Bikes. Parts. Chaos.

Back in September Zeigle bopped over to my desk snapping his finger guns with his classic mischievous smirk on his face. I knew I was in for it.

Z: I think I’m gonna volunteer for the Arrowhead this year.

A: You should.

Z: Cool, so you wanna race it?

A: What?

Z: You have 60 hours to finish! You could make it a party. Have a fire, sleep out! We’ll have whisky for you at the Surly tent!

A: Oh man… Give me a week to think about it

Z: (snaps finger guns and backs away to his desk)

 

The Arrowhead 135 is a winter ultra across Northern Minnesota in which participants can choose to traverse 135 miles of snowmobile trail by bike, ski or foot. This is typically the coldest time of the year in MN, and as such both bodies and equipment can take quite a beating. Now in its 15th year, the Arrowhead Ultra 135 has the reputation of being one of the 50 toughest races in the world. The average finishing rate hovers close to 50%, less for rookies like myself. So sure. Let’s give it a go.

 

I should note that I have no motivation in me to race. Long solo arduous miles I’m into, but race? Not so much. But Northern MN sure is beautiful, and I do appreciate a good winter campout. So why not. I sent in my application and all too soon received the official invitation.

 

 

Minneapolis had a warm few weeks leading up to the event. It was easy enough to pack up my bike and campout, but eyeing a forecast of -25F and testing out layer combos in the 30’s didn’t provide the same experience. As a result, I had planned to head up to International Falls a few days early for some final layering checks and to test out the local cheeseburger scene.  

 

I got out for some nice shorter spins both Saturday after gear check and Sunday morning. My layers were great, no adjustments there. Bike felt awesome, too. Monday’s weather was looking like a high of zero and a low of -20F with some fresh snowfall.  

 

Knowing the temperatures predicted, I didn’t set any rules for myself about staying only a certain amount of time in rest stops or foregoing sleep. I wanted to just commit to listening to how my body was reacting and make the most of the experience. The only time I was shooting for was a good time, and that was rule number one. Make it fun. Rule number two was zero frostbite. Frostbite would counter rule number one.   

 

 

Morning of the event I made some hotel room breakfast tacos and packed my food into my frame bags. Lastly, I checked out my Spot tracker. Most trips, I prefer to fall off the radar, but this time I opted for a little techno box and rented one but there were some hiccups from the start. As much as I mashed the button, I was getting no life out of it. Huh. I was prepared to shrug it off and go on sans tracking, but after some additional meddling and phone calls for support, a flash appeared. Chalking it up to cold weather, I made my way to the bike line up, hoping it would stay alive. Time for some fireworks and a bike cruise.  

 

The third 6 is silent...

 

Watching the sun come up from a saddle view is always a special thing to me and doing so with a large group of other folks made it all the more enjoyable. Crisp air and pastels all over the place. I was pretty stoked to be enjoying it between fistfuls of breakfast gummy bears, too. It became evident my glasses weren’t going to be so useful for the day. They’d skipped straight from fogging to immediately icing over. After alternating between sunnies and my normal glasses for a while through defrosting cycles, I gave up on both pairs all together and rode through sunny fuzzy blindness for the morning.   

 

At the Gateway store, I found some familiar faces in varying states of anguish. Frostbite. Layering concerns. Folks feeling the effects of not eating enough. People were beginning to drop. I surveyed the fried food scene, settled into some mini corn-dogs and Gatorade and took my sweet time filling up my water bottles. I was feeling good. Surly-fam Patrick was on the scene, waiting for his dad, Mike, to roll in. He noted that he had an extra bunk if I needed it at Melgeorge. Nice! Knowing the cold may have a harsh effect during these miles, I had started the day keeping an open mind on a decision to pedal through the night or get in a few hours’ sleep. We’ll see what I needed when I got there. I declined offers to salvage food from folks who were pulling from the race, feeling sound in my supplies and energy levels, and made my exit.  

 

Photo by Burgess Eberhardt

 

After some light leapfrogging, I settled into a long solo stretch for a few hours. The sun was making its way down as another rider, Ahti, came up behind me and we made our way towards MelGeorge together. My knees were starting to feel the cold and hill combo and I began walking more than I wanted to, focusing on the long game and knowing if I destroyed them before the half way point I’d be unlikely to finish. The last five miles seemed to be some of the longest I have ever ridden. Having spent much of the day with my glasses in my pocket, my eyes were worn out from both straining to find a clean line in the snow and from the fresh flakes coming down. Crossing Elephant Lake, I was alternating between one eye at a time, following Ahti’s blinking light in front of me.  

