Two years ago this idea presented itself. This race. But it is not really a race for most, it is an adventure, a challenge, a test, an endeavor that is surrounded by a fog of unknown and mystery. In a time when data is everywhere- where people fully expect to know everything before they agree to try something, the Arrowhead remains an unknown. Not because it is shrouded purposefully, but by its very nature as a long race in a remote area during the depths of the darkest, most unpredictable winter days. The only way to part the fog is to do it. You can read all the past racers' accounts or talk to as many people as possible, even watch the movie about it, but there is no substitute for the effort itself.
Two years ago I didn't even have a fat bike. Two years ago I wouldn't even have considered myself a cyclist. I suppose I still don't. But this idea of experiencing the Arrowhead was enough to get the tires spinning. Upon further research, it turns out they won't just let anyone sign up and try the Arrowhead- but you have to actually qualify! Which is smart, and necessary. To meet the race director's entry requirements I would complete the Tuscobia 150 first in January of 2016. That race, while I did finish, was a hot mess of a learning curve. For the next year I continued to cycle and then began training with purpose in August. At the end of September I sent in my registration by snail-mail and by mid October there it was- my name on the roster for the 2017 Arrowhead Ultra. I decided to again tackle the Tuscobia 160 three weeks before the Arrowhead, giving myself the chance to test my systems and finish in a better state of mind and body than my first attempt a year prior.
Tuscobia went really well for me this year. That positive experience got me excited for the Arrowhead- maybe too excited. In the three weeks between races I focused on recovering and evaluating how the two races would be different, how I would need to adjust my bike setup, equipment, and clothing. Sunday morning showed itself quickly and off to International Falls I went.
The Arrowhead race is a well oiled machine. Gear check, the pre-race meeting, and the spaghetti dinner went quickly and smoothly. It was eye opening and humbling to chat with so many other racers and volunteers who have been part of this for so many years. Listening to their stories, soaking up their hard-earned wisdom, seeing their joy in recounting the struggles encountered on the trail in years past, and studying their mindset as they once again choose to endure this sufferfest- it made me wonder how it is even possible that I will be lining up with them tomorrow morning.
Snow. The trail was in great condition. But snow was coming. This made me nervous. 3-5" falling during the race and warm temperatures in the day. This is not a set of conditions that I have much experience with. I went to bed trying to not think about it.
Fireworks at 7am, and we were off. Beautiful. As the sun rose and the sky brightened, we dove further into the boreal forest of the north. The trail was fast. How do you let your mind behave in this scenario? How do you manage and control the thoughts that can make or break you, and how do you alter flow this as the hours and miles pass by. There is a time to hold back, there is a time to push, there is a time to laugh it off, and there is a time to let your head rest on the handlebars. When your race is this long, every decision has to be made with purpose, as the results of those decisions made now will exponentially influence everything that happens 12+ hours later. I understood this dynamic, had tested and tasted it as a climber, but today I would make a wrong choice early on and pay for it dearly in the dark hours. Before the race started I checked the radar and it looked like the snow would be mostly missing us, splitting on either side of the trial.
The first leg of the race to Gateway is relatively flat, and with the great trail conditions I pushed it harder than I should have. I was flying, pulling into Gateway (35.5 miles in) at 10:30 am and leaving at 10:43 after a downing a coffee. It was snowing beautifully. Not a ton was coming down but enough that I needed to put on my clear glasses to keep it out of my eyes.
This leg of the race to MelGeorges resort introduces the first topographical interests, what most veterans referred to as rollers. These hills were something to reckon with, made you slow down and shift smartly, but not steep enough to force you off your bike and walk. A few of these walking hills were smattered throughout the leg, but the miles ticked away quickly and the snow steadily kept falling. Everyone's pace seemed to be slowing a bit now. Conversation sprung up as people leap-frogged back and forth. The downhills began to get exciting with the increasing snow. My earlier hard pace started catching up to my legs and the ever-lurking tendrils of the cramp monster started to show. I caught up with a rider, Kate, who had completed Tuscobia with me. Her knees were giving her trouble so I passed on some Ibuprofen and we rode for awhile together. Soon enough the trail popped onto Elephant Lake and the mile to MelGeorges flew by.
