Standing with the Buffalo on the start line of the Arrowhead 135 on Monday morning in International Falls, I was bubbling with excitement – eager to get going. I had not been on my bike for more than about 20 minutes since the end of the Fat Pursuit, exactly 14 days before. Everything had gone well during that period: physical aches and pains disappeared, excitement for riding had returned, appetite had been good. Even race arrangements had been easy to handle: Shannon and the girls were happily on their own for a couple days and I’d driven up to I-Falls with my racer friend Jerry B and his friend Peter.
Still, though my body and mind felt fine, only the race itself would show whether I had recovered enough to work well at the Arrowhead. And aside from fitness, would I reap any gains from the confidence of finishing the Fat Pursuit – arguably a tougher race than even the Arrowhead?
Anticipating faster conditions than last year’s Arctic ride, I set a goal of finishing in 24 hours – five hours (about 20%) faster than my finish in 2014. I would need to average six miles an hour to reach that mark. With “six mph six mph six mph” running through my mind, we hit the trail at exactly seven.
After the usual initial scramble for positions in the tracks, most of the field – 30 or 40 or even 50 riders – settled into two big trains, which then merged into one. We blasted down the Blue Ox Grade out of I-Falls for about ten miles, a bubble of light in the predawn blue black.
I saw a couple big crashes, went into the ditch once myself, overheard a great deal of inane chatter (if someone gave me a dollar every time I heard someone ask ironically, “Are we having fun yet?” early in a race…), followed wheels, watched Charly Tri finish a nature break and blast past me on his 2-pound superbike, and occasionally jumped out of the track to make frantic passes through the fresh powder. Those short bursts helped keep me warm in the 20-something temps, against which I had worn a pretty skimpy kit: thin gloves and hat, no insulation layers under my tights or jersey, a light vest. When I could, I glanced down at my computer to check my speed: 10 mph, 12 mph, 14 mph when I passed someone. Gravel-racing speeds, for me.
Then came the course’s first turn, a sharp left onto the Arrowhead Trail proper. I was shocked that I was close enough to the front that I could still see the fast guys: defending champ Jay Petervary, fast rookie Jorden Wakeley, Charly. As always, the turn was a chaotic moment as racers bailed left and right to eat, drink, adjust air pressure, or just get out of the frying pan. I went through, connected to my friend Mark S. We chatted a little, figuring out the locations of other racers we knew and talking trash – each telling the other that his rear tire looked flat. The dark sky lightened a little with a dim gray dawn.
As the field spread out, the track grew softer and my tire pressure really did start to fail. I struggled with it for too long, watching one racer after another pull away from me and feeling some pain in my back from the heavier pedaling. Finally I hopped off and aired down both tires, gulping water and trail mix. I’d broken one of Jay Petervary’s rules – “be disciplined” – in waiting so long to adjust my pressure, so I was careful not a break another – “always do two things at once if you’re not riding.” Getting back onto the bike, I immediately sensed that the tires were now too low. Shit! I decided to ride a few minutes to see if I could adjust, but soon after the US 53 crossing at mile 19, I bit the bullet and pulled over again to air back up. “Be disciplined. Always do two things at once.” Trail mix in my mouth. Mini-pump on the tire’s valve. Chew, chew. Pump, pump. Swallow, swallow. Pump, pump. Squeeze the tires. Squeeze again. When the tires were about halfway back up where they’d been at the start of the race, I was satisfied. I stretched my back a little and got on the Buffalo to see if I could chase anyone down.
Though I only made a couple catches, everything finally felt just right. The tires were rolling well, I could eat and drink regularly, my backache dissipated, the snowy trail was beautiful, and the conditions were great – light snow falling, a gray sky hanging low overhead, and practically cozy temperatures in the twenties. When I felt myself getting a little too hot, I took off my hat and gloves. Almost instantly, I cooled back down to a comfortable level.
