I’d never read anything by Jim Harrison until he died a few years ago and my Yooper news alert drew my attention to this amazing essay in the New York Times on his love of the U.P. Till I read that piece – which describes some of Harrison’s favorite places in da Yoop, including my beloved Copper Country – I don’t think I’d ever read much serious, non-historical writing (however brief) about the Upper Peninsula, and I remember being impressed and touched that a real writer like Jim Harrison – who wrote the novella Legends of the Fall and then the screenplay for the movie starring Brad Pitt! – had loved the place.
That Times essay was occasioned by the release of a compilation of five novellas by Harrison about an Everyman named Brown Dog, who’s a sort of woodsman with few needs, fewer goals, and a habit, if not quite a penchant, for adventure. He’s a very U.P. character. Though I didn’t know any one person exactly like B.D., I knew a lot of people who were a lot like him: satisfied being underemployed but happy to cut pulp and fix cars, lovers of fishing and hunting and the outdoors, given to a little more drinking than might be healthy, not too interested in leaving the region…
Even more than Brown Dog himself, I loved Harrison’s evocation of the U.P. as a place. Early in the collection, Brown Dog says that 49º is the perfect temperature (and that 49 mph is the perfect speed). I agree! 49º means spring or fall, means wearing the same clothes indoors and out with no need to put on or take off a jacket, means new life arriving or old life leaving, means proximity to snow if not quite snow itself.
B.D. also loves the second-growth forests and the little creeks that run inevitably to the big lakes, and especially the swamps. The U.P. – like northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, two places I love, and apparently like Finland, a place I love even though I’ve never visited – is a land of swamps.
If anything, too little of the Brown Dog novellas are set in the snowy winters that sets da Yoop apart from even the northern end of the Lower Peninsula, or the western tip of Lake Superior. The seasons deeply affect Brown Dog’s life (he can’t wait for the trout opener), for sure, but he never really lives through a bad good winter. Maybe that’s because Harrison and Brown Dog knew the eastern and south-central parts of the U.P. better than the northwestern parts. But Harrison and Brown Dog did appreciate, with a good healthy sense of U.P. humor, what snow means up dere:
I happened to finish the novellas – which ramble picaresquely over a decade of Brown Dog’s life – just as the Copper Country suffered massive flooding that laid waste to roads, hillsides, businesses, houses. The disaster was probably the biggest in the Copper Country’s history, with $100 million in damage (but thankfully just one death). I like to imagine Brown Dog would have driven his shitty car over from Escanaba to Houghton to help out with the cleanup, maybe asking for no more payment than a couple six packs.
When I was a kid growing up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I was fascinated by the fact that the U.P. had not always been part of the United States, much less part of Michigan. Visiting the reconstructed Fort Michimilimackinac at the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula and Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island in the channel between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, I loved learning that this territory had been France, Britain, and Canada before it was the United States — and though nobody really dwelt on it, that the land had belonged to the Ottawa and Ojibwa before any white men showed up.
As I grew up, my interest in the U.P.’s history shifted from the 18th and early 19th centuries to the region’s industrial golden age between roughly the Civil War and World War II, when the U.P. furnished the copper and iron that the burgeoning American economy needed, and when the area’s population was as large, diverse, and affluent as it had ever been or would ever be. In those years, I lived first in Ironwood at the far western tip of the U.P., a town that had been the biggest city in the Gogebic Iron Range, and later in Hancock at the southern end of the glorious Keweenaw Peninsula, in the heart of the Copper Country. Both Ironwood and Hancock were hollowed-out, depressed, and depressing towns that had lost half or more of their boom-time populations by the time I lived there.
That direct experience of living in busted towns colored by outlook on life, for sure, but also impelled me to study — in college and in grad school — how any why American capitalism works this way, in cycles of brief, amazing nooms that create something out of nothing, and the long, sad busts that see the something fade back almost to nothing. In pursuing those questions by focusing on World War II , my former interests in the political and social history of the the 17th/18th centuries all but faded away.
Since moving back to Minnesota, and especially since moving to Northfield, where the annual commemoration of the defeat of Jesse James’ raiding gang is literally a town holiday, I have started rediscovering these older interests, though: the efforts by whites from Lewis & Clark to Zebulon Pike to tie the Old Northwest into the new republic at the beginning of the 19th century, the subsequent “settlement” of Minnesota by whites in the middle of that century, the conversion of pre-contact forests and prairies to farmland, the Dakota Wars that coincided with the Civil War…
These revived interests matched perfectly with a new book by historian Theodore Catton, Rainy Lake House: Twilight of Empire on the Northern Frontier, which tells the amazing and sad story of white colonization of the lands between the western end of Lake Superior and the Red River Valley – what’s now the U.P., Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ontario, and Manitoba. (My friend Michael Allen – a professor of history at Northwestern University – sent me the book, thinking correctly that I’d love it.)
Much of the story was generally familiar, from the ways that France, Britain, and the new U.S. drew Indians into the fur trade and then into land swindles to the competition among those three countries – empires – over the Old Northwest and the peoples in them: the Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Lakota nations; traders, settlers, and soldiers from each country; the mixed métis of Canada.
Some of the story was less familiar to me, such as the incredibly difficult, lucrative, and destructive fur industry; the efforts through the middle of the 19th c. to launch new colonies in Canada; and the out-of-placeness of the métis who were neither French-Canadian nor Indian. And some of the story was wholly new, such as the bizarre forms of society on the frontier (many white traders had two families: a white family back east in Montreal or Toronto and an Indian wife and family in some fort or factory deep in the interior) or the sad life of John Tanner, a white man who’d been kidnapped by Indians as a child and grew up as a sort of white Indian but who was not accepted either as an American or as an Indian.