I pulled into MelGeorges at 3:10 pm, 70 miles done and feeling good. Having listened to others, I knew that the hardest part of the course was the next leg to the Surly checkpoint 36 miles away. I ate two grilled cheese sandwiches, a bunch of salty chips, a bowl of soup, and two glasses of Coke. I refilled my water bladder and checked out at 3:35. I was nervous about this next section, and happy to be starting it in the daylight.
The hills started right away. Ride, push, white-knuckle descent and repeat. Into the darkness. At some point I found myself with three other riders. We would separate on the downhills, regroup on the uphills pushing. Two of them were well versed veterans, the other a rookie like me. The vets words' were helpful, although worrisome. "Conserve your energy, this is the easy part" they said. I wanted to stay with them. I found comfort in their presence.
Enough snow had fallen to make the trail squirrely enough to require your focused attention. As long as you stuck to the worn line you were usually good, but at any moment the sneaky snow gremlin could reach out and whip your front tire wonky. We all lost it a few times. Frustrating but manageable. The veteran racer's bike handling skills were much better than mine. We opened it wide up on the downhills- a bit sketchy but fun! Every downhill was refreshing, in that scary-but-I-like-it-cause-it-breaks-the-monotony way. But it was too much for me. I hit it hard. Lost control of the front and was slammed to the ground, my head smacking the well-groomed snow with a distinct whack that left an identifiable mark. I have no idea how fast I was going, but the skid marks left behind were enough to make the next rider stop and check that I was ok. My head was rattled, I tasted blood in my mouth from where my teeth split open my inner cheek, and one of my rear red blinky lights was shattered. I forced myself to slow down and just breath. Check everything. Check your body. All is good. Check your bike- did you wreck anything else? Just the light. I found all the light parts and was able to get it back together and operational. That was close. That was dumb. From now on, brakes on the downhill.
The hills continued. I caught up with Kate and we pushed onwards together for hours and hours. The hills got steeper and closer. This is when I started laughing. Between hills you might get 15 seconds of actual pedaling. Then hop off and push again. Count the steps- 15 more and then rest. Another hill. Laugh at it and repeat. We didn't see anyone. Even the little flat sections were getting sketchy with the quicksand-like fresh snowfall It was hard to keep a straight line, or even just get started pedaling. We kept dropping air pressure. It helped keep the snow gremlins away, but efficient motion at that low of a pressure doesn't happen. Sometimes it made more sense to just push to the next hill instead of trying to ride. Our conversation helped pass the time. We probably didn't talk that much, but it doesn't take much to fill that kind of space.
A few miles before the Surly checkpoint the course levels out and we actually were able to pedal for long stretches. The characters at the Surly checkpoint make the most of their position on the course, torturing us with spray painted signs starting a few miles out. Both Kate and I shouted with joy upon seeing through the trees the generator-powered lights of the massive teepee. We rolled into the checkpoint at 10:46 pm, elated to have finished the most challenging section of the race. The volunteers welcomed us, offered us oodles of drink choices and warm places to sit around the campfire or in the heated teepee.
Kate and I decided to head out on the last 26 mile leg together. We left at 11:40, having enjoyed the warmth and rest of the checkpoint. It quickly became clear that I was toast. Kate dug deep and took off- ultimately finishing a full hour earlier than I. I was drained. My hard pushing during the first half of the race came back to get me on this last leg. With slow-rolling low tire pressure to keep the snow gremlins away, fading ability to focus on the quicksand trail, and a constant upward slope I was reduced to a crawl. During that last leg rider after rider passed me. Hours passed.
Fortunately I was not completely alone. Another rider, one of the veteran riders I'd been with earlier, was in a similar state and we played leapfrog endlessly. I was tired. So I set goals. Ride for 10 minutes. It doesn't matter how slow you go- you just have to keep moving for 10 minutes. Done. Now you get 2 minutes to rest your head on your handlebars and close your eyes. Drink, eat, and repeat. At one point as I leaped past the other rider I found her laying on the ground in the middle of the trail. Concerned, I stopped and asked it she was ok. Knowing that she is one of the most experienced riders on the trail, I knew she meant it when she stated that lying down for a few minutes helps reset everything, so I continued onwards. Later, as I rested, she passed by again- positively sharing that there was only 4.6 miles left to go. That was a beautiful thing to hear!