 

Arriving at MelGeorge meant piles of food, some good laughs and the best hot chocolate I’d ever tasted. I took Patrick up on his cabin offer and placed my wet gear along a floorboard heater and tucked in for some sleep. I set a few alarms and snoozed through all of them, convincing myself to wait to ride in the daylight. As the sun began to peek up, I was putting the final touches on readying my things. My gloves hadn’t dried and my neck gator was mostly damp. I’d intended on running the same layering combination on my hands from the previous day, but that was not a sound choice now. I swapped to my mitten shell and a thicker wool liner glove instead, wrapped fresh adhesive warmers to my batteries and cell phone and filled my bottles with boiling water. Mike was bowing out due to shoulder injuries from a good crash the day before. As I prepared to leave he warned me to take it easy on some of the upcoming descents and gave me some of his face tape. Weather was looking like a high of -15F and a low of -26F.  

 

The stories I had heard about this leg towards the Surly checkpoint being hilly and torturous had magnified themselves in my head. I was pleased to find some long mellow stretches between some beautiful climbs, but Mike was right about the descents. The snow was showcasing some body imprints and squirrely wheels. I rode the brakes more than necessary and chose lines cautiously, taking advantage of spilt Peanut M&Ms and Shot Blocks scattered on the trail.  

 

As I inched my way towards Surly my knees began to light up again and my shifter was starting to stick bringing me down to two useable gears. I closed in on a rider in front of me, Gavin on his Ice Cream Truck, who I’d ridden with a bit the previous day. “We’re already 15 miles in from the last checkpoint” he told me, “and it’s about 40 total to Surly, I added. “Oh I wish you wouldn’t have told me that…” Whoops. I kept my eyes peeled for shelters, knowing distances between each of them and getting excited as they each passed by. As slow as my legs were feeling, it was a gorgeous and clear day. I was thankful to be taken in the scene during the daylight and felt great about my choice. I sprinkled in some more walking in hopes of keeping my knees alive and I kept my ears open, hoping to hear Surly folks around the next corner, or Deerboy peeking out from the tree edge. During my walking segments, I picked up scattered wrappers and hand warmers. Far too soon, I started dreaming of the Hostess pie I planned to heat up on the Surly fire. Dreaming of food was a sure sign that I hadn’t eaten enough, but stubbornly I pressed on rather than pulling over. Soon enough I saw Zeigle on the side of the trail and he assured me the checkpoint was only ten or so minutes ahead and Gavin was already there. I was really feeling the effects of burning through the day’s food intake.  

 

Photo by Burgess Eberhardt

Recharged with whisky and laughs with the Surly team, I stuck around the tent long enough for my layers to all dry out, filled my belly and defrosted my bottles. As Gavin and I prepared to head out, runners were taking our place in the tent. Temperature was dropping even more. I was feeling warm and ready, but nervous about how much temperature drop we’d be experiencing on the way to the finish. One more big hill and then flat towards the finish, we’re told.   

 

Immediately upon leaving Surly it was evident my knees were done. Heating them up in the tent and then pushing up a cold climb wasn’t what they needed. You get 60 hours, I reminded myself. I hung on to Gavin’s tail light for a while and then watched him take off on the false flat of drifting snow. At this point my shifter called the quits entirely and I was stuck in a steeper gear than I would have wanted. Though my hands were toasty, the shell of my gloves began to slowly freeze around my grip, like action figure hands that need to be slid onto plastic motorcycles. I began alternating between standing and pedaling for as long as I was able and then giving into walking for a bit. Pedal. Then walk. Then pedal. A snowmobile approached and told me Gavin was waiting ahead. Only 15 miles to go. I pushed on to catch up to him and let him know to go on without me, with one gear and no knees, I’d have to catch him at the finish.  

 

Upon sighting the Fortune Bay Resort 2 miles sign I began taking stock of what an awesome experience this had been. I met a heap of new folks, got to appreciate this beautiful course and the crew putting in the work to put on such an event. I was thankful for my equipment choices, how warm I was despite plummeting temps. And those stars, oh man. As if on cue my front light burned out leaving a dim back up headlamp to illuminate my path for my last mile. I let out an echoing laugh into the night. Perfect timing. 

 

As I crossed the finish line the folks greeting me commented, “Well you’re in an awesome mood! We lost you on the tracker but folks out this long tend to know what they’re doing. Looking good! No frostbite on your face either!” Mission one and two accomplished.  

 

 

Alerted that my stalled tracker had caused a bit of a panic for onlookers, I took a moment to reach out to family and then tucked into some soup, shower and sleep.