Tanner’s story is the core of Rainy Lake House, and Catton tells the story well, using Tanner’s upbringing in Ojibwa culture and maturation as a skilled hunter and trapper to show how the Indian nations adapted – or failed to adapt – to the expansion of the British in the north and the Americans to the south. Tanner was an enigma to almost everyone who met him, not least to the wife who tried to murder him. Tanner’s near-mortal injury led to his meeting the curmudgeonly, frustrated Canadian doctor and fur trader John McLoughlin and the ambitious American army officer and explorer Stephen Long. Working on opposite sides of the grand game to control the fur territories, McLoughlin and Long reflected, enacted, and created the economic, political, and cultural views on the exploitation and settlement of what was then and is still now a remote and thinly settled region.
As much as I enjoyed Catton’s skillful triple biography of these three men, I enjoyed even more his subtle sketching of the places where they lived, places I know a little bit now through my winter bike riding – the forests and swamps between Ely and International Falls, Minnesota or the plains along the Red River south of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Leaving aside the ultimately sad, if riveting, narratives about the various ways that Tanner, McLoughlin, and Long contributed to “settling” the Old Northwest, I was fascinated by the simple fact that any travel in this area required insanely arduous travel by foot or canoe. A few miles of fatbiking in January in northern Minnesota pales in comparison to the seasonal treks of the voyeageurs between what’s now far-northeastern Minnesota and Montreal, or the endless roving by the Ojibwa and Ottawa across their homelands.
I highly recommend Rainy Lake House to anyone interested in the history of Minnesota or the Upper Midwest, in the history of the early American Republic, or in the history of American Indians. The book reads like a much shorter work than its heft suggests, and any reader will come away with a new appreciation for the complexities of the 19th c. frontier, a place that was both a deeply multicultural society (though not an egalitarian one) and an ecosystem transformed by political, economic, and cultural pressures.
The Actif Epica race outside Winnipeg was the ideal way to end a very challenging race season – a relatively short ride through some small French-Canadian towns and up into Winnipeg itself. After the Arrowhead, I decided I didn’t have another overnight race in me this winter, so I changed from the 200-kilometer (124-mile) long race to the “classic” 125k (77 mile) race. This was a good decision, allowing me to start and end in daylight and to really enjoy the racecourse.
And what a racecourse! In a word, it was bizarre – or as the French say, “bizarre.” The race started in the tiny town of St. Malo, about 50 miles due south of Winnipeg.
32 cyclists comprised the field in the short race, which started at a very reasonable 7:30 a.m. (that’s 7:30 a.m. in the metric system) outside the town’s charmingly un-fancy hockey arena. After a neutral rollout, we crossed St. Malo Lake, which shook out the field pretty well and ended with one of the only climbs in the race – a 10-foot zip up what might have been a boat launch.
Starting there, the rest of the course consisted of long sections of gravel road linked by short bits of paved highways, of trails for snowmobiles (which the Canadians call “Skidoos,” no matter the actual brand) or, even better, of completely snowed-in roads across farm fields. It was wacky, unlike any of the other fatbike racing I’ve done but not unlike some of the training I’ve done around Northfield – though far, far flatter. The end of the race was memorably different from all that terrain!
The open country – what my friend Minnesota Mark called “the windswept plains of southern Manitoba” – made it easy to see other racers, which allowed a lot of chasing and being chased. We came up on numerous runners who’d started either the long 200k race the night before or the short 125k race an hour before our bike event. I was happy to be able to ride quite a bit with Mark, who has finished the AE a few times (as well as 20-some other fatbike ultras), making him a good guide to the race’s innumerable twists and turns and to its five checkpoints. At several of those checkpoints, I saw my friend Corey; though not a cyclist, he’d wanted to see what fatbike racing was all about, and so had driven me up to Winnipeg for the event. He tracked us over the first part of the course, taking photos like this one at the first CP in St.-Pierre-Jolys.
We’d been told to try the pea soup there, but pea soup doesn’t sound too good at 9:05 a.m., so I ducked in and headed right back back out, yoyoing with a couple other riders whom I’d see all day as we made our way up to the second checkpoint at a “colony” of Hutterites at Crystal Springs. Just before reaching the checkpoint, we rode a couple miles of wonderful wooded trails along the Rat River (a.k.a. la Rivière aux Rats, which is frankly a far better name) as it oxbowed its way north to meet the Red River of the North nearer to Winnipeg. I stopped a little longer at Crystal Springs, which had a real bathroom (no peeing in the ditches during this race! [well, maybe a little]), chocolate-chip cookies, and very talkative Hutterite men, who wanted to tell me all about their colony. I chatted for a bit, but needed to get moving again.
The silent little boys – shirts buttoned up to their collar just like the adult men – held the door for me, and then I rode again with Mark for a while on some windy gravel. The first few miles of the race had woven through stands of trees, but those were behind us now. Houses were few and far between, but many flew a Canadian flag. The cattle farms had a smell that differed from the smell of cattle farms in Minnesota – sweeter, grassier, not as acrid. Under a high sun, the forecasted westerly wind started to show up, making us work hard whenever we angled north and west – which was pretty often.
At one point, the course dumped us onto a snowed-in road between two fields. In Minnesota we’d call it a “minimum maintenance road,” but I don’t know the French translation. Maybe “le chemin de posthole”? Ride for a bit, push for a bit, ride for more, push for more. For a change of pace, tip over in a pillowy drift and get snow down your neck. At the end of the section, I stopped to record the scene. Mark is one of the dots on the horizon; the other is, I think, racer #36, a tough guy who was riding the race on a 26″ city bike. He could haul on the gravel and especially on the pavement roads, but whenever we hit any snow, he slowed and even had to walk sections that Mark and I could ride. I filed this fact away for later, in case he and I were still nearby at the end of the race.