The miles rolled past easily and quickly. I whooped to myself when I saw that I’d gone over 35 miles on the trail. Now the race was just a century! A couple minutes after that, I hit the road crossing just before the first checkpoint, the Gateway General Store, and rolled down the spur to the store itself. A few racers were going the other way, leaving the checkpoint. I exchanged shouts of encouragement with women’s leader Tracey Petervary as she headed out, pleased to be just a few minutes down to T-Race, and even more pleased to be at mile 37 already. I was working far less hard than I had in 2014, and going much faster. I was more than an hour ahead of that year’s pace.
Leaning the Beast in a resting spot, I hurried inside to buy a Coke and some beef jerky. I stood at a table to down these refreshments, taking a couple breaks to crouch and stretch my back some more. A race official recognized me and joked that I didn’t have last year’s ice beard. Fine with me! Coke tastes better when you’re a little too hot than when you’re borderline hypothermic. Mark S came in as I readied to leave. We promised to see each other on the trail. After just 11 minutes, I was back on the trail, now – thanks to cutting a half hour off my stop – 90 minutes up last year’s pace, and well ahead of a 24-hour finish.
Soon after Gateway, steep, short hills start to break up the flat sections of the trail. Eventually the trail becomes almost all vertical: climbs that are tough to pedal up and descents that try to knock you off the bike.
I managed to ride many more of the ups than I had the previous year, and channelled my Fat Pursuit self to plummet through the downs. Somewhere around mile 50, Mark S caught me again, and we agreed that it was a perfectly excellent time to start walking the hills. The snow was badly churned by other racers, and I could feel in my legs that riding was no faster than walking even though it burned more energy. Too, I could eat and drink as I walked uphill, but not as I rode uphill. (“Always do two things at once if you’re not riding.”)
I hadn’t seen any snowmobiles since my stop to air back up, hours before, but around one corner, just after leaving Mark behind again, I almost collided with a road grader that was smoothing the trail so trucks could get to a logging site. The operator gave me a friendly wave as I pulled the Buffalo up onto a snowbank to stay out of his way. Weirdness.
The miles continued to flow under my wheels, and my computer continued to show an average speed that put me ahead of a 24-hour pace. I tried to stay balanced about this: happy to be going fast, aware that the race could change at any moment with a bad stretch of hills, a flat tire, a crash, a mechanical. I pushed myself to keep my speed against those eventualities. Get up out of the saddle. Breathe deeply. Shift to a harder gear. My body responded every time, a strange and wonderful sensation.
Around mid-afternoon, I knew I was approaching the second checkpoint, a cabin at Melgeorges Resort. When I saw a trail sign that said the resort was only five miles away, I stood on the pedals to push as hard as I could. After a half hour of hard effort, I popped out on Elephant Lake, across from Melgeorges. A volunteer on the shoreline warned me that the lake was windy, but I knew it could not be anything like the hellscape it had been the previous year, when I crossed just after dark in temperatures near thirty degrees below zero.
In fact, the winds weren’t very strong, and the flatness of the lake was a relief after the hills on the trail. Taking some encouragement from a few spectators who were resolutely standing in the emptiness at the middle of the ice, I tracked another racer in.
We gathered up another rider or two when we reached the far shore. A twisty trail along the shoreline led us to the checkpoint. I stood the Buffalo in a snowbank, grabbed my empty water bottles and a dry shirt, and marched up the steps into the cabin. The stairs were so much easier to climb than they had been the previous year. Literally day and night, thanks to being 2:23 ahead of last year’s pace.
Inside, the checkpoint was as crowded and warm and bustling as ever. The racers this year looked much less brutalized than in 2014. The “checkpoint ladies,” led by the former race director Mary Pramann, descended on me to take care of my needs. Hot water in my bottles. Soaking-wet jersey and gloves and hat off to the clothes dryer. Grilled cheese sandwiches and a bowl of wild rice soup in my hands. Sitting down, I tried to be quick and efficient. Gulp some Coke. Drink the soup. Stuff hunks of grilled cheese into my mouth. Say hi to T-Race, readying to leave. Commiserate with my gravel-racing friend Jeff, having a rough time. Retrieve my dried clothes. Score a couple pouches of Honey Stinger energy chews from the pile of food that racers had discarded. Say hi to Mark S., just arriving, and joke that I’d see him at the finish line, where I’d be waiting for him to buy my breakfast. Get back out the door. The volunteer with the time-check sheet said I was heading out after 44 minutes – longer than I had hoped to stay, but an hour less than 2014. I was four hours up on that pace.
