So 5 years ago I started running for the first time in 15 years. I ran poorly in track in high school and only a little in college while on the crew team; so even when I ran it wasn’t with much purpose. 5 years ago I had a purpose to do a Tough Mudder with my brother and brother-in-law and I started running again. I was out of shape, had a dad gut, and had my second child due that year. Within 9 months, my purpose was trail ultrarunning. Soon after, a major goal was to finish Arrowhead 135. I think I first heard about it on the ultra-listserv 4 years ago and knew immediately that I had to run this race. I went the slow route and made sure to get a couple winter races in and enough 100’s to not be afraid of the distance. My application was accepted last fall and I left for International Falls Saturday morning.
I did my check-in Saturday afternoon to get it out of the way. It’s at the Backus Community Center which I assume was the old school building. Door #3 is the closest to where you need to go for check in by the way. I was told there that I’d need to have packaged food to prove the caloric content of the food for my emergency food requirement so I had to go to the store to buy a pound of butter since my home made brownies wouldn’t count. I even laminated the ingredients with all the calorie information and stuff but it still didn’t matter. Otherwise I passed on everything else. For those unfamiliar with this race, here is the required gear as taken from the website.
MANDATORY GEAR from race start to race finish.
- Minus-20F degrees sleeping bag or colder rating. Colder than -20F almost all previous races. If you skimp here you are foolish. And we will not allow you to skimp. So do not skimp. Fool. 2011 it was -42F on trail. Be able to prove your bag is a -20 bag. Don’t cut off the tags to shave weight.
- Insulated sleeping pad – minimum 20″ by 48″
- Bivy sack or tent (space blankets/tarps do not count). We don’t like seeing new bivy sacks that have never been tried.
- Firestarter (matches or lighter).
- 8 fl. oz. fuel at ALL times (either gas, alcohol or 2 canisters of propane/butane 100 g. each or 12 Big Esbit tablets). 1 lb propane tanks, white gas, and Heet are available in Int’l Falls – propane/butane and Esbits are available from RD with advance notice. Please plan accordingly.
- Pot (min. volume is 1 pint)
- 2-qt (64 fl. oz.) or just under 2 litres, insulated water container. (Yes, Camelbacks count). Not freezing your drinks in a cold year is a real challenge.
- Headlamp or flashlight. Suggest minimum ~100 lumen good for 12 hours/bike or 20 hours on ski/foot. Bring a spare, the cold eats batteries.
- Flashing red LED lights (and spare batteries), both on front and back of sled or bike or racer – Don’t show up with single LED key chain lights…bring real safety lights or you will not pass gear check and they may not be available at local stores. Keep ON 24/7. HIGHLY IMPORTANT….THIS MAY WELL PREVENT YOU FROM BEING A HOOD ORNAMENT ON LARGE FAST-MOVING SNOWMACHINES.
- Everyone must have at least 10 square inches of reflective material on front and 10 square inches on the back of the person for this race. If you don’t want to put holes in your $200 jacket bring a reflective vest.
- Whistle on string around neck to call for help, because your mouth is too numb to yell.
- 1-day of readily edible food at ALL times (3000 calories)
- You will be given 2 bibs. We must be able to see your bib number on the front of your body (outer layer) at all times!!! Post the 2nd bib where it is easily visible.
YOU CAN STILL BE STUPID WITH ALL THE GEAR, KNOW HOW TO USE IT.
The race itself is 135 miles from International Falls, MN to Tower, MN along the Blue Ox Grade and Arrowhead snowmobile trails. You can go on foot, bike, or ski. I of course went in the foot division. It’s basically flat for 30ish miles, then hilly for about another 40 miles, then really hilly for 40 miles, and then pretty much flat the rest of the way except for the biggest hill of them all at mile 113.5. The trail is wide and all the snowmobilers I saw were driving appropriately and safely. More details on the trail to follow but that’s the overview.
