I first heard the words from my wife in 2010 about "some race in northern Minnesota during the winter" that a friend's son (Luke F.) had recently completed. It was over a hundred miles long, in the snow and temperatures of -30° and lower. Since I'm always interested in "the next hardest race", it piqued my interest so I did an Internet search, and found the Arrowhead 135 pretty quickly.
I'd grown up reading books about polar exploration and high mountain expeditions to extreme regions of the earth. I'll probably never get to Mt. Everest or the South Pole, so competing in the Arrowhead would be the next best thing. First I had to get a 100 mile foot race completed as one of the qualifying requirements. This was done at Rocky Raccoon in 2011 and I submitted my application and resume' for the 2012 version of AH135. I got accepted, ramped up the training, and started making plans.
Living in Texas and getting ready for a mid-winter race in Minnesota has its own problems. I'll skip a bunch of details and say that it is not easy. Mainly, there's no practical way to train or experiment with equipment, clothing, shoes, weather conditions, snowy trail, etc. So I did what I could and made all the standard rookie mistakes.
Race day 2012...
Dawns with rather warmish temps in the teens and more warming (mid 20s) in the forecast. Combined with poor snow conditions on the trail I drop out at mile 55 with wet, pruned feet and slow going that is probably going to cause me to miss the checkpoint time deadlines.
Not one to quit, I sign up for 2013, make changes addressing my feet issues and some equipment, and head back.
Race day 2013...
Dawns again with warmish conditions and a forecast for "some snow" the first night and cold temps on day 3 after the storm passes through. Well, it ends up snowing 10"-12", slowing down most of the field, creating DNFs and I'm no exception. Slow going, some more foot issues and I drop out at about mile 43.
Still not quitting...
I sign up for 2014. Learning from my mistakes; there are four main issues I'm determined to focus on: solid physical training, cutting every last ounce of weight out of my sled and equipment, solving the shoe & sock combination causing the wet feet, and a good plan to eat and drink while on the move. Being successful at AH is not so much a matter of how fast you go as it is how little you stop.
- Training: I did what most people do; I run while dragging a car tire. I run in the grassy ditches that parallel the roads. This adds resistance to the tire as well as developing the leg muscles with the undulating terrain. I went 6-7 days a week for 4 months, 1.5 to 4 hours at a time. Awoke several times at 3 in the morning to get in a couple of hours before work on freezing cold days ("freezing" for south TX is 20-25°).
- Equipment weight: In 2012 my sled and equipment weighed about 40 pounds. In 2013 it weighed about 32 pounds. In 2014, it weighed 22 pounds counting the water and food. There is a list of mandatory survival gear that has to carried by all the racers. Some items like my -30° sleeping bag, insulated pad, and bivy bag were not going to change, but everything else was scrutinized; replaced with something lighter, or flat-out eliminated. No more "just in case" items this time; there would be little margin for error. I used a food scale and a spreadsheet to document every item and its weight; no ounce or gram went unnoticed. The way I had my sled and contents configured was super-simple and bombproof. I could manage everything while wearing gloves or heavy mitts. I could instantly plop down on it and slide down the hills, no more cumbersome poles and ropes. (More on this later.)
- Shoes & socks: I scoured the Internet and landed on a waterproof, lightweight hiking/running shoe by Salomon. In addition to being comfortable, the laces do not require tying knots and can be put on or removed very easily. Along with merino wool socks; no more synthetic fibers for me, this combination was a winner. I wore them on every training run for 2 months. I also found a special salve and a technique for using it that helps prevent moisture from attacking the skin on the feet and minimizes pruning (thanks Andrew Skurka). For traction on the snow & ice, I screwed ridged sheet metal screws into the lugs on the soles, no yak-trax or other strap-on devices that can bind the feet and restrict blood flow or can be prone to failure. The screws bit the ice like a bull dog. I went to Minnesota 100% confident about the feet.
- Eat & drink: I used a special trail-running vest with chest pockets and a Camel-back bladder worn under the thickest clothing layers to keep food and water easily accessible and unfrozen. I was an easy matter to unzip a couple of layers to eat and drink and never slow down. When I did stop to get something out of the sled, I would drop these food items right down into my mitts that hung from a neck leash to be retrieved later.
And then there is Eddie, as in Eddie Aikau; the legendary surfer, lifeguard, and waterman from the North Shore of Hawaii in the 60s and 70s. Eddie would go rescue people when the waves were so high that no one else could or would go. Regardless of the conditions; Eddie would go. So that's my mantra: Eddie would go; regardless of the conditions, Eddie would go. I had it written on the side of my sled: Eddie Would Go.
2014, International Falls, MN
I am staying at the Voyageur Motel located a long quarter mile from the race start. The motel is filled with fellow racers, most of whom are returning veterans with stories of DNFs as well as success. We hang out in the rooms and hallway talking about the race, eyeballing each other's sleds and set-ups, bikers' rigs, and swapping ideas about what works and what doesn't. We go to gear check and places to eat and I come to realize what an elite group of folks that have gathered. Everyone here is incredibly experienced with a wide variety of races and adventures. I'm humbled to be among them.
"Everyone has a plan - until they get punched in the face." ~Mike Tyson
Sunday evening and I'm in the room watching the weather channel. Polar Vortex #2 is here and the forecast is grim... Monday morning is -24° with winds of 10-20 mph, wind chills of -45 and -50. Monday night & Tuesday morning: low of -31° with wind chills of -50 and lower. The high temps will be -10 to -15 with a warming trend on Wednesday to zero and slightly above. The national weather service is issuing the appropriate warnings. This is serious stuff. Only a fool would go out; well I'm one of 142 fools.
I'm fixin' to get punched in the face - am I ready? How's my plan looking now: No spare clothes? Just 2 liters of water between checkpoints (11-17 hours)? Minimal gear? Too late: no changing anything now; I'm committed.
You sign up for Arrowhead knowing that it could be cold, -that it's supposed to be cold, -everyone secretly wants it to be cold; in short, to be epic, to be more than just another long race. Well, we were going to get epic and then some. Everyone likes talking about having completed an epic race, it just sucks while you're actually completing an epic race. Whatever happens, I'll just have to deal with it; no quitting this year.
