Friday, February 6, 2015

2015 Arrowhead 135, The Gift of Weather

2015 Arrowhead 135 Winter Ultra, The Gift of Weather

In the three years since finishing Arrowhead in 2012, I forgot how hard this race was.  When the debilitating cold temperatures are taken out of the equation, the other difficult factors rise to the top.  Who would guess the ‘Icebox of the Nation’ would yield low temperatures at  +20F and highs at +30F for three consecutive days in January?  Over-dressing was the danger this year.  Another variable in the mixed bag was sharing 131 of the 135 miles with my good friend Laurie Tulchin.  While the race is the same as in 2012, the experience was not.

Race morning greeted us with almost 3 inches of new snow and pleasant temperatures.  The footing was below average for us the entire race.  The snow moved around under our feet and never firmed up.  Off we went among 66 other competitors on foot, including a record number 13 women.  The ‘Complaint Department’ is never open at Arrowhead 135.

Almost 11 hours and 36 miles later we arrived at Gateway Store, Check point 1.  It was dark.  Eating, drinking, stocking up for the next 36 miles took us 45 minutes.  Thank you Jim Glasgow.  It was peaceful for several miles as we had the trail to ourselves.   There is a rhythm to foot travel in the snow.  A high point was passing Sheep Ranch Road where cold conditions forced us to quit last year.  The hills and minimal stops kept us warm and comfortable.  6:30 AM, fourteen hours and 36 miles after leaving Gateway, we saw signs and reflectors guiding us onto Elephant Lake.  The halfway cabin at mile 72 was just a mile across the frozen lake.  The flat ice with packed snow was easy traveling.  As we rounded the curve we could see the cabins of MelGeorge’s Resort and the small but recognizable figure of Jim Glasgow out on the ice.

Stocking up at Gateway store  (photo Jennifer Flynn)

 We had less than three hours of luxury in our own cabin after checking into the race cabin.  We ate, drank, restocked for the long 40 mile section ahead and ‘rested’ for an hour.  We were officially out the door before noon.
Breakfast at Mel Georges.
We warmed up quickly on the first of countless hills.  Daylight is a luxury and we enjoyed the beautiful scenery of snow covered trees and the occasional glimpse of where the trail was taking us.  Some of the early hills were so long and steep we felt we were climbing to the top of the world.  We continued on in high spirits anticipating a little break before dark at Shelter 6, mile 86.

There is an Arrowhead truth when traveling on foot.  With no mile markers along the trail landmarks are always farther than you think they are.  Consequently it takes longer to reach them.  I didn’t feel tired but at one point I was startled when my peripheral vision thought it saw a black monkey moving in a nearby tree.  It was well after dark when we passed Shelter 6.  We got headlamps out and rearranged food for the night earlier along the trail.  Shelter 7 was ahead 12 miles at Mile 98.  The hills were nearly constant.  We had our pick between short and steep, long and steeper or ridiculously long and straight up with no end in sight.  We forged on together unless I lagged behind on the uphills.  Riding the skis on my kick sled when it looked safe allowed me to catch up to Laurie on some of the downhills.  I was tiring.  It began to snow.  There was no way to know if it was a quick shower or if inches would blanket us.  Shelter 7 was a haven for me in 2012.  There is a long bench built into the wall where I knew we could rest for a few minutes off the trail.  Closing my eyes and laying down for even 15 minutes was my primary focus.  Finally we saw red blinking lights ahead and knew we made it to the shelter.  There were two people bivying just off the trail.  There were a couple pulks and at least one bike resting in the snow.  As we approached the shelter we saw a guy in his sleeping bag spread out on the entire bench.  Do you think he moved an inch to accommodate us?  No.  And he wasn’t even sleeping, he was checking his phone.  Laurie and I sat next to each other on the bench for the briefest time, then got up.  I used the outhouse.  At least no one was sleeping in there.

