At 3:15am Sunday morning, I finished installing Larrys on my newly-built wheels. Dad would be at my front door at 5:00am, and I still had to swap out the drivetrain on the Pug, take a shower, and finish packing the last of my gear. Déjà vu.
Every year before the Arrowhead 135…an adventure race from International Falls, MN to Tower, MN on the Arrowhead Trail…I seem to get into the same predicament. I find myself rushing, at the last minute, to get all of my gear in order before we drive north 300 miles for the event. This is not the way to prepare for a 135-mile romp across the frozen landscape of northern Minnesota in February. After five years of participating in this event, one would think I’d be totally prepared for another race…that I’d know exactly what to wear…that I’d know exactly what to pack and where to pack it on the bike…that I’d have it down to a basic science. One would think.
Dad was there at 5:00, and I was ready to go…but with the usual extra baggage. My inability to prepare in a timely fashion forces me to bring twice as much gear as I could possible use and sort it out when I get to the hotel room. With my equipment is a to-do list…all of the things I still need to make or modify before the race. This usually involves sewing.
We arrived before noon for the gear check. Don, The Gear Nazi, was at his familiar post…checking racers’ gear to make sure it meets the minimum requirements (from the Arrowhead website):
- Minus-20F degrees sleeping bag or colder rating
- 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.
- 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 a minimum of three flashing red LEDS. Flashing red LED lights must stay on at all times.
- Whistle on string around neck to call for help
- 1-day of food at ALL times (3000 calories)
I had all of my gear together and ready to check, so this part of the process went smoothly. This is the 4th year using the same jar of peanut butter for my 3000-calorie emergency food ration. I should probably replace it one of these years.
After a late lunch and a pre-race meeting, Dad and I went back to the hotel room, so I could prep my bike and gear.
Clothing worn on the trail (from inside to outside)….
Feet: Surly 5” wool socks, plastic bags (my low-tech vapor barriers), Sock Guy knee-high wool socks, Fox River heavy wool socks, North Face -40 winter hikers, Boot Glove neoprene boot covers, Liberty Mountain lightweight gaiters
Legs: Mt. Borah Lycra chamois shorts, Craft winter tights, Race Face knickers
Torso: Ibex short-sleeve wool base layer, polypro long-sleeve shirt, mid-weight Icebreaker wool long-sleeve shirt, Lowe Alpine fleece jacket, XL Montane ultralight pull-over jacket
Head/neck: Mt. Borah balaclava, Gator neoprene face mask, Hans Rey Buff, Pearl Izumi synthetic skullcap
Hands: Warmlite vapor barrier gloves, synthetic liner gloves, Granite Gear Lutsen Mitts
Frameset: 18” Pugsley frame with 100mm-spaced Pug fork
Wheels: DT 240 hubs, Shimano QR skewers, extra-light 82mm Rolling Darryl rims, DT Revolution 14/17 spokes, brass nipples, ripstop nylon rim strips, Surly “light” tubes, Larry tires.
Drivetrain: Mr. Whirly crankset with 20t and 36t chainrings, 9-spd SRAM cassette (reduced to 7 cogs…15t - 34t), SRAM chain, DA barend shifters on Paul Thumbie mounts, XT rear derailleur, XT E-type front derailleur
Other: Odyssey Triple Trap pedals, Cane Creek S-3 headset, Titec J-bar, Avid BB7 mechanical disc brakes, Salsa Shaft seatpost, WTB Pure V saddle, SRAM 9.0 brake levers, Surly Constrictor seatpost collar, Salsa stem
Bags and rack: Revelate Designs frame bag, Gas Tank, handlebar harness, harness bag. Headland seatpost rack
Big Agnes -20 down bag, Thermorest Ridgerest pad, Equinox bivy, cheap adjustable butane lighter, Esbit stove and solid-fuel tabs, 500 ml titanium pot, Isotherm insulated bottles, Princeton Tec Push and Remix lights, Cateye 3-LED flashing red lights, reflective triangles, plastic whistle, that old jar o’ peanut butter
Firestarting kit (Light My Fire Firesteel, waterproof matches, alcohol, wax, lighter, cotton balls in petroleum jelly), first aid kit (pills, ointments, sundries), sewing kit, toilet paper, emergency blanket, bike tools and hardware bits, Leatherman, tubes, duct tape, electrical tape, zip ties, rope, compass, camera
Food and drink…
Gummi Bears, Slim Jims, Pringles, dried cherries, chocolate-covered raisins, smoked almonds, roasted and salted cashews, peanut butter cups, Ginsting Honey Stingers, Honey Stinger waffles, various energy gels, thick-cut bacon, 6-hour energy drinks, Redbull
XL REI fleece jacket, XXL Montane ultralight pull-over jacket, polypro liner gloves, Montane ultralight wind pants, Rox headband, fleece hat, Golite vapor barrier socks, Cannondale vest
I sewed a light mount on my handlebar harness bag, replaced the worn-out cords on my gaiters, cut out a piece of closed cell foam to add a little insulation under my saddle cover, replaced batteries in my lights, dialed in my air pressure (15 PSI front and rear), packed, unpacked, and repacked until I felt comfortable with all my equipment choices and their placement on the bike.
