Sometimes Mother Nature throws you a pair of Aces and you go all in. The weather and trail conditions at this year’s Arrowhead Ultra were ideal and set the stage for new course records. Temperatures in the past have ranged from -35 degrees F to above freezing, both of which create their own challenges. Temperatures at the start of this year’s race were in the mid-teens and fluctuated less than 10 degrees during the event. These conditions improved most rider’s times and overall finish rates.
Early Sunday morning my oldest brother Mike, his son Patrick, and I packed up the van and headed north from Minneapolis to International Falls for the 13th Annual Arrowhead Ultra race. This is a self-supported 135-mile race that follows the Arrowhead trail from International Falls to Tower, Minnesota. We needed to arrive by 2:00 PM for a mandatory gear check and race meeting on Sunday. The post meeting pasta feed is always a good time to reconnect with friends from past AH races and speculate on how the conditions and weather will fare on race day. After dinner, we had a couple cold ones back at our room and finalized packing all our gear on our bikes.
Photo Credit Jason Johnson
The alarm was set for 5:40 AM which allowed time to eat breakfast, dress, load extra gear into the van and ride the 1/2 mile to the race start for check in. I quickly loaded up on bacon, eggs and waffles at the complimentary breakfast in the hotel lobby. The morning is always a little hectic and I got to the start line with just a couple minutes to spare. Mike and Patrick rolled up just as the fireworks kicked off the start of the race.
The race was fast right from the beginning due to the firm snow conditions. The week prior we had a warm spell that had converted the snow pack to hard pack. I settled in behind some riders who were going at a pace that felt fast but conservative. My previous ultra-experiences have taught me it is better to conserve than to blow up later in the race. With the fast conditions the miles went by quickly, and before I expected it the turn off to Gateway appeared. The checkpoints allow me to take a physical and mental break from riding. I rehydrated with Gatorade and Red Bull, ate a sandwich and shared some cookies with some other racers. After about a 20-minute rest I was back on the bike heading to Melgeorge Resort on Elephant Lake.
Elephant lake crossing
This section of the course starts to get into some hills - most of which were rideable. A light snow continued throughout the ride, but had not accumulated much. Even with the fresh snow and hills, the course conditions continued to be fast and smooth. Feeling good, I made a point to pay attention to forest scenery on this mild winter day. The solitude of the Arrowhead trail is one reason I continue to come back year after year.
Like the last checkpoint, the turnoff to Melgeorge came much quicker than expected and soon I was riding across Elephant lake with a couple other riders I had caught. The Melgeorge check point is stationed inside one of the resort’s cabins and it is very cozy. The volunteers were awesome and soon had hot soup, a grilled cheese, and some coffee for me as I melted into a particularly comfortable couch. This checkpoint sometimes can be a challenge to leave, but since it was still light out, I wanted to get through some of the bigger hills during the day.
The third leg of the AH is always the most difficult for me. It is hilly and usually dark for this section. This year I was able to knock off a couple hours before the sun set which was a first for me on the bike. The trail conditions started to get a little softer now, and the fresh snow was starting to accumulate. My tires started to get a little squirrelly on the climbs and descents so I stopped and lowered my tire pressure. Most of this 40-mile section I rode solo, but I didn't mind since my spirits were still high due to the progress I had made in less than 12 hours. Shortly after dark, I took a short break at one of the trail side shelters I bivied at in 2006. It is interesting to reflect on how different I felt that year compared to this year. In 2006 I was completely spent and didn't think I could finish. It was -15 degrees which was about 40 degrees colder than this year. After a quick snack and some fluids, I happily rolled on looking forward to seeing my coworkers at my favorite checkpoint #3.
Surly check point. Photo credit Jason Johnson
I knew I was getting closer to the last checkpoint where Surly had the Teepee setup along with a fire and some hot beverages. As I approached I heard the call "rider," along with some shouts and bell ringing. This is the welcome they give all participants. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the scene as they offered me a stiff shot. I have never been known to turn down a whiskey, so I took a pull off the bottle and proceeded to make an Irish coffee. They informed me I was the first racer to indulge in the distilled beverages. The warm teepee was calling my name, so I found a chair by the wood burning stove to warm up and sip my hot beverage. As I sat by the stove, I remembered I had a baggie of bacon in my pocket so I tossed it on the stove. Treebeard was rocking the new Stones album and I knew I would be hanging out for a while.
