Friday, March 21, 2014

2014 Arrowhead 135 Race Report, Part 1: Into the Cold

I’d come to, standing on the trail, staring into the woods, shivering, not knowing how long I was out or which way I should be going. It was frustrating; standing still was dangerous in that cold, and I was in a race! A quick look at my sled and the tracks in the snow would point me in the right direction and I’d start moving again, with purpose, trying to warm up, chiding myself for slipping mentally. Then, out of nowhere, I’d come to again, staring into the woods, shivering, colder than before, not knowing how long I was out or which way I should be going. It took a few times to realize that I always turned to the right. In hindsight, I should have bivied, hopped into my bag and slept for an hour, but I hadn’t had food or water for hours, I was cold, and the Skipulk checkpoint at mile 110 should have been just around the corner.

I’d seen Divesh at the shelter at mile 98. He took off a few minutes before I did, but was nowhere to be found. I took my mitts off long enough to look at my watch; 3am. I should have been to the checkpoint by now. Was I on the right trail? Had I ventured off somewhere in one of my dazes? I looked for tracks—I saw a couple, but wished there were more. Were they on the right trail, or were they as lost as I was? Who was I following alone into the darkness?

The shapes in the woods were driving me mad. Every time I looked up, I’d see a person bivied next to the trail, a shelter, an LP tank, a garage, or a mailbox. I kept worrying that the imaginary figures next to the trail needed help, but every time I got closer, the figure was just a mound of snow, the shelter was just a branch, the mailbox just a tree. After a while, I gave up looking; I couldn’t trust my eyes, I couldn’t trust my brain. I’d spent over 40 hours pulling that sled without sleep and was too cold to stop, so I just pointed my headlamp at my feet and kept moving.

Then I'd come to again, even colder than before.


My first ultra was the Zumbro 100 in 2011. When the race started and we headed out of camp onto that first glorified deer trail, I thought, “Oh boy.” I had no idea what I’d bitten off.

Not knowing if I was ready for a hundred started my obsession into the blogs reading about what people did to prepare for these races. The race director at Zumbro was a young guy named John Storkamp. He’d set the course record at Zumbro before becoming race director. The guy was very fast at 50-miles; annually one of the top runners at Voyageur and Door County, and a top-twenty placing at JFK. There was this other race on his resume, though, that he’d won a handful of times: Arrowhead 135.

Looking at that race, I’d never seen anything so silly. The race had 60-hour cutoff! The organizers made you carry survival gear, including a -20ºF sleeping bag, but warned that you were silly not to carry a -40ºF bag! One year there was only one finisher on foot! The more I looked into it, the less appealing it seemed. People lost fingers and toes! I hadn’t even finished a hundred yet. Arrowhead seemed so far out of my comfort zone that I had zero interest in even considering it.

Then I finished some races, and as I got to know the people that do these things a little better, I started to get a little more curious. In 2012, Geoff Roes ran ITI 350, and I was hooked. I combed over every item on his gear list and read everything I could find about his training before the race. When the race started, for a solid week, you couldn’t pull me away from Twitter or Facebook. I inhaled everything ITI. The feat seemed inhuman. The following season, John Storkamp ran Tuscobia 150, Arrowhead 135, and ITI 350 in a 6-week span, Tim Hewitt went unsupported in the 1000-mile version of ITI, Jason Husveth finished Arrowhead, and Joe Grant started blogging about his 2013 ITI 350. The fire was stoked. I was getting dangerously close to thinking about trying this type of race.

The tipping point was Zumbro, 2013. We had a hard spring with a late melt. Mid April felt like early March. Two weeks before the race, the course was a flooded, icy mess with knee deep water everywhere. The water went down a touch before the race, but it snowed the night before, and we started the race with several inches of snow over a wet course, turning to mud, then ice, then melting again. I was laughing, 15 hours in, when I asked, “Is there anyone still in this race?!” The course was merciless. There was a 33% finisher rate. At 28 hours and change, I finished 4th—not because I was fast, but because everyone in front of me dropped out. At the finish line, John Storkamp—who’d just finished the insane trio of Tuscobia, Arrowhead, and ITI—said, “Now you’re ready for Arrowhead.” I didn’t know if I could do it or not, but I knew I was ready to try.

