Here’s a not-so-brief synopsis of my race/ride through Minnesota’s northern wilderness on the Arrowhead Trail, a 135-mile section of snowmobile trail that runs from International Falls, MN to Tower, MN. This was my 10th Arrowhead 135 Race, and, like the other nine AH135 romps, it had its own special flavor.
Gear prep usually begins weeks before the race, but I always seem to be wrenching on my bike, sewing clothing, and fine-tuning my systems up until the last minute. And my home shop inevitably turns into a pig sty...well, an even bigger pig sty than usual.
Without a bunch of gear hanging on it, my ICT is a relatively lightweight rig.
My dad, Jerry, picked me and my son, Noah, up early Sunday morning, and we made our way north to International Falls, from Minneapolis. We missed the freeway exit to our usual breakfast stop in Hinckley and, instead, ate at the Family Tradition restaurant in Cloquet. I think we’ll stop there again, next year. Good food, big portions, reasonable prices, great service. One of the successes, of any road-trip, is finding a good place to stop and grab some grub. We were off to a good start.
We arrived in I-Falls around 1:00pm and made our way to the community center for the mandatory gear check-in. Don Clark, The Gear Nazi, is the only person who has been part of all eleven AH135 races. Don was running the show, here...making sure everybody has the appropriate gear to get them out of trouble, if they know how to use it. Don's son, Joe, was there helping him...and, later, racing the event on his Pug.
If nothing else, I have the gear-check procedure down to a science. One Rubbermaid storage bin contains all of my mandatory gear, except for my sleeping bag. One must finish the race with all of the items listed on the mandatory gear list or face a time penalty or possible disquilification. And, for the first time in AH135 history, they checked our gear after we reached the finish line. Bravo. I truly appreciate that.
Here’s the qualifying mandatory gear that I carried this year:
• Princeton Tec Apex Pro headlamp with lithium CR123 batteries
• Plastic whistle on a string (to be worn around the neck during the race)
• 1-pint titanium cook pot (and lid)
• Titanium folding Esbit stove
• 12-pack of Esbit fuel cubes
• (2) Cateye 3-LED red flashers
• (2) reflective triangles
• Equinox bivy
• 2/3-length Thermorest Ridgerest pad
• Sierra Designs -20F down sleeping bag
• (2) Isotherm insulated 2-liter water bottles
• UST floating, refillable butane lighter
• Small jar of peanut butter (3200 calories)
Gear-check took 15-20 minutes. Then we made our way to the hotel. Our room wasn’t ready when we arrived. So we passed the time chatting with fellow racers and their families and friends.
After checking into our room, I started getting my bike prepped for the big ride. It didn’t get much done before we had to head back to the community center for the mandatory pre-race meeting at 4:00.
The meeting is a great place of talk to old friends and see some new faces in the crowd. I look forward to it every year. Ken Krueger, the race director, did an awesome job of explaining the rules and answering questions. Then he gave away loads of product in the prize drawing. Surly donated an ICT frameset and a pair of Bud and Lou tires for the drawing.
After dinner at the Chocolate Moose, we headed back to the hotel. When we got there, Noah immediately bolted to the arcade, Dad made his way to the sauna, and I continued to pack, organize, second-guess, and otherwise ready my gear for the race. Chuck Lindner, who has done the race 8 times, stopped by to chat about gear and about life, in general. Chuck is the proud owner of an ECR, and I enjoy hearing about the places his Surly takes him.
Dad hit the pillow around 10:00, while I refined my systems, did some last-minute sewing, and staged my clothing. Noah fell asleep around 11:00. I didn’t shut off the lights until 1:30. Next year, I hope to get a full night’s sleep before the race. One can dream…
The alarm went off at 5:00. Dad got up and took a shower. I snoozed for another 15 minutes before surrendering to the fact that I needed to get ready for the long day in the saddle. Dad headed off to McDonald’s to pick up breakfast. The last couple of years, we made breakfast in the room. But it was mediocre, at best. So McDonald’s oatmeal, hashbrowns, and OJ were chosen for this year’s pre-race calorie intake. Honestly, it wasn’t bad. I think we made the right choice.
