Arrowhead IV – Fast Until It Wasn’t

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

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

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

And we were off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surly Sign by Pamela Gonzalez
I did! I do!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only 363 days to wait…

Sunday Balling

Today the girls both played in a massive basketball tournament hosted at, apparently, every public-school facility in Lakeville. With each girl playing three games at three different sites, we had to rent a car to ensure parental coverage of all the games. Since I’d missed a tournament while out west, I was selected to go watch Julia’s three games, while Shannon stayed with Genevieve.

I’ve been surprised at how much  watching the girls’ games wracks my nerves. Something about the team sport and the gyms (and the other parents) agitates me much more than either watching the girls at tae kwon do or riding bikes with them. And but so, I was thrilled to see that Julia – and her “C” level team of mostly novices – have improved by leaps and bounds in the last couple months. #5 played actively on both offense and defense and, to my happiness, mixed it up quite a bit – going after loose balls, grabbing the ball to force jump balls, even fouling an opponent. 

And! Owing to some missing players and to the need to make sure the “B” team was competitive in its games, Julia’s team had just seven players for their first game, five for their second, and six for their third. This meant that Julia got tons of playing time, including all 28 minutes of both the second and third games. The third, “friendship” game was a tight one in which the girls – visibly exhausted from the previous two games – first overcame a four-point deficit and then held a four-point lead all the way to the horn. The exhausted girls were elated to eke out the much-deserved win.

Snow Crush!

I had a good time today volunteering at the Snow Crush fatbike race sponsored by F-Town Brewing in Faribault. Our local mountain biking club, CROCT, helped stage the event, which we held on the gorgeous trails at River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. We wound up getting about 80 racers across three divisions – a third more than last year!

Though I would have loved to be out on the trails, cranking, I enjoyed working at the finish line with my fellow CROTC members Aleasha and Kevin, counting racers’ laps and recording finish times. Almost everyone seemed to be having a good time, except maybe the front runners, who were working too hard to enjoy the sun, breeze, and snow. We did get to see a few good wipeouts as racers hit some mashed-potato snow as they headed back out for another lap, but slow-speed fatbike crashes are more hilarious than dangerous. 

Though laughs just added to the pleasure of spending two hours outside in bluebird conditions. Any time I can spend two hours outside in bluebird conditions, I’ll take it! I’d love to get back to River Bend sometime soon to ride the trails myself.

CROCT member Jim Wellbrock took this great shot of the fast guys coming down the gravel pit hill, just one of dozens of great pictures in his full collection of race photos.

Leaders on the Gravel Pit Hill (photo by Jim Wellbrock)

Night Ride 

With the Fat Pursuit and the Arrowhead rapidly approaching (70 days and 94 days away, respectively), I’ve been feeling the need to get out for some long rides. So far this fall, though, a heavy workload at the office and plenty of activities at home have made all-day outings impossible, so Friday I did the next best thing by going out after dinner for a few hours on the gravel roads.

Riding gravel roads in the dark is wonderful, especially on an unseasonable night like Friday – 60° F, an insistent but not harsh westerly breeze, a touch of humidity. I left home just as the sun set behind me, calling out for a picture or two. A stop to adjust my seat height – when did I acquire the unwelcome ability to feel that my saddle is too high or low based on the shorts I’m wearing? – and tweak the angle of some new grips. 


Soon afterwards, I was in full dark, riding toward the white spot of road illuminated by my headlight. First more east, waving to a cyclist hiding behind his own headlight as he headed back toward town. Then some south paralleling the county line, waving to the cars and trucks I met, dropping into low spots where cool wet air had pooled, climbing up to ridges where the breeze warmed me. All around, I could see yellow, white, red lights at dozens of farms. Interior lights spilling through picture windows. A bonfire, the smoke almost more felt than smelled. 

A turn to the west onto pavement for a passage through a tiny farm town, dark but loud with machinery at the grain elevator. 


Then back onto gravel, passing the state park and the first deer, timidly watching from the trees from the far side of the ditch. A cat, sitting by a mailbox post. An easy downhill curve that the darkness turned into a mountain pass. A slow, tentative lap around the MTB trails at the county park – tricky to ride with only the headlight and a fading headlamp. Stopped at the high point, I could hears cows lowing, horses neighing, dogs barking, coyotes yipping. The night was really alive. Back on the bike, I found Gut Check Bridge downright scary: wet, banked, downhill. 


