The 2010 Arrowhead 135
The Arrowhead has become a part of = me. I think about it all the time all year long. Some might call it an obsession.= I know that my wife does. I prefer to think of it as a healthy distraction fr= om day to day life but that’s just me.
This is the fourth time that I have= stood at the start line of this 135 mile winter ultra marathon which traverses the Arrowhead State Trail in northern Minnesota. Every year I make a few change= s in an effort to improve over the year before and every year I have managed to improve my time but I have also always ended up facing some kind of problem that has almost stopped me from finishing. So I have to ask myself, “= How long can I keep this up?” and “Will this be the year that I crack and fail to finish?”
The day before the start conditions= looked to be pretty much ideal. I took a short pre-ride with Lance Andre and Dennis Grelk and we were all amazed at how good the trail was. It was hard packed = and fast. We agreed that a bit more tire pressure would be a good idea to help = us role even faster. I was feeling confident after that pre-ride. My bike was working great and I was feeling great. What could possibly go wrong?=
Gear Inspection Photo – Jan 3= 1, 2010
At the pre-race dinner I met lots o= f old friends that I rarely get to see and met some new people that I hope to see again someday. The race has grown since it started in 2005. That year 11 pe= ople signed up. This year there would be 102. During the dinner Rodrigo from Bra= zil asked me if one of the Brazilian runners could stay in my hotel room with m= e. He knew that I was at the race alone and his friend wanted to be near the s= tart line in the morning. My hotel was right beside the start line. I always like meeting new people and I was happy to share my room with a foreign racer. H= is name was Marco. Rodrigo didn’t tell me that Marco doesn’t speak= a word of English. It made for an interesting evening to say the least.
I woke at 5:00am and immediately st= arted the coffee pot. Marco and I didn’t need a translator for that. We enj= oyed our pre-race coffee together and I showed him the weather on my blackberry.= It was -29C. We didn’t need a translator for that either. -29C is cold in any language. Marco is a runner and I am a biker so at 6:30am we wished each other luck and headed off to the start line knowing that we would not likely see each other again.
The start line was a busy place with everyone checking in and trying to stay warm. At 7:00am we lined up and at = 7:03 someone yelled go. I don’t think that it was the race organizer who s= aid it but we went anyway. There would be no re-start. We were on our way!
The trail was just as good as it ha= d been the day before, hard and fast. There also wasn’t much wind so the -29C was tolerable. The field quickly separated with the race favourites screami= ng away like the race was a 200 yard dash. My general strategy is to start slow and then go even slower as the race progresses so that is what I did. I fou= nd a comfortable pace and enjoyed the rising sun. Riding into a sunrise is alway= s a great way to start the day.
It wasn’t long before the sun= started to warm the day up and I was making good time. The first 16 miles of the tr= ail are quite flat so it was easy riding but quite monotonous. I was glad when = that section was over and I got into the rolling hills that really define this trail.
At about this time, I started leap = frogging back and forth with another rider on a fairly regular basis. Each time I ha= d to stop to eat he would pass me and then I would pass him when he stopped to e= at. He was also going much slower up the hills than me but then would pass me on flat sections. Even though we were always close to each other, we never road together since our speeds were always different. We continued this process = all the way to the first check point, a Gateway store just off the trail. It was the 35 mile mark in the race.
Gateway to Melgeorge’s
At the Gateway store I checked in a= nd got down to the business of refuelling right away. This store has a large varie= ty of food but I knew that I had to be cautious. For the past few years I have been having problems with nausea during long races so this year I made some changes which I hoped would fix all that. I was acutely aware that if I ate= the wrong thing now I would pay dearly later. The memory of that from last year= was still fresh in my mind. I finally settled on two bottles of Gatorade and two Macadamia nut cookies. I even passed on having a Coke! My stomach would tha= nk me later.
While I ate my cookies and drank my Gatorade, another racer sat down beside me named Nicholos Wethington from I= owa. I knew Nicholos from some other races that we participated in so it was goo= d to see a familiar face. After a bit of talking we soon realized that we were t= he two who were leap frogging back and forth before the check point. We just didn’t recognize each other with all our winter gear on. We had a pre= tty good laugh about it.
I finished up my food, refilled my camelback and headed out onto the trail. My total time at the checkpoint was under 20 minutes. It was right around noon now and I still had roughly 100 = more miles to go. The best part of all this is that I was still feeling great so= I was able to keep riding at the same pace as at the start of the race, maybe even a little faster.
