Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Fine and Pleasant Misery - the detailed version

It was a bit of a cinch this year to get all my gear on my bike.  In my past two Arrowheads I had different bikes each time and so it was a bit time consuming figuring out where to put it all on there.  I can remember sitting and just staring at my bike for hours trying to think it all through.  Can I put the pump there or will it be hard to get to if I need it?  How about over there then, nope that'll be in the way of my legs....  I'll stop well short of saying I have it dialed (and plus, in just about any system there is room for improvement from time to time) but it was noticeably easier this year than in years past.  But it's a two edged sword I guess - because I knew from past experience that it would all fit somehow I, of course, procrastinated on figuring out how exactly it would fit.  It'd been almost two years since I'd last done this and I couldn't remember exactly how it went.

Bike is ready to rock.

We were checking the weather obsessively up to ten days out from the race.  Of course a weather forecast that far ahead is nearly worthless, heck even a forecast one day ahead is doubtful - as was driven home during the race.  But then again I guess that we need something to speculate on to use up some nervous energy - and it's kinda like the pre-game stuff before the super bowl.

One thing that the weather was right about was that it was warm.  Compared to some past Arrowheads it was downright hot - if memory serves it was around -10 at the start in '11.  This year it was +25.  Believe it or not I'd rather have the -10.  At -10 temps it's easier to prevent overheating, the trail is generally firm, there is little chance of snow.  Things are cold, sure, but you can count on that too.  When it's +25 before daybreak you basically don't know what the hell you're going to get: wet snow, ice pellets, freezing rain, soft trails, slush, sun, fog, etc., etc.  As mentioned I had been checking the weather regularly before we left home and ended up filling my duffle bag with all sorts of stuff - most of which I didn't end up using - raincoat, fleece pants, heavy wool sweater, super thick socks, thick hats, mittens, etc.  I also knew that if I didn't take the stuff for cold weather the bottom would drop out and it would be -40 out there - and I'd have to quit for lack of that warm hat that is sitting in a dresser drawer back home.  As it was we didn't see much colder than +20 (one thing the weather forecast was accurate about) and almost all of the really warm stuff I brought stayed in the car.

I'll get to the race soon but I also want to set the stage a little more: the weather (which we checked the morning of the race start) said highs in the low 30's and lows in the 20's during the time we thought was reasonable for us to be out on the trail.  There was also a 30% chance of snow showers both days we were thinking we'd be out there.  A little on the warm side (if I had my druthers it'd be in the single digits above and below zero) but entirely doable - and besides it's not as if we had any choice.  Playing the hand you're dealt is mandatory in Arrowhead.  One of the ways that a run at Arrowhead is kinda a condensed version of life.

Get to the race already!

Kerry Park Arena to Gateway ~35 miles

John and I had loaded up the bikes and gone for a short ride the day before the start.  Trails looked like they were in fair shape.  We got the route dialed in from our motel to the start - which wasn't hard since it was less than a 5 minute walk down the road -to make it smooth on race morning.  We had set the alarm clocks early (we set at least three to make absolutely sure that we wouldn't miss it) and had a breakfast of cereal and almonds in the room.  In '11 we went to the Chocolate Moose for breakfast but they don't open until 6 on Monday mornings and although I made the start just fine then I was cutting it pretty close - so we decided to just eat in the room this time - it worked out well.

Reflections from the bikers lined up at the start

It was warm (~+25 BTW all temps are from memory - if it was really +15 then, well, it felt like +25 to me and that's what I'm stickin' to) at the start which was good because the warming house wasn't open and we had to congregate outside. We stood around for maybe 20 minutes and then lined up and took off.  The plan was to go at a slow, steady, sustainable pace.  The trail was a bit soft, a bit slow (for us anyway, the leaders made good time, of course), and of a consistency that made it so your tires would slide out from underneath you unexpectedly.  We dropped our tire pressure a bit to match the trail and started grinding out miles.  Things went fairly smoothly and we managed to hold a pace just over five mph until Gateway. 

