Friday, July 18, 2014

2014 Arrowhead 135 Race Report, Part 2: Time Slips Away

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” - T.S. Eliot

I started Part 1 of this report alone, in the dark, out in the cold, at 3am on the second night of Arrowhead, losing the battle to stay awake.

"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."

It took me a while to realize, after the race, that those imaginary figures I hallucinated, bivied next to the trail, those people I was worried about, that was me. I was worried about me. That floored me; it put a whole new perspective on the experience.

Part of me knew that I should have been bivied next to that trail, that I should have been sleeping, that I should have been warming up in my bag. I don't know if it was the exhaustion, the sleep deprivation, or something else that kept pushing me along that trail. I knew I wasn't safe, but I didn't think I was in danger. Could I take another step? Yes. So I pointed my headlamp at my feet and kept going.

But the hallucinations.

When people hear that we hallucinate during these events, I imagine they picture "Alice in Wonderland" or "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"-type hallucinations. In reality, though, the best way I can describe it is that, at a certain point, it’s easier for your brain to insert something familiar, something convenient, something close, than it is to process what’s actually there.

First, you start noticing things that really shouldn't be there, like a house cat along the trail, or spectators off in the distance where no spectators should be, but when you look a second time, they’re gone—just a wild flower, a bloom in a tree, a rock, or a shadow. They start so mundane, you really have no idea how many things you thought you saw before that weren't really there. Your brain needs glucose to function. When it gets low, it starts shutting down higher-order processes, like comprehension, computation, etc. At a certain point, you start having trouble figuring out simple things like pace and time.

Then, if you keep pushing, things get really weird. At Superior in 2011, Ben Bruce and I got so bad that we started sharing hallucinations. Ben knew that a bridge marked the end of the trail, and we kept worrying that we were lost. I’d ask Ben, “Is that a bridge over there?” He’d reply, “Yeah! I see it!” We’d get a little closer, and it’d just be a downed tree or a ridge. We saw hundreds of bridges. I was losing it. I needed that bridge that marked the end of the trail to be there, so I saw it, over and over. Alicia was pacing us in. She was trying to talk to me, ask me how it was going. I could hear every word she said, but I couldn't put the sentences together—it was too hard. I could feel myself slipping away.

Melgeorge's to Skipulk

I left the carnage of Melgeorge's, roughly 70 miles in and 26 hours removed from International Falls, on the morning of the second day. It was still well below -30ºF, but it was light out and I was awake. I'd eaten and I'd seen my people, Alicia and Tucker, albeit, outside in the cold.

Alicia snapped this pic on the short section of road between the cabin and the trail. The name of the game was steady as she goes. For the most part, that second day was a blur. It went by so fast. The sun was out and the forest was beautiful. Every few hours I'd see a snowmobile. A quick wave was what most wanted--just enough to ensure I wasn't in need of help. Sometimes they'd stop for a few seconds. I imagined how strange it must have been talking to some random, crazy stranger out walking around in the middle of the woods at -30ºF when you couldn't even see an inch of their face.

Chris Scotch passed me somewhere in there, then Helen, then Divesh. Before I knew it, it was dark again, and, like the day before, I really hadn't eaten anything. My hands were brutally cold. Using the poles led to numbness, then pain, so I'd stow them and bunch my hands up in the main part of the mitten. When that wasn't enough, they'd go, mitten and all, into the down-lined pockets of the Nilas jacket. When that wasn't enough, they'd go down the front of my pants, by my groin and my femoral arteries, which made for even slower hiking.

A while after nightfall, I'm not sure what time, I saw Divesh for a minute at a shelter around mile 100. I was tired, starting to doze on the trail, and wanted to eat. I tried, but it was so cold, even in the shelter, that I couldn't bare to use my hands for anything but a few chocolate-covered espresso beans. I had water in my pack, but getting the hose to my mouth required taking off my mitts and unzipping my jacket and top layer to get to, so I'd grab a huge drink only when I had to take the mitts off for something else.

