“I’m never doing that unsupported again!” I said as I crossed the finish line just a few days ago. Do I still think that? Probably, but I’m still tired. Let’s go back a bit first. Here is last year’s race report for more details on the race itself, etc. Ken the race director came up with the new category of this race called unsupported last year. You have to do the race once before you’re allowed to try it unsupported and with good reason. While it doesn’t seem like it would add that much more difficulty to an already difficult race, it does. Since I finished last year, I wanted to try unsupported this year.
There aren’t really any unsupported rules written down in one place so I’ll summarize them as they currently are. Basically all the rules are the same as the supported race except you can’t get ANY support from the race, the race volunteers, businesses at the checkpoints, in addition to outsiders that no one in the race can get aid from. That means you don’t get to warm up at the 3 checkpoints, you don’t get any water or food at them either. You are allowed to use garbage cans to throw away trash. You can use a porta-potty if it’s outside. You can use a fire if you find one along the way or make your own with wood you collect yourself. You can receive aid from other racers as long as it doesn’t involve food or water. That last one I’m not sure I totally agree with. Any aid seems like it shouldn’t be allowed but that is also so against everything that ultrarunners believe in so I’m fine with it.
So what does all this mean for how I prepared for this year’s race? Well to start with I got a white gas stove since I’d have to melt snow at some point during the race and it would take forever with the Esbit tab stove I had. I heard from the unsupported runners last year that melting snow took forever for them. Also white gas works at extreme cold. On a side note (rant) I’m so sick of people claiming those butane/propane tank stoves work in the winter. You can’t change the laws of physics people. Just because you went winter camping once and your canister stove worked (because the tank was kept warm and it was 0 degrees out) doesn’t mean crap when it’s -35 and your tank got cold because your “foolproof” idea to keep it warm didn’t work. Having a canister stove will pass inspection for the race but if you plan on going unsupported get a white gas stove.
I grew out a 5 week beard which I’ve never done. Last year was only like 10 days and not enough. I also got a better bivy. I got a new -20 sleeping bag because the one I had was old and likely not as warm as it should be. Based on my testing, I was right, the old one didn’t keep me as warm as the new one. I wish I could afford a -40 bag, I’ll keep looking for a cheaper one. I got down booties to wear in the sleeping bag. I also got lightweight racing snowshoes that I saw someone with last year.
I changed my water carrying plan since my old method of a gallon jug in a cooler wouldn’t cut it this year. I purchased a bunch of different thermoses and tested them outside. I decided on a half gallon thermos from Walmart that worked better than most expensive ones. I already had a 54 oz thermos that tested great as well. I then took a 2L pop bottle and insulated it with bubble wrap. I planned on using that last one to get me to Gateway (the first checkpoint) and then toss it in the garbage. The other ones kept water warm for over a day in my tests. The reason for carrying so much water from the beginning was to limit the amount of snow I would have to melt. I expected I would make it close to Surly (3rd checkpoint) before I’d have to melt snow and I could use the fire there. Maybe I’d even make it further if I could cut the hot water with snow along the way.
All together this added 10 pounds of gear to my sled I didn’t have last year. 10 pounds! Ugh. My sled, gear, and required calories weighed 37# race morning. Plus 12# water and 5# food. That adds up to 54# I was dragging behind me at the start and it would slowly get less as I went on. I’ll add that my wife made the statement “It’s your own stupid fault for going unsupported.” I was hoping for more of a response like “wow, you’re so strong, you can do it!”
The other thing I expected going unsupported would do was improve my finish time. Yes improve. Since you can’t stop at a checkpoint, you can’t stay there nice and warm longer than you should either. I was hoping for 43 hours instead of 46 hours. That was of course assuming conditions were similar to last year.
I guess I’ll add one more thing about this race in general whether unsupported or not. The words Hope, Should, Usually, Worked Before are not helpful. Thinking with those words will end your race. Use words like Worst Case, Over-pack, and most importantly Contingency!