I went to the hotel after I ate and organized my gear and started making decisions on what to leave behind. The forecast was for snow but no one really knew how much it would be. It definitely wasn’t going to be a cold year. The temperature wasn’t even forecast to get below zero the entire race. That’s really warm for this race. I almost felt like it was cheating having it so warm. There are just so many things that you can get away with when it’s this warm. You can take your gloves off to open things is the biggest “cheat”. Seriously, if it’s -20 and you take your gloves off for even 20 seconds, it takes a long time for them to warm back up if at all. I didn’t even run with gloves on most of the first day. So you worry and plan for all these scenarios where you have to do things with big gloves on and now none of that mattered since it was so warm. Anyway on to the story.
I slept quite well for having a constant pipe banging sound in my room. Apparently it was the boiler and the sound was heard in every room so switching wouldn’t matter. I could see Canada out my window since it was just across the river. I brought my passport but didn’t need to go over to purchase any last minute items so I never went.
My plan for Sunday was to go and check out the trail and my fully loaded sled. Here is what the sled looks like. This was taken the first day out on the course.
Just a side note on my sled. I used a Paris sled at Tuscobia last year which had holes in it by the time I finished. So this year I made my own sled out of Ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene. It has a coefficient of friction near Teflon and is very durable and can handle extreme cold. It’s the only material to use for winter ultras really. Yes it’s easier to just put a rope on a ready made sled from the store but it won’t last, and if you make one yourself it’s cheaper. This sled cost me $40 of materials and I’ll never need to make a new one if I don’t want too. I think the Paris sled with poles was closer to $70. My main worry about it was I was only able to test it 3 times since we didn’t get much snow down in southern MN this year. I learned a few things during the race that would make a better sled. One is to put runners (just a couple thicker strips of UHMW-PE on the bottom) on to make it track better. It will add weight but I think it’s worth it. It would also pull easier if it was narrower. I’m not going to do that though since my gear fits just right with this width. But if I had to start with nothing, I’d go narrower and longer. That’s enough help on the sled, to me that’s part of the learning process and it’s more satisfying to do that on your own. There are a few people that make them but with shipping it’ll cost you around $250. Really depending on the snow conditions it would make sense to have a couple different sled styles to chose from. Mine would do well in deep powder, and the narrow ones with no sides to them would likely do poorly since they’d be swamped and cut in too much. But those were the best for the race this year.
So I stopped along the trail at road crossings a couple different places on Sunday morning. I ran a couple miles with my loaded up sled to make sure it held up. The trail was very hard due to the melting they had had the last week. Also nice and fast. The new snow coming would slow that down though once it got deeper.
I got back to International Falls and dropped my drop bags off at the Community Center. There was a mandatory meeting there at 4pm and then a meal after that. The meeting filled in a few questions I had as a rookie. The race is about 2/3 veteran and 1/3 novice.
After the meal I headed back to check on the weather and do my final packing. I took out a few things and decided to leave my snowshoes as well as it wasn’t going to get over 6 inches of snow and they weigh 3.5 pounds. I saw some people with much smaller and lighter snowshoes so I may need to look into those.
The race started on Monday Jan 30th at 7am for the bikers, 7:02 for skiers and 7:04 for us on foot. I got up around 5am. It was about 10 degrees when I woke up but kept getting warmer by the time the race started. There was a 10mph wind from the south that we’d be going into for the first 9 miles of the race. I wore tights, thermal shirt, wind jacket, gloves, and buff for a hat. 181 were accepted for this race but only 156 ended up starting. 59 runners started.
The bikers started off with fireworks going off. Then the skiers 2 minutes later, and then we started 2 minutes after that. I didn’t hear anyone say anything for the start but just saw people leaving so I followed. They say “release the hounds” to start us off but I must have been too far away to hear it.
I started running and eventually ran with Breanna from Arizona and talked for about an hour. Then John Storkamp caught up and I talked to him for awhile as well. He was just power walking and I had to run to keep up. He’s done this race a dozen times so he knows it very well. Of course every year is still different because of the weather and snow conditions.
The course follows the Blue Ox Grade snowmobile trail from Kerry Arena in the middle of International Falls until it meets up with the start of the Arrowhead snowmobile trail 9.5 miles later. There is a shelter there but no one stops that early I’m sure. There are 10 shelters along the course but I missed one or two of them during the night. We then headed East. This entire first section is flat. It started snowing soon after the start. It looked very pretty but my shoes were getting wet already. Once I turned I took off my buff and gloves since without the wind in my face I was getting warm. I talked to a few other people here and there until things started spreading out more.
