2008 Arrowhead Ultra Marathon by Jack Prentice


 –An Ultra Learning Experience from the Perspective of an Ultra Virgin



My name is Jack Prentice. I live in Eagan, MN and am a 36-year-old male married for over 10 years to my soul mate, Kristin.  We have two children, Alex, 6 (1st grade) & Natalie, 4.  I work in the logistics and transportation industry. 


My experience in sports and athletics started when I was very young.  From an early age, I played hockey, soccer and baseball. As I got older and into high school, it became clear that my passion was soccer.  I made varsity as a sophomore and received a soccer scholarship to play at Marycrest University in Davenport, Iowa. Soccer was my life for almost 25 years; practicing, playing, coaching, refereeing and hosting clinics.  I have made life long friends through my love of the game. 


When I turned 33, something changed; I started to become a little more reflective.  Kids have a way of doing that.  I realized that 1/3 of my life had been completed and I was about to enter the next 1/3 of my life.  I have always thought of my life as being 99 years long on this earth.  After that there are no guarantees.  The last 1/3 or 33 years will typically or inevitably bring health issues related to age (physically or mental), life long friends and family passing away and the realization your time is coming to an end (the not so fun 1/3.)  So the middle third of my life is happening here and now.  Any and all choices I made would impact the next most important part of my life.


For the first time in my life I wanted to start something new, a hobby if you will.  I always enjoyed running, but it was usually linked to a practice or achieving a required fitness level.  I had never run for fun or relaxation.  But ironically I found myself in old territory, Davenport, IA (the Quad Cities).  A soccer team reunion was planed for the same weekend as the Bix7 and many agreed we should enter the race for a little fun. The Bix7 is a 7 mile run through Davenport, IA, the course was a fun, fast, hilly and almost always hot race.  Several of the old soccer crew gathered for this race in 2004, most with beer guts and less than two miles running in preparation for the event.  Since 2004, we have made this an annual event, as well as other adventure races, marathons and triathlons.


I discovered the Arrowhead event in the fall of 2006 while doing a little web surfing one evening.  The website was like a car wreck, you want to look away but you can’t, you just keep staring and soon I found myself studying this event and I truly mean studying.  I must have spent hours looking over every article, blog posting and picture. This event was like no other I had ever heard of, at first I thought only the crazy people of life; weirdoes with a sick passion would ever want to enter something like this? But the photos and articles revealed very normal people from all walks of life with a passion. I was hooked; I wanted to enter this event. I also realized up front there would be a commitment level of time, money, preparation and planning needed to safely participate in this event. This was my long term secret project for the next 15 months.


The first rule I learned about ultra events was to pace myself, so I set my sights on the 2008 Arrowhead and would study and learn as much as I could from the upcoming event held in February of 2007.  I started to practice in December of 2006, even before I had registered and been accepted into the Arrowhead of 2008.  I live next to Blackhawk Park in Eagan, MN which offers a great mix of trails and offers some nice hills for running and a 1.1 mile lake loop that is perfect for pulling my sled. I read an article on Tim Twietmeyer, an ultra running god; they had laid out his training log and I was surprised at how many of his runs were smaller distances, but every day. The article also discussed the mental challenges and aspects of an ultra event, something I would deal with.  I used this philosophy for the basis of my training.  I am an early riser.  Everyday, at 4am, I started my morning with a 1-2 mile walk with Mika, my Siberian husky, and followed with a short run of 3-5 miles. My goal was two fold; start to put small, consistent distance on my body and frankly to ask myself again & again “Do you really want to do this?”  The answer was always yes, and with a grin!  I started to slowly increase my walks to 3-5 miles and my runs were 5-10 miles.  I kept track of my total mileage (walking and running) for each week.  It did not matter how cold, windy or snowy the weather was, I was always out there.  That winter (2006/2007) had many cold nights to practice for this event. For many of the coldest nights I spent the night or a part of the night sleeping outside. My wife and friends thought I was weird, my parents on occasion asked me if my marriage was okay.  Even Mika, my Siberia husky looked at me with a tilted head and a look of curiosity every night as I snuggled into my bivi sack.  I never really slept well, but would doze off for 45 min or so and then roll over to circulate the blood.  I learned a lot of little tricks from various websites on how to make sleeping outdoors a little more enjoyable. 


The 2007 Arrowhead was brutally cold, very few finished and some racers got severe frostbite, resulting in the loss of digits.  Suddenly the realization of attempting this event was even more real, loss of life and limb was a very real possibility if one was not fully prepared.  In my humble opinion, Mother Nature is the only true god out on the trail and she will show no mercy to anyone!  I studied the pictures and read all the blogs from the 2007 participants.  It was very helpful to read what other had experienced and learn.    


As the winter of 2007 came to an end, I started to concentrate on even more walking and running in combination.  Most Saturday and Sundays I would wake up at 3am for a 5 mile walk and then go on a long run of 13-15 miles and later that evening another 5 mile walk.  Soon my weekend totals were over 20 miles each day.  


When registration opened up for the 2008 race it was time, I sent in my money, registration form and an explanation of my preparation for the event.  A few weeks later I saw my name posted as one of the participants.  The realization of being accepted was an awesome feeling.  But I still kept the event a secret from everyone because I was still not sure I would be able to do it and didn’t want anyone to talk me out of it.   


