Arrowhead 135 – 2022 Race Report

The 2022 edition of the Arrowhead 135 took place on the latest day possible (Jan 31st) this year since that’s when the last Monday in January landed. Since last years race didn’t happen, I was excited to sign up again for it this year. I was so excited in fact, that I clicked the unsupported button when I was registering. I reminded myself after I hit the button that I yelled out loud at the finish line in 2018 that I would never do this race unsupported again. My brain was like “dude, it’s been 4 years, you have no memory about how hard it was anymore, just leave it be, you can always change your mind later.”

So if you don’t know what unsupported means, I’ll tell you. It means no one can help you what so ever. You run this race like you are all alone in the world and no other human exists except for the race directors, who will punish you if you cheat. If another human happens to notice you, they must not smile at you or talk to you, in fact they are encouraged to taunt you with hot food and random pieces of food they drop along the trail that you aren’t allowed to pick up and eat. OK, it’s not quite that bad but the rules for unsupported did get more strict since the last time I did it in 2018. You do get absolute zero help from anyone, including other racers. If it’s an emergency, then of course you can get help but you are disqualified. In 2018 you could still throw garbage away. Now you can’t. Not sure I agree with that one, and I didn’t even know that had changed until halfway through the race. You also can’t change to supported during the race like you could in 2018, you are simply a DNF. They still let you use any fire you find along the way to melt snow into water. I have a feeling Jackie has her eye on changing that one too. 🙂

There was some discussion after the race about eating “found food” but let me assure you, it’s not allowed. That would make cheating super easy. I had to just walk on by food on the trail. Normally I pick up garbage to throw away but since taking food would be cheating and apparently I couldn’t throw garbage away anymore, I wasn’t going to take any more things on my journey. Can you tell I think the garbage rule should be reconsidered? I hate litter and me having to carry garbage just makes littering more likely.

For more details about the race itself and previous race reports click 2017, 2019, 2020. As usual I drove up there on Saturday. I stopped by the Fortune Bay Casino to see how check-in would happen since they are now closed on Monday and Tuesday and I wanted to see how to get my room before 3pm on Wednesday. Basically I was told it wouldn’t happen so that was a waste of a stop. I was hoping I could just get the entry card now that they would program not to work until Wednesday and I would just carry it the entire race. I was pretty sure I was still going to do unsupported and I went pretty fast last time so that’s why I wanted a room Wednesday morning. Plus due to Covid, we couldn’t sleep in the hospitality room like usual waiting to get in our room so I wasn’t sure what I would do. Oh, and all the restaurants in the casino were closed save one that was only open during the day. It was starting to seem like the finish line was going to be a continuation of unsupportedness.

I left for International Falls and stopped in at Gateway General Store (the first check point) since I wouldn’t be able to go in during the race. I got some cheese and sausage for the race and thanked them for helping with the race. I checked the trail condition there. It was pretty soft snow so I wasn’t looking forward to the snow on race day since it was going to be fairly warm that day as well.

Along the way to International Falls you cross the trail while on Hwy 53. Even the car GPS knew about the importance of the trail and let me know when I was going to cross it.

I got to International Falls just as they were starting to check in racers at the Backus Community Center. They had it in the gym this year to spread things out more. It probably worked better that way really. I had to make a quick run to the car to get my fuel since I didn’t have it in my bag. I was seriously panicking that I somehow forgot it even though I make a checklist and everything when I pack. It was in the car! It was easily the quickest check-in I’ve done. Ken was handing out the bibs and he asked if I was unsupported. I still had 2 more days to technically decide and I was expecting a ribbon to put on my bib like last time when I said “yes”. Out comes a large paint marker and Ken puts a big pink X on both bibs. The paint was slow to dry, and I watched as my fate to run this race unsupported slowly dried itself into permanence. There was no going back now!

I was planning on eating at the Mexican restaurant in town like I’ve done every year but it closed down in 2020 due to Covid. I ended up eating at a place next to the hotel which was pretty good. I got back to my room and talked to my family and got some of the food ready for the race. I had all of the next day to pack so I didn’t do very much on Saturday besides checking on the weather. It was supposed to be mid to upper 20’s on race day and then get windy and snowy on day 2, followed by a cold northwest wind and below zero temperatures the second night.