4.6 miles takes a long time at this pace. Well over an hour. With the low clouds in the sky, the glow from the Fortune Bay Casino taunts you endlessly. Two more riders pass me- seeming to fly by at a million miles per hour. My legs were tired, more tired than I've ever asked them to be. Spin spin spin- if your legs aren't moving you aren't moving. Finally, the turn at 2 miles out. Little rollers and a few walk-up hills. The taunting of the casino glow hovering above the trees. The finish line pulling like a magnet hiding in the distance.
The orange snow fences emerge as the trees give away. Flat. The finish line is in sight. It glows in the dark, early morning hours. Oh no, there is a hill. Really it is just a bump but at this point I remember thinking to myself "you can't walk your bike through the finish." Somewhere a little gas pumped in and up, over, and through the finish I went. Done. Grinning, drunk with happiness and relief. Like returning home after a big climb. Happiness warmed by exhaustion.
22 hours and 18 minutes. I am torn by this. On one hand, I am incredibly proud and happy to have finished the Arrowhead 135, to have experienced it. On the other hand, as I sit here looking at the finisher award, the same one given through the years to all the finishers, I can't help but feel undeserving. This year's course was the fastest ever- the winner smashing the course record. I'm left wondering what if. What if it hadn't been such good conditions? What if it was like last year's trail? Would I have been able to finish?
Every year is different. Finishing means something, but not everything. Your time means something, but not everything. Every year would give you something new and different to walk away with. Maybe this is why people keep coming back. Maybe that is why I'll have to come back.
Wednesday, February 1, 2017
Tuesday, January 31, 2017
Sunday, January 29, 2017
Arrowhead 135: Rookie Year
It has been about 3 weeks since the Tuscobia 150 wrapped up. I'm not sure where my body is at right now. I've never done two big races this close together. And I think one of my wonderful daughters gifted me an everlasting cold. But, I'm excited and honored to participate in this revered race. My mind is a bit different for this one, framing it less as a race and more of an adventure. Adventures are good. Good for the soul.
Bike is packed. Drop Bags prepped. The weather... warm and snowy. Maybe up to 7 inches starting Monday morning through Tuesday morning. Adventure...
Bike is packed. Drop Bags prepped. The weather... warm and snowy. Maybe up to 7 inches starting Monday morning through Tuesday morning. Adventure...
The Arrowhead Ultra begins in International Falls at 7am on Monday January 30th. It follows the Arrowhead State Snowmobile Trail to Fortune Bay near Tower. I hope to finish early Tuesday!
For those who would like to follow my progress, Trackleaders will be orchestrating a common site to watch all racers with SPOT trackers. You can find this at : http://trackleaders.com/arrowhead17
To follow just me and not all the other racers, go here: http://share.findmespot.com/
shared/faces/viewspots.jsp? glId= 0AFazFo0OyTubr8uY8BXTINdvOiTgr 7LQ
Monday, January 9, 2017
I've written this primarily with the aim of helping myself not forget all the details that time tends to wash away. And I figure why not let anyone else who wants to read it also. In preparing for these races I benefited greatly in reading other people's accounts, so let me add mine to the mix and hope that it can provide something to someone. Everything with a grain of salt of course, just a noob.
Napkin-brewing coffee in a tiny wood paneled motel room while smearing mystery jelly across my face and undersides at 4 am is how I started this race day. Around the room sat ordered piles of gear, each stack prepared by its time of need, and most important to not forget, blocking the door was a half eaten BBQ chicken pizza that I would dream of snarfing down in about a day as I finished this adventure. After training for the last five months with a fully loaded rig, bags filled with sand and old clothes, my bike looked light over there helping the pizza block the door. A mental trick this looking light thing, but mental tricks keep your legs spinning when the darkness closes in.
The first pile of gear I turned to consisted of layers, so many layers. With temps projected to be below zero for the whole race, I was happy to have tested my system of thin, breathable, but incredibly warm uppers and lowers. For the chest I would don a total of five layers to start, with two more packed should I need them, which I did. Merino wool for the first two, then zippered synthetics for the next two, and topping off with a cycling jacket that kept wind at bay in the front but breathed in the back. The insulated 100 oz. hydration pack goes under the jacket, with the insulated hose going under my arm and tucked along my chest. This was my first mistake- should have put it deeper. Lastly comes the reflective tape vest, a race requirement given the fast-moving snowmobiles we would encounter on the trail.