The temperature was 26F, according to Dad. I dressed accordingly and quickly headed out the door at 6:40…before I had the opportunity to start sweating in my riding attire. This year’s race-start clothing choices:
• WSI Heatr liner socks, vapor barriers (Cub Foods plastic grocery bags), generic mid-weight wool socks, Empire Wool and Canvas True North boots (with Vibram soles)
• Ibex wool windfront briefs, Janeware Polartec fleece tights, RaceFace knickers
• Ibex short-sleeve base layer, Ibex long-sleeve base layer, Surly short-sleeve wool jersey, Empire Wool and Canvas full-zip Grey Fox wool coat
• Pearl Izumi headband, Walz wool cycling cap
• Defeet Duraglove wool gloves
Other clothing, carried on the bike:
• Golite vapor barrier socks
• Surly long-sleeve full-zip wool jersey, Montane Pertex smock
• WSI Flippy hat, Surly wool scarf, Wool Buff
• Outdoor Research mitten shells, ragg wool mittens, Stephenson Warmlite vapor barrier gloves, Ibex wool glove liners
I couldn’t ride the Ice Cream Truck last year, because we hadn’t unveiled it. And I'd been looking forward to giving it a proper Arrowhead workout. It’s always fun to try new gear on this trail. The terrain varies from dead-flat to horribly-hilly. So, for me, a wide gear range is a necessity. I pulled the SRAM 1x11 bits off my Moonlander and installed them on the Ice Cream Truck. Coupled with a 24t Surly stainless chainring on the O.D. crank, I had all the range I needed to move the loaded fatty toward the finish line.
My Ice Cream Truck spec:
• ICT frame with ICT thru-axle fork
• DT Swiss BR2250 wheelset. I’ve always ridden DT hubs in this race. DT 240 and 350 rear hubs will always be my first choice. I simply love the quality and dependability they provide. DT hasn’t delivered production 190/197 hubs, yet. They are coming soon. But I was offered a loaner pre-production wheelset for the race.
• Hope rear QR skewer
• O.D. crankset w/24t Surly stainless chainring, Surly press-fit bottom bracket, SRAM X0 chain, SRAM X1 rear derailleur, prototype Microshift XX1 thumbshifter
• 120 tpi Bud tires (front and rear), Surly light (.8mm thick) tubes
• Cane Creek 40 headset
• Surly Moloko handlebar (prototype), Ritchey stem, Truvative seatpost, WTB Pure V saddle
• Avid BB7 rear brake, Shimano Deore lever
• Odyssey Triple Trap pedals
Stuff to carry stuff:
• Revelate Designs: Handlebar harness, harness bag, framebag, Gas Tank, Jerry Can, Viscacha seatbag
• Salsa Anything cages (aluminum version)
• Pacific Outdoor Equipment 5-liter drybags
The ride to the Kerry Arena, the race check-in and starting point, was short and sweet. My drivetrain was working flawlessly, and I was confident that I’d made the right choices, in regards to gearing and components.
I checked in around 6:52am and ran into Thor and Ben. Thor was kind enough to deliver the one thing I forgot to bring: SRAM Powerlinks for my 11-speed chain. With those in-hand, I was at peace. Ben and Thor were there to watch the race start. Then, along with other Surly volunteers, they’d later be setting up and manning Checkpoint 3, called Ski Pulk, located at mile 110 of the race. I was looking forward to seeing them - and some of my other Surly homies - at a later time.
I made my way to the starting line and inserted myself into the biker pack about halfway back, right behind Chuck. Don, The Gear Nazi, was there to shake our hands and wish us well as we prepared to head off down the dark trail toward the finish line, located at the Fortune Bay Casino in Tower…135 miles away, via the Arrowhead snowmobile trail.
Fast guys ready to race...
