Arrowhead IV – Fast Until It Wasn’t

The happy feeling I had on the day before the 2017 Arrowhead faded a little before the start, as I realized that the race would conclude an amazing two months of training and racing. Beginning with some big training rides in early December, continuing through the extraordinary experience of the Fat Pursuit, and now winding up at the event where I had gotten hooked on fatbike racing, these eight weeks were probably my hardest-ever sustained period of physical effort. Assuming I finished, the 2017 Arrowhead would be my 24th race of 100 or more miles and my eighth winter ultra – and put me over 500 lifetime miles of riding on the Arrowhead Trail.

And on the start line, I felt good! Ready to ride, for sure, and excited to see what I’d see, do, and learn on the 135 miles between International Falls and Tower. My prep in the morning went quickly and smoothly (except for tearing one contact lens: thank goodness I’d packed a spare pair!), and my friend Bill delivered me to the start well before seven. I hustled through the routine there: check in, greet various friends and wish them luck, and yes, pee indoors for the last time in a while.

Outside, I took a short spin up the trail to confirm that everything on my bike was secure and that my tire pressure was right. By the time I rolled back to the start, other racers were lining up. I found a good spot a few rows back. I can never hear the pre-race announcements, but they ended this year with a blast of fireworks (wake up, International Falls!) and then the race director shouting, “Release the hounds!”

And we were off.

Launch! (Photo by 45NRTH)
On the hard trail, the front-runners jetted away, building a huge gap within the first minute. A few other groups formed; I rode up from one to the next to the next, trying to find one that matched my speed. I rode conservatively, not wanting to crash as I had last year.

Soon enough the field of 85 riders had sorted itself out, and we were humming along down flat, straight Oxbow Trail. Even after the sun rose, the flat gray light kept me from seeing my computer screen, so I was surprised when we made the left turn at mile 10 onto the Arrowhead Trail proper. I hooked up with some other riders, and we motored down the course, taking advantage of the firm track. Ahead of me, rear tires kicked up pretty little clouds of dry snow. I was surprised to see 8, 9, 10 mph readings on my computer. The speed felt great.

I worried a little, as we rocketed along, that I was working too hard too early, maybe setting myself up to falter when, inevitably, I’d start feeling the weeks-ago effort of the Fat Pursuit. I put those worries out of my head by eating and drinking (replacing some of the copious sweat I was generating in the 20º F temperatures) and enjoying the wintry woods. I gave a photographer a smile as we rolled down the trail toward the highway crossing, invisible ahead of us but audible thanks to the logging trucks barreling down the asphalt.

Leading the Pack
At US 53, I stopped to make a couple adjustments, chat with some of the spectators there, and inadvertently check whether the icy gravel was slippery. It was! I nearly went down, which would have been embarrassing after riding safely through the chaos of the start.

Back on the trail, but now mostly by myself, the miles continued to flow under the Buffalo’s tires. Checking my time against my previous years’ splits, I could see I was already well ahead of my personal-best time, a heartening feeling. 15 miles to the first checkpoint at Gateway General Store… 10 miles… In a small group, whipping past my friend Bill, who had seen us start and was now out riding bits of the course for fun. 5 miles… 2… Up and over the road and down the spur toward the checkpoint. Racers who’d just left the checkpoint came back up the trail toward me. A rider who had been hanging on my wheel for a while saw them and yelled to me, “We’re going the wrong way!”

What a rookie thing to say. I shout back that they’re heading out from the checkpoint. Zip over the soft snow churned up by the two-way traffic. Pop out of the narrow track onto the parking lot outside Gateway. Speed past the parked cars and trucks, the spectators and racers, a few snowmobiles. The store itself was just ahead, always smaller in reality than in my memory.

In my previous three Arrowheads, I’d stopped at the store to get a Coke and to rest (2014: 48 minutes; 2015: 17 minutes; 2016: 12 minutes). This year, I really could not stop, since I had entered the race’s new “unsupported” category, meaning that I could not use any of the services at the three checkpoints. I could not accept any aid from other racers or any spectators, but I also couldn’t buy food or drink at Gateway or consume race-supplied food and drink at the second and third checkpoints. I couldn’t leave a drop bag of my own food and drink at checkpoint two. I couldn’t even go inside the checkpoints to warm up!

