The Arrowhead 135… you think about it for months, drive your spouse crazy talking about it, obsess about gear, chat with your dorky biking friends about equipment, pacing strategy, gear ratios, blah blah blah. Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about. I’ve been thinking about the Arrowhead 135 since September, when John Hoch brought it up… “you want a REAL challenge? Look at doing the Arrowhead” When I looked into it The Arrowhead 135 sort of went in the mental “someday” file. I was intrigued, but the roster was full, had been for quite a while at that point. Also, you needed a qualifying race in order to even apply for the race. I started to set my sights on the Tuscobia 80, to later qualify for the Tuscobia 160, to take a shot at the Arrowhead… someday. Fast forward to mid January – I had somehow talked my way into the long version of Tuscobia with a carefully crafted email, managed to finish it in one piece, and enough time had passed to take the edge off some of the more painful memories. I was hooked on long distance winter racing (how the hell did that happen?). On a whim, I sent an email to the Arrowhead 135 organizers asking if there was a waiting list for 2018. Just an innocent question – isn’t that how it always starts? I didn’t really expect a response, and certainly not this one:
“We’ve had an unusual number of early cancellations this year. You have until gear check ends on Sunday to decide if you want to race in one of the greatest races on earth or stay home and wish you were here.”
Take Care, Ken Kruger
Seriously? I guess someday may be coming sooner than I thought. Not sure I’m ready, especially so soon after Tuscobia, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to make a few ‘soft’ inquiries…. “I’m just going to look into this a little”, I told Wendy Wolk Van Neste
The Arrowhead 135 starts in International Falls, Minnesota and follows the Arrowhead State Snowmobile Trail to the Fortune Bay Casino in Tower, MN. The thought of thumbing a ride back north afterward, or taking a couple of hours taxi ride back to the start to get my vehicle definitely did not appeal, and my one of a kind wife Wendy Wolk Van Neste was not able to be the faithful race companion / support team for this event because of work obligations.
Enter Woody Preacher / Back of the Pack Racing. Woody had responded to an inquiry I made on the Arrowhead 135 Dream Team Facebook group. Yes, he would be happy to pick me up at Fortune Bay Casino and give me a ride to the start. Sure, he could show me around, help with logistics, share their hotel room (which was about 500 feet from the starting line), get my bag back to the finish line, give me a ride to gear check, the prerace meeting, out to dinner with his crew, etc. etc. etc. I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t sure that I could stay home with this V.I.P. hookup being offered. Also along for the ride is James Kiffmeyer and Peter Witucki, some of the best guys you could meet. Peter will go on to win his division (kick sled) on his rookie attempt – way to rock it Peter! James will finish 25th on his rookie bike ride, despite some mechanical problems.
Anyway, that’s the long answer to the short question “How did I get here?” Standing on the starting line on Monday morning with 167 other bikers, runners, and skiers (many of whom will never be strangers again), fireworks lighting the sky, and the mayor of International Falls giving the traditional call “Release the Hounds” was a very emotional experience. I can’t quite get my head around what it is I’m about to do here – the mileage, the temperatures, any of it. An adventure, by definition, is a journey without a known outcome. After months of daydreaming and preparation, it was time to fully embrace that unknown.
Let me first say that this year’s arrowhead would be considered an “easy” year. It had been warm (even raining) just a few days before, then the trail was groomed just as the temperature was dropping, leaving a perfectly set up course which was the fatbiking equivalent to a paved roadway – smooth and fast. With -15 Fahrenheit at the start, the track should hold up pretty good too. Despite my best efforts to take it easy at the start, I roll out fast. Most everyone rolls out too fast, you just can’t help yourself. Some of my new friends roll past, including some of ‘Back of the Pack’ guys. J.B. and Jesse Ramsey on his borrowed Surly Ice Cream Truck – each chasing down a new single speed division record “That’s not really a thing,” Jesse says, “but we say it is” (‘We’ being ‘Back of the Pack Racing’ – a traveling band of good-natured misfits from various states who represent all good things cycling). I Love the B.P.R. logo, with the text “Dead last doesn’t mean loser”. Nice sentiment, but as I watch them disappear over the horizon, I doubt that either of them have finished last, ever.
