Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Arrowhead 2018: Snowy Smoke Kittens and Other Delights

Last year, sitting in the pre race meeting in International Falls, I felt like I didn't belong. This year I felt much more comfortable despite my apprehension about what lay before me. The faces were more familiar. I had come to know many of these people over the year that had elapsed. I was beginning to feel like I was part of the Arrowhead family.

My finish at the 2017 race showed me that what I thought was impossible, can be possible. It was a very difficult race, especially coming off the Tuscobia 160. Finishing gave me an immense boost of confidence. However, this confidence did not translate into much success last summer. Perhaps it was a fluke. Maybe I just happened to get lucky in a relatively easy year for the race. I needed to prove to myself that this wasn't the case and I got all I could handle. I decided to give the unsupported option a try this year, meaning I could not refill water, get food or go inside for warmth at the checkpoints. This would be an added level of difficulty.

The all important weather reports leading into the race showed a low of around -10 F at the start which would then trend upward to 20 F the next day. After spending over 20 hours near -20 F at Tuscobia a few weeks ago, this would almost feel balmy. Having the same gear since last year's race gave me assurance that I would not have to worry too much about the weather {foreshadowing!!}

I slept somewhat fitfully, having recurring dreams of myself dealing with one problem or another on the course, but still felt good when I rose to put on all my gear. Sometimes, thinking about the fact that I will be living in those clothes for the next couple days puts the event in some perspective. Knowing that I would have to be out there for two days and nights in order to finish can become overwhelming. It often hits me most when putting my shoes on. "When I finally take these off", I say to myself, "my feet will likely not be in great shape."
Before. A little terrified. 

I checked in at the start and then had a series of hugs, handshakes and words of encouragement with my fellow racers. I tried to relax and get in the proper mindset. The fireworks went off and the waves of bikes and then skiers left before those of us on foot set off. I tried to walk quickly to get warm.

The first couple miles, similar to Tuscobia, had me waiting for my feet to warm up. Once they do get up to temperature I never seem to have any issues. I was wearing a new pair of gloves since I somehow lost a mitten at Tuscobia. I tend to believe mittens are better for keeping the fingers warm since they are bundled together and not seperated as in gloves. Early on the new gloves appeared to be working well.

The sun rose shortly after the start, revealing an overcast sky and some very light snow. The trail was hard and fairly smooth, making the footing nearly perfect. The early hours were spent with the usual chatting with other racers and moving along happily with no worries. However, for whatever reason I was already yawning and feeling a little sleepy 3 or 4 hours in. This was not a good sign but I would just have to deal it as it came. I was also struggling to find a good temperature balance. I was constantly adjusting jacket zippers up and down. I would pull a bluff over my cold face only to feel like I was being smothered, so I would pull it back down. This constant battle would be slightly aggrevating but it also gave me something to do instead of think about how much futher I had to go.
Early on with fellow Hrimthur Randy
credit: Burgess Eberhardt

As I approached the first checkpoint (Gateway Gas Station/Store) at 36 miles, I tried to decide what I would do there, if anything. I still had plenty of water but thought maybe it would be a good time for a hot meal since I couldn't go inside to warm up. I reached the checkpoint nearly half an hour sooner than last year, checked in and immediately headed back out on the trail to find a good place to my stove out and melt some snow to cook a freeze-dried meal. The stove lit reluctantly as I scrambled to do so without too much exposure of my hands to the cold. The flame was very low and eventually quit. I tried a couple more times to get it going but I ended up deciding I was wasting time with a stove that was not going to work at these temperatures. I was a little dejected by this but I hoped that with the warm up that was forecast, that I would be able to get things going and keep my unsupported status.

The next section from Gateway to MelGeorge Resort is around 34 miles. The previous section is basically flat the whole way, not a single hill to climb or descend. The hills begin to appear here. For me this stretch has always happened directly between sundown and sunrise. I probably wouldn't even recognize it in the daylight. The sky had cleared and a nearly full moon allowed me to go for a good amount of time with turning the headlamp on.

Shortly into this section, probably only 7 or 8 PM, I was struggling to stay awake. My eyelids became very heavy and I would find myself drifting from side to side, held up only by my treking poles. I would stop to eat or drink some water in an effort to wake myself up. This happening so early on the first night was not a good sign. Based on previous experience I knew if I fought and got through to the sunrise, I would feel better, at least for a bit. Easy to say but when you have 11 hours of hills, cold and darkness ahead of you, the feeling of helplessness looms large.

The hours and the hills passed by slowly. I began to struggle to stay warm. I would try to speed up but this helped little. I bundled up and put on as much clothing as I had with me. At a road crossing about half way through this section, I met Todd, the man with the snowmobile who will save your ass if things get real bad. Talking with him, I joked that I thought it was supposed to start warming up. "Yeah", he said, "it's -25 right now but in an hour or two it will start going up a degree an hour." This explained why with every piece of clothing I had on that I could not warm up. I started to have thoughts about whether or not I would realize I was freezing to death.

I was moving well despite the cold and fatigue, arriving at Elephant Lake an hour earlier than last year and before dawn. In those last couple of hours I had made a decision about my unsupported status. Since my stove refused to work it was probably prudent to be safe and get water at the next checkpoint. Also, spending several hours thinking about the grilled cheese and warm beds at MelGeorge was too much to resist.

