Arrowhead Ultramarathon 2010
I know many of my friends have read Andy ďThe Good DoctorĒ Lockeryís version of the Arrowhead and I read it myself with eager anticipation. Iím afraid this will be a much more mundane account where I actually try to weave a few facts into the story.
In thinking about this yearís race Iíve come to realize that one of the most valuable assets for any of us who participates in these events is a poor or at least a selective memory. In preparing for the race this year I talked about doing a return to International Falls to make 270 miles. I have a future date with Alaskaís Iditabike on my dance card and thought this would be a good prep. My friend Ian Hall who came along as my support crew last year rightly pointed out that I had finished exhausted and with a rather advanced case of edema. The Arrowhead has so many good memories that Iíd forgotten those trifling details.
After last yearís event, I resolved to try and lighten my bike, as it weighed 68 pounds, which is a lot to push up the hills since it is more than half my own weight. I also planned to spend more time actually pushing my bike up hills in training. This is hard to do around Winnipeg as it is as flat as a pancake and most of my snow bike riding is on the frozen Assiniboine River.
Time has a way of getting away from us all and I totally failed on the plan to spend time pushing the bike. File that one away for next yearís preparations. As for the lighter bike, I ordered myself a new Fatback Ti frame along with hubs, cranks, and rims. The frame came in 10 days before the race and I was so excited only to find that the BB threads needed to be chased, as we couldnít thread in the bottom bracket. We had to send the bike to Tennessee and Iím happy to report that it arrived back safe and sound on Monday, Feb 1st about four hours after the start of the race. Another plan deferred till 2011.
I had looked at a number of the riderís bikes last year and realized that I could lighten and lower the weight on my bike with some of the bags from Eric Parsons at Epic Designs in Alaska. I left it very late but he was terrific and I got a new frame bag, gas tank and he was kind enough to lend me his girlfriendís handlebar harness. His stuff is wonderful and Iím going to add a Super Twinkie seat bag as well as a pair of his massive Poagies, which have enough carrying capacity to use as luggage for a weekend vacation. Thanks Eric for the above and beyond service.
My old and dear friend Andy Lockery agreed to come to act as my crew for the event. This is a long and challenging task, which involves a liberal amount of sleep deprivation, long periods of solitude and frantic scrambling to help when your rider appears at the checkpoint. For Andy it proved to have several other challenges as well. Andy was the first person to have a snow bike in Winnipeg and he was scouting out the event to see if his son Dan might enjoy it next year. Heís pretty sure he would so I can most assuredly mark myself down for one place lower in the standings.
We arranged to pick Markus Waivered who was flying in from Montreal and running the race. If you think 135 miles is a long bicycle ride, it seems like a sprint compared to someone going the whole way on foot. We picked him up on the Saturday morning, as we wanted to arrive in International Falls a day early. Itís interesting to be waiting at the airport for someone you donít know and being able to instantly recognize them. My wife talks about me going away to spend time with my own kind and there is a look or an aura around all of us who do this crazy stuff.
We had a great trip down and got there in time to do our gear check, which meant we wouldnít be dealing with a long line on Sunday. There is a long list of mandatory equipment to enable you to survive if you are forced to stop outside and they are thorough in checking. It was nice to see some familiar faces and catch up with friends from last yearís event or other races.
When we went to check in to our motel, we had a slight glitch, as I didnít remember where I had booked. There were only two places on the race website and naturally I went to the wrong one. The woman was cool and phoned the Tee Pee Motel and the problem was solved. We were right across the road from the start and the pre race meeting which was very handy.
On Sunday, Andy and I drove down Hwy 53 to the Gateway Store, which was the first checkpoint of the race. I paid the girl for a large bowl of soup for Markus and myself for the following day so we could stop and get some nourishment without looking around for money during the race. We then went back and went for a short ride on the course to check out what would be the appropriate tire pressure. The Endomorph tire is 4 inches wide and you can run as low as 7 or 8 lbs. in soft conditions or over 20 when it is firm. It was quite hard and my tires with high pressure were good.
