2011 Arrowhead Ultra: Race Day 1

We packed into Kerry Arena’s warming house with only minutes left before the start. One last go of indoor security, artificial warmth.  One last round of “good lucks” to the people we knew.  Someone yelled “FIVE MINUTES!!” so we zipped up coats and pulled down balaclavas.  The first real shot of adrenaline began to flow.
The bikes lined up first in the dark.  The multitude of blinking red safety lights is always a spectacle. Headlamps shown brightly as racers made last minute nervous adjustments to their rigs. Someone next to me was having a panic attack about a tire or wheel or missing child. A nearby rider offered a helping solution to the issue (another example of the quality of person that does this race…the panicked rider soon was ready to go thanks to the assistance).  Then Dave the race directer gave the countdown and a resounding “Release the Hounds!!” The bikes were off. We people of foot travel stepped up to the snow banked starting line. Another five second count by Dave and we were off!
The one thing that sticks in my mind is how fast some of the runners took off.  I had made a pact with myself that I would only walk until Gateway Store, the first check point.  I figured that thirty miles would give me a good idea of the condition of my injured knees.  So I walked and watched as we started to spread ourselves out down the Blue Ox Trail.
It was a giant relief to be finally moving, heading step by step closer to Fortune Bay and the finish line.  I began a verbal checklist that I would continue throughout the race.  Feet? feeling OK and warm.  Hands? are cool but will warm up.  Knees? feel great, no tinges, pangs or aches. Core? a bit warm…don’t sweat too much, take off a layer soon.  Mind? let everyone go…you will catch them again…have faith…they will falter. I settled into my fast walk and paid strict attention to staying on track with drinking, eating and watching my core temp.  I knew that if I got behind on any of those three things the race would be jeopardized.
The inevitable leap frogging began quickly. I stopped to shed a layer and pee and two people passed me.  Soon, I am back and passing them. Everyone I go by I say hello to and maybe ask where they’re from.  It’s hard to carry on anything like a discussion but I figure it is the polite thing to do and may make for a safer race. It’s also a gauge to assess the overall chances of survival for that particular runner I meet.  There are a couple that I know will not make it to the halfway. But most seem pretty solid at this early stage in the race.
The undeniable beauty of Northern Minnesota is really what dominates in the beginning of the Arrowhead.  As the sun starts to slowly come up through the black spruce trees I am reminded for the hundredth time what draws me to this country. It is quite simply the wild feeling I get traveling through spruce bogs in winter.  There is no scenery like it. It defines wilderness for me. Although we are not really in a wilderness, the snow, quietness and vastness of the bogs makes a convincing act.
My eyes and ears start tuning into the surroundings.  I hear a lone evening grossbeak high up in an aspen.  A pile of grouse feathers in the snowbank is all that is left of a recent fox ambush.  But most of all now it is just quiet. The best thing about the Arrowhead Trail is that there is almost constant diversity.  As I think back now, days after the race, and wonder why I didn’t get bored it is because of the variety of terrain and scenery.  There is always a new bend, a new hill, vista or bog. Except for the last twenty miles. But that’s another story.
Miles and miles. The knee is holding up great. The weather is humid, cold and calm. The sun makes a low arc over the treeline never seeming to get very high or warm.  I know I am approaching the first checkpoint, but walking is still skewing my sense of speed.  The day is passing quickly and methodically, but foot travel is so slow compared to cycling. I have gotten better at adapting to my new snail pace but there are moments that I long to be back on my bike making rapid time.
I hit Gateway Store on schedule. For the last several hours I have planned my short visit there.  I air out my feet, refill water, call my wife and slam some crackers and peanut butter. It takes longer than I anticipated but I am out and up the trail with the last light of the day. It is good to see other racers that I thought were long gone. In reality, they are only minutes ahead of me. Soon, I will be making contact again.
I go as long as I can without turning on my headlamp. I finally turn it on for the first time and confirm that I am on the firmest part of the trail.  My ability to feel the trail and stay on the good line becomes almost second nature. Later in the race, when my mind needs encouragement, I tell myself to travel like a wolf; always saving energy, always staying alert.
The evening turns quickly to night and I am determined to make it to MelGeorge’s in one push.  I see a headlamp and flashing red light up the trail and I am soon making contact with a skier. He is walking, having succumb to ultra slow and cold glide conditions. We chat and he is in surprisingly good spirits.  I continue on and wish him luck. I remember the beating my feet took two years ago when I was forced to start walking on my ski attempt.
My first late night is brightened by two occurrences. The first is a wall tent and free hot chocolate in the middle of nowhere, miles before the halfway. The warm glow of the lantern and the generous liquid gift was a welcome surprise. The second was the large bonfire burning at the last shelter before MelGeorge’s.  The snowmobile volunteers had sparked it and were doing a great job of keeping it going. I stopped and refilled my camelback, ate a bar and adjusted socks all by the warmth of the fire. This was a huge boost to my night. I thanked them and made for the last hilly miles of the night.
I was surprised at how slowly I was rewarming after stopping. It felt damp and really cold. I was beginning to look forward to the first wall of a hill just to get my temp up where it should be. I was over the first huge hill when I ran met my favorite volunteer heading the other direction. I told him it was great to see him and I asked how cold he thought it was. He said it was only ten below. I was shocked and then a bit alarmed. We said goodbye and I picked up the pace. My fear was that it was me who was having the trouble regulating enough warmth. Ten below is not cold enough to make me feel like I was. I forced the thought to the back of my mind and ate more chocolate chips.
With seven miles to go, I came up to another racer on foot. He was caring a backpack and making pretty good time. He wanted to stay with another person for the last miles and so we stayed closely paced. I knew the miles coming up and began encouraging us both. I knew he was having a hard time staying warm. I reminded him to keep drinking and eating as I tried to stay on my strict 15 minute regime. We finally hit the lake trail to the cabins. I flashed my headlamp on his face and saw for the first time that the tip of his nose was waxy-white with frost nip. I told him to cover up. I picked up the pace just enough to lead him across the lake at a pace we both could sustain. We were within a hundred yards of the MelGeorge’s landing when we met another snowmobile volunteer heading out. She checked on us and told us that it was 27 below. I knew it! My legs only get chilled when it is colder than 25 below! I was right along along.
I pointed my companion down the access trail to the checkpoint cabin. He was starting to get groggy. I checked the main lodge for a phone, but they were locked up. I caught up with him and we unhooked our sleds below the porch. It felt great to be here! I entered the cabin to see several racers in various states of recovery. I quickly found a bed upstairs and began stripping down to my base layers. The grilled cheese sandwiches made by the wonderful volunteers unfortunately were not agreeing yet with my tired stomach. I ate what I could, set my alarm for an hour and buried myself under a comforter and someone else’s pillow. I drifted off into a fitful state of exhaustion.

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