Sunday, February 2, 2014

Arrowhead 135

It's around 9pm Tuesday night. It's been dark for several hours but the temperatures haven't dropped that much. Not like last night. It will get colder in the hours before dawn and even though it won't be as cold as last night it will feel worse on my tired body. But right now, as I'm moving along at a decent pace (i.e., a little over 3 mph), checking out the wolf tracks along the edge of the trail, and enjoying the starry night, chewing some frozen PROBAR bolts, life is pretty good... Oh shit! The package drops to the ground and I put my gloved hand out and deposit the glob onto it. It can't be. It is. My nice shiny crown. In that moment I know I'll finish this race. After all, who doesn't love a good war story.

But let's not rush ahead, this race was all about taking it easy, staying relaxed, breaking it down into each segment and focusing on myself. And maybe that's why I enjoyed it so much. I got to think about me for 50+ hours - about what I needed, food, water, caffeine, an extra layer, a fresh neck gaiter, hiking poles or no hiking poles... I got to spend over 2 days in the woods living in the moment. It was like a break from life. It was exactly what I needed. Don't get me wrong. I like my life a lot. I am surrounded, both physically and in spirit, by people (and dogs) that I love very much. I enjoy the hectic, ever-changing nature of my days. I like my job way more than anyone should and enjoy the challenges it brings. But I also love my alone-time. And if there's one thing Arrowhead guarantees you, it's alone-time.

So as not to break (Chris') tradition, we started the race almost 10 minutes after all the runners along with a few other stragglers. I had my back-up headlamp on but didn't really need it. The ground was hard and the sled pulled easily. I knew it would take a toll on my body over the course of the race but no matter what I did, I couldn't get my bag under 30 pounds. Along with the sled weight and my snowshoes that I decided to bring at the last minute (memories of Chris' 2013 epic adventure), I was hauling around 37 pounds. My harness was a simple padded waistband with a large buckle in front and two different positions to hook the ropes. I started with the ropes in the back position but after around 25 miles moved them to the loops I had added a few days before the race on the side of the harness - this ended up being a much better position and I never switched back. I was using my trekking poles for most of the first section and had adjusted the wrist loops so that they fitted snugly over my 3-layer glove system: merino wool liner, soft shell medium weight mitt, outer water/wind proof mitt hand-made by Chris. Every so often I would take off the outer mitt and let them hang by the idiot loops to let my hands breathe a bit - especially if I’d been running for a while. Conversely, if I stopped for food or water which required taking off the inner mitt, I would layer up all 3 gloves as quickly as I could to get warmed up again. I didn’t once remove the liner glove throughout the race - the risk of frost-bite being too great in these conditions. -28F (-33C) at the start and into some wind until we made the turn south at the first shelter and after that the wind was mostly on our backs all the way to the Gateway checkpoint at mile 35. The shelters on the trail are 3-sided wooden structures that offer very little actual shelter and more often than not have empty beer cans strewn around the rocky ground. However, depending on the direction of the wind they can be a good place to pull over to make adjustments - and later in the race to roll out the sleeping bag. I made a quick pit stop at that first shelter as my water hose had frozen so I needed to get water from my bag. Chris had typically used a cooler to store his Nalgenes and I followed suit, fashioning the same insulated covers from foil bubble wrap (super lightweight and easy to remove the tops). I had started the race with 3 liters of boiling water as well as about 50 oz of warm water in my bladder on my back - no longer accessible with the frozen hose). Probably more water than I needed as I think I arrived to Gateway with 1 full Nalgene and the bladder. Still, I struggle to give up something as basic as water to reduce the weight. I drank several ounces, got some food and packed up again. Tony and Mike Lessard had pulled in also and we exchanged a quick hello. Chris and I had been over and back over the first few hours and as I got back on the trail I saw that he had stopped just up the trail and was taking off again. But he was running and I didn't feel much like doing that right now so I continued on walking, doing around 16-17 minute miles. There were several others in close proximity for the next few hours but after we crossed Hwy 53, the pack started to spread out and eventually I would find myself alone and, as you might imagine, quite happy about that. I couldn't believe it when I checked my Garmin at one point and saw I had covered 19 miles in around 5:30. I was so happy - I was sure I'd only been on the trail for 3 or 4 hours! Temperatures hadn't risen much throughout the day which was probably the crucial difference vs. the most recent "cold" year in 2011 when the daytime sunshine brought some warmth. Things were going well throughout this entire section, I has switched on my iPod a few hours earlier and was well into the first of the Hunger Games audiobooks that Aubrey, a friend from work, had given me for Christmas. As night began to fall, I felt confident I would make it to Gateway in good shape. I had seen a few folk go by on snowmobiles already, their race coming to a premature end, but I focused on the lights ahead of me that I could see from time to time. Soon enough I made the turn to Gateway and pulled in just behind Divesh.

