Arrowhead VI: Riding Bikes through the Polar Vortex

The 2019 Arrowhead 135 Ultra – my sixth Arrowhead and thirteenth winter ultra – went about as well as any race I’ve ever done. I finished in 14th place in just over 21 hours, my second-fastest time but my most consistent effort. This year’s race was run in conditions that ranged from cold down to Arctic, which caused huge attrition. Of the 75 cyclists who started the race on Monday morning, only 39 finished – a rate of 52%. Attrition rates were even worse in the other disciplines: four skiers and three kicksledders started, but none finished; 64 runners started but only 20% finished – just 13 insanely tough human beings.

My good result involved some luck, for sure. We didn’t get any heavy snow during the race, for instance. I didn’t have a flat tire or mechanical problem. And I didn’t make a wrong turn!

But I also felt that I had prepared pretty well for the race. Though by race day, I had not logged as many bike miles as I would have liked, I did do some good training rides in November and December, building on more gym training than I have ever done. And I had raced well at the Tuscobia 160 at the end of December and at the St. Croix 40 in the middle of January. Were those good results flukes? The Arrowhead would tell me!

Preparation mattered right up to the start. On the night before the race, I packed the Blue Buffalo, my bike, more quickly and cleanly than I ever had before, which let me get to bed at a good time and wake up – after an anxiety dream about missing the start and then being unable to pedal because my frame bag was overstuffed – feeling rested and ready. I remember fumbling like a fool a couple years ago to pack up. Experience paid off.

Even better than a well-packed bike and good sleep, the weather forecast had continued to improve overnight. A few days before the race, the forecast – taking into account the irruption of the polar vortex – called for -20º or lower at the start, and very little improvement over the 24 hours I’d be riding – basically the same conditions we had had in 2018 (which had been about 20º lower than the forecast!), and similar to my first Arrowhead, in 2014. As race day approached, though, the forecasts moderated to a predicted 0º at the start, highs around 5º during the day, and then a dip back to about -10º overnight. This was pretty much ideal fatbike racing weather: easy to dress for, easy to ride in, easy to adjust to.

The possibility of super cold temperatures daunted me enough that I had withdrawn from the “unsupported” category in which I’d raced in 2017 and 2018. Unsupported riders could not use the three race checkpoint to warm up, rest, and dry out, nor to resupply with food and water. I had successfully finished the AH both years I’d gone unsupported, but both races had been ragged and hard. I decided I didn’t need to prove to myself that I could finish unsupported again, especially if the temperatures were going to be terrible.

I didn’t have a pang of regret about not racing unsupported as I rode on race morning from the hotel to the start line at the city ice arena in International Falls. Temps were just below zero – perfect . I spent a little too much time at the start saying hi to friends and then trying to troubleshoot another rider’s flat tire, so when the fireworks went off at 7 a.m., I still hadn’t turned on my GPS or buckled my helmet. Oops! I did manage to get moving before the skiers started two minutes later, though, and soon enough I as moving up through the pack. Waaaay up front, I could see the blinking red lights of the three guys who would vie for the win: Jorden Wakeley from Michigan and Ben Doom and Neil Beltchenko from Minnesota.

For the first ten miles of the race, heading south from International Falls on the Blue Ox Trail, I rode with a sizable group. We were moving fast, but not overly so, and even better, we were riding smoothly. None of the spastic passing or abrupt stops that sometimes mess with the rhythm in this early stretch. Within an hour, we made the turn off Blue Ox and onto the Arrowhead Trail: wide, smooth, lit by the sun that had just appeared over the treeline ahead. As usual, the big group broke up here, with a few riders stopping at the three-sided wooden shelter to adjust clothes or to eat and drink, a few others speeding up to take advantage of the good track, some others slowing to recover from too much effort already.

Typically Beautiful Trail

I rode on, enjoying the yellow glow in the sky ahead, and feeling a little chillier here in the open country than I had fifteen minutes before in the corridor of Blue Ox. I scrubbed the snow off my GPS unit’s screen and was shocked to see a temperature reading of -22º – an incredible drop in the last hour. I wondered if the forecast was going to be wrong again, but I did not wonder, as I would have in previous years, whether I should just ride through the cold. Instead, I stopped immediately to put on a facemask and a heavier hat, which worked wonders. When I tried to take a sip of my hydration drink, I found that the hose had frozen, so I tucked it deep into my jacket and hoped my body heat would thaw it. And I stopped to take a bad photo of the amazing sundog in the eastern sky, the biggest and brightest one I have ever seen.

