Saturday, March 29, 2014

Arrowhead 135 Ultramarathon...2014 race report

The view out the tiny commuter plane window set the tone: Dark. Snowy. Windy. Isolated. All these could accurately describe the landing in International Falls, Minnesota, commonly called “Frostbite Falls” for its record low temperatures. And they also could apply to the challenge at hand, the Arrowhead 135 Ultramarathon, a human-powered (run, bike, or ski…I would be on foot) race on the Arrowhead State Trail from International Falls to Tower, MN.

During the boarding of the flight from Minneapolis, a nice woman had seen my big mittens and correctly surmised I was an Arrowhead participant. She kindly offered a ride to the motel, saving me a 2-mile walk in VERY cold weather.

Sunday’s gear check and pre-race meeting/dinner went smoothly, but with the weather forecast pegging start temps around -20 F, there wasn’t much hearty laughter in the room…at least among rookie entrants, I think. My own demeanor was one of caution and awareness. I didn’t want to miss any information shared by the race director or course marshals that could prove fatal in the following few days. But dining with “Epic” Bill Bradley provided some light moments and helped me calm my nerves.

Back at my hotel, I readied my sled and its contents, trying to balance weight with necessity. If something wasn’t part of required equipment, I tried to leave it behind, making concessions only for extra food, a few extra articles of clothing, and backups for critical pieces of equipment, such as a spare headlamp. I estimated my final sled weight to be just north of 30 pounds.

Race morning dawned as promised: -23 F at the start. In the hockey rink lobby at the race check-in, I noticed an old Galaga arcade game and challenged a few guys to a quick game to lighten the mood, but nobody took me up on the offer. My bravado was just a fa├žade for the anxiety I was experiencing.

Just before 7am, we headed outside and started promptly behind the 100+ cyclists and the TWO xc skiers. Once on the trail, I settled into a steady early pace as I watched the sun rise to my left. Purples and pinks faded into yellow, oranges and red before flooding the trail in daylight. So beautiful.

One thing I had forgotten about the bitter cold was how sound amplifies and travels. Especially in the early going, when I shared the trail with bikes, the squeaking of the feet and tires on snow seemed so loud, almost drowning out all other sounds. When I would stop momentarily, the air around me was devoid of all other sound, as if even the wind blowing through the spruce and fir trees made its passage with great stealth.

The first of many sets of wolf tracks appeared on the trail after a few hours. Initially I mistook them for dog tracks, but then realized no domesticated canine would in his or her right mind be outside in weather like this. When it’s too cold for a husky, it’s just too cold, period.

My drinking and eating settled into a regular pace. I loaded food into the outer pockets of my jacket and sipped steadily from my Camelback, remembering to blow the water back into the tube after I was done drinking to avoid a frozen drink tube. That strategy worked for quite a while, but would eventually fail completely and put my entire race in jeopardy.

Solitude started to factor into the race after the first 10 miles, and I realized pre-race advice given to me would prove valuable: At Arrrowhead, long stretches of being alone are punctuated with brief encounters with other racers and the occasional snowmobile. At times, I was solo for many multi-hour stretches—up to 5 hours at one point. But is one truly alone when the sun, the trees, the wildlife, and the wind are constant companions? If being alone means “in the absence of other humans,” then, yes. But I wasn’t “lonely.”

Around noon, I had my first racing companion: Aaron, a train engineer from St. Paul. A rookie like me, Aaron found himself struggling early in the race and pushing his bike. I coaxed him along and he rode slowly while I trotted alongside. The death of an infant son just a year earlier brought him to the race, and although he wouldn’t reach the finish line, he made a valiant effort in one of the first big steps, as he put it, to “start over.” Indeed.

A wee bit chilly.
More miles passed as we crossed desolate, wind-swept roads. Snow and trees, snow and trees, snow and trees. I watched as shadows changed length and direction, trying to reconcile my inner compass despite constantly changing directions on the trail. An eastbound course was firmly set in my mind; destination: Checkpoint #1 at a small convenience store/gas station named Gateway, where warm food and a seat awaited.

After checking in with timekeepers, I plopped into a chair graciously vacated by a cyclist who was on his way back onto the trail. John Storkamp, Ray Sanchez, Alicia Hudleson, and a few other early leaders in the foot category all were taking care of business: Drying clothes in the dryer, filling bottles, warming their feet, and chowing down every manner of convenience store food (including a tasty mac n’ cheese!). After a bit of rest and unceremoniously spilling some water from a bottle all over the carpeting, I took a hasty exit, knowing that each minute I’d spend at Gateway would make it more difficult to depart.

