Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Impossible Arrowhead 135

It didn't used to be so hard.
It used to be impossible.
-Magnolia Electric Co. "Almost Was Good Enough"

I felt unprepared going into the 2017 Arrowhead 135. It had only been a short three weeks since I had completed the toughest race of my life at Tuscobia. Physically the toll was not too bad as my only real concern was the continuing numbness in the balls of my feet and on several toes. I have learned that even when I don't feel great physically, my body will usually respond and surprise me with what it is capable of. The real question I had about myself was how I would respond mentally. The days leading up to race day I had been feeling like I could not handle another 60 hours of this. Tuscobia was an experience like no other. Towards the end it had scared me with where my mind went. I was worried about what would happen if it went there again. Could I handle that strain again?
There was plenty of time to think about this on the long drive. In the days leading up, I had been getting over the usual post race depression from Tuscobia but still having major doubts. Arriving in International Falls did little to ease those doubts. Like most introverts, I find myself quietly observing others while trying to stay in the background. At the pre-race meeting and dinner, I looked around at the other racers, observing and feeling like they belonged here and I didn't. They know what they are doing and I am a pretender. This is nothing new for me as I feel this way before every race. I did see some faces I recognized and said hello, which was reassuring. This winter ultra community is small and tight but also, as I am learning, open and welcoming. More on that later.
Added to my worry about my own ability was the fact that I had been rather lazy and had not checked my gear very well after Tuscobia. Two days before leaving I noticed my sled was worn through and cracked. It would never survive another 135 miles. I desperately searched online for a new one but none could be shipped next day. I finally found a hardware store in Madison, Wisconsin that I could pick the sled up in store. Now I was going to be using a brand sled, sight unseen, hoping it would fit my gear and work with my harness. This type of stress is not ideal prior to a race.
Your sled should not look like this pre-race

The night prior to the race, I went through all my gear multiple times, making sure I saw each essential item and knew where it was. Some time would go by and I would think about, say, my extra socks and I would not be able to relax until I went through my bag until I saw them and knew they were there. The last thing I wanted was to be left without some important, and even some not so important pieces of gear.
Minutes before the start

The race started shortly before sunrise, this bikes going first, followed by the skiers and then those of us on foot. The temperatures were in the teens, so with a moderate effort, I warmed up quickly and even had to remove my mittens and hat occasionally to keep from sweating too much. Within a few miles the snow started, which was forecast to be anywhere from 1 to 5 inches. I hoped for the minimum in order to keep the best footing on the trail. I moved well early and fell into talking with several other runners to pass the miles. From time to time I would suddenly realize and say to myself, "You're running Arrowhead". To be honest, I still can't believe it.
Warm and snowy early
credit: Burgess Eberhardt

Based on my pace, I was hoping to get to Gateway, the first checkpoint, just after dark. I arrived at Checkpoint #1 (36 miles) a little after 6 PM. I was beginning to get sore and my feet were already blistering near the balls of the feet. My shoulders and upper back were also very tight and aching which was concerning this early and something that had not happened at Tuscobia. It was a relief to sit, dry some of my clothes and change socks. Hot food after 11 hours in the cold is a true joy and it gave me a huge boost. Going into the stop, I gave myself the time limit of 1 hour which I kept by getting out after only 50 minutes.
Gateway feast

These poor guys. Only 100 miles to go.

The first section was completely flat. The section going into Mel Georges (Checkpoint #2, 72 miles) begins to have some hills, which when added to the accumulated fatigue, slows the pace. Also, this section was nearly all covered during the first night. I took in some caffeine to avoid the sleepiness that had been a problem in the past. I don't recall this getting too bad but still, going through the night is never easy. One highlight of the night was hearing wolves howling, which I have not heard since hiking at Isle Royale nearly 30 years ago. Shortly after sunrise, I arrived at Elephant Lake, which you cross to reach Checkpoint #2. Crossing the lake left me exposed to the wind and I was cold for the first time in the race. While this crossing is probably not that long, it seemed to last forever, as I was more than ready to get inside, eat, and take a nap.
Somewhere early day 1

Somewhere else, early Day 1
credit: Jason Johnson, TheJohnson8.com

The cabin at the checkpoint was chaotic. I removed and hung up some of my clothes to dry out. Sitting down in the only available chair, I ate some soup and one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches I have ever had (at least it tasted that way at the time). I realized I was very hungry and tried to get some calories in but more than anything wanted to lay down for an hour or so. Luckily there was an open bed in the upstairs loft so I took it. I planned on getting around an hour of sleep but the muscles in my legs began cramping, making it very difficult to get comfortable. I tossed and turned the entire time but I must have slept briefly since the time seemed to be gone too soon.
It was difficult to leave the warm comfort of the cabin but I wanted to get as many miles in daylight as I could. I told myself that I was over halfway and getting this next long section (approx. 40 miles) done would put me within striking distance of the finish. I changed shoes, hoping my blistered feet would feel better and this was a good choice.
Too warm for hats, around half way