As December arrived, my training now incorporated pulling my sled and gear.  Pulling a sled with 40lbs. is a lot different then just running or walking. The mandatory gear included: a sleeping bag, bivi sack, food, water, stove and clothes.  In December and January, I practiced pulling my fully loaded sled most mornings.  I experimented with my gear and packing my sled.  I must have packed and unpacked my gear a 100+ times-mostly outside after training.  I forced myself to do things when I was tired and when it was very cold outside. I learned a very important lesson; everything is harder to do when you are tired and cold.   


About three weeks before the event I revealed my secret project to my wife, parents and friends. I think everyone was relieved there was an “event” tied to my weird training habits, but expressed concern over the very real possibility of getting hurt.  My parents and good friend Dan planned to travel up to International falls to support me.  I felt ready for the Arrowhead.  I had planned, trained, practiced and prepared; now it was time to execute.  My approach to the race was very simple; safely participate to the best of my abilities and learn as much as I can from everything and everyone.


I arrived solo in International Falls on the Saturday before the race.  I knew my anxiety level would be high and I was nervous for the gear check so I needed to be alone.  I checked into the hotel and unloaded my gear from the car.  I went to the gear check and met Pierre and Cheryl Ostor, the race directors and Don, the gear Nazi. They inspected my gear and questioned me about my sleeping bag being rated to only -15 degrees F (mandatory requirement is -20 degrees F).  I indicated my bivi sack and clothes should add at least 5 degrees of additional warmth.  Pierre and Don agreed and I officially passed the gear check.  Now it was time for the real deal!


Monday morning arrived and I felt really good, I was ready to start my journey.  At 7am with hugs and handshakes from my mom and dad and my friend Dan, I checked in with the starter, “#48 is off.”  My journey had begun.


It was a warm day, over 15 degrees.  I walked with several racers form time to time but all would soon pass me.  Even the slightest increase in ones pace can accumulate into a longer distance covered.  I was amazed that someone would pass me so slowly but after 15 minutes they were usually no longer in site. Another key learning point, Pace is critical for covering distance efficiently.  After a while I started to settle down and fall into my own pace. I was sweating a lot and was over dressed so I started to shed layers and kept drinking plenty of water.  I also had started to eat energy bars and other food high in sodium and protein. One trick I learned was to start a calorie drip; keep feeding the body small amounts of food slowly and consistently. After 4-5 hours of walking I felt great, I had plenty of strength and my spirits were good.  I saw my parents around the 20 mile mark, the look on there faces was so satisfying to me, the best way to describe their look was Pride.  


My next goal was the first check point, which was close to 40 miles into the race.  Because of the warmth, the trail was getting softer, making walking and pulling extremely difficult.  It was a lot like walking and pulling in sand.  My feet were soaking wet from sweat.  I had Smartwool medium weight sock on with 200g hiking boots.  For some reason I chose to ignore this fact and continued on (FIRST MISTAKE) and a yet another lesson learned; listen to your body and make adjustments as needed.  Do not ignore things.  For the next few hours I was mostly alone on the trail which was nice. I was able to reflect, and take everything in, my senses were on overload. As the afternoon came and went and evening and darkness set in I was now starting to feel the fatigue set in.  My feet were now very sore from being wet for several hours.  It was now past 5pm and I was hoping for the checkpoint to appear soon, I had been pulling for 10 hours.  I had met a fellow participant, Alicia, a skier, we had passed each other a few times earlier in the day and she was now nursing a very sore ankle and ultimately was picked up by one of the volunteers on a snowmobile.


Darkness had set in and for the next few hours I kept plugging away.  I could hear coyotes yipping and owls hooting.  Without a head lamp I was in complete darkness.  If one is accustomed to city lights to bounce off the clouds, this true darkness can be intimidating.  The final two hours before the checkpoint were long; I really wished I had changed my boots and socks.  Finally, I arrived to the first check point, the Gateway store and checked myself in.  My parents were there and had been waiting for me for a few nervous hours.  I was glad to stop and rest.  There were also several other racers at the check point, some getting ready to head back out on to the trail and others resting and eating.  One racer was hurting badly; he was from Brazil and only spoke Portuguese.  He had worn two pairs of socks in his normal shoes that restricted blood flow, which resulted in volunteers suspecting his feet may have become frostbitten.  I pulled my boots off and revealed my own set of problems, a set of white and wrinkled looking feet which looked like they had been in a bathtub for a week.  In addition, I had a nice blood blister on my big toe and a very sore Achilles tendon. 


I spent about 45 minutes assessing my situation and visiting with other racers.  My parents were now circling me asking me if I wanted to continue. I could sense they were concerned about me heading into the night. After thinking it through for a while and assessing my physical condition, I made the decision to drop out.  I had sore feet and wet boots.  Heading out into the night was not a wise choice, this is when bad things happen and digits can be lost as the temp gets colder and I only get more tired. Another important lesson I learned from my training and life in general; make good decisions.  Dropping out was the right, logical and safe choice for me.  I never felt any remorse or regret; just the opposite, I felt proud of what I had accomplished.  As I drove back to the hotel that night all I could do was think about the racers out on the trail and that NEXT year I would be one of them. 


I had entered and participated in the 2008 Arrowhead Winter Ultra 135 to the best of my abilities. I will be back for 2009.  I have to; I’m one of these normal weirdoes with a sick passion. For every run or event I enter I always say to myself; “There will be a start line and finish line, in between are your personal limitations, go find yours!”  Until next year-this is my story.  Jack