Tuesday, December 28, 2010

How an "expert" builds a pulk

**There'll be a Tuscobia write-up sometime later this week. I managed to do the 75 miles in just over 29 hours with only minor troubles, but I really want to give it a more thorough treatment than I can right now.**

Lately it seems like folks have been asking me for a lot of advice on these winter races, especially the Arrowhead. It's something of a surprise as I don't really consider myself an "expert" on these things. I suppose I've been doing it for several years and had some success on both the bike and on skis, but folks seem to forget that I've failed just as many times as I've succeeded. As it stands I'm happy to answer as many questions as I can, but it should be remembered that I am not an expert or an elite athlete (as some have suggested), just a guy who kind of likes doing this stuff.

In any case, one thing I've been asked about is my sled. Here is how I built one on short notice when my old one had a zipper blow out. It's quick and dirty, but it got the job done for Tuscobia this year. I hope to make a nicer one before Arrowhead.

Step one: find a sled. A simple plastic toboggan seems to work best. Lots of room, light, durable, and cheap. Get it home however you like.

Step two: enlarge the existing rope attachment points to fit your rope. I used 9mm dynamic rope (stretchy) so that it would pull more smoothly and be stronger than I'd ever need it to be. Use what you like. It's not a big deal.

Step Three: Tie your rope in to the sled using a figure 8 follow-through. Other knots, like a bowline, would probably work fine (it isn't like you'll be hanging from it), but I can be a knot snob.

Step Four (no photo): feed your rope through a rigid tube of your choice. I used an old fiberglass ski pole, but others have used PVC pipe with some success. I like the ski pole because I know it won't weaken in the cold and it has a narrower inside diameter to more closely fit the rope. About two meters seems to be a good length for the poles.

Step Five: once you've threaded your rope tie a loop in the other end using a figure 8 on a bight (again other knots would probably work fine). I pull the rope tight and try to get some stretch out of it when I do this. It helps to keep the pulling system rigid and keep the sled from overtaking me on the downhills.

Step Six: toss a large duffel bag full of your gear in and strap it down. The strapping down could take a whole other blog post, but you could just tie it in with more rope. I have used parachute cord in the past, but on this sled I riveted nylon straps with buckles in to the sled. One downside to just tossing the duffel in is that snow can pack in around the sides.

Step Seven (no photo): attach to a waist belt with carabiners. I use a reversed fanny pack with loops sewn into the sides, but there are other options. I cross the poles and then strap them together where they cross. This makes for a directionally stable sled which is nice on downhills.

Step Eight: walk 75 miles with it. This isn't my ideal sled, but it was done on short notice and took less time than writing this blog post (about an hour).

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Looking back on Arrowhead '06

Yesterday I was reading a blog that reminded me of the 2007 Arrowhead which led to me looking back on the race from that year (the line from blog to '07 AHU is not straight so I won't bother with it.) For those of you who don't know that was the year I made some serious mistakes and I had to be rescued on snowmobile. I suffered some pretty serious frostbite and, while it wasn't as bad as it could have been, my toes are still not quite right. Granted, it was a tough year with a combination of bad snow conditions and a serious cold (-35f), but it was nothing I wasn't aware was possible.

After that disappointment I was in quite a funk for a while and as a result I've never written about it or analyzed what I did wrong (although I did learn some things from it). The AHU blog from that year (especially the "To bivy or not to bivy" and "Drink water don't ration it" entries) makes some pretty heavy points about the race and it really got me thinking I needed to re-think what happened. Here's a rough outline of what I did wrong that year:

What I did wrong:

-My cycling shoes were not warm enough or roomy enough for the conditions.
--I had gotten frostbite the year before ('06) using the same shoes, but rationalized it as "not that bad." Any frostbite is too much, don't think otherwise.
--I tried to use heat packs in my shoes, but without any room to breathe in the shoes they didn't work.

-Not enough water
--My thermoses froze shut from spilled water freezing on the cap threads (I managed to force one open, but on the other I broke the cap trying to get it off and never did get it open cutting my water supply in half).
--I didn't drink because it was too tough to get in to the thermos in my pannier bags (even when not frozen shut).
--I didn't eat for the same reason. It was hard to get to the food. That and not drinking probably caused a lack of appetite
--Because I didn't eat or drink I had a pretty epic bonk about 50 miles in. I didn't have the energy to ride the bike and eventually couldn't even swing my leg over the top tube.

-I was in a hurry.
--I was trying to break 24 hours and stuck to it even though conditions dictated otherwise.
--This contributed to not eating and drinking along with not stopping at the Gateway store.

-I didn't stop at Gateway store 35 miles in.
--As a result I didn't warm myself up, eat, fix and refill my thermoses. All of which would have been possible at the Gateway store. I probably could have bought warmer boots there too (it's that kind of store.)

-I never expected or intended to use my stove.
--I had never tested my lightweight alcohol stove in cold temps (sub-freezing. I have since and the stove does not work well in those temperatures.)
--I hadn't practiced with the stove.
--I didn't melt snow to drink.

-I got lost.
--The Arrowhead trail is pretty straightforward and I didn't figure I could get off course...and I didn't, but I didn't know where I was on course. I thought I was ~5 miles from Melgeorge's (halfway/75 miles) when I was actually ~20 miles out.
--Because I thought I was closer than I was I kept moving rather than stopping to camp. I thought that at worst I had 2 hours of walking. In reality it would have been more like 8.

What I did right:
-said "no" when asked by a snowmobiler if I was okay. I got on the snowmachine and dropped from race. None of this would have been necessary if I had done just one or two of the major points above right.

The number one thing I can do to keep these things from happening this year as I attempt to run the Arrowhead is to practice with my gear. To that end I slept outside last night and, while the 6f temperatures aren't what I expect at Arrowhead, I got some good practice with my (much better) stove.

