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

Daily Tanka: On Driving up North

On Driving up North, v. 1

Fir, pine, spruce, cedar
Canyon a narrow blacktop
River that allows
Cars to sail through the northwoods
Between the small lonely towns

On Driving up North, v. 2
I’ve sailed cars over
Thousands of miles of blacktop
Rivers running down 
Evergreen canyons to towns
Clinging to the roads’ edges