My legs I ran thin with only a pair of bike shorts under windstopper running pants, preferring cold legs to hot and sweaty. Sweat is what gets you when it is this cold. If it freezes solid, then it can't get off you. Keep your layers breathing, keep the vapor moving, don't ever let it condense on you. Ice is sticky.
Feet are the hardest part to keep warm, and probably the number one reason people drop out of the race and suffer from frostbite. Clipless bike shoes are usually worn too tight, restricting blood flow to the part of your body that is already fighting against gravity to get warm blood moving. And, I can't afford fancy winter specific bike boots! Today I would rock the clunky but always warm and roomy Mukluks inside a Neos overshoe, with a layer of lexan plastic between to add some rigidity. I would have no problems with cold toes during this race, and the Neos overshoes provided great traction for the bumps I hiked up at the end.
My headwear was a meticulously constructed system of layering that could be easily adapted with little effort to whatever conditions and symptoms presented. First on came the back-up balaclava that would serve primarily as a neck buff. Second was the blue-plaid balaclava with holes cut into it's mouth region for easier breathing. Then the merino wool 45NRTH cycling cap, which is worth it's weight in gold. Pull the plaid balaclava over the cap and get the headlamp in position. An extra hat and two headbands were stashed in my handlebar bag. Headbands are great for protecting your nose and cheeks without getting in the way of breathing.
Hands. Sweat is the problem with cold hands. With Bar Mitts on the bike handlebars to keep the wind off, breathability is my number one requirement. First on was a thin glove, then a pair of Black Diamond fleece mittens. I stashed a second pair of fleece mittens in the Bar Mitts, another super warm set in my front handlebar bag, and a third waterproof set for emergencies with my bivy gear in the seat bag. To fight the demons of cold when their powers are greatest at night, a pair of hand-warmers provided mental comfort in my frame bag food stash.
Dressed and ready, I prepped by post-race duffel. Filled with everything and anything, this is the one bag to grab from the car at the finish line to make a quick recovery. At the finish last year I was in rough shape and didn't really know what to do to recover best. This year- I would be ready. And, don't forget the pizza. In the car and driving at 5:15 to the start.
Checked in. 3 Blinky lights, a headlamp, and a 700 lumen bike light for when the dark got really dark- all mounted and working. Race number 45 pinned to the front. The 160 racers mill around the Knights of Columbus Hall, enjoying the warmth as long as possible. The race director calls 10 minutes till start. We all begin layering back up and heading out to our rides.
The 2 minute warning is shouted, and this is where the fun begins, as no one is lining up yet. So I hop up on the trail, placing myself 50 feet back from where the start line formed last year, thinking to myself that this would be the middle. But then everyone starts lining up behind me. No! I start telling the people behind me that I'm not the front, that I'm slow, that seriously the front is up there and you are just going to pass me right away! No one listens. Two other rides join me in parallel at the self-established starting line and I recognize one of them as a past Arrowhead winner. I have a feeling this will the only race that I will ever find myself at the front of the starting line!
The race directors come to the start, give a little pep talk, and shortly after 6 am the race begins. I tucked behind super fast carbon fiber guy, and for approximately 30 seconds I was in 2nd place. That was fun. I was quickly passed by the real racers and watched the unbelievable pace they established as their red blinky lights crept further into the distance. Surprised by the darkness I found myself in, I took a glance back and saw that I was alone. The next group of bikers was far behind me. I questioned my pace. Was I going too fast? Is this sustainable for the next 155 miles? It felt good, so I kept it moving. Sometimes pedaling alone is good, it lets you pick your own speed rather than latch onto the slower person in front of you or be pushed trying to keep up with them.
I settle in, focusing my headlamp beam on the trail and listening to my legs. Time passes quickly and the sky lightens as we work East. The trail is in phenomenal shape- well groomed, hard packed, wide and fast. The tire treads of the leaders guide me to the fastest line, and I am happy to have set a higher than normal air pressure of 12 psi. The cold is there, but it poses no problems. I feel good and I find myself pushing it. The thought enters my mind "Are you racing this thing?" and I find myself saying yes. Last year, I just wanted to finish. I really don't know how to race though...