After the park, one last westerly section, then northeast up a long, steady climb through a gorgeous stand of hardwoods. Some unseen dogs yapping angrily at me. More deer. Legs burning now from the gym at noon, from 2.5 hours of riding, from an empty stomach. 

North now, back toward town. The last big climb, past a dead deer, gnawed open by night creatures. Another cat, darting away. The rollers on the straight drag back to the city limits. A combine crawling through a cornfield toward two tractor-trailers waiting for its load. The last stretch of gravel, up a hill now crowned with a new tract house, light pouring from every window, people moving around inside. Five minutes later, back inside my own house to stay up too late, buzzing with endorphins and looking forward to the next night ride. 

Happy Birthday, Carleton!

Carleton College was founded on October 12, 1866 – exactly 150 years ago today. Actually, that’s not quite accurate: the institution was founded as “Northfield College” on 10/12/1866; five years later, its trustees renamed the college in honor of a key donor.

Anyhow, the college is celebrating the sesquicentennial of its founding – and its 150 years of history – in a typically low-key but fun way, with events such as a “Town-and-Gown Celebration” in downtown Northfield tomorrow, a convocation on Friday by Minnesota’s favorite humorist Garrison Keillor, a carnival and fair on Saturday, and a little birthday video featuring scores of students, faculty, and staff – including me and my cowlick. I’m talking trash to our bizarre, unofficial, worse-for-wear college symbol, a bust of the German Romantic poet Friedrich Schiller, who has also appeared with Bill Clinton and Stephen Colbert.

Schiller and Tassava
Schiller and Tassava

I’m glad I wore my sesquicentennial button that day!

Quirks like Schiller and birthday videos remind me of other ways that Carleton’s culture has bound me – and, I hope, others who love the institution – to the college. I couldn’t possibly list all the examples that have come up in the eleven years that I’ve worked at 1 North College Street (7.33% of the college’s lifetime!), but for me, the deal was sealed in summer 2006, when the college held a farewell party for a wonderful but falling-down piece of outdoor sculpture called Twigonometry. (Anyone interested in public art should check out the gallery of photos of the piece in its prime.) Twigonometry stood gorgeously and mysteriously at the north end of the Bald Spot, where kids like toddler Julia could wander through its chambers and arches, swirling in an organically alien way:

Julia and Twigonometry
Julia and Twigonometry

What kind of place holds a farewell party for a four-year-old sculpture made from branches and twigs? The kind of place that I hope lasts another 150 years.

Sweaty Fun at the Red Wing Classic 

What: the Red Wing Classic race, event #4 in the Minnesota Mountain Bike Series


Where: the Memorial Park trails above Red Wing, MN

When: July 10, 2016

Why: To try a “short” mountain bike race! I decided to enter the “comp” class to get the most time out there – three laps of a decently tough 6.1 mile course. 

Who: my Salsa El Mariachi, the Coyote.

My best gear was my tire setup: Bontrager XR2s, tubeless. Good stuff. 

My worst gear was my sense of balance, which betrayed me on a tricky off-camber turn early in lap 1, causing a bad crash that screwed up my right hand for a while. 

The low points were

  1. when I crashed,
  2. when I got so badly dehydrated on lap 1 that I started seeing stars, which were only chased off by pounding three cups of cold water, and 
  3. When I reached the infamous Stairway to Heaven climb on each lap, a steep, straight, rocky bastard. I had to walk it each time. 

The high point was when, on lap 3, I felt like my legs had come around and that I’d finally gotten a sense of the course. 

It was in the bag when I hit the top of the last climb and knew I had only a few hundred meters to go, finishing in 2:27 for 50th place – third from last and 44 minutes behind the winner. 

The key lesson learned was that going hard for 2 and a half hours is fun but totally different than racing a marathon. 

The takeaway is that these short races should be part of my “off-season” racing schedule. Many are pretty close to Northfield, all are inexpensive compared to marathons, and each (I learned) is quite different from the others. My lap times got longer through the race: 45:25 on lap 1, 49:58 on lap 2, and  52:15 on lap 3. Gotta get faster. 

