Back from the Arrowhead 135 2009

Pre-Race Sunday Feb. 1st:

After one last hug and kiss goodbye, I threw the remaining gear into the car and headed up highway 53 to Tower, my meeting spot for Lara and Ron coming from Ely. I missed my girls as soon as I started to drive away. But it felt good to get this thing going! My Ely race friends met me just as planned and we transferred their car at the Fortune Bay Casino and headed up to International Falls all in my Subaru. A heavy snow with a stiff wind on the way to I Falls made Lara and I nervous about the start conditions the next morning.
Check in went very smoothly. The gear “boss” carefully went through my required pack out items, inspecting them for quality and throwing the whole pile onto a scale. Twenty-one pounds! But this was artificially low as I had yet to add food, water and some extra clothing. By the end of the evening, after I had carefully packed and re-packed my gear, the total came to 38 lbs. This was still better than I was expecting.
The rest of the check-in meeting showed how well organized the race was. I was impressed. We were also treated to a surprise slide show by Mike C., a rather famous adventure cyclist, of his latest bike trek across parts of Alaska. The photos were spectacular and I enjoyed being able to speak with him briefly after the show about future bike trips.
Day 1:
  • The start of the race was on Hwy 53, 10 mi. south of I Falls. Pre-sunrise purple horizon, red blinking lights everywhere (required on the front and back of sleds and bikes) and the usual urgency to get rolling! Hey! Get that number on your back! One last thing…
  • The first swing of the skis told the tale. No glide…just new, wind-blown flour snow from the night before. Uggh! this was going to be a long morning.
  • Out and back starts are never fun. This one, 17 miles, was particularly trying. As bikers passed walkers, and skiers passed walkers everyone got a pretty good look at how everyone else was faring. The first 8.5 miles to the turn around took twice as long as I expected. I also had to correct my sled from squirreling back and forth behind me (somewhat like taking a river canoe on a lake trip…gotta go straight!) Thankfully all it took was uncrossing my tow bars (PVC) to the sled. What a relief to not have the constant side to side jerk of the sled with each ski stroke.
  • Coming back, my energy was still good, but the ski conditions were much worse than I expected. So skate skis versus classic? Well, could be a very long debate, but I expected a lot more speed from skating. I was starting to reconsider my choice. But for sure the conditions would improve as it got warmer.
  • Halfway to the Gateway General Store (out 1st official checkpoint). It did feel good to be on a route that would not require doubling back. About 20 minutes up the trail, I lost all glide. So…pull out my mukluks (which I almost left at home), stow the skis, and start jog/walking. I was somewhat prepared for this alternative, but was hoping that it would come later in the trip.
  • With 6 miles left to go to the store I put my skis back on. I had spent the last 10 miles walking either by myself or with another skier from Duluth having the same issues as me. It felt great to finally see the signs for the store. Hot food! But man, It was already 4:30 in the afternoon, 36 miles into the race. My “schedule” for the day was blown to bits.
  • Inside the store, racers had blown up their gear to dry out and were seated and laying all over the place. I chose an aisle behind the gift tee-shirts and walleye place-mats. It felt great to stop for a minute. But I was quickly up again, refilling hot water bottles, microwaving turkey/cheese wraps I had pre-made and generally stuffing my face with anything that had salt on/in it. Salt is where it’s at! OK…sugar and fat are my fuel, but it would be salty things I would crave the whole trip.