Monday, Jan 27
Awake before the alarm after a good night's sleep, I complete final packing tasks and basically put on every article of clothing I'm taking; 3 layers on the bottom and 5 layers up top counting my windproof outer shell, face mask & head cover, flip-up hoods from the coats, liner gloves, and then there are the mitts.
Let me explain the mitts: These are large, arctic mitts (you could say, Texas-sized) that I won during the pre-race raffle drawing in 2012. These mitts are made by Empire Wool & Canvas and are super warm. Secured by a neck leash, I can easily shake them off, perform a task, and then very quickly jam my hands down inside for instant warmth. Not really needed during the previous years, they will save my race this year.
Speaking of hands and feet; I had decided to not try to use the disposable chemical heat packets that are very popular. I did not want my success to be dependent on an artificial heat source that could fail. My theory was; once you've used them, you were committed to them for the duration of the race and it was just extra weight and hassle I did not want. If I couldn't keep warm using non-technical means and by staying moving, then I would just suffer the consequences.
Getting dressed inside the motel for -40° outside is basically a race for the door. Once you put the layers on, you need to get outside quickly as the overheating starts. The walk to The Kerry Arena takes just a few minutes, and it's long enough for the goggles to freeze over solidly on the inside. No amount of subsequent wiping, drying, and trying to clear them then or later would be successful; same thing with the sun glasses I had. These would be packed away as useless and I would just do without any eye protection.
The sled slides seemingly effortlessly over the frozen surfaces and is a big contrast from the tire dragging of the last 4 months. This just might work after all.
I check in with the race official and stand around in the vestibule of the building where it's not too hot or too cold. About a dozen racers have the same idea as we cram shoulder to shoulder, too bundled to care or talk. Word goes out and it's time to muster near the start area as the bikers go first at 7:00, the skiers (all 2 of them) at 7:02, and then us runners at 7:04.
It's still dark and everything is a flash of headlamps and red blinky lights as a we hit the trail with somewhat nervous excitement. Getting moving is generating warmth and I get into a comfortable pace. It should be clarified that even though we are called "runners", not too many people can actually run the entire AH. Some will race to the first and second checkpoints only to drop out later. Here, under these conditions, an average 15-minute per mile pace is plenty good enough; a fast walk is more productive than a slow run or jog, and that's what I focus on. It's not about going fast, it's all about not stopping.
The miles pass; the sky is cloudless, the sun is bright, and the wind blows. Fortunately for us, the first miles are sheltered by the thick woods and the wind chill effect is mitigated. At 9.5 miles we take a sharp turn straight east into an open area and the sheltering woods thin out, but the wind is at our backs and, again, the effects are not too bad -until you stop to take a pee or get something out of your sled; holy cow -it's cold. The sunlight reflecting off the snow-covered trail is blinding, but all I can do is squint and carry on because the goggles or glasses will just ice over.
By now, the runners have spread out and I rarely see anybody any more. The hallmarks of the race: Strength-Endurance-Solitude-Survival. On the solitude part; once the field spreads out, you're pretty much on your own for hours at a time. I'm making self-evaluations to confirm that the legs are doing well, the feet are fine with no hot spots, I'm warm and I'm careful to try to vent some heat to minimize the sweat. I'm eating and drinking regularly as I pass over familiar ground; go up & down a few hills (I know the big ones will come later). The sunlight fades to dark and I fish out the headlamp. I'll be at Gateway in an hour or so. It's good to be us.
Checkpoint 1, Gateway Store, Mile 36
I grab my 'go-bag' out of the sled and check into Gateway at 6:32 and I have a lot to get done. But before I get started, a guy stops me and says that I'm really frosted over and covered in ice, and he needs to take a picture. He says it will be a good one for the scrapbook (I wish I knew who that guy was so I could get that pic).
The normally quiet store is flurry of chaos with racers coming and going, tending to their business, dropping out for various reasons; the place looks like a locker room with gear and clothes strewn everywhere as racers move about in various states of undress. I find an open place in a back room away from hustle and get my coats off to let them dry somewhat.
There's a layer of ice inside the shell and the puffy coat is pretty much frozen from body moisture. The workers at the store make a valiant effort to dry any of your clothes and I hand off my coat and balaclava mask for a turn in the dryer.
I also send a short text to my wife (and therefore, the world due to everyone who's following me via social networks including my deployed son and his fellow Marines on the other side of the world) that I'm in and doing well.
That taken care of, I strip off the shoes and socks and put on my one concession to luxury; I have brought a cheap pair of house slippers (9.5 ozs) so I can air out the feet and not have to walk around on wet carpets and floors like I did the previous 2 years. I buy a bowl of chili-mac and a Gatorade; "Keep the change", I don't want to waste any time. I pound this down and buy a second of each. Eating while I wipe off my feet with a microfiber rag I carried, apply a coating of salve, and put on dry socks. The feet are doing well.
Fill my Camel-back and Nalgene water bottle with the hottest tap water I can find. Hit the bathroom, lube up the 'under regions' with Body Glide to minimize the chafing. Go ask for my clothes from the dryer and the coat is still wet; but at least it's a warmish kind-of wet, there is no choice, but to wear it. Not the best deal going into a long, -30° night; oh well.
Unknown to me at the time was just how many folks were already dropping out due to the conditions. A third of the field has already dropped here or slightly beyond due to frostbite and other issues. Going into a night where the wind chills are going to be -50° and lower; DNF means "Do Nothing Fatal". Racers make their decisions based on what they are willing to risk.
Finished dressing and getting ready to head into the dark, cold night and I check out at 8:05. I was in there an hour and thirty three minutes and there was not a wasted minute. Just amazing how long it takes to do a lot of little things.
Checkpoint 1 to Checkpoint 2
With the sun down for several hours and no moon until a waning crescent rises about 45 minutes before sunrise, we're totally dependent on headlamps to light the way for the next 11 or so hours. I use lithium batteries and have no problems with any lights for the duration of the race. I did bring a secondary mini-headlamp (2.3 ozs) in case I had to fix my primary light, but it never comes out of the go-bag.