Glinden chasing us just after the Hwy 53 road crossing

We stopped at Gateway, ate some food, and just generally relaxed.  Jenny, Ann and Glinden were there to meet us.  It was here that we first got news (despite our obsessive weather checking before the start) of a winter storm coming our way.  We couldn't do anything to change that so we just didn't worry about it and left a little over an hour after we got there.  

Dry and happy.  Spirits were high at Gateway.

Gateway to Melgeores   

Ready to leave Gateway
The trails were still in good shape but we were taking it easy on the hills

A crop out of the last picture.  Elephant Lake is where we were headed.

Leaving Gateway the trails were firming up and things were going very well for us.  We were able to hold a roughly 6 mph pace, and we had an energy boost from taking a break at Gateway.  Shortly after Gateway is the Ash River Road.  If memory serves it started snowing a bit just before the crossing but hadn't accumulated much.  We roared down the hill to the road crossing and stopped to chat with our fan club before taking off again.  The trail was firm, spirits were high, we were making - if not fast - steady progress.  We allowed ourselves to think, hey, barring mishap, we can do this!  It was a little foolish, I know, to think this because 1) we had more than half the race to go 2) to think this was to bait the Gods.

My aunt Marietta had made John and I some awesome energy bars to take on the trip.  They were the best tasting thing I had brought with me.  She had made a special effort to get them to us.  We were very thankful that she did.  The were great.  PS  You can see the snow starting to accumulate on our helmets.

We took off from Ash River Road in high spirits and continued on our slow, steady way.  The snow, a wet, heavy snow, came down harder and started to accumulate some.  It slowed us down some but we still made steady progress.  It accumulated more.  We started to get wet (which wasn't really all that big of a deal since it was still in the 20's and we were generating heat via movement).  The snow accumulated more.  We were starting to get frustrated: it was getting to the point where riding, even on flat ground, was difficult.  After what seemed like many hours we were coming over the top of a hill to see lights that made it look like there was a Wal-Mart parking lot up ahead.  We couldn't yet see the bottom of the hill (where the light was coming from) so we weren't sure what was going on.  Of course the light was from cars parked at the next road crossing, Sheep Ranch Rd.  We descended the hill (we could still ride downhill easy enough).  Jenny, Ann and Glinden were there as well as spectators for several other racers.  We chatted a bit, had a snack, and got a rough idea of how far it was to Melgeorges (where we had rented a room)(BTW it is roughly 17 miles according to some spectators there).  We took off at around 9:15.

the snow starting to accumulate.  The expressions on our faces tell roughly how we feel about this development

It was really coming down

The snow was showing no signs of letting up.  Riding on the flats was getting extremely difficult and any riding that pointed uphill at all was pretty much out.  We made it to the Black Duck Shelter in a couple of hours.  The Black Duck shelter is about 5 miles from Sheep Ranch.  There was an extremely nice couple from England already bivying there - they invited us to join them but we were thinking of the nice, warm beds waiting for us at Melgeorges [note to those thinking of racing Arrowhead who have not yet done so: we had rented a room at the resort there, the cabin that serves as the checkpoint isn't set up for good sleep] and decided to push on.  Melgeorges was roughly 12 miles away from the Black Duck Shelter.  As we were stopped and chatting with the couple from England a group of 3 snowmobiles came and stopped.  They were with the race and wanted to see if everyone was OK.  They were pulling large sleds (to put the pulk/bikes in that belonged to the people dropping out - of which there were alot because of the snow) and although by this time almost any riding was extremely taxing we thought that we could ride in the tracks of the sleds.  The trail leaving the shelter goes down a short hill, crosses a bridge and starts up a long, shallow, uphill.  We were able to ride down the hill and across the bridge and (for me anyway) about 10 feet past the bridge largely because of the momentum I had built up going down the hill.  And so we pushed.  It was pretty rare now to be able to ride at all (even in our lowest gear and using alot of effort and we had dropped our tire pressure as much as we dared).  We pushed.  We pushed.  We pushed.  Hills were coming on strong now we had to push up, across the top, and down the hill and across the flat until we got to the next hill and then we got to repeat it all.  At about 3:30 we stopped, my left hip was complaining, and John had some worries about his knee which was injured long ago and has never been the same.  We himmed and hawed.  We didn't want to bivvy but at this rate we'd 1) not make it to Melgeorges until past daybreak and even more worrisome 2) might push things so hard that we'd have to stop, and then maybe out respective hip and knee would be worthless come morning and we'd have to take a ride from a snowmobile anyway.  But we were soaked from the wet snow and didn't know for sure if we'd be warm overnight.  And it was still snowing as hard as ever.

