Arrowhead 135 (75 Mile DNF)

Endless Trails

The Arrowhead State Trail is a long corridor cutting through beautifully remote regions of Northern Minnesota. During the winter it is the perfect playground for snowmobiles. The trails, when appropriately covered, are groomed by the state. Numerous shelters line the path and signage lets trail users know where they can duck off the main trail and head 10-15 miles to picturesque inns, resorts and restaurants. Hunting and fishing are popular destinations to be arrived at via snowmobile. Or just being out tooling around seems like a blast.

The Arrowhead race follows the trail from International Falls near the Canadian border to the Fortune Bay Casino in Tower. The ethos of the race couldn’t be any clearer than its motto - “Strength - Endurance - Solitude - Survival”. While mostly hyperbole the race does contain more than traces of these elements, intensifying as time passes. This particular go around I dropped around 75 miles, 32 hours into it. A failure of will being the cause. The motto would have surely held up better the last 60 miles of the race.

Hard ass folk at the pre-race meeting

A great “small race” feel there was fantastic support throughout. Cultivating the culture started two nights before the start, there was a screening of a very well done documentary about the race itself. A kick ass blue grassy-folk band provided live music as background to ultra-mingling. The night before the race the pre-race meeting was also very useful and engaging, a pasta dinner followed. At one point a priest came out and gave us a non-specific prayer for safety.

Gear check, the legend Pam Reed!

The check in process was somewhat stressful as the particulars of the required gear seemed to be different from what was written on the website. I feel petty mentioning it but International Falls isn’t a place where it’s easy to pick up LED lights if you need them. Mine were judged not up to par and I had to clean K-Mart out of their lights. It can get dangerously cold so a lot of the required gear makes sense. There are still ample opportunities to be run over by a snowmobile at night, blinky lights or not.

Handmade baby carriage + runners

Totally normal Monday morning traffic

The morning of the race gave way to crunchy snow and pretty ideal conditions, Unfortunately those would not last. It was exciting to toe the line with all the bikers and skiers. I found my way to the front of the line with people who have won Badwater and stuck with them for the first couple of miles. Before long I was down to only a base layer and moving easily down the long pine corridors.

Not having much of a background in skiing I am not too familiar with how temperature affects snow conditions and what that means for moving through it. I quickly learned that when the temperature hovers around freezing the snow absolutely sucks for running in. The consistency of the snow became that of sticky sand and the drag increased on the sled. My shoes have some gnarly treads and helped with grip but it was still slippery. Later in the race I put my microspikes on which helped dig in a bit.

This was one of the nicer shelters

One of the pillars of self reliance in this event was being your own mobile aid station. From the start to the first aid stop was a distance of about 35 miles. In those 35 miles I began to really understand the unique characteristics of the race. When I’ve done solo trips there is often a relaxed feeling to my stops. Take in some sights, eat some food, digest a bit. I push myself but not to a point where I am completely and utterly miserable. During races comfort takes a back seat to effort. Arrowhead tries to strike a compromise somewhere in the middle. I found myself still waiting for the aid stations, despite there being only 3 spread out more than a marathon apart. There was a pressure to limit time spent between stops that I should have ignored given the decades in which you are given for the race.

After falling back from the leaders and being mired in soft snow a slew of individuals began walking past me at a good clip. Lesson number 2, this is not a running event. In any given ultra event that I go out way too fast in there are inevitably older men with long legs and hiking poles powering past me. It’s impressive. Emerson once said of Thoreau “He was a good swimmer, runner, skater, boatman, and would probably outwalk most countrymen in a day's journey. “ It’s not a bad way to get around. But, that was never my preferred method. I’ve had ultras which consisted of so much walking and I sucked out loud as a result. Without the interspersed periods of shuffling I am uninspired.

There felt a strong distinction with this event, even at a cultural level. Conversations during ultras are sometimes predictable. Here, no one talked about running events. It honestly felt taboo to mention 100 mile runs. This was a whole different class of event with its own customs and fringes. The “Winter Race”. It felt as different as the divide between marathons and ultras. Anecdotal, I know. It is what I felt.

The expenditure of energy running with the sled made it feel an inefficient method to get around. I mulled over what it meant to be a long distance walker and if that was something I’d want to do. Writing it out now it sounds dumb, given they are two kinds of very low level locomotion. A preference for one muscle movement over another. The difference between 2.5 miles and hour and 4 miles an hour. When I'm running I feel like I'm trying to get somewhere. Walking feels like I don't care where I am going. Without getting to trigger that mental switch, that I was making effort to get somewhere, I was feeling overwhelmed by the distance.

With no choice given the snow and muscle conditions I walked. And walked. And walked. Some hope remained that the overnight lows would stiffen things up but the days forecasted warm and sloppy weather.

My first 50k took me 10 hours. Gateway was the first aid station, which turned out to be a gas station with some good grub. Various soups, mac and cheese, burgers, beverages and Canadian candies were available for purchase. I mingled with some of the other racers and spent a good 20-30 minutes refueling. It was here I got to see some of the coverage of Boston getting hammered with snow.

