After finishing the Arrowhead 135 last year, I’m told I confidently stated that under no circumstances would I do it again. But that’s alright, sometimes I’m wrong. The 16th annual Arrowhead Ultra 135 was Jan 27th to 29th, 2020. For those newcomers out there, this is a 135-mile (217km) winter race that participants can attempt on foot, ski or bike and must complete within 60 hours. The weather, hills and head-games all contribute to a finishing rate that hovers around 50%. Surly hosts the third and final checkpoint on the course, and typically someone from our team participates in the race. This year, that was once again me. Here’s how it went.
Saturday afternoon, I reach International Falls for the mandatory pre-race gear check before heading to the hotel. Insulated mittens, hand warmers and a health insurance card are new additions to the check-list this year. After 2019’s arctic blast brought an impressive stay in the negatives, these changes seem fair to me. As I collect my swag bag I’m asked if I was a finisher last year. Why yes, yes I was. Due to the low finishing rate, I’m given another finisher’s patch. I stare at it for probably too long before putting it into my bag. I don’t think I’ve yet found a way to describe riding in -30F (-34C) weather for such a long period of time. I’m certain this year will be much easier.
Sunday, I take some extra time repacking my bike before getting out on a shakedown ride. The trail is soft in some areas, but mostly packed and mellow. After some minor brake adjustments, I’m ready. There’s not much left to do before heading to the pre-race meeting. The meeting is largely for clarifying rules and answering any questions. A volunteer medic on hand reminds us of the risks of riding in the cold, including a description of frostbite on the eye of a participant from last year. Frostbite on your eyes? I didn’t know such a thing was possible. Before we part ways for the night, race directors Ken and Jackie ask the WTF (Women, Trans, Fem) participants to get together for a photo. There are superhuman athletes in this bunch. I’m hoping no one asks me to arm wrestle.
WTF participants with Jackie, race director
(Photo by Jesse Ramsey)
Monday it’s still dark as I make my way to the start line. There’s not much time to spare after I check in. I quickly position myself toward the tail end of the mass of cyclists. It’s going to be a beautiful day. The fireworks explode and we take off, quickly gravitating toward the packed line at the edge of the trail. It’s a long, winding line of cyclists cruising toward a sunrise.
Amy Broadmore Photography
Almost immediately my seatpost begins to slip. It’s minor, but I notice it and know I’ll be stopping soon. I feel out my tire pressure and mentally check through the rest of the bike to note any other changes I need to make when I stop. After a mile or two I hear a light buzz from my seatbag making contact with my tire. Time to stop. With multi-tool at the ready, this only takes a moment and soon I’m sprinting back to catch my previous position. I catch on behind the (mostly) single-speed (mostly) gentlemen of Back of the Pack Racing and settle into a casual, snack-friendly pace. It’s sunny and beautiful all morning.
Photo: Markman Outdoor Photography
I reach Gateway a little after noon and stick around long enough for a proper bathroom break and a tray of mini-corndogs. I’m feeling good. The hills don’t seem as large as last year. I leapfrog with a few familiar faces and keep a steady pace. A few miles out from Elephant Lake, a snow groomer catches me. The once-packed singletrack is completely erased, all evidence of previous riders disappears. A clean slate of soft even snow spreads like pavement ahead of me. I test it out with a sigh and a grumble. Soft. It’s a slow handful of miles. I alternate between the exposed edge that escaped the snow machines’ first pass, and the new smooth course, waiting for the cold to set in enough to firm things up. It never quite gets there.
I reach Melgeorge around 7:30 p.m. and immediately head for a costume change. Rather than waiting for clothing to dry, I’ve brought a spare set of base layers and extra contacts. Luxury. I stick with the same layering strategy but a thicker buff and a wool hat. Aside from a tight shoulder, I’m feeling great. I toy with the idea of stepping into a cabin for a brief yoga session, maybe a quick half-hour snooze, but my legs are antsy. I decide to take in some food and get back out there.
Grilled cheese and soup. I knew they were coming and they’re just what I needed. I toe the edge of the kitchen to ask about chocolate milk and am greeted with a friendly smile and hug. “I’m adopting you as my daughter, she always wants chocolate milk.” The refills are seemingly endless. We’re instantly family, which is the delightful curse of this race. Hours will pass like minutes, with new folks appearing and new stories to trade. I don’t feel too much in the way of urgency. I’m savoring the cozy scene before heading into what I know will be a long solo stretch through the night.
Three off us take off from the cabin around the same time. My challenge, as always in the darkness, is going to be eating. I make sure to pause for significant bites into my snack bag and keep the soft flask in my vest pocket topped with hot water. I leapfrog a bit with the other two riders, taking turns feeling out the best line. There are several bivvies dotting the edge of the trail and all of the shelters I pass are occupied, but I’m not tempted. The thought of unpacking and repacking my sleeping gear is enough motivation to keep my legs spinning. My light leaves only a tunnel ahead.
