Thursday, March 6, 2014

Arrowhead 135 Ultra

Having been curious about the Arrowhead 135 for a few years, I was regularly reading posts from prior racers trying to gather information about equipment, strategy and logistics.  Having raced the Tuscobia Ultra two times was a good test and put me in contact with extremely informative racers.  I apologize for potentially annoying them with questions.  When I decided to commit to the running of the 2014 Arrowhead, I had a list of what I would need for equipment upgrades for a historically cold race.  What I perceived I needed and what I needed were two different things.  Testing during a few subzero and even -15 Fahrenheit episodes showed me some flaws and enhancements I needed to make.
Being OCD about big races, I was monitoring the weather two weeks before the race.  Initially I was optimistic about weather.  I was hoping for -10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit.  Suddenly a week out the temps began to plummet.  If I wasn't nervous before, I became edgy.  Sorry honey.  Five days before the race I went to my local bike shop in Prior Lake, Michaels Bike Shop.  I talked about my concerns in regards to the race to Michael himself.  He thought quickly about upgrading my 0 degree Fahrenheit 45 Nrth Wolvehammers with the Therm-ic snowboot warmer through the help of a local dealer.  Within 24 hours, he installed the unit.  I also made a run to my local REI to make some last minute modifications since temps were falling ten degrees beyond anything I've cycled or camped in much less for extended periods of time.
After an extensive two days of nervous packing I was ready to depart with my father.  Leaving my family, my wife whispered, "remember your children want their pappy to come back in one piece."  Although feeling appreciated, her comments didn't soothe my fear of the unknown.  Although it confirmed my approach for the race well before it even started.
I enjoyed the five and a half hour drive to International Falls with my father.  My life is extremely busy and I don't always get these opportunities to hang out with him for such long durations.  The continual easy flowing conversation calmed my mood.   The bluebird conditions made for a beautiful drive.  I noticed north of Virginia that the snow pack was double of where I came from and only increased from there on my north bound journey.  The road surface also deteriorated all the way to International Falls.  Bad roads, decreasing temps and potential overnight snowfall were the less than advantageous conditions to contend with.  Welcome to I-Falls. We arrived around sunset.  My father and I immediately went to the gear check at the local community center since it was going to close in 40 minutes.  The first people we encountered was Jay Petervary and his wife, Tracey.  They gave some guidance in tackling the gear check.   Being the novice I was, I made two additional runs out to my vehicle when I thought I had everything in order.  Different than previous snow bike races, I didn't realize how thorough the gear check nazis were going to be.  Everything was evaluated and checked to make sure it had tags verifying its merit and completely opened  up.  At the end of running to my vehicle and gathering everything I needed, I was left to repack a pile of all my items that took close to an hour to pack in my own home.  Hopefully the second time went faster and I didn't leave anything behind.
My father helped me reload the repacked bike in the back of my suv and off we went to the hotel.  Upon the later than intended arrival to the hotel, I was greeted by a few racers finishing dinner at the hotel restaurant.  I began to calm down when engaging in conversation with others that were going to share a similar experience in a day and a half.
A pleasant meal and beer with my father relaxed me in time to go to bed.  I love my father, but not his mountain man snoring was a challenge.  No sleep two nights before.  We awoke and ate breakfast with some racers with a great deal of experience completing snow bike races around the country and across the world doing mountain bike races.
I was okay with body and head protection, but still uncertain about my boots.  Temps were to be -24 degrees Fahrenheit at the beginning of the race.  I spent much of the morning searching I-Falls to see how to upgrade my boots.  Nothing was found in my ample size, although I was impressed with the selection of merchandise I-Falls provided.  I decided to eventually use duck tape around the bottom of the boots and Gore gaiters covering the top.  We also drove out to the first aid station at the Gateway Store.  It had snowed two inches overnight, but the trail seemed really firm underneath.  Every time we pulled to the side of the road, a local pulled alongside and made sure we were okay.  People seemed to really take care of each other.
