I had just returned from the grocery store at 4pm Saturday night, after dropping $92 and some change on race food, when the nausea set in. I dismissed it as pre-race jitters and the effects of sleep deprivation after spending much of the previous night readying my gear for my 4th Arrowhead 135 race. Unfortunately, the queasy feeling failed to cease, and the diarrhea started around midnight. I figured I had until early Monday morning to rid myself of the digestive funk, so I took a couple of Immodium pills and continued to prep my Pugsley and race junk for the big ride. I finished packing and wrenching at 3:30am, popped another Immodium after another full-gale ass-juice explosion, and laid down for a 2-1/2-hour nap.
Dad arrived to pick me up at 6:30am, and I was still illin'. We discussed not going, but I figured I still had 24 hours to get my system back on track. Plus, I built a new Pug for him, this year. I wasn't going to deny him an opportunity to ride his rig on the Arrowhead Trail. In my mind, the worst-case scenerio was that I wouldn't feel well enough to start the race on Monday, but we'd go for a Pug ride on the trail together. So, we loaded up the truck and started the 5-hour drive north to the International Falls, MN Holiday Inn for the pre-race meeting and gear check-in. On the way, we stopped for breakfast. I was able to choke down some toast and bananas part of the B.R.A.T.Y. diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast, and yogurt) that is recommended for sufferers of the Hershey squirts.
Just before 1:00pm, we stopped at the race start area on HWY 53, south of International Falls. Charlie Farrow and Lance Andre were loading their bikes onto their car when we pulled up. They had just ridden part of the trail and deemed it fast and firm. A record year was possible, if the trail didn't change. The trail always changes.
When we got to International Falls, I dug out my required gear for Don Clark, the Gear Nazi, to weigh and approve. As hard as I try to shed grams, I never have any problem reaching the 15-pound minimum weight. I don't ride without a decent tool kit, a high-volume pump, a couple tubes, multiple fire sources, and a cotton candy machine. Here's the required list from the Arrowhead website:
MANDATORY GEAR from race start to race finish. You must have this at all times:
* Minus-20F degrees sleeping bag or colder rating
* Insulated sleeping pad
* Bivy sack or tent (space blankets do not count)
* Firestarter (matches or lighter)
* Stove to heat water (tip: Don't eat snow! It burns too many calories.)
* 8 fl. oz. fuel at ALL times (either white gas, alcohol or 2 cannister of propane/butane 100g.
each or 12 Esbit tablets)
* Pot (min. volume is 1 pint)
* 2-qt (64 fl. oz.) or just under 2 litres, insulated water container (the weight of water is not
counted in the minimum weight)
* Headlamp or flashlight
* 3 Flashing red LED lights, both on front and back of sled or bike (or on backpack if
skier). Also, the DNR requires that everyone have at least 10 square inches of reflective
material on front and back of the person for this race.
* Whistle on string around neck to call for help.
* 1-day of food at ALL times (3000 calories) (tip: a pound of butter or jar of peanut bar is about
* 15 lbs of gear at ALL times.
Most of the usual suspects were there for the meeting. I was happy to see last year's winner, Dave Pramann, again, because 1) he's one hell of a nice guy and 2) I knew he'd be breaking trail for us he just can't help being fast and in front. Among the new faces was Mike Curiak, who gave a very enlightening and entertaining photo presentation of his Alaska races and rides. Do yourself a favor, and check out Mike's blog when you have an opportunity.
After the meeting, I started feeling better than total crap. So my dad and I went out for dinner. I managed to eat half of my pasta entry. Not up to my usual feeding standards, but it seemed like an improvement. Light snow accumulated as we sat through dinner. The hopes of a fast year were fading by the minute.
We got back to the hotel around 5:30. Dad watched the Superbowl as I prep'd my Pug for the shindig. My configuration was very similar to last year's set-up: Old Man mountain rack on the front with 80's era Cannondale panniers, Nitto Uplift bag support on the seatpost (to carry my sleeping bag and pad), Epic Designs frame bag and Gas Tank bag. 4600 calories of assorted goodies (almonds, dried cherries, chocolate-covered coffee beans, Gummi bears, Almond Joys, and Honey Stinger packs) in the Gas Tank. Thermoses, stove, fuel, pickled weasel head luck charm, cookpot, emergency calories, and clothes in the panniers. Tools, tubes, cotton candy machine, and miscellaneous in the frame bag. Like every year, I have some grand ideas about how I'm going to do things differently. I hope to actually follow through with some of them for 2010.
The gut-funk colon-blow show returned around 9:00pm, but I figured a good night's sleep, another Immodium pill, and a hearty syrup- and butter-drenched pancake breakfast would allow me to ride the course in a respectable time. I finished hemming my knickers (I chopped the bottoms off some $4 wool dress pants I bought at a thrift store), took a shower, and hit the pillow by 10:00pm. It was still snowing.
Our 6:00am wake-up call came at 5:50am. Close enough. I looked out the window and saw 3-4 inches of fresh snow on the ground. My nausea had subsided a bit, but the appetite had not returned. Breakfast consisted of a cup of yogurt, 2 pieces of buttered toast, and a cup of coffee. That's all I could hold in the gullet. I convinced myself that I should still ride. Pedaling would certainly stimulate my appetite. I had it all figured out.
The thermometer in the truck read -8F (-22C) when I started my ride at 8:15am (racers can start from 7:00am until 8:30am). I felt pretty good as I passed walkers, skiers, and bikers who had started before me. The sun was out, the fast guys had already laid down a track for me to ride in, I was dressed appropriately for the temperature and my level of exertion, and the Pug was working well.
