Whether they bike, ski or run, Arrowhead 135 ultramarathoners are more likely than not to give in to the elements and end the race before it ends them.
By Richard Chin
Updated: 02/17/2011 01:38:02 PM CST
Runners dragging sleds hit the trail in predawn International Falls at the start of the Arrowhead 135, a race in which cyclists, runners and skiers have 60 hours to travel 135 miles on a snowmobile trail. It was 10 below zero. (Photo: Julia Bohnen)Two wheels. One hundred and thirty-five miles. Negative 27 degrees Fahrenheit.
That sums up how I spent nearly a day and a half in the dead of winter at one of the coldest places in the country a few weeks ago.
The ordeal is called the Arrowhead 135, a winter wilderness ultramarathon in which competitors try to bike, ski or run 135 miles along a hilly snowmobile trail from International Falls to Tower, Minn., largely without help.
In other words, competitors have to race while hauling gear and supplies including a headlamp, stove, fuel, food, tent or bivouac sack, a sleeping pad, a sleeping bag and a whistle on a string around their necks to call for help "because your mouth is too numb to yell."
Racers have 60 hours to get to the finish line, and most don't make it in time, give up or are disqualified or pulled from the race by its organizers because of frostbite or hypothermia.
This frigid sufferfest was created in 2005 by former White Bear Lake resident and ultramathoner Pierre Ostor, who thought the world could use a winter counterpart to the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile footrace across Death Valley every July.
I covered the first Arrowhead 135 for the Pioneer Press, when only 10 people started and five finished.
I never thought I'd actually take part until my friend Mike told me last fall that someone he knew was offering to sell him a Pugsley bicycle frame for a good price.
A Pugsley, made by a local bike
company called Surly, can accommodate cartoonishly wide tires designed to roll over mushy terrain. You could use it to cruise over a frozen lake or navigate a snow-covered mountain bike trail.
Pugsleys and similar bikes have become the vehicles of choice at the Arrowhead 135.
Mike and I disagree on who first suggested doing the race. But I decided that if he were going to do it, I would have to keep him company. "As long as I don't have to get into a sleeping bag with you," I told him.
By early December, I had my own snowbike, a new offering in the fat-tire niche called the Salsa Mukluk. Then, I spent the next seven weeks figuring out what I had to do to get me through this thing.
The Arrowhead 135 is one of those endeavors that seem to have a small margin for error, where just one mistake or mishap can knock you out of the race.
Temperatures during the race typically drop to minus 20 or colder, making bearing grease thick and sluggish and turning plastic parts and fingers and toes brittle and prone to snapping.
A flat tire or a broken chain that would be easy to fix during a summer ride might be impossible to deal with if your hands are
With temperatures dropping to nearly 30 below zero, cyclist Richard Chin resorted to goggles, face masks and moleskin to ward off frostbite. (Pioneer Press: Richard Chin)frozen.
And who knows what body part will give out after dozens of hours of pedaling? Until a couple months before the race, my biking experience had mainly been limited to an occasional three-mile commute to work.
I had to figure a way to carry water and food that wouldn't freeze solid. I needed to be able to dress to stay warm enough, but not too warm. If you sweat too much and soak your clothing, you can get dangerously cold as soon as you stop moving.
The critical areas would be the head, hands and feet. I decided that even pricey winter bike shoes wouldn't be warm enough. Instead I got winter boots rated for minus-30 temperatures in the biggest size I could find, size 14, so I could wear extra socks.
I outfitted my bike with pogies, oversized mitts that encase the ends of the handlebars and serve as kind of an insulated garage for your hands.
I took several hats, balaclavas, a neoprene facemask, goggles and moleskin to cover my nose and cheeks.
And I worried.
In the days before the start, International Falls had a record low of minus 46. There was also 6 inches of new snow, which could turn the trail into a soft, endless slog.
But at the race start at 7 a.m. on the last day of January, temperatures were a relatively balmy minus 10. There was little wind, and the trail surface was firm and fast.
Before organizers let you into the race, you have to submit an application describing your past experience in winter
Why are we doing this? Richard Chin, left, and Mike Carlson faced hours and hours of riding before reaching the warmth of a checkpoint in the race. (Photo: Julia Bohnen)conditions and ultra-endurance events.
The 118 competitors on the starting line included some of the best winter athletes in the world, according to race organizers. There were ultra-bikers from Alaska and ultra-runners from Spain, Canada and Bolivia. There were a couple of U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen, a guy who had trekked to the North Pole, South Pole and Mount Everest in a single year and a former Wisconsin Wife Carrying champion.
Mike and I positioned ourselves at the back of the pack of the 58 bikers.
We planned on a conservative pace — an average of about 5 miles an hour, not much faster than walking — to make sure we got to the finish line.
Maybe we were a little too conservative. Within a few miles, after stopping several times to make adjustments to clothes and trying to get the right amount of pressure in our tires, we found ourselves being passed by a runner from Brazil as he trotted along dragging a sled full of his gear.
But we eventually sorted ourselves out, passed the runner and caught some of the slower bikers. Some of the cyclists had taken to walking, apparently in an effort to warm up their feet.