The lake crossing felt shorter this year, as I knew what to expect. I followed a red blinking light moving far off in front of me and in less than 20 minutes, pulled my sled up in front of the checkpoint cabin.

Inside the cabin is chaos but oh so warm. There is gear scattered in every open space. I found an open chair, stripped off layers and piled them up in front of me, while volunteers kept bringing me warm food. The grilled cheese was excellent as always. 2 or 3 of these, a bowl of soup and a couple cookies later I moved upstairs to find a place to lie down. I found a spot on a queen bed where another racer was already sleeping on the other half. I'm not one to just sleep in a bed with a strange man but I was exhausted. Still don't know who it was.

After tossing and turning for 15 minutes trying to make the cramping stop, I fell asleep for a good 45 minutes. I looked at the time and tried get myself moving to get out of the cabin before I became too comfortable. Some of my gear was still a little damp but dry enough. I mechanically put piece after piece back into place. I felt like I was stretching the process out in order to avoid going back outside, but then the big parka was on and it was decision time. I was little surprised at the resolve I had to go back out but then it had to be forceful or I never would have stepped back out. The cold quickly swarms over you as you turn your back on all those warm friendly faces inside.

Back in my sled harness I started the 40+ mile trek to the Surly checkpoint. It was 9 AM and the forecast snow had started to fall. Fall may not be the right word. It flew perpendicular to the ground due to a strong wind, directly into my face, stinging my cheeks and eyes. The firm footing of the previous day was replaced by a layer of loose, powdery snow.

Overnight there had been a few of the typical hallucinations due to fatigue and the shadows created by the moon and headlamp. Now, going into the second day, they really started to kick in. Gazing down wearily at the path ahead of me, I would become transfixed by the footsteps of runners in front of me. The foot impression in the snow became a bowl of swirling white smoke. I then began to see the faces and paws of equally white snow kittens climbing out of the smoke bowls. This was getting interesting.

Miles crept by and I was reminded of my thoughts last year when I wondered where all these legendary hills were. They did come and were not quite as bad as I remember. They were still long and relentless but I just tried to avoid negative thoughts, put my head down and keep climbing until there no climbing left to do, repeat. Over and over.

Eventually the course levels out and I knew I was getting close to the final checkpoint. I kept expecting it around every turn but I just kept walking. I began worrying I had missed a turn. Time kept ticking on but after nearly hour over my calculated arrival, the familiar teepee came into view. I stepped inside and tried warming up with a backpacking meal. I sat for nearly an hour with my shoes and socks off and set next to the wood stove in an attempt to dry them out.

The combination of sweating during the climbs and the temperature finally rising had started to get my gear a little damp. At this point last year my feet were blistered and pickled pretty bad but were only just beginning to get uncomfortable here. At least I seemed to have figured that puzzle out.

Leaving Surly was not so hard as it meant that I was in the home stretch with a short flat section of only 23 miles. Not even a marathon. Of course it starts off with the longest, steepest climb of the whole race. What comes next though is what makes this climb worth every second. The sled ride down Wakemup Hill. This is longest and fastest ride down. Just like last year, I reached a speed that made me rather uncomfortable but I appreciated the fact that I was covering distance with little to no effort.

The remainder of the course is basically dead flat with long straight stretches. By now the sun had risen on me for the third time and I just kept my head down, chipping away step by step. I also needed to keep my head down to maintain some sense of reality. Whenever I looked ahead, I would see people, houses, parking lots full of vehicles through the trees, only to find out on arriving that they weren't really there. Nothing I saw could be trusted to be real.

I'd like to say this section went by quickly, and compared to others it did, but it was still a good 8 to 9 hours of struggle. The turn taking me off the Arrowhead trail signaled that I only had 2 miles to go. It was nearly over. I could feel the emotions rising and then falling, being to tired to sustain any constant thought. The finish line that I felt at times would never come, appeared and I had repeated the thing I had once thought I could never do.

After. A little sleepy.
Often during the later stages I would think about what I was doing and why I was doing it. I felt at times like I was carrying a huge black demon on my back. A demon personifying all my failures and insecurities, telling me I'm wasting my time and effort and weighing me down. Overcoming and finishing doesn't solve any of life's problems. What it does is make facing that demon bearable. It proves that even when things are difficult, patience and determination are what I need most often.

Hotel room aftermath
Here's the thing about a race like Arrowhead. It draws a very unique and special group of people. They are humble, kind, generous and friendly but also some of the toughest people on the planet. The shared experience of suffering brings them together. I just wrote a bunch of words about this race but unless you have been there and done it, words can never fully capture what one of these events is truly all about. Before and after the race, we tell our stories to each other and we understand beyond words. We learn from each other and are inspried by each other. I do the best I can for myself but also to honor what they do as well.

There were several first time finishers and many who have multiple finishes. There were those that didn't make it all the way for one reason or another, but had the courage to give it the best effort that day would allow. There was Kari and Kate, who started at the finish line the Thursday before the race, did the whole course, turned around and started with the rest of us, accomplishing the mind boggling Double Arrowhead (Article). Every single person involved has an amazing story and I will always do my best to be back.

Post Arrowhead tradition: A Grain Belt or two


  1. AMAZING account, man. You runners are tough as hell. I hope recovery has gone well.

  2. Love this. Your work and your words are so impressive =)