Didn’t Get Froze: After the Arrowhead 135

I’ve been immensely pleased that others have enjoyed Part I and Part II of my race story. Partly for the sake of my own memory, partly to complete the story, and partly to answer some questions that others have asked, I am adding this third part. There’s only a little crying in it. (I’m lying: there’s quite a bit of crying in it, but all of it is manly crying.)

Before getting to that, though, I have to say that I feel amazingly privileged to have tried the Arrowhead, to have finished the Arrowhead, and now to be enjoying so much attention for doing something so crazy insane stupid fun. In the first place, I am extremely lucky to have a body that could do this. Some of this is due to training, sure, but I’m fortunate (knocking on all the wood in the trees I passed on the trail) to have never been afflicted with a serious health problem – congenital, chronic, episodic, whatever. Not everyone is so lucky. If you are, maybe you should take advantage!

Second, I’m also extremely fortunate to have a wife who makes it possible for me to do this stuff. She solo-parented for four days while I had my adventure. THANK YOU, SHANNON.

Third, I’ve been lucky, here in Northfield, to have found a bunch of people who enjoy biking, who get along pretty well, and who encourage each other in our two-wheeled pursuits. Thank you, CVVCers and gravel riders!

Fourth, I am fortunate to work at a place – Carleton College – where a certain amount of eccentricity is expected and even celebrated. I guess winter biking is mine.

The hours after I finished were as weird as the hours before I finished, but at least I was inside and mostly stationary. Walking up and especially down stairs was extraordinarily painful, with my feet hurting more than any other body part (even my butt, which started healing as soon as I stopped riding). Race organizers helped me find a place to shower. The hot water wasn’t as refreshing as I thought it would be, and had the dismaying effect of causing blood to rush into my toes. They swelled up and turned purple-black for a few minutes, then calmed down and shrank back to their usual pink state. (Get your mind out of the gutter. I’m not talking about that right here. I can only talk about that after a couple beers.)

What really felt great was brushing my teeth and then getting dressed in warm, loose clothes – including especially the coveted finisher’s hat. I got one of the last two left over from the infamous 2013 race. Didn’t its deep gray set off my hollowed eyes?

Finisher's Hat

Since Skipulk, I had been looking forward to sleeping. I assumed that my body would demand food, drink, and then sleep. As I sat in the recovery room, though, my body went in other directions. Tsunamis of endorphins washed over me, sending me over to the food table for a huge bowl of pretzels, to the drink table for most of a two-liter bottle of tepid Coke, and out into the darkened hallway to weep for a few more minutes.

Sleep or even tiredness was impossible – even though the men’s champion, Jay Petervary, was snoozing on a pile of blankets about six feet from me. I joined in the applause as other finishers came in, looking equally blasted and elated, and the volunteers drafted me to retrieve the trophies each of them had earned. And of course I was on my phone, “talking” to all the wonderful people who had driven me on overnight. Cloud 9 was far, far below me.

The race committee had organized an irregular shuttle service to ferry riders and their bikes back to “the Falls” to retrieve their cars, but when it became clear that I wasn’t going to be on one of the shuttles anytime soon, I decided I had better try to get some sleep after all. I had been up for about 36 hours. (First, though, I asked Jay and Tracery Petervery, the men’s and women’s champions, respectively, to autograph my number plate. #fanboy)

I checked into the hotel, dragged my gear down to my room (cruelly, one flight of stairs down from the hospitality room), and crawled into bed. I know I slept, because a couple hours later a volunteer was knocking on the door to tell me that a shuttle was almost ready to leave, but I don’t remember falling asleep – only lying in the bed, legs throbbing, and seeing the white trail ahead of me when I closed my eyes. This wasn’t a nightmare vision, simply the thing I’d been looking at for so damn long.

Five or six of us piled into the shuttle van (our bikes in the trailer) for the drive back to the Falls. We rode for a couple hours, mostly chatting with the other racers, including the guy who encountered wolves (twice!) and a woman from Great Britain who had finished even though her husband had dropped out with severe frostbite (and has now needed many days of hospitalization back in the U.K.!). I made a lot of friends in the van by sharing a pack of gum I’d thought to stow in my bag. I’ll never go to another race without a good supply of spearmint gum. Maybe I’ll sell it by the slice, though.