One of the curious sights at Gateway was watching runners (and a few cyclists) remove their layers of clothing. The intense cold had an odd effect: Each athlete would peel off their outermost shell, revealing an icy, heavy frosted layer underneath…breathable shells be damned. Each subsequent layer of clothing revealed a mini-permafrost. And watching the removal of rock-hard frozen balaclavas, neck warmers, and hats was surreal.

Darkness. A darker dark than simple night. Now back on the trail, I welcomed the first evening of the race. No longer did I have the luxury of trailside trees and winter vegetation to contemplate and break up my views. Only the tunnel of light from my headlamp, which flooded the snow ahead in bright white.

And the stars. Billions and billions (in my best Carl Sagan impersonation) filled the inky black sky, which I stopped to enjoy every now and then. I had watched the tilt of Orion over the previous few weeks, noting here in northern Minnesota its position and lean was just how it had been back in Oregon…a short, but satisfying reminder of the home fires burning. Betelgeuse was there, and although the Unicorn had faded a week earlier, other familiar constellations watched over my progress. Apologies for the astronomical geekiness.

Alone again…naturally. Storkamp cruised by again soon after I departed Gateway, and it would be hours before I’d see another soul. I had taken the advice he gave me at Gateway and harvested two worthy trekking poles from the forest—maybe the best decision I had made all day. “Stan” and “Ollie,” as I named them, helped push me along when I needed the push. Perhaps they were good for only a 1% improvement, but over the course of a few days might make quite a difference. Pulling the sled I had christened “The Minnow,” (think Gilligan’s Island), I had a highly-trusted inanimate support team of three for the entire race!

A gentle fatigue crept into my cold bones, but with water in the bottles and snacks at hand, I can’t say I was “tired.” I moved along at a good clip, running when I could, and walking when the hills tipped up or I needed a change of pace.

And then…the tent.

Was the darkness/weariness/cold aligning to play its first tricks on my brain? What the…? I saw what appeared to be a glowing dome. As I approached, I realized it wasn’t a mythical Norse god’s throne fire or the colored portal-unlocking rocks from the Land of the Lost. It was a tent, illuminated from within by a headlamp and a portable heater. Parked outside was Ray’s kick sled.

“Ray?” I called out. “Is that you?”

“Yeah, man. I’ve got frostbite on my toes and I can’t thaw them out. I think I’m done.”

I felt bad for Ray, one of the great warriors of the Arrowhead and a veteran of multiple 135-mile races worldwide. The Californian had moved at a terrific early pace, but would be counted as one of the MANY upon whom frostbite would take its toll. I shuddered and wished him well before carrying on, praying to the forces of luck and circumstance that I would be spared from the frightening malaise.

I plowed on, past numerous wolf tracks, following the trail of bike and shoe tracks. Route finding was simple: Head down, follow the tracks. I played mind games to stay alert, counting the different types of shoes and trying to discern their models based on the tread patterns. Combined with mathematics (trying to calculate square roots), singing songs (at one point, I completed a Glenn Campbell five-song medley), and trying to predict my pace and subsequent arrival times at checkpoint #2, I occupied the time as best I could.

One of Minnesota’s favorite sons who hailed from just down the road in Hibbing had once written, “They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn.” That’s where I found myself somewhere around mile 60, deep into the early morning and struggling with the endless hills and solitude. The temperature seemed to have taken a dip (which I didn’t think possible), and I felt the cold in my marrow. Insulated water bottles that had been fluid just hours before were frozen solid, and I looked for a sturdy tree or metal signpost to smack them against in vain attempts to lodge the ice free. Chemical hand warmers were no match for the cold, useless and serving only as extra weight in my sled. Mercifully, my feet and hands held strong, buffered by wise pre-race choices of great mittens, shoes, and socks.

My strategy for protecting my face had failed miserably just hours after the start. An older pair of goggles iced over immediately, rendering them worthless. My exposed eyes froze whenever I blinked (all the time) or had moisture in my eyes (all the time). Thawing them out so I could see became as constant a task as the use of windshield wipers in an Oregon rain shower.

