Arrowhead 135 – 2020 Race Report

This is probably the latest I’ve ever written a race report after doing the race so it may end up short and not very detailed.  I’ll guess we’ll see how good my memory is.  For more background on the race you can read  here, here, and here.  This was my forth year doing the race.  It was also the second race in the Order of the Hrimthurs series.  Having just finished my poor performance at Tuscobia 160, my main goal in this race was just to finish in good enough shape to finish Actif Epica-100 16 days later.

The weather forecast for this years race was about as perfect as it could get.  Initially it was supposed to be almost mid 30’s which is way too warm but then things started to show 20’s as being the highs.  I ran a few times the week before the race to make sure my body was recovering well (it surprisingly was).  I spent almost every minute of those runs arguing with myself on whether or not I should run it unsupported again since it would be such an easy year.  I of course knew the smart decision would be to not go unsupported as that would jeopardize my chance of finishing Hrimthurs.  I somehow finally convinced myself on my last run that I would do the smart thing and just do the regular supported.  I did somewhat try to convince my friend Ed to do it though.  I was really surprised I didn’t see a lot more people go unsupported this year, it will likely be a long time until the weather is this perfect again.

I’ll talk a little more about the weather right away I guess.  If you ask most of us veterans we’ll tell you that 10 degrees is about perfect for a winter race.  Cold enough to keep you from sweating if you know what you’re doing but not so cold as to be a hindrance in any way.  This race was mostly in the high teens and maybe up to the low 20’s which is warmer than I’d like but still nice.  It was forecast to be in the upper 20’s by the way so it ended up being colder than forecast.  The sleds moved effortlessly!  I could sled down even the shallowest sloped hills for the first time in 3 years.  I even saw Storkamp have some fun sledding down the hills!  This just makes the race so much easier and more fun.  Really the best thing about the weather being warm is that the chance of dying from the cold goes to zero.  Unless you jumped in water and didn’t have any clothes on, you won’t have an issue in the 20’s with no precipitation.  You can make so many mistakes and still be perfectly fine when it’s 28 degrees.  You don’t even need a good thermos at that temp, just a homemade insulated bottle will give you 20 hours of liquid water.  You can just sleep on top of your sled and not have to bivy when it’s that warm.  There’s just so many things that are easier, I didn’t even have gloves on for about a fifth of the race.  Et cetera.  Alternatively, if you make the smallest of mistakes at -20 or colder, your race will likely be over or very close to it.  It was a great year to be a rookie and I expected a high finishing rate.

All of that being said, don’t be a dumbass and think you can half ass this (or any winter ultra) race in a good weather year.  You still need to have trained well and know what to do if/when the weather turns from what was predicted to something else.  Basically, just because I’m diminishing the chance of death/frostbite with this years race doesn’t mean you should construe that to mean this race was easy in the literal sense, just “easy” in the Arrowhead sense.

So what was the finishing rate?  46 out of 68 finished on foot (68%) which is pretty high.  I thought it would be higher but I know quite a few of those who didn’t finish had issues with things other than the weather (poor health or just mentally not wanting to do it).  I could somewhat relate to the mentally just not wanting to finish.  Normally in a winter ultra you need to constantly (literally constantly when it’s -40) evaluate your body and the situation.  In other words constantly checking that your fingers, nose, toes aren’t frozen, have you drank, have you ate, do you need to adjust your clothes, time of day, is the weather changing, where am I, when I stop to open my bag what exactly am I going to do and in what order, etc.  It’s never ending and even worse when you do it unsupported!  This year, I thought of those things at most once an hour.  I actually got bored!  I know some of those that quit were just bored and likely won’t be back for a few years.

So get on with the race report already!

Okay.  Here’s check in.  I checked in Saturday like usual.  Of course I still somehow forgot something for check in.  I had to go and get my mittens from the hotel.  In my defense, it was a new required gear item but something I’ve always carried in a race.  It’s one of the items many of us put in the so called “oh sh*t bag” or something to that effect.  There may not even be a separate bag that you put those things in, but in your head they’re special items of last resort.  Basically the things you never plan on wearing but have just in case things go sideways or unexpected weather.  Some people didn’t bring much of any extra clothes whatsoever but they also ran the majority of the race and finished in the top 3.

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I’m nowhere in this photo but it’s what I had.  One change is we had to go in a different door this year.