The first 35 miles goes by very fast, a blur of easy rolling hills, people ringing cowbells at road crossings, and photographers on the course. I arrive at the first timing checkpoint at about 11:00 am. The Gateway General Store is an iconic part of the Arrowhead. Inside, there are several crock pots with soup, mac and cheese, plus all of the usual gas station / convenience store / bait shop fare. Locals, racers, and race volunteers crowd inside around a large TV with the Trackleaders live tracking shown on it. I wasn’t able to get a tracker for this event because of my late entry, but its mesmerizing to watch all the little dots making thier way along the map. I stayed only about 20 minutes – long enough to de-ice my beard and goggles and refill my camelback. No sense trying to dry anything else, I’m soaking wet but my new favorite wool jacket is doing the trick nicely. I had learned from Tuscobia that freezing the liquid inside my Camelbak tube was a common and serious problem, and this time I had a few more tricks up my sleeve – literally. With the drinking tube run down my sleeve, and the bite valve poking out into my ‘Pogie’ (a handlebar mounted mini-shelter for your hands) It should protect it from freezing, especially with a chemical heater shoved in each pogie. So far so good. Also a ‘Hydro Heater’ got added to my gear since Tuscobia, which is a heavily insulated drink tube with a small heating element inside the hose. Pushing the magic button heats the element for 10 minutes. Up to this point, haven’t needed it – fingers crossed.
The next checkpoint, at 72 miles, is at Melgeorge’s resort on the opposite side of Elephant Lake. Pace is slowing slightly, as the hills are getting bigger. Not quite walking up yet, but close. In addition to the nicely groomed trail, there is a 2 foot wide ribbon of perfectly packed snow, making descents of nearly 25 mph possible despite the heavy load on the handlebars. Still having fun of the ‘Type 1’ variety on these roller coaster hills – “Is this what it is all about, or what?” I have to ask myself. I get to Elephant Lake, and make the mile long crossing at a gorgeous time of day, with very little wind. I bet this is brutal if its really blowing. I pass J.B. on the spur trail on the way to the checkpoint – he is heading back the other way to get a cheeseburger at the restaurant I bet, which is a part of his annual ritual / race plan that he had shared with me the night before. The Melgeorge’s checkpoint is a great little log cabin – as long as you have not elected to race in the ‘unsupported’ division, you are welcome inside. During the time I was there, several unsupported racers elected to come inside, selling their soul for a grilled cheese sandwich, some soup, and a few minutes respite from the cold. They can’t keep their ribbon that indicates an unsupported racer, but they stay in the race. Most everyone is in great spirits, especially the volunteers, who are wonderful hosts, I must say. I arrived at 4:45, got some food, and tried to nap, in an attempt to avoid the fiasco of a late night bivy. I left around 5:30, right as the sun was setting. I wasn’t really able to sleep, so I’m not sure if my nap attempt will pay of or if it was just a waste of time. “The pay is the same either way”, I tell myself.
Over half way finished – no problem. The Arrowhead course can be thought of in thirds…. flat, hilly, flat again. At this point, I was partway through the hilly section. I’m not familiar with the course, but how bad can it get, right? Look on the bright side – I always enjoy the first few hours of darkness, and this night was turning out to be incredible. Full moon, clear and cold – exactly what a night on the trail is supposed to be all about. The field of riders is pretty stretched out by now, only passing people about once or twice an hour. Because of the hills, my pace is really starting to drop off now. I find a fully loaded fatbike a fairly unwieldy machine to do any standing climbing on, and about half of these hills require walking up as a result. No problem – plenty other people have walked up in front of me. A fully loaded fatbike is also a pretty unwieldy thing to push uphill, so the terrain is starting to really take its toll on my pace. Mileage coming off SO slowly. 80 miles down – 55 to go. Now 85 miles down – 50 to go. The hills keep coming, and they are definitely not getting smaller. The first few walking climbs were kind of a power walk up, with a modified “flying mount” at the top – cyclocross style. Step into the left pedal, push down and swing right leg over in a nice smooth motion… Easy. Efficient. Graceful. After what seems like a few hundred dismounts / remounts its becoming far less graceful and less efficient however. Also, I’m pretty sure that its much colder than predicted. My ice beard is about twice the size it has ever been, and my sleeves are covered in ice. I’ve had to hit the magic button on the Hydro Heater a few times now. Works great. Trying hard not to look at the mileage, because nothing good will come of that, but I can’t help it… 91 miles, then 91.5, then 91.57 (that rounds to 96 right?) so there’s how many miles left? 29? No, 39! (wait – did I do that right…. Maybe I’d better look again, because I’m sure there’s fewer miles to go now). And…GPS is dead – battery finally froze I guess. Screw you, Garmin, you didn’t have any good news for me anyway. Okay, so around 15 miles to get to checkpoint three – the Surly Teepee is at 110 miles. Things are finally starting to get interesting. This is where it all happens. In some way I’ve been looking forward to this moment for a month. The exhaustion of the last 14 hours of riding catches up to me, right at the same time that everything with a battery in it has died. My ability to mentally fend off the cold, and focus on positive thoughts starts to dwindle, and thus begins the inevitable meltdown. Hello Darkness my old friend…
I’ve been here before, I know what this feels like, and I know logically that I can get past it, no matter how I’m feeling right now. I just have to make it 10 or so miles to the next checkpoint – I won’t allow myself to think beyond that. But how many more of these hills are there going to be in the next 10 miles I wonder? Partway up the steepest one yet, holding both brakes for a momentary rest, I’m bent over with my head against the handlebars, breathing hard, generally wallowing in self pity at this point (holy mackerel this bonk came on fast). I know if I stand here too long like this, my breath will hopelessly ice up my goggles. So instead I lean back, sending a whimpering groan skyward. Head filled thoughts of how long this race is, and how small I am… and right at that moment, a meteor goes by, streaking toward the horizon. No way I would have seen it without a skyward glance right at that moment. What an amazing place the universe is!
