Records set, endurance tested at the Arrowhead 135 Ultramarathon
The Arrowhead Ultra is a 135-mile, unsupported silent sports race held in mid-winter beginning in International Falls, Minnesota, and concluding in Tower, Minnesota, via the Arrowhead snowmobile trail. Entrants are given three choices of propulsion for participating in the event: bike, foot or skis.
The Arrowhead Ultra 135 was inaugurated in 2005 with 12 racers and is now capped at 135 qualified participants. First-time racers must meet specific standards to be accepted. One way to qualify is to complete an event such as the Tuscobia Ultra held in Park Falls, Wisconsin, or a similar endurance-based event. Such qualification is understandable given the fact that typically fewer than 50 percent of those who start the Arrowhead race actually finish it.
An important feature of the Arrowhead event is that it is also a fundraiser. Profits from the 2012 event benefitted the Special Operations Warrior Fund, which provides college scholarships for the children of fallen Special Ops troops and assistance to the families of severely wounded personnel.
This year the race was comprised of contestants from a wide range of states and districts (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, North Dakota, Texas, Arkansas, Wyoming, Colorado, California, Idaho, Maryland, Virginia, New York and Washington, D.C.); as well as multiple countries (Canada, Italy, France, Spain, Scotland and Singapore).
Every participant is required to start, carry or drag and finish with everything they need, including a sleeping bag rated for minus-20 degree conditions, 3,000 calories of food, a stove and fuel, bivy sack and lights. Optional is extra clothes for temperatures of 30 to 40 degrees below zero, before accounting for windchill, that have been typical over the years. Food and water also must be carried without outside support. That can get very interesting when it's super cold, because a person can't drink ice or chew frozen food.
In 2011, my son Chris entered the Arrowhead race in the foot division and I decided to hang out for a few days to see what it was all about. By the end of the race, which Chris finished, he inspired me to give it a try this year, starting on January 30, but on skis.
I have been cross-country skiing for more than 15 years and have always wondered what it would be like to ski point to point all day long. I saw this as an opportunity to do just that. The big difference: This event would require me to ski all day, most of the night and all of the next day. The course record for the skiing was 36 hours. My goal was to match or beat that time.
The Arrowhead 135 is a very difficult race for skiers. In the seven years of the race, only eight skiers have ever finished. There are many reasons for that, but the main one is that bitter cold and glide don't get along very well. With no glide, most skiers over the years are reduced to walking, sometimes for miles in ski boots. Although there are race officials on the course, contact with them, and other racers for that matter, can be hours apart. One truly has to be able to take care of oneself in the frigid cold should anything unforeseen happen. As one of my skier friends told me, "You could die out there." That is no exaggeration.
I have skied a few American Birkebeiners and Noquemanons, 30-some mile events, and have been an average Wave 3-4 skate skier in my age group over the years. At 56 years old, my fastest years are behind me. But I figured the Arrowhead Ultra wouldn't be a speed race so much as a test of endurance, planning, determination and maybe just some plain dumb luck. Many things can happen over 135 miles. I've been told by veteran ultra racers that the race doesn't really start until the morning of the second day. Consequently, my main goal was to get to mile 70, a checkpoint with sleeping accommodations if you want them, and take it from there.
Because there is a checkpoint every 35 miles or so, I broke down my plans for the race to as the equivalent of four Birkies over two days. In other words, two Birkies a day that would be separated by a rest stop/checkpoint between each plus a major rest stop between each day where one can actually sleep in a bed or just eat, dry off and warm up. Many runners end up bivying trailside wherever they need to. Many of the bikers and top runners and skiers spend very little time at any of the checkpoints.
Because it was so much armer than usual, this year proved to be the year to ski. I lined up with the other seven skiers at 7 a.m. on January 30.
The race starts on a Monday to avoid weekend snowmobile traffic. Probably due to the poor snow conditions this year, very few snow machines other than those associated with the race were seen.
The clock starts
This is my story of the next 39 hours and 20 minutes.
Along with many others, I stayed in the Voyageur Motel in International Falls, which is only a short walk/ski/bike to the start. I got to the start five minutes before the bikes were unleashed and seven minutes before the skiers would be given the go ahead.