  • 5:30 pm. I called Avesa and she sounded more than a little surprised by my slow progress. I explained, but it didn’t waylay her concerns about being able to reach Melgeorge’s Resort (the race halfway and where I wanted to sleep indoors the first night) by a decent hour that night. I packed up, told the race official “number 46 is off!” and I skied up the trail. I was determined to make it to the resort that night! I felt good, re-energized, and confident that I would get there even if it was late.
  • Lara and I had divy-ed up the race course by marking mileages between the 3-walled, log shelters spaced periodically along the route. That first night after the Gateway Store, I had one at 12 mi, 9 mi, and then 12 miles to Melgeorge’s resort. Well, I clipped off the miles fairly well to the first but never saw it. So I kept slowly skiing along. It was a rather hazy night, but still beautiful with a half moon and Orion shining brightly to the Southeast.
  • I kept looking at my watch thinking the next shelter must be near. But as time passed, I realized I must have blown right past it. I had been alone, now, for over three hours. I felt confident still that I might make the resort. A snowmobiler pulled up next to me and it was one of the race volunteers. (These somewhat “regular” check-ins by the sled volunteers would prove to be a rather comforting occurrence through-out the race. There is a heated debate currently about the use and miss-use of these volunteers for the race. I will save that conversation for another time…) He informed me that I was still another 6 miles away from the next shelter. That also meant another 12 miles after that to Melgeorge’s! I thanked him for the info, he said I looked good and I slogged onward.
  • Not long after the snowmobile visit, I took my skis off again to walk. The usual problem…too much energy going with too little forward progress. It was becoming a real balancing act between energy usage and conservation. At this point I re-assessed my situation and decided to bivy the night at the next shelter. So it goes, I thought. I desperately wanted to call Ves tonight and let her know I was OK and at the halfway. But, it was nearing midnight, I was low on water and I had been moving for over 16 hours today. A call would have to wait until morning.
  • It seemed to take forever to reach the shelter (a theme that would continue throughout the race…). I was somewhat pleased to find some company there, but also disappointed to see he was in the shelter already asleep. I quickly unpacked by bag and bivy sack and layed out my bed on outside of the shelter. It was a calm night so it didn’t really matter having the wind protection of the lean-to. Rather lazily, I climbed into my bag with my mukluks still on, just another coat thrown over the top of my race layers. A new experience of uncontrollable shaking took over within minutes of getting in. I didn’t feel hypothermic. My toes were cold, but nothing that should warrant this. I quickly rammed the rest of the chocolate bar down my throat and hoped for a quick onset of sleep.
  • Lesson one from moving all day…my body didn’t feel like turning off that fast. So I layed awake and listened to the occasional racer pass by the shelter debating if he would stop or keep going. And now my respiration rate was at least 24 per/minute. Very unusual.
  • It must have been some where around three a.m. when I heard the Brazilian come into the shelter. His cries of frozen water, shaking and general ill health made me curl up deeper into my bag. There were other racers with him who sounded like they were doing a good job of taking care of him. I felt awful for not getting out and helping. It was kind of like those ubiquitous climbing stories where other climbers in base camp have to save some other “foolish” climbers up the slope just because they are within a certain proximity to them. Well…this Brazilian I had a bad feeling about. He should have had a stove and been thawing snow to water ect., ect….I layed in my bag gently shaking and pretending I was oblivious to the night’s calamity.