Me, proving my stove works with a hot cup of coffee.

Monday, October 04, 2010

24-7 and Septemper Overview

It's been a while. Here's what I did in September:

Over Labor Day weekend I rode in the Eighth Annual 24 Hours at Seven Oaks. I can't say it was my best effort. Maybe my third best over the five times I've ridden the race solo. Given that I was out of shape and riding a less than ideal bike though...excuses, excuses. I rode about 88 miles in a little less than 14 hours on a 26" wheeled, single-speed, rigid, Surly 1x1.

The bike generated astonishment from the peanut gallery of 29"er, 2x10, suspended, titanium bike riders, but I didn't feel like I was at too much of a disadvantage. Heck, I knew that by lap three most everyone would be walking the hills anyway. And really I thought the bike served me well. It never beat me up or failed me in any way. My lights though...

I was feeling pretty good going into the night laps, always a bad sign. The first night lap went well, and I had just started to climb the second big hill on my second night lap when I saw a guy walking backward on the course with no lights. His headlight batteries had died and was walking out, back to the campground. I told him I knew how that felt (happened to me in '03) and kept going. Not 100 yards down the trail I thought that my lights were getting kind of yellow looking, the first sign of a dying battery. I figured I was just fooling myself, seeing things, after all the batteries should have been good for about three hours and I only had a little over one on it, but shortly after that the light went dim and then died. Crud.

Well, I could ride out the course with my backup one watt light or I could follow the dude back to camp. The one watt seemed to be doing okay, but I knew the course was going to get more technical. I was also only about one mile into an eight mile course. But I didn't want to sacrifice my mental momentum. I continued on.

The lap went okay, but I was glad to get back to the camp and hook up my second battery. The bright light was reassuring to see. I started up the first climb with new confidence. Then the light went out. Then back on. Then off. A loose connection? I checked both ends of the power cord. It seemed okay, but if I shook the light it would go on and off. Bad sign. Somewhere in the lamp there was a short. I turned around and rode the short distance back to camp, light more on than off.

What to do. I figured my race was done, at least until the morning. Luckily there were two sturdy DBDers, Charlie Farrow and Jason Buffington from Duluth on hand. They weren't ready to see my race come to an end (though theirs already had). Jason Buffington lent me his headlamp and helped me zip-tie it to my helmet. It wasn't as bright as my old one, but better than nothing.

Two more laps and I was starting to fade. Physically I was feeling fine. My legs were still working (though my arms were tired from the single-speeding), but my mind was going. I was starting to focus on the negative and imagine that I was about to ride off the trail with my weak lights. In fact, I was having trouble staying on the best line. I could no longer tell where the center of the trail was and ended up hitting more than my share of tree roots and branches. At the end of that (eleventh) lap I knew I had to stop and at least take a nap.

I unrolled my emergency blanket and sat down next to a fire that Kyle Sedore's had burning. Before long I was half asleep and overheard a few comments about a "baked potato", but I couldn't be bothered. I slept for a few hours, and just before dawn I was alert enough to continue. But I didn't.

I looked up at the hill looming over the camp and knew that to get back on the bike meant riding up and down that hill again and again for at least an hour and probably more. I didn't have it in me. I couldn't imagine doing it. I was done for lack of willpower.

Talk around camp was that 1st, and 2nd place were still racing hard, while 3rd wasn't going to catch them. 4th however was at 11 laps. There were at least 4 of us with 11 laps. If one of us went out, we all had to. None of us were going back out.

The broken (but still sturdy) DBDers gave me a ride back to Ames, before they hurried back to Duluth to meet their fates. Shamed I too fled the state.

The rest of September:

While I was out of the state I did manage to get in a short hike the next Saturday. Sleeping Giant State Park in Connecticut was a surprisingly strenuous endeavor in the middle of a very lazy week.

Returning to Iowa I rededicated myself and ran 25k on Saturday the 18th and then raced Cyclocross on the 19th. Cyclocross isn't for me. It's a tough 45 minute effort, but it's still only 45 minutes.

Finally, on the 25th I ran about 10 miles then learned to play Snooker early on the 26th. That's an adventure right?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Seven Oaks Trial Run

I rode out to Seven Oaks and did a few laps last weekend. I wanted to get some miles in on the 1x1 and check out the trails before the 24 hour race. I managed about 65 miles in about eight hours with a fair number of stops. Not stellar, but about as well as I could hope given the bike and terrrain.

On the way out I rode through Ledges park. It's quite a mess because of flooding a few weeks ago. Most of the fords are washed out, the last bit of the road is under several feet of sand and mud, and the bridge on the Highway through the park is pretty much gone. I had to do a bit of walking, but it was fun to have a bit of adventure on the way out.

Once I got to Seven Oaks I was expecting some bad trail and so when I saw the caution tape cutting off the back 2/3rds of the trail I took it seriously. I did three laps of the top portion before I ran into somebody (whose name I should really know) weed-whacking the trail who asked how the back side was. He said that it was supposed to be open for the 24 and I decided to check it out.

Both bridges over the creek were out and I was definitely the first person through in a while (spiderwebs and trail debris indicated that). Fording the creek was actually a lot of fun and I kind of wished that the powers that be would make that part of the course. Of course it wouldn't be ridable, but that's okay with me. I'm not much good at riding anyway.

Most of the trail was in pretty good shape. Sure there were a few washouts and in two sections the hill had more or less slid away, but it looked like there were re-routes in progress. I finally found Tom, who I had hoped to help with some trail work, but since I had messed around on the front side of the hill for so long he was ready to go and so was I.

