And with that, ultimately, Arrowhead 135 for 2014 came to a close for me. 72 miles and 12:04 hours into the race, my first attempt at it on a fat bike after 2 xc ski finishes ends. Ironically, I always felt that the one thing that would prevent me from finishing the race skiing would be cold feet in thin xc-ski boots. My feet sweat so much (hence my love of going mountain biking barefoot in my clipless sandals?) and after a harrowing canoe trip over 10 years ago or so, where I had to walk in knee deep snow while portaging in ankle deep water, my feet have never really been the same when it comes to extreme cold.
Arrowhead 2014 was sizing up to be one of if not the coldest of it's 10 year history. There were years where absolute lower temps were observed like -41 in 2011, but 2014 was looking to produce sustained temps lower than any year before.
-24 F with -43 to -50 degree windchill at the start. Forecast was for temps not to be over -10 the first day and -30 to -35F the first night followed by a high below 0 for the second day. Second night lows of -15 to -20 and then a warming trend for the 3rd day with a high of 10-15 above 0. Basically, of the 60 hours of the race, it might get above 0F for only a few of the last hours of the last day, when just about everyone that was going to finish would have already.
First Facebook posting of the race, a few hours before I'd be at the starting line:
"4AM. Should be sound asleep but the fan in the heat register is in the process of grinding its guts (bearings) out trying to keep up to whatever is inches away through a thin wall that's sucking all the heat from my motel room.
This has been going on since 2:30AM.
I turned off the wall unit and stacked all the extra blankets on me and short of putting on what I plan to ride in tomorrow hoped to stay warm and fall back asleep. No go. Now instead of losing just one night of sleep it looks like it'll be closer to 2.
The bike is ready to go so am I, albeit a bit earlier than expected and desired."
Staying warm in the motel the night before the race.
Got to the start in fine shape, if even a bit earlier than normal for me, and got to talk to a few of the racers. Everyone was tight with anxiety as to what to expect out there.
Within minutes the hounds were released and we were on our way. With the brutal cold came a hard packed track that was expected to contribute to a possible new coarse record. What was hard to judge was how the cold would affect racers, gear and bikes.
As with all races, I start out a bit stiff and slow. Normally after 15-20 minutes I'm warmed up and the pain in my legs and lungs subsides. This morning was no different. I had to stop in the first 2 miles to remove my goggles. Completely fogged up.
The face protector I had on was the half face kind similar to the one below. It's thick and protects well, but also traps all of the vapor coming out of ones lungs. It's great at avoiding frostbite at these temps, but the majority of the warm air tends to escape up or down as the mouth opening is too small and it also starts to ice over.
So, goggles were the first to go and then a few hours later, I had to open my jacket zipper to cool down. The moist air condensed and dropped onto the top of my cockpit bag and frame bag in a fairly steady stream forming into ice almost instantly. It also iced up the top of my jacket, so I fought with iced zippers all race. When the temps dropped towards nightfall I started to feel a burning on my neck so I tried to pull the zipper up on my jacket but couldn't. I reached inside my jacket and zipped up the Icebreaker as high as I could. That took care of the burning but a birthmark like spot of frostbite showed up a couple of days later.
But, the mask did allow warm air to move up and keep my cheeks, eyes and ears warm enough that I didn't need eye-wear and as mentioned, no frostbite on my face.
What the outfit looked like out on a practice run a few days earlier during the Polar Vortex. Conditions almost exactly like the start of the race. -50 windchill.
Top of my cockpit and frame bag coated with ice from moisture dripping out the bottom of my mask.
I arrived at the first checkpoint 35 miles and 5 hours later feeling pretty good. My goals there were to eat a few pieces of my pizza and drink as much water as I could. It was hard to eat and drink on the trail and especially while on the bike and I had wanted to stay on the bike as much as possible so I wanted to pile in as many calories as possible.
When I walked into the checkpoint a I saw a couple of the top riders that had dropped. One from cramps and one from nausea. I then heard that the winner from the year before and current coarse record holder had been pulled due to frostbite. I mentioned to one person I knew I had wet feet but they felt good and I figured that after 5 hours if my feet were going to have an issue it would have happened by now.
I didn't even really consider changing my socks....a bad decision. After 10 minutes I started to shiver some and I mentioned to a couple of riders I needed to get back on the bike and get the furnace stoked up again. 14 minutes in the checkpoint.
It didn't help that so many of the people at the checkpoint looked like they were done whether they actually were or not....and that they were just looking for a reason to stop. With that I took off feeling in good shape and in good spirits. I felt the rest of the race was going to be more of the same but with some walking thrown in as the hills were awaiting. As for my feet, I figured the walking was going to go a long way in helping to keep them warm.
Yours truly. On the trail. Photo credit to Burgess Eberhardt.
When I pulled into the mid-point check station I starting peeling off my wet clothes. In the process of removing my boots, outer sock and vapor barrier bag there were ice cubes frozen to the ends of both of my big toes attached to my inner, sweat soaked socks. They were about the diameter of my thumb and about half as long. I broke them off and removed my inner sock.
The volunteers rushed over and exclaimed that I had frostbite. That's when I stated the opening line of this post, that they were white/ashen and cold to the touch due to being basically in water for the past 12 hours. They disagreed, but were going to allow some time to verify their observations. It was going to be a hard case for me to argue I thought, seeing that there were ice cubes frozen to the ends of my feet. Dah!
The evidence...yeah, the toes look a little bit black on the tips. The skin never died and peeled like my neck and ear lobe though. Yes, the toes were cold to the touch immediately out of the boots, but like I mentioned above, there was ice froze to the socks they were in for cripes sake!
