January 30 to February 1, 2017
The most important ultra event this year is traveling to Hawaii with my mother to celebrate her 80th birthday. It was wise to stay closer to home for a winter ultra. “I’ll go to Arrowhead” seemed like a fine choice for many reasons.
After success in Alaska last year, I stayed with the ‘old school’ method of pulling the pulk behind me with ropes and no support people at Check points. It’s not been a snowy winter for us in Eastern Iowa, so I did some long runs and even made a quick trip with Laurie Tulchin and Jim Glasgow to MelGeorge’s in early January to get some time in on the trails.
International Falls had plenty of snow and cold weather waiting for us. The forecasted temperature was very civilized. Not too hot or too cold. It’s very enjoyable to see friends again at gear check and the pre-race meeting. This being the thirteenth year of the race, the locals seem to be warming up to us. With eleven starters and five finishers in 2005, predictions of an annual event were unheard of.
I packed light since I was traveling with other racers from Iowa for the drive up and back. Most everything I took was going in the pulk, which was not light, ~40 pounds. As usual, my goal is to run my own race and finish. The mayor started the first wave of racers, eighty five cyclists on fatbikes, with fireworks at exactly 7 AM! Very nice. Two minutes later eleven skiers took off, then sixty one of us on foot. I’m amazed how fast the long line of red blinking lights stretches out until people find themselves alone. I like to run as much as I can in the beginning. At mile 9 there is a sharp left turn off of the Blue Ox and we are on the Arrowhead Trail until Fortune Bay.
I hooked up with people here and there to keep my pace up. It doesn’t seem all that hard to arrive at Gateway Store, Check point 1 at mile 36 before dark. But, I’ve never done it. This year I checked in at 5:16 PM. That was hard. Being alone, I had to get my water and food and gear together myself for the next 36 miles to MelGeorges. There was no downtime as I was out in less than an hour. Ellen Hart takes good care of me at Gateway with food and drinks ready when I arrive. I indulged in a phone call to Rick to find the SPOT tracker was not working. “Operator Error” at the race start. I hate to spend time fooling around with non-essential things, especially when they require dexterity. I had to take my mittens off and push some small buttons until the green blinking lights were on.
|SNOW photos by Jason Johnson|
Within an hour Naomi Plasterer caught up to me. We walked and ran together for a few hours. It seemed silly to her that we were both traveling alone at night. By Sheep Ranch Road I was ahead of her and we didn’t see each other again. Rachel Utecht was on foot unsupported. The extra weight she was pulling was a great equalizer. We spent lots of time together the next 24 hours. Rachel was very efficient with her pulk. I started riding it down all the hills after watching her. It felt good to be off my feet for a few seconds, and it was fun picking up speed on the big hills. I didn’t crash, even when the snow at night was heavy enough to cause a whiteout. There was snow, at least 3 inches. The ‘fast’ trail was getting slower.
|SNOW photos by Jason Johnson|
We were together crossing Elephant Lake. The wind is always cold on the lake. We checked in at the Cedar Cabin at 9 AM., my earliest arrival. Cyclist friends Steve McGuire and JB Barnhouse shared their lodge room with me. They were long gone.
I spent 2 hours eating, preparing food and drink for the second half of the race and taking care of my feet. The overnight snow soaked my shoes and socks. My shoes didn’t dry out in that time, but my feet did and I put clean socks on. I rested on the bed for 20 minutes. I bought a room temperature COKE and 3 packs of hand warmers from Carla.
I was almost out the door of the lodge when the City Cab driver from International Falls asked if I was ready to load up. He was there to drive people who were quitting back to their vehicles at the start. “I’m continuing.” I also saw Darrell Busch who told me Bonnie, Larry and Mike had already gone.
Shelter 6 is just 3 miles from MelGeorge’s. Rachel was there with unsupported skier Helen Scotch. They were melting snow and generally preparing for another night on the trail. This forty mile section to Check point 3 is the longest and hilliest. I met skier Jim Wilson. He finished on foot and bike in previous years and was hoping to join the small group of elite racers who have finished in each method of travel. Jim was not a proficient skier, but he was steady and determined. He was good company. As we passed Shelter 7 I made a quick stop and noticed Larry Sandhaas bivied. Bonnie and Mike were ahead.
