Wednesday, January 31, 2018

First DNF

The first Drop

I made it about 72 miles in 10ish hours to the 2nd checkpoint at Melgeorges and dropped out.  I never thought it would play out that way, but I suppose no one thinks they are going to drop.  During the race, the decision was drawn out and torturous.  I almost think mentally it would have been less taxing to just have finished.

From a systems perspective- food, water, strength, cramps, layers, staying warm- everything was going great.  It was empowering to see everything coming together after the hours and hours of prep and training and testing.  It would have been an easier decision to drop if something acute went wrong.  But no, this was deeper. Something wasn't right.

Sitting comfortably at home now, digitally watching the last of the racers come in on Wednesday, my mind is finally clearing and able to reflect upon at everything that unfolded in this years Arrowhead 135.  I've been on antibiotics for 24 hours now.  I got the flu.

Below I have written an account of the race from my perspective.  It is long and I am not the best writer, so continue onward with that in mind.  These words are here to help me remember as the past erases too much, especially when it comes to the powerful lessons provided by failure.

Sunday night after the pre-race meeting I hitched a ride back to the hotel and finished putting my rig back together.  And I ordered a medium pizza and ate it all.  Throughout the day this cough I had was getting worse, but I brushed it off, thinking about all the rides I'd done in the past with a cough.  With my bike ready and all my gear staged for tomorrow I relaxed, read, and eventually went to bed. 

Sleeping didn't work well as the cough grew into a never ending assault that made me riddled with guilt thinking about the racers in the rooms next to me.  My head started pounding and I started to swing between freezing and sweating.  5 am couldn't come soon enough.  Ibuprofen seemed to help a bit, so while I was bummed about this development I was not worried. 

The alarm finally announced go time.  Coffee going and morning business taken care of, but I couldn't get myself to eat.  Maybe it was the whole pizza I ate?  I was able to keep taking in fluids as I got dressed and ready.  I was burning up though.  Turned the AC unit on and that helped.  With the bike loaded with the last bits and my non-race gear packed I headed down to the lobby.  Another racer volunteered to bring my duffel in their car to the starting point.  I headed out at about 6:10 on my bike, a short mile ride to the start.

Immediately my knees hurt.  What!  I'm not even at the start yet!  My mind raced, or rather bounced all over, as I tried to interpret this.  I'd spent the last year addressing the knee issues that arose after last year's Arrowhead and Tuscobia.  I'd worked with a physical therapist, gotten a bike fitting, and in all the riding I'd done leading up to this my knees hadn't hurt a single bit!  During those long training rides I had mentally practiced the thought processes I would use when different obstacles would arise.  But this, the unexpected arrival of both knees being punks, was not a hurdle I had anticipated.  My mind immediately descended into a dark place.  I hadn't even reached the start.

When in doubt and safety isn't a concern, default to no thinking.  This is a valuable mind tool from the climbing world- just keep going and tell your mind to shut up.  I checked in at the start, grabbed my duffel from one car and put it in another that would be waiting at the finish line.  As I waited for 7 am I alternated between standing outside in the cold (-8 I think) and inside the building where we checked in.  Too hot, too cold, not dressed to be standing around- I just wanted to get started.  My mind seemed to be getting cloudy, but I hoped that the pumping of my heart once we started rolling would bring distraction and clarity.

7 am start with fireworks and cheers and energy.  Last year I took it out hard and paid for it later.  This year my strategy was to play it conservative, not worrying about time as it is meaningless when the weather and trail dictates everything.  And, going unsupported this year means I would have no warmth to retreat to should I need to recover.  No recovery, just consistently, smartly moving forward.  With hope I'd have extra energy to spend during the last miles of the race.

The cold air soothed my throat, but the cough maintained itself proudly and my head pounded onward dutifully.  My knees hurt, but the pain was manageable.  My mind was distracted as I tucked in with five others and pedaled forward.  I focused on what I saw around me and not what I felt inside me.

9 miles in at the first turn to the East.  The trail was packed well, but I felt like I was working too hard.  I decided to stop and add some air to my back tire.  The rubbed gasket on the pump that creates a seal around the valve had become inflexible in the cold and wouldn't create an airtight junction.  Nearly all the air in the back tire escaped as I fiddled with it.  Finally I was able to get it sealed on tight and pumped and pumped and pumped.  Back on the bike, my average speed bumped up by over 1 mph.  This was a positive change.

