Countdown to Arrowhead 6

I have three sleeps till my sixth try at the Arrowhead Ultra, which starts at 7 a.m. on Monday, January 28, in International Falls, Minnesota. As I write this on Friday afternoon, the forecast calls for some classic Arrowhead conditions: temperatures at the start of about -25º F, at midafternoon of about -5º, and of -25º overnight – by which time I hope to have earned my sixth Arrowhead finish. Again this year, many (but not all) of the racers can be followed online through Trackleaders.

So, yeah, the weather will be the dominant story this year, as it was last year when the forecast was about 20º too high. I adjusted to the cold pretty well but made two big mistakes – taking a wrong turn just after the halfway point, and then mishandling a flat tire in the middle of the night – that forced me to spend more time on the course and gave me a pretty good case of frostbite. Turns out, spending 90 minutes handling metal at 2 a.m. and -30º isn’t a safe thing to do.

In aiming to finish this year in under 24 hours, I’ve made a few changes from last year. First and foremost, I’m not going to race in the unsupported category, which means that – unlike last year and the year before – I can use the checkpoints to rest, eat and drink, and warm up. I don’t want to spend more than a total of an hour in the checkpoints. A little less self-reliance means I’ll be a little faster than last year, which was my slowest year on the course since my first race in 2014 (another super-cold year). I aim to spend no time at the first checkpoint, around mile 30, and as little as possible at the checkpoint at mile 60 (just enough time to eat a grilled cheese sandwich and down some Coke), then to rest better at the third checkpoint near mile 100 before making the push to the finish.

I would love to set a new PR of less than 19:30, but I’m not sure I have the fitness for that pace, or that the conditions will allow it. Tuscobia went well, to be sure, and St. Croix went even better, but those two events are a far cry from Arrowhead! Who knows, though. The trail will bring whatever it brings.

Beyond racing in the supported category this year, I’ll be on a different bike this year, the Blue Buffalo, a Salsa Mukluk XO1 that has treated me very well in three races so far.

The bike is a “one-by,” with 12 gears in back but no front derailleur, and it’s the most comfortable bike I’ve ever had, as well as probably the lightest slash fastest. Carbon from the HED Big Deal rims to the Whisky handlebars! I’m running 45NRTH Dillinger 5 tires (studded in front, bare in back), set up tubeless to save a little weight. D5s aren’t state of the art any more, but I love them and don’t want to change to something else right now. Under its first owner, Ben Doom, this bike finished second at Arrowhead last year, so it knows the course. As Ben said, “Put it on cruise control and relax.”

The Blue Buffalo is set up with racks and bags to carry all the stuff that we must or want to take with us on the trails: fork and rear racks by Salsa (Anything Cages and the Alternator rack, respectively); a front bag from Yeti; a frame and top tube bag by Cedaero in Two Harbors, Minnesota; and handlebar bags and a seatpost bag from Revelate in Alaska, which also made the all-important pogies that I’m using on my handlebars. The biggest change I’ve made this year is using the rear rack to carry my sleep system: a -20º F bag, bivy sack, and pad. Having all that weight and bulk off the front of the bike made the rig a lot more manageable at Tuscobia and St. Croix, and I’m hoping for a similar payoff on the relentless hills at Arrowhead. Here’s the Blue Buffalo before the St. Croix race a couple weeks ago, set up for the race except for the pogies (which weren’t needed because it was fairly warm).

All of these bags have served me well in many races and rides, so I trust them to carry my food, spare clothes, batteries, stove (the classic MSR WhisperLite), fuel, medicine, hand warmers, pump and repair kit, etc. Below is some of the core gear that I carry in every race, including required stuff, plus some of the food I’ll carry in the Arrowhead and my helmet and boots – and the Spot beacon that will transmit my location to Trackleaders.

I’m carrying over almost all of the kit and gear I’ve used over the last few year. From bottom to top, I’ll be wearing 45NRTH Wolfgar boots over a thick pair of wool socks and a thin pair of compression socks; Sugoi Titan pants over my heaviest Craft baselayer tights and a pair of lightweight but padded cycling shorts; and my beloved Eddie Bauer Ascent softshell jacket over a wicking Craft tank top and a Craft long-sleeve thermal top. (I’ll have a reflective vest on top off all that – a requirement for these races.

As needed I can add layers on top of the jacket: a thin windvest, a light fleece vest, a thin puffer jacket, or a thick puffer. I’m going overboard – “packing my fears” – with all those extra layers, but as temperatures dip overnight, I’ll probably pull on the lighter jacket for the extra security and the warmth. I expect to walk many of the hills in that stretch of the race.

