I think about the Arrowhead constantly, many times a day. It’s been like this for more than five years now, ever since I applied in summer 2013 to race the next winter’s Arrowhead, a fortieth-birthday gift to myself. Maybe I dwell too much on the race – completely voluntary, completely ridiculous, completely gripping.
That winter, my thinking revolved around preparation for and worry over an event that I could imagine doing but had no real way to understand doing. This winter, with four successful Arrowheads behind me and my fifth Arrowhead ahead of me, my thoughts were worry over and excitement for an event that I knew I could do, had done, but that still needed to be done again.
Not all of my thinking about the Arrowhead looks forward to the next race. I also spend a lot of time just remembering the races – before this year’s event, 540 miles and 97 hours of riding (along with healthy amounts of walking and sitting). And I think a lot about the raw fact of having finished the race. My four finishes seem both unreal to me, incidents I watched happen, and tangible, worn like a familiar, comfortable, cherished, and warm piece of clothing.
And yeah, while I have finished the race, a lot of my thinking and remembering runs to other Arrowheaders: riding alongside Charlie in 2014 and Minnesota Mark in 2017, sharing a Red Bull with Wisconsin Mark in 2015, commiserating (in the truest sense) with many nameless racers on the trail every year, trading stories with even more racers at the finish line. The 2018 Arrowhead supplied quite a few more chances to appreciate other racers, one of whom saved my race twice.
In being my fifth Arrowhead, the 2018 race would also be my tenth winter ultra. If I finished, I’d notch not only that fifth Arrowhead finish but my eighth winter-ultra finish. I’m not sure why, in the months leading up to the AH, I was so hung up on getting that fifth-straight finish, but I was, and I was even more eager to get the race under way. Still, I felt calm – a veteran’s calm? – when after months of training and preparation and my best-ever pre-race night’s sleep, I rolled up to the start outside Kerry Arena in International Falls at the trailhead of the snowmobile trails that would take us to the finish line near Tower, 135 miles away.
The rest of the field of bikers hung strangely back, so I nosed the Buffalo’s front wheel right up to the orange spray-paint starting line, not far from one of the arrows pointing – helpfully? mockingly? – down the trail. Braving the -5º F temps, spectators stood on the jagged mounds of snow that lined the start area – natural bleachers. I bantered a bit with some of the other racers near me – Mark, Charly, Ben – and then we went silent for the countdown to the fireworks that came just before the shout to “Release the hounds!” and the sprint off the line.
By the first road crossing, a few hundred meters up the course, the field was already mostly in single file, a string of red blinking lights. A bit later, Tracey Petervary – three time women’s champion – rode up next to me and commented on how pretty the lights looked when lined up that way. T-race’s comment encapsulated two great things about the race: the way you’re constantly surrounded by beauty, and the way you bond with racers over the weirdest stuff. In my eagerness, I almost rode into a racer whose rear blinky light was barely visible and only weakly shining. As I rode past, I told him that I couldn’t see the light from behind. The sun was coming up soon, which would make all the blinkies irrelevant for nine hours or so.
In the semi-dark, I couldn’t see my bike computer to tell how far we’d gone or how fast we were going, but I was feeling great – easily making passes, easily holding wheels, easily maintaining my line. The trail was as hard and fast as I’d ever seen it, which helped a lot, but so too did a solid taper and good rest before the race – and my excitement at racing again. A few more road crossings, long stretches through open swampy areas, and then the left turn at Shelter 1. The only bad physical sensation I’d had so far was an unusually strong urge to pee, so I stopped to address that need. A big group of racers rode past during my break, rabbits to chase.
Checking my computer, I saw that the Buffalo and I had averaged almost 10 mph over the opening hour – ridiculously fast for us. I caught members of that group within a few minutes, as we moved from the open swamps into thicker forest. Coming up behind them, I enjoyed watching their rear tires kick up little clouds of powdery snow. I still felt fantastic nine miles later, two hours into the race, when I reached the crossing of U.S. 53 and zipped over the pavement as logging trucks approached from both directions. I kept waiting for an ache, a pain, a twinge, a pang, but no: nothing but good feelings in my body, the steady feeling of a good bike, and the sizzle-hum of my tires on the cold, fast snow.