Sundog

My hand got pretty cold taking that photo, but that was the only moment when I had any trouble with my extremities. After badly frostbiting my right fingers in 2018, I worried – and was repeatedly told to worry – that they would always be sensitive to cold, and that they would be more likely to get frostbit again. I was very glad that they held up during my training rides and that they didn’t act up during the race – even when I was taking barehanded pictures of the sky at -20º F.

Later I learned that quite a few riders had been caught out by this cold snap, including several who suffered frostbite on their hands and feet. In my extra layers, though, I felt good, and rode smoothly over the next 10 or 15 miles. A few riders moved past me, I caught a few others, but I was mostly already alone – my favorite way to ride. Softer trail – chewed up by snowmobiles – required me to stop and let some pressure out of the Blue Buffalo’s tires, but 10psi turned out to be right for the rest of the race, even after the trails firmed up again. I did enjoy seeing my friends John and Bill, who’d driven up to the race with me; they were riding their fatbikes up and down the course to cheer on racers and take in the sights.

Riding Through (photo by Bill Nelson and John Rinn)

I knew they were not far from the first checkpoint at the Kabetogama Gateway General Store, so I pushed a little and rolled in to Gateway around 11 a.m. I had a loose race strategy that put me at Gateway by 11, at the second checkpoint at Melgeorges resort by four, and at the third checkpoint by midnight – and then to finish sometime overnight, perhaps ahead of my personal best time of 19:30 (a 2:30 am. finish). Or perhaps not; the trail would dictate!

Inside Gateway, I grabbed a chair and sucked down a Coke and a bowl of soup, chatting with some friends. Charly had dropped out with stomach problems, Aaron from overheating. Kellie was there just hanging out. Charly warned me that she was giving out hugs, but her squeeze around the shoulders felt pretty nice after four hours of riding. Charly did more helpfully say that he thought the second leg – from mile 36 to Melgeorges at mile 72 – was the hilliest of the race. I had always thought of the third leg, which I’ve always hit in the dark, as having the most climbs, but he reminded me that that leg included a very long flat stretch before the jagged hills started at about mile 95. Okay, so riding well to Melgeorges would get me past the halfway point in the race and over a good chunk of the climbing. Even after five races on the Arrowhead Trail, I was still learning stuff!

Refreshed, I headed back out at 11:15, ready for the hills. The sky had clouded over, raising the temperature to zero or so and making for some wonderfully easy and fast riding. I made great time with the Blue Buffalo on the flats, and enjoyed hiking up and then zipping down the occasional hills. I saw two or three other racers, but I don’t think I passed or was passed by anyone. I did have to stop at one road crossing – the infamous Sheep Ranch Road, where many racers drop out because it’s one of the last easy spots cars can reach – when a spectator urgently asked me for my name. He was disappointed that I was not another racer he was trying to find. Sorry, dude!

A bit later, I rounded a corner and hit the first big beastly climb. At the crest, a spectator was madly cheering for another rider who was almost to the top.

Steeper Than It Looks

He clapped for me as I pushed my bike to the top too, then gave me a great slap on the back when I made it. We chatted for a second while I caught my breath and ate (trail mix, Fritos) and drank (nutrition drink through the thawed hose!) and I professed my lust for his bike, a tricked-out Salsa Blackborow longtail fatbike. What a beautiful machine. Parting, he told me that I was now basically on the downhill toward Elephant Lake and Melgeorges.

I knew from my GPS that I was getting close to the Melgeorges checkpoint – and first to the midpoint of the course at mile 67 – but I liked his confirmation that the rest of the way to the CP was literally downhill. My legs had started aching a couple hours before, probably from riding a little too hard out of Gateway, and I was eager to sit on a sofa at Melgeorges. I had planned to stop for no more than 30 minutes at Melgeorges, but when I stopped a bit later, aching, to take a photo of the Blue Buffalo at mile 67,

Halfway

I decided that I’d give myself an hour or until my legs felt better. A bit more rest would, I hope, pay off with more strength for the third leg, and the fourth.

