Springmageddon II

Another day of snowstorm meant another good ride in the snowstorm, this time a ramble with my friend Michael on the gravel roads south of town. The ride was marvelous: two hours and 20 miles of extremely variable conditions, including a stiff headwind on the way back home. We encountered a bit of everything, from snowy descents and icy climbs

and greasy mud under the snow

to gorgeous tree-lined “trails”

and wildlife oddities like a woodcock in the roadside scrub. What a day.

Blizzard Ride

Expectation, or dread, had built for days here about a big spring blizzard due to arrive on Friday – my birthday – with wind, ice, sleet, and snow. The storm showed up a little late, but by late morning today had started fulfilling the forecast: horizontal snow, clattering ice pellets, a mounting drift in our backyard, a roaring wind, cancelled social plans, and above all gnashing of teeth on Facebook.

It’s been a while – at least a year – since I’ve been able to ride in a real blizzard, so I wasn’t about to waste the opportunity, and luckily both girls had engagements with friends. At one, shivering with excitement, I kitted up and headed over to the Carleton Arboretum (off-limits to fatbikers all winter) for an easy, fun ride in the snow and wind.

And, it turned out, some sleet, which fell for the first half of the ride. But the temperature was comfortable and the wind really only mattered in the open spots. I went slow, taking time to study the treetops for owls, which I am longing to see. I didn’t see any owls, but I did see several red-tailed hawks, including one stalking a red squirrel. I stood and watched for a few minutes, but the hawk couldn’t quite time a swoop to successful nab the squirrel, which eventually scampered into an impenetrable thicket.

Riding on, I admired the gorgeous wintry trees,

looked down at the oxbow in Spring Creek as well as numerous ducks, geese, and two herons

did a little hike-a-bike where the drifted snow was too heavy to pedal

and saw almost no humans – some college kids wandering around, a family sledding, another fatbiker, and a few people downtown at the brewery (including, impressively, a couple who had skied over with their baby and dog!). If this is the last ride of the winter, it might also have been the best one.

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

24 Hours till Arrowhead 5

Twenty-four hours from now, I should be fairly far down the Arrowhead course, well into my attempt to finish for the fifth time. The race starts in International Falls at 7 a.m. Central time on Monday, January 29. As usual, the race can be followed through Trackleaders, though also as usual not everyone is carrying a tracking device, so it’s hard to tell exactly who’s winning! The Arrowhead’s Facebook page should provide updates on the winners and maybe on other finishers.

I woke up on Saturday with a nervous flutter in my stomach, thinking about an anxiety dream I’d had overnight in which I was racing, but stopping frequently to retrieve weird items from the bag on the front of my bike. I tamped down my nerves by finishing my preparations: packing my clothes, buying a last few food items, testing my stove, and of course checking the forecast. It felt good to check off all the items on my to-do list!

Conditions appear to be good for a fast year, with temps of about -10º F at the start of the race, about +5º F through the afternoon of the first day, and then -10º F or so again overnight into Tuesday, by which time I hope to be near the finish line at Fortune Bay Casino in Tower. This Arrowhead will be my tenth winter ultra race, and if I finish, it’ll be my eighth finish in those ten events. Beyond my goal of simply finishing again, I would love to be able to beat my average time, 24:19.

I had hoped for a a 24-hour finish at Tuscobia 160 in December, though, too, and missed it by 9 hours! I chalked that up partly to a lack of bike fitness (now, far less a concern!) and partly to the extreme cold, which led me to spend a ridiculous amount of time at the checkpoints. I can’t idle at the checkpoints at the Arrowhead, though, as I’m racing in the unsupported category, which means that I have to carry all my own food and drink and that I can’t go into any of the checkpoints to rest or warm up. I finished unsupported last year, but in far warmer conditions.

I’m not worried about getting too cold, since it’s surprisingly easy to stay warm even at -10º (or maybe not surprisingly, having logged about 500 miles of racing at 0º F or lower), but I do need to be careful about food and drink. I’m carrying about 8,000 calories with me. This should be far more than I can actually consume at a rate of 200 calories an hour, but I know from experience that I need a wide variety of stuff to eat. In addition to about 160 ounces of a high-calorie energy drink, then, I’m bringing candy bars, energy gels, corn chips, cashews, oatmeal-peanut butter bars, pepperoni, and even some soup that I can prepare on my stove. I anticipate needing to stop at least a few times to boil some snow into water, as the low temperatures might slushify or even freeze the spare reservoir of nutrition drink I’ll carry in my seatbag. I’m pretty sure that the drink will defrost once I get it into my backpack, but in the meantime I may need to drink some fresh, pure northwoods snow!

