Arrowhead 135 – I heard of that race way back in 2008 and never thought that I would ever be interested in it. How can a race in International Falls, MN, the last week of January be a good idea? Where I grew up, any night with 41F was considered very cold and no one went outside unless they absolutely had to. Of course, living in MN for about 3 years helped recalibrate my internal thermostat a bit. Regardless, AH 135 sounded just plain crazy.
“I’ll never try it”, or some variation thereof, had always been my refrain. On the other hand, Alicia kept going back year after year. True she said it always was utterly miserable, but the people she met there was the reason she liked to go back (that, and the (not so) subtly stated desire to smash the women’s course record). It piqued my interest, and I was very proactive in getting ready for it this year. Those who know me know that planning is not my strongest suite, but I planned for this race – all the way to actually buying a cold-weather sleeping bag in July. Okay, I realize that actual planner will find merely “buying a sleeping bag in advance” spiel being called advance planning a bit hilarious, but, this is my blog, and, I get the last word.
The last week of January came near, and I found myself in I Falls with what tuned out to be the `usual’ crew this time - Alicia, Carles, Brian, Andy, and Jane. Meals at the Chocolate Moose usually involved the others (all AH veterans) doing their best to scare me shirtless. They succeeded. The weather forecast did not help either (lows approaching -30 F, and windy on top of that).
Part of Sunday was spent huddled over my sled to get all the gear organized. As an aside, this race mandates quite a bit of survival gear (cold-weather sleeping bag, insulated water bottle etc) that one must carry. People who run/walk usually carry this gear in a sled that they drag behind them. At the pre-race meeting, Ken (the race director) made it a point to emphasize that this year was going to be brutal due to the insanely cold temperatures and wind, and that one must have an emergency plan before they start out. Mine was to run as fast as I could to get the core temperature up in case my fingers/toes started to freeze.
Monday morning rolled, and we filed out of the hotel to the starting line. By various accounts, it was around -25 F and breezy on top of that. Not pleasant at all. Officially the coldest I had experienced – UP TO THAT POINT. I started on my way, tried to run for a bit, but was hard with the sled – so, mostly walked. The sun came up soon after the start, and 2-3 hours after the start (I did not have a watch, so my estimates are a bit rough), made the left turn at Shelter 1. I stopped for a bit at that shelter to drink some water and grab some food out of my sled. Now, the ‘shelters’ on the trail are 3-sided structures that are open to the elements.
At this point, I was feeling good and tried to mix in some running with the walking. I caught up with Carles about 1-2 miles from the shelter. The day was turning out to be nice and sunny (though the maximum never got above -15 F, I think), and I was settling into a nice routine – keeping myself fed, hydrated, and reasonably comfortable. Maybe I will avoid the dreaded bonk I almost always have between miles 20 and 35 in ultras? Ha, fat chance. I could almost smell the bonk coming before it hit me. However, I could still walk at a reasonable enough pace to keep warm – so, all was okay.
Chris caught up with me somewhere around mile 20, and we played leapfrog for an hour or so. He commented that he had been following big and little hoka tracks for a bit and, thus, knew that Alicia and I were a bit ahead. I reminded him of the “married competition” and boasted that Alicia is going to bring home the trophy for us.
Slowly, I felt worse and worse, and the going felt harder. I slowed down quite a bit. In other races, slowing down usually regenerates. In this race, slowing down leads to freezing – which slows down things further, and the cycle becomes hard to break. Luckily, I was passed by several people in this section (John Storkamp, Matt Long, Ed Sandor, Sue Lucas, and a couple of others). Talking to them briefly was enough to lift my spirits up a bit, and I trudged along to finally get to Gateway checkpoint a bit after 5:30.
I ate some Sloppy Joe, drank some coffee, and peeled off several layers to hand it to the nice folks at Gateway in order to dry them. Dry the clothes, and not the folks – that is. For a bit I was thinking of heading out even if my clothes were a bit damp. Storkamp made an excellent suggestion that I should wait for the clothes to dry out – I had time, and dry clothes may mean the difference between a finish and a DNF. So, I was at Gateway for over 2 hours. To pass the time, I devoured a big double chocolate muffin.
On the way out, I was planning on running a bit on the first section – since it was supposed to be flat – so, I took off on my own. The first 10-12 miles from Gateway went really well. And, then, it got cold. Really cold, really quickly, and a bit breezy to boot.