In the early evening there was a race information meeting and pasta feast and I saw and talked with lots of familiar faces. The people involved with this race as either competitors or volunteers are so wonderfully friendly that they are a joy to be around. The town of International Falls is now embracing the event and the mayor spoke with enthusiasm about the hopes to continue growing the event. It has grown from 11 people the first year, to 59 last year and 114 entrants for 2010.
I spent some time in our room getting my bike loaded and reviewing where everything was should I need it on the trail. The race starts at 7 am so it meant rising early to eat and prepare. I felt ready and organized and slept well which isnít always the case. Iíve been racing my bicycle for 45 years and I still get nervous like a kid at his or her first race. I actually enjoy that as you have a real sense of being alive.
Everything was ready to go in the morning and I just needed to fill my Camelbak as well as one nalgene bottle, which would be packed away in my frame bag as a spare. They canít be filled the night before as you need to start with hot water to make sure the water won't freeze in the five or more hours between checkpoints.
†When I went to fill the bladder of my Camelbak, I couldnít find the lid. I searched everywhere many times and it simply wasnít there. This was very distressing as Iíd worked on a system to insulate the hose and nozzle and where it under my jacket. I only used bottles last year and each stop seemed to take at least three or four minutes. With the camelbak in training it was reduced to about 30 seconds. Since you may stop as many as 30 or 40 times in the race this is a huge advantage.
Now that was out the window and I was scrambling to say the least. I ended up with 2 small bottles in the back pockets of a cycling jersey that I wore under my jacket. Andy and I frantically asked around the start if anyone had an extra Camelbak and came up empty. Iíd gone from what I hoped would be a much better water system than last year to a worse one. An old friend Rick Mangen from Grand Forks leant us an extra Nalgene bottle and OR case but with only a few minutes to the start I stuck with the bottles in the jersey pockets.
The race started when one of the races shouted, ďletís go alreadyĒ at several minutes after 7 and off we went down the trail. The pace was fast as I found myself scooting along at 16 or 17 kms./ hour and seeing the leading group vanish ahead on the trail. I had no illusions of staying with them so that was fine but I was quite in awe of their speed. I noticed Iíd lost my front blinking light, which could be a problem at night but a short while later Charlie Tri came along and asked if the light he found on the trail was mine. Much appreciated. After about 15 kms it really starts to spread out and you settle in to the reality of over 20 hours of effort. I took several drinks but it was awkward and decided to drink more at each stop and stop less frequently.
We turned off the Arrowhead trail after 62 kms and went down a side trail at Gateway. As I was heading there, Charlie Farrow was heading out. Charlie is fast and one of the truly fun people Iíve come to know in sports and Iím not just saying that because I made his prestigious top 10 list which just came out on his blog. When I arrived at the Gateway there was a whole crew there all chowing down on soup from one of the four varieties she had ready. I was able to throw my jacket and headwear in the dryer for 15 minutes while I ate.
The exciting news was that Andy had gone all around International Falls and found a no name Camelbak clone. We moved my hose insulation onto this bladder and filled it with hot water and Heed (an electrolyte replacement from Hammer nutrition) and I was on my way with a renewed spirit.† I saw nobody for several hours until Josh Peterson caught up to me while I was taking a short break. He pointed out that the front of my jacket was covered in ice and I quickly realized the new bladder was slowly leaking. I thought of taking it off and emptying the bladder but it was impossible to open my jacket so I was stuck until the checkpoint. I actually found it a blessing when the nozzle froze and I had to start drinking from my spare bottle even though it took much longer.