I took a nap and my father got ear protection for me for another night with the sleeping bear at the nearby Menards.  I then nervously did a trial on putting on the clothing and finalized the packing.  I seem to overdo the packing in new cycling adventures.  This was certainly the most extreme event I had encountered, so the more the better.  Right?  The packs were busting at the seams.
It was exciting to meet all the racers at the race meeting and dinner.  Despite our relatives and friends from outside this selective community thinking otherwise about our emotional stability in selecting events like Arrowhead and thinking we're nuts, it was an extremely intelligent, determined and well accomplished professionals, citizens and racers.  It was also intimidating.
That night I was nervous as we usually are for a big race.  I reiterated in my mind, "you're doing this to try and finish."  "You're not doing this as a race."  There seemed to be too many unknowns and experimenting at a race pace in a hostile environment in the middle of nowhere didn't seem like a good idea.  Besides, I had to only average 2.5 miles per hour to finish.  The night involved ear plugs, regular bathroom breaks, checking the weather on the cell phone every two hours and intermittent sleep.  I shouldn't have, but the decreasing temps became addicting to check.  Soon enough my cell phone alarm went off.  Quickly I awoke and went downstairs and had breakfast.  The dining area was active with racers.  Some already in bibs and others in pjs or sweats like myself.  Nerves didn't allow me to eat an ample breakfast like I enjoy doing, but I forced down what I could.  I then headed up and starting to get dressed and putting my items away that my dad would checkout with.  After going to the bathroom and feeling that sense of accomplishment, I realized that showtime was less than an hour away.  My father started my vehicle in -24 degree temps and I realized how thankful I was to have him there to do the little things that made racing so much easier than my fellow racers on their own.
Upon heading outside with the bike, I realized how beastly cold it had gotten.  It was no joke.  People die in weather like this.  Interestingly I got an email on the drive over to the start on the other side of town that my school was canceling school because of the weather.  That was going to be the third and fourth days of the year.  We don't cancel school in Minnesota, yet here I was heading out on an adventure.
I showed up when the cyclists headed out.  I needed to check in and then head out.  I didn't have my bib number on my reflective vest and got great assistance from the Mayor of International Falls.  I'm sure he was thinking, "here goes another numbskull out to be needing a rescue."
I hopped on the bike, started the computer, and took off.  I was by myself.  Soon I passed a skier and then a herd of runners with sleds flashing their lights.  I had my Cold Air Avenger Mask on, with ski googles and attached to my skiing helmet.  As I passed the long lines of runners, I thought about how surreal the experience seemed.  I could hear myself breathing like Darth Vader with my enclosed mask.  I briefly looked down after four miles of finally passing the first placed runner.  There were a bunch of wolf tracks.  After passing a female rider, I of course had to pee.  Ugh... I went a little further to give a buffer space.  It was the first of many episodes of undoing three pant layers to do what I needed to do.  Between mile five and ten I passed a few riders off the back.  One was Thomas Lais.  Al Dixon and himself told me to find a nice manageable riding pace.  Sustainable and just fast enough to stay warm.  After ten to fifteen minutes of riding with them, I carried on.  On the next pee and hydration break, I decided to turn up the boot heaters from low level (97 degrees Fahrenheit) to medium level (113 degrees Fahrenheit).  My toes were getting mildly cold and I didn't want things to get worse.  Hydration was going well, I was peeing and I only had a goal of making it to the first aid station at this point.  After ten miles I took a hard left heading directly East and passed a bunch of cyclists by a log shelter next to the trail.  The sun was up and the trail seemed fairly firm with just a light layer of powder.  Being in the back of the cyclists has also the advantage of riding their tracks.  After twenty miles I started jostling back and forth with three or four riders.  Communication was brief and everyone rode at their own pace.  It was relatively flat, but started to have more variation in terrain the last five or six miles before the Gateway  checkpoint.  My Garmin had long stopped working in the extreme cold and my goggles fogged up and weren't working.  They were pushed over my eyes and onto the bottom of my helmet creating a small sliver of space between them and Cold Air Avenger Mask.  One of the Biology teachers at the school I teach at had an impressionable statement that stuck with me and certainly at this point, "remember at cold temps your eyes can freeze."  I thought the heat from my mask circulating towards my eyes was giving me enough heat to stave off something horrific.  This was how I spent 95% of the race.  Little eye protection for me.