|SNOW photos by Jason Johnson|
Rachel caught up to me and we plugged along into night number 2. The wind picked up, it was snowing off and on and the temperature was dropping. At one point I saw some skis on the trail. I picked them up hoping to find the owner. They were heavy. I didn’t want to carry them for long. In a minute or two I could see a headlamp coming toward us. It was Chris Scotch looking for his skis. At one point I grew increasingly tired. It was hours to Shelter 8. I preloaded my sleeping bag into the bivy sack and had it ready in the bottom of the pulk under my bags. I put the bags near the pulk and got in the sleeping bag. I had a plastic grocery bag with thick paper towels in the bottom for each shoe. To conserve warmth and keep shoes from freezing, you get in the sleeping bag with all your clothes on, including shoes. It felt good to close my eyes and rest for a few minutes. I could hear the wind blowing. I heard Rachel go by and I got up. The second night on the trail is very long and tiresome. Eating, drinking, walking and keeping warm are the objectives. Eventually we made it to Shelter 8. Several people were stopped here, even a few on bikes. The shelter is set back from the trail with a narrow path to access it. The curious feature of this shelter is that the ‘floor’ is mostly covered with rocks imbedded in the frozen ground. The rocks are big and irregular on the surface so you cannot sleep on them. It would be horribly uncomfortable. People were sleeping on more suitable ground, others were resting. Rachel sat down by the wall and took a nap. I rearranged some gear on the bench and laid down for 10 minutes. I started getting chilled, so I headed out. The cue card lists the mileage between Shelter 8 and Check point 3 as 10 miles, with the disclaimer All Mileages Are Approximate. Each year these 10 miles get longer. They go on and on and on. There are little hills and endless sameness. There is no hint of where the Surly Check Point is. Rachel was moving well after her nap. She encouraged me. People were bivied less than a mile from the Check Point because you think it will never come. I was low on energy and feeling discouraged. My hands were getting cold in spite of using the warmer packets in my big mittens. If I just knew how far it was. I had to either get there or get in the sleeping bag. On the verge of a meltdown, I called Rick. With the tracker, he could see that I was just a half mile from the Check Point. I could do that. Volunteers from the Surly bike company man the Check Point. There is no luxury. There is a teepee with woodburning stove in the middle for “warmth.” There is also an outdoor campfire. My hands needed attention. The volunteers helped me with the zipper to get inside the teepee. I sat down in a lawn chair. To my surprise, Larry and Mike were also in there. They were waiting for a ride to Fortune Bay. Their race was over. Bonnie arrived 3 hours before me and barely paused. After 3 unsuccessful years, she was on her way to finishing. I regrouped and was on my way as the sun rose on day 3.
|SNOW photos by Jason Johnson|
I decided to trade my running shoes for the warmth and dryness of my boots. The forecast was spot on. The day would get progressively colder with a strong northwest wind. I didn’t want wet feet. I changed into my last pair of clean socks and the comfort of my mukluks. I passed Rachel just outside of the Surly check point. She was sleeping. I got myself up and down the last big hill and walked into the frozen forest and marsh. I ran off and on, but eventually I was overcome with fatigue. If I slept now I might not finish within the sixty hour time limit. I talked with Chris Scotch for a while. We would pick up trash here and there. He found some home made looking cube-things. He ate one and said it tasted like marzipan. Later, I picked up a package of open TUC crackers. They tasted like absolutely nothing.
I had to keep moving. At one point I was wearing all the clothes I brought: wool cycling jersey, arm warmers, felted wool tunic, down puff coat, windbreaker, pulk harness, Gortex hat with fleece hat on top, liner gloves with hand warmers inside of big mitts, Craft thermal tights with wind pant over top. I kept moving. The trees start to look like people or sheds or anything familiar, only to find out they are just trees. There are long expanses of straight trail that seem to go on forever. Helen Scotch skied passed me as she caught up to Chris. They both finished as unsupported skiers. Helen is the second women to ever finish on skis.
After endless twists and turns, I finally crossed the road and on to the Fortune Bay property. The finish line seems like a mirage. The final miles are mostly uphill. I’m cold. There is no lingering to celebrate when I finish. I want to get indoors. I produce the required gear to the nice lady volunteer and she helps me to the elevator and into the hospitality room. I must look like I feel, exhausted. I drank some Sprite and Mountain Dew. Other racers, family members and volunteers are taking it all in. Even in easy years, it’s a real accomplishment to finish the Arrowhead 135.
What did I eat? Cheese wraps with mayonnaise and mustard, half an egg salad sandwich, vanilla sandwich crème cookies, cashews, grapes, mandarin oranges, lots of crunchy Cheetos, a few mini Twix and York mint patties, two GU packets. My secret weapon was fruitcake. It was a Christmas gift from my sister, Andrea. Loaded with fat, calories, fruit and moisture, the Assumption Abbey fruitcake was a superfood. I drank warm water in my Camelbak, warm apple juice in a small thermos, hot tea in my big thermos, chocolate milk, and two plastic bottles of Coke.
There is an Arrowhead 135 learning curve for some of us. The weather is a wild card. Super cold temperatures, colder than -20 degrees (F), will keep me from finishing. It took Bonnie Busch four tries before she crossed the finish line. Carla Goulart went from three years of not finishing, to being the top woman finisher on foot in 2016 and 2017.
I rode home with Bonnie and Darrel Busch. It was fun to hear about Bonnie’s success this year. “I knew I could do it.” We stopped in Rochester, MN for lunch and gas. Bonnie and I got out of the car in the Fazoli’s parking lot. Our legs were stiff and sore from hours of sitting. A woman who looked our age was leaving the restaurant and heading toward her car that was in a Handicapped parking lot. She stared at us as we walked slowly and uncomfortably into the restaurant. Handicapped?