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.