Those safety layers are a reaction to getting frostbit last year. For that same reason, I’m over-preparing with handwear. I plan to wear my midweight Outdoor Research PL400 gloves on my hands at all times, and besides the warmth of the pogies, I am bringing three set of reinforcements: thin OR gloves to put inside the gloves, OR mittens for outside the gloves, and a pair of down mittens from Black Rock Gear. Based on experiments in warmer conditions earlier this winter, I think the down mittens inside my pogies will be the best option if shit gets unreal and we see -50º or worse.

My frostbit nose and cheeks demand some special care now too, so I’m planning both to use Dermatone as a skin protectant and to wear this crazy balaclava from 45NRTH that is basically a neck gaiter, a light hat, and a nose guard all in one. As needed, I’ll add a regular hat (or my Black Rock down hat) and a heavier neck gaiter.

All of those layers have to fit under my Giro Timberwolf helmet, which is as ridiculous looking as it is warm. The helmet also carries one of my two Princeton Tec Apex headlamps. The other is strapped to my handlebars. Between the two lamps, I can throw quite a bit of light down the trail, which is important since I’ll be in the dark for at least half of my race time.

And I am fine with that. Better than fine. I love riding in the dark.

The peace, the solitude, the quiet, and yes maybe a little whiff of fear – I love it and can’t wait to experience it again. Someday I hope to go up north and spend a day on the parts of the Arrowhead trail that I’ve only ever seen in the dark. This year, though, I’ll relish seeing that six feet of light in front of me all night. I hope I can follow it all the way to the finish at Fortune Bay!

Thoughts on Trump

I’d considered trying to write something long and detailed about our new president, but when Inauguration Day arrived, I didn’t have the stomach or time for it. 

My politics are pretty clear to anyone I know on social media, so I probably don’t need to say more than that while I hope he’s a good president, I don’t think there’s any realistic chance of that happening. Trump is not presidential material, which makes his current job even more colossally ironic. 

What really gets me angry today is how Trump mocks a set of illusions that I’ve built my life around. These illusions or beliefs are built on and reinforced by my own white male privilege, but Trump now gleefully disproves them – that for instance a good person will do better for himself and people he loves than a bad person, or that the combination of intelligence and hard work will beat assholery and privilege.

Grasping, tawdry, vulgar, and ignorant, Trump has nonetheless succeeded. He’s the most powerful person in the world.

I’m not going to jettison those illusions of mine yet, though. Maybe I’m a dumbass for not doing so. But I’ve read this novel, and I think I remember the ending. 

Spelling Bee Runner-Up

In a no-words-barred nerd battle at the Northfield middle school spelling bee, Julia took second place behind last year’s winner.


Julia spelled eleven words correctly, then missed on “gesticulation,” which the champ spelled correctly as well as “prestidigitation.” We’re so proud of the kid! Now she’s going to the regional competition in February!

Winter Fun

People often express surprise when I say that I’m looking forward to one of my winter races, when I say that it’ll be “fun.”

Given the dislike or even hatred (not to say fear) that many people seem to have for winter, I guess I can understand their surprise. I would need many more words than I have in this post to explain all the forms that the “fun” of a winter race can take. But one kind of pleasure that I enjoy during the races, and during winter generally, is the pleasure of being in the snowy landscape. 

Even today, taking a completely ordinary ride home from the gym, I saw this wonderful view, looking east out of Carleton’s Arboretum:

Mix in some mountains and forests, like the Fat Pursuit does, and the views get literally breathtaking:


I’m looking forward to the fun of riding through these scenes again. Four days!

Cheq 80

What: The Chequamegon 100 mountain bike race – actually only 80 miles this year due to rain damage on one part of the trail network. 


Where: Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association trails near Cable in north-central Wisconsin. The CAMBA trails are tight, technical paths through dense hardwood and conifer forests. 


When: Saturday, June 18, 2016 – a warm, humid northwoods day.

Why: To redeem myself after failing to finish the Cheq 100 in 2015, when I stepped down to the 62-mile race after the wet trails proved too much for my legs and fatbike.

Who: the Coyote, my Salsa El Mariachi, which got a little buggy and dirty. 

My best gear: my Osprey hydration pack, a Syncro 3 that held a big reservoir and a few gels and nothing else. Light, comfy, ideal.

My worst gear: my lower back.

The low point was when I had to stop with ten miles to go to to stretch my aching back for the millionth time. The brutally rough trails were almost too much. 

The high point was riding the whole day with my friends Galen and Sarah, who though much faster than me, rode with me from start to finish. I valued the company and the inspiration as well as the chance to watch how they handled the trails. 

It was in the bag when we hit a high point on the last section of singletrack and saw the road that led back to this finish line.

The key lesson learned is that flow is everything on MTB trails. Being able to generate and maintain momentum is a far more important skill than being able to generate massive power. (Power and speed helps too though!) 

 The takeaway is that I became a better MTB rider between the 2015 and 2016 Cheqs. On to 2017: I hope it’s my first full MTB century.