Note: the photo above is by Todd Bauer, an excellent photographer who covers a lot of bike races! He published a great gallery of photos from the Red Wing Classic, including that shot of me

Lazy Sunday

Today was a near perfect autumn day. Though I’d have liked to have done a hard ride on some local trails, instead I headed out with Julia on a big loop that included a little dirt in the Arboretum

before stopping at the Carleton library (where she checked out two Shakespeare plays – wha?) and then heading downtown to browse the art shop (cardstock for her new greeting-card project slash business) and bookstore ([this book on the famous Lewis chessmen](http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23848067-ivory-vikings) looks great) and get a snack at the coffee shop. Small business Sunday! While doing all that, we chatted about everything: school, work, college, stores, food, biking, being a kid…

On our way home we rode through a street-construction project, which is always good for a little frisson of riding, harmlessly, where you supposedly shouldn’t. Six miles of east, fun, relaxing outdoors time.

Into the Woods

One aspect of cycling that surprises and pleases me is how a bike ride will sometimes – by accident or by subconscious arrangement – bring me to a place I didn’t know I needed to go. Fatbiking has done this figuratively and literally, creating or at least heightening a passion for being in the snow. Riding the Arrowhead literally changed my life.

But this happens often enough on regular old rides too. A mindless drift down a favorite road brings me at just the right moment to a view of a prairie landscape that shocks me with a feeling of being small but in just the right place.

Isaacson Corner
Isaacson Corner

A ride with the girls creates a sense – rare but welcomed – of being possibly okay at parenting.
Lebanon Hills
Lebanon Hills

Or yesterday: a careful plan for a pretty hard training ride delivered me to some wooded trails, just a few miles but a world away from home, that dripped with rain and a feeling of home – of my actual childhood homes in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and my ancestral homes in the woods of eastern Belgium and central Finland. Even barrages of mosquitoes couldn’t detract from my sweaty happiness at being deep in the trees and ferns and mud. 

Caron Park
Caron Park

Custer the Bastard

On our family trip to the Black Hills in South Dakota, I was – but should not have been – surprised by the volume of stuff related to George Armstrong Custer, famous for getting killed with all his men at the Battle of Little Bighorn by a massive Native American army that was, among other goals, fighting the encroachment of white settlers in places like the Black Hills – Ȟe Sápa in Lakota

As it happens, I’d seen T.J. Stiles’ new biography of Custer at the bookstore back home in Northfield, so I picked it up, eager to learn more about this famous figure, whom I only knew as a Civil War officer and an Indian fighter. Understanding Custer as more than those two roles is Stiles’s task and accomplishment. 

Stiles expertly structures the book around a series of “trials” (including several actual trials: courts martial for various offenses) that Custer precipitated and endured over the course of his full but short life. (Custer was only 36 when he was killed and mutilated at what the Indians called “Greasy Grass.”) Beyond Custer’s undeniable skill as a battlefield commander in both the Civil War and in various theaters of the Indian Wars, the man was, in brief, a bastard: a vicious disciplinarian, a philandering husband, an inveterate gambler, a preening dandy, a failed stock speculator, a Confederate sympathizer, an scheming careerist, an out-and-out racist… 

Stiles makes clear that in all these things, Custer was both a product of his times and a producer of them – as everyone is, though not usually to such an extreme and often appalling degree. Custer shaped and was shaped by a rapidly-changing America where what we might call a rugged individual (at least if he was white and male) was being submerged in an increasingly sophisticated, urban, and anonymous society, one more familiar to us, 150 years after Custer’s ignominious death, than the one into which the man had been born.

By the end of the book, I at least was eager to see Custer get what he had coming. And there Stiles dodges, holding Little Bighorn at arm’s length by examining the disaster through an official inquiry into its cause. Fittingly, part of that cause was Custer’s impetuosity and bloodlust: he wanted to exterminate the Indians whom he saw impeding the rightful expansion of the United States. Instead, the Indians forestalled that expansion, at least a little, by exterminating Custer’s force – and in a neat trick of history, assuring that he would never be forgotten.

