Thanks to all of you that helped me prepare for this.
Arrowhead 135 Winter Ultra
International Falls to Tower, MN
Feb 5, 2007
www.arrowheadultra.com has a blog that covers the race and results.
Preparing for this race was much more logistically involved and specialized than any other race I have run and this preparation, in one form or another, took a year and a half. Hours of research on the Internet, examining countless gear reviews, reading Arctic exploration and mushing stories, asking questions on various forums, talking with friends in Alaska, ordering mounds of gear and testing it all in the
mountains near Laramie where we were blessed with a real winter - plenty of snow and temps dropping regularly to minus 20 (f). Every aspect of this expedition was very interesting, but also time consuming. I modified and remodified my pulk sled regularly, even
including adding a bungee system to soak up some of the startup shock. Training was just as exciting, requiring hours of pulling that
pulk sled to work out the bugs and strengthen my hips and back. I
ended up spending 4-5 nights in the mountains, pulling by day and
sleeping at night. Everything came together a week before the race. I
was ready for the minus twenty temps that they have had in the
previous two years.
Although northern Minnesota had less snow than normal, they had just
started the worst cold-snap in years, with a week of temps that never
reached above zero. The forecast for the start of the race went back
and forth, varying a few degrees on either side of minus 25. It was
so cold leading up to the race that the airlines were unable to keep
the planes moving, so my running buddy didn't show up until the day
before the race. The plan was that we were going to stick together,
which made me nervous - especially when I found out that A) he just
got his cold weather gear last week, B) had no experience in below 0
temps, and C) had a poor season of training leading up to the race.
MY plan was to mix running and walking and to snack and drink
regularly and stop every 4.5 hours to melt snow, fill up my 100oz
reservoir and eat a small hot meal. This plan had worked very well in
my multi-day training sessions.
At the pre-race gear check, a bearded bear-of-a-man carefully
examined the required gear, checking the sleeping bag tag for the -20
rating, quizzing you to see if you really knew what you were doing and
then weighing your required gear. Mine weighed just under 18lbs,
although all of my gear would be closer to 40-45lbs. Since it was so
cold, I added overboots and an extra fleece top to my load, just in
case. At the pre-race meeting the organizers briefed us on the rules,
the trail conditions and told us that instead of a mass start we
could start when we got there so we would not freeze while standing
around - good idea! With my pulk loaded and double-checked, I slept
fitfully the night before the race.
On Monday, Feb 5th, we drove out to the start area and hooked into
our harnesses. It was minus 30 with a minus 45 windchill. The first
wave of racers left at 7:25am. We were a bit behind them, checking
out at 8:16. Although there is really only one official checkpoint
during the race, at the 74 mile mark, there were actually a series of
unofficial checks, allowing the race to be better broken up into
smaller segments. The first segment actually was the only out-and-
back in the race, taking us from the highway start, westward (into
the breeze) for 8-9 miles to the official start of the Arrowhead
Trail, where we would turn around and head back and past the starting
area. It was a slow, cold start. My buddy informed me that he didn't
plan on running any of the race, that it would be a long hike for
him, and thus a long hike for me as well. Sigh. Fifteen minutes into
the race the tube of his hydration reservoir froze up. I asked him if
he had been blowing the water back out of his tube, and he didn't
realize that was necessary. We fiddled with that and other gear
issues on and off for the next hour. Stopping to do that at such cold
temps is a great way to get chilled. The breeze was cold enough that
I had to put my fleece neck gaiter over my nose, at which point the
moisture from my breath froze into a thick ice mask that stayed with
me the entire time. Not a huge problem, just an annoyance. I'd thaw
it when I was able to get inside, somewhere, sometime. After getting
to the turnaround and backtracking to the start over the sometimes
grassy frozen marshes, we met the Brazilian runners coming toward us.
They were wearing fur-covered Mad Bomber hats, full face-masks and
snowmobile suits! Their sleds were huge. Although they are the
organizers of the new Brazil 135 race they were completely
inexperienced in the cold. Also, they decided to buy most of their
gear when they got to International Falls, so ended up with propane
campstoves (which would not work due to the cold) and bags of
charcoal so they could light warming fires at the lean-to shelters
every 10 miles along the trail. Charcoal? I guess I should have
brought some bratwursts! After visiting with them for a few minutes
we headed on toward the start area and the end of what we considered
section one. Because of the extreme cold and slow pace (moving and
drinking), the two inches of drinking tube that was somewhat exposed
from my pack (only neoprene over it) froze solid. I went on, figuring
that I would remedy this when I got to the 18 mile point. It took us
another hour and half to reach it (5.5 hours total time for this
section), leading to the start of my dehydration. I felt so put off
of my original plan that I was flustered at this point. During our
stop, my buddy decided to drop out and I set down to eat a meal.