Beastiful 

I don’t think I’ve thought about what it might be like to be an animal for decades – probably since I was a little kid. Well, maybe I do a little imagining now and then. Swooping down a long hill on my bike, I might wonder if I feel anything like how a hawk might feel as it dives out on the clouds onto a hapless rabbit. 

That imagining pales next to the deep and deeply weird imaginings and the even weirder doings that British writer Charles Foster describes in his book, Being a Beast. Concerned – obsessed – with the experience of being an animal, Foster states on the first page of the book, “I want to know what it is like to be a wild thing.” He not only tries to think about what it must be like to be a badger or a fox or a swift, but even tries to be a badger and a fox and a swift, going so far as to eat earthworms like a badger, to skulk through urban streets like a fox, and to – well, he can’t be much like a swift, which spends weeks aloft migrating between Europe and Africa. Mindbendingly bizarre, these experiences are also – thanks to Foster’s human command of language – entertaining examinations of the biology and psychology of being a beast (all of which include scores of engrossing facts about the natural world) and a set of cases in which Foster tries to be those different beasts. 

Charles Foster, Being a BeastIt’s safe to say, I think, that very few people – at least in the industrialized West, where we have so safely and brutally segregated our lives from nature – are willing to go to Fosterian lengths in imagining an animal’s existence. Hunters, as he shows in the red stag chapter, might come closest, trying to duplicate aspects of wolf-ness. I like certain kinds of extreme fun in nature, but I don’t think I’d sleep in a cave in a riverbank like Badger Foster, belly-surf down a river like Otter Foster, run through the fields like Stag Foster, or eat trash scavenged from a garbage bin like Fox Foster. 

Maybe because most of us aren’t willing to go one-twentieth as far toward animal-ness as Foster, Being a Beast serves as an extended essay on a wild kind of human eccentricity and a moving consideration of a human kind of longing for the wild. For many of us, segregated in our cars and houses, this longing is imagining the freedom that we think is at the core of animal experiences. Animals experience more than freedom, of course: hunger, exhaustion, terror, as well as satiety, restedness, calm – and maybe even a sense of happiness in doing the things that make them what they are. Foster writes:

I can’t always be in the wild. Sometimes I have to be in places that smell of fear, fumes, and ambition. When I’m there, it helps very much to know that badgers are asleep inside a Welsh hill, than an otter is turning over stones in one of the Rockford pools, that a fox is blinking in the same sun that makes me sweat in my tweed coat, that a red stag is cudding among ghost trees by a stone circle near Hoar Oak, and that there’s a swift, hatched above my Oxford study, hunting, almost beyond human sight, in the high hot blue over the Congo River. That these things should be a comfort is strange. They should taunt. They should say, “You’re not there. Ha, ha, ha.”

This knowledge that animals are leading their unknowable lives while we lead ours is a comfort to me too. I find my own mind wandering, when I’m tired or stressed but also when I’m satisfied or calm, to visions – experienced directly, stolen from photos and films, and fully imagined – of bison, my favorite unknowable animals, out there in America, doing bison things. It’s a relief and a pleasure to know they’re there while I’m here. That there are wild beasts that I’ll never become. 

Teton Bison, January 2015
Teton Bison, January 2015

Arrowhead Stoke

Composing my blog post before last year’s Arrowhead 135, I had to sit far away from my motel-room window, which was entirely iced over in that year’s epic cold.

This year, we are prepping for the race in a too-hot room at the Falls Motel in International Falls, where tomorrow’s temperatures are forecasted to range from 15 to 35 degrees F, or about 50-60 degrees warmer than last year.

Room 137

Needless to say, I’m extremely excited for the race. I know the course, the weather and conditions will be good, the Buffalo proved itself in Idaho to be a great bike, and I should have a decent bump in fitness from the Fat Pursuit.

Or, you know, maybe not: maybe my legs are still fried! Either way, though, I’m happy and lucky to be here in I Falls ready to kick things off again. I enjoyed catching up with some old friends and meeting some new ones at the pre-race events this afternoon, and I’m very grateful for all the support and interest from friends far and wide – especially as always Shannon, who’s solo-parenting while I’m adventuring.

I’m hoping for a 24-hour finish, which is conceivable and maybe even realistic. My tactics, such as they are, include stopping as briefly as possible at the checkpoints and trying to follow the wheels of some racers whom I know are just a little bit faster than I am.

You can follow the race on the Trackleaders service used at the Fat Pursuit. The race tracking page is at http://trackleaders.com/arrowhead15. Since not all racers are using tracking devices, Trackleaders won’t provide a comprehensive view of racers’ times and placings. For that, check the official race results page, which will include everyone’s times at each checkpoint and the finish.

Yay bikes!