Just a few minutes after that brief stop, I saw Bill and John again, stationed helpfully at the top and bottom of a fast downhill. I gave them a wave on the way down, loving the free speed that carried me almost all the way to Elephant Lake. The lake is always dauntingly open and starkly beautiful, a last test before reaching the second checkpoint. After nearly 70 miles of twisting, undulating trails through the woods, the mile of flat and open path – marked by dozens of reflective signposts, by the tracks of snowmobiles, and by a thin thread of bike treads – is a shock. I hooked up with another rider to make the crossing. For whatever reason, we rode on the right side of the row of signposts, not the left, which really bothered me. The other rider kept talking, but between my bad hearing, my helmet and hat, and the wind, I could not understand more than a few words, which sounded to me like heavily accented English.

Gradually we reeled in the far shore of the lake, Melgeorges’ cabins growing larger and more distinct. Usually the cabins are lit up with Christmas lights, but in this year’s late-afternoon overcast, I didn’t notice them.

Coming off Elephant Lake (photo by David Markman)

We reached land again and turned down a tight trail that led to the checkpoint. I immediately crashed, unable to adjust to the six-inch trail after hours and hours of twenty-foot trail. Though the race photographer was just a few feet away, he didn’t capture my display of skill, and shook his head when I asked if wanted me to crash again.

The Melgeorges Checkpoint

I wound up spending an hour and a half at Melgeorges, but the time was not wasted. I changed into dry baselayers, which felt marvelous, and set my gloves, hat, and facemask to drying. More importantly, I sat on the sofa and – after melting off my icebeard – ate and drank well (a couple of the famous grilled cheese sandwiches, a couple bowls of wild rice soup, a can of Coke, some chocolate milk, a lot of Doritos, some applesauce to calm my stomach…). I didn’t talk much to the other racers or volunteers; I didn’t want to pop my bubble of concentration on the race. A few racers came in after me, and a bunch left while I was resting. Several announced that they were dropping out. Some of them looked like hell; others looked fine. I didn’t know how I looked, but every time I stood up, I assessed my legs. Gradually their heaviness faded, and I felt ready to go.

The volunteer noted my checkout time and I went outside to handle a few more tasks in the waning light.

The Blue Buffalo Waiting

While I changed my headlamp batteries, put my puffy jacket in a better spot, refilled my trail mix, I wound up talking with Todd, an Arrowhead veteran who has seen just about everything. He filled me in on the racers who were vying for the win – Wakeley had a big lead – and offered some tips for handling the third and the fourth legs. I finally set off just as dusk fell, a bit later than I had hoped. I was happy to trade a few minutes of daylight for refreshed legs.

Last year, I’d roared out of Melgeorges and missed the turn off the spur trail to the Arrowhead trail itself, then rode five miles before two other racers corrected me – a cost of ten miles and more than an hour of riding time. This year, I crept up the spur, headlamp on high, to make goddamn sure I would not miss the correct turn. This hill, that curve, this long straightaway, and then the turn, very well marked! I stopped to double-check that all of the bike tracks were running in the direction I was traveling, and then I hit the gas. The next twenty miles – just as Charly had promised back at the first checkpoint – were easy, fun, fast cruising in my biggest gear, which I rarely touch in fatbike races. I hardly had to think, just keep my front wheel in the track worn in by the dozen or so riders in front of me. I could almost steer the Blue Buffalo by sound: if the sound of my tires on the snow changed from the sizzle of frying bacon to the crunch of crumpling paper, I had drifted off the track and needed to nudge myself back.

Even the few hills were straightforward. Some, I hit with enough momentum that I cruised most of the way up, and then could grunt out the last few legal strokes. A steeper few required me to ride as high up as possible, then jump off and push to the top. About the only problem I had was a sloppy dismount when I smashed my crotch against my bike. Stars, breathlessness, an ache that took a couple hours to dissipate… That’s bike racing!

Like the leg to Melgeorges, I was almost entirely alone in this section, riding into an infinity of lightly falling snow and wide white trail. Just a few miles past the checkpoint, I did come across one rider who was dealing with a flat tire. I think he said he had it handled, so I kept going. At a road crossing an hour later, I met the same spectator who’d misidentified me earlier in the day. He now asked if I’d seen a racer with a flat. I said I had, about ten miles before. The guy wondered if he should walk in to help the racer. I said that the rider was far closer to Melgeorges, if he turned around, than we were to him. The spectator seemed to want to talk more about it, but I needed to get going again. I was dressed for riding, not a chat at a windy road crossing at 10 p.m.! I felt a little bad at leaving the guy there, but then again, everyone riding in the Arrowhead should know how to get out of trouble. Turns out, this racer was fine. He did have to limp back to Melgeorges, where he dropped out.