So I rolled toward the checkpoint timer, called out my race number and heard him call it back, hung the hairpin turn around the orange cone in front of him, and headed back out onto the trail. I have to admit, I felt fantastically badass to not even put down a damn foot at the checkpoint. I rode back over the spur to the main trail, and turned right. Back on course at a staggeringly early time for me, 10:40 a.m. Total checkpoint time: zero minutes.

A few minutes later, I pulled over to munch on some food I couldn’t easily eat while riding and to drink half of the bottle of Coke I’d brought along from home. It tasted even better than one from Gateway. A few riders passed me as I stood there, every one of them calling out. “You okay?” “Need anything?” “All good?” I love that part of the Arrowhead.

Almost as much as I love those trails. Though we never saw any sun during this year’s race, the gray light, the white snow, and the endless trees all created as beautiful a combination as they always do. A little snow began to fall, just as the forecast had predicted, adding to the beauty. A few hills kicked up, but nothing unrideable, even with some new tension in my quadriceps.

Somewhere after Sheep Ranch Road
Here and there the Buffalo and I joined a few other racers, including some guys who are usually far in front of me. I liked that. The groups split and reformed as one rider or another stopped to eat or drink or just rest. I finished off my Coke during one break and hunted in my bags for something salty to eat, having had nothing but sweet food all day. Even my nutrition drink – a sort of super-caloric Gatorade that many riders love, and even use exclusively – was pretty sweet, though at least it had a nice salty tang too. I saw that my salty food came down to one small bag of Fritos and Cheez-Its. I’d have to manage them carefully.

Just before 3:00 p.m., I reached mile 67.5, the halfway point of the race. Unmarked and unremarkable, this spot deserves to be remembered: a flat stretch of trail with an evergreen forest to the south and a swamp to the north. A low forested ridge waited a mile ahead, one of the many hills that the course ascends and descends on this and the next section of the course.

The Trail Near Black Duck River (2 pm)
For good measure, I took a selfie. I had grown and lost at least two icebeards already in the race, thanks to the temperatures that had ranged as high as 25º F. This halfway-point icebeard was merely decent. Not my best work, but okay. Before taking the shot, I checked for the millionth time that the green ribbon denoting my “unsupported” status was still pinned to my bib. It was.

3 pm Selfie
This actual halfway point of the race comes about five miles before the second checkpoint, at Melgeorges Resort on Elephant Lake. Over its length, the Arrowhead Trail is studded with signs directing snowmobilers to this bar or that motel – a nice reminder that you’re not really in the middle of nowhere – and the numerous signs for Melgeorges start way up the trail. The Melgeorges signs have always annoyed me, though, because the number of miles they claim remain before the resort always seem like half the real number, thanks to tired legs and a dread of the really bad hills that start after Melgeorges.

This year, not so much. I was still well ahead of my personal-best pace, which provided a nice mental boost, and my legs felt strong. The five miles felt like three, or even two, since the mile-long ride across Elephant Lake is always so strange and wonderful that I hardly feel the effort of that last mile to the checkpoint. Certainly, the Buffalo didn’t, rolling over snow and ice churned up by a group of snowmobilers that had passed us a few minutes before.

Elephant Lake Crossing
A few spectators were out on the lake, ringing cowbells, and more were on the shoreline, cheering. A volunteer stationed at the spot where the trail leaves the lake shouted out directions to the checkpoint cabin, addressing me by name.

11 bikes were leaned against the snowbanks outside the checkpoint. I set the Buffalo among them and went up the steps to the cabin’s unheated porch – as far as unsupported racers could go. Dozens of drop bags filled the entryway.

I go this way? (Photo courtesy of Marcus Steele)
I go this way? (Photo courtesy of Marcus Steele)
Through the windows, I could see racers eating the famous grilled cheese sandwiches that the checkpoint volunteers prepare by the score. I felt a little like a bad dog, exiled to the porch, while I waited until a timer noticed me and came to the door. “157, unsupported, in and out!” She said, “Got it!”

Back outside, I chatted with my friend Bill and a couple others while throwing away some trash and transferring food to more accessible places on the bike. When I felt a chill starting to settle into my shoulders, I realized I had to get back on the trail. 4:00 p.m. exactly, a half hour ahead of my PB time. Knowing that the worst hills would start soon, I wondered, as I rode off the Melgeorges property, whether I’d be able to stay on that pace. At least, I told myself, I’d get to tackle the first few hills in the daylight, helping me see the length of the climbs and the gnarliness of the descents.

