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?
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
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*
Big Agnes Crosho UL sleeping bag*
Black Diamond Twilight Bivy*
Therm-A-Rest Z-Lite Sol pad*
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 Fuel Cubes x16 *
2 homemade fire starters
GSI Outdoors MicroGripper
Spyderco Native CPM S30V Knife
HydrakPak Stow 500ml soft flask
Stanley 16oz Thermos
Blackburn frame pump
Loose 4 and 5mm hex
Spare chain links
IB profin, CBD, Bandaids, etc.
Note of mileage between shelters
Plastic whistle on string*
Adhesive body/toe warmers for light batteries/cellphone/Hydraflask
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
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
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
Skratch Lab energy chews
Hostess Apple Pie
Pearson’s nut roll
Crispy fried chicken thighs
Frozen pickle cubes