ARROWHEAD ULTRA 135, 2011
As I write my story about the race I’ve just completed I’m sure many will realize that my version will be wildly exaggerated as compared to the more factually correct version by Andy “the Good Doctor” Lockery who once again served as my Faithful Manservant for the race. However, I will try to pass on my insights into the event while they are still somewhat fresh in my mildly hallucinogenic mind.
I want to give a quick Cole’s Notes version of the event for those looking for the results with no time to read any more. The key numbers for the event from a Manitoba perspective are as follows: 137, 128, 57, 10, 14, and -37. There were 137entrants, 128 actually appeared on the starting line, and there were 57 finishers. Of those finishers I was 10th in 22 hours and 37 minutes and Ian “Gianni” Hall was 14th in 27 hours and 2 minutes. One of the main factors in the low % of finishers is the fact that the temperatures dipped to -37 C on both of the nights of the race.
In many events, there is a recurring theme that I take away with me that forms the basis of many of my memories. At this year’s Arrowhead race I found myself confronted by the same question on at least half a dozen times and it was always asked in almost the exact same manner. “If you don’t mind me asking just how old are you?” This was followed by what appeared to be a slight look of disappointment when they learned that I was a callow youth of 62. It seems that my Dogsbody and chief publicist had been circulating a rumour that I was actually 83.
I’m planning on taking part in the Alaskan Iditarod Trail Invitational, the granddaddy of all the winter events next year and the fatigue that I feel after this event makes me seriously question my sanity. These winter events are a true challenge as you are confronted with all of the usual race obstacles plus the necessity to survive in a hostile climate not really intended for sweat drenched athletes. It gives me pause to think that this race took me less than 23 hours and I’m probably looking at between 6 and 7 days in Alaska. One of the most useful skills for someone taking part in these long races is a short or at least a very selective memory. I will use this as a chance to purge the difficult times and move forward with only the positive memories.
As my good friend Al Dixon always says, “ Failing to plan is planning to fail” and this really applies to a winter mountain bike race taking about 24 hours. This is my 3rd year at the Arrowhead and I’ve improved my gear and my preparation each year. At last year’s race, a number of things went wrong for me with my new bike not arriving and some serious issues with a leaking Camelbak. You can learn a lot more from your failures and my many difficulties created lots of opportunity for improvement..
I got my new titanium Fatback and lighter wheels last year right after returning from the race and it is at least 5 pounds lighter than the setup I had for the Pugsley. I also got a great new seatbag from Eric at Revelate Designs ( formerly Epic ) that has huge capacity and does away with a rear rack. He referred me to Dogwood Designs for some terrific new Poagies to keep my hands warm. I could wear much lighter mitts and never had issues with cold hands .The total bike setup this year was about 47 lbs. This compares with 68 lbs in my first year and 57 lbs last year. This reduction makes a huge difference for someone my size.
I also worked on an insulated hose for my Camelbak and wore it under my jacket and fed the hose inside as well. I probably stopped about 25 to 30 times for water and the Camelbak option saves perhaps 40 seconds each time. Sounds like not a lot but that’s 20 minutes quicker at the end of the race without riding any harder. As I get older I’m looking for any equipment edge to make up for my gradually declining strength. (sounds like most golfers I know where the ethos is to just throw money at equipment and surely you’ll get better.) I tested it in some of our cold weather and felt all was well as long as I remembered the lid.
Perhaps the biggest equipment improvement I made was the surgery I had in March on my left shoulder. It’s the 4th surgery on the shoulder ( I’m pretty stubborn) and this time I had a bone graft, which seems to have stabilized the joint. It’s a comfort to know I’m not likely to dislocate my shoulder by falling or even going over a bump on the trail. It means that I’ve got a large backlog on my dance card of races I hope to get to while I’m still young and spry.
I always say that I’ve got no time to train as I’m always working but I don’t get a lot of sympathy from those who are familiar with my “career path.” I did get more time on the squishy bike this year as we had early snow. It was also a help that Ian was coming to the race so we were able to get together for some rides. The snowmobile trails at Birds Hill Park are excellent and I spent some sessions out there. On one of these rides, I had a flat tire and upon changing the tube my plastic pump blew apart when I tried to pump the tire. This led to a 14 km walk back to Spring Hill where I’d parked the van. It also led me to search out and test an all-metal pump by Lexyne.