These sections made me extra grateful to be riding my friend Ben’s souped-up race bike. My beloved Buffalo had started acting up just before the race, perhaps suffering from an injury at the Arrowhead. As I commuted home the day before Corey and I would head to Winnipeg, the rear wheel started rubbing the chainstay. Two hours of sweating and swearing over it couldn’t fix the problem, but Ben solved the problems and saved my race by loaning me his own Mukluk, which was definitely the best bike I’ve ever ridden. The carbon rims in particular helped me float over more of the drifting than I could have on my own bike – though I sure missed the Buffalo.
Somewhere after this section, Mark caught me and started rhapsodizing about the pierogies served at the third checkpoint, in the hockey arena in Niverville. I’d never had pierogis before, an error I remedied with a triple serving. When we checked out, the volunteers told us we were in 8th and 9th places – top 10! We had barely gotten back on our bikes before we reached the fourth checkpoint, 11k (7 miles) away in St. Adolphe. Though this leg was short, I felt like we had a headwind for every meter. Mark and I traded pulls over the worst stretch, making the wind a little more tolerable. When we finally reached St. Adolphe, we rode not on streets to the CP but on the dikes that protect the town from the Red River,
and stopped not at a hockey arena but at a curling club. (Next to the door is the bike of racer #36, who reached the CP just before us.)
Curling looks just as fun from the other side of the glass as it does on TV, but why are so many Manitoba hockey arenas and curling clubs in Quonset huts? And can Northfield please build a Quonset hut for a curling club?
Someone – probably Mark – had warned me that the stretch after St. Adolphe would be the hardest of the race, as we would be continuously exposed to the wind. This was definitely the case. Mark and I traded pulls as we went north on the memorably-named Sood Road, then jogged a bit east to Shapansky Road, a freakishly straight and flat road that I’m pretty sure runs all the way to Hudson Bay. (Here it’s the north-south line from St. Germain South.)
The wind here finally went from “hard” to “brutal.” Cutting across us from left to right, it separated Mark and me and slowed me to what could not have been more than 8 mph, which felt like a sad waste of Ben’s carbon machine! Racer #36 dangled in front of me for this entire stretch. I had worried that his skinny tires would help him get away here, but the wind was as bad for him as for me, and for Mark. Another racer later said that the winds had been blowing at 25mph here, which means that the windchill must have been well below zero. Adding to the fun, the sun was so bright that I couldn’t see my computer, and so couldn’t see the goddamn map that would tell me how goddamn long this goddamn section would continue. This was a classic sufferfest: put your head down and just turn the cranks. Every time the pedals make a rotation, you’re closer to getting done with it.
Then suddenly I couldn’t see racer #36 anymore. He’d turned! Huzzah! No more crosswind! Oh, wait. No, he’d turned northwest, going directly into the wind. A minute later, I made the turn too, and found another Actif Epica Special: a dirt “road” almost completely covered in snowdrifts. Someone had recently driven a truck down the road, cutting two ruts through all the drifts, and I aimed for the nearer one. But I had been puttering along so slowly for so long that my aim was way off, and I hit the drift. Stop, lean, bobble, lean more, tip over, already laughing and cursing. I expected Mark to ride up to me right then as I struggled to unclip my boots from my pedals, but no, he was still slogging up Shapansky.
Back on my feet and then back on the bike, I could see that #36 was hiking. I was able to ride, and gradually closed on him as we angled northwest, then north again through more crosswind. He grew from a black dot in the distance to an indistinct human figure, then to a cyclist – helmet, jacket, legs. I was excited to be on the verge of contact after seeing him off in the distance since St. Adolphe.
Then another turn, to the southwest. Mon Dieu! Knowing that Winnipeg was due north of us, I got worried here that we’d taken a wrong turn, but ahead of us I could see a weird low hill. Maybe another dike that would take us north? Here the course drifted in again, the snow cover deepening as we approached the hill. #36 was hiking continuously, and I was trying hard to ride as much as I could to catch up before the hill. But now the drifts turned to a thick crust of snow with a skin of windblown black dirt on top – the most bizarre surface that I’d ever crossed on a fatbike, or rather crossed walking next to a fatbike. The snow was loose under the dirt, far too soft to support the bike or me. I postholed for a good ten minutes, trying to roll the bike along next to me and marveling as the weird cake-like appearance of the snow: a thin layer of black, a thick layer of white, and then far below some brown dirt.
Now I was at the bottom of the hill, with #36 on top of it. A lightbulb went off and I remembered that Mark had mentioned we would ride up and over the huge floodway that protects Winnipeg from the Red River’s spring floods. The hill was actually the eastern wall of the floodway, which – Wikipedia says – was at the time of its construction in the 1960s the second-largest earthmoving project in the world, smaller only than the Panama Canal. Still trailing #36, I rode up and onto the berm, down into the floodway – empty except for some grass and more snowdrifts – then back up onto a secondary berm that ran to a massive control gate. On the other side of the gate, #36 turned west again. Down a street? Where the hell were we?
We were already in Winnipeg. The city apparently has no suburbs; you’re either on the prairie suffering in the wind for your sins or on paved streets, dodging cars and trucks. #36 was gone now, hammering on his city bike over city streets. I dug out my cue sheets and zoomed in on my computer’s map, remembering more advice from Mark: that you had to be careful as the race zigged and zagged over streets and bike trails. I didn’t want to take a wrong turn again, as I had at the Arrowhead in January. There the only dangers had been -30º F temps and wolves; who knows what urban terrors lurked in Winnipeg! I might be force-fed poutine or compelled to learn the words to “O Canada”!