It was somewhere around here that I had my first finger freeze scare. I had taken my outer mitts off (I still had my gloves on) to get some food off my sled. My fingers immediately froze. I could hardly move them. The first thing that came to my mind was – “but I am so close to sending Sherman Photo Roof at Rocktown – I need my fingers!” Time to implement the emergency plan. I packed up my sled again, put on my down jacket (barely closing the zipper with partly frozen fingers), and took off running at full gallop (or, merely an imitation thereof due to the sled). Sure enough, the core warmed and blood returned to my fingers to bring them back to life. Whew. As I was running, I passed Helen. To assuage any misgivings that I must be a moron to be sprinting at mile 50 of a 135 mile race, I mentioned in passing that my fingers were frozen and I was trying to warm them up.
It was becoming harder and harder to stay warm. The forecast had said it was going to drop to 30-35 below, and it probably did close to that out on the trail. My fingers started to freeze again after a while, and I had to repeat the process (including passing Helen again, and repeating my frozen finger chant). Then, came the long, exposed, and cold walk over Elephant lake on way to Melgeorges. That was brutally cold. I was seriously thinking about dropping at the Melgeorges checkpoint- did not think that I would be able to run fast enough the next night if I needed to warm my fingers again.
When I got to Melgeorges (~mile 72) a bit after 8 AM on Tuesday, I saw Alicia for the only time during the race. She was having trouble keeping food down – although was maintaining a blistering pace. She took off soon after I got there.
One problem with running at full gallop is the sweat. This becomes an even bigger problem when it is that cold. The sweat from my legs got into my poly-fill pants and I had a substantial layer of ice inside the fabric layers! I peeled off several layers to hand them over for drying. In the meanwhile, I looked at the weather forecast for the coming day and night. If it was going to be as cold as the first night, I was going to drop. What – only 12 below as high and 16 below as low? That’s practically spring compared to the first night! I am going on! Well, let’s at least get my fingers checked out for frostbite. They said that my fingers looked healthy and some pain was a good sign. Sweet!
After my clothes dried out, and I ate an inordinate amount of nuts at that checkpoint, I took off. I still had over 60 miles to go, but I was in good spirits and, for some reason, was reasonably certain that I will finish. There were some hills in this first section after Melgeorges and going up them with a sled was a bit of a trek. BUT – sledding down them was great! For a while, the going was great – sunny and relatively mild (probably got up to teens below), and reasonably quiet. I followed Helen for a bit in this section and saw Mark at a road crossing. After a while, the nice weather turned a bit ominous – clouds rolled in and it started flurrying. The wind also picked up and it felt cold again.
I caught up with Ed and tried to convince him to sled down the hills. It got dark soon after that and then came the hardest part – staying up the second night. For a while it went okay, but after the shelter at mile 98, I had real trouble staying up. I popped a caffeine pill and sleep-walked a bit till the pill kicked in. In retrospect, I should have pulled into my sleeping bag and bivvyed for a bit – that would have been faster overall.
Eventually, I got to Ski Pulk checkpoint (~mile 110) a bit before 3 AM. Just 25 more miles – almost the home stretch! I was feeling okay, so decided to keep going instead of taking a nap as I had earlier thought. Sledding down Wake Me Up hill was probably the best part of the race. After a while, the sun came up, and Helen and Chris caught up with me about 3 miles from the finish. They were hammering down that section – I could not keep up. However, I was certain that Alicia must have finished a while ago (she shattered the women’s record by over 7 hours!) and that gives me a fair bit of a buffer for the married division. A while later, I reached the finish line feeling completely shagged. It felt awesome to finish a tough race on my first try in really cold conditions in a bit over 51 and a half hours. Funnily enough, despite the ‘benign’ forecast that persuaded me to go out after Melgeorges, it was colder on the second night by some accounts!
A few things that I would have done differently (or things that I would do differently if I were ever to do this race again – however that is unlikely) – maybe an insulated camelback for water so that I did not have to pull out the outer mitts in the cold every time I needed water. Maybe use a food bag to keep fueling more frequently. I probably also would not put hand warmers inside my mitts – they were counterproductive, I think. They led to sweating and when I got my mitts off to get to food/water, my fingers froze almost immediately. Also, I would probably not wear vapor barrier jacket to keep warm – the sweat just froze instantly. Bivy for an hour or two early the second night would have been better than sleepwalking.
In any event, I enjoyed, in a perverse way, the race itself. More importantly, it was great to reconnect with old friends and meet new friends.