Back in sleepy, frozen I-Falls around 10, I was happy that my car started up right away, despite having been out in the cold for nearly 48 hours. I swung through the Dominos next door to pick up a large pizza, an order of feta cheesy bread, and two Sprites, then hightailed it back to the hotel, listening to a truly execrable classic-rock station the whole way. The pizza didn’t survive the two-hour trip.

Wednesday morning, I woke up feeling pretty good. My feet hurt a lot and my stomach was already empty, but nine hours of sleep hadn’t affected my sense of elation. I must have been grinning like a fool while I checked out, packed up, said goodbyes to those racers who also around and to the tireless volunteers, and then headed back home. I stopped frequently on the way home to get more food and drink – another pizza, at least a couple liters of water, probably a liter of soda, and a pint of chocolate milk. I also ate two cups of my leftover trail mix and all my remaining beef jerky.

I did not stop, however, when two different songs made me cry again – Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” (because, c’mon: Journey!) and the Northfield band the Counterfactuals’ “If You Go Then You Go It Alone”, which includes such post-ultramarathon tearjerking lyrics as these: “March on. You know looking back will turn you to stone/If you go then you go it alone/Every night brings a new kind of dark/If you go then you go it alone”).

The crying felt about as wonderfullly cathartic as finishing had, but I was also bawling because during the hardest part of the race, I hadn’t been really alone: All those people! All those FB posts! And Shannon had said that my boss was organizing a welcome-home gathering at work the next day! For doing a long frozen bike ride? I felt exposed and grateful.

I got myself together enough to handle the traffic in St. Paul (where, bizarrely, I came upon a pickup truck being driven home by two other racers!) and found that dealing with cars did a wonderful job of restoring my usual sense of vague annoyance with other human beings. Still, I cried again when I came through the front door at home. The girls gave me long, crushing hugs, and Shannon gave me a wonderful “bravo!” card. The domestic routine was an instant comfort.

Back at the office on Thursday, I felt like I was glowing. So many people were curious about the race, and a bunch of coworkers came to the welcome-home gathering, where I got to show off the Beast (“The bike doesn’t look tired!” someone observed, correctly) and talk a little about the race. It was wonderful (even when I cried again describing what it was like to finish).

Since then, things have somehow much only gotten better. The work-and-home routines have been great, my body and mind have steadily thawed (figuratively and, in the case of my frostbitten nose, literally and digustingly), I have not either collapsed in exhaustion or illness, and many people have been interested in one way or another about the experience of the race, including the local newspaper’s sports journalist, who wrote a nice article on the race.

My own blog posts, which I wrote mostly just to, as they say, “get it all down,” have elicited a lot of really nice, gratifying responses – and even some advice to try and get my story published. This strikes me as kind of odd, since really the Arrowhead is just a long bike ride, but I do like the idea of sharing my experience with more people. To that end, my blog posts have been featured on the Carleton website (where my colleague Jessica wrote a great intro) and, even more remarkably, on Minnesota Public Radio’s “NewsCut” blog, where my posts were excerpted and expertly summarized by Bob Collins, a journalist I’ve admired for a long time.

In short, this has all been amazing. While I wait to see where this craziness goes, I can address a few questions that quite a few people have asked.

“When did you sleep?”
I didn’t.

“You didn’t sleep at all?”
Nope. I am as surprised as you are.

“Didn’t you want to quit?”
No, not even once. When I sent in my application to race, last fall, I was committed to finishing the race – if they let me in. Unless something catastrophic happened (a broken leg, a broken chain), I was determined to finish, no matter how slow I had to go.

“Do you like being cold?”
Kinda? I mean, I like being warm, but I like the challenge of being warm in the cold. Or of being comfortable with the cold.

“What kind of bike did you ride?”
I rode the Beast, my Mukluk 3 fatbike, which is made by Minnesota’s own Salsa Cycles. The Mukluk is about as basic a fatbike as you can find, and the Beast is still more or less stock. (You can see its full specifications here.) It’s far from the insanely tricked-out and amazingly light and crazily expensive bikes that many racers rode. (Many of these people finished behind me!) I have made a few small but important upgrades to the Muk’s stock build: better tires (45NRTH’s Hüsker Düs), better brakes (Avid Speed Dial 7s), and a good set of bags to carry food, drink, and, you know, sleeping bags and stoves and stuff. I also ran with two of Salsa’s brilliant “Anything Cages,” which are like giant water-bottle holders that are big enough to hold all kinds of stuff, like my tent and a container full of food. (One of them broke during the race, snapping at the weld. Salsa being a fantastic company, they are hand-delivering its replacement!) This winter, I also bought a pair of “pogies,” which are big, thick overmitts that go over your handlebars. Pogies are genius.