On the way to Gateway

Photo credit: Burgess Eberhardt (view all images at this link)

Chris was still there having arrived about a half hour ahead of me. Gateway was pretty much what I had expected. A convenience store with a bunch of nooks and crannies to set up your station and get yourself sorted. I knew I would be here at least an hour so I started with handing over my wet clothes to the dryer knowing that would take around 45 minutes. In the end I realized the only thing that really needed drying was my fleece buff. My other outer layers I hung up around my chair and started to work on my feet. Following Chris' lead (yes, it certainly helps to be married to a winter race specialist), I had taped up a few toes and slathered the rest with Vaniply before putting on a lightweight Injini toe sock followed by a heavy duty Smartwool ski sock. I was wearing the SCOTT Nakoa Trail GTX shoes - they use a more breathable type of Gortex which presumably helps avoid moisture build up inside the shoe. Whatever it does, it was working like a dream and would continue to do so - I never once had cold feet and no blisters. I changed my socks, reapplying Vaniply but having no need to touch the tape. Everything was looking good. Knowing the temperatures would continue to drop and having felt my legs get a bit cold already, I pulled out my Montbell insulated pants and layered them between my Patagonia base layer tights and my (bright green) Marmot shell pants. The trick is to get dressed and out of there without getting too warm in the process - not easy when you're layering up in a toasty back room of the store! I had already filled my water bottles and bladder with warm water - one Nalgene with hot coffee - and had eaten a bowl of chili and a half bowl of soup. All in all, with the running around and repacking and chatting with folks in between, I was close to 2 hours at Gateway with Chris having left about an hour ahead of me. Still, I didn't feel stressed getting out of there - I was nicely dressed for the -35F (-37C) conditions and was looking forward to the hours ahead. Back onto the trail and back into my audiobook. Life was pretty good. I set myself a target of reaching Melgeorges by 7 AM. The mileages are all a bit screwy at this race so I was never quite sure what to believe but I figured it was somewhere between mile 72 and 75 so I prepared myself for 40 miles of fun.

