2011 Arrowhead Ultra: The Race to the Finish

If there is one thing that really hit me about this year’s running of the Arrowhead, it was the sense of being welcomed back by an old friend.  A friend that likes to play a bit rough.  I began to remember certain turns in the trail. I remember that old beaver dam bog. Oh ya, that clearing that opens up to fantastic views to the north.  And how could I forget this hill?  And Orion! You are back to guide me through this whole crazy thing…just bright as could be, right over my trail.  Maybe I was a bit tired and undernourished, but I was moved by the familiarity and the knowledge that I was traveling intimately through this spectacular country.  I was part of the landscape again.  That sustained me even when my old friend didn’t know when to say when.

I knew from past experience that there is a giant sucking monster on the trail and that monster is called MelGeorge’s Resort.  I have seen grown men reduced to rocking and swaddled toddlers there within the resort’s coziness. Like some sort of Greek myth, men are lured away from the grip of the race by their lovely sweethearts who have a warm cabin waiting for them.  Do not be called hither, brave racers…resist the comforts and press onward toward your Arrowhead destinies!

After a terrible “sleep” I left the TB ward that was the sleeping loft, fumbled with a new set of warm, dry layers and topped off my water supplies.  I had stayed longer than I wanted, but I left before I lost my edge. I was still tired and foot sore and that is what you want to be. Just get back to moving toward the finish.

I knew the giant hills that lay ahead and I began psyching myself up for them.  The sun was coming up, a fresh new day was starting and I began my very auditory checklist of bodily functions.  In reality, I was feeling much better than I had anticipated. My left knee was doing great. A couple of new heel blisters were unwelcome, but the pain started to fade within a few miles. I started talking out loud about how well I was doing. I mean, I started to lay it on pretty thick in a cheesy, motivational speaker sort of way.  Anyone who would have come up behind me would have thought I had started down that slippery slope to cuckoo-town. But I knew what I was doing, and it helped cement my being on that lonely trail.

I was entering arguably the hardest quarter section of the race. There are many factors that contribute to this. The first is that you are really starting to feel the physical toll of being on the go for over 24 hours straight. Then there are the hills. There are hills that are so steep you have to lean into them to avoid falling backwards. And then there is the distance. I don’t think a damn person really knows the true mileage between MelGeorge’s Resort (the “halfway” point) and the last checkpoint at The Crescent Inn. Some say 35 miles. Others 45. I once thought is would never come on my first go at the race two years ago. You just never seem to stop climbing hills. But man, this is a wonderfully pretty section of trail if you stop and admire it now and then. I felt fortunate to be running it during the day this year as opposed to the two previous nighttime passages.

I was taken aback by the sound of a sled careening down the trail behind me. A slender man in what appeared to be long underwear and a baseball cap was gaining on me like I was standing still. Before long I met a fellow from California who proudly told me that he was the only competitor who had finished all of the Badwater Series events. I was impressed. But I was more impressed by the fact that he was still running with seemingly little exertion. Where did this guy come from?!

We were on a long, relatively flat section of the course when I discovered two things. One, it does not have to be dark to start feeling very, very sleepy. Two, you can fend off this sleep by talking more to yourself and by using your ski poles as snow-marshmallow whackers. These were what I was calling the clumps of old snow still clinging to the branches of the trail-side firs and spruce. I began a game of trying to dislodge all of the marshmallows that I could while still moving briskly down the trail. After several near misses, I realized that it was a really stupid thing to be doing because if I broke one of my poles I would be at a huge loss of forward propulsion. That, and the lone woman on the bike that passed me asked me how I was doing in a way that showed real concern for my mental health. I caught myself saying to her that I was fine, just bored. After she was gone, I realized what an odd thing to say. Bored? I was out in the middle of the woods, on a beautiful sunny day, racing to some distant casino…and I said I was bored? I did actually correct myself after saying that to the woman and added that I was just keeping my mind distracted.  She chose not to stay long in my company.

As happens magically for me in this race, I found the day slowly start to fade to afternoon, then twilight. I was making decent time despite my lack of sleep. I had pushed through the pain of wanting to nap. I was knocking off hill after hill after hill. And then I came upon the man from California. He was warming his hands on the engine block of a volunteer’s snowmobile. I kept moving by the whole scene. In fact, I had started to run again, or really, for the first time this whole race. Very slowly at first, just on the flats and gentle downhills. It felt really good to be using different muscles. But why was he warming his hands? There is a habit I have from working in a hospital. As I walk down the hallway I often glance into rooms as I go by. It’s rubbernecking at ambulance scenes on the side of the highway, just times thirty. But I keep walking because it is not my drama, not my life. I save that energy for my own patients. I wanted to stay out of this guy’s drama, too. Just like at work. I needed to save my energy for me. Very selfish, I knew, but he was with volunteers if he truly needed to quit and get safe.