One of the hard parts of the race is pushing a fully loaded bike up the hills, which are too steep to ride. I tried to get over to the old city dump ( West view Park ) to train at pushing the bike and of the got in 3 or 4 sessions. The lighter bike helped and I was feeling better about that part of the challenge.
We had a real entourage this year with four vehicles departing on Saturday Jan. 29thin order to arrive with a day to rest up for the start on Monday morning at 7 AM. Besides Andy and I , there was Ian along with Halberto Loewen who was there to help Ian and myself as it turned out. Hal also sent an ongoing blog while the race was on which was excellent for those wondering how we were doing. Dallas Sigurdur went on his own to take part in the Foot category (they call it the Run but the reality is that it is almost impossible to run anywhere near all the time towing a sled. Al “mister” Dixon came along and volunteered at the race. Al is planning on taking part next year ( as is Hal ) and wanted to get a sense of the event.
We arrived in International Falls and went straight to the gear check where they check to insure that you have the necessary mandatory gear. The gear includes a -30 C sleeping bag, bivy sac, insulated sleeping pad, a stove and pot for cookinig or melting snow, fire starter, space blanket, a whistle, red lights for the front and rear of the bike, a headlamp, and a reflective vest. They want you to be able to survive and fend for yourself in case of fatigue or accident. I actually carry a number of extra clothes above and beyond the required list. It was helpful getting the check done on Saturday as we beat the rush on Sunday when the largest number of the racers arrive.
As I had mentioned earlier, I’d been working on my Camelbak hydration system and thought I had solved it but lo and behold I found something even better at the gear check. In the hallway, there was a small display with a battery heated bladder. The heating wire runs up the hose right to the end and can be turned on for 10 minutes at a time . The hose was well insulated with a zippered cover right over the nipple so it was possible that it might require the power except in the coldest extremes. It was being sold by Bob Ostrom , an electrical engineer and racer from Alaska. Given my issues with water last year, I had to purchase this unit. I tested it on our short Sunday ride and felt good about it.
On Sunday we had a relaxed day and went for a short ride. I suggested that we go to the first checkpoint at the gateway store to check out the course. Ian, Al. Hal and I went down the trail for 25 minutes then turned back. It was beautiful with the bright sunshine glistening off the recent snow hanging on the trees.
The prerace meeting and pasta feast started at 4 in the afternoon and I saw lots of familiar faces from my previous two Arrowheads as well as numerous other events over the years. There were a number of prize draws and I was hoping for the carbon fork from Fatback. There was also a frame from 9 Zero 7. I had no success with either of them but still fully expected to win the Salsa frame and fork. Alas, again I was beaten out and imagine my dismay when I realized that the culprit was none other than Ian Hall.
One bonus from the dinner was the fact that our friend Charlie Farrow offered Andy and I the prestigious Duluth DBD crests which we will both wear with honour in the future. DBD stands for Death before Dishonour which is a somewhat extreme creed to follow in our sport of choice and I hope I’m never confronted with the choice. The expression comes from the doomed Scott expedition to Antarctica in 1912. One of the men on the expedition, Lawrence Oates knew he was holding up his two companions in their desperate attempt to get back to the base. He left the tent and walked off into oblivion, sacrificing his life in order to give the other two a better chance to survive.
The race started at 7 am, which meant getting up at 5 am for an attempt to eat some breakfast. After all these years of racing I’m still too nervous to eat much before the race. I had the bike all ready from the night before and had a short ride to the start to make sure all was working. I had a special wardrobe this year with a bright pair of beach shorts over my Sporthill pants as well as a brightly coloured lei around my neck. I was having fun with the riders from warmer climes and told them that this starting temp of -24 was like summer to me.
We started through a narrow shoot and immediately turned south onto the main trail. As he counted down, I left several seconds early and was the first leader of the race. A group formed at the front and quickly reduced down to 6 really fast guys and one 62 year old . I rode with them for about 6 kms until I had an attack of common sense and backed off and watch their red blinking lights pull ahead. I cruised along and gradually got brought back by several other riders including Dave Gray, Jacques Boutet and Heather Best.
