The Tee Pee Motel and Quitting the Arrowhead 135

the lobby of the tee pee

The Lobby of the Tee Pee

I lay down on the bed and know exactly what is coming next from my wife on the phone.  My eldest daughter was not feeling well as I left the house earlier that day, headed to International Falls for the start of my fourth Arrowhead Ultra 135. The somber tone of Avesa’s voice told me instantly that Esme had had another seizure. She said she was doing OK, it hadn’t lasted very long and that she was now sleeping on the couch. This was one of a handful of seizures that Essie sprang while I was away. It left me with a dull, hollow ache in my gut. Here I was at the Tee Pee Motel, International Falls, MN. and I had a decision to make about starting the race.

My race companion, Jason, was busy getting his bike set up for the next morning’s start. My sled, poles and bag were sitting next to me on the bed, exploded and waiting to be resorted and stowed. I looked around the room. The Tee Pee is a motel’s motel. Drive up to the door of your room (which is very convenient for unloading and working on bikes and gear) and make yourself at home. The decor of the room probably hadn’t changed much over the last 25 years that Karen and Dick had owned the place. The beds were crisply made, the bathroom spotless and the room didn’t smell like anything other than our gear and bikes. It is the perfect motel from which to start an adventure. The lobby is even complete with a beautifully mounted Northern Pike with a red and white Daredevil spoon hanging from its toothy jaw. A few old photos grace the wall below the fish: Jack Penny holding a monster Northern, Al Lindner with a walleye and Karen’s brother in black and white straining to hold a stringer of walleye that would make any fisherman envious. Karen said her brother was a guide on Rainy Lake before he died in his twenties.

Later that night, I went back to the office to speak with Dick. He said he had turned on the old neon motel lights just for us. A big, flashing bright red Tee Pee Motel sign greeted me and the other Arrowhead racers staying here for the night. Dick lamented  the upkeep of the sign, the difficulty of trying to sell the motel and his desire to be in Texas and 80 degrees instead of the recent minus 40 Fahrenheit. We said good night and I wished him well with his current plumbing project.

I called Avesa before bed. Essie had a low temp, but no more seizures. That was her usual. I said I don’t know what to do. I asked her if she needed me back home and she said she would be OK. And so would Esme. I decided to stay and start the race.

At 4:20 PM, I was out of the first checkpoint at the Gateway Gas Station. I was currently running about third or fourth. The guy in front was trucking. I knew he would be hard to catch. Having raced this event several times before, I knew that anything can happen between now and the finish, some 110 miles away. So I continued down the trail, mostly jogging still, with the notion that night fall was coming, four to eight inches of snow was on its way, and I had many miles to run.

tee pee wall of fame

Tee Pee Wall of Fame

My goal coming into this year’s race was to win the running division. I had skied, biked and walked the race before. Each different category presented a new challenge and a fresh carrot to dangle in front of my frosted face. But this year was somehow different. I am rarely the fastest in the races that I enter. I knew coming into this Arrowhead that there were several racers way more qualified to outright win the run more so than me. But, trying on a more positive mindset this year, I had decided to throw out the idea of winning and see how far I could get. I was on the verge of discovering that the more I race this event, the harder I think it gets.

Jason and another endurance friend of mine were headed to Alaska in less than three weeks. Jason had won an entry into the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI), the granddaddy of all Winter racing, by winning the run category in last year’s Arrowhead. Following the famous trail of the Iditarod Sled dog Race, the ITI has the same categories as the Arrowhead (bike, ski, or run) but is 350 or 1000 miles long. It is an entirely different beast. I wanted to go. And to do that, I had to win the run.

Somewhere up the trail after Gateway, I was letting my brain do its usual dance. I thought to myself running is the way to go. Forget the bike and the horrendous logistics of getting it up to the start of the Iditarod. There is a simple beauty in running. I thought about my toes and the growing blisters on two of them. My right achilles tendon had begun to ache a couple hours before the first checkpoint. But motion and ibuprofin would take care of that. I flipped my headlamp on now for the first time and began to see snow glimmer in the beam.  I wondered if this would get serious. I swung my head from side to side looking for the firmest line on the trail in the slowly accumulating snow. I wanted to make as many miles as I could before travel became exceptionally tough.

But then it happened. I realized I was done. In a matter of only about a mile’s travel I had decided that I would call it quits. A barrage of doubts filled my mind. Why was I destroying my feet again? Why wasn’t I back home with my family? Was I really enjoying this anymore? What more could I gain from suffering though another 30 hours of running through the race’s toughest terrain? I had done this before. Three times. Why one more? The thought of winning (I knew this was increasingly  unlikely) and going to Alaska faded into darkness. Why wasn’t I more focused in this year’s race? What had changed inside me to allow this unwanted action of quitting?

I pulled out the phone and somehow got connection to the race director. Plans were made to retrieve me on Sheep Ranch Rd., another four miles up the trail. I felt awful and resigned at the same time.

As I waited for my pick up, other racers passed me. One encouraged me to walk with him. We would go slow. He could get me to the next check point. It was an exceptionally kind offer. But I told him, “No. It wasn’t the body as much as it was the mind.” We hugged and he continued on into the dark hallway of the trail.

Days have passed now after withdrawing from the race. My right Achilles is on the mend. My toes will heal with time. But when asked about what happened, I still don’t have a solid answer. I find it amusing when I say that my brain was the problem more than my physical body…like the two are somehow disjointed, not tied intimately together. These races are different than the neighborhood 10K fun run. They require a year’s worth of planning and training.  I have begun to mark my year by the coming and going of some of them. Completion of something like the Arrowhead is a monumental affair for most of the participants. It always had been for me. A test of what my body could endure. A discovery of new places set within the confines of time, weather and competition. These races have a life all to themselves that can only really be understood by stepping within the ring and going toe to toe with your demons and sub zero conditions.

My only lament is pondering the place of the Arrowhead and races like it. I want adventures like this in my life. I think I still need them. But what do I need to reveal to myself through them?  I hope I can discover that fire again that keeps me going through the night, racing to see what I can endure. The Arrowhead is a beautiful beast and I don’t want her out of my life just yet. I want another night at the Tee Pee.

tee pee motel

Tee Pee Motel



  • Donna LaJambe

    I really enjoyed reading the article on the run and how you and Dick were involved with the runner…I’ll bet it made you feel good to know he enjoyed staying at your motel…we don’t often get feedback for the good we do and you two do good!

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