I started buying gear in June.

The Race

Alicia, Tucker, and I left for International Falls through a snowstorm early Sunday morning, made it through gear check by noon, and headed to Coffee Landing with wunderkind Logan Polfuss for lunch. At the pre-race briefing, the race director joked that more people were going to win swag in the pre-race drawing than finish the race. There was nervous laughter, but for good reason.

We woke race morning in the dark to a brisk wind and a temp of -27ºF. The reported windchill was -50ºF as we headed to the start. I knew the bikes started at 7:00am, skis at 7:02am, and sleds at 7:04am, and thought I was fine on time, but when I pulled my sled through the parking lot and over to the trail, I was greeted with to a herd of blinking red lights in the darkness a quarter-mile up the trail. I knew I’d never be first, but I didn’t want to be last! No matter. A few minutes in a 60-hour race aren’t such a big deal, but I was still surprised to see everyone gone. That first mistake, showing up late, was a small one; the second came 10 minutes later, and wasn’t so small.

Getting dressed that morning, I’d decided on 4 layers up top: Nike dri-fit base; Patagonia Piton 100-weight half-zip fleece; Mountain Hardwear Monkey Man Grid 200-weight full-zip fleece; and Mountain Hardwear Effusion full-zip hooded shell. The race was cold enough that I never wanted to take off the Patagonia fleece, so I put my Salomon S-Lab 5 hydration pack on top of it, under the top two layers, figuring I had enough over it to keep from freezing, which I probably did, at the time.

International Falls to Gateway

Leaving the start line a few minutes behind everyone, I was on the chase. 10 minutes in, I started getting warm. There were a handful of options: slow down; open my coat; take off my hood; etc. I decided to stop and take off my outer second fleece—my second mistake. Taking off the layers, I cooled down fast. As I packed the fleece into my sled and put my shell back on, a handful of familiar faces strolled past, including John Storkamp and Chris and Helen Scotch. That settled my nerves about starting late a bit. I got everything situated and started behind them.

Thirty minutes later, I went to take a sip of water from my hydration pack and the neoprene-covered hose had already frozen where it leaves the bladder on my back. I was essentially wearing a 5-lb weighted vest. I still had 2 liters of water in my insulated Nalgenes in the sled, but I never expected them to stay thawed until Gateway in that cold. When I went to take a drink of water from the Nalgenes, they were already starting to ice up.

Going into the race, I planned on eating 1000 calories every 3 hours. At 3 hours and change, I took off my Black Diamond Absolute mitts and fumbled with my first 1000-calorie zip-lock baggie of food in my pocket, leaving my fingers in just my RAB fleece liners. To eat, I had to pull my mask off my face, but it was stuck, frozen both to the buff around my neck and to my beard. I tugged the mask off my face, pulling out a bunch of beard hair, but it wouldn’t come free of the buff. It was a challenge getting anything into my mouth. By the time I got a few mouthfuls of food in, I couldn’t feel my fingers. I gave up my 1000-calorie goal and focused on getting feeling back in my fingers. They wouldn’t warm up in the mitts. It took a long stretch of hiking with my hands down the front of my pants to get feeling back in my fingers. That scared me enough to give up on eating on the trail. I figured that people go weeks without eating; at a 20-minute pace, it’d only be 12 hours to the first checkpoint. No big deal. I’d just eat there.

After I got feeling back in my hands, I tried to take another drink of water, but both Nalgenes were frozen solid. I laughed at the thought of how worried I was about the weight of my gear, yet, at that moment, I was probably carrying 10 pounds of ice. Oh well. People go days without water. I could go another 8 hours. I’d just fuel up at Gateway. In fact, doing the math quick, I figured, worst case scenario, I could do all of my eating and drinking at the checkpoints.