Luckily, the course here was remarkably easy to follow, winding this way and that through the city on the way to the last checkpoint at the University of Manitoba. The sidewalks and trails were fairly busy with civilians running, walking, walking their dogs, even riding bikes. Everyone I encountered gave me a nice smile and a wave, except the dogs. Abruptly, #36 reappeared at the far end of a long straightaway. Knowing that we had the checkpoint and then another half hour of riding before the finish, I didn’t try too hard to catch him, but gradually he drifted back to me. Fittingly I finally caught him at a stoplight where we waited in futility for the light to change. I had definitely never had to wait at a stoplight in a fatbike race. He said he’d finished the race on foot a couple times, but that riding wasn’t easier – “just faster.” Finally we decided to cross against the interminable red, and a few minutes later we reached the last checkpoint.
Another racer was there when we arrived, #37, a guy who’d dropped me after the Crystal Springs checkpoint hours before. He was riding a fatbike with drop handlebars, which struck me as perhaps the ideal machine for this wacky race. Could I bounce out of the checkpoint fast enough to steal two spots? No; as I headed out both #36 and #37 left too. We rode together in some places, apart in others, as we left the university campus, crossed the Red River, and headed north through what my computer said were the last ten miles of the race.
I had no desire to get in front of #36 and #37, since they seemed to know where they were going. #36 said we were nearly to the park where we would drop down onto the river itself. We would have something like 5 kilometers to go from that point. More streets and paths, another bridge over the Red River, and then we hooked into a little park over the river. Pedestrians had worn a path down the steep riverbank onto the ice, and we plunged down, #36 leading me and #37 just behind me.
Amazing. The river was spectacularly wide, and down the middle ran two groomed trails, one cleaned to the bare ice for skaters, the other covered with a thin layer of snow for walkers, runners, and cyclists and quite a few dogs wearing neon booties. Hundreds and hundreds of people were on the river, doing all those things or just hanging out on benches on the median between the lanes. I nosed alongside #36, said I wanted to go a little faster, and headed up the ice trail. My rear wheel slipped here and there on the ice, but the snow provided just enough traction that I could easily pedal at 12, 14, 16 mph – far faster than I usually finish a race!
#37 came up around me, down on his bars and working hard. I hung with him for a while, drafting, then moved up beside him, now ahead of him. I realized that the red flags on the median were marking kilometers. We’d just passed 4, and here came 3 already. My legs were burning. I wanted to see if #37 was still with me, but given the ice underneath and the innumerable pedestrians all around, I couldn’t risk a glance back. Crashing on a perfectly flat part of the race and wiping out a bunch of Canadian kids would not be a good way to finish!
On the bench at kilometer marker 2, a hipster was smoking a joint. A strange thing to smell at the end of a race. I could see a bridge looming ahead, the one that marked the official finish line. The crowds thickened around the 1k marker, and more stuff crowded the ice: some sort of museum exhibit, playground equipment, vendors’ kiosks…
I started seeing little spots of light and wished I could see my heart rate on my computer. My pulse was ridiculously loud in my ears. The bridge came toward me. Throngs of people now. Music. The smell of food. I started looking for a finish line or banner, but no: nothing except the shadow of the bridge on the ice. I rode all the way through the shadow and slowed to a stop. #37 was still coming, but I’d reached the bridge first. 4:07 p.m. – not even nine hours of riding! How humane.
I pedaled slowly toward the ramp that led up from the river to the race HQ at a restaurant complex overlooking the point where the Assiniboine River flowed into the Red. #37 caught up to me as we climbed up to the street level. We wove through the pedestrians and hunted down the race HQ. When we found it, we pulled up and got off our bikes, exchanging well-dones. A little boy sitting nearby looked up at me and asked, “Why is your face covered in ice?” I told him I’d just finished a bike race. Some volunteers came out when they saw us and held the doors so we could roll our bikes inside.
There we got a nice round of applause and our trophies – for me, one for finishing the Actif Epica and another for finishing the Tuscobia, the Arrowhead, and the AE in the same winter and thus entering the “Order of the Hrimthurs.” Sure, why not!
#36 came in a few minutes later, and then Mark. The timekeepers announced our places – Mark in 8th, #36 in 7th, #37 in 6th, and me in 5th. I was amazed and pleased – proof that the good feeling I’d had in the first half of the Arrowhead was no fluke. I hope next winter’s racing is as fun and successful as this winter’s. Only a few months till then!
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.
Twenty-four hours from now, I should be fairly far down the Arrowhead course, well into my attempt to finish for the fifth time. The race starts in International Falls at 7 a.m. Central time on Monday, January 29. As usual, the race can be followed through Trackleaders, though also as usual not everyone is carrying a tracking device, so it’s hard to tell exactly who’s winning! The Arrowhead’s Facebook page should provide updates on the winners and maybe on other finishers.
I woke up on Saturday with a nervous flutter in my stomach, thinking about an anxiety dream I’d had overnight in which I was racing, but stopping frequently to retrieve weird items from the bag on the front of my bike. I tamped down my nerves by finishing my preparations: packing my clothes, buying a last few food items, testing my stove, and of course checking the forecast. It felt good to check off all the items on my to-do list!
Conditions appear to be good for a fast year, with temps of about -10º F at the start of the race, about +5º F through the afternoon of the first day, and then -10º F or so again overnight into Tuesday, by which time I hope to be near the finish line at Fortune Bay Casino in Tower. This Arrowhead will be my tenth winter ultra race, and if I finish, it’ll be my eighth finish in those ten events. Beyond my goal of simply finishing again, I would love to be able to beat my average time, 24:19.