Not long after the snowmobile, I heard the clatter of the man’s out of control crazy sled coming from behind. I realized that we were essentially traveling at the same pace and so I waited up for him.  He and I were both feeling pretty stoic about the hills and it felt OK to have some company for a change. After watching him charge down hills, I noticed that he had one of the worst assembled sleds I had ever seen. He was using clear plastic boxes for storage, not the standard duffel bag arrangement. Barely keeping everything together were five bungee cords hooked to anything that would hold.  What seemed to be at the foot of every other hill, California would reattach the cargo in a new fashion. The whole get up reminded me of some dust bowl era jalopy loaded and lashed together heading to the West Coast. But whatever, I thought. The man seemed to have recovered from his cold hands spell and we were still moving forward.

Things changed as darkness came on. I knew we were starting to come out of the hill country and the last checkpoint was now a reasonable distance away. But my traveling companion started to have issues. First his sled was now falling apart and every few minutes he needed to re-lash the boxes. That took time. Then, he started to cool off from sweating too much. I helped him zip up his coat after he put on mittens and another layer. Then his water bottles were frozen. He blamed it on his support crew (support crew? who was allowed to have a support crew?) I gave him a half liter of my water. Then chocolate chips. Before long, I was ahead of him by 20 yards, then 50 and soon he was out of my sight. I could still hear his sled rattling down the trail and I thought he was surely warm enough by now.

By this time in the race, I was starting to grow weary of trail mates. I sensed chaos with this guy. I did not want to be part of such a sloppy outfit. And I could really smell the barn by now. I knew all that was left now was Wakemup Hill. The dreaded bald monster where the fabled tee pee of doom once sat. Just as the other two races before, though, I was growing anxious to finally reach it. In the dark, I was starting to second guess the trail. There were new logging staging areas and some of the route looked unfamiliar. I told myself to keep eating, drinking and trusting my navigational instincts.

The Wakemup Hill is outrageous, particularly when sleep deprived and in the dark. It is if some movie set director said, “Hey…people…I need a giant, tree-less hill right here! And put a two track path straight up it! No…I don’t care if it looks like a three year old designed the trail…I want it going straight up! No switchbacks! Now put it right where you least expect it!” All of a sudden, it looms in front of you. But it is such an iconic landmark of this event. There are certainly longer hills and it is by no means a mountain. It’s out-of-place-ness is what sets it apart. I began the trudge upward and decided not to look up. At roughly halfway, I assessed my progress and kept it in low gear. The top came soon enough and with it, the best view of the entire race route. Orion shown straight overhead now. No Northern Lights for me this year. You are not on top of the hill for more than two minutes before you go straight down again on its backside. Such a goofy place.

I really put it into high gear now knowing that the Crescent was within a couple of miles. I hoped California was doing OK. What seemed like forever (this is a very common occurrence at this point of the race) I finally came to the highway leading to the checkpoint, hot food and hopefully a few minutes of sleep.

I unhooked my sled and brought in the necessary items to be reloaded. A very helpful volunteer guided me to a table. Wanting and hoping desperately for a couple of hours sleep, I was informed that racers were only being allowed one hour sleeps. I was thankful for any at this point. I ordered a pork sandwich and beef barley soup and started the ugly process of drying off my feet. My heels were badly blistered. My toes, though swamp-footed, were hanging in there. My food came and I inhaled it while simultaneously re-taping my feet. Just like at the Queen’s table as my mom would say.

Much to my surprise, California came in looking tired but OK. He sat down at my table, ordered, and soon had his support team refilling bottles and getting fresh clothing. I finished my food and headed to the most comfortable place in the bar. I pulled out four cushioned chairs from a dining table and got prone. The bar music was straight out of a 1977 Pinto. It was loud. I drifted off to sleep with, “Carry on my wayward son/ there’ll be peace when you are done/ lay your weary head to rest/ don’t you cry no more…” If only Kansas knew how fitting that song would be.

I woke up with a shake to the shoulder. Dave Pramann gave me the nudge and said my hour was up and my competition was leaving. I sat up shivering. I had had these all body shakes once before a couple of years ago. I have no idea what they mean. I was not anywhere near hypothermic but to the folks sitting at the bar and a couple of race volunteers, I might as well have had one foot in the grave. I once again got my last set of dry socks on and the same gracious volunteer helped fill my water.  I was out the door with my heels absolutely killing. I knew the ibuprofen and last few drops of my adrenaline would slowly dull the pain. But I was twenty one miles from the finish and it was midnight. Amazingly, the thought of just a few more hours travel made it sound like a sprint to the finish. It’s all so relative.

