When I checked into my motel in International Falls around three in the afternoon on Sunday, January 26, the night before this year’s Arrowhead 135, the old lady at the counter gave me two things I needed: a huge pink shower curtain to lay on the floor under my bike (“those bikes are so messy, you know?”) and a piece of advice: “Don’t get froze.”
It was easy, and handy, to keep my bike’s crud on the shower curtain that night, as I set up my Salsa Mukluk fatbike – the Beast – for the race. My ride that night was a quick mile or two, over through the race start area, down some of the course to make sure everything was still functioning, and over to McDonalds for two chicken sandwiches to supplement the pasta I had eaten at five at the race orientation. With the Beast dialed in and put back on the shower curtain, my clothing laid out on the other half of the bed, and the alarm set for 5:30, I was in bed around 11.
Keeping from “getting froze” was hard. Even at race orientation on Sunday afternoon, everyone knew the event would be historically cold, and it turned out to go beyond that. Riding the mile or so from the motel to the start just before 7 a.m., I could tell that conditions were exceptional. The predictions had been for temps in the negative twenties at the start, and the northwesterly breeze pushed the windchills down further. I was wearing my standard cold-weather kit, which was comfortable as I followed the line of blinky lights over to the ice arena where we checked in.
The line moved fast, but I was dinged for not having my number plate on the front of my body. As I struggled to fix it, a guy came over to me. “Need some help?” “Yes!” I said. “I need this number plate on the front of my body.” “Oh, okay.” He unpinned the bib from my backpack and came around to pin it to my reflective vest – allowing me to notice that he was the mayor of International Falls, who had made a few remarks the night before at the orientation. Hilarious, and a sign of the race’s homey and small-town character.
I thanked the mayor and headed back outside, where the cold made my breath catch in my throat. Still, I let out a big whoop of excitement, happy that the race was finally here. Actually, it wasn’t. As I picked up my bike, someone yelled, “The bikes just started!” I jogged over to the start area, where I found the skiers getting set for their wave start, and where I could see a long line of bikers’ blinking lights heading away from me. I hopped on the Beast, now in last or nearly last place, and started pedaling. 7:01 a.m. I hoped to be done within 18 hours, or perhaps 24 at the most.
The opening ten miles is a flat straightway with a few easy road crossings. I steadily passed racers who had stopped to adjust tire pressure, fix clothing issues, or maybe reconsider their decision to start. As the sun came up around 8, I checked out my own situation. I wasn’t overheating, and didn’t feel hungry. I had pushed my goggles up onto my forehead early on, when they iced up, but I could see well and my eyes felt fine. My thighs were uncomfortably heavy, but I chalked that up to my session at the gym on Friday, and hoped the senations would subside as I warmed up. On the other hand, my knees felt tight, which rarely happens when I ride. At one of the road crossings, I stopped and raised my saddle a bit. Over the next hour, the knee pain went away, the legs warmed up, and I continued to pick up riders, including a big group who had stopped at the end of the opening stretch, where the trail takes a sharp left corner and starts its southwest run to the finish near Tower, Minnesota – 125 miles away.
In the morning sun, I could enjoy the scenery: deep white snow, conifer and hardwood forests, some open fens, and the endless trail, laced with fatbike tracks. As I crossed Highway 53, about halfway to the first checkpoint, the field had thinned out quite a bit, and I was going long stretches without seeing anyone at all. When I did encounter someone, it was a racer coming up from behind, passing me with a nod and maybe a greeting, and then moving on up the trail. The solitude was nice, though. I reached the 53 crossing well ahead of my own schedule, so I didn’t mind getting passed.
After the highway crossing, the trail began to get much more interesting: the trees closed in, the turns got sharper and more frequent, and some rolling ups and downs started to punctuate the flatness. I ate some of my trail mix and beef jerky (which, frozen, needed to marinate in my mouth for a long time before I could chew it) and even drank some water, though this was surprisingly difficult due to the big icebeard I could sense growing on my face. The sun was pretty high in the sky when I made a sudden road crossing and then followed some signs down a short spur to the first checkpoint, the Gateway General Store, at mile 37.