I had hoped for a a 24-hour finish at Tuscobia 160 in December, though, too, and missed it by 9 hours! I chalked that up partly to a lack of bike fitness (now, far less a concern!) and partly to the extreme cold, which led me to spend a ridiculous amount of time at the checkpoints. I can’t idle at the checkpoints at the Arrowhead, though, as I’m racing in the unsupported category, which means that I have to carry all my own food and drink and that I can’t go into any of the checkpoints to rest or warm up. I finished unsupported last year, but in far warmer conditions.
I’m not worried about getting too cold, since it’s surprisingly easy to stay warm even at -10º (or maybe not surprisingly, having logged about 500 miles of racing at 0º F or lower), but I do need to be careful about food and drink. I’m carrying about 8,000 calories with me. This should be far more than I can actually consume at a rate of 200 calories an hour, but I know from experience that I need a wide variety of stuff to eat. In addition to about 160 ounces of a high-calorie energy drink, then, I’m bringing candy bars, energy gels, corn chips, cashews, oatmeal-peanut butter bars, pepperoni, and even some soup that I can prepare on my stove. I anticipate needing to stop at least a few times to boil some snow into water, as the low temperatures might slushify or even freeze the spare reservoir of nutrition drink I’ll carry in my seatbag. I’m pretty sure that the drink will defrost once I get it into my backpack, but in the meantime I may need to drink some fresh, pure northwoods snow!
Beyond these considerations of food and drink, I’m feeling ready for the challenge. I lost eight pounds after the Tuscobia and haven’t gained them back yet, so I’ll be eight pounds lighter on the Arrowhead trail than I was last year! More seriously, I am very confident in my kit (all the same clothes I’ve used successfully for three straight winters now), my gear (all the equipment that I’ve also been using for years), and especially my bike, which has not failed me yet! Here’s to 135 more miles in the snowy woods with the Buffalo.
Today Shannon and I had the privilege of attending the funeral for our longtime neighbor, Mary Erickson, who died last Saturday at age 95.
As her obituary shows, Mary was a wonderful person, someone who exuded calm and quiet happiness. She was a devout Christian, and the sermon at her funeral made clear that she lived her faith in an exemplary way. We experienced that in her exceptional generosity. She stopped over frequently to drop off books for Shannon (though fortysomething stay-at-home moms don’t necessarily enjoy all the same books as octogenarian widows!), magazines for me (she loved National Geographic and knew I did too), and many gifts for the girls, from birthday and Christmas presents to random things she thought they’d enjoy – dolls, books, even an entire toy house that they indeed loved.
She was also an amazingly active and tough old woman. Well into her eighties, she was still gardening, filling bird feeders, and retrieving her own garbage bins. I fondly recall how she was a bit embarrassed when I or another neighbor would shovel her sidewalk. And even past 90, she’d come out to her driveway to watch the girls shoot baskets, clapping when they made an especially good shot.
After hearing that she’d died, I realized that Mary was our neighbor for longer than any other neighbor I’ve ever had – eight years. We’ll remember her beautiful kindness for much longer than that.
Monday, January 22, is the start of the last week before the fourteenth annual Arrowhead 135. This year’s race will be my fifth. So far I’ve completed all four of the Arrowheads I’ve entered, and I hope to earn finish number five this year.
Five years is half a decade, which seems like a long time to be invested in this event. As I finish my preparation for the 2018 race (checking the forecast, drinking a lot of water, checking the forecast, packing my gear, checking the forecast, getting good sleep), I am thinking about how naïve and lucky I was in 2014, my rookie year, when the race was run in -20° temperatures. I did the only thing I’m good at – not giving up – and finished seventh in 29:09.
That race hooked me on fatbike racing, and I’ve since raced in eight more long-distance fatbike races: three more Arrowheads (finishing each one faster than that first), three Fat Pursuits (one finish, two DNFs), and two Tuscobias (two finishes). At this year’s Tuscobia, I accumulated my 1,108th mile and 247th hour of fatbike ultra racing.
As those totals (and the many, many more miles and hours of training that lie underneath them) suggest, the winter ultras have become a very important part of my life. The races themselves are highlights of the last five years, and really of my current life. Racing has taken me to some amazing and beautiful and scary places, both literal (Mount Two Top outside West Yellowstone, Montana, or the endless midnight-forest hills before the third checkpoint at the Arrowhead) and figurative (the mind-bent existence of racing for 20, 30, 50 hours straight). The work of getting and staying ready for the races has become permanent – a way of living, I guess. Some of the people I’ve met at the races are now among my closest friends, and many more are great folks I enjoy knowing. (A few, I could do without!) And I probably cherish my fatbike, the Buffalo, more than any other possession I’ve ever had.
With seven days to go till the start of the 2018 Arrowhead, then, I’m reflecting on all this and trying to recapture some of the beginner’s mind that I didn’t know I had in 2014. I want to approach this race with less expectation than the last few, when I’ve aimed for particular results; some came to pass, some didn’t. Too, I want to approach this race with more gratitude than usual: gratitude for race officials and volunteers who stage these crazy events under very trying circumstances, for the fellow racers who make the training and competing fun even when it isn’t, for a body and mind that (partly by accident, partly by intention) match up well with the demands of the events, for a family that lets me engage in this pursuit, for non-racing friends who seem to enjoy following the events online, and yeah for that gorgeous bike.
This year, I’m racing the Arrowhead in the “unsupported” category again, meaning that I can’t use any of the services at the three race checkpoints (shelter, warmth, water, food). I tackled the race this way last year and everything went (mostly) fine. With colder temperatures forecast this year than last, staying hydrated will be a bigger task, since my spare water might freeze, but I’ll carry a lot to drink and be prepared to melt snow if needed. Having competed successfully in three very cold races, my kit and body should be fine at temperatures around 0° F. Even writing this out makes me feel more comfortable with the challenge, and eager to get after it again! Now it’s just the wait until the fireworks at the start at 7 a.m. on Monday the 29th.