The Arrowhead give you many things.  One of them is time to think.  Sometimes this is a wonderful gift.  Sometimes it is the end of you.  Time slowly ticked away and it became harder for me to not think about what was coming.  You can think of the AH135 as 4 sections.  The first is fairly flat.  The second section from the Gateway checkpoint to the halfway checkpoint at Melgeorges is the rollers.  The rollers are taxing, with a few super steep hills that demand walking and pushing your bike thrown in for good measure.  The third section to the Surly checkpoint is the hills.  This is the most challenging section.  Hill after hill.  Push your bike up, swing your leg over, roll down, dismount, and repeat.  For hours.  The last section is mostly flat and mind-numbingly straight, with a slight upward grade that wears you down. 

As the first checkpoint approached I found myself asking the forbidden question.  I frame it that way because if you never ask the question then you don't have to answer it.  But I asked it, and so the battle began.  I argued back and forth silently as my legs kept spinning and the snow kept crunching under my tires.  I stuck to my schedule of eating and drinking, promising that I wouldn't let my mental darkness sabotage itself.  Eventually I arrived at the conclusion that I was doing well enough to continue onward to Melgeorges.  The rollers between Gateway and there would answer the question for me.  Gateway arrived.  I rode around the cone and back onto the trail, never putting a foot down, never giving myself a chance to think anything else.
Just after the first checkpoint

The rollers began.  I find the rollers to be deceptive.  They look so mellow and nonthreatening.  But their length makes them zappers of energy.  The snow was weird today.  While it looked packed down, it seemed sticky- even on the gentle downhills I wasn't able to get much of a roll going.  Chatting with other racers as we played leapfrog, it was agreed that the trail was in a weird state. 

It was the steep hills that stuck it to me.  Both knees started to scream as I dismounted and pushed my bike up.  What was more alarming was my inability to make it up these hills without feeling deeply drained.  I would take a few steps and have to stop.  Not to catch my breath, but just to build up energy.  I remember feeling this way last year just before the Surly checkpoint, much further into the race and the depths of exhaustion.  But to feel this way now?  Why?  More importantly, what does this mean?  Ibuprofen did nothing to help.

I wasn't ready to answer the question yet.  Just keep moving forward.  Execute the plan you've prepared, as you have to get to the checkpoint no matter what you decide.  As planned, I stopped at about 3 pm at the 3-sided snowmobile shelter 12 miles before Melgeorges.  My plan was to melt snow to restock my 40 oz themos and eat warm food (ramen!) before darkness arrived.  This would set me up well to make it though the hills after Melgeorges, as I had another 3 liters of water on my back so I wouldn't have to stop in the darkness.  It felt good to stop and rest after 8 hours of moving.  My legs felt strong and the hot noodles went down easily.  I shared the shelter with Steve and his positivity was a wonderful distraction.  At about 3:45 I rolled on, with full water and stomach, ready to tackle the 3rd section in good form.  Maybe I had just needed some rest!

Almost immediately there after leaving a huge hill presented itself.  It destroyed me as I struggled to push my bike up it.  My knees screamed with each step and my body simply wanted to lay down in exhaustion.  It wasn't my legs, but my body.  This confused me.  Why would I be so deeply exhausted after just 8 hours?  Why do my legs feel strong, but the fuel isn't getting to them so they can carry out their strength?  My mind reeled as I swung my leg back over the bike and rolled forward.  I reflected on how the day had progressed, and it was clear that my state was only getting worse.  The sun began to set and I found myself enjoying the beautiful landscape as it glowed brightly.  I stopped and snapped a picture about 5 miles from the checkpoint and looked to the full moon that would soon be casting a much different light on this snowy landscape. 

Elephant Lake finally appeared and the crossing to Melgeorges unfolded in front of me as I rode alone across the iced up lake under the darkening sky.  The last two hours and 12 miles had answered the question for me.  I would drop.  There was too much happening inside me that I did not understand.  I wish it had been a clear, decisive moment where the answer magically popped into my head and I felt relieved by it.  But no.  I wrestled.  Thoughts swirled like sparks from a fire that has been provoked too much.  Questions of worth and character and strength and implications flooded.  I was crushed and torn and frustrated and beat down.

