The Ice Dragon of Arrowhead breathes ice and snow over the North Minnesotan Plains sometimes down to -60 degs F. In those types of temperatures, the Minnesotans hide in their warm houses, except for the 135Arrowheaders. In 2014, it brought the temperatures down to -50 degs C striking down many 135Arrowheaders. But there are those who can play and ride the dragon and come out unscathed. I wanted to be one of them.
Meet some of the Arrowhead Racers
The Voyageur motel is the place to be for this event. It is close to the start line and the owners Sandy and Jerald are soooooo accommodating. Nothing is ever too much for them. Additionally you will meet vet Arrowheaders who have tamed the beast and come out every year to give homage. At the beginning of the week, we hung out with Bill Bradley and Ray Sanchez who will one day have his own Pinky dog to bring on the trails.
By Friday and Saturday there was a full house of Arrowhead racers – mostly vets and a couple of newbies.
Neighbouring our rooms was Judd with the wicked pointy mustashe and his biker gang. Parker was down the hall (first man unsupported in 41:02); and the lovely Lynn and Daryl Saari next door (Lynn hope that flu bug goes away soon). Upstairs was Jason (who brought Bisaniiwewin the tyre from Wisconsin and really wanted to play but paid Ken to stop him doing it again!) and the very fit John Storkamp (first man through in 38 hours). All these hardcore Arrowhead legends under one roof.
As for newbies: met the laid back and calm Alex Stoltz with his son at the Voyageur Café on Friday evening whilst baking some dough for the journey. Alex asked for advice, but really wasn’t one to give advice as had never completed the course. The best I could do was share my race plan. Out on the trail, checking the start point were also newbies Jeff and Dan. I felt like a mom showing the boys where the registration and start points were.
This year was going to be different. I actually had a plan, better gear, a lighter sled (about 20kgs = 40lbs), and a bunch of animal friends to keep me company. The plan was to finish in the middle of the pack about 55 hours. However, Judd must have had an inkling of my tardiness as he came over on Sunday night to sign Bisaniiwewin and gifted a BPR sticker.
For a bikers’ look at Arrowhead you can read the BPR gang’s report here
Sunday 10pm: I lay in bed remembering the magic of Rovaniemi, wandering in the winter forest, the aurora borelis shimmering in the night sky and the frozen moisture suspended in the air, twinkling like fairy lights when the headlamp illuminated them. In this event, the meteorologists promised a lunar eclipse and the “blood moon”…. I imagined howling to the moon.
29 January 2018, 4am: Rachel’s alarm sounded. As she got up to prepare herself, I kept still on my spot on the floor. Sleep had been patchy and I wanted more, considering that had very little the night before. Renata stirred some moments later. “What’s the time I ask?”
“Five Ten” she replied
Dang, I shot up, as meant to get up at 5am, cleared my bedding and filled bottles with hot water from what Jerald had purposefully boiled for us, as well as from the bathroom tap. Breakfast was a glass of coconut milk and chia seeds. Well Cliff Young survived on drinking milk in his ultra:
What’s in me Sled? A travel bag with one litre of boiling hot water, a spare empty naglene bottle, two down jackets – one is an emergency jacket; food for 3 days (didn’t want to bother about a kit or food drop at Mel Georges); stove + fuel + matches; spare base layers in case; spare googles; spare gloves; spare bungee cords, spare hat; spare knickers, girly stuff; spare goretex outer legs, first aid kit, bivvy bag + -40 below sleeping bag, one snow mobile tyre weighing approximately 8-9 kgs (17-20lbs) called Bisaniiwewin, one pink dog called Pinky, one shark called Sharkey and a penguin called Princess Suma.
What did I wear? Wearing 4 layers on my torso plus a 750 ml bottle in my jacket and a Nathan bladder + food + lights + gloves for all occasions (liner gloves + gloves + over gloves) + hand/toe warmers for just in case. On the legs was a base layer and a pair of walking trousers. On the feet a thick pair of woolly socks and a pair of running shoes covered with an overshoe. Hat on head + neoprene balaclava + wool buff.
6:15am: Renata helped us move our sleds out the door into the cold onto snowy grounds. Already the ice dragon had made its presence felt, gently cooling the previous week’s temperatures to -11 degs F (-24 degs C) and a dusting of small flakes gently fell from the skies.