Outside, I stowed my water, plugged my lights into their batteries, got back onto the Buffalo, and found a big gear to push over the resort driveway and back onto the trail – far easier to find in the evening light than it had been in the full dark the previous year. I was determined to ride as fast as possible in the waning light so that I had to do as little riding as possible in the dark later. The stretch from Melgeorges to the Skipulk checkpoint at mile 111 is the hardest part of the race. Fatigue and the darkness conspire to make the hills seem impossibly hard and numerous. My push to sprint away from Melgeorges initially paid off. In the first hour after leaving the checkpoint. I made it up some nasty hills in the last of the light, caught a racer or two, and kept myself warm as the temps started to dip. Just as dawn had snuck up on me nine hours before, dusk slipped past unnoticed until I wrapped in the dark. I turned my lights on and I started that familiar, comfortable chase of a pool of headlamp light.
However, the darkness brought a deteriorating trail: big tire ruts, snow angels from crashes, a few patches of bare dirt, lots of leaves and branches, a few spots of standing water. Where before I’d been easily following the track others had worn into the trail, I now often accidentally steered or was bounced out of it. Cursing my clumsy riding, I tried and mostly succeeded at riding especially hard on the flats to compensate for my slowdowns (swerves and bobbles, hike-a-bikes on the hills, eating and drinking) or stops (pausing to give Cal N some much-needed ibuprofen, chatting briefly with Charlie F at a shelter where he was planning to camp overnight, mostly for the fun of it). I was surprised and pleased that my legs – 80, 85, 90, 95 miles into the race – continued to respond with actual power and speed, and also that the trail seemed to be flatter and faster than I recalled from 2014. Glancing at my computer, I kept seeing speeds of 8 and 9 and 10 and 11 mph. A good sign. At the very least, I was maintaining my four-hour lead on my 2014 pace.
I hit the 100-mile “century” mark at about 8:30. This was when I’d left Melgeorges the year before, so I figured I was about 28 miles ahead of myself – and more importantly, just about 10 miles from the last checkpoint at Skipulk. I figured I would get there in about 90 minutes, around 10 p.m., 15 hours into the race.
Then the wheels almost literally came off. More and worse sections of deep snow and innumerable ruts made even some stretches of flat trail unrideable. I took an enormous digger when my concentration lapsed on relatively easy descent, finding myself upside down in a nest of branches off the trail. The Buffalo was six feet away, pointing the wrong up the trail. I was lucky I didn’t break any part of my body or my bike in the crash, but not so lucky as to avoid any harm. Shortly after I got myself back in order and started down the trail again, my drivetrain started clanking ominously. Grit in the chain? Bent derailleur? Surely not a chain about to break…
I promised to check everything carefully at Skipulk in an hour. Nope: wrong promise. As I downshifted to climb a fairly easy hill, my drivetrain locked up. I tried to reverse-pedal the chain free. No luck: the jam was too tight, and I tipped over in the snow. Fuuuuuck. Repair time. I clicked off my headlight to save the battery and dug out my breakdown bag – multitool, chain breaker, master links. Inspecting the chain, I saw that one of the inner links had come partially off its pin and then gotten jammed into derailleur cage. Never seen that happen before! I couldn’t pull the chain free by hand or spin it clear with the cranks, so I finally used my multitool’s flat screwdriver to bend the link away from the cage. Break the chain there and at the other end of the link. Stow the pins and links in my toolbag. Get out the master link, being careful that my numb fingers don’t drop it in the snow. Install. Check the chain tension by hand. Spin the cranks to see if the chain holds. Pack away the breakdown bag. Flex my hands to get some feeling back. Push the Buffalo up the hill, then climb on and put some tentative pressure into the pedals. Yes! It holds!