Soon after that awkward moment, I reached the sawtooth hills. In full dark, with my headlamps illuminating a small yellow spot about ten feet in front of my bike, they all started looking alike: a steep white wall, marked partway up with a web of bike tracks and then the rest of the way with one or two tracks and a mess of footprints. I could ride a few of these slopes, but on the rest, I tried to ride further than the first footprints and then dismounted – without smashing my groin – for a few minutes of hike-a-bike.

The pushing was actually a relief, stretching leg muscles that were tight from riding and loosening my back. I varied my strategies for making it to the top. Sometimes I’d count out ten or twenty steps, pause, and do it again. Other times, I’d pick a spot on the hill and walk to it, break, then walk to a new one. Few of the hills seemed as steep or exhausting as I remembered. And every uphill meant a fun downhill, including quite a few that were so steep, I could not see the bottom from the top. I felt a lot more sure of myself on those descents than I did even last year, thanks to a ton of mountain biking over the summer. The Blue Buffalo too helped, being snappier than my previous machine and loaded very differently. Having my heavy sleeping bag on my rear rack made the front end so much more responsive.

I took a photo of the hill in front of me at mile 100, where I had century of trail behind me and only 35 miles in front of me.

The Hill at Mile 100

5 or 6 hours to go, unless something bad happened. Even though the race had gone as smoothly to this point as just about any fatbike race I’d ever done, I was still braced for a problem – mental, physical, mechanical, meteorological. I was a bit suspicious, in fact, of how well everything was working, from the way my clothes fit and kept me warm to the way the Blue Buffalo disappeared under me, just doing its job. I knew exactly how pedaling would feel when I shifted up or down, exactly how the bike would slow when I squeezed the brake, exactly how my saddle would feel (cold!) when I sat back down after a few minutes of pushing. The comfortable expectation must have resembled how an equestrian feels with her horse, a hunter with his gun dog, a center with a good point guard.

I had reason to be a little worried. Last year, I’d had a flat tire somewhere around mile 100. I wasted 90 minutes of time on the trail and countless calories trying to fix the flat, and wound up frostbiting my right hand pretty severely before – finally – two other racers came along and helped, saving my race. Mulling over this problem during the year between then and now, I wondered if I had caused the flat by riding too roughly over one of the many bridges that span frozen creeks running between the hills. Maybe, maybe not, but I tried hard this year to ride the bridges as smoothly as possible. Maybe this helped, maybe not, but I did avoid a flat!

I could not avoid the building fatigue in my legs. Hills that would have been rideable a couple hours before were now, hours out of Melgeorges but maybe still hours from the third checkpoint, hard enough that I had to push them from bottom to top. Mile 103 was the worst, a series of hills that defied my pedaling; compelled me to pause, chest heaving, at every crest; and then provided seconds-long downhills that offered no recovery. I’ll bet I needed twenty or thirty minutes to cover that mile.

I tried to force myself to eat and drink as I walked, but everything on my bike tasted like ash – except for my energy gels, which I normally take only if I’m bonking and need their fakey sweetness. This year, they tasted delicious, so I slurped one down every half hour or so.

And then up ahead I saw the red glow of a biker’s taillights. Company! My rookie year at Arrowhead, I’d been caught around here by Charlie, a vet who gave me the boost I needed to get to the third checkpoint. A couple years ago, I’d ridden this stretch with Jesse, a Michigander who rides a singlespeed bike in the race each year. Jesse was here again, but I had no idea if he was ahead or behind me. Last year, I’d here been following the two riders who had helped with my flat tire.

I didn’t have to speed up to catch this rider, who turned out to be my partner in crossing Elephant Lake about six hours before. He was in rough shape. About the first thing he said to me was, “Fucking mile 103! That must have been five miles long.” He turned out not to have an accent at all – well, to have a Minnesota accent. On the lake, he’d just been too tired to speak clearly. Now we chatted a little. He was close to bonking, but couldn’t have any of my food because he could not have any gluten. So he plugged away on peanut M&Ms and nutrition drink, here a few yards ahead of me, there a few yards behind.

Having him nearby helped me stop counting the pedal strokes and hills and miles to the third checkpoint, which appeared out of nowhere after a curve in the trail. Usually I have to beg the gods for permission to reach this spot – just a shelter and a bonfire along the side of the trail – but this year they freely gave it to me. I didn’t argue, just grabbed some stuff from the Blue Buffalo,

Resupply (photo by David Markman)

leaned it in the snow,

Resting Bikes (photo by David Markman)

got a Dixie cup of hot water, and went into the warming tent. A few volunteers and unsupported racers were standing around the bonfire a few feet away. Someone – I hoped not a racer – was smoking a joint.