We talked it over, and decided to bivvy.  We had stopped to talk about the possibility of bivvying and when we decided that, yes, we were going to bivvy we looked for places to lay down.  One was literally where we had stopped to talk - and it was probably about as good a bivvy site as we could expect to find and it was right there, 20 feet off the trail. We wished fervently that we had stopped at the Black Duck shelter to get out of this snowfall but we were probably 5 hours past that - almost all of that pushing.  A group of the rescue snowmobilers stopped to see how we were.  They said that we were about 7 miles from Melgeorges.  We did some quick math: from Sheep Ranch Rd to the Black Duck shelter was about 5 miles - it had taken us about 2 hours.  We had now gone roughly 5 miles past that in about 5 hours.  And the snow was falling as hard - or harder - than it had been all night.  Bivvying seemed like a good idea: maybe there would be some snowmobile traffic that would pack the trail down by morning; maybe my hip would feel better; maybe just the light would buoy our spirits. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

The good bivvy spot we had happened upon was in a stand of Balsam trees that would block some of the snow.  I unrolled my sleeping mat, got my bag and bivy all ready and stripped off my soaked top layers and put on some dry stuff I had.  I didn't have to worry about where to put water to keep it from freezing because I had none - this section of trail had taken to long that I had run out a while earlier.  I laid down in the sleeping bag, zipped everything up and was asleep in minutes.  Both John and I stayed warm all night.

When I woke up it wasn't snowing...but it had been snowing after we laid down.  There were 3 more inches on top of what we already had.  So much for riding this morning.

We packed up and took off down the trail, pushing of course.  My hip had tightened up overnight and hurt quite a bit until it loosened up.  I came upon a woman from Brazil being tended to by one of the runners (though we were all sloggers at this point).  She was in rough shape but the runner had her in his bivy and was feeding her and heating up water for hot chocolate.  I can't speak a lick of Portuguese so I couldn't really help so I continued on my way resolving to tell the next rescue snowmobile to go and get her.

The small stand of Balsam just beyond the big deciduous tree on the right in the picture is where we had our bivvy site.  Make no mistake, all this snow made for a tough race - but it also made for a beautiful landscape.  And even though I was on the miserable side, this beauty wasn't lost on me.

I had packed up my bivy faster than John and so had started up the trail sooner.  I hadn't seen him for an hour or so and couldn't see anyone coming when I looked behind me on the few straight sections of trail.  It was a little breezy so I found a spot out of the wind and unrolled my sleeping pad and laid down to wait.  In about 15 minutes or so he showed up and I rolled up my pad and we continued on our way.

At this point several rescue snowmobiles had been through and had packed the trail down enough that - oh sweet glory! - we could actually ride again.  John was able to ride more than I.  It was a ton of effort to ride and I was worried that if I worked too hard I'd soak my last remaining dry clothes - so John steadily pulled away from me until I barely ever saw him.   And to tell the truth I was thinking about quitting, had been since we got up in the morning.  I had told him this and that's the only reason that he went ahead - he wouldn't have otherwise.

