Another DNF. I Did Nothing Fatal and I Did Not Finish due to cold temperatures. International Falls, Minnesota., is the Ice Box of the Nation.
Expectations were high for me this year to finish pulling a pulk. It’s the traditional way to haul gear. With one success using the push sled I knew what to expect. I teamed up with friends Laurie Tulchin and Bonnie Busch. We have dozens of ultra run and bike finishes between us and are seasoned to the preparation and hardships of such events. We’re also aware of the feeling we get when completing tough challenges. Onward!
Before sunrise on Monday, January 27, 2014, the temperature in International Falls was minus 26F with a favorable Northwest tail wind at 10 – 15 mph. The day would warm to -12F with lots of sunshine. Officially there are 142 starters. 84 cyclists were off at 7AM, 2 skiers at 7:02 and 56 of us on foot at 7:04. A few minutes before 7 we made our way around the huge snow banks separating the Kerry Arena parking lot from the trail. We could see that people were already gone. There is never much fanfare, but this was unprecedented. I guess the racers who were ready didn’t want to wait around, so everyone set off. Laurie and I waved to Jim Glasgow, the best support person we could ever have. Bonnie was a bit ahead of us.
As we set out toward sunrise and the new day, Jim loaded up his truck with more than 100 drop bags for the halfway cabin at the MelGeorge's Elephant Lake Lodge & Resort at mile 70. We followed the endless string of blinking lights and reflective material. As we exited International Falls, volunteers stop traffic as the trail crosses city streets. People wave and bid us ‘Good Luck’! The route starts and stays on the Blue Ox snow mobile trail for nine miles, then makes a sharp left turn to join the Arrowhead Trail. There are no mile markers. Mile nine is a place to gauge progress because it is ¼ the distance to the first Checkpoint at Gateway Store at mile 36.7.
At mile eighteen we cross State Hwy 53, another place to measure progress. Laurie and I crossed the highway and watched a train pass at 12:30PM. We are alternating between a walking pace of ~3mph and running ~4mph. Bonnie is behind us a short distance. Towing our gear in pulks, weighing between 20 and 30 pounds, we are well slower than our usual running pace. Cold temperatures mean good snow for the pulks to slide. Above +20F the snow gets sticky and the drag is exhausting. The Gateway checkpoint cutoff time is 9PM. We arrive at 6:30PM. Laurie’s friend and neighbor Josh Meggitt at 6:15PM and Bonnie at 6:40PM.
Jim and Bonnie's husband, Darrell Busch, meet us and help us getting food and drinks. Family and friends of racers can help us at checkpoints, but not anywhere else along the route. Gateway store owners Phil and Ellen Hart go all out to provide us with necessities conveniences to help us continue. Ellen made egg salad sandwiches for Laurie and me. We are eating, drinking and refilling our thermoses with warm water and apple juice. I put on my ‘emergency clothes’ [quilted pants over my super warm cycling tights. And swap out some top layers to include my down coat]. With an overnight temperature forecast to -35F, I can’t see saving my emergency clothes for anything worse. I opt for dry socks, charcoal warmer packers in my new arctic mitts and mukluks for my feet. I stow the winter running shoes in the pulk. Food is rearranged for easy access in my waist pack. Jim gets the trekking poles off the pulk.
We plan to stop at Shelter 3 for a little rest break. I expect to see it a little later than midnight. Laurie wants to put on extra pants. Two years ago there were racers stopped and others sleeping at Shelter 3 and 4. There were fires going. It was a welcome break during the night. I’m not sure why, but this year Shelter 3 was dark and empty. Todd Gabrielson and Al Lauer are race volunteers on snowmobiles. They cruise the route during the day and part of the night to check on us. They rescue people in need.
I would have missed the entrance to Shelter 3 if they had not refreshed my memory. We didn’t stop because there was no point. It’s 12:30AM. We are disappointed. We both wanted a little warm-up by the fire to eat and rest. I have extra warmer packets in the thumbs of my mitts. My hands are okay, but when I get food from my pack my hands get cold being out of the mitts. I’m on the slow path to getting cold. Cold hands + not eating = can’t finish. Shelter 4 is another 4 hours at best, but is also empty, dark and cold.