I spent about 10 minutes on this repair at mile 104, and felt old-man stiff when I started rolling again – cold legs from kneeling in the snow, cold fingers from working barehanded on the chain, cold head from cooled sweat. Still: only six or seven miles to Skipulk. An hour! I’d get there at 10:30, just thirty minutes later than I had planned. Between the crash and the breakdown, though, I hadn’t consumed anything in a half hour or more. The increasingly late hour and of course my fatigue started to press down on me, too. Now my computer was showing 4 or 6 mph more often than 8 or 10 mph. Skipulk seemed to be getting further away.
Somehow, race experience broke through the bonk. “Be disciplined!” I stopped, ate a big handful of trail mix, guzzled a Red Bull, slurped up a caffeinated energy gel, and drank a good half-bottle of water. I knew I’d be uncomfortable with all that food in my belly, but I wanted to ingest as many calories as possible so that I could maybe speed up on the way to Skipulk.
And that’s just what happened. The frustration and fatigue faded away, some mental sharpness returned, and I was able to march not trudge up the hills, to stand up to pedal harder on the flats, to look forward to a bit of company at the checkpoint. That company came sooner than I expected, in the form of a half-dozen signs put up by the crew from Surly Bikes, who were manning Skipulk. One sign promised that I was almost to the checkpoint. Another read, “To wolves, you taste like chicken. Wolves love chicken!” Then one said, “Just kidding! You’re not almost there!” I laughed at that one. Pedal pedal pedal. Ignore the returned hunger. Meet and nod silently to someone skiing the wrong way down the trail. No idea what that’s about. Pedal pedal pedal. Appreciate anew that every turn of the cranks brings you closer to whatever it is you’re riding toward.
A weird bellowing sound – almost musical – came down the path toward me. Not scary, but not Northwoods. I rode past another couple signs and a very creepy life-sized centaur perched right at the edge of the track. Another bellow, louder – and now lights! Bike lights, a campfire, torches. People on the trail. The bellowing had been someone blowing a shofar or a conch to announce riders’ arrivals. Awesome! The checkpoint volunteers welcomed me in with a cheer. A nose-pierced woman noted my number and arrival time – 11:05. Way off my planned 10 p.m. arrival. Acceptable considering my last ten miles.
Leaning the Buffalo up between a couple other resting bikes, I clicked back over into checkpoint mode. Turn off headlight and headlamp. Refill and stow water bottles. Throw away a surprisingly large collection of food wrappers and that empty Red Bull can. Get a cup of coffee, and mix cocoa powder into it. Grab a half-dozen cookies. Go into the heated teepee to eat and drink and rest for a spell. I chatted a bit with another racer and a volunteer stoking the fire, really just wanting to be around other people, not necessarily to talk to them. I did ask the volunteer if he knew who had won the race. He didn’t. (As it happens, Jorden Wakeley had won a three-way sprint for the victory just over an hour before.)
I promised myself that I’d go as soon as I finished my treats. I gobbled them up like Cookie Monster, and when the last one was gone, my legs pushed me upright. Checking out a little after 11:30, I figured that I had been stopped for about a half hour – far better than the 90 minutes I’d spent at Skipulk in 2014, when a kerosene heater and a flood of encouraging messages on my phone thawed me out enough to finish the race. I calculated that I was almost exactly eight hours ahead of last year’s pace, putting me at the finish line around 21 hours. Yes! Fantastic! A 24-hour finish was practically in the bag, and even a 22-hour finish was possible – if I held everything together over the last 20-some miles.
Back on the Buffalo, I headed off toward the last big climb and descent, Wakemup Hill. I remembered this landmark coming up quickly after the checkpoint, and it did. As I reached the bottom of the climb, a racer in front of me disappeared over the top, giving me another jolt of adrenaline. Chase? By the time I walked up to the summit, though, he was long gone. No matter. I knew the rest of the race was flat and easier than pretty much everything since Gateway. Midnight came and went somewhere around mile 115. 20 miles to go. I wondered if anyone was still up “watching” the race online.