I rode back home across the Wagon Wheel bridge and through Boone. I was pretty happy with the way the ride went. I was afraid that riding so much gravel on an undergeared singlespeed (32x18) would kill my back and test my patience, but I managed it pretty well. Good to know those years of riding the 1x1 at the Arrowhead and winter commuting with a ridiculous gear (32x22) weren't a complete waste.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Adventure #5(?)

I'm beginning to think that the purpose of this blog is to show myself how little training I really do. I know that I can go out and ride a gravel century or run a marathon any time I like, but I also know that if I don't do it regularly it will hurt a lot more. I am not fast, but maybe I could be if I trained right. Last years success at the Arrowhead convinced me that I can stick to something like a training regimen and that it really does help. This year I'm hoping to run it, something I have even less experience with than skiing, and it will require that I actually train rather than just talk about it.

In spite of all this negativity I did get out and ride last weekend. I took a couple of the guys from the shop out to Fraser and over to Ogden where we stopped at a Casey's for some food and drink. Oddly, it was breakfast for all three of us (that's normal for me, but most folks are smarter than that). We hit a few good hills and managed 74 miles on a tough hot and humid day.

On the way back we took the Wagon Wheel bridge across the DesMoines river. I hadn't been that way in a long time (since before they built the new railroad bridge) and I wasn't sure that it would be open. Well, it wasn't, but we could cross anyway. We hopped the barriers and stepped over a few missing boards, but the bridge was largely passable. I expect it will undergo a long decline and in about ten years will be torn down. Until then I plan to ride it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Here's what I've been up to the last few weeks:

August 1st: Rode the Skunk River greenbelt trail up to Story City and back. Very muddy due to recent rains. Lots of mosquitoes. A few trail re-routes. All in all about 40 miles on the Pugsley.

August 8th: Rode a few laps at Peterson Pits and McFarland park. Again, muddy with mosquitoes. I noticed that my chain was skipping about halfway through the ride. I stopped for a break at Ada Hayden park and saw that I had a broken chain link. Soft pedaled back home. ~30 miles. That's what you get for hard downshifting on the hills.

August 10th: Short gravel ride after work with Jared. ~20 miles easy pace with a little adventure riding through flooded roads and dodging thunderstorms. I tried out some new bib shorts on this ride and I have to say that they're fine, but not all that. I think I'd have to be a little bit larger to benefit from the relaxed waist. I promise never to ride in bib shorts w/o a jersey though. I won't be that guy.

In the meantime I've been checking out this barefoot running fad. It's pretty fun if nothing else, but I refuse to buy those Vibram Five Fingers shoes. I won't be that guy either.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Windstorm survey ride. (Adventure #2)

I skipped my adventure last weekend. I have no excuse for it really. Sure I was tired, it was my only day off, I had run a 50k the weekend before, but the truth is I slept until three in the afternoon. So much for my planned bike ride.

This weekend, despite similar obstacles, I managed to get up and ride fifty miles of gravel with Paul. Now, you might be saying, "That's not much of an adventure. Dave G. does more than that several times a week," and you'd be right, but I have excuses...it was hot, the wind was in our faces, there were trees blocking the road, I for got sunscreen, I was on a Pugsley for goodness sake.

Actually we were planning to ride out to Seven Oaks and do a lap or two out there. Combined with the ride out and back that would have been a metric century and I've been wanting to do Seven Oaks on the Pug for a while now. Unfortunately we had a pretty nasty wind storm last night that took down a lot of branches and trees (rumored winds of 71 mph). So we figured that the trails probably weren't in good shape (Seven Oaks is pretty bad when it's wet) and opted for a shorter gravel cruise instead.

I have to keep things interesting though so I managed to re-learn a couple of lessons. 1) Things in frame bags get shaken a lot. First it was the pop-tarts that turned to pop tart powder. This time I was prepared and brought crushed Fritos, but the bag broke and I had crushed Fritos all over my stuff. 2) Wear sunscreen. I burnt my arms again and now they're swollen like after TI3. Well, not quite that bad, but still not good. I should have learned that lesson by now.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Afton Trail Race (Adventure #1)

It turns out that that six hour goal was a little optimistic. I finished in 7:24:05 with a lot of room for improvement. I learned a lot about running ultras though and that was my real goal for this event.

The race started out at a slow pace and seemed surprisingly comfortable to me. I really expected something more like the bike races I'd been in where there's a hard push at the beginning to drop the weaker riders, but I guess that's not the way ultra runners work. I was really confused then when we hit the first uphill and everybody started walking. I'd heard that it was de rigueur to walk anything resembling a hill in ultras, but had always assumed that that only applied to 50 milers and more. A 50k is hardly longer than a marathon and no one walks hills in those. So I ran the hill. Not hard mind you, but at a comfortable pace, and hoped that it wouldn't come to haunt me later.

The first lap of the two lap race went really well. The course was extremely hilly. It was like running at Seven Oaks with a few gravel hills like Y-Camp thrown in for good measure. They were steep and long, but so long as I didn't try to run hard I was fine. As it got later in the morning the day started to get very hot. In the woods it was shady, but muggy and still. In the open fields it was breezy, but the direct sun was tough to bear. Still I made sure to run everything and try to keep a moderate pace.

I finished the first lap in about 2:45 and thought I might just have a chance at keeping it under six hours, but I doubted it. I had told myself that I'd run everything for the first lap and then see about the second, but though I probably could have run a few more hills I had lost my motivation to do so. I couldn't make myself. I was starting to have a little trouble gettling myself to run the flats and downhills.

After about nine miles of that I was starting to fall apart. I needed water, but I hadn't brought a bottle. I had figured that I was fine with just the aid stations every three miles or so. After all I often do runs of seven miles without water and I'm fine. With the heat and distance behind me I wasn't as fine as I thought I would be. Added to that I needed a bathroom badly. I knew that there was one in the campground about a mile ahead, but I wasn't sure I'd make it that far, besides it was up a big hill. My calves were also starting to cramp. I figured I'd make the railroad bridge ahead then stretch a little and try to regain some strength for the climb.

