As usual, this year's Arrowhead 135 Winter Ultramarathon, a 135-mile human-powered race through northern Minnesota, promised to be a little different than years past. There would be a new mandatory checkpoint at the Gateway Store. The forecasted weather included warmish temps and snow. The moon would be minimal, so I would have to depend on my lights more than ever. And it has been about 8 months since I had surgery to rebuild a badly-broken left femur.
Each racer biker, runner, or skier has to carry at least 15 lbs (6.8 kg) of combined mandatory and supplemental gear. The weight of one's water, sled, bike, or backpack doesn't factor into this requirement. The mandatory gear list (copied from the Arrowhead site):
* Minus-20 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
* 8 fl. oz. fuel at ALL times (either white gas, alcohol or 2 canisters of propane/butane 100 g. each or 12 Esbit tablets)
* Pot (min. volume is 1 pint)
* 2-qt (32oz.) or just under 2 litres, insulated water container (the weight of water is not counted in the minimum weight)
* Headlamp or flashlight
* Flashing red light, both on front and back. The DNR requires that everyone have at least 10 square inches of reflective material on front and back 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 3200 calories)
* 15 lbs of gear at ALL times
This year, they threw a couple of changes at us after we arrived with our gear. Flashing red lights have to contain at least 3 LEDs, and the mandatory 10 square inches of reflective material, front and back, has to be on the body not on the bike. I brought single-LED lights, so Pierre Oster, race organizer and foot racer, lent me a couple of 3-LED Cateye blinkers for the race. But I had to scramble to figure out how I was going to keep the reflective material showing as I added and removed clothing. Eventually, I figured out a way to attach straps to my reflective triangles, so one hangs over my back and one hangs over my chest. Some racers simply put reflective tape on each garment that might be worn as an outer torso layer. I might do that next year.
Each racer can have a drop-bag, up to 15 lb (6.8 kg), at the Melgeorge checkpoint. It can only contain food, batteries, and fuel.
My frame is the same pre-production Pugsley I've ridden every year. The rest is similar to what I've used before with a few component changes: DuraAce/Pauls thumbshifters, Jones Bar, Surly Mr. Whirly pre-production crankset, Large Marge XC rims on DT 240 hubs, Endomorph tires. The drivetrain is a 2 x 7 system 22/34 up front, 14-34t cassette. I used my modified Old Man Mountain front rack and vintage Cannondale front panniers same as my set-up in 2006. My sleeping bag, pad, and bivy were strapped onto a Nitto Uplift bag support designed for a Carradice saddlebag. An Epic Designs frame bag holds my tools, spare tubes, food, and oft-used clothing items. Check back, later this month, for my reviews on the Epic Designs and Carousel Design Works rackless bag systems.
For food, I didn't stray far from the tried-and-true: Gummi Bears, smoked almonds, dried cherries, roasted salted cashews, Slim Jims (a new menu item in the rolling pantry), chocolate-covered raisins, Hammer Gel, Honey Stingers, RedBull, and a jar of peanut butter to satisfy my 3000-calorie mandatory food surplus requirement. I carried too much food, as usual.
I started the race at 8:21 am, this year. The temperature was in the 20s (F) at the start 45 50 degrees warmer than last year. Throughout the race, I wouldn't experience temps lower than 17F, so my clothing requirements were pretty minimal. I wore a mid-weight polypro base layer and a very high-tech Old Navy fleece jacket on my torso, a light ROX skullcap and headband, mid-weight Hypnotic Designs knickers over Craft winter cycling tights, 2mm neoprene paddling gloves, and my usual Arrowhead footwear vapor barrier socks under ragg wool socks, neoprene boot covers and light gaiters over minus-40F winter hiking boots. I found no need for chemical heater packs this year.
The warm temps lightened the clothing load, but the trail conditions suffered a bit. The first 18 miles, composed of an out-and-back section, weren't too bad. Usually, there was a smooth shoulder created by the groomer. That is generally the preferred place to ride. I strayed to the right of the shoulder, around the 15-mile point, and endo'd into the deep snow off the trail. Not recommended. I made a point not to do that again. Conditions deteriorated as the trail progressed. The snow was soft, but it wouldn't pack up beneath my wheels. Moderate snowmobile traffic didn't help. The aggressive sled tracks usually churned up the snow, instead of compressing it.