The next day I didn’t need to check on the course so I finally went to Voyager’s National Park which is right next to International Falls.  I got a bunch of information since I hope to come up in the summer once with the family.

That night was the required pre-race meeting.  They switched it up and put the slide show screen on the opposite side of the stage.  First the different door for check in and now I had to turn my head the other direction to see the slides.  Too much change for a Minnesotan in one year.

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After the provided spaghetti supper, I went back to the motel room and finalized my gear bag.  I also got done what I could get done the night before as far as taping, etc.

So a quick side note on the motel.  Ed and I decided to stay at a different motel this year as it was quite a bit cheaper.  About an hour or so after we checked into different rooms, we were leaving to go to gear check (4:40PM) and the owner comes out to ask Ed if he used the fan in the bathroom.  He did since that’s what a normal person would do to remove air from a bathroom.  Well apparently the owners kid’s bedroom is above Ed’s motel room bathroom and it woke the kid up.  The owner told him to not use the fan anymore!  Crazy.  In the end things worked out since I think the owner realized he was being a dick.

Anyway, I woke up around 5am on race day January 27th for the 7am start.  I realized there was a hole in the tights I planned on wearing so I was glad I had brought everything from home so I could switch it out with another pair.  I tried hard to keep my bag light but it still ended up being 42 pounds with food and water included.  I’ve just had so many races where the weather turned bad and I was always glad I had that extra gear.

It was about 14 degrees with a bit of snow coming down and a slight wind.  That temp is just kind of right in between 2 different clothing options for me so I hate it.  I of course chose the too cold option which is always the proper choice to make.  You can always run more or harder to warm up if need be.  Don’t overdress to start the race.  If you aren’t somewhat cold the first mile of a race, you are definitely wearing too much.

I sat inside the building in an area that either was always previously locked to us or I just never bothered to go into.  I almost don’t want to tell people since it was so nice and quiet and pleasant in there.  I enjoyed the quiet and prepared myself for the next 2 days of the race.  I checked the weather again one more time (like it mattered at this point), e-mailed my wife (don’t want the text to wake her up), and exited the door that goes right to the trail.  I took my usual pre-race selfie and put my phone away.IMG_20200127_064447

I started toward the front this year so I could actually hear the “release the hounds”.  Most of the time I can’t hear it due to all the crunching and squeaking snow.  The fireworks went off and then the bikes started.  Next the skiers.  Finally, the foot division.

I talked to a few people on the way to the first turn (a couple hours) but I don’t remember many of the conversations.  I know one of the guys was going for his third attempt I think.  He had always done the Brazil 135 2 weeks before the race and never got past Mel Georges.  I told him he never even got to the good part of the race then since he never got to any of the good hills.  I’m pretty sure he finished it this year.

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The stretch after the turn to the East.

After the turn I didn’t see people very often at all.  Occasionally in the distance I’d see someone.  I was running some but having just done Tuscobia a month before, I could tell I wouldn’t be running as much as usual.  I made it to Hwy 53 about the usual time.

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Hwy 53 crossing.  No snotcicles this year.

I helped out another runner fix his sled somewhere along the way in the morning but I can’t remember where exactly.  Since I helped him out last year too, I joked “you’re going to have to help me out next year”.

In the early afternoon there was a moment when I was by myself for a little while.  There are always a couple moments during Arrowhead where something just takes your breath away.  I don’t know how to explain it really.  Just a feeling that everything around you is perfect and I feel really close to God.  It’s one of the main reasons I like winter ultras.  It’s impossible to see the things you see or experience the things you experience during this race from home or in a video or a picture.  I took a picture to remember this moment.  To you it will just look like any other section of the race I could take a picture of.  To me, it’s much more.  If anything, the point of this picture is to remind myself that many experiences just can’t be captured in anything but the mind.IMG_20200127_144315There were a group of I think 4 of us that ended up somewhat together for the hour or so before Gateway aid station.  I was pretty efficient here.  In 30 minutes, I ate, went #2, changed socks, added a layer, and reloaded water.  While I was trying to go fast, in reality I didn’t care much.  I knew I would place much lower than normal.  I was still going about as fast as most years but that’s because the snow conditions were so much better, not because I was “fast”.  The sled just ran so nice.

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In Gateway store.