After a late dinner at a local Mexican restaurant, I laid out all my clothing, took a shower, and went to bed. I hadn’t slept for 30+ hours, so I was out as soon as my head hit the pillow.
I woke up shortly after 5:00am. Dad was awake, too. So, the lights went on, and I started the process of double-checking my gear, and donning some of my base layers. Dad went to McDonalds (opens at 5:00) to get us some breakfast. He returned shortly with some of Dirty Ron’s finest breakfast vittles. I’m not a breakfast person, so it’s hard for me to choke down those pancakes. But I knew I’d need the fuel on the trail, so I finished most of the the stack.
I filled my bottles with hot tap water, peed, and put on the last of my clothes. It didn’t take long before I was sweating profusely. I made a dash, with my bike, through the hall, down the stairs, and outside into the parking lot. The cold air felt so much better than that stuffy poolside hotel room. It was -10F outside, but there was no wind. I was comfortable without a face mask. I wore just a Mt. Borah balaclava on my head. A thickish – but not too wooly – beard kept the lower portion of my face protected from the cold. Warm Skin barrier cream protected the rest of my exposed face.
It was finally time to go. The Kerry Arena, the starting area, is a short ride…maybe, a mile…from our hotel. So I made my way over there with a few other bikers. This was the first ride on my new wheels and new drivetrain. Not smart. I know. But everything seemed to be working fine. We arrived, checked in, and, in a very short time, we were called to the starting line. That worked out nicely.
Before I had time for any pre-race jitters, the race started and we were moving down the trail. Bikers start in front of runners and skiers to ease a bit of the potential congestion. But the mass-start is always chaotic to some degree. So I find it’s best to just go with the flow for a while. It’s important to get into a proper groove in regards to exertion. Sweating too much will eventually compromise the insulating properties of your clothes, so it doesn’t make sense to try to stay with a group of riders that are moving faster than your optimal pace. That said, it’s hard not to act the part of the cat chasing the mouse when you see a rider ahead of you. I caught up to Lindsay Gauld, and, just like last year, we chatted while we rolled along with the lead group out in front of us.
After stopping at the first shelter (9 miles from the start) to drink water and let out a pound of tire pressure from each Larry, I started pedaling with a little more vigor. I had no intentions of riding in front that day, but I slowly moved into the front pack. The pace felt fine. I maintained the 2nd place position, behind Deathrider (Josh Peterson) until we hit the Highway 53 crossing about 18 miles from the start .
I stopped there to have a drink of water and talk to my dad for a minute. I didn’t need to ride with the animals out front, and a short stop of this nature doesn’t make or break my ride. It’s a long race that’s ultimately won at the checkpoints…it’s difficult for many of us to leave the warmth of those safe havens. Determined/prepared riders don’t stop for more than a minute or two. Most of us stop and linger while the leaders broaden the gap between us.
The ride from Hwy 53 to the Gateway Store (the first checkpoint…about 35 miles from the start) went by without etching many memories into my trail-numbed skull. Trail conditions varied from excellent to mediocre. I remember appreciating the fact that I was riding in the comfort of daylight. My clothes were damp from perspiration, but I was warm. I was able to drink water, but I wasn’t eating much. I had a few short conversations with Jacques, Lindsay, and Heather as we passed each other on several occasions. Everything else is a bit of a blur.
