The Arrowhead 135: A Rookie’s Guide
Last modified: Monday, February 26th, 2018
“Rider 142, checking in and I think I’m done.”
I’d just arrived at MelGeorges Resort, the second checkpoint of the Arrowhead 135, and I had no plans of leaving its warm embrace anytime soon. The sun was just about to set, and temps were dropping fast. The glow of the log cabin checkpoint beckoned me and took hold, setting the trap that countless Arrowhead veterans cautioned me about. Checkpoints are dangerous places that tempt you with warm food, hot beverages, and other comforts that make it difficult to leave.
My desire to throw in the towel was met with a resounding chorus of other racers, checkpoint volunteers, and friends telling me to just sit and hang out for a while. There was no rush and no need to make any rash decisions just yet. I took their advice and grabbed another grilled cheese.
The Arrowhead 135 is an ultra-endurance race that takes place at the end of January every year. It starts in International Falls, MN and ends 135 miles away in Tower, MN. With an average of around 110 days below freezing and frequent record-setting temps well below -40 degrees Fahrenheit, International Falls has rightfully earned itself the “Icebox of the Nation” nickname. Racers can choose to compete in three different methods of propulsion - on bike, on skis, or on foot - and have three days to finish. Some intrepid souls set their sights on the elusive a’Trois - an honor only awarded to those who’ve crossed the finish line in all three disciplines.
For me, the Arrowhead has always conjured images of Shackleton-esque polar expeditions and the desolate, frozen solitude of Hoth. It’s also always seemed like this massively unachievable undertaking, at least for me. Before working for Surly, I worked across several of the QBP Mothership’s brands as a video editor. While working on a Salsa film about the Arrowhead, I commented to Salsa’s Marketing Manager Mike Reimer that I could never in a million years do something like that. He gave me a quick look and uttered three simple words that have stuck with me ever since: “Never say never.”
I’ve thought about that exchange every January when updates about the Arrowhead begin to populate my social media feeds. Miker’s words were especially floating around my brain last year when I worked the Surly-sponsored third checkpoint at Arrowhead. Despite Miker’s mantra repeating in my head, I still had my doubts about ever accomplishing it.
This year, I decided to try and prove myself wrong.
When rookie applications opened on October 1, I sent mine in as soon as I could and waited anxiously to see if I’d make the final rider list - something that isn’t guaranteed just by sending in a check and registration form as is the case with most races. Due to the potential for volatile conditions, Race Directors Ken and Jackie Krueger require the completion of certain qualifying events to prove endurance abilities and/or cold weather survival skills. While I have plenty of long gravel races under my belt, I didn’t have any cold weather experience on my race résumé, so I was unsure if I’d make the cut. On a random day in November, however, I noticed that my entry fee check had been cashed.
I was in, and thus began many the mild freak-outs and nervousness that didn’t stop until after the event was over.
Luckily, I wouldn’t be attempting this thing alone as the Head Zeigle Scout himself, Pintz Guzld would be joining me. He’s finished this race a number of times on bike, once on skis, and even attempted it on foot. He insists that every year is his last Arrowhead but keeps signing up anyway. Also joining us would be the desert-dwelling Cass Gilbert from Bikepacking.com. The three of us would be riding the new Pugsley as the bike’s launch would coincide with the event. Pintz and I promptly set off on our training plan of long after-work rides complete with beer stops and one winter overnight.
Along with the nerves and freak-outs, came excitement and an opportunity for one of my favorite pastimes: geeking out about gear. Again, due to the likelihood of sub-zero-freeze-your-fucking-face-off temps, there is a list of required survival gear that all racers must carry with them for the duration of the race. Most of the stuff on the list I already owned, like an insulated sleeping pad, stove, and bivy sack. Other items were things I’d never needed before like a -20-degree sleeping bag and insulated water bottle carriers.
The race approached and the question of “so are you ready?” became more and more frequent. My responses varied at first but, eventually, I reached a mental place of “I don’t really have a choice at this point. I’m as ready as I’m going to be.”
Cass, Paul and I made the trip up to International Falls the day before the race to attend the mandatory gear check and rider meeting and to get our bikes situated. After a dinner of chimichangas from the town’s best (and only) Mexican restaurant, it was time to head back to our hotel - which was only about twenty feet from the Canadian border - to get a good night’s rest.
It was about fourteen below zero when we woke on the morning of the race. After a quick breakfast and final check to make sure our gear was snug on our bikes, we took off on the short ride from the hotel to the start line. It was a little more than a mile ride, but it was just enough to get my legs moving and make sure everything was staying put on my bike. My legs felt like two sacks of meat but other than that I was feeling alright. We arrived at the start with just enough time for a final pee and a quick photo. The dark sky came alive with fireworks signifying the start and we were off.
