Sunday, February 5, 2012

Arrowhead, the End

It's Thursday evening. Just got out of the hot tub at home, some 9 hours from the finish line at Fortune Bay. My feet and legs are swelled up from water retention, my back and right hip still very sore. I think I have a pinched nerve. Can't see my pointy ankle bones I'm so swelled up.


Last hill of the race. Courtesy of Arrowhead website.
Courtesy of Arrowhead website.

My impressions, not necessarily in any order.
- Well organized. The race is taken very seriously, for good reasons.
- Don't think about 135 miles. If skiing, consider doing 2 Birkies a day for 2 days at a reasonable pace.
- Talking about pace, think about your pace...not just how fast you're going, but eating, drinking. Anything hurt? Too sweaty, blisters forming? Constant inventory. I had a back issue all fall, so I was always trying to assess that. It was fine....until the very end. More on that coming up.
- Moguls...Not enough snow to "flatten" out the trail. On the flats, I never could determine if it was better to just double-pole across them or pick good spots to skate. I'd try different things. Teetering on the top of moguls left one with little ski surface actually touching anything, then riding down the face of the mogul it was easy to get behind the ski's as they accelerated down the trough. That then made it easy for my 26 lb. bag to exaggerate the effect and I'd be too far back. So I'd compensate by leaning forward, which was fine, until I got to the bottom of the mogul and my skis would slow down as they started up the next mogul and my weight would be too far forward. You get the idea. The front guys just seemed to hop over them, from what I could see!
- I really enjoyed coming up on other racers or if they came up on me, chatting a bit if they wanted to. It was a great way to get to know some of the people. I always used that time to eat and drink something as I had to stop skiing to eat. I could drink from my bladder hose while gliding.
- Time went by fast for me. I never felt bored. Even on the long straight sections that everyone mentions, I never got bored. If the skiing was easy and good, I took the time to slow down just a bit to look around. To see the trees, the landscape, the horizon. If the skiing was tough, there was more than enough to keep my attention focused on what I had to do.
The Arrowhead Ultra 135:
Man Against Nature. Man Against Himself!

The Arrowhead Ultra is a 135-mile unsupported silent sports race held in mid-winter beginning in International Falls, Minnesota and concluding in Tower, Minnesota via the Arrowhead Snowmobile trail. Entrants are given three choices of “propulsion” for participating in the event: bike, foot or skis.

The Arrowhead Ultra 135 was inaugurated in 2005 with 12 racers and is now capped at 135 qualified participants. First time racers must meet specific standards to be accepted. One way to qualify is to complete a qualifying event such as the Tuscobia Ultra held in Park Falls, Wisconsin or a similar endurance-based event. Such qualification is understandable given the fact that typically fewer than 50% of those who start actually finish the Arrowhead Ultra 135.

An important feature of the Arrowhead event is that it is also a fundraiser.  2012 profits benefitted the Special Operations Warrior Fund, which provides college scholarships for the children of fallen Special Ops troops and assistance to the families of severely wounded special operations personnel.

This year the race was comprised of contestants from a wide range of states and districts (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, North Dakota, Texas, Arkansas, Wyoming, Colorado, California, Idaho, Maryland, Virginia, New York, Washington DC); as well as multiple countries (Canada, Italy, France, Spain, Scotland, and Singapore).

Every participant is required to start, carry or drag, and finish with very specific winter survival gear such as a sleeping bag rated for -20 degree Fahrenheit conditions, 3,000 calories of food, stove/fuel, bivy sack, and lights. Additionally there are the optional pieces such as extra clothes to manage the -30 to -40 degrees (not wind chill --- actual temperatures) that have been typical over the years. Food and water also have to be carried without outside support. That can get very interesting in the super-cold, because a person can’t drink ice nor chew frozen food.

In 2011, my son Chris entered the Arrowhead race in the foot division and I decided to “hang out” for a few days to see what it was all about. By the end of the race, which he finished, he inspired me to give it a try this year, but on skis.

I have been xc-skiing for more than 15 years and have always wondered what it would be like to ski point to point all day. I saw this as an opportunity to do just that. The big difference: it would be all day, most of the night and all day again. The course record for the ski was 36 hours. My goal was to match or beat that time.