The 35-mile Gateway Store checkpoint was a nice opportunity to drink a Gatorade, eat a Snickers bar, fill my insulated water bottles, chat with my dad (my race support the last 3 years) and Mike Riemer (my friend and long-time co-worker who now works for Salsa), and find out how people were doing and where they were on the course. I stayed 26 minutes.
The trail got even softer after the store. The exceptions, two sections of hard-packed combined logging road/snowmobile trail (about 5 miles total?), were welcomed fast reprieves from the slog through the inconsistent dirt-tinged goop that made up much of the course. The skiers weren't as happy about the logging road sections, because they were made up of dirt, sand, and gravel, as well as snow and ice. The abrasive combination slowed them down and raised hell with the bases of their skis. I'm guessing the walkers pulling sleds weren't thrilled about these sections either.
My rear tube started losing air about 10 miles from the store. It would be the first of 3 tube failures during the race. I tried pumping up the tire, hoping the Stan's sealant would plug the leak. No luck. The leak was near the base of the valve stem, so pumping and hoping wasn't going to fix it. I can't blame the tube, a 26 x 2.1-2.5 Continental, because it wasn't designed for use in a 26 x 3.7 tire. That said, I've used many 26 x 2.1 tubes in Endomorph tires over the years without failures. I decided to use the smaller-than-recommended tubes during the race to shed some rotating mass. The Continentals were chosen, because they have removable valve cores. That allowed me to squirt a couple ounces of Stan's goop in each tube without having to slit them, add Stan's, and patch them the standard procedure for all my tubes on all my bikes. I replaced the leaker with a new non-Stan's WTB 26 x 2.1-2.5 tube, pumped it up to an estimated 12 PSI, and had no more problems with the rear tire.
At 2:56pm, it started to snow lightly. The snow continued to fall until early Tuesday morning, but it was always very light. It didn't seem to cause problems on the trail.
At 5:16pm, the sun set on the horizon. Time for lights. I used my trusty Princeton Tec EOS headlamp in combination with a 1-watt S-Sun handlebar-mounted light. I could have used more candlepower this year. The big downhills, in the middle of the night, made me a little nervous. I was overrunning my headlights on most fast descents. The almost-full moon in 2006 and 2007 made it possible to ride most or all of the course, even the downhills, without much supplemental light. That wasn't the case, at all, this year. I used my lights all of the time after dark even walking up hills.
I was happy to reach Melgeorge's Resort, the 73-mile checkpoint, at 7:27pm. The beautiful new 2-story cabin was full of racers, race volunteers, family (including my dad), and friends. Within a minute of my arrival, a race volunteer was cooking a grilled cheese sandwich for me and making sure I had everything I needed to be comfortable. Every year, the Arrowhead race volunteers do a great job of taking care of us. It's greatly appreciated, but it has a negative side effect that kind of hospitality makes it hard to leave and continue on down the trail. Don, Greg, and Charlie left within an hour of my arrival. I was in no hurry to follow them. But, deep down, I knew that I'd eventually have to commit to another 10-12 hour session on the trail. I continued eating, drinking, resting, drying, and enjoying the warmth of the cabin and the company of the people occupying it. At 10:30pm, I reluctantly started to gather my clothes, pack up my drop-bag food items, and fill my water bottles. 3 hours and 43 minutes after my arrival, Dave Simmons and I started out to conquer the last 62 miles of the course. Josh Peterson was getting ready to follow us. There's comfort in knowing somebody is sweeping the trail behind you, just in case you run into serious trouble.
Dave and I rode together for 5 miles. When I stopped to drink and eat, Dave kept going so he wouldn't chill. As I was making an attempt to catch him, I got my second flat. This time it was the front tube another Continental tube. I had one spare tube left yep, another Continental. That made me nervous, but I had no other options. I installed the new tube and pumped it up to an estimated 15 psi, so I wouldn't risk a pinch flat, and continued on down the trail. Luckily, the snow was firmer than that of the first 73 miles, and the higher pressure of the front tire didn't seem to hinder my speed or alter the handling very much.
