The Arrowhead 135 is a snow ultra event for either biking, skiing or on foot. The course is 135 miles on the Arrowhead snow mobile trail in Minnesota from International Falls to Tower. The "Falls" and Tower consistently record the coldest temperatures in the lower 48 states.
The Arrowhead 135 is a test of endurance and self sufficiency in the harshest winter conditions. No personal support is allowed. There are indoor checkpoints at miles 35, 70, 110. 125 racers on foot, bikes, or skis with all their gear, along with friends and family assembled in the parking lot of the Kerry Ice Arena before the 7am start on Monday, January 31, 2011. It was pitch dark. There were red blinking lights, white headlamps turned on and reflective material everywhere. Non-racers climbed huge snowbanks to get photographs of the start. The temperature was -9F with a light NE wind.
Crossing Hwy 53
The first 35 mile section from International Falls to the Gateway Convenience Store on Hwy 53 is the easiest. The terrain is flat or with small gentle grades. The bikes, 61 of them including 3 women, started at 7am. Sixty "runners" and six skiers were off a minute later. There was a string of red blinking lights as far as I could see. I planned to run most of this section and arrive at Gateway in 9 hours (~4pm). We crossed some streets in town while heading southwest. There were marshals at every intersection and the traffic was light. Four days before, the "Falls" received 8" of snow in three hours. The footing on the trail was okay. Not great, but also not horrible.
At mile 9, (9:25AM for me) we all turned straight east and felt the unfavorable wind at our face. It was colder, but the sun was up. There are no mile markers to gauge progress. The next landmark was the Hwy 53 crossing at mile 17. It seemed to take forever to get there. I knew there were train tracks right by the road. I heard a train whistle and thought I must be just a few seconds away. More corners and trees and finally I saw vehicles, people and logging trucks. Hwy 53 is the major north-south road in the area. Logging is a huge industry and the trucks are plentiful and fast. Trains have special cars for transporting logs.
There was lots of picture taking and encouragement from spectators. I arrived at noon, 5 hours to travel 17 miles. Halfway to Gateway. I was feeling good. After just a few strides I heard a loud motor on the trail behind me. It was a huge orange grooming machine. I knew it was the Grim Reaper for all of us. The groomer smooths out the rough trail. It looks terrifically smooth and wonderful until you step on it. Every step breaks through several inches. Progress is horrible and takes a huge amount of energy. We all stayed on the old side of the trail. After an hour or so the groomed side "sets up" and is hard and wonderful, just like a sidewalk. With all this I was walking most of the remaining miles to Gateway. 9 hours to the check point was not happening. I talked with others around me to pass the time. Two women from Duluth MN were skiing. A guy on foot from South Carolina was making his second attempt. It's difficult to find another person going your pace, but it's easy to overlap with people in the first stretch.
We passed shelter 1 and 2. No one was stopped at either. The shelters are rest stops for snow mobilers. They are a three sided hut with benches built into the sides. There is usually a fire ring and outhouse nearby. Finally I made it to the Gateway checkpoint at dusk, 5:30pm. Arrowhead cyclist finisher in previous years Dennis Grelk was checking racers in and out. "Dennis, I'm here!" I parked my kicksled next to the other sleds, gathered some dry clothes and went inside quickly. My glasses fogged up immediately. There were people and piles of clothes everywhere. Store owners Ellen and Phil Hart embrace the event and do everything possible to help racers continue. They offer four kinds of soup for us, stock up on extra supplies, put out extra chairs and tables, hire extra help and even use their personal laundry to dry our wet clothes. No socks were lost! Ellen made me special egg salad sandwiches. She said the Arrowhead race spices up a dull winter for them. They go out of their way to keep us going while still taking care of the usual customers who need fuel and supplies.
I stayed almost 90 minutes, more than I planned, but I was busy the entire time. Changing into dry clothes, eating, arranging food for the night, and adjusting the headlamp. I retired my running shoes and YakTrak to the sled compartment and put on my Mukluk boots for the night. I put heat packs inside the pogies (big mitten-things attached to the sled). I knew it would be a long and cold night. It's important to get everything done in warmth and light that can be. Sage words from Dennis as I passed him going back to the trail: "Good luck."
I've been puzzled at the number of racers who quit at Gateway. If you're planning on completing a 135 mile race, how can you possibly be done in at mile 35? Now I know. Getting to Gateway is long and difficult, especially if the snow is not fast. After Gateway you have at least 12 hours of cold, darkness and hills. Seven runners, 4 of them women, did not continue passed Gateway.
As I made my way back to the trail I saw many racers heading it to the store. It was dark now. I put my face mask on inside the store. My glasses were fogging up, so I took them off and put them in the food compartment of the sled. The moon was just a few days from being new so it was a dark sky, but the stars were plentiful and bright. I kept the headlamp on low unless there was a big downhill ahead. Twelve miles from Gateway was shelter 3. I figured I was walking three mph. I moved along. I don't remember many people around me. It was very dark and I pondered what would happen if my light failed. I had three AAA lithium batteries in the headlamp because of the cold temperatures. I had spare batteries along, but not the dexterity to change them. Keeping my hands warm was constantly on my mind. I crossed Sheep Ranch Road where a person was standing near their vehicle. Not sure if they were waiting to see someone or why there were there. It was four miles to shelter 3. To my astonishment there was a warm glow after more than an hour. It was Ed Bouffard, the ski pulk guy, welcoming racers into his WARM tepee for hot cocoa. Ed is always energetic and friendly. He has a business selling pulks (sleds people use to haul their gear in snow), harnesses and other accessories. It was like a dream. I didn't know what to make of it. Shelter 3 was just off the trail, dark and cold. I partook of all the services. Ed offered to call Rick. It was 11:15pm. I didn't know what to say, so I gave him our number and said to tell him that I was doing well on the trail.