It was light out for a bit yet after I left Gateway.  The big group I left behind soon caught up to me.  For a couple hours or so, they’d pull away and then I’d catch up sliding down a hill.  About the time we got to the cold swamp area, they were out of sight.  It was quite enjoyable not to be freezing in the swamps this year.  I was listening to music from here until the last 13 hours in the race basically.  Since I took such a good GPS reading last year, I had perfect mileage for when I’d get to the next road or shelter.  I was looking forward to Mel Georges.  I wasn’t sure if I would sleep or not.  I was seriously contemplating just not stopping other than food and would sleep on my sled later if need be.  It was about 12 degrees out which is a little cold to just sleep on my bag though.

Once I was getting close to the lake I could see lights ahead.  Had I caught back up to the group?  No, it was just a couple people that had passed me early on in the race that had slowed down now.  I passed them and then crossed the lake.  There was talk about it having overflow (liquid water that goes on top of the thick ice caused by the heavy snow pushing the ice down) a couple days ago so I was prepared with some bags to put over my shoes but it had frozen over since then so I didn’t need them.  It was so nice not having the cold blast of air in my face like last year (remember someone got frostbite on his cornea in this section last year).

I reached Mel Georges at 3:47AM, about 30 minutes slower than last year.  I was feeling tired and so I thought I’d at least try to sleep while I recharged my watch and headlamp.  I ate quite a bit of food and then headed upstairs to find a spot.  Just as I got up there, Mark Scotch comes out of the only room in the cabin and asks if I want it.  I just hit the jackpot of this race!  Now I wouldn’t need to sleep on the floor with people snoring everywhere.  I could still hear people talking but it was much quieter.  Unfortunately, I still slept very poorly, if at all.  I’m sure there were a couple bouts of sleep in there but I felt as though I was awake the entire 90 minutes I laid down.

Finally I just said “forget it” and got up.  I re-lubed up my feet, checked the weather on my phone, used the bathroom, and got dressed.  It was much easier getting my stuff repacked this year.  I had been much smarter on where I put stuff and didn’t have to wander everywhere getting stuff.  In the end I was there for almost 3 hours which was longer than last year but whatever, I wasn’t really in a hurry.  I left at 6:34AM, 50 minutes behind last year.  It was still dark but I knew it would start to get light out before the first of the big hills.

There weren’t any foot division people that left around the same time but there were bikers that woke up and started to pass me in the morning.  I took a picture of the first big hill which is my favorite of the race.  It doesn’t come close to capturing the real essence of sunrise on the 2nd day of a winter ultra or even the beauty.  You just had to be there I guess.

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Soon after what you see here, it drops down real fast.

Most of the day was uneventful.  I didn’t see many people other than bikers that I can recall.  I was getting bored as I stated earlier and I was still tired.  I was expecting to have to sleep somewhere once it got dark again to avoid the mindless wandering that’s happened in the past.  I was around 96 miles into the race.

That’s when someone caught up to me.  I soon realized it was Paul Turner, who finished only a couple minutes after me 2 years ago when we both did it unsupported.  He missed out on all the “fun” of last years cold weather.  We soon agreed that staying together to keep each other up talking would be the best decision for both of us.  We were both doing Hrimthurs and just had the goal of finishing in good shape for the 100 mile race we had in just over 2 weeks time.  While we could’ve run many times, it just seemed foolish.  Even though we only had around 35 miles left in this race, it felt to us that we weren’t even half way through a 235 mile race.  With that mindset, we could keep ourselves from unnecessarily doing something dumb, or at least we hoped.

If you remember from previous reports on this race, this is the section that the hills really kick into high gear.  It’s about 10 miles of never ending hills.  It was so much easier when there was someone to talk to and race down the hills.  Sometimes I’d glide further and sometimes he’d glide further.  Imagine two 13 year olds going sledding.  That’s pretty much what it was like.  We’d occasionally almost run into each other.  We’d try going down different ways.  It made what is usually the suckiest part of the race almost fun.  Last year I could only slide down I think 3 of these probably 80 hills since it was so cold and the snow sucked so bad.  What a difference!

There are 2 areas of this area that I was looking forward to this year due to the snow being so fast.  1 is a section that if you get enough speed you can go down 3 separate hills without getting off your sled, or at least I’m convinced that it’s possible.  It requires perfect turning without losing speed.  I almost made it this year but couldn’t quite make it.  I wasted too much energy on the turn.  The other area is the last long downhill before the last aid station.  It’s not steep at all but I think about a half mile long.  It was awesome just hanging out on the sled going for a long slow ride.