About an hour after leaving the che= ckpoint I started feeling hungry. That’s always a good sign. It means that my digestive system is still working properly in spite of the stress that I am placing on the rest of my body. I restarted my regular eating and drinking routine that I had been using since the beginning of the race and hoped that this routine would be adequate to keep me going.
Nicholos caught up to me and we qui= ckly abandoned our leap frog approach. It was way more fun to ride together and = have someone to talk to. I soon realized why Nicholos was going so slow up the hills. He was on single speed bike! Wow! My hat is off to anyone who can do this course on a single speed.
The hills kept getting bigger as we= got closer to the second checkpoint. Our eating, drinking and peeing schedules = were now synchronized so we stayed together for the whole afternoon, riding as m= uch as we could. We had no choice but to walk some of the bigger hills but for every hill we walked there was an equally steep wild ride down on the other side. I have to say that I was really having a great time.
Reality sunk in as I passed one par= ticular hill. I recognized it immediately when I came to it. Five years ago my rear= hub failed in this exact spot. I remembered how quickly things could go from go= od to bad in an instant. On that day five years ago, I was having a great ride, much like today, and in an instant my whole race turned upside down. I felt= a chill as I passed this spot. Even though I was thoroughly enjoying myself, I also reminded myself to not let my guard down. The Arrowhead can be very unforgiving.
Darkness arrived and I switched on = my lights. I love this part. I don’t really know why. I trained a lot in= the dark this year knowing that over half the race would most likely take place under the cover of darkness. It was a clear night and the stars were super bright which just added to the great atmosphere.
The “5 miles to MelgeorgeR= 17;s” sign came into view and then the “2 miles” sign. Even though it= had been a great day, I was ready for a little break. We crossed Elephant Lake = and followed the florescent stakes to a cabin.
Melgeorges was the second checkpoin= t. It is a resort on the shore of Elephant Lake. Just as we arrived, five bikers were leaving which I was glad to see. It would mean that the cabin would be less busy. The inside of the cabin was a beehive of activity. Some racers were eating, some were getting ready to leave, and some looked like they were not sure what they were going to do next. It is easy to get sucked into the com= fort of Melgeorge’s and let several hours slip by. In the past, I have nev= er spent less than three hours there and once I stayed for over twelve hours. I was determined to get in and out of there as quickly as possible.
I met up with Ron Kadera at the che= ckpoint. I first met Ron five years ago when we did this race together and I now consider him a close friend. He was part of the volunteer snowmobile crew t= his year. He asked how I was doing and I couldn’t contain my excitement a= bout the situation. “Ron, I’ve made it to Melgeorge’s and I haven’t bonked yet! First time ever!”
The clothes dryer was free so Nicho= los and I threw in all of our wet gear in an effort to get as much of it dry as we could before we headed out again. There was a huge variety of food there bu= t I was again being cautious about what I allowed into my stomach. Each racer is allowed one re-supply bag with food in it and this is where you pick it up.= I packed mine with extra food for the trail and some pb&j bagels for right now. I inhaled them all. Joanne made me some cookies for this occasion whic= h I also inhaled. In addition to the food I also took in as much water as I cou= ld stuff down my throat and topped off my camelback.
My toes on my right foot were givin= g me a bit of trouble. I normally wiggle my toes quite regularly to keep them warm. All the wiggling had caused my toenail to cut into my toe on two of my toes. There was only a little bit of blood so I covered the chaffed spots with Band-Aids from my first aid kit and put on a fresh pair of socks that I was carrying with me. Hopefully that would be good enough to get me through to = the finish.
With my toes taken care of, my stom= ach full, and my clothes mostly dry, Melgeorge’s had nothing left to offer me. = It was time to leave. I put on all of my gear, said goodbye to Ron, and headed back out into the darkness alone. It was 7:19pm. I had spent less than an h= our at the checkpoint.
From Melgeorge’s into the Abyss...
Nicholos decided to rest at the che= ckpoint for a while so I was travelling by myself again. The trail out of Melgeorge’s climbs for quite a while and then turns into steep rolling hills. I was still feeling pretty strong so I rode the hills as much as I could. I had to walk the steeper ones but the change to walking was a nice = diversion and helped to keep my feet warm and comfortable so that I didn’t have= to wiggle my chaffed toes.
