Nobu Shirase – The Unknown Antarctican

While Amundsen and Scott dueled to reach the South Pole first, another team – led by Nobu Shirase, an unknown Japanese soldier – was deep in its own expedition to Antarctica. Shirase had long aimed to go to the North and then to the South Pole, but his effort was slowed by a lack of interest in Japan – still emerging from shogun-era inwardness, and focused on building its Asian empire – and the concomitant lack of funding for the trip.

Halting attempts to reach the continent finally culminated in a push in spring 1911 that brought Shirase and his crew to the Ross Ice Shelf from which the Europeans had launched their treks south. Realizing that the he would never reach the pole first, if at all, Shirase decided on other goals. His tiny ship – the smallest exploration ship to try the Southern Ocean – ranged along the coast of the Ross Sea while Shirase and a few men made a dog-sled sprint as far south as they could, beginning on January 20, 1912 (110 years ago today). They turned around, nearly out of food, after 8 days, having ventured to 80º 5’ S – the fourth-furthest anyone had ever gone (after Amundsen, Ross, and Shackleton).

Amundsen had reached the pole exactly two weeks before; Scott was still heading south to his fate. Shirase sensibly headed back to his ship and then home to Japan, where he was briefly hailed as a hero. He spent most of the rest of his life paying off the debt incurred by the expedition. At least he’d looked like a complete badass during his expedition.

Shirase and the Japanese Antarctic Expedition, 1910. Shirasenobu.com

Sources:
Stephanie Pain, “Scott, Amundsen… and Nobu Shirase,” New Scientist (12/20/11)
Jeff Moag, “This Forgotten Japanese Dreamer Raced Scott and Amundsen To The South Pole,” Adventure Journal (1/6/22)

Read more:

The Very Few Plants of Antarctica

Without much soil, Antarctica naturally lacks much plant life. The British Antarctic Survey – which is pretty much the most reliable source of natural-history info on the continent – claims that only two flowering plants can be found on Antarctica, and then only on the peninsula, the area where the Carleton trip will go:

  • Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica) and
  • Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis).

Neither is the sort of plant you’d like to have in a pot in your house. Or could, since they thrive in cold, dry, windy places, not your damn living room.

BAS reports that besides those “flowering plants,” Antarctica is home to

around 100 species of mosses, 25 species of liverworts, 300 to 400 species of lichens and 20-odd species of macro-fungi.

Incredibly, some moss and lichens live in rocks in the coldest, dryest parts of the continent. So much for being “lower plant groups,” right? Show me some dumb oak or pine that can do that.

As Antarctica warms, plants are the among the most dangerous invaders – but as you’d expect given humankind’s colossal stupidity, we also brought some invasive species to the continent. For example, Poa pratensis was introduced as part of a study in 1954-1955. It’s since been eradicated.

To prevent this kind of disaster, travelers to Antarctica – even or especially tourists a-larking – have to carefully disinfect themselves before going ashore. Glad to do it!

A continent with no countries

One of the most interesting aspects of Antarctica as a place is that, unlike pretty much every square foot of every other continent, Antarctica does not belong to any country. In a very real sense, Antarctica belongs to the international community.

This is due mostly, or at least legally, to the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed by an initial dozen countries on December 1, 1959, and which has been steadily expanded and improved since then. Right now, 52 countries have acceded to the treaty.

In preparing for my trip to Antarctica, I’ve enjoyed reading about the treaty, its history, and its present effects. One aspect of the treaty that I find surprising and inspiring is its grounding in the International Geophysical Year of 1958-1959, a massive effort to broaden the base of scientific knowledge about the planet – everything from magnetism and gravity to oceanography and meteorology. The IGY was not wholly exempt from Cold War tensions. For instance, the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. both launched their first space satellites during its span, and the U.S. founded NASA to manage its part of the Space Race.

Despite or even because of the competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., the IGY did dramatically improve what humanity knew about Antarctica, and create infrastructure for future science, from surveys and exploration to the establishment of several new scientific stations. While this could well have led to the renewal of national claims to Antarctic territory, instead the international community went in the polar (ha!) opposite direction – toward making Antarctica a neutral place. The Antarctic Treaty, signed two years later, legally set the entire continent and its waters outside the nation-state system.

Diplomatic Conference on the Antarctic Treaty (1959)

Representatives of the initial twelve counties, and of 40 more since 1961, signed because they

Recognized that it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord

[and were]

Convinced also that a treaty ensuring the use of Antarctica for peaceful purposes only and the continuance of international harmony in Antarctica will further the purposes and principles embodied in the Charter of the United Nations.

Fourteen short articles outlined specifics such as banning nuclear weapons and military maneuvers and endorsing scientific cooperation – and how to maintain and expand the treaty permanently.

I find all those pretty inspiring on its own and as a sign that humans can sometimes make good collective choices. Against the backdrop of current efforts – so far, woefully lacking – to combat climate change, the treaty’s longevity and real power seem even more important. We – humans, organizations, countries – can work together to slow or halt climate change, or any of the zillion other international problems with which we’ve plagued ourselves (including, of course, the present plague).

Maybe. Sometimes? I hope.

Going to Antarctica (in 58 days)

Antarctica has long been an object of my fascination. As this blog’s title suggests and many of its posts show, I love winter: snow and ice, cold and wind, leaden gray days and glowing blue ones. Ink-black skies, infinitely distant, studded by bright yellow stars or shining with a blue-green aurora. Paper-white skies, hovering overhead, releasing big gentle flakes or hurling tiny sharp darts.

What better place than Antarctica, then, to occupy my imagination? Winter, at a continental scale: colder, windier, drier, and emptier than anywhere else in the world. People lived in the Arctic, had thrived there for millennia. No one really lived in the Antarctic – and the canonical stories I read as a kid and as an adult showed why. The struggles of Amundsen and Scott, Nansen and Shackleton. The desolation of places like Elephant Island, McMurdo Sound, Vostok or Amundsen-Scott stations. The insanities of “sledging” across endless ice, of the temperature at the coldest place in the world, of miles-deep layers of ice, of the perpetual eruption of Mt. Erebus – and of penguins! Adorable, indomitable, almost more whale than bird.

So Antarctica has always been a kind of imaginary place to me, too far away and too hard to reach to even contemplate going. Antarctica and the South Pole are further, harsher, unfriendlier than the Arctic and North Pole, which seemed – growing up on the edge of Lake Superior – to be just a little bit past Thunder Bay. A couple flights and I could be in Anchorage or Fairbanks in Alaska or Iqaluit in Nunavut or Nuuk in Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat). I haven’t actually been to those places, but I could be, right? I’ve never even really thought about going to Antarctica.

Until I heard that the college needed a staff member to join an upcoming alumni trip to the Antarctic Peninsula, the finger of land that crooks out from the continent toward the tip of South America. I volunteered, and incredibly, the higher-ups decided that I was up to the job – supporting the emeritus professor of geology who’ll do the hard work of teaching and helping 60-some alumni and friends who’ll be enjoying the trip. A factotum, for sure – but a factotum in Antarctica!

If all goes as planned, I’ll leave on January 27 for a fourteen-day cruise from Argentina through the Drake Passage in and along the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula. All told, we’ll spend about ten days visiting some of the innumerable islands that dot the Bellingshausen Sea as well as many spots on the continent proper. We’ll be a long way from the South Pole (about as far as Minneapolis is from Los Angeles! Antarctica is big), but still, it’ll be Antarctica: 17-hour austral summer days. Seals, skuas, whales, penguins. Icebergs, nunataks, glaciers. The South.

58 days from today. I can’t wait!

Expedition to Antarctica map

Marji Gesick 2019

As soon as I started puking, I knew I could finish the race. I leaned forward into the grass and vomited up everything I’d swallowed since noon: the sips of soda, water, energy drinks and gels, oranges, peanut butter sandwiches, dirt, sweat. In the darkness. I sat back on the gravel – pebbles pricking my legs – to get away from the stench and to savor the feeling of calm, empty guts.