Checkpoint #2 at MelGeorges Resort began to occupy all thoughts. Where the hell is it?!? I thought over and over for a few hours. I knew the trail turned southward at some point, then crossed Elephant Lake to the west. My internal compass had stopped working, and I moved forward only on fumes. The cold, a lack of energy, an intense sleepiness, and a thirst that couldn’t be slaked all conspired against me. With (hopefully…hopefully) just a few miles to go before MelGeorges at mile 72, it wasn’t looking good.

Just when I thought I couldn’t sink any lower, the wind started to swirl and grow with brutal intensity, bringing stinging, blowing snow with it. The dermabrasive sand of the Sahara had nothing on this exfoliation. Although I knew I had reached Elephant Lake (good), I had lost the shelter of the trailside trees (bad). I leaned into the headwind, looking through the slits known formerly as my eyes, as I tried to spy the next, and the next, and the next reflective stick that marked the way. Tracks had been blown over, so each tiny stick was my only lighthouse.

As the line of sticks ended, I saw it: The resort. After a bit of confusion about which building served as the time station and GLORIOUS HOUSE OF GRILLED CHEESE SANDWICHES AND BLANKETS, I stumbled upon a jumbled heap of fat bikes and a few runner’s abandoned sleds. Halle-fucking-lujah.

I untied the bag from my sled and climbed the short staircase to the cabin, nearly collapsing just inside the door, where I was met with the most miserable stares of despair and curiosity. I absolutely LOVE these people…my people, the dirt bags and toughest of the tough…but the looks on their faces were the most hilarious combination of fatigue, nausea, misery, forlorness, and despondency. An occasional smile would crack, but nobody really seemed to feel much humor; weak, yet sincere attempts at gratitude were offered to the wonderful women who cheerfully made grilled cheese sandwiches (seasoned with unicorn pate?), served heavenly Coke, and wrapped WARM TOWELS around our necks. Warm towels? It could have been confused for a European spa!

After stripping off the wet and frosty layers and shoving any and all food down my gullet, I stumbled up another flight to the upper deck of the cabin where a spot on the floor was calling my name. I was asleep in moments, but awoke with a start 45 minutes later, then stumbled around like a drunk sailor until some guy caught me before I took a hard fall. Thanks, brother!

Now nearly two hours into my stay at the checkpoint, the sun had just risen and I was a new man, hydrated, rested, warmed, and fed. I layered up for the return to the trail and casually asked the ladies how many athletes had dropped out to this point. “Oh, I’m not sure,” said one gal. “I haven’t really been keeping track. But I CAN tell you how many runners have checked in and out of here.”

I paused, not certain I wanted to know how far back of the field I was. “O.k.,” I replied.

“Let’s see…one, two….FOUR.”

Four? Four?? I was dumbfounded. How could it possibly be that only four runners had gone out before me? “Well, let’s make it FIVE,” I said. “Number sixty…checking out.”

To the (very) small chorus of cheers I left the building, not wanting to congratulate myself this early in the race. By the math, I had gone over halfway, but in this race, halfway was NOTHING. I had at least another full day and night ahead of me, filled with brutal weather, more fatigue, more hills, almost certain dehydration, a 30-pound sled to haul, and definite doubts. As the door closed behind me, I questioned my motivation and sanity as I felt the sting of the overcast morning cold smack me hard in the face.

PART II
In brutally cold conditions, a few degrees of temperature fluctuation can mean all the difference in the world. A few hours after leaving MelGeorges, those few degrees started to feel like the warmest tropical breeze, even though the temp couldn’t have been more than 10 or 15 degrees below zero.

But the sunshine of a new day energized me, and I ran steadily, alone again on the trail, nobody in sight. A few early steep hills gave way to miles and miles of flat terrain, which then (of course) tipped up and down relentlessly. Checkpoint #3 (“Ski Pulk”) was my target, but mile 110 was nearly 40 miles and half a day in the distance.

Eventually, my solitude was broken by the arrival of four-time race veteran Alicia Hudelson, who pulled her tiny sled with a steady pace. Nearly crippled to this point by a really bad stomach, she slowed so we could engage in conversation and break up the terrible monotony. I learned her husband was also running, now an unknown distance behind us. Originally from Duluth but residing in suburban Atlanta, Alicia had returned to her homeland with the women’s course record in her gun sights.

Sure, I could have found conversation with a French mime stimulating at this point, but Alicia’s insights into race strategy really helped get my mind off the bitter cold and the other tasks of moving forward that continued like clockwork: Eating, drinking, and monitoring all body systems.