The gun went off promptly at 7:00. As I rolled out, I waved to my dad and settled in for the long churn. We collectively arranged ourselves into single-file formation. Passing was somewhat arduous, due to the accumulation of fresh snow…2-3 inches, in my estimation…that had fallen earlier that morning. And the pack soon spread out into multiple strings of closely-spaced riders. I was positioned near the tail end of the second string. I was in good company in that group. Charlie Farrow, Lindsay Gauld, Dave Pramann…all veterans of the AH135…were settling in at the same pace.
It didn’t take long for the first-stringers…the big guns…the racing machines…to pull ahead and move out of sight. I can’t/won’t try to hang with that crew…especially, when temps are mild and average speeds are high. It’s imperative for me to ride at my own speed and not get sucked into a pace that will certainly spell out my eventual doom on the course.
When we got to the road crossing, at Highway 53, I stopped for a drink of water, a packet of Honey Stinger chews, and a couple photos. With a hundred-plus miles left in the race, I wasn’t worried about losing positions in the peloton as riders passed. Noah had already been busy collecting railroad spikes from the nearby line. The little due likes steel. Smart kid.
I rode on, passing a few riders along the way, before arriving at the Gateway store checkpoint turn-off at mile 42. The short spur, leading to the store from the main trail, is the only out-and-back section of trail.
I arrived at the store feeling pretty good. So I didn’t stay long…just long enough to fill my water bottles, pose for a couple pics, chat briefly with my dad and Noah, drink a 12oz. Redbull, and force down a partially-frozen Smurf-sized sausage and cheese sandwich that I’d prepared that morning.
Off again. The trail seemed to be getting softer. I let some air out of my tires. I‘d started off, that morning, with 11 PSI in the front and 13 PSI in the rear.
Again, I passed riders. And I got passed by riders…sometimes, by the ones I’d overtaken earlier. It didn’t matter. I continued to ride at a pace I was comfortable with.
Chris Gibbs was waiting, camera in-hand, at Sheep Ranch Road, when I got there. I stopped, breifly, to chat with him and my familial support team. It turns out that Chris worked with Surly's own John Fleck, many moons ago. Small world.
Food wasn’t going down the gullet without a fight. I struggled with the same issues, last year. Unfortunately, I’m a slow learner, and I relied on many of the same items that have worked well for me prior to last year’s race. In this year’s food bag:
• Snickers bars
• Honey Stinger chews...orange and lemonade
• Crushed potato chips
• Crushed Fritos
• Little cheese and sausage sandwiches made with King’s Hawaiian Bread.
• Slim Jims
• Various gels
• Dried cherries and cranberries
• Sour Patch Kids
• Smoked almonds
Ultimately, many of these choices didn’t work very well for me, this year. I guess it’s time to change things up a bit. I have some experimenting to do.
The trail wasn’t super-fast (for me), but it was far from being the worst I’ve experienced during a decade of Arrowhead rides. I made decent progress, despite my lack of calorie intake. And I arrived at the midway (mile 72) checkpoint, a sweet cabin at Melgeorge’s Elephant Lake Resort, in the daylight…around 3:45.
Chuck and Jeff were at the table, resting and refueling, when I arrived. Charlie was heading out to tackle the second – and arguably more difficult – portion of the race. One racer…I didn’t try to get his name, because he looked so miserable…was fighting off puking as he tried to warm himself by the stove. Other racers were in various stage of coming and going. My dad and Noah were there, too, for a while…until the cabin got crowded. It’s well-choreographed chaos, most of the time. And I truly appreciate the way that the volunteers manage to get us fed, hydrated, and dry…while keeping track of check-in and check-out times.
Before I had my boots off, a hot grilled-cheese sandwich and a bowl of wild rice soup were placed before me at the table. Then a Coke. Knowing that my food choices may not agree with me down the trail, I crammed in as many calories as I could while my body would accept them. Another grilled cheese sandwich and another bowl of soup went down the hatch without too much resistance. Then another Coke. And, finally, a 12oz. Redbull.
While I ate, my clothes were drying in the industrial dryer. I knew they wouldn’t be completely dry by the time I headed back out on the trail, but any reduction in moisture is a good thing when setting off into the cold night.