The course continues to be fairly flat for the next several miles before hitting some hills after Sheep Ranch Rd. which I think is at mile 50-something. Throughout this stretch I was feeling pretty relaxed, still eating and drinking well. I was smarter with my hose and hadn't let it freeze up so I drank that first. I was very glad for the coffee as I felt quite sleepy in the early hours of the morning. There was some company along the trail with myself, Kevin, Divesh and Ben leap-frogging throughout the night. It was fun to see Divesh come ripping by telling me he needed to run to warm his hands and then catching up a mile later. And then repeating an hour later. I finished the first of the 3 (11 hour) audiobooks about halfway through this section and switched to a Talk Ultra podcast. I used to listen to these all the time when I was doing long trail runs in 2012 but having done no such thing in 2013 it had been a while since I'd listened to Ian Corless' slightly grating accent. It was an old episode from June 2013 so there was a lot of talk about the recent Comrades race and the upcoming WS100 race. I enjoy the show but I must have been in a critical mood as I kept telling Ian to just let his guests speak and stop asking questions in such a way as to answer half of them before the guest even has a chance to speak. And then there was Karl Meltzer doing his thing - he is usually pretty real, telling it like it is, but God the man does not want to offend anyone so every statement was followed by a retraction. Funny stuff. Or maybe it was just that I’d been awake for 24 hours. The hills were pretty regular now and big enough to get the heart rate up but not to sled down. I started to think about my plan for Melgeorges. I was prepared to spend a few hours there knowing I wanted to sleep for at least 1 hour. I was very happy to see the "5 miles" sign but knew it could well take longer than an hour and a half though as it turned out I hit the lake right at about 4 miles so I think it is in fact pretty accurate. The lake was pretty bad with the wind sweeping across it and much of the trail having disappeared but I knew I only had 20 minutes or so before a warm cabin awaited me. I rolled up to the Cedar cabin right at 7:30 AM - a little later than I'd hoped but feeling good. Sue and several others were seated around the main room and Alicia, Matt and others were sleeping upstairs. As usual at this time in the race, the cabin is a mix of drops and folks who are trying to get some rest and/or organize their stuff to get out the door again. John looked like he was about to take off soon. No-one else was on the move. Alicia had been sick and was trying to rest before heading out an hour later. I checked in with the volunteers and started to strip of my clothes for the dryer which this time amounted to several items including my socks, hat, neck gaiter and outer jacket which at that time was a hooded Marmot jacket with insulated panels in the front. I had a fairly lightweight Mountain Hardwear synthetic puff jacket under this which was quite dry. And under this 2 base layers - a next to skin Lululemon wool long sleeve and a North Face shirt with breathable underarms and windstopper panels in front - which, along with my tights, didn't come off me the entire race. Next up was 2 grilled cheese and then it was time to head over to the cabin we had rented and get some sleep. Racers are allowed to rent cabins at Melgeorges and in fact are encouraged to so do to spread the wealth a little. We shared a small 2-bed cabin between 5 of us (3 bikers and 2 runners) and when I got there one of the bikers and Chris were sleeping. I ran into Mark who's race had come to an end due to minor frostbite (there was much worse frostbite to be found). I hung up a few clothes to air out and hopped into the bunk bed above Chris at 8:15 AM (EVERYTHING takes 30 minutes longer than you think it should!!). I set my alarm for 9:30 AM knowing that I would extend it by a half hour if I felt the need to. I did exactly that having slept well and needing a little more. Eventually I got up just before 10 AM. I spent about 30 minutes dressing and repacking my bag including filling my bladder and Nalgenes (2 hot water, 1 coffee) and then headed back up to the main cabin. Chris had slept a little too and had just headed back out on the trail. I retrieved my dried clothes and finished the dressing process - adding my insulated Smartwool skirt over my shell pants in place of the insulated pant layer. The Smartwool skirt is similar in weight to the more typical down skirts but is filled with wool and polyester. On top I went with the 2 jackets again. It was just after 11 AM when I finally checked out. Alicia had left soon after 9 and unfortunately Sue had decided she wasn't going back out. I was surprised and sorry to hear that and in retrospect wish I had taken a bit more time to encourage her.

About a half mile out of Melgeorges I started to get very cold all of a sudden. I pulled out my parka for the first time - a snuggley puffy RAB 800 fill down monster. I was warm within minutes. And then of course I was too warm as the hills, ever-increasing in steepness and length, caused me to expend more energy than at any time in the race. So I switched back to the 2 jackets and cooled off even more when needed by opening the zippers. For whatever reason I didn't sled down any of these hills - I have no idea why! But I was happy with my pace. I had recharged and restarted my Garmin after Melgeorges. Amazingly it had lasted all the way there - that's right - the Garmin 910XT goes for 25 hours in arctic conditions! It read 75.19 miles as I pulled into the cabin. I had worn it on my wrist and this must have helped keep it warm as in the second half of the race I had it in my coat pocket and it froze up overnight. I was excited to think that I might catch Chris at some point. We had deliberately not planned to race together as we both knew this is a race where you have to always be looking after yourself and doing your own thing. Certainly, when a racer is in need of help, any of us would stop and risk getting cold (as several racers did throughout this race) - but as racers we should try hard not to be that person in need. We sign up for this event knowing the conditions and should understand the need to be self-sufficient out on the trail. Anything less and we put ourselves, our fellow racers, and the race itself, at risk. The other reason I hadn't particularly wanted to run with Chris is that I tend to turn into a whiny little bitch during races when he is with me - more so when he is pacing me (Leadville 2011) than when we are both racing. I complain and throw tantrums when really there is no need for that at all. But I was fairly sure that this wouldn't happen today. This race demanded a level head and so far I had only made one nasty comment to my sled and hadn't even come close to cursing the race director. There are a few road crossings in this section and a few miles after passing a sleep-walking Ed, I came out to a road where Mark's car was parked. Sure enough he had walked down the trail a few minutes with Chris and was heading back when I met him. Five minutes later I saw Chris around a turn. Right about this time the 2 bikers, Bob and Thomas, that had shared the cabin with us came rolling by along with Rick. Man, they had a nice rest :)