So if you’re not bored by now, I’ll get on with the race itself.
I stayed at the Voyager Motel this year right next to the start line. A friend left his car at the finish line and I drove him back to the start line. That way he’d drive me back after the race to get my car and the gear he left there. I ended up going to Canada this year since it’s so close and I wanted Poutine. There was a restaurant that served it there that google said was open. After paying the $7 to go across the bridge to Canada I found out it closed in December. So back I went to the USA.
The race starts at 7am Monday morning for the bikers, here’s how it started.
We started at 7:06 with “release the hounds!” I still love that.
It was -11 at the start and only forecast to get to about zero in the afternoon. I wore my wind shorts, tights, and wind pants. I had on my wool Injinji socks, Altra Olympus shoes and cast stockings on my feet. I wore 2 compression shirts, my hooded jacket and wind jacket. A fleece hat as well as fleece thinsulate gloves. The sled pulled OK but it was obviously heavier than last year. Also since it was colder the snow wasn’t as quick either. I still ran to the turn onto the Arrowhead trail and a little further but didn’t run all the way to Hwy 53 like last year.
I talked to Pam Reed for a bit in the beginning but then didn’t really talk to anyone for more than a minute or so the rest of the race. I just didn’t match up with anyone’s speed and since I was closer to the front of the pack this year it was just thinner in general anyway. John Storkamp passed me a little later in the race than last year, still walking way faster than I can.
It never really seemed to warm up at all. It was cloudy as well. The main issue I was having was that I wore too much in the beginning and didn’t take things off soon enough so I got my second shirt layer and jacket somewhat damp. I took off my hat and put on a buff. I took off both jackets to start to dry out my shirts. It was working and I was keeping warm for the most part. I was mostly walking already by this point but that was fine, I was still keeping overall pace well since I was walking faster than last year. I had trained a fair amount trying to get my walking speed up.
I got to Hwy 53 around the same time as last year. There is phone service here so I texted my wife this good looking photo to let her know what she was missing.At this point I was starting to get a little colder and the shirt was mostly dried out now. I put on my hooded jacket which was partly frozen from the sweat earlier. It thawed out quickly but didn’t make me much warmer. The whole reason I did all of this was to make sure it would be dry by the night. It was supposed to get to at least -15 at night. The problem was they kept changing the forecast to be colder and colder. The clouds started to leave about 3pm so I was expecting at least -20 below in spots. Therefore I knew I’d need all my jackets dry for this first night. I did have an extra dry shirt but I might need that too later on.
My hands started to get cold as a result of all of this unfortunately. At one point after the turn south after shelter #2 I got real cold. In fact my hands were colder than at any other point of the race. It took forever to get my bag opened to get another jacket and warmer, dry gloves on. I was so mad at myself for letting my hands get that cold. I seriously just about had to call it quits. It took me 2 minutes just to snap my running vest back on. So many people seemed to pass me through all this. This is all at about zero degrees remember and I had to go through much colder later. It seemed so stupid at the time to risk my whole race just to dry out some shirts and jackets. Of course later I would thank myself over and over again for doing just that.
A trail groomer went by I think around this time. He only went on one side of the trail but the path he took went back and forth so I kept having to move around to stay out of the soft snow he made. I was bummed to see one so soon as they make the trail much harder to traverse . This year was different though. Because it was so cold, the path he made starting firming up in just an hour. By 2 hours it was nice and hard and smooth. It ended up being better running on the path he made than anywhere else.
I still hadn’t bothered to try to play my iPod. The battery would die quickly in this kind of cold and honestly for the next 20 hours or so I had much on my mind. You’d think you’d get bored hiking through the woods for 2 days with nothing to listen to or people to talk to. I can tell you there was no chance for that this race. All I could think about was how to stay warm and survive the night to come. What could I do now so that I didn’t have to do it later when it was colder? Should I eat now or later? When will I sleep? And back to how will I keep warm? The only thing I didn’t have to worry about was water. My pop bottle was more than enough to get to Gateway and it stayed warmer than I though it would. The thermoses still had water over 160 degrees so I knew I wouldn’t have to melt snow until it warmed up the second day. The first place unsupported runner wouldn’t be so lucky and got frostbite on all his fingers melting snow when it was -30.