The first 17.5 miles is an out-and-back section, so I got see all of the racers as I passed them heading out to the turnaround checkpoint, or as we passed each other going opposite directions. There are lots of Hellos and Good Mornings on this stretch of trail. After that, one is more or less alone, privy to his head chatter and whatever Mother Nature has to offer.
The trail conditions were pretty consistent soft and pretty slow, unless I could find and stay on the ribbons of Endomorph tracks laid down by the fast guys out front. Luckily, there had been very few snowmobiles between the lead riders and me. Most of the trail-packing work done by the pedaling animals was left intact.
At mile 25, I caught up to an icycle-covered Mike Reimer, and we stopped to chat a bit. Mike had been fighting a bug himself, and he wasn't feeling very well. I could only hope his condition would improve. I'd later find out that it did not.
An hour later, I stopped to talk to Marlin Ledin as he was taking in some calories on the side of the trail. The superdeliciousness of his energy bar was written on his face as he savored the last bite. He seemed calm and in-control, Marlin's usual disposition, so I was confident that I'd see him again at the Melgeorge 70-mile checkpoint.
My dad was waiting for me at the Gateway store checkpoint (mile 35). A couple of the bikers, were sitting down and eating real food. I was envious, because I had only managed to squeeze down two packs of Honey Stinger goo and half of a slushy Redbull. I really needed some calories, but the demons in my belly told the dude in my head that solid food would not be accepted at that time without serious consequences. I drank a quart of Gatorade, chatted with my dad for a while, and took off down the trail again.
I caught up to Chuck Lindner after a half hour. We rode at the same pace for the next 15-20 miles, stopping together to eat and drink and chat about our clothing choices du jour. As we moved down the trail, I would pull away on the flats a bit. Then Chuck would catch me on the climbs, because he had more weight over his rear wheel and he could climb out of the saddle when I had to sit and spin in a lower gear. It's nice to have companionship on the trail, but it's rare that one finds a riding partner who moves at the same pace especially over the varied conditions of the Arrowhead trail.
As I started to walk up a hill that I haven't been able to ride since 2006, I saw someone heating water near the top. I was 99% sure it was Mike Curiak, because I couldn't think of anyone else who would take the time to use his stove 7 miles from the next checkpoint. Most of the Arrowhead bikers, me included, never take their stoves off their bikes. We're usually too cold, wet, or unaware of our need for more water or hot food. When I reached Mike's well-chosen plateau, we chatted for a few minutes. He kindly welcomed me to join him for a hot cup of something, but I was too preoccupied with the waning light. Wanting to get in some more miles before the sun slid over its horizon, I declined the invitation. I regret it now. In hindsight, it would have been a good time and place to hang out for a while.
I'm considering Mike's approach for next year's ride. A truly-unsupported Arrowhead 135 tour with time to take in the views and take more photos...as well as actually utilizing my stove, bag, and bivy...sounds like a swell idea for 2010. I like the idea of going from start to finish without relying on the Gateway Store or Melgeorge's for water, food, or warmth. It would be a nice change of pace to ride the hills, after the mid-way checkpoint, in the daylight. There are sections I've only ridden in the dark.
At mile 65, my stomach told me it was time to pull over and purge its Redbull/Honey Stinger cocktail...with a few cherries, almonds, and Slim Jims thrown in for color and texture. My hands and feet were warm (helped by the chemical heater packs in my mitts and boots), but my core temperature was on the decline. I assessed my physical and mental state, and I felt confident that I was generally in good shape. The last 5-mile push would suck (it always seems twice as long as it actually is), but I'd arrive in decent shape.
Dad met me as I came off Elephant Lake at Melgeorge's resort around 6:45pm. I was happy to see him, but depressed when I had to admit to him and to myself that my race was probably over. Mike Reimer came out to meet me, too. He had dropped from the race. I was glad to see Mike, of course. But, I was sorry he had to end his race early. At least, he knew his limits and pulled the plug before seriously compromising his safety. It's easier said than done when you've planned on riding to the finish line.
The forecast pointed toward -12 to -18F low temperatures during the night. Unless I could get some fuel stored in my belly, I'd be taunting injury or illness on the second half of the course. I considered my options, made one last calorie intake attempt and failed, and reluctantly threw in the towel. With that came a feeling of disappointment and, at the same time, relief. Life just got much easier.
I stayed at the cabin for a couple hours until 10pm, because the company of the racers and volunteers was top-notch, and because it took a long time to for me to get warm. Then, Dad and I left for the Fortune Bay Casino Hotel in Tower, the race finish point, to get some sleep and eventually meet up with the finishers in the morning.
We woke up at 9:15am, got some breakfast at the hotel restaurant, and went into the reserved conference room the finish line to see who had arrived. Charlie Farrow was there, smiling as always. He had finished second. Terry Brannick and Charlie rode together and finished at the same time, but Terry started later than Charlie on Monday. Terry won it after running a smart race in 4th position until Trail-Breaker Dave and Lance ran out of steam at the 110-mile tipi checkpoint. Well-played, Mr. Brannick.
As more finishers, non-finishers, volunteers, family, and friends showed up, a fuller picture of the race progression started to unfold. I enjoyed every racer's account of their journey. We geeked out on gear, traded trail stories, and speculated on the whereabouts and health of the racers still on the march. Dad and I had to hit the road around 2pm. I would have enjoyed hanging out with more of the riders after the race, but the schedule didn't allow it. Next year, I think I'll stay in Tower an extra night before returning home.
Pierre and Cheryl Oster (the race directors) and all of the generous volunteers did a great job again this year. Hats off to you all. To the racers and their support crews, especially mine my Dad Thanks for playing. I hope to see you again sooner than later.