Without the gurgly pinching of my stomach to distract me, I could read my body better. I felt mostly fine. My shoulders and wrists were tight from the trail’s pummeling, but my back was still loose, and my legs felt just a little fatigued, browned rather than charred. I drank some orange soda. Even the fake citrus flavor of orange soda in my mouth was pleasant, or at least not bad. A mask on the acidic tang of the puke.

Behind me, Stevie Wonder sang “Superstition” and the volunteer shouted to other racers as they ripped past on these few blocks of flat city streets: “Soda! Beer! Hot dogs! Pickles! Chips!” Someone pulled up and argued good-naturedly that since we were in Michigan, it was pop, not soda. Good-naturedly, the volunteer agreed. The racer murmured something to him. He replied: “That guy’s just puking a little. He’ll be fine. We’ll get him going again in a minute.”

It meant a lot to hear that. I was so fine, he could tell from twenty feet away. I finished the rest of the pop with pecking little sips, and stood up. No wobbling muscles, no aching joints, no head rush. At the checkpoint table, the volunteer instructed me, “Dude, have a pickle. Fermented shit. The Koreans and the Germans were onto something. Settles your stomach.”

“I’ve never had a pickle,” I told him.

“Never had a pickle?!”

”I mean, in a race. I’ve never had a pickle in a race.”

“It’s magic. It’s a magic pickle!”

He fished a pickle out of a big jar, almost empty. Salty, crunchy, tasty. I needed the calories now. As I snipped away at it, a light drizzle began, the day’s thick humidity finally precipitating. All day, the dew point had hovered just a few degrees lower than the mid-70 degree air temperatures – unseasonable warmth for far northern Michigan, on the south shore of Lake Superior. I’d been soaking wet with sweat and humidity since seven in the morning. The volunteer’s partner scrambled out of her camp chair to pull the food table all the way under their pop-up tent. “Don’t worry about this rain,” he told her, or me. “You can still see the stars, so this won’t last long. Just a few minutes.”

I had another pickle and looked up. The stars speckled white against a deeply black sky. The yellow dusklight had faded away into the hills to the west. The lights of the city of Marquette glowed to the east, a red arc against clouds over the lake.

I finished the pickle and had a cup of water. I asked the volunteer if he’d done the race. “Yep, two times. I finished the hundred two years ago and the fifty last year. Hard as hell, man! Just get out and keep going. Your pace, you’ll be done in five hours from here. 80 miles down. One more hour of this loop, then four on the last loop. Two a.m. finish. Longer if you sit at the park too long.”

More racers whipped past. One stopped, shotgunned a beer, and headed out again. I stood up to ready myself to follow him into the wooded ridges we had been riding all day.

The race had started fourteen hours ago at a campground outside Marquette. Todd and Danny had provided helpful directions to the right spot:

The start was a spectacle: the National Anthem on an electric guitar, some fireworks, a woman riding a horse made up to look like a unicorn. In keeping with the race’s ethos of silly sadism, we had to run a half-mile loop through the woods before we could climb on our bikes to head into the woods. I’d set up my bike – Needle, a forest-green Salsa Deadwood mountain bike, shock absorbers front and back, a bike I had acquired specifically for this race – the night before, and it was a pleasure to yank it up off the grass and start pedaling.

Starting a bike race with a not-short run was absurd (I needed six minutes to jog the lap in my cycling shoes), like almost everything about the Marji Gesick, from the course’s 105 miles of distance and 12,000 feet of climbing to the many long stretches of trail too rough or too steep (either uphill or downhill) for me to ride. These stretches were so absurdly hard that the race directors had marked them with warning signs: “Blame Todd” or “Blame Danny.”

The distance, elevation profile, and especially the sheer difficulty of the trail had been, absurdly, attractive to me. I love long races for the dense feeling of having done them, a weight that I can carry around forever. I’m not earning any money doing these races; no, they’re costing me hundreds of dollars. If get a little beat up by the races, well, the hours of training – of devotion to an absurd goal – that keep me physically fit. I like this more than I should. I like looking down at the curved muscles of my legs and thinking, “I made them look like that.” I like looking further down my legs to the purple lines of new and old scars on my shins and thinking the same thing.

As my stoke for the Marji Gesick rose over the weeks before the race, I would catch myself savoring the future feeling of having finished the race. I would tamp this back down and think instead about other hard races I’d done, especially my winter fatbike races. I deflated some of my eagerness for the Marji by poring over my race-result spreadsheet. The facts were right there in black and white pixels: to date, I had finished only two of the six 100-mile mountain bike races I’d ever attempted. One had been shortened to 80 miles on the day of the race due to weather. Another, I’d cut short when the trail proved too hard for me. I had abandoned two races, including my first attempt at the Marji Gesick, in 2016. One finish came in a race that I see now was more a gravel-road race than a full-on mountain bike race. The other finish had come when I’d been accompanied every inch of the course by my friends Galen and Sarah, two stronger, fitter riders. Shepherds to my sheep.

Looking at that spreadsheet, visualizing the finish line, tinkering with Needle, riding long hours of training, I wanted badly to finish the Marji on my own. Or at least mostly on my own; I wasn’t stupid. I wasn’t going to turn down pickles or encouragement. I wanted badly to be able to say to myself, after the race, that I had met the challenge. And to say it to others, if they asked.

Meeting the challenge I had – absurdly – elected to accept, had paid money and spent hours and hours to undertake required a willingness, an eagerness, to approach my physical and mental limits. To touch those limits, even when they made me gasp for breath, made my calves cramp, made vision twinkle and narrow, made my puke up my guts in an empty lot at the edge of town. To back away from those limits, to circle around and make a different approach to them. With luck, I would find that the limits had moved further out.

I had some reason to expect that the Marji would have this effect. The race would be my thirty-first bike race of a hundred miles or more. But the Marji would be the toughest mountain-bike race I’d ever done, more akin to a winter fatbike race (thirteen starts, eleven finishes) than any other MTB event, much less a gravel-road bike race.

I hoped, in fact, that the Marji Gesick would be a long exercise in mapping new personal limits. Before the race, I had told a friend – absurdly – that I was eager to turn myself inside out, a bit of bravado meant as metaphor that had become absurdly real at the aid station. As I finished my pickle, I could see in the beam of my headlamp a dozen places on my arms and legs where I’d sliced or scoured my skin open. Plus also the puking. And now I was getting back on Needle to ride at least five more hours through the woods in the dark? Absurd.

I shook the volunteer’s hand and pedaled away from the aid station. On the hill ahead of me, I saw the lights of other racers strobing in the trees. Maybe I’d catch them, maybe I wouldn’t. The main thing now, as I rode onto the dirt and rock trail a hundred meters from the aid station, was just to keep up a consistent effort. Don’t stop unless it’s to eat or drink or rest, or maybe to puke again. I had already convinced myself that I was nearly done, that I was starting the home stretch, that I’d be done in time to sleep a few hours in my hotel bed before we drove home.

As hard as the trail could be, most of the Marji Gesick course had been – would still be – wonderfully good riding, some of the best singletrack I’d ever seen, and superb in so many different ways. Here, the trail was almost entirely rideable, as it had been for long stretches in the first half of the race: a ribbon of dirt and stones and roots. I was moving at a steady pace, still punching it up most of the hills and braving many of the downhills.

I was happy about this. The lore of the Marji holds that the last two loops – twenty miles each, mostly encountered in the dark – are brutally hard, much more difficult than anything in the race to that point. Endless “Blame Danny” and “Blame Todd” sections, lots of sharp climbing and descending, mostly or entirely ridden in the dark while fatigued if not exhausted.

I had been scared of this possibility. Of this certainty. Three years ago, I had had to quit the race at mile 54, nowhere near the last loops. I’d been overwhelmed by the sheer appalling difficulty of the trail – the supposedly-easy stuff in the first half of the race. It had been too much for me: the climbs too steep, the descents too scary, the rocky sections far too rough to ride or even walk. I crashed over and over and over. I cracked a rib on one crash, on the aptly named “Scary Trail.” Worse, I broke my derailleur. I could ride through the pain of the rib, but I could not ride in one gear. I abandoned and spent the evening and night rooting for a friend.

Going into this year’s Marji Gesick, I wanted to ride the first part of the course – from the start near Marquette to the Jackson Park checkpoint, at mile 65 – steadily and easily, making progress but conserving my energy for the last forty miles. I had done this, been surprised at how good most of the trails had been – how good I had not remembered them being.