It was around 4AM when I got to shelter 4. There was a roaring fire going, probably started by the snow mobile volunteers. There was one bicycle leaned up against the outside wall. Two or three people were bivied, one snoring. I got inside the fire ring to warm my hands. They were cold. I recognized skier Mike Stattleman in the dark rolling up his sleeping bag. I know him a bit from last year when he skied with a backpack instead of a sled and finished. I hurried to get fresh warmer packets in my pogies and boots. It was cold (-35F I found out later). There were thirteen miles until Elephant Lake and the halfway cabin at MelGeorge's resort. The snow was horrid for Mike's skate skis. He resigned himself to walking in his ski boots. The skis were attached to his backpack. We set out together. We were really into the thick of the hills on this section. Darkness conceals some of the difficulty. The kicksled allowed my to ride down the hills. I'm better at riding than steering but there were no crashes. Mike was very strong on the uphills and I would ride past him on the down. It didn't seem fair, but I needed every advantage I could get. Occasionally we could hear an approaching snow mobile or see lights of one coming toward us. They are race volunteers patrolling the trail for our safety. In seven years of the event no one has died. The snow mobiles have a sled towed behind to transport racers who need rescuing. I saw people at two different times in the rescue sled.
I asked Mike about the slow snow. He explained that the 8" of new snow on Thursday before the event was not packed down because of the cold temperatures. Earlier in the week International Falls set a new record low temperature of -46F. New snow flakes at very cold temperatures are like tiny knives. They cut into the skis and never set up. If there is sun and warmth of the day the flakes melt together to make for much better skiing. So, we were stuck with slow snow. Some of the hills were so steep I felt like the sled was close to my head. I pondered the third section after MelGeorge's. Forty miles and huge hills almost constantly.
My hands were getting colder in spite of double warmer packs in each. I wasn't eating much because I didn't want to take my hands out of the pogies to get into the food box. I had easy access to warm apple juice in my little thermos. I drank that often, but I was getting cold. I stopped to get out my emergency down coat. I took my icy windbreaker off and put the coat on. Mike zipped the coat up for me. Warm hands are a luxury I don't have. Are we getting close to the lake? Mike's reply was "It's a ways yet." I thought I caught a glimpse of the ice at one point. Nope. People warned me of the sign that says "5 miles to MelGeorge Resort." It may as well say 50 miles. It seems to take forever. I wasn't seeing clearly without my glasses. Throughout the night ice builds up around your face from exhaling warm air. As the sun came closer to rising, I realized my eyelashes had little ice bergs on them. I either had to have my eyelids wide open, or partially shut to see through the ice bergs. Most inconvenient.
on Elephant Lake near MelGeorge's
As I got more tired and cold I decided to withdraw from the race at MelGeorge's. I tried to keep an open mind about continuing after resting, but it did not seem wise. I had enough food and could start again with dry clothes, but it was the thought of 40 miles of hills and another night outdoors that deterred me. I felt my hands would not tolerate the conditions. Know when to say when, I guess. I was relieved and not sad to admit I was not tougher than the Arrowhead. In this case DNF also means Did Nothing Fatal.
What did I eat? I had all kinds of stuff packed, but what worked best was uncooked pie crust rolled up and cut into 1" pieces, grapes (frozen)and GU. The little thermos with apple juice and a straw was the best. A Camelbak with melon flavored HEED was also good, but harder to get to because I kept the hose under my tunic. My big thermos worked great for keeping hot water even after 12 hours of below 0.
the Food Box on the sled
What did I wear? Wool really is a miracle fabric. I had on my original 1981 long sleeved wool cycling jersey. The pockets in back are an ideal place to keep a few things from freezing solid. Over the jersey I had a special boiled wool tunic made by Molly Trosky, a friend from work. It has unattached sleeves which were always too hot to wear in training around here. On top of the tunic I had an old fashioned windbreaker that Molly modified with zippers in the arm pits.My legs were covered with Pearl Izumi coldest weather cycling tights with a wind front panel. One pair of Smart Wool socks and a lightweight pair of stretchy gloves inside the poggies. I had a Gortex Windstopper hat on the entire time.
At night I added the boiled wool sleeves, quilted thermal pants and a dry pair of Smart Wool socks. I traded my Adidas adventure running shoes with built in gaiter and YakTrax for Mukluk boots. I knew I would be walking all night and the boots were best for keeping warm feet. A face mask is essential and I had cotton in my ears.
My Achilles tendons are inflamed to a small degree now, six days after I stopped. I'm not sure what to make of the whole experience. I appreciate the kind words from everyone. Lisa Paulos
You can see a number of photos I took and have collected from others at Photobucket here: SLIDESHOW