By Sam Cook Outdoors writer
You have to admire the pluck of a race in which the website warns: “Do not expect to get rescued, except by yourself or maybe your mommy.”
But that’s the spirit of the Arrowhead 135, a grueling endurance event in which bikers, runners and cross-country skiers spend up to two and a half days covering 135 lonely miles of snowmobile trail from International Falls to Tower.
This year’s sixth running of the race starts at 7 a.m. Monday. Finishers must reach Fortune Bay Casino by 7 p.m. Wednesday. A field of 134 is signed up, including three Brazilians, a Bolivian and a Spaniard.
Eric Larsen, who lives part-time in Grand Marais, has entered the race for the first time. He’ll be on his bike. Larsen, 39, skied to the North and South Poles and reached the summit of Mt. Everest, all within a year’s time, finishing last fall. He says he’s only hoping to finish the race.
Jeremy Kershaw of Duluth will be doing his third Arrowhead 135. He skied it and finished in 2009. He bicycled it last year and finished. This year, he will run it. Nobody has yet finished the race in all three modes of travel.
“I want to be the first to do it,” said Kershaw, 39, a registered nurse and former dogsledding guide.
Duluth’s Anne Flueckiger, 41, and her friend Leah Gruhn of Duluth are doing it for the first time. They’ll ski it, towing sleds with the required 20 pounds of gear, including a minus-20-degree sleeping bag.
“If conditions are good, we have a chance of finishing,” Flueckiger said. “If they’re really challenging, then we probably don’t have a chance at all.”
The race runs continuously, day and night. Bikers, if conditions are good, can finish in about 16 hours. Former Duluthian and race director Dave Pramann of Burnsville, Minn., holds the course record of 15 hours, 45 minutes.
In five of six years, the temperature has dipped to minus 20 during the race.
“The race takes two and a half days for the skiers and runners,” Pramann said. “You’re often alone out there in the middle of the night. You’re cold and you’re tired and it’s a matter of staying focused.”
The race has only three checkpoints, although volunteers on snowmobiles ride the course to check on participants.
Duluth firefighter Jim Reed tried it first on skis in 2008 and dropped at the half-way point. The next year, he tried skiing again. He dropped at 35 miles that year. Last year, he finished first among skiers in just under 53 hours.
“So much of it is mental,” said Reed, 51. “It helps if you get some mental training, like skiing at night. We’re looking at 10 hours of daylight and 14 hours at night (each day).”
Participants have no support crews — not even their mommies — and just three checkpoints along the route. They’re allowed a drop bag of 15 pounds — food and drink only, no clothes — at the halfway point.
Strange things can happen out there on the trail.
“A wolf jumped out ahead of us last year and led us down the trail for two or three miles,” Pramann said. “He kept looking over his shoulder once in a while.”
Sometimes, in the wee hours, the wolves are merely imagined.
“I’ve had plenty of wolves following me that weren’t really there,” Kershaw said.
Conditions — deep cold, fresh snow — often conspire to slow the pace.
“You’re averaging (on skis) 3 miles per hour,” Reed said. “Even the bikers are averaging only 4 or 5 miles per hour. The incredibly slow pace really drags on your mind.”
Pramann, who has biked the race four times and won it twice, cannot imagine doing it any other way. The fastest bikers average better than 8 mph.
“To me, that’s the only normal way to do it,” he said. The people who run it and ski it are a little bit whacked, I think.”
Duluth’s Charlie Farrow, 50, will be biking his fifth 135.
“If you’re racing to win it, you have to take really short breaks,” he said. “The guys that take 15 minutes or less at the halfway point are the ones winning it. No breaks along the trail.”
Nearly all participants wear Camelbak bladders of water inside their layers of clothing. The trick is to keep the tube and mouthpiece that runs out of the bladder from freezing.
Farrow trains with Duluth’s Jason Buffington, who also will bike the race.
“He came up with this idea of keeping the Camelbak hose by his mouth,” Farrow said. “He’s perfected this thing where he runs it right next to the carotid artery. He modified his face mask, sewed a bunch of stuff on it.”
While some enter to compete, others are there just for the personal challenge.
“People love to challenge themselves,” Kershaw said. “We’re not going to go climb Mount Everest. This is right in our backyard. It uses almost every skill set I have, from winter camping to skiing. I think that’s why I do it. It really tests me.”