Arrowhead 135 Race Report – 2018

“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.

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Check In

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.

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View of Minnesota from the closed restaurant parking lot.

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.

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I wore kt tape this year to help prevent frost bite. It made my face much warmer.

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.P_20180129_110843At 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.

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About mile 26 I think. Photo Credit Burgess Eberhardt
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Photo Credit Burgess Eberhardt

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.

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Starting to clear up
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Warm enough for the ice beard to go away but still cold enough to freeze your hands if you’re not careful

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.Jpeg

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 of 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.

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Yes!!!!
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Exhausted

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.

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I think the coolest trophy I’ve ever gotten.

IMG_0796I 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.

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Arrowhead 135 Race Report – 2017

So 5 years ago I started running for the first time in 15 years.  I ran poorly in track in high school and only a little in college while on the crew team; so even when I ran it wasn’t with much purpose.  5 years ago I had a purpose to do a Tough Mudder with my brother and brother-in-law and I started running again.  I was out of shape, had a dad gut, and had my second child due that year.  Within 9 months, my purpose was trail ultrarunning.  Soon after, a major goal was to finish Arrowhead 135.  I think I first heard about it on the ultra-listserv 4 years ago and knew immediately that I had to run this race.  I went the slow route and made sure to get a couple winter races in and enough 100’s to not be afraid of the distance.  My application was accepted last fall and I left for International Falls Saturday morning.JpegJpeg

I did my check-in Saturday afternoon to get it out of the way.  It’s at the Backus Community Center which I assume was the old school building.  Door #3 is the closest to where you need to go for check in by the way.  I was told there that I’d need to have packaged food to prove the caloric content of the food for my emergency food requirement so I had to go to the store to buy a pound of butter since my home made brownies wouldn’t count.  I even laminated the ingredients with all the calorie information and stuff but it still didn’t matter.  Otherwise I passed on everything else.  For those unfamiliar with this race, here is the required gear as taken from the website.

MANDATORY GEAR from race start to race finish.

  • Minus-20F degrees sleeping bag or colder rating. Colder than -20F almost all previous races. If you skimp here you are foolish. And we will not allow you to skimp. So do not skimp. Fool. 2011 it was -42F on trail.  Be able to prove your bag is a -20 bag.  Don’t cut off the tags to shave weight.
  • Insulated sleeping pad – minimum 20″ by 48″
  • Bivy sack or tent (space blankets/tarps do not count).  We don’t like seeing new bivy sacks that have never been tried.
  • Firestarter (matches or lighter).
  • Stove.
  • 8 fl. oz. fuel at ALL times (either gas, alcohol or 2 canisters of propane/butane 100 g. each or 12 Big Esbit tablets). 1 lb propane tanks, white gas, and Heet are available in Int’l Falls – propane/butane and Esbits are available from RD with advance notice.  Please plan accordingly.
  • Pot (min. volume is 1 pint)
  • 2-qt (64 fl. oz.) or just under 2 litres, insulated water container. (Yes, Camelbacks count).  Not freezing your drinks in a cold year is a real challenge.
  • Headlamp or flashlight. Suggest minimum ~100 lumen good for 12 hours/bike or 20 hours on ski/foot.  Bring a spare, the cold eats batteries.
  • Flashing red LED lights (and spare batteries), both on front and back of sled or bike or racer – Don’t show up with single LED key chain lights…bring real safety lights or you will not pass gear check and they may not be available at local stores. Keep ON 24/7.  HIGHLY IMPORTANT….THIS MAY WELL PREVENT YOU FROM BEING A HOOD ORNAMENT ON LARGE FAST-MOVING SNOWMACHINES.
  • Everyone must have at least 10 square inches of reflective material on front and 10 square inches on the back of the person for this race.  If you don’t want to put holes in your $200 jacket bring a reflective vest.
  • Whistle on string around neck to call for help, because your mouth is too numb to yell.
  • 1-day of readily edible food at ALL times (3000 calories)
  • You will be given 2 bibs.  We must be able to see your bib number on the front of your body (outer layer) at all times!!!  Post the 2nd bib where it is easily visible.

YOU CAN STILL BE STUPID WITH ALL THE GEAR, KNOW HOW TO USE IT.

The race itself is 135 miles from International Falls, MN to Tower, MN along the Blue Ox Grade and Arrowhead snowmobile trails.  You can go on foot, bike, or ski.  I of course went in the foot division.  It’s basically flat for 30ish miles, then hilly for about another 40 miles, then really hilly for 40 miles, and then pretty much flat the rest of the way except for the biggest hill of them all at mile 113.5.  The trail is wide and all the snowmobilers I saw were driving appropriately and safely.  More details on the trail to follow but that’s the overview.