I fall into the familiar pace and warm up quickly, especially after a couple of hills. Even though I've slid down a couple of smaller hills I'm a bit reluctant to take on the bigger (faster) ones. I'm just a little afraid getting out of control and crashing the sled; breaking it or risking an injury. When I don't slide, I just let gravity pull the sled on around me and 'lead it' like a dog on a leash. After awhile, I name my sled "Red", well, because it's red. "Red, the sled"; there it is.
I'm eating and drinking regularly; cut up protein bars, peanut butter filled pretzel bites, trail mix with macadamia nuts (very nutrient dense, BTW), little chocolate donuts (good frozen) and the epitome of all things tasty: Bacon. In this case; precooked and packaged from the store. However, I have erred to the side of cheap. Instead of the top-shelf brand that is heavenly; I saved a couple bucks buying the store brand. Bacon is bacon, right? Wrong. Instead of having sumptuous bacon to look forward to; I have this nasty, fat-filled crap that I have no choice but to choke down because I need the calories. Dang it! What a mistake.
The miles pass, the hills come and go. A random snowmobile approaches, slows down a little and with a thumbs-up from me, and they race off to go help someone else who really needs it. The first night will separate out the racers who have to drop from those willing to push on. I cross Ash River Trail road where I dropped during the snow dump of 2013 and some miles farther is Sheep Ranch Road. As I approach, I see a truck parked there with the engine running and no doubt racers inside who have dropped. I know what that's like because I caught a ride right here in 2012. There's a very small, propane-heated tent set up by the race director where a racer can get warmed up without penalty; this year I cross the road without slowing down. No quitting now; Eddie would go.
I'm in new territory now and committed to making it to checkpoint 2. In the pre-race meeting, the RD said you better be capable of walking yourself out to the next checkpoint or bivy for the night because there may not be another snowmobile for a long time; the phrase is: Think "self-rescue". And he was right; I did not see another snow-machine or person for that matter, during the next 9-10 hours: Solitude; there it is again. I have a watch in a pocket somewhere, but don't bother to look it at it because time is irrelevant; all that matters is moving fast enough to stay warm and staying warm is a challenge.
I can tell it is getting really cold. The stretchy fleece face mask is frozen solidly into an unwieldy mess something akin to the face guard on a football helmet. With the resulting gap between it and my face, the cold air is hitting me hard. This has to be fixed and I have an idea. I stop and dig my foot rag out of the go-bag and stuff it into the gap. A little tuck here and there to position it and the microfiber cloth performs a miracle; the warmth and protection is immediate as it absorbs the river of drainage coming from my nose, and as a bonus, the smell of the foot salve in the rag is not all that bad.
That fixed, another problem with the mask arises. The opening around the eyes is still pretty large and the cold wind on the exposed skin is unbearable. I find that by pinching the corners down tightly, it closes the opening down to a tolerable level, but there is no way I can hold this with my gloved hands outside of the mitts. Another solution: I have a couple of heavy duty plastic clips (kind of like clothes pins) in my go-bag. I stop to get them out and once clipped in place, they work perfectly. The opening is pinched down to about half an inch, just enough to see out, and still cover the face and eyes. I must look like an space alien with a black mask, blue foot rag and the yellow clips sticking out like antennas, but at nearly 40 degrees below zero, looks do not matter.
While all of this has been happening I'm pacing along, constantly moving forward, making steps and keeping warm. The stretchy band of the headlamp is frozen at an odd angle due to a loose strap and the main focus of light is aimed off to the left towards the side of the trail. To see straight ahead, I have to cock my head to the right. I jack with it, but no amount of jacking can fix it, so I ramble on in the semi-dark or twist to the right. Whatever.
By now, it is the wee hours of the morning when the sleep demons come to visit you; been there, done that; gotta make it to sunrise. I'm sleep-walking in a daze and don't remember much other than pulling down the rag/face-mask, slipping in 1 pretzel bite at a time (3 were too many & caused me to choke up) and letting it dissolve while I re-position the rag/face-mask only to do it all over again 10 minutes later. It gives me something to focus on while keeping the calories stoking the furnace.
The cobwebs in my mind are thick and I need a boost. I stop and get a 5-Hour Energy from the bag. It's frozen solid. Damn. I should've known better. I clutch it in the palm of my hand for an hour and get about half of it to thaw enough so I can suck the caffeine-laced liquid out. The ice chunk bouncing around in the middle refuses to yield, so I tuck the bottle into the trash pocket of the go-bag.
The physical body is starting to hurt now; I can tell there are some blisters forming on the feet, there's a chafing issue 'down under' that I cannot understand what's causing it, and the lower legs are just in general rebellion. Not one to be put off by hardship, I carry on. If this is as bad as the pain gets, it ain't nothing. Of course, once the pain ratchets up to the next level, I still say it ain't nothing.
All night I have been moving towards the constellation Orion and his belt, but now the sliver of a moon has risen and I know that the sun is not far behind. Sure enough, a while later, I see the faintest of light on the eastern horizon and I know that I have made it. Day is coming and I pick up the pace. I have survived the night.
Just like they said in the pre-race meeting; when you see that sign that says, "MelGeorges - 5 miles", it is the longest 5 miles of your life. More hills, more turns and bends, but finally, the lake; Elephant Lake. Frozen over 2 feet thick, it's about a mile across.
The trail meanders like a lazy river and now it has turned back onto itself to the west and to cross the lake means that we are facing into a headwind. Holy smokes, it is bitter cold; the wind chill could be 40-50 below even though it is full morning and shining sun. I can finally see the cabins and buildings. Up the embankment and on to the race cabin, I am there.
Checkpoint 2, MelGeorge Cabin, Mile 72
Grab the go-bag and check into MelGeorge at 9:37 a.m. and I have a lot to get done. During the last hour on the trail I have been mentally reviewing all the things I need to get done while in the cabin; or at least as much as my sleep-addled brain will allow. I don't want to forget anything, but it's hard not to.
I stumble into the place and it is packed with people; race officials, volunteers, racers, both still in the race and those who have dropped, a family member or two, etc. Much like the Gateway Store, there is gear and clothing strewn everywhere. I find an open chair against a wall and plop down; first time I've been off my feet in 12 hours. I have also unknowingly landed in one of the few hotspots in the cabin where a brief text can be sent and received. This is after all, a remote region and cell service is not guaranteed.