I was soaking wet when I arrived at Melgeorgeís checkpoint at just after 5 in the afternoon. This is a resort on Elephant Lake and we had a large comfortable cabin. Fortunately, they had a dryer and Andy carefully helped to pull my jacket off without dislocating my fragile shoulder. I had a change of clothes in my checkpoint bag and was able to dry everything before continuing. The ladies at this checkpoint take wonderful care of all of us. Lisa brought me soup and a grilled cheese sandwich and when I said I was still hungry she brought another full order. I also had hot chocolate and many cookies. This seems like a lot but Iíd already been out there for 10 hours and I was about to head out for another 12 hours through the night when it would surely get colder.
I obviously had to forego the Camelbak clone and I shuffled stuff around and carried two Nalgene bottles in insulated cases inside my frame bag. This wasnít very handy but you do what you have to. I left the checkpoint about a half hour after a grouping of five riders including Dennis Grelk† (3rd last year ) and Dave Grey. Dave is a former winner of the Arrowhead and holds the rather unique distinction of being the designer of the Surly Pugsley. Also in the group was Don Gabrielson, who lives in Virginia and works in the high echelons of the Pentagon. He is always cheerful and great to be around.
After the checkpoint you quickly get into a series of hills, many of which were steep enough that you had to walk. This is very hard as itís difficult and tiring to push these fully loaded bikes. I was reminded about the time I didnít spend pushing my bike up hills in training. As it gets dark the downhills are also challenging as you tend to be outrunning your lights and having to react with little warning to any ruts.
After about three hours, I caught a group of three ( Don Gabrielson, Chris Plesko (singlspeeder from Colorado) and Jason Novak form Minneapolis. They were planning on reaching a shelter ahead and building a fire and perhaps bivying. I was feeling fine and had no urge to stop so I carried on by myself.
†This is a very tough portion of the course and I took 9 hours to do it last year in the new snow.† When I left Melgeorges, I had just over 6 hours to reach the checkpoint in time to avail myself of the adjacent restaurant, which closed at 1 am. I looked good for several hours but upon hitting the really steep hills quickly realized that there would be no indoor checkpoint for me. I backed off a bit partly because my headlamp had stopped working. It seemed to be the wiring as it would work every so often and the light was bright but then it would cut out for the majority of the time. Eventually it failed completely. I still had 2 headlights on the bike but they only shine straight ahead and this caused some grief.
I couldnít see my computer but felt I must be getting close to the checkpoint. Two of the guys who were watching out for us on snowmobiles went by and told me it was ďnot too farĒ. Anything more precise wouldnít have helped without the use of my computer. I came to a road and didnít see any signs but did see some stakes that Pierre had mentioned proceeding straight ahead. It turns out that I had missed the corner. Todd Gabrielson† ( Donís brother AKA Snowmobile Guy ) came along with his sled and told me the bad news. I had gone 3 kms too far and headed back to the Teepee of despair, which was set up on the parking lot of the now closed restaurant. I had my bottle filled with ice cold water, warmed my hands briefly at the fire and there was nothing to do but to carry on. Iíd love to see an arrangement whereby the Crescent Bar could be kept open for the two nights of the race. Iím sure all of the participants would pay a little extra in entry so we could all have a chance† for a warm checkpoint.
Itís only 34 kms to the finish and its basically dead flat but Iíve struggled on it both years. I think knowing there is nobody close in front of me or behind means I tend to let my guard down and give in to the fatigue. My feet were getting cold (Iím sure due to low blood sugar) and I took to walking after every 4 kms for about 3 or 400 meters.† I arrived at the finish at 6 : 31 am† after 23 hours† and 28 minutes. I was 11th overall.
I had hoped to be in the top dozen this year ( after coming 4th last year ) as I was aware that there were a lot of fast guys in the race. The three places right in front of me give you an idea of the quality of the field. Charlie Farrow in 8th† was 2nd last year, Dave Grey in 9th is a former Arrowhead champion and Dennis Grelk in 10th was 3rd last year. Tough company for an old guy.