The Arrowhead 135 is a very difficult race for skiers. In the seven years of the race, only eight skiers have ever finished. There are many reasons for that, but the main one is that bitter cold and glide don’t get along very well. With no glide, most skiers over the years are reduced to walking, sometimes for miles in ski boots. Although there are race officials on the course, contact with them, and other racers for that matter, can be hours apart. One truly has to be able to take care of one’s self in the frigid cold should anything unforeseen happen. As one of my skier friends told me: “you could die out there”. That is no exaggeration.

I have skied a few Birkies and Noques (30ish mile events) and have been an average wave 3-4 skate skier in my age group over the years. At 56 my faster years are behind me, but I figured the AHU (Arrowheadultra) wouldn’t be a speed race so much as endurance, planning, determination and maybe just some plain dumb luck kind of race. Many things can happen over 135 miles. I’ve been told by veteran ultra-racers that the race doesn’t really start until the morning of the second day. Consequently, my main goal was to get to mile 70 (a checkpoint with sleeping accommodations if you want them) and take it from there.

Because there is a checkpoint every 35 miles or so, I broke down my plans for the race to as the equivalent of doing four Birkies in two days. In otherwords: two Birkies a day that would be separated by a rest stop/checkpoint between each plus a major rest stop between each day where one can actually sleep in a bed if desired or just eat, dry off and warm up. Many runners end up bivying (sleeping) on the trail wherever they need to, depending on sleep/rest requirements. Many of the bikers and top runners and skiers spend very little time at any of the checkpoints.

Warmer than usual, this year proved to be the year to ski if one was ever going to ski it. I lined up with the other seven skiers at the 7:00 am start time and headed out on Monday Jan. 30th, 2012.  Temps were mild, with enough snow to ski on and a forecast in the 20’s for the next two-three days and nights. The race was started on a Monday to avoid weekend snowmobile traffic because, after all, the race is held on their turf. Probably due to the poor snow conditions this year, very few snow machines other than those associated with the race were noticed.

This is my story of the next 39 hours and 20 minutes:

Along with many others, I stayed in the Voyageur Motel in I-Falls, which is only a short walk/ski/bike to the start. I got to the start five minutes before the bikes were allowed to be unleashed and seven minutes before the skiers would be given the go ahead.

When we toed up to the line, I asked the young guy next to me if we should do a Birkie start and double pole the first 100 yards. He chuckled and said it would be better than breaking a pole. I replied:  “Better here than at mile 100.” A second later I realized how insane that sounded and we were off.

The young guy took off like it was a sprint race and another guy followed then a third and I settled into fourth place…I think. It was too dark to really see what was in front of me and I wasn’t going to look back. I just settled into what I perceived my 135-mile pace should be and got into the mindset of what I thought it would take to handle the hours ahead. I remembered what a friend and fellow Birkie skier asked me a week earlier: “How do you train for something like that”?  I really didn’t have an answer at the time. I kind of do now.

In a couple hours it was obvious that the three guys in front of me knew what they were doing. The length of the glide they were getting was way beyond my distance. But, I’m used to that. Let’s just say that at 5’7” and 210 lbs I really don’t have the typical xc skier physique. My doctor suggested during my last physical my idea weight is 165…but he thought a goal of 180 could be realistic. I mentioned to him that I quit wearing my heart rate monitor during the Birkie because I hated it when I finished and it blinked “OBESE, OBESE”. He didn’t think it was funny.

I rationalized that my short kick and glide would fit the narrow snowmobile trail and that my height challenge would be a benefit as my 26 lb. backpack would maintain a lower center of gravity than most. Hey --- whatever works, use it! It’s better than thinking negative thoughts!

The first nine miles were on a rail-to-trail section that was good skiing. A couple snowmobiles bounced back and forth along the trail and were each carrying a media guy taking pictures and videos for a couple of the racers. I picked up a glove a biker dropped and gave it to a guy on a sled as he came by. Then I came up to a guy on a mountain bike…tires way too skinny for this trail, even with the low snowfall this year. We talked for a minute, He seemed determined, but we weren’t even at mile 10 yet and he was working hard….and walking.  I ate and drank some and took off, wishing him well.

After that we turned onto the actual Arrowhead Trail and reality settled in. The trail was over a frozen bog and there was barely any snow. I was skiing more on swamp grass than snow, but surprisingly, the glide wasn’t all that bad.  The next few hours were just skiing, eating and drinking….and making sure I didn’t catch a ski tip in a clump of swamp grass or a willow sapling that was growing on the trail where in years past they would be under two-four feet of snow. I double poled at times through the small forest underfoot that my skis cut through and which was probably not even noticed by the bikers or runners.  