In their eagerness to serve, a race volunteer rushes at me asking what do I want first; food or drink or both? Uh, yes, all of it I say or I don't know, let me think a minute. OK, I'll start with a grilled cheese sandwich, soup, and some Gatorade. With a dozen things to do all at the same time, I have to slow my mind down and focus on the most important ones first; get these frozen coats off and get them dried out. I'm told there is a basket, just pile it all in there and it shall be. So I do; all 4 pairs of socks, puffy coat, fleece jacket, gloves, the liners out of the mitts, balaclava/face mask, and of course, my blue foot rag. See you guys later, hope you return to me all nice and warm and dry. It is only in these checkpoints that help can legally be provided to the racers by official race volunteers. Outside help or other support will be penalized if caught.
While eating and letting my feet air out in the slippers, I fire up the phone and exchange a couple of texts. I ask for my food drop bag and it is brought to me (thank you, volunteers). Having spent the night outside, everything in the bag is frozen solid; we were told this beforehand, so everything was pre-cut up and prepped for such. I retrieve various items and sort through what's left. I will thaw the two 5-Hour Energies in hot water. The third package of fatty bacon is promptly tossed into the "trade-off box" where unused food can be dumped or taken. I still have enough of the nasty stuff to get me to the finish.
There are blisters on the feet that need draining. I shuffle over to a coffee table where a box of random medical supplies is sitting. I find a safety pin and alcohol pads and go to work. The biggest blister is on the ball of the right foot (about the size of 2 quarters) and popped first; the others are located and popped, too.
Having eaten and drunk some, and the feet tended to, I start to consider the possibility of a short nap. I didn't really have a sleep plan other than; let's just see what happens and when. There's a loft up above with beds I'm told, so I hike up the stairs. Three beds and three dudes sound asleep. Dude #1 on his back, nearest the wall is snoring louder than a steam locomotive.
Undaunted, I lay down on a blanket on the floor and set the timer on my phone for 30 minutes. I've been in situations like this before where I'm too tired to sleep, but I'll give it a shot anyway. I actually doze off for, like 2-3 minutes, when something wakes me up. Let's see; could it be the snoring, or the crying baby downstairs, or the general din of activity of 20-25 people talking and being busy? Between the noise, the ticking race clock, and ever present trail beckoning me to make tracks, there's no way I can just lie here any longer. The 3 minute nap will just have to do.
Now that the decision has been made, it's time to get ready to head into the -10 to -15° cold. I sort through a big pile of clothes brought in from the dryer. I find my stuff except one liner sock. I go back through the pile 2 more times. No sock. Oh well, I did have an extra pair, so it's not a deal breaker and I can't waste any more time.
I heard someone say, somewhat authoritatively, that it was -36° last night and that it might get that cold again. I try not to think about it, just rub the salve on the feet, pull on the socks, and jam the hurting feet down into the shoes.
I fill my Nalgene bottle and Camelback with steaming hot tap water. I find an empty Gatorade bottle, rinse it and fill it, too. I figure another 20 ozs of hot water will help warm the go-bag contents, plus I can drink that water later. I fix the straps on the head lamp so it will point in the proper direction tonight. Send a text to my wife that I'm leaving in 10.
The final dressing process is done outside on the porch; inside the cabin is just too warm. I step back in to tell them that #77 is officially checking out. It is 12:20 pm. I was in there 2 hours and 43 minutes and other than trying to nap, not a wasted minute.
Checkpoint 2 to Checkpoint 3
I hit the trail with an eagerness supported by the ignorance of not knowing what the upcoming night would bring in this 39 mile section. Yes, I've heard of the hills; their steepness, their height, their frequency. Yes, it is going to be cold, but I'm warm and fed and ready. Little did I realize at the time, that I was one of a small number of racers to actually leave MelGeorge by this time. Most of the field has dropped out by now, and the faster folks were well down the trail. I'm in my own little world as the thought of not continuing never crossed my mind.
It takes a half mile or so to get the leg muscles and feet to moving well again, since they had gotten stiff in the cabin. There's an axiom that is true when you are deep into an ultra (at least for me): It is easier to keep going than it is to get going. Once you're going, the legs and body settle into a rhythm and whatever may be hurting at the time seems to be manageable. When you stop, for whatever reason, the mere act of getting going again is a hassle and you're reminded of what is hurting.
Speaking of hurt, a couple of miles down the trail I realized I had that I had forgotten to apply another dose of Body Glide to the under regions that were chafing. I know from ultra experience that you have to deal with small problems while they are still small and not after they get too big to handle; that's what causes DNFs. I had another 61 miles to go and this problem was not going away on its own. This was not going to be pretty.
I had little choice and since there was no one around; I stopped, unbuckled the waist belt, got the Body Glide, dropped my drawers, and in the -10 air, I mooned the forest. After a liberal application, at least as much as the semi-frozen stuff would allow, I hastily pulled up the three layers, hitched up ol' Red and was making tracks to get warm again.
I had heard so much about the hills and I kept on expecting them anytime now, but after a couple of initial hills, the first part of this section was surprisingly flat. The miles are chewed up by my steps (there will be almost 240,000 of them when I get to the finish line) and I pass the time by thinking of everything in the world. I think about all the family, co-workers, and networks of people following and rooting for me, and how I just can't let them down. I think, "Hey, there's a finisher's trophy for me in Fortune Bay, I just gotta walk over there and pick it up." Nothing to it. That's all I need to do. The thought motivates me on.
I find the perfect snowbank and with a trekking pole, I write TEXAS in big letters. I figure someone might see it and get a kick out of it. Later while taking a pee and my thoughts drifting, I'm reminded of another sign...
Back in high school (1975) me and a couple of buddies went camping in the Arizona mountains that still had deep patches of snow on the ground. While driving the forest roads we'd seen signs designating "Antelope Flats Watershed" and "Beaver Creek Watershed" and the like. We happened to find a good piece of wooden board and that night using a steel rod heated in the campfire, we burned the words "Yellow Snow Watershed" and made our own sign. We nailed it to a tree near the road. I like to think that the sign lasted a while and at least one person passing by "got it".