When we toed up to the line, I asked the young guy next to me if we should do a Birkie start and double pole the first 100 yards. He chuckled and said it would be better than breaking a pole. "Better here than at mile 100," I added. A second later I realized how insane that sounded. Then we were off.
The young guy took off like it was a sprint race. Another guy followed him and then a third. I settled into fourth place, I think. It was too dark to really see what was in front of me and I wasn't about to look back. I just settled into what I perceived my 135-mile pace should be and got into the mindset of what I thought it would take to handle the many hours ahead. I remembered what a friend and fellow Birkie skier asked me a week earlier: "How do you train for something like that?" I really didn't have an answer at the time. I kind of do now.
In a couple hours it was obvious that the three guys in front of me knew what they were doing. The length of the glide they were getting was way beyond mine. But, I'm used to that. Let's just say that at 5-foot 7-inches and 210 pounds, I really don't have the typical physique of a Nordic skier. My doctor suggested during my last physical that my ideal weight is 165. He thought a goal of 180 was realistic. I mentioned to him that I quit wearing my heart-rate monitor during the Birkie because I hated seeing it after I'd finished flashing "Obese!" He didn't think that was funny.
I rationalized that my short kick and glide would fit the narrow snowmobile trail and that my height challenge would be a benefit as my 26-pound backpack would help me maintain a lower center of gravity. Hey, whatever works, use it. It's better than thinking negative thoughts.
The first nine miles were on a rail-to-trail section that was good for skiing. A couple snowmobiles bounced back and forth along the trail and were each carrying a media guy taking pictures and videos for a couple of the racers. I picked up a glove a biker dropped and gave it to a guy on a sled as he came by. Then I came up to a guy on a mountain bike. His tires were proving too skinny for the trail, even in the thin snow. He seemed determined to continue, but we weren't even at mile 10 yet and he was working hard and walking. I wished him well and continued on my way.
After that we turned onto the actual Arrowhead Trail, reality settled in. The trail crossed a frozen bog with barely any snow cover. I was skiing more on swamp grass than snow, but surprisingly my glide wasn't all that bad. The next few hours were just skiing, eating and drinking and making sure I didn't catch a ski tip in a clump of swamp grass or a willow sapling. I double poled through the small forest underfoot that my skis cut through and probably not noticed by the bikers or runners.
I started to close in on another guy on a bike. As I pulled alongside him, I realized it was older gentleman who had volunteered to help at the pre-race equipment checkout. We biked and skied together, jockeying back and forth. When conditions were good for the bike, he would take off. When they were better for skiing, he slowed up and I had the advantage. For the next few hours we took advantage of the times we were side-by-side, talking about our children and other things. This time turned out to be some of my favorite hours of the race.
Eventually I made it to the first checkpoint. I hoped to be out in 45 minutes but it turned out to take me an hour and 20 minutes. Still, I figured resting early and getting fueled up wouldn't be a bad thing. I felt sorry for some of the runners. They have to maintain a pace so as not to miss the cut-off times. Having to race with that pressure for 135 miles isn't what I'd call fun. Different strokes for different folks, though.
A hydration situation
Just before leaving the checkpoint I laid my pack down to do something and when I grabbed it I noticed water everywhere. Seems my camelback hose valve was pinched open and it was draining. As I normally have plenty of water I decided not to check the bladder. That was my first major mistake.
A little low on water wouldn't have been a problem normally, but the hills started after the first checkpoint and by the time I was just getting into them, I ran out of water. Some of the young bucks I go mountain biking with call me a camel because of my lack of drinking water on trips, but this time it wouldn't be a safe practice. I was reduced to grabbing a handful of snow now and then to wash down my electrolyte gels and other energy.
I was thinking I would have to stop and get my stove out to melt snow when I noticed a red light ahead. It was dark and we were still a long way from the next checkpoint. When I came up on the biker, I asked him how his water supply was holding out and luckily he responded he had plenty. It was Al from Canada, with whom I had ridden a month earlier at the Tuscobia 75-mile bike race. I ended up drinking a full liter or more of his water as we slogged our way up and down the hills that were getting steeper, longer and more frequent. The rules are that racers can help other racers but no one else can. That was a fortunate rule.