I flew over smooth, winding trails from the start to the first unrideable spot, a massive rock outcrop called the Top of the World. Too slick and steep for me, I pulled Needle to the top, where a bagpiper played while dozens of racers took in the view to the north of the Huron Mountains and Lake Superior.

A few of us tried to ride back off the bluff – “Rider coming through!” – but most of us walked back down to to the ragged, rocky trail and resumed riding. I actually started to enjoy the break from pedaling when we’d hit the “Blame” sections and need to walk for a bit. Have a drink, have a snack, admire the gorgeous forest all around us. Heck, hiking over fifty yards of boulders draped across what would otherwise have been a fun climb and descent was easier on the body than riding what felt like a mile down an abandoned railroad track. Not a rail-to-trail path: whoever had removed the rails had left the ties, overgrown with grass but as smooth as a jackhammer. Riders pulled over to shake out their hands and wrists.

I spent much of this opening section in small groups of other riders. A little chatter, lots of friendly warnings – “Low branch! Sharp rock!” – and lots of energy. We’d slow to enjoy the scenery: clifftop overlooks, long narrow forest lakes, those endless stands of trees beginning to change for the fall.

We sped up when we passed through a big crowd of spectators shouting and clanging cowbells. Just before noon – about an hour ahead of my own schedule – we passed through Marquette. After four hours in the woods, the roar of car traffic jarred. We rode frontage roads and parking lots to a damp tunnel that sent us under US 41, a highway runs from the northernmost tip of Michigan to Miami – from Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean. The highway felt like a piece of home to me: I’d grown up a couple blocks from 41 where it runs through Hancock, Michigan, 45 miles down the road from its origin in Copper Harbor, and lived for years a block from the highway where it passes, as Lakeshore Drive, through Chicago.

On the far side of the tunnel, I took a short break at the first official aid station and then started a long downhill stretch of paved bike path. Making 15 mph with no effort and a full stomach felt great, charging me up for the turn back onto trails. I let my rear wheel buzz, saving pedal strokes for later. Though a bunch of racers had crowded the aid station, by the time I hit the woods again, I was alone again. No matter: these trails too were fast and fairly easy, skirting subdivisions on the south side of Marquette and the city golf course. Every turn seemed to reveal another green or fairway. Was this a 54-hole course, or what? A winding climb to the top of a grassy hill ended with a long view north to the lake.

Not long after that, the course popped out at a trailhead, the second official checkpoint and, surprisingly, a massive party: dozens of racers, scores of volunteers, even more spectators, and tables loaded with millions of liquid and solid calories. Mile 40. I was about an hour ahead of my 2016 pace, which boded well for the rest of the race, especially given that I didn’t feel tired. I was very hungry, so I decided to take time to eat and drink: water, Coke, PB & jelly sandwiches, some obscenely salty potato chips, some shockingly sweet orange slices. A feast.

I probably soaked in the atmosphere a little too long, and probably soaked up a little too much food – all of which I’d see again that night. But the vibe was hard to leave. A few racers were abandoning here, strapping their bikes to their cars and driving off. I liked the normalcy of the scene, a beautiful autumn Saturday afternoon : little kids riding strider bikes on a child-scale pump track, moms and dads and husbands and wives hurrying around taking care of their racers, volunteers bringing sandwiches and Gatorade right over to racers, even a new mom nursing a tiny baby, its dad giving her and the baby gentle kisses before heading back onto the course.

Honestly, I felt a pang of loneliness. I didn’t have anyone “crewing” for me, didn’t know anyone in the crowd, didn’t even really know where on the course I was. But that was part of the deal I’d made with myself. Do it myself, more or less. When I felt less hungry, I had a volunteer (I wasn’t completely alone!) fill my hydration backpack with cold water, strapped my helmet – soaked and stinking of sweat – back on my head, and headed out onto the course.

I probably looked like I was going to a funeral as I rode away from the checkpoint, thinking worriedly about the fact that this was where my race started to go wrong in 2016: crashes on the extremely rough trail just ahead and then a massive, exhausting climb up a gravel road. No time to be lonely. Between the caffeine and calories from the checkpoint, fresher legs than that year, and especially better riding skills, I hoped that the trails wouldn’t be as fearsome as I remembered. And they weren’t. The descent to the bridge over the Carp River was easy, and the river was gorgeous, even if a few filthy cyclists were wading in it.

Then – as abruptly as I reached the trailhead checkpoint – I emerged on the gravel road that climbed the back side of the Marquette Mountain ski hill. Ahead, I could see racers pushing their bikes up the incline. I clicked down to my crawler gear, dropped my chest and chin almost to my handlebars, and started grinding away. I passed almost everyone, appreciating the exhausted-sounded “good job” and “keep it up” encouragement.

A car rolled past me, enviably fast, and parked at an overlook. Somehow this broke my concentration, and I too needed to hop off Needle and walk for a bit. The bit of hike-a-bike freshened my legs again, so I resumed riding up the road, steeled for another ten minutes of climbing. No! A blessing: the course veered off into the woods. Curse: this was an infamously steep and rocky stretch called “Scary Trail” that I had walked in ‘16. Somehow, the bouldery, rooty garbage didn’t seem as brutal this year. To be sure, I didn’t try to ride all of that bastard, but neither did I feel like it was breaking me in half. The rocks and boulders and roots and mud were just hurdles to climb over. Kids hammocking at the bottom of one descent on Scary gave me a good-naturedly sardonic cheer as I hiked down. They’d have to wait for another rider to give them a show.

Scary turned into flowing trail that I remembered from three years before. Definitely more fun to ride – and more rideable – than Scary, this was where my derailleur had finally crapped out here. I had had to walk and coast to the Marquette Mountain lodge, where I found a ride back to the start. This time, my bike was working perfectly. I enjoyed how Needle helped me solve the roots and the rocks and the way the trail seemed always to be slanting away from the direction I wanted to go – almost identical to a favorite stretch of trail back home. Even the steep drops were fun. I found myself plummeting down ramps that I would not have even tried to ride three years before, or maybe even this year, outside of a race.

I also did not ride much of an incredible trail, like nothing I’d ever seen before, built from massive slabs of rock. A cobblestone road, for giants. A few other riders were hiking this with me; we traded spots and moved aside when a few intrepid racers came through on their bikes, moving powerfully over the rounded stones. I leaned later that this trail was called New Yellow. Had there been an original Yellow, or was the name a judgment of the cowards who wouldn’t ride it?

The massive rock armor on New Yellow turned back to dirt, a trail called “Easy Rider.” Compared to the impossibility of New Yellow, yes, sure, easy. But I realized that name was ironic after the tenth or twentieth steep downhill drop. Maybe a little guilty from hiking New Yellow, here I pushed myself to ride a little further down the slants, a little harder over the rocks. I could hear car traffic through the trees, always a sign of civilization, and then the trail pitched me out into the ski hill parking lot. A few more racers were quitting here, loading up their Subarus and Tacomas with dirty mountain bikes. This year, not me. A volunteer was manning a small aid station at the far end of the lot. I stopped there to jokingly complain that Easy Rider had not been easy riding. He just laughed – well trained by Todd and Danny to show no mercy. He pointed me toward the next section, some of the easiest in the race: a little more straightforward singletrack and then miles of gently uphill bike path to Negaunee and the first pass through Jackson Park.

Riding the singletrack, my stomach didn’t feel right. I hadn’t noticed on the demanding stuff on the other side of the mountain. Everything from sternum to navel felt churny and tart, empty and growling. I took an energy gel, a few sips of nutrition drink, a handful of cashews, and hoped everything would settle. If not here on the ride up to Negaunee, then maybe at the checkpoint. On the path, I could shift into a higher gear and crank along at 10, 12, 15 miles an hour, luxurious speeds that let me catch a couple other racers – visible ahead on the straight path – while still relaxing. While I pedaled, I reviewed the food and drink I had in my drop bag at the checkpoint: Red Bull, canned coffee, Fritos, cheese, little sausages. None of it sounded interesting or appetizing. This was familiar; I often – maybe always – feel this way about food and drink during races, especially long ones.

