Racing through Heaven and Hell at the Arrowhead 135
By John Storkamp
The Arrowhead Winter Ultra is an unsupported 135-mile race that takes place in Northern Minnesota near the Canadian border. This year’s race was held on February 6. In addition to doing it on foot, competitors can choose to attempt the course on bike or skis and all racers are given 60 hours to complete the course. All competitors are required to carry with them mandatory survival gear, food and water. The race is held on a hilly, state multi-purpose / snow machine trail and was created in the mold of such races as the Susitna 100, Yukon Arctic Ultra and the Iditarod Trail Invitational. As anyone who runs ultras knows, it is nearly impossible to describe the heaven and hell that we go through in these long distance events. In a winter event, in sub-zero temperatures, pulling a heavy sled full of gear, with little aid, this becomes especially true.
As the Arrowhead 135 approached, I had a good base of high mileage and strength from my 2005 running season, plus several months of specialized training for the race. The Arrowhead had been in the back of my mind ever since I first heard of it—as a dirty little secret that I dare not tell anyone. My wife looked concerned when I first mentioned it to her so I assured her I would not be doing it anytime soon. Meanwhile, I continued to entertain the idea of running it “someday.” I have found that saying “someday” is a way to trick myself into doing this kind of thing. Length aside, the prospect of competing was highly daunting due to the fact that the race, now in its second year, had not yet been finished by a competitor in the foot / running division.
But this past fall, when I ran into a good friend, experienced ultrarunner Scott Wagner, and he told me that he would be attempting it, I decided to go for it as well. Scott is the kind of guy who is not afraid to try anything; his lack of fear and his enthusiasm inspired me to go beyond my perceived limits and to give it a try. My hope was that my winter camping experience coupled with a handful of ultras, over a decade of marathons, backpacking, strength training, knowledge of gear, engineering aptitude and working a physical job would all add up to a finish at the Arrowhead 135. I trained long hours for this event: on the road, on the trail, on the hills, winter camping, snowshoeing and, of course, pulling my pulk sled. The pulk sled is the preferred means of carrying the mandatory survival gear required by the race directors. In addition to spending many hours building the sled, I also devoted countless hours tweaking the gear and my methods and then testing them over and over again. Invaluable to my success was also the time spent talking to other athletes, especially those who were experienced in this type of event.
Quiet before the cold
Scott Wagner and I left the Twin Cities on the Saturday afternoon before the race. We stayed with a mutual friend in Duluth on Saturday night. As we drove northeast from Duluth to the race start in International Falls on Sunday, the temperature started to drop quickly. When we left Duluth at 6:00 a.m. the temperature was -3 F degrees, but the closer we got to International Falls, the colder it got. The thermometer in Scott’s truck said -24 F at one point; later we heard that it had officially gotten down to -15 F. We knew then that the conditions for the next few days would be much colder than had been forecasted.
Once we arrived in International Falls, gear check went well: Don Clark and Bonnie Sue Riley performed their jobs well and without apology. As Don knows (from his own winter racing experience at the Susitna 100), proper equipment in this race can make the difference between life and death—or frostbite and hypothermia at the very least. The average weight of all the runner’s sleds was somewhere in the 40-pound range. Some runners travel much lighter at races like Susitna and the Yukon Ultra, but with only one gas station / general store nearby (a quarter mile off the course) at mile 38 and one checkpoint at mile 67, you are forced to carry a substantial amount of food and water if you do not want to mess around with melting snow for drinking later in the race. For my first winter race of this kind it was not worth skimping on gear, even if it meant traveling a little heavier as a result.
The pre-race meeting was informative and was a good chance to meet the other competitors. I have always known mountain bikers were easier to take than road bikers but these “icebike” guys are a different breed all together and I enjoyed talking to them. I had a lot of respect for everyone trying this race, and especially for the 4 others who would be trying it on foot.
Race morning went well. Scott and I got up plenty early and got on one of the shuttle buses arranged to take us to the start. It was a little chilly in the morning and the National Weather Service reported that the morning’s low was -20 F. I stayed in the van until about 5 minutes before the race started, as I was dressed too light to just stand around in the cold. I needed to be moving in order to generate body heat to stay warm.
When we all finally got started it happened without much hype. Five runners, two skiers and 25 bikers had begun this long journey. It felt good to finally be starting the race but within a couple of hours we would all find ourselves challenged by the conditions. It seemed that within a few hours things started to go wrong for everyone. My first challenge was gear-related: My hydration tube froze within the first half hour due to a leaking bite valve. We heard that five people dropped out within the first 15 miles.
As Scott and I reached the 15 mile mark my right knee started getting sore, which had also happened during my last long training session while pulling my sled. Two other runners were already far ahead of us. Scott and I kept the pace sensible and stayed together until the 20th mile or so. We started to drift apart because I found that increasing my pace seemed to help my knee. At 5:10 p.m., as I reached the Gateway General Store (mile 38), Jim Benike was just leaving. Jim, a tough and very experienced ultrarunner, had finished in fifth place at the Badwater 135 in 2001. By that point, my knee was still bad but my energy and attitude were good. Once in the General store I ate, drank and filled my water bottles.