The tent was disappointingly chilly. I sat as close to the wood-burning stove as I could, shivering but trying not to burn my knees. I dried my facemask and gloves a little, but I didn’t want to burn them either, so I basically just steamed them. I did melt off my icebeard, which I hoped would prevent frostbite over the last leg: 24 miles at ten or twenty degrees below. I chatted a little with Dave, the race photographer, and with a very dedicated spectator who had come all the way out to cheer on his son.

Thawing Out (photo by David Markman)

I also talked to a couple other racers who came and went, including the guy I’d linked up with just before the checkpoint. When he left, I decided I need to get going too. I had not felt very tired yet – I don’t think I’d even yawned, much less starting wrestling the sleep monster – but just in case, I washed down a caffeine tablet with a swig of Red Bull and stowed more tabs and a second Red Bull in a pocket where I could get them easily even if I was bonking. After swaddling my head in hat, buff, and face mask, I put on my puffer jacket – an extra layer of defense against the cold on the open swamps I’d cross on the way to the finish. I probably needed a minute to arrest my shivering hands enough that I could fit together the impossibly tiny pieces of the zipper. I was lucky to still feel good enough that the trouble was comical, not scary.

By now though I was thoroughly cold. I rode as hard as I could away from the checkpoint, building some heat. A mile later, I pushed my bike up the last big climb on the course, Wakemup Hill. I paused at the top – if not the course’s highest point, then at least the one that offers the longest view – to drink in the stars. Orion seemed just a little bit further out than the end of my headlamp’s beam.

I cautiously rode the Blue Buffalo down the rollercoaster descent off Wakemup, not eager to stack it up with about twenty miles to go. Two, three hours. 500, 600 calories. Not bad. I’d finish by five a.m. unless something bad happened.

Nothing did, and gradually less and less trail remained where trouble could lurk, even with my GPS showing -10°, -15°, -20°. A light tailwind pushed that air temperature down a few more degrees, but I didn’t notice the breeze except as ice on the back of my sleeves. I straightened my arms to break up the plates.

I came up on that rider I’d caught just before the third checkpoint. He was struggling, still or again, but seemed able to continue, so I went on. Having suffered my way through this section in several of my Arrowheads, I knew what he was going through, but I didn’t feel too guilty about feeling better than he did.

My legs were tired but not dead. My back didn’t ache. My hands and feet felt bendy and toasty. Another applesauce was keeping my stomach calm, a couple more gels keeping it full enough – but not banishing dreams of a burger and fries. When – despite my caffeine at the checkpoint – I started having trouble maintaining my line, I stopped and guzzled my last Red Bull. No need to be virtuous with ten miles to go! My lower lip froze momentarily to the lip of the can, but I licked it free and emptied the can from a safe distance above my mouth. A last few drops turned to slush in the rim of the can.

Bored now of looking up the trail, I rode for long stretches while looking off to the sides at the low evergreen scrub, the field of cattails wearing identical snowcaps, the trail signs hidden in overgrown trees, the snowmobile tracks leading off to who knew what. When I looked forward again, I seemed to be riding into a thin snow flurry, maybe six feet ahead of me and a foot above me. Was I actually just illuminating with my headlamp part of a low cloud? No, when I looked away, I saw black sky, the crescent moon, stars. But ahead of me, seemingly stretching off infinitely or at least to the finish line, was this weird line of snow. Finally, I realized that I was seeing my own condensed breath, carried by the tailwind up and away from me, where the water vapor turned to snow that floated down just as I rode through it. I started playing with it: a big lung-emptying exhalation created a miniature blizzard, a long hissed-out breath created a snaking line of flakes, turning my head as I breathed out created a fan of white dust…

I chased my personal snowstorm over the last road crossing. The finish line was just a mile or two ahead, outside the Fortune Bay casino. I glanced back to look for the guy I had passed. Nothing but white trail. I kept peering off to my right, hoping to see the glow of the casino building, which would mean I was within a few hundred yards of the finish. I kept not seeing the building, and then suddenly I saw instead the glow of the finish line itself: lights, a tent, the banner.

The Arrowhead Finish Line (photo by David Markman)

A jolt of adrenaline carried me up the last incline and over the spray painted snow. Volunteers came out to welcome me and take a photo. I was eager to get inside for soup and a beer.

Finished
Trophy Shot

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