At mile 100 a skier catches up with me. We congratulate each other on the milestone over a brief snack stop and part ways. Hills. Snow and hills. It should be exhausting, and it is. Overall my legs are feeling strong but it doesn’t last. Fatigue begins to creep its way over me. At first, it’s subtle. I walk a hill I know I could have ridden. I drop my thermos when I pick it up for a sip. I focus on the footprints ahead of mine, some from humans, some from wolves. I hike another hill and I forget about eating. Shadows begin to make creatures appear in the trees. Or are they real? As the sky begins to lighten, I’m coming to terms with the fact that I haven’t eaten enough. I’m beginning to fade. Shadowy mirages form just ahead. I see someone waiting at the next corner. No, I don’t. Is that a pony? A shed? No. But that one is a raccoon. No, it’s not. Snow, of course, snow. I’m beginning to hallucinate, but the ability to acknowledge it doesn’t prevent it from happening. No matter, the Surly checkpoint is only a mile or two ahead, maybe three. A snowmobile approaches and asks if I want to know how many miles to Surly. “It’s gotta be only two,” I respond. Six. I let out a string of cuss words followed by an immediate apology. “I’m doing great, just tired.” I walk the next hill while shoving a protein bar into my mouth. I don’t want to eat it. Nothing sounds appealing. I’ve reached Bonk City, population one.
There’s a series of smaller hills and some turns before reaching the Surly checkpoint. I continue more slowly than I’d like and eventually I hear something. Not my tires pressing into the snow, or a groan emitting from my mouth, it’s a horn from the Surly tent. I’m close. I round the last bend and fireworks start to go off. It’s 8 a.m. and time for breakfast.
Amy Broadmore Photography
Amy Broadmore Photography
Amy Broadmore Photography
I know I can’t leave until I have some food in me, but it takes a bit to convince my stomach that it’s a sound plan. I feel like I’m functioning in slow motion. I want to finish before sundown, and I know I need to keep moving, but I’m patient with myself. I spend time by the fire catching up with now familiar friends from the trail. I refill with water and savor one last warm-up before taking off toward the final climb.
Last year, I had completed this stretch very late at night. I’m now able to take in the full view around me, the final descent, the direct shot toward Fortune Bay. Snowmobile traffic and groomer work have left no premium singletrack line to finish on. This makes it easier to give into stopping more than I need to, tune in my tire pressure, keep up the snack intake and enjoy some of the final views. I point my bike back and forth between both sides of the trail, alternating between lines. It’s a slow, wonderful wander toward the finish.
After 31:35 hours, I cross the finish line as the 44th finisher. Spirits are high. I’m ready to stand for too long in a hotel shower and put on clean socks. I make my way inside and I’m told that I’m the third female finisher.
Would you look at that? Hold for applause.
Third place is quite something and I feel proud and excited with this finish, but I have to admit that what this really emphasized to me is that more WTF folks need to come out for this event. If I can land a third spot fueled on party-supplies with no real competitive drive, there’s certainly room for some fast folks to come set some new records. If you’ve been keeping this event on the backburner, I hope you’ll consider it. Don’t do it for me. Do it for the grilled cheese.
As for me, will I do it again? Probably not, but who knows, there’s always next year.
*denotes mandatory gear requirement
Surly Ice Cream Truck
Whisky No. 9 Handlebar
Paul Klamper Disc Brakes
Paul Love Levers with Sticky Fingers brake lever covers
Whisky No. 9 100w Rim
Surly Bud and Lou Tires
Xpedo Spry pedals
WTB Koda Saddle
Revelate Designs/Surly Frame bag
Three toes threadworks top tube bag
Revelate Designs Viscacha Seat Bag
2 Revelate Mountain Feedbags
4 Problem Solvers Bow Tie Strap Anchors
2 Revelate Designs Washboard Utility Straps
2 Black Diamond Ski Straps
2 Surly Whip Lash Straps
2 Outdoor Research Water Bottle Parkas*
2 32oz GSI Outdoors MicroLite Thermos*
Big Agnes Crosho UL sleeping bag*
Black Diamond Twilight Bivy*
Therm-A-Rest Z-Lite Sol pad*
SealLine drybag w/ duplicate baselayers
2 Surly Junk Straps
Nite Rider Lumina Micro 650
Light & Motion Stella 500 Headlight
3 Planet Bike LED Super Flash Taillights*
Lithium AAA batteries
Esbit Ti Pot*
Esbit Fuel Cubes x16* two spares
HydraPak Stow 500ml soft flask
Topeak Mountain Morph frame pump
Park Folding Chaintool
Note of mileage between shelters
Plastic whistle on string*
Adhesive body/toe warmers*
Swrve Windstopper Belgian Cap
Surly Wool hat
Craft Shelter Glove
Smartwool PhD Insulated Training Glove
Outdoor Research Adrenaline Gloves
Outdoor Research Alti Mitts*
Thin Neck Buff
Surly Neck Gaiter
Smartwool Sports bra
Craft Cool Mesh Super Light Sleeveless baselayer
2 Surly Raglans
Patagonia Nano puff vest
Midweight chamois knicker
Craft Ventair Xwind pant
45Nrth Tall Wool Sock
Salomon Climatherm HD boots
Shower's Pass jacket
Skippy Natural Creamy Peanut Butter*
2 Justin’s Almond Butter packets
Peanut butter/Oatmeal bites with chia seeds, protein powder, maple syrup
Salami rolls with cream cheese and pickles
Scratch Labs Energy Chews
Sour Patch Kids
Cliff Caffeinated Shot Blocks
Pearson’s nut roll
Oatmeal Cream Pies
Peanut butter pretzels
Loucks Dark Chocolate Sesame Snaps
Peanut Butter Snickers
Electrolyte Salt Tablets