Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Arrowhead 2009

Here is my first-hand account of the race as a racer in 2009. It's interesting to read now to see what's changed. The biggest change is that I have a Pugsley. I'm not too sure what all else will be different. Hard to predict the weather or bike mechanicals or whatnot or whether or not I'll get kicked by a snowmobiler going by.

And if you want to read Mike Curiak's (it's been awhile since I put a blatant name-drop in here, so here one is) account of the 2009 Arrowhead read it here. In case you haven't heard of Mike, he's probably the greatest ever endurance bike racer (especially in the snow). Last year he made it the entire length of the Iditarod trail (1100 miles) on a bike totally unsupported - meaning that he carried all his food and everything with him the whole time. Further more he came to Arrowhead in 09 (obviously, if you clicked the link above) and gave a presentation about his 2008 attempt to ride to Nome (where the Iditarod dog sled race finishes) and he seems like a really cool guy. And he got 9th in 2009 without seeming to try very hard, just enjoying being out there.

Arrowhead 2009:
The start of my thinking about the Arrowhead Ultra was when a guy came into the bike shop (where I work as a mechanic) in the spring of last year and was talking with the owner of the shop about this race – Arrowhead. I didn't know what it was so I asked them and they told me that it's a 135 mile race held on snowmobile trails up in northern Minnesota in February. At the time I thought that it would be really cool to do...but since I couldn't ride a bike at that point I didn't think too seriously about it. [A little background info: when I was about 16 I got fairly serious about riding bikes and rode pretty regularly until shortly after I was diagnosed with a brain tumor when I was 25. From the summer I turned 26 through this summer (when I turned 29) I couldn't ride a bike because I had some coordination issues from the tumor. I finally re-learned to ride a bike this summer and will have been back riding on two wheels for seven months come February 9th.] I got to thinking about doing it pretty seriously in the late fall and finally sent in my entry fee at the end of November. I've been riding lots since then and sewing most of my gear (there aren't very many companies that make gear for riding your bike in the winter since most people are at least somewhat sane and don't participate in this kind of foolishness. The upshot is that you have to have gear custom made or make it yourself. I am cheap so I made it myself using my sewing machine and some ingenuity.

We (I had ridden up to the start of the race with another guy who had done the race once before and was doing it again) drove up to International Falls, MN on Friday Jan. 30th. Since it's a 12 hour drive we got there around 10 that night and crashed on the beds of the hotel room we had reserved. We went for a ride Sat. and it was warm and the trails were awful. Loose snow made for tough going. But it was in the 20's and was supposed to get about 40 degrees colder for the race start so the trails would probably firm up. Lance (the guy I rode up with) rode a bit on Sunday and he said the trails were in pretty much prime shape. The grooming machine had been through Saturday night and it had frozen so hard you almost couldn't see tire tracks when you rode. This was good news for me. We also got our gear checked (there is gear that everyone is required to take including: a sleeping bag rated to -20, sleeping pad, whistle on a string around your neck [so it would always be with you if you needed to call for help], stove, at least 8oz of fuel for the stove, pot, firestarter, some way to carry at least 2 qt. of water, 3000 calories of food, headlamp, a bivy sack or tent, a flashing light for both front and rear, and at least 10 square inches of reflective material on both the front and the back of your person.)

Then it started to snow Sunday night and things went downhill from then on – actually most of Sunday night it was a light, fluffy snow that wasn't a problem to ride through...but when we woke up on Monday morning (raceday, or more accurately the first day of the race) it had snowed more and was of a consistency that made riding hard. This was not happy news, especially for me on my skinny tired, single-speed bike (most of the other bikes were special snow bikes with gears. Actually only one or two other bikes had skinny tires. The specialized snow bikes have fat tires [3.7” or so mine were 2.4”] that float on top of the snow much more). We went out and ate breakfast at the Chocolate Moose in International Falls and then we headed for the start. The startline has virtually no parking so this isn't a mass start race, instead they shuttle racers from the hotel to the start and they start when they're ready. The result of which is that people start the race from a time between 7 and 9:30. I got going at around 8:20.

The start to the first checkpoint at the Gateway General Store about 39 miles:The race starts with an out and back. This means that faster people have to pass the slower ones (for example: the runners start earliest but most get passed by bikers who can't ride when the runners start. This also means that the trail gets packed down by the sleds runners and skiers are pulling behind them. So the snow being fresh and unpacked wasn't all that noticeable for the first 18 miles (the length of the out part was about 9 miles, and then you turn around and go back those same 9 miles) but after mile 18 it got pretty sketchy and stayed that way for pretty much the rest of the race. It was about at this time that I let go of any idea of being competitive in this race. With the bike I had and the setup I had (a singlespeed and I had picked a gear that was way to hard to turn in the conditions) and the trail conditions I would've had to have been superhuman to keep up with the front runners.