After consulting with a snowmobile map that I was only two miles away from the Gateway Store, I felt a little surge to push the pace to the first rest area.  When I walked into the store, the extremely cold air created the fog machine affect.  I checked in and stripped my first two outside layer of clothes which were Gore rain gear and Gore thermal barriers onto shelves next to potato chips in aisle two.  I was directed to have my gear put in a drying.  I then saw familiar faces.  It was quite comforting to get there.  Soon my father arrived and I enjoyed two bowls of soup with him while my clothes were drying.
I waited a little too long at this aid station; however, it allowed me to then ride with Thomas Lais and Thomas Woods.  Two individuals that are quite experienced and heady.  They seemed to ride within themselves and were optimistic and encouraging.  This seemed to be the vibe that I needed.  We took off and had about 50 minutes before it was dark.
At this point we hit the first of the hills.  They were steeper and more sustained up and down.  With this variation the trail was still in pretty solid shape.  Five miles later, Tom Woods and myself out rode Tom Lais unintentionally and waited for a while, but we couldn't see him.  I found at these low temps, that you had to have a plan of what you were going to do when you stopped.  It was usually two or three minutes and then I was going to have to start moving again because I was beginning to chill.  Riding faster or stoking the furnace was something I had to do to warm up.  I learned from Thomas Lais that you had to increase the heart rate for short periods of time to flush out heat to the extremities.  Of course there is that fine line of not overheating or sweating up too much.  The pit zips on my Arcterx rain jacket were wide open and seemed to ventilate as needed.
Fifteen miles to the second checkpoint my father was at the side of the trail.  I changed into another pair of the lobster gloves I had with me.  It was getting even colder than at the beginning of the race.  Tom Woods and I refueled in a heated ice fishing shack and I repurposed my water from the frozen Cambelpak to insulated water bottles.  We had to take off and had my dad check in with Thomas Lais.  I felt good at this pace.  The hills were beginning to get loose at this point.  I passed the ten miles to mid check point shelter and noticed two flashing bikes outside of it.  They seemed to be camped out for the night or a bit.
The trail got steeper and unrideable around five miles to midpoint and up to the Elephant Lake crossing.   I came across Rick Paoletti and rode/hiked with him.  The rescue snowmobilers were out in full force at this point.  They were a good thing to have out for many racers, but their traffic worked up the little bit of firm trail at this point.  I was hoping to not get rescued on a sled.  -30 degrees Fahrenheit on a sled for several minutes in an open sled would have frozen me solid.  After a little while Thomas Woods rejoined us and then I rode ahead to Elephant Lake.  It was a brutal crossing with windchills at -61 degrees Fahrenheit at this point.  It was a slow grind into the wind with inconsistent and sometimes really soft conditions on the two mile lake crossing.  I kept looking back for Rick and Tom.  I didn't see them and had to rely on the reflective posts across the lake.  The crossing never seemed to end.  Eventually with a combination of mostly slow riding and a little walking, got across.  Of course being new to the race I didn't know where the race went.  I traversed around the parking lot and around part of the lodge and restaurant not finding any cabin that was the checkpoint.  Getting nervously cold, I unfortunately awoke a gentleman in an idling truck and he directed me another quarter mile to the cabin.
Again upon arrival in the checkpoint , the fog machine affect was even more impressive than at the first stop.  I was greeted with smiles and opportunity to change out of wet clothes and feed my face with awesome grilled cheese sandwiches and soup.  Again I was set up to have my outer layers dried.  I even got a microwaved warm towel.  Oh... relaxing.
A little while later, Tom and Rick arrived.  They also ate and then my father appeared and showed us to the cabin we rented with the Scotchs.  I plugged in my batteries for my feet before going to bed.  Of course recharging my lights would have been a great idea also.
I went to bed at 3 am and awoke after 6 am when Chris Scotch, a runner came in.  I quickly made room for his equipment  and him and then went back to bed for another two hours which seemed like about ten minutes.