Time and miles are meaningless because I have nothing to gauge them with, the only thing that matters is keeping going. I'm somewhere around mile 85 when the sun sets and darkness hits. For me, about 60 miles of the course will be done in the dark. As I approach County Road 23 around mile 88, a guy is parked there and asks how I'm doing and if I'm OK going into the next 22 mile section before Checkpoint 3. (I believe he was implying; this is your last best chance to bail out.) "Sure, you betcha", I said to him. Eddie would go, I said to myself.
I get into a nice, flat open area and stop for a minute despite the windy cold and turn off the headlamp to look up at the stars; with no moon, they are brilliant. After recognizing the familiar ones; Cassiopeia, the two Dippers and the North Star, and of course, the ever present Orion. I have not heard any wolves howling yet this year as I have in the previous years. Later reports would confirm that several racers saw a number of wolves this year; not me, all I saw were their tracks.
Continual progress, more miles. I'm doing a 3-4 mph which is fast enough. At 10:23 a snowmobile approaches and stops (I know this because I looked at the digital clock on his console). He asks how I'm doing, "I'm making it", I say. I ask if he knows the forecast for tonight. "Oh, not too bad, maybe -15 or so", he says with his classic Minnesota accent. Leave it to someone from the area to say -15 is not too bad. We part ways. Little did I know that would be the last snowmobile of the night. I was committed to the trail.
It wasn't long after the encounter that the hills started in earnest. A snowmobile trail is intended to used by machines capable of 100-200 horsepower and more. There's nothing subtle about how the trail goes straight up and over and down the hills. No pretense is made about trying to go around or go up at an angle. They are not intended to be friendly towards people who are propelling themselves by bike, ski, or foot. The screws in my shoes grip the icy trail well and I have no slippage. I remember one hill so steep, that between its pitch and me leaning into the weight of the sled trying to pull me backwards; when I stretched out my arm, my fingertips came within 12 inches or so of touching the surface; I just had to laugh at the absurdity. One after another, these are the hills that Arrowhead is known for.
The hills may be steep, but fortunately, they are not horribly tall or long. Climbing a hill would really get the body furnace going and pumping hot blood to the hands and feet. Of course, the downside to this was the sweat that was generated, but it was a trade-off I was willing to accept. Occasionally, I would flip back the hoods to expose my fleece-covered head to shed some heat. About 5-10 seconds was all that was necessary.
Deciding that I needed to save some time and energy, I start sliding down every hill I can. I soon find out that not every hill can be ridden down. The temps are so cold that the sled will not slide on moderately pitched slopes when I sit down on it; it just locks down. On the hills I could slide down, I quickly learned how to steer the sled by dragging one shoe heel or the other depending on which way I wanted to turn. Combined with leaning my body weight as needed, I got very good at it. I also figured out just when to plant both heels at the same time to let my momentum pop me up onto my feet right at the bottom of the run.
I could slide a hill in seconds that would take me minutes to walk, plus; I was actually having fun by myself in the middle of the night in the middle of the Minnesota woods in arctic conditions. Wish I had started this sooner.
I was realizing that it is getting really, really cold. The mask is frozen solid again and out comes the blue foot rag and the plastic clips to pinch down the mask opening just like the night before. Ice has been slowly building up on the inside of my mitts from the sweat vapor emitting from the palms of my hands. I had put my trekking poles away a while back because to clutch them was like holding ice cubes in my hands. I just kept wiggling the fingers and balling them up into fists. I'm no expert, but I just know that it must be colder than -15.
I knew I had about 3" of water left in my Nalgene in the sled and the last time I'd drunk some it was getting pretty chilled and was on its way to freezing. I needed to drink every bit of water I was carrying because I was running on such a thin margin, so I had to get it before it froze. I stopped, got it out, and was drinking about as fast as I could out of the open mouth bottle and the water was turning to slush while I was drinking it. The ice water was chilling my core but I had little choice. I instinctively swished the last 1" or so around to break up the slush and it instantly froze to the sides of the bottle. Useless now, I put it away and got back to making tracks and wishing for that next hill. Wow, it was cold.
More hills. I had been noticing the herringbone pattern of ski tracks going up the hills from the only skier left. I could tell he was seeking out the best snow to climb, so I would look for his tracks and follow them. After so many hills, I felt like I was connecting with an individual and I kept thinking about how he must be a tough son of a gun climbing these hills like that. I would meet Ben later.
All the while, I'm still eating and sipping from the Camelback, it's amazing what a bite of food and some drink will do for your physical abilities. The protein bars, pretzel bites, and a gel (wish I'd brought more) were working well. Back in the sled the bacon is frozen, so it just crumbles when I grab some, but that actually helps offset the greasy slime of nasty fat as I force it down.
I'm now in what is called the spruce forest. The trail narrows as thick trees press in from both sides. It is in here where the most hallucinations take place due to being awake for more than 48 hours and the headlamp lighting up the mounds of snow in such weird shapes and shadows. I saw people sitting in chairs eating lunch, animals of various of kinds, etc. as I stumble-sleep-walk along. A gust of wind would blow snow and ice crystals from the trees and my light would make them dazzle with a million sparkles. I have another 5 Hour Energy in a pants pocket and I retrieve it. Frozen. Dang it. It wasn't close enough to my body to prevent freezing. I drop it into the mitt to try to thaw it out, but there's already too much ice in there.
The sparkling ice crystals had fooled me into thinking that I had seen the blinky light of a fellow racer previously, but this time I really did see a blinky. I'm OK with the solitude part of these endeavors, but it always buoys the spirit when you know there's another person nearby; call it shared misery I guess. Sure enough, there's a shelter (a map would later confirm this is #7 at mile 98.5) and stuck on a trekking pole is a red blinky. There's a racer in the shelter. I pull off the trail to check it out.
It's a place to get out of the wind and Mike is in there messing with food or water or gear; I'm not sure. I get a bite to eat and try to get off my feet for a minute, but there is nothing comfortable about this 3-sided shelter. There are big rocks in the bottom that I'm stumbling amongst, the shelf-seat is about waist-high and I have to work at getting up onto it, plus it is bitter cold and not moving is a killer. I tell Mike I'm leaving (and him being a much younger guy), he'll probably catch me later. Other than seeing a fellow racer, stopping at this shelter has been an unproductive disaster. As I've said; it is easier to keep going than it is to get going.