LaSportiva GTX

It must have been around 1:30AM as we continued on.  Our beacon 12 miles ahead was the mostly outdoor, minimally stocked SkiPulk Check Point 3.  I was getting very tired.  With the slow footing and hills, hills, hills, I knew we were traveling at less than 3 mph.  We were together alone, with an occasional person passing us.  Hours passed. SkiPulk is located in a low area on the trail.  As long as we kept going up and down we were not there.  Perhaps it did not exist.  I had to rest somewhere or I would not finish.  I was so tired.  We were among other racers on foot now and everyone voiced frustration with finding the Check Point.  “We’ve been looking for it for 8 miles.”  At 6:15AM we glimpsed the first blinking red lights, then saw flames from the bonfire and smelled the burning wood.  The atmosphere was eerie.  It was not even close to sunrise so the only light was from headlamps, red blinking lights and the flickering shadows from the fire.  The trail was a narrow mash of footprints in slushy snow and ice.  Hot water was in high demand, the excess spilling everywhere.  I toted a bag of dehydrated mashed potatoes and a pat of butter for this moment.  I planned to cook the potatoes in the bag, melt the butter and refuel myself for the remaining 25 miles.  There were powdered cocoa packets that sounded delicious.  I had neither, I don’t know why.  I had a bit of Laurie’s Stove Top Stuffing and drank some water.  I unzipped the non-traditional Teepee and went inside.  I laid down on one of the carpets and shut my eyes.  Laurie knew I needed at least 15 minutes to rest.

Lisa kept eating Laurie's cheese wraps.
In less than one minute we heard our friend Larry Sandhaas’s voice.  He had bivied for THREE HOURS on the trail and he was going to ‘haul ass’ to the finish.  I figured Laurie would go with him and I will finish on my own a little later.  She didn’t, and I took that as my cue to get up and going.  I filled an empty plastic Coke bottle with more Coke and threw three of the most delicious, generic store-bought chocolate chip cookies in my food box.  Our friend Bonnie pulled into SkiPulk shortly after us.  She was suffering with a shoulder injury and was uncertain of her plans.

At least it was nearing daybreak when we checked out of SkiPulk at 7:07AM. In two miles there was the last huge up and downhill, then we would be on the final mind-numbing, endless, monotonous, slightly uphill 25 miles through pine trees, swampland, and scrubby bushes and grass with no signs of life except crossing the occasional road to nowhere.  At an optimistic 3 mph, we would cross the Finish Line at Fortune Bay Casino near Tower, MN around 4PM. We continued, one foot in front of the other for hours.  Occasionally someone would pass us.  We’re not fast walkers and kept to our pace.  Recreational snow mobile-rs would pass us from time to time.  Any sign of life was welcome.  We saw no wildlife during the race except one small mouse moving through the deep snow and a bird or two.  High points of the event are diminished by this final stretch.  It’s so boring and long, endless to the tired mind and feet.  We looked at my maps and figured we were about 5 miles from the finish.  Our spirits were high until snow machine volunteer Todd Gabrielson told us that we were actually 8.6 miles from the finish.  Laurie would have none of that.  We started ‘running’.  It was our only recourse to finish sooner.  The trail was slightly uphill and straight.  Ahead we could see the horizon meet the trail.  We ran and walked.  A bit later Todd passed us again alerting us to fellow racer Joy Parker ahead.  Laurie pulled away from me and I could see her stop and talk with Joy, then continue on.  Minutes later, ~3:15PM, I stopped.  Joy was at an impasse four miles from the finish.  She was experiencing breathing problems that began during the night.  She was disconnected from her nearby pulk and had most of her emergency clothing on.  She said she could not walk.  An update on Joy's lack of progress reached the hospitality room at Fortune Bay Casino around 11AM.  Race directors knew she was 'near' the finish, but was going to be picked up.  This explains some of the excitement people showed when we approached the finish line.

Joy Parker and Lisa Paulos  (photo Todd Gabrielson)

Joy is my Arrowhead friend with two attempts and no finishes to her credit.  She is capable but had bad luck the two years she entered. Rule #4 states that racers can help other racers. No one else was around.  There was time.  I put her pulk harness on myself, told her to sit on her gear and we set off toward the finish line.  It was slow going, but we were heading in the right direction.  After a mile I was running out of energy.  I called Todd.  Three more miles didn’t seem possible.  He approached us on his snow machine.  He and Joy talked.  She started walking slowly aided by her trekking poles.  I continued to push my sled and pull her pulk.  I put on all the clothes I had.  I wasn’t producing any heat with this low energy expenditure. I thought of Laurie crossing the finish line and was happy for her.  Because of her relentless push to keep us both moving, I arrived at just the right time to help Joy.  Who knew?  I was thrilled when Joy said she could walk a little faster.  We crossed the road onto the Fortune Bay property and had 1 1/2 miles to the finish.  It seemed to take forever.  We saw a grooming machine, orange snow fence, buildings and finally the glow over the last hill of the Finish Line.  There were lots of people outside and everyone was really happy.  I felt neither inconvenienced or detained during the final four miles.  It was a pleasure to help Joy feel the relief and accomplishment of finishing the Arrowhead 135.  “We’re Arrowhead sisters now” she said.  There is a saying ‘It is in giving that we receive,’ that sums up the 135 miles I spent with Laurie Tulchin, Todd Gabrielson and Joy Parker.  Each of us on both sides as the race unfolded.