I went to the hotel after I ate and organized my gear and started making decisions on what to leave behind.  The forecast was for snow but no one really knew how much it would be.  It definitely wasn’t going to be a cold year.  The temperature wasn’t even forecast to get below zero the entire race.  That’s really warm for this race.  I almost felt like it was cheating having it so warm.  There are just so many things that you can get away with when it’s this warm.  You can take your gloves off to open things is the biggest “cheat”.  Seriously, if it’s -20 and you take your gloves off for even 20 seconds, it takes a long time for them to warm back up if at all.  I didn’t even run with gloves on most of the first day.  So you worry and plan for all these scenarios where you have to do things with big gloves on and now none of that mattered since it was so warm.  Anyway on to the story.

I slept quite well for having a constant pipe banging sound in my room.  Apparently it was the boiler and the sound was heard in every room so switching wouldn’t matter.  I could see Canada out my window since it was just across the river.  I brought my passport but didn’t need to go over to purchase any last minute items so I never went.

My plan for Sunday was to go and check out the trail and my fully loaded sled.  Here is what the sled looks like.  This was taken the first day out on the course.  d7k_6734

Just a side note on my sled.  I used a Paris sled at Tuscobia last year which had holes in it by the time I finished.  So this year I made my own sled out of Ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene.  It has a coefficient of friction near Teflon and is very durable and can handle extreme cold.  It’s the only material to use for winter ultras really.  Yes it’s easier to just put a rope on a ready made sled from the store but it won’t last, and if you make one yourself it’s cheaper.  This sled cost me $40 of materials and I’ll never need to make a new one if I don’t want too.  I think the Paris sled with poles was closer to $70.  My main worry about it was I was only able to test it 3 times since we didn’t get much snow down in southern MN this year.  I learned a few things during the race that would make a better sled.  One is to put runners (just a couple thicker strips of UHMW-PE on the bottom) on to make it track better.  It will add weight but I think it’s worth it.  It would also pull easier if it was narrower.  I’m not going to do that though since my gear fits just right with this width.  But if I had to start with nothing, I’d go narrower and longer.  That’s enough help on the sled, to me that’s part of the learning process and it’s more satisfying to do that on your own.  There are a few people that make them but with shipping it’ll cost you around $250.  Really depending on the snow conditions it would make sense to have a couple different sled styles to chose from.  Mine would do well in deep powder, and the narrow ones with no sides to them would likely do poorly since they’d be swamped and cut in too much.  But those were the best for the race this year.

So I stopped along the trail at road crossings a couple different places on Sunday morning.  I ran a couple miles with my loaded up sled to make sure it held up.  The trail was very hard due to the melting they had had the last week.  Also nice and fast.  The new snow coming would slow that down though once it got deeper.

I got back to International Falls and dropped my drop bags off at the Community Center.  There was a mandatory meeting there at 4pm and then a meal after that.  The meeting filled in a few questions I had as a rookie.  The race is about 2/3 veteran and 1/3 novice.

After the meal I headed back to check on the weather and do my final packing.  I took out a few things and decided to leave my snowshoes as well as it wasn’t going to get over 6 inches of snow and they weigh 3.5 pounds.  I saw some people with much smaller and lighter snowshoes so I may need to look into those.

Race Day:

The race started on Monday Jan 30th at 7am for the bikers, 7:02 for skiers and 7:04 for us on foot.  I got up around 5am.  It was about 10 degrees when I woke up but kept getting warmer by the time the race started.  There was a 10mph wind from the south that we’d be going into for the first 9 miles of the race.  I wore tights, thermal shirt, wind jacket, gloves, and buff for a hat.  181 were accepted for this race but only 156 ended up starting.  59 runners started.

The bikers started off with fireworks going off.  Then the skiers 2 minutes later, and then we started 2 minutes after that.  I didn’t hear anyone say anything for the start but just saw people leaving so I followed.  They say “release the hounds” to start us off but I must have been too far away to hear it.

I started running and eventually ran with Breanna from Arizona and talked for about an hour.  Then John Storkamp caught up and I talked to him for awhile as well.  He was just power walking and I had to run to keep up.  He’s done this race a dozen times so he knows it very well.  Of course every year is still different because of the weather and snow conditions.