Everything felt great, so I just kept going. I wasn't thirsty, I wasn't hungry, and I wasn't cold. The hills coming into Birwood were fun. I stopped at the top of the big one, finally having the thought that I need to drink and eat for the future, not for the now. My hydration pack hose had frozen itself solid. While I had blown it clear when putting it on before the start, there is always a little water that will gather in the lowest bend. I stripped all my layers, removed my pack, took the detachable hose off and shoved it down my shirt. While I suited back up three racers passed me. I set off, passing the three, waiting for my body heat to melt the ice blocking the hose. Watching my clock, I stopped an hour later, stripped back down and dug out the now melted and clear hose. This time as I suited back up I put my hydration bag much lower down, and this prevented any further freeze ups. The three racers passed me again while I dealt with this, and for the next few hours to Ojibwa we leap-frogged each other through the beautiful northwoods forests and fields.
I checked into Ojibwa at 10:56 am in 6th place, approximately 45 miles in, averaging about 9 mph for the first leg of the race- faster than my goal of 8 mph. Four other bikers soon arrived. Not needing to refill water, I chugged some warm broth and checked out 12 minutes later. The next stretch to Park Falls went fast. The clear sky brought welcome sun, and it was uplifting to pass and cheer on the 80 miler bikers, skiers, and runners heading the opposite direction.
My legs felt great, and I kept pushing it. I began passing the 160 mile hikers heading towards Rice Lake, and any fatigue or pain I felt seemed insignificant relative to the effort they were enduring. I didn't see a single biker heading my direction, arriving 35 miles later in Park Falls at 2:55pm in 5th with one of the leaders dropping out. My average speed had maintained itself at about 9 mph, putting me 1.25 hours ahead of my 8 mph goal for the race.
Knowing that the return trip back to Rice Lake in the cold darkness is the harder half, I slowed down a bit at this checkpoint, taking care to think big picture and get things set right. Filling water, eating delicious baked goods, using the bathroom, reapplying mystery jelly where applicable, and thawing the frozen ice off my balaclava, the time passed quickly. Another rider checked in and headed out in an impressive 18 minutes. I checked in to the digital world, and upon finding that my SPOT tracker had given up in the cold, I moved it into the top sunglasses pouch of my hydration pack, hoping that it's proximity to my body warmth would allow it to function. I spoke briefly with a few loved ones, then began the process of suiting up again. Stomach full, extra upper layer on, and ready for the coming darkness, I headed back to Rice Lake checking out 33 minutes later at 3:28 pm.
I began to feel the first-half's fast miles as the sun set. The familiar background ache that precedes cramping started to make its presence known and I adjusted my effort level accordingly. While I never got a full on cramp, my pace was greatly hampered as I battled against this lurking enemy. Rather than pushing it effort wise, I found myself shifting easier to spin more. This was a better choice than pushing it hard, cramping, and then having to work out of that deep hole. I also began to take electrolyte pills every 30 minutes to supplement the mix in my hydration pack. Stopping every 30 minutes to drink, eat, and stretch, time crept forward and the miles ticked away.
The moon replaced the sun and lit the snowy landscape well. My headlamp kept me on the well worn fast line. Snowmobilers zoomed past and the temperatures dropped. Just like last year, this was the shift. Heading West into Winter, the last place to stop before the checkpoint in Ojibwa, I did not fall into the trap of saying "you're almost there" and ignore the signs. This year, when the cold started biting deeper, I stopped immediately and pulled on the last upper layer in my arsenal- a thin down jacket. What glorious warmth! Rolling into Winter, I pulled up to the only gas station there is, adding my bike to the 3 runner's sleds parked in front of the Crushed Ice freezer and bundles of firewood. Heading inside, I joined the other racers in the corner by the coffee machines, stretched, chugged a large coffee/cappuccino, and mowed down a delicious slice of pepperoni pizza. Preparing for the cold night I opened up the hand warmers that I had been carrying for the last 110 miles, only to find they didn't work. Luckily the gas station had a fantastic selection of very effective and working warmers to choose from. Chatting with the hikers and one other biker that I shared the gas station with, I couldn't help but feeling a bit guilty knowing that I was going to leave here on a bike, fully enjoying the wonder and efficiency that is the wheel.