Eventually, her pace (and downhill sledding ability) outstripped mine and she pulled ahead. But then I saw her bivvied at the shelter near mile 100, so I passed in turn. The second night now started to descend, and I passed the 34-hour mark where I knew hallucinations were likely to come a-knockin’.

And they came with gusto. I’d need an entire notebook to catalogue them all, but there were highlights. Massive oil paintings hung in the trees. Snow people lined the trail—families, groups of office workers, store clerks, and other random folks—their heads made of snow, their bodies of trees and branches. The surface of the trail miraculously transformed into a 3-D surface, rising up a foot or so above the ground and producing small landscapes that included live animals which would change from second to second. A small deer became a lizard became a dog. Miniature versions of the Eiffel Tower seemed popular.

Then, the ferocious animals appeared in my visions. First, a killer skunk hell-bent on leaping upon me and biting my neck. A weasel was particularly fierce, crouched and ready to pounce. The weasel actually stopped me in my tracks and I moved to the far side of the trail, yelling at it. “Go away! Go home!” I screamed as if it were a rabid stray alley dog.

Tricks of the light wreaked havoc with my sanity. My headtorch beam bounced wildly with any movement, passing shadows across my limited field of vision and eliciting gasps of surprise when I thought someone (or something) was crossing the trail directly in front of me.

Obviously, I had gone mad. I tried to convince myself these were just temporary states of mind, brought on by the extreme conditions and accumulated fatigue. But I began arguing with myself, sometimes aloud, cursing the fact that I had signed up for another nutball ultra, when I should have learned years ago that staying home would have been much more comfortable and warm.

Yeah…right.

Despite the temporary insanity, I found that I could still could move forward pretty well. I ran when I could, walked when I had to, and found myself mired in another bout of mental math, desperately trying to judge distance based on my running and walking paces.

I could now add another challenge to the list (in ultramarathons, there’s always something to deal with): Severe and painful chafing (thighs; butt) had become part of the equation, so I did what I could do—that is, just suck it up and move forward.

A passing snowmobile gave me news I didn’t want to hear: I was still 8 miles from the checkpoint. I pressed onward, thousands of steps away.

First, a light, then…a cow bell. Ski Pulk, a.k.a. the Teepee of Despair, had been reached. I unhitched my sled poles and ducked into the warmth of the ice fishing tent. “I just need to lie down for 5 or 10 minutes,” I said as politely as I could to the aid station guy.

“Sure,” he said. “Do you have a sleeping pad?”

“Don’t need one,” I replied, and commenced to dropping down on the most foul looking piece of cardboard I’d seen in some time. But oh…was it heaven on earth. After 5 or 6 minutes of shuteye, I wrenched my aching bones to a sitting position and accepted a cup of warm cocoa, my hands shaking as I tried to sip the liquid without burning my mouth. Into the tent came runner Matt Long to join me, followed shortly by Alicia, whose bivy had obviously paid dividends. With hot water poured into the bottles to melt the ice and give me something to drink until the finish, Alicia and I headed out together to face the final leg of the journey.

Soon after departing, we climbed “Wake Em Up Hill” a steep climb with a long, steep descent, and plowed forward. Alicia still wanted that record, and didn’t know how far behind the next female was running. Moving scared and still nursing the bad stomach, she was motivated.

I felt the cold becoming part of me as the wind swirled between the trees. Endless, long stretches of spruce led us through a low-lying bog where the chill permeated every inch of me.

I noticed my headlamp starting to fail, and switched it to the red light (map reading) mode. Now it was stuck in this low light mode, giving me very little guidance on the trail. Alicia had moved ahead of me again, and the tracks on the trail became faint. My eyes had frozen to slits and I could soon see no headlamps ahead or behind. With only a few footprints and one set of tire tracks to follow, I moved forward on faith and hope alone, as my confidence had faltered and I approached the moment where nothing at all was certain. Even my existence at this point had me curiously wondering. “I think I’m here, but I’m not sure. I can see, but barely. I hear nothing except my footsteps. I smell nothing, and can feel nothing through the numbness of the cold. Am I really here? And where, pray tell, is HERE exactly?”

On some level, I knew I needed to find my spare headtorch but was repulsed at the mere idea of stopping and the resulting effects the cold was sure to have on me. But I needed that boost of light, if only to help one of my senses recover and give me some glimpse of hope in a finish. I stopped and dug into the bag on my sled, frantically pawing through layers of food, clothing, and kit in search of a small lamp that lie in her depths.

