For me, the 2013 Arrowhead Ultra 135 (AHU 135) started almost immediately after I crossed the finish line in the 2012 race. I knew as soon as registration came open I'd be signing up again. There were a few things I wanted to try over, or should I say, get a chance to try again.
The challenge of the weather was the main draw. Warm temps and low snow, although ok for skiing in 2012 made me curious what cooler temps and more snow might be like.
With the sending in of the registration and the purchase of a fat-tire bike should temps be way too cold for skiing or poor training weather not give me enough of a base to ski, I started counting down the days.
I might be called crazy for doing this race, but to ski it by trying to ignore/disrepect Mother Nature I'd be just plain stupid in my book. As one of my skiing buddies mentioned to me last year..."You could die out there" or lose digits anyway, so for me I try to avoid getting into situations where the odds aren't in my favor or at least even up. I guess we all have our own comfort zone.
One might have illusions of grandeur skiing in -15 and lower temps and see themselves crossing the finish line to the amazement of all, but there are limits for me as to when the fat bike would come out of the Jeep due to temps/low snow conditions.
Where that line in the snow, is I'm not 100% sure. Depends on a lot of factors. Snow depth, daytime highs and nighttime lows being the main drivers. My own physical conditioning would play a part as well.
For this reason, I didn't select any mode of transportation when I sent in my registration.....and a few weeks before the event I happened to check for race updates on the AHU website and noticed posted: "If travel mode listed erroneously on roster please advise, also anybody thinking of skiing this year please let us know cause you are special" Interesting....and it piqued my curiosity.
So I let the Race Director Dave know that I planned on skiing unless conditions deemed a more prudent mode of propulsion...which for me would be the fat bike.
With that I received a call from the Producer of Adventure Minnesota Films to see if I'd be interested in being in their film. Heck, who wouldn't be!!! I did say straight up that if it was too cold to ski, I'd be biking. We talked about that some and it was game on, details were to come later.
My wife Lynn and I arrived in northern MN Saturday before the Monday race start time to do a pre-race interview and some shooting of me skiing out on the trail. I had suggested earlier that we do the shoot out near Wakemup Hill, the last hill of the race. It isn't the steepest or toughest hill of the race, but after covering 115 miles or so, it has plenty of "oh crap, one more" to it and it has some great views.
To just take shots of flat land skiing, which I knew there would be plenty of during the race, would soon be pretty boring for anyone watching after awhile which is why I suggested we go to this spot.
From the race last year looking down Wakemup Hill, 23 miles or so from the finish line.
Taken after the snow storm this year.
Photo credit to Ken Zylstra.
I skied the 2 miles out the hill in temps that were warming from a low of -25 degrees or more that night. I dressed as close to what I thought I'd be wearing during the race to give the shots some degree of authenticity to them and still be able to stay warm. In two days, at the start of the race, temps were forecasted to be 50 degrees warmer than what we were facing today.
It didn't bother me that we were pre-shooting and that the shots might lead some to believe they were part of the race when they weren't.
One of the "rules" of the race is that any on trail filming, other than road crossings, had to be limited to within 1 mile of the 3 check points/aid stations. That means that no snowmobiles other than those associated with the race that were used only for safety/rescue purposes were allowed to be following and interacting with any racers or the racer could be disqualified.
This didn't mean that the general public was not allowed on the trails with snowmobiles, quite the contrary, after all we were using their trails.We were guests on their turf and we needed to give them the right of way.
What it did mean was that in the past some racers had their own documentary teams ripping up and down the trail and that is not what the race is all about. So, the film company had to do the pre-race filming to get some good shots so as to not compromise the race for the people they were filming and everyone else involved in the AHU..
So, Saturday afternoon was spent skiing back and forth across the table-top of the hill and climbing up and skiing down both inclines while multiple angles and shots were made. They we big on sound as well, and the cold temps brought out the "squeak" as I kicked and glided the skis and planted the poles in the frigid snow.
A real cool part of the shoot was the remote control helicopter they used for some overhead shots. They had actually had a hard landing with it while filming the biker in the morning and it was disabled for the start of my shoot, but after a couple hours they got it going and it was brought in on one of the snowmobiles. It will be interesting how that part of the shoot works out even if they didn't get many opportunities with me as the wind was picking up on top of the hill making control tough, the cold made the controls sluggish and the batteries were dieing faster than normal due to the cold with no way to recharge them being 2 miles from a power source.
After the shoot and some dinner, the pre-race interview took place. I was a bit nervous about this in that I wasn't sure what to expect. Brenda, the film Producer, had sent out a list of questions and I spent time writing down my replies but when the time came, she didn't really follow them but said they were just kind of a guide...more nervous!
I didn't know the film crew and what they really wanted but I was hoping it wasn't going to be a fake hype kinda thing. I knew that the purpose of the filming of the AHU 135 race started with the intent to follow one racer, a gal who was on bike, for a larger project. It got expanded to include a foot and ski division entrants.
Bonnie, the biker, had a very serious life threatening situation she overcame and John, the walker/runner was a local legend when it came to the AHU 135 and had won it 3 times in the past, along with an impressive laundry list of other ultra distances and personal accomplishments in the world of running.