“How much did your bike cost?”
More than Shannon would have liked it to cost? My bike, its upgrades, and all its gear are worth maybe $2,000. But I don’t think I’d sell it to you.

“How much clothing did you wear?”
A lot. At the finish, I was wearing this kit, more or less from inside out and bottom to top:

  • Craft windbriefs
  • Sugoi cycling shorts (the one epic fail in my kit)
  • two pairs of synthetic liner socks
  • two pairs of heavyweight wool socks (one calf length, one knee length)
  • two ventilation singlets – one no-name, one Craft
  • Craft thermal tights (longjohns)
  • Craft thermal top
  • Briko cross-country skiing pants
  • Louis Garneau heavyweight synthetic cycling jersey
  • Sugoi high-visibility windjacket
  • Smartwool balaclava
  • no-name neck gaiter
  • two ski caps – fleece against my head, lycra on top of that
  • Craft lobster gloves
  • Keen Brixen boots

“What’s this deal with the sleeping bag and stuff?”
The Arrowhead organizers require everyone to carry a set of mandatory gear that’s essentially all the stuff you need to survive (or try to survive) a winter night outdoors. Here’s how I met the requirements:

  • sleeping bag (rated to -20F degrees or colder)
  • insulated sleeping pad
  • bivy sack
  • lighter
  • Esbit stove
  • 36 Esbit tablets
  • 1.5 pint aluminum cup
  • 3 24-ounce insulated water bottles
  • headlamp
  • flashing red LED lights for the front and back of bike
  • a vest with more than 10 square inches of reflective material on it
  • a whistle on string
  • a 16-ounce jar of store-brand peanut butter (and a spork!)

The organizers check all your gear before you start, and you have to carry all of it all the way. Bikers pack this stuff on their machine (or their body); runners and skiers put most or all of it on sleds that they pull over the snow for 135 miles. Those poor bastards.

Speaking of poor bastards: I thought I could meet the gear requirements with a sleeping bag rated to 0 degrees and two silk liners, which several people assured me would bring the bag down to -20. Uh-uh. At the gear check the day before the race, the chief inspector looked at me sternly and said, “I can’t let you start with this bag. The rules say a minus 20 bag. This isn’t the same thing.” I happened to be kneeling in front of him at the time, which was the right posture. “What can I do?” “Well, you could go across the river [to Fort Frances, Canada] to try to buy one, or… Let me call a guy. Just a minute.” He walked off, leaving me to repack all my other gear. Before I finished, he was back. “My friend Anton has a bag he can loan you. He’ll be here in ten minutes.” I exhaled. “Thank you so much!” Ten minutes later, an elfin old man in several hundreds of dollars of cold-weather gear appeared. “You the guy who needs the sleeping bag?” I was. “I got two. This military one is rated to minus 50.” He held up a olive drab bag that, rolled up, was as big as a trash can. “This other one is only rated to minus 30, but I’ve slept in it to minus forty. It’s a mummy bag, though, so it’s a little tight in the hips.” I was a good six inches taller and forty pounds heavier than Anton, so I figured this bag would be red-carpet-gown tight on me. But it rolled up tiny, so I took it. “How do I get it back to you?” He shrugged. “Everybody knows me. Just give it to Jackie at the finish line.” I had no idea who Jackie was. “Or else I’ll kill you!” He grinned to show me he was joked, pushed the bag into my belly, and marched away. Problem solved! (I did remember to turn the bag over to Jackie – the chief race organizer! – at the finish.)

“How much did your bike weigh with all that stuff on it?”
My bike weighs about 40 pounds “naked,” so I would estimate that the bike and all the gear weighed maybe 60 or even 70 pounds.

“What did you eat?”
Not enough. In addition to water, I packed a lot of food: “energy bombs” made of oatmeal, chocolate chips or cranberries, shredded coconut, and peanut butter; fudge from my coworker Dee; Reese’s peanut butter cups [12 of them, because they don’t freeze – ever]; about a half-dozen energy gels; home-made trail mix of almonds, cranberries, and dark chocolate squares; beef jerky; a whole ‘nother bar of dark chocolate (broken into squares); and four Red Bull lime energy drinks.