Chris and I were mostly together for the next several hours as night fell for the second time. Of course, we would do our own thing and stop to get food at different times, or to pee, or adjust clothing, so that we were often a quarter mile apart. And while together we would typically walk in series to make the most of the firmer sections along the edge of the trail. Added to that I was fully engrossed in book two of the Hunger Games! But the company was nice. After some flatter sections during the late afternoon, the hills were pretty big again and now I did ride my sled down every single one of them including a few that didn't really demand it. What a riot! Only once was I in serious danger of ending up wrapped around a tree. The huge winding hill with the bridge at the bottom was my favourite. Every downhill brought an equal uphill and my right mid-back was beginning to shout pretty loud. This wasn't really directly related to the hardness - I'd had some lower back pain Monday night that had since subsided - no, this was a very specific knot that has bugged me over the past few months particularly when sitting for long periods of time. I soon discovered that I could place the top of my trekking pole on the spot and lean back into it for a seriously deep tissue massage. I did this several times for about 10 miles and eventually it gave up and stopped bothering me. Nice how that sometimes happens. In the middle of all this the crown fell out and that made for more limited food choices. You would think a hole in your mouth would be enough to remind you to eat and drink on the other side but several times I forgot resulting in muffled screams under my neck gaiter. But I've had enough serious tooth pain to know that this wasn't so bad and was unlikely to get any worse at this point. If anything the cold clean air had a healing effect. Onwards we trudged, this definitely being the toughest part of the race for me. I thought I had a good chance of hitting the Ski Pulk checkpoint in 12 hours (11 PM) but hadn’t really factored in how bad the hills would be. And who knew if it was at mile 105 or 108 or 115 (for the record I am going with 112). Sleep deprivation was also a much bigger factor than the first night. Nevertheless we were in good spirits when eventually we hit the long winding flat section that leads to the hill before Ski Pulk. We arrived at 1:15 AM. Chris needed to check his feet so he went into the tent. I stayed outside, quickly filled up my bottles with boiling water, got a cup of hot chocolate and got moving again within 10 minutes. I planned to sleep for an hour a little up the trail and Chris thought he might do the same. The volunteer at Ski Pulk had said 26 miles to the finish. I took him at his word. I had got my watch going again and restarted it here so that I could keep an eye on my pace. I had also asked how Alicia was doing and was told she’d come through a few hours ago and was moving well. I don’t know that I would (or could) have changed my plans if she had been closer ahead but at this point I was happy to continue to focus on my own race and glad to hear she had managed to control her stomach (or at least not succumb to it) and was surely on cue to set a blistering course record. In the end Alicia finished first female and third overall in just seconds under 48 hours. A huge result. I have always thought 48 hours would be an awesome mark to set in this race.

