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...|
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|
|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.|
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!|
|Do I look tired?|
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...|
|...in the snow.|
|Heading out with a smile.|
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|
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.|
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|
|...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...
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.
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.