Heather is the wife of Jeff Oatley , the defending champion as well as winner of the last two Iditabikes. One really unusual thing for me was the fact that he dropped back at about the 25 km point in the race to have a visit. He had dropped at least a minute behind the lead pack but obviously knew he would have no trouble catching up. It also led the guys in the lead group to push harder. This was like the famous stage in the Tour de France stage when Lance Armstrong feigned fatigue and sucked Jan Ullrich’s team into attacking and wasting their efforts early in the stage.
I always seem to end up with Dave Gray at some point in the race. Dave is true royalty in the sport. He is the designer of the ubiquitous Surley Pugsley which changed winter riding forever. Dave’s also a former winner of the Arrowhead. He has a bit of a Manitoba heritage as his dad Jerry spent part of his university years at Delta Marsh. The fact that I was near him was a good sign that I was moving well.
The 4 of us hit the Gateway store at about the same time and we were basically the first racers to stop for more than just adding hot water. I had prepaid for soup the previous day and ended up having a generous bowl of macaroni and cheese. Andy filled my bottle and Bladder and I took the opportunity to put my jacket and balaclava and toque in the dryer for 10 minutes.
Heather got away first followed by Jacques and myself. The trail after the stop had been groomed overnight and was very fast so we were able to ride along side by side. We talked a lot which was terrific in that he’s a great guy but it also was a good way to insure that we weren’t going too hard. We basically rode together all the way to Melgeorges. Dave caught up to us just as 6 snowmobiles came by us. This is always bad news for a rider as they chew up the trail and make it much slower. We were confronted with this for the last 25 kms into the checkpoint.
We arrived at the checkpoint at 4:30. This was 40 minutes ahead of my arrival last year. I hoped to eat well and totally dry my clothes and at the same time be on my way within an hour. I ate a bunch of my own perogies personally prepared by chef Lockery. ,If anyone believes that, I’ve got some swampland we need to talk about. They provided 2 bowls of soup, 1 ½ grilled cheese sandwiches, 2 brownies as well as, a hot Apple cider. I had put two Starbucks Frappacinos in my drop bag. I drank them and then just before departing I had a Red Bull. I hoped the caffeine would keep me awake through the night. That I had a good appetite was a good sign that I’d been going the right pace.
Heather was the first to leave among our group. She’d arrived ahead of the three of us and had a good rest. Jacques left moments after her. I headed out about 20 minutes after them at 5:40 so I’d stopped for an hour and 10 minutes. Not bad. The next section is over 70 kms and has some long push a bikes. I actually preferred to be on mine own as I would be able to listen to my body and keep the right pace. I actually left before dark but that lasted for all of 10 minutes.
This leg went pretty well. On the pushing sections I could really notice the difference in the weight of the bike compared to my first year. It’s still tough but I never reached that point where I’m breaking it down into 10 steps and then hope I could go on. On this section I heard later that Heather saw two wolves right by her on the trail. That would have been spectacular and more than a little scary.
My only issue was my vision. At one point, I went to take my glasses off because they were fogging up. I wasn’t wearing glasses . On the last descent off Wakeumup Hill I had to get off and walk, as I couldn’t see where I was going. From there it was about 5 kms to the last checkpoint at the Crescent Bar and Grill. I arrived there just before 1 am . I hoped that some time in the warmth would clear my eyes. . I’m not sure whether this is a comment on how I looked at this point but three different people in the bar asked me how old I was. I had 2 delicious bowls of soup and refilled my bottles, said goodbye to my new friends and was on my way at 1;26. I had predicted that I would finish in 22 hours so I was looking good as I only needed to ride the last 33 kms in3 ½ hours.
As I was pulling out of the parking lot, Dave Gray was arriving. The further you are into the race, the less you see of other riders as we get more and more spread out. I headed out and quickly came to realize that my eyes were going to be a problem as the rest and warmth hadn’t made any real difference. The last section is basically flat and fortunately I knew what was coming. Nevertheless, I fell at least 6 times as I wandered off into the deep snow at the edge of the trail. I ended up trying to stay right in the center of the trail and made no attempt to ride on the frontrunners tracks. Between falling and walking to try and get my bearings, I could see my 22-hour time slipping away but I could do nothing except to keep myself slowly heading towards the end. I was sure Dave would be coming up behind me at any minute.
