After finishing the Susitna 100 in Alaska last February I swore I'd never drag a sled again. But weeks turn to months and you quickly forget the pain and misery. I was itching to do another winter ultra as the summer season came to a close. So I found this amazing looking race in Finland. A little less than 100 miles at 160K in Finland! I was excited. It seemed unique and inspiring. But as the winter drew near my friends from the Susitna all got the itch as well. And we planned collectively to have a reunion at the Arrowhead 135. I knew it was too close to the Finland race to be able to do both and I knew I would never go to the Arrowhead by myself so I felt like this was my only chance to go out and do it. I put my Finland plans on hold for another year and entered the lottery for the Arrowhead 135.
When we all got picked for the Arrowhead I felt a little bit of disappointment. I couldn't find anything super inspiring about the race. 135 miles in Northern Minnesota!? But all my friends were doing it and I knew it would be a challenge so I began training and started to get excited. An adventure in any form is an adventure!
As race day got closer the anxiety started to set in. Winter ultras are logistical nightmares. From the gear, to the food, to the training, to the weather... You can never feel prepared no matter how many times you've done it. My first day was a complete travel day. We started flying at 6am and didn't arrive at International Falls till 6pm. Lourdes, Lester, and I were reunited and I was so excited to see them face to face again. My friend Scott (who took all these amazing photos) had also come along to enjoy the experience and take some photos.
After packing, unpacking, repacking, obsessing over gear it was finally race day. The race started on a Monday and was a balmy 15 degrees and snowing. This would be the theme for the entire race. Only dropping down well below 0 on the last day. There was lots of chatter about strategy. Lots of people don't run a single step of the entire race. People were warning about going fast. Others were pressing to get to the first aid station in 10hrs. Honestly I didn't have a strategy. I usually run fast out the gate and slow down later on. Lots of people pass me. But I like to get as far on the course as fast as I can before I start to break down.
Instead of running my own race I ran with Lester and Lourdes out the start. We walked mostly. Jogging a bit here and there. This race doesn't really work well for running with other people. We are required to stay single file on the right side of the trail at all times and there is only one track that is beaten enough to give okay footing. It was snowing a lot but warm enough that the snow was punchy. Every step felt like you were running in sand.
Lourdes, Lester, and I stayed together for about the first 24 miles. But my body was deteriorating fast and it didn't help that my brain was heavy with negative thoughts. My feet started to hurt at about mile 9 and I was convinced it was because they were already starting to trench. Unfortunately I think it was more because they were bruised from my rock solid already frozen shoes. The race was not off to a good start. Lester was already out of water and I had barely drank half a liter. I've never been the best at fueling and hydrating and this is not the race to test those limits. When extreme distances mixed with extreme cold. The body shuts down faster than you would expect.
I spent the next 13 miles alone walking slower than normal and playing the scenarios of my stressed relationship back home through my head over and over and over. The snow was falling faster and harder and my feet were throbbing with pain. But all I could think about was my failing relationships and how I was standing still in time. It was torture. It was mental torture.
When I finally got to the first aid station which was a gas station off the interstate Lourdes and Lester were about 15 minutes ahead of me. Lourdes left quickly and I filled water, ate some food, popped some blisters and followed suit behind Lester. I assumed I wouldn't see them again till I reached Mel Georges the second aid station in about 36 more miles. I left feeling strong and rejuvenated. I was making good time out the aid station head down and marching quickly. I wished I had gotten my head phones out so I had some music to distract my wandering mind but instead I pushed to catch up to the blinking light ahead of me.
It was Lisa a friend I had walked with earlier in the day. I welcomed the company and we chatted and walked for about 3 or 4 hours. She slowed me down at times and I was lacking in my fueling from a bit of an upset stomach. She pulled ahead for a bit and I couldn't keep up. I then realized how badly I was limping and how slow I was moving. The reality started to set in as I was now alone. In complete darkness, under caloried and dehydrated. I kept kicking myself for my ignorance. I sat on the trail. Legs crumpled in pain and ate some food. I was destroyed. I was completely destroyed. I had been running everyone else's race all day not listening to my body and being tortured by my own brain. The food didn't stay down for long. That and everything I had eaten at the last aid station came up all over the side of the trail.
