The last couple of years I have been hearing about the Arrowhead 135, a winter race in northern Minnesota, and following the race online. Eventually I had enough watching other folks having all the fun, and after getting Nancy’s approval, signed up. Two flights and a five hour drive later, I found myself at International Falls, MN, two days before race day. I stayed at the TeePee lodge, and while checking in for my room the owner chatted away with lots of race gossip, wondering if the some of the bikers from Minnesota would beat my fellow Fairbanksan fast guys Kevin and Jeff. After finding a place to stay I headed off to get my required gear checked off. Pre-race stuff always makes me a bit nervous – gear checks etc. always work on my mind, but the checks went ok, and I was soon done. I got some riding in Saturday and Sunday checking out the trail. Everyone I talked to kept talking about how slow and soft the trails were, but they seemed fine to me – fast actually. I spent a bit of time exploring International Falls, but there was not much to see. I was very surprised to see a banner across main street welcoming all the Arrowhead racers – it was really cool to see a town embrace a race.
Unexpectedly, International Falls reminded me a lot of Wisconsin where my mother’s extended family lives. The night before the race there was a pre-race meeting, and I was pretty shocked by all the people. At one point there were four video cameras set up, and one of the foot racers seemed to have his own video crew. I ducked out a bit early, driven a bit twitter-pated by pre-race jitters and all the people.
The race started at 7am.
It was a bit of a madhouse, with with lots of bikers bunched up along the starting line, but fortunately the trail was very wide for the first half mile so I didn’t run into pileups. The first 15 miles or so the course flew by, with a fairly firm trail and fast riding.
Alas, it was fairly flat and straight though, and a bit boring, but the course soon changed character and got a bit more interesting, winding between forest and swamp. I made good time to the first check point, where I stopped for 10 minutes or so, downing two bowls of chili and refilled my water bladder, then headed back out. The next section of the course had a lot less swamp, and more forested rolling hills, and was super fun riding. There were a couple of sections of slightly softer riding, and I let a bit of air out at one point to make the riding a bit easier. I ended up putting more air in again shortly after that, as the trail was switching from hard and fast, and slightly softer conditions where I would almost break though the crust, and the float was only needed in short sections. At this point things had thinned out a lot, and I was bouncing between Brian from CA, Kevin from Anchorage, Andrew from Minneapolis, and a fellow from Manitoba, Hal I think. The course was occasionally firm enough for us to ride side by side and I got chatting with Brian a bit, mostly talking about his trip to Port Molar (read more here, here, etc – a fantastic read).
Eventually I reached Elephent Lake, and soon reached checkpoint two, MelGeorges.
I sat down for a bit here, eating some soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, and chatted a bit with some of the other folks at the checkpoint, including Terry, a past winner of the race. Eventually I pried myself out of the chair and got moving again, heading back out. I had been told the next section was the most hilly part fo the course, and was looking forward to some steep hills. It turns out the next section had lots of small rolling hills, a few of which were too steep to ride up. I ended up pushing up a fair number of them as my legs were hammered at this point.
At some point while riding in the hills it started snowing, and continued on and off for the rest of the race. Initially it was just annoying, as the snow kept getting into my eyes as I was blasting down the hills, but it gradually accumilated, slowing things down. By the time I made it to SkiPulk, the last checkpoint before the finish, the snow was starting to slow things down a fair bit.
I stopped for a few minutes at the SkiPulk check point, having three cups of hot chocolate. I might have downed them a bit too fast, as when I started biking again I had to stop to let my stomach settle, and it was a bit off for the rest of the race. At this point there was maybe three to four inches of wet snow that had to be pushed though, making for slower biking than I would have liked.
Fortunately Andrew from Minneapolis charged ahead and squished down a nice trail though all the white stuff. The last 25 miles to the finish went by very slowly, but eventually the lights of Fortune Bay, could be seen, and finally I arrived at the finish, behind Andrew and Brian. I was wiped enough that I couldn’t really ride up the last hill and had to push to the finish line.
Lame, but I made it! I made my way inside, where I parked my bike inside to dry out, and sat down for some snacks, and eventually grabbed a shower and changed into normal (and dry) clothes. I got a bit of sleep before riding the race shuttle back to the race start and my hotel room where I crashed and napped the rest of the afternoon. Apparently the folks who finished after me had a really hard time – it kept snowing, building up to a good 8 inches of wet snow making biking really hard. I am very impressed by anyone who pressed on though the snow and completed the race – major kudos to anyone who finished; it was an amazingly hard race once the snow arrived. I ended up with a time around 20 hours, 30 minutes, well short of the 24 hour time I was shooting for – hurrah!
The Arrowhead is a wonderfully well organized race, and super fun. Alas, it is a bit of a haul to get to from Fairbanks, but well worth the travel. Lots of fun competitors, nice trails, and a well run race – in a word, fantastic. Not as scenic as the Whites 100, but such is life. I was baffled by how few skiers show up for the event before the race, and and am even more baffled after the race – the skiing looked to be fantastic, with wonderfully fast snow, but only five folks signed up to ski. Coming from Fairbanks I was amazed by how much more light and sun there was in International Falls – it felt like mid or late March, which was just fantastic! A highly wonderful event! A bit thanks to the Arrowhead’s organizers, they put on a great event, and a thanks to Kevin, Brian, and the others who I rode with durring the race. And of course, a huge thanks to Nancy and the twins for letting me disappear for almost a week to do this race – they are truly wonderful!
PS - stat geek details (elevation profile, how glacially slow I was, etc) can be found on strava here.
PS #2 – For the second half of the race my brakes, avid bb-7s, kept icing up. In the several weeks before the race the little noodle that protects the brake cable housing were the brake cable enters the cable housing as it heads away from the calipers had started falling apart, and sometime durring the race completely gave up the ghost, falling apart completely. Without the noodle to protect the cable housing, water from snow melting off the brake and rotar would seep into the brake line, freezing up and making it really hard to engage and disengage the brake. Eventually I had to stop each time I used the rear brakes to pry them open so I could pedal again. Not the end of the world, but a bit of a pain. I think my bike was just giving me a gentle reminder that I should always deal with these issues proactively before they become an actual problem. Times like these make me think about using hydros instead.. but then I remember the “bleed once a week all winter” avid juicys I have on my 29er, and maybe this isn’t such a bit deal. At <-20f those juicys are good for about one long hill before starting to get spongy, and several more hills later completely gone.