After the rolling hills there is a = flat section before the real hills begin. This is where all the trouble began. It started innocently enough. When the trail became flat and I was riding alon= g at the same pace for a long time, I started to feel sleepy. I’ve had this happen before and I normally just have to get through it. It always passes eventually.
But I was feeling really sleepy. I = got off and walked for a while in the hope that I would come around. No such luck. I was falling asleep while walking.
A biker caught up to me and asked h= ow I was doing. I told him that I was falling asleep but otherwise doing fine. He sa= id that he was having the same problem but was working through it. He continue= d up the trail and disappeared.
I got back on the bike and started = riding. I dozed off several times and road right off the trail. I looked behind me = and saw that my tracks were weaving all over the place from one side of the tra= il to the other. I got off and walked again, still falling asleep as I trudged along. I stopped a couple of times and just sat down on the top tube of my = bike and fell asleep. I would wake up when either some part of me would get cold= or I would fall off the top tube. Both situations were not good.
As all this was happening, the amou= nt of energy that I was expending was decreasing dramatically. Staying warm in th= ese types of races is a combination of wearing the proper clothing and moving constantly to keep the internal furnace burning. If you need to stop you al= so need to put on more clothes or crawl in your sleeping bag immediately. I was stopping to sleep but doing nothing to keep myself warm.
I was starting to get really cold. = I carry some extra cold weather gear and I decided to put all of it on until I could find a decent spot to bivy. I put on my windproof jacket, extreme conditions mittens, and full neoprene face mask. I was now wearing everything that I h= ad with me. I should be fine now.
It wasn’t enough. I was still freezing. My energy output was just too low. I’ve had cold fingers and toes before but this different. My core was getting cold. My chest was cold= . My legs were cold. All of my appendages were cold. When I say all of my append= ages I’m not just talking about my hands and feet, I mean ALL. This was not a good situation.
I had been casually looking for a s= pot to bivy hadn’t been really serious about it because in my heart I didn’t want to do it and I had been hoping that the sleep monsters wo= uld pass. I had already passed several decent spots and not stopped. Now it was= too late. I was so cold that I didn’t have the dexterity to pull out my sleeping gear. Also, my feet were really cold (along with ALL of my other appendages) so I didn’t want to stop and = let them get even colder. And the sleep monsters did not pass. I was still fall= ing asleep while walking.
I was out of ideas. I could not war= m up because every time that I tried to go faster I fell asleep. I was already too cold = to stop and bivy. I was getting colder with every minute that passed. I had let things go too far and now it was too late. I cursed myself for making this rookie mistake.
The feeling that I had at this time= was that of checkmate in the game of chess. It is that time in the game when th= ere are still several moves left but no matter what you do, a checkmate by your opponent is inevitable. There is nothing that you can do about it. Most peo= ple tip their king in defeat at that point but for some reason I prefer to play= it out. Checkmate in 4. Checkmate in 3. Checkmate in 2. Checkmate in 1.=
I had one last idea, an act of desp= eration. I stopped and set my bike down. I started doing jumping jacks until I could feel that my hands were warm enough to move for a minute or two. I reached = into my pocket and pulled out three caffeinated Power Gels. I gulped down all th= ree and took a huge drink of water. By the time that this was done I couldnR= 17;t feel my fingers anymore. It had only been a minute. I put my mitts back on = and did some more jumping jacks until the feeling in my hands came back. I star= ted walking again.
It took about one minute for the ca= ffeine to hit and did it ever hit. I really can’t describe it. All I can say= is that I went from falling asleep while walking to awake, and in I mean wide awake, in a period of about one minute. My last move had worked.
Out of the Abyss
I’ve taken caffeine before an= d had mixed results. In fact, I had been eating caffeinated gels periodically throughout this race which is why I hadn’t thought of this earlier. I guess that the trick was taking three at once. Whatever the case, I was bac= k.
I jumped on the bike and started ri= ding. I felt great. All of my appendag= es were soon warm again which was a huge relief. I removed my face mask. I ful= ly unzipped my windproof jacket because I was starting to overheat. What a wonderful change.
The trail was rolling hills again. I hadn’t even noticed until now. I came over a hill and saw the biker w= ho had passed me quite a bit earlier. I was surprised that he was so close. I caught up to him. His name was Andy Magness. He told me that he was having = the same problem as me with sleep but my light coming behind him woke him up. We started travelling together.
Andy was pushing the pace a bit mor= e than I would have done if I was alone but that was OK. I felt like pushing it a bi= t.