I was feeling pretty good right away and it didn’t take long for me to find my stride. Before long, I found myself passing other riders and finally settled in with a group of familiar faces including fellow QBP’er Brian Hanson and all-around badasses Jill Martindale and Tracey Petervary. I rode with them for a few miles before finding myself pulling away. Another piece of advice that I’d heard over and over again from Arrowhead veterans was not to go out too hard. Naturally, and without realizing it, my dumb ass did the exact opposite.
I continued going at my own - much too ambitious - pace, until I came upon another familiar face at around the 13-mile mark. I pulled down my balaclava to have a chat with Kurt Barclay, 45NRTH’s Marketing Manager.
“Are you wearing tape on your face, dude?” Kurt asked me; seemed like an odd question.
“Because your cheeks are completely white. You need to stop and put something on your face right now.”
We stopped, and I put on some face tape, but not before Kurt snapped this photo to show me just how terrible I looked.
Now, I thought I’d taken enough precaution for my face. I’d slathered myself in Dermatone and had a balaclava pulled up to cover everything. I’d even modified it slightly, so I could breathe without fogging my glasses up too much. What I hadn’t taken into account was how cold metal-rimmed glasses would get in -14-degree temps. Sometimes having the fashion sense of a 1980s serial killer comes with a price I guess.
After seeing my face, I immediately had two thoughts. The first was that my wife is going to fucking kill me. The one thing she told me before I left was not to get frostbite. The second was an overwhelming sense of self-doubt. I hadn’t even made it to the first checkpoint, and I’d already damn near froze my face off - what the hell was I doing out here? Did I even belong in this race? That self-doubt festered over the remaining 22 miles to the Gateway General Store, the first checkpoint. When I finally saw the trail fork right and some signs of civilization appear over the crest of a hill, I was unsure if I’d be finishing this race.
Originally my plan for Gateway was to be in and out - refill my bottles, warm up a bit, and have a quick bite of food… ten minutes tops! When I finally swung my leg over my bike to leave, I’d spent well over an hour in the checkpoint’s clutches convincing myself that it was worth it to keep going. Ultimately, it was Miker, who was there taking photos, telling me “This isn’t where you quit. I’ll see you at MelGeorges… in the daylight” that really motivated me to get my shit together and get back on my bike.
The section between Gateway and MelGeorges was relatively uneventful. The terrain started out pretty flat and eventually kicked up into some rollers that had me pushing my bike. I didn’t mind though. The change in position and scenery was welcome. I rode solo for that whole section, which didn’t do much for my mental state, and by the time I began crossing Elephant Lake to get to MelGeorges, I was once again fairly certain that I was done. From everything I’d heard about the section of trail between MelGeorges and the Surly checkpoint was that it was long, super hilly, and seemed never-ending. The rapidly dropping temps didn’t motivate me to want to do this in the dark. To make matters worse, people had warned me about MelGeorges. All the checkpoints are cozy traps but MelGeorges in particular stomps many racer’s Arrowhead aspirations. It’s the checkpoint that sees the most attrition every year.
In the checkpoint, I once again encountered Miker. He told me, “if you quit right now, you’re going to regret it until you come back and finish this thing. If you finish though, you never have to come back if you don’t want to.”
I knew he was right, but it was still hard to convince myself to keep going while watching race veterans that I knew were stronger than me throw in the towel around me. I was still on the fence about what to do when Zeigle’s nephew Patrick offered me a bed in the cabin he’d rented for the night. I could get a decent night’s sleep and finish out the remaining 65 miles in the morning. By this time, Cass and Paul had arrived and were planning on taking Patrick up on his offer so I decided to do the same.
We got to the cabin, and after arranging our wet clothes around the heater and eating a few bites, we all headed off to bed. I slept for about ten hours and the sun was already up by the time I woke. As I was coming out of the bedroom, I heard Paul asking Patrick for a ride to the finish. The nasty flu that he’d battled the whole week leading up to the race had gotten the best of him and he was calling it quits.
Cass and I had some oatmeal and coffee, reloaded our bikes, and set off with Paul’s brother Mike, a certified badass in his own right. Mike has a number of Arrowhead finishes under his belt and has even achieved the a’Trois. This year was his attempt at finishing it unsupported, a category that was added last year. Unsupported racers still have to check in and out at checkpoints, but they aren’t allowed to use any of the services provided. That means no food, no water, no drop bags, and no bathroom facilities. They aren’t even allowed to go inside to warm up. They have to carry everything they need with them and melt snow to refill their water supply. Aside from having more stuff, the only thing that signifies an unsupported racer is a small ribbon hanging from their bib number. If they want to switch from unsupported to supported, all they have to do is pull their ribbon and give it to the checkpoint volunteer. The MelGeorges volunteer had enough ribbons to open a damn craft store.