Last weekend’s Tuscobia winter ultra in central Wisconsin was a tough event, a solid challenge, and, after 33 hours of racing, a satisfying accomplishment – 9th place out of 14 finishers (and 34 starters).
A week out from the start of the 160-mile bike race, I knew that I lacked the fitness to go fast. The night before the race, I could see that the conditions were going to be cold, slow, and demanding. The forecast called for temperatures below 0º F during the entire weekend of the race, though not for much wind (thank the goddess!) and no snow (too cold!).
Since I could not do anything to improve either my condition or the conditions, I prepared for a long ride from Rice Lake to Park Falls and back, packing extra food and clothes and making my usual decision to not give up unless I was in danger. I respected but didn’t fear the temperatures, having thrived in two other cold races: my first Arrowhead in 2014 and last winter’s Fat Pursuit. I’d finished that Arrowhead in 7th place and raced well through the cold of the FP, so I figured I could handle what the Tuscobia was offering.
The start at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday was, as promised, cold as hell – around -15º F – but welcome, too. Once the 30-some bikers in the 160-mile race started rolling north out of Rice Lake along the spur to the Tuscobia State Trail, which runs 76 miles to Park Falls, I warmed up quickly and easily, even unzipping my outer layer within a few miles. As always in these races, the first miles are marked with numerous racers stopping to adjust clothes, to eat or drink, to tweak their bikes or gear, or just to wonder why the hell we were out there. I soon made the turn off the spur and onto the Tuscobia trail proper.
A short jaunt on the trail the day before had been my first real ride on snow all season, but all the usual feelings came back right away: how to read the snow and find the best surface, how to hold the narrow line along the shoulder of trail, how to steer through loose snow, how to gauge whether my tires were at the right pressure for the snow. I got lucky there: I had found a good pressure and wound up not needing to make another adjustment.
I ate and drank as needed, though I made the rookie error of letting the hose to my hydration reservoir freeze, requiring me to bury it deeper into my clothes so it would defrost. I had a HydroFlask full of hot water, though, so I didn’t have to skimp on fluids while the hose thawed. Strangely, I did feel sleepy just after the sun came up, a moment in a race when I usually feel energized. I stopped and drank half a slushy Red Bull – only half because even as I drank, the other half froze solid.
Other riders criticize the Tuscobia for being “boring” or “uninteresting,” and while I can agree that Tuscobia doesn’t offer the mountains of the Fat Pursuit in Idaho or the rolling forests of the Arrowhead 135 in northern Minnesota, I love the simplicity of the straight, flat course, a rails-to-trails corridor. You can see up the trail for seeming ever, and breaks in the routine leap out at you: snowmobilers (few and far between in the frigid weather), intersections with roads and other trails, some farms and a few towns (a rarity in fatbike races), the occasional dip in the flatness, and, yes, some beautiful views, like this hoarfrosted swamp about halfway to the first checkpoint:
(Thanks to fellow racer James Kiffmeyer for the photo.)
One strange aspect of the race this year was the lack of animals, even in open spots like this. I saw a few juncos in one town and a big lazy bald eagle soaring near the Chippewa River, a wide black stream that the race crosses not far before the first checkpoint, a stop around mile 45 in Ojibwa Park near the obnoxiously well-named town of Winter. The race actually passes through Ojibwa twice: once on the way out and once on the way back at mile 115, after the turnaround checkpoint in Park Falls at mile 80. I had hoped and planned to spend less than one total hour in the three checkpoints, but this plan evaporated like sweat on race day.
As I approached Ojibwa around noon, after six hours of solid riding, I knew I’d need to stop there long enough to completely warm up and dry out. I was already well off my 2016 race pace and I still hadn’t seen a temperature above zero, so I had no reasons to skimp on rest. I wound up spending 50 minutes there, long enough to dry my outer clothes, to warm up, and to eat about a quart of soup.
I admit: I did not enjoy the first few minutes back outside after the warmth of the checkpoint. Though now “only” zero or so, the air felt solid, an invisible block of ice. I pedaled hard up the track back to the trail and then toward Park Falls, trying to warm up. A runner – just out for a jog, not a racer – came toward me, and she gave me a big wave and “Way to go!” as we met. Her braids were tipped with frost. The encouragement settled me back down for the haul to Park Falls.
One interesting and even fun aspect of Tuscobia is that the event is actually six overlapping races: a big group of runners and skiers start the full 160-mile course on Friday morning, 24 hours before the full-distance bikers start; most of them are on the second leg of the course by the time the full-distance bikers start on Saturday morning. And a few hours after we start rolling, an even bigger group of bikers, runners, and skiers start an 80-mile race in Park Falls. The leaders of the 80-mile bike race hit Ojibwa as I was preparing to leave, and from there all the way to Park Falls, I encountered riders and runners (but only one skier!) every few minutes. It was fun to call out encouragement to them and to greet the few I could recognize, like my friends Mark and Tim. I even started to see some of the 160-mile riders on the way back home, including my pal Ben Doom, who dominated the race to win by nearly an hour. He was charging when I saw him, out of the saddle, but still had the energy to give me a shout and hold out a hand for a high five.
The closer I got to Park Falls, though, the less happy the racers looked, though, and around dusk, with the town’s skyglow in the distance, I met a few runners who were out-and-out disgusted. I helped one woman retrieve a mitten she’d dropped and commiserated about the cold with another, but tried to keep my own feelings about the conditions to myself.