I started to close in on another guy on a bike. As I pulled alongside him, I realized that I knew him to be a bit older than me and as someone heavily involved in the race as a volunteer doing pre-race equipment checkouts. I think this was going to be his last attempt at the rodeo that is the Arrowhead 135. We biked/skied together, jockeying back and forth ahead then behind as we got to know each other and talked about mutual friends. When conditions were good for the bike, he took off. When they were better for skiing, he slowed up and I had the advantage. For the next few hours we took advantage of the times we were side-by-side in the transitions to pass the time, talking about our sons and other things. This turned out to be some of my favorite hours of the race.

Eventually I made it to the first checkpoint. I hoped to be out in 45 minutes but it turned out to take me 1:20. Still, I figured resting early and getting fueled up isn’t a bad thing. I felt sorry for some of the runners. They have to maintain a pace so as not to miss the cut-off times. Having to race with that pressure for 135 miles isn’t what I’d call fun. Different strokes for different folks, as they say! Just before I left the checkpoint I laid my pack down to do something and when I grabbed it I noticed water everywhere. Seems my camelback hose valve was pinched open and it was draining. As I normally have plenty of water I decided not to check the bladder. Oops. My first major mistake.

A little low on water wouldn’t have been a problem normally (maybe) but the hills started after the first checkpoint and by the time I was just getting into them, I ran out of water. Some of the young bucks I mountain bike with call me a camel because of my lack of drinking water on trips, but this time it wasn’t a good thing to happen.  I was reduced to grabbing a handful of snow now and then to wash down my guu’s and other energy fuel. I was thinking I would have to stop and get my stove out to melt snow when I noticed a red light ahead. It was dark and we were still a long way from the next checkpoint. When I came up on the biker, I asked him how his water supply was holding out and luckily he responded he had plenty. It was Al from Canada, with whom I had ridden a month earlier at the Tuscobia 75 mile bike race. I ended up drinking a full liter or more of his water as we slogged our way up and down the hills that were getting steeper, longer and more frequent. The rules are that racers can help other racers but no one else can. That was a fortunate rule!

By the time we made the midway checkpoint it was midnight. I was four hours behind my self-imposed schedule and not knowing anything about what was in front of me except that there were more hills to the next checkpoint followed by a 25 mile flat dash to the finish line.

With that in mind, the great volunteers fed me grilled cheese and soup and I went to the cabin that five of us had rented to try to get a little sleep. I knew from a few 24-hour mountain bike races I’ve done that I’m not any good in the sleep deprivation department. I set the alarm for 5:00 am after a shower and went to bed at about 2:00 am. I remember coughing my lungs out once I laid down. Kennel cough, they call it, caused from sucking down cold air hour after hour…and it wasn’t even cold out! I can’t imagine what it would be like if it had been as frigid as it typically is for this event.

After almost choking during one coughing jag I woke up with a start. It was 4:15 am. I decided to get up, eat and head out. I left at 5:22 am in front of the 2nd and 3rd place guys and assuming that I was ahead of 5th.  The leader was long gone and unless he broke a ski, a pole (or two), got lost or bonked terribly, I figured he’d finish hours ahead of the rest of us based on the trail updates I was hearing.  I hoped the best for him. It was obvious he had the talent, training and fitness. If he skied a smart race he deserved to win.

And win he did! In general, this race needs some good ski times in order to attract more interest from skiers for future races. 28-year old skier Casey Krueger, from Wisconsin/Minnesota, did just that, breaking the 36-hour course record by 14 hours! Amazing. In other categories strong finishes came from Eszter Horanyi from Colorado who broke the women’s bike record by two hours and Jason Buffington from Minnesota who broke the runner’s course record.

I left Melgeorge’s Resort (the midway checkpoint) with the 3rd place runner. We talked a bit before we hit the trail as his girlfriend/wife said good-bye and good luck. They were from D.C. Nice young couple.  I knew my running out of water the night before had cost me. I got more dehydrated than I should have and further without water, one’s fuel isn’t processed efficiently. In a race such as this a person is burning up reserves faster than one can replenish them. Therefore, re-fueling and getting water on a regular basis is critical. I didn’t bonk, but I could tell my energy was low the night before. I hoped I made up for things physically at the checkpoint, but it would be hard to make up for lost time. “Water over the dam”, I thought, and headed out. I felt great.