Start to Gateway
As snowflakes danced, fireworks lit up the dull cold morning sky, marking the start of the event. The bikers were let loose, followed by the skiers and then the runners…..and I was there on the start line. By the time we had started, the snow had stopped and the cold had begun to wrap itself round the body with hands slightly numb. Big gloves were donned and jogged for at least 5K to warm up. Once the hands were warm, I step it down to a fast walk to regulate the body temperature. My North Pole buddy had always reminded me “You sweat you die” – Die of hypothermia if your clothes got wet.
Walking Zombie: After a mile, Rachel passed me. She is a strong, tough lady and was sure she’d be in the top 3 women. In fact, many people overtook me, as I slowed down. Joe Lang slowed to converse with me. I grunted some responses trying to sync the brain to understand the conversation and the body to understand to keep moving. As Joe chatted away, I wished for a cup of coffee to kick out the sludge in my head. When he finally sped on, I was thankful for the quiet and returned to closing my eyes for a one to two second walking nap.
The first 10 miles are pretty monotonous with long straight lines, nonetheless was thankful the terrain was like a frozen pavement underfoot. The trail was in the best condition compared to my previous two attempts and I speculated there would be a high number of people finishing this event compared to previous years.
After 10 miles, “eye of the tiger” Bill Bradley had caught up and we gave each other quick words of encouragement. My head was finally waking up.
Bill and I would play leapfrog until Gateway, the first checkpoint. Newbie Alex overtook me 10 miles from Gateway looking sturdy with every step he took.
Gateway: A Luxury Stop
17:59: At 36 miles, Gateway is checkpoint 1, a store and petrol station where we are encouraged to eat, drink and be merry. The new owners have embraced the Arrowhead event making this a luxury pit-stop with 3 types of homemade soup, multiple types of coffee, a free flow of hot water, and a “OMG from me”….shoe dryers and clothes drying facilities available. There was a crazy merriment inside from the owners, employees, spectators, and racers. I could imagine a barn dance happening here, if it weren’t for the worn out bodies spread on the floor….
“Rachel! What’s up?” I was surprised to see her on the floor. She was looking quite down, as she wrestled with her head.
“I’ve been here since 4pm, my stomach’s unwell and I’m bored….” Renanta looked concerned.
“Ok rest and get something to eat. Get that mojo back” I tried to be positive for her.
Rachel forced some soup down, but I know how she was feeling, having experienced the same physical and mental attributes when mentally tired. Sometimes we just need time out to reconnect our physical, mental and spiritual selves with each other, other times we just need a reboot.
As Rachel was being well cared for, I went into “lala land” talking to other racers; catching up with Bonnie, singing my own songs whilst waiting for clothes to dry. Lynn Saari came in, Bill followed after. He was looking anxious, wanting to get in and out to make time, and not be drawn in by negative emotions. I considered going back out with him at 7pm, but my buddy Rachel was down.
I cajoled her and tried to lift her spirit to move on from the mental beating she was giving herself. Mike (an Arrowhead finisher and now volunteer) continued to encourage me to help her, so I patiently waited for her to get her head in order.
Facing the Ice Dragon
20:00 Rachel was ready to go….kind of reluctantly. I was hopeful she could turn herself around and enjoy the moonlit trail, after all the trail after Gateway is more interesting with undulations and steepening hills. We headed out warm, with down jackets on + outer shell trousers, and closed down the Complaints Department. We needed to move forward positively. Rachel’s slow is my fast and knew I would struggle to keep her pace. I encouraged her to keep moving at that pace as she sauntered on ahead. We both enjoy the solitude of oneself, so if she was now feeling right in herself, I was happy to let her work the trail at her own pace. Nonetheless, I would catch up with her each time by riding the slopes.
“You should try it!” I said to her, once I had caught up with her.
Rachel was now moving at my speed and found a slope. “This one?”
“Yeah go for it”
She sat on her sled and sped off along the gentle slope. I followed after. As I caught up with her, she thanked me however slowed down further.
“Come on Rachel we can do this.”
She moved slightly ahead and then stopped at the side, signalling she was okay and for me to move on, she would catch up. I moved on, slowly, uncertain to stay or go, but if I hung around it would irritate. Sometimes we just need space to know what we must do. I continued hoping she would regain her composure, often looking back and soon the seemingly endless trail behind collapsed into a black void. 30 minutes and she had not appeared. I wondered if I should have stayed with her. It was too late now. She is a tough gal, having undertaken enough solo expeditions in the snow and ice…. and she is Swiss…..totally organised! She had excellent gear, so I knew she’d be safe. You can read her story here
An hour later I met Bill, he was going to bivy out and I wished him a restful sleep. As I headed on into the night, enjoying the moonlit trail, the sound of snowmobiles would soon pierce the quiet. Eight times they passed me as they headed out and then back, each time towing someone out of the event. Sheep Ranch Road felt close by.