I pulled into the Gateway store at about 4:20 (I was off and on the bike quite a bit on the way in to Gateway. I estimate that of the last 15 miles to Gateway I had to walk my bike for 10 of them) and pulled out at 4:45 and headed to Melgeorges Resort, which is roughly at the halfway point.

Gateway to Melgeorges about 34 milesShortly after I left Gateway I stopped to put on my sweater (it was cooling down and would eventually reach -12 that night) and put on my headlamp. I did all this before it got dark just because it would be harder to do if I couldn't see.

While the trail from the start to Gateway was fairly flat (there were some small ups and downs but nothing major). But here there were hills, lots and lots of hills. Nothing huge (this was in Minnesota after all) but they didn't really let up.

The miles seemed to go exceedingly slowly. At one point when I had been riding for more than 6 hours past Gateway a snowmobiler out roving the racecourse stopped to see how I was doing. I said I was doing fine and asked how far Melgeorges was thinking I must be getting close. His answer of “about 18 miles” pretty much floored me. The guy on the snowmobile left and there wasn't much for me to do except to keep going...which is what I did. I rode (and walked the uphills) for several more hours and saw the snowmobiler again. Since I was eager to get to Melgeorges when he stopped the first thing I asked was how far it was to Melgeorges. I was sure I was close...maybe half a mile, so when he answered “nine miles” I just about fell over. That was definitely the hardest part of the race. It had nothing to do with anything physical, but that answer of “nine miles” was a huge blow to my morale and, without question, the low point of the race.

The hose on my camelbak had frozen up because I had forgotten to blow air back through the hose (in case you don't know what a camelbak is it is basically a way of carrying water on your back with a hose running from the bladder on your back up to the front of you so you can suck it when you get thirsty. The hose freezes easily so I take a drink and then blow back through the hose so it doesn't freeze too badly). This time the whole hose froze and there was little hope of unfreezing it (sometimes it works to put the entire hose in with the bladder and the warmth of the liquid water will thaw it. But tonight it was -12 and the water inside the camelbak was starting to get slushy anyway, so there's no way it would've been warm enough to melt the ice in the hose). Now what to do? I took the bladder out and tried to drink directly from that but it closes with a screw top and the screw threads had frozen so I couldn't even drink from that. Now what to do? Time for some ingenuity. I thought of a possible solution: take the bladder out, turn it upside down so the warmth of the liquid water would melt the ice freezing the cap in place. I did it and it worked. I drank greedily but cautiously, I knelt down for stability, made sure there there was nothing below the water except snow (in case I spilled) and then leaned over the snow (if I did spill any I sure as heck didn't want it to run down my neck and freeze) and drank. An aside: I had never before had the problem of water freezing inside my camelbak, even when I rode in the Alaskan winter when it was much colder. I'm not sure what was different here but in Alaska I didn't go for any rides that lasted all day and into the next day as well.

Ok, so its early in the morning, I had been riding since 8:20 a.m. on trails in bad condition, and I had to get off the bike and push up every hill – that means that I had get back on the bike fairly often and the muscles in my hip that I use swing my leg over my bike seat was getting tired. There were many times where I'd swing my leg over, lose my balance and stumble around like an idiot and one time that I completely lost my balance completely and just plain fell over. I was really glad when I pulled into Melgeorges at about 4:30 in the morning.

Melgeorges is a heated cabin and had food and beds and I ate and grabbed about an hour maybe an hour and a half of sleep but the place where the beds were was in a loft directly above the living room where everyone was. There were people coming and going to talking and whatnot so sleep there was not all that relaxing. Also we found out that the first biker had finished! And we still had half the race to go.

Melgeorges to Wakemup Tipi about 39 miles I was originally planning on staying at Melgeorges until about 7:30 (when it got light enough to ride) but ended up coming up with all sorts of excuses not to. There was no water available at the Wakemup Tipi checkpoint so I would have to carry all the water I needed until the finish so I made sure I was well hydrated (it turns out that I was so well hydrated that after I left Melgeorges I had to stop and pee every 15 minutes for a hour or two until I got it out of my system). I also told myself that I should probably wait until it warmed up some (remember it had got down to -12 the night before. I waited until 8:20 [exactly 24 hours after I had started] when it had warmed up to -5). I also ate enough food to see me through for a good long ways (I eventually realized that I had taken too much food and had to dump some along the trail. The wolves [I saw a bunch of their tracks along the trail] are probably loving eating all the summer sausage, brats, and cheese that I had pre-cut into bite size pieces so I could still eat them when they froze...but I'm pretty sure that a wolf would define “bite size” differently than I would).

