plan was to eat at the check point and then leave immediately but my body was telling me to rest.
After the ď5 miles to MelgeorgesĒ sign, the hills became very steep making those last few miles that much more difficult. Eventually the trail empties onto Elephant Lake and from there is a short hop to Melgeorges.
The checkpoint cabin was bustling with activity. Several racers were sitting around the table eating. Some had already dropped out of the race. Others were contemplating when to leave. Volunteers were ready to prepare a grilled cheese sandwich or soup. I had both hoping that a quick injection of food would bring some of my energy back. It didnít really work. To be honest, I felt like shit. May as well admit it.
One of the checkpoint volunteers offered to wake me if I wanted to take a nap. I decided that a short nap was definitely a good idea. I asked him to wake me in an hour. I laid down and before long I was told that an hour had passed and I knew that it was time to leave. I didnít really sleep but I definitely rested and felt quite a bit better when I got up. It is very easy to let the hours slip by in the warmth of a checkpoint. I had already stayed too long. This is supposed to be a race after all.
When I came down stairs in the cabin I saw that Ron Kadera had arrived. Ron and I first met at this race in 2005. We met again in 2007, also for this race. Ron normally enters the ski category and he is one of only a handful of people who have ever completed this race on skis. This year Ron was not racing but was volunteering as a snow machine support person. I was glad to see him. There is something about seeing a familiar face that makes everything seem better.
I think that Ron could tell that I was having trouble. As I was getting ready to go he said, ďBill, youíre a good biker. You can do thisĒ. Iím not usually one for pep talks but I think that I needed it right about then. He also told me that the temperature forecast had been upgraded and that it was only supposed to drop to -28C. That was a little better than the
-30 that was predicted. It was still going to be a long night.
I headed out into the darkness alone and feeling far from 100%.
The trail out of Melgeorges climbs steadily and then moves into more rolling hills. I took my time, trying to not to expend too much energy but still continue moving at a reasonable pace. The fatigue that I had been feeling before Melgeorges returned and a new problem arrived as well. I was feeling really sleepy.
On flat sections of the trail I was able to actually dose off while riding. Just for a few seconds at a time. I could close my eyes and sleep. When my bike started to weave off the trail, the change of motion would wake me up and I would start the process over again. Usually I was able to do this without crashing. This method of sleeping didnít work anymore when a hill came so I started walking. Same problem, my eyes were closing and I was walking right off the trail. I can normally tolerate sleep deprivation by just doing different things on the bike like standing or changing position but this was different. This was sleep deprivation combined with fatigue and I was really suffering. The answer was simple but it took me about another half hour of inner debate before finally committing to the inevitable. I had to bivy.
I carry a bivy sack, sleeping bag, and insulated ground pad with me because these are part of the mandatory equipment required to enter this race. If not for these rules, I likely would not have brought them with me. Those rules exist for situations just like this.
I found a clearing just off the trail and stomped out a place to sleep. Everything comes off my bike quite quickly and it was only a matter of a few minutes and I was ready to crawl in. Now comes the hard part. My Camelbac was buried under three layers of clothes and it had to come in the bag with me to keep from freezing solid. I removed the layers and quickly crawled in. With the Camelbac safely stowed in the bag and my boots tucked just inside I was ready to zip in. I zipped all the zippers quickly so that my hands didnít freeze in the process and left just enough of an air opening to reach that fine equilibrium between ďIím freezing!Ē and ďI canít breathe!Ē
Bivy sacks are great. Once inside they are toasty warm and very comfortable. I normally sleep quite well. I just got myself settled in when I realized that my toes were completely numb. I guess that the lack of movement while setting up my sleeping bag had allowed them to get cold. I hadnít notice until now. My sleeping bag is warm but I was afraid to go to sleep with numb toes just in case they didnít warm up. I spent the next few minutes wiggling my toes and feet in an effort to get the circulation back. Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle. It seemed to take forever. Finally, I felt some tingling and then they were instantly warm. I closed my eyes. Now I could sleep.
I have to pee. I peed just before I crawled into the bag but now I had to go again. Was I ever going to get some sleep? At least this meant that I wasnít dehydrated. Peeing from a bivy sack isnít really as hard as it sounds, for guys anyway. I accomplished the task quickly, being careful not to hit my helmet which I had placed right beside me so that I could find it easily in the morning.
I dosed in and out of sleep for the next couple of hours, hopeful that this rest would be enough to take me through to the finish line. I still had about 50 miles to go.
I opened my eyes and knew that no more sleep was going to come. It was time to get moving again. I had no idea what time it was or how long I had been laying there.
Now comes the hardest part about bivouacking, getting up. It is so warm inside and so cold out there. Imagine getting out of your warm bed and going directly outside into the coldest February morning. Well, that is exactly what is happening. Speed is of the essence.
I unzipped the bag and started putting on my outside gear. It was still dark and very cold. After a minute or so my hands started to freeze so I reached for my mitts to warm them up before continuing. Thatís when I realized that I had lost a mitt. It must have fallen out of the bag when I got up to pee and now I couldnít seem to locate it. I sat there for a minute contemplating the situation and came to a realization of how fine a line I was really walking out here. One lost mitt could mean the difference between finishing the race and disaster. I carry spare mitts with me but I had changed into my warmer ones the night before which meant that my spares were frozen solid inside my bike bag.
The mitt didnít walk away and after a bit of searching I found it buried inside my sleeping bag but this little incident gave me a bit of a scare. Every piece of equipment that I was carrying was vital to survival in this temperature. I had to be more careful from now on.
I got my boots on, crawled out of the bag and became acutely aware of my decision the night before the start of the race to leave my down filled parka behind in order to save weight. This would have been an ideal time to put it on. I really thought that I wouldnít need it. I was wrong.