The next landmark is crossing Hwy 53 at 18.75 miles. There are train tracks there and I could hear trains but luckily they were past by the time I got there. By this time there was probably a couple inches of snow that had fallen. It of course didn’t look that deep since it always settles. After Hwy 53 the sled started pulling harder so I started walking around mile 24 where shelter #2 is. The small hills start around 26 miles. I think this is around where I met a guy that was running this for the first time. He had done it with a bike I’m pretty sure but he hadn’t really run an ultra before. Meaning each step was a new personal best distance for him on foot. I don’t think he finished the race this year though.
There is another shelter around mile 30. Then the hills start to get a little bigger. Enough that you could ride down them but there was only 1 that I rode down just before the first check point which is Gateway Store. You have to do a short out and back to get to it. The store is 36.7 miles into the race. There is food, etc to buy there. They had I think 5 kinds of soup to buy as well. I changed my socks and noticed my feet were already getting wrinkly from being wet all the time. The usual stuff I do wasn’t keeping them dry. I suspect the warm temps and the constant snowing was the difference. I spent 25 minutes here, it just takes a while to get things done even with a efficient plan.
I left at 4:26 pm and it would be getting dark soon. There were 8 people in front of me when I left but I didn’t know that at the time. I knew of at least 4 due to tracks in the snow but there were people so far ahead that the new snow had totally covered up their tracks. And so began what felt like the longest night ever. The hills keep going and get bigger as time goes on. There are several roads you go across that people tend to drop at and I could see why. It just seems like it will never end. Plus, it does really just keep getting worse for the next 70 miles or so. There are brief easy sections and then more hills. I met a few people and talked to them for awhile. I was never this tired so early in an ultra before. I was only 14 hours into this thing and could’ve slept instantly just laying down. My next goal was the second checkpoint at MelGeorge at mile 72 of the race. I was hoping it would take 11 hours to get there from Gateway but ended up taking 12.
I know many who said they heard wolves along this part. I didn’t. The snow had finally stopped and around 9 or 10 I saw the clouds part for a short time and tons of stars. No northern lights this year. There also was a very slight crescent moon that gave a nice eerie touch once the clouds started coming back in and covered it up.
Since I hadn’t seen anyone in a long time, I put on some music to try to lift my spirits some. It didn’t help that much really. Even though I tend to slow down when talking to people, the time flies by so much faster I wished I would find someone. I know of 2 people that I caught up to that said me talking to them made a big difference in their spirits. That’s the solitude part of the race though. You could choose to stay with someone the entire time but it’s kind of against the point of the race. You should have thoughts of loneliness, boredom, etc that come into your head. That’s the test, to push them out and focus on the ultimate task of finishing. There are plenty of physical reasons to quit this race, all of them are reasons to not even start. But the mental reasons are what stop most people, even the ones who have finished before and know better.
Along the way are shelters 4 and 5. There were people sleeping at shelter 5. I had a room reserved at the MelGeorge resort which is legal for the race. I figured since this was my first year, it would be a good idea in case things went bad. I couldn’t get there soon enough. I was so tired and just tired of the hills. The trail changes directions so many times, I had no idea how much further the check point was. My GPS had to be recharged so when I turned it back on I could see my pace but really had no clue how long was left. The last shelter is 13 miles from the resort which is hours for this race.
Finally I got to the lake that you cross over on for 1 mile to get to the resort. We were supposed to check in first before going to our room so that added a quarter mile of back tracking from where the check in cabin was. I checked in at 4am and 9 people had checked in before me. It was worth it to have a room. I sent a Skype video message to my family since there was no phone service but did have WiFi. My feet were all trench foot. I slept for 2.5 hours with my feet uncovered to dry them out. My shoes dried some but not completely. The new forecast called for -4 degrees Wednesday morning. I finally left at 8:15am after getting ready and going back the quarter mile to the check in point. 16 people left before I did since I was there so long. I knew some would have to bivy again before the finish, but how many? So overall I spent 4 hours there which was longer than I’d like but I needed it due to my feet.
