Skipulk came at a funny place on the course: I could have pedaled, or at least walked, for quite a bit further to reach the checkpoint, but once I had reached it, I couldn’t move except to hand the Beast to the volunteer who came rushing up and then to climb into the nearer tent and sit down. The volunteer came in right away to take down my bib number and check-in time – 6:10 a.m., or 50 minutes shy of 24 hours since the start. He radioed that info to the finish, then turned on the propane heater on the floor next to me. I eyed the cot next to me, wondering whether I should lie down.
I sat there for a while breathing heavily, listening to my pulse in my ears, and feeling the warmth of the heater spread up my legs. I was wet enough that my pants and then my sleeves started steaming. I hadn’t had any shivering episodes so far in the race, and the blast from the heater let me skip right to the point of being warm enough to talk. The volunteer introduced himself, saying he had started the race but dropped out at Gateway because it was too cold, then decided to make himself useful by helping with the race. At some point as I listened, I broke in and faced him. "Does my nose look okay? I think it’s frostbitten." He leaned in, checking, and then grinned. "Nope. It’s no redder than mine. You’re fine. I’ll take a picture to show you."
I hardly noticed that I looked like hell, but I was hugely relieved to see that my nose was not in fact black with frostbite. Frostbite wouldn’t have been that bad, but getting pulled from the race for frostbite would have been a disaster. (This photo shows why I did later get frostbite on my face: I had Dermatone all over my upper cheeks and forehead, but missed my lower cheeks and nose.) Around this time, my riding partner – who had gone to the other tent when we arrived – banged on the wall of my tent and shouted, "I’m heading out! You’re faster than me, so I’ll see you on the trail!" I think I replied, but maybe I didn’t. I hope I wished him well. At any rate, I never did catch him. He left Skipulk after just a half hour of rest and 53 minutes ahead of me. I finished exactly 53 minutes behind him.
I couldn’t even think about going on yet, but feeling warmer now, I dug out my phone and turned it on, planning to post the picture in case anyone wanted to know how I was doing. I hadn’t had a signal at Melgeorges, so I had been offline for nearly twelve hours – half the race. Once the phone powered up, it went nuts: tens and then scores and then hundreds of messages scrolled past, too fast to read. Fogged, I couldn’t tell what they were – Status updates? Tweets? Notifications that I needed to take my turns in Words with Friends? After a minute, they stopped and let me get to my home screen, where my Facebook icon showed nearly 200 updates. Bizarre! What were they about? I tapped into FB and was shocked to find that dozens of my friends had been following my race all day and all night. Many of them knew more about my race than I did, and all of them seemed to be rooting for me. For probably the first time in a day, I started sweating, but with excitement and even a tinge of nervousness. So many people! Why were they so into how I was doing in this crazy race? And what the hell was this? The Minneapolis newspaper had my picture on the front of the sports section? I showed a FB photo of that page to the volunteer, who had just brought me a cup of chicken soup. He laughed. "Now you have to finish!" I was speechless. I just sat there on my camp chair too close to the heater, sipped my soup, and read messages, feeling better and better with each one.
At some point, I was right again. My heart was full, most importantly, but also, I could feel my feet. The soup – plus some water from my defrosted bottle and one more precious Red Bull – had filled my stomach. Insouciantly, I had even taken off my gloves, revealing ghastly hands: gray with cold, wrinkly from dehydration, a little bit bloody where my fingertips had cracked. Back inside their gloves, though, they felt fine, almost as good as my soul. I posted photos of my face and of my friend the heater and stood up for the first time since arriving. I managed to unzip the tent by myself (something I hadn’t been able to do when I arrived) and discovered, stepping outside, that the sun had come up. Everything was washed in a brittle blue light. It was great to see.
"My" volunteer seemed a little surprised to see me up and moving. I handed him my empty soup cups and started demanding things. "Can you take my water bottles out of my backpack and then fill them with hot water?" He hopped to, pouring water boiled over the campfire into my bottles and zipping the bottles into my pack. Soon, I could feel the heat from the bottles soaking through the bag and to my skin. It felt great, like a bath. I asked him to fill my third bottle, which I stowed in my frame bag, and then suddenly I was ready to go. Readiness just suddenly appeared, fully formed. He checked me out, logging a massive 90-minute stop, and I headed off up the trail, feeling pretty good. If I’d been able to do the math, I could have figured that the race had started just over 24 hours before.
All night long, I had had the official checkpoint mileage card
sitting on my sleeping bag, held down by my brake and shifter cables. As I started riding, I had to move it a little so that I could see the mileage markers for the last leg. This leg was the shortest in the race, just 26.5 miles, and was suppposed to be entirely flat once I made it up and down Wakemup Hill, at the end of the first of two short, early sections. I reached Wakemup Hill in just 30 minutes, which meant I was flying. Or had been: the hill was too steep to ride. At the top, though, the morning vista was so incredible that I stopped to take a picture before plunging back down.