After an hour at the store, I left by myself, prepared to push on all night long. At one point I passed a shelter and recognized another runner’s sled and tent—he had stopped to sleep for a while. By mile 50 I was ready to sleep as well, but I still pushed on, I was now in second place. By 3 o’clock in the morning I was getting cold, I was limping on my knee and both of my Achilles were swollen and painful. In addition to the pain, I was having stomach problems and was not taking in much fluid or calories. I had begun dozing off to sleep while walking and my eyes started playing tricks on me. Adding to my difficulties, as I got closer to the halfway point, Melgeorge Resort (mile 67), the trail got hillier. Within 5 miles of Melgeorge I was in so much pain and so fatigued that I began thinking that upon my arrival I might have no choice but to drop out of the race. At 7:30 a.m., I finally arrived at Melgeorge where I met up with Jim Benike again. He looked like he had had a hard night as well, but he was preparing to go back out for more. Once in the cabin, my speech was slurred when I spoke and I was confused. I was falling asleep at the table while trying to eat. Over the previous 38 miles and 13-plus hours I had consumed less than 2 liters of fluid and hardly any calories. I decided that the only way I was to get going again was to sleep for a while. At 8:30 a.m. I went to sleep, waking myself up at 9:30 for more fluid and food. At that point the pain had really taken hold of me and it was hard just to move around the cabin—every part of me was sore. Not sure what would happen when I awoke the next time, I went back to sleep for another hour. When I woke up the cabin was quiet and I felt slightly better. Gene Kurnow and his son were in charge of the checkpoint and did a great job. With their help I was ready to give the second half of the race a shot.
Leaving the halfway checkpoint was intimidating, as I knew that I would probably not see anyone over the last 67 miles. More hills greeted me after leaving Melgeorge, but with the light of the day and the decision to get moving again I started to feel pretty good: Within a few hours my endorphins kicked in and the pain started to subside. By the time I reached the Myrtle Lake shelter (mile 85) it was starting to get dark and I started to feel even better. It was at that point that I started to do some running, which I had hardly done up until then because of my knee problems. By the middle of the night my body still felt strong; however, I was starting to feel the effects of sleep deprivation. Nevertheless, I pushed on.
As I became more tired, cold and depleted I became very confused. At one point I was convinced that I was within 5 miles of the finish, I then ran into Jim Benike again. He was setting up his tent on the side of the trail, which seemed strange to me. It was about 2:00 a.m. Wednesday, and my confusion grew deeper. My original estimates from earlier in the day put me in at the finish around 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday. But here I was at 2:00 in the morning thinking I was 5 miles from the finish wondering why Jim would be camping when so close to the end. I mumbled a bunch of slurred nonsense at him and then asked if he had been to the finish yet, at that point he probably knew I had lost it. My reasoning was that I thought we were at the finish and Jim had come in first and now he was going to sleep in his tent until morning before packing up and going home. Jim told me we were a long way from the finish and offered for me to bivy by him for the night. I told him I was going to push on and try to find the finish. I learned later that I was still around 30 or 35 miles from the end of the race at that point.
I pushed on after that and was quickly overcome by bouts of sleepwalking and hallucinations. By 5:00 a.m. I was a wreck. On top of my mental instability and inability to stay awake I was also soaking wet from running throughout the night and from the extra effort it took climbing over the 20 miles of hills around Myrtle Lake. Half asleep and shivering in 15-below-zero temperatures, I stripped off all my wet clothes and put on dry stuff. I got into my sleeping bag, set the alarm on my watch and was asleep by 5:30 a.m. At 8:00 a.m., just as my alarm was going off Jim just happened to be walking by. By this time I knew my errors in judgment from the night before. I checked and found that I was still at least 20 miles plus from the finish. I quick got my things together and caught up with Jim, hoping that maybe we could travel together for a few hours. Jim was having a hard time with his foot and back; in addition his sled was giving him problems. I talked to him briefly and then pressed on, assuming that he would need his energy to dig deep, not chitchat with me. As I warmed up I started to feel great and I started running much of the time as I progressed toward the finish. The miles clicked off and I felt better with each one.
Within 7 miles of the finish, Ron Kadera (one of the great volunteers on snowmobile and a finisher on skis from last year) met me on the course and told me how far I had to go. The last seven miles were a celebration—not a death march like the end of some ultras—and it was an incredible feeling. Within a quarter mile of the finish, Scott Wagner came up to meet me on a bike. I got to the official finish and no one was out waiting for me, which seemed like an appropriate end to a such a solo / self-supported race. Cheryl recorded my time and that was it, I was done. I got a Coke and waited for Jim to finish. Jim came in a while after me and it was great to see him make it. Also I was happy for all the bikers who made it and for my fellow runners and the skiers who did not make it to the finish. All of the other runners made it to the halfway point, which is a huge accomplishment in itself.
Next Year? Of course.
The race was challenging and the course was beautiful. A 60-hour cutoff seemed generous at first but now I understand. I can’t thank Pierre and Cheryl Ostor enough for putting this together and keeping it pure. The fact that the race is self-supported combined with the hours of isolation and cold made it especially challenging and, in turn, especially rewarding to finish. I would also like to thank all of the volunteers: Don Clark, Bonnie Sue Riley, Ron Kadera, Rayo, Gene Kurnow and his son, the people at Gateway General Store and everyone else who helped with the race. I am proud and humbled to be the first one to ever cross the finish line of this race on foot. My goal was to finish and not worry about my time or place. If any ultra can bring you through ups and downs than this event will drag you through heaven and hell. Hope you can make it next year. You’ll love it, I promise.
John Storkamp, MN [26 years old]
53 hours 5 minutes.
Jim Benike, MN [56 years old] 54 hours 40 minutes
Nick Lowe, MN [26 years old] DNF
David Heitkamp, IN [55 years old] DNF
Scott Wagner, MN [40 years old] DNF