As usual, sleep had wondrous healing powers for me. My feet hurt but looked normal. I kind of had energy but the best thing was the sun was up! Day 2 would be MUCH better than Night 1. There were 2 people who started seconds before me. One was a skier Jerritt and the other was Jeff Firkus who I ran with some at Tuscobia last year. He knew this trail pretty well.
I wish I would’ve taken pictures during the second day but it was a big hassle getting it out of the pack where it was staying nice and warm in case of emergency.
There are the usual hills for the next 2 miles. At exactly 2 miles from the check-in cabin is the turn that can be difficult for some. It’s where you get back on to the main combined arrowhead trail. It was well marked.
2.7 miles from MelGeorge check-in cabin is where my day got amazing! That was the start of a huge downhill that I seriously thought about climbing back up to go down again it was so fun! It’s 150 feet high and I got going up to 13mph according to my watch but it felt like 30. Remember the first time you ever just bombed down a ski hill and felt the wind pushing hard against you and absolutely loving it? Yep, just like that. Felt like I was 13. Some of these downhills would have bumps in them from the snowmobiles so I’d get air on them. Awesome! Remember I had no way to keep this sled going straight other than my hands and feet. That just added to the excitement! There were kind of snowbanks all along the edge of the trail since it’s packed down but I didn’t want to test if they would keep me from flying in the trees. I told Jeff I wish I had a GoPro for that hill. He did have one but didn’t think of it at the time. For the next 32 miles minus about 5 miles of flat towards the beginning of that section, it was nothing but sleddable hills. I was having so much fun. Jeff would bomb down head first to steer with his feet behind him. He left me behind on the flat part section.
I changed socks again since I could feel them soaked again. They didn’t look as bad as yesterday and I was hoping to keep them that way.
That’s when Jerritt and I kept crossing paths. He’d have to take off and put on his skis constantly because of the hills. It didn’t look fun. I was still having fun. Just before 26 miles from the cabin is the start of 2 hills that looked like every other hill we had gone down. The difference was they go way steeper as you went down and had a fairly sharp turn part way down you couldn’t see from the top. I ended up testing those banks on the side of the trail and bounced back and forth spinning and going backwards down the hill. I thought for sure I’d hit a tree but never did. Then right after is another one where I had to really dig my shoes in to not hit a bridge post. I was yelling at Jerritt to get out of the way since I couldn’t stop and he was at the bottom. He told me he ended up in the trees on that first one but was OK.
It then got dark and it started to snow for the second day in a row. Then the hills were kind of scary because you couldn’t see anything with the falling snow reflecting in the headlamp. You never knew where the bottom of the hill was, how steep, nothing. So I ran down a lot more of them. I became bored of hills and was starting to count down the miles to Surly Tee Pee checkpoint at mile 111. The wind really picked up and you could feel the temperature dropping fast for the first time in the race. The forecast was -4 which isn’t bad at all. The wind was mostly at our backs the rest of the race so even the wind wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. Finally I hit the turn to the Southeast towards the checkpoint. I started seeing smart ass signs reminding us we’d signed up for this, etc. The usual ultra humor. At least I knew I had to be getting closer.
I got to Surly Tee Pee checkpoint at 9:30pm Tuesday. 14 people checked in before me. I didn’t need to do much and had a plan in my head. I changed socks again (on my 5th pair now). Since it was now colder they would likely stay drier but I had to get the wet ones off. I put on another layer of pants. I got out my second jacket. Got a fleece hat instead of a buff. I put on warmer gloves and got out the next warmer pair and put it in my backpack as I knew the trail got more exposed later on and would need them. I put some more hot water in my cooler and was out the Tee Pee door. It only took my 22 minutes but it didn’t even feel that long. I had no wasted time in my mind. It just takes a long time to get new socks on it seems. They were steaming when I took my shoes off. I left some people behind at the checkpoint that were taking a break as only 10 left before me. I had started to take caffeine at this point but there was no chance I’d have to bivy. I ate the rest of the food I planned on eating so that I’d get an energy boost around 2 or 3 am.