When I reached the bridge I stopped and started to stretch, but after just a few seconds I felt like I couldn't even stand. I had to sit. I wasn't dizzy or nauseous, just exhausted, I couldn't get myself to move. I sat for a minute to regain some strength. A few runners passed me and asked if I was okay. I said I was and got up to continue. The path circled around beneath the bridge and after just 100 feet or so I had to sit again. I needed water, rest, and a bathroom and wasn't sure which one I needed most.

It was only a mile to the next aid station and I knew there were bathrooms at the top of the hill, if I could make it, but I couldn't walk more than a short distance on level ground. I knew I wouldn't make it. A runner stopped and gave me all the water he had left in his bottle, just a mouthfull, and I admitted defeat. I knew that there was a shorter way back to the aid station along a level trail and I decided that was my best choice. I got up and staggered back up to the bridge and the rail trail along the St. Croix river.

Then I spotted it. A sign I had missed before that said "restrooms". One of my needs would be met after all. Just a few yards down the rail trail I found them and sat down inside. Immediately I felt better. Maybe I could make it. After a few minutes of sitting I was ready to try again. I walked under the bridge again and up the hill recovering along the way. By the time I was at the top of the hill I could run a little and shortly I was at the aid station gulping down water and HEED. I had figured I would need to lay down for a while, but I felt good to go. How much time was left though? It was 12:30 I had three hours to cover the next five miles, I was going to make it.

Running was barely faster than walking, but I'd still run when I could. When climbing hills I'd put my hands on my knees to help push me up (a trick I remember reading about in elementary school, but never understood). Before I knew it I was at the next aid station where John Taylor helped me with water and filled my cap with ice (felt great). All I had left was the "snowshoe loop" which was mostly singletrack and very muggy. I walked almost everything, but forced myself to run the downhills.

Finally I passed under the entrance road and knew that there was just one last long hill to go. As I climbed I made up my mind to run the last bit to the finish. Once at the top I started jogging slowly, but steadily until the finish line was in sight. With only 50 yards or so to go I sprinted for it. There was no point in conserving energy any more. I crossed at a run in 7:24:05.

Lessons learned: walk the hills, carry some water, and for goodness sake know where the restrooms are.

Thanks to everyone who organized and ran the race. It was good to hang out with old friends and meet new ones. Especially John Storkamp, Tim Roe, Angela Hill, Darryl Saari, Dan LaPlante, Karl Neuberger & family, John Taylor, and the blue mohawk guy.

Monday, June 28, 2010

52 Adventures

I haven't posted in a long time. That's because I haven't done anything lately worthy of a blog post. The most blog-worthy things I've done lately are a 100k gravel ride and a 25k run. Not much. That's about to change. It's time for a new beginning. I [will shortly] have a new camera and need to use it. So here's the plan:

Have an adventure every week for the next year and write about it here. 52 adventures in total.

Next weekend, for Adventure #1, I'm going up to the Twin Cities for the Afton Trail Race. It'll be my first 50k run and a difficult one at that. I've been training (at least a little) and although I've had to take some time off due to injuries I think I have a shot at finishing in six hours. That's the goal anyway.

I'll let you all know how it turns out in a week's time.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Slow day at CIRREM

I could say that the reason I finished over an hour slower than last year was because I rode my least comfortable bike. I could say it was because I used studded tires, or ran them at 30psi. Maybe it was because I rode with fenders and a rack. I could blame the weather, but really the only reason I was so slow this year at CIRREM is because I am out of shape.

As the longest ride I've been on since November I guess I should have been expecting it. Sure I've been skiing a lot and done well in three ski races (two of them longer than the 62 mile CIRREM), but my legs didn't seem to care about that. What really mattered was that I couldn't turn the pedals over like I did last year.

From the first moments of the race, as we pulled away from the Cumming Tap, I saw that I wasn't going to be in the top five like last year. The gravel, which last year had been soft and sloppy, was frozen solid. It was as fast as pavement for those who had had the foresight to bring their cross bikes (like I did last year), but slow for those of us who had anticipated warmer, wetter conditions that would favor mountain bikes. The pack started pulling away within the first mile and for a few seconds I tried to keep pace, but knowing my body as I do I saw that I'd blow up in no time if I did that.

Last year the weather had been nasty. A cold overcast day that cycled among just about every sort of precipitation. Rain, sleet, snow and lots of wind. This year it was colder, probably in the high teens at the start, but with the sun out and little wind it was much more comfortable for most folks. I would have preferred worse conditions to keep the riff-raff away. There are lots of folks out there who might be faster than me on a good day, but get demoralized and drop out when the weather turns. That's where I'm good. I am energized by bad weather. It makes the ride more fun for me and makes me focus on the here and now rather than the finish or competition.

Before long I was on my own. A few riders were behind me, but most were in front. My only hope was that there would be some folks who went out too fast and blow up when we came to the hills. Unfortunately once we got to the hills I found out that that person was me. Where last year it seemed like there were a few steep hills I found that every hill this year was steep.

Luckily my Arrowhead experience kicked in and kept me mentally focused and I started treating the race as a race with myself. I wouldn't worry about anyone else's race. I was going to finish and I knew that even a worst case scenario of six hours was nothing compared to the 54 hours I had spent on the trail up north.

At the halfway checkpoint there was a crowd of competitors milling around chatting. I rolled right up to the water jugs, refilled my water bottles and, refusing the offered beer, took off immediately. I couldn't believe that so many people were taking a long break in a short race like this. I figured that I'd be passed by a lot of folks right after the checkpoint, but surprisingly only a few did.