More hills; more climbing and sliding. For hours I've been struggling with the fact that when I stopped earlier to perform my hasty lube-up job way back just out of MelGeorge, I never got my clothing layers back into the "just right" order and position. My waist harness was out of whack; the bunched up layers had created an area of partially exposed skin on the lower back and the cold was seeping in from underneath. I hated to do this, but it needed to be done. I stopped, unbuckled the harness and proceeded to re-do all the layers in the proper sequence. I didn't have to moon the woods again, but I was down to my base layer for a few seconds. I hitched up ol' Red and we were quickly on the trail again. Everything felt sooo much better. I was soon warming up and it was worth the stop.
The time I was stopped allowed Mike to catch up to me and he passed on ahead. His light disappeared from my view as we got a couple of hills between us. Not long afterward, I saw his light up ahead and he was stopped. I arrived and he said his knee was jacked up and he could not move fast enough to stay warm. He was going to bivy up and asked if I saw a snowmobile to send it back for him. He seemed confident and knew what he was doing (plus I really couldn't do much for him anyway) so I said sure and carried on. A bad piece of luck; to be this deep into the race and have to drop like that. It happens.
Not long after, I'm starting to seriously deteriorate myself. The pace has decreased to a slow plod as I fight off falling asleep on my feet. I've sucked my Camelback dry. The toes are numb and I'm not sure why: Is it the beating they've been taking or has the cold finally gotten to them? It's probably both. I wiggle my toes as I walk as well as wiggling the fingers in the mitts as the chunks of ice have grown larger. My mouth and tongue are burning from all the salt on the pretzel bites. I can almost feel my blood thickening. If I do see a snowmobile, I might just take that ride for myself; Mike will be OK. Would that be wrong? The morality question is moot as there would not be another snowmobile.
Finally, I have a serious discussion with myself; it's time to snap out of this stupor and find another gear. Success or failure happens right here. I have no idea how far it is to Checkpoint 3, but it shouldn't be that far. It doesn't matter, I've got to make it there; there really aren't any options. Yes, I could bivy up, but it really is better to press on. I think of Ernest Shackleton and what he did. I think of the U.S. Marines fighting at Chosin Reservoir in 1950 under these same conditions (at least no one was trying to kill me). The sleepy cobwebs in the mind have cleared, I ignore all the pains as I focus on stepping up the pace; it'll be one final push. This is when the mental aspects of an ultra are dealt with. Time for the survival attribute of Arrowhead to kick in; time to harden up, mate.
I pass an intersection of a snowy road used by logging trucks; that is a good sign I believe and my confidence rises. I've been climbing up out of these bottomlands for a while now and sure enough, at the top of the ridge I see the glow of artificial light reflected in the trees; I have reached Ski Pulk checkpoint; I have survived the night and the third section of the course.
I approach the campfire they have burning: #77 checks in at 5:35 Wednesday morning.
Checkpoint 3, Ski Pulk, Mile 110
The checkpoint is manned by Dave Pramann (former RD & racer) and his buddy, Steve, and they are both genuinely exuberant that the guy from Texas has made it this far. I unbuckle the harness belt and grab the go-bag.
With no other racers around, they usher me straight into a small ice fishing tent with a propane heater burning inside. It's a cramped space with tubs of supplies and water jugs. Right by the tent flap is a small folding camp stool; this will be my station during my stay here. The stool is precarious at best; a slight shift in the wrong direction and a back leg sinks down into the snow threatening to dump me over backwards. I have to stay leaning forward on 3 of the legs the whole time. I'm not complaining; anything that gets me out of the cold and into some warmth is great and I'll accept it.
I start stripping off the coats and hand them off to Steve to shake the ice out. He asks if I want some hot chocolate; sure I say and a cup is shoved in through the flap. It is warm and I drink it quickly. He asks if I want some coffee; sure I say and hand the cup back out. A cup of boiling, black coffee returns, but it is so hot I cannot drink it. I set it down on the cardboard floor to cool and promptly kick it over a little later.
I spread out my coats on the tubs and turn the heater towards them along with unsnapping the liners from my mitts so they can get some thawing and warming treatment. I ask Steve if he knows how cold it is: He said it was -31° on their truck thermometers. If it's that cold up here, then it could easily have been -35 to -40 down in the bottoms where I just came from. I just 'knew' it had to be colder than -15°.
Knowing that there would be hot water here, I have packed a freeze-dried backpacking meal (4.5 ozs) and a long handled spoon (.3 oz). I hand the Nalgene outside to get filled with hot water and upon its return I fill the pouch to the brim and seal it closed for rehydrating. Soon I'll be eating 800 calories and 26 grams of protein in the form of eggs, potatoes and sausage, but in the meantime, I have work to do. The checkpoints have been lifesavers, but they are from luxurious, restful affairs, especially this one.
I pull off the shoes and socks and I'm relieved to see and feel that the toes are pink, warm, and dry; they've only been beaten into numbness. The blisters have blisters, but there's not much that can be done now. A quick application of salve and fresh socks and I have to wedge the swollen feet back into the shoes.
Dave and Steve have to intermittently come back into the tent to get supplies or hand me something and every time the tent flap is unzipped and opened, I get a blast of -30 air right on me. Stripped to my moist base and mid-layers, it chills me thoroughly. About the time it gets warm in there, the flap is opened again. I'm far from complaining, it's just a fact of the Arrowhead experience.
I'm chowing down on breakfast (the first semi-real meal in 20 hours) and feeling my strength return. Dave and Steve keep asking if I need anything: No thanks, I'm fine. The food eaten and trash tucked away, I get the Nalgene topped off and Camelback filled, and it's time to start getting dressed. First, the Body Glide needs to be re-applied down under and as I stand, I nearly stumble into the heater and tubs due to stiff legs and the light-headedness.
As I'm getting dressed I drop my face mask onto the heater and instantly get a noseful of melted fleece smoke. I snatch the mask off just in time before anything worse happens. I sure would hate to be that guy that burns down the checkpoint tent. I snap the liners into the mitts, most the ice has melted, but they are still very damp. The final 2 coats are put on and though they are far from warm and dry, at least they're not frozen anymore. It's time to depart.
During my time in the tent, dawn has broken and I won't need the headlamp anymore, so away it goes into the bag. I thank Dave and Steve for all my royal treatment and they say I've got 11-1/2 hours to go 25 miles; that I've got this, the guy from Texas is going to finish.