I wrestled with it even as I laid my bike down and walked up the steps into the cabin to check in.  I opened the door and quietly provided my number.  Seeing the bright yellow ribbon pinned to my number the volunteer respectfully asked if I was giving up my unsupported status, and I replied "No, I'm dropping."  He read the situation well, and kindly offered to ask me again in 20 minutes once I'd had a chance to rest a bit in the warmth of the cabin.  But no, I was done.

I sat there for a long time, mostly silent, listening and watching the other racers, trying to find ways to reconcile the madness in my mind.  Three other racers dropped around me, which, though it seems shallow, provided some comfort in knowing that I wasn't alone in this moment.  The longer I sat, the more comfortable I became with the decision as I noticed that even in the warmth of the cabin my throat, head, and exhaustion were continuing to worsen.

I eventually made it back to Fortune Bay.  I turned in my satellite tracker, which it turns out never worked (frustrating), and headed to Virginia to collect my duffel, where I slept for a few hours at Bryan's house and then headed home, feeling whatever sickness continue to grow stronger.  I made it back in time to see everyone off to school and work, then finally slept.

At the clinic it was confirmed that I had the flu.  Reflecting back, I had sworn I'd gotten a flu shot in the Fall when I took my kids to get theirs.  Nope.  That was dumb.  The pain in my knees receded to almost nonexistence in 24 hours, making me wonder if this was tied to the flu? 

Remotely watching riders arrive at the finish line and hearing accounts of the brutally cold night temps (between -20 and -30) I find myself coming to terms with my decision to drop.  Yes, it was the right decision.  Yes, it would have been stupid to have continued into the difficult hill section through the depths of such a cold night with no easy way to retreat.  It was smart to drop.

No, I'm not happy about it.  I'm frustrated and disappointed.  Owning a DNF (Did Not Finish) is going to hang over me and mess with my head for awhile.  These aren't bad things I suppose.  They are fuel.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Push by Salsa

A great video about the Arrowhead 135

Fat, Sweet, and Easy to Eat: 2018 AH135 Food Prep

2018 AH135 Food Prep

Fat, Sweet, and Easy to Eat

On Body/Bike Drinks:
Skratch Start Bottle Mix:           200
Skratch Start Bladder Mix:        480
Skratch Refill Bottle Mix:         200

On Bike Packed Food:
Bacon (4 slices): 160
Meat Sticks (3): 330
Bacon Cheddar Chipotle Instant Potato:  440
Ramen Oriental Flavor: 380
Ramen Chx Tortilla Flavor: 380
Reeses Xmas Trees (4): 340
Almonds- Smokehouse: 340
Fudge Elfwhich Cookies (8): 680
Swiss Rolls (2 packs): 540
Cinnamon Bears: 330
Brookside Blueberry Choc Balls: 170
Ginger Candies: 225
Cinnamon Jolly Rangers (4): 100
Skratch Energy Gummies (2 packs): 320
Salted Chocolate Bar: 475


Emergency Calories: Required by race
Peanut Butter Jar: 3200

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

2018 Arrowhead 135 Trackleaders Link

Satellite Tracker link:

Follow the blue dot at

Race starts at 7 am on Monday!  All thoughts of fast snow and mild temps are appreciated!

Friday, January 19, 2018

2nd Go AH135: Training and Prep

About a week out now.  Wrapping up a cold.  You know, one of those sore throat, groggy head, wondering how big this is gonna be and how much will this set me back pre-race necessities.  Better now than in 7 days though.  Maybe its a good, forced mental check.  A moment for your sane subconscious voice to finally speak through the roar of the last months' chaos.

So where am I at?  Still a rookie.  Still feeling like its a new adventure and not a repeat, which I like.  Trying hard to not let the faded memories of last year misguide my prep, while still digging back to those difficult moments for guiding wisdom.  Making sure to prepare not for what I want conditions to be, but rather for whatever the end of January may throw under our tires throughout the 135 miles.  I appreciate the confidence gained from having one race under my belt, but the mystery of whats to come keeps my mind fully engaged as I continuously analyze, experiment, and hone my systems.