The sun had warmed the roads by this point and in many places the gravel was getting very sloppy. The wide tires didn't seem to make much difference in the slop and the fenders were both a blessing and a curse. They kept the majority of the mud from spraying me and kept me dry, but they kept packing up with icy sludge and rubbing on my tires. Occasionally the fenders would cough and spit out a chunk of frozen mud and there was a constant drip of somewhat more snot-like mud dripping out by the mudflaps.

Still, even though I was out of shape and miserable, the end came fairly quickly. It's strange how a six hour race can seem short these days. I rolled up to the bar and went inside expecting some kind of a greeting, but slow as I was, nobody even noticed. They were already on to handing out prizes and drinking. I had to ask someone where I should check in (the race director was busy with the prizes) and I was directed to someone behind the prize table who took my number. With that I was officially done with the race.

As much as I hate getting in so late that the awards ceremony is already over (this has happened to me twice now, the first time was in a road race. I won't be doing that again.) I can't really blame the race directors. The leaders had gotten in over two hours before me and some had already left. In spite of my pathetic finish, the course was great. Hilly and remote, it only crosses pavement twice in the whole 62 miles. The cue sheet and course markings (orange paint on snow shows up really well) were easy to follow and I was never in doubt as to where I was. If all goes well, I'll be back next year.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Arrowhead 2010

Headed into this year's Arrowhead 135 I was more anxious than ever before. I had put together and followed (mostly) a training plan, researched and bought gear, done training races up to 75 miles, but still I didn't feel ready. I suppose I never do, but in a way I had more to lose this year. I felt like I might actually have a shot at finishing, a feeling that I hadn't had since biking the course, and halfway wasn't going to be enough this year.

It was about -21f (-30C) at the start this year and I could just see the first light of dawn to the East as we started out of International Falls. From the start I set my own pace and decided not to worry about anyone being faster than me, even the walkers. For a time I skied behind Pierre Ostor, the race director and fellow skier, as he made his bid to become the first person to finish the Arrowhead in all three disciplines (run, bike, ski). He looked strong and I was jealous of his skinnier skis and lighter sled. I thought he had the ski race figured out as he pulled ahead.

Because of the new start line in I-Falls, the first eight miles of the course were new to me, but I knew them to be flat and I just plugged away, trying not to worry about anyone or anything. Before I knew it, as the sun rose and warmed the snow, I was actually kicking and gliding rather than just shuffling along. I still wasn't what you'd call fast, but the skis were actually an advantage over the runners. I passed up Pierre (I wouldn't see him again until the finish, he would have boot fit problems and drop out at Melgeorge's the next morning) and made the first shelter at about two and a half hours. I was back in familiar territory.

I don't remember much of the next eight miles, I must have started getting into the groove. I focused on eating and drinking as often as possible. Soon I was crossing Highway 53 and getting into what I used to think of as the race proper. By the next shelter, about 25 miles in, the temperatures had risen and the Polar grip wax I had been using was getting a little slippery. As I chatted with skier Tim Roe and a runner, I corked in some Green wax, ate some cheese and sausage, and was back on the trail in just a few minutes. Only about ten miles to go until the Gateway store.

The advantage of having been through this part of the course four times before was that I didn't have to guess how far it was to the Gateway. I knew I was a little ahead of past years as the sun wasn't as low in the sky. It looked like I'd make my (provisional) goal of 35 miles by sunset. There is a big white pine on the right side of the trail a mile or so before the store and I was happy to see it. I made it to the store with sunshine to spare.

The parking lot at the checkpoint was crowded with runners sleds and a few bikes. Inside was crowded with racers, but not as bad as I thought it might be with 102 people in the race. Took off my boots, bought a Monster and some potato soup, and sat down to rest for a few minutes. So far I was doing really well. I had thought I had felt some hot spots developing on the backs of my heels, but when I took my socks off it didn't look to be a problem.

I was wearing two layers of socks, one an extremely thin nylon dress sock and over that a medium weight Smartwool sock. The thin slippery sock allowed my feet to slide a little inside the boot without causing blisters while the outer sock provided insulation and cushioning. I had also finally found a pair of boots that worked with my feet. Many people use or recommend a larger than normal boot for winter use, to accommodate multiple socks or heat packs, but I had found that getting a boot that fit right, with minimal slop, was more important for skiing. After more than two years of failed experiments I seemed to have the boot fit and blister problem licked.

As I ate I again chatted with fellow racers. Runners Carles Conill and Alicia Hudelson seemed to be doing well. Brazilian runner Marco Farinazzo looked a little shell shocked. I saw all the skiers except Pierre pass through too. After four years of tough luck for skiers it seemed we might just do well this year.

Leaving the Gateway store is always a challenge. It's just too nice a place to stay, eat, and chat, but I had set a goal for myself to leave in half an hour. I'd guess I stayed three quarters of an hour. Not too bad.

After the store it was dark and there started to be more hills. Both of those made the time pass more quickly. In the dark you can't see how far you have to go and with hills you have mini goals to keep your mind occupied. About twelve miles down the trail I caught up with South African Doug Girling as we passed the Ash River shelter. Shortly thereafter I caught up to Tim Roe who had taken off his skate skis and was walking. He confirmed that we were making good time. Mike Stattelman was also out there and we skied together off and on until the Black Duck shelter at about mile 56 on the trail. It was about 12:30 or so and we both agreed that, although we could have pushed on, it was time to get some rest. Mike and I agreed to sleep until 4 AM and then wake each other to push on to Melgeorges.