Arrowhead Part II
My plan was to ride the whole way back to International Falls or alternatively to ride back to the Melgeorges checkpoint and then back to the finish. As Ian had pointed out, I had finished last yearís race in rough shape and couldnít have considered riding very far if at all. I thought I might take it a little easier in the race and save myself for the return journey. In retrospect, I should have realized that I would get going and want to race.
I ended up pushing hard enough that a double the distance ride was not going to realistic. I arrived at 6;30 am and after storing my bike and visiting with the officials for a bit, I hunted down our room and went to bed for 4 hours of sleep. When I awoke I still felt weary but I knew I had to eat and get ready or I would get lazy.
†I headed out at about 3 pm. I had hoped to ride back to the Melgeorges checkpoint but ended up changing my plan.† This would have necessitated Andy meeting me there about 1 in the morning. This† proved to be problematic for a couple of reasons. We had no idea where our passenger Markus was or when he would arrive at the finish AND the Good Doctor felt like he was coming down with something. I decided to head out for a 10-hour ride, which would be about the same as a ride to Melgeorges. In that way, Andy could sleep and be there if Markus arrived.
I had rested for about 8 hours, which is obviously longer than I could afford to at a race like Iditabike, but on the other hand, I expect to go at a more moderate pace in Alaska.† I was pleasantly surprised with how good my legs felt and I headed back on the course for 44 kms. I then turned and rode back to the last checkpoint where I could enjoy the hospitality of the Crescent Bar and Grill. There were three bikes outside when I arrived and I saw the guys over in the corner dozing.† I ordered a pasta dinner at the bar and resisted the urge to have a beer.
The three riders arose and readied themselves to head on their way. We chatted briefly and I wished them well. I said Iíd be coming behind them and they assured me that they werenít going to be setting any speed records. While I was eating, Richard and Laurie Woodbury arrived on their bikes. Iíve met them before at the Trans Rockies as well as at Telemark Lodge and we had a visit before I headed out. They had obviously paced themselves well and were looking very comfortable.
I headed out for my final 34 km ride and what I thought would get me to 200 miles. Iíd hoped for 270 miles but this was more realistic. This short ride turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. After about 8 kms I caught up to the three riders who had left in front of me. I decided to ride the rest of the way with them and help and encourage them in any way I could.
We introduced ourselves as we cruised along. They were Phil Jemielita of Minneapolis (originally from Vancouver) and Chris Finch and John Kurth† both from Duluth.† When I joined them, they had been going for over 37 hours and were all tired. I admired their will and determination and the coping skills they brought into play to make up for their waning strength. They supported and helped each other and it was inspiring to be able to share it with them. I know we talked at the opening meeting about all of the competitors being heroes but my ride with them really brought this home for me. Thanks guys. I hope I was of some help to you but I truly got far more than I gave.
†We arrived at 12:30 am so I had put in an additional 9 Ĺ hours. I said my goodbyes to my riding partners and headed to my room for what I thought was a well-deserved night of sleep
†Morning came and our friend Markus arrived after 50 hours and 40 minutes on the trail. He was 6th runner and already planning how to improve for next year. We went to the buffet breakfast and Iím certain that they lost money on me, as I seemed to have the proverbial hollow leg.† We headed for Winnipeg and many of his friends and for sure his wife Val will be surprised to learn that Andy drove the whole way. He swore me to secrecy but I canít resist.
Andy wrote a wonderful and funny article about the race that Iím sure all of you know is a gigantic exaggeration but it was very kind to me. I want to tell you that Andy was a tremendous and it was great to spend time with one of my dearest friends.
The Arrowhead is one of the highlights of my year. I love the competition but I think the friendships camaraderie are even more important. Each year itís great to see guys like Charlie Farrow, Dave Simmons, Chuck Lindner, Josh Peterson, Dave and Gerry Gray,† Lance Andre, Dennis Grelk and the amazing Dave Prammon (good luck in Alaska Dave ) . Thanks to Pierre and Cheryl and all† of the volunteers that make this amazing event possible. Iím already excited about next year.