Of this, I ate a few of the energy bombs, maybe a third of the trail mix, half the PB cups, four gels, half the jerky, and all of the Red Bulls. At the various checkpoints, I consumed maybe 36 ounces of Coke, 48 ounces of Gatorade, two bowls of wild rice soup and two grilled cheese sandwiches, two tiny cups of chicken noodle soup, and maybe a few other small things.

“How much weight did you lose?”
A lot? None? Some?

On Sunday morning before I drove up to the race, I weighed 172 pounds. When I got back home on Wednesday night after the race but also after eating everything in sight for 12 hours, I weighed 181. Thursday morning, after a very sweaty and restless night that included several trips to the bathroom, I was down to 174. This morning, a full week after the race, I weighed 164.

“How did you train?”
I rode my bike as much as I could, first of all. I commute by bike year-round, so I’m used to being out in bad weather, and I took the long way to work on the polar vortex day earlier in January. I did several rides on my fatbike of more than 40 miles, and one, loaded with almost all of my equipment, of 70. I would have liked to do a full 100-mile training ride, but I just didn’t have time.

Making up for that, I do some pretty intense CrossFit-style training at the Carleton gym pretty much every weekday. My trainer is great, and the group of trainees is great, too. I’ve noticed a lot of improvement in my strength from this training, and since many sessions involve short bursts of maximum activity, this training also turns out to have provided a huge amount of interval training,

“If you ever did this race again, what would you do differently?”
Foremost, I would do something different with my water, trying to prevent it from freezing so quickly. I’m trying to figure that out now.

Relatedly, I would bring much less food overall, much less food that is sweet, and more high-calorie savory food. Even turkey and cheese sandwiches would be good. At AH temps, they wouldn’t go bad!

Depending on how I felt on the bike, I would try to cut my rest stops down a lot. All told this year, I spent four hours at the three checkpoints. I probably needed every second of that time, but then again, maybe I didn’t! Cutting my stops down to an hour each would cut an hour off my race time. Cutting y stops to thirty minutes each would cut 2:30 off my race time.

My bike and kit was magnificent overall, but I will get a better facemask, one that covers my nose, and probably better pogies. The $100 versions that some racers were using were definitely more than four times better than my $25 cheapies from Gander Mountain. If Revelate or Dogwood up in Alaska wants to sponsor me…

“Would you ever do this race again?”
Yes. The 2015 race starts at 7 a.m. on Monday, January 26. I plan to be there.

I want to go faster!

8 thoughts on “Didn’t Get Froze: After the Arrowhead 135”

  1. Fun to hear a little more of the story. I grew up in Farmington but now live in Grand Marais on the North Shore. I picked up a Mukluk 2 this fall and have been riding whenever a busy work and family life will allow, temps be damned. I’m signed up for the Almanzo, and the Lutsen 99er this year. Seems like the AH135 would be the next logical step. Look forward to reading more, and picking your brain next fall. If you find your way up to the North Shore, bring your Mukluk and drop me a line on FB. We’ve got some fantastic winter and summer trails! Thanks again for such a detailed account, and some serious inspiration!!

  2. Why was the 2013 race infamous and the hat so coveted? (Well, I imagine the first answer will clue me in for the second question.)

  3. Heidi, last year’s race was run under conditions that were good at first (warm temps, good track), but that then deteriorated into a blizzard that kept most racers from finishing. The front-runners stayed out ahead of the storm and set speed records. Pretty much everyone else was snowed in and had to quit. (My friend Jerry had that happen to him.)

    The hat is coveted because you only get it for finishing!

    (No, the Anton above isn’t the Anton who saved me with the miracle sleeping bag. But sleeping-bag Anton turns out to have hosted the two racers who won the men’s and women’s races this year! Small world.)

  4. awesome set of postings on your Arrowhead race. It’s fun to learn about the experiences of other dudes / dudettes that suffered (in a good way) out on the trail. And I laughed hard about your a$$ troubles near the end. I suffered similar issues. I had to walk a number of times, and then I couldn’t even walk. But I saw a number of footprints on the trail. And I was curious. What freak would walk on the flat trail besides me? Well, now I know. Ha Ha. Yep, can’t wait for 2015. See you next year.

  5. This set of posts was an awesome read-so impressed with all of your planning, preparation, execution, determination. I have next to zero interest in riding in conditions that you seem to thrive in (gravel and snow) but thanks for the great story, serious bike inspiration, and a renewed determination not to skip on my own rides/commutes when it’s nasty!

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