I pulled out my sleeping kit and, because I had packed it together and uncompressed on the sled, had it ready for use in just a couple of seconds. I took off my Camelbak and refilled it from an insulated Nalgene in my sled, took off my boots and then stuffed both water bladder and boots into the sleeping bag with me to keep them from freezing. I ate a little cheese and sausage and tried to sleep, but instead I started shivering. By the time I warmed up I had to get up to pee and the cycle repeated itself. By 3 AM I had had enough. I got up and told Mike that I was leaving. He seemed to be sleeping soundly and I hated to wake him, but didn't want to just leave him behind.

The fourteen miles from the Black Duck shelter to Melgeorges is pretty hilly, but I was pleasantly surprised at how well my skis held on the uphills and how well I hung on through the downhills. I only had to remove my skis twice to walk up hills during this section, far less than last year, a testament to having learned how to wax properly.

Twice, on downhills, I ran across items that racers had dropped once a mitten and later a reflective vest. I tried to stoop and pick up the items as I sped by, but I'm not that good yet. Luckily, in both cases, the racer was only a few yards up the trail and I could alert them to their lost gear.

I reached Elephant Lake just as it was getting light in the East again. Skiing across the lake was where I started to notice a problem that would be my only real physical pain through this years race. My right ankle was starting to get sore where it contacted the cuff of my boot. It seemed related to ankle problems I'd had in previous years, but was coming on at a much later time and was more bearable than with my old stiff boots. In the hills it wasn't a problem, but when the trail widened and got rutted and bumpy on the lake it took more ankle strength to keep the skis on track. I was happy to arrive at the halfway cabin.

As usual the cabin was a little bit of pandemonium in the midst of a peaceful, silent race. I made sure to keep all my gear in a small neat pile off to the side and get my eating, waxing and resupply done as quickly and efficiently as possible. I was surprised to see several of the bikers still there, having spent the night in the warmth of the cabin. It was mostly that I was there so much earlier than in previous years and hadn't seen the overnighters leave. With all of my resupply done I laid down in the loft to try to get a few minutes sleep that I had lost the night before. I probably got in two fifteen minute naps before deciding it was time to move on. I ate a little more, thanks to the volunteers manning the checkpoint, and then left a little ahead of the other skiers who had arrived.

Leaving the checkpoint, I skied along the road to the trailhead. This is where I had my first (and not last) crash of the race. The road was surprisingly icy and when I turned to check for traffic I slipped and fell right in front of Caitlyn's van (the very van I had ridden in up to the race). It was a little embarrassing, but I was glad to get it out of the way.

I was happy to be on the second half of the course for the first time in four years. This time I'd be able to see much of it in the daylight that I had seen in the middle of the night in 2006 and I was looking forward to it. Soon I hit the first big hill of the course, a screaming downhill that I somehow managed to stay upright on. Then I saw the accompanying uphill. I walked. At the top of that hill, figuring that I had just started in to the dreaded hills, I changed into running shoes. I figured that with uphills I'd have to walk and downhills I'd be foolish to ski I was better off that way. One more killer hill seemed to confirm my decision, but then the course flattened out. I figured it was just a temporary reprieve and kept walking, but as time wore on Carles and another runner caught up to me and I wasn't making good time, not as good as skiing anyway. After about two miles of walking the flats I switched back to skis and was immediately glad.

The second half of the course was turning out to be much flatter than I had remembered, but that had been four years ago, on a bike, in the dark so I didn't worry about it too much. At the next shelter, near Myrtle Lake, I caught up to Doug Girling who was taking a nap. Soon Carles and the other runner caught up and we all sat down to rest and eat for a few minutes. Skate skier Jim Reed passed us as we were sitting there and we watched as he skied down the hill, then took off his skis and walked up the next. It looked like a skiable up-hill and when I tried it a few minutes later I had no problem climbing it. I was really happy with the way my skis were performing.

With that the infamous Arrowhead hills were underway. I yo-yoed between Jim Reed in front and Carles and the other runners behind for several miles. I could climb better than Jim, but not as well as the runners, while on the downhills and flats Jim could skate away from me while I skied away from the runners. It went on like that for perhaps five miles and then another flat section was in store. I hadn't remembered there being so much flat on the second half of the course. According to my map there would be a shelter coming up shortly and I'd be happy to see it just to have a measure for my progress. But the shelter never seemed to come. I kept skiing long past where it should have been and as it got dark and I put on my headlamp I figured I must have passed it up.

Then, just as I had given up hope, out of nowhere there it was, Elbow Lake shelter. Carles had caught up to me and we both sat down to rest. He gave me a Hostess cake and I gave him some chocolate coated coffee beans (my secret weapon for the second night). He said that the Orr trailhead should be coming up soon, but according to my map it was still at least five miles off. Imagine my surprise then when I started down the next hill and saw a trail junction. I was moving to fast to do a controlled stop so I did an emergency crash and checked my map and the signs. Sure enough it was the Orr trailhead and my map had the shelter wrong by several miles. I got up and started down again only to find a sharp turn in the trail and executed another emergency crash, then a third as the hill ended in a narrow bridge. I am sure Carles was wondering what was wrong as he saw me wipe-out three times on one hill.

I walked up the next steep uphill and down the next downhill, but my the struts keeping my sled from catching up with me had come out of place (probably in the crashes) and the sled would over take me, forcing me to spin around and chase it down the hill. Again I am sure I looked to Carles like a dog chasing it's tail down the hill. I paused to fix my sled and duct taped the struts back into place, but since duct tape doesn't work very well at -10f it was a partial fix at best. The best way to fix the problem was to ski faster than my sled and so I did.

I had come to the true monster hills of the Arrowhead trail. After a couple of hills I developed a strategy to make it through the worst of them. If the hill was too steep to ski straight up, but I could see the top with my headlamp I would herringbone, if I couldn't see the top I would walk. If I could see the bottom of the hill and I was in control I'd ski it out, if I couldn't I'd ski as far as I could in control and then intentionally crash.