There, just before Sheep Ranch Road, a shadowy figure was on the trail. As I closed in, it was one of the snowmobile volunteers. We chatted away and found out that Rachel had been picked up and was safe. I decided to forego saying hello, having stopped by this bus in the past to encourage someone to go on. The air would be “heavy” with weary racers beating themselves up in an almost unforgiving way. There was nothing more to say or do but to let each reconcile their moments out on the trail.
I was in a happy place enjoying every pain free step amazed about the amount of light was projected onto the trail.
It would be quiet from this time onwards and in the sky was a very weak shimmering green tinge. The full moon’s light was too strong for the aurora borealis and I would have to be satisfied with playing the music of War of the Worlds in my head and remembering the aurora at Rovaniemi.
I was surprised to catch up with Alex as had figured he should have been way ahead. He was with John Taylor, who after some minutes stopped to boil water. Alex moved on slowly, always looking back, giving me time to to catch up with him and we hung out for a while. We again discussed plans and agreed to go through the night to Mel Georges. Once there we could reconsider the time to see how much “rest time” we could enjoy. He seemed serene and happy, and I was enjoying his company as we propelled ourselves down the small slopes. On one slope, he signaled for me to go ahead, I did and marched onwards, singing a song. After about 10 minutes, I realised he had not followed and was no longer behind. I called out – no one responded.
“Perhaps he stopped for a pee” I thought.
I walked slowly, looking back every so often and after 30 minutes soldiered on, deciding he must have stopped to rest.
I caught up with two women. One was strongly ascending the steepening hills, the other moving somewhat slower. I chatted to the back lady briefly, a pretty dark haired lady, Kari, before catching up with her buddy in front. She was a shorter maybe blonde haired lady who decided to lay down on the snow whilst waiting for her buddy to get to the top. It seemed a strange thing to do, so I checked to see if she was okay. She indicated she was okay. I asked again to make sure & she signaled to me she was fine and for me to move on.
Along the spine of the dragon, temperatures were plummeting. John had earlier on told me it was about -30 degs F (-35 degs C). Am sure it was colder and a chill crept over the body, despite wearing the heavy duty over gloves and down jacket. Time to work a little harder to warm up before stopping to find the emergency down jacket in my sled. Perhaps tiredness was in my head, but an illogical brain connection had been made as I wasted time searching through a small hole that had unzipped in the bag. As my left hand cooled down, I gloved it back up with the over gloves, ran on the spot and then changed over to the warm right hand, removing the gloves down to the liner to rummage in the bag.
After a little “dig around”, felt the jacket stuck behind some other gear. The fool me continued trying to work the jacket out from behind gear and under the bungee cord strapping with the hand that was rapidly becoming cold and numb. It would have been easier to have unclipped the cords to make the task easier. By the time I had pulled out the emergency jacket, the two women had overtaken me and the fingers on my right hand had become frozen.
“Idiot! Fool me, fool me!” – I scolded myself as I recalled 2014 and had frostbite and quickly pulled the jacket on.
I could have put my hand on my neck or down my trousers but the synaptic nerves weren’t sparking. I was going to test my warming powers.
“Fool me, fool me, fool me” I again uttered. The ice dragon smiled whispering “I got you”
“No you haven’t buddy”
I flung my hand down hard several times: “C’mon babies be strong”
I moved quickly, as the ice dragon clenched my right hand….”I got you”
“No way buddy…” I punched the air several times and semi ran pushing hard up the hills and down. I soon reached the two women at the top of a hill. By now three fingers were just come back to life, and felt a little nipped. My little “pinky” finger was still rock hard.
“I couldn’t see you.” said the blonde haired lady. “Your reflectors are all covered”
“Yeah” I was a little confused. “I’ve got my emergency jacket on. Gotta warm up. It’s cold. It’s only temporary” as I continued to try to wake up my little finger in my glove by wrapping the other fingers around it. No way did I want to sort out anything further at this moment in time.
Kari turned to me: “The snow mobiles won’t be coming out again until dawn or when we call them. It is the early morning so I wouldn’t worry.” I thanked her for her kindness.