Beyond these considerations of food and drink, I’m feeling ready for the challenge. I lost eight pounds after the Tuscobia and haven’t gained them back yet, so I’ll be eight pounds lighter on the Arrowhead trail than I was last year! More seriously, I am very confident in my kit (all the same clothes I’ve used successfully for three straight winters now), my gear (all the equipment that I’ve also been using for years), and especially my bike, which has not failed me yet! Here’s to 135 more miles in the snowy woods with the Buffalo.

1 Week from Arrowhead 5

Monday, January 22, is the start of the last week before the fourteenth annual Arrowhead 135. This year’s race will be my fifth. So far I’ve completed all four of the Arrowheads I’ve entered, and I hope to earn finish number five this year.

Five years is half a decade, which seems like a long time to be invested in this event. As I finish my preparation for the 2018 race (checking the forecast, drinking a lot of water, checking the forecast, packing my gear, checking the forecast, getting good sleep), I am thinking about how naïve and lucky I was in 2014, my rookie year, when the race was run in -20° temperatures. I did the only thing I’m good at – not giving up – and finished seventh in 29:09.

That race hooked me on fatbike racing, and I’ve since raced in eight more long-distance fatbike races: three more Arrowheads (finishing each one faster than that first), three Fat Pursuits (one finish, two DNFs), and two Tuscobias (two finishes). At this year’s Tuscobia, I accumulated my 1,108th mile and 247th hour of fatbike ultra racing.

As those totals (and the many, many more miles and hours of training that lie underneath them) suggest, the winter ultras have become a very important part of my life. The races themselves are highlights of the last five years, and really of my current life. Racing has taken me to some amazing and beautiful and scary places, both literal (Mount Two Top outside West Yellowstone, Montana, or the endless midnight-forest hills before the third checkpoint at the Arrowhead) and figurative (the mind-bent existence of racing for 20, 30, 50 hours straight). The work of getting and staying ready for the races has become permanent – a way of living, I guess. Some of the people I’ve met at the races are now among my closest friends, and many more are great folks I enjoy knowing. (A few, I could do without!) And I probably cherish my fatbike, the Buffalo, more than any other possession I’ve ever had.

With seven days to go till the start of the 2018 Arrowhead, then, I’m reflecting on all this and trying to recapture some of the beginner’s mind that I didn’t know I had in 2014. I want to approach this race with less expectation than the last few, when I’ve aimed for particular results; some came to pass, some didn’t. Too, I want to approach this race with more gratitude than usual: gratitude for race officials and volunteers who stage these crazy events under very trying circumstances, for the fellow racers who make the training and competing fun even when it isn’t, for a body and mind that (partly by accident, partly by intention) match up well with the demands of the events, for a family that lets me engage in this pursuit, for non-racing friends who seem to enjoy following the events online, and yeah for that gorgeous bike.

This year, I’m racing the Arrowhead in the “unsupported” category again, meaning that I can’t use any of the services at the three race checkpoints (shelter, warmth, water, food). I tackled the race this way last year and everything went (mostly) fine. With colder temperatures forecast this year than last, staying hydrated will be a bigger task, since my spare water might freeze, but I’ll carry a lot to drink and be prepared to melt snow if needed. Having competed successfully in three very cold races, my kit and body should be fine at temperatures around 0° F. Even writing this out makes me feel more comfortable with the challenge, and eager to get after it again! Now it’s just the wait until the fireworks at the start at 7 a.m. on Monday the 29th.

Tuscobia Race Report

Last weekend’s Tuscobia winter ultra in central Wisconsin was a tough event, a solid challenge, and, after 33 hours of racing, a satisfying accomplishment – 9th place out of 14 finishers (and 34 starters).

A week out from the start of the 160-mile bike race, I knew that I lacked the fitness to go fast. The night before the race, I could see that the conditions were going to be cold, slow, and demanding. The forecast called for temperatures below 0º F during the entire weekend of the race, though not for much wind (thank the goddess!) and no snow (too cold!).

Since I could not do anything to improve either my condition or the conditions, I prepared for a long ride from Rice Lake to Park Falls and back, packing extra food and clothes and making my usual decision to not give up unless I was in danger. I respected but didn’t fear the temperatures, having thrived in two other cold races: my first Arrowhead in 2014 and last winter’s Fat Pursuit. I’d finished that Arrowhead in 7th place and raced well through the cold of the FP, so I figured I could handle what the Tuscobia was offering.