I pulled into Gateway (35 miles) 10:21 into the race just before nightfall.

One thing these events have taught me is that the most important things in my life are the people that choose to share these experiences with me and support me on my crazy endeavors. At mile 80 of a 100-mile race, my job, my house, my clothes, my bank account, none of it matters; I’m just thinking about making it to that next aid station, and if I’m lucky, seeing my people. It was fantastic seeing Alicia and Tucker in the parking lot of Gateway when I pulled in.

Gateway was fabulous; Kit-Kats, Snickers, vegetarian chili, Gatorade, Doritos, hot chocolate, and mac & cheese galore! The employees and volunteers were wonderful! I tucked into the restroom and re-body glided, unfroze my pack and my Nalgenes, refilled everything, and even laid down to relax for a minute before bundling back up. This time, I put my thawed hydration pack under my second layer, over just the Nike base layer, and, on top of the Effusion shell, I pulled on my totally awesome 850-fill down Mountain Hardwear Nilas jacket. I planned on only keeping the Nilas jacket on until I warmed up a bit, but that jacket didn’t come off for another 40+ hours. I loaded a pocket full of chocolate covered espresso beans smuggled in from Costa Rica (thank you, Dan LaPlante), kissed Alicia and Tucker goodbye, and headed out for the night. I’d spent 1:05 at the checkpoint. At 6:26pm, it was already dark.

Gateway to Melgeorge's

My pace was slow leaving Gateway, but with a belly full of food and liquids, I was fine with that. Matt Long passed me pretty quick into this section. It was fun to chat with him for a second, but I had no hope of keeping up with him—that man can hike. For 99% of this race, I was alone, and this section was no exception.

Whenever I started dozing too much, I ate a mouthful of espresso beans. I made it a point to take a sip from my pack every so often. Even though it was getting colder, dipping down below -30ºF, my water was staying water; it was even warm, which was actually nice. By 3am, I was dozing pretty badly, and Michael Nichols and two others caught up to me. I walked with them for a bit and chatted a touch, which started to wake me up, and I pulled ahead again. Mike came with me for a while, but when he stopped to eat, I put a gap on him. He caught up again a bit after daybreak on the trek across Elephant Lake to the second checkpoint at Melgeorge's. That was the coldest moment of the race; daybreak, -34ºF, into a 20mph headwind—the windchill must have been at least -65ºF.

Mike’s wife Kamie met us on the shore of Elephant Lake and walked the last few hundred yards to the checkpoint cabin at Melgeorge's, where Alicia was parked outside. It took me 14:42 to travel the 35 miles to Melgeorge's (mile 70) from Gateway (mile 35), and I pulled in a bit after 9am. I was freezing, starving, and needed to get inside to thaw out, so I asked Alicia to come into the cabin with me so I could see her.

That didn’t go so well. The checkpoint was chaos, but maybe not for the reason you’d think. As soon as Alicia walked in, they kicked her out. Sure, there were some racers in the cabin, but coming from outside, who cares! We’d just spent the entire night walking alone in the darkness. It had just gotten light outside, and we’re finally able to come in out of the cold. I wouldn't care if I have to sit on a floor, I just want food, warmth, and the happy, smiling faces of my people! Worse than kicking out our crew, though, was the fact that there were hypothermic, frost-bitten racers, shaking and in pain, getting no attention from the understaffed, tired aid station workers! I was trying to get warm calories, but it was difficult. My request for a second grilled cheese was met with disdain; apparently they thought I’d already had two, but who cares if I had! I’d spent 26 hours on the trail! Who cares how many sandwiches I’ve had! I grabbed chips and nuts off the table, filled my bottles, and got out.

I spent less time at Melgeorge's than every other racer on foot, not because I felt good or was full, warm, or rested, but because I wanted to see my wife and puppy, and to do that, I had to go back out in the cold. But out in the cold with my people was better than that cabin, by far, so I bundled back up and went on my way.