How is this year different?  No Tuscobia this year, which has made the Fall and Winter much more chill than last year's madness of preparing for both races.  Given my knee pain after last years AH135, I spent some time working with a trainer in the Spring and finally ponied up for a bike fitting.  Turns out I should have sought that assistance a lot earlier- its been quite a game changer.  Comparing my training efforts to last year, I've probably put in less miles total but my training has been much more purposeful.  Rather that just going for quantity of miles I've done a lot more with cadence work, intervals, and strength training in the weight room.  I try to be in the weight room when no one else is, as I have no idea what I'm doing and I'm sure there is some sort of unspoken weight room rules or etiquette that I am violating with my wheezing, profuse sweating, and lack of understanding of what all that stuff does.  But, I think it has worked.  I haven't had any issues with knee pain and I most definitely feel stronger than I did pre-race last year.

The biggest difference coming this year is that I am racing in the unsupported category.  Meaning I am on my own from start to finish, with no access to the three heated checkpoints that provide food and water along the course.  I will need to carry and prepare all my own food, melting snow for water as needed with a liquid fuel stove.  Why do that?  Because its the next logical step.  No, I can't explain that reasoning to you.  Its a necessity to moving forward.

Some new things I am trying this year:

  • Vapor barriers: old school plastic bags on the feet AND vinyl medical gloves for my hands.  Both go over a thing liner, with insulating layers on top of the vapor barrier.  My testing of this so far has matched all the commentary I've read and it has worked great down to -17 for 9 hours.  And the price is right.
  • Frame Bag: I sewed a frame bag out of Cordura, polyester webbing, and X-pac.  It isn't pretty and zippers are dumb, but it functionally performs just fine.
  • Liquid Fuel Stove:  Given that my cooking system won't be for emergencies but will be used without a doubt to make warm food and melt snow for drinking water, I switched from the Pocket-Rocket and pressurized gas canister stove to the liquid-fuel Whisperlite.  While the Whisperlite system is bigger, it is bomber, fast and powerful, and won't crap put at low temps.  Below 0 the pressurized gas canisters like to liquefy and there is way for that type of stove to use the fuel in liquid form.
  • Vapor Barrier Jacket: This one is odd, but it seems to work well so far in my testing.  I'm using a ultralight jacket by CAMP called the Magic Jacket.  While it isn't a true vapor barrier, the fabric allows water vapor to transfer very slowly.  When I've tested this I've worn it over two thin merino wool shirts (one short sleeve), then put my insulating layers over the Magic Jacket.  What I've noticed is that this keeps my insulating layers dryer and has prevented massive ice/frost buildup from forming in my outermost layers.  The two base merino layers are wet, but I don't get cold at all.  I think, given my research into this, that this system works by limiting the effects of evaporative cooling.  My first time testing this system was for 9 hours at -17 degrees and included an hour stop in the middle to melt snow and make soup- it seemed to work great- I had no problem staying warm once I through on my puffy "resting" layers.
  • More puffy "resting" layers:  Anticipating difficulty staying warm when I have to stop and manage my food and water, I am carrying the same down insulating jacket I did last year, and an additional large polyester-fill jacket to go over everything.  I had trouble staying warm at the last checkpoint last year and it wasn't even that cold, so I know I need something warmer this time.
  • Easy-access sit pad:  Again anticipating the time it will take to manage food and water, and knowing that these stops also must serve as rest periods, have a non-freezing surface to kneel or sit on will make these stops so much more valuable.  I took an old Z-rest style foam sleeping pad and cut 4 sections off it- just enough to sit or kneel on and be insulated from the ground.  This is strapped right to the front of my bike.
  • GPS:  Last year I had a cheap bike computer that died at some point and left me riding blindly forward into eternity.  Luckily, another rider had a GPS and every time we leapfrogged past each other she would update me on how much further we had and I was eternally grateful.  I swore then that next time I would not allow myself to be swallowed up by that blindness.  I've been slowly gaining confidence in operating my Garmin eTrex 30x and I think it is going to be a game-changer for my mental state throughout the race.  

My bike is loaded.  It has been since November 1st.  Every training ride has been on a fully loaded bike.  I'm pretty excited to ride it in 3 weeks when there isn't anything on it and it weighs half as much!  Tomorrow morning I think this cold will have waned far enough to get out for one more good sized effort.  Then a week of easy spinning, sleeping, eating like a Sasquatch, and packing.

Looking forward to it.