What makes Arrowhead so difficult, and so much of an accomplishment?
It’s a hard question to answer…
Is it because the 135 mile course is so demanding physically? Well some of it… the route has long stretches that are completely flat that will coax you into a high rhythm, then it will slam you with 30 miles on step back to back hills sapping ever last bit of strength you legs have left. But that isn’t it… because the group of athletes that train and participate in this event are the toughest in the world (all over the world) and are more than ready for 20-50 hours of physical exertion.
Is it the cold? Well sort of… The International Falls area has been nicknamed the “ice box of north America” and for notable reasons. Even this year (not the coldest year) the race started at -5df with a 10-15 mph headwind on the out and back and finished at -34dF the night of the second day. The -34dF was actual air temperature not the wind-chill or fells like, that was lower. However, for most racers these temperatures are expected and planned for (the best that we can, some of us unfortunately don’t get to train in these extremes and must guestimate on how our equipment and clothing will [hopefully] perform). To exasperate the situation, the cold can wreck havoc on the bikes, skis and sleds. Numerous racers have had to resort to pushing their bikes (some over 80 miles of the route) due to frozen hubs. Skiers sometimes find it impossible to get a wax that will work at -30dF so they go with the coldest made and just “deal with it”. So the cold, while a big part of it, just isn’t it either.
Is it the sleep deprivation and mental stress? While sleeping at check points or out on the trail is standard for some competitors, most choose to push through the night in hopes of cutting hours from the race. In addition, at -34dF how well can one sleep anyway? Moreover, there are much longer ultra distance races where racers will go a week on end with only an hour or two of sleep each night, so that’s most likely not it either.
If you do the math, you’ll know it’s not the dangerous speeds, I mean how scary can an 8 mph bike race, or 6 mph ski race be? I suppose the lack of speed may have something to do with it, boredom comes to mind.
So why is Arrowhead such a difficult race… well this year:
Joel and I arrived at the starting line late (at about 8 am, about an hour after the first racers started). We wanted to let the trail get packed down as 4” of fresh snow had fallen the night before. There were about 6 main racers who were in contention for the win this year, four of them had rolled out at about 7:30 and were well on their way… It’s a very long race, but I’d trained well enough for this race that it’s hard to keep the speed down when the beginning is so easy… but I was doing a pretty good job on the first part of the out and back I was keeping my average at about 11 mph (which by the way is really fast for AH135). At about 2/3r’ds of the way to the turnaround (at 8 miles), two of the main contenders (charlie and dave) screamed past in the other direction doing at least 13! We’ll the race is on! I took two more gears and cranked it up to match their speed, and besides they were breaking trail through fresh snow, I had a 1’ wide swatch from the other bikes and racers who had started before. I finished the out and back with an average of 12 mph.
The whole first ¼ of the race until the first check point was pretty uneventful, I kept my speed up as high as I dared, it dropped about a half mph for every bike I passed, as the trail became less and less defined. During this section I passed a couple of the top contenders (Lindsay Gauld [former Olympian], Dennis Grelk [2nd place tie with me at Triple D], and Mike Curiak [Iditarod record holder]). Mike interesting enough, noticed me approaching and pulled to side and grabbed his camera; he then proceeded to motion me to the wrong side of the trail so as to setup the perfect photo shoot (I think he deserves a free entry for being the unofficial race photographer, the picture, believe it the picture below is of me, taken by mike at about 6 miles out from the Gateway CheckPoint – you must visit his blog as his photograph is amazing, especially considering he’s racing while taking these photos). I moved into the fourth spot after passing Mike… and by timing when snow machines would pass and when I would see the other tracks reappear in the snow I was now in first place by almost 20 minutes! I started 45 minutes after Charlie and Dave but had closed their starting lead to only 20 minutes. I kept my stop at the gateway store to a minimum, buying only a hot brat and v8 juice. I knew I’d lose a couple minutes here as Dave stops for nothing. The big unknown for me though was two of the top racers (Terry Brannick [who would take 1st this year]), and Dave Gray [prior AH winner]) had started after me, there was no way for me to know how much time I was ahead or behind them, until the halfway checkpoint where I had planned a 1 hour layover.