The next day was filled with organizing and packing for the race. I dropped off my finish line bag and went shopping. I was in luck because the grocery store had the 2 types of chips I had been looking for all month back home and no one had them in stock! I was hoping to go somewhat light since it wasn’t supposed to get cold until the second night but that was so far away, things could easily change for the worst. I basically could’ve left 6 pounds of clothes at the start line if I was confident how things would go. Instead I had to take them with since unsupported is no joke. I knew my sled would be heavier than the last time I did unsupported because I was planning on bringing more water with this year.

Looks like a giant turd. Bivy sack, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag rolled up and ready for use.

I took a short nap in the afternoon since I felt tired. If I’m tired before a race, I sleep no matter what time it is. Trying to force myself to sleep when I think I should usually doesn’t work. I packed some more when I got up and then took a break to go to the required pre-race meeting. There weren’t any surprises and it took slightly less time than normal. I found out there would likely be showers at the finish line at least like most years so that was nice to hear. The meal was served take-out style but there were some tables set up for eating there if you wanted. I ate quickly and talked to a couple of guys I usually see along the course every year.

I talked to the family once more and then finished packing while going through my “night before” checklist of stuff to get done. I picked out my race day clothes based on the forecast and set them aside. I got to bed around 9:00.

I woke up at 5AM like usual. The weather was already warmer than expected so I had to change what I was going to wear. This made the sled even heavier. I made sure this year to not have a bunch of extra food with. I brought just over 9000 calories with knowing I wouldn’t eat it all. That was in addition to the required 3000 calories of food you need to finish with. So with the sled and everything together, it weighed 60 pounds even. That’s the heaviest I’ve ever had but that was part of the plan since I was carrying enough water to not need to melt snow during the race.

Pre-race photo.

I headed to the race start and got checked in. I stayed in my car until about 6:50 and then got out and put my sled together. I headed to the start line and went to the bathroom one last time. The bikers took off, and then just as the skiers took off, I realized I hadn’t locked the car. I had to run against everyone to go back the parking lot, lock the car, and then run back to the starting line just in time for the race to officially begin at 7:04AM for the runners.

There were 10 people on foot signed up for unsupported initially. There was no way for me to know how many were running unsupported on race day. In the end there were only 3 that started the race on foot unsupported (plus 1 kicksled). That’s less than usual. Perhaps people are hearing how difficult it is and deciding against it. Not a bad choice I guess but I think everyone should do it at least once if they’ve already finished this race.

It was about 11 degrees out and an occasional head wind. I had on a single pant layer and shirt layer with a jacket. I was expecting more wind so when it didn’t show up, I had to remove my coat about 6 miles in. I talked to Greg Pressler and Margaret Gordon for a while. Greg had done Volstate and Margaret was a rookie at Arrowhead. We hit the turn onto the Arrowhead trail from the Blue Ox trail and split up from there. Occasionally, I would be with someone for a brief period of time but mostly I was alone with someone always in view. I ran on and off. The snow was surprisingly good which helped since my sled was so heavy. I got to Hwy 53 in a slightly slower time than usual and sent my wife the usual photo.

Too warm for an ice beard today.

The trail in the afternoon started to soften up a little but still not as bad as I was expecting. I don’t think it ever got to the upper 20’s like was expected so that made a big difference. There was a pretty clear path that had the best footing so we were a long stretched out line of runners making our way to Gateway. I was still able to run here and there and was eating well. I added a few new food items this year that I never thought would work well in cold weather, but with testing I found out they worked just fine. In the end, I really never had a stomach issue the entire race and only occasionally something didn’t taste very good. I got to talk to a few more people that I run with every year. Many hadn’t raced much at all the last 2 years so they said they were under-trained. 5 of us went into Gateway pretty much in a row.

Coming into Gateway.