I caught occasional glimpses of tail lights in front of me. While I couldn’t quite put on a chase, I was able to catch myself softpedaling and to focus on putting steady power into the pedals. Until I couldn’t: on one of the long flat straightaways through the swamps, with the skyglow from Tower visible in the distance, I started veering gently out of and back to the track, losing concentration. Red alert! Bonking! I stopped to pound another Red Bull and a caffeinated gel, enjoying the play of my headlamp on the bushes and trees.
Probably as much from the psychological boost of recognizing the imminent bonk as from the physical boost from all those delicious sugars, I started feeling better immediately. I spotted Shelter 9 at 125 miles, a lonely lean-to at a trail junction. 10 miles to go. An hour! Though my computer had died shortly after Wakemup Hill, I could tell from my cadence and the way the trees and bushes blurred past me that I was still moving at good clip. The skyglow grew brighter and larger on the horizon. I crossed one road and then another, guessing at their names since apparently nobody in goddamn Saint Louis County thinks to put a goddamn sign at a goddamn snowmobile crossing. Low bridges that had felt like the Alps in 2014 were now easy up-and-down bumps. I passed and cursed numerous unhelpful trail signs – “Caution” for what? Murderous moose? – and finally a few that started pointing this way and that toward the resorts on Lake Vermillion, including Fortune Bay Resort & Casino, where the race ended. One sign said Fortune Bay was five miles away. Or did it say six? I wasn’t about to go back to verify my reading comphehension. Either way, not many more miles. Pedal pedal pedal. Getting closer to that yellow-orange glow in the sky!
I saw a red light ahead, passing from right to left. That other racer? No, a car on a road! Checking my cue sheet, I figured that the car had to be on the highway at the edge of the Bois Forte Ojibwe reservation on which Fortune Bay stands. I went up through the mushy snow on one side of the road, over the pavement, and down through the mushy snow on the other side. Sure enough, right there was a big gate that I remembered from last year, with the trail running off to one side.
Two miles to go, minus that pedal stroke and that pedal stroke and that pedal stroke. The trail wound pleasantly through the woods, then came out in an open area where I could see the corner of the first building since Melgeorges – an outbuilding on the casino grounds. Some orange snow fencing appeared, and beyond it, the half-lit finish-line banner. The hair on the back of my neck went up. A l m o s t done – again! I wondered if I’d cry again when I finished. I shifted up and got up out of the saddle one more time. Just like last year, the banner disappeared for a second as I rounded one last corner, then appeared, bright and welcoming, atop the last short rise. I sprinted up that ramp.
A bunch of volunteers came out of the tent on the finish line to cheer me in. I rolled across the finish line and jumped off my bike, exclaiming unthinkingly, “That was awesome! What a great race!” A volunteer took my number down. “What time is it?” I asked, hoping that he would say it was no later than five so that I had my 22-hour finish. “It’s 2:30,” he said. I was surprised it was so early, and tried to do the math in my head. “Damn!” I said. “Just missed a 20-hour finish!” He looked back at his phone. “No, you finished in about 19:30. It’s a good year to go fast!” I blinked up at him. “Really? That’s almost ten hours faster than I went last year.” He nodded, possibly impressed. “Nice ride. C’mon, let’s get inside. We have to do gear check and then get you upstairs.” He graciously snapped a picture of me and the Buffalo first.
I chattered nonstop on the walk up to the casino building, learning among other things that the men’s finish had come down to a three-way sprint and that Tracey had won the women’s race, finishing an hour before me. The volunteer efficiently verified that I still had all my required gear – even the 3,000 calories of uneaten peanut butter – before walking me up to the hospitality room. The volunteers and racers there gave me a nice round of applause, one of the sweetest traditions at the Arrowhead. One of the volunteers helped me take my pick of finisher’s hats (blue, gray, or black) and trophies (yellow, black, white arrowheads) and then posed me in front of the race banner for the requisite portrait. The smile was unforced.
Wired like always after a long race, I camped out in the hospitality room for most of the night, eating, drinking, applauding other finishers, chatting with volunteers and other racers, reading Facebook – and enjoying the feeling that everything had come together pretty well.