For me, the first real hill of the whole Arrowhead is a massive, seemingly vertical climb about six miles past Melgeorges. Moving along at a decent clip, the trail suddenly turns and drops steeply into a swampy valley. I can only just ride this section. At the bottom of the descent, the trail crosses a creek and then goes right back up. Straight up.

While we were shooting the breeze on Sunday night at the hotel, my friend Minnesota Mark had said that he handled the hills by trying always to ride past the first set of footprints. “That racer is ahead of me, but he’s walking and I’m riding, so really, I’m beating him!” As soon as he told me this, I knew I had to use his strategy.

The Big Downhill
The Big Downhill
On this first big hill, I rode the chopped-up downhill, putting as much speed as possible into the Buffalo and carrying that speed over the short flat stretch. Pedaling hard, I go quite a way past the first footprints. Pop off. Start pushing the Buffalo up the hill. Feel the familiar effort of hike-a-bike – a flashback to endless pushing during the Fat Pursuit.

The Big Uphill
The Big Uphill
At the top of the hill, I turned back to enjoy the gorgeous view over the valley. Someday I’ll make a point to get a good photo of these scene. Back on the bike, the unseen sun set behind me. With fresh batteries in my headlamp, I could actually often see better in the dark than I had for much of the day. What I could not see were the tops and bottoms of the hills. Was this climb a hundred or a thousand steps long? Did this descent end after this turn or that one? Did this descent, like so many, end at a rickety wooden bridge over some frozen creek? My light did show me that any trail that wasn’t flat had been completely destroyed by riders in front of me – braided tire tracks on every downhill, pockmarked footprints on every uphill.

I tried to keep eating and drinking right, staying ahead of my hunger and thirst, but after twelve hours of racing, my stomach was not happy with more sugary drink or food. I took a few pinches from my tiny bag of salty stuff, chewing slowly to cover the acid sweetness in my mouth. I guzzled a Red Bull, hoping the carbonation would overwhelm the sweetness. The idea was as poor as the result.

I started to get a little worried. My average speed had now dipped below my personal-best speed, and I had a good forty miles to go. A new personal record was not going to happen. A 24-hour finish was still possible, but could I ride that far with an angry stomach? What could I do to cut the burny feeling in my mouth and gut? I wondered if I should have recognized this problem earlier, maybe even before Melgeorges, and had some food there. Doing so would have meant dropping my unsupported designation, but I would still have had my finish. Was I jeopardizing a finish by going unsupported?

Think about what to do while pedaling. Take some tiny sips of my drink. Walk up a hill while thinking about what to do. Swallow small chunks of an energy bar, almost unchewed. Think about what do to while pedaling again. Try to eat a gel fast so that the sweetness wouldn’t even register. Think about what’s going right: warm and dry, still making decent time, still riding all the flats, still getting further than the first set of footprints on the hills.

Encouragment that Kid Riemer from Salsa Cycles had offered at various races ran through my head. “Stay constant” – a mantra I like so much that I made a little reminder to pin to my handlebars. “You have everything you need to go out and come around again.” Have confidence in your preparation and exertion. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I in danger, or just uncomfortable?'” Definitely only uncomfortable. Riding through the snow in the dark is wonderful, one of my favorite experiences. I tried to focus on the fact that I had hours and hours of this favorite experience to soak up.

I decided that I would have to stop soon to boil some snow into water. At least enough to drink on the spot, and maybe more to add to my hydration reservoir, diluting the nutrition drink. When? Where? I saw from my mileage chart that I would soon reach one of the several lean-to shelters on the Arrowhead Trail, spots where snowmobilers could rest for a bit, maybe have a fire. Where riders and runners and skiers, once a year, could sit down on a bench, maybe take a nap. I decided that I would stop there to boil some water.