Mike was among those that switched categories at MelGeorges but not before traveling 70 miles unsupported on a bike with only one usable gear. As we were leaving the hotel the previous morning to head to the start, he realized something was messed up with his derailleur and he couldn’t shift. He made the decision to make do with what he had and ride the Arrowhead on what was essentially a singlespeed.
Like I said… certified badass.
Upon leaving MelGeorges, we were almost immediately met with a hill and Cass and I unfortunately lost Mike as we downshifted and spun our way up it. From there it was relatively flat - until it wasn’t anymore. We finally came upon the hills that everyone had warned me about. While they were significant, and I could see them being a nightmare in the dark, they weren’t all that bad in the daylight.
That forty-mile section between MelGeorges and Surly - the section I’d been warned about and had been dreading for weeks - ended up being my favorite part of the whole course. The undulating terrain kept things interesting, the views were incredible, and for every grueling climb we pushed up, we were immediately rewarded with a screaming fast descent. While the temps were certainly more favorable than the previous day at well above zero, the wind had kicked up considerably and it was snowing for much of the day. The blowing snow was an inconvenience, but it wasn’t too bad. Both Cass and I had high spirits as we got within about five miles of the Surly checkpoint.
As is always the case, that last five miles crept by, seemingly unending. When at long last, the trail made one final curve and I saw a Surly banner at the apex, my icicle covered face managed a smile. I was among friends, a warm teepee, and as much whiskey as I wanted (turns out I didn’t want any as I forgot to take even a single nip before leaving the checkpoint.)
The teepee was a full house with several other racers huddled around the wood stove, swapping tales from the race so far. It was here that we learned temps had dipped to around -30 degrees throughout the previous night, well below the forecasted low of -10. Hearing this made us content in our decision to take advantage of the cabin.
As one fellow racer put it: “I rode through the night and bivyed at -30 below. You slept in a warm bed and left MelGeorges this morning and we still got to the checkpoint at around the same time. Who made the smarter decision?”
Perspective is everything.
From the Surly checkpoint, there was only 25 miles left of the race. It was mostly flat save for one big hill known as Wakemup. I was told I’d know when I reached it because I’d come around a corner, see it, and utter some sort of expletive. After climbing and descending the other side it was flat, but it was also the most exposed part of the course and, seeing as the wind had picked up, it could pose its own problems. Either way, it was only 25 miles - less than my roundtrip commute to work. I tried to keep that in mind as we pedaled away from Surly.
For the couple miles beyond the checkpoint, Cass and I were joined by Surly’s Marketing Manager Dan. We chatted a little as we rode until we came around the infamous corner and I indeed said some expletives. We’d arrived at Wakemup and it was just as intimidating as everyone said it would be. Admitting defeat before I’d even reached the base, I dismounted and started pushing - at times struggling to find traction even on foot. When we finally crested it, the view was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my entire lifetime living in Minnesota. We could see for miles.
Dan bid us farewell and turned to head back to the checkpoint as Cass and I pointed ourselves downhill. From here on, it was going to be flat and (hopefully) smooth sailing. At the bottom, we pedaled at a casual pace and chatted as we went, the sun setting around us. The snow was still blowing and had gotten deeper as the day had gone on so pedaling became increasingly more difficult, at least for me. I found myself struggling to keep up with Cass and eventually, I watched his taillight fade off into the distance.
I’d officially bonked.
Before long, I could see lights coming up behind me… and fast! Figuring it was a snowmobile, I moved over as far to the right as I could and took the opportunity to have a drink of water and a bite to eat while I waited for it to pass. I was more than a little shocked when I realized it wasn’t a snowmobile at all, but Mike! Despite all the hills and only having one usable gear, he’d caught me. I was understandably impressed. After chatting a bit, we pedaled together for a while until he too began to pull away from me.
Alone again, I kept trudging along as best I could. It was completely dark by now and from time to time, I’d see a glowing pair of eyes eerily watching me from somewhere off trail. Not knowing (and not really wanting to know) what creature those eyes belonged to, I kept pedaling.
When at last I stopped for some more water and food, I leaned my bike against a tree and finally noticed the source of my slogging. My front tire was almost completely flat. The loose snow and bulky load under my handlebars had obscured my front wheel from view and I hadn’t noticed.
I hadn’t bonked at all; I was just pushing a damn snowplow!
I quickly grabbed my pump and filled up my tire. I checked my phone… only about 13 miles left to go. No problem. I started pedaling and immediately started flying down the trail. After pushing a flat tire for the past 8 or so miles, I suddenly felt like I was riding a road bike on fresh pavement.