The whiskey was working its magic, so I downed some IBs and eventually decided to head for the finish line. The crew gave me a spectacular fireworks sendoff as I rolled toward the final 25 miles of the course.
Leaving Surly check point
The last section of the course was starting to get a little softer as snow slowly started to accumulate. I was still feeling relatively good and enjoying the race. Other than one steep hill the rest of the course is flat. The only pain that was significant was in my shoulders and neck. Having multiple hand positions on the Moloko prototype bars was beneficial for pain relief. My pace started to slow as I approached the last 10 miles. Eventually I started to see the glow of the Casino and knew I was close to the finish line. After crossing the finish and completing the final gear check, I made my way to the hospitality room for some food and beverages. My place was 19th overall with a time of 18 hours and 11 minutes which was 11 hours faster that my best time.
Before and after AH135.
Zeigle Scout badges to the other Zeigle finishers. Photo Credit Jason Johnson
My Clothing choices were like past years. The base layer consisted of Surly wool raglan top, Ibex wool shorts and Surly tall wool socks. I added a Patagonia R1 fleece for my insulation layer and a Patagonia breathable shell for my outer layer. This system was a little warmer an I needed, but keep me dry from the light snow that fell during most of the race. Craft storm tights and Vasque Lost 40 winter boots covered my legs and feet. I wore 45NRTH Sturmfist 4 finger gloves at the start and packed a 2nd pair of Toko Arctic gloves in my seat bag as a backup. I also packed an extra pair of wool socks, a wind vest and a down vest in case I had any extended stops. This set up worked great for the conditions and I only changed gloves a couple times due to temperature fluctuations.
The required gear list is extensive. My stove, fuel, pot and bivouac were packed in my Revelate seat bag. Emergency calories (jar of peanut butter), bikes tools, spare tube and headlight were loaded into the bottom of my Surly frame bag. I packed my race food in a Mustache feed bag, frame bag and my jacket pockets. Two loop style junk straps were used to secure my -25-degree F sleeping bag to the underside of the Moloko bars. My insulated sleeping pad was attached to the top of my seat bag with two junk straps looped over the top of each end. This was my leanest and most secure setup I have used at the AH and it worked flawlessly. The Moloko bars allowed me to go rackless and still maintain multiple hand positions. I carried two 1 liter bottles of water with insulated covers. One mounted on the fork blade with a Salsa Anything cage and the other to my stem and bar using an Outdoor Research insulated bottle cover that I modified with webbing and telco straps. This setup allowed me to keep my refuel breaks short. Extra gear for emergencies included: Pocket knife, zip ties, duct tape, bandana, neck gator, IBs, Dermatone and toilet paper
The weather in northern Minnesota is unpredictable and can change quickly. I usually lean toward having a bike that can handle all conditions rather than hoping for ideal conditions. The obvious bike choice was the Ice Cream Truck. The forecast called for three to five inches of snow so I opted for wide and aggressive tires (Bud and Lou). My friend Ben Witt lent me a set of wheels with DT hubs and #9 whiskey 100mm rims. The Bud and Lou tires set up easily tubeless. Drivetrain consisted of GX 1x 11 paired with Surly OD crank and Surly stainless narrow wide 28t chainring. One Paul Klamper on the rear wheel was all I needed for brakes.
Two peanut butter, honey and bacon sandwiches, two salami and Swiss cheese sandwiches, 2 packs of cherry cola Honey Stinger chews, two bags of trail mix(chocolate/almonds/cashews and almonds/dried fruit), chopped bacon, bag of crushed pretzels and Frito corn chips, beef jerky, Nutter Butter and Pecan (Nick) Sande cookies and some fruit leathers. For liquids, I filled one of my liter bottles with warm water and the other with diluted energy drink.
Thanks to Ken and Jackie Krueger and all the other volunteers who make the AH135 one of the best Ultra events in the US. Special thanks to the Surliest crew on the course: Ben, Thor, Jeff, Steven, Jesse and Joel.