With that I started chowing down soup, grilled cheese sandwiches and drinking water and hot cider that the Angels just kept on bringing. And Angels they are!!
After 20-30 minutes or so one of the volunteers asked me if I wanted to officially DNF. I said not really, that I'd preferred we took some time to see what the status of my toes would be after some more time as we had discussed originally and she said ok, but we both kind of knew what the out come was going to be.
I understood the rules. This year anyone diagnosed with frostbite would be removed from the race for their own safety, the safety of other racers and the safety of volunteers out on the coarse.
Interestingly, one of my biggest fears this year was what would happen if I came up on a racer that was disabled due to the cold. I went through my gear in my mind how I would help them and not jeopardize myself in the process while we waited for help/rescue. We've all heard of people that remove their clothes thinking they were hot....would they act like a drowning victim and fight their only hope of survival? Being prepared may not only concern yourself in a rescue, it could be saving yourself and another person. Hard to prepare for that even if it is a plan D or E or F down the list.
I knew that one of the bike favorites was pulled at the first checkpoint due to frostbite on his face as mentioned earlier. He had appealed and was denied re-entry from what I was told. I didn't know the severity of his condition but really, it didn't matter. There was no subjectivity of the condition, only that if frostbite was discovered one was automatically out.
I knew it would be unfair to allow me to go on and not him. I respect the race, the people who race it and the people who run it to consciously cause some kind of controversy and it was at the forefront of my thinking at the time, even more so than if my feet were frostbit.
I really didn't think, even if they had gotten nipped, that my toes were in any real long-term danger.
I had really tried to stay focused on my feet during the race, constantly taking mental inventory of them, and I just couldn't remember ever thinking they were in any danger. Although only 14 minutes at the first checkpoint, I kind of thought that if they were in danger, I'd pickup the tell tale signs there by walking and being off the bike.
I decided to go to the cabin we rented to call my wife as I wanted to bounce it off someone not so close to the race. We would discuss the situation. She'd know how much I would want to finish but yet she'd also know...well, I just felt she'd have more level thinking than I would at this time considering the circumstances.
The main items:
- the biker had been pulled, it wouldn't be fair for me to be allowed back in if indeed I had frostbite.
- I didn't want to start the next 40 mile section, which was very remote in the dead of night with -30 to -35 temps expected, if indeed my feet had been "bit" I knew they would be much more susceptible to another hit. I did not want to jeopardize myself nor other racers if I needed to be rescued.
- I had to be at a job site in 2 days ready to work on my feet for 2 days. I didn't want to chance not making it to work or to show up not being able to do my job properly or not be there at all and instead in some hospital.
- We had tickets to Alaska for 2 races I was going to do the first one coming up in in 3 weeks. I didn't want to jeopardize that trip.
Lynn and I decided it wasn't worth it to head back out even assuming I had a choice in the matter.
Just wasn't worth the risk.
I went to take a shower and was expecting the pain when the hot water hit my toes. Back at the time of the canoe trip my feet never hurt so bad before or after as during that warmup process and I was preparing for that same intense burning feeling....but it never came.
There were a few times sharp needle like pain was present over the next hour or two but that was it.
In any case with that, I went back to the race checkpoint cabin and announced my DNF.
Andy Chadwick, from the UK, didn't fare as well. He came in about 2 hours behind me to find his feet frostbit. That night and the next morning they didn't look all that bad, but after a few days one foot got much worse. Not sure if this is Second or Third degree frostbite. This helped convince me the race officials and I made the right decision.
I talked to a racer in the checkpoint cabin that ended up with frostbit finger tips. When he noticed his hands were getting super cold very fast he pulled heavier gloves (that were cold) out of his bike pack and put them on but that didn't help. He then bivied and inside his sleeping bag he did all he could to warm his hands. Although I never looked at his fingers, my son Chris did and he said they had blackened tips.
Chris told me that he had an episode where his fingers became instantly cold as well but he just pulled on another layer of mittens he had attached to his wrist and they warmed up without any issues.
No margin of error this year. One wrong or even late move and things could turn south (or north as the case maybe, towards the cold) quickly.
As for my boot setup, I started with a light woolish FITSOK, a vapor barrier bag, then medium wool socks and Keen Summit boots with 400 gram insulation/-20F rated, and NEOS Navigator 5 overshoe/-20F rated over it all. It's obvious this setup wasn't enough for these conditions, at least for my wet feet, but hindsight may reveal that it WAS a pretty good setup. If it was any less, I might have gotten a bad case of frostbite.
Bottom line, I really believe not changing my wet sock and using powder would have made the difference. Maybe some year I'll get the chance to prove it.
The resort bar was still open so I went and got a few beers and talked to some of the folks there. Most were friends of racers out on the coarse.
Then I went to the cabin and went to bed. 2 bikers that were sharing our cabin, Tom and Bob, came to the cabin around 3:30AM after getting in to the checkpoint around 1AM. Chris came in around 6:15AM and Helen around 7:30AM, both on foot. All 4 rested and continued their race and finished.
I then caught a ride back to the start with the dad of one of the bikers in our group to get my Jeep and Chris's. Had to jump mine due to a dead battery after 2 -30/-35 degree nights, Chris's started, obviously a better battery!
The Race Director asked if I could help out and pick up a foot racer that was at a road crossing who had dropped out as I had 4 WD.
After that I jumped ahead on the trial and tried to catch Helen and Chris and people I knew a few times before I headed south to attend to my work responsibilities.
The "guys"...see pics below. Fun time!