The course follows the Blue Ox Grade snowmobile trail from Kerry Arena in the middle of International Falls until it meets up with the start of the Arrowhead snowmobile trail 9.5 miles later.  There is a shelter there but no one stops that early I’m sure.  There are 10 shelters along the course but I missed one or two of them during the night.  We then headed East.  This entire first section is flat.  It started snowing soon after the start.  It looked very pretty but my shoes were getting wet already.  Once I turned I took off my buff and gloves since without the wind in my face I was getting warm.  I talked to a few other people here and there until things started spreading out more.

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Mile 16 Photo Credit: Jason Johnson

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The next landmark is crossing Hwy 53 at 18.75 miles.  There are train tracks there and I could hear trains but luckily they were past by the time I got there.  By this time there was probably a couple inches of snow that had fallen.  It of course didn’t look that deep since it always settles.  After Hwy 53 the sled started pulling harder so I started walking around mile 24 where shelter #2 is.  The small hills start around 26 miles.  I think this is around where I met a guy that was running this for the first time.  He had done it with a bike I’m pretty sure but he hadn’t really run an ultra before.  Meaning each step was a new personal best distance for him on foot.  I don’t think he finished the race this year though.

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Just before Gateway. Photo Credit: Jason Johnson

There is another shelter around mile 30.  Then the hills start to get a little bigger.  Enough that you could ride down them but there was only 1 that I rode down just before the first check point which is Gateway Store.  You have to do a short out and back to get to it.  The store is 36.7 miles into the race.  There is food, etc to buy there.  They had I think 5 kinds of soup to buy as well.  I changed my socks and noticed my feet were already getting wrinkly from being wet all the time.  The usual stuff I do wasn’t keeping them dry.  I suspect the warm temps and the constant snowing was the difference.  I spent 25 minutes here, it just takes a while to get things done even with a efficient plan.Jpeg

I left at 4:26 pm and it would be getting dark soon.  There were 8 people in front of me when I left but I didn’t know that at the time.  I knew of at least 4 due to tracks in the snow but there were people so far ahead that the new snow had totally covered up their tracks.  And so began what felt like the longest night ever.  The hills keep going and get bigger as time goes on.  There are several roads you go across that people tend to drop at and I could see why.  It just seems like it will never end.  Plus, it does really just keep getting worse for the next 70 miles or so.  There are brief easy sections and then more hills.  I met a few people and talked to them for awhile.  I was never this tired so early in an ultra before.  I was only 14 hours into this thing and could’ve slept instantly just laying down.  My next goal was the second checkpoint at MelGeorge at mile 72 of the race.  I was hoping it would take 11 hours to get there from Gateway but ended up taking 12.

I know many who said they heard wolves along this part.  I didn’t.  The snow had finally stopped and around 9 or 10 I saw the clouds part for a short time and tons of stars.  No northern lights this year.  There also was a very slight crescent moon that gave a nice eerie touch once the clouds started coming back in and covered it up.

Since I hadn’t seen anyone in a long time, I put on some music to try to lift my spirits some.  It didn’t help that much really.  Even though I tend to slow down when talking to people, the time flies by so much faster I wished I would find someone.  I know of 2 people that I caught up to that said me talking to them made a big difference in their spirits.  That’s the solitude part of the race though.  You could choose to stay with someone the entire time but it’s kind of against the point of the race.  You should have thoughts of loneliness, boredom, etc that come into your head.  That’s the test, to push them out and focus on the ultimate task of finishing.  There are plenty of physical reasons to quit this race, all of them are reasons to not even start.  But the mental reasons are what stop most people, even the ones who have finished before and know better.

Along the way are shelters 4 and 5.  There were people sleeping at shelter 5.  I had a room reserved at the MelGeorge resort which is legal for the race.  I figured since this was my first year, it would be a good idea in case things went bad.  I couldn’t get there soon enough.  I was so tired and just tired of the hills.  The trail changes directions so many times, I had no idea how much further the check point was.  My GPS had to be recharged so when I turned it back on I could see my pace but really had no clue how long was left.  The last shelter is 13 miles from the resort which is hours for this race.

Jpeg
Elephant Lake Crossing

Finally I got to the lake that you cross over on for 1 mile to get to the resort.  We were supposed to check in first before going to our room so that added a quarter mile of back tracking from where the check in cabin was.  I checked in at 4am and 9 people had checked in before me.  It was worth it to have a room.  I sent a Skype video message to my family since there was no phone service but did have WiFi.  My feet were all trench foot.  I slept for 2.5 hours with my feet uncovered to dry them out.  My shoes dried some but not completely.  The new forecast called for -4 degrees Wednesday morning.  I finally left at 8:15am after getting ready and going back the quarter mile to the check in point.  16 people left before I did since I was there so long.  I knew some would have to bivy again before the finish, but how many?  So overall I spent 4 hours there which was longer than I’d like but I needed it due to my feet.

