The Arrowhead 135 winter ultra began on Monday, February 1st in the city of International Falls, MN. I met up with Eric Johnson from Ogden, Utah at the MN/STP airport and we made the 300 mile plus drive up to the start on Saturday evening. After checking in we stopped by the hotel bar to chat with a few of the other racers who were hanging out that evening. We met a racer named John who was drinking few Jameson's. We saw him at the pre-race dinner on Sunday and he stated that he had a pretty good headache.
Sunday morning was spent preparing our gear, getting last minute supplies, eating, resting and finding our way around town. There is a mandatory gear check that everyone must attend, which was a new experience for me. While I have done the Alaska Ultra Sport twice, where they trust your judgment when it comes to gear and food, the Arrowhead requires a minimum amount of survival gear and food. The gear check went like an assembly line, you had to put all your gear on a table, then Don (the gear checker) would make sure that all of the required equipment was there before weighing it all. I threw my food bag into the bin at the last second, which was a good thing, since there is also a fifteen pound minimum. All tolled, my gear and food weighed in at seventeen pounds. Some of the required gear included a -20 rated sleeping bag, bivy sack, 3000 calories of food, a stove with 8 ozs. of fuel, reflective gear, blinking lights, whistle and matches. I got a chance to talk with Pierre, the race director, who designs tools for Park Bicycle Tool Co. and got some interesting insight as too how bike tools are designed. He even showed me the latest bike stand that he designed, it will be on the market soon. I also met Jon Storkamp, who had the foot division course record prior to the 2010 race. He had a lot of good information to share.
After the gear check we all headed over the the VFW where the pre-race meeting and dinner were held. The city of Int. Falls was really happy to have the race start there, and the Mayor, Chamber of Commerce President and a city council member all welcomed us to their fine city. We even got a cool Int. Falls pin that read "The Nations Icebox" which I eventually misplaced. There were the typical pre-race announcements, don't litter, look out for wolves and moose, keep your number visible, you all know what that is like.
The Monday morning start was pretty typical for an ultra race, every bike and sled in the pre-dawn parking lot had blinking red lights fore and aft, it looked like Christmas in the lot. The temps were around minus 20 degrees, with a clear sky, almost full moon and no wind, perfect conditions for racing. We let the bikers lead us out from the start and it did not take long for the field to string out along the trail. The trail itself was a route that is groomed for snowmobile use, about twenty feet wide, smooth and packed. The state grooms almost two thousand miles of these trails throughout the state. One can ride their snowmobile from town to town, stopping to sleep, eat, shop or anything else you can think of.
The first checkpoint was at thirty five miles, and was a general store/gas station along the road. I reached it in just over ten hours and stopped to enjoy some hot food, refill my Camelbak and talk with some of the many racers. The place was total chaos, there were racers lying in all of the aisles, resting, eating, drying out their clothes and deciding whether to abandon the race. I think many folks underestimated the requirements of a winter ultra. Many were waiting for their clothes to dry in the dryer that the store had for our use, while debating how they might fare without the luxury of a dryer later on. I got a chance to talk with Marco, who won the Badwater 135 in 2009, he did not speak English, and I did not speak Portuguese, but we were able to communicate a little bit in Spanish. I do know that he was cold.
After twenty minutes or so, it was time to get moving, as the sun was down and the temperature was dropping fast. I wanted to get out and get moving before it got too cold. I was somewhat surprised to encounter hills after leaving the checkpoint, I thought that Minnesota was flat. I later found out that the hills would continue from thirty five miles all the way to the one hundred fifteen mile mark. I hoped to make the halfway checkpoint at Melgeorges resort in another twelve hours, but the hills and need for sleep got the better of me. There were shelters along the trail that were spaced about ten miles apart and they made good bivy spots for us. They were just three sided structures with a roof and a place to build a fire if needed. I found an empty shelter with a fire going and decided to take my first rest break of the race. It was about midnight and I decided to just do a "shiver-bivy" or "shivabiv" as Eric called it. Instead of getting into my sleeping bag, I would just put on my down coat and sleep by the fire until it died down and I would wake when I started to shiver. This was a good plan, except instead of just shivering, both of my calves cramped, awakening me to much pain. I quickly set off so that I could warm up and stretch my legs. The shivabiv lasted about an hour, so later in the night I began to fall asleep while walking. I came upon another shelter which had a nice fire going and lots of folks sleeping. I was going to stop and sleep, but when I asked how far to the checkpoint, the answer was "about eight miles". I decided to keep moving and sleep at the checkpoint. After another hour, I came across some snowmobiles who were busy transporting racers who had abandoned the race, they told me is was still another ten miles to the checkpoint. Since I was sleepwalking a lot, I decided to take five minute naps instead of stopping to sleep. I finally arrived at the checkpoint just after dawn on Tuesday.
The second checkpoint was a nice cabin at Melgeorges Resort on Elephant Lake. It was warm, comfortable and busy. There were people coming and going constantly. I tried to sleep upstairs, but the din of the many folks downstairs kept me from actually falling asleep. After about forty-five minutes I decided to take my leave and just sleep on the trail if need be. I got something hot to eat from the kitchen, refilled my food bag from the drop bag we had there and headed out. I found myself traveling with Doug from South Africa, Carles from Spain, and one of the skiers for the next few hours. All were strong racers and we made good time as the day was calm and the trail was fast. As the sun went down on Tuesday, I caught up to Jim O'Brien who told me he was not feeling well, had not been able to keep food or water down, and was now getting cold. It sounded like a sure case of hypothermia setting in so I offered him my down coat, as he already had all of his extra clothing on. The map indicated that there was a shelter coming up in a few miles and I told him I would go ahead and get a fire started there. He arrived at the shelter just a few minutes after me, we realized that the fire pit was not in front of the shelter, so we just went without a fire and set up inside the shelter. Jim decided that he was going to withdraw and get a ride out. Doug arrived at the same time and we tried to talk Jim out of quitting, saying that he still had plenty of time to get in his sleeping bag and try to rehydrate. He insisted that he would not be able to make it. I don't know why, but I had my cellphone with me. We called the Crescent Bar, which had an advertisement on the back of the map and they said it would be about an hour before someone could reach us. Doug and I decided to take the opportunity to sleep while we waited for the snowmobile to pick Jim up. Once we were on our way again, Doug and I began to catch many of the other foot division racers. We passed six or seven racers during the next twenty miles. Sleep deprivation again got the better of me and I had to stop and rest for another hour before the TeePee checkpoint. Doug went on ahead, and I only caught sight of him again coming out of the checkpoint.
Just before the final checkpoint, the course dropped out of the hills and across a swamp, where the temperature dropped below minus twenty. I stopped at the checkpoint only long enough to refill my Camelbak for the final twenty miles. I wanted to keep moving while it was still dark and would sleep a little just before the sun came up. I made the last critical turn and headed for the finish. The final few miles passed quickly as there were signs along the trail for lodges, restaurants and of course the casino, where we would be finishing. I arrived at the finish in 11th place in the foot division and was escorted into the casino hotel where the race had a hospitality room for the competitors. There were 45 starters in the foot division, of which 19 finished. Marco, whom I met at the first aid station, finished a few hours behind me, just goes to show how much of a factor the weather can be.
The Arrowhead 135 is a great race, especially for someone who would like to get winter ultra running experience. While the low temperatures remain a constant danger, there is plenty of support along the trail and race management keeps tabs on every racer along the course. There were snowmobiles patrolling the course at all hours. This is one race I will return to do again.