Having that goal helped settle my mind if not my belly. I ticked off the miles to the shelter, and then pulled right off the trail. The shelter itself seemed to be a cabin, set well back from the trail. Getting back there looked like unnecessary trouble, so I set up my stove on the snow next to the Buffalo. As I knelt there – enjoying the cold snow on my achy knees – a couple other riders came and went. When I had the flame going, I filled my pot with handfuls of snow. In seconds, it had begun to melt, creating a dismayingly tiny amount of water. More snow, more water. Snow, water, snow, water. After a few minutes the pot was half full. I tested the water with a finger. Tepid. I sipped it, savoring the blank taste on my tongue and in my mouth. All gone. Repeat the process.

While adding the zillionth handful of snow to the pot, I noticed that two riders were hanging around. Something was wrong with one of them. Nursing my second half-cup of water, I went over to see what was up. The older racer was in visible pain, wincing even standing there. The other racer, Mike, was someone I had ridden with earlier the race. “I think Steve here has some broken ribs,” he told me. Uh-oh. “We’re going to have to call about a rescue.” We dug out Steve’s sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and parka. Mike got on his phone and called one of the emergency numbers, relaying our location and the problem. As I pointed my headlight at him, Steve partly inflated his sleeping pad, pulled on his parka, and slid with great care into the sleeping bag – refusing any help from me. “They’re sending a snowmobile,” Mike reported. Lying in his bag, Steve looked bad, but better than he had when they arrived. I realized I was shivering. My water was gone. “I think I need to go. I’m getting cold.” Mike nodded. “Yes, go. I’ll stay here till the snowmobile gets here.” Steve thanked me. I hadn’t done more than throw some light on him. Arrowhead spirit, even injured.

My shivering built to a continuous shaking as I packed my stove away and got back on the Buffalo to ride away. My computer showed the time and distance as exactly 9 p.m. and 99 miles traveled – 14 hours into the race and about 12 miles from checkpoint three, a bare-bones set of tents and fires tended by the ladies and gentlemen from Surly Bikes.

Those dozen miles, though! Every hill seemed to be a quarter-mile struggle up a sheer face, then a quick 50 yard run down a gentle incline. Stay constant. Adopt the favorite trick of forcing myself to walk continuously to that spot before resting, or to walk 50 steps before resting. Remember how awful these hills had been during my first Arrowhead, when the temperatures ranged down from -20º F.

Walk to that spot, rest, then walk to the next spot. Remind myself that literally every step, every hill, every turn of the cranks brought me closer to the finish line. 100 miles. A century! Ride every inch of the flats. 102 miles. More than three-quarters of the way done. I met a snowmobile going the other way. The driver checked on me, and I told him that I’d come about three miles from the shelter where the injured racer was resting. 105 miles. I passed a rider who said he needed to walk to the checkpoint. I told him that we had only a couple miles to go. I was lying. 110 miles. Midnight! Where the $*%#ing $*%# is the Surly checkpoint! 111 miles. Hand-painted signs set up along the trail. “You wanted to do this!”

Surly Sign by Pamela Gonzalez
I did! I do!

Abruptly, Surly appeared ahead. Shadowed tents, tiki torches, bikes’ blinkies. Even more spartan than I recalled but oh so welcome. I rode in, body almost folding over in relief. A volunteer took down my number and noted that I was unsupported. “You can set your bike over there if you’re going to rest.” I told him I was planning to stay for a while. “Cool. You can sit by the fire over there. I’m afraid that’s all I can do for you.” The fire in fact looked like heaven – heat and light, a few camp chairs. I was happy to sit on something besides the Buffalo’s saddle, to soak up some warmth, to see other racers again. A couple others arrived. They ducked into the massive canvas tent that regular racers could use. No biggie. I didn’t need walls, or a roof, or hot water.

I had a little more of my drink and thought about boiling more water to add to the reservoir. From my tongue to my stomach, I could feel a weird sensation, equal parts sour and sizzling. I knew more fresh water would taste good and probably be good. I literally had nothing else to do at the moment, but the effort seemed too much. As if to prove otherwise, another unsupported racer joined me at the fire and proceeded to melt snow into water that he poured into his hydration pack. Watching him, I asked a volunteer about the race results. He gave me the rundown. A sprint finish and a rookie winner in the men’s race, setting a new course record. A solo win in the women’s race, also setting a new record. Both winning times were insanely fast. The new champs had been done for hours when I rolled into the checkpoint. They were probably asleep. It was midnight, after all.