The skis were fast --- in fact, too fast on the steep downhills. In the dark I couldn’t see the bottom of the runs; plus the bottoms were almost always moguls. Moguls on xc skis are tricky. With the added weight of the pack it was easy to lose balance. As I headed down the first steep hill, I snowplowed some then slalomed back and forth and still my speed was very fast. I straightened out to see if I could make the bottom but I was out-running my headlamp and thus skiing blind. I decided to bail and went down on my right side. I slid about 40 feet. Snow was packed behind my glasses and my headlamp slid off my head, but luckily the pack kept my shirt down so snow didn’t run up my back. I slid to a stop with no broken poles or skis or bones --- so I called it all good. I think I even “ya-hooed” to myself in the dark.

I walked down the next hill from the start. I could see where a skier “delivered the mail,” going side-to-side on the trail for most of it. I assumed it was the lead skier, but in actuality, it was the skier that was in 5th place. He had entered the checkpoint after me but left before I did. I didn’t yet know that, though.

This whole section of the race was very hilly. The word is that the AHU has 7,500 feet of climbing.  Approximately 95% of that is contained in the 70 some miles between the 1st and 3rd checkpoints. The Birkie climbs 5500 feet in 30 miles. The big difference is that one hits the hills at AHU after 35plus miles of skiing with around 100 more to go. Bottom line, for me anyway, is that pacing is critical.

I ended up in the company of three-four bikes that were moving about my speed. By this time I had also caught the 5th place skier: a guy from Wyoming. I asked him about some races in his state and it was obvious he was suffering some.

A few hours later the 2nd place skier came up on me. He asked me if I had seen the leader. There was only one ski track in front of us and it was covered with fresh snow that had fallen a couple of hours earlier. I kind of chuckled and said no. The 2nd place guy had heard that the leader was going to bivy on the trail and he thought maybe I had come up on him somewhere. He then took off like I was velcroed to the side of the hill. I assumed he had thoughts of running down the leader. One thing I regret not seeing is the eventual winner of the ski race jetting away from me pulling a steep hill like this guy did. That would have been a great thing to witness!

3rd place was still in reach, but down deep I had my doubts. The 2nd and 3rd place racers had skied together the day before, so I knew #3 was better than me and was probably charging hard. I just decided to ski my race and see what happened. All of these mental gymnastics may sound useless to many, but at least it kept my mind busy and kept a goal out front besides merely finishing. Maybe at -20 degrees finishing would be enough to keep me occupied, but it wasn’t today.

The bikers and I got to the last checkpoint just before dark. I put down a couple cups of hot chocolate, filled my camelback bladder (making damn sure this time!) and headed out.  Coming up was the last big challenge: Wakemup Hill. I had skied out to see it on my way up to I-Falls a few days before. I made the comment at the time to a friend that it wasn’t too bad and I skied up it with no real problems. However, I also noted that I’d hold back my opinion of the hill until after I had 110 miles under my belt. I walked up it, skied across the top for 100 yards and then walked down. It was a steep chute with bowling ball-to-softball sized rocks randomly scattered. I decided to stop and take a few pictures. I saw where one of the two skiers in front of me had tried skiing it but then I saw ski boot tracks. I figured that one of them decided to walk to the bottom, unless someone not in the race just decided to come out to Wakemup for a little sightseeing ski.

Once I hit the flats I knew it was some 22 miles or so to the finish. The trail was groomed nicely, the skis were singing, but as I started to do the math I knew I didn’t have a chance to make the 36 hour course record, but I knew that the two skiers in front of me would. My goal now became to finish 3rd in under 40 hours.  I believe I was skiing at about nine-ten mph when the 4th place guy came up behind me. We talked for a minute about how he suffered in the hills and off he went. He wasn’t suffering anymore!  My goal again was modified, to finish under 40 hours. I felt my current 4th place wouldn’t be challenged.