There are a couple more miles until the Surly aid station.  We got there at 7:30PM.  I was only 20 minutes behind last year now since I could slide down hills this year and didn’t have to go slow to not overheat.  We were still awake.  The aid station had a complete different vibe than last year.  It was around 16 degrees and no wind.  Compare that to -30 and very windy last year.  Therefore, everyone was pretty much outside instead of in the tent.  There was a big block of snow that they put upright and were currently showing the movie “Tropic Thunder” next to the campfire.  They offered us alcohol (like I need to get more tired), and we were quite certain there was a certain plant being smoked by someone.  Everyone was in a great mood.  We got enough water to finish the race.  We ate some noodles that Paul had among other things.  I think I was planning on changing socks but realized that I had put 2 left socks (injinji) in my pack.  I think I just ended up re-lubing my feet.  I put on another layer of clothes since we were moving slower now and it tends to get cold in the swamps towards the end of the race.  I would’ve loved to stay and watch the entire movie but that would just make us more tired.

They started lighting fireworks off when someone leaves last year and that tradition continued this year.  We were only there around 30 minutes.  Last year I was there longer since I had to get so much prepared for the cold weather.

I think we caught up to 1 or 2 people right before Wakemup Hill.  We made sure to allow time between us going down so we wouldn’t run into each other.  I made it up to 28 MPH this year.  Super fun!  You don’t want to hit someone going that fast.

At the first road crossing, the trail seemed to go with the road.  I didn’t remember ever going along a road before but we were talking so much that it didn’t really register.  After a bit we saw a headlamp coming from the other way.  That’s when we were pretty sure we were going the wrong way.  He said the trail just ended at a ditch so we turned around.  We could see where we went wrong and confirmed it with our phones where the trail was.  Nothing was said about this section being different at the pre-race meeting so we just went on the trail that we knew from every other year.  It sucked pretty bad since it wasn’t groomed.  It was all snowmobile hills (about 18 inch hills every 5 feet) that made it super annoying.  The sled would pull hard going up the hill and then slam into your feet on the way down.  Eventually the trail was groomed again.  I have no idea why the guy said the trail ended since it obviously had to get back here somehow.  Anyway, on we went.

The remainder of the night consisted of trying to think of more things to talk about.  Try talking to someone for over 13 hours straight, especially when you’re tired.  Unless your a 14 year old girl, it’s pretty hard.  I think we even got as desperate as “what is your favorite color”.  I’ve lost track of a lot of the answers.  Little did we know, we’d repeat the same 13 hours at Actif Epica.

We made pretty good time but not excellent.  There are times we wanted to run.  Either from boredom or to thermoregulate.  We stayed the course and kept walking instead, to save our bodies for the next race.  We stopped occasionally for a clothing change, bathroom break, or food break.  I’m positive we ended up saving time by going together and talking instead of going it alone and ending up having to sleep.  We kind of had a goal to finish by 45 hours which is my usual time.

We finally got to the last road crossing.  The last section always seems to take longer.  In the theme of changing things this year, the finish line was moved.  We had to go a little further than before but we also didn’t have such a steep hill at the end.  We finished together just before 4AM for a total time of 44:55.  Despite it being about the same time as I always get, we were 14th instead of my usual 5th.  I’m sure this is due to the conditions being so much faster this year.IMG_20200129_040326We got the Minnesota Nice gear check and then went into the hotel.  There weren’t too many people in there but more than other years.  I picked out a trophy with a different colored arrowhead than my other ones.  I ate, and went to see if I could get into my room early.  I was in luck and my room was open!  Paul was going to use the taxi and go back to his hotel in International Falls.  I’m super grateful that we got to help each other finish this race in great shape to later finish Actif Epica together as well.

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The rest of the story is like other years.  Lots of buffets, sleeping, and talking to other people.  Ed unfortunately didn’t finish this year.  We drove back to International Falls Thursday so I could get my car and dissected the race.

I likely won’t be back next year as I have a work conference I’ll likely go to that is during the same week.  I’ll definitely be back again at some point, hopefully 2022.  I still love this race.  Maybe I’ll even learn how to ski and try it that way.

Here’s the weather during the race.  Trail conditions of course vary from the weather stations but as you can see, it didn’t get as warm as it was supposed to but also didn’t get as cold as it was supposed to.

2 thoughts on “Arrowhead 135 – 2020 Race Report

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