Me? I'm just an old guy that sticks his neck out once in awhile. Middle of the pack in my age group in just about anything I do when it comes to mtn. biking and skiing or anything else I try. No demons I had to overcome, no health issues I battled and won, no fair maidens rescued from towers, you know, not much of anything to get all worked up over.
But Brenda said don't worry about that, they were looking for contrast and diversity of people that do the race. Well, I thought, compared to Bonnie and John, they picked the right guy for that, Mr. Milquetoast von Whitebread.
Brenda had me pretty relaxed during the question and answer session. She explained she'd be asking the same question in a number of different ways to get a slightly different twist on things so as to combine my replies into Bonnie's and John's stories to bring them all together. Looking for nuggets, she called it...more like digging in sand in my case! So I just tried to answer as honestly as possible and let the chips fall where they may.
Then she asked me a question that changed my whole weekend and possibly long after. She asked what drives me to do this and how I look at the trail to overcome it and beat it, to win over it. In effect, why do I do this and how do I look at it mentally to complete the race?
Do I look at the race and the trail as an enemy to be conquered, in effect, something to hate and to beat-up to get the upper hand on so to be able to get through the miles and the hours it will take to finish the race?
Wow! I didn't have an answer for all that. I mean, I tried to see what she was getting at and if I did feel that way, all the time babbling something about having fun and when it's not fun I wouldn't do it any more, but really what does that mean? I knew I was having a hard time quantifying what fun is. Then I used the word challenge but again, what does that mean, really? Of course the AHU is a freakin' challenge!
Meanwhile my mind was turning this concept around in my head to see if indeed I did look at things that way, that the trail was my enemy that needed to be conquered. Then I wondered, again all the time stalling while talking to the camera, if I should be feeling that way, that if indeed I didn't maybe I didn't have the "right stuff" somehow?
I can't remember exactly how I verbalized my thoughts, but in the end I think I said I didn't look at the trail/race as an enemy and that really it didn't ignite any huge emotions in me either way. I said in effect I didn't think that entering and finishing the race was that special, that anyone who wanted to pay the price in training, determination, etc. could do it....we moved on.....but that question and mental exchange that went on in my mind wasn't about to go away that easily.
I don't think Brenda got anything close to what she was looking for but I really couldn't help her. I had never really asked myself these questions or if I had, I had never answered them for myself to the point of any clarity to be able to describe it to someone else.
A few minutes later, during a break, my son who was there and who was also going to be doing the race, might have seen that neither Brenda nor myself really got anywhere and our exchange seemed a bit awkward and strained or that I was grabbing at straws. He added that maybe my battles in life when I was younger were probably the reason I took a fairly low keyed approach to the race or any race for that matter and that supporting and raising a family for 15-20 years was a much more challenging and stressful situation than any race could be, even if it was an ultra-marathon in the middle of winter. Or....maybe he was referring to our oldest son who died at 16 months on a return trip from Wisconsin to Oregon some 38 years before. I'm not sure.
Of course Chris was right in a sense and had me pretty much pegged and I could only agree with him ...but still, there seemed to have to be a better way to explain why I do these things and what I feel when I'm out there and what happens when I cross the finish line.
We covered a few more things and that was about it for the interview but the exchange got me thinking.
Sunday started with gear check-in. For the check-in, all racers had to present the required survival gear and have a picture taken with their racer number in hand...I guess to prove compliance and avoid liability issues should someone have issues out on the trail.
MANDATORY GEAR from race start to race finish.
- Minus-20F degrees sleeping bag or colder rating. Colder than -20F almost all previous races. If you skimp here you are foolish. And we will not allow you to skimp. So do not skimp. Fool. 2011 it was -42F on trail.
- Insulated sleeping pad.
- Bivy sack or tent (space blankets/tarps do not count).
- Firestarter (matches or lighter).
- 8 fl. oz. fuel at ALL times (either gas, alcohol or 2 canisters of propane/butane 100 g. each or 12 Esbit tablets).
- Pot (min. volume is 1 pint)
- 2-qt (64 fl. oz.) or just under 2 litres, insulated water container. (Yes, Camelbacks count)
- Headlamp or flashlight. Suggest minimum ~100 lumen good for 12 hours/bike or 20 hours on ski/foot.
- Flashing red LED lights, both on front and back of sled or bike (or on backpack if skier). Everyone have at least 10 square inches of reflective material on front and back of the person for this race. Two lights total are required, one on the front of the bike, sled or racer (runner or skier with backpack), one on the back of the bike, sled or racer (runner or skier with backpack). Each light must have minimum three flashing red LEDS. Keep ON ALL THE TIME. HIGHLY IMPORTANT....THIS MAY WELL PREVENT YOU FROM BEING HOOD ORNAMENT ON LARGE FAST-MOVING SNOWMACHINEs.
- Whistle on string around neck to call for help, because your mouth is too numb to yell.
- 1-day food ALL times (3000 calories) (tip: pound of butter or jar of peanut bar 3200 calories).
After gear check-in Lynn, Chris, I and his 2 dogs all descended on the motel. Chris and I started to get our gear ready and I also waxed my skis for the anticipated snow conditions. I decided to start with a high fluoro lower temp wax and also brought out a low fluoro higher temp wax.