I check out at 7:25, so I was in there an hour and fifty minutes; and I'll say it again, not a wasted minute. (Later after looking at the results, I could not believe I was in there that long.) With the shining sun, a full belly, and a warming day, the checkpoint has renewed my vigor and I'm eager to hit the trail hard and knock this out. 25 miles is nothing... just gotta walk over there and pick up my trophy.
Checkpoint 3 to the Finish Line, Mile 135
The pace is snappy as I head towards the famous Wakemup Hill that I've heard and read so much about; after it, the trail is an easy, peasy flat 'sprint' to the finish.
Within a couple of miles I see Wakemup. The snowmobile trail builders must have decided long ago, "why go around the only hill in the area, when we can just go straight up and over the top"; so up it goes. It's really not that bad and in the daylight, I can see the crest, and soon I'm on top. On top, the view is excellent in either direction. I decide to dig the phone out from where I keep it under the layers in the groin area, and take some pics. Until now, taking pictures in the extreme cold has been too much of a hassle to deal with, but I may not ever be here again, so it's worth it. A few pics and it's one last slide down.
The trail does level out, but it's not quite as flat as advertised; there always seems to be a slight uphill somewhere. The temps are warming up and it must be nearing -5° and on its way to zero. I pull off the fleece face mask and exchange it for a light toque I had. The soggy puffy coat comes off and is strapped under a bungee cord on the sled.
In the relaxed mood, I pull out my I-pod to listen to some tunes and The Eagles, The Rolling Stones, and Robert Earl Keen help the miles slide by. It's still cold enough to make the wires stiff and a hassle; to try to have used this in the sub-zero temps would been a really big problem. A snowmobile driver pulls up and says about 12 miles to go. I feel like I'm getting mixed messages on the mileages and try to do the race math in my head. Depending on what's correct, I should finish at around 57 hours; well before sundown for a nice, daylight finisher photo.
Since I'm so close and things are going so smoothly, I decide to pour out the 1 quart of water I have in the Nalgene to lighten up the sled a little. The salt from the pretzels has burned my mouth and tongue to the point that I can hardly eat anymore. Between the swollen tongue and cracked open lips, a chocolate donut and a pop tart are about all I can manage to swallow. There's a little bit of bacon left, but I immediately pitch it into the woods (no packaging, just bacon), I'm not even sure a wolf would eat it; I'm sure not going to.
This 'easy' stretch is turning into a real slog as the miles just seem to keep on coming, and then there's the...
The Arrowhead 137
A snowmobile pulls up beside me and the driver says "only a couple more miles up ahead, you've got this!". Awesome, I'm ready to be done. In a while, I approach an intersection in the trail; I can go straight or bear left. Looking to the left, I see a wooden painted sign. I walk over to it and there's a map of the general area and I see Vermilion Bay and Fortune Bay. I figure there will be another fork in the trail that heads to Fortune Bay and the finish, so I continue down the left-hand fork.
I trudge on just staring at the snow and snowmobile tracks, but I don't have a good vibe about the situation. The trail just 'seems' different and I'm not seeing any bike tracks or other familiar signs that I'm used to. Well, of course not I say, the snowmobiles have chewed them all up. Up ahead I see a sign with an arrow and walk to it. It's no sign, it's just a tree limb full of snow clumps. WTH? In my sleep-deprived state, I thought I'd seen a sign.
Up yet another small hill and around a bend, I see a sign with arrows. Get there; more snow in the tree. Fooled again. Well surely it's just over this next hill. Yep, there it is finally, the sign I'd been looking for. Dang it! More snow in a tree, just bigger. This is ridiculous; my mind is just a mess, but now I'm starting to get upset and frustrated. This close to the end of the race and the RD goes cheap on the signage.
Up and down one last hill and I come to a highway. I'm expecting there to be a volunteer to help at the road crossing like some of the earlier crossings 2 days ago, but there's no one. I see a sign far off (a real one this time) that says Vermilion Bay. Finally it hits me, I've got to be in the wrong place! This just ain't right, and I'm mad. I dig out the phone and get it started. I had put in a couple of race officials' numbers, just in case. I dial the first one I come to: Jackie Kreuger, I leave a slightly terse message (apologies; I was a little stressed after nearly 60 hours without sleep). I find the next number: Ken Kreuger, (the RD) he answers...
Me: Where's the finish line?
KK: Where are you?
Me: By some highway. I don't know where. (How would I know this, I'm from TX?)
KK: Do you have the map that was provided in your race packet?
Me: Uh, no. (Who even looks at half the papers they stuff in a race packet?)
KK: We'll call you back.
In my mind, I'm already guessing what has to happen; I'll need to backtrack to the fork in the trail and figure it out from there. By now, I'm really upset about this turn of events. I'm not worried about meeting the race deadline, I know I should still have enough time if I hurry, but this will add 40-50 minutes to my race and delay the finish yet some more.
Russ Louckes calls back in minutes, asks a couple of questions, consults a map, and has a pretty good idea of where I am: "You need to turn around", he says. No kidding.
The march back to the fork gives me time to get madder and madder at this whole deal. When I cross that finish line, I'll grab my trophy and stomp off to a room, I say to myself. The heck with this bunch, why couldn't they use some more signs? It shouldn't take a map and compass to find the finish.
A couple more hills and bends pass by and I realize I have a choice to make: What kind of impression do I want to leave with the race folks in Minnesota; a grumpy old man from Texas, or a guy who can roll with the punches and still come out on top? I've done enough races to know that it is always the obligation of the participant to know the course; the RD can't hold your hand. Sometimes when a situation just plain sucks, you gotta have a sense of humor about it; any other attitude just makes it worse.
I say to myself, "Well dude, you'll be the winner of the Arrowhead 137". I thought it was kind of funny and I laugh. When they ask about my wrong turn at the finish line, I make this comment and they posted it up as me being the "Unofficial winner of the Arrowhead 137" on the results webpage. Everyone has a sense of humor about it. Outstanding.
I get back to the fork in the trail and see the three orange stakes (they use three so a sleep-deprived racer won't miss them) plainly marking the correct direction just like we've been seeing for 130+ miles. They were there all along and I had just overlooked them while keeping my eyes glued to the tracks in the snow. The RD had done his job; I had not done mine.