I was told by many of the veterans that the section from MelGeorges to Checkpoint #3 was long and hilly. There were a couple hills initially out but I thought these were easy and began to think they may have been overselling the hills. I can't recall exactly when they started for real but the last 5 or 6 hours leading into the Surly station (Checkpoint 3) was one hill after another. Climb on top of climb. Sure there were some descents and some of those were long and steep enough to allow me to sit on my sled and ride them down, covering ground quickly and easily but this could never make up for the slow crawl many of the climbs turned out to be. I tried to keep the climbs slow and steady but still overheated at times. I would eat snow to try to cool down and get some hydration, which I have to admit, I had been slacking off on since getting tired. Looking back, I'm not sure it is the effort required to climb the hills that gets to me, but the slowing of the pace. I get impatient and just want to cover ground but these hill were relentless and seemed like they would never end. I even started counting them at one point and lost count somewhere in the 30s. Based on what came before and after counting, I would estimate there were well over 100 hills in that section alone. I may have yelled out a curse or two on seeing a new hill appear in my headlamp. Other times I would just laugh. It is an ongoing struggle for me to try to remain positive and when I see myself getting negative I try to turn it around. I would tell myself that each hill was one closer to being done, or that I had to pass over this one to get to the next. Sometime I have to remind myself that no one put the hills there to "get me". The course is what it is and it is the same for everyone. I don't know if I will ever perfect being positive but I believe limiting the negativity is a key to a good finish, or even finishing.
I attempted to lie down in my bivy sack at one shelter about 10 miles out from Surly. The ground was cold with uneven rocks but I was so tired I didn't care. After 10 minutes, I was getting too cold and began to worry about hypothermia. Fear won over fatigue, so I got up and set off for the 3 hour march to the next station.
Around 35 pounds that felt like 100 on the hills

I finally arrived at Surly around 2:30 AM of night 2. This checkpoint consisted of a large tepee like tent with a wood stove. I sat in chair near the stove and couldn't help falling asleep briefly before being told sleeping was not allowed inside the tent. Putting my shoes back on, I decided to just go out and try to get this over with. There was still nearly 4 hours until daylight and if I could get through that, I would be ok. Getting through another night was difficult but not nearly as bad as it had been at Tuscobia. The hallucinations were minimal. Once the sun rose, everything seemed to get better. The course had flattened out. The sun eventually came out, though the wind had picked up and it was colder overall. These last miles always seem to go slower as the anticipation of finishing increases. I was again warned earlier by a veteran that you can see the casino where you finish approximately 5 miles away. When I finally saw it, I knew I still had nearly 2 hours to go.
This finish contrasted Tuscobia by occurring around noon, in bright sunshine. There were several people waiting to greet me and they began to ring the cowbells. I saw my brother there again like at Tuscobia (and having someone at the finish is a whole future topic), I walked up to the line and he handed me a large can of beer. I was done. 53 hours 30 minutes after leaving International Falls, I had arrived. I had finished the iconic Arrowhead 135.

Driving towards the finish
credit: Danny Chen, International Falls Journal

Finished, beer in hand

The best part of these winter races has been the community of people around them. Everyone in encouraging and helpful. I was offered and given rides by strangers prior to the race which was super helpful based on the logistics of a point to point race. The knowledge and advice you get from veterans is priceless. Post race, everyone's first question was "Did you finish?" After responding yes, there is an outpouring of congratulations. No one cares or asks how long it took. They take joy in your success. It has only been a few days since finishing and, to be honest, right now I dread going through it again, but I would love to return if only to be around these people again.

Since I started running ultras, nearly five years ago now, I have consumed any information about as many different races I could get my hands on. I love reading race reports, looking at course maps and elevation profiles, watching videos, etc. From these earliest days, there were those races that appeared to me to be forever out of reach. Hardrock was one of those races I would read about and think to myself that there was no way I would ever be able to do something like that. Badwater was another. Arrowhead would sometimes pop up from the very fringes of the ultrarunning and I would almost immediately dismiss it as a race I would ever be able to run. First off, it is 135 miles. It is in northern Minnesota in January. There is very limited support (only 3 checkpoints). Impossible. I have somehow navigated my way from believing a race was not even a consideration to finishing it. When it was impossible, it wasn't hard. Now it was possible and it was very, very hard.
So, here I am, an Arrowhead 135 finisher. I'm still in some disbelief about that. It was maybe 2 or 3 hours into my drive home that I thought to myself, "You finished Arrowhead" and teared up. This has happened several times in the days since. I was a bit emotional finishing Tuscobia and rather at ease finishing Arrowhead. I'm still waiting for that full emotional release that hasn't been there at either finish. It will come, perhaps in Winnipeg.

Post Race Beer Review
Surly Coffee Bender:
My brother handed me this beer right at the finish line. I opened it a took a big swig without even looking at it and the coffee flavor surprised me. The coffee is very strong in this beer, especially for a brown ale, I would expect this much coffee in a stout. I did get the sense that the brown ale that this is based on would be very good on its own and browns are not my favorite. Also, bonus points to Surly Brewing for hosting Checkpoint #3. I highly recommend this beer. If you are ever in northern Wisconsin or Minnesota, check it out. Surly Furious is delicious as well.


  1. Great Job, Dan. I'm happy I had a little part in your ultra transformation, seeing that I got you to sign up for North Country all those years ago and then bailed on you..... :-) !!!

    1. I tell everyone that story. You bastard!!!!

    2. You just needed that push :-)
      You're going longer, I'm going shorter (think I'm sticking with only half marathons this year....).

  2. Great job man!! Let's run Actif and get this thing done

    1. I cannot wait for this little series to be done.

  3. I loved reading this! You're making me feel a little lazy...

  4. Outstanding report Dan. You continue to inspire us with your willpower, tenacity, grit, long flowing locks, and your Surly pictures. I wish I had 10% of all these attributes you possess. Well, maybe 20% of the flowing locks.
    Thank you for doing this for yourself and yet impacting all of us in a POSITIVE way.

  5. Been a little late getting around to these. Great narrative, love how you show both strength and vulnerability in here. A lesson for us all.

    1. Thanks. I don't know about the strength but I have certainly learned about feeling vulnerable and that it it just fine.