I had yet to feel cold, apart from a couple moments when I’d stopped for a nutrition or nature break and the frigid air had wrapped around me like a frozen blanket. Each time, getting myself back underway warmed up everything again, even my hands, which – apart from my face, coated in iced-over whiskers – were the only parts of my body that really got chilled, and then only when I had to take them out of the big, warm pogies on my handlebars. Overall, I was comfortable and happy, pedaling steadily, joggling my fingers and toes to keep them warm, eating or drinking as needed, enjoying the view up the trail.
I did think a lot about why this kind of racing attracts me, when it breaks some who also love it and of course repels so many others. Looking down the snowy trail, I talked to myself about this. Having done eight winter ultra races before the Tuscobia, I was pretty sure that I have some sort of physiological advantage: my body runs hot, keeping me from getting as cold as other people, and functions well while cold. Maybe this is the genetic endowment of generations of Northern European forebears, a result of my childhood in a snowy, cold place, or just a freak thing.
I also think I also have some sort of psychological advantage: I don’t mind being cold when I am cold, and I like the challenge of figuring out how to get warm again, or to function while cold. I hesitate to use the word toughness, since I think that it’s really more a willingness to adjust to the cold, but I do challenge myself by asking – as I did pedaling down the Tuscobia trail – whether or not I was going to be tougher than the cold.
And then there’s an aesthetic component, too: I think that winter is beautiful, and best enjoyed by being out in it, ideally for long periods. Ultras are the best way I’ve found so far to immerse myself in winter and to see if I can handle its challenges.
Dusk was one of those challenges. The sun setting behind me seemed to slow me down, making it a little harder to get to Park Falls. More than once in the last ten miles to the turnaround, I mistook a road crossing or a lit-up house in the woods for town (and once, a tall evergreen for the town water tower), but I really did reach the trailhead around 7 p.m. – 13 hours into the race. A few turns on the city streets brought me to the checkpoint, at the nice little Park Falls Gastropub in downtown P.F.
Volunteers there set me up with food and drink, which I ingested while chatting with two civilian customers who could not quite understand what the race was all about. They seemed confused by the fact that no cash prizes were on offer. I didn’t mention that the main “prize” for finishing is a hat.
After I finished my food, I broke away from them to go up to the racers’ lounge, where I could rest a bit more and dry my gear. While draping my stuff over a chair in front of a tiny little old space heater, I saw that my friend Tom was there too. He and I had ridden together for almost all of my first Tuscobia, so we knew we were compatible and agreed to head out together. Though I enjoy riding alone, I thought the company would be nice, especially through the darkest and coldest overnight stretch of the race.
While my outer layers slowly dried in front of the underpowered heater, I armored up for the night: new compression socks, new wool socks, second baselayer tights and top, a dry buff. I felt unpleasantly plump and overheated while we finished preparing to head out, but I hoped they’d provide the extra warmth I’d need overnight. After a bit over two hours at the checkpoint, I headed out, Tom right behind me.
I was a little scared as we left the checkpoint. My GPS computer showed a temperature that was as low as anything I’d seen so far in the race, and of course the overnight temps would go lower. And while I enjoy riding at night, the cold made the prospect of riding for nine hours in the blackness seem more daunting than usual. The big warm-seeming orange moon hanging in the sky behind us didn’t help, nor did hearing creaks and ticks from my bike, the Buffalo, which had so far run flawlessly. The deep cold slowed the action of my brakes and shifter, making me worry about a breakdown. How could I handle a broken chain at twenty below? I decided I’d handle it carefully. Luckily, I had no mechanicals at all. The Buffalo loves the cold.
Then there were the mileposts on the left edge of the trail. Not every mile had one, but enough did that they both enticed and oppressed: 76 miles to go, 75 miles to go, 74… I had to keep adding the additional four miles for the spur back to Rice Lake and to do the mental math to put the race and our effort in context. At 25 miles, the afternoon before, the race had turned to “only” the distance of the Arrowhead – 135 miles. Just before the Ojibwa checkpoint, the distance had been a double metric century – 200 kilometers or 124 miles. Somewhere between Ojibwa and Park Falls, at 60 miles, the race had become a regular century – 100 miles. As we worked our way to Ojibwa for the second time, we reached the 62-miles-to-go marker – a metric century or 100k.
Tom and I stopped probably once an hour to eat and drink, to break the monotony or warm the extremities by walking for a minute or two, to pee (never have I needed so many nature breaks in a race!), or to just stand and talk for a minute. Once I stopped because I was falling asleep on my bike. When I told Tom that I was feeling really tired, he offered me two caffeine pills. Feeling like a junkie, I accepted them and was rewarded about fifteen minutes later by a magical surge of warmth and energy. I’ll definitely carry my own caffeine pills in future races.
Regardless of the reason, we could never stop for long: the -20º temperatures gripped us instantly and had to be endured for the time needed to unzip and rezip, to tear open a peanut butter cup and stow the wrapper, to swallow a mouthful of water. I’d need ten minutes of hard riding to warm up from each minute-long stop. Every now and then, but less often that I expected, we came on another racer. “You good? Need anything? Keep it up.” We talked a little bit to each other too, but I am not a chatty rider, so we mostly rode in silence. And anyhow my beard had iced up so thoroughly by midnight that I could barely open my mouth wide enough to speak. From our spot on the trail, we could only see a high strip of black sky, but even that ribbon contained thousands of bright stars.