It was here I had what I call my “Jack London moment.” To wit, a few passages from the classic short story “To Build a Fire”…
The man looked down at his hands in order to locate them, and found them hanging on the ends of his arms. It struck him as curious that one should have to use his eyes in order to find out where his hands were. He began threshing his arms back and forth, beating the mittened hands against his sides. He did this for five minutes, violently, and his heart pumped enough blood up to the surface to put a stop to his shivering. But no sensation was aroused in his hands. He had an impression that they hung like weights on the ends of his arms, but when he tried to run the impression down, he could not find it.
A certain fear of death, dull and oppressive, came to him. This fear quickly became poignant as he realized that it was no longer a mere matter of freezing his fingers and toes, or of losing his hands and feet, but that it was a matter of life and death with the chances against him. This threw him into a panic, and he turned and ran up the creek bed along the old, dim trail. The dog joined in behind and kept up with him. He ran blindly, without intention, in fear such as he had never known in his life.
As proof my fate wasn’t the same as the old trapper, I lived to tell the tale. But had I not found that damn light in the bag…
A new light, a new outlook. The cold was the same, the wind worse as I crossed unsheltered fields. The trail became even more confusing with no ambient light to offer perspective. At times, it seemed to wind back on itself until my direction, yet again, was unknown.
Still, I ran, now pushed by the clock and the fantasy of breaking 48 hours. Although I had no visual clues, enough time had passed to tell me I had to be getting close to the Fortune Bay Casino finish line.
Ahead…what’s that? Ah, it’s just a hotel guest out walking his dogs. What?? Who the hell would walk their dogs at 5:30 in the morning in this weather? No, it was another racer (Mike) whose flashing LED lights were playing more tricks with my mind.
The visions hadn’t stopped, and only changed forms. Sprinting in an attempt to break 48 hours, I thought I saw the finish line banner appear…only to vanish into thin air. A neon light above the casino building? No, that’s the moon, buddy, and that street lamp…a distant planet. Cheering spectators lining the road into the casino grounds? No. Trees, branches, posts. “Are you a real person?” I asked aloud three or four times. No answer must mean that in fact, they were figments only of a very tired athlete’s imagination.
Reality started to creep in as I saw the sign: Welcome to Fortune Bay Casino. Around a few bends, up a slight rise, and there it was. The finish line banner. As I crossed underneath, I yelled, “Anybody here?” My question was met with silence, then a woman on a hotel balcony appeared and shouted, “Great job!” I yelled back my time (48 hours, 24 minutes) so at least I’d have one witness, before the finish line guy showed up in short order and led me inside to the warmth of a heated building.
The race, the cold, the mind-bending reality…they were all complete. The fatigue would continue for an undefined amount of time. But the memories of the trail, the snow, the effort, and the journey of what might very well be the toughest race I’ve ever faced, will continue on until that day I meet the old trapper in a hunting lodge far removed from here.
The race’s finisher shirt might summarize the experience most succinctly. ”Arrowhead 135 Ultra—STRENGTH / ENDURANCE / SOLITUDE / SURVIVAL,” and adds on another line, “Cowards Won’t Show and the Weak Shall Perish.”
The words, especially the latter, border on arrogant. I cannot speak for those who make the wise decision to stay home or simply test themselves in other venues. But I can speak as one who did show up and managed to survive. Despite a small amount of pride in finishing, I cannot and will not thump my chest, but rather, thank my lucky stars and the forces of the universe that I simply made it through to the end.

Postscript: I’ve been asked if Arrowhead was the toughest of the physical challenges I’ve experienced (Badwater, Marathon des Sables, Ironmans, other 100-milers, etc.). It’s still a difficult question to answer. But in the words of “Epic” Bill Bradley a true modern-day Shackelton, Arrowhead is like “Badwater without the support vans.” He’s right…the cold and solitude are great equalizers and layers on top of the difficulty of traversing 135 miles. In Death Valley, you’re never very far from ice cubes, a friendly smile, a shoulder to cry on, or a lift home. At Arrowhead, there’s plenty of ice to ease your swelling. But the friendly smiles and sympathetic shoulders are reserved only for checkpoints and the finish line. A lift home is a very cold ride on the back of a snowmobile. And your momma? She’s not here to help you, either. The hardest? Perhaps. One of the toughest out there? Definitely. Mad props to the warriors who have gone before me at this race and who joined me in battle this time around.

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