Grandma Cat, RIP

Grief drove me to spend a couple hours tonight combing our digital photos for the best shots of Sabine, our wonderful grandma cat. I was surprised by how few there were, but the photos we do have are nicely representative of her beauty and calm. “Beaner” was quite a cat, even leaving aside the fact that she lived 21 wonderful years (nearly half my life!).

Sabine was a stray, adopted by Shannon and me with her “brother” Snowshoe (also a stray but not her actual littermate) from a shelter in Chicago. When Shannon and I – newly married – adopted the two cats, we were making a real home for ourselves. In the contract with signed with the shelter, we promised to always keep them both indoors and to never declaw them. We were silly kids, but we kept both of those promises! “Schoobie” died of cancer when he was only five, which felt until tonight like an impossibly painful event. “Beaner” lived another 16 years! I asked her, at the vet’s tonight, to make sure she told Schoobie that we missed him and that we did a good job with her.

The defining aspect of Beanie’s life was being the object of the girls’ inexhaustible love. She sought out their love, and paid them back richly. Genevieve, especially, enjoyed a special bond with Sabine, whom she called by a million names, including “Benobi.” How many hours did Sabine spend with Julia and Genevieve on the sofa, snuggling into a blanket or draped over their laps?

She was a surpassingly gentle cat. I can’t remember her ever being truly angry, except when I trimmed her claws. And even then, she relaxed when Vivi would help me by cooing to her and stroking her back. She loved peace and quiet and sunbeams. Like most cats, but more so.

In the last couple years, as life with not-little kids calmed down, Sabine made a point each morning to come over to where I was eating breakfast and paw at my leg, reminding me that she wanted some of the milk from my cereal. I’m sorry that I wasn’t always patient with her begging, but I always gave her my leftover milk, which she happily slurped up. She often then waited at the door to the garage to go and inspect the situation there – but not if it was too cold. She liked to lick the spokes on the girls’ bicycles, bizarrely. Back inside, especially in these last few years of her life, she would find a sunny spot in the living room and make herself comfortable as I was leaving for work.

Even more than those weekday mornings, Sabine and I enjoyed each other’s company every evening, after the rest of the household went to bed. She and I had a little routine. When I came downstairs after saying goodnight to the girls around 8:30, she’d expect me to top off her food bowl. Then she’d sit with me or maybe sleep behind the TV in her “nest.” If I had a snack, she’d come over to check it out, dipping her paw in my water glass, licking salty chips if I looked away, and enjoying the last shreds of cheese from my nachos. Around 10, she’d come back for her bedtime snack, which I’d give her in the utility room, where she’d sleep overnight. If I fell asleep on the sofa or simply forgot, she’d politely come over from wherever she was and tap me on the knee or chin with a reminder. God how I’ll miss all of our evenings together, but god how I’ll treasure the memory of them.

March Gladness

The girls love playing basketball, which is great, and that love of playing it has lately extended into loving to watch it too. We attended a bunch of Northfield high-school games this winter and even went to Minneapolis to see a Timberwolves game in February.

This week, they’ve been getting into the NCAA men’s tournament, which they both simply call “Marchmadness,” as if it were actually a different sport than basketball. We filled out tournament brackets, which was fun and a little bit educational, and have watched bits of a few first-round games, including both of the overtime periods that Little Rock needed to beat Purdue.

All day today, I looked forward to sitting on the sofa tonight with the girls and watching whatever game came on. In one of those all-too-rare cases of parenting where the reality matches the expectation, we did just that, taking in Stephen F. Austin’s upset of West Virginia. The game was full of hard defense, good shooting by SFA’s amazingly-bearded Thomas Walkup

Mar 18, 2016; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks forward Thomas Walkup (middle) drives to the basket against West Virginia Mountaineers players Elijah Macon (45) , Esa Ahmad (23) and Jonathan Holton (1) in the first half in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks forward Thomas Walkup. March 18, 2016; Brooklyn, NY, USA; mandatory credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

and enough steals by SFA to make WVU look like tourists who had wandered into a pickpockets’ convention. We also had an unnecessary bowl of popcorn, some fizzy drinks, and lots of crazy conversation. It was a blast.