Jpeg
The Resort

As usual, sleep had wondrous healing powers for me.  My feet hurt but looked normal.  I kind of had energy but the best thing was the sun was up!  Day 2 would be MUCH better than Night 1.  There were 2 people who started seconds before me.  One was a skier Jerritt and the other was Jeff Firkus who I ran with some at Tuscobia last year.  He knew this trail pretty well.

I wish I would’ve taken pictures during the second day but it was a big hassle getting it out of the pack where it was staying nice and warm in case of emergency.

There are the usual hills for the next 2 miles.  At exactly 2 miles from the check-in cabin is the turn that can be difficult for some.  It’s where you get back on to the main combined arrowhead trail.  It was well marked.

Sledding!

2.7 miles from MelGeorge check-in cabin is where my day got amazing!  That was the start of a huge downhill that I seriously thought about climbing back up to go down again it was so fun!  It’s 150 feet high and I got going up to 13mph according to my watch but it felt like 30.  Remember the first time you ever just bombed down a ski hill and felt the wind pushing hard against you and absolutely loving it?  Yep, just like that.  Felt like I was 13.  Some of these downhills would have bumps in them from the snowmobiles so I’d get air on them.  Awesome!  Remember I had no way to keep this sled going straight other than my hands and feet.  That just added to the excitement!  There were kind of snowbanks all along the edge of the trail since it’s packed down but I didn’t want to test if they would keep me from flying in the trees.  I told Jeff I wish I had a GoPro for that hill.  He did have one but didn’t think of it at the time.  For the next 32 miles minus about 5 miles of flat towards the beginning of that section, it was nothing but sleddable hills.  I was having so much fun.  Jeff would bomb down head first to steer with his feet behind him.  He left me behind on the flat part section.

day-2
About 5 miles after MelGeorge. Day 2. Photo Credit: Jason Johnson

I changed socks again since I could feel them soaked again.  They didn’t look as bad as yesterday and I was hoping to keep them that way.

That’s when Jerritt and I kept crossing paths.  He’d have to take off and put on his skis constantly because of the hills.  It didn’t look fun.  I was still having fun.  Just before 26 miles from the cabin is the start of 2 hills that looked like every other hill we had gone down.  The difference was they go way steeper as you went down and had a fairly sharp turn part way down you couldn’t see from the top.  I ended up testing those banks on the side of the trail and bounced back and forth spinning and going backwards down the hill.  I thought for sure I’d hit a tree but never did.  Then right after is another one where I had to really dig my shoes in to not hit a bridge post.  I was yelling at Jerritt to get out of the way since I couldn’t stop and he was at the bottom.  He told me he ended up in the trees on that first one but was OK.

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A tree cutter.  I saw these the second day as they used the trail as a road in a few spots.

It then got dark and it started to snow for the second day in a row.  Then the hills were kind of scary because you couldn’t see anything with the falling snow reflecting in the headlamp.  You never knew where the bottom of the hill was, how steep, nothing.  So I ran down a lot more of them.  I became bored of hills and was starting to count down the miles to Surly Tee Pee checkpoint at mile 111.  The wind really picked up and you could feel the temperature dropping fast for the first time in the race.  The forecast was -4 which isn’t bad at all.  The wind was mostly at our backs the rest of the race so even the wind wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been.  Finally I hit the turn to the Southeast towards the checkpoint.  I started seeing smart ass signs reminding us we’d signed up for this, etc.  The usual ultra humor.  At least I knew I had to be getting closer.

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Checkpoint #3 Photo Credit: Jason Johnson

I got to Surly Tee Pee checkpoint at 9:30pm Tuesday.  14 people checked in before me.  I didn’t need to do much and had a plan in my head.  I changed socks again (on my 5th pair now).  Since it was now colder they would likely stay drier but I had to get the wet ones off.  I put on another layer of pants.  I got out my second jacket.  Got a fleece hat instead of a buff.  I put on warmer gloves and got out the next warmer pair and put it in my backpack as I knew the trail got more exposed later on and would need them.  I put some more hot water in my cooler and was out the Tee Pee door.  It only took my 22 minutes but it didn’t even feel that long.  I had no wasted time in my mind.  It just takes a long time to get new socks on it seems.  They were steaming when I took my shoes off.  I left some people behind at the checkpoint that were taking a break as only 10 left before me.  I had started to take caffeine at this point but there was no chance I’d have to bivy.  I ate the rest of the food I planned on eating so that I’d get an energy boost around 2 or 3 am.

