Arrowhead 135 Race Report – 2019

This was my third time starting and finishing the Arrowhead 135 (2017, 2018).  I had some lofty goals that needed to be changed based on the weather but I stuck it out and finished.  Really, I’ve never seen the trail in such a perfect condition.  It was smooth and hard packed the entire way except for a few snow drifts in the swamps at the end.  The wind was at our backs most of the time so that’s good.  My sled and gear only weighed 40 pounds this year at the start so that was much better than last year.

And yet, only 13/64 (20.3% finisher rate) foot division competitors finished this year.  The reason of course was the weather.  It was one of the coldest years and maybe the most consistently cold year.  Air temps have been colder at the race before and it was more than -40 both the day before and after the race (we lucked out?).  I think the main thing was that it just never warmed up.  It was relentlessly cold and it got worse as the race went on.  Colder and windier!  Even half the bikers quit and you couldn’t have had better trail conditions for them, plus it didn’t get really cold until some of them were done already.  No skiers and no kick sled guys finished.  It was a tough year all around.  I was more surprised how many people actually showed up to begin with.  It was pretty clear a week before, that it would be especially cold this year.

My goal for this year was to go for speed.  This did get changed once it got cold, but I still went ahead with that plan in the beginning to get as far as I could while the temperatures were still reasonable to limit the time I’d have to be out there in the severe cold.  I built a new sled for this year but ended up using my old one after a training run on Sunday morning (-44F) showed the new one wasn’t better in the cold on a hard trail and since it weighed more, I used the old one.  Neither sled gave much “run” due to the low temps.  Things don’t slide on snow and ice well at all once it gets so cold.  Also the surface snow consistency makes a big difference.  It pretty much felt like pulling through dry flour but not quite as bad as sand.  All I heard the entire first day was how hard the sleds were pulling so I wasn’t the only one.  Hills that during my first year at Arrowhead (20F) I could slide down with ease, I couldn’t even move an inch this year.

I’ll now go back to more specifics and a timeline format.  I drove up Saturday as usual and picked up my friend Ed at Fortune Bay where he left his car.  He’d bring me back to my car at the end like last year.  We went straight to gear check-in and got through quickly since we both have done this a few times and had everything laid out in a minute for exam.  A graduate student was doing a nutrition study so I grabbed a questionnaire for that as well as my bib and goody bag.  We then checked into our hotel, ate, etc.  I also did some final packing of my gear bag, drop bag, filled out the nutrition survey, and checked the weather forecast a lot!

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This years goodie bag. There’s a bunch of safety stuff too about how to not kill yourself, etc.

The next day I got the car started at -44F, barely, and went on a trial run with my 2 sleds as I stated earlier.  I ran near the Gateway checkpoint so I got gas there and checked out the store layout since I couldn’t go in there last year.  The lady explained where things would be tomorrow on race day which was helpful.  I then went back and turned in my drop bags for Mel George’s and the finish line.

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Everywhere was a fog cloud at -44 Sunday morning.
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Gateway store.

At 4pm was the mandatory meeting and supper.  I met a couple more people I knew there.  After supper I went back to the hotel room for serious packing, putting on my KT face tape, laid out my clothes after final weather forecast check, and Facetime with family.

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There were I think 3 film crews this year. I don’t know why.

The morning of the race I got up just before 5AM.  Probably wouldn’t need to be up that soon but that’s when I woke up.  I used the coffee maker in the room to heat up my 2L water.  I weighed my sled, gear, water, food, etc and it was 39#.

It was supposed to be -20F at the start but it ended up being only -12F.  I took off another jacket and got out colder gloves as well.  I had already planned on being cold on purpose since I overheated last year.  I wore cast stockings on my shoes but that was too much and took them off after 10 miles.  Otherwise I had on medium weight Injinji socks, Altra Olympus shoes, 2 pair of pants, 2 shirts, my breathable hooded jacket, fleece hat, and warmer fleece gloves.  I was only outside about 2 minutes before the bikers started.  Before that I just stayed in my car and took a couple pictures.

The race started on Monday Jan 28th, 2019 at 7:00 AM with the usual fireworks! https://www.facebook.com/140879779273203/videos/322266671727966/

We left on foot at 7:04AM.  https://www.facebook.com/140879779273203/videos/2176261242591187/

I had my clothes pretty much dialed in other than I didn’t need the cast socks.  I also quickly changed my fleece hat for a buff.  The groomer had been out about half an hour before the race started so everything was packed down nice and smooth.  I was kind of close to a few people for an hour and then it was more spread out where I’d only see them as we leapfrogged while stopped for water, food, or whatever.