I barely stayed on the track when it turned at the bottom of the hill, but I was feeling really good, and I hammered over the ensuing flats, eager to make it to the next milestone. The Crescent Bar road came up before I knew it, and suddenly I felt like I was almost done.
But I wasn’t. In my exhaustion, I was misreading the card, thinking that I had just 9 or 10 miles after the Crescent Bar road crossing until the finish. Actually, I had 20 miles to go from that point, split into two halves: from the road to the mysterious Shelter #9 and then from that shelter to the finish. The fact that the card had a typo on it – listing Shelter #8 in two spots – didn’t help my reasoning abilities.
And then the warmth and the rest and the nutrition of Skipulk started to wear off. The trail was flatter now, just as everyone had promised, but what the Arrowhead giveth, it also taketh away. The wall of trees that been sheltering me from the wind all night now started to break up, and open stretches – through cutover tracts, swamps, or just boring old fields – became more and more common. My speed tailed off, and I found myself barely moving, even on the flats. At one point, I followed a track that swerved wrong and crashed in slow motion into the foot-high snowbank that the snowmobile trail groomer had created. Going so slow did allow me to notice again all the dog, no, wolf tracks on the trail, and even to note the first birds I had seen since the overnight owl: some little winged bullets that shot from tree to tree ahead of me, and some fat crows or ravens that cawed at me and then slowly flew away. Sauntering, if birds could saunter. Seeing these black birds up there reminded me of the messenger birds in the Game of Thrones books, and I started trying to recall if those birds were crows or ravens. Were the members of the Night’s Watch called crows because of the messenger birds, or because they wore black? You know nothing, Jon Snow. Winter is coming.
I was muddled, almost stationary in mind and body, and the flat white track still stretched out in front of me. I decided, somewhere in here, to have my next-to-last can of Red Bull. Like the previous two, I carefully crushed it in the snow and then stowed the disk in my frame bag. My icebeard was back, so I couldn’t eat anything solid, even if I had had something that sounded good. Somehow, though, I remembered that I had energy gels, and even worked out the fact that if I stuck one in each glove, they would defrost enough that I could consume them.
This breakfast was good, but what was bad was the onset of the first true pain in the whole race: stabbing agony in my ass, which could no longer rest against the frozen seat for very long. Since solving my knee-pain problem on the first leg, my body had not been in any serious trouble. In fact, for most of the race, my body felt like something apart from me, a machine that was working pretty well but that I didn’t need to worry much about. The fatigue had mounted, sure, and I got really hungry, and my arms wavered as I pushed up the hills between Melgeorges and Skipulk, but nothing hurt or wanted to stop. Until now. I would pedal seated for a hundred strokes, gritting my teeth, then almost leap off the Beast to walk a hundred steps on perfectly flat trail. Stop. Breathe. Wait for the pain to subside. Get back on the bike, gingerly. Try to sit on one buttcheek or the other. Pedal more. Stop again. Walk again, noting that I could see at least one other set of boot prints on the trail. If someone ahead of me was walking, it was okay for me to walk, right?
This went on for what I can figure now to have been probably 10 miles. I created games for myself: walk to that tree, ride to that more distant tree, rest. I tried to remind myself that literally every pedal stroke or step, no matter how weak or short, got me closer to the finish line. This, in turn, reminded me of Zeno, but who has Zeno? Occasionally, I reached bridges over some nameless creeks, and even the tiny two-foot ramps up to the bridge decks were taxing. The snow seemed even squeakier than it had overnight, which started making me think that another racer was coming up on me. Many times, I concluded that I was about to get passed, resigned myself to losing a spot at this late moment in the race, and turned around to see nothing but empty track.
Then I would remember all those posts on Facebook. All those people! They were up now, going to work or taking their kids to school. Shannon had seen the girls onto the bus already. She was probably doing chores, or maybe having a cup of coffee. Was she hungry? I wanted a hug. If I were at work, I would be checking email. Did I turn on my out-of-the-office message? Yes, I did. Walk to that tree. Wait, that tree is a sign! A big sign! The sign was actually a map at a snowmobile-trail junction. I rode over and investigated, hoping it could give me some fucking information on how much fucking futher I fucking had to fucking go. It did, and clearly enough that even a drunk snowmobiler or an exhausted fatbiker could figure out the right direction to go. A little later, I came across another map, and it showed me, amazingly, that I now had fewer miles to go. I crossed a road, and amazingly that very road was shown on the course map that had been forgotten in my pack until I dug it out.