In no time, I caught up with Mike, rode with him for a bit, and pulled away. I was in the most exposed part of the course now and was feeling every biting swell of wind on my already frost nipped cheeks. The finish was so close; I pedaled harder than I had the entire race. I got back into the woods and saw a sign for Fortune Bay Casino - two miles straight ahead. Holy shit, I was finishing this thing.
I crested the final little hill and saw it: the finish line. I had arrived. Besides the volunteers, the first person I saw at the finish was Miker, camera in hand and congratulations at the ready. After a few photos, I headed inside for the finish line gear check and the nearest buffet.
All told, my total elapsed time from start to finish was 37 hours, 46 minutes, and 16 seconds - a series of numbers that will be burned into my brain forever. It might sound cliché, but I truly didn’t make it to the finish line alone. Between my wife’s constant encouragement from afar and Miker (and other friends) pushing me to the finish nearby, I never really felt like I was alone - even when I most definitely was. I also couldn’t have done this without Cass’s unwavering positivity. Riding with another person undoubtedly makes a route like this easier but riding with someone who always keeps things cheery and positive makes it downright enjoyable. Also, a big thanks to all the Zeigles, all my Surly coworkers, and Kurt (for saving my damn face from freezing off).
All throughout the race and even at the finish, I kept thinking to myself and commenting to others that I don’t think winter ultras are my thing. This was going to be a one and done type of thing. When asked at the finish if I’d be racing again next year, I believe I said: “Hell no.”
And yet… On the drive home the next day, I was already planning what I’ll do differently next year. Now that I’ve had a few weeks to decompress, Arrowhead still conjures the same images of Shackleton-esque polar expeditions and the desolate, frozen solitude of Hoth. The difference now is, it’s now something I finally see as achievable.
As I’ve already mentioned, I got several of bits of advice from race veterans leading up to Arrowhead and so far, every bit had been dead on. Going out too hard was a dumb idea, and the checkpoints were all traps. Nearly everyone I talked to beforehand also told me something along the lines of: “Once you do Arrowhead, you’re always going to want to come back.”
And they’re definitely dead on about that. See you next year.
Now for the part of the blog all my fellow gear nerds have been waiting for…
- Stock Surly Pugsley (swapped out seatpost and saddle)
- 45NRTH Helva Pedals
Junkstrapped in a 35L Outdoor Research Air Purge Dry Compression Sack underneath my Moloko bars
- Big Agnes Crosho UL -20-degree sleeping bag*
- Nemo Tensor Insulated sleeping pad*
- Outdoor Research Helium Bivy*
- Patagonia Fitz Roy Down Parka
- Podiumwear Arrowhead Jacket (obvious choice)
- Podiumwear Arrowhead bibs
- Ibex wool long underwear
- Craft Storm Tights
- 45NRTH Merino Baselayer
- Surly Raglan shirt
- Surly Tall Socks
- Salomon ANKA CS WP boots
- Outdoor Research Mt. Baker Mits
- Rapha Merino hat
- 45NRTH Lung Cookie
- Face Tape
Kept in Porcelain Rocket Mr. Fusion XL seat bag (massive capacity and no swaying, this thing was indispensable)
- Outdoor Research Cathode Hooded Jacket
- Outdoor Research Cathode Vest
- Outdoor Research Helium II Rain Jacket
- Outdoor Research Helium II Rain Paints
- Surly Raglan
- Surly 5” socks
- 45NRTH Merino Baselayer
- 45NRTH Sturmfist 4
- 45NRTH Sturmfist 5
- Smartwool Merino glove liners
Kept wherever I could find space for it
- Meats from Red Table Meat Co. (the best, it was so great having real food out there. A little tricky to keep from freezing but I kept them in the back pockets of my Arrowhead jacket and that seemed to work)
- Skratch Labs Apple Cinnamon drink mix
- Homemade cookies
- Honey Stinger bars
- Backpacker’s Pantry Chicken Risotto
- Backpacker’s Pantry Oatmeal and Quinoa
- Starbuck’s Via Instant coffee
- Jar of peanut butter for emergency calories*
- Esbit tablets*
- 1-pint pot*
- Titanium Spork
- Windproof matches*
- Outdoor Research Water Bottle Parka
- 40oz. Nalgene*
- 32oz. Kleen Kanteen*
- Reflective vest*
- Spare tube
- Two taillights*
- Spare batteries*
- Cell phone
- Revelate Designs Mountain Feedbag x2
- Sturdy Bags frame bag
- Sturdy Bags toptube bag
- Lots of hand warmers
*Fulfills mandatory gear requirements.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you. Here’s some death metal from my buddy Jim’s newest project.
Enjoy. Or don’t.