I reached the finish after 22 hours and 37 minutes which was good for 10th.. Dave P was there to take my bike and I wandered into the hospitality room in a daze and could barely see. Mary Grelk was kind enough to help me to the front desk and then to my room as I’m not sure I could have found my way. A quick shower and several hours sleep/rest helped and I could see a bit though my eyes were very sore. I’d planned on a 4 or 5 hour sleep followed by another 18 – 20 hours ride back up the course as I did last year but I decided that would be foolish in light of my vision issues.
Andy and Hal and I went for the buffet breakfast and then wandered over to see Ian come in. We almost missed him as he rode a very fast closing leg to finish in 27 hours and 2 minutes. This was good for 14th which is an amazing result for someone doing the race for the fist time. Ian finished right behind Bill Shand who is one of the most experienced guys in the race. Bill is off to the Iditabike for the 3rd time so I’m looking forward to watching his progress.
Dallas was unable to complete the run as he had some serious issues with his hip flexors. I’m sure he will be back to conquer that challenge but he plans on getting a squishy bike and riding it next year. It seems the Manitoba contingent could grow substantially with Hal, Al , Jeoff Chipman and possibly Morgan all planning on being there.
It’s a special event and I can’t offer enough praise to Dave and Mary and all of the volunteers for making it a great experience. The other special feature for me is the great camaraderie between all of the competitors. I had the pleasure of riding for 5 hours with Jacques Boutet and it was terrific. I saw Dave Gray many times and looked forward to seeing his dad at the various checkpoints. I briefly enjoyed riding with Heather Best. Any event that Charlie Farrow is at is special. Lance Andre is terrific in that he takes an all or nothing approach and is willing to risk all to go for the win. I hope it works out one of these years. For me the most outstanding performance was Jeremy Kershaw (another DBD stud) doing the run to complete the 3rd discipline and coming in 2nd, Incredible. I don’t know Tim Roe or Matt Maxwell but I salute their efforts in completing the 3 disciplines as well.
Thank you all for sharing this experience with me. I’m already looking forward to 2012. In the meantime, I’m planning on doing the 1000 km Trans Wisconsin starting on June 17th. Charlie Farrow and I will start together but I’m not sure how long he’ll want to stay with the old man. It should be fun.
The 2011 Arrowhead 135 – Part II of III? By Bill Shand
This marks the fifth time that I have sat down to write a race story about the Arrowhead 135. Every year has presented some significant challenges for me. 2011 was no exception! In case you have never read one of my previous stories, here is an outline of the race:
• Race start was at 7:00am on Jan 31, 2011
• Distance was 135 miles along the Arrowhead State Snowmobile Trail in Northern Minnesota
• There are 3 checkpoints roughly 35 miles apart
• This race is non-stop, self supported, and has a 60 hour time limit
• There are Bike, Ski, and Run divisions. I always bike.
In my four previous attempts at this race I have managed to finish each year and improve my time every year. When I started preparing for this year I realized that it is getting harder and harder to figure out ways to go faster. With 6” of fresh snow coming down two days before the start of the race I wondered to myself if this will be the year that I actually finish slower?
The pre-race meeting and dinner took place at the Backus Arena in International Falls, MN. Race organizer, Dave Pramann went over the details of the course and drew some draw prizes. I won nothing like usual. You would think that after doing this race four times that I wouldn’t get nervous anymore. Wrong! I don’t know why but sitting around at the pre-race meeting always brings nervous anticipation. I can barely focus on what is going on around me. I actually think that it might be fear more than nervousness. There are a lot of things that can go wrong in this type of race and I have firsthand experience with many of them. I think that fear might be what attracts me to these events. I’m not sure why.
At 7:00am sharp we lined up at the start line and suddenly we were off on another adventure. The temperature was around -10F, a little cool but certainly nothing out of the ordinary for Northern Minnesota. I took my place in a paceline of bikers and slowly started working my way forward as I warmed up a bit. I always start off slow for some reason. It’s just the way that I am I guess.