I rode for a bit with Jesse, who was insanely tackling the race on a borrowed single-speed fatbike. We chatted about the cold – still -5º – and the fast track. I passed again that racer whose blinky hadn’t been visible back near the start. This time I recognized her and greeted her and mentioned again that her blinky was still invisible. She stopped to fix it, which made me feel a little bad, since the first checkpoint was just ahead: the Gateway General Store at mile 37, roughly four hours into the race for me.
I rolled right through the checkpoint, calling out my race number and then getting back to the trail. Since I was racing in the unsupported category – carrying all my own food and water, waiving the privilege to go into the checkpoints to dry off or warm up – I had no reason to stop, and anyhow I felt so good I didn’t want to stop. While the first leg of the race, from the start to the first checkpoint at Gateway, is almost entirely flat, the second leg includes some rolling terrain and even a few hills that I’ve always had to walk. This year, the rollers felt faster on both sides of their crests, and even the steeper hills let me ride further up them than I recalled from other races. Pushing the Buffalo the rest of the way to the top of those few hills provided a nice respite, a chance to drink from my hydration backpack (Infinit’s Go Far mix, which I highly recommend) and chew a few calories. KitKats, Reese’s peanut butter cups, salted cashews, Fritos, gels, Clif bars.
I could see my computer clearly in the midday sun, and I could see that everything was going great: a high average speed, a decently low heart rate, the miles ticking by. I stopped at the halfway point of the race – mile 67.5 – to take a photo, but my phone died, so I had to just look around. The trail cut through a swamp, but behind and further ahead were dense stands of evergreens, rising in the distance up one of the ridges that the trail would climb. On the far side of that ridge a few miles later, the trail started dropping toward Elephant Lake, which the race crossed on the way to the second checkpoint, at Melgeorges resort, at about mile 72. Popping out on the ice just before 3 p.m., I could see I was on pace to set a big personal-best time. On the wide-open lake, I could also see that I couldn’t see many bike tracks ahead of me. Even if many racers were riding in each others’ tracks, I estimated that no more than 20 riders were in front of me. Not a bad spot to occupy going into the second checkpoint and then out into the hardest leg of the race.
I came off the lake a few minutes later, greeted a few spectators including my friend Bill, who’d driven me up to the race and enjoyed soaking up the event, and then followed the familiar twisty singletrack trail over to the checkpoint. I’d never reached Melgeorges so early in the race, with the sun so high. The cabins looked, frankly, strange in the daylight. At the top of the steps to the checkpoint cabin, I knocked on the door. A volunteer came over. “Welcome to Melgeorges! Racer 144 checking in at 3:04. Come on in!” I told him I was racing unsupported and couldn’t come in, but that I’d take a couple minutes outside to sort out my food and gear before leaving. He followed me back down the steps and we chatted as I threw away food wrappers and other garbage and reloaded my bags with different stuff to eat. “Okay, I’m heading out.” He wrote the time down and then said, “You’re ninth right now.”
I was shocked. I could tell from the tracks on the trail that not many other racers were in front of me, but only eight? I gave a whoop and headed out of the parking lot, relishing the glow of the high mid-afternoon sunlight on the trees. Each time I’ve left the Melgeorges checkpoint in my previous Arrowheads – last year slightly later in the afternoon, one year at dusk, and two years in the pitch black of early evening – I’d felt a tightness in my stomach. Worry about the innumerable hills, worry about the inescapable cold, worry about the upcoming long night. Worry and some fear about all those certainties and other possibilities: injuring myself in a crash, breaking my bike, getting sick, meeting wolves.