I was not five minutes down the trail when I saw the next sign of California’s demise. A full water bottle lay lonely in the middle of the track. I stowed it on my sled with the off chance I might catch him. This last section of trail was difficult in an entirely different way than the last. And again, I was thankful to be hitting it at dark thirty. This was the never ending spruce bog to the finish. Flat as a pancake with many miles of straight ahead views and little in the way of variation. In other words, it is designed to absolutely bend your brain with boredom. Last year, I hit it at four a.m. on my bike. Many times I had to get off so that I did not crash while falling asleep at the wheel. Two years ago, I actually did “sleep” while walking in.  I figured the darkness might help mask the repetition of Dr. Seuss trees that line the way home.

After an hour’s progress, I saw a headlamp ahead but no blinking red taillight. As I approached, I thought it was a runner that had passed me while I slept at the Crescent.  But then I heard the sound of crashing plastic and I knew it was California. I had been following day old wolf tracks on the trail and I thought I might give him a scare just for kicks. But as I got closer I decided to skip the stunt. He immediately said it was good to see me, then asked if I had a spare pair of pants. He said he had fallen into the snow and soaked his legs. This story made  no sense to me due to the fact that there were three foot high snow walls lining the snowmobile trail. I hesitated and told him no, I needed my spare pair of heavy long underwear in case I needed to bivy. He asked where his baseball hat was. I told him it was on his head. He said he was really cold. I dug into my bag and pulled out my heavy sleeping balaclava. I helped him put it on. At this point, I knew California was at risk for real injury to himself and potentially me. I asked if he had anything to eat and he said he had a couple of Gu shots left. Again, I gave him more of my chocolate and a couple of fig bars. I debated what to do. I was starting to lose my running heat and needed to get moving again. The only other option was to totally hunker down, lite up the stove, build a fire, get out the bags and hope to restore some heat. But all of that sounded unrealistic. I said let’s start running again so that we can warm up. My firm belief is that with proper nutrition (including hydration), moving forward on the trail is almost always warmer than taking an emergency bivy. California followed behind me a few meters and I thought about what to do next.

It dawned on me to ask him if he had a phone and sure enough he produced the biggest iphone I had ever seen. I asked him how to work it, but by the time it got to the phone numbers, the battery lost power. I put it inside my coat and we ran for another ten minutes.  Another attempt and I reached one of his support crew at the hotel. In a very loud and direct tone, I told him we needed a snow mobile volunteer to pick up California due to hypothermia. He said he would get right on it. A wave of relief swept over me. Now…we needed to keep moving until they found us.

After thirty minutes of anxious but relatively uneventful travel, we spotted the headlight of a snowmobile coming toward us.  California was hanging in there but I knew we was cold. I unhooked my sled and helped them get loaded. From all of the starting and stopping, I was progressively losing my running warmth. I needed to rev up my engine some how.  They finally took off for the Crescent.  In the exhaust filled silence it dawned on me that I was not out of the woods either. I had probably thirteen miles to go with almost no prospect of seeing another racer or volunteer. I pushed the thought back and let my brain stem take over again. Breathe, eat, move. I took off at the fastest pace I could sustain.

I somehow stayed awake through the next ten miles.  I was on the edge, though. By the time I hit the major intersection of snowmobile trails (a highlight, where signs designate the upcoming lodges of Lake Vermilion…including Fortune Bay Casino, the finish) I was starting to come unglued. It was thirty below and I was so close! But sleepiness put a headlock on me. I started the usual talking out loud banter with myself. The thought of napping in a warm room was something that I could almost physically taste. I missed the coziness of my wife and daughters. My feet desperately needed an hour of dry heat. And my metabolism craved something other than chocolate and gels. That’s when I also started seeing things that weren’t there.

I ran intermittently every couple of minutes. I was starting to see people in the trees by the side of the trail. It wasn’t really scary, just odd I thought. But I was getting close. At every corner I looked for that left hand bend to the finish. After so many hours of non-stop movement, I was really starting to get tired. But there was no stopping now.

Finally, I saw the turn off trail for the casino marked with the race flags. The relief was enormous. I carefully crossed the highway and started the very long, slow climb to the hotel. My mind was getting dangerously fuzzy. I looked up suddenly and saw a skeleton holding an armful of firewood. Yikes! I looked again and rationalized that it was probably more snow marshmallows on the tree branches. It had to be! I ran past it as fast as I could, though, keeping one eye on the skeleton, one on the trail.

The last drop of adrenaline in my body cleared my head as I ran 100 meters more for the lonely finish line banner next to the hotel. It was six in the morning and only the most die hard gamblers might be awake enough to witness my crossing. I put my mittened hand in the air and gave myself my last congratulations of the trip. You did it, I said out loud. I felt a wave of satisfaction and relief flow through me now. I was done and I was still in working order.

I parked my sled at the back door and entered a place of lights, warmth and the old air of casino cigarettes.  I wound down the hallways to the race headquarters room. Heads raised from laptops as I stood their dazed and slowly thawing. The ice from my eye lashes and neck gaiter was dripping down my face as I returned the warm smiles of the volunteers. It was finally time to stop moving.

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