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Sunrise the first day.

It was much easier to run this year due to the sled being so much lighter.  It still pulled harder than in training due to the cold and snow conditions but it didn’t grind me down to walking right after the turn onto the Arrowhead trail like last year.  This year I ran on and off all the way to Gateway.  Of course there are people that walk just as fast as my run/walk so it’s not like I was cruising along quickly either.

The trail was so hard and packed that it even has a camber on it similar to a road.  I had to occasionally room on the other side of the trail to keep my accessory muscles happy.  That’s the first time I’ve experienced that in a winter race!

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45 minutes into the race.
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I made it to Hwy 53 in 4 hours this year.

One thing that was kind of weird this year was that it always seemed to be snowing.  While it really only snowed for part of the first afternoon, there were always crystals the size of snowflakes falling down.  It’s normal when it’s this cold to have frost particles in the air but this time they were just so much larger than I was used to.  I’d have to brush layers of the stuff off my duffle bag every time I stopped.  The warmest it got during the first day was just below zero.  I was hoping to use my deep freezer thermometer but it kept giving me high readings.  I checked it before I left and when I came back with a calibrated digital thermometer and it read accurate.  My best guess was that since it was a spring coil type thermometer, that the constant twisting of it back and forth made enough heat to make it read wrong.  The things was shaking everywhere while I was moving.  When I’d stop for 10 minutes or more, it would show accurate to what volunteers had at check points but once I started off again it would read 5 degrees hotter.

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Somewhere near Gateway. Credit: Burgess Eberhardt
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Somewhere near Gateway. Credit: Burgess Eberhardt
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Somewhere near Gateway. Credit: Burgess Eberhardt
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Somewhere near Gateway. Credit: Burgess Eberhardt

I was eating fairly well the beginning of the race this year.  Some things from last year tasted bad this year.  Some new things were awesome this year.  I knew it would be hard to eat later on in the cold so I tried to maintain some food intake as long as I could.  Again the faster I could go now, the less miles to cover in the cold later.

Finally I got to Gateway at 3:45PM, ahead of last year since I could run so much more.  Originally I had planned on only 20 minutes here but I took more time since it was already clear that the weather forecasts were getting worse not better for the next 2 days.  Basically it meant changing socks and drying out my shoes some due to wearing the cast socks when I didn’t need to in the beginning in the race.  I wanted a cheeseburger but they only had a hamburger that ended up being red in the middle.  I heard there were chicken tenders at one point which would’ve been good too.  Really there are tons of great options there but I’m partial to cheeseburgers.  I reloaded on hot water and left at 4:15PM.

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I always like wondering about this place on the way to Gateway.

It started getting dark soon after Gateway.  There was a biker still near me that I was leapfrogging with.  It was kind of fun since his headlamp must’ve been at least 400 lumens and lit the trail up pretty good.  This makes for awesome shadows.  I pretended to be a giant monster roaming through the trees.  My shadow was at least 50 feet long.  I do this sometimes with the kids at home on the side of the house.

Speaking of lumens, I thought I’d tell what I use.  I have a black diamond sprinter headlamp.  It maxes out at 125 lumens I think.  That’s enough to see down the hill when you’re sliding. Otherwise I turn it down to probably 40-50 lumens the rest of the race.  It’s got a nice feature that you just touch the side and it goes to max power and then when you touch it again, it returns to where you had it.  Very convenient for the hills.  Last year with the full moon I didn’t even need that much light.

I put on my headphones now but had to keep the iPod in my glove so the battery wouldn’t die.  I don’t understand how some rechargeable lithium batteries like my headlamp can last in -30F for 2 nights and yet an iPod dies in 15 minutes in -10F.  It got to about -15F by 11PM and continued to slowly drop from there until 9AM the next day when it was about -26F.  I put my second jacket on at some point after Gateway and a skull cap and fleece hat over that when I got the headlamp out.

The cold valley from last year wasn’t as bad since it was windy this year and the cold air didn’t settle in there very well.   It was -31F with the windchill slightly coming from behind versus the -35F last year.  I still should’ve put my googles and face cover on though.  My hands, feet, and body felt warm and toasty but my nose was getting cold without me knowing it.  I should’ve felt it with my fingers to confirm the temp instead of just thinking it felt warm.  Anyway once I put on my face cover, my nose felt hot so I knew I was later than I should’ve been.  Veteran making a rookie mistake!  I have always done a mental check at least every hour to see how things are going.  Most of the time it’s much more often, especially in a cold year like this.  I’ll obviously be adding a physical touching of the nose to confirm temp from now on.