Now I make it seem like you could die out there and of course you could, but really we do have emergency gear to get into and keep warm while waiting for a rescue if it came to that. Most of us have been in this kind of cold before as well. There are also snowmobiles going by every once and a while to check on you. I would never count on them to be there when you need them though and planned accordingly.
I got to Gateway at 4 pm; the same as last year. I had to open the door to the store to yell in, “#83 unsupported”. Last year they were outside to get our numbers, but it was also in the 20’s last year. On the way out the moon started to rise as the sun was setting.
I threw away the 2L pop bottle and my cast stockings as they were getting full of snow. I had been almost over-hydrated to this point since I didn’t plan on wasting any of the water I had in that 2L bottle before it froze so I drank more than I needed to. Now I would go into my normal water use mode. Since it was cold I only filled my water bottle part way most of the time and just had to stop to fill it more often. In fact I stopped much more often this year than last due to all the water, food, and clothing stops.
The temperatures started dropping fast once the sun went down. I texted my wife and shut my phone off. I told her I’d try to message at MelGeorges but that never happened since it was so cold by the time I got there. I didn’t have a thermometer but it is somewhat easy to tell the temp based on past experiences. I was nice and warm at this point though. I had got another jacket on when I got my headlamp out and put a fleece hat on again instead of the buff.
The ice beard was back big time now. I was always breathing through my nose to conserve moisture and heat. At times I would have snotcicles almost 2 inches long. Gross and awesome at the same time. I’d run to get my hands nice and hot and then break/melt them off with my fingers so I could open my mouth fully and open my nostrils again. Then I’d warm my fingers back up in a minute or two. At one point in the cold night my tongue froze to a snotcicle! It melted off in a couple seconds but seriously it was stuck on it. This was probably around -20 at the time. I made sure to not let them get that big after that point.
I also put on my goggles as I was tired of my eyes freezing shut. They make such a big difference in keeping my face warm. I think I was the only person who wore goggles on foot and I’m not really sure why. As long as you don’t mouth breath all the time they won’t fog up if you wait until you’re cold to put them on. It’s weird how much heat you lose from your eyes and upper face.
I was expecting to get to MelGeorges around 3am if I didn’t stop before I got there. This section is still mostly flat with areas of small hills. I wasn’t as tired and run down as I was last year. The full moon was awesome. I never saw the northern lights and never heard any wolves either.
It was around -20 below by 9pm but at least there wasn’t any wind. That’s both a blessing and a curse really. Not having wind makes it not seem as bad as long as you can keep your gloves on and never touch anything. But still air like that also allows the coldest air to settle in spots making it much much colder than the official temps. I’ve tested things to -20 but it just doesn’t get much colder than that in southern MN so beyond that it was unknown other than what others have said.
I wasn’t tired at shelter #4 which was easier to see this year with the full moon. I was kind of tired at #5 but there were already people sleeping there and I was starting to think I should try to stay awake until it warmed up the next day so I could sleep better.
It was at least -25 by now and still getting colder. There is about a 2 mile section along lakes/swamps before the turnoff for MelGeorges that was absolutely brutal! It was at least -35 in that area (it was officially -27 in Tower)! I’ve never been in cold like that in my life. The closest we got growing up was I think -34 the year that Tower got to -60. I was at this time in the race playing leap frog with I think Ladislaus. I didn’t take the time to talk really. We would stop to put something warmer on and the other would pass. I now had 3 jackets on and put on a second and third hat. I had on my warmest gloves. All there was left to put on was another pair of pants that would require taking off my shoes and outer layer of pants to put on. That wasn’t going to happen in this cold. I also had another shirt to put on but again that would require taking things off first. I had more hats but really how many can you put on at once? I was keeping everything warm including feet, hands, nose but just barely. The next step for me would be to start stuffing everything else I had left in my bag into my jackets and pants to add insulation. I also knew I could’ve put a couple pairs of thin gloves on under the thick ones as well.
