Monday, March 6, 2017

2017 Arrowhead 135

Fast dudes! Photo by 45nrth//David Gabrys

My favorite thing about the Arrowhead 135 Winter Ultra is that everyone is drawn to the race for a different reason. Some show up for the adventure, some show up to challenge themselves, and some show up for the camaraderie. Some show up for all three. Attempting a winter ultra makes each competitor dig down to contemplate why or how they’ve found themselves at the starting line. Even after finishing as second place female in last year’s race, I found myself digging and wondering if I had it in me to finish swiftly to the finish line at the Fortune Bay Casino. I had been training all year for the Arrowhead, but with a more concrete work schedule than in the past, I found myself squeezing work-outs into smaller windows of time with a higher intensity training plan. I was a little nervous because I didn’t have as many hours on the bike as I did the year before. A busy summer, a busier fall, a DNF at Fat Pursuit, and boom – here I was all bundled up and blinking like a UFO at the starting line with winter ultra legends like Jay and Tracey Petervary and Todd McFadden! All of us at the start a little nervous, more than a little excited, and definitely crazy and wired differently than the average endurance athlete. Each year I find myself knowing more and more racers at the start of these winter ultras, and I was eager to take the line with 45nrth teammates Kurt Barclay and Evan Simula. I wanted to race this year because I needed the adventure, the challenge, and I most definitely needed the camaraderie!

Goofing off before the start of the Arrowhead

A week before the Arrowhead, I went through a slump back at home when we had to put my dog down. I had that silly dog for over 10 years and the two of us had been through a lot together. After going on one last hike with my furry buddy and saying goodbye, I felt weak and shelled and sad. I told my husband, Dan, that I didn’t want to go to Arrowhead. He rubbed my back with sympathy and reminded me that I didn’t really mean it. Like any adventure, you have to keep moving forward. Don’t worry about what’s behind you. Just go. We packed our things and snagged a rental car with AWD and headed out for International Falls, Minnesota. Ninja’s name tag jingled on my keychain and I knew I’d find a place for it on my bike before heading out on the Arrowhead trail. He was a clumsy dog, but his heart belonged out in the snowy woods. I knew that the Arrowhead 135 would beat me up and that it would hurt, and I knew that the race would go one of two ways for me: I would feel slow and sluggish and cry the entire time – or – I would ride my little heart out and do well.

Dan and I rolled in to International Falls later Saturday night. We got a room at the Falls Motel, unloaded everything and got my bike put back together before we fell asleep, exhausted from making the 14-hour drive in one stretch. Gear check was on Sunday and the race start was 7am Monday morning. Getting out there a little earlier was pretty great; it gave me time to stack all of my clothing options out and to re-pack a bin with all of the mandatory gear so that gear check would go as smoothly as possible. This year I would have enough time to pre-ride the first few miles of the course, and I think this is one of the things that helped to give me an edge right from the get-go! In chatting with Kurt and Evan at gear check, I heard the first few miles were firm and hard-packed but that there was a lot of ice at the road crossings. As soon as we got back to the hotel room, Dan and I worked quickly to swap the tires on my fat bike – I had planned on rolling with the 45nrth Vanhelga tires, but due to conditions I wanted to opt for the 45nrth Studded Dillingers! Wiping out on ice at a road crossing was definitely not something that I wanted to experience on my Arrowhead adventure!

For the pre-ride, I met up with Kurt and Evan and the three of us rolled out to Kerry Park, where the start of the Arrowhead 135 takes off. We took off at a pretty good clip and before I realized, we had already ridden for about a half hour and it was time to turn back around. The course was firm, crunchy, and incredibly icy at the road crossings. Studded Dillingers were going to do great for the first 30-or-so miles! I knew that the course was going to deteriorate past the second checkpoint at Melgeorge’s, but if I could start the race quickly then all I had to do was keep going and to keep my transitions at check points short.

Dinner with friends before the start of the race. Happy 1st birthday, Calvin!
My plan for checkpoints was the same this year that it was last year – completely bypass Gateway, the gas station that’s approximately 35 miles in. Melgeorge’s is somewhere around 70 miles from the start and that would be where I’d refill on water, use the bathroom, grab a grilled cheese, and to change in to dry layers to head out in to the night. This midway point would be where I’d want to spend the most amount of time, but I still wouldn’t allow myself to get sucked in. Ski Pulk, the Surly checkpoint, would be where I’d top off my water and chug a cup of coffee before the final 25 mile stretch to Fortune Bay Casino. If all went according to plan, I would spend less than an hour total during my race while at the checkpoints.