By the time we made the midway checkpoint, it was midnight. I was four hours behind my self-imposed schedule and not knowing anything about what was in front of me except that there were more hills to the next checkpoint followed by a 25-mile flat dash to the finish line.
With that in mind, I let the great volunteers fed me grilled cheese sandwiches and soup. I went to the cabin that five of us had rented to try to get a little sleep. I knew from a few 24-hour mountain bike races I'd done that I'm not much good in the sleep deprivation department. After a shower, I went to bed at 2 a.m. with the alrm set for three hours later. I remember coughing my lungs out once I laid down. Kennel cough, they call it, caused from sucking down cold air hour after hour. I can't imagine what it would have been like if it had been as frigid as it typically is for this event.
After almost choking during one coughing jag, I woke up with a start. It was 4:15 a.m. I decided to get up, eat and head out. I left at 5:22 a.m. in front of the second-and third-place guys and assuming that I was ahead of fifth. The leader was long gone and unless he broke a ski, a pole or two, got lost or bonked terribly, I figured he'd finish hours ahead of the rest of us based on the trail updates I was hearing. I hoped the best for him. It was obvious he had the talent, training and fitness. If he skied a smart race he deserved to win.
And win he did. In general, this race needs some good ski times in order to attract more skiers to the race in the future. Skier Casey Krueger, 28, reset the bar dramatically by destroying the 36-hour course record by 14 hours. Amazing. In other categories strong finishes came from Eszter Horanyi of Colorado who broke the women's bike record by two hours and Jason Buffington from Minnesota who broke the runner's course record.
I left Melgeorge's Resort, the midway checkpoint, knowing my running out of water the night before had cost me. I got more dehydrated than I should have, and the farther you go without water, the less efficiently your body processes subsequent fuel. In a race such as this, a person burns up reserves faster than one can replenish them. Therefore, refueling and getting water on a regular basis is critical. I didn't bonk, but I could tell my energy was low the night before. I hoped I made up for my mistake at the checkpoint, but it would be hard to make up for lost time.
My skis were fast - too fast, in fact, on the steep downhills. In the dark I couldn't see the moguls at the bottom of the runs. With the added weight of the pack it was easy to lose balance. As I headed down the first steep hill, I snowplowed some then slalomed back and forth. I straightened out to see if I could make the bottom but I was out-running my headlamp and thus skiing blind. I decided to bail and went down on my right side. I slid about 40 feet. Snow was packed behind my glasses and my headlamp slid off my head. Luckily the pack kept my shirt down so snow didn't run up my back. I slid to a stop without breaking any bones, poles or skis. I think I even let out a "Yahoo!" there in the dark.
I walked down the next hill from the start. I could see where a skier "delivered the mail," going side-to-side on the trail for most of it. I assumed it was the lead skier, but in actuality, it was the skier that was in fifth place. He had entered the checkpoint after me but left before I did. I didn't yet know that, though.
This whole section of the race was very hilly. The word is that the Arrowhead Ultra has 7,500 feet of climbing. Approximately 95 percent of that is contained in the 70 some miles between the first and third checkpoints. The Birkie climbs 5,500 feet over 30 miles. The big difference is that one hits the hills on the Arrowhead course with 100-some miles yet to go. Bottom line, pacing is critical.
I ended up in the company of three to four bikers moving about my speed. By this time I had also caught the fifth place skier, a guy from Wyoming, who was obviously suffering.
A few hours later, the second-place skier came up on me. He asked me if I had seen the leader. There was only one ski track in front of us and it was covered with fresh snow that had fallen a couple of hours earlier. I chuckled and said no. The second-place guy then took off like I was velcroed to the side of the hill. I assumed he had thoughts of running down the leader. One thing I regret not seeing is the eventual winner of the ski race jetting away like this guy did. That would have been a great thing to witness.