This time, though, I was elated, feeling strong, energized, happy, and eager to hit the hills. I carefully took the turns leading to the spur trail that reconnected with the Arrowhead Trail itself, pedaling hard to warm up again. The trail was badly churned by snowmobiles, so I could only see one or two bike tracks, but no matter. I knew this tricky stretch. Here’s the trail again. Bend left onto fresh track and keep going. Next stop, the third checkpoint, 39 miles down the trail but only 24 miles from the finish.
I rode easily and steadily over some manageable rollers, ups and downs lined by stands of pine, birches, firs, all cinematically lit by the sun to my left. A few tracts of the forest had been clear cut, leaving ugly open spaces and piles of slash. My computer read +5º F, the highest temp I’d seen so far. A few hits of hydration drink, a gel. Where was that first big challenge that comes after Melgeorges – the steep descent, a tricky bridge, and then a monster uphill? Must be up here soon. Around this corner, or this one. Can’t be far.
Suddenly two riders come toward me. Why are they going the wrong way on the course? They stop. #162 says, with the matter of fact tone of the colossally correct, “You’re going the wrong way, man. We’re two miles from Melgeorges. You must have missed the turn after the checkpoint.”
Like a row of icicles all falling from the eaves at the same time, the realization of my error crashes down on me. I hadn’t reached that goddamn hill because I was going the wrong goddamn way. I spit out a stream of expletives. Rider #92 says, in a wonderfully helpful way, “Well, now you can have a second grilled cheese at Melgeorges!” I curse some more and tell him that, actually, no, since I’m racing unsuppported I will instead have no grilled cheeses for a second time.
Fired up with anger at myself, I surge away from them. For a minute, I wonder about the right thing to do here – ride back to Melgeorges and check in and out again? Ride back to but straight through the checkpoint? Simply ride the trail back to the race course? Would I get disqualified for cutting the course? With the certainty of the colossally incorrect, I told myself that no, that wouldn’t happen since I had already covered the stretch I was supposed to ride! No need to do it again.
I cruised back over the trails that I had just ridden, seeing the same trees on the other side of the track. Down the hills I’d gone up, up the hills I’d gone down. Now someone else was coming toward me! What the hell! He pulled up. “Am I going the wrong way?” he asked. I told him he was, that I’d taken the wrong turn and was getting back to the course. He said he’d followed my track and then started wondering if he was off course. He recognized me from another race and introduced himself. Joe and Christopher, brothers in error. He turned himself around and we covered the last few miles back to the course, now laughing about the craziness of this episode.
When we reached the corner that I and then he had taken wrong, I saw that the proper turn was very clearly marked with directional signs and laced with what looked like a billion tire tracks. Certainly, now, many more tracks than the eight that had been in front of me when I left Melgeorges. I checked my computer’s mileage against my cue card and saw that I’d added 11 bonus miles to my ride. Probably 90 minutes or even two hours of riding. Of energy. Of calories. Of sunlight.
But now I was back on the course, and the finish line was getting closer with every pedal stroke again. I’d corrected my error. The interlude had covered great trail in great conditions. And now it was literally behind me. In just a few turns of the cranks, Joe and I reached that steep descent, the tricky bridge, the monster uphill. We walked most of the climb, and at the top I looked back: sure enough the valley was gorgeous in what was now the last light of the day. We climbed back on our bikes and resumed. The pale blue sky darkened to black and stars appeared, one for every tree. I turned on my headlamp, lighting up Joe from well behind him.