Sheep Ranch Road crosses the trail and is not far from Hwy 53. Todd tells us that race organizers Ken and Jackie Krueger have a little hut set up with a propane heater. It will be no Taj Mahal, but it is a beacon. It is 3.7 miles. We press on. I’m doing the math. Laurie won’t entertain the thought of bivying. Neither of us are eating, we have cold hands and my feet are getting cold.
We make it to the hut. It’s smaller than a child’s playhouse. There are other racers there and pulks parked nearby with red blinking lights in pointing every direction. Todd helps Laurie unhook her harness and she climbs into the hut. Todd comes to me and as I disconnect I see Jim Glasgow. Jim is here, his comfortable warm truck is here and I have a choice to do nothing fatal! I get into the hut with Laurie. There is one cinder block turned in its side. There is a propane powered warming element glowing red. One guy gets out of the hut. Laurie and I discuss withdrawing.
Laurie: “Well, how are we going to do it from here?”
Me: “We’re going to get in Jim’s truck and call Russ Loucks [the official time keeper] with the time and tell him we are not going on.”
Laurie: “Jim is back at MelGeorge's.”
Me: “He is not, he’s here.”
Laurie: He is? I didn’t see him. Are you sure?.”
The look on Laurie’s face is priceless. By now I think it might have been wishful thinking on my part. Was that really Jim? Laurie climbs out of the hut. Jim, his truck and Darrell Busch are outside. My decision is made. I will not turn my back on a miracle to slog it out another 18 miles and most likely 9 hours to MelGeorge's only to withdraw there. I would be close enough to the 2PM time cutoff on Tuesday to not be able to continue. The act of getting in the truck would disqualify us. Using the warming hut was one thing, but outside help along the trail is breaking the rules and spirit of the event. The three of us are in the truck and Darrell waits for Bonnie on the road. Laurie struggles with the situation. Josh Meggitt arrived at the hut shortly before us. He also quit. Josh thought he was at maximum cold on the trail until he rode behind Todd on the snow mobile. At was a bone-chilling few minutes at 35 mph to his rescue at Hwy 53.
We waited about 30 minutes in the warm comfortable truck for Bonnie to arrive. The time was 4AM, the temperature was -31F and there would be no more snowmobile support until 8AM. Shelter 4 was empty and cold. There were two people behind us on the trail who would not make it beyond the warming hut.. Todd encouraged Laurie to not continue alone. Bonnie was in the hot seat, my mind was made up. “What’s the point?” she said. At the pre-race meeting the night before the start, race director Ken Krueger emphasized the need to make smart decisions about continuing because of the very cold temperatures. Thanks to race volunteers no one has died during the ten years the event has been held. There have been serious cases of hypothermia and frostbite. Ken specifically said to all of us that when someone dies, it will compromise the future of the event.
We are all disappointed. That’s what happens when you put all your eggs in one basket. The cabin at MelGeorge’s that was meant for Jim and Darrell to sleep in Monday night now was packed with all five of us and our gear. We checked in at the nearby race cabin with our status. Josh and Steve McGuire, another Iowan unable to continue, were in there. What is two more people in our cabin? It’s going on 6AM and we are all sleep deprived. I’m lying horizontal in the top bunk relieved to be safe and warm.
Later that morning Jim sleeps while Bonnie, Darrell, Laurie and I walk to the lodge and restaurant for breakfast. We see racers making their way across Elephant Lake. They were able to forge ahead through the night. Everyone is frosty and tired. I am so happy for them. There is time before the 2PM cutoff to eat, rest and regroup.
Starters 142, Finishers 48, 33% finisher rate.
Women 12 starters, 5 finishers, 42% finisher rate.
Iowans 9 starters, 1 finisher, 12.5% finisher rate.
Notes on the super-cold conditions:
Everything froze: mittens, camelback, thermos cap, clothing to body parts, flip-top thermos cap, camera button, eye glasses
Arrowhead Ultra 135
It is like a once a year drug for me
It keeps me alive
I want to return each year
Whether I race or not
Finish, come up short, or volunteer
It matters not
Arrowhead is a place of remote peace
Far different from my usual day
It provides me with a new lease.
I’m happy to pay
I can’t nail it down
Arrowhead has gotten inside me
It’s unshakeable, I’ve found.
It refines what is important to me
Which is always the same
Cut through the daily bullshit of life
Remember from where you came.
There is a circular component to the Arrowhead Ultra 135. If you don’t finish, you want to come back and do better . If you finish, you want to come back because the dividends paid are huge.