 

Big thanks to Ken, Jackie, all of the incredible Arrowhead volunteers, Zeigle fam and the entire Surly crew for the support, whiskey and heckling. That was a cold one! Good work out there.

 

*denotes mandatory gear

 

Bike      

Surly Pugsley, stock aside from a Thomson post/Speci saddle and a slightly shorter stem

Xpedo Spry pedals

Revelate Designs/Surly Frame bag

Surly Moloko Handlebar Bag

2 Revelate Designs Mountain Feedbags

Revelate Designs Gas Tank Top tube bag

Revelate Designs Viscacha Seat Bag

4 Problem Solvers Bow Tie Strap Anchors

2 Revelate Designs Washboard Utility Straps

2 Black Diamond Ski Straps

2 Outdoor Research Water Bottle Parkas*

2 32oz Wide Mouth Nalgenes*

 

Gear

Big Agnes Crosho UL sleeping bag*

Black Diamond Twilight Bivy*

Therm-A-Rest Z-Lite Sol pad*

Blue tarp

SealLine Discovery View drybag

Surly Loop Junk Straps

Light and Motion Seca 2000 Race headlight and spare battery

Surly tall koozie for battery

Surly tall koozie for cellphone

Nite Rider Lumina Micro 850 Headlight

3 Planet Bike LED Super Flash Taillights*

Spare AAA batteries

Esbit Ti Pot with lid*

Esbit Pocketstove*

Esbit Fuel Cubes x16 *

2 homemade fire starters

Waterproof matches*

Lighter

GSI Outdoors MicroGripper

Spyderco Native CPM S30V Knife

Tin foil

Petzl Headlamp*

HydrakPak Stow 500ml soft flask

Stanley 16oz Thermos

TP

Spare tube

Blackburn frame pump

Tire boot

Patch kit

Brake pads

Chaintool

Tweezers

Zipties

Multitool

Loose 4 and 5mm hex

Spare chain links

Tire levers

Dermatone

Lipbalm

IB profin, CBD, Bandaids, etc.

Trail map

Note of mileage between shelters

Plastic whistle on string*

Sunglasses

Adhesive body/toe warmers for light batteries/cellphone/Hydraflask

 

Clothing

Monday:

Swrve Windstopper Belgian Cap

Surly Wool hat

45Nrth Baklava Balaclava, with added wool nose piece

Craft Shelter Glove

Outdoor Research Adrenaline Gloves

Rapha Winter Collar

Smartwool Sports bra

Craft Cool Mesh Super Light Sleeveless baselayer

1 Surly Raglan

Thick wool sweater

Patagonia Nano puff vest

Icebreaker Wool undies

Smartwool Midweight base layer tight

Patagonia Wind Shield softshell pant

Craft Ventair Xwind pant

Surly Tall Logo Wool sock

Steger Traditional Mukluks

Reflective Vest*

 

Tuesday:

Mostly the same, but

2 Surly Raglans

Surly Neck Gator

Switched Smartwool baselayer for Ibex heavy weight base tight

DeFeet Woolie Boolie socks

Arc’teryx rain jacket after the Surly Checkpoint

Outdoor Research Alti Mitts (no liner mitten)

Smartwool PhD Insulated Training Glove

 

Spare set of clothing kept in SealLine Drybag

Green thin wool hat

Arc’teryx midweight puffy

Outdoor Research Alti Mitten liners

Surly scarf sewed into an ear/nose warmer

Extra DeFeet Woolie Boolie socks

 

Food

Skippy Natural Creamy Peanut Butter*

3 Justin’s Almond Butter packets

Peanut butter/Oatmeal bites with chia seeds, dried cranberries, protein powder, maple syrup

Butter/cream cheese bites coated in chocolate and chopped almonds

Chocolate covered almonds

Mint Chocolate Honey Stinger waffles cut into pieces

Salami rolls with cream cheese

Slivered tortilla rolls of peanut butter, honey, dried cranberries

Gummy Bears

Skratch Lab energy chews

Hostess Apple Pie

Pearson’s nut roll

Crispy fried chicken thighs

Frozen pickle cubes

SnoShoe Grog

About Kippley

Amy Kippley a.k.a. Kippley

Amy brings with her an impressive cycling resume as a mechanic and industry pencil pusher. Both worlds of knowledge serve her well in her role here as she communicates with our suppliers and facilitates all the things that go along with getting our bikes produced and hanging parts on them. In her personal life Amy has a thing for Abraham Lincoln and a lifelong love of NASCAR, which is actually car racing believe it or not. Huh. It’s a strange world. Someone should sell tickets.

Learn More About Kippley