I was feeling pretty good when I reached the store, and I didn’t want to get sucked into the black hole of indoor comfort. So I resisted the urge to sit down or take off my balaclava. I guzzled a can of Monster energy drink, pulled ice chunks off my face, filled my water bottles, ate a couple of freshly-baked cookies, put some chemical heater packs in my mittens, talked with my Dad for a few minutes, and hit the trail again.
The trail gets hillier, and the average speed usually drops on this section of the Arrowhead. Conditions varied again, depending on how much snowmobile traffic the trail had seen. Fortunately, I could ride in the tracks of the lead riders much of the time. It’s usually slower and more energy-intensive if you have to bust your own trail.
Just as I was thinking about how well I was riding and how dry my clothes felt, I lost control of the front end on a loose downhill. It happened so fast. Before I know what was happening, I was completely buried in snow off the south side of the trail and my bike was on top of me. That’s what I get for thinking.
I pushed the bike off me, crawled out of my snow hole, brushed myself off, and took inventory of bike and body. Lights…check. Bags…check. I continued down the trail, a bit more cautious on the hills than I’d been previously.
My dad met me at one of the road crossings. I told him about my freestyle acrobatics back on the trail. He told me that he had the privilege of watching Charlie Farrow crash in a similar fashion. It would have been fun to see Charlie’s crash…or my own crash…or any and all of the other crashes that happened on the trail during the race. It has to be entertaining to watch a rider on a 50-60 pound bike, or a skier with a heavy sled, careening out-of-control as he struggles against the forces of gravity and the absence of adequate traction.
I didn’t see any other riders until I caught up with Lindsay and Jacques a few miles out from Melgeorge’s Resort…the 70-mile checkpoint. They were being photographed by one of the snowmobilers on the trail. I forget, sometimes, that we are anomalies out there.
My dad was waiting for me when I finished crossing Elephant Lake at the resort. It’s always nice to see a familiar face at the end of that section and to know that hot food and drink are just minutes away. It was still light out, but the sun was ready to duck behind the trees. I was pretty sure I’d be riding the rest of the trail in the dark. I’ve done that more often than not. It wasn’t a concern.
The checkpoint cabin is always warm and bright, and the race volunteers are so good at making us comfortable. Before I had my boots off, someone was preparing a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of soup for me. And Mary Pramann grabbed my pile of wet clothes and put them in the dryer. Sitting down to a hot meal after a long ride on a cold day is heavenly. Putting on warm, dry clothes feels luxurious. I can’t begin to tell you how much that kind of top-notch treatment is appreciated by all of us.
Jacques, Lindsay, and I ate, drank, and chatted while our clothes dried. Jacques told us about his experiences riding the Iditarod Trail Invitational. The thought of participating in that event intrigues me…and terrifies me. Riding 350 miles to McGrath (or 1100 miles to Nome) through Alaskan terrain is certainly a different game than the Arrowhead.
An hour quickly passed, and Jacques was out the door behind Heather. Lindsay followed him 20 minutes later. I took my sweet time and departed 20 minutes after Lindsay. Other riders were arriving, and the cabin was filling up quickly. It was a good time for me to depart.
It was immediately apparent that there would be no ambient moonlight to help me navigate the hilliest section of the trail. I’d have to rely on my headlights more than ever. I brought a Princeton Tec Push (mounted on my bar) and a Princeton Tec Remix (worn on my head). After a few minutes riding in the cold darkness, I was already second-guessing my decision not to bring the more-powerful and longer-lasting Princeton Tec Apex Pro…which I’d brought to the hotel, but decided not to pack on the bike. Published burn times for my lights greatly exceeded my anticipated needs, but those numbers don’t factor in the bitter cold temperatures I’d experience on the trail. And I neglected to install longer-lasting, less-cold-sensitive lithium batteries. I was using alkaline AAA batteries in all my lights…and, to top it all off, I failed to pack any spares. Rookie mistakes.
Paranoid that I’d run out of battery power, I used my lights sparingly. I used only the Remix headlamp (longest burn time) on the climbs and level sections of trail. The Push was turned on (low setting) when I was bombing down hills.
For many hours, I rode the somewhat-familiar trails I’d conquered 4 times previously. I’ve never seen the whole trail during daylight hours, so I’m rarely aware of my exact location. That’s good and bad for the same reason: I never really know how much further I have to go before I get to the next checkpoint. Are there 6 or 16 more hills? Am I 30 minutes or 2 hours from the end? Not knowing is probably better.