Back on the trail, the hills were surprisingly steep. I had no energy to pull hard on the climbs, but at least they warmed me up a bit. I tried to keep a nice, quick cadence with little steps, but when I slowed too much, I started falling asleep. I'd wake up shivering, standing in place on the hill. It was infuriating! Getting angry helped, though. I'd get a few moments of haste before settling back down and losing it again. For a while, the crest of every climb just led to an immediate, steep downhill, which led into yet another steep climb where I'd lose it all again. I'd come to, just standing there, shivering. Over and over.

Then the hallucinations picked up.

I started seeing mail boxes, LP tanks, sheds, driveways.. at one point I was on a road. I honestly don't know if any of it was real or not. I know it all couldn't have been, but maybe some of it? I didn't know what the checkpoint would look like, but I desperately needed it. Was I on the right path? I should have been there by now. Everywhere I looked, I'd see things that shouldn't be there, so I just looked down at my feet. I looked for footprints, bike tracks, anything that'd confirm I was going the right way, anywhere to stop seeing the things I knew weren't real. But looking down aimed my breath into my coat. Before I realized it was happening, my coat was frozen shut. I fumbled with it for a second, but it wouldn't budge, and my hands were too cold to fix it. Just like that, I couldn't eat or drink again--even if I'd wanted to. And then I'd come to, shivering, staring into the woods, staring at imaginary people bivied in their bags.

After a while, the lone remaining skier, Ben Shillington, caught up. That was nice. It snapped me out of that vicious cycle for a while. We chatted for a spell, even see-sawed for a short stretch before it flattened out and I lost him. When he was out of sight, the cycle started again. I don't know how far we were from the Skipulk checkpoint, it couldn't have been more than a handful of miles, but he made it there an hour and a half before I did.

It was a vicious cycle. I needed that checkpoint.


I figured I'd hear the generators and see the lights a ways out from Skipulk, but I didn't even know I was close until I was standing right next to it. It was the strangest thing--but damn, I was happy to be there.

I told them my number and said that I needed to warm up and get some sleep. There were two ice-fishing shacks with heaters. The volunteers told me that the second one was crowded, 3 or 4 people inside, and the first one had two bikers that had been there a while. I had him open the door to the first one. The shack had one cot and one chair, each occupied by a biker, and they had their gear strewn everywhere. No matter. I grabbed a corner of the cot and started to knock the ice off my gear, but before I even got my coat off, I heard Alicia's voice outside, talking to the volunteer.

Man I love seeing my people.

I asked where she was parked, because I hadn't seen her on my way in, and she told me the parking lot was just up the hill. I asked how far, and the volunteer said just a few yards away. I told him I was going to warm up there, and he said that was fine. He gave me directions and even helped me put my harness back on. Nice guy. I pulled my sled to the truck and hopped in. Tucker was adorably excited to see me. I got all my frozen stuff off, wrapped up in my sleeping bag, and finally ate the pocket full of food I'd been carrying around all day. It was fantastic! I told Alicia I needed an hour of sleep. She set an alarm. I was out before my eyelids closed.


I was startled awake by someone pounding on our window. My heart rate tripled in three beats! Was I late?! Had I overslept?! What time was it?!

Alicia cracked the window.

"Is there a racer in there?" The man asked.

"Yes. #51. Sandor. He's in the back." Alicia replied.

"He can't be in a vehicle. It's against the rules. He's going to be penalized."


I asked Alicia what time it was; I'd gotten 45 minutes of sleep. Better than nothing.

I started putting my gear back on, grabbed another bag of food out of my pack and started shoveling cookies, Kit Kats, Fritos, anything I could find into my mouth. It took me a minute to get everything on and packed up. I pulled my sled over to the fire.