Parenting by Bike

If there is one downside to my love of winter cycling – and there isn’t – it would be that my girls can’t join me out on the snowy trails. So as bummed as I am to see winter go (especially a short, mild winter like this one), I’m equally happy to go riding again with the girls, and even more so after we had so much fun last summer.

My spring cycling fever spiked on Friday when I learned that Northfield’s in-town mountain bike trails were scheduled to open for the season on Saturday.

But! When I told the girls this news, Julia said that she was too nervous to ride the trails again – and specifically that she was afraid of falling off the bridges at the trail. (This happened once last year, so it’s a semi-real fear.) I didn’t say much except that I hoped she’d change her mind, and went riding by myself on Saturday.

Sure enough, this morning she announced that she did indeed want to go riding – which made Genevieve upset because she couldn’t come along, being already committed to going to a party. Kids!

I calmed Vivi down by promising to take them next weekend to a nearby mountain bike park (what a burden!), and then Julia and I hit the trails.
Shooting the gap

She did great, riding the bridges without any problems and re-conquering several features that she’d learned last year. She even insisted on posing for a picture:
Semi-scenic overlook

Altogether we rode ten miles in about 90 minutes, which is a great first outing of the season. In addition to the planned trip to other trails next weekend, we decided at dinner to sign up for a short gravel race near Northfield in May, and are thisclose to convincing the non-cyclist in the family to let them do a MTB race in the fall. Yay bikes!

Shoulder Season

I feel, I think, the same way about the end of winter that many people do about its start: a little depressed, kinda crabby, grouchy about the change in scenery.

With spring now on the way – early, in my view, and tentatively, in all likelihood- I am nonetheless trying to find some beauty in the melt and gray and muck. These two views of the same field east of town do include some things worth looking at.

Looking West

Looking South

A Good Winter’s Riding

My winter of racing ended with Saturday’s Fatbike Frozen Forty race at the Elm Creek trails in Champlin, Minnesota. I did this race in 2013 (my first-ever fatbike race) and in 2014, and found 40+ miles of snowy singletrack to be just a little beyond my abilities. This year I did the race as a relay with my friend Dan, who’s new to fatbiking but is a killer on the trails. Alternating our laps, we turned in some insanely consistent times: Dan did our first and third laps in 1:11.01 and 1:11.02 respectively; I did laps two and four in 1:11.48 and 1:10.39.Not bad, and good for third place out of 13 relay teams! We await our bronze medals.

With half as much riding to do at the race, I was able to enjoy the singletrack a lot more, and even to think, at points, that I am actually getting better at that kind of riding. I only had one serious spill, one of those Schrödinger’s crashes where you’re both vertical and horizontal at the same time. No damage to body, kit, or bike, so it was fine.

Apart from that, I managed to maintain a decent pace over what’s, to me, some very tricky trail: with plenty of tight corners and some off-camber climbs and descents. I even enjoyed Grizzland, the “advanced” back section of the Elm Creek trails, that I found, frankly, terrifying the last times I raced here. I’m not yet smooth as a singletrack rider, I did do a lot less of that herky-jerky riding where I smash the brakes and then accelerate. More flow, more go!

Altogether, I did five races this winter:

December 19: the Solstice Chase (26 miles) in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin

January 9-10: the Tuscobia (160 miles) in Rice Lake, Wisco

January 16: the Snow Crush (15 miles) in Faribault, Minnesota

January 25-26: the Arrowhead (135 miles) in northern Minnesota

February 13: the FFF (22 miles)

That averages out to be a race every 11 days, and 358 miles of racing! Not bad. Between my arbitrary first day of my winter training on September 1 and the FFF yesterday, I did 1,681 miles of riding (commuting, training, and racing), an average of 10 miles a day.

Spring, summer, and fall 2016 will be quite a bit quieter than the last eight weeks. I’m only planning to do four races before October. Perhaps most, I’m looking forward to trying to finish two mountain bike races that I didn’t last year: the Cheq 100 in northern Wisconsin in June and the Maah Daah Hey 100 in the Badlands of North Dakota in August. In September, I’ll do the fifth and last running of the Inspiration 100 gravel race in Garfield, Minnesota, and then the Marji Gesick 100 mountain-bike race in the Upper Peninsula – a new race for me, and probably the toughest of the four. But hell, I have 222 days to train, and a still-new-to-me Salsa El Mariachi MTB to train and race on!