The start at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday was, as promised, cold as hell – around -15º F – but welcome, too. Once the 30-some bikers in the 160-mile race started rolling north out of Rice Lake along the spur to the Tuscobia State Trail, which runs 76 miles to Park Falls, I warmed up quickly and easily, even unzipping my outer layer within a few miles. As always in these races, the first miles are marked with numerous racers stopping to adjust clothes, to eat or drink, to tweak their bikes or gear, or just to wonder why the hell we were out there. I soon made the turn off the spur and onto the Tuscobia trail proper.

A short jaunt on the trail the day before had been my first real ride on snow all season, but all the usual feelings came back right away: how to read the snow and find the best surface, how to hold the narrow line along the shoulder of trail, how to steer through loose snow, how to gauge whether my tires were at the right pressure for the snow. I got lucky there: I had found a good pressure and wound up not needing to make another adjustment.

I ate and drank as needed, though I made the rookie error of letting the hose to my hydration reservoir freeze, requiring me to bury it deeper into my clothes so it would defrost. I had a HydroFlask full of hot water, though, so I didn’t have to skimp on fluids while the hose thawed. Strangely, I did feel sleepy just after the sun came up, a moment in a race when I usually feel energized. I stopped and drank half a slushy Red Bull – only half because even as I drank, the other half froze solid.

Other riders criticize the Tuscobia for being “boring” or “uninteresting,” and while I can agree that Tuscobia doesn’t offer the mountains of the Fat Pursuit in Idaho or the rolling forests of the Arrowhead 135 in northern Minnesota, I love the simplicity of the straight, flat course, a rails-to-trails corridor. You can see up the trail for seeming ever, and breaks in the routine leap out at you: snowmobilers (few and far between in the frigid weather), intersections with roads and other trails, some farms and a few towns (a rarity in fatbike races), the occasional dip in the flatness, and, yes, some beautiful views, like this hoarfrosted swamp about halfway to the first checkpoint:

(Thanks to fellow racer James Kiffmeyer for the photo.)

One strange aspect of the race this year was the lack of animals, even in open spots like this. I saw a few juncos in one town and a big lazy bald eagle soaring near the Chippewa River, a wide black stream that the race crosses not far before the first checkpoint, a stop around mile 45 in Ojibwa Park near the obnoxiously well-named town of Winter. The race actually passes through Ojibwa twice: once on the way out and once on the way back at mile 115, after the turnaround checkpoint in Park Falls at mile 80. I had hoped and planned to spend less than one total hour in the three checkpoints, but this plan evaporated like sweat on race day.

As I approached Ojibwa around noon, after six hours of solid riding, I knew I’d need to stop there long enough to completely warm up and dry out. I was already well off my 2016 race pace and I still hadn’t seen a temperature above zero, so I had no reasons to skimp on rest. I wound up spending 50 minutes there, long enough to dry my outer clothes, to warm up, and to eat about a quart of soup.

I admit: I did not enjoy the first few minutes back outside after the warmth of the checkpoint. Though now “only” zero or so, the air felt solid, an invisible block of ice. I pedaled hard up the track back to the trail and then toward Park Falls, trying to warm up. A runner – just out for a jog, not a racer – came toward me, and she gave me a big wave and “Way to go!” as we met. Her braids were tipped with frost. The encouragement settled me back down for the haul to Park Falls.

One interesting and even fun aspect of Tuscobia is that the event is actually six overlapping races: a big group of runners and skiers start the full 160-mile course on Friday morning, 24 hours before the full-distance bikers start; most of them are on the second leg of the course by the time the full-distance bikers start on Saturday morning. And a few hours after we start rolling, an even bigger group of bikers, runners, and skiers start an 80-mile race in Park Falls. The leaders of the 80-mile bike race hit Ojibwa as I was preparing to leave, and from there all the way to Park Falls, I encountered riders and runners (but only one skier!) every few minutes. It was fun to call out encouragement to them and to greet the few I could recognize, like my friends Mark and Tim. I even started to see some of the 160-mile riders on the way back home, including my pal Ben Doom, who dominated the race to win by nearly an hour. He was charging when I saw him, out of the saddle, but still had the energy to give me a shout and hold out a hand for a high five.

The closer I got to Park Falls, though, the less happy the racers looked, though, and around dusk, with the town’s skyglow in the distance, I met a few runners who were out-and-out disgusted. I helped one woman retrieve a mitten she’d dropped and commiserated about the cold with another, but tried to keep my own feelings about the conditions to myself.

I had yet to feel cold, apart from a couple moments when I’d stopped for a nutrition or nature break and the frigid air had wrapped around me like a frozen blanket. Each time, getting myself back underway warmed up everything again, even my hands, which – apart from my face, coated in iced-over whiskers – were the only parts of my body that really got chilled, and then only when I had to take them out of the big, warm pogies on my handlebars. Overall, I was comfortable and happy, pedaling steadily, joggling my fingers and toes to keep them warm, eating or drinking as needed, enjoying the view up the trail.