I'm down the trail a little ways and snowmobile driver pulls up; he says, "From right here, it's 4-1/2 miles to the finish." What!?!? I thought it was just a couple of miles. I feel like I've been punched square in the gut. That means another hour and 30 minutes or so to go. Dang it, I was so ready to be done.
Of course, there is nothing to do except push on. By now, I'm out of water and thirsty as can be. With the jacked up mouth, I'm in no mood to eat anything. I've had a pop tart and a little chocolate donut in the last 5-6 hours. That decision to pour out the 1 quart of water is looking mighty stupid now.
I'm confidently back on track and it's just a matter of gutting it out to the finish. There's no drama here, but my sleep-deprived mind is playing tricks on me. Since Fortune Bay is in "Tower", I think I see a big cell phone tower, but all it is a spruce tree. I see the roof outlines of buildings that I think are the casino, but it is nothing. Gusts of wind in the open areas remind me that's still pretty dang cold. I'm not putting the, now frozen coat back on, so I zip up the outer shell and hunker down.
I cross a couple of roads and through a fence onto casino property just as the sun is setting. I must be getting close, but there's still more bends and small hills to traverse before finally seeing the actual casino itself. Hallucinating to the end, I see a person near a fence cheering me on and all it is in reality as I get close is a plastic bag trash bag flapping in the wind. Even the last the 50 yards is uphill; it's like the Arrowhead Trail is designed to extract every last bit of remaining energy you have left.
I see the finish line and crowd of folks waiting up there. I cross to cheers and back slapping. I'm made to feel like a rock star. I've done it; the guy from Texas has finished in 58hrs and 30 minutes. We stage up some quick pics in the fading light and I'm led down the sidewalks into the casino, finally dropping the sled for good in a basement hallway.
They take me upstairs to the hospitality suite where there is snack foods and drinks and my finisher's trophy that I've walked 135 (137) miles to pick up. I'm offered anything to eat and drink, but everything there is salty and that's the last thing I want. Even though I'm starving, nothing seems appetizing. I sip on some water and later some chicken soup.
I leave to go check into a room and start the recovery process.
Fortune Bay Casino
I've been in this situation before after a long ultra; too tired to sleep and too hungry to eat. I shuffle around in my slippers because once the shoes came off, they weren't going back on again because of the swelling and blisters.
I get into my room, strip off and hang all my wet clothes around the room to dry out. I get into a hot shower which should be heavenly, but it is very painful between standing on hurting feet and legs and my butt that has two bleeding stripes across it. I finally understand the chafing issue I've been fighting the last 80 or so miles. My base layer pants have two seams right across each side that have rubbed me raw. I've owned these bottoms for years, but I've never worn them for 60 straight hours and for so many miles.
Finally cleaned up, I go in search of something that I can eat with my messed-up mouth. Nibbling on a Philly cheese steak sandwich starts to replenish the energy; a couple of beers helps dull the pain. In the snack bar I meet Rick Paoletti, a biker who finished in his first attempt here. He's local to the area and offers to help me get back to I-Falls the next day. We exchange phone numbers and agree to meet up for breakfast.
I shuffle back to the room for a night of fitful sleep. Even though I am exhausted, I cannot sleep. Three days of no bowel movements have caught up with me and I spend half the night in the bathroom. I can barely get up and down off the toilet because there is no handicap rail to grab onto; it's almost comical. I alternate between shivering and sweating as my body is unwinding from all the stresses of the last three days. The night passes and it is finally a new day.
The next morning In the lobby I meet Jason Husveth and John Storkamp and they invite me to eat breakfast with them. Jason exemplifies "Minnesota nice" as he pays for my meal and says he'll get me a ride to I-Falls if I need one. Already at the table is a group of racers and the crowd grows as we get seated. Another table is slid over and more chairs added as Rick and Logan join us along with Helen and Chris Scotch. Ben, the skier is there along with Cameron and couple of others whose names I've forgotten.
Piles of food are consumed as the ravenous racers gorge on the all-you-can-eat buffet (this is one time the casino loses money). I pick at some eggs and waffles while the others eat platefuls of bacon and fried potatoes. That's about the last thing I want, although I do eat 3 bowls of ice cream.
Ben tells outrageously funny stories about finding food in the trail and other challenges he faced doing this race on skis. Tales of success and failure are swapped and the camaraderie of the shared experiences is priceless. I'd walk another 135 miles just to sit at another table like this again.
Rick says he'll take me to I-Falls even though it is out of his way (more Minnesota nice) and we make plans to load up and hit the road. The shoes will not go back on the swollen feet regardless of how hard I try, so it's slippers for the rest of the day. He brings the car as close as he can so I don't have to shuffle as far on the icy driveway.
Return to I-Falls
The drive back is a good opportunity to hear stories of Rick helping several racers during different stages of the race. These stories reinforce the fact that this was one brutal race this year with so many DNFs and frostbite. The weather and course is no respecter of persons; both veterans as well as rookies failed to finish this year.
The final result stats...
Bikers: 84 started- 30 finished- 64% DNF
Runners: 56 started- 16 finished- 71% DNF
Skiers: 2 started- 1 finished- 50% DNF
Overall: 142 started- 47 finished- 67% DNF
It's a couple of hours back to I-Falls and soon we are there; back at the Voyageur Motel where I started out 4 days earlier. I feel like I've made a good friend as we part ways. A while later, I receive a text from Rick. "BTW, did you write TEXAS in a snowbank? I stopped to take a picture, but my camera froze." Yeah, that was me. (Who else?)
Recovery & Aftermath
As mentioned, recovery is a process that takes me awhile. The skin around my eyes and nose peeled within days, and the butt quit bleeding about the same time. The cracked lips and messed-up mouth took a week to get to where I could eat without discomfort again. The swollen feet and legs lasted about 3-4 weeks. The right leg always takes 1-2 weeks longer than the left leg to recover (this is typical for me). As I type this a month later, the skin from the foot blisters has finished peeling and I have 3 black toenails (from the beating, not the cold). The toll the Arrowhead extracts from racers is different for everybody, for me it's all a small price to pay.
What would I do differently if I went back?
Don't go cheap on the bacon.