I leaned my bike up against a post, momentarily admired the dozens of other gorgeous machines resting nearby, and went inside. The check-in desk was immediately inside the door, but the volunteers there were more eager to take a picture of my icebeard than to write down my number and time.
The General Store must be crowded in the best of times, but it was almost claustrophobic with dozens of racers packed inside. I saw one rider bent over a trash can, throwing up. Another was being scrutinized by an EMT for frostbite on his face. Several racers were stripping off their kits and changing into street clothes, including a top-level racer I’d admired for a while. I bought some Gatorade and a Coke and found a quiet spot to sit, in a backroom next to shelves holding fan belts, fishing tackle, shotgun shells, and cans of pizza sauce. The two racers there were trading war stories about the race so far, which struck me as odd given that we were only about a quarter of the way into the day. Over the next 50 minutes, I let my feet warm all the way up, thawed off my “faceberg,” finished my drinks, downed a good amount of trail mix and an oatmeal-chocolate chip-peanut butter “energy bomb,” put coffee into one of my water bottles, and checked out just after 12:30. Back on the bike, the cold was a harsh surprise, but I felt fine or even good as I resumed pedaling.
The next leg of the race would end at the second checkpoint, a cabin at the Melgeorges resort on Elephant Lake, roughly halfway through the race. These 35 miles were probably my favorites of the race. The track continued to be interesting, though it also turned increasingly hilly, and those challenges amplified my sense of solitude, which settled in as deep as the cold. One of the things that had attracted me to the Arrowhead as an event was the chance to be alone in the woods, and this second leg of the race was all about being alone in the woods. My cyclocomputer had long since stopped displaying either my speed or the temperature, so I just watched the minutes and hours tick by – slowly, because the LED was so cold that it took several seconds for a digit to advance.
Gradually, I started losing my ability to hit the hills – mostly, short and steep kickers that a rider on pavement, gravel, or even a trail would hardly notice – hard enough to climb them on the bike. I had been riding by then for nearly 10 hours, so I figured that conserving energy was acceptable, and made the decision to let myself walk the hills. The afternoon light was beautiful, and induced me to stop a couple times to take photos of the trail and my bike.
But the golden hour was short, and when the sun set, it took the temperature down with it. I knew I needed to eat something substantial soon, but my icebeard had grown back even larger than it had been at Gateway, so I couldn’t get anything bigger than a few almonds into my mouth. Too, all my water was frozen into my bottles, so I had to break into my stash of Red Bull energy drinks. I stopped to pound one of them and delicately put some trail mix into my mouth. Chewing the mix, I decided for some reason that I had to crush the Red Bull can, so I did that and stowed it in my frame bag. I also put my headlamp back on, not willing to let only the headlight on my handlebars light up the trail.
Somewhat reenenergized, I got back on my bike for the push to Melgeorges. At the race orientation, the race director had warned us that the lake crossing to the resort would seem brutally long. It did, even though I only realized I was actually on a lake when I started to get buffeted by the wind. The tire tracks wandered all over the trail, seeking the best snow but more often losing it and winding up in a drift. When I could look up the trail, I could see the resort in the distance: cabin windows glowing in the trees, Christmas lights on balconies, even cars moving back and forth. I finally reached the shoreline, where a volunteer was standing in a parking lot next to a big warm-looking building – a bar or restaurant. I hoped that he would direct me inside to the checkpoint, but instead he pointed me away from this building, saying I needed to follow the track to another cabin, “just around the point.” Following a foot-wide path cut into snowbanks was the last thing I wanted to do then, but the promise of the cabin was ridiculously strong. Everything from the race website to the orientation and other racers all mentioned the grilled cheeses that the Melgeorges volunteers made, and I’d been fantasizing about them for hours. Finally, the trail dumped me in a little parking area covered in fatbikes. I leaned mine against a snowbank, carefully turned off the headlight and headlamp to save their batteries, and staggered up the steps to the cabin. A volunteer checked me in at 6:44 – a quarter-hour short of 12 hours into the race. And I was only halfway done.