There is one more big steep hill called Wakemup hill after the checkpoint that starts about 1.6 miles out. You go up about 100 feet but get to go down 150 feet. I didn’t know if you could sled down it safely so I dug my shoes in until about the half way point down. Turns out you could just fly down pretty easy as it’s a gentle turn and it slowly flattens out. You go a long way with this hill. From there on out it’s a very gradual uphill to the finish line about 21 miles away. There are some turns here and there but most of the time you can see over a mile in front and behind you at all times.
This next part I wasn’t sure I’d put in here but my wife said I should so I will. About 4 miles in I could see someone ahead of me and I caught up to him soon after sitting on a tree on the side of the trail blankly staring. All his lights were on as I passed him (important for later). One on the back of his sled and one I think on his chest. So he only had 2 but that was all that was required. I said “Hi” and he said nothing in return which was odd for this race or anytime really.
I looked back a minute later and I could see he was getting ready to start up again since lights were moving everywhere. About 10 minutes later he passes me with only his headlamp on super low. All his blinking lights required by the race were turned off. I also couldn’t see his bib number anywhere to know who he was. Obviously he was trying to not be seen by me after he passed me as there is no other plausible explanation. I’ve seen this many times before in summer races. The difference is that it is required during this race to have them on at all times, even in the day because we’re on a snowmobile trail. I was pissed so I sped up and followed him for probably 5 minutes until 2 snowmobiles that were associated with the race came by. I tried to stop them to tell them about his lights but they must have assumed I was saying I was OK and just kept going. They didn’t stop him which I was surprised by.
You see during check-in they were very anal about the blinky lights as really they probably should be. People had already contacted the DNR about being surprised by us being on the trail in years past. If anyone ever gets hit during the race I think we can safely assume the race is dead. At Tuscobia, it’s part of their permit from the DNR that you need at least 3 lights on at all times and at certain heights, etc. I had 3 lights on my head, and 3 more down my back and sled. I also had one in front. I asked several people during the race if they could see my lights and they said they were real good. Really everyone I saw had good lights, assuming they were ON!
I followed him closely as I could only see him by his reflector and had to be fairly close for that. I had planned on doing 20-22 minute miles until the end but was now doing 18 minute miles. It took about 20 minutes and then I caught up to him while he was stopped. As I was coming up to him, I asked him if all his blinkies’ batteries had died. I then got in front of him and could see a faint red light coming from under his duffle bag at the front of the sled. He had hid them in there. Remember I saw them on the back of his sled in the beginning where they should be. I said, “Oh, there they are, just as I thought” and left him. He didn’t say anything but sure enough they were on again later on when I looked back. He tried to keep up and it did take me about an hour before I couldn’t see him anymore but for all I know he had turned all his lights off and was still just behind me. I refilled my water bottle for the last time after I turned a corner as fast as possible. Basically I spilled water everywhere but got enough in my bottle. I never stopped again.
I was on a mission to not let a cheater beat me. 17 minute miles were common now. I kept thinking about the character Crusher on Blaze and the Monster Machines cartoon I watch with my kids. He always cheats to try to win the races but he never does. In fact, if he wouldn’t cheat he’d likely win some of the races because he’s so far ahead. Sound similar? My kids loved this story when I got home by the way.
I ended up seeing another light up ahead and caught up to him in about 30 minutes. It was Jeff and I had caught back up to him. I briefly told him about the guy behind me. I told Jeff I didn’t care if he (Jeff) kept up and beat me, just as long as I beat the cheater behind us. Jeff did keep up for a while but stopped somewhere and I never saw him again. The trail seemed to go along swamps a lot in this area so I ran anytime I was on icy looking stuff since the sled pulled so nice.
It was colder now and I put on my warmer gloves from my backpack while still moving. I knew we had to turn off the arrowhead trail somewhere and I thought it was soon after crossing CoRd 77. I crossed a road but it never seemed to me that we turned off anywhere. I could see tracks and footprints in the snow and the course was well marked so I knew I was still on the right course but really had no idea how much further it was. My watch had died from the cold. I didn’t want to stop to take my phone out which had a gpx file of the course on it. I’d get there when I got there I told myself. I could tell my speed was slowing now. I was getting tired and it seemed like all I was doing was making turns in the woods. East then South then East then South. Other race reports made it sound like you could see the casino long before you got there but I never did.