The sun slowly came up and started to warm things a bit. I was only an hour into the race and I encountered my first problem. I stopped to remove my outer layer and realized that the tube for my Camelback had been slightly exposed and was now frozen solid. Try as I might, I couldn’t get it to flow. Normally when this happens I can just warm the tube with my hands, bend it to crack the ice, get a trickle of water flowing and then it goes. Today it was just a bit too cold for that. Plan B is to bury the tube under all my layers, zip everything up tight and then ride hard to bring my core temperature up a bit which will hopefully be enough to melt the ice in the tube. I don’t really like doing this because it causes sweat to build up and makes my inner layers wet but in this case, having water was more important.
I rode hard for another hour hoping that it would be long enough to melt the ice in the tube. When I stopped the tube was completely thawed and the water flowed nicely. I took a long draw of water. I normally drink every 30 minutes so I had some catching up to do. One good thing about this problem was that I was making really good time. I was riding harder than normal and the trail was in good shape so I was way ahead of schedule. I decided to keep riding fairly hard as long as the trail conditions stayed good. Got to make hay while the sun shines!
It was at about this time that I met Mike Criego. He had been right behind me for a while and when I stopped to check on my Camelback tube, he stopped too so we got to talking as we ate and drank. It turns out that he entered the race last year but failed to finish. This year he was hoping that things would be different. I asked if he wanted to take the lead for a while but he said that he would prefer not to. Apparently my “easy” pace was suiting him well compared to his normal training partner. Little did he know that what he thought was an easy pace was actually much harder than I normally ride.
Now that my Camelback was working properly I backed off the pace just a bit but I was still riding pretty hard for me. The trail was so good that I couldn’t resist. Mike and I stayed together with me setting the pace. It was nice to ride with someone and we seemed so evenly matched that I was starting to think that we may be able to ride together all the way to the finish. That would be a first for me. Usually the bulk of this race is spent completely alone. Just before the first checkpoint the trail became freshly groomed and almost as fast as pavement. We were flying! At 11:29am we rolled into the Gateway store checkpoint. This was the earliest that I have ever made it to this checkpoint.
I usually stop at this checkpoint for a few minutes to top off my water and have a quick bite to eat. The owner of the store had some homemade cookies which really hit the spot. Five cookies and one Mountain Dew later and I was back on the trail, alone. Mike decided to stop for a break. The trail remained firm and fast so I made the decision to take a calculated risk. I decided to continue the hard pace that I was maintaining. Normally this would be too hard a pace for me to maintain in a race this long but the trail was so fast that the race would be over much sooner than normal so I should be able to do it. The risk in doing this is that the trail could turn bad and then I would run out of energy before making it to the finish. This is not something that I would normally do but today it was a risk that I was willing to take. Lately I’ve been accused by several people of riding too conservatively. No one would be able to say that today!
I was making great time, eating well, and feeling strong. Today had the makings for a perfect ride when suddenly everything went to hell. I was about half way between the Gateway store and the next checkpoint, Melgeorge’s Resort on Elephant Lake. Up until this point there had been almost no snowmobile traffic. That changed as 20 snowmobiles roared past. “My” hard packed trail turned to mush. I went from cruising almost effortlessly at 9 mph one minute to struggling to make 4 mph the next. I fought the trail for a little while, hoping it would get better but finally stopped and let some air out of my tires in the hope that I would be able to float on top of this “new trail” that I was facing.
The tire pressure change worked and I was able to bring my speed up to 6 mph but it was still a devastating blow when compared to the 9 mph that I had been maintaining before. If you have ever been travelling on a highway at 60 mph and then been forced to reduce your speed to 40 mph then you know exactly what I am talking about. The world suddenly seemed to be going by in slow motion. It was so frustrating. I kept plodding along feeling sorry for myself when a thought came to mind: This is a snowmobile trail. Without the snowmobiles, there would be no trail and no race. So why am I upset that that some snowmobiles came by?
My attitude changed from that point on and I started to enjoy the ride again even at the slower pace. I rolled into Melgeorge’s at 5:45pm. I had made it in to the checkpoint during daylight which was a first for me. Even with the slower trail, I was still having my fastest ride ever. My routine at Melgeorge’s is pretty well established: I do my best to get in and out of there as quickly as possible while still taking a little break. The clothes dryer was empty so I loaded everything in. Next I refilled my Camelback, restocked my food supplies from my drop bag, changed my socks and gloves, and finally eat, drink and eat some more. With a full belly and somewhat dryer clothes I headed out the door for the last 65 miles of the race. I had spent a total of 35 minutes at the checkpoint.
