Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Arrowhead 2013

They told me the Arrowhead 135 is hard and only the strongest should even speak it's name. They tell me it's on the FBI list of suspected serial killers and some even say it's route follows the property lines held by Satan himself. I found that hard to believe but with ice on my knee, I walked the land in the shadow of hell.

Last year I went camping with some guys and one of them was The Legend,  2 time winner and current director of the Arrowhead. I was totally green to adventure races and organized endurance sports. I've done many but it's been two men and a plan, like climb the Exum Ridge of the Grand Tetons.  Nothing with a starting gun but I see the appeal so I think about my questions and try to limit the chatter. I ask, "How do you race that far?" He says, pick a pace you can go at all day and then do that all day. 

I race in some 100 mile gravel rides and learn some lessons about how right The Legend was. I have lots of experiences to draw on from rock climbing to kayaking to wilderness cross country skiing. I can manage stress from scuba diving in near zero vis to winter camping at -10. I don't know how to put it all together but I open my mouth and tell The Legend "Someday I'd like to try the Arrowhead"

I do it again when registration opens back in October but this time to the veteran racer and I send in the application. They don't let just anyone in. They want to know you can handle yourself when things get serious. I get one of the few spots left when Josh calls The Legend and says I have the metal it takes. I'm not sure but I'm excited to be in.

I start training but I know from other things that I need to get my head in the game and that as long as I do what is needed I'll do fine. I am a hammer head. That's bike slang for someone that wants to go flat out all the time. It's great fun in summer sprints and criterium races and harmless failure in gravel races but in a wilderness ultra marathon it's dangerous. I train that out of me with hours of slow riding.

So with all that history out of the way, I'm freaked out about what I've got myself into. I've talked the talk and last Monday I needed to walk the walk. As the snow fell the walk was literal but I'll get to that. I take the line at 7am with 138 others and I'm just going to turn the brain off because I don't know what to think so it's not going to help. Something I'll fight with for hours.

The line is casual because back a few rows from the front everyone is ready to ride for 20+ hours and the race is not won at the start or even at hour 10 so people are ready to go but reserved. 

Races start with a blast of energy, reserved but still chaotic, and it's the best and worst at the same time. Your brain is scrambling to process the information your eyes and ears are feeding you. All critical pieces of information to keep you from crashing and getting hurt in the bull run that's all around you. 

Below is my helm. Mittens, Glove box, Feed bag, Speedometer/Odometer, and center console. The blue dot on the left is the lid of my required 3000 calories in the form of Skippy Peanut Butter in a bottle holder.

The race is a few hours old and the mass of bulls has stretched into a thin strand of panting dogs from the soft trail. Mild temps make the outdoors pleasant but the snow isn't frozen into the hard pack we need for easy riding. Ruts and mush dominate for the first 35 miles and takes just less then 5 hours.

I come into Gateway checkpoint and the anxiety of not knowing what I've gotten into is clear. It's hell and it's just started. I tried to turn the brain off but the struggle to stay riding in the mushy trail makes that impossible. I'm thinking the entire time, mostly about physical limits.

Without any serious consideration I head out from Gateway. Emotionally I'm weak and know it so I get back on the trail after getting more water.

Not long after Gateway my wife meets me at one for the few road crossing and gets this picture. Things improved and the trail is a bit firmer but still slower then we'd like. I manage 7 mph to this point.

Knowing I need to do some show and tell I take a lot of these so you can share in the scenery.

This picture is awful but it's a wolf track. I assume it's wolf because few people walk huge dogs 40 miles into the woods and let them eat deer legs (not pictured)

Around mile 70 I cross Elephant Lake and the midway point. The last 35 miles went fast as trail conditions got better and I was pleased to be half way in about 10 hours. I hope to be done in 10 or 11 more hours.

 Above: Crossing the Lake. Below: Arriving at Melgeorge

I eat 2 grilled cheese and refill water and leave before I get lazy. It's about 5pm Monday and I want to keep moving. 

The snow and sleet started a few hours after I left Melgeorge and slowed my progress as well as everyone else to a crawl and by midnight I was passing lots of people bedding in for the night. Part of the required gear is bivi gear (-20 sleeping bag, pad and tent). I call the wife and tell her I'm going to bivi and that she should go to the hotel because I'm 12 miles from the checkpoint and 37 from the finish. 