Leaving here, we stepped into the first (and last) night for me on the course. Temperatures dropped but I still remained with only a base layer. There was never a moment where I was more than a few minutes from another racer. The sound of Highway 53 and trains followed us. The pine forests were beautiful and still. In some moments there would honestly be nothing but trees for 10 miles around us and if briefly was the quietest outdoor place I’ve ever been. I heard birds exactly three times on the course and there was never the sound of insects or easy wind or downy flake. Occasionally a Minnesota accent would pierce through the night.

Knowing I had to sleep eventually I planned to stop and bivy before the next aid station. From Gateway to Mel Georges was another 40 miles or so. The hills began to chew away at my legs and my sled setup frustrated me to no end. Snowmobiles zipping by had torn up any pack the trail had and my sled insisted on jumping between different “lanes”. Using the pole system I put together might have prevented this but would have made an extra step in walking back to the sled to get food. The sled tripped me going down hills when they weren’t steep enough to ride down.

Some were steep enough and ride down I did. Like an out of control child. At first I cautiously used my feet to steer and slow down. Eventually I progressed to full on luge where I would lay flat on my back to get the most speed and steer with my body weight.

As I looked for a spot to bivy a sound caught my ear. I’m going to call it a pack of wolves, though maybe it could have been coyotes? Some pack of canines howled and yipped something fierce in the distance. It was then I decided I might as well make it to one of the established shelters and bivy there, assuming others would stop there too.

It was a hope of mine for the race that I would get to come upon a group of participants around a campfire. One of the snowmobile patrol members was super friendly and lit a few fires at shelters along the course. True to my hope I plopped down next to a cross country skier and talked about the days adversity. We cooked food over the fire and took some time to sleep. It gave the evening a very Oregon trail feel except no one shot us and took our stuff.

Other racers walked past with their myriad of sled choices. Some pushing, some pulling. The push sleds glided along and provided a quicker and more stable descent down the hills. I never saw a biker on the course after the start.

After a 2 hour nap (A -30 degree sleeping bag in 20 degree weather is like a warm bed, it was easy to sleep) I began packing my sled back up for the 12 or so miles till the next aid station. As I lifted my duffel bag off the sled, the first time during the race, I noticed a pile of snow under it. My first thought was that someone had thrown it in there as a joke, but that seemed unlikely. Maybe it had been kicked in as I was running? As I cleaned it out I realized it was compacted under the bag. It was coming in the bottom of the sled, and there were a few pounds of snow in it. Damnit, Siglin is trying to kill me.

Thanks for carrying that snow for me Siglin

The whole race when he jumped around behind me or ran over his own rope and stopped abruptly I would shout at him.

“Siglin, get your shit together!”

And here he was, collecting snow and making snowballs under my duffel bag for 60 miles. As I left the aid station I checked the sled to see how quickly it filled up. Within 10 minutes the bottom was filled again. For some reason I had a “Into Thin Air” start the chain of bad decisions moment. Instead of trying to adjust the sled I let it fill up and carried extra snow to the next aid station. I don't blame the sled itself at all. My belief is that something I tightened pulled it out of wack.

On the way to that station the wheels came off. I felt I could still get my head in the game with some rest but the walking was wearing me down. It took an incredibly long time to finish that second 50k. Towards the end I walked, hands in pockets, slow and determined. My feet pounded and my stomach started to turn. Nothing in my sled seemed that appetizing and what I really wanted was the warm food ahead.

Mel Georges was a paradise, a Minnesota classy rented cabin where I ate and slept and organized my gear. I dropped off like two pounds of trail mix I wasn’t using, dumped some extra fuel and liquid to cut some weight. Fiddling with the sled I noticed that the overlapping fins on the neck of the sled were dipped down in one spot, making a silver of an opening that was sucking up snow. I was able to tighten the ropes on the sled to minimize the gap but it in the end snow still found its way in.

I left Mel Georges still in it, but not for long. Within 4-6 miles the immensity of the next section crushed my willpower. Walking at 2.5 miles an hour it would take me 16 hours to reach the next stop. Stopping to make soup and bivy for a longer period of time would have been the smart thing to do but I felt like it would only get me so far, and I would eventually miss the cutoff at the next aid. Cracked, I decided to stop.

I bundled up on the trail and sat down to make soup anyway. Fairly soon a snowmobile patrol came through and I got to take a bitching ride on the bike of one back to a road crossing. Those things are seriously fun and that trail is such a great place to do it.

This is how my race ended

Failing willpower sucks. It’s not the direct fatigue and pain and nausea that makes these events, it’s fighting to retain the willpower to keep at it. Without some physical complication that makes it impossible to move forward all you can say when you quit, is that you quit. It was tough, so you quit. My feet hurt, I threw up a bunch, I was tired. Excuses for why I quit.

I’m okay with it though, this was a very different thing than what I was expecting and I would have never grasped that without trying. I am fairly certain I want to take a crack at it next year. With more solid snow conditions I could get more running in, but that won’t be the point. If I do it again it will be with the mindset that it’s a lot of walking. I’ve already started the gear scheming too. I think I can carry a backpack with my light stuff (Bivy, Bag, Mat) and tighten the sled up leaving a smaller footprint to drag.

I might even buy some of them hiking poles. But I won’t get too ahead of myself.

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