There were still 4 more hours that it could get colder before it got warmer. I really started to wonder if my race as unsupported would end at MelGeorges. I was confident I could make it there without freezing to death as it would warm up once I got out of the swamps, or at least it wouldn’t be colder up there. But I was worried what would happen if it got to -40 or -45 soon after I left MelGeorges. This is where being supported in this race makes it so much easier. I’d have a nice warm place to sleep while I waited out the cold weather or at the very least a safe space to remove my outer layers so I could add more inner layers. I decided I’d look for a place to bivy after the turnoff to MelGeorges. The plan was after I woke up, I’d have an hour or more to warm up before I got to the checkpoint. If I wasn’t warm yet, then I’d go supported and go inside. This would prevent me having to turn back if it got too cold after the checkpoint.
It did get warmer as we left the swamps and made the turn. In fact I was going to have to start taking things off. I don’t know if it really got that much warmer or if the climbing up just got the blood flowing better. Maybe there was a slight wind I didn’t appreciate until it went away with the turn, I don’t know. Regardless, I felt pretty good about bivying up now. It was about 1:30am. I packed some snow down in an area and even took my gloves off to finish putting it up with no issues (again if it was windy that wouldn’t have worked). I needed them off to put the poles on the bivy. Looking back I won’t use the poles again. Not worth the weight, effort, and risk with taking gloves off. I had everything (sleeping pad, sleeping bag, booties, bag for shoes) already in my bivy so all I had to do was roll it out and get in. While I was warm putting it up and getting in, the second I lay down I started shivering. The snow was cradling in against the bivy and essentially touching the sides of the sleeping bag. While snow may be an insulator when you’re not touching it, it conducts a ton of heat away from you when you touch it. I will never make the mistake of bivying in snow again.
I tried to sleep for about 20 minutes and maybe did for 5 between shivering spells. I said forget it and got up and immediately felt warmer. Warm enough to change my socks even. I put some zinc oxide powder on knowing that with the warmer temps and snow that would start within 12 hours I’d get trench foot if I didn’t do it now. I also usually put Vaseline on but that was much more challenging in the super cold. It was almost as hard as a rock and I don’t know if I ever did get it to melt enough to cover everything. I put a new pair of wool Injinji socks on again as it’d still be cold for some time. Then I packed everything back up. I spent about an hour of down time doing all this for maybe 5 minutes of sleep I think.
I got back to moving and it took no time at all to warm up. Just standing up made me warmer it seemed. It was about 4.5 miles to get to MelGeorges but it seemed to take even longer. There were some hills which I almost welcomed just to make more heat. I got there at 4:12am which was about on schedule due to the bivying time. I again had to yell in the door, “#83 unsupported”. I think everyone was a little groggy and it could be I wasn’t saying things right either but I had to say it like 3 times to get a response. Someone then did come outside just to confirm who I was.
The next section is the longest and most difficult section. The only good thing is I’d get to do a large part of it in daylight. I still had a few hours till sunrise though. The wind would be picking up as well soon from the South which was the direction I’d be heading. I got to do those big fun hills in the dark this year! I forgot to mention one sled change I did this year was to add runners to the bottom of my sled. They made a huge difference in control on the downhills. I think I might have gotten them just slightly off center as I always wanted to pull slightly left. Either way it was worth the extra weight to not go crashing into the banks or go backwards down the hill.
