Runners expect to wear out shoes, especially training for an ultra-marathon.
Parker Rios wore out a tire.
Training for the Arrowhead 135, the 45-year-old ultra veteran pushed himself out of the house in Brookfield at 2 a.m. on Saturday mornings from August to December, and pulled a car tire on a rope to Pewaukee.
Then he turned around and finished the six-hour training session in time to have breakfast with his daughters and start being dad for the day.
When the first tire wore through to the holes that held the rope, Rios found another one.
The payoff was a 40-hour trudge, pulling a sled, on a snowmobile trail from International Falls to Tower, Minn., and the finish line outside the Fortune Bay Casino.
The Arrowhead 135 is a unique, off-the-charts challenge even by the standards of ultra endurance sports.
Started eight years ago, the race offers the option of traveling by foot, bike or ski, but requires participants to carry all of their gear across the frozen landscape near the Canadian border.
No crews are allowed; no outside assistance, and the mandatory gear alone adds 15 pounds to the competitors’ burden.
Temperatures overnight often drop to minus 20 Fahrenheit, and even minus 40. Rios called the mid-20 temps he encountered a mixed blessing.
The moderate weather eliminated the mental and physical challenge of bitter cold but made the snow soft and sticky.
Thanks in part to his early-morning dates with “Black Beauty,” Rios finished second among the runners, an achievement that he said “doesn’t mean much.”
Finishing was the real victory.
Parker Rios at the finish of the Arrowhead 135. Photo courtesy of Parker Rios
This was Rios’ second go at the Arrowhead, and the 2010 edition was the only race that the veteran ultra marathoner had ever failed to complete. He miscalculated the strain of pulling a 40-pound sled, didn’t train enough, and dropped out after just 73 miles.
“And it was that DNF that motivated me to get out of bed each Saturday at 2:00 a.m.,” he said. “Fear of failure can be a great motivator.
“When the gun” went off, my thoughts were really just about managing my own race and not worrying about what the other competitors were going to do. I knew that some of the guys who were going out fast from the start, just due to the odds, were not going to finish the race.”
Indeed, 20 of the 48 starters who raced by foot did not finish the 2012 version of the Arrowhead 135.
With no crew, competitors in the Arrowhead spend hours in isolation and darkness. They climb massive hills surrounded by boulders, and share the trail with moose, wolves, deer, lynx and rabbits.
Rios has been drawn to the rugged elements of ultra running since his time in law school at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and a part-time job at Movin' Shoes. Now a fast fixture in the area's strong ultra group, he has completed nearly two-dozen Ice Age 50 trail runs and competes in about a half-dozen races up to 100 miles each year.
He logged 105 miles in the Badgerland Strider 24-hour race on Labor Day weekend, as part of his preparation for Arrowhead.
With the lessons from 2010 in his mind, Rios left International Falls at 7:04 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 30.
He pushed through the first 73 miles and reached the second checkpoint at 4:15 a.m. on Tuesday. He took a one-hour nap in one of the cabins, organized his gear and set out on one of the toughest sections of the course.
“Over the next nine hours, the solitude would be broken three times, as I would pass another runner,” he said. “Each time, simple words of encouragement were offered.”
Rios estimates he moved into second place around the 100-mile mark.
“To me, this was both good and bad news,” he said. “The good news was obviously that I was doing well; in fact, better than I had expected.
“The bad news, however, was in that split second Arrowhead was no longer my personal journey to get to the finish line, but became a race that I was not sure I wanted to run. Now, as hard as I tried not to, I was worrying about how fast the guys behind me were moving.”
Racing into the darkness of a second night, Rios battled the surreal mental machinations brought about by exhaustion and sleep deprivation.
Was it 10 miles to the finish, or 20? Would he have to push himself for three more hours or eight? Could he?
“I am convinced that I fell asleep for about two minutes while still moving forward,” he said.
He fought the internal battle of competing forces: one urging him to stop, pull out his warm sleeping bag and nap; the other urging him to keep moving ahead of his competitors.
Dozing, and without a sense of time or space, Rios found propulsion in ‘80s classic rock – a familiar playlist of Van Halen, Led Zeppelin and Steve Miller he found on a radio station tuned in on the Sony Walkman he had stashed in his gear.
“For about the next three hours I was able to fight off sleep, move forward, and progress to the finish by singing a variety of songs as loud as I could,” he said.
The distant lights of the Fortune Bay Casino offered the first hint of the finish line, then the sounds of voices and cowbells. He crossed the finish line at 11:50 p.m. Tuesday – 40 hours and 46 minutes after the start.
With a couple weeks to reflect and recover, he's ready to wear out another tire.