Later in the afternoon, we all attended the racers meeting where swag was raffled out, rules where went over, the trail was discussed and at the end a spaghetti feed.
A film crew hung out by each racer and I tried to give my guy some good footage as I conversed and yucked it up with a friend and known nut case, Erik....I say that lovingly, Erik! We had a good time although we weren't mic'd up so it might not be of much value, except for Erik and I to bring up in the future to rehash the experience.
Photo credit Minnesota Adventure Films.
After we ate we headed back to the room to finish packing. I also stopped in to visit a friend who was biking the race. It was cool to listen to him discuss his past races and his current strategy. He was open in his desire to win the AHU and go on to compete in the ITI, The Iditarod Trail Invitational, as an AHU win would include an entry to it worth $1,000, something I passed on the opportunity of winning an entry to last month when I won the Tuscobia 150 ski division as I didn't put my name in the hat.
I admired his candor and honesty in expressing his desire to win and to go on. I kinda felt like a sandbagger after that.
I just don't see ITI as something I'd enjoy....sounds crazy to many, I guess, that do this sort of thing. I believe I'd rather do something a bit more manageable, like the Sustina 100 or the White Mountain 100.
My wife could come up to Alaska with me and not only would the race be something "we" could do, but it would allow time for other activities whereas doing the ITI would be the only thing done on the trip most probably.
I hope the best for those that do want to get up there for it and I hope it happens for them some day.
Ok, back to the race at hand.
Got back to my room and we all bedded down for the night.
I set the alarm for 5:30.
About 3:30 I woke up....the questions and foggy answers to Brenda's interview rolling around in my head....Oh boy, I knew where this was going.
My mind works this way. Whenever I'm working on a problem or a solution whether it be my hobbies or my work, it wakes me about this time or thoughts are right there when I wake at a more normal hour in the morning. I've learned not to do anything but let the thoughts, like dreams, come to me. If I think too hard or try to herd them in a certain direction they drift away.
I wanted to get back to sleep and did about 4 and woke back up by 5 but not before the seeds to the answers of Brenda's questions had started to germinate in my subconscious.
By 6:15AM I was all set to go. I weighed my pack and with water I figured it came in at 21.5 lbs. The bladder was 3/4 full so figure 22 lbs. under a full load. This included my fanny pack where I try to keep enough food to last between aid stations so as not to have to stop to remove my pack and dig through it where I always keep a bit more.
I made my way to the start while Chris was still getting his final things packed. After checking in Brenda found me and introduced me to a guy named Rick who was going to be part of the crew that was to key on me. I talked to a few friends and checked out the mystery skier and noticed that he was classic skiing pulling a sled. Chris found me and we gave each other a hug and a pat on the back for good luck.
With that, us 5 skiers toed up to the line 2 minutes after the bikes were given the "Release the Hounds" cry and then it was our turn.
Photo credit to Erik Dalgaard, fellow racer on bike right before the start.
The first section of the race went about as planned. The snow was soft for the first 9 miles on the Blue Ox Trail which led to the actual start of the Arrowhead Trail and the first aid station, 36 miles from the start.
Compared to last year, the bikes were having quite an issue. Where as last year I saw a few bikes out to the 9 mile mark, this year I was picking them off almost from the start, even with their 2 minute head start.
Around 15 miles into the race I started catching and passing guys on bikes I caught 85-90 miles into last years race, so I knew they were having a tough time of it. Of course the top flite bikers might not be having as tough a time of it I thought and in fact they weren't as they were rather flying as 3 of them beat the course record this year.
12 miles out, Photo credit to Brenda Piekarski.
Hwy 53 crossing about 15 miles from the start. Lynn waiting there. Photo credits to Adventure Minnesota Films.
Coming in to Gateway aid station, taking off skis near Lynn.
36 miles into the race at the first check point/aid station I filled up with a lot of liquids and sloppy joes, I couldn't get enough bread/carbs but stopped at 3! Thanks Minnesota Sedation Dental!!
Photo credits to Jennifer Flynn.
Leaving Gateway. Photo credit to Brenda Piekarski.
Snow and trail conditions after Gateway were the best of the trail. They had groomed the trail and the edges had very little traffic. I found it worked best if I kicked on the hardpack and glided in the looser snow.
Joe, a biker (son of "gear nazi" Don who does the pre-race checkout) who I had passed well before Gateway aid station, caught me after dark as we began hitting the hills, 10 miles or so out from Melgeorge's. The snow started falling, as well. We yo-yoed back and forth until we hit the lake crossing where Joe and couple other bikes we came up on had a tougher time than me and I got across the lake a bit before them
Once at the aid station I just got some food, the super cheese sandwiches everyone looks forward to, a shower (in our cabin a few of us racers were sharing) and decided to set the alarm for 3 hours of sleep. I really didn't think much about the snow as it hadn't affected me at all at 8:30 when I pulled in. I knew the forecast was for 2-4" but it was supposed to hit on Tuesday, I thought.
I got up in 2.5 hours and began eating and waxing my skis again. Looking out the window I noticed some bikers coming in....with a ton of snow on their heads and kits. Maybe I didn't get the latest weather update..... I began to get a bit nervous.
Melgeorge's Lodge checkpoint the morning 6-8 hours after I left.
