On the cold and dark morning of January 31, 2012, I made a second attempt at finishing the Arrowhead 135 snow ultra race. Beginning in the heart of International Falls, MN, it follows the Arrowhead snow mobile trail 135 miles to a finish line at Fortune Bay Casino near Tower, MN. International Falls consistently records the coldest temperatures in the United States, but like much of the country this year, it was plagued with balmy temperatures and minimal snow.
We queued up for the 7am start at the Kerry Ice Arena.
Skiers line up and are off two minutes later and those of us on foot head out two minutes after the skiers.
The snow is minimal in depth, but adequate for every discipline. The trail is wide in town, enough for two or three people abreast. There are flashing lights as far as one can see out the trail. We are heading south. There is traffic control at intersections. Excitement and relief are felt as finally we are moving. All the weight of planning and decisions about gear are lifted.
I'm not sure where I am in relation to the other women on foot. It's not so much a competition with them, but with ourselves to make it 135 miles to Fortune Bay. We all have individual plans that we hope take us to the finish line. Some of us met at lunch the day before so we are familiar faces to each other. Participation of women is always less than 10%, but it is increasing.
While eating in my corner next to the ice cream freezer, I talked to Rick Wagar, a teacher of some sort from North Dakota. He finished on foot last year and remembered me. There is a photograph of me last year crossing Elephant Lake just before I dropped out at MelGeorge's. I endured -35F overnight and was a moving mass of cold and ice. Rick said he uses that photo during a talk he gives to students. It was a wonderful turn of events this year to have temperatures above 0.
Mike and I left Gateway at 7:15p. The cutoff time is 9pm. I was surprised to see a number of people heading in as we were leaving. It was getting a little late. Angela Hill was in good spirits. It was nice to hear her voice.
The second leg of the race, ~35 miles from Gateway to MelGeorge's Resort on Elephant Lake is where the hills start. It's also dark much of the time for us on foot. Shelter 3 is 12 miles from Gateway and Shelter 4 is another 11 miles. Mike and I hoped to stay together and take a sleep break at Shelter 4. There were moderate and small hills. We passed people now and again, and a few people passed us. Volunteers on snow machines patrol the trail to check on us. They also have fires going at the shelters. They tow sleds [the kind hunters use to haul game out of the woods] behind in case a racer needs rescuing. I never want to find myself in need of the rescue sled. I saw people in them last year. Mike and I got separated and on one downhill it felt like I had a big chunk of ice under one of the skis on my sled. Something was digging into the snow and I stopped. Hmmm. Upon closer inspection I saw two screws from the frame were gone from the bracket on the ski. In just a few seconds, Erik ["one E and one K"] stopped to see what was going on. Thanks to a miracle, he picked up one of the screws in the snow. Other guys came upon us. After a little discussion, a guy from California produced a coil of wire and Rick Wagar had a wire tool. Temporary repair under the light of headlamps took just a few minutes.
Mike caught up with me near Shelter 3, 48 miles at 12:20am. I could smell the fire before we got there. Three people were bivying in the shelter. The fire was going strong. A younger snow machine guy was there. I heard him ask someone "Why do you do this?"
We continued after a short break. There were four of us for a while. Me, Mike, Rick Wagar and Ben Clark, a 21 year old college student from North Dakota. This was Ben's third attempt to finish on foot. The previous two years he was stopped at MelGeorge's by race officials because of the time cut-off. He seemed determined to finish this year. Ben is quiet and thoughtful. His parents have accompanied him each year. He is majoring in math and computer science. Ben also had a good head lamp. We spent some pleasant miles together. He thought he should wait for Rick as I pressed on to Shelter 4.
I arrived ~4am and got into my sleeping bag as fast as possible. A few people were sleeping, while others came and went. People are always talking, so it was not a real sleep, but I rested and shut my eyes. I stashed some food in a pocket of the bivy sack. I ate most of it so I'd have energy to get going. Batteries Plus donated a "Nano Light" to all racers. I had the good idea to take it along. It's a tiny bright light that works perfect inside a sleeping bag. I thought I heard Mike's voice the whole time I was sleeping. I couldn't figure out why he wasn't getting some rest.
Around 6am I heard Angela Hill's voice. Angela has a presence that is distinctly her. It was great to know she made it to Shelter 4. I stuck my head out of the bag. It was time to get going. Angela was ready to quit. Things were not going well, so she called her mother from the trail, then she lost her phone. Someone brought it in the next minute. I tried to convince her to continue with me to MelGeorge's but she didn't have the aversion to the rescue sled that I do. Her decision was made so I asked if I could borrow her headlamp and have any extra food. She gave me a Coke, bottle of Ensure and the light. I guess racers helping other racers meant other people helping me. Mike was not around. I figured he left earlier with some other people. Thirteen miles to MelGeorge's. It's 6:30am Tuesday.