The worst part of the race for me awaited my entry into the last 10 miles. The trail went from sweet grooming to an ice rink. All the snow had been groomed flat and where a few hours before it may have been soft enough to find kick, it wasn’t there anymore because it was frozen. All I did was slip and slide. I double-poled until I got tired and grabbed what purchase I could skating. My right shoulder and lower back gave out. It was hard just to stand straight, let alone kick, pole and glide holding my balance. Three bikes  --- the guys I had been with all day --- passed me in the last 200 yards. They had stopped 20-some miles back and had a burger at a roadside bar just off the trail. One of them slowed down enough to ask how it was going and I said it sucked. He said it was great for the bikes. Under my breath I muttered: “Damn this is a snowbike race, leave some snow on the trail for cripes sakes!” Of course, nobody did anything on purpose --- it was just the lack of snow in general that caused the issues.

I came around the corner and saw the finish line banner. As much as I wanted to zip up the short hill to the end, I had to stop and bend over long enough for the pain to go away in my shoulder and back. I was getting a little dizzy as well, my mind and body realizing that the end was near and they could start breaking down. I then started the strongest V-1 I could muster and climbed the hill to the cowbells and shouts of encouragement of the volunteers and some of the finishers that were there.

I limped into the finish line to back slaps and people offering to remove my skis and backpack. I hope they didn’t take it wrong when I just answered that I’ll do it, that I just carried the pack 135 miles and a few more feet wouldn’t matter. It was too painful to consider twisting to get out from under the pack or do anything more than just move super slow as I stepped out of my skis. No jumping around at the finish for me!
A person took my picture under the finish line banner but I wasn’t excited about it, really, too much pain. I just wanted to go sit down somewhere and have someone pull the daggers out of my right shoulder blade and lower back.

Luckily, a bike racer I knew was there, having finished hours earlier, and as I used my skis and poles as crutch and cane we made our way to the hospitality room. He helped me out by just being there, letting me move at my own speed and warming up a cup of soup for me. Thanks, Matt.
After a bit, my back spasms went away and my attitude came around and I enjoyed the time with all the rest of the warriors that had finished.

Over the next hours and into the next day Fortune Bay Casino (the actual finish) filled with bikers and skiers along with the many runners. Many that finished, some that hadn’t.  I looked at their swollen, blistered feet, their tired but sparkling eyes, their windblown faces and listened to bits and pieces of their stories. For some it was one more AHU in the books, for some the accomplishment of a lifetime, for some it was the “monkey off their sled” after one or two previous AHU DNF’s, for some it was the start of bigger and grander goals. As I absorbed and listened it brought me back to the trail….not just the Arrowhead trail, but the trail that started decades ago that brought me to his point….and what might be next.

Next year? We’ll see. The Arrowhead Ultra 135 race will be there --- and maybe so will I. Any of you??

Starting line. I'm 3rd. from the right.
Courtesy of I'Falls Journal.
At the first check-point, thanks for the photos, Nicholas Garbis.

Random shots on the 2nd day.

 3 bikers walking up the next hill.

Check Point 3. Thanks again for the photo, Nick.

The last downhill.

Finish Line. Courtesy of Maryann O'Connell Passe.
Courtesy of Maryann O'Connell Passe.
Finisher Trophy. Courtesy of Arrowhead 135 staff.


 Link to video from last years race. Son Chris made a couple appearances. Real nice piece of work.

There is a great story behind this picture, but I don't feel it is my place to tell it in such a public forum. Let's just say the story is more important than any race could ever be.


Matt Maxwell said...

No problem helping you out at the finish. I know how it is to get there and have everyone rushing around, especially after two days of solitude and silence.

It was amusing to take people inside and ask them if they wanted to use the elevator. No one wanted to. Everyone took the stairs.

Great job again. I wish I had been there on skis with you.

Helen said...

Great write-up! Congrats on pulling it off and finishing despite the back/shoulder pain. I imagine the ski division will get a lot more popular after this year!

Chris said...

Congrats on finishing! Great recap, thanks for sharing.

mark scotch said...

Matt, we'll get our chance!
Helen, until the first year it's -25!! (I might even stay by the fire!)

Al Dixon said...

Congrats Mark and a good story! It was tough enough riding so I can't imagine what it's like to ski on mashed potatoes and sand for nearly 40 hours. Glad I was able to offer some help from Mile 59 to Melgeorges as I can only think that if I was in your predicament, someone would have done that for me too.

Canada Al

mark scotch said...

thanks, Al. You saved my bacon. those 11 miles felt like 25, even with water!