I did think a lot about why this kind of racing attracts me, when it breaks some who also love it and of course repels so many others. Looking down the snowy trail, I talked to myself about this. Having done eight winter ultra races before the Tuscobia, I was pretty sure that I have some sort of physiological advantage: my body runs hot, keeping me from getting as cold as other people, and functions well while cold. Maybe this is the genetic endowment of generations of Northern European forebears, a result of my childhood in a snowy, cold place, or just a freak thing.

I also think I also have some sort of psychological advantage: I don’t mind being cold when I am cold, and I like the challenge of figuring out how to get warm again, or to function while cold. I hesitate to use the word toughness, since I think that it’s really more a willingness to adjust to the cold, but I do challenge myself by asking – as I did pedaling down the Tuscobia trail – whether or not I was going to be tougher than the cold.

And then there’s an aesthetic component, too: I think that winter is beautiful, and best enjoyed by being out in it, ideally for long periods. Ultras are the best way I’ve found so far to immerse myself in winter and to see if I can handle its challenges.

Dusk was one of those challenges. The sun setting behind me seemed to slow me down, making it a little harder to get to Park Falls. More than once in the last ten miles to the turnaround, I mistook a road crossing or a lit-up house in the woods for town (and once, a tall evergreen for the town water tower), but I really did reach the trailhead around 7 p.m. – 13 hours into the race. A few turns on the city streets brought me to the checkpoint, at the nice little Park Falls Gastropub in downtown P.F.

Volunteers there set me up with food and drink, which I ingested while chatting with two civilian customers who could not quite understand what the race was all about. They seemed confused by the fact that no cash prizes were on offer. I didn’t mention that the main “prize” for finishing is a hat.

After I finished my food, I broke away from them to go up to the racers’ lounge, where I could rest a bit more and dry my gear. While draping my stuff over a chair in front of a tiny little old space heater, I saw that my friend Tom was there too. He and I had ridden together for almost all of my first Tuscobia, so we knew we were compatible and agreed to head out together. Though I enjoy riding alone, I thought the company would be nice, especially through the darkest and coldest overnight stretch of the race.

While my outer layers slowly dried in front of the underpowered heater, I armored up for the night: new compression socks, new wool socks, second baselayer tights and top, a dry buff. I felt unpleasantly plump and overheated while we finished preparing to head out, but I hoped they’d provide the extra warmth I’d need overnight. After a bit over two hours at the checkpoint, I headed out, Tom right behind me.

I was a little scared as we left the checkpoint. My GPS computer showed a temperature that was as low as anything I’d seen so far in the race, and of course the overnight temps would go lower. And while I enjoy riding at night, the cold made the prospect of riding for nine hours in the blackness seem more daunting than usual. The big warm-seeming orange moon hanging in the sky behind us didn’t help, nor did hearing creaks and ticks from my bike, the Buffalo, which had so far run flawlessly. The deep cold slowed the action of my brakes and shifter, making me worry about a breakdown. How could I handle a broken chain at twenty below? I decided I’d handle it carefully. Luckily, I had no mechanicals at all. The Buffalo loves the cold.

Then there were the mileposts on the left edge of the trail. Not every mile had one, but enough did that they both enticed and oppressed: 76 miles to go, 75 miles to go, 74… I had to keep adding the additional four miles for the spur back to Rice Lake and to do the mental math to put the race and our effort in context. At 25 miles, the afternoon before, the race had turned to “only” the distance of the Arrowhead – 135 miles. Just before the Ojibwa checkpoint, the distance had been a double metric century – 200 kilometers or 124 miles. Somewhere between Ojibwa and Park Falls, at 60 miles, the race had become a regular century – 100 miles. As we worked our way to Ojibwa for the second time, we reached the 62-miles-to-go marker – a metric century or 100k.

Tom and I stopped probably once an hour to eat and drink, to break the monotony or warm the extremities by walking for a minute or two, to pee (never have I needed so many nature breaks in a race!), or to just stand and talk for a minute. Once I stopped because I was falling asleep on my bike. When I told Tom that I was feeling really tired, he offered me two caffeine pills. Feeling like a junkie, I accepted them and was rewarded about fifteen minutes later by a magical surge of warmth and energy. I’ll definitely carry my own caffeine pills in future races.