I was troubled by the breakdown with my sled. I couldn't come to terms with a DNF due to mechanical problems. It is a risk I took when using the more complex push-sled rather than the simplicity of a pulk. I know people will voluntarily quit at MelGeorge. Perhaps I can borrow a pulk from someone. I'll look at my sled. I'd really like to finish with it, but mostly I want to finish without breaking any rules. I decide to continue with my sled and pull a pulk in addition, in case of complete failure. Finally the vast white expanse of the lake is in sight. There are thin pieces of wood at intervals in the snow with orange and reflective paint to guide us along the mile it takes to reach the oasis of MelGeorge's.
There is an ice fishing hut and vehicle on the lake. The lodge and cabins are not visible until you are almost upon them, but I remembered from last year where to look. There are two photographers on the lake. I'm in much better condition than last year, but weary. It's after 12 noon and the 2pm cutoff looms.
I have a few blisters on my feet, wet shoes and socks, mechanical issues and am tired. I find a little piece of floor space and claim it with my stuff. The cabin is full of people. Mary Grelk is happy to see me. I eat a grilled cheese sandwich from her. I get a few things from my drop bag. Racers are allowed to send a small bag of food to MelGeorge's for resupply. Only food. There's always lots of cast-off food that you can add to yours. I ask about borrowing a pulk. Lynn Saari isn't continuing on and she allows me to use her pulk and harness. John Storkamp produces a variety bag of gels.
Mike makes it to the cabin shortly after me. Susan is helping him. With my distractions I forget to check out with the volunteer. Race director Mary Pramann strictly enforces the 2pm cutoff. You've got to be out of the cabin if you want to continue. Lynn sets me up with her pulk and I pull out of the MelGeorge's at 1:45. My feet are dry and I'm in good spirits. Alicia Hudelson looked great in the cabin and is ahead. Joy Parker is about 30 minutes ahead of me. There are two guys between us and two or three guys, including Mike, behind me. Everyone else has dropped, including front runner Heidi Perry.
There is a gentle hill just across the road where I realize I forgot to tell the volunteer the time I left the cabin. [This momentary lapse caused great angst and worry for my family and friends who were keeping track of my progress. They had to tough it out until I reached the teepee more than 18 hours later to see my time recorded that I passed through.] No time to fool around trying to get to my phone. I have less than four hours before it is dark again. Shelter 5 comes quickly in just two miles. I'm alone. The afternoon is nice. I see Greg, Joy's boyfriend at a cross road and she is ahead a short distance. I see her and am happy with my good fortune. We know each other from previous Arrowheads as volunteers. As I join her, Joy says she is having some breathing problems and coughing up green crud. She uses my inhaler [never let other people use your medication] but it doesn't help much.
We're walking together. It's a luxury to be with someone compatible. After a short time I look back to find her out of sight. Since leaving MelGeorge's I'm pushing my sled and pulling an empty pulk. I imagine it looks like a scene from the Far Side. I turn the whole dog-and-pony show around and walk a sort time until I see Joy. I will not abandon someone in distress on the trail. Shelter 6 is coming up and two miles beyond there is County Road 23 east of Orr. Greg will be there for her.
Around 10 or 11pm I started to get tired. I was miles from a shelter, so I pulled off to the side of the trail, put on my emergency down coat and set the kitchen timer for 15 minutes. I parked the push-sled in the snow and got inside the plastic pulk anchored behind. I didn't even have my eyes closed when I heard a snow machine. I didn't know it, but Todd Gabrielson had been keeping a close eye on me the entire race. He's been a race
volunteer for years and knows the entire Arrowhead Trail like the back of his hand. He approached the sled and started talking. "I'm back here" I said from the pulk. It was a very funny moment. I reassured him I was fine and just needed to close my eyes briefly. He took off and I was up and moving again in 5 minutes. I repeated this 5 minute nap in the pulk twice more.
I arrived as Shelter 7, mile 98, at 1:45am Wednesday. There was a shoveled path from the trail to it. I planned to nap for 30 minutes on the bench inside. I got in there and the benches were quite high off the ground. What gives? Are snow mobile drivers all 6 feet tall? I climb up there, set the timer and hope I don't fall off. It's heaven to close my eyes. I'm up in 15 minutes and back on the trail.
From 2am until sunrise at 7:30am I keep walking. Todd and our other snow machine safety volunteers sleep at the MelGeorge cabin. They don't patrol all night. I actually pass two people bivied on the trail. I delude myself that I'll be reaching the tepee, Check point #3, right before sunrise.
In two miles I faced Wakemup hill, the last huge hill of the race.
It sure was steep. Like all the other big hills I looked for footholes in the snow from previous racers. I put my feet in them and pushed the sled up ahead of me. I wasn't fast, but I was steady and soon found myself at the top. Shelter 8 was there so I decided to take off the Adidas Adventure shoes and YakTrax I had on and put on my MukLuks.