Day 2:

  • I woke up at Black Duck shelter at 6 a.m. Time to get rolling and get to Melgeorge’s! I quickly assessed my water situation and deemed it OK. As soon as I hit the trail, though, it was the same realization…poor glide. But enough, still, to warrant skiing.
  • The hills came fast and steep on the way to the resort but I found them a nice change of pace to the drudgery of skating flat, flour-snow sections. A couple of miles from Melgeorge’s I had the usual delight of feeling the first warm rays of the morning sun. Chickadees were calling. It felt good to be doing what I was doing.
  • It was a shock to see the Brazilian ahead of me coming on to Elephant Lake. I passed him and asked how he was doing. He indicated OK. What a relief. What a tough guy! Then, just ahead, was my friend Lara in her blaze orange anorak. I quickly skied up to her and she was in her morning get-there groove. She had basically walked through the night to get to where she was now. I was impressed! I told her I would see her soon at the resort and very slowly skied ahead. But oh, was that skating slow across the lake!
  • Melgeorge’s was a busy place when I got there at 10:30 a.m. I quickly walked in to the resort and called Avesa. It was great to hear her and she was relieved to know I was OK. I made it over to the race cabin and looked forward to a hot grilled cheese sandwich!
  • Inside the cabin, racers were in various states of coming and going. Some had decided to call it quits and were in the process of letting the race go. Others were re-packing, getting ready for the next very difficult section to Wakemup Tipi. I found the Brazilian camera crew a bit in the way as they were interviewing their star right in the middle of the living area. Whatever!
  • I found a quiet room to lay down in and catch some sleep after devouring 2 sandwiches and several cookies and fresh water. God love those volunteers who were cooking in that cabin. Thank you! I napped for only about an hour. I woke up puffy faced like everyone else in the cabin. We all looked like we had terrible sinus infections. I assessed my ankles which were becoming quite sore from the walking I was doing in my ski boots. I duct taped them up for a little extra padding and decided to call it time to go. I was afraid that if I stayed any longer the giant sucking sound of the warm cabin would prove just too strong to overcome.
  • Back on the trail and really really determined to make it to the tipi. I had been warned that there might not be a fire there….but boy was I hoping there was. The afternoon was beautiful, sunny and I had stopped asking about the temp. My plan was to get to the tipi by midnight….one that I thought was very doable.
  • I had been on this section of trail before from my previous training run. I was both happy to know the terrain but anxious to be done with it. It was definitely slower this time. After a few hours, I decided it would be smart to top off my water supply both in my pack and in my belly. So I stopped at the Myrtle Lake shelter and  fired up the stove. I enjoyed the ease in which I could make water from the snow piled behind the log hut. I downed a thermos of hot chocolate and forced another turkey and Swiss wrap down. Life was about pure fuel tonight!
  • At the CR 123 crossing I was disappointed to see my buddy Lara with the race volunteers. She had decided to do the smart thing and turn back to Melgeorge’s only a couple of miles up the trail. This way, she wasn’t causing any extra trouble for the already over-worked volunteer snowmobile crew. Her ankles had had enough. She is one of the toughest customers I know. I’m sure it was hard to pull the plug. The volunteers checked in with me and I said I was doing well. I crossed the highway into the rapidly advancing darkness.
  • All I can say is this night would prove to be one of the toughest I have had in the woods. First, like always, there was almost no glide. A broken record by now. Second, distances proved to seem further than expected. Third, my legs were getting cold. My legs NEVER get cooled! Fourth, my headlamp went out. Fifth, they weren’t kidding about the hills. Holy Cow! Now these were hills! So…a lot of time taking off skis on the uphill, putting skis on for the downhill…repeat 100 times. Sixth, my gloves froze up. I thankfully had another fairly dry pair.
  • For all the work, the night was beautiful. Orion was out ahead of me most of the night. The Plaedese, Big Dipper and some other very bright planet were all lighting up the tree line. The moon was doing its bet to light my way, as well. I rarely felt like I needed my headlamp. Tonight I felt very comfortable being in the woods alone even in the cold darkness. Maybe it was because I knew somewhere out there there were other fools like me slogging away toward some mythical tipi. Or just maybe I had come to a point in  my wilderness life that my childhood irrational fears had finally dropped away at the side of the trail next to the wolf and fox prints. Just keep going, though!
  • By midnight I was getting very ready to be at the tipi. By one a.m. the first twinges of doubt began working my brain. Where was this damn thing? Had I missed it (like other shelters before?) No! No! Keep going! See…there are other foot prints and tire tracks. Don’t panic! You’re feeling OK. You can keep going! I was classic skiing now because skating had long ago become impossible. Each stride sent a sharp pain from my ankle to my brain. Why aren’t you stopping you fool? I knew the tipi was on a hill…this hill? No. This hill? Nope! Keep going…you’re doing OK!
  • 2 a.m. I’m starting to wonder if I should bivy in the woods. Then….like a giant harvest moon rising from a very odd, bald hill….a tipi! And there was the flickering glow of an unmistakable fire inside. And man, that is on a hill! I took my skis off and nearly ran up that thing. I clumsily undid my sled and tripped my way to the door of the tipi.
  • I pushed back the door to see three other racers inside…one biker and the two Navy guys who were walking. I quickly wedged myself and gear next to the the fire and began trying to thaw out. The biker kept reminding me to shut the door all the way. (I really wanted to keep the door open a bit to keep some fresh air coming into the tipi. About four feet above the fire there was a layer of smoke that I thought would be an instant headache producer. But down near the ground, the air was fairly clear. Anyway…I sincerely thought that it was not that cold outside, just damp. Well, turns out that it was close to 30 below. I am still amazed at how my brain kept me warm by thinking that the forecast had said before that tonight would be one of the warmest nights at only near zero.)
  • I eventually got settled into my wet, damp sleeping bag. I performed a quick assessment of my biker friend’s feet and fingers for frostbite after much concern about numbness. I thought he would be OK. The Navy guys, though, were a different story. One was coaching the other to get his things together…piece by piece. His buddy looked like hell. I was really worried about them leaving the tipi and I recommended that they stay until morning. But they were anxious to get on the move in fear that there were more hills to contend with. I told them that I thought the rest of the course was flat. They kept going. The biker and I wished them well.