It was dusk when I had arrived at Melgeorge’s. It was pitch black now and getting cold. I was really glad that I had dry clothes on. The trail was hard but the cold weather was slowing things down a bit. It was still better than the mush that I was riding in before Melgeorges. The trail after Melgeorge’s is famous for the steep rolling hills which really defines this whole race course. I rode as much as I could but walking was inevitable with some of them. These hills take a tremendous amount of energy. Go too hard early in the race and pay the piper when the hills come. I started paying the piper. My hard riding earlier in the day was taking its toll. With each hill I found myself going slower and slower up the next one.
Part way through the hills, Greg Ames came flying by me like I was standing still. Greg and I are always pretty close to each other in this race so we have gotten to know each other a little bit over the years. He would later tell me that I was riding so slowly when he passed me that he thought that I was standing still! My calculated risk at the start of the race had backfired. The slow trail into Melgeorge’s combined with the cold now had taken me dangerously close to bonking. The next checkpoint couldn’t come soon enough. I needed a break and I needed it now!
I eventually made it through the hills. I know this trail well enough now to know when they are over and when they end it is only a short ride to checkpoint #3, Crescent Moon Bar. I normally do not stop at this checkpoint but I needed a break badly. With only 20 miles to go before the finish it seems to me now that I should have been able to push on but at the time, my only thought was rest. I walked in and the wave of heat was a bit much for me. I felt nauseous and had to sit down. I ordered some food in the hope that it would bring me around and then joined Greg at the back of the bar where there was a fireplace throwing some wonderful heat. Greg packed up and left pretty quickly. He had already been there for over an hour.
I was all alone so I decided to sit down in front of the fire place and take in some of the heat. Then I found myself lying down. The next thing that I remember is the checker for this checkpoint gently waking me to let me know that this was not a sleeping checkpoint so I should wake up. She had bent the rules and allowed me to close my eyes for a full hour. I think that her name was Rachel. She should be Sainted or Knighted or something like that! That hour of real sleep made a huge difference. I felt great! I ate some more food and headed out the door immediately. My total time spent at the checkpoint was one hour and twenty nine minutes. That was way longer than I wanted but it was badly needed.
One good thing was that no one had passed me while I slept so I had only lost time, not positions in the race. It was cold before I entered the checkpoint. It was even colder now. My hands felt it. My gloves were still a little wet so they transferred the cold to my hands immediately. Within minutes of leaving the checkpoint my hands went completely numb. It didn’t seem like they were going to warm up so I stopped and put on my heavy mitts which I always carryfor occasions just like this. I also put my wind shell on. It is pretty rare that I need both my wind shell and my winter mitts in order to stay warm but this was one of those days. I had checked the forecast before the start of the race and it was only supposed to drop to -20F during the night. -20F is well within the range of what my clothing can normally tolerate so I found it a bit strange that I was having to put on these extra layers. At the time I just chocked it up to not living in Canada anymore and not being as acclimated to the cold as I once was.
The trail was slow but flat and I really wanted to be done. The temptation to just slip the bike into the granny gear and cruise at an easy pace was pretty high but I resisted and kept pushing hard, always in one gear higher than what was comfortable. This last stretch is always tough, so close and yet so far. It seems like it will never end. But it does end. I crossed the finish line at 9:09am in 13th place and beat my previous best time by a whopping 12 minutes. I’ll take it.
Greg finished about a half hour ahead of me. He said that he had to walk quite a bit to keep his feet warm. Mike Criego finished a couple of hours after me. He paced himself well and finished strong. He thought that he had some frostbite on his toes at the end but when he removed his socks they all looked OK.There have been a variety of reports on how cold it got on the trail that night. -35F seems to be the consensus. No wonder I needed my extra layers!
I found out later that I was only one of many people who fell asleep in front of the fireplace at Crescent Moon. Less than half of the 120 entries into the race managed to finish. Most dropped out due to cold weather issues. My Pugsley worked perfectly again, like it always has. This was my fifth, and most likely, last race on the Pugsley. It has never let me down or complained but the newer, lighter, and wider Fatback is too much of a temptation for me to resist.
So Part I and II, Tuscobia and Arrowhead, are complete and I leave for Alaska tomorrow, Fatback in tow. Iditarod Trail, here I come!