This final stretch of ~20 miles is mostly flat. It passes through swamp land until a mile from the Finish Line. I picked two cat tails in the first stage of exploding and stuck them on my sled. I wanted to run so I would be on the trail for less time, but I could only manage a slow jog for short stretches. Two guys passed me running slowly. Seven hours to go was a challenging thought. I looked at my final two maps and pondered the phrase "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." Todd Gabrielson, a snow machine volunteer checked on me. I just needed to keep a steady 2.5 mph and I'd make it. Seven hours was a long time yet and I needed to keep eating and drinking. Warmth comes from within. If you don't have fuel even the priciest heated gloves and techno clothing won't keep you warm. I took a swallow from the broth. It tasted horrible. Given the discussions about moose I heard over the last few days, I likened the taste to moose urine. I wasn't drinking any more of it, which left me with a Coke bottle filled with water. Nothing in my food box looked good. I had a few cheese cubes that I nibbled on. I don't remember what else I ate.
Seeing him and engaging in a few minutes of conversation was a lifeline. I kept moving forward, even willed myself to run a bit now and then. I so wanted to be to the finish line before dark. The vegetation was painfully boring. Snow on the scrubby trees and bushes started looking like people and vehicles. Mile after mile went by slowly. I kept up a reasonable pace. I was lonely. I felt like a prisoner on the swamp trail. There were twists and turns. I might be going in circles and not know it. There were no signs of life. It was mental torture after the fun at the teepee. I wasn't ending the race on a high note. I kept going. I would not finish by dark. I picked up a few pieces of trash here and there. Our goody bag contained a toothbrush which I threw in the food box. I got it out of the package, dunked it in the Coke bottle water and started brushing my teeth. Anything to take my mind off the boredom. The bottoms of my feet burned from the endless hours in wet socks. I kept walking as I entered the third evening of darkness. On went the headlamp just in case there was something or someone I wanted to see.
I think it is important to finish alone if that is where your place is among racers. People could walk out the trail from the finish line at Fortune Bay, but I'm glad they don't. When I finally got out of the swamp and onto the trail on the Fortune bay property, I tried to gather some piece of mind. I would be finished in 1.5 miles. The fourth official woman finisher on foot in eight years. This last leg of 20 miles was mental torture, but I showed myself that this time around, I was tougher than the Arrowhead. On I went to the finish banner where race officials, and friends waited to congratulate me. I had thirty minutes to spare.
Dream possible, it can happen.
The biggest thanks to Rick Paulos, my husband. He does lots of helpful things under the radar so I can make it happen at big events. We're a good team.
More thanks to Dennis, Duane and Mary Grelk for hauling me and my gear countless miles without putting any pressure or expectations on me.
Thanks to all the people who helped me along the way with winter camping, gear, and training. There was a lot of fun and learning. And thanks to the people who remained silent rather than tell me I couldn't do it.
There were some racers from Italy. One said the state slogan "Land of 10,000 lakes" should be changed to "Land of 10,000 hills."
I ran the biggest hills in my neighborhood for at least one hour once a week for a year. My quadriceps and hamstrings weren't a bit sore after the race.
Stats: I finished.
I needed more liquids. Gradually all the food I took looked un-appetizing, even the pie crust. I lost some of my sense of taste while on the trail. It took three days after the finish to return.
I learned this year that other racers and volunteers had nicknames for me: cart lady, bag lady, metronome.
It cost $400 to take a cab from Duluth MN to the Fortune Bay Casino.
More stats: 50 people started the Foot division, 42 male and 8 female. 28 people finished the Foot division, 26 male and 2 female. 62% males finished. 25% females finished. 56% overall finishers
It was me and nature, as Dave Pramann wanted, the second night. No music or distractions. Just hours of darkness, trees, occasional snow, thoughts and forward progress.
In a complete reversal of roles, Jennifer Flynn covered me with the bedspread when I fell asleep with my clothes on after finishing. I did the same for her last year.
The vision of Dennis loading my baggage into the van "like he's chucking hay" for the return home.
Boots are kept warm during sleep breaks by wearing them inside the sleeping bag.
There are 7 grams of saturated fat in one Hostess Twinkie.
I didn't weigh my sled, but I could easily lift it when there were road crossings with no snow.
All time finishers in the women foot/run division:
2007 Sarah Lowell 55:07
2012 Alicia Hudleson 55:56 (third time is the charm)
2008 Sarah Lowell 56:44 (only two time woman finisher on foot)
2011 Barb Owen 57:38 (Shackelton Award winner)
2012 Lisa Paulos 59:29 (second attempt)
2008 Michelle Santihano 60:43 ("Unofficial finisher" outside the time limit)
The most minimal hug from Dennis in my driveway after my gear was unloaded at home. Enough said.
Iowa Ultra Queen