So throughout all this bitter cold the sled seemed to pull about the same as it had earlier in the day. It never acted like the Paris sled at Tuscobia 2 years ago where it pulled like it was in gravel when it got around -20. The UHMW-PE just works a lot better in the cold than the linear-PE of the Paris sled. Another reason to use it besides all the longevity and durability issues. Once it finally got up to above 10 degrees the second day, it really started to move well and I could get a long run at the bottom of hills for once. Then of course the new snow ruined all that but that’s getting ahead of myself.
The sun came up in glorious fashion (too cold to get my phone out to take a picture) as there were still no clouds and the wind came with it. Just 5mph at first, then 10, 15, and close to 20 by Tuesday evening. I kept the goggles on and put a fleece band over my nose when I needed it. I could run some on the flat sections and was making decent time. Food was starting to no longer taste good or interest me. I so wanted real food but all I had was junk and that’s all that won’t turn to a brick in this kind of cold. My mouth was getting damaged from eating all the frozen food and scratching the sides of it.
I tried to take off my outside puffy jacket that I just got this year and realized the zipper had froze from my breath. I took out a chemical hand warmer (the only one I used) and got it going inside my mitten. I then took it out and placed it on the zipper to melt a 2 inch section and zip it down. Then back in the mitten to warm up again, melt 2 more inches, rinse and repeat. Finally I had it down enough to get it the rest of the way.
This is also when I started listening to my iPod. I just kept it in my glove to keep it warm. It helped some with motivation.
I was constantly seeing things that weren’t there during the second day. Rocks that I was convinced was a shelter from a distance. I saw my dog once. I saw people walking through the trees. The snow and moving trees played tricks on me constantly. I didn’t see things at night which seemed weird since I usually see things like that at night. I know other people saw these things too so it couldn’t have just been the exhaustion.
One thing I know was real was the wolf poop. I saw some twice the second day but they were already frozen so not that fresh. I almost wanted to take some to examine later. My kids would love it more than be grossed out by it. Plus there was the extra excitement factor someone might have at gear check at the finish line. Would they think it was mine? Regardless I wasn’t going to dig through my gear to find an empty bag and haul around even a couple ounces more weight than I needed to.
I figured I would need more water and decided to melt snow before the 3rd checkpoint. I decided to go to shelter #8 which is around 98 miles into the race and a few hours away from where I was at the time. The snow then started around noon. It came hard and fast. With the wind it was hard to see at the tops of hills sometimes. I finally made the shelter and it was facing the wind. It still was nice though and the wind didn’t go through it. It had a bench in it as well. I got the stove going with a match since a lighter didn’t work in the cold. It took forever to collect the snow to make 2L of water. The 2 inches of new snow was fresh and pure but almost all air. I didn’t dare take any snow below it since this was a shelter and we all know what guys do around shelters.
Once I got my water melted and it was heating up, I changed my socks again. It was slightly easier to put the Vaseline on this time. I put thinner socks on this time as it was warmer now. I think it took around 45 minutes for all of this. The water was boiling pretty fast and I didn’t have to wait around for it since I had a list of things to do on this stop.
Right after this shelter is the dangerous hills I went down in the dark last year. I handled them much better this year. I started seeing bikers at this point. They must have slept at MelGeorges for a while and were out again. Snow really makes it hard for them so they weren’t much faster than me. The hills are steep and annoying for the next 8 miles or so. Never ending really. Plus with the new snow I couldn’t even go down all but the steepest hills with no run at the end. I had already thrown away all the extra food I wouldn’t eat at shelter #7 to help drop weight but it was still heavy.
A couple women on bikes went with me for most of this section. I must’ve looked pretty tired by this point. I think they felt bad for me. I had to decline all their offers of help of food since I was unsupported and really nothing sounded good other than hot pizza which was of course not going to happen.
Finally as it was just starting to get dark we got to the turn towards Surly. It’s all downhill or flat from there. The wind was really strong now when exposed. It actually felt good. It dried my feet out some and cooled me off. I finally got to Surly at 6:30pm slightly ahead of schedule actually since I had already got my water done. I walked past and called out, “#83 unsupported”. I soon heard a response from a woman, “we support you!” I laughed pretty hard at that one. For some reason they don’t have me leaving until 7:40 but I never even stopped.