I walk about 45 minutes and find a large fir tree with a high skirt and good canopy to hide from the snow. It takes me 10 minutes to stomp a platform, set up and crawl in. I'm wet from snow melting on me as well as sweat. I pull off the boots and jacket. Hide the boots under a bag but let the jacket freeze and crawl in my -25 down bag with the remaining wet clothes. This is where experience and proper clothes pay off. I know the clothes will dry while I sleep as the heat pushes the water out of the poly and the down bag will do all the work. I wake, dry but have to crawl out of a warm bag and push a bike through 8 inches of fresh snow for the next 5 hours.

Hours and hours of pushing my 55 pound bike up and down hills breaks me. I'm only getting by on the last words I made public. "Only the grimmest will I quit". I'm trying to reconcile if this is grim or just awful. I haven't been able to get out of my head the entire ride and the snow is killing me.  About 10am I get a text (I turned the phone on to tell my wife I was up and moving) from Josh asking if I'm still riding and I text that I've been pushing for 3 hours and at my limit and I'm thinking of going DNF. 

The phone rings shortly after with a very stern message that I am not to quit, no matter what. It was quitter vaccine and I was inoculated after that call the only words stuck in my head was Josh reminding me , "DON'T YOU F'N QUIT". I push for 2 more hours to Ski Pulk, have two cups of hot coco and head out for the last 25 miles. The last 40 miles have taken 18 hours (7 sleeping).

The last leg was hard but I could at least ride long stretches at maybe 4mph broken by short pushes that I now welcome the pain of riding. My legs are giving out and the punishing is breaking me physically but my spirits are good because I know I'll finish even if I have to push; I'm under 12 miles and I've done that in 5 hours so it's a done deal. 

Almost at the end I take some of the final set up shots. This is mile 130.

About 4pm Tuesday or 33 hours and 135 miles from the nervous bull run I cross the finish.  

The Arrowhead isn't as hard as they say, it's as hard as you say. I've only done it once but I get it. It's just like it says, Rugged, Relentless, Remote but the real challenge is it throws everything at everyone for hours on end and you'll eventually cross the border into your own hell. 

In a race where more then half dropped out you have to be following the property lines held by Satan himself and on that note I have a lot of very smelly laundry to wash.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


Very early Sunday morning I head to International Fall for the opportunity to grind metal and bone for 135 miles. I hope to finish 20 hours later at Lake Vermilion. 

This is my bike rigged to take the line. The saddle bag is a change of cloths and other extras. The bag on the front is a -25 down bag, inflatable pad, and bivi bag. Frame bag holds stove, tube, pump, repair tool, and food to the top like gravy. The bags in blue are DogWood Designs pogies, think huge mittens. I also use then to hold my camera, and other small items that don't chew well when frozen. The triangle bag is called a gas tank and I use it mostly to hold Cinnamon PopTarts. 

This is the first time I've done this distance in winter. I trained to suffer and go slow and not think about time. I see the world through a soda straw when I'm racing a bike or other activities that require the greatest depths of human resolve. To disengage and watch what happens like a bystander is key but  with the concentration of the best human dramas. Next time you're on the edge of your seat and you're leaning forward to see what happens next, that is the soda straw. At times you emerge from the straw and find yourself in the moment, be it hell or heaven. 

I can do the time and I've already made an agreement with myself. Under nothing but the grimmest of conditions will I quit. In exchange, I'll not ride for about 2 months while I catch up on my ice diving. My ice diving buddies think I'm getting soft. How big is their soda straw!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


I am fortunate enough to have MLK day off so after I considered world peace and abandon the idea, I grabbed the studded bike and went out on the river where I would find some peace or at least no people which is the same as far as I can tell. The weather guessers told me it was suppose to be cold and get colder so I was happy to test some gear configurations but they got it wrong and it warmed up to about -1. I was hoping for the reported -14. Anyway, I overheated some and had to walk and cool down at times.