The remainder of the first half continued to progress well, I was eating and drinking regularly, I was keeping my speed at a maintainable pace. I was watching the battle ahead of me as I could tell the front three were breaking up, Dave had dropped Charlie and Josh. I passed Josh not too long after the gateway store, he wasn’t happy about not having a bigger trail to follow (he wanted to start MUCH latter). I kept the effort up and was closing on Charlie but not Dave. I caught up with Charlie about 6 miles from the MelGeorges checkpoint. While he had been dropped and said he had bonked, his speed didn’t show it, and I was only averaging about a ½ mph more. Crossing Elephant lake was quite an experience, the wind was pounding from the side (I was running a disk on my rear wheel to prevent snow and ice buildup, and this section was tossing my bike to the side), Dave’s tire tracks while only 15 minutes old had already drifted over.
I pulled in to MelGeorges 15 minutes after Dave but 30 minutes into the lead (so far). I knew I wouldn’t get any rest as Dave would try to make up for lost time by heading right back out… I did get time to refill my camel back, partially dry my “super suit”, eat a grilled cheese and chug down a bowl of soup. But that was it Dave was back out! Charlie had rolled in only 10 minutes after me and wasn’t looking to bad. Terry who had started about 15 minutes after me rolled in only 20 minutes after… that meant I only had a 5 minute lead on him! Which, in this race is absolutely nothing – a dead heat! Terry would end up moving into the lead by leaving MelGeorges 15 minutes early.
After leaving the CP (about 20 minutes early than planned) I was back on the trail trying to work off the 15 minute false lead Dave had on me so that I could at least know where he was (my thought was, there was nothing I could do about Terry behind me but at least with Dave, if I could close the distance, I could keep an eye on him)… about an hour (or two at the most I had closed the gap and for all of about 5 minutes Dave was following me.
I pause here to say… “This is where things start to go wrong”
1. I was trying to win Arrowhead (my planning prior to the race was to finish in top 5, my pace had increased beyond what I should have been pushing, but oh, 1st place would be nice).
2. It was starting to get cold and dark (not that -5dF wasn’t cold at the start, it was), but it was getting real cold -15dF (at least for someone who had been living in sunny Florida (it was 75dF when I left Tampa a couple days earlier)).
So, with 1 and 2, why would these have caused things to go bad??? Well Dave is one of the most consistent determined riders I’ve ever ridden with… the cold had gotten low enough that I had to put on my “cold weather” mittens. But to eat I had to stop, remove the mittens get out my food, put the mittens back on and ride again. This, in addition, to the fact that I was geared to high to ride some of the hills that Dave was easily topping, had caused me to start to really max the engine to close the distance when on the bike.
About 3 hours of this (110 miles in) the fire went out! Instantly! Nothing! In normal races this simply would have meant limping in with a light spin, but remember, its -15dF, riding a bike on soft snow in the middle of nowhere… there was no limping home, my feet, hands and nose where starting to show early signs of frost bike (numb, tingling and stinging), I had to pick it up, but the fire was out. I could no longer keep my body warm, I was about 5 miles (or 1 hour) out from the “Teepee Checkpoint”, which we were told would have fire going (we equated to also mean getying warm)! So, with everything remaining I pushed hill after hill and rode when I could, as hard as I could, nearing collapse I arrive at the CP 15 minutes behind Dave just before 1 AM (about an hour ahead of the next rider). Unfortunately the teepee was on the top of the highest hill on the course which was wind whipped and bitterly cold; the fire was a small smoldering ring that simply filled the teepee with lung searing smoke and contributed nothing to warm the teepee (it was just as cold inside as out). But the decision to get there was made, I had nothing left and although it was only 22 miles from the finish and I’d freeze to death on the trail if I continued. I grabbed my bivy sack from the bike, found an open spot on the ground, stripped naked and climbed in my sleeping bag. The next 7 hours of intermittent intense shivering were only broken by the occasional racer checking in at the CP and checking in on us. Dave had also made the decision to Bivy at the last checkpoint as we had ran each other into the ground and continuing on at 2 in the morning with depleted energy levels could spell disaster.