Okay I’m done – positive thoughts only from here on out. How many people wanted to be here but couldn’t? I was blessed with a late entry, logistics that just fell into place, a whole bunch of awesome new friends, not to mention my health, an understanding boss, an understanding spouse… How many people are even capable of doing this at all? That’s right, now I remember. Luckiest man in the world, just to be here is amazing. This race, in fact, the entire concept of ultra racing, is a celebration of human resilience, so let’s start acting like it, dude. One pedal stroke at a time – no matter how long it takes. I’ll get there.
It is starting to set in that I’m going to have to bivy. I just can’t seem to teach my body to live without sleep this long. That stinks, because the transition from iced over clothing to bivy sack and back again is brutal at these temperatures, so my plan is to defrost at the Surly Teepee and then roll out the bivy sack. Right after the teepee is “Wakemup Hill”. I’m not familiar with the course, but usually hills worthy of being named are NOT small. That sounds like a project to take on after a nice nap. Get to the Surly Teepee and bivy – no other option at this point. Last I talked to someone with a working GPS, there was 8 miles to go. That was probably an hour ago, so it’s got to be around the next bend.
Probably 15 bends later, I see the four tiki torches lighting the way to the teepee. I can’t believe I actually made it. Boy am I glad to be here. 12:30 am – what a night! I kind of fall into the teepee, nice and warm in there. JB is there – cooking a ham steak on the top of the glowing woodstove, and someone else is reheating a six inch diameter ball which I’m told is four pieces of pizza. Whitney Beadle, who would go on to be the second place female, was there getting her wits about her after a dehydrated stupor of a few hours. They all finish their culinary delights and disappear into the night.
After finally getting dry I head to the other side of the trail and roll out the bivy sack. So nice to be dry, and doing this in a somewhat controlled fashion, rather than the panicked dive in method like last time. I think I managed to get about 2 hours of sleep before waking up with my feet FREEZING. It turns out it was -29 F during my little nap – no wonder. Feels almost like cheating to have a nice warm tent available to repack my gear, but hey, you have to work with the resources you have available under the rules. I refilled my Camelbak before heading out. The menu at Surly Teepee consists of ice water, warm water, or hot water. I’ll take warm please – its about 6am before I finally roll out.
Wakemup Hill was really no worse than most of the other hills of the last several miles… and it’s the LAST ONE. Course turns out to be flat as a pancake thereafter. Something like 24 miles to go. Somewhere between 3 and 5 hours of riding, most of it heading east into an amazing sunrise complete with a sundog on the north side. 24 easy miles isn’t as much fun as it was yesterday at this hour. Occasionally I stop to walk, just to change things up a little, warm up my feet, and try to stretch out. The refreshing qualities of my little nap have worn off completely at this point. At a major trail intersection there is a map, which I can’t make heads or tails of, which is pretty embarrassing since I’m a surveyor – I must be out of it worse than I thought. I finally give up and figure I’ll get there when I get there, eventually coming to a sign – Fortune Bay Casino…wait for it… 2 MILES AWAY! I can hardly believe it! 20 minutes of riding and I’ll be finished. Now I’ve got all the energy in the world. Here comes the last few rolling hills… the orange snowfence… the final climb, some volunteers with cowbells! and just like that, the Arrowhead 135 is a memory. 26 hours 57 minutes. wow
56 finishers in the bike division – 17 drops. All of them heroes in my book. Temps down to -29 Fahrenheit. I’ve always thought these people were crazy – and now I’m one of them. Almost 2 weeks to Actif Epica – the last in the triple crown. Definitely considering it. Decisions, Decisions.
And by the way, the man, the myth, the legend Woody Preacher wins the Shackleton Award – on course for almost 44 hours unsupported! Jesse Ramsey was the first finisher on a single speed – missing the record by just a few minutes, despite riding about 5 ‘bonus miles’. What a beast. The people at these events is what makes the experience. Thanks again Woody for introducing me to your BPR family.