The third-place skier was still in reach, but down deep I had my doubts. The second- and third-place racers had skied together the day before, so I knew No. 3 was better than me and was probably charging hard. I just decided to ski my race and see what happened. All of these mental gymnastics may sound useless to many, but at least it kept my mind busy and kept a goal out front besides merely finishing. Maybe if it had been 20-degree below finishing would have been enough to keep me going, but it wasn't today.
The bikers and I got to the last checkpoint just before dark. I put down a couple cups of hot chocolate, filled my Camelbak bladder (making damn sure this time) and headed out. Coming up was the last big challenge: Wakemup Hill. I had skied out to see it on my way up to International Falls a few days before. I made the comment to a friend at the time that it wasn't too bad. I skied up it, no problem. However, I didn't know how much that hill would grow after I had 110 miles under my belt.
This time I walked up it, skied across the top for 100 yards and then walked down. It was a steep chute with bowling ball-to-softball sized rocks randomly scattered about. I saw where one of the two skiers in front of me had tried skiing it, but then I saw ski boot tracks.
Once I hit the flats I knew it was 22 miles or so to the finish. The trail was groomed nicely and my skis were singing. But doing the math I realized I wouldn't make it in under the 36-hour course record. I assumed the two skiers in front of me would. My goal now became to finish third in under 40 hours.
I believe I was skiing at about 9 to 10 mph when the fourth place guy came up behind me. We talked for a minute about how he had suffered on the hills. And off he went. He wasn't suffering anymore. I modified my goal once again to just finish under 40 hours. I felt my current place wouldn't be challenged.
The worst part of the race for me awaited my entry into the last 10 miles. The trail went from sweet grooming to an ice rink. All the snow had been groomed flat and where a few hours before it may have been soft enough to find kick, it wasn't there anymore. All I did was slip and slide. I double-poled until I got tired and grabbed what purchase I could by skating. My right shoulder and lower back gave out. It was hard just to stand straight, let alone kick, pole and glide. Three bikes, the guys I had been with all day, passed me in the last 200 yards. They had stopped 20-some miles back and had a burger at a roadside bar just off the trail.
One of them slowed down enough to ask how it was going. I said it sucked. He said it was great for the bikes. Under my breath I muttered, "Damn this snow bike race. Leave some snow on the trail." Of course it was the lack of snow that caused the issues I had.
I came around the corner and saw the finish line banner. As much as I wanted to zip up the short hill to the end, I had to stop and bend over long enough for the pain to go away in my shoulder and back. I was getting a little dizzy as well, my mind and body were realizing that the end was near and they could start breaking down. I put mustered the strongest V-1 I could up the hill to the volunteers' and previous finishers' cowbells and shouts of encouragement.
I limped across the finish line and got a few back slaps and offers to remove my skis and backpack. I hope they didn't take it wrong when I just answered that I'd do it. I had carried the pack 135 miles and a few more feet wouldn't matter. It was too painful to consider twisting to get out from under the pack or do anything more than just move super slow as I stepped out of my skis. No jumping around at the finish for me.
A person took my picture under the finish line banner but I wasn't excited about it. I just wanted to go sit down somewhere and have someone pull the daggers out of my right shoulder blade and lower back. I used my skis and poles as crutches on the way to the hospitality room. A bike racer who finished hours earlier helped me out by warming a cup of soup for me. After awhile, my back spasms went away and my attitude improved. I enjoyed the time with all the rest of the warriors that had finished.
Over the next several hours and into the next day, Fortune Bay Casino, the site of the finish line, filled with bikers, skiers and runners. Many managed to finish, some hadn't. I looked at their swollen, blistered feet, their tired but sparkling eyes, their windblown faces and listened to bits and pieces of their stories. For some it was one more Arrowhead Ultra in their books. For some it was the accomplishment of a lifetime or the "monkey off their sled" that made up for a previous DNF or two. For others it was the start of bigger and grander goals.
As I listened and absorbed it all, my thoughts took me back to the trail. Not just the Arrowhead trail, but the trail that started decades ago that brought me to his point and would lead me somewhere else.
Will I tackle the Arrowhead Ultra next year? We'll see.
For more information on the race go to www.arrowheadultra.com
Mark Scotch lives in Plover, Wisconsin, and is a sales manager in the paper industry.
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