Regardless of the reason, we could never stop for long: the -20º temperatures gripped us instantly and had to be endured for the time needed to unzip and rezip, to tear open a peanut butter cup and stow the wrapper, to swallow a mouthful of water. I’d need ten minutes of hard riding to warm up from each minute-long stop. Every now and then, but less often that I expected, we came on another racer. “You good? Need anything? Keep it up.” We talked a little bit to each other too, but I am not a chatty rider, so we mostly rode in silence. And anyhow my beard had iced up so thoroughly by midnight that I could barely open my mouth wide enough to speak. From our spot on the trail, we could only see a high strip of black sky, but even that ribbon contained thousands of bright stars.

We did talk about what to do at Ojibwa. As much as I would have liked to get in and out quickly, I knew I felt tired and hungry enough to need a real break. How about an hour of sitting down and of not pedaling and of eating and drinking new stuff? Tom thought this sounded fine too, so when around 3:30 a.m. the checkpoint sign appeared ahead of me on the trail – looking at first like a car parked on the trail – we turned eagerly. Inside, we set our clothes to warm by the fire, ate some of the junk food piled on the table, refilled our backpack reservoirs and water bottles, and then accidentally fell asleep. I dunno how long we slept, but when I came to, almost everyone else was asleep too – racers, volunteers, even the race director.

Tom woke up a minute later and we got ourselves moving. While he tended to some last-minute tasks, I visited the restroom, where the toilet seat was rimmed with icicles. My bike computer showed a temperature of -25º as climbed back on the bike at 6:30 a.m. for the last 45 miles of the race. Less than a half century! An easy afternoon’s ride under normal circumstances.

Thinking Tom was ready too I sprinted back toward the trail, out of my saddle and working hard to build speed and heat. When I looked back a few minutes later, expecting to see Tom right behind me, I saw nothing. I soft-pedaled a bit to see if he’d appear, but even that decrease in effort let the chill creep through my clothes. Get back on the pedals, trying to make progress but still let Tom catch up from wherever he was.

Then all of a sudden his lights washed over me from behind. I apologized for dropping him, trying to explain that I thought I’d seen him on his bike as climbed on mine. I think I heard him say that he hadn’t quite been ready, but that he hadn’t been worried or mad either. And at any rate now we were back together for the duration. The sun rose behind us, which helped dispel some of my fatigue and even started pushing the temperature up toward zero.

In the daylight – New Year’s Eve! – I recognized some of the same landmarks I had seen the day before. The Chippewa River crossing, with steam rising off the water. A smaller river that ran alongside the trail for miles. This or that desolate road crossing. This or that cluster of silos at a dairy farm. A sad-looking roadside bar. The scary-fun descent to the railroad tracks near Lemington, and then the grunt climb back up from them. Warning! Trains are moving at 60 mph!

In that magical way that they always do, the miles kept ticking by: the number on my bike computer kept climbing, and the numbers on the mileposts kept falling. Occasionally riding next to me or even in front, Tom said he wanted to stop at Birchwood, the biggest town on the course, for one last rest before the push to the finish. I agreed, both because I too wanted a little more time off the bike and because I needed to call my hotel in Rice Lake and beg them to let me check out far later than planned.

We reached Birchwood – bluegill capital of Wisconsin! – just before noon. A few other racers and volunteers were sitting heavily at tables inside a huge convenience store. I made my call and was relieved to hear I could just show up whenever; no problem. A machine-made cappuccino looked and tasted fantastic. We chatted with the other guys. I ordered french fries that looked amazing but tasted terrible. After too much idle time, we got back on the trail for the last 15 or 20 miles.

The rest of the course ran steadily downhill to Rice Lake after passing over some rollers that would be insignificant in any other race (and indeed that I had not even noticed on the way out) but that today, now, felt like Himalayas. I set for myself the dumb goal of riding all these “hills,” and nearly did – a bad gear choice forced me to walk part of the first one. But then I got back on my bike and started riding again.

The miles remaining were in the teens now, and the temperature had broken zero for the first time all race. As we came to the wetland that had been so beautifully frosted the morning before, a white-tailed deer jumped onto the trail, looked at me with disbelief, and started running easily up the trail ahead of me. It stopped at the far edge of the wetland, saw that I was still coming, and plunged back off the trail into the brush. I could only just see the top of its head as we passed.

We also encountered some other trail users: runners making their own slow progress back to Rice Lake. Tom and I had been seeing them here and there for a while, but now we started seeing more – on some straightaways, four or five of them. Some heard us coming and moved over. Others jumped in surprise when we passed, so deep in their efforts that they hadn’t heard our bikes or greetings. We didn’t stop for any of them, but I tried to encourage each one. The poor bastards would need three times longer than Tom and me to cover the remaining distance.

