Sunday, August 12, 2012

White Line Fever

Traditionally, the defining characteristics of the Arrowhead race are extreme cold and travelling 135 miles across snow. With temperatures well into the positive degrees Fahrenheit and even threatening to creep north of freezing, there was something a bit lacking from this year's event. It seems strange to lament the absence of  truly life-threatening weather, and that isn't to say that the race was without its challenges including some unique to the warmer temps. However, one of the aspects that lends appeal to extreme, winter racing is the mental focus and clarity required to keep oneself safe in the conditions. I hate to say it, but without this, some aspects of the Arrowhead 135 were a bit boring, challenging certainly, but very long, and, at times, quite monotonous.

I tried to keep things interesting by making a number of stupid mistakes early on.

The pre-dawn, pre-race
Just like Susitna, I missed the actual start...

Starting in the dark and early hours of Monday morning, the temperature hovered around  high single-digits, about the lowest we'd see all race. I started out with a guy named Lee from Scotland, who was staying at the same hotel as me. We'd met a couple days prior and had been hanging out and making final preparations. We talked and moved along at a good clip as the sun came up. The first shelter was upon us at mile 9.5 in just 2-1/2 hours which is quite a stiff pass for a race such as this. However, Lee was such an entertaining chap that I didn't think pay it much attention.


As the day warmed up, softening the snow, I began to feel the effects of my early enthusiasm. The perceived level of effort slowly began to increase and I felt a growing tightness in my thighs. This was a very long race and cramping-up one's quads at only 15 miles was an extraordinarily bad idea. It was clear that Lee's walking pace was well outside my comfort zone, especially given my ill conditioning and lack of training for this event. I bid him farewell and watched him march away down the trail.

Goodbye, Lee

By mile 20, I had to strip down to my tights as my legs had become quite warm. I had been wearing only my thin liner gloves and eventually took even those off. A few miles later, I drained my water. I hadn't expected to be drinking much in the early miles and, stupidly, didn't fill my supplemental bottle. There I was, hours to go before the checkpoint, sweating, dehydrating and fighting off cramps in a race that was supposedly renown for its frigid temperatures.

Those few hours turned out to be more like 5. Luckily, I linked up with another very generous runner who had plenty of extra water and was happy to share. Unfortunately, I don't recall the kind gentleman's name, but he provided more than just hydration as he regaled me with tales of completing the Iditasport 350 back in the 90's.
A bit warm, but still happy
 The one upside of my planning failure, is that it killed any further over-exuberance in my pace. I trudged along towards the first checkpoint, decided to just take it easy and enjoy the trail.

This is the trail...pretty much all of it.

I also enjoyed seeing other races (mostly as they passed me) and their creative sled designs--much more varied than at Susitna.

This design pays huge dividends during the hilly, later miles.
As the day's light fell and the checkpoint failed to appear, I became a bit concerned about my pace. Consulting with some other runners, it seemed there were differing opinions about the exact mileage to this first stop, but it was clear that my assumption of 30 miles was inaccurate. Lack of course knowledge, another inexcusable mistake.

Despite all my dumb mistakes, arriving at the Gateway Store, I felt pretty good. My spirits were further lifted when I learned we'd already completed 36 miles. Some soup, some coffee and filling all my water to the brim, I made haste at the checkpoint. I wanted to take advantage of my improved mood and get back out on the trail to cover some of those night miles before fatigue kicked in.

Bring on the night!
The early night hours went well, if uneventful. The trail travelling through the woods provided even less variety than your average night ultra. A couple of trail shelters (basically 3-sided sheds) along the way offered some welcome distraction, but I was determined to make it through this first night without sleep. Beyond the 2nd shelter of this section (Shelter 4 of the race), I was travelling alone. A short time later, the first real hill appeared and my first wave of sleepiness along with it. I'm sure it wasn't that long, but it seemed nearly endless as I was dipping into the early morning hours; always a tough time for me. I took some short breaks nearly dozing off while leaning on my poles and then pressed on, looking forward to the next checkpoint which was described as being across a lake. The change of scenery would be welcome.

Do I look tired?
The Lake!

As promised, the checkpoint was in a cabin directly across a big lake. As I headed out, I was looking forward to enjoying the wide, open perspective. It felt different from at Susitna where the lakes were often little centers of activity with snowmobiles, ice fishing and airplane runways. This was a big, empty, expansive space. Unfortunately, the view didn't last long as it began to snow.

On the lake... the snow.
By the time I arrived at the cabin, the it was coming down quite hard. I was happy to head inside for some warm food. The cabin was welcoming, but--consistent with the flavor of this race--minimal in terms of support. I relaxed for a bit on the couch and restocked my supplies from my one and only drop bag. As I fussed with my gear, I heard a Scottish accent to my right. It was Lee! He'd apparently had some leg issues and was getting the necessary care before heading back out on the trail. After catching up a bit, we decided to head out together. His leg would keep him down at my slower pace.