Tom and I then decided to go get breakfast at the restaurant of the Melgeorges Resort.  I ate two breakfasts with Tom, Rick and another gentleman from Duluth who decided to drop at this point.  I believe at least half dropped and many because of frost bite.  We made our plans to leave in an hour.  Tom and I quickly packed and readied our belongings.  I was amazed with Rick's and Tom's positivity as we embarked on our second part of the journey.  I then heard yelling from Thomas Lais and his daughter signaling that he made it to Melgeorges.
The climb out of Melgeorges was slow because of the low sustained climb which turned into multiple climbs upwards.  We then went quickly down and back up the longest and steepest climb about three to four miles from the checkpoint.  Rick, Tom and I just got a pace going and all seemed fairly comfortable.  It was great conversing with them and having the companionship.  Tom shared some mocha he had in a thermos around dusk.  It hit the spot.
There was stretches of a few miles of relatively flat across swamps leading to extremely steep climbs and descents.  We then started passing runners that passed us during our twelve hours at Melgeorges.  Some were riding their sleds down the steep descents.
I was leading during this point and noticed that the trail was starting to get blown in across some of the swamps and the temps were really dropping.  After talking to a rescue snowmobiler we found out that we were only three miles from the next check point.  We quickly ate and hydrated and headed off to the last checkpoint until the finish.  After a quick push, we made it to a fire pit and two heated ice fishing shelters.  At this point we changed clothes, ate and hydrated.  It took five minutes in the shelters for our Iphones to come back to life.  We checked the weather and strategized what we would do next.
The weather seemed to not bring any snow.  The temps weren't going to increase any time soon.  Rick decided to push on and Tom and I set up our bivy tents.  We slept for about four hours and then got ready in the nearby ice shelters again.  The staff was great refilling our hydration units and providing hot chocolate.  Tom lent me his headlamp when I expressed concern about how long my lights will last.    We took off for the last 26 miles in frigid temps and in complete blackness.  The trail was a little softer from foot traffic, but manageable.  I went up the last hill that was steep, but didn't seem as sustained as prior ones.  However, I couldn't see Tom at this point.  I stopped after a road crossing in the middle of nowhere.  I eventually saw him.  Upon meeting up with him I found out that his lights on his bike ran out in the darkness and cold he fumbled to find the other battery to plug in.  I felt bad since I had his headlamp, which would have saved him the trouble.
We pushed forward in the darkness.  It was brutally cold.  I had my last dry clothes and had to change into my last pair of lobster gloves (I traveled with a extra jacket, three extra thermal shirts, three extra balaclavas, two extra pairs of wool Swiftwick socks, two extra pairs of thermal fleece wool socks, tons of chemical heaters and two extra lobster gloves).   My bikes drive train was getting grumpy and not shifting solidly.  I found a gear and stuck with it.  I did have to surge ahead and quickly to stoke the furnace and flush blood flow to my hands.  It did the trick after two minutes of picking up the pace.
The sunrise was absolutely beautiful.  Tom and I stopped for a moment and enjoyed it while sipping hot chocolate from his thermos.  We then hit some long open exposed areas.  A group of runners were ahead of us with six miles to go.  Two of them were Helen and Chris Scotch.  I was absolutely amazed at their pace and ability to push themselves through two nights.
Eventually Tom and I relying on my unreliable Garmin came upon the finish sooner than anticipated.  Although not fast, I was happy that I stuck to my game plan and finished.

Some general thoughts:
-The Cold Air Avenger was amazing and protected my lungs from the harsh cold
-I guessed right on layering
-My optical wear needs some work (goggles with fan?)
-My footwear with heaters worked well (plastic bags as vapor barrier failed many)
-I didn't need so much clothing aside from extra thermal shirts and gloves
-My dad dragged my sorry arse home when I was too exhausted to do so
-Thank you for the support dad and just being around, it was so appreciated
-Tom and Rick were great companions to ride with.  So composed and genuinely enjoyed the opportunity to take on such an epic adventure.  Thank you both.  (Pictures by Tom Woods)