Question: After I frostbit my toes at Arrowhead in 2007 how long did it take me to recover completely?
It seems that some interesting stuff happened at Arrowhead this year. It was a tough year and that brings out the best and worst in people. Actually, it's one of the reasons I go. I want to see myself at my best and at my worst. I want to learn what I am capable of and where my limits are. Sometimes those limits are physical, but more often they are mental. Failure to make good decisions is a case of pushing yourself beyond your mental limits.
First off I should point out that I don't know all of the parties involved in the issues at Arrowhead this year. I know a few of them. Nor was I there. I believe that some people made mistakes and that they were just that, mistakes. It doesn't mean that they are bad people. I don't think that they are “lacking in character” or anything like that. At least they haven't given me any reason to think so. If they are like anyone else at Arrowhead then I am pretty sure that I like them. I have made some big mistakes at Arrowhead myself. Those mistakes were my fault and I think that I have owned up to them. I hope that others can do the same. Maybe not today, but after some thought.
When we enter races like the Arrowhead, TransIowa, or Superior 100 we expect a little adventure. We expect to come out of them with some crazy stories to tell. That's one of the reasons we do it. In a sense we want to get ourselves in a pickle and then get ourselves out again. We love to hear stories about breaking a bone and still finishing a race. The thing is that there are acceptable consequences and unacceptable ones.
Some acceptable consequences are:
- mild hallucinations
- using snow as toilet paper
- a few days of limping around
- eating lots of junk food
- wear & tear on equipment
- bruises and scrapes
We think that these things are okay and we accept that they will happen. None of them (except accidents) are particularly dangerous and we happily indulge in them.
Some unacceptable consequences are:
- drinking your own (or someone else's) urine
- heat exhaustion
These things are unacceptable, dangerous, and there is no good reason that anyone entering into any of these races should have to deal with them. As one friend of a friend put it: “De-hy-dration. You did that to yourself.”
In a shorter race, even a 100 mile gravel ride or 50k run, many of these worries simply don't come up. You can push yourself to the limit and vomit from the exertion. That's okay. It's acceptable in those races. You can cut corners (so to speak), skip aid stations, dump your water before the final sprint, all that good stuff. You take a calculated risk.
Endurance races, races that take more than say 8 hours or take place in extreme conditions are different. You don't know what will happen. You must know yourself well, know the conditions well, and know the course well. Corners simply can not safely be cut. You are taking a calculated risk just by entering the race.
Arrowhead is billed as one of the coldest races in the world. Some say it is one of the toughest. I can't speak to that. I haven't been to all the races in the world. What I do know is that -30f is no joke. Things happen fast at those temperatures. They go from bad to worse without much warning. The first thing to be is prepared. Have plenty of food. Plenty of water. Know that you can use all of your required gear, including your sleeping bag and stove.
Some people have said, “if you stop at those temperatures you will die.” That is simply not true. If you went through gear check you have all the tools necessary to survive at those temperatures. When I got too tired to see straight at Arrowhead in 2011 I pulled out my sleeping bag and pad and took a nap at -40f. I was comfortable and it felt great. The same thing goes for your stove. I have never had to melt water from snow during Arrowhead, but I have done it in practice down to about -10f. It takes a long time, it's true, and you should be in your sleeping bag if it is especially cold out, but it can be done. Being prepared means having the equipment, knowing how to use it, and just as importantly being willing to use it. I said earlier on that making mistakes is a case of beyond your mental limits. Being unwilling to use your gear is being beyond your mental limits too.
If you read the reasons that I didn't go to Arrowhead this year you know that one reason, perhaps the key reason, was that I didn't want to be in a hurry. It sounds silly: I didn't want to go to a race because I didn't want to be in a hurry. Isn't racing about being in a hurry? No. Endurance racing is the tortoise and the hare. It is festina lente. It is making the right decisions. If you are in too much of a hurry to do things right then you have failed.
One of the things you must be willing to do is re-evaluate your situation. If you are too focused on winning, on beating someone else, or even on finishing then you will not be willing to re-evaluate. If I had gone this year I would have had a 48 hour time limit that I set for myself. That might have been very realistic for me to accomplish on skis in a good year, but cold snow makes for slow skis. I had to rethink what was likely. The only skier to finish this year finished in 54 hours and change. I have no doubt that he is a good skier. I also have no doubt that he had to re-evaluate his expectations. In the end 60 hours probably felt like a realistic goal and anything faster was gravy.
Well, I've gone on for too long here. In brief what I want to say is: someone made a mistake and that mistake led to unacceptable consequences. Once he put himself in that position he had to get himself out and perhaps he did the right thing then, in the short run, but the situation was totally avoidable and should not be celebrated.
Oh, and the answer to the question I posed: I still haven't completely recovered, even after 7 years.