Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Arrowhead 2013

On several of our training rides this year, I had told JK that it was about time we had a tough weather year for the Arrowhead.  The last couple of events had seen above average temperatures and pretty decent trail conditions, as well as a high finish rate.  Perhaps a snow event would spice things up a bit. As the old saying goes, "Be careful what you wish for!"

The first half of the race was uneventful.  I didn't even take any pictures because we were cruising along pretty well and focused on getting to the first checkpoint.  The trail was in good shape and mid to back of the pack racers such as ourselves had a nice line to follow.  I'm always anxious to get this section of trail over because it is mostly flat and kind of boring.  We made it to checkpoint one (Gateway store) by 12:30 and were out by 1:10pm.  We were feeling pretty good about our time at this point.

I always feel a lot better after the Gateway checkpoint.  The trail is generally more scenic and the  rolling hills start to appear.  We kept up a good pace and really started to feel good and settle into the event.  We arrived at Blackduck Shelter at about 7:20 and had some food and hot cocoa.  It was during this break that I noticed freezing rain, and then snow starting to fall.

We arrived at checkpoint two (Melgeorges) at around 9:30.  We stayed long enough to have our gear dried out (Thank you Mary and other volunteers!) and eat a few grilled cheese sandwiches, soup, and drink several cups of Coke.  We managed to leave by about 10:40 and headed back out feeling pretty good about our chances to finish in under 34 hours, which was our goal.

At this point, the snowfall had picked up quite a bit.  Looking through the beam of the headlamp, it was difficult to see the trail.  We couldn't quite tell if the trail was going up or down at any given moment.  We just kept soft pedaling in our granny gears and focusing on what little of the trail we could see.  I hadn't experienced such a heavy snowfall in a long time.  We were able to ride for another hour or so and then we just couldn't.  We followed the tracks of a couple of bike pushers in front of us and trudged on into the night.

Eventually, we came upon another rider, (Singlespeed Jill).  We were both impressed by her tenacity and bike pushing skills.  We leapfrogged back and forth with her for awhile and then came across Sam H. who was taking a break and evaluating the situation.  He asked if he could join us in the death march.  No problem.  We pushed on for a couple more hours.  We knew the Myrtle Lake shelter was 5 or so miles ahead if a bivy was necessary, but that meant at least four more hours at our current rate of travel.

I kept hoping a snowmobile, groomer, or any large object would come cruising by and pack the trail somewhat, but besides the steady snowfall, it was really quiet out there.  We were all soaking wet and tired at this point and decided to make a plan.  At the next available spot off the trail, we would bivy until a snowmobile came by or morning arrived, whichever came first.  An area where a groomer had turned around provided a perfect spot to bivy.  I was soaking wet from both sweating in the warm temps and the freezing rain and snow.  I took my gloves off and got a little freaked out at how pruned up my hands were.  I crawled in my bag with my boots on, (something I typically never do) and shivered for awhile before I dozed off.

Just before daybreak, I called out to JK and Sam that it was time to get moving.  I rushed over to the seatbag on my bike and hastily put on a fleece jacket which was the only dry clothing option I had.  My bivy and sleeping bag were soaking wet as a stuffed them back into the compression bag.  Not good at all, I thought to myself.

The snow was starting to fade as we continued our bike push.  The sun started to peek out a bit and our attitudes were pretty good.  The trail, however, was just as bad.

We were able to ride down the hills slowly, but pushing the bike through the 8-10" of snow was exhausting.  During a break at the Myrtle Lake Shelter we decided to make a plan.  Even though it was possible that the southern half of the trail could be better, it seemed doubtful.  We figured that it would take us at least 30 or more hours to push to the finish if the trail didn't improve.  We had enough calories to get us through, but with soaking wet sleeping bags it didn't seem like a good idea to continue.

We came to Hwy #23 and knew that it was one of the last places until checkpoint #3 to bail if we were going to.  After talking about our options for a few minutes, Jim Reed from Duluth arrived and said he had decided to scratch and ride the highway to Orr about ten miles away. Jim is a pretty tough guy, so I guess I felt a little better about a scratch.  Minutes after that, another racer arrived with the same plan.  The five of us rode towards Orr until we had cell coverage and alerted the race officials that we had scratched.  We continued riding the longest ten miles I have ever ridden in my life into Orr and settled into a local bar while we awaited pick up from our significant others.
Orr Municipal Bar/Liquor Store; not Fortune Bay, but they had pizza and beer!

After a good nights sleep in a warm bed and a break from bike pushing, I felt some regret over not finishing this year.  We had enough time to start a fire and dry out our gear if we had to.  Our group assembled at hwy #23 probably could have worked together and made it to Fortune Bay by the 60 hour cut-off Wednesday.  But, in the end I have no regrets about Arrowhead 2013.  Events like the Arrowhead are tough and complex.  They teach you so much about yourself and your abilities that one has to realize that it is an ongoing process of learning, even through defeat.  I'm looking forward to continuing my education again next year.


  1. Great blog, I feel for you guys, I've been there! You made the right choice.

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