I caught up to a racer who saw my name on my number plate as I approached. “Hey, I know you! Or of you!” He introduced himself – Dan. We’d never met, but he was the friend of friends, and lived just up the road from me back in Minnesota. 400 miles from home, and here I was meeting someone who lived 15 miles from me. We chatted as we rode along. He planned to drop out at the checkpoint, too worn about by the 60 miles we’d covered so far to contemplate tackling another 45. I complained about my stomach, saying I was going to find a store in town where I could get some ginger pills.

“Oh, man, here, have mine!” He dug out a baggie full of gray-green ginger pills and passed it to me. Ten bucks worth, handed over as casually as a pretty leaf he’d found on the trail.

“You sure?”

He laughed. “I won’t need them now. Take two every hour or so.”

I one-handed the baggie open and fished out two pills. A swallow of water washed them down. I imagined they started working immediately.

We talked a little bit more as the path improved, flattened, started passing signs about the area’s history as a center of mining. I really wanted to stop to read the sign about “Mules in the Mines,” but didn’t. After seeing wetlands and scrubby woods for miles, we now started crossing streets, passing houses. I could hear cheering in the distance. From the crowd at a high school game or something? No, from spectators at the checkpoint. Then we were there, and they were cheering for Dan and me as we rode into Jackson Park.

The cheers were energizing, motivating me to take a solid rest: to sit in a chair (or at least on the ground), to eat some of my food and drink something besides my nutrition drink, to not move for a while. I laid Needle down and dropped to the grass next to it. I looked for Dan, already lost in the crowd. I made a mental note to friend him on Facebook. A volunteer brought my drop bag over to me without even being asked. I opened it. Though the food looked gross, I dutifully followed my plan: down one of the sugary coffee drinks, put one Red Bull in my frame bag, refill my cashews and open the Fritos and stash both in one of my handlebar bags, eat some Pringles, drink some soda.

My stomach disliked this effort to get calories, and especially fluids. I’d lost god knows how much water over the, what, ten hours since the start. Ten hours. That’s a long day on the bike, and with the hardest trails still ahead of me, I was probably less than half done with the race.

Ten more hours? Twelve? More? I watched racers come and go – some back onto the course, some to their cars. The racers’ appearance didn’t correlate with what they were doing: some riders looked fresh as they let someone else walk their bikes over to the parking lot. Other riders looked blasted as they pedaled out of the checkpoint to the course.

I felt solitary, not lonely as I had at the bustling trailhead checkpoint back in Marquette, 25 miles ago. I was glad that I didn’t have anyone crewing for me; I’d feel guilty at making them wait and do my dirty work, and guiltier as making them wait for me to finish. Maybe to worry about me out there in the dark. I didn’t care if I had fifteen more hours to ride. I wanted to do this next loop, return to this checkpoint, and then do the final loop. I had to be in and out of the checkpoint by 2 a.m., the cutoff for starting the last loop. With luck I’d be back here by midnight and long out on the course by 2. Regardless, I was fine with it. I had come all this way for this particular challenge.

Having planned to get to this spot in the race before dark, I now needed to set up my lights for overnight riding. I fixed a headlamp to my helmet with some of the thousand black zip ties that I carry with me at all times. The racer next to me noticed. “Hey, man, can I borrow just a few zip ties? This guy” – he pointed to another racer, packing up to quit – “gave me an extra light, only I don’t have a mount.” This light was absurdly small, the sort of light you put on the handlebars to ward off drivers on daytime streets, not the sort that you need to ride all night in the woods.

“Sure, take as many as you need.” He took a few, took some more, took a few more. He narrated his progress as he worked. By the time he was done, the tiny light was almost swaddled in black zip ties. “Great! I think that’ll work!” He tidied up his drop bag and thanked me and hopped back on his bike.

Watching him go I realized that I need to go now too. I contemplated and rejected my food options one more time, returned my drop bag to the volunteers, and buckled on my helmet, heavier now with the light strapped to it. Riding back to the course, I was surprised at how good my legs felt after the, what, hour or more of rest at the checkpoint. My stomach still felt wrong – twisted and bubbly – but yeah my legs felt great, and the caffeinated drinks had restored the focus that I’d lost on the easy-riding bike path.

If the approach to the checkpoint had been gradual, the exit was abrupt: a few turns, and I was suddenly in the silent woods again. Except: under my tires was not a dirt path, but a broken-up sidewalk. Ahead, a volunteer pointed me into a right turn. I accelerated toward him, expecting a nice corner onto the trail. Nope: old concrete steps, just long and unexpected enough that I couldn’t ride Needle up then. I laughed. The volunteer laughed with me, having probably seen dozens of us encounter his particular obstacle. As I walked Needle up the steps, I said, “Tell Danny and Todd that they’re assholes!” He laughed again.

Now I was on real trail again: a ribbon of dirt and rock winding over a defunct mine site. Amid the scrubby trees, I’d see the remnants: old staircases leading to and from nowhere, stretches of broken-up pavement, the foundations of buildings, street signs leaning at intersections where there were no houses. Lots of stretches of trail alongside chain-link fence studded regularly with stern warning signs. Beyond the fence: a defunct open-pit iron mine.

Dusk was still a couple hours off. In the trees, the light was already fading. I flicked on my headlights and enjoyed zigging, zagging, zooming on the graying trail. I caught another rider on a climb, and we rode together for quite a while: wheel to wheel on anything flat, me pulling ahead on any uphill, him escaping on any downhill. Complimenting him on his descending skills, he told me, “You gotta get a dropper post!” – a device that lets you lower your seat on descents to make the bike easier to handle. I’d never thought seriously about getting one – my home trails just don’t have enough steep downs to merit one – but watching this guy fly down some insanely steep, rocky stretches, I could see the value.

Just before dusk, we popped out on an overlook with a view that literally stopped us in our tracks. Tired but focused from the riding, we could hardly say anything to each other about it, only gesture at the trees and lake and ridge and dig out our phones for photos. I wish I’d had him take a shot of me. I bet I looked like shit on shingle.

I lost Dropper Post on a long descent. Night had fully fallen on us – on me – now, and I felt as comfortable and happy about this as I always do. My winter ultramarathons have helped me feel at home on a bike in the dark, savoring the isolation and the narrowed view and the way everything outside the beam of the headlamp seems far away. The simplicity of it. Just chase the yellow spot of light in front of you, and navigate by watching for the course markings, glowing like eyes when the light hits them.

The temperature did not drop with the sun, nor did the humidity magically decrease either. This was wrong; it’s supposed to get colder and drier when the sun goes down. I had not been eating or drinking well now, and the slower nighttime speeds let me pay too much attention to how I felt. Every part of me was totally soaked with sweat. My shorts were so wet that they squeaked against my saddle, which itself was so slick that my hand slipped off it when I had to push Needle. My arms and shoulders were sore, my legs just tired. Worst, my stomach was both utterly empty, grinding against itself, and demanding food and drink. Tiny sips of water and nutrition drink felt like water balloons exploding. Gross. A Frito? Somehow, crunchy and slimy. A cashew? Oily paste.

I could sense my legs turning over with less force, my concentration slipping, as I dealt with my stomach. Climbs got steeper, descents slipperier, corners sharper. Without even really deciding to walk, I’d find myself hiking stuff that I would have easily ridden earlier in the day. The trail cruelly wound back and forth over a hill literally across the road from the hotel where we were staying. The hotel’s sign glowed through the trees. I could bushwhack down to the road, coast over to the parking lot… Quit. Easy. I could be in the shower in ten minutes.

I was felt too lazy to do this. Easier to stay on the course, to wind away from the hotel and up onto the hill. The trail dropped out of the woods and onto city streets not long afterwards, a nice respite. Riding the flat streets past rows of old mining houses that looked just like the ones in my home towns, I decided to get back to Jackson Park and reevaluate. If I still felt shitty then – whenever “then” would be: an hour? two? four? – I would pull the plug. The last loop of 20 miles was supposed to be the hardest of the whole race. Doing that after hours of eating and drinking badly? And on legs that, sure, weren’t actually aching but that were definitely now depleted? A bad idea. I felt mostly sure I would quit. For a second time, yes, much further up the course than I had made it last year. That’s a good thing, right? Maybe the Marji Gesick is just too hard for me. Maybe I need another year or two of training to handle something this hard. Or maybe it’s just not my thing, the way triathlons or open-water swimming aren’t my things.