When had I gotten the map out? No idea. I was still walking a lot, but I was making progress. I felt warm, and okay except for my butt. As I had with my nose overnight, I imagined what sort of damage I was doing, and the mental picture wasn’t a good one.
But at some point in one of my brief stints of pedaling, I passed a small black shelter that must have been #9, putting me just about ten miles out. Ten miles! I could ride ten miles. Ten more miles! I stopped to celebrate with my last Red Bull and a caffeinated energy gel, which are my secret weapons in normal races. I tried to figure out how fast I had been going since Skipulk, but totally failed to do the simple math of dividing the miles I had covered by the hours since I had left the checkpoint. Instead, I just arbitrarily decided that I was going about five miles an hour, so I had about two hours left. Having a limit, even a totally illusory one, was very helpful. I got back on the Beast and started pedaling again. Perhaps because of the intermittent rest provided by walking or just because bodies are made to accommodate pain, I found that I could pedal steadily again.
In one of the race’s great ironies, I was now encountering the roughest snow I had seen since the start. Getting close to civilization meant that more snowmobilers had been out, tearing up the trail almost to the point of being unridable. But my trails back home were pretty rough, so I was able to keep up some speed, or at least not walk or stop. Then I heard road traffic – the first cars and trucks I had heard since Gateway. Looking at my map, I figured that these vehicles had to be on the last road before the finish line. I groaned up the slight rise to the road and discovered that I had in fact reached that last beautiful ribbon of asphalt. I had reached a spot not on the map or the checkpoint card: Almost There.
Just over the road, I think, was a sign that informed me I was entering the Bois Forte reservation. For a second, I tried to figure out what "Bois Forte" meant, but gave up as I pedaled past. The trail meandered now, jumping across a powerline cut, tracing the base of a hill, running between two ragged orange snow fences, and even paralleling the back of a big concrete building, but I was excited, powering – or seeming to power – through the turns and up and down the little rises. I kept my head up and forward, looking for the finish line. It had be here somewhere.
And then it was: far away, through a slot in the trees, I could see the arching white banner over the finish line. It disappeared as I took a curve, then reappeared, bigger and closer. The banner might have blinked in and out of sight a couple more times, but then I came upon a massive building that I knew, just knew, was the Fortune Bay resort, and saw the banner again, dead ahead, atop a short rise, close enough that I could read the text on it. Having that banner in an unbroken line of sight meant I was done, and I started crying as I pedaled. Up the hill. Up the hill. Up the hill. There was nobody at the finish line, but I kept pedaling and crying until I got there. Then I stopped and tipped over, hard. I just couldn’t get my feet off my pedals and onto the snow. As I crashed down, three guys popped out of the tent at the side of the finish line. "Are you okay? Just lie down, man. Congratulations! You finished the Arrowhead 135! You’re seventh! Congratulations!"
I laid there in the snow for a minute, looking up at this big bearded guy looming over me, talking to me. I was still crying, but I was smiling too. Someone else pulled my bike out from between my feet, and the bearded guy helped me up. "Hey, sit down if you need to. Rest. You’re done." I still hadn’t said anything. Couldn’t say anything. I just thought about how hard that had been. How could it be that I was done? How did I do it? How could I tell everyone that I had finished?
"I’m okay," I said, rolling onto my stomach and pushing myself up on to my knees, then standing up. "What time is it? What’s my finishing time?" The bearded guy tallied it. "29 hours, 9 minutes. Great job! When you’re ready, let’s get a picture of you and your bike!" I stood still for a minute more, then went over to stand behind the Beast under the finish line banner while three different people shot photos (which I still haven’t tracked down). I grinned. I was beyond elated, just a couple notches short of the high of getting married or holding my daughters for the first times.
My bearded friend took the Beast from me and led me over the snow to the hotel. Opening a back door, we entered a cold hallway. There were six other fatbikes in it – the rigs of the previous finishers. He leaned the Beast up against the wall. For some reason, I found it very important to turn off my front and rear blinky lights, so I did that. "Ready?" My friend was waiting patiently. "Your bike is secure here. No worries. Follow me up to the reception room." Walking the hotel corridors to the race HQ, I broke down again, sobbing with relief and joy. He turned a final corner and delivered me into a small, square room crowded with boxes, food, racers, and volunteers. "I have finisher number 7. Bib 31. 29:09." Everyone in the room clapped, even the racers.
Within a few minutes, I had received my finishing trophy, posed for my official finish picture,
started downing all the Coke I could find on the hospitality table, and stripped out of some of my layers of clothes. I also dug out my phone again and posted a message to say that I had finished. I felt like everyone needed to know.