I should have though. I was so tired. It would’ve been much better to just sleep on my sled for 30-60 minutes right away to rejuvenate. Instead I kept going. Up and down Wakemup hill which was fun going down but harder going up. In fact I ended up getting a huge cramp in my whole right hip/butt area after that climb. It lasted for 2 hours and I could barely walk. It hurt so bad! Stretching did nothing. Shoving my hand against it between my harness and butt seemed to help. Finally I could walk somewhat pain free but I couldn’t push it for speed or run because it would cramp right back up.
I had done this section in 7 hours last year but that clearly wouldn’t happen unless I could run to make up the lost time. About 5 hours into this section I started losing time. I was falling asleep standing up. I was confident I was still going in the right direction based on foot prints but no clue how fast or how far I’d gone. My watch had died and the spare battery pack was basically froze. My iPod had also died so I had nothing to help keep me awake. I started just repeating the mantra, “walk fast, walk fast”, so I’d remember what I was doing.
Again I seemed to lose time and suddenly the 2 women on bikes who had gone the last section with me were there. They had slept at Surly and were moving again. They said the closest person to me was a ways back which was nice to hear as I was moving so slow. I decided I had to try to sleep so I laid on my pack and set my phone alarm for 15 minutes. I woke up shivering in 10 minutes. I could actually run now! I did for probably a mile and then had to walk again but I was definitely more awake now.
I crossed a road so I finally knew where I was. I had 8.5 miles to go. More than I wanted but at least I knew now. I still had no clue how fast I was moving. I tried hard and I felt like I was going 16 minute miles. Turns out they were more like 20. The wind had died down and I was getting hot. I drank the last of my water but didn’t take anything off. I just would take my hat and gloves off for periods of time.
Finally the turn to the casino! I tried hard to run but I couldn’t. The constant uphill for the last 20 miles wore me out and now it was even steeper to the finish. I saw the snow fences and looked behind, still no one. I enjoyed the last quarter mile to the finish. I finished at 3:09am for a time of 44:03. I had hoped for 42:30 but it was still better than last year! I took pictures at the finish and then saw the next runner coming up the hill. I had barely got there before him.
I had a gear check since I had finished pretty high up. I didn’t know exactly where I finished. I think they told me 6th at the finish line. I was so stinking tired though so who knows. It was a quick check which I appreciated since I just wanted to sit down. I don’t mind the gear check, I just wish I could sit down somewhere. They brought me up to the hospitality room and I found out I was 2nd place unsupported! I was surprised. I knew a couple of the guys who did it last year were doing it again and they were ahead of me the whole time. I passed one somewhere around Surly or after. The guy right behind me was unsupported as well.
I got food and luckily they let me in my room early so I could shower, etc right away. This was the first time in my life I had ever stayed awake for 48 hours. I’ve done 38-40 hours many times but many of those weren’t while pulling a frickin’ sled in the woods. I guess it was good training for a possible future race.
I slept 3 hours and found out my friend had dropped the day before. So I was able to get my car that morning yet and my suitcase, etc. The rest of the day was spent swapping stories with everyone who finished or didn’t, eating, and limping slowly around. I was in love with elevators that day.
I left for home Thursday and was so happy to see my family again.
I’m glad I did this unsupported and finished it in decent health. It was easily the hardest non-stop challenge I’ve ever done. It’s hard to call it a multi-day since I never slept. Certainly Volstate is longer but this is so much more isolating. There is no where to hide from the weather when unsupported. Having a warm place to go to change clothes, get food, sleep, etc is such a luxury really.
Arrowhead is hard. Doing it unsupported is harder on so many levels. I suppose there is always the option of doing the double arrowhead if I really want to make things hard on myself.
38 runners finished out of 64 that started (59%) which is pretty good considering the conditions. Official results are here.