This is the point in the race that the mental challenge really begins.  It’s cold, you’re tired, I hadn’t seen anyone for at least 6 hours.  I had only seen snowmobiles once from the race up to this point.  The race course itself doesn’t even get hard until after the half way point and since I’ve been on it twice before, I knew well what suckyness was coming.  I was able to check my phone again and saw the forecast for Wednesday morning was even worse, now showing -38F at sunrise.  Plus a windchill of “doesn’t matter at this point anymore, keep everything covered dumbass!”  The high for Tuesday was supposed to be -18F (it never got that hot by the way) which wasn’t great either.  I really had to wonder if I wanted to go all the way to Surly checkpoint at 111 miles just to have to quit because I didn’t think I could make the last 23 miles through the swamps in the cold.  I thought about this for hours and never really came to any decision.

I really didn’t know if people were quitting the race or not.  I never saw any snowmobiles filled with dropped competitors pass by me like I did last year.  I had no clue how many people were in front of me either.  The snow was so hard, it was difficult to make footprints or for the sleds to make tracks to count how many in front of you.  I found out later, people were dropping quickly behind me and a couple in front.

Going across Elephant Lake for the mile going into the wind to Mel George’s sucked as always.  The windchill was -39F at this point if you believe the official of 9mph wind.  It certainly felt faster than that on the lake but at least it wasn’t that bad in the trees.  I showed a biker where to go once I got to land.  There weren’t as many markings at this turn as in previous years.  In fact most years there was a volunteer there to point the way.  With the temp this year, it was understandable for no one to be there.  I checked in to the second checkpoint at Mel George’s at 3:15AM which was later than I had hoped.  I just always seem to think this section will take less time than it does.  I’m also convinced it’s 73 miles and not 72 miles to the checkpoint which accounts for some of that.

I had never used the check-in cabin before so I certainly wasted some time here that I could fix in later years.  I ate about 1000 calories of food and tried to organize my clothes and such that I knew I’d change into after sleeping.  I charged my watch and headlamp up to make sure they’d make it through the cold to come.  I eventually made my way up to the loft to sleep.  All the beds were taken.  Somehow there were 8 competitors in the cabin but I only counted like 4 bikes.  Anyway it was hot enough to not need a blanket or anything.  I put in my earbuds and listened to white noise.  I was tired enough to drown out the talking and snoring with the white noise and slept for a total of about 50 minutes.  It wasn’t great sleep since I was constantly woken up but it’s all I was going to get and certainly better than trying to bivy up in the cold and wasting time with that.

I got up, checked the weather which was about the same and decided to keep going without really thinking about it very much.  I had more layers than last year with me.  It took me way too long to get out the door.  I had my stuff spread out over too many areas.  It was so hot in the cabin that I couldn’t really change into my clothes until I was in the breezeway.  I went back and forth a bunch of times getting stuff ready and packed and loaded.  I did finally leave at 5:45AM.  2.5 hours and not even an hour of sleep.  What a waste.  Plus my shoes were still by the door and I never got them in a place where they could dry out.  I had on 3 pair of pants now, including my windpants.  I had 3 shirts on and 2 or 3 jackets (I know by nightfall I had 3 on but I’m not sure when I put that one on).  Face mask, goggles, skull hat and fleece hat.  I now had on wool Injinji socks and also upgraded to mittens from gloves.

It was slowly still getting colder and windier.  The big hills after Mel George’s kept me warm and were steep enough to slide down.  I had poles with me this year for the first time.  They were a big help on the hills.  Not that I made it up them much faster, but I could keep my feet straight instead of pushing off the sides of my feet which prevented me from getting the hip pain I’ve gotten every other year.  By sunrise it was -26F and a 13mph wind.  That’s -50F windchill although I was protected from most of that wind by the trees and often going with the wind.

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Elbow Lake shelter.

This was a pretty lonely section.  No snowmobiles at all during the day except one at dusk.  I heard one bird and saw a small dead mouse.  Otherwise no wildlife at all.  The sun stayed out longer than it was supposed to which was nice.  It was rare that I wasn’t in a shadow though so it didn’t warm me up much.  I never bothered with the iPod (too cold) although it would’ve been nice to listen to some podcasts or something.  I pretty much just went into cruise mode and tried to eat and maintain speed.  The sled pulled so hard that I couldn’t run the sections I ran last year even though my sled was lighter and I had some sleep.  I had to breath in through my mouth and out my nose all the rest of the race to make sure I didn’t make my nose cold again.  It was annoying but I eventually got used to it.