I was going to get into Gateway pretty close to the time I was planning on. I got in at 4:20PM. I stopped to get my coat back on and get food and water into my vest for the next 3 hour section. I left my headlamp off for now. I was 14th place (foot division) when I got to Gateway. A bunch of people were inside eating awesome hot food and soup when I left a few minutes after I got there so I certainly left in a higher placing. I was quite sure they would catch up to me at some point before Mel George’s.

Usually I start to get sleepy after Gateway. Maybe it’s because I usually have some nice hot food in me or just exhaustion, but this time I still felt great. I ran for a while and settled in for what would be over an 11 hour trip to Mel George’s. I talked to Charlie Farrow who was kick sledding. He ended up bivying before Mel George’s which was his plan. It got dark so I put my headlamp on, reloaded on food and kept on moving. The hills were sometimes big enough to get on my sled and ride down but mostly I just ran down them since they were small and my feet didn’t hurt yet. Some years, even a 10 foot hill seems worthwhile to sled down just so I’m off my feet for 15 seconds.

John Storkamp and Margaret caught up to me again I think around Sheep Ranch Rd. I stuck with John for a little while. It was weird going through the swamp section that is usually so cold. It was colder and windier in that section but nothing at all bad since it was still probably 18 degrees or so there. Once I climbed up the big hill at the end, it was in the 20’s again. I took a small amount of caffeine around 9pm to help get through the night although I wasn’t overly tired. I wanted it to be out of my system by 4am in case I wanted to sleep. I changed socks for the first time around Sheep Ranch Rd as well.

I have to say, the one thing that seemed much different this year is that the hills didn’t seem as high as I remember. Especially since I was pulling the heaviest sled I’ve ever had. I hadn’t trained on hills or anything either. I was always surprised when I got to the top of the big hills that I was done already. I’m not sure of the reason for this. Perhaps it was just mental.

I now got out my ipod to listen to some music since I knew I probably wouldn’t see many people for the rest of the night. Ray and Troy caught up just before Mel George’s which was about when I expected most of the people to catch back up to me. There was a line of 4 of us crossing the lake. The lake probably had the worst snow of the entire race.

I got to the check-in cabin at 3:32am and told the volunteer my number and unsupported status. I was 7th at this point. I think I put on a second shirt here since I knew I’d eventually have to as it got windier and colder the remainder of the race.

I was originally planning on not sleeping this year since bivying last time I went unsupported was such a failure. The weather forecast changed my mind though. Trying to sleep on my sled in -30 windchill wouldn’t work during the second night so I thought it was best to try to do it now when it was still in the 20’s. I knew the shelter 2.5 miles after Mel George’s faced the north so it would be protected from the south wind. I always thought it was so stupid to have the shelter face the north since that’s the usual wind direction but now it didn’t seem so dumb. I got on my snowpants and puffy coat and laid down on the sled.

I started shivering right away like I always seem to the second I lay down. I figured it was just like when I stop at the end of the race and get cold. My body needs time to adjust to not making heat from my legs. I heard a bike go by and then a person on foot at some point as well. I thought it was right away but looking at times that people checked out of Mel George’s I had been down for a while. I would wake up shivering every 5 minutes it seemed and I’d do some crunches to warm up. The frost on my shoes had melted and my toes were pretty cold from being wet now. There really wasn’t anything I could do since my booties were in my sleeping bag and I wasn’t going to get them out. Then a couple times I wondered why my lip hurt so bad only to realize I was biting the inside of my lower lip really hard. I was clearly in and out of sleep but never really felt like I was sleeping. I hadn’t set an alarm, knowing I wouldn’t sleep long and if I did, then I needed it.

Damage from biting my lip.

I got up after an hour and changed socks and got ready to go. It was supposed to be a cold head wind so I dressed warmer but it ended up taking forever to get windy so I took that stuff back off after an hour or so. All together I was stopped 90 minutes here which pretty much matches the time I spent trying to bivy and making water the last time I was unsupported. While I didn’t feel like I had slept, I felt much more refreshed so I knew it had been worthwhile. Soon the sun would be up and then I’d be even more awake.

