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.