I reached Mt. Wakemup a few miles later and pulled my ass up the giant hill and into the shelter. It was fairly clean and snow-free in the shelter itself so I pulled out my pad, bivy sack and bag and crawled in at 2:30 AM setting my alarm for 1 hour later. I woke and decided I needed another 30 minutes. I heard footsteps go by and also badly needed to pee so I didn’t sleep much after that and was up and on my way again before 4 AM. As I was getting packed up Ben (skier) went by. We had leap-frogged many times the previous day and I had left Melgeorges as he was getting ready to head out so I glad to see he was still moving well. What happened next is probably the single biggest reason I may do this race again. I walked down Mt. Wakemup. That’s right. The BIGGEST STEEPEST hill on the course and I decided not to sled it. In hindsight I think I was feeling shaky after just waking up and didn’t trust that I could keep my sled straight. Whatever. I missed out! A few miles later I caught up with Ben. I was running a little at this point hoping to also catch up with Chris. That took another hour or so. It was so cool to finally catch a glimpse of light up ahead. I quickly knew it was Chris as his headlamp is a super-bright white light. It probably took another 20 minutes to actually catch him. Makes me realize how crazy people must go at Tuscobia – the straightaways at Arrowhead are bad enough. You think the person is just ahead of you and you feel like you’re moving faster than them but even if you are when the difference is less than a minute per mile and the straight stretches on for a half mile... you get the picture. We were both still wearing our parkas and actually for me this was the coldest part of the race even though the temperature was probably around -18F (-27C). The combination of tiredness and low lying swamp area in the hour before dawn made for frigid conditions. On the plus side the incredibly beautiful sunrise brought a smile to my face. For the entire hour it took the sun to rise above the trees, the sky was glowing a beautiful bright orange. We were knocking out the miles. Running a little here and there. The bottom of my feet were feeling pretty sore at times but all in all I was more motivated to run and reach the finish sooner than to try to rest my feet. We caught up with Shane from New York who we'd met at Tuscobia and hung out with him for a bit. He said someone had passed him about 20 minutes ago and we figured it was probably Divesh. Sure enough we saw his lanky figure ahead on the trail a few miles later. We chatted for a while, giving him the good news that Alicia had finished in record time (Chris had checked the results page around 8 AM). We were all feeling pretty decent, it was getting a few degrees warmer with each passing hour and we were getting close. A snowmobile went by and Divesh thought he said we had 3 miles to go. According to my calculations (my watch had died at this point), if it really was 26 miles from Ski Pulk and if the finish line really was 10.5 miles from Shelter #9, then we still had at least 6 miles to go. Either way, it would be an hour or two, we were making good progress and feeling strong enough to mostly run. Running of course is a relative term and even more so at this point in the race. We were probably covering a mile in around 15 minutes but there were stops here and there, mostly for water. We came to the Vermillion Club junction and I got the sense we were getting close. And then the road crossing. Surely this was the road crossing where we had seen Chris in 2011 – less than a mile to go I thought? But that’s not what my calculations tell me!! Several minutes later we go by a development and I see the water tower but it doesn’t really register with me. Then I see Chris turn around and smile and utter those glorious words: We’re here! Sure enough, the casino was visible through the trees and we just had the final little hill to run up and over and happily make our way under the finish line banner.

I never fully envisioned myself at the start line of this race. Even after I mailed the entry form the day after it opened for newbie registration. Even after I showed up in International Falls, went though gear check and the pre-race meeting. Even after, no, especially after our 20 minute practice run the day before in the cutting north wind. And yet, I knew I was ready for it. I hadn't 'trained' in the traditional sense of ultra-running training. But I had kept a base fitness and had done some strength training. And I had Chris helping me with all my gear choices (OK, making many of my gear choices). Certainly, since we took over Tuscobia I have a developed a much stronger affinity for winter racing and I suppose somewhere inside me I knew that one day I would try this race. And 2014 seemed as good a year as any. It was an incredible experience. I almost feel guilty saying that I enjoyed it. My gear worked, the weather suited me. The trail was so packed. I was surrounded by people I truly enjoy hanging out with. And yet I was alone for the better part of 2 days. Alone in the woods with my own thoughts and dreams accomplishing something few people would ever attempt. How could I not enjoy it?

Thank you to Ken & Jackie and Russ and John and John's mother and all of the volunteers who make this race what it is; to Pierre and Cheryl Oster for having the vision to start this race 10 years ago, and to Dave & Mary Pramann for continuing to build it. Thank you all for your time and effort and for being part of Arrowhead 2014. And most of all thank you to Chris for motivating me to move outside my comfort zone and attempt this race. As Matt L put it... Couples that Arrowhead together stay together.

Want to hear more? My 5 minutes of fame on Ocean FM (Sligo, Ireland).

By the numbers
  • Finish time:                 51:24
  • Time at checkpoints:    04:17
  • Time on trail:               47:07
  • Females:                     2nd place
  • Overall:                       Joint 9th
  • Finish rate (run):          30% (17/56)
  • Finish rate (all races):   34% (48/142)