I didn’t see things in the trees like last year.  I only thought there was something there twice and I knew right away I was wrong.  I made a game of guessing what it was in reality before I got there.  It guessed wrong both times.  It was always a tree that was horizontal with snow on it.  One time I thought I saw an orange streak go past.  In fact I did, it was a photographer walking behind a sign that I saw after a small bend in the trail.  I don’t know where that picture is.

Around mile 96 when I was taking a break, John Storkamp and Ray Sanchez caught up to me.  I thought Ray had left before I went to sleep at Mel George since he was packing up stuff as I went up to the loft but he hadn’t.  We were kind of together for 10 miles or so when I could no longer see John.  I absolutely hate the section after 99 miles.  Just non-stop STEEP climbs for 5 miles.  Ray and I pretty much went in together to Surly.  If not for my nose, I could’ve gone faster after those hills but there really wasn’t much point anymore.  I had given up on time long ago due to the cold.

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Going down the hill into the flats before Surly. Photo Credit: David Jess
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Going down the hill into the flats before Surly. Photo Credit: David Jess

There is a nice downhill to the flats before Surly checkpoint after you turn South East.  I couldn’t even tell there was an incline this year.  I knew were I was but I kept thinking it couldn’t be right since it didn’t seem at all like I was going down.  It’s even steep enough to slide down if it’s 20F.  I was pretty bummed when I realized we were down to the bottom land and indeed the downhill was rendered ineffective due to the cold.  The wind was behind me now for the rest of the race.  In the picture above you can see the cloud around my face.  It was hard to see since the headlamp would light it up no matter where you pointed it or how bright it was.  You couldn’t hold your breath long enough for it to dissipate either.  There was just a constant steam cloud in front of you.  It also started to fog up my goggles and they were useless by Surly.

We got in to Surly at 7:10PM which was much later than I wanted but again, time wasn’t of concern anymore, safety was.  I ended up staying an hour which didn’t seem that long.  I ate some food since I hadn’t had anything for a long time.  I dried my shoes over the stove in the teepee and changed socks one more time just in case.  The trail at Surly was like a wind tunnel.  Taking your glove off for a couple seconds made them cold.  I brought in most of my clothes to the teepee to figure out what to put on and what to put in my most accessible areas of my pack (what I call the on deck area) for easy access.  I knew there was essentially zero places out of the wind a few miles past Wakemup Hill so things had to be done now if possible.  I also put on the cast socks again in case it got down to -40F.  It wasn’t supposed to anymore but it’s just easier to put on now.  In the end I wouldn’t have needed them on.  I also put on the cold avenger mask I bought this year.  I had never used it before and wasn’t real keen on not being able to eat and drink with it on but with the cold and wind, it was a better protector than the other face mask I was using.  I put on a fourth jacket as well.  I hoped I wouldn’t get too hot since this is the jacket that likes to freeze shut and can’t be taken off easy.  I put thin running gloves on under my mittens so that I never had to have skin exposed to do more finer detail oriented things like drink or eat or pee.

They shot off some fireworks when people left which was kind of cool.  Of course I forgot something so mine went off before I actually left for good.  I felt great after the rest and ran pretty much the whole way to Wakemup Hill to get the blood flowing and since I felt good.  I couldn’t wear the goggles anymore since they just fogged up like crazy with the cold avenger.  My eyes were cold which made me somewhat cold but there wasn’t much to do about it until I figured something out later on.  The other thing the cold avenger does is put all the moisture directly at your neck.  All my zippers were frozen in ice in minutes.  Good thing I wasn’t planning on taking them off until the end of the race.

I was tired but not as bad as last year.  I was taking caffeine pills to help stay awake.  Really I mostly was just bored.  I knew it would be about 8 hours to finish this section and after the fun Wakemup Hill there is still 7 hours left of boredom going slowly uphill.  I tried to sing songs that I made up but even after a 10 minute long made up rhyming song, you still had hours left. There were no people at any of the road crossings.  The other years there was a car at almost every road crossing.  Really the entire race there were very few road crossings with people.