Photo credits to Jennifer Flynn.
I checked out a bit before 1 AM and Matt, a skier who had gotten in about 30 minutes before, said the snow was building up and that was confirmed in the amount in the parking lot and road leading to the trail. The camera crew wanted to do a short interview so we started that. 2 questions they asked that I remember was the snow depth and I admitted I was nervous as I knew skating would be tough if not impossible and they asked me about being in first place in the ski division. To that I replied "I guess the fast guys stayed home this year."
I got on the trail and took off skating....and I knew quickly I was screwed to get in under 30 hours, a time I had been shooting for based on my 8:30 arrival into Melgeorge's. The snow was wet, heavy and deep. Lifting the skis was quickly sucking all the strength out of me and I was fresh.
I was moving at around 2-3 mph, maybe.....so had a lot of time to think of what Brenda asked me and the thoughts that woke me up at 3AM the morning before the start:
What is the race to me and what drives me to the end?
I definitely decided that the race/trail is not my enemy. But what was it? The best I can describe it is as follows. This all may seem hokey to some and that's ok. I've never hallucinated on the trail because I've never been able or willing to go without that much sleep...so, is what follows any stranger than seeing pink elephants on the trail as a friend of mine has? Or a beagle riding a husky?
I guess the bottom line is that everyone will have their own story to tell and what works for them works for them. This just happens to be mine.
The race is like a gift that's been offered to me from someone who knows me very intimately and I know them in the same way.
There have been many times Lynn, my high school sweetheart, mother of our 4 sons and wife of 39 years this November, has presented me with a gift I had no idea I really wanted but in the end something I truly needed, but I never even knew I did.....but she knew. At times she can almost see the future and presents me things I don't see needing for myself, whether they be objects or a smile, a kiss, a squeeze of the hand or the freedom to explore.... albeit some pretty crazy exploring for sure.
I look at the Arrowhead 135 being offered in much the same way, as a gift many aren't sure they need or want.
We hold the gift at arms length, turning it around in our minds. Wondering many things...can we do it? Is it worth it? How much work will it take to get started. How much work will it take to do it?....do we deserve it? Will it embarrass us? Will it kill or deform us?
The giftgiver waits as we contemplate our decision. No matter what WE do, others are accepting the gift, embracing it.....but others aren't accepting and hand it back, not willing to commit to what it takes to open the gift. What will each of us do with the opportunity?
The giftgiver isn't affected by our decision nor disappointed by our decision if we hand it back. The giftgiver knows that many will accept this bigger gift later when smaller gifts are accepted and opened, building strength and confidence and whether we settle for or move on matters not to anyone but ourselves. The giftgiver seems to know that some need carrots held out while some just bull ahead, almost blindly. It makes no difference to the giftgiver so the giftgiver does not judge why, how or when, why then should we?
Some never will accept a gift like the Arrowhead 135, but there are many gifts the giftgiver has to offer, so there is never remorse for the giftgiver and never is a future gift denied because a current one isn't accepted. There will be other opportunities to accept other gifts.
Many of us go through live saying "what if". The giftgiver knows this....as do we... deep down. Is a lost opportunity gone forever?
Most seem to understand the gift would never be recognized as such if we didn't have the vision and belief that we can persevere to the end and "open" it.
If we do accept the gift and begin opening it, we move down the trail of training sessions, of gaining knowledge and confidence that we can do it.
When we actually step on the trail on the big day we begin to move closer to the gift, step by step, pedal stroke by pedal stroke....and yes, kick by kick, as we begin to unwrap the gift and finally begin to build the excitement of what will be revealed at the end. Excitement and fear are probably there in equal measure. Fear can come in many forms.....failure is probably the main one.
As I look down the long trail at times I swear I can see into the giftgivers eyes, in much the same way I look into the excitement and anticipation of Lynn's eyes as she has watched me open the gifts she has given me. I know she loves me so much that whatever it is in the end it will be something unbelievably wonderful. The gift its self is many times over shadowed by the love that is present during the giving and opening of the gift.
We treat the gift with the respect it deserves. The preparation, detail and love that has gone into physically setting the gift up and making the gift available is obvious to all, but beyond that is the respect that is experienced on the trail its self.
The many species of trees individually and collectively, the wildlife, the signs of their presence, the hills, the swamps, the wind, cold and snow all require our respect and thankfulness as we move down the trail and continue to unwrap the gift.
Our fellow racers are all part of the opening of the gift. They inspire us and encourage us. Give willingly to us on how they open their gift in the hopes it will help us. Sometimes there is the competition of who can open their gift first and that's great, we all open our gifts as best we can with the abilities we have. Some have prepared themselves better to open the gift the fastest, some have just been given better skills. Either way, it doesn't diminish the joy of opening the gift and working towards the finish.
Funny thing is, most all of us want to be first, for many different reasons, and most all of us also want to enjoy the journey as much as possible. Only a few seem to manage both.
Our friends, family and spectators are all part of the journey as well. They encourage us to move faster, to open the gift quicker, giving us tips to keep on no matter how much tape we need to fight through to open the gift.
But there are those that don't open their gift that way. They very carefully remove the bow and place it in a safe spot to be used later. They prefer to remove all the wrapping slowly, to experience every second to the max seemingly burning the joy of opening the gift in their minds so intently lest they forget to remember what it was like, so as to enjoy the beauty of the experience at some later date.