The terrain between Melgeorges and Wakemup Tipi varied quite a bit. There were lots of hills (some were very very steep) interspersed with flat sections. The 15 miles or so directly before Wakemup Tipi were probably the most hilly of the entire race. Or at least they just felt that way because by then I'd already ridden about 95 miles.

I stopped shortly before dark to get out my headlamp before it got too dark to see what I was doing and was kind of startled how fast my fingers got cold when they were out in the air. It was also about this time that my camelbak froze up. I didn't think too much of it, thinking I could thaw it at Wakemup Tipi where it'd be warm and I could sit down by the fire. And then I got to Wakemup Tipi and the idyllic vision of what the tipi would be like came crashing down. Inside the tipi was small and there were already four people there so we were tripping over each other and in the way; there was a fire but it wasn't burning well (they were using unsplit, full size logs, so there was lots of smoke and only a little fire. The smoke made my eyes burn and water and was almost intolerable...far worse than a smoky bar); it was so small that there wasn't room for chairs so I had to sit on the ground; and it wasn't warm inside so even with all my clothes on I was starting to get cold. So I ate a little bit and left.

It wasn't until a few miles down the trail that I remembered my water was frozen. I didn't even think about going back.

Wakemup Tipi to the finish line: 25 miles
(The moon was out and it was beautiful. I rode about half of the final 25 miles by moonlight and would've ridden more except in the few spots there were bike tire tracks I couldn't see them without my headlamp on.)

It was kind of a morale blow to realize that unless I stopped and got out my stove and melted some snow that I would have no water until the end. But I wasn't really wild about trying to fire up the stove because it was cold (it would drop to -29 that night) and, gadnabbit, the finish line was close (if you define 25 miles as “close”). So I ended up eating snow to tide me over. Now, I'm aware that eating snow isn't always a good way to go. Takes up a lot of energy melting the snow down to water. But I wasn't going to be doing this snow-eating thing for all that long. At one point I took in a huge chomp of snow, it was too much for my tongue to handle and it got frostbite. Whoops. From then on I took daintier licks of snow and let it melt and then gave my mouth time to circulate warm blood back to where the snow had cooled it down. (In case anyone is wondering what frostbite on your tongue feels like it is just like when you take a swig of hot tea [or coffee or whatever] and you burn your tongue. It isn't really fun, and your tongue is sensitive for a while but it's not like it's the end of the world or anything). I also didn't want to eat much food since it takes water to digest. The end result of all this was that the first thing I wanted when I finished as a big glass of water and food (since the finish line was at a casino I had a bacon cheeseburger [it actually tasted great at that point in my life but it would've been horrible at most other times, it was far, far worse than something from McDonalds] at the casino deli which was the only thing open that late. I finished at 12:06 a.m. Wednesday morning, Feb 4th). I crossed the line as the 12th biker (there were nothing but bikes in front of me) 39 hours and and 46 minutes after I started.

The terrain from Wakemup Tipi to the finish was almost dead-flat. But I had been riding in the tracks left by previous bikers and some snowmobiles had been through fairly recently and had 1) covered the tracks and 2) had chewed up the trail so even though it was flat it was still a struggle to ride. By now I was having some serious problems turning the one gear I had and had to alternate between sitting down and pedaling, standing up and pedaling and just getting off and walking. The temperature was dropping and I had almost all of my clothes on (I would've had them all on, it was damn cold, but I didn't exactly relish the thought of undressing to get more layers on out in the air and with nothing but snow to stand on. I'm not sure what the exact temperature was but I had on a facemask and had put that on and when I got to the finish and took it off you could tell where it had covered because where it hadn't covered was red from being cold).

During the race I kept thinking something like, “there's no way in hell that I'd do this again next year,” but now that the race is over and I'm warm and my thirst and hunger are sated my thinking has changed. I'm not saying that I'll definitely do it again but I'll leave the option open for further consideration.

One reason I gave for doing this race was that it was “something to do”. I work as a mechanic in a bike shop and winters are slow and having something to do is nice. Keeps me from getting cabin fever.

Some of you may remember me doing a similar race in Alaska called the Susitna 100 back in '04. It's a 100 mile race held on snowmobile trails in the Susitna River valley. If I were to compare the two I would say that Arrowhead is much, much harder. It's longer (100 miles versus 135 for Arrowhead), hillier (much of the Susitna 100 was on frozen lakes and rivers), colder (it got down to around 0 at Susitna. At Arrowhead it got down to -29) , and more remote (at the Susitna 100 there are five checkpoints, at Arrowhead there were three). But I also realize that the weather conditions play such a huge role that comparisons based on doing each race just once don't carry much weight.

1 comment:

  1. Do you have a written description of Susitna 100 somewhere?