We were about twelve hours and 85 miles into the race now. Only the trees knew how many more hours we would need to finish, but the finish line was less than 50 miles away. A hard 50 miles, sure, but I still didn’t feel like I was working too hard, much less suffering. I kept wondering when the really bad hills were coming, remembering from other years what seemed like hours of unbroken hike-a-bike up and even down savagely jagged hills. Though my legs were no longer responding the same way they had to the afternoon’s hills, and my walking was getting more labored, I could still get on the Buffalo and feel good or even great. We cruised over the occasional flat spots, rode the steep descents easily, and zoomed as far up the ascents as we could. About my only trouble was finding easy moments to eat and drink, so somewhere in this stretch I stopped with Joe at one of the trailside shelters to rest for a few minutes, sitting on the dirt floor, drinking some water, eating some food. The racer whom I had told about her bad blinky joined us for a bit. The light still wasn’t flashing visibly, which bugged me since we were in full dark and no one could say when a snowmobile might roar up behind us. I didn’t say anything this time, though. Too tired. Both she and Joe headed off before I was ready to go, and both wound up finishing well ahead of me, she as the women’s champion.
Now alone in the woods, I could feel that the temperature had fallen down into the negative teens. All day long I’d been unzipping and rezipping my jackets, pulling up and down my neck warmer and hoods, opening and closing the vents on my pants. In the nighttime chill, I battened down all the hatches: zippers up, hoods up, face covered as much as possible. I even swapped out the hat I’d been wearing all day – and which I realized with dismay had been frozen to my head – for my down beanie, an item that feels like a secret weapon against the cold.
Adjusting all my gear there on the trail – trees to the left and right; a narrow snowmobile trail ahead, underneath, and behind; the starry black sky above – made me feel ready for the cold and the hills over the twenty or so miles between wherever I was and the third checkpoint. In retrospect I know I was ready because the next many hours of riding and walking passed easily even when I was going slow. I just worked at the hills and the miles. The moon, nearly full, was so bright that it cast deep shadows across the trail. I had to slow down to make sure that a shadow wasn’t a divot in the snow or a tree branch fallen on the trail. The shadows were always just shadows. Sometimes when I looked up, the moon was shrouded by a halo. Other times it hung there alone, a sliver away from fullness. 8 p.m., mile 91, 44 miles to go. 9 p.m., mile 95, 40 miles to go. 10 p.m., mile 99, 36 miles to go. 11 p.m., mile 101, 34 miles to go. Ugh: a 2 mph average over the previous hour. Midnight, mile 104, 31 miles to go.
But now something was amiss. Given how infrequently and briefly I actually pedaled the Buffalo in this hilly section, I hadn’t had much chance to notice a squirrelly feeling in the handling. On one rare stretch of level ground, though, I could tell that one of my tires had lost some air. I squished the front. Nope, solid. I squished the back. Yep, very soft. Not quite flat but getting there. Maybe just a slow leak, though. I laid the Buffalo down in the snow and dug out my pump. Carefully carefully because it was far too cold to take off my gloves, I undid the valve cap and opened the valve, then threaded the pump head onto the valve. I pumped thirty or fifty times and felt the tire – better. More solid. Undo the pump head, close the valve, replace the cap, stow the pump, get back on the bike.
Up and down a hill or two, over another level stretch. The squirrelly feeling again already. I looked at my bike computer. Just after midnight, -25º F. At least there is no wind, I pointed out to myself. I guess it was time to change a tire. I’d never flatted in a winter race, and only ever had one minor mechanical problem – a broken chain that I fixed quickly and easily while talking with a snowmobile-trail groomer outside West Yellowstone, Montana. Maybe this would go as easily!
I laid the bike down again, dug out the pump again, and unpacked my seat bag to find my spare tubes. I rehearsed everything in my head before doing it. Unwrap the tube and lay it in the snow. Lift the bike back up and unwind the rear wheel’s quick-release bolt. Wiggle the wheel out of the dropouts, away from the cassette, free of the chain. Lay the crippled bike back down. Lay the tire down. Undo the valve cap. Open the valve. Bleed out what little air is inside. Press down opposite sides of the tire to break the bead on the rim. Run my fingers under the bead to unseat the tire on one side. The rim is cold as hell, even though my glove. Undo the locking nut on the valve. Son of a bitch. I can’t do this with my gloves. Dig out my multitool. The flap on the leather case barely bends. I open the tool to the pliers. The steel is cold as hell, even through my glove. Pinch the nut and loosen it, then spin it off the valve. Push the valve through the rim. Pull the bad tube out of the tire and throw it angrily away from me.