The mileposts started showing single-digit numbers. I kept adding the additional four miles for the spur, but then even that additional distance added up to less than 10 miles. Fueled by the food at Birchwood, warmed by the afternoon sun, enjoying the oh-so-slight downhill, and now sensing the finish line, we were moving at 8, 9, 10 mph. 90 minutes to go. 60 to go. 30 minutes. Milepost 2.

I knew from my pre-ride on Friday and from the outbound ride that we would shortly reach a sharp, tricky dip where erosion had narrowed the trail. I could see a runner ahead of me. He disappeared, and my fuzzy brain figured that he had gone down into the dip. A moment later I reached the lip of it, and sure enough the runner there, trudging up the far side. I yelled to him and zoomed down and back up, passing him narrowly and getting out of my saddle to keep the speed going so I wouldn’t have to walk this last slope.

I popped out on the far crest and suddenly felt like mashing the pedals. 5 miles to go – half an hour if I really pushed, less if I really, really pushed. I stayed up on my pedals until my quads couldn’t take it, then downshifted to try to maintain the same speed while seated. I heard traffic – cars on the highway parallel to the spur to the finish line. I glanced back for Tom, but he wasn’t there.

I zipped over the highway, turned left down the spur into town, glanced back again. Tom was just approaching the highway. Slow down for him? I couldn’t. I needed to be done. Standing or sitting, I tried to keep my speed as high as my legs would allow. Cars buzzed along the highway to my left. I bumped up and down and up and down over the berms of snow at each road crossing. I noted that I might be able to finish by 3 p.m., 33 hours after the start. A dumb goal, but why not? A junkyard. The city limits sign. And the finish line! I dutifully rode over the line itself and then turned, elated and exhausted, toward the race headquarters. As if on cue, the race director came outside to greet me. A handshake. An escort into the bright warmth of the HQ. Applause from everyone inside. A cold beer. The finisher’s hat. A chair to sit in after 32:57 of racing.

Finished

Racing bikes in the woods

I’ve been floating on air for the last couple days because it’s finally time to race bikes again. After missing two races (and six weeks of riding) with my broken finger this summer, I tried to get back to riding seriously. Though I didn’t log as many hours or miles as I’d hoped, I have had a pretty good last couple months, and feel solid heading into the season’s first big race: the Tuscobia 160, an out-and-back race between Rice Lake and Park Falls, Wisconsin. 80 miles each way, the course is primarily flat, straight snowmobile trails – scenic in an understated Midwestern way. Not for us, those towering peaks out west!

I have done Tuscobia once before, in January 2016, when I finished in 23:38. I hope to beat that time this year. Going under 20 hours isn’t unfeasible, but then again, my lack of bike time this year might mean another 24-hour effort. Other riders have reported that the trail is in great shape, with much more snow than we have in Northfield and enough traffic to pack the powder into a solid, fast surface. The wild card this year is the temperature: forecasts for Saturday and Sunday show a high around 0° F and lows around -15° F, about the same range we encountered in 2016. I’m eager to see how I feel in the cold again, and to get back into that fascinating state of pure effort.

This year the race will be tracked by Trackleaders; anyone can “follow the dots” at http://trackleaders.com/tuscobia17. The full distance bike racers start at 6 a.m. Central time on Saturday, December 30!

Companionship in extremis

(Warning: contains confession of possible craziness.)

In a short essay on the Adventure Journal website, Erin Windauer describes the occasional but not rare sense of athletes, adventurers, and others that they are in the presence of someone or something which is benevolent or reassuring but which isn’t actually *there*.

Ernest Shackleton’s epic tale of survival after the sinking of his ship the Endurance in Antarctic waters is well known, but less known is what he and two of his companions experienced after they made their way by open boat, above, to South Georgia Island and trekked across to a whaling station to find salvation. Each of the three felt the presence of someone with them: “During that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia,” wrote Shackleton in his memoir, “it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.”

Though I don’t quite see the link between this sensation and the lab experiments summarized in Windauer’s piece, I can’t stop thinking about the phenomenon, which is one I’ve experienced in some of my winter races.

I didn’t even know that my feeling of being… joined? guided? accompanied? was a thing; I just chalked it up to being hungry, cold, and exhausted. And yes, all those stressors might have contributed to my sense that *something* was with me while I rode and walked off Two Top on January 8, thirty-six hours into the Fat Pursuit.  

But still: to have that experience in common with Shackleton is strangely satisfying.