Heading out with a smile.
My spirits were up heading back on the trail. It was good to have some company with the hilly sections coming up. The hills at Arrowhead can be a literal drag until--that is--you realize you are towing a downhill toboggan. At the top of each hill, I started throwing off my waste belt, flipping my polls backwards over the sled and riding it down. I would then use my trekking poles to steer and to extend the ride as long as I could at the bottom. Lee and I were having a blast. Perhaps this was part of the reason we opted to skip the next shelter and push on before sleep. Besides, it wasn't yet dark out.

The rare chance to have fun during this long and sometimes arduous trek was irresistible. However, it was probably a mistake as the next opportunity for shelter was further off than we realized. Also, much of the fun ended for me when I crashed into Lee's sled at the bottom of one of the hills and cracked the front of mine. Lee continued to ride down to save his leg as much as possible, while I gave chase on foot. As the night went on fatigue began to kick in and the shelter didn't seem to be getting any closer.

There's a bit of confusion in my memory about this section. I distinctly remember our searching for and passing Shelter 6 while it was still light. Our exact reasoning for pushing on to the next shelter seems to escape me now. Perhaps due to the light, maybe we underestimated our pace over the coming 12 miles or it could just have been the allure of closing in on that 100 mile mark before sleep. At any rate, it was approaching midnight before we reached our stopping point.

Somehow, I had it in my head that we couldn't afford much time for sleep. I set my alarm for an hour, but by the time I dragged my sleeping bag (most of the way) out of its stuff sack and settled in on the hard ground, I doubt I got 30 minutes in before trying to put it all back together in a foggy daze. I went and woke Lee and we headed out after some more futzing about.

I think one of my biggest failures in these very long events is failing to balance the equation of sleep versus pace. It's very difficult to convince yourself that an extra hour (or even 2) of snoozing will easily pay dividends in the ability to move forward at a consistent rate. It's a lesson I should have learned at TDG. It's a lesson of which I was going to be reminded in this race during the hours to come.

I know we made at least a few hours before it caught up to us. The first was about 10 minutes, the next, maybe 15. These were basically what's known as a "shiver bivy" where you sleep until awoken by the cold. I would take my sleeping pad off the sled, then just lay partially on it and partially the sled until I snapped awake, ready to move. However, these clearly weren't doing the trick, so the third time, I pulled out my giant  down jacket and snoozed for a full 1/2 hour.

During this time our moving pace couldn't have maxed more than 2mph as Lee and I basically took turns stumbling forward or stopping and nearly nodding off. We were passed by at least a half dozen people during this period, a further testament to our poor decision making at the shelter. Eventually we exited the dense woods and the sun started to rise. The waking light was more than welcome as was the realization that we finally seemed to be making progress towards the third and final checkpoint.

However, along with brightening sky, the morning brought a snow storm.
The one and only time I needed to don my shell

Luckily, we shortly passed the next shelter indicating that we weren't far from the checkpoint. The final checkpoint was basically nothing more than tall, narrow tent. In past its been nicknamed the Teepee of despair due to the area being renown for strong winds and stormy weather...well, and also being 115 miles into a grueling race. While being the most minimalist of the minimal "aid stations" at Arrowhead, for me it was a bright spot since I remember it as The Teepee of HOT CHOCOLATE!

Lee looking happy
Me, a bit weary

We sat and collected our wits.

There were still more than 20 miles to go with one big climb followed by a long straight shot to the finish. Lee's leg was bothering him quite a bit so we discussed that we probably wouldn't be together to the end. I wanted to get out of there by 8am and, luckily, the snow let up just before that out we went.

A bit of snow had gathered on our sleds
Lee and I stuck together up to Wakemup Hill. I was actually looking forward to the climb (and descent) to wake me up. It turned out to be less of a challenge than expected probably due to all the anticipation. Cruising to the bottom of the hill, I wanted to continue running for a bit so I bid Lee farewell after he finished his ride down. He's a tough one, so I knew I'd be seeing him at the finish.

However, it wasn't long before I'd be missing the companionship. This last section had a reputation for seeming to go on forever. It was long, flat, straight and devoid of any interesting distractions. The final 9 miles of Susitna were mentally tough in this same way, but at Arrowhead, the final stretch was more than twice the distance.

At first it wasn't so bad...

Staring off across a distant field

Wide open expanses help keep me distracted

But, things were about to change.

Crossing a deserted road

The last trail sign I'd see.
The trail turned into the all-too-familiar medium-wide path lined with trees. Furthermore, as far as the eye could see, it was straight and just ever-so-slightly uphill. This definitely felt like a re-run of the Susitna finish, but without the crazy night-mode hallucinations to entertain me. Also, twice as long. I was ready to be done, but the finish line was still hours away.