Halfway done with the process. I stand up, then kneel in the snow again. My knees are cold as hell, just two thin layers of clothing from the -25º snow. Stuff the new tube into the tire, trying to keep it from getting twisted and folded. Guide the valve through the hole in the rim. Run the nut down onto the valve as far as possible. Reseat the tire in the rim. The rim is cold as hell, even though my glove. Open the valve. Thread the pump head onto the valve. Pump pump pump till the tire is firm. Yes! Air! It’s solid. Carefully, with dead fingers, unthread the pump head from the valve. The valve core comes out with the pump head and all the air escapes from the tube in an evil hissing rush. Son of a…
With the pliers, extract the valve core from the pump head. Don’t fucking bend the core! Thread it back into the valve body, tightening it as far as possible. Thread the pump head onto the valve. Pump pump pump till the tire is firm. This now takes minutes; my right arm aches. I’m shivering. Carefully, with even deader fingers, unthread the pump head from the valve. All the air rushes out again.
Breathe deeply. Find something to eat. Eat it. Repeat it all again. With neurosurgical care, unthread the pump head from the valve. The core comes out again and all the air escapes again. It’s now been, what, thirty minutes? More? I’m shaking. A rider or two goes by. If they say something, I don’t hear it, and I don’t say anything to them. I walk around my workshop, shining my headlamp on my useless bike, the gear I’d unpacked from my seat bag, the trees all around.
Take four. Kneel at the wheel. A posture of prayer and submission. I’m barely holding the pump now, but I struggle through the process again and come to the same deflating result. A couple more racers go by. Time for me to decide what to do. Try my other tube? Maybe its valve core won’t come out so easily. Put the wheel back on, flat tire and all, and walk the bike to the third checkpoint? Try to fix everything there, where at least there’s company and a fire? Try to inflate this tube one more time?
I decide to do that, since it’s the easiest of the options. Shaking with cold, I try for a fifth time. A fifth failure. More riders go by. Then one stops. “You need help? A flat?” I look up. It’s rider #162, the guy who corrected my wrong turn. Rider #92 is right there with him. “Yeah. I have everything here but my pump keeps pulling out the valve core.” I’m amazed he can understand me given how bad my teeth must be chattering. #162 digs out his pump – the same one I have. I’m not sure if we’re talking to each other now, but he takes my multitool and tightens the hell out of the valve core, then attaches his pump. He gives it a few pumps before handing it to me. I pump a few times, amazed at how easily his works compared to mine. I tell him this; he says that he uses a silicone spray to keep the rubber components flexible, which makes them work better. When the tire is at the right pressure, he carefully unthreads the pump head. The valve core stays in place. All the air rushes out of my lungs in relief.
As I close the valve and put the valve cap back on, he packs up again, then comes back over to hold the Buffalo in place while I get the wheel back on. This takes the usual jimmying plus extra jimmying due to the fact that my whole right hand feels like a block of ice, but we get the wheel back in place. The Buffalo is ready to roll again. #92 says he’s cold, that he needs to get moving. He soft-pedals away. I thank #162 for what I hope is the hundredth time. He gets back on his bike and heads up the trail.
I had been mostly stationary for more than an hour in the deep cold, leaving me exhausted, but I knew as their blinkies disappeared up the trail that I needed to get moving, to get to the third checkpoint, where I could rest and eat and drink. I packed up my stuff quickly, wrapping the bad tube around my seat bag, then got on the Buffalo and started pedaling. My knees were stiff, cold, achy. My right hand felt distant, as if a new length of forearm had pushed it further away from my body. Sending commands down that long arm into that frozen hand did cause the thumb to press the shifter levers, though, so I knew that the hand still worked in a technical sense. The third checkpoint, sponsored by Surly bikes, was about four miles away – a rudimentary trailside arrangement of a heated teepee, a table, and a campfire.