Sprwinter Ride

I haven’t been on my bike in a serious way since the Arrowhead. Partly, I needed the break from riding – physically and mentally. Judging by my shitty efforts at the gym over the last six weeks, my body would have rebelled at a long ride. Partly, I enjoyed the laziness of not going riding two or three times a week. I have done a lot of reading! And partly, I couldn’t imagine going for a ride in little old Northfield that compared in any way to the winter’s racing. I mean, no outing here could possibly include six hours of riding I can’t recall!

But damn if lying around all weekend wasn’t getting to me. Rather than feeling physically rested, I felt tired and wasted. Rather than feeling mentally refreshed, I felt bored and crabby. So today, motivated by the winter storm warning, I decided to go out for an easy ramble around town, hitting favorite spots like the St. Olaf Natural Lands and the singletrack trails on the west side of town. 

The outing was easy and fun and so gorgeous. The trails near St. Olaf were especially pretty as the snow started sifting down, with Heath Creek burbling quietly below the blufftop trail. 
Riding, I appreciate the way that any dirt gets painted white by the snow. Makes it easy to follow the trail – and to review your lines on the second pass! 

If this is the season’s last chance to enjoy the feeling of snow in my face, I’m happy to have ended on a good note and to have a full “off season” in the offing.

January Racing Recaps

Fat Pursuit 2017 (part I): the first part of my race report on the Fat Pursuit

Fat Pursuit 2017 (part II): the rest of the race report on the Fat Pursuit

Fat Pursuit Numbers: some facts and figures on the Fat Pursuit

Fat Pursuit Bike, Gear, and Kit: a look at the clothing and equipment used at the Fat Pursuit

Arrowhead IV – Fast Until It Wasn’t: my race report on the Arrowhead 135

Ultra Effects, or Putting the Hell Back in Health: musings on the physical effects of racing

Ultra Effects, or Putting the Hell Back in Health

This week, about ten days after the Arrowhead, I started to lose my eyelashes, one of the classic aftereffects of long races. It’s not like my lashes are all falling out, but every time I wash my face, I lose a few, and I seem to find one of my desk every few hours.

Though bizarre and a little gross, losing some eyelashes is also probably the lamest of the myriad physical effects of races like the Fat Pursuit or the Arrowhead.

The main effect of the races was drastic weight loss, from eating and especially drinking too little during the races. When I got home after the Fat Pursuit (two days after finishing the ride), I weighed something like ten pounds less than I had the day I left for the race, and that was after eating and especially drinking like crazy on the road trip home: literally gallons of water, milk, coffee, soda, Gatorade (lime cucumber is the best!). I can’t say I looked good.

Two Days after the Fat Pursuit

My weight stabilized at my usual level after a day or so at home, but for another week or two I needed to eat about twice my usual amount of food (which isn’t small) to keep it there. Then I did the Arrowhead and kicked off the cycle again. My metabolism finally slowed again this week, just about the time the eyelashes started falling out. Maybe there’s a relationship between the two.

Running in parallel to a big appetite and major thirst is being insanely overheated. Perhaps this hyperendothermism is just my body processing all the calories I’m sticking in it, but for days I’m almost feverish, constantly on the edge of breaking into a sweat. My little girl, always cold, loves it: I’m a fireplace she can snuggle with.

Come to think of it, maybe this heat is a sign that my body’s repair processes are in high gear, fixing various kinds of race-induced wear and tear. At the trivial end of this spectrum of damage were issues like acne along my hairline and dry, lifeless hair (wearing sweaty hats for 55 hours will do that) or deep grooves in my calves from the cuffs of my compression socks (wearing sweaty footwear for 55 hours will do that).

At the more dramatic end of the spectrum of physical damage were the pains and agonies caused by making the body work so hard for so long. Especially after the Fat Pursuit, my feet were destroyed – pale, wrinkled, and so goddamn sore I couldn’t walk barefooted without wincing. Even now, the bony spots just behind my pinky toes are tender. My ankles, too, turned against me, swelling up so badly that my ankle bones vanished for several days. WebMD says this was “edema,” which sounds slightly better “athletic cankles.”

And though I escaped both races without any especially bad leg or back pain (problems I’ve had after other long races but tried to mitigate this year by cross-training to build strength), I could not escape truly ridiculous weakness and soreness, especially in the big muscle groups taxed to the limit by 22 or 55 hours of exertion. The day after the Fat Pursuit, for instance, I needed twenty minutes to put on my socks because I could neither bend my legs enough to reach my feet nor pull hard enough with my arms to yank the goddamn socks up. My traveling companion Ben thought this was amusing. Later, when we stopped on the drive home, I almost fell out of his minivan because I couldn’t unbend my legs in time to swing them under me as I leaned my torso out of the open door. Getting back into the minivan, I had to grab my thighs and hoist each leg up into the vehicle.