No, it was 12:30. Shit. Time was passing but I was not moving. I asked about a couple friends that I assumed were up ahead. They’d all come through, anywhere from an hour before I arrived to just a few minutes. 12:45. I needed to get going too. I finished a Red Bull that I didn’t remember starting, threw the can away, and told the volunteer I was checking out. Wait, no, I needed to change my headlight batteries. I did that and checked out again. 12:52. The Buffalo seemed rested too – quiet and strong and ready to finish the race. 23 miles to go.

I have a clear conception of the last leg, those 23 miles from checkpoint three to the finish line. In my head, the leg start with a few miles of hills and then hits a massive ramp – Wakemup Hill – that can only be walked. From Wakemup, the trail drops down to flat, level swamplands that continue all the way to the finish. All a racer – exhausted, hungry, thirsty, probably cold – has to do is get to those flats, and then ride them to the finish line.

This conception is as mushy as the trails after the Surly checkpoint. Yes, hills at first. Ride the first few, passing another unsupported racer who left a few minutes before me. Walk up Wakemup. Ride the steep descent down to the flats. No, not open country. No, not level ground. Undulating trail, linear webs of tire tracks, innumerable boot prints, dense forest. Hard work. So hungry. So thirsty.

Now I was really racing. I was at the limit. Like the headlamp beam that I could direct to any spot, so long as it ten feet in front of me, I could direct my mental energy to any topic, so long as it was how bad my stomach felt or why I didn’t remember these beautiful evergreens, with snow-covered branches that looked strangely like green-and-white animal paws… Somewhere before Surly, I’d hit my five-hundredth mile of riding on the Arrowhead Trail, and yet I couldn’t remember all these amazing trees.

Ugh. Who cares. Shut up and ride! Besides your guts, how’s the rest of the body? Fine, really: warm and dry and not even too sore or achy. How’s the Buffalo? A-okay. Not a single squeak or wobble. Time? 1:35 a.m. Distance? 115 miles. No tenths showed on my computer’s display now, so suddenly the riding was digital: this many miles and then suddenly that many. No point-one, point-two, point-nine intervals to track and interpret as progress.

I’d hoped, in preparing for the race, to hammer this section. Conservative riding earlier would have saved energy to use now. A rest at Surly would have refreshed the legs further. A Red Bull or two would have provided extra energy. The pull of the finish line would be another, even stronger motivation.

None of this was happening. Where I had been flowing until or even beyond Melgeorges, I was now staggering – stopping at random moments when my legs simply decided to stop working. My eyes were closing, my shoulders slumping even as I rode. My thoughts would blur, wavering visibly in the air in front of me like a heat mirage. I started fantasizing about a trailside nap like the one I took on the first day at the Fat Pursuit. I had to squint to collect the thought waves, to reason for a moment, to tell myself to finish the last crumbs of my salty food, to pound a gel, to gulp down more of my drink. 2:05 a.m. 117 miles – only two miles covered in 30 minutes. Ugh.

I struggled like this for miles more, until on one long straightaway I saw another rider’s blinking tail light far ahead, on the other side of the universe. Who? I sped up, if going 4 mph rather than 3 mph counts as speeding up. The rider disappeared. Did he get too far ahead to see? Did he just round a corner? Did I imagine him?

I was hardly chasing that rider, but then I came around a big bend in the trail and there he was. Blue jacket, white helmet. Minnesota Mark! The friend with the great advice on climbing hills. “Mark!” I exclaimed, riding up. “Who’s that?” he called back. I identified myself. “I am glad to see you, man. I am hurting,” I told him, and summarized my food-and-drink problems. He offered me an Oreo. No! No more sugar! He said he was feeling okay, and on pace to set a personal best, but suffering from sore knees. “Let’s ride together,” we agreed, and then each of use politely told the other that he should feel free to ride faster if needed.

I sure didn’t want to do that. My stomach was now both rumbling with hunger and burning badly enough that I could taste acid in my throat. Heartburn during a race? I wanted to ride or walk or crawl with Mark the rest of the way so that I’d have someone there to distract me from my guts.