Waterfalls

We took our summer vacation trip to Hancock, Michigan – my hometown, and a great jumping-off point for all the cool stuff in the Copper Country. We don’t go back often, or often enough, but when we do, I really enjoy playing tourist at "home." Growing up in the Keweenaw, I don’t think I ever visited any of the waterfalls along the western side of ridge that runs up the peninsula. With my family and my mom, I saw two of them on Thursday. Like the U.P. itself, they’re outstanding in their modest way.

Eagle River Falls is right in the middle of the tiny village of Eagle River. A beautiful old bridge creates a perfect vantage on the falls and the remains of a factory that (I think) used the falls for power.
Eagle River Falls

Jacob’s Falls is a little further north, after a winding drive through a tunnel of trees.
Jacob's Falls

Jacob’s Falls is right next to an abbey and to a small shop – the Jam Pot – where the monks sell amazing baked goods and jams. (Thimbleberry jam is basically platinum in a jar: $14 for a tiny jar.)

The falls are really no more than especially arresting ways for water to get to the Big Lake. It was wonderful to soak my feet in the cold water
Feet in the Lake

And soak up the views of the endless shoreline.
Lake Superior on the Keweenaw

Thanksgiving Thanks (Serious Version)

Countryside South of Town

Ten non-frivolous things for which I’m thankful today:

1. Julia, an amazing third grader.

1. Genevieve, an amazing first grader.

3. Shannon, an amazing homemaker.

4. My wonderful job at Carleton.

5. That we can meet all of our material needs.

6. My wonderful friends, near and far.

7. Northfield, an excellent place to live.

8. The Carleton Arboretum, maybe the best part of Northfield.

9. Minnesota’s four distinct seasons.

10. That my family is healthy and happy.

Pool Time

Pool Time

The pool at the magic hour. #nofilter

The summer of 2012 was defined for me by trips to the city pool. I went with the girls to the pool at least 25 times this summer. If we averaged two hours per trip (a few trips were shorter, many were longer), that’s about two days worth of time at the pool, soaking up the sun and lounging in the water. Shannon probably took the girls to the pool at least twice that many times, so the girls probably spent something like 150 hours at the pool. Not bad for one summer!
Untitled

We went so often because the girls loved it. The summers of 2010 and even 2011 were a little rocky, since the girls were younger and less sure in the water. This summer everything came together. Julia is a really good swimmer, thanks to lessons and her own growing willingness to just get in the water and *swim*. She even started doing “laps” between various points int the pool, which was impressive.

Vivi quit her lessons last winter, but she picked up some skills from Julia and can motor around pretty well. Julia continued to jump off the diving board, a feat she accomplished first last summer, and Vivi decided to brave the board – and the deep water – this summer, too. She was always the smallest human in the line for the board, but by golly she jumped off like there was no tomorrow.

Swimming and diving were just part of the fun. The girls played endlessly with the friends who were usually at the pool with us, inventing all kinds crazy games with them or just horsing around.
Sadly, the pool's chlorination has left the girls unable to distinguish up from down.

They even did some poolside relaxing.
I guess they're done swimming.

And of course I played quite a bit with them, too – though not as much as they would have liked, which was 100% of the time. (Sometimes my old knees demanded that I get out of the water: all that crouching is hard on ’em.) The funniest part of the whole summer came today when I begged off of another round of “monster” (i.e., chasing them around the water and throwing them into the air when I caught them). The both protested, “Noooooo, Daddy! You have to stay in! We don’t want to play by ourselves!” I asked, “What do you do when Mama’s at the pool with you by herself? Doesn’t she come in and play with you?” The looked at me like I was crazy. “No, she just sits on the side and talks with the other moms.”

I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m glad there’s a niche for me at the pool next year.
The pool at rest...

New Body Parts

Tonight while drawing at the kitchen table, Vivi had an itch on her back. She reached around to scratch it, then jumped in shock. “What’s wrong, honey?” I asked. Eyes wide but arm still reaching back, she said, “I felt something! What am I touching?”

I leaned over to look behind her, expecting her to have maybe squashed a mosquito or discovered a leaf stuck to her sweaty, sweaty skin. But no: she had discovered her shoulder blade, which was jutting out, like they do. I told her that she was just touching her shoulder blade, and she wondered in response, “Did I just grow it? Does everyone have them?” I pulled up my shirt and scrunched my scapulae to make them pop out. She touched them softly, perhaps worried they were going to bite, smiled, and reached around her own back to touch her own again.

Just wait’ll she discovers biceps (among other interesting body parts).

Reunion Seedlings

Carleton’s annual reunion is a huge deal, literally taking over campus for three days in the middle of June every year. The aftermath is always impressive: giant empty tents, scores of recycling bins, trodden-down grass… This year the aftermath included some new seedlings – maples by the look of the leaves – in a part of the Arboretum where the indefatigable Arb crew recently cleared away buckthorn and other underbrush. I think the seedlings look pretty cute in their little nets:
Seedlings

Seedlings