Somewhere in there I caught up to Jim Reed, who was doing a lot of walking, and was passed by cyclist Christian Arel. For a second, as he cruised away, I wished that I was back on a bike. I knew we were getting close to the Tepee checkpoint and I was anxious to get there as soon as possible. The Crescent bar at the checkpoint would be open until 1 AM and I wanted to get inside and get some food if possible. I estimated that if I hurried I'd be able to make it.

As the hills petered out Jim was able to ski again and he caught and passed me. The trail wound through a very cold bog for what seemed like forever before I finally caught sight of Wakemup Hill. I could see Jim's lights high up on the hill and I knew I was nearly to the Tepee. The climb was shorter, but much steeper than I had remembered it on the bike. My sled pulled back just like the tire I had dragged during training and I silently thanked myself for doing those silly workouts. As I was climbing my headlamp flashed to indicate low battery. Once again I was glad that this was the last real hill.

At the top, though I knew it was foolish, I put my skis back on and tried to ski down the other side. I couldn't see the bottom and it was far steeper than anything else I had gone down. Once I felt I was way out of control I sat down for another "controlled" crash. I got back up and, still not seeing the bottom I went for it again. This time a rut or something caught the edge of my ski and threw me. Perhaps the first unintentional fall since the road back at Melgeorges. Once more I got up and finally I made it to the bottom. I switched my headlamp to low and skied the mile or two I had left to the tepee. It was midnight.

I was the last one in to the Crescent before they closed for the night. Skier Jim Reed was having a bowl of soup and I did the same. It was nice to get some hot food in me after a day out in the cold. I had been thinking of pressing on, but after warming up and eating I thought that it might be better for me to get some sleep. I still had approximately seven hours of skiing left to do and I didn't want to have a repeat of the exhaustion and hallucinations I'd had at Tuscobia. Jim and I threw out our sleeping bags behind the tepee as the bar closed for the night and went to bed.

As usual my bladder got me up at least three times during the night. Each time I'd have to get my shoes on and rush shivering over to a snowbank wearing only my Smartwool long underwear to relieve myself. Next time I will be bringing a relief bottle with me. I expect it will add significantly to my comfort.

At 5 AM I heard Jim getting ready to go, but I wasn't ready yet. I knew I had until at least dawn to get back out on the trail and now that I was warm and comfortable I wasn't in any hurry to finish. I went back to sleep and when I next awoke and peeked out I could see a little light on the Eastern horizon. It was time to get moving. I dressed, packed up, checked out with the volunteers manning the checkpoint and got underway.

As I started out I was cold, but I was confident I would warm up as I got moving and the sun rose. The day took a lot longer to warm than I expected though. Before long my fingertips were numb and I was getting worried about frostbite. I tried squeezing the ski poles and flexing my fingers. I tried tucking my thumbs in with my other fingers to keep them warm, but I knew it wasn't working. I had left my army surplus mittens behind to save weight and now I was regretting it. The combination of low temperatures, exhaustion, and probably mild dehydration was getting to me. Eventually the sun started to warm me and most of my fingers came back, but I knew I had some minor frostbite issues on the tips of a couple fingers, something I had promised myself I wouldn't let happen again.

With that all I had left was the long, very flat, ski to the finish. As in 2006 I started to get a little impatient with the terrain. There just wasn't anything to focus on, nothing to break up the monotony and make the trail seem shorter. Rather than let it get to me though I tried the same thing I did in '06. I focused on being present. This was where I wanted to be. I had chosen to be here. I was doing just exactly what I had trained for and dreamed about. I was having fun again.

I kept thinking I saw someone a little ways up the trail from me and after coming around a corner I found Mike Stattelman resting and eating alongside the trail. He had camped out on the trail after having missed last call at the bar. He was still moving, but pretty slow. I could see that stopping for the night had been the right choice. I was still moving along pretty good.

After I passed Mike it seemed like no time and I was at the turn off to the casino. A few snowmobile volunteers, including Don Gabrielson, congratulated me on my impending finish. I was pleased to know that I had done it and the last few miles through the tribal land felt like a victory lap. I crossed the finish line to the cheers of Lisa Paulos, volunteer and possible competitor for next year. I felt so good to have made it that I could have skied another fifty miles.

Now all I have to do is run it next year.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Arrowhead Finisher

I made it. 135 miles on skis in a little over 54 hours. I expected it to be the hardest thing I'd ever done, but, thanks to my training, it wasn't. Not to say that it was easy. Certainly I worked harder towards this goal than I have towards anything before (not that that's saying much). In any case, this is just to let you all know that I did it. I should have a race report done sometime early next week.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Tuscobia Ultra

After a little thought I think that my experiences at Tuscobia deserve a closer look.

The night before the race Nick and I went out to check on the trail. Hard and icy. Good for the bikes, but bad for the lone skier, me. However by the time we awoke the next morning there was 2" of new snow on the ground. Perfect.

We took the bus from Park Falls to the start at Rice Lake (a feat that Tim deserves great credit for organizing) where we lined up for the start. As soon as the race started everyone realized that the hard surface we had seen in Park Falls wasn't representative of the whole trail. The trail was super soft. Most of the bikers couldn't ride more than a few yards before slewing off to one side and stopping. Only the fat tired snow bikes had a chance and only at extreme low pressures. What this meant for me was that I immediately passed most of the bikers and was able to keep pace, even with a few of the fat bikes.

That went on for about ten miles before the trail hardened up and I lost contact with most of the cyclists. After that it was just me for a long time. The trail was pretty unremarkable. No hills, just the odd spot where the trail dipped to cross a creek or in one case a railroad track. My glide wax was fine for the warm temperatures, but my grip wax was sketchy. Not a big deal since there were no hills to worry about. I re-waxed at mile 22 or so and then took a break about mile 36 to eat, wax, and put on my headlamp. Oh, and I should mention that this was the first time that I stopped to take care of the blisters that were getting the better of my feet.