The morning had rolled around but the temperatures didn’t budge (although the sun will lift your sprits no matter the cold)… In talking with the guys tasked with manning the CP, Dave and I had decided to jump off course (allowed as long as you return where you left) and get some hot food in us to finish the race (even bagging it for 7 hours we were still in a tie for 5th place (although there wasn’t much fight in either one of us). In the process of getting directions from the CP guys, the exhaustion was altering my good judgment, I was actually disagreeing with the locals on how to get to the nearest town (Cook). They said Right then Left… all I could remember was Left then Right… Dave was off, I however, was faced with getting my frozen “super suit” on, yes my clothes were frozen solid, couldn’t even get my arm in the sleeves. I spent about 30 minutes with my frozen clothes inside my bag getting them warmed up enough to get them on (OH SO FUN). It was so cold that I had to nearly place my boots inside the smoldering fire to even melt the ice off them (but close enough they were to shrink the leather and melt the rubber – one ruined pair of Lake Boots, could barely even get them on).
Exhausted and barely able to ride, down the trail I went, then the road the locals at the teepee had mentioned in their directions… I took the left turn, a couple miles then a right on the highway (it was so cold that my bike computer was coved in a thin sheet of ice making it impossible to select different functions (I was stuck on Average Speed, Speed and HR). Needless to say the 11 mph on the pavement going into “town” felt good)… after what felt like an hour (it was) I still wasn’t in cook for the hot breakfast… kept riding, and there it was Lake Vermilion on my right (that the lake that we finish at… only its supposed to be on the left! I had ridden over 15 miles in the wrong direction (or some unknown direction). I stopped at the first sign of civilization to get directions and verify my impending drop from the race, and sure enough I had turned the AHU135 into the AUH 165… I was done. The contractor who was dry walling a summer cottage offered me a ride back to the trail; gladly I accepted even knowing that this was the end of the race for me. On our way back we crossed the AH trail and a meet Dave coming the correct direction from town with a hot breakfast reenergizing his body. I trailed him the last couple of hours to the finish stopping to walk so that I’d keep a little blood to my cramped feet. I finished in a solid 5th place for a minute or two, until I notified race officials of my outside assistance for the DQ.
I had a couple of people ask me when I got home why I turned myself in… I replied that the reason that I started the ultra endurance racing was not to win races, but to challenge myself, and this challenge isn’t just physical, or having the right equipment, or strategy, it’s everything combined including integrity. That’s what makes Arrowhead so difficult. It challenges every part of your being, and if you think you have it all together before the race, it throws in Mother Nature’s unpredictable wrath and finally the toughest individuals in the world to make the race even more of a challenge… now that’s a recipe for a race with the ultimate rewards to those who race it (finish or not)!
Next year??? I’ll be there again, a little wiser and a little stronger… but that’s next year…
Post Script: small little things have a huge effect in a race that demands everything to be perfect… I learned a lot this year and am confident that I will be ready for the three most extreme [winter] races - next year (Triple D @ 60 Miles, Arrowhead Ultra @ 135 miles and Iditarod @ 350 miles– yup Alaska here I come).
1. Can’t say anything bad about my new FatBack other than it was geared way to high, I was running a 36 front, will need to drop this to a 32, just couldn’t comfortable push this gear on the moderate climbs… nearly all the finishers were running a 32 or lower.
2. Loading my bivy bag under the front bars prevented me from seeing my front wheel and being able to reliably ride in Dave’s tracks, wasting energy, may opt next year for one of Epic Eric’s Burrito bags (the world’s largest seat bag).
3. My mittens were not warm enough, victim of living in the sunshine state, because of the whole mitten fiasco, I wasn’t able to consume the calories needed to sustain my pace once the temps started dropping, I think I may have to break down and get a pair of Epic Eric’s Poggies (this one item most likely cost me my DQ vs. 1st place, as others with Poggies were able to eat without stopping – actually passed on a number of “eat alarms” and even “drink alarms” so as to keep my time split on Dave and Terry).
My actual ride time on my computer was 18 hours 58 minutes with a total distance of 149.6 miles at an average ride speed of 7.9 mph (included pushing)! Yup a blistering 7.9 mph, doubt we’ll see any flicks from this race on the SPEED channel… I believe my “ride time/speed” was most likely the fastest for the event. My complete time to finish the race (all stops, detours, etc.) was 27 hours 54 minutes.
I suffered 2nd degree frost bite on the bottom of my nose and upper lip, and 1st degree frost bite (commonly referred to as frost nip) on all my finger tips. As I write this on Sunday night my fingers are almost back to normal, the blisters on my lip and nose are now just some minor scabs… Darn sensitive Floridian skin! But worst of all, I ruined my nice pair of Lake Boots!