Putting my parka on over my pack allowed the hydration tube to thaw.
After about 45 minutes I decided to start again. A race volunteer at
this point told me that the convenience store at 41 miles (the next
segment) was planning on closing at 8:00pm. I could make it if I
hurried... So I pushed myself over this next 23 mile stretch. I
pushed myself too much. This section was more pleasant than the first
part of the race, winding through forests over nice, wide trails that
had been packed by snowmachines. It was still cold, but the breeze
was either blocked or at my back. There were two runners in front of
me. I caught one just as the sun was dropping. His sled had broken
and so we spent the next 45 minutes trying to fix it. The temp
dropped dramatically when the sun went down and I should have put on
a parka as I worked with him. I was going to stay with him until we
got moving again. No way I was going to leave him here alone in the
middle of the woods while the temps plunged toward minus 30 again.
Luckily two volunteers on snowmobiles showed up and helped out. They
watched the other racer carefully since he had started shivering
badly. I felt free to move on and so started running a bit harder to
try to warm up and also get to the store in time. I kept thinking "if
I could get to the store, I could dry off, warm up, eat, get warm
water and be ready to go on, but if it's closed... I dunno" All
through this stretch I had to drink from my water every 5 minutes to
keep it from freezing, blowing slush back into the reservoir a number
of times. Finally, water stopped coming out - either I was out or it
was frozen, but I needed to make the store, so I pushed on. By the
time I was approaching the store, I was pretty damp, covered with
frost and dehydrated. It was 8:30... sh#t! But the lights were on,
people were inside, the store was open!!!! Yes! I dropped my sled
harness in a snow bank and went inside - having wonderful food
(pastries, cocoa, soup, gatorade) and feeling warmth. I dried my
clothes in a dryer and thawed my water. In a little over 12 hours I
had drank about 50oz, the rest was frozen up inside of my reservoir.
My plan was to drink 100oz every 4.5 hours but got knocked off my
plan and then felt the need to hurry to the store. Bad fluster! By
not putting warm water in my res every 4.5 hours I allowed the entire
system to freeze up! I sat and debated, talked with another racer who
had 2" blisters on his heels and after two hours geared up and headed
outside. I immediately started shivering, which I knew was a bad
sign. It would be 15 or more hours before the next checkpoint (the
only official one) and I would be out all night and morning, already
chilled. So I decided to stop.
One of the racers is still in the hospital with toes blistered black.
He was out all night, lost, disoriented and finally stumbling into
the store late the next morning. His fingers were cracked and he had
lost a tooth trying to open his water bottle. He will most likely
lose some toes. The race organizer caught his toes just in time, as
his feet were purple when he reached the checkpoint. He will be
unable to run in the upcoming Iditarod Trail Invitational. I went out
to meet the only runner to complete the race, Sarah Lowell from North
Carolina. She was about 4 miles from the finish when I found her and
looked pretty good for being out for 54 hours in that cold. She told
me that she was not sure she would have continued from the
checkpoint, but her extra inspiration was that her race was raising
money for a student in her class with cancer - and much of the money
depended on her finishing. Wow.
Quite an experience. I was disappointed at first, not so much from
the DNF but more so since I was so easily thrown from my plans.
A few more notes...
1) In a race like Arrowhead, self-supported over 50-60 hours with
only one checkpoint, a strategy similar to that used by long-distance
mushers is preferred - where movement is based on regular cycles of
moving, feeding, resting. This cycle-based strategy can be contrasted
to a typical dash for a checkpoint, followed by a period of trying to
collect oneself for the next dash. (I wanted to do the former, and
believe it would have worked well, but got pulled into the dashing.)
2) Systems tested with success at one temperature may fail at a
slightly colder temperature, especially once temperatures slip below
zero. The change from 60 to 50 degrees is a 10 degree drop, but the
results of this drop are limited if even noticeable. The 10 degree
drop from -20 to -30 or -30 to -40 becomes much more noticeable.
3)Footwear used: Thin neoprene socks, Montrail Susitna GoreTex XCR
shoes with gaiters, Cresecent Moon overbooties glued to the toes of
the shoes. Overall, this system worked very well. My feet did not get
cold, even when stopped, although they did start to get pretty damp
in the neoprene socks which resulted in one small blister. This could
have gotten worse as the race went on. Also the overbooties stayed on
the shoes and did not reduce traction - although I do need to
reinforce the neoprene near the toes with some cordura for toughness.
In the future I may try a larger shoe with Injinji tsoks as a liner,
a vapor barrier sock over them and then a wool sock to complete the
system. I may even try some mukluks instead of running shoes.
4) My neck gaiter iced up over my face. I may try a thin neoprene
facemask with breathing cutouts (nose and mouth) and use a gaiter
over that for insulation.