When its really cold out the rivers are almost safe to ride but you need to use every bit of spider sense to assess the ice. With it so warm I had to turn and run twice. Well maybe not run but I wasn't wasting any time getting the hell away for the scary stuff. I'm a real tough guy in my fancy drysuit but put me in civilian cloths and I could pinch a hole in my pants running away from it. I retreat twice withing 15 minute of getting on the ice but get my sea legs and start cutting in and out of the weakest of ice.

The temps are low but I can't tell in all my gear. I'm dressing in thin windproof layers that I roast in if I  really start railing on it for speed. I unzip to cool down or stop and lay down on the ice. That works well but scares the hell out of people on shore. I have no idea how long these rides go but 4 hours is the low end. I just ride and plan things to do in summer. If you want to find places to kayak, winter is the ticket.

Below: The thin ice is maybe 3 inches so it's fine but can't be trusted at anything but slow speeds. I figure I can hug shore and if I do break through it will be so shallow I can carry it to shore or better ice and only get a wet foot.

Not true. Shore is getting ground water flow. I think these are springs or breaks in the ground water that release into the river. It makes sense and when I did some cave diving in Florida the ground water would find all kinds of cracks and Minnesota has the same sandstone/limestone (aka Karst)

This is wild. It made me skid to a stop. It's the foot print of an oak tree. 

I had to climb a hill of dirt and sticks and ride about a mile of road to get past a lot of scary ice. The cliff or palisade of the lower river means shore is also deep water with the springs. I have to head out to mid channel and that's faster moving water and thinner ice. When I return it's awesome.

I find a Tiki!
Compared to the graffiti I've found in drains this sucks but it will do.

In summer this strainer would be a portage but now I thread the needle and pass with only a few sticks in the face.

I have to get off the backwater and find this road. It's a dead end on both ends.

The road leads me to a large fence with a strong odor and signs telling me I'm being watched so I go to the otherway and get dumped out on this sandbar.

I leave the bike and walk out to get a better photo of the 34 degree steam.

To get off the sandbar and back to mainland and the security of the shelf ice of shore I have to cross a channel and it's popping and cracking. Part of it is from the cold. When I scuba on very cold days the ice cracks and pops all day, some very loudly so I know not to worry about the powerful cracking I hear. The minor cracks make me watch every move. I take this photo mid crossing. You can see the ice is over 4 inches so I know that's plenty (when I'm in my drysuit)

This is the distance I need to close. I'm mid channel and the ice gets thinner. I walk the bike so I can feel the cracking if I need to retreat.

The crossing complete I find the hobo camp from last springs, Songlines but this time I get up close. Back then I think it was occupied. The trash is ugly. I see too much trash these days. Every place I go is covered in trash. Scuba... trash, Hike... trash... Ride...trash....trash,trash,trash.

I wanted to find a date to tell me how active this camp is.

I'll probably go back and pick this crap up so I don't find it when I packraft this summer. The spring floods will move it and I'll find it later on. I'll leave a sign about how their mom doesn't work here and they need to pick up after themselves but if their mother cared, they would not be hobo's.

Leaving hobo camp the shore gets steep and the ice follows. 

Is there water under that shelf or more ice? 
The shore usually continues under water so we could be in deep water if I get it wrong.

I just cut my way out to better ice and find some speed. 

I've been on a lot of ice but this is the best surface hoar frost. 

Hoar frost is radiation frost when ice forms spicules. When air get very cold and molecular water is forced out of the air and it grows on other ice forming these ferns.

Getting close to the end my ride the ice is getting reliable and the trash on shore is every few feet.

The water in the background is the end of my shore without a dry land portage but this tree was interesting. It's entombed in hoar frost.

I didn't make it to the source of the warm water but I did inch out onto the ice until it cracked and started to sink before taking this photo. The wind is blowing hard to the south making the scalloped rim of ice you see. I look over the edge and guess it's maybe 3 feet deep.

This is the end of the line for me. I turn it and return home via ice but jump off to road to avoid the crossing at hobo camp and the bad shore line a few miles south.

In total I'm out about 4 hours, cover about 20 miles and my digital thermometer reports -6.

The weatherman got it wrong but I still cheered for the colder temps. Winter is only as bad as your gear and a little bit about believing you can be comfortable in the cold. Like chores, once you start it's not so bad and you can get lots of stuff done.The bark of cold is worse then the bite or should I say bike.