The funny thing about the race is that the beginning took off a lot faster than I could have wrapped my head around! Fireworks rocketed into the sky, I shouted good luck to as many friends as I could, and we heard the well-known words, “Release the Hounds!” I took off hammering. I got in a line with some guys, but quickly dropped off from them. I scolded myself for taking off too hard. The last thing I wanted to do in this moment, so early in the race, was to get too sweaty or to burn all of my matches. I pedaled easier as my breathing steadied and then picked up the pace just a bit. A train of fat bikers came zooming past on my left and without giving it much thought I hopped on the back of it. As a self-proclaimed drafting rookie, this was an incredibly lucky and smart choice for me! I immediately got nervous because I’d be spending a few hours (hopefully) with these folks, and I didn’t want them to think that I was free-loading. So I rung my bell, cheered for the riders that were pulling, concentrated insanely hard on providing good pulls myself, and I introduced myself to the riders that I was with. Morale was really good in our train! A few folks looked pretty frosty but everyone was riding strong. We came up on some other riders who had fallen off of the first train, and as soon as I recognized the jerseys I started dinging my bell and shouting to them – it was Kurt and Evan! I didn’t expect to see them at all during the race and it made me really happy to see them and to snag them up in our group. We excitedly chatted as we rode and we happened to hit Gateway a lot quicker than I had anticipated! Evan and Kurt slowed to check their tire pressure and the rest of us kept rolling.

Riding with my 45nrth teammates Evan & Kurt!
Photo by 45nrth//David Gabrys

The terrain between Gateway and Melgeorge changes from primarily flat to increasingly hilly. Some of the guys from our train were able to tackle the hills quicker than I was and I dropped off the back of the train. I found myself riding with a guy named Pete from one of the Dakotas. A lot of the course came faster than expected, and before we knew it we were coming up to Elephant Lake for the lake crossing before the rapidly approaching second checkpoint.  

A majority of plans for my stop at Melgeorge’s got thrown out the window when I realized it was still so early in the afternoon! Yes, I needed water and I needed a grilled cheese, but I didn’t feel cold and I didn’t feel too sweaty. I had planned on wearing a long sleeve base layer under my 45nrth team jacket from the start, but in the bathroom at Kerry Park I had taken it off and replaced it with a short sleeve wool jersey. I had also planned on wearing my Naughtvind Pants over the knickers, but race morning I had opted to head out in just the knickers. Both of these decisions meant I didn’t overheat and I didn’t over sweat. Combined with my 45nrth Wolfgar boots, wool glove liners inside of my Cobrafist Poagies, and my Greazy cap… I don’t think I’ve ever actually nailed my clothing quite as well as I had in that moment! The wonderful volunteers at Melgeorge’s filled my insulated hydration pack while handing me a warm grilled cheese sandwich. I wolfed down one half of the sandwich while I geared back up and took the second half with me. Kurt and Evan had arrived at the checkpoint as I was preparing to head back out, and I joked about seeing them again on the hills – the course gets hilliest between Melgeorge’s and Ski Pulk, the last check point of the race. I rolled out of there in really good spirits, with a full stomach, and a little astounded that I would be riding the next part of the course in some daylight.

Grilled cheese! Photo by 45nrth//David Gabrys

The hills got wild! I remember walking nearly all of the hills last year at the Arrowhead. The snow had been mushy and my feet had hurt and I pushed my bike as soon as I saw footprints from other riders. Last year had nothing on this year. This year was so much easier! There were still hills that I walked, but thanks to more favorable conditions, many were rideable. Before I knew it, Kurt and Evan came cruising up behind me. I latched on to riding with them as best as I could! Evan is a billy goat and I’m pretty sure he can ride his bike up any hill in the entire world. Seeing him effortlessly climb made me work harder at climbing behind him. I’ve got to thank Evan because I was climbing stuff that I would have thrown the towel in on my own! Seeing foot prints on a hill will oftentimes deter me from riding it, but seeing Evan easily braap up gave me a little more confidence to stick with it and to try it. Riding with others is great that way because it makes you scrappier and gutsier.