So off we went up the trail together, me following Mark by a few bike lengths. Mile 122, 3:00 a.m. 13 miles to go, but how many hours? At six miles an hour, just over two hours. At five miles an hour…

I was trying to hang back from Mark enough that my headlamp and headlight weren’t shining around him and casting annoying shadows on the trail in front of him. For whatever reason, though, I kept looking down, too, and the sensation of having a bright oval of light underneath me made me dizzy. I’d look up for a while, trying not to shine too much over Mark, let the dizziness subside, and then look down again, feeling the dizziness build again. Why didn’t I just angle my lights down directly in front of me and then ride looking forward toward Mark? Who knows. It’s hard to think at 3:15 a.m. on the Arrowhead Trail.

We crept down the trail together, ten feet apart, then stopped together for a few words or a snack. Just being there on the trail with Mark reassured me that I – we! – would finish. Looking back at these moments, I realize again, as I do after many races, that one of my strengths as a racer is my passivity, a characteristic that doesn’t always serve me well in other areas of life (or indeed in riding). I tend to accept the mountain in front of me and try to drill a tunnel through it, rather than discover some grand pass around it. Like Robert Frost wrote: “The best way out is always through.” Accept and adjust to soft trails, to bad weather, to a long hard climb or a long cold descent, to slow riding, to hike-a-bike, to repellent food, to sore legs. My passivity has helped make it easy to not give up.

As such, I didn’t worry too much about the process of our finish, and focused instead on the certainty of the finish. I didn’t even worry too much when, after I ate a few forgotten sesame crackers, I felt a weird gurgle in my stomach. I stopped, stepped off the Buffalo, and dropped to my knees. Gurgle gurgle. I cleared away the top six inches of snow in front of me. Gurgle gurgle vomit. I’ve never thrown up in a race before, and I hope I don’t again, but this episode was unpleasant to undergo and marvelous to have undergone. When I stood up (after brushing snow over the pit of puke I’d made), my head was clear, my stomach didn’t hurt, and my mouth tasted, finally, of something besides sugary race food.

Suddenly I wanted to sprint off to the finish, six or so miles up the trail. Mark had not noticed that I’d stopped, so I had a half mile or so to ride till I was back on his wheel. “You okay?” I told him what had happened and said I felt good. Probably for the first time in an hour or more, I took the lead. Ahead of us was the Tower tower – the radio mast outside the village of Tower. The tower blinks in front of you for miles, but then slides away on your right as you keep riding toward the finish.

When I turned around to check on Mark, I could see another rider’s light behind us, sometimes near and sometimes well back. I didn’t want him to catch us. Earlier we’d let two other racers go past us without even a fight. I figured they were done by now. I wanted to be done too. Up the trail we went, riding now between the numerous road crossings on the approach to the finish. Sometimes I could hear, or imagine I was hearing, traffic on the roads. Was anyone really driving around at 5:00 a.m.? Maybe. We rode toward the pink glow of the parking lot at Fortune Bay Casino, which hosts the finish of the race.

The glow intensified. We reached the last road. A little pitch up and then a little pitch down got us over the asphalt. Ahead of us was a sign pointing toward Fortune Bay. Two and a half miles – a half hour or less of riding at our slowest. Way less now, thanks to the jolt of being close to the finish. The finish! Mark’s fifth finish in seven starts, in a personal best time. My fourth finish in four starts.

The snow fence along the trail into the Fortune Bay property. A building in the shadowed woods. A glimpse of the finish line sign. More snow fence, and a couple spectators. We turned the last corner and rode side by side up the tiny hill to the finish line, a string of pink lights in the snow. I pulled back a little as we reached the line so that Mark, who did so much work to tow me through my valley of the shadow of puke, could get the higher finishing spot after 22 hours and 38 minutes on the Arrowhead Trail.

Mark and Me at the Finish Line
Elated, we talked with the finish-line volunteers for a few minutes, then followed a mutual friend – Wisconsin Mark, a strong racer who was volunteering this year – to the casino. He checked our gear, making sure we hadn’t tossed out our sleeping bags, then led us up to the hospitality room. A big round of applause for us both. The hat that all finishers receive. The giant trophy that unsupported finishers receive. The finisher’s photo, in which I look much less gaunt than I usually do after the race.

Two beers for breakfast. Rounds of applause for every other finisher, including, just behind us, Mike, who’d so heroically helped Steve with his broken ribs. Shooting the breeze with other finishers, we naturally turned toward the usual topic: will you do the race again? Everyone agreed: we would.

Only 363 days to wait…

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