Then the winter will come around again. I am already excited to travel out west again to try Jay P’s Fat Pursuit in Idaho in early January, tackling the new 200-mile option. I’ll also do the Arrowhead 135 again in late January, and I’m jazzed about a new “unsupported” way to race the event, as announced yesterday by the race directors:

How do you make one of the toughest races on earth harder?? We will offer the option to race totally self supported for prior Arrowhead finishers or those with prior approval from Race Director. Unsupported racers will check in at checkpoints but will not be allowed food, water, or time to warm up at checkpoints. Unsupported racers will receive a unique finisher award.

Our vision is that an unsupported racer leaves International Falls and gets no help and stays outside until the finish line. No purchases, no Melgeorge drop bag, no hotel, no food or water from other racers (emergencies would be the exception.) Just stop at checkpoints long enough to register.

Sounds like a good challenge!

Arrowheadata

With this year’s Arrowhead now complete, I’ve crunched some numbers.

In my view, the big story of the race is Tracey Petervary’s third straight win. With the three-peat, T-race is now the winningest Arrowhead bike racer, female or male. Her winning times have ranged from 27:22 in 2014 (the cold year) to 18:27 last year – just 9 minutes off Eszter Horanyi’s women’s record (2012). (John Storkamp has three wins on foot.)

On the men’s side, Jay Petervary’s win places him alongside Dave Pramann (2006, 2008) and Jeff Oatley (2010, 2011) as two-time champions.

The 2017 race could be interesting simply as a chance to see if any of those three riders can win for a third time or if other one-time winners like Jorden Wakeley (2015), Kevin Breitenbach (2012), or Todd McFadden (2013) can win again. (Sarah Lowell [2007, 2008] and Alicia Hudelson [2012, 2014] both have won twice on foot, and Jim Reed appears to be the only person to have won the race in two disciplines – ski in 2010 and foot this year.)

Here’s a spreadsheet on all of the AH winners: https://goo.gl/lkam5Z

Obsessing a bit about ways that I can get faster, I ran some simple analyses of bike finishers the last two years, basically tabulating the time taken to ride the four legs of the race (start to Gateway, Gateway to Melgeorges, Melgeorges to Skipulk, Skipulk to finish) and time spent at the checkpoints.

The two takeaways are stupidly and slightly less stupidly obvious: first, the fastest racers go fast on the course, and second, the fastest racers spend very little time at the checkpoints.

While the top five men all did the first leg, to Gateway, this year in less than four hours, only Jay Petervary, Will Ross (2nd man), and Dan Dittmer (3rd man) did the second leg of the race in under five hours (4:13, 4:16, and 4:44, respectively), and only Petervary (5:33) and Ross (5:44) did the third leg to Skipulk in under six. (Dittmer was next closest, at 6:25). The flat fourth leg saw a huge accordion effect, with fifteen racers going under four hours, including Ross at 2:52 (the only person to cover that leg in under three hours) and Jill Martindale (2nd woman) doing it in 3:41.

Fast on the bike, fast off it: Plenty of folks – including most of the men’s top 10 finishers and Martindale – didn’t stop at Gateway at all. (Like several others, Tracey Petervary stopped for only a minute). At Melgeorges, only Jay Petervary, Will Ross (2nd man), and Ben Doom (4th man) spent less than 10 minutes refueling. Eight men spent less than 10 minutes at the luxury of Skipulk, led by Dittmer at 2:00, Petervary at 3:00, and Doom and Pat Adrian (6th man) at 5:00. All told, Jay Petervary spent just 6:00 at checkpoints (about three seconds per race mile!), while Ross spent 12:00 – more than accounting for his three minute gap behind Petervary at the finish. Only seven racers – including Jill Martindale – kept their total stops to under an hour.

Too long, didn’t read? Ride fast, stop quick.

Here’s the full spreadsheet of data for this year’s race, which can be sorted as you might like: https://goo.gl/AZmKJE

For the hell of it, here’s the data for 2015 too: https://goo.gl/oet9TK