Ahead I could see open space. I was already coming to the edge of town. Back to trails, and hopefully soon to Jackson Park. I swung around a big corner and found the pop-up aid station, the volunteer yelling, “Soda! Beer! Hot dogs! Pickles! Chips!”

I didn’t want to stop but I needed to stop. “What kind of soda do you have? Sprite or 7-Up?” I was desperate for something to calm my stomach.

“Hmm, no. Coke? Mountain Dew? I have Fanta.” I opened a Fanta and took a tiny sip, acidy and orangey. Another sip. My stomach flipped. I walked away from the aid station and crouched down near a patch of weeds. Another sip, more stomach flipping. Then the painful relief of throwing it all up.

I felt light and clean back in the woods. Not fast but steady. I could not believe that I’d made a deal with myself to consider withdrawing. I hadn’t needed to quit, I had just needed to puke. Jackson Park was a few hours off, according to the volunteer. No problem. I rode up a tough climb, took a wrong turn, and wound up climbing it again. Two hours before, this would have been insurmountable. Now, I laughed. Some other racers came along and gave me directions back to the course. At the bottom of hill, I got turned around almost right away, fatigue, unfamiliar streets, and darkness too much for me. I called my friend Marty, who’d finished the 50-mile race earlier in the day. He figured out that I was just a couple blocks off course, not the several miles I had worried about. As we rang off, he said, “You sound really good, man! Keep it up!”

That was as good to hear as his directions, and as good to see as a pack of riders coming toward me and then turning around. They too were off course. I latched on to them and we rode sidewalks and paths to more singletrack – passing within a block of the race’s finish line, raucous with music and crowds. A few minutes later, I realized the silly cruelty of that course routing: sending tired riders literally past but not over the finish line? Todd and Danny might as well have put up an arrow pointing to the finish area: “This way to quit. Also: food and beer.”

Our little group fractured as soon as we hit the singletrack again. In the darkness and the thin second-growth trees, I could see the bubbles of light from everyone’s headlights. From high points on the ridges – the endless goddamn ridges – I could look up or down and see a string of pearls moving through the woods. Sometimes a pearl would catch and pass me, often on a downhill or a technical Blame Danny or Blame Todd section. Sometimes I’d catch on, often surprisingly on an uphill. Regardless, we encouraged each other. “Nice job, man. Keep it up.” Lied to each other: “Not much further. Jackson Park is coming up.”

Tiny pulls of nutrition drink were staying down now, providing more calories than none, though more would have been better. Hunger aside, I was in a nice flow state, chasing my headlight beam, trying to climb a little higher on the uphills than my legs wanted, trying to descend a little further on the downhills than my nerves wanted. Lean into the corners. Drive my feet through the pedals on the flats. In a word, I was having fun.

A light flashed behind me. Someone running his headlight on that random-flicker setting designed to make you more visible to drivers? Thunder pealed just over my head like every Independence Day firework detonating at the same time. I instantly thought of the volunteer back at the aid station assuring us that the rain wouldn’t last. That drizzle had turned to something more serious. Maybe, I hoped, the thunder and lightning was just a show. Maybe no rain would fall. I heard the rain hitting the canopy leaves a second before it reached me, a spray of huge warm drops. The water splattered the mud off my arms and washed sweat out of my hair into my beard. I licked at the saltiness, savoring it a little too much, crunching the dirt and grit that came with it.

I could not tell how long the rain lasted. The dirt trail turned to mud, too slick to ride on any sort of up or down, and almost too slick to walk. The rocks and roots in the Blame sections were even more slippery, impossible to negotiate. I walked around them through the mucky leaves alongside the trail. I skidded and slipped on hidden rocks. Fell into puddles. Filled my cleats with water.

“Okay,” I said out loud. “That’s enough of this.” A few minutes later, the rain began to let up, trailing off as steadily and perceptibly as if someone were slowly turning off a faucet. Water continued to drip from the trees for hours, probably for the rest of the race. Whenever I bumped a tree – increasingly often as my fatigue mounted – it showered me with raindrops and wet leaves, a bit of rustle and splatter to disturb the pleasant quiet after the storm. Already, the trail started absorbing the water or letting it drain off.

Within a half hour or so, almost everything was rideable again, and so quiet after the din of the storm. I had stop paying attention to the sneezing sound of my rear shock handling the bumps; in the rain, I had forgotten the sound. A flock of birds, or maybe just one bird moving through the brush, chirped at me, so rhythmically that I momentarily wondered whether my drivetrain was squeaking. A raccoon scrambled out of the trail as I approached, eyes beaming. At a complicated trail junction, I turned left, following some tracks in the mud, and had to dismount to hike up a mud-slicked hill. Leaves that blew up the trail away from me turned out to be tiny whitish frogs, hunting in the wet. At the top of the incline, I found myself on trail I had already ridden. I rode back to the base of the muddy hill, where I saw that I’d missed the reflective arrows indicating the correct turn. This time I followed the signs, laughing to myself at my fuzzy decision making.

Though wrong turns meant that my bike computer’s mileage reading was inaccurate, I felt that I could not possibly be far from the second pass through Jackson Park. I checked the time: half past midnight. I had 90 minutes to reach and leave the park before the cutoff. I imagined I could hear street traffic, and imagined that this meant I was getting close to the park. No, the sizzle of cars on wet streets was real. I saw the flash of vehicles’ lights trough the trees, the steady glow of house and street lights. And here was the park, almost deserted, the big tent glistening from the rain.

I rolled right onto the tarp under the tent. Needle was filthy, caked in mud and needles and leaves. I was no better. Worse, since the bike couldn’t be tired. I lay down on the tarp, making my stomach roll unpleasantly toward my mouth. I sat up again, sipped from my water bottle. A volunteer came over. “Do you want your drop bag, 1295?” I told her I didn’t. Everything in it – food, dry clothes, drinks – sounded repellent and useless.

The racers here were a varied lot: a few clearly gearing up to head back out on the last loop, a few clearly packing up to drop out, a few in the middle – deciding. I guess I was in that group. I didn’t need to quit, really. I just had to sit here until 2:00, and then my decision had been made for me. I couldn’t leave after the cutoff. And anyhow 85 miles was a pretty good ride. More like 90, with my wrong turns. I had needed to be pretty tough to do that much, on these trails, in those conditions. Absurd trails. Absurd conditions. I had needed to be tougher than I expected, tougher than I had been before the race, for sure. Just not quite tough enough for the whole race.

Maybe this was good. Maybe I needed to be less tough. Weaker might be good. Maybe weakness, dropping out, was really recognizing limits. Physical, mental, spiritual. Maybe I had gone too far with this whole biking deal. Had gone far enough with it to find a place to stop, right here in Jackson Park. The woods had been lovely, dark and deep, but maybe I had seen enough of them for the day. The night.

All I had to do was sit here on the cold tarp, shivering, till 2:01. Let the volunteers tell me, sorry, you can’t leave. I’d be happy with doing eighty percent of the race. I checked the time on my bike computer: 1:15. Late as hell. Someone had left a pizza on one of the tables under the tent. I had a bite of one slice and had to lumber to a trash can to spit it out. A little spray of vomit came up too. I had puked once in races before, never twice. I was past that limit.

I sat back down. A racer who’d come in just behind me was giving his crew insanely precise directions for readying him get back out on course. Put cream cheese on a bagel. Fill his reservoir with water and add this much nutrition powder. Put this flavor gel in that bag on his bike. Bring him that item of clothing from his drop bag. Help him put this other item in his backpack. He was hyper, eager to get moving again.

A volunteer walked past dragging two trash bags full of race detritus. Another volunteer yelled, “1:30, racers! Half an hour to cutoff! Half an hour!”

Looking at the other racer and his crew, I realized that we were in the same goddamn spot. We were both thirty minutes from the cutoff, not yet dropped out. Not yet quit. I stood up and flexed my legs. They felt good. Not great, but not shredded. Well, shredded from the falls and low branches, not shredded like hamburger.