I’d get too hot if I ran, but slightly cold just walking.  I figured out it was because the back of my pants all breath and the strong wind behind me were going through them.  Also I didn’t have a wind proof hood or goggles anymore so my head was slightly cold.  I decided to take the time to put on my snowpants.  These are super warm and I had them basically in case I had to just stand still or bivy.  But they’re windproof as well.  I put them on and my legs were immediately hot.  My head was still cool so I took an empty zip lock bag and tore one edge to make it into a 3 sided hat.  I put it under my hood and headlamp and it worked great.  Within minutes I was overheated and had to slow way down.  Like 30 minute mile slow which was just dumb.  I decided to just take off the snowpants and deal with the wind.  It took a while to cool down but eventually I could walk fast again and had more normal breathing.

Sometimes I’d even have to take the zip lock bag off as well to keep cooler.  I’m thinking a thin wind pant and a poncho instead of the 4th jacket would’ve been better.  Plus not having to need the cold avenger mask.  With about 4 hours left to go I ended up taking the cold avenger mask somewhat off, just keeping it close enough to my face to help warm the air.  The other downfall was all the snot I was consuming.  The mask somehow made it all run or blow into my mouth.  The last hour of the race it was a struggle not to barf from the taste of the snot and having a belly full of it.

I ate some food thinking it would help, I felt this bump on my tongue start forming right after I ate it.  I think I froze part of my tongue with the -26F food.  Won’t be doing that again.

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See the white spot on my tongue?

Anyway it was still getting colder.  The wind seemed to die down for a bit but then really took off again more from the West instead of the NW.  The official wind speed at Tower was not close to what the trail condition was for wind in my opinion.  I was keeping warm enough and could always put back on the snow pants and wrap myself in the sleeping pad on top if I needed to.  Really I had to thermoregulate somewhat like last year by taking on and off my mittens (still had the thin gloves on) and hats.

I so wanted to be done.  I would look back every once and a while looking for Ray since I knew he would be right behind me.  Turns out he made a wrong turn somewhere and went 4 miles off course so he was no where near me.  I was miles from anyone in either direction.  I slowly started counting down the miles.  It was hard to see the trail through the swamps with the snow drifts blowing over it and the giant fog cloud in front of me.  I just looked down and followed the couple tire tracks I could see.  For hours!  I ran occasionally just to change things up.  I got out my poles again just to have something for my arms to do.

I thought I saw a UFO.  There was this light moving all around crazy in the sky.  Turns out I just was moving my head around in the wind and from being tired the fog messed with my perception of what was stationary and what wasn’t.

Finally I got to the last road crossing.  There was still more to go but at least my mind would be occupied with the multiple turns and twists to the finish line.  Up to now it was just miles of straight lines with an occasional 10 foot jog in the trail.  The hill to the finish line was easier with my poles.  I was surprised that I didn’t have to go into the tent at the finish line to find someone.  They somehow saw me coming or else they are really hardy to stand in a -54F wind chill waiting for hours at a time.  I finished at 3:54AM for a time of 44:50 and 5th place.  That was very similar to last year which wasn’t too bad.  It was -33F air temp.  We went in right away.  I would’ve liked a photo at the finish line but I couldn’t get my phone up from my chest very easy with the cold avenger having frozen everything.  They gave me the Minnesota nice gear check which was the first time I got that one.

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Bag works pretty good doesn’t it? Photo Credit: Paul Wilken

I went up to the deserted hospitality lounge.  Well, it was deserted other than the volunteers.  Volunteers are awesome at this race!  So few people were around since so many quit the day before and already went home.  I got some food and talked about the sucky last section.  I got to pick from a large selection of finisher trophies since not many bikers finished this year.  This is where I learned about Ray getting lost and my friend Ed dropping.  The next person to come in was almost 4 hours after me so I think they probably got a nap in after I left the room.  I was able to check in to my hotel room which is so nice.  I love the Fortune Bay Resort.  I paid them back by eating every buffet they had until I left Thursday.

I showered, slept for an hour, got up and ate and slept again.  The usual.  I posted pictures of everything I was wearing when I finished the race.  Here they are.

Here are the screen shots of the official NWS sites during the race along the trail.  Trail conditions certainly vary from this some.  I wish it would record the actual wind chills as well but you just have to calculate that yourself.  Overall a very cold year!  Maybe next year will be a huge snow year.

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Since people have been asking, and you made it all the way to the end so you probably actually care; here is the elevation profile and mileage chart I made based on the full gps track I made during the race.

Arrowhead mileage chart

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