No matter, the gift is still there, to be enjoyed all the same no matter what method we use to open the gift.
Sometimes we run into strings and ribbons that surround the gift with tough, tight knots and we need to fight through these as well. We get frustrated, tired and sore...the strings and ribbons cutting our flesh as we struggle to open the gift even further. Blood drips on the wrapping but we move on, ignoring the wound and the pain knowing this just makes the opening of the gift that much more intense and rewarding.
Surfacing and sticking it's head out at times from around the corners of the recesses of my mind as I unwrap the gift is the villain that I'll have to keep at bay for the whole race. If I let him in, its over. I have to watch for him on the trail, in the aid stations, at every road crossing. I can only release him when I finish....that's when my body and mind are allowed to break down, to stop. If they start breaking down too soon, I'm not sure I can stop them and I'll be done...both mentally and physically. As I go deeper and deeper into the race the pain and doubt is there and all the "why am I here and what am I doing?" mental games start.
Early in the race, as when I'm training, I don't need to lock the door, the villain knows he can't do anything should he have the guts to pass through and heck we're almost friends, he challenges and chides me all the time, laughs with me and runs along side me, he's teased me over the years asking why I go out to ski or to bike when the warm house is so much nicer, when having another beer would be so much more fun...later on as I get a bit fatigued mentally and physically I have to order him to stay out and he listens as my voice is yet firm and confident. Towards the end, I lock the door and try to ignore him, but he laughs at me, mocks me. Tells me I'm too old, too fat, too unskilled and who gives a shit anyway? Who do I think I am? Shackleton or somebody? Is anybody's life at stake here? You have aid stations for cripes sakes, who are you kidding, you take showers? He wants me to stop, dares me to quit, tells me I'm a foolish old man.
So what if you win your division or anybody wins their division for that matter...So what if you win by a mile or by the width of a Big Fat Larry? What does it change? The villain talks to me about winning, so the website said there would be division prizes, so what. Is THAT why you want to win, I thought you did it for the fun? HA HA!
The villain has many games he plays on so many people. Sometimes it's good to know why we are out there so we can answer him, just ignoring him can only maybe work for so long.
In the darkest hours before the dawn he tells me it was he that sent in the loneliness and I have him to blame for the extra effort of breaking trail in the wet, deep snow. He says he ordered the cold when I stop to eat or drink due to being soaking wet from sweat and melted snow and he sent the wolves, the wolves who are watching a struggling man barely moving in the deep snow, a lone man who won't be able to get to a tree or build a fire in time to escape their lashing jaws and defend himself, don't they scare you, he asks, the ambush is only a short distance away he whispers, look ahead, see the shadows moving he murmurs as he chuckles.
But I laugh at the villain and I laugh loud...it's not loneliness, it's perfect solitude, it's what I came out here for. It's not extra effort, it's 5 hours of breaking trail for a fellow racer who is maybe thinking about dropping but knowing someone went on through before, maybe even my son. Sure, I could be helping a skiing competitor catch me...but as long as I keep going eventually the trail will get better I tell myself and the villain and I'll be able to skate again instead of the hybrid classic gyration I've been doing for 35 miles that's wearing a hole into the inside of my heels where skin and flesh used to be. I know in the last 25 miles if the trail is groomed or enough snowmobiles have passed over it nearer to civilization I should be able to outdistance anyone that does ski up to me....and if they do catch and pass me soon I won't have to break trail anymore, so there! And, if they do beat me, they will have deserved it. That doesn't mean I failed.
Sure I'm cold at times I tell the villain, but it's my choice to dress light to let the perspiration escape as much as possible to allow for my body to not work any harder than it needs to as heating and cooling both take their toll and if not controlled wisely will eventually wear me out unnecessarily, use up my water wastefully, you have nothing to do with it, you braggart.
And the wolves!! HA! After passing all the bivied up bikers any wolf worth his salt will be taking down a stationary or barely moving biker than a strong son of bitch skiing with pointed daggers in each hand! Go away you fool I tell him!! And he does...but he isn't done, not by a long shot....and we both know it.
I've always known that winning is important and that when the opportunity presents its self it should be taken advantage of. I think of the fact that I could have my name on the wall as an Arrowhead 135 ski division winner. I find myself wondering what prize was held back for this win and both winning and the prize give me some motivation to keep on steady and strong regardless of what the villain thinks. Besides, if I do win, it's something the villain can never take away from me and I know I'll be able to use it against him sometime in the future. I love to have spare ammo in my pocket.
During the 40 miles between Melgoerge's (2nd aid station, 65 miles from the finish) and the ski pulk (3rd check point, 25 miles from the finish) I tried every ski technique I've ever used before in my life and a few I invented on the spot. Luckily, I started on waxless classic skis 15 or so years ago and pressed my time on them to be as fast and efficient as I could when I skied them. I resorted back to that technique although I haven't classic skied for 5 years or better. I was not going to take off my skis and walk, that I knew for sure, as even my most inefficient classic shuffle would give me 4-8 sometimes 12" of glide on each stroke. Walking gives you no glide and walking with ski boots is not the same as walking with regular boots.