The Melgeorges cabin is small but cozy space, far different from the closed-in hubbub of Gateway. Within a few minutes of arrival, the women running the checkpoint had directed me to the bathroom to change from my wet kit into the extra clothes I had brought, taken an order for two grilled cheeses and a bowl of wild rice soup, and given me a big glass of Coke. Except for my face mask, which was frozen to my beard for a half hour, my wet clothes disappeared, carried off to a dryer in a nearby cabin. I sat and stuffed my face with the grilled cheeses, a second bowl of soup, my own trail mix and energy bombs, more Coke, and some protein drinks I’d stashed in the bag that organizers brought to the checkpoint. I warmed up slowly but thoroughly, and even talked a little with some of the other racers. A couple left while I sat, and a few more arrived. Many were much more chatty than I was feeling, but the exchanges were nice. Much of the conversation centered on the temperatures so far and into the night. One of the volunteers said that we were already back down to the same temps that we had had at the start, and that forecasts predicted -40 degree F ambient temperatures in the forests overnight. At any other point in my life, I would have been chagrined. Hearing this after riding twelve hours, I just slotted it next to the other challenges I had been facing: eating, drinking, moving forward.
Just as my clothes came back from the dryer, the other guy from my hometown arrived. His wife had been waiting anxiously for him since before I’d arrived, and she was very happy to see him. Unfortunately, he was frozen and decided immediately to drop out. Even before I got back into all my clothes, they had left for the bar next door. Still thinking about the predicted overnight temperatures, I decided not to pack my dry clothes for later, but to put everything on. Over my torso, I put on two base layers, two thermal layers, my heavyweight jersey, my fleece vest, and my wind jacket. On my head, I put on a balaclava face mask, my longest neck gaiter (which I took pains to tuck deep underneath my shirts), my two warmest hats, and the lobster-style mitts that I wear in the worst weather. Going even further, I wedged two chemical hand warmers into each of my boots (one under the toes, one on the instep) and filled my water bottles: two with the hot water, one with coffee.
As I fixed to depart, I asked a volunteer if she knew who was in the lead. She showed me the check-in sheet, pointing to Jay Petervary’s name on the top line. I wasn’t shocked that “JayP” was in the lead, but I was shocked to see, and have her confirm, that fewer than ten racers had gone through the checkpoint to that moment. “So you mean I’m in the top ten right now?” I asked. She nodded, and added, “There are ten of you in the room.”
I was flabbergasted. I had been wondering why I seemed to be seeing so few tire tracks on the trail. Turns out, I had been seeing only fourteen wheels’ tracks! I was shocked to realize that I was going well, and had a shot at a really good finish. I recalibrated my goal for the race from finishing in 24 hours – itself, an adjustment of my pre-race goal to finish in 18 hours – to finishing in the top 20, or maybe even the top 15. Many of the guys in the room as I finally left, at exactly 8:30 (after almost two hours at the checkpoint), looked like tough bastards who would catch me over the next 63 miles.
I stowed what stuff I had brought in and hadn’t put on or eaten, turned on my lights, and climbed back onto the Beast for the race’s third leg, to the final “Skipulk” checkpoint, another 36 miles away. The lights and warmth of the Melgeorges stop disappeared within seconds, and I was alone again on the trail. I rode my bike into the yellow circle of my headlamp, which threw the trees – and who knows what else – along the trail into a fluttering gray shadow. The stars had come out while I had been inside, and occasionally I glanced up at them, almost bright enough to ride by. A slivered moon hid behind the trees, glowing so orange that I mistook it several times for a campfire.
And that was pretty much all I saw for most of the next ten hours, riding through the blackest forests I could have hoped to see.