This is the most infamous section o= f the trail. The big hills. They are big and they come at you one after another. = We road though the night together taking on the hills one at a time. = p>
As we crested the top of one partic= ularly long hill we saw a camp fire burning. It was the people who had left the checkpoint just as I arrived. They had stopped to bivy. I could see at least five people: Don Gabrielson, Janice Tower, Jason Novak (I think), and sever= al others. We chatted for a few minutes but standing around meant getting cold= so we quickly got moving. That camp fire sure looked inviting though. It was 2:30am.
After a few more hours, Andy started falling asleep again so I took the lead. Each time that we walked up a hill= I made a point to start a conversation in an effort to keep Andy awake. It was better if we stayed together and I believe that we were going faster togeth= er than we would have if we were each alone.
Andy overcame the sleep problem and= the hills eventually became less steep. I started falling asleep again so Andy = took the lead. It was nowhere near as bad as last time, just dosing off a bit. I didn’t even have to get off and walk. Another gel brought me around. =
Wakemup hill is the last hill of th= e race. It is a monster. We climbed it with pleasure knowing that there would be no more. From this point on the race is flat.
Just after Wakemup hill there is a = teepee which marks the site of the third and final checkpoint. No food or warm building, only water and a camp fire. We refilled with water and warmed ourselves by the fire for a few minutes. I was anxious to keep moving so I = told Andy that I was leaving. There were only 18 miles to go. He decided to leave with me. Just as we were leaving, several bikers pulled into the checkpoint. They were the people that we passed bivying several hours earlier. They were catching up to us fast.
The Final Push
Andy and I tried to set as fast a p= ace as we could. I was in the lead and maintaining about 7 mph. We were still stop= ping regularly to eat and drink so I figure that our actual average speed was cl= oser to 6 mph. We were also walking periodically just for a change of position. Riding a flat trail after 24 hours is very tough. We were doing the best th= at we could. We both knew that the riders behind us wanted to catch us and wou= ld be breathing down our necks anytime.
Each time we stopped, Andy asked me= how fast we were going. Still Seven. That was all I could do. After about 2 hou= rs of this I stopped for a walking break but Andy wasn’t behind me anymo= re. I walked for a minute and he caught up. His chain was giving him some troub= le. He said that he was fine to keep going but he could not ride the same pace anymore. I told him that I would be stopping regularly so he would most lik= ely catch up. I took off.
The end was close and I could almos= t smell it. I found another gear. A combination of knowing that there were several people very close behind me and knowing that the finish was close sent a su= rge of adrenalin through me. My speed climbed to 8 mph, 9 mph, 10 mph, 11 mph. = It felt effortless. I looked behind me every now and then but no one was there= .
At 9:21am I crossed the finish line= alone. My total time was 26hrs and 18 minutes which was good enough for 13th<= /sup> place. I beat my previous best time by over five hours!
The next person to arrive was Jason= Novak. He was only four minutes behind me. Andy came in right after him. I would h= ave really liked for Andy and I to finish together but I guess that it wasnR= 17;t meant to be. Nicholos finished several hours behind us.
38 bikers successfully finished out= of the 52 who started. A total of 60 runners, bikers and skiers finished out of the 102 who started.
Some General Observations
· Pierre and Cheryl Ostor a= re two of the best race organizers on the planet.
· The course was fast this = year but there have been faster years.
· The course was cold this = year but there have been colder years.
· I didn’t bonk!
· I had a great race.
· I almost blew it.<= /p>
That’s it for another year.= span>
Some other technical stuff in case you’re interested:
Bike: Surly Pugsley with Shimano XT gears, rear XT hub with Mornin= gstar winterization kit, front surly fixed gear hub, Hayes mechanical disc brakes, Large Marge wheels and Endomorph 3.7 tires.
Lights: Cateye Opticube, Petzl Tikka Plus, and Cateye= front and rear flashing.
Carrying Capacity: Topeak handle bar bag, Topeak rear = rack, Norco Saddle Bags.
Sleeping Bag: MEC synthetic (-20).
Bivy Sac: Integral Designs (from MEC).
Sleeping Pad: MEC closed cell foam.
Stove: Home made by me from a tuna can.
Stove Fuel: Esbit tablets.
Hydration: Hydrapak backpack with 100oz Source bladder a= nd Platypus tube insulation.
Food: Ensure Plus, Power Gel, pb&j bagels, cook= ies, Gatorade