There is one more big steep hill called Wakemup hill after the checkpoint that starts about 1.6 miles out. You go up about 100 feet but get to go down 150 feet.  I didn’t know if you could sled down it safely so I dug my shoes in until about the half way point down.  Turns out you could just fly down pretty easy as it’s a gentle turn and it slowly flattens out.  You go a long way with this hill.  From there on out it’s a very gradual uphill to the finish line about 21 miles away.  There are some turns here and there but most of the time you can see over a mile in front and behind you at all times.

This next part I wasn’t sure I’d put in here but my wife said I should so I will.  About 4 miles in I could see someone ahead of me and I caught up to him soon after sitting on a tree on the side of the trail blankly staring.  All his lights were on as I passed him (important for later).  One on the back of his sled and one I think on his chest.  So he only had 2 but that was all that was required.  I said “Hi” and he said nothing in return which was odd for this race or anytime really.

I looked back a minute later and I could see he was getting ready to start up again since lights were moving everywhere.  About 10 minutes later he passes me with only his headlamp on super low.  All his blinking lights required by the race were turned off. I also couldn’t see his bib number anywhere to know who he was.  Obviously he was trying to not be seen by me after he passed me as there is no other plausible explanation.  I’ve seen this many times before in summer races.  The difference is that it is required during this race to have them on at all times, even in the day because we’re on a snowmobile trail.  I was pissed so I sped up and followed him for probably 5 minutes until 2 snowmobiles that were associated with the race came by.  I tried to stop them to tell them about his lights but they must have assumed I was saying I was OK and just kept going.  They didn’t stop him which I was surprised by.

You see during check-in they were very anal about the blinky lights as really they probably should be.  People had already contacted the DNR about being surprised by us being on the trail in years past.  If anyone ever gets hit during the race I think we can safely assume the race is dead.  At Tuscobia, it’s part of their permit from the DNR that you need at least 3 lights on at all times and at certain heights, etc.  I had 3 lights on my head, and 3 more down my back and sled.  I also had one in front.  I asked several people during the race if they could see my lights and they said they were real good.  Really everyone I saw had good lights, assuming they were ON!

I followed him closely as I could only see him by his reflector and had to be fairly close for that.  I had planned on doing 20-22 minute miles until the end but was now doing 18 minute miles.  It took about 20 minutes and then I caught up to him while he was stopped.  As I was coming up to him, I asked him if all his blinkies’ batteries had died.  I then got in front of him and could see a faint red light coming from under his duffle bag at the front of the sled.  He had hid them in there.  Remember I saw them on the back of his sled in the beginning where they should be.  I said, “Oh, there they are, just as I thought” and left him.  He didn’t say anything but sure enough they were on again later on when I looked back.  He tried to keep up and it did take me about an hour before I couldn’t see him anymore but for all I know he had turned all his lights off and was still just behind me. I refilled my water bottle for the last time after I turned a corner as fast as possible.  Basically I spilled water everywhere but got enough in my bottle.  I never stopped again.

I was on a mission to not let a cheater beat me.  17 minute miles were common now.  I kept thinking about the character Crusher on Blaze and the Monster Machines cartoon I watch with my kids.  He always cheats to try to win the races but he never does.  In fact, if he wouldn’t cheat he’d likely win some of the races because he’s so far ahead.  Sound similar?  My kids loved this story when I got home by the way.

I ended up seeing another light up ahead and caught up to him in about 30 minutes.  It was Jeff and I had caught back up to him.  I briefly told him about the guy behind me.  I told Jeff I didn’t care if he (Jeff) kept up and beat me, just as long as I beat the cheater behind us.  Jeff did keep up for a while but stopped somewhere and I never saw him again.  The trail seemed to go along swamps a lot in this area so I ran anytime I was on icy looking stuff since the sled pulled so nice.