I got cold fixing my flat and, for the first time since I started the race, I had to add a layer of clothing the trusty old Cannondale mesh-back vest I purchased in 1996 while I was working at the bike shop. That vest has traveled more miles with me than any other piece of cycling clothing I own.
Around 2:00am. I met Chad, one of the many great Arrowhead volunteers, on his snowmobile as he was doing the last sweep from Bayview Lodge, the finish line, to Melgeorge's. I learned that Dave was 2 miles ahead of me, Charlie was bivying in one of the shelter's about 4 miles ahead, and I was minutes from the long, dreaded hilly section. I also learned that Chad was the proud owner of a Pugsley and a Cross-check. We chatted about bike stuff for a while, bid each other farewell, and headed down the trail toward our respective destinations.
I checked on Charlie when I got to his shelter. All was well. I didn't realize, until the next day, that Dave was bivying right in front of me at the same shelter. I saw another sleeping body, but I assumed Dave was still out on the trail and another rider occupied that extra bivy. I saw a Pugsley there, but I didn't realize it belonged to Dave. You see, out of 22 bikes on the course, about 80% were Pugsleys. And I didn't get a good look at the details of Dave's bike when we were riding together, because it was dark and I was simply concentrating on the trail and the intermittent wolf tracks.
The next 20 miles were tough. Lots of long granny-gear climbs and plenty of pushing. Some of the downhills were steep, loose, and sketchy, especially with my limited lighting. I crashed hard at the bottom of one descent. First I checked my right collarbone, and then I looked at the bike and bags. The body was sore, but intact. However, a plastic strap on my right pannier had been torn in the crash. That strap had acted as a restraint to keep the bag from flapping up and out when riding over bumps. I remedied the situation by cinching a Surly Junk Strap (an extra-long toe strap we had made as a tradeshow giveaway item) around the bag and rack to limit the outward movement of the pannier over the rough stuff.
The eastern horizon started to lighten shortly after 7:00am about the time I finished the hilly section. Sunrise is always welcome after so many hours of darkness. My spirits were lifted, but my body was starting to shut down. I was getting cold, even though the temperature hadn't fallen much from the time I started out from Melgeorge's resort. I donned a thin windbreaker and mitten covers and started pedaling again to get warm.
Around 8:15am, I reached the shelter at the top of Wakemup Hill. After the descent from the shelter, the trail got flat. It would remain that way for the next 20 miles. 15 minutes later, I met my dad waiting for me at County Road 24. He had been waiting there for many hours. I asked him when Dave Simmons passed by. He hadn't seen Dave. That seemed strange. I hoped Dave hadn't taken a wrong turn on the trail. I still hadn't figured out that Dave had been sleeping at the shelter. It's so obvious, now, but I wasn't the sharpest tack in the box at that point. The combination of sleep deprivation and physical exertion has a tendency to turn one into a dullard at some point. My dad and I chatted a bit, got some photos, and estimated the time to the finish. He thought it was 3-1/2 hours, and I didn't feel like taking out a map to confirm his suspicions. So I took that as gospel, prepared myself for a long, boring spin, and continued on toward the Bayview Lodge.
The last section of trail is a yawner. It's flat and straight and seems to go on forever. My sore shoulders and neck, sore knees, sore hip, sore ass, and all of the chafed bits amplified the slow torture. Luckily, our time-to-finish estimate was far from accurate. I realized I was approaching the finish area about 1-3/4 hours after leaving my dad. I also realized that my front tire was slowly going flat again. Damn. Without a spare tube, my options were to pump it up, ride fast, and repeat or push the bike with a flat front tire. I chose the pump n' ride option and repeated the process 4 times before reaching the lodge. Within 2 minutes of my arrival, my front tire was completely flat.
Because the racers are so spread out, the finish of this race is a bit anticlimactic. But it always feels good to be done. I ended up in 6th place after 26 hours and 21 minutes. Not bad, but I'll push a little harder to do better next year.
I've partially forgotten how much the hills sucked and how much my body ached. I've inventoried the equipment that worked and made notes about the gear that did not work or never got used. I have new lists of things to buy and make for next year's race. Every year, I learn something about my bike, my gear, and myself. That education, along with the chance to spend a little time with the friends I've made over the years, is what keeps me coming back to the Arrowhead Trail.