20 miles didn’t seem that far now. Four hours, maybe five. Moving around dislodged something Marty had said when I called him during my wrong turn in town. “The last loop isn’t that bad. It’s definitely easier than the next-to-last loop” – the one I’d just finished. “The first part is annoying, then it gets easier and better. I thought it wasn’t that hard.”

Not that hard. Though I’d barely registered this when he actually said it, my brain had stored it away and gave it back now. “Not that hard” would be not that bad. Did I really want to sit here another half hour? Did I really want to type “DNF” into my race log? Did I really want to shrug and tell friends back home, “Yeah, I made it to about mile 85, then I quit.” Did I really want to think about quitting for the next year? To have “quitter” hanging over my head during my winter races, just a few months away?

No, I didn’t. Marty’s advice tipped a balance in my mind. Suddenly staying and quitting seemed like the difficult thing to do – the difficult action to take right here and right now, and the difficult thing to absorb after the race, after quitting. The difficult thing to carry around forever.

Going back out seemed easy. All I had to do was fucking get on Needle and start riding again.

The manic rider looked over at me. “You going back out or quitting?” I answered instantly. “I’m ready to go.” I asked a volunteer about the route back to the course. She pointed me toward a gap in the black wall of trees ringing the park. 20 more miles out there. I could do it, one way or the other. I had ridden a bike over a lot of last twenty miles. We only had to get into the woods to have fewer than 20 miles to go.

“Dude, this guy’s ready to go. Get your ass in gear,” the other racer’s friend told him, seeing me standing next to Needle.

“I’m ready!” he said, jogging his bike over to me. “Let’s go.”

A few volunteers and spectators stood at the exit from the park. They clapped for us as we went past, a witching-hour cheer. The trail turned right and pointed uphill. A-fucking-again. Of course it did. The other rider, just off my back wheel, asked, “Have you been riding most of the hills?”

“Some. Not all of them. This one’s fine.”

At the crest of the climb, I looked back under my arm. He was walking up the hill. I pedaled on.

Marty had been right. The first five miles or so was annoying. I don’t recall if any of the burly sections were marked with those damn “Blame Todd” or “Blame Danny” signs. Maybe at this point Danny and Todd knew we blamed them for everything. I dismounted to walk up, down, around, over, under. My upper body was so sore now that I would lose control if I didn’t keep both hands on Needle. If I tried to guide the bike with one grip, the front wheel twisted angrily and the whole thing tipped down into me.

Between the rugged sections, the trail was very rideable, and no more hilly than the last loop, or the stretch between the first aid station and the Marquette Mountain climb. I stopped at exactly 2:00 a.m. to take a photo of not missing the cutoff:

I marveled at how much the trail had dried out already. Except for a few puddles invariably located to catch my foot, the dirt was merely tacky now, not slick or muddy. I started catching other riders and even a couple of runners finishing the 100 mile footrace. Some of the racers were riding together, teaming up to keep some speed. I didn’t join them, except temporarily and accidentally, trying to maintain my own pace. I rode some climbs that others walked, thanking them for stepping over to let me through, then reciprocated on the descents when they rode over the junk past me. From the tops or bottoms of the ridges were were climbing, I could see their lights moving in sync through the trees, another string of pearls.

As we rode with each other, we held broken conversations about two topics: the distance to the finish – somewhere around 15 miles, we guessed; everyone’s computer had a different reading – and the location of the “checkpoints” where we had to pick up tokens to present at the finish as evidence that we had covered the whole course. As far as we could tell, the first checkpoint hadn’t come until deep in the race, and had been labeled “Checkpoint #3.” Had we missed numbers 1 and 2, or was this just another way Danny and Todd were messing with us? Probably the latter. I’d visited Checkpoint #2 twice: once on purpose and once in the middle of my longest wrong turn in Ishpeming. Now we were hunting for #1. It had to be here somewhere. There were only so many miles where they could have hidden it!

The string of pearls frayed and broke. Only on the longest straightaways in the thinnest woods could I see anyone else ahead or behind. The trail popped out the foot of a double-track dirt road running straight up what must be the steepest hill in Michigan. No energy-saving switchbacks, no visible summit, no flats halfway up where I could rest, just a drag up toward a TV transmission tower, its red lights blinking robotically.

My legs were aching now. Hard uphill pedal strokes caused a squeezing pain around both knees. Standing on the pedals turned the pincing into burning in my hamstrings. I pedaled up the climb until I could not turn the cranks again. An honorable place to stop. This hill was no harder than the biggest climb back home, the one where I liked to do repeats. I had never climbed that hill after 20 hours of hard riding.

I pulled Needle off the road into the grass and sat down in the grass, knee-high and bowed under the clinging raindrops. The cold water felt refreshing against my butt and back. My stomach growled. I craved a beer, washing down something warm. Pizza or a grilled cheese. Then another beer. I had no beer, just a Red Bull in my bike bag. I dug it out. My hands were too numb to pop the top, so I used my teeth, which meant I only had to tip the can up to get the first mouthful of syrupy goodness.

I drained the can in small sips, each one testing the stability of my stomach. Across the ravine in front of me, I could see some sort of white rectangular shape. Staring, I made out a long flight of steps. I hoped that we would not have to ride back down this hill and walk up those fucking steps. Light flickered below me on the road, a group of racers, actually riding up toward me. I finished the drink and resumed my own struggle toward that transmission tower. I made it to the flat there just ahead of the other racers, found the singletrack, and started back down the hill. Please, please, please Danny and Todd, not those steps.

No steps, just more trail, first furiously descending the hill and then tracing the banks of several small lakes. The waves lapped in a breeze I could not feel. If the trail twisted just right, my headlight shone on the water, a rippled sheet of metal. Then the beam lit up a green shape bulging in the trees between the trail and the lake. I jerked my handlebars away from the thing, almost clipped a tree, overcorrected, hit a different tree, and fell sidelong off Needle into the lake. A cove, really, six inches deep. Six inches of water is deep enough when you’re kneeling in it.

I stood up, giggling and letting the lake water run off my legs. One of my lights had fallen off too; it glowed beautifully under the water. I fished it out and clipped it back on my handlebars. Needle silently reproached my fading skills by lying there alongside the trail. “Notice that I did not fall in the lake.”

Okay. Regroup. The bath had felt nice, really, had washed off some of the grit and grime on my legs. Under my headlamp beam, I could see red where I’d cut my shins and calves. I looked back down the path at the distraction that had caused the mishap: a green canoe, leaning keel-out against some trees along the shoreline. I have crashed my bikes for lots of reasons, never for seeing a canoe in the woods. I laughed again. Absurd.

I stood Needle up and checked my computer. Three a.m., well beyond 100 miles now. Come on, I must have less than five miles from the finish. An hour or so. Maybe less if the trail was really easy and the Red Bull kicked in, maybe more if I had more climbing to do.

Up another ridge, one that must be the last one in the county that we’d hadn’t already visited. From the top, city lights flickered in the distance. Ishpeming. The finish line. Was I at the edge of town? In the center, somehow? A bubble of adrenaline swelled and popped in my stomach. This had to be the finish. The trail wound around the top of the ridge, dropped, climbed. The city lights rotated around me: in front, beside, behind. A car passed slowly along the street along the base of the ridge. Who the fuck is out driving around at four in the morning? Probably someone out looking for a Marji racer, I guessed.

I dropped down off the ridge onto a street, an actual honest to god street. My stomach lurched. This had to be the end of the race. Had to be. I pedaled hard to an intersection up ahead, sensing that a left turn would send me deeper into town, toward the finish. But no: arrows directed me to the right, down more street. Fine; the pavement was luxuriously smooth and fast. More arrows, pointing off onto a footpath into the woods. Okay. More singletrack because why not more singletrack. The path was too narrow and steep to ride. I started pushing Needle. Down the hill came the wobbling headlight of a runner. He grinned at me. “Last checkpoint!”

“Really?”

“Really. See you at the finish!”