Racer crossing Elephant Lake
photo by 45nrth//David Gabrys

We made it to Ski Pulk by 8pm. Dan was waiting at the check point, lighting off fireworks and heckling the Surly guys at the stop. I stuck with the plan and topped off my water while chugging some hot coffee before heading off to climb Wakemup. Ski Pulk was hard to leave this year, especially hard to leave because everyone looked like they were having such a good time! When I was offered a beer I wanted it so badly! I knew I needed to keep moving, especially because at this point I came to the realization that it could be possible to close in on the existing course record. I joked with Kurt and Evan that they'd catch me again, and rolled off in to the dark to finish the last 25 miles of the race.

Ski Pulk. Photo by 45nrth//David Gabrys

Once again, the climb didn’t seem quite as big as I remembered it being. It's funny how a whole year can make you believe a climb is 100 x's longer than it really is! It wasn’t until I got up and over Wakemup that the real difficulty of a deteriorating trail started to frustrate me. I was having a hard time keeping a straight line and keeping momentum on my bike. The trail was mushy and after getting spoiled by such a fast pace in the beginning, I found myself muttering under my breath and telling my bike to frig off. I was starting to get negative, which is definitely not a good place to be when you’re in an endurance race. I forced myself to stop and to collect myself. I stood silently for a few moments, enjoyed the dark woods, ate a snack, and then I started making my way again. "This is fun." I told myself. "I only have a little bit of this course left, I better enjoy it!" Just as I started smiling again, I heard some snowmobilers up ahead and made my way over to the right of the trail. About 4 of them came zooming by dangerously close! I hadn’t worried about snow mobiles before, but after these 4 came through and destroyed any sort of a trail that I was half-able to hold on to, I definitely did not want to see any more of them. Woof! I couldn’t ride through the mush and was haphazardly zip-zagging, inching my way along. There was no way I was going to come close to the course record at all the way I was carrying on! I was doing my best to fend off more frustration when I heard some voices behind me. When I looked back, I saw lights and this is when I became worried that another woman might have caught up to me. I started pedaling feverishly, but it was pointless and the other people quickly caught up to me.


This is where I become the luckiest person in the entire world: those voices behind me belonged to my 45nrth teammates Evan and Kurt!! I think this is the part of the Arrowhead where I found exactly what I needed: camaraderie and my friends! I was starting to get down on myself and I was starting to slow down, and my friends found me and cheered me up! Evan and Kurt powered on through and let me tag on behind them, riding in their tire tracks. At one point, Kurt even pointed out that my math was wrong and that if I wanted to beat the existing course record that we needed to be at the casino at 1am, not by midnight like I had initially thought. I was beginning to get nauseous due to straining myself and I wanted to slow down. Evan wouldn’t let me and the three of us kept pushing forward. The last 8 miles went on for forever! The trail was so soft that riding required both hands on the bars, which meant we had to stop every time we wanted something to drink. Kurt shared a nearly frozen red bull and we kept moving, making jokes and rooting each other on. The most special thing for me about the Arrowhead was being able to reel in the last few miles of the trail with my pals. I never would have been able to imagine crossing the finish line with those two in a thousand years, and having this adventure is something that I’ll remember my whole life. David Gabrys snagged a photo of me crossing the finish line 12th overall and as first female, with a new course record, in 16 hours and 40 minutes. By the looks of it, Dan is just as happy as I was! Being able to share my finish with my 45nrth teammates and my husband was great. I could gush all day long about it!

Finishing 12th overall and 1st female
Photo by 45nrth//David Gabrys
I spent the night puking due to straining myself so hard in the final stretch of the Arrowhead 135. Dan was incredibly sweet and got us a swanky room at the casino with a Jacuzzi, but it made me nauseas to sit in it. He got me some juice and he patiently waited for me to quit yakking. Volunteers were making grilled cheese sandwiches in the hospitality room and other racers were finishing, but I couldn’t bring myself to get dressed to leave our room to hang with everyone. I wanted to congratulate each finisher, especially some other friends that were out there, and to thank all of the volunteers! Despite feeling so ill after the Arrowhead 135, it was one of the happier moments of my life. I’ll make it to the party next time. ;) 

Myself, Evan Simula, Kurt Barclay
Photo 45nrth//David Gabrys
I’m also looking forward to trying my hand at racing the Arrowhead 135 unsupported, too! Ahhhh! This winter has been a great one for inspiring me to push harder and to set higher goals. There are so many good things I've got to do. Kurt has since gone on to win the 130 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational on his fat bike and I couldn't be more proud of him!!!

Till next time, Arrowhead

P.s. Superstitious as it may be, Ninja's dog tags are now a staple in my bikepacking set-up. It's worth it to have the silly little things that brighten morale along the way.