Lindsay came and went while I was in the cabin. Lindsay is 66 years old, but you’d never know it by his level of strength and endurance. He’s an inspiration to us “young” guys. I hope to be as fit as he is in 21 years.
Chuck was readying his gear, and I thought it might be nice to ride with him until our paces no longer lined up. So I filled my water bottles, donned my clothing, took some photos, readied my bike, and rolled out with him. I’d been at the checkpoint an hour, which meant that I’d start out with a little bit of daylight left. More often than not, I begin this part of the ride in darkness.
It’s just acknowledged that a person has to ride at his own pace, if he is going to finish the race. So there are no hard feelings, if somebody pulls away from you on the trail. It is a race, after all. But it was apparent that Chuck and I were moving at a similar speed. He’d typically climb faster than me on his titanium Lynskey with carbon Whisky rims, but I was usually able to go faster on the downhills…probably due to the comparatively-more-aggressive tread of my Bud 4.8 tires. On the flats, we tended to ride at the same pace. So, we rode together for the remainder of the race. Jeff Pokorney was usually with us, too. He’d fall back a little bit, but would eventually catch up to us when we’d break for water and food…about every 30 minutes. I haven’t ridden that distance, during this race, with anybody since 2007, when Joel Cahalan and I broke trail together from Melgeorge’s to the finish line at Bayview Lodge. It was nice to commiserate with Chuck and Jeff as we tackled some of long, steep hills that make up this portion of the course.
The fresh snow - and the resulting ruts from bike riders and snowmobilers who’d been on the trail before us - made the trail sketchy on the big downhills. The ruts wanted to catch us and throw us down hard, at speed. Chuck and Jeff biffed once or twice. Amazingly, I was able to stay upright through it all. I’d already high-sided, earlier in the day, on a fast downhill section. So I was dragging my brake, more than usual, to scrub off speed and keep the back end of the bike behind me. Even riding with an increased level of caution, I did a lot of surfing at the fringes of control. The downhills were only slightly less exhausting than the climbs in many cases.
Surly-logo’d signs began to show up at the side of the trail. Then Deer Boy appeared. I knew we had to be close to Ski Pulk.
We pulled into the 3rd - and final checkpoint before the finish line - at 1:00am…8 hours and 15 minutes after leaving the resort…to an off-note horn-like serenade, familiar voices, the welcoming glow of the outdoor fire, and the promise of warmth inside the candlelit 16-man Kifaru tipi puffing white smoke out of its chimney. It felt really good to hit another milestone on the trail, especially after tackling what I perceive as the hardest part of the race.
Chuck, Jeff, and I took very little time to gather what we needed from our bikes and situate ourselves in chairs inside the tipi. It felt so good to sit down on something other than a bike saddle. I didn’t know if I could ever leave. I’d like to say that I clearly remember all of the conversations that happened in the tipi…with my dad, Noah, my Surly peeps, and my riding partners, but some are vague. I was a little fried. Not as fried as Chuck appeared, however. He admitted to hitting a pedaling comatose state a few miles back. And he sat there, head in hands, for a long time. I was slightly worried that we wouldn’t get him moving again. But I also suspected that a little bit of rest could bring him back to life.
The Four Dog DX Camp Stove was doing its thing, and the shelter was warm and dry. I’d procured the stove, for Surly, a couple weeks prior to the event. And I’d camped in the tipi, with the stove, along with Ben, Thor, and Steve a week before the race. So I knew what it was capable of. But it shined even brighter under the circumstances. I’d like to extend our thanks to Don Kevilus for building us a stove in time for the race. They weren’t in stock when I initially inquired. Don also set us up with Kifaru-appropriate stack system and offered a lot of helpful advice when I talked to him on the phone. It was a pleasure doing business with him, and the products speak for themselves. I did a lot of stove research before deciding on the Four Dog. It was the clear winner, in terms of features and value. And it’s always nice to do business locally – and directly - with somebody who is passionate about his craft.