I pushed a little further and then remembered that racers had said the last checkpoint was actually an out-and-back. Walk or ride up from the street, get the token, walk or ride back down to the same street. I leaned Needle against a tree and hiked up the path. Nailed to a tree was a bucket with the final tokens in it. I went over to grab one, but it was empty. A scrawled note read, “Ha ha! Go finish!”

Absurd. I laughed at the pointless fun of the walk up and now down the hill. I retrieved Needle and rode back to the bottom, passing the runner. I told him, “Good job, you beast. See you at the finish!”  The path ended at a street. Follow the arrows left, follow the arrows down a gravel trail, follow the arrows right, onto a street running straight toward downtown Ishpeming. I yelped with excitement, pedaling hard down the slope toward the black finish-line arch, glowing under the streetlights. In seconds I flashed under the arch, nailing my brakes and climbing off Needle for the last time.

Todd and Danny were there at the finish line, looking awfully tired but pleased, I think, to see another finisher. Handshakes, hugs, their congratulations, my apologies for being filthy, their apologies for not having any beer left.

Marty was there too, looking awfully fresh. I was babbling, full of swirling energy. I tried to sit down on the curb, but the concrete was too hard on my sore glutes so I stood, paced, chattered about who knows what.

When Todd and Danny moved away to greet two guys finishing together, I dug out my phone to stop my tracker: 114 miles, 14,641 feet of climbing, 22 hours and 54 minutes on the course. I finished in 127th place of 137 finishers – but 63% of the starters dropped out. Next year I aim to be in the finishing group again, but a little further up the list.

Arrowhead VI: Riding Bikes through the Polar Vortex

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

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

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

Preparation mattered right up to the start. On the night before the race, I packed the Blue Buffalo, my Salsa Mukluk X01 fatbike, more quickly and cleanly than I ever had before, which let me get to bed at a good time and wake up – after an anxiety dream about missing the start and then being unable to pedal because my frame bag was overstuffed – feeling rested and ready. I remember fumbling like a fool a couple years ago to pack up. Experience paid off.

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

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

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

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

Typically Beautiful Trail

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

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

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

Riding Through (photo by Bill Nelson and John Rinn)

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

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

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

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

Hike-a-Bike Uphill

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

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

Halfway

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

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

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

Coming off Elephant Lake (photo by David Markman)

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

The Melgeorges Checkpoint

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

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

The Blue Buffalo Waiting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hill at Mile 100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resupply (photo by David Markman)

leaned it in the snow,

Resting Bikes (photo by David Markman)

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

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

Thawing Out (photo by David Markman)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Arrowhead Finish Line (photo by David Markman)

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

Finished

Trophy Shot

Ultra Fun at the Tuscobia 2018

This season’s Tuscobia winter ultra was my best race ever. I was happy from mile 0 to mile 160 with the way everything worked: mind, body, bike, kit, nutrition. Conditions ran the gamut from WTF to silky, but most of the trail was fast as hell, which helped me finish in 21:20, almost three hours faster than my previous best on this course and good enough for a tie for sixth place. I hope this all bodes well for the Arrowhead 135 at the end of January, but even if the Tuscobia was the high point of the season, I’ll be pretty satisfied with my sixth winter of fatbike racing.

I don’t think I am wrong in ascribing some of this good result to regular old experience. Tuscobia was my twelfth winter ultra* and (it turned out) my tenth successful finish**, so I had decent reason to feel, as I set up my bike in the hotel room on Friday night, that I knew what I was about to do. I was even comfortable enough to risk using new gear in the race. Zip ties for the win! My friend Ben Doom, a threat to win any race he entered, watched and lounged on his bed. I had hoped to get to sleep by 10:30 – for my sake and for Ben’s – but that didn’t happen. Oh well. I had plenty of caffeine pills packed on the bike!

My confidence or at least comfort carried over to Saturday morning. I took my time making final preparations, and wound up downing my last spoonful of oatmeal as Chris Scotch, the race director, shouted that we had one minute till the start. I scrambled outside, rolled my bike up to the starting area, reset my GPS unit, and started riding.

The opening miles of the Tuscobia are a flat, narrow run from the edge of the town of Rice Lake to the Tuscobia trail proper. With a relatively small field of about 35 starters, the pack riding was easy. I enjoyed the fact that each number plate carried both the racer’s number and name (or close to it: “Chris Tassava” in my case, since I guess my full name didn’t fit), allowing us to greet each other by first name. I didn’t catch the name of the guy riding in blue jeans. I wonder if he finished.

True to trail reports and my pre-ride the night before with Jill Martindale and Alexandera Houchin, the trail was hard and fast – a thin layer of snow or ice from being totally bare, and perfect for my Dillinger 5 tires. By the time we made the right turn across the highway and onto the Tuscobia State Trail, everyone had been pretty well sorted. Five miles or so further, the snow deepened a bit, so I stopped to air down from pavement pressure to gravel pressure. I never did have to go down to real snowbiking levels of single-digit PSI, which was amazing and, given the speeds allowed by 15 pounds on packed trail, welcome.

Photo by Dave Markman

Ice is nice, if you have studded tires

Over the rest of the leg to the first checkpoint in a park near the tiny town of Ojibwa, a couple riders passed me, and I passed a couple. I had trouble with the chunder on one of the rolling hills in the town of Birchwood, but judging by the footprints in the snow, so did almost everyone else. I took off my gloves and hat, far too warm for the conditions, and stowed them in case I needed them later. I kept up with my eating and drinking (trail mix and Infinit Go Far, mostly), which is sometimes hard to do when I’m going fast-ish. I slowed down to admire the Chippewa River, which was running low and black, like a ribbon of night sky, and to take a photo of the trail, striped with icy patches:

I’d hoped to get the checkpoint at Ojibwa – 44.5 miles into the race – by noon, so I was very happy to get there at a quarter to 11. I drank a big helping of chicken ramen (in my own cup: organizers didn’t supply any cups, bowls, or utensils this year!), drank some tepid water, and headed back out in about 20 minutes, a really quick stop for me.

Tuscobia is unique in that a half-distance race is run at the same time as the long race. The 80-mile runners, skiers, and riders start at 10:00 a.m. in Park Falls, the turnaround checkpoint for the long race, and head towards Rice Lake, where the bikers in the 160-mile race had started at 6:00 a.m. and would finish 18 or 24 or 30 hours later. It’s always fun and weird to encounter them 80-milers, and my good mood was only heightened by seeing the first 80-mile riders coming towards me a few miles outside the checkpoint. We exchanged encouragements and shouted trail reports back and forth, but everyone mostly kept motoring. The snow deepened here again, forcing everyone to share one four-inch deep slot. I was pleased to be able to do this pretty well, enjoying the way this riding felt a lot like mountain biking.

Occasionally I’d veer into the powder to let an 80-miler have the track, but more often they moved aside for me, which was generous. I waved to Ben as he came roaring toward me on his way to the finish, and later stopped briefly to talk with my friend Mark Seaburg, doing the 80 as a warmup for a far tougher race the next weekend in Idaho. He was his usual gracious self, complimenting my pace so far and telling me that the trail improved drastically nearer to Park Falls. I told him that he’d have to deal with the rut for a while, and some icy sections later, but that after Ojibwa, everything was fast as hell. Fists bumped, we headed out in our opposite directions.

Not long after that, I started meeting the 80-mile runners. So many of them, all pulling sleds loaded with all the required gear that I had strapped to my bike. They cheered for me, I cheered for them, and then I happily rode down the smooth groove packed down by their sleds, happy for some easier riding after six or more hours of effort. I had started to feel a little tired, so I consciously dialed things back. Reviewing my cue cards, I could see I had about 20 miles to the checkpoint in Park Falls, which meant about 100 to the finish – just a century! Very doable. The slower speed also let me enjoy the views of long walls of snowy trees, a sight I always love.

I still hadn’t fallen into my usual pit of watching the odometer on my GPS unit – a sign that my concentration is waning – when I saw the first puff of smoke from the paper mill in Park Falls. Getting close. The town’s old-fashioned silver water tower loomed ahead and then receded on the left, flickering in and out of the trees. How can something so big and tall disappear so easily? Finally, I saw the sign at the head of the Tuscobia State Trail, and then arrows directing me over the streets to the checkpoint, run again this year by the Park Falls Gastropub. I wheeled in at 3:00 p.m., a couple hours ahead of my goal of getting there by dinnertime.