The energy boost I got from the food and warmth at Melgeorges faded to nothing, though I did not register when it completely vanished, probably sometime around midnight. I felt grimly satisfied that I could pedal all the flats and downhills, and accepted as a law of nature that I could no longer ride even the shortest climbs. At first, I hopped off my bike and pushed it steadily up the hills. Later, I stopped, climbed off the bike, and trudged up. Later still, I stopped, counted ten breaths, climbed off the bike, counted ten more breaths, and then alternated ten breaths standing still with ten steps up the hill. When it occurred to me, I would relate these repeated, grueling actions to some of the interval training I do at the gym, but my sense of being somehow “ready” to do this was more than balanced by my thoughts of the warm, dry, well-lit gym.
Nothing about this leg was fast, but the slow going gave me time to think random thoughts. For instance, I composed a great playlist of songs with numbers in their titles (getting as high as “18 and Life” by Skid Row, though I can’t remember many of the songs now), and thought in great detail about what I would eat when I finished. I hoped to see animals, but I only saw many deer tracks, quite a few wolf tracks (which I kept thinking were actually the prints of dogsled dogs), and one owl, who hooted angrily at me when I passed. Most often, I just thought about my immediate experience. I have probably never been more “in the moment” than I was during the ride to Skipulk. I assessed my fingers and toes (cold, but not numb), took drinks of water and coffee (at least till the bottles froze), and related the absurd times on the clock on my computer to things that would be going on back home – Shannon’s bedtime, my bedtime, midnight, and then the long hours when nobody is doing anything except sleeping, or maybe taking care of sleepless babies. I studied the amazing and bizarre ice formations on my bike, on my bags, on my headlight (which had died long before midnight, leaving me with just my headlamp). When I would stop and exhale hard, I could watch the vapor crystallize in my headlamp’s beam and then fall like snow in front of me.
In short, this leg was manageably brutal. I was not really tired in any familar sense, even though I was coming up on 24 straight hours of being awake under rather difficult conditions. I certainly never yawned or felt like I needed to close my eyes, even in that period from two to five a.m. when human circadian rhythms demand sleep. And I never felt that I needed to quit, though I felt continuously that I wanted to take a break. Just a short one, standing here. Just to look at the trees.
As my fatigue mounted, I did start worrying about a few things. I couldn’t tell if my icebeard was unusually big or if my nose had frozen and swollen, which would mean that the volunteers would have to pull me out of the race at the next checkpoint – a colossal disaster that would mean this was all for naught. And I began second-guessing the distance to Skipulk. I couldn’t remember if I’d seen one or two of the three shelters between Melgeorges and Skipulk. At one point, I saw several bikes’ blinky lights in the distance, and accelerated, sure they belonged to racers stopped at Skipulk. But no: they faded away behind me. They must have belonged to racers bivvying for the night, but in retrospect this doesn’t make sense, as all of the racers who left Melgeorges ahead of me also finished ahead of me. Maybe they were the ghosts of Arrowhead racers past.
What helped the most through these hours and hours of darkness and motion was coming up on another racer, perhaps around midnight. He was walking when I caught him, and immediately confessed to being tired, as if he were disappointing me. I complained that I didn’t want to eat any of my food, but offered some to him. He turned me down and offered me some of his food. I turned him down. We walked the uphills next to each other, saddled up to ride the downhills, and then rode the flats in single file. Sometimes I moved ahead and got away. Sometimes he’d move ahead and get away. We didn’t talk much, but I did share that I was a rookie, and he told me that he’d finished all seven Arrowheads that he had entered, even the “other year it was cold.” He couldn’t remember which year that was, but he was sure it hadn’t been this cold. Something about the idea that he’d never been defeated by the race appealed to me, and made me think, in my foggy state, that I should stay near his lights.
Sometime after my clock displayed the time that Shannon is usually getting up, my riding partner built up a larger-than-usual lead. I could only see his lights on the longest, flattest stretches. Then suddenly I came around a corner and he was right in front of me again, pushing his bike up another fucking hill. He could tell I was behind him, and turned to yell something back to me. I couldn’t make it out. “What did you say?” But before he could reply, I figured it out on my own: we had made it to Skipulk – a scary clown mask on a stick, a picnic table under a tarp, a firepit, and two red ice-fishing shelters. It could not have looked better.