I moved as quickly as I could and had the bike packed up and ready to go within a few minutes. One last look around with my light to make sure nothing was left behind and I took off. It was 6:00am. I had stopped for a total of 4 hours. I could tell by the tracks on the trail that no one had passed me during the night.
After a mile or so, I came around a corner and saw a bike standing in the snow on the side of the trail. I knew right away that it was Mike Curiakís bike. He is the only one riding a custom built Moots snow bike. He had placed a ďPlease do not disturb signĒ on his bike which I found kind of comical. The first signs of daylight were appearing so I decided to stop and have some food and water and see if Mike was stirring. I could barely make out his bivy sac about 40 ft off the trail.
Mike has set some kind of record in almost every race that he has entered. Many of his records still hold today even though he stopped racing several years ago. His conquests in the solo biking world have set the standard by which all others follow. He was doing this race as a tour to test equipment for an upcoming expedition in Alaska. Even though he was touring, he was still ahead of most of the field. We first met several years ago at a bike race in Alaska and have been in contact off and on over the years. Prior to this race, the last time that I saw Mike was in 2006 at a race that he organized in Colorado. I was hoping to spend a bit of time with Mike at this race but when I finished my snack and still saw no movement I decided to move on.
This section of the trail is famous for the steep up and down hills that seem to go on forever. It is like riding a bicycle roller coaster. The rest that I took had helped me quite a bit even though I didnít sleep that well. I found that as long as I didnít exert myself too much on the hills, I was able to keep moving. My pace was slow but at least I was moving forward.
I had just shut off my lights when two people caught up to me. It was Josh Perterson and Chuck Lindner. I knew Josh fairly well. He had entered the race on both of the other occasions that I had been here. They were both still at the check point when I left the night before. They left sometime during the night and now they were both moving at a good pace. We chatted for a few minutes and I commented that we were just entering the first of the big hills and the next few miles were going to be tough. They both said that I was mistaken and we were much further up the trail than I thought. They said that we were actually at the end of the big hills which meant the finish line was only about 25 miles away. I admitted that maybe I had miscalculated and said that I was happy that we were closer than I thought. They then disappeared around the next corner and I never saw them again. I didnít even try to keep up. The only way that I was going to make it to the finish was by riding my own pace, not someone elseís.
As soon as they were out of sight I checked my odometer to try to clear up the confusion between where I thought I was and what Josh and Chuck had said. My odometer confirmed what I thought; we were at the start of the big hills, not the end. I still had 37 miles to go. I wondered to myself how long it would be before they figured it out.
I continued on, walking up most of the hills and flying down the other side. The sun came up and it was a beautiful day. I made it through the steepest of the giant hills without incident. I still had to force food down and I was trying every type of food that I had with me in an effort to find a way to get some energy and start feeling better. Nothing worked. At least I wasnít sleepy anymore.
I was walking up a relatively gentle hill when I heard a noise behind me and then beside me. Mike had caught up to me. We chatted for a few minutes and took some photos. He seemed content to ride together but my pace was too slow. He waited for me several times but eventually disappeared. Just as well. Talking took energy and I had none to spare. There would be lots of time for talking at the finish line.
Feb 3, 2009 10:00am Ė Bill Shand still moving on day 2, photo by Mike Curiak
A few more miles passed and the trail became flatter. There would be one more steep hill and I could see it coming from a long distance off. At the top of the hill was the third and final checkpoint. I couldnít help but wonder how many more people were going to pass me before the finish. I really donít like being passed but today there was nothing that I could do about it.
This checkpoint was a tepee set up by the race committee. They had a fire going inside to make water but they provided nothing other than that. I was warm from the sun and my water supply was still good so I decided to keep moving. I needed to get this thing over with.
I knew that it was approximately 22 miles to the finish and it was almost all flat. I could do this.
The flat section is harder than it sounds. It is very flat and long and straight. There are no distractions and time goes by very slowly. You just have to keep moving. I got into a routine of walking for a few minutes out of every thirty minutes, just to use some different muscles. It was so hard to keep going.
I came to one of the few corners on this section and there was a trail shelter on the left side. I pulled up to the shelter and decided to take a little break. I found a spot to sit, right in the sun with no wind and dosed off immediately. It was about a 10 minute break but it felt really good. I decided that I would take another one if necessary, anything to get me to the finish.
After my break I went down a long, long straight section. It looked like I should be at the part of the trail where I need to turn off! I was confident that as soon as I went around the next corner, I would see the sign to turn off. I rounded the corner and saw another long straight section, just as long as the one that I had just completed. My head sank in disappointment. Was I ever going to get there?
This happened several more times and I resigned myself to thinking that it would simply never come. This trail was going to go on forever.
Well, no trail goes on forever and I did eventually come around a corner and saw the sign indicating a turn off for Fortune Bay Casino, the finish line!
Two miles of easy riding down the side trail and I was there. It was an up hill finish and I decided that it would be inappropriate to walk this one. I rode across the finish line and checked in with John Spartz, the finish line official. My official time was 31 hours, 47 minutes. That was good enough for 10th place. 24 people eventually finished out of the 59 who started.
I took a nap and after a few hours, regained my appetite. A bacon cheeseburger, fries, cream soup and a beer really hit the spot.
Many of the people who finished before me were still around. Some I had not seen at all during the race so it was great to catch up with everyone. Unfortunately, Mike had already left so I didnít see him again. Josh and Chuck apologized several times for giving me false information. I told them that I thought the whole thing was pretty funny.
As I reflect back on the race, I have to question some of the decisions that I made. Those decisions did get me to the finish line without injury in my fastest time yet but I took some unnecessary risks and things could have gone very differently. I was really happy to make it to the finish but I have some work to do before next year.
This is my third time finishing the Arrowhead. It sure isnít getting any easier.