Final statistics:



finish %


finish %


finish %

All-years finishers in the women foot/run division (in year order)
2007 Sarah Lowell 55:07
2008 Sarah Lowell 56:44
2008 Michelle Santihano 60:43 ("Unofficial finisher" outside the time limit)
2011 Barb Owen 57:38 (Shackelton Award winner) (coldest year ever)
2012 Alicia Hudleson 55:56
2012 Lisa Paulos 59:29
2014 Alicia Hudleson 47:59 (very cold in 2014)
2014 Helen Scotch 51:24
2014 Carla Goulart 60:06 (finished outside time limit by 10 minutes)
2015 Sue Lucas 42:31
2015 Pam Reed 49:11
2015 Rachel Utecht 52:06
2015 Helen Scotch 55:55
2015 Laurie Tulchin 57:07
2015 Joy Parker 58:33
(Shackelton Award winner)
2015 Lisa Paulos 58:33 (Spirit of Arrowhead Award)

Someone on the Arrowhead FaceBook page summed up my finish as 'Better than winning.'  

"Do you always have to finish with something extra?"  That question greeted me at the finish line in reference to 2012 when I pulled an empty pulk in addition to pushing my kicksled that had an emergency repair made on the trail.  I'd like to know who remembered that.

Epilogue:  I've always believed things happen for a reason.  Sometimes you know the reason and sometimes not.  From roughly midnight the second night on the trail until I caught up to Joy Parker ~16 hours later, I wondered why there was not time for me to get even 15 minutes of sleep.  Laurie was relentless in insisting we press on and get finished.  I got increasingly tired, but I went on and kept up.  Had Laurie left SkiPulk with Larry, I would have slept for at least 45 minutes.  I believe that would have changed the outcome for Joy.  Staying with Laurie allowed me to come upon Joy at a very narrow window of time where we could work together and cross the finish line.  Being separated from Laurie by just a few minutes allowed her to continue to finish at her own pace.  It allowed Joy and I and Todd to make a plans more than once that ultimately succeeded.  It was a case where 'everyone wins'.  I believe there are countless things on the verge of happening in the world, good and bad, that never happen because all the details don't align  No one knows about them because they don't happen.  Arrowhead magic, it's just waiting to happen.

About 1 month before the start of Arrowhead I started checking the weather forecast for International Falls every day.  As the date got closer I would check the forecast more than once a day.  I reviewed the mandatory gear list several times.  I looked through a mountain of clothes and gear.  What to take depends on the forecast, which varied widely.  Laurie and I both became increasingly aware of the need to be safe.  All of our preparation would be for nothing if we broke a bone while training, got some flu cooties, or I got run over on my bike commuting to work.  Even in International Falls one slip on the ice at the motel could ruin it all.  There is a huge sense of relief in the parking lot on race morning at Kerry Park Arena.  We made it!  Now ALL that is left is to cross the finish line!

(photo Kevin Boneske, International Falls Journal)

From UltraRunner Will Cooper, 2/13/15:   Ultra runners are really just normal people. But they want something more in life. Something real, not material. Something they have to dig deep within themselves to achieve, and the deeper they dig, the more satisfied they are.


  1. Lisa your smile and efforts and strength never cease to amaze me! Congrats on another great finish with such an incredible story to go with this one.

  2. Hi Lisa,

    I just stumbled across your blog. Sounds like you've had some great adventures on the Arrowhead. I live in Fairbanks and am planning to do the White Mountains 100 using a kicksled. I got a locally made kicksled, but yours looks way different than mine. Did you make it yourself or buy it somewhere? If you bought it, I'd love to know the manufacturer.