It was colder now and I put on my warmer gloves from my backpack while still moving.  I knew we had to turn off the arrowhead trail somewhere and I thought it was soon after crossing CoRd 77.  I crossed a road but it never seemed to me that we turned off anywhere.  I could see tracks and footprints in the snow and the course was well marked so I knew I was still on the right course but really had no idea how much further it was.  My watch had died from the cold.  I didn’t want to stop to take my phone out which had a gpx file of the course on it.  I’d get there when I got there I told myself.  I could tell my speed was slowing now. I was getting tired and it seemed like all I was doing was making turns in the woods.  East then South then East then South.  Other race reports made it sound like you could see the casino long before you got there but I never did.

Finally I heard some noise.  I got to the snow fence area which I thought meant I still had a couple miles left to go.  Nope, it means you have like 0.1 miles.  I asked a guy how much further to the finish line and he pointed to the top of  the hill he was standing by and I could see the banner.  To say I was happy is an understatement.  Not even so much that I finished the race (I knew that would happen back at Surly), but that I didn’t have to go 2 more miles and I had beaten my new Nemesis.  It was 4:56am Wednesday Feb 1st.  I had finished in 45 hours and 52 minutes.  I proclaimed I’d party till the sun came up which was only a couple hours away.

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All Done! Photo Credit: Jason Johnson

I told them Jeff should be coming shortly.  They take you inside and I had to pick a number from 1 to 10.  I don’t remember what number I picked but whatever it was meant I had to do a full gear check so we did that and I passed.  I got brought up to the hospitality room in the Fortune Bay Casino and I got my trophy, some food, pop, and my clean clothes bag.  The volunteers really are amazing at this race.  Jeff came in I think 10 minutes later.  My feet looked better than they did at Surly.  The cold and wind had dried out my shoes and socks.  I got my picture taken with the trophy. trophy-photo

I took a shower and changed.  I tried to sleep some but mostly just talked to other racers.  Some were just coming in, others had already slept and were getting up to see the new finishers.

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My first Arrowhead trophy.  I added my name, time and placing on there.  Pretty cool looking I think.

I couldn’t wait to get home to my family so I slept some once I got back to my car in International Falls and then drove home.

Afterthoughts

The cheater was Italian I found out as he came in.  That’s maybe why he didn’t say anything to me.  But as my wife said, it’s no excuse for cheating and putting himself and the entire race in jeopardy.  You need to know the rules no matter what, especially safety rules.  There’s no way he accidentally took his lights off and hid them.  Her argument made sense to me and that’s why I even put the story in here.

There are some who don’t agree with the sledding aspect of this race.  From what I’ve been told it’s always been allowed and I love it.  Even if you took every step down a hill you could easily lower your sled in front of you with a retractable dog leash and not have it pushing you down the hill negating the main argument most have against it.  I think people should take advantage of it.  I don’t think it makes you go much faster as most hills you could run down faster and it takes time to get on and off your sled.  There’s only about 10 hills that you really cruise on.  The main advantage is the fun factor and the fact you’re off your feet for 10 seconds.  I was seriously thinking I would never do this race again until I got to the sledding portion of the trail.  That first night for me just kinda sucked.  Now I plan on doing it again if I gain entry again.

The headlamp suggestion for 100 lumens or more is a good one.  You don’t need more than 50 on the flat parts but if you want to see the bottom of the hills and not overrun your light then you want well over 100.  200 would be good if you have the battery life to keep your headlamp on that high of a setting.  I’d crank mine up on the downhills but it didn’t help much this year since it was snowing and all I saw were snowflakes flying at me.

Again the volunteers are great for this race as are the race directors although I never spoke to them directly.  Well organized and I saw lots of race associated sleds in case anyone was in danger.

Speaking of snowmobiles, I saw very few non race related snowmobiles the entire race.  Only a couple the first day.  Probably 15 the second day.  For some reason the second night I saw 40 between 10 and 11pm.  After that I saw none again.  They were all very well behaved riders and none of them seemed surprised by my presence, but then again there was always someone just a half mile ahead of me for most of the race.

There is a ton of walking in this race.  I estimate I ran 30 miles, sledded 1.5 miles and walked the rest.  The only thing that hurt after the race were my ankles.  Those are back to normal and my calves are a little sore.  Don’t let the distance scare you if you are thinking of this race.  If you’ve done a 50 mile race you can easily finish this from a physical aspect.  The cold and your mind are the things you need to train for.  Walking just isn’t that hard, even if pulling a sled.

With all that said, I suspect this was an “easy” year both weather and condition wise.  38 of the 59 runners finished which is 64% and pretty high for this race.  I remind myself though that even if it was an easier year than most, it’s still 135 miles.

Official results: http://www.arrowheadultra.com/index.php/results/2017-results