After about an hour of lounging, hydrating, and drying our clothes, we heard Mark and Lindsay pull up. Mark stopped to rest in the tipi, but, amazingly, Lindsay proceeded down the trail. Jeff, Chuck, and I collectively decided that we should probably move down the trail, too. So we filled our water containers, dressed for success, and gathered our belongings in preparation for the final push toward the ashtray-scented shelter of the big casino.
Chuck and I each consumed a couple of Aleve to stave off the shoulder, knee, and ass pain that inevitably results from so many hours pedaling and pushing heavy bikes over the hills and through the woods. I don’t regularly use pain killers, but I won’t shy away from a little bit of ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or naproxen, during an event like this.
We bid farewell to our gracious hosts and pointed toward our goal, 25 miles away. Fireworks lit up the trail as we exited Ski Pulk. Sweet send-off.
A series of gradual climbs and descents eventually led us to Wakemup hill, the last monster hill of the race. That climb sucks…I’ve never been able to pedal up it. I don’t know if anybody has. And the descent is increasingly steep and sketchy. I did my best to control my speed on the way down. Historically, there have been some monster braking bumps, from snowmobiles, at the bottom, and I didn’t want to hit them at speed. Years ago, I wiped out there. And I learned my lesson.
We all made it to the bottom in one piece and proceeded to the road crossing before regrouping. Chuck was looking much better and Jeff was spinning strong. The trail was firming up, too. We knew that the last 22 miles were going to be flat and boring, but, at least, the trail had potential to be relatively fast.
We’d pedal for a while, then stop, drink, eat, and chat…well, I’d stop and chat. I wasn’t able to eat or drink without making my stomach do summersaults, so I abstained from intake and hoped that I had enough in me to finish without bonking. I did the same thing, last year, and lived to tell about it. It was 40-50 degrees colder then, so I figured I’d be able to tough it out this year, too.
Mark caught us and passed us at one of our rest stops. That was fine. We weren’t in any particular hurry to try to catch him. At that point, the goal was to finish the race and stop the pain…not to gain a position on the race results sheet. But when we rode, we rode pretty fast. And, eventually, we caught up to him and passed him.
We caught up to Lindsay, too. We could tell he was hurting, but he was making steady forward progress. He was definitely going to finish. So we pushed ahead again. I set a fast pace, and Chuck stayed right on my tail. Jeff was starting to fade, and he told us to go on ahead. He was going to throttle back a bit. We were pretty close to the finish, and we knew he’d be ok. So, I amped up the speed a little more. Again, Chuck stayed right with me.
We pushed hard to the finish and crossed the finish line at the same time…both finishing 29th/30th after 22 hours and 43 minutes from the time we started.
After our gear check, Chuck and I made our way to the Arrowhead hospitality room in the casino, where we sipped a cold Coke and embraced the thought of not having to pedal or push our bikes for a while. We recalled some of the highlights of the race, and we agreed that the decision to ride together made this Arrowhead 135 race memorable in its own way.
My 10th stab at the Arrowhead 135 didn’t result in my fastest finish or my best placement. In fact, it was my worst placement in 9 finishes. But it was one of the most enjoyable (least sucky) AH135 rides, in regards to keeping good company, enjoying mild temps, and having a consistently-reliable and -capable bike throughout the race. Sure, I made mistakes…again, but there’s a slight chance that I’ll learn from some of them. So, I have that going for me.
The Ice Cream Truck worked well. In hindsight, I could have use a slightly-longer stem. Otherwise, the fit and function were great. The majority of improvements need to be done to my nutritional systems and my fitness levels...not to the bike.
Before I sign off, I’d like to thank the race directors, Ken and Jackie Krueger, and all of the race volunteers…including the Surly droogs: Amy, Christina, Bob, Ben, Thor, Jeff, and Steve...for keeping us alive, well, and accounted-for out there; my dad and Noah for the moral support; Chris Gibbs (C5 Photography) for lending a few photos for this blog; Kevin Kinney (Empire Wool and Canvas) for building me a new pair of True North boots in time for the race; DT Swiss for the sweet wheel loan; and Surly…for giving me another opportunity to willingly torture myself on the company dime.