In the darkness between 2 and 7AM I'd occasionally turn my head to look to the side of the trail. The light would penetrate the darkness and the sometimes heavy sometimes light snow fall would allow varying amounts of light to reach to the trees and brush alongside the trail as they gave me some kind of reference point to gauge my speed.
Oh my God, I'd think, how painfully slow I'm moving. This was a section of the trial that is flat and I remembered it as allowing some of the best skiing last year. At this rate, I thought, it will take me the full 60 hours to get to the finish. It bothers me as I start to think that if I had rushed in and out of Melgeorge's would I have missed most of the snow and could I have skated the flat section I was now bogged down in?
Hard to say....I found myself wanting to get to the huge hills further down the trail as soon as possible because even in normal conditions I would herring bone up them so that would be a wash as to time compared to last year but at least I would be able to glide down them, making time somewhat nearer to what I did last year.
But I console myself in that I did give myself the benefit of stopping at Melgeorge's to eat, sleep and rest to handle the deep snow conditions I now found myself in because no matter what choice I'd have made, it would have been a difficult slog sooner or later.
Sleep deprived and physically tired influenced mental gymnastics at it's best!
All along this section I would all of a sudden see red blinking lights and at first I thought I had caught the bikes in front of me but I knew that couldn't be because there were no fresh tracks. 3-4 groups of 2,3,4 bikes or singles were all bivied up, waiting out the storm. They looked warm in their bags, snow piled up 6-8" on their gear that was still attached to their bikes. They had been here a long time. I'd silently shush past them....thinking that if any of them had built a fire I'd have been sucked over to it...and glad they hadn't because I needed to keep going and stopping for even a few minutes could be the end of me.
Close to 7AM the almost fresh tracks of a biker I was following suddenly veered to the left to a shelter then back to the trail again. Someone called out to me as one of the 3-4 bivied bikers in the shelter noticed my light. They had been there since 8PM the evening before if I remember them telling me correctly, waiting out the storm to bail on hwy 23 a mile or so ahead. I did the math in my head and realized that that was about the time I had got to Melgeorge's, the half-way point of the race and slept for 2.5 hours. They said the snow was so deep at that point that they couldn't go on. I rationalized that no matter if I'd have pushed on or not at Melgeorge's the outcome would have been the same at this point, I wouldn't have been able to skate. That pretty much ended my pity party on whether I was right or wrong in my assumptions to push on or not at Melgeorge's and there was no point thinking about it anymore. It is what it is.
The guy said that Jill had kept going and that I'd catch her soon. They said she was going to bail at hwy 23 as well and pedal into Orr. I told them thanks for the info and I started off. It wasn't long before I came up on Jill. She had to push her bike side to side going up the hills while I could herring bone straight up. When I came up on her she looked totally beat. I think the bike weighed more than her. The tires on her fat-bike were almost solid with snow where the spokes should have been, adding untold weight she had to push down the trail and up the hills. I stabbed at the snow with my ski pole to try to lighten her load but couldn't even bust it out it was packed so tight.
As I knew she was bailing, I asked her if she had any water to spare because I knew I was going to be in this section for a lot longer than I had anticipated and I might run out before the next aid station and any extra water might come in handy. I believe she replied that she had been out on the trail for 12 hours and that her water was almost all gone and she had to bike to Orr yet which was 14 miles on the road so she wanted to keep what she had for the ride in. I said I understood and that I was ok.
I then told her that I felt there would be a vehicle at hwy 23 as there was a camera crew following me and that they had been at just about every crossing so far and maybe they would give her a ride to Orr. She responded that that would be awesome (or something similar!). With that I told her that it was only fair that I break trail for her as she had been doing it for me and I took off.
And there was a camera person at the road, Dan,...and we discussed all this and I believe he took Jill to Orr. Damn, I thought a coupe of hours later, I should have made a deal to take her water but leave it on the road if there wasn't a vehicle there...too late now.
It was just getting light out and the scenery was gorgeous with the heavy snow on the trees. Dan wasn't going to get in the way of my progress and commented that he didn't want to slow me down after he took a few pictures and with that I took the hint and crossed the road. It was almost light enough to turn off my headlamp. These shots were taken in the dark, no flash. I mentioned to Dan it must be a pretty nice camera!
Photo credit to Daniel McGowan. 6 hours (apr. 15 miles) out from Melgeorge's, 9 hrs (25 miles) to go to ski pulk. Can't believe I'm even smiling, but it's all about the journey at this point and the journey, due to the snow depth, got real interesting.
I remembered different things while I was out on the trail....noticing freshly blowing snow being whipped out of the tall pines on the ridge top where I'd soon be, turning off my light and letting my eyes adjust to the stars and just pausing a few seconds realizing I've seen this view so many times in my life and why does it always so inspire me and all of us for that matter? Noticing a huge wolf track in the trail with no fresh snow in it and pointing it out to a fellow racer on a bike.
I catch a glimpse of the giftgivers smile in the lay of the land as I look out over the trail and I know it was the giftgiver who sent these soul soothing views to me along with all the obstacles to give me the opportunity to overcome them, not the bullshitting villain, trying to take credit where credit isn't due.