I have no memory of riding that stretch, but it took a bit over an hour – a slow speed but a riding speed, not a walking one. When I reached the Surly checkpoint, I knew I’d finish my fifth Arrowhead, thanks now twice to racer #162. I checked in at 2:24 a.m., a truly horrible hour to be awake, riding a bike but also a truly wonderful time to be alive, riding a bike. A few racers left the checkpoint in my hour there. A few others arrived and headed back out, including my friend Helen, who was on her way to becoming the first woman to earn the award for racers who complete the Arrowhead in all three disciplines: cycling, running, and skiing. She didn’t even sit down in the half-hour she was at the checkpoint. Soon after she headed out, I decided I was ready to go too, having had a little more food and used the fire to melt some snow to drink, pine needles and all. I also made damn sure to throw away the tube that had caused so much trouble.
After the third checkpoint, the course flattens and straightens out, somewhat mirroring the first leg to Gateway. First, though, racers have to ascend the seemingly longest and steepest climb on the course, Wakemup Hill. I cannot bike it, but this year the walk to the top wasn’t too bad, and ended with the usual amazing view of the lakey forests to the east. The descent off Wakemup is always scary, but then the trail starts its flat, straight runs toward the finish. At the bottom of the hill I knew the finish line was only 25 miles away – an easy ride on most days, a little tougher after 21 hours of racing and those 11 bonus miles.
I don’t remember much of those 25 miles. Before Melgeorges, I’d been looking forward to this finishing leg, which then I hoped to hammer. I was more a nail now, though. I know several racers, including #162 and #92, passed me on this stretch, and made far better time than I did, finishing more than an hour ahead of me. I know I walked quite a bit, both to give my legs a break and to keep from riding off the trail, which I nonetheless did a couple times. I wished I had some company, like the year before, but I was also glad no one could see me weaving across the trail, gagging on a Clif bar, dry-swallowing two caffeine pills, falling asleep standing up. Magically the trail continued to roll underneath the Buffalo, and magically the sun came up right on schedule around 8, lighting the swamps and fields. Subtracting my bonus miles from the total on my computer, I could see that at dawn, I had ten miles to go. I played one of my favorite mind games, convincing myself that even one pedal stroke past mile 125 (or 136) meant that I now had only a single-digit number of miles to go. 3 mph, 4 mph, 5 mph if I stood up on the pedals – even those pathetic speeds wore away the remaining miles. I started crossing roads more frequently, a sure sign of civilization or at least of Tower, Minnesota.
Five miles to go. Four. Three, and now onto the Bois Forte Reservation. I was incredibly thirsty and hungry. I saw the familiar sights of these last miles: the sign directing snowmobilers to Fortune Bay casino, the drooping snow fences separating the churned-up snowmobile trails from thin new-growth woods, a building tucked into those trees. Staring up and to the right, I finally saw the roofline of the casino above the trees. Newer, better snow fencing lined the trail now. As it always does, the finish-line banner appeared, disappeared, and reappeared for good, on top of a little rise. Just as I started to wonder if I could ride the rise, I rode up it and over the last yards of the course, over the finish line. Finish number 5 in 26 hours and 37 minutes, good for 32nd place. 686 miles and now almost 124 hours on the Arrowhead trail.
I remember little of the next few minutes. I think I toppled off my bike, but somehow I got back up before too long. Along with my friend Bill, my sister-in-law and brother-in-law were there, having come over from Ely to see me finish. Somehow Jay Petervary, the men’s champion in a near-record time, wound up walking my bike inside. In the recovery room, I peeled off my layers and used a bowl of hot water to melt off my icebeard. My cheeks, upper lip, and right fingers were frostbit – the fingers, by the flat tire ordeal. No matter: my finisher’s hat fit my head and the finisher’s trophy fit in my hands.