Finally I heard some noise. I got to the snow fence area which I thought meant I still had a couple miles left to go. Nope, it means you have like 0.1 miles. I asked a guy how much further to the finish line and he pointed to the top of the hill he was standing by and I could see the banner. To say I was happy is an understatement. Not even so much that I finished the race (I knew that would happen back at Surly), but that I didn’t have to go 2 more miles and I had beaten my new Nemesis. It was 4:56am Wednesday Feb 1st. I had finished in 45 hours and 52 minutes. I proclaimed I’d party till the sun came up which was only a couple hours away.
I told them Jeff should be coming shortly. They take you inside and I had to pick a number from 1 to 10. I don’t remember what number I picked but whatever it was meant I had to do a full gear check so we did that and I passed. I got brought up to the hospitality room in the Fortune Bay Casino and I got my trophy, some food, pop, and my clean clothes bag. The volunteers really are amazing at this race. Jeff came in I think 10 minutes later. My feet looked better than they did at Surly. The cold and wind had dried out my shoes and socks. I got my picture taken with the trophy.
I took a shower and changed. I tried to sleep some but mostly just talked to other racers. Some were just coming in, others had already slept and were getting up to see the new finishers.
I couldn’t wait to get home to my family so I slept some once I got back to my car in International Falls and then drove home.
The cheater was Italian I found out as he came in. That’s maybe why he didn’t say anything to me. But as my wife said, it’s no excuse for cheating and putting himself and the entire race in jeopardy. You need to know the rules no matter what, especially safety rules. There’s no way he accidentally took his lights off and hid them. Her argument made sense to me and that’s why I even put the story in here.
There are some who don’t agree with the sledding aspect of this race. From what I’ve been told it’s always been allowed and I love it. Even if you took every step down a hill you could easily lower your sled in front of you with a retractable dog leash and not have it pushing you down the hill negating the main argument most have against it. I think people should take advantage of it. I don’t think it makes you go much faster as most hills you could run down faster and it takes time to get on and off your sled. There’s only about 10 hills that you really cruise on. The main advantage is the fun factor and the fact you’re off your feet for 10 seconds. I was seriously thinking I would never do this race again until I got to the sledding portion of the trail. That first night for me just kinda sucked. Now I plan on doing it again if I gain entry again.
The headlamp suggestion for 100 lumens or more is a good one. You don’t need more than 50 on the flat parts but if you want to see the bottom of the hills and not overrun your light then you want well over 100. 200 would be good if you have the battery life to keep your headlamp on that high of a setting. I’d crank mine up on the downhills but it didn’t help much this year since it was snowing and all I saw were snowflakes flying at me.
Again the volunteers are great for this race as are the race directors although I never spoke to them directly. Well organized and I saw lots of race associated sleds in case anyone was in danger.
Speaking of snowmobiles, I saw very few non race related snowmobiles the entire race. Only a couple the first day. Probably 15 the second day. For some reason the second night I saw 40 between 10 and 11pm. After that I saw none again. They were all very well behaved riders and none of them seemed surprised by my presence, but then again there was always someone just a half mile ahead of me for most of the race.
There is a ton of walking in this race. I estimate I ran 30 miles, sledded 1.5 miles and walked the rest. The only thing that hurt after the race were my ankles. Those are back to normal and my calves are a little sore. Don’t let the distance scare you if you are thinking of this race. If you’ve done a 50 mile race you can easily finish this from a physical aspect. The cold and your mind are the things you need to train for. Walking just isn’t that hard, even if pulling a sled.
With all that said, I suspect this was an “easy” year both weather and condition wise. 38 of the 59 runners finished which is 64% and pretty high for this race. I remind myself though that even if it was an easier year than most, it’s still 135 miles.
Official results: http://www.arrowheadultra.com/index.php/results/2017-results