The lack of moonlight, coupled with an absence of city-generated light pollution and nonexistent cloud cover, created the perfect environment for stargazing. Some of my favorite memories of this race come from the moments when I wasn’t racing at all. Several times, I stopped, shut off all my lights, and looked up into the heavens. The opportunities to take in the richness of the star-filled sky, accompanied by subtle displays of northern lights…aurora borealis, were too good to pass up. The temperatures ranged from -10F to -25F for me during the 2nd half of my deep-freeze frolic, but there was no perceivable wind. My clothing was pretty dry, and I was eating well. My internal furnace was doing its job, and I was warm from head to toe. I was comfortable in my environment, so I didn’t feel obligated to ride non-stop just to create heat. That doesn’t happen every year. I attribute my good fortune to some solid choices…clothing, equipment, food, level of exertion…and a bit of luck.
My ride went pretty well for 7 hours. Then my poor decisions, regarding light/battery choices, started to catch up with me. My batteries were growing weary of the cold, and both lights were starting to flicker a bit. The Push would cut out if I used the steady beam for more than a few minutes at a time, so I started to rely on the comparatively-efficient Remix more. On the big downhills, I’d use the flash mode of the Push. This mode conserved some battery juice. Psychedelic and nauseating…especially when you throw in the reflectivity of the ample snow cover and the never-ending corduroy textures created by the tracks of the snow machines. At times, I rode with my eyes half-closed to repel some of the flicker. It was a less-than-ideal situation. But trippy, spooky light was better than no light when speeds increased to double digits. I just hoped that I’d have light until the end of the ride.
The descent of Wakemup Hill punctuates the long hilly section of the race and tells me that the Crescent Bar, our 3rd checkpoint, is not far away. My pace always picks up a bit at this point, because I know that temporary sanctuary is nearby.
I pulled into the parking lot of the Crescent around 1:30am…just as Lindsay was leaving for his final push to the finish line. I said, “have fun”. We both laughed a little, because we know that the last leg of this journey is anything but fun. It is a long, flat 25-mile section where one churns out monotonous mile after monotonous mile. More on that later.
My dad was waiting for me in the parking lot. It’s always uplifting to see him on the course. I never take his morale support for granted, and I’m really glad he is part of my race each year. We only live an hour apart, but our busy lives don’t allow us to get together enough. The drive from Minneapolis to the race and back is a good opportunity for us to catch up. I owe a lot of my personality traits…some good, some less so…to him. My willingness to try new things and face adversity definitely comes from his guidance and influence throughout my life. Thanks again, Dad.
I was feeling pretty good when I rolled in, so my original plan was to fill up with water and immediately set out on the trail again. But the thought of sitting for a spell and enjoying a cup of hot coffee got the best of me. My 25-minute break seemed to be over in an instant. I wanted to stay longer, but it was time to face the looming trail doldrums that stood ahead of me.
The air seemed to have more of a bite in it when I exited the bar. I had ridden to that point without a face mask, so I proceeded in the same fashion. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that I needed to add some clothing to my multi-layer mix. My face was freezing, and my core wasn’t heating up. So, I stopped and added a neoprene face mask and an ultralight jacket. That was the right call. I warmed up instantly as I resumed my spin toward to the finish line at the Fortune Bay Casino in Tower.
My goal on the last stretch is simply to stay awake, ride in the tracks of previous riders as much as possible, and try to think of anything but riding. This is where I become acutely aware that there are never enough positions on a handlebar to adequately provide relief from the long grind in the saddle. Some guys use aero bars. This is the section where they would really come into play. Shoulders and neck ache, ass hurts. Ibuprofen in the bloodstream and a dollop or two of lanolin on the underbits dull the pain, but they don’t eliminate it. Ok…enough whining.
One unintentional benefit of my extended stay at the Crescent was the warming of my headlamp batteries and a noticeable increase of headlamp brightness. Unfortunately, my cold-addled brain didn’t think of bringing the Push inside to thaw those batteries a bit, too.
I used the Remix, solely, until it faded and finally gave out completely 10 miles down the trail. At that point, my only light source, other than my red blinky lights, was the Push in disco mode. I had about 15 miles of moderate-condition trail left. Most of the bike tracks from previous riders had been erased by the crew patrolling the course on snowmobiles. That’s just the way it goes.