The 2 big hills right after the shelter were harder to go down since it had started to snow and it was hard to see with the headlamp. I ended up going down slower than usual to play it safe but it was kinda a disappointment. It started getting lighter out. I had hoped to not stop at all before I got to the road crossing after Mel George’s but I ended up stopping I think 3 or 4 times to get my clothes right, etc. I hate wasting time. It was supposed to be cold but it wasn’t. I guess I should’ve just waited until I was cold instead of trying to get ahead of it.

I caught up to Ray at the road crossing. The road and trail after that crossing were the worst snow of the race. It was soft everywhere and the new snow made it even worse. I was in somewhat poor spirits when I usually like this fairly flat section. Eventually it firmed up again and I just went into cruise mode listening to music.

I had a muscle that started to cramp in my lower left shin. I’d have to constantly stop and massage it to relax it. It sucked realizing I’d have to have pain for the rest of the race. Nothing seemed to help it stay away. I started to realize that it didn’t hurt after I rode down a hill. It never got worse but it also wasn’t going away permanently. It slowed my walking speed quit a bit. I couldn’t stretch out my stride and running seemed to make it worse so that didn’t seem wise either.

I don’t remember much else about the race until around noon. I never saw the Myrtle Lake shelter this year, maybe it was gone? It was still snowing and was very windy. It was also very pretty in some of the valleys with the snow coming down and everything being covered in white. There wasn’t any point in taking photos since they never capture it correctly. If not for the wind, I would’ve been tempted to just sit and watch the snow for awhile.

I started seeing signs along the trail. They were all shaped like a fox jumping into the snow but had short phrases on them. They were so spaced out I didn’t remember what the last one said by the time I got to the new one. Many seemed to be about snow or cold. I’m not even sure they were all supposed to be related to each other. The signs ended after the Embark checkpoint so maybe they put them up. Otherwise I have no idea what they were about.

Before I knew it, I was getting towards the hilly section. I had left Ray behind now and was by myself when I got to mile 99 where the hills start. Again the hills didn’t seem that big or difficult. They didn’t even seem to go on forever like usual. My sled was likely only about 36 pounds now after all the water and food I’d used. Plus, I had on more clothes as well since it was finally cooler. I was awake but knew that could change once the darkness came. The new snow made it so I couldn’t sled down the hills as far as I’d like but at least I could still go down them. Oftentimes though, I’d run down since my sled wouldn’t run into me due to the snow slowing it down so much. There were a lot of snowmobiles in this section going way faster than I usually see them going through the hills.

There was one hill around mile 107 that I could see 2 people up in front of me. It looked like a kicksled and Margaret. Eventually I caught up to her. The kicksled was too far ahead to see anymore. We talked for awhile. She had lost some food which I never saw. I suspect the snowmobiles either grabbed it or ran over it. I told her there might be some food left by other racers at Embark.

My leg cramp was gone for good now so I could finally walk fast again. It doesn’t seem like 2 minutes a mile faster is much but that adds up with 30 or so miles left in the race.

The wind was luckily coming from behind us since it was really blowing and was 0 degrees now. I told her what was coming for the rest of the course and that it would be wise to get whatever clothes she wanted on for the last section while in the nice warm tent.

I had turned my GPS watch back on around mile 100 so I’d have it the last part of the race. I knew the course would be real windy soon so I stopped before Embark to add clothing. Margaret continued on. I added my hooded puffy coat and got mittens and a hat ready in case I needed them. I knew the puffy coat was more warmth than I needed but I wanted the wind proof layer and hood. I took off a coat from underneath it to help stay cooler. I ended up just having a buff on under my cloth hood the rest of the race. Occasionally I’d put up the puffy coat hood when it was really exposed. I also got my headlamp out since it was getting dark.

Anyway, I got going again and got to the Embark checkpoint at 5:53PM in 5th place. I had never gotten there so early. It was still somewhat light out! It was a little further down the trail than normal. I ran on through since I couldn’t stop for anything anyway. I had enough water to make it to the finish so I didn’t need the fire either.

Right after the checkpoint, I went to grab my water from my vest and realized my vest wasn’t there! I panicked. I thought I’d have to run a mile back to where I put on the pant and coat layer. I wondered how they let me go through the checkpoint with no reflectors, etc. Then I realized I should check under the coat. Sure enough I had just put the coat on over my vest. Phew! I stopped and changed things around.