I remember reading somewhere to never quit at night, to always wait until the sun comes up. Good advice.
There was the film crew who gave me a bit of a spark every time I came up on them as I wanted to do my best for them as well as me and Lynn being there as well, which helped to settle my conscious knowing she wasn't sitting home but out here genuinely enjoying it, following Chris and I on our individual treks and she taking care of Chris' dogs and enjoying it. Her getting into the spirit of the event pleased me. Her being there for us pleased me.
Soon I hit the dreaded hills but this year I don't dread them as much. I know once I best them I could be home free, assuming a groomer or at least enough snowmachines have been out. Although it's mid week, I think that enough people will want to ride in the fresh snow and they will make the trails good enough for me to skate on.
Matt didn't catch me in the flats, where he might have had an advantage with his classic/skate combo skis and now I feel in the hills I'd have had the advantage of better glide if he had.
The snowmachines that came through around noon at least allow me to move without my tips getting caught near as much and I can glide further on their packed tracks and my bindings aren't buried in the snow so they aren't icing up anymore and I don't have to remove each ski every 15-20 minutes to chip out the ice. Life is good again...for awhile.
The hills never seem to end...and once I do get out of them the ski pulk aid station never appears. I know it's out there somewhere but I'm getting real tired, it's been nearly 15 hours of non-stop slogging....at least I'm not pushing a bike or pulling a sled I whisper thankfully.
Gliding is good down the steep hills and slight grades although I'm not carrying them near as far as I could if the ski tips weren't acting like snowplows because the snow is still soft. The flats and uphills are tough as I can't really skate yet. I see bike tracks that are fresher and fresher and feel I'll come up on one soon...and I do.
I come up beside him and we stop to talk. The first thing he does really is ask for water as he's been sick and bivied twice and he's been out here for 20 hours. An hour or 2 before I had checked how much water I had and timed to be empty about the time I hit the aid station so I felt I didn't have more than a drop or two and tell him I'm pretty much out. As we talk, I think I recognize him and ask him if he's Dallas from Canada and he says yes....he had given me the pepperoni hand-up at the Tuscobia 150 a month earlier. With that I move over and say he can try to get some water out of my camelback and he does get about a half a mouth full before he's sucking air. He thanks me.
With that we start moving and as we swing around the corner a few steps we see the aid station sign!
I hang around the aid station a bit too long, talking to Dallas, eating, the volunters making me hot chocolate, getting updates from the volunteers, drying out my socks as I rationalize that it's going to get colder soon in the 25 miles and 5 some hours to the end and dry feet might keep me from frostbite.
Finally Lynn pokes her head in the semi-heated tent and tells me she's channeling Helen, our soon to be daughter in law, who keeps Chris on his feet when she crews for him (a very accomplished ultra-trail runner herself I might add) and I finally get up and out the door when my socks are deemed dry enough...now, if I had only thought about drying out my boots as well!
With that I'm gliding down the hill from the aid station and as soon as I hit the flats I'm skating again and it's free wheeling to the end, going as fast as my skills, strength and desire allow me.
As I move down the trail I come to the realization that the gift is almost revealed and all I have to do is remove the final small pieces of wrapping. I know I've passed through the worst of it but there is still one little detail....which is to actually finish.
As I get closer and closer to the end the anticipation grows but I can't think too far ahead, not just yet. In my case, I have to stay very focused on the details, one kick at a time, perfect foot plant, perfect pole plant, perfect weight transfer, one kick at a time....it's not for the mechanics really, by this time and miles in (37 hrs and 120 plus miles) I know my technique has gone south. I know I'm running on fumes. I know one stumble and I'd be on the ground, risking a broken ski, pole or both. Maybe a severe cramp or worse, a broken bone. The trail is nice, but it's not a groomed xc ski trail, it's still a snowmobile trail so I have to watch it. I have to remember I have 20 some extra pounds on my back.
These are all critical mechanical aspects of the final stretch but also I need to stay focused to keep my mind from breaking down.
I'm very close to the right hand turn that will take me up to the finish line. There, off to the right is a person standing. I recognize Brenda quickly. She congratulates me as I stop. Gushes about Rock Star and all that...which was very nice of her to say but I know better. I'm a bit too old for all of that. I know she's there to que the camera team and I oblige her by taking my time. She suggests I get going after a few seconds, I tell her thanks for giving me a good excuse to grab a few breaths and give my muscles a quick rest to power up the final hill to the finish and try to impress everyone! We laugh. I want to tell her more, but can't, not yet anyway.
I really apprciate her taking the time to be there and the kind words. I didn't expect that, it was one of the highlights of the race for me.
I can see the finish line now....the villain is working on breaking down the doors, he's soon to be released to allow as much physical pain as possible but he's not breaking in, I'll be letting him in. The mental part he knows he lost, 20 miles out he had his last slim chance but not now anymore.
I cross and it's over. But, he'll have to wait a few seconds longer because something much bigger and more powerful has beaten him to the punch. Something that I kept at bay with as much effort as the villain himself.
It's like when you were a kid and you go the biggest fireworks (or starpops as Chris called them as a young boy) you can imagine. There are many cool rockets that explode and light up the sky, but the one that always puts a smile on my face, the one I wait in anticipation for is the one where the rocket is racing skyward, toward the finish line, and sometimes you see a small squiggly tail leading to the prize.