People were dropping out of the race even before the first sunset. We heard that one biker started the race with regular bike shoes and lasted six miles. Another had two flats, but had only one spare tube.
Except for the volunteer rescue snowmobiles monitoring the race, there was little traffic on the trail. There was, how-ever, a lot of wintry scenery: miles of frozen landscape and towering evergreen trees, heavily laden with snow, that lined the trail.
After about 40 miles, we pulled off at the first checkpoint of the race, the Gateway General Store near Kabetogama Lake.
There's one big exception to the race requirement that competitors be self-sufficient. Racers are allowed and even encouraged to warm up and to purchase food, goods and services at each of the three checkpoints on the race.
The guys who aim to win the thing barely stop, but we spent an hour eating and drying our clothes at Gateway.
Back on the trail, Mike announced that a part of his body had gotten numb. Not from the cold but from the pressure of being on his bike seat all day. Isn't it nice that you can share that with a friend?
The sun went down, temperatures dropped and we slogged through the pitch black, moonless night.
Late that night, we figured we were about a mile from Elephant Lake and the midpoint checkpoint, MelGeorge's Resort, when we came upon a curious sight.
A cyclist was sitting in his sleeping bag in the snowdrifts on the side of the trail. He was just a few minutes from warmth and food at the MelGeorge's checkpoint. Why did he stop here?
He told us he was soaked with sweat and he couldn't get warm even though he put on all his clothes. So, he decided to stop and get into his sleeping bag. He also said he was seeing snakes on the trail.
We tore open some large chemical hand warmers I had brought and told him to hold those against his torso. Then we headed to the checkpoint to send back some help. In about a half-mile, while we were crossing Elephant Lake, we met Mike's girlfriend, Julia, and another friend, Molly, who were waiting to see us arrive at MelGeorge's.
They went back to check on the biker and got him to start walking down the trail to the resort while we went ahead to inform the race officials. Eventually, a snowmobile showed up to take him the rest of the way.
Racers in various degrees of exhaustion were sprawled in the warm cabin that served as the checkpoint headquarters. Julia later told us that all those bodies created an unholy stink, but I didn't notice a thing.
Mike and I wolfed down a pizza and a beer in the bar and got a few hours of sleep at one of the rooms at the resort.
We heard various reports of how cold it was when we started out before sunrise Tuesday morning: minus 27, minus 29, minus 41.
We were still feeling pretty good physically when at about 80 miles into the course Mike's bike succumbed to the cold.
His freewheel hub, the part that turns the back wheel when you pedal and lets it spin when you coast, was freezing up. We later learned this is a problem because freewheels aren't normally prepared with a grease that can cope with extreme cold.
But at the time, we couldn't figure out a way to fix it on the trail. Mike decided he would have to drop out and get a lift back. I pushed on without him, hoping my freewheel wouldn't be next.
The next 30 miles turned out to be the hilliest part of the race. Several climbs were so steep I had to get off the bike and push it. I saw a few other racers and then started seeing some snowmobiles.
At the pre-race briefing, a DNR officer had warned us to keep our ears open for snowmobilers. They have the right of way, and racers needed to keep to the right side of the trail, he said. The tracks we had been following for the past day, however, wandered on both sides of the trail as racers tried to find the firmest snow.
Happily, I was on the right side when I suddenly heard a whine and looked up just in time to see a snowmobile tear by at about 50 miles an hour.
The sun came out, the day slowly warmed up and by mid-afternoon, I rolled in to the last checkpoint, the Crescent Bar & Grill near Cook.
After about an hour there drinking colas and eating french fries, I hit the home stretch, about 25 miles of flat trail to the finish line at the Fortune Bay casino.
My bike computer had conked out due to the cold, so I didn't know how fast I was going or how far I had gone. But I must have been in a hurry to get the thing over with. I passed a couple of riders and before I knew it, I saw a big building looming in the twilight.
I hit the finish line, 34 hours and 32 minutes after I started.
About an hour later, I was hitting the buffet at the casino. For the past day and a half, I had been eating brownies and peanut butter and jelly, fried egg and turkey and roast beef sandwiches that I tried to keep from freezing by stuffing them in my pockets.
At the casino restaurant, I managed only one beer, but I ate ribs, fried chicken, steak, roast beef, salmon and cherry pie.
I also got a nice little trophy given out to finishers. According to the race website, they had only 100 on hand, but they still expected to have enough left over for next year.
The winner in the bike category, Alaskan Jeff Oatley, nearly got a course record with a time of 15 hours, 50 minutes. But 19 of the 58 bikers who started didn't finish.
Hastings resident John Storkamp won the running division for the third time with a time of 44 hours, 32 minutes. But 36 of the 54 runners didn't finish. None of the six skiers in the race finished.
Race director Dave Pramann said the extreme cold made the snow so slow that some of the skiers resorted to taking off their skis and trying to hike the trail.
But Pramann said he was glad that at least no one had to go to the hospital during this year's race. That hasn't been the case in past years.
Richard Chin can be reached at 651-228-5560.