Every mile of trail had a mile marker and I knew that this would be a blessing and a curse. I knew where I was so I could plan out strategy, but I also had a sense of how slow it was between markers. It felt like every mile was taking too long, but I knew that was just in my head. That said, I knew that the checkpoint where we were to refill our water was supposed to be at mile 44, but it wasn't there. By mile 45 I started to worry, but at mile 46, there it was. Not too big a deal, but mentally draining.

At the checkpoint (just a couple of folks in a mini-van, not the full service massage and buffet I was hoping for) I refilled my Camelbak and again waxed the skis. My feet were in rough shape and I knew it, but I felt like I could keep going. My left foot had a large blister that had already torn open and the right hurt more, but was still intact. I was also passed by Matt Long, the first runner to pass me up. That gave me a little motivation and I got started again and tried to keep up.

Keeping up was no use. My feet were too beaten. After a few miles of skiing alone in the dark with nothing to keep my mind occupied I started to get sleepy. For a while I kept moving, but soon all I could think about was sleep and I was drifting off while skiing. I decided to stop and bivvy until the next runner caught me and then keep going with them for company. I laid out my bag at about mile 56 and was soon asleep.

The sound of a sled on the trail woke me and I peeked out to see Mitch Rossman pass by. I was still tired, but figured I had probably rested enough. I rolled up my sleeping bag, pad, and bivvy sack all together and put them in the sled. It was great to find that I didn't have to pack them all away in their stuff sacks to do this. I could save a lot of time and effort that way. I was underway in less than five minutes, but Mitch was long gone. I occasionally saw a taillight in the distance, but I couldn't make up the difference.

A few miles later in the towns of Loretta and Draper I was passed by yet another runner (Daryl Saari). My grip wax was gone again and I just couldn't muster the energy to reapply it. My feet were also so bad that it felt like my whole right heel was a huge blister. I couldn't kick with my right foot anymore. I knew I had to do something different to give my feet a break. So I took off my skis and started walking. It still hurt, but not as much as skiing.

I was fine for a little while, but then I started to see things. First there was a bright blue flash, like a camera flash, but when I looked around there was no one there. No camera, no car, no buildings, just trees and the trail. I figured it was probably just some snow on my headlamp, but it seemed bigger than that. I heard sirens in the distance, but when I stopped to listen they weren't there. I kept going telling myself that it was just the sled on the snow. Then there were tractor tires in the trail ahead of me. I shook my head and they were gone. I was drifting off again. Corn was growing out of the snow ahead of me, then that was gone and white triangles of snow were floating up off the trail and dancing just above it. It was time to sleep again.

I was glad of my hasty packing from my earlier bivvy and bedded down at about mile 62. I figured I should eat something and got out the donuts I had bought before the race. I laid down, took a bite out of the donut, and woke up with the donut still in my hand. It was dawn.

In a rush I packed up and hurried down the trail. I still couldn't ski and walking was getting harder. The visions were gone, but I was spent and I didn't want my feet to be permanently damaged so I began to entertain ideas of dropping out. By mile 67 I was done. The trail crossed the highway here and I figured it would be a good place for someone to come and pick me up. I dug out my cell phone and turned it on, but there was no service, I tried again a hundred yards down the trail. Still no signal. Then there was a snowmobile coming towards me. It was Tim, the race director. He stopped and I gladly told him that I was done. He looked at me and said, you've only got eight more miles and everybody says that the trophy is pretty cool. What could I say, I was the only skier who had shown up. First place was mine. I cursed him and kept going.

The last few miles were torture. My feet were indescribable. The trail was dead straight so all I could see were trees converging. It looked like the trail went on forever. But somehow I made it to Park Falls. I followed the signs to the turnoff to the finish, nearly missed another turn in spite of it being marked with a flashing light. Tim waved me in to the finish and asked if I could turn around and do it all again. I said no.

My left foot had the largest blood blister I've ever seen on the heel and there was a blister under my large toenail that I knew meant the toenail was going to come off. My right foot was worse. There were two blisters on my heel: one on the back of the foot that had already drained and was larger than the one on my left, then the one that really worried me, underneath the callus on the bottom of my heel.

But a week later I was back on the skis. Now, in just a few short days I'll be attempting to do the same thing again, but this time it'll be twice as long and hilly.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Okay, so part two of the Pug trip report never materialized. Something with distractions and a little thing called Facebook. It goes kind of like this though:

We rode out of Cedar Falls to Eldora while my achilles got worse and worse. Sometimes high cadence on the pedals helped, sometimes low. We left Eldora and rode through the wind farm North of Roland stopping frequently to rest/stretch my ankle. Just after dark we arrived in Ames and I subsequently took the next week off from running and any serious biking. After that week off my Achilles improved significantly and I haven't had any problems since. I have been stretching more than in the past though.

Since then I've been focusing on the Arrowhead 135. We've had good snow up until this last week and I'm more prepared than ever. Not that that guarantees anything.

I've done two ski races to prepare for the AHU. The first, on December 19th was the Tuscobia Ultra. 75 miles of mostly flat snowmoblie trail in Northern Wisconsin. I finished, just barely, with bloody blisters on my feet. Since then I've lost a toenail and gotten new boots that fit a lot better. I actually tried to drop out of the race with eight miles to go, but since there was no cell phone coverage and Tim, the race director, wouldn't let me give up when I saw him I managed it. There was also something about hallucinations in the middle of the night, but anyway... The second race was Lance's Triple D on January 9th. 50k of flat snowmobile trail from Dyersville to Dubuque. No problem. The new boots work.

The Arrowhead is in one week and I'll try to get a race report up in a reasonable amount of time.