An hour later, the Push died abruptly. I knew my ride would be a little more difficult, but I wouldn’t have to worry about any fast descents. I accepted my fate, and fished out my 2-red-LED Skully coin-cell blinky light and installed that on the handlebar. I needed all the help I could get.
The next 7-8 miles were ridden by the minimal glow of my red LEDs. Without them, I pinball'd off the snowbanks lining the trail. With them, I did the same…but with less frequency. I smiled to myself when I realized how pathetic and comical my situation was. I wasn’t in much danger of collapsing and dying on the trail, but my simple lapses of judgment when choosing my lighting provisions was biting me in the ass big-time.
I started to get a little worried as I got closer to the casino, because this is the most unfamiliar part of the trail to me. I’ve only seen it once…in the dark…last year. Without white lights, there was a strong possibility that I’d miss the reflective trail markers that guide us in to the final destination….the holy grail of completion.
I crossed County Hwy 77, which seemed familiar. But I wasn’t 100% certain that I was still on-course. I continued on, hoping my red flashers would illuminate those Arrowhead race markers that signify the turn to the casino. At some point, I turned onto a narrow road that I thought was the trail. After a few minutes, I lost all confidence in my route choice. So I turned around and found my way back to – and across – Hwy 77. I rode until I came back to a large wooden trail sign. The dim light of my Skully light, removed from my handlebar, was just enough for me to read the sign. I had been on the right trail…at least up to Hwy 77. So, I headed back to the highway.
It suddenly occurred to me that I had neglected to consider one tactical possibility: removing the AAA batteries from my red Cateye flashers (There are 2 batteries in each…so I had 4 total.) and installing them in my headlamp, which requires 3 batteries. That would give me the Skully as a red taillight, and a white headlight that I hoped could get me to the finish area. The red flashers don’t draw a lot of power, so I suspected there was a good chance that their batteries hadn’t been drained much. But the temperature was hovering around -25F at that point. Those batteries were not operating in ideal conditions. It was worth a try.
My fingers were starting to chill, so I worked quickly to pop off the flasher lenses and remove the batteries with the mini Leatherman (Squirt-P4) that travels through this world with me 99% of the time. The battery hatch of the Remix opened easily. I dumped the batteries out and put them in my pocket to warm them up…as a possible last resort. Then I tried to stuff the flasher batteries into the headlamp. I had to work by the red glow of the Skully to determine the proper orientation of the battery poles in the headlamp. I dropped one battery trying to install it. Then I dropped another. Stupid, cold, sausage fingers. I acknowledged that I was starting to fall apart a bit. I didn’t panic. Instead, I made a concerted effort to get my act back together. I removed the Skully from the handlebar again, so I could find my batteries in the snow. They were located quickly. I was making progress. And, fortunately, my next focused attempt at battery installation yielded positive results. I had light. And it was good.
I quickly resumed forward progress with my newly-revived headlamp. It wasn’t long before I came to the markers that lined the correct path. I was really pleased to know I was on-track.
At last, a mellow incline led to the oh-so-welcome finish line. I crossed the line, at 6:07am…23 hours and 7 minutes after leaving the starting line, without much gusto. My fuel tank was on “E”. I was tired but happy.
I ended up in 11th place. 121 started, 59 finished. I’m pretty happy with my race. It wasn’t my fastest time. Not even close. But I enjoyed some aspects of the ride…stopping to smell the frozen flowers…more than I had in previous years. Yes, this is a race. And, by definition, a race does focus on finishing times and placement in the field. Part of me always wants to finish faster and/or closer to the top of the field. But I still tend to value the journey much more than the final numbers at the destination. I suspect that’s the case for the vast majority of participants who come out to play each year. This is a unique chance to dig deep, work through the pain, and get as far down the trail as one can. I’m glad that I have an opportunity to try again next year.
Hats off to… Jeff Oatley (1st place…2nd year in a row) and Heather Best (8th place…shattered the women’s record), the husband and wife dynamic duo from Alaska, who schooled us. John Storkamp, the winner of the foot race for the 3rd time. Matt Maxwell, Jeremy Kershaw, and Tim Roe who received the ‘Arrowhead a Trois’ award for completing the race in all 3 formats…bike, ski, and run. And to all the participants who pushed their personal limits and made this another successful competition.
Thank you Dave and Mary Pramann for putting on a great event. Bravo. And I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate the work of all the volunteers who keep us alive out there. Thank you for giving us your best.