Gear List
  • Sled: Orange “Paris” sled with rope system (no poles)
  • Trekking poles: REI carbon power lock
  • Snowshoes: Atlas race 22 inch (didn't use them)
  • Bag: Cuben fiber custom design from North Sails, CT
  • Sleeping bag: REI Expedition bag -20F rating
  • Bivy sack: it was one of these with a waterproof base
  • Sleeping pad: blue foam
  • Hydration vest: Mountain Hardwear race vest with 50 oz bladder (worn under my jacket(s) - the pockets were great for extra storage
  • Cooler: donated to me full of beer and strawberries by Karen Shoenrock at the 2010 Afton 50K (it's been through a lot and still standing!!)
  • Water bottles: Nalgene HDPE wide-mouth (note: these ones are rated for boiling water unlike the clear ones) with home-made insulation sleeves
  • Headlamp: Gemini Lights Xera (used at 10% power setting for the most part - more than enough light and lasts for 23 hours with the 2-cell battery); carried charger and I also carried a back-up headlamp: Petzel Myo with 3 AA lithium batteries
  • Watch: Garmin 910XT
  • Sunglasses: never wore them

Clothing List (Wearing/carrying, not worn items are in italics)
  • SCOTT Nakoa Trail GTX shoes (mens which is typical for me, but also a half size bigger than usual)
  • Injinji ultralight weight socks (4 pairs)
  • Smartwool ski socks (2 pairs)
  • Outdoor Research gaiters
  • Stoic merino wool midweight socks (2 pairs)
  • Patagonia capilene 3 base layer tights
  • Marmot shell pants 
  • Lululemon sports bra
  • Lululemon base layer tee
  • North Face Isotherm half zip (a really great piece)
  • Marmot Variant jacket synthetic
  • Mountain Hardwear Zonic jacket
  • Montbell insulated pants (mine were synthetic not down)
  • Smartwool PhD SmartLoft skirt
  • RAB Neutrino Endurance parka 800 fill down
  • RAB meco liner gloves (2 pairs but wore same pair the entire way)
  • Saucony run mitts
  • Outer mitt water/wind proof hand-made by Chris
  • RAB Endurance down mitt (my number one item of gear)
  • Buff with fleece lining (most used gaiter)
  • Smartwool neck gaiter (forgot this in dryer at Melgeorges)
  • Smartwool base layer long sleeve top (used as a neck gaiter)
  • Sugoi thick polyester running hat (never left my head)
  • Sugoi polyester balaclava (forgot this in dryer at Melgeorges)
  • Sugoi polyester neck gaiter (was glad I didn't forget this!)  
  • Down Works down balaclava (used this for several hours Tuesday night)
  • Black Rock Gear down hat (didn't use this much)
  • Black Rock Gear down mitts (didn't use these much)
  • North Face Verto Micro Hoodie (nice piece but not for this race)
  • Craft base layer tights
  • Ice breaker base layer long sleeve top
  • Ice breaker base layer short sleeve top
  • RAB synthetic base layer long sleeve top

Food List (Listed in order of the most eaten, averaged 150-200 cal/hr but carried at least twice that)
  • FLIPZ chocolate covered pretzels
  • Surf Sweets gummy worms, regular and sour (real food, not corn syrup)
  • PROBAR Bolts
  • PROBAR Meals
  • GU salted caramel (YUM), island nectar and passion fruit flavours
  • Power Bar Energy Blasts cola flavour (caffeine)
  • Twizzlers
  • Chocolate covered espresso beans
  • Snickers (bite size)
  • KitKat (bite size)
  • Dried mango (perfect, doesn't freeze)
  • Bobo's bars (these don't freeze)

  • Moleskin
  • Vaniply
  • Waxlene
  • Lip balm

  • iPod & charger
  • iPhone & charger 

For complete race information check out the race website.


Thomas said...

Astounding! Much respect for that!

Olga King said...

You are totally crazy. I might be from Russia, but I am never starting a winter sled race:) I am in owe! Way to go, "basic fitness" girl!

Aubrey Dyer said...

This is truly impressive! You are an awesome lady. Are you signing up next year?

Keith S said...

Superb, your made of good stuff Helen, greetings from Irl.

Best wishes Keith.

FatAndHappyIsAMyth said...

A great read Helen but no wolves?!

Lindsey Caldwell said...

Hi there Helen, I'm Lindsey! I have a question and would love to speak with you. Please email me when you have a chance- thank you! I look forward to hearing from you :)


Robert Sholtis said...

Helen - Perfect writeup... thank you so much for the extreme amount of detail you included. As a Jan 2016 Arrowhead hopeful, it is much appreciated! Also - we started an arctic FB group - might you join it? We talk gear etc.. for all of us novice runners.

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