We did talk about what to do at Ojibwa. As much as I would have liked to get in and out quickly, I knew I felt tired and hungry enough to need a real break. How about an hour of sitting down and of not pedaling and of eating and drinking new stuff? Tom thought this sounded fine too, so when around 3:30 a.m. the checkpoint sign appeared ahead of me on the trail – looking at first like a car parked on the trail – we turned eagerly. Inside, we set our clothes to warm by the fire, ate some of the junk food piled on the table, refilled our backpack reservoirs and water bottles, and then accidentally fell asleep. I dunno how long we slept, but when I came to, almost everyone else was asleep too – racers, volunteers, even the race director.
Tom woke up a minute later and we got ourselves moving. While he tended to some last-minute tasks, I visited the restroom, where the toilet seat was rimmed with icicles. My bike computer showed a temperature of -25º as climbed back on the bike at 6:30 a.m. for the last 45 miles of the race. Less than a half century! An easy afternoon’s ride under normal circumstances.
Thinking Tom was ready too I sprinted back toward the trail, out of my saddle and working hard to build speed and heat. When I looked back a few minutes later, expecting to see Tom right behind me, I saw nothing. I soft-pedaled a bit to see if he’d appear, but even that decrease in effort let the chill creep through my clothes. Get back on the pedals, trying to make progress but still let Tom catch up from wherever he was.
Then all of a sudden his lights washed over me from behind. I apologized for dropping him, trying to explain that I thought I’d seen him on his bike as climbed on mine. I think I heard him say that he hadn’t quite been ready, but that he hadn’t been worried or mad either. And at any rate now we were back together for the duration. The sun rose behind us, which helped dispel some of my fatigue and even started pushing the temperature up toward zero.
In the daylight – New Year’s Eve! – I recognized some of the same landmarks I had seen the day before. The Chippewa River crossing, with steam rising off the water. A smaller river that ran alongside the trail for miles. This or that desolate road crossing. This or that cluster of silos at a dairy farm. A sad-looking roadside bar. The scary-fun descent to the railroad tracks near Lemington, and then the grunt climb back up from them. Warning! Trains are moving at 60 mph!
In that magical way that they always do, the miles kept ticking by: the number on my bike computer kept climbing, and the numbers on the mileposts kept falling. Occasionally riding next to me or even in front, Tom said he wanted to stop at Birchwood, the biggest town on the course, for one last rest before the push to the finish. I agreed, both because I too wanted a little more time off the bike and because I needed to call my hotel in Rice Lake and beg them to let me check out far later than planned.
We reached Birchwood – bluegill capital of Wisconsin! – just before noon. A few other racers and volunteers were sitting heavily at tables inside a huge convenience store. I made my call and was relieved to hear I could just show up whenever; no problem. A machine-made cappuccino looked and tasted fantastic. We chatted with the other guys. I ordered french fries that looked amazing but tasted terrible. After too much idle time, we got back on the trail for the last 15 or 20 miles.
The rest of the course ran steadily downhill to Rice Lake after passing over some rollers that would be insignificant in any other race (and indeed that I had not even noticed on the way out) but that today, now, felt like Himalayas. I set for myself the dumb goal of riding all these “hills,” and nearly did – a bad gear choice forced me to walk part of the first one. But then I got back on my bike and started riding again.
The miles remaining were in the teens now, and the temperature had broken zero for the first time all race. As we came to the wetland that had been so beautifully frosted the morning before, a white-tailed deer jumped onto the trail, looked at me with disbelief, and started running easily up the trail ahead of me. It stopped at the far edge of the wetland, saw that I was still coming, and plunged back off the trail into the brush. I could only just see the top of its head as we passed.
We also encountered some other trail users: runners making their own slow progress back to Rice Lake. Tom and I had been seeing them here and there for a while, but now we started seeing more – on some straightaways, four or five of them. Some heard us coming and moved over. Others jumped in surprise when we passed, so deep in their efforts that they hadn’t heard our bikes or greetings. We didn’t stop for any of them, but I tried to encourage each one. The poor bastards would need three times longer than Tom and me to cover the remaining distance.
The mileposts started showing single-digit numbers. I kept adding the additional four miles for the spur, but then even that additional distance added up to less than 10 miles. Fueled by the food at Birchwood, warmed by the afternoon sun, enjoying the oh-so-slight downhill, and now sensing the finish line, we were moving at 8, 9, 10 mph. 90 minutes to go. 60 to go. 30 minutes. Milepost 2.
I knew from my pre-ride on Friday and from the outbound ride that we would shortly reach a sharp, tricky dip where erosion had narrowed the trail. I could see a runner ahead of me. He disappeared, and my fuzzy brain figured that he had gone down into the dip. A moment later I reached the lip of it, and sure enough the runner there, trudging up the far side. I yelled to him and zoomed down and back up, passing him narrowly and getting out of my saddle to keep the speed going so I wouldn’t have to walk this last slope.
I popped out on the far crest and suddenly felt like mashing the pedals. 5 miles to go – half an hour if I really pushed, less if I really, really pushed. I stayed up on my pedals until my quads couldn’t take it, then downshifted to try to maintain the same speed while seated. I heard traffic – cars on the highway parallel to the spur to the finish line. I glanced back for Tom, but he wasn’t there.
I zipped over the highway, turned left down the spur into town, glanced back again. Tom was just approaching the highway. Slow down for him? I couldn’t. I needed to be done. Standing or sitting, I tried to keep my speed as high as my legs would allow. Cars buzzed along the highway to my left. I bumped up and down and up and down over the berms of snow at each road crossing. I noted that I might be able to finish by 3 p.m., 33 hours after the start. A dumb goal, but why not? A junkyard. The city limits sign. And the finish line! I dutifully rode over the line itself and then turned, elated and exhausted, toward the race headquarters. As if on cue, the race director came outside to greet me. A handshake. An escort into the bright warmth of the HQ. Applause from everyone inside. A cold beer. The finisher’s hat. A chair to sit in after 32:57 of racing.