Blinkies and reflectors are so the snowmobiles can see you and part of the mandatory gear.
There appeared to be a momentary pause, as they seemed to be waiting for me, so I took off down the hill and slightly crashed and they followed in pursuit, with a “wheee”. I smiled. Always fun to see tough people letting their hair down.
As we were together at the bottom of the hill, and to make light that I was still with them: “Just hanging out with you gals. Hope that’s okay” and thought had heard one of them respond “Yeah sure” or perhaps I had imagined it.
I hung with them, still trying to soften my little pinky and was grateful to ascend another glorious hill up to force the body furnace to fire harded. This was the first of the big steep ones. At the top, the little finger was finally free of the ice dragon. I looked up and mouthed thank you. It was alive, working well and not even nipped! This time I waited for the other two women to go down and followed them down, steering my sled on the twists and turns like a luge rider, finishing to the left of the blonde haired lady. She seemed somewhat annoyed with me:
“You know I really cannot see you! Your blinkers have turned over in your sled and your reflectors are hidden. It would be a shame if you were disqualified having got so far.”
I looked at my blinkers. “Ahh you’re right. Thanks”. I turned them back over and decided to hold back, pretending to get something from my sled. As they got up to go, Bisaniiwewin reminded me….so I whispered “Peace be with you sister” and let them move on ahead. She was right, I hadn’t thought much about the emergency down jacket covering my normal down jacket which had a reflective vest on, and perhaps I scared her when I slid in next to her…but well…. I sighed, ate and drank something, feeling a little disappointed….maybe I smell…speaking of which…
I did a quick check of cheeks, ears, and nose. My nose had frozen solid under the balaclava. It had been constantly streaming on the way out of Gateway and should have taken that as a sign.
“No way are you getting this one either buddy. It’s mine”
I placed my gloved hand over my nose and got moving. After some minutes, it warmed back up and I pulled the wool neck gaiter over the nose to reduce the risk of further refreezing.
Soon I caught up with a woman and a man who had seemed so solid earlier on in the first leg towards Gateway. He seemed blurry eyed. They had tried to sleep but had felt cold and were feeling very tired. I was kind of familiar with this part as had been picked up at this location on my first attempt for being slow.
“We’re about 8 miles from Mel Georges and we’re still in excellent time. C’mon you can do it. Keep moving,” I encouraged.
The dawn was coming and noticed they too had their reflectors covered up with their down jackets, then tried to remove the pettiness of the earlier comment out of my head.
As dawn broke, it became warm enough to take off the emergency outer jacket. The gloominess of yesterday’s morning seemed to melt away. Closing in on the lake, I stopped again to take my googles out of my sled ready to face the wind. The woman, Bridget, had caught up with me, leaving her buddy about 100 metres behind. He was moving slowly but steady.
We chatted a little, crossing the lake together and there was a calm over the lake with just a subtle light breeze and sometimes a wind behind us pushing us along. She shared with me her feet were hurting. I told her mine were too as I could feel the blisters bubbling under the forefoot.
Mel Georges – the R & R Checkpoint
09:51 Mel Georges. It turned out mine were blisters and her toes were frostbitten. Dang! I gave her a hug, acknowledging she will complete this event the next time.
Mel Georges is checkpoint 2 with hot cheese sandwiches, hot soup and a table of salty and sweet snacks. Upstairs there are beds for you to rest. Downstairs is a fire where you can try to dry your clothes.
Rachel and Renata came in to welcome me and I was happy to see Rachel safe. She lent me her “cold avenger” mask to protect my frost-nipped nose and then left to check out of their cabin to move onto Fortune Bay, the final stop.
As the blisters were being tended to by Bill the medic, Lynn turned up with Sarah: “Come on over and see us. We’ve got a cabin”
11:05 Blood blister was drained, covered with Compeed, applied a whole lot of Vaseline to my nose, and checked out of the crowded checkpoint, to head over to the cabin Lynn and co had rented.
I was happy to have escaped the talons of the dragon. I got nipped but was not bitten and the dragon had let me play on those spiny hills. As for the nose, it must have been to celebrate the year of the dog.
Kindness brings so much more joy to those around as well as yourself. I am thankful and blessed to have met so many kind people in this event who have warmly welcomed me back each and every time. Lynn and Daryl certainly went over the top for me, which I will be eternally grateful to them.
72 miles completed and 63 miles to go. Time is going good but it ain’t over until the fat lady sings.
Final Race Post: The Hare and the Tortoise