I can hear the cheering of the crowd, Lynn's cowbell and then it explodes. It's a huge developing umbrella with small bright points of lights that were all part of the whole, all of the details of the race. I can see them all at once for just a split second as they quickly expand from zenith to horizon and left to right all at the same time and almost instantly as well but they get too wide and I begin to lose focus on them. I reach up to touch the banner as I ski under it....it's over.
The memory is burned in my minds eye. All this takes a split second and then friends and well wishers welcome me to the end.
I move my eyes and head to try to take it all in, to try to see all the joy on the people's faces as it's a reflection of the effort involved to finish the race and they are part of the gift as well. Many have done the race, some have tried and failed.....they know.
Photo credit to Brenda Piekarski.
I suppose we all think about how we're going to cross the finish line. The only two things I really wanted to remember to do this time was to not be an ass...and to give my wife a kiss...well as least I wasn't an ass, I don't think. Sorry hon, you deserved a big wet one. I guess there was just too much going on for me to focus properly.
The finish, photo credit to Brenda Piekarski.
Meanwhile the giftgiver floats away but I know will return at a later date with something else to surprise me with.
A small memento is given to trigger the feeling back later but it can never create as grand a feeling as the original nor should it...otherwise why come back?
- Matt, thanks for being there at the end to carry my pack.
- Nick, thanks for hanging out as well and talking on the trail.
- Todd, thanks for the 3.3 mile heads up. Everyone on the trail thinks the world of you.
- To ALL the volunteers, some like Jennifer, Lisa and Russ that I know, most that I don't know, a big THANK YOU. Especially allowing a road cheese sandwich!
- Gateway Store, Melgeorge's and Fortune Bay, many thanks to you for allowing us entry and being such a big part of the race.
- A BIG thanks to all the Sponsors.
- To Tony, for all that you do, mainly keeping a smile on all our faces.
Photo credit to Jennifer Flynn.
- To Chris, for the inspiration back in 2011 and making it to the end this year....again.
- To Brenda, Adrian, Monte, Dan, Laura and Rick and everyone at Adventure Minnesota Films including the chopper crew. It was a great experience. One I'll never forget nor ever get again I suspect. You were all so professional and so unobtrusive, respecting me as a person and as a racer and respecting the race and other racers as well. I was very impressed that you never seemed to put yourselves first but were always concerned about my schedule and needs and that of the race.
- Thanks of course to Dave and Mary for allowing the gift to be realized.
- Again, to Brenda once more, for asking the questions and expecting answers and being there right before the end. I wanted to win as much for you and your team as for me.
- Lastly, thank you to Lynn for playing along with this craziness and trying to understand it all and being the best giftgiver I'll even know.
For the "Technical Junkies" (from the Arrowhead 135 website)
Couple quick 2013 Arrowhead 135 Truth Stranger Than Fiction Items:
...warmest start temp in nine yr race history at ~25F.
...largest starting field ever at exactly 135.
...first ever father/son finishers with Chris and Mark Scotch!
...two additional Arrowhead A'trois Finishers: Ken Krueger/Eric Dalgaard making total of 5 awards in race history.
...three out of last four years have seen long 3-man cycling breakaways leading up to final finish stretch. All three broke course record.
...second lowest finish rate in race history at ~35%. 2007 less than 25%.
...first year significant precipitation event. 8-10" heavy wet snow/sleet/ice pellets, areas biggest snowfall of season, mid-race. Not exactly forecasted!
...unfortunately no women finishers. Many made noble attempts.
From my race:
Brenda asked me before the race what my goal(s) were. I said only to beat my time from last year.
I did have designs on winning the race, of course, but I wouldn't allow that verbally and put undue pressure and expectations on myself. I was concerned that I might make a stupid mistake or choice based on winning and I respect the race and conditions too much for that vanity. Although not lifethreatening weather, I still didn't want to do the race for the wrong reasons or keep going when it would be smarter to stop just to secure a win.
Post race interview.
Photo credit Minnesota Adventure Films.
When I learned at check-in that a guy switched from the foot to the ski division, I googled the Birkie and a few other races to see if his name popped up, like Casey's did last year when I learned he has finished in the top 100 in the Birkie and I didn't have a snowballs chance in hell to win. (I finish something like 3,000)
George's name didn't come up, but that didn't stop me. I made a point to introduce myself before the race to see what his setup was....ok, my wife tells everyone I am competitive...but I don't see it that way, just curious and a bit driven.
My son Chris had met George before in Grand Marais, MN when George was putting on a seminar. They seem to have remembered each other. Small world. George seemed like a real nice guy, I hope he enjoyed the AHU sufferfest.
- I'Falls paper
- Trail Running mag
Time splits as compared to last year:
- I got to the 1st aid station a hour earlier than last year and left 20 minutes sooner
- Got into 2nd aid station 3.5 hours sooner than last year and spent around an hour less there as well
- Before the snow hit, the thought crossed my mind I could come in under 30 hours
- The 40 mile section mentioned about took me 5 more hours this year than last. 10 vs. 15 hours.
- Skied the last section 40 minutes faster than last year, to beat my time from last year by roughly 40 minutes.