Day 3:

  • 6 a.m. The biker is headed out. I decide I better do the same.  The thought now of putting on my ski boots is almost more than I can bear. So I spend the next 45 minutes thawing out my gloves, balaclavas and boots.
  • The sunrise is spectacular. To the east one can see the mining hills of Virginia and Eveleth. And, just on cue, the Brazilian comes up to the tipi asking if there is a fire and waving wildly at the horizon saying “beautiful, beautiful.” I was beginning to like this guy.
  • I can barely stand the pain from my ankles. My fingers, too, will just not warm up. Every 100 yards I stop and spin my arms to get blood to my aching index fingers. The trail has turned into logging road now, too. Great. I skate down the trail looking like someone that has never been on skis before. The road is ice covered and full of frozen logging debris.
  • I hit the main trail heading the 20 miles to Fortune Bay. I reluctantly stow my skis on my sled and pull on my mukluks for the last time. My skiing is done. No glide and my feet are nothing but pain clubs with numb little toes attached to the ends (I hope). I give myself a big pep talk and say that I can walk 20 miles! I have plenty of time (not quite true)! And it’s flat for crying out loud!
  • I walk and walk and walk. I started picking out funny looking spruce trees along the trail and walk to them. Upon reaching the tree I would say “good job!” and pick out another tree to make. Over and over and over. At this point, my right hip flexor had decided to give out. So, every time I started walking I would have to almost fall forward to get the momentum started again. I imagined that I was a train slowly chugging up to speed. Once at that cruising speed I would be fine for another mile. Then I would stop, drink, wiggle my numb toes, and start the whole train analogy again. Over and over.
  • By the time I reached the major turn offs for Lake Vermilion, I knew I would make it to the finish just a couple more miles down the trail. But by the second to last turn, my mood had hit a major low. What did this all mean? What had I done to my body getting to this point? Would I appreciate being at the finish? I finally had to say “stop!” Worry about this when you get there! So I plodded down that flat spruce bog trail to the Fortune Bay spur.
  • About a mile from the finish I was starting to get that float above yourself feeling that I had heard may happen to endurance type people. It was weird and i really wanted not to go nuts right before the finish. How embarrassing! Thankfully, I was brought back to my senses by one of the great race volunteers on a snow machine. He said, “I’ll see you in a couple of minutes at the finish” and that was almost impossible for my brain to process. A couple of minutes?!!!
  • I passed under the finish banner at 3:14 p.m. Wednesday. Another really nice volunteer congratulated me and helped me unclip from my rig. I could barely move my right leg at this point, but I knew I was done. We walked into the casino. At this point my poor little brain almost said, “that’s it, Jerk!” The blinking lights, bells, smoking slot machine junkies and total sensory overload was both thrilling and terrifying. My escort asked stairs or elevator? Out with a bang as my old dog sledding boss use to say. So I lifted my legs up one more hill.

Epilogue:

  • I wanted to get this written quickly before details and regular life made it all fade into a blurry memory. So the writing is not my best. I’ll improve it as I go.
  • The race directors are outstanding. They did a phenomenal job making sure the race was safe and enjoyable.
  • I look forward to doing this race again. Next year? Maybe. Ask me in a week.
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