Several rescue snowmobiles had passed me and stopped to see if I was OK.  I asked them how far I was from Melgeorges.  I told them that I was OK (not yet wanting to admit that I was ready to quit) so they left but I was also starting to do some math in my head: the bivy site last night was about 7 miles out.  I left there maybe an hour and a half ago.  I still had over 5 miles to go.  At this pace it would take me over 5 more hours to get there.  That was bad enough but this was also taking way longer to get to Melgeorges than I thought it would and I run out of water last night.  John had water but I felt bad drinking it and besides he was way ahead of me now and so even if I wanted to drink his water (I didn't) I couldn't.  So I probably wouldn't even be able to hold the pace I was doing now.  And I started justifying quitting: I've finished this sonofabitch race twice...I've been in a snowbike race where I pushed 30 miles (DDD '09).  I've got nothing to prove to myself or anyone else.  Hell, it takes some nerve to even show up at the start line, let alone make it almost 70 miles in.  You know, all that stuff to pump my ego up so it wouldn't take such a blow from quitting.  Sure, all of it is true, but it sounds, now, a bit hollow.  So I took a ride on a snowmobile the last 5 miles and I don't regret it (although I was feeling a bit bittersweet then.  I really could have made it those last 5 miles if I'd really wanted to.  But I kinda wussed out).  I remember sitting on the back of the snowmobile and seeing all the trail zip past - trail that I would have been pushing most of - and feeling good about my decision to accept a ride.

John made it in to Melgeorges under his own power.  Congrats.  He's already vowed to be back next year.

Overall we felt really good about our effort.  Of course it was disappointing not to finish but we were feeling pretty good about our chances back at the Ash River Road.  Bikes were working smooth, bodies (although a bit tired) were working well.  I'm pretty confidant that, barring mishap, we stood a pretty good chance of finishing.  Things beyond our control shut us down, not faulty bike setup or faulty bodies.

 And even if the weatherman would have predicted this snow there's not a damn thing either of us could have done about it. 


  1. I have zero regrets, and only good memories of our time together in our " Fine And Pleasant Misery".
    My only disappointment is that even though I made it to Mel George's, I didn't make the cut-off time for going on. Probably just as well since stories from folks in front of us indicate I would have had to bail later anyway.
    Wouldn't have gone on without you that morning if you hadn't said you planned to take a rescue sled due to your hip...I told one that passed me to stop for you. Tried to get you to take more of my water than that weeny sip you took before taking off, but I could tell you wouldn't take more, and I was too tired to wrestle you and force you to take it. Sorry Jenny, I know I promised to make sure he stayed well hydrated as he has a history of going ridiculous distances without water )
    Joel, as you said, you had/have nothing to prove. I am in awe of what you have done in previous races and life experiences.
    We can only live fully in the moment with the hand we are dealt. I will always cherish the fullness of the time we spent together on those trails, and the all marvelous folks we met along the way.
    Thanks for infecting me with Arrowhead Ultra fever. Really.


    1. It really is fine that you went ahead of me. I would have taken a ride even if I had plenty of water. I had a stove and plenty of fuel - if I'd really needed/wanted to I could've easily stopped to melt snow...but then again I didn't really want to.

  2. What a great story. It has it all: The challenge, the obstacles, the effort, the thought processes, the decisions, the reflections. You may want to consider expanding on your gift of writing. It is a good one. Thanks for the adventure story...a true one. ...Jay

  3. Read this last night and wrote a comment, but the internet had been turned off, so it didn't go out. Enjoyed your Arrowhead 135 story #3 very much. I was watching the weather forecast and report for several days too, and couldn't believe how it kept changing. The number of details to think through boggles my mind, to say nothing of the sheer grit it takes to go out there and face the elements as they come and slog on. CHEERS for you and John!!!

  4. Joel read your story this morning, pretty cool stuff. Sounds like a fun outdoor adventure to exercise the body and enjoy nature. Good times.

    ~John Noble