Inside, I ate a grilled cheese and a giant bowl of salty soup, drank a can of Pepsi and took another for the road, chatted with the other racers, and studied the race tracker on a big TV over the table of food. Those of us in the checkpoint were in positions sixth through twelve or so – respectable spots, but far behind Ben Doom, who we could see had already left Ojibwa. He would finish around 7:30 p.m. in a time of 13:27, just shy of the course record but more than three hours ahead of the second-place rider. Ben in fact faster over the full distance than the winning 80-mile rider did over the shorter distance. Not a bad day on the bike!

Goaded a little by the checkpoint coordinator, who told us that we had only a half hour of daylight now, several of us began stirring. I didn’t want to ride with a big group, so I was happy to see that only Jill Martindale was really ready on leave. She and I headed out at four, pointing ourselves at the twilight peeking over the trees. On the forested trail, dusk came fast. I turned on my lights even before we passed the last few houses on the outskirts of Park Falls, or the creepy-looking bar with with its falling-down beer sign. In the gloaming, we met a last few 180-mile riders heading toward Park Falls, including our friend Leah Gruhn, on track for a second-place finish.

Trading pulls with Jill, I relished this moment of exertion and focus, which doesn’t come in every race. My legs are heavy, but I’m not gassed. My stomach doesn’t feel normal, but it’s full of food, and not upset. My shoulders and neck and butt ache, but I can still stretch away the pain. I have many miles behind me, but there are many, many more ahead. And, best, darkness has fallen. As far as I need to know or care, the world ends at the edge of my headlamp’s beam. All I have to do it ride into that spot.

Jill and I had discussed at the checkpoint whether she was on pace to break the women’s course record of about 22 hours. As we rolled out, she was, and so long as we kept our speed up over 6 mph, she’d be fine. I worried a bit about the rutted section where I’d met the 80 milers a few hours before, but the runners had widened and packed the ruts, so we barely noticed it.

What I did notice, in the deep black of the woods, was light, exaggerated by all the darkness. The faint reflection from the numeral on a mile marker glowed like a cell phone. Runners’ taillights – or, often, the Christmas lights draped over their sleds – flared like TVs. Lights on distant houses and garages, even screened by the trees, blazed like fires. And the headlights of cars or occasional snowmobiles seemed obscenely atomic, far too intense to look toward, before blessedly vanishing behind us. After one string of snowmobiles blasted past us, Jill said, aptly, “They sound like they’re breaking!”

Here and there, we paused to eat or drink, to take off or put on some item of clothing, or just to not pedal. We would start moving again after a minute or two, maybe saying a few words to decide who would lead. We told each other ghost stories – the windigo, the Michigan Dog Man – and pointed out things that looked like other things, like the tree that I was sure, until we passed, was a guy waving to us. We really did see an all-white hare run across the trail. I listened to my tires: a harsh static on loose snow, a high sizzle on the compacted stuff. Eyes forward, I could stay in the track by simply listening for one sound or the other. It felt a little magical. The chatter of the tires was my own real awareness of my bike, the Blue Buffalo, which functioned perfectly the whole day.

Assuming that the Ojibwa checkpoint would be pretty busy with runners, we decided to stop at a gas station in Winter, just a few miles on the near side of the checkpoint, where we would also have a wider selection of crap to eat and drink. They didn’t have any of the ginger ale I craved to settle my stomach – now a little burbly after 13 hours of citrus-flavored nutrition drink and trail mix – but we managed to find some other stuff to devour, and I happily accepted Jill’s offer of a squeeze packet of applesauce. I did rudely decline the offer of a guy there – apparently supporting another racer – to pull off my ice beard. Usually I’m good natured about that sort of thing, but this guy had probably been warm and dry all day, and the joke bugged me. “No. Don’t do that. Don’t ever fucking do that.” Sorry for being a jerk, Spectator Man!

Jill and I downed our snacks over a few minutes of sitting by the live-bait tanks

and then headed back out. As expected, the Ojibwa checkpoint was crowded with runners and a couple bikers, but since we had refreshed ourselves at the gas station, we didn’t linger. I did get my glass of ginger ale, which tasted like heaven.

9:16 p.m. and back on the trail, aimed at the finish line, still on pace for the new women’s record time. I flipped my cue sheet to the last page: 44.5 more miles. Now the race was very simple: stay warm, eat and drink, and pedal as hard as possible. After climbing to an afternoon high of about 15º F, the temperature had fallen back to about 5º, with a slight headwind pushing back at us. Chilly, but easily managed. Keep the jacket zipped, the buff tucked in, the hood piled up.

We continued to trade pulls, passing through one small town and then another, dropping down to a scary railroad crossing and then climbing away from it, zipping over roads more frequently than we had in the far part of the course, chatting now and again but mostly just riding. I kept waiting for the sleep monster to slither out of a yawn and dig its claws into my skull – even going so far as to put my caffeine pills in spot where I could find them if I bonked – but the monster never showed up. The only things that did emerge from the darkness

were a couple riders who’d passed us while we were resting with the live bait. One was bonking badly, and asked for an energy bar. I didn’t have one, but I offered him a couple caffeinated gels. He took them, asking, “How far to the finish?” “Do you really want to know?” “Yes.” I told him, but couldn’t tell if he found relief or oppression in the number. I was glad I didn’t feel that bad, and that Jill apparently didn’t either.

It was after midnight already, maybe 20 miles from the finish but a few minutes of riding from Birchwood, the Bluegill Capital of Wisconsin and the last big town before the finish in Rice Lake. Some volunteers there had offered to put up a rest stop for any racers who were coming through overnight. According to the race director, the amenity was partly charity, partly a way to prevent racers from knocking on Birchwooders’ doors at 3 a.m., begging for warm places to rest, as had happened the previous year, when temperatures had ranged down to 20º below zero. I hadn’t done that, but I had rested way too long at a convenience store in town. Though I neither wanted nor needed to rest as long this year, Jill and I still stopped for a bit.

1 a.m. selfie

The volunteers seemed a bit perplexed by us, staring silently as we drank cocoa and beef broth. I tried to eat an oatmeal cookie but couldn’t finish it. Riders and one runner whom we’d recently passed came in to eat and dry their socks.

One rider – the guy who’d asked for the bar a few hours before – left after just a couple minutes, drawing Jill and me back out onto the trail. We caught him almost immediately on a steep up-and-down roller. I chose the wrong gear and had to hike up the far side of the hill while Jill cranked her way up.

From that spot, the course is literally downhill – at maybe negative half a percent grade – for the last seventeen miles, except for a tricky dip at a washed-out culvert near the finish. I don’t think Jill and I said more than seventeen words over those miles, but I did carefully watch my GPS unit, happy to see speeds of 8 and 9 mph. I kept recalculating our finish time, trying to assure myself that Jill would beat the women’s record. By the time we zipped down and up the dip – exactly five miles from the finish – she had the record in hand. We made the last highway crossing and took the left turn onto the straightaway to the finish. Now we just needed to crank our biggest gears past the final new landmarks: a supper club, some driveway crossings, a radio tower, the industrial park, two bridges. Jill pulled up next to me and we decided to cross the finish line side by side. No need to sprint! We rolled over in 21:20 – more than half an hour ahead of the old women’s record.

Exhausted and happy, we collapsed inside the finish line building. I zoned out, then came to and chatted with Jill, race co-director Helen, and a couple other racers and spectators. I’d been dreaming all day of chicken fingers and French fries, but I was satisfied with a slice of pizza and a cup of beer. The new finisher’s hat was nice too.


* Arrowhead 135, 2014-2018; Fat Pursuit 200k in 2014-2015 and 200-miler in 2017; Tuscobia 160, 2016-2018; Actif Epica 120k in 2018.

** I DNF’ed the 2014 Fat Pursuit 200k and the 2017 200-miler.

Actif Epica, or The Windswept Plains of Southern Manitoba

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!

Bonus Miles and Flat Tires at the Arrowhead 135

Musing
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.

Racing
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.

AH 2018 trophy photo