I didn't know the race official that woke me up, but I tried to tell him that I didn't intentionally break any rules. The volunteer told me how far away my truck was, held the door for me, helped me put my harness back on, and pointed me towards my truck. The volunteer knew I where I was going and what I was going to do, and not once did it occur to him that I was going to break a rule. The rules clearly state that you cannot accept outside aid, but it's not clear that means you cannot get into a vehicle at a checkpoint just to sit when the warming houses the race provides are full. At the last checkpoint, I could have rented a cabin, taken a hot bath, made a pot of coffee and soup, and watched a movie under a down comforter in bed, but here I couldn't even get into my Suburban?!

The official told me that I'd probably get penalized an hour or two, that it wasn't a big deal, and that I had plenty of time, but still...

With nothing to do about it but get going, I sighed, said "Thanks," and went on my way.

Skipulk to Fortune Bay

For the first few hours, I was doing alright. I left Skipulk at about 6am. It was dark, and my headlamp was essentially dead, but it was going to be light soon, and I didn't want to take my hands out of my mitts to try and change the batteries. Not too far up the trail there was a huge hill with a shelter at the top. I looked for bivied racers, but it was empty. Company would have been nice, but there was barely anyone left. Before I knew it, it was light, and the day was just scooting away.

I took out my maps when I came to a T in the trail. The signage and tracks were pretty obvious, but being this far in the race, I wanted to make sure. Peeking ahead at the map, from here, the trail went east for a long ways before turning south just a bit before the finish. From that point on, I was gunning for a right turn.

Big mistake.

The trail is really straight as an arrow for miles at a time towards the end. Every time I'd get to a turn, I'd hope for that hard turn south, but it never came. Over and over, there'd be minor corrections, just to head east again.

Then the miles caught up with my a tendon in the front of my right leg, and I was hobbling.

The one saving grace of that last, flat section to the end was that the temperature finally warmed up a bit--above zero even! So much, in fact, that I took my Nilas jacket off for the last few miles to the finish--the first time since Gateway.

The finish area was perfect, with Tammy, Alicia, and Tucker waiting for me. I got to the banner and promptly laid down in the snow. I'd finished. I could stop now. What a trip.

Fortune Bay

A wonderful finish-line volunteer congratulated me on the run and guided me upstairs to the hospitality room where a handful of other racers/finishers were hanging out. I stopped to take my shoes off for the first time in 56 hours--and they were perfectly fine. One pair of Drymax Cold Weather Running Socks and a pair of Montrail Mountain Masochists Outdry (their Gore-Tex-like material)--the same combination Geoff Roes wore for his ITI350 win--had worked wonderfully.

I got my picture taken in front of the banner with my trophy.

Then Jackie Krueger pulled me aside to discuss my penalty. What I gathered from our conversation was that Arrowhead would rather not have spouses/families follow the race, not at checkpoints or using Spot devices. I accepted my 1-hour penalty, but pressed that it wasn't clear that sleeping in a vehicle at a checkpoint was against the rules. It was clear as day that getting a ride in a vehicle was against the rules, but not simply getting into a vehicle, especially at a checkpoint that offers heated shelters.

My takeaway is this:

In every ultramarathon I've participated in, aid stations are places for loved ones to welcome their runners a brief reprieve from the rigors of the trail. Arrowhead is not this place. The organizers want a remote, solitary challenge between you, the other participants, and the trail. It's their race, and I respect their decision to have it be however they want it to be, just don't make my mistake and go in expecting it to be something it's not.

The best part of my race, of every race, is seeing Alicia and Tucker. I was alone for a vast majority of the 56 hours of this race. The moments I got to spend with my loved ones was more than worth any penalty they could have given me (while still allowing me to finish). I don't want to break the spirit of the rules, but I want to see my people. I can see them without penalty outside at checkpoints, which, in the future, is exactly what I'll do. Oh--and I'll be very tempted to rent a cabin at Melgeorge's for my hot bath, down comforter, movie, and bag of popcorn mid-race. If anyone want's to split a dog-friendly cabin, let me know.

Will I do this race again? Yes.

Why? Because I want to get good at it before I take a shot at the ITI350 in Alaska.

Why do I want to try the ITI350? Because it seems just outside my reach, and I'm not sure I can.