I picked up the phone to track my own tracker. How close was I to the next aid station. To my surprise I had great cell service and I loaded my tracker. That was a mistake. Looking at the dots I realized I had been averaging 1 mile per hour for the past few miles. It felt like 1 mile per hour and I still had about 24 more to go to the next aid station. Next I called Corbin. I sobbed about not being able to bend my knees and the horrible loneliness that is eating away at my brain. His only response was you're tougher than this get up and keep moving. I put the phone away. Stood up and kept walking. It felt more like cross country skiing because I could barely lift my legs by this point. I just shuffled them over the top layer of soft snow. The 40lb sled pulling on my tender stomach didn't help the incessant need to vomit every few feet.
When I finally made it to a road crossing I was hoping I'd see Scott and he'd put me in the van and I would just go home. But he wasn't there when I got there and I sat on my sled with my head between my legs and screamed. I called Scott and asked for a pep talk. He didn't have much to say. I stood up and kept walking. I passed a few people here and there bivied on the side of the trail and the thought of a few minutes of sleep was inviting. I had about 20hrs to go till the next aid station if I kept walking at this pace. Then Julia called me. I bitched to her for an hour while I walked one mile and then I sat down. I needed to rest. My feet were fucked. My knee was so swollen on the back side that I couldn't bend it. I hadn't kept any food down for about 6 hrs. I was destroyed. I got the jet boil out and the sleeping bag and I got inside. Immediately I feel asleep.
When I woke up about an hour later I boiled some water and made some oatmeal which I was able to keep down. I drank some water and was determined to keep going. To my mistake I had left my shoes outside the sleeping bag and the sweat from the inside had frozen solid. Not to mention my feet had now swollen 8 sizes larger as well. I could barely squeeze my feet into the frozen shoes. Once I got the shoes on I stood up and packed the sled. Clicked the sled back around my waste and took my first step. Nothing. My legs were solid bricks. There was no bend in my left knee and my stomach was so sensitive I couldn't stand straight with the weight around my waste.
I had to make the decision of missing a cut off or quitting early. There was no way at mile 55 in the state I was in that I would be able to turn my nutrition and hydration around as well as turning my brick legs back into limber. If I quit now I'll recover faster and be back training and doing the things I love sooner. If the finish is not an option. The decision isn't hard. There was no physical way I could have finished. I am sure of that. That being said I know I can finish the race but I need to race smarter.
I walked the mile back to the road crossing and Scott picked me up and took me back to the hotel. The sun was almost rising and I spent the next three days limping around cheering my friends on. Lourdes and Scotty took a finish and Lester came 30 miles before his body said no. My left knee wasn't able to bend for 2 days and I took that as a good sign that I made the right decision. Asking the veterans that have done the race 4, 6, 10 times why they keep coming back every year to do it. They all say the same thing. The race is a different race every year. You can finish it 10 times and DNF on your 11th because you never know what the conditions are going to be like.
I think failing at this race was the best thing that could have happened. I learned more from this failure than from anything else. Here are my main take aways. First and foremost run your own race. Tim pulled me through the Susitna and it was the best thing I could have ever hoped for but it is not guaranteed. Everyone is different from the length of there walking stride, to when they need to pee, to how much they need to fuel and hydrate and stop. I shouldn't be looking for my next Tim every time I catch someone on the trail. I should be listening to my body and go the pace that my body needs to go and not worrying about the rest. Similarly I need to have a more ridged fueling system. When I ran the Grand Canyon with Libby I had a watch and every 45 minutes we ate a GU. I felt great that entire objective until I ran out of water and missed my hourly GU. I remember bonking so hard it was a labor to just walk. I need to be strict like this again. It's important to have a constant stream of calories and I know what works well for me so I should stick to it. Also more walking. Walking is hard to do in training because it takes lots of time and is super boring. But if you don't train your brain to be okay with walking it makes it even harder. For this race in particular utilize the cell service. Don't wait till your brain is tortured to break out the headphones. And even though this race doesn't allow pacers. It's pretty much like having a pacer if you call up your friend and chat for a few hours. But the most important thing of all is you have to want it! You have to really really want it. Because when it gets tough if you don't want it bad. It's easier to go home.
Though I started this objective by saying there was nothing inspiring about this race. It's more than just a race. It's an experience, a hard ass challenge, and I can't wait to go back wiser and stronger and give it hell!