Ultra-runners are used to the many silly comments and questions about our sport, from "why the hell would you do that?" to "I don't even like to drive that far." One of the most common is "don't you get bored?" I've always prided myself in being able to provide a definitive "no" to that question. I don't listen to music or require pacers for company. I enjoy being out there on the trail with only the sounds of the world and the conversations in my own mind to keep me going. I enjoy the scenery during the day and the quiet solace of the night. But something about the dragging snow and the endless row of trees in this race got to me.

Trees, trees, and more trees
More trees...
...and still more. OK, its the same photo as before, but you get the idea.

I passed one other racer who had stopped to fiddle with his sled. After confirming he was OK, I told him that I was so bored I wanted to "tear out my own eyeballs!" A short while later I started singing out loud. This is something I had never done before in a race, but I started the previous night in this one. It wasn't actually singing, but more humming and dum-dee-dumming random tunes some of which I'm not even sure were real songs.

There was no real struggle to keep going--that might have provided some sort of distraction. It was just that with my extreme tired, the lack of variety in the scenery and the absence of even the smallest form of wildlife to enjoy, I felt like I was going numb. After another hour or so, I needed to do something to snap myself out of it.

I took out my camera and decided to make myself laugh.


Call it a momentary lapse in sanity. At least the absurdity of it kept me moving. As you can guess, what was ahead next was...
Eventually, the trail leveled out from its slight uphill bent and then made a turn into a more sparsely forested section. I was so happy for the change that I decided to run a little. Before I knew it, I had arrived at the second-to-last road crossing. A snowmobile came by and told me it was around 9 miles to the finish. This still meant hours, but my spirits were up a bit because I could see that the terrain was in for a change as we were approaching the bay.

A trudged along as the climb steepened a bit estimating in my head when I might finish. I decided that when I came within an hour of my estimate I would start running. The next couple hours passed more quickly and with a little luck, the trail leveled out just as I reached the time I agreed to start running. It wasn't a run by any non-winter ultra standards, but at mile 130-something into a sled-dragging event, it represented a solid effort.

The final road crossing meant about 2 miles to the end. I was greeted on the other side by the first sign of life outside idiot racers and snowmobilers.

Poor guy had been confused out of hibernation by the temperate winter 
Clearly, wanted nothing to do with these idiots running around his domain

I caught up with one final racer as we entered an area with fences indicating that we had reached whatever this part of the country considers civilization. I tried to get him to run in with me, but he said he was hurting and was just going to take it slow to the finish.

As usual, the final turns, twists and little bumps always seem to increase just before the end, but it wasn't long until it was in sight. I slogged it across the line and unhitched my harness more happy just to be done than elated at having finished.

The finish of the race is at a casino set out on a large bay which provided its own level of surrealism. Despite my lack of sleep, I didn't feel the total pass-out type of exhaustion that I did at Susitna, perhaps due to just the time of day. I waited around with other racers in various states of fatigue. Lee finished a couple hours after me looking strong as ever despite the injury.

Certainly, I consider Arrowhead a major accomplishment. The absence of extreme temperatures left me feeling a slight bit ambivalent. It wasn't quite the visceral winter experience that I had hope for, but without it, I probably wouldn't be sitting with my name on this list.


OK. So I am publishing this report 6 months late (and ironically sitting in Arizona in 116-degree temps). However, I have a rule that I need to publish my big race reports before my next big race. This year has been nearly devoid of big races thus far. Due to the prevalence of races filling up and using lotteries along with one cancellation, there have been no 100-milers on my schedule. I've done 3 50-milers and a host of other specific training, but ready or not, I'll be heading to Europe next week for PTL. It's sort of the "big brother" race to UTMB and a good step up in challenge from last year's TdG given that it is almost completely unsupported. I'm started to get excited about it and hope to find time in the coming week to post at least a few more things before heading out.


Danni said...

Oh Steve, while this doesn't sound that fun you make me pine for Su. I think I will have to trade in winter racing this year for a real vacation with my sweetie (to a warm tropical place) but I do love the snow... A very impressive finish. You can finish anything.

Steve Ansell said...

It's interesting you say that because I think I was constantly comparing the race to Su and, while it is its own challenge, there is something very different and special about Alaska in winter.

Olga King said...

You look pretty darn content and almost happy...until the sanity was lapsed for that moment:) But truly, man, pretty awesome. Although I do like to use music (all of 10 hrs of my old shuffle's battery life), I somehow don't get bored (of course, I don;t run on terrains that are covered with snow and nothing else), but I do get to question my idea of fun and yes, that sanity thing.
Best of luck in Europe.