This lack of strength went deep. I limped around for maybe five days after the Fat Pursuit (only a couple days after the Arrowhead!), but a week after I finished my attempt at that first race, I went to the gym for my usual weight training class, thinking that I’d feel okay. Not great, but okay. I didn’t. I struggled with loads well under my normal working weights, and got dizzy from even a few reps. I’ll just sit down over here out of the way for a while.

Paralleling that lack of muscle strength was the loss of my voice. Scratchy the day after the Fat Pursuit and croaky two days later, my voice disappeared entirely on the third day and only started to return after about five days of not talking – during which I drank even more ridiculous amounts of water. I suspect that dehydration was the main cause of the laryngitis, but I’d also guess that exposure to cold, dry air for those two days – and to -20° F air that first night of the race – also played a big part. Honestly, I was a little worried, as I creaked out fragments of sentences during the week after the Fat Pursuit, that I’d permanently damaged my vocal cords. I see now that I didn’t. Close call though, and one I’ll have to prevent by covering my nose and mouth during future races in cold temps.

The other main effect of being outside in the super-cold temperatures at the Fat Pursuit was a touch of frostbite. My toes were fine, but the tip of my right index finger got burned when I had to barehandedly use my wrench to adjust my seat (an adjustment necessitated by some unpleasant chafing that’s best left to the imagination), and I pretty badly burned my upper lip. The lip required weeks of care: a topical ointment (thanks, Leah!), then ounces of petroleum jelly, then tube after tube of Carmex – five or so? Over the course of three weeks, the skin went from burned to horribly raw to badly chapped to really dry and then finally to normal, except maybe for the pink spot right in the center. Thank goodness my mustache does a good job of hiding it!

The frostbit fingertip took just as long to heal, and if anything passed through even more stages of healing: dry white flesh turned pink and hard, then reddish and inflamed. This skin grew increasingly tight until the fingertip basically molted, revealing fresh new skin underneath. Interestingly, none of the healing states were alive enough to register on my smartphone screen! I was glad when I molted if only because I could use my phone without seeming to be flipping off everyone.

Everything I’ve heard and read on frostbite says that the burned spots will always be more sensitive to cold now, and I think that’s true. My lip was very tingly even in some moderately cold weather before the Arrowhead, though not during the event. I did get my hands pretty cold during that race, though, and sure enough that right index finger got mad: tingling, then burning, then feeling as if it were exploding in my glove. It wasn’t – just warming back up.

That sensation hasn’t happened again, thank goodness, but most of my fingertips still feel funny. Not painful, but stubby and slightly numb. This happened after my first Arrowhead, too, and subsided after a couple months. I’m guessing that this dull feeling is due not to frostbite but to holding onto my grips for something like a total three days’ worth of riding. It’s an odd sensation. Not unpleasant, since it’s likely to go away, and even kind of perversely pleasing as a lingering reminder of the races, but also a reminder that – as with my vocal cords and lips, I’ll have to be very careful in future races to protect hands.

And then there are the ongoing disruptions to sleep: crushing bouts of exhaustion, extended spells of overnight sleeplessness, and wacky dreams. In the first few days after each of this winter’s races, I slept much less than normal – five or six hours a night, waking up sweaty and hungry and thirsty. The body just didn’t know what to do with the freedom to sleep again! After those few days, I shifted back to something like a regular pattern, but I still don’t quite know when sleep will crash down onto me at 3 pm or 8 pm, or lift off at midnight or 2 am. I just roll with it, five weeks after the Fat Pursuit and two after the Arrowhead. I’ll sleep when I can, and caffeinate when I can’t!

When I can sleep, though, I enjoy very vivid dreams about, or sort of about, the races. I’ve always had very literal dreams, and now – as I have after all my longest and hardest races – I’m having numerous dreams that are more or less replays of parts of the races: riding off Two Top in a whiteout; pedaling through West Yellowstone to the checkpoint, only it’s not West, it’s my hometown in Upper Michigan; walking up some Arrowhead hill…

I’ve also had some weirder dreams, like one – riffing on The Empire Strikes Back – in which I was riding in a long line of other fatbikers – many of whom I just knew, in that unspecified but certain way of dreams, were the folks who stayed in my same cabin at the Fat Pursuit. Riding over a snowy trail along the edge of a ridge, we encountered a group of Rebel soldiers on their tauntaun snow lizards, heading back to their Echo Base. No biggie. Maybe next year’s Fat Pursuit will include some miles on Hoth.

Arrowhead IV – Fast Until It Wasn’t

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

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

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

And we were off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surly Sign by Pamela Gonzalez
I did! I do!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only 363 days to wait…