Then I realized my blinkies were getting dim and needed a battery change. I decided to wait until the top of Wakemup hill so I’d be warm and there was a shelter there from the wind. I stopped there and changed out the lights. So in the last 2 miles, I had spent about 20 minutes of down time doing seemingly nothing important. I think there was another stop for clothing issues in there as well but I can’t remember. I know I was pissed I wasn’t moving.

The ride down the last hill was fun but again the sled didn’t run very far at the end. I started to do some math on how long it would take. It’s always way longer than I’d like. I was still awake but took some caffeine to help keep it that way. My math had to be wrong since I would think at one point I’d be done at 1am and other times 3am. Clearly I was more tired than I thought.

I got to the road that had the detour on it in 2020 (Olson Rd). It was still there. Apparently that’s just the new route and they really need to add some permanent signs. They hadn’t mentioned it at the pre-race meeting once again so I wasn’t expecting it this year. I saw a stationary headlamp up ahead. It was Jim Reed and he started coming towards me as I got to him. He was unsure if it was the right way. I told him about 2020 and that I was 95% sure I was going the right way. Indeed it was the correct way but it adds a mile to the course and curves enough to really make you wonder what the heck is going on. Now the course is really 135 miles instead of the 134 that it used to be.

Jim and I ran within sight of each other for a long time. As is usual, at about 38.5 hours into the race, the sleep monster showed up. I took some more caffeine and made sure I was still eating. I wasn’t near as tired as I sometimes get but I had to concentrate on moving fast. I could occasionally run but there wasn’t much reason to. I didn’t want to aggravate my muscles and have the cramp come back either.

I had switched to listening to podcasts instead of music as it tends to keep my attention better. I was counting down the miles to the next road crossing / finish line. They seemed to take forever. Again, my math seemed wrong as often as it was right. I’d look back and not see Jim’s lights for miles. Then 15 minutes later, I’d look and he seemed right behind me. I was clearly having a hard time keeping pace due to being tired. It’s the difference between 14 and 20 minute miles if I’m alert or not. I was never super tired like other years and I could follow the podcasts just fine. I just couldn’t keep a constant pace.

I seemed to wake back up the last 4 miles and kept up a good pace. It seemed like the lights of the casino never got any closer. Finally I got to the turn to the casino. Just a couple miles left and I’d be done. I wasn’t going to get the 42 hour finish I wanted, but I was way faster than I’d even been before. I finally got to the finish at 1:37am for a 42:33 race time finish. I was 1st in the unsupported category, 3rd male and 4th overall. It was easily the best I’ve done at this race!

I didn’t get a finish line photo but they all look alike I guess. It wasn’t too cold outside and I was fairly warm since I ran a bit the last 2 miles. It was about -10 degrees but still about -30 with the windchill. I caught my breath and we went inside for the gear check. We then went up to the finisher lounge. I got some soup and my drop bag with clothes in it. The unsupported trophies are a little different this year than the first one I got. I also got a hat.

I took a shower, gave the race directors an accidental “show”, and went back upstairs. There was a group of us that called the cab for a ride back to International Falls but they couldn’t get there until 8:45am. The restaurant didn’t open until 9am. I slept for a couple hours on and off on a couch and checked my email, etc.

By the time I drove back to the casino after getting my car, I could check in to my room. The rest of the time was the same as other years except no buffets. It was unfortunate that we couldn’t hang out in the finisher lounge due to covid. It better be back to normal by next year.

Most of the items I got from the race.

The temperature graphs of the nearest official stations. It’s always colder on the course. Wednesday night got to -40 so a day can make a huge difference with this race as far as weather goes. Luckily my car started just fine so I could go home.

Once again, the race was run amazingly well, even with a lot less volunteers due to covid. Ken and Jackie do a great job!

I always cut my beard in a different way after my winter racing season is over. The last couple years, my daughter had designed it. Here is this years.

The End.

Addendum: Ken says he’s fine with throwing garbage away during the race.

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