Spirits high and hands warm I headed out of Winter to the Ojibwa checkpoint about 5 miles away. The ever lurking cramps seemed to have been pushed deep into hiding, but a new struggle reared it's head. The arctic air was taking its toll on my lungs and my breathing was slowly becoming impaired. I was not surprised to feel this after last year's struggle with breathing in the cold. My focus shifted. No longer was my pace to be dictated by my legs or impending cramps, but by my breathing. Despite this observation, I maintained high spirits and kept a pace that I was happy with. I had not entered survival spin mode like I did last year, but felt confident in my body's ability to keep functioning at a fairly high level. Onwards I went, now chasing Venus as it set into the moonlit snowy landscape.
Passing many hardy hikers trucking West, I pulled into Ojibwa in 6th place at 8:20pm. With my stop in Winter my average speed had dropped to about 7 mph. This last stretch would be the hardest. 45 miles. What did I need to do here, in the warmth and light of the shelter, that would help me get through this? Headphones. Trying to get headphones in, connected, and strung through your layers in the cold dark with numb fingers is a great way to kill your spirit on the trail. Do it now and be prepared for later. I pulled out 14 minutes later at 8:34pm.
Breathing slowly got more difficult. I slowly shifted easier. Cramps weren't an issue any more. My knees started to hurt. Ibuprofen helped that. I was tired. Sleepy tired. Had some caffiene tabs that helped. 30 minutes at a time. Stop, drink, eat. 30 more minutes. Started setting goals. Pedal till 10pm, then you can turn on your big headlight. A glorious 700 lumens lit up the trail, instantly brightening everything. Another 30 minutes. Passed another burly beast of a hiker. Gosh wheels are awesome. Midnight comes. Just keep pedaling.
Finally to Birchwood. Bank sign reads -11. Last year it said -13. There is no wind this year. The hills heading out of Birchwood are a welcome change. Going down. I spin up most of the way, walk the rest - a nice reprieve from pedaling. My knees hurt more. More ibuprofen. The railroad tracks, the long gentle upslope that lasts forever. I feel good. My breathing is labored, but not worrisome. My pace is good, pushing it and not just spinning.
Mile markers to the end start showing. Just get to that one hill, a dip the signs label it as for the snowmobilers. Pass two 80 mile bikers. First bikes I've seen in hours. Here is the hill! The hill means half a mile left to the left turn into Rice Lake. And there it is, the turn!
Getting to the final turn and reflecting back on a year ago in this same spot, my spirits jump. Last year at this point I was a wreck, physically broken down into survival spin mode. Last year I was euphoric at reaching this turn, knowing that there was only five miles left to suffer through as the sun rose for the second time. This year the sun is still far below the horizon, my body is far from wrecked, and I find that despite aching my energy stores are high. I decide to push it that last five miles, and it feels wonderful. I feel fast. With no bike computer to state my speed I have no idea what fast means at 3am and 155 miles in. Probably around 9 mph. But fast is fast in your head.
I pull into the finish at 3:31 in the morning. 160 miles in 21 hours and 28 minutes. I am grateful to see the race director and staff, who welcome me, snap pictures, pass me a finisher cap. Incredibly happy, pleased, proud- not sure how to describe it, but I know it is good, of how the race played out. Leaning my bike against the wall, I speak to it as you would a horse at the end of a long ride, giving thanks and praise in soothing tones. I am tired. I grab my post-race duffel and let my recovery gear warm up in the hall. And finally, I eat that pizza.
Time to recover. Arrowhead 135 is in 3 weeks. I'm grateful for the opportunity tackle these adventures and learn that which can only be done by doing. I look forward to many more doings.
Tuscobia Ultra Facebook Page
Sunday, January 8, 2017
Wednesday, January 4, 2017
Link to SPOT Tracking for Tuscobia 150
Link to Results and Checkpoint Times.
Link to Results and Checkpoint Times.
- The race begins at 6am on Saturday January 7th.
- Tracking will be turned on shortly before to confirm it is working.
- This link will only show Hunter's progress, not other racers.
- Updates will be posted on this blog site as time allows.