Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Couch to Arrowhead 135 (FAIL!)

I originally wrote the following account right after we got back to town but decided not to post it.  I really didn't want to talk a whole lot about Kathy's my failure at the Arrowhead 135 this past January but reconsidered and felt that the story needed to be told. We're not very disappointed as we knew our chances of success weren't very good to begin with (you'll read why) and we're already very motivated to take on a shorter winter event together next December; the Tuscobia Winter Ultra. My plan will be to use that event as a final tune up before I attempt the Arrowhead 135 in 2014 with Kathy as my crew! Now what follows is my account of our failed 2013 Arrowhead 135 attempt. Enjoy. 

In summary, our grand “Couch to Arrowhead 135” experiment failed but possibly not for the reasons you might think. First a little back ground. Kathy and I entered the Arrowhead 135 when entry opened for rookies back in mid October. However after the Huntsville Half Marathon we were both ready to take a break from serious training so decided it would be best to skip the Arrowhead 135 in January as we’d need to soon be putting in big miles and lot’s of specificity training if we had any realistic chance at finishing. So, instead we decided to focus on a Barkley Fun Run attempt in the Spring  as this would give us a chance to rest over the Winter then get back into serious training in a couple of months. However, “the best laid plans…” don’t always work out. While out in Colorado for the Holidays we learned that neither of us got accepted into the Barkley Marathons[1]. Sure we were disappointed but we let it go; perhaps in 2014 we’d have better luck? Interestingly though, Kathy and I had been doing a lot of snow-shoeing in sub-freezing and often sub-zero wind chill conditions and doing quite well doing it. So we started to think that maybe we should give the Arrowhead 135 a shot anyhow? We’d had ample experience (we thought) with proper clothing and gear selection but the main issue was we were woefully under trained and the race was in less than a month! Thus the “Couch to Arrowhead 135” challenge began. We had less than a month to prepare for a mostly self-supported 135 mile race across frozen terrain while pulling 30-35lb sleds full of required emergency gear, food and winter clothing. What possibly could go wrong?

[1] Technically I was #7 and Kathy #10 on the weight list and most likely we both *might* have gotten in BUT neither of us wanted to commit to training our butts off for *might*.
The plan was to stimulate our deep ultrarunning muscle memory and hope for the best. So the week we got back from our Colorado trip we threw down a 100 mile week, for me this was a 500% increase in mileage over the past week, for Kathy a nearly 1000% increase and both of us fighting colds! Yuck! The following week we started our taper and carried weighted packs on a couple of occasions in the cold rain. Going into race week I actually felt pretty good physically and mentally; I liked our chances of success. On the positive side we both had very recent cold weather experience, were well rested and extremely motivated to finish, on the negative side we’d done no specificity training such as higher sustained mileage and weighted sled pulling. It was going to be tough!
Race week arrived and all the long range forecasts were looking pretty good (we thought at the time, being inexperienced Winter Ultra Athletes): Monday (race start) had a high of 33°F and an overnight low in the upper 20s but then a progressive temperature drop would continue through Wednesday bottoming out in the single or slightly negative digits not including wind chill.  We thought the warmer (overall) forecast looked pretty good as our great fear was still the extreme cold even though we had more than ample gear to handle anything down to well below -30°F. But, as we soon learned warmer temperatures don’t mix well with long distance trekking and sled pulling in the snow!
Saturday morning while most of our friends were racing the Mountain Mist 50km in our hometown, Kathy and I were travelling up to International Falls, Minnesota. We flew to Minneapolis then drove another five hours the rest of the way; way up north!  I noticed a relatively lack of snow on the ground on the way up and it really wasn’t all that cold, perhaps low 20s or teens but nothing Arctic. We checked into the Tee Pee Motel and settled in, sorting our gear out. The next day we attended the gear check where we presented the required emergency gear that we had to pack with us at all times:

·        Minus-20F sleeping bag
·       Insulated sleeping pad
·         Bivy sack
·         Firestarter
·         Stove
·         8 fl. Oz fuel at all times
·         Pot (min. volume 1 pint)
·         2 qt (64 oz or just under 2 litres) insulated water container
·         Headlamp or flashlight
·         Flashing red LED lights, front and back. 10 square inches of reflective material on front and back.
·         Whistle on string around neck
·         3000 Calories at all times

In addition we’d have to carry enough food and water and additional layers of clothing to get us through the long distance between checkpoints. As our only real chance to resupply food is at the first checkpoint at 37 miles and then later at 72 miles; we’d be carrying a lot of food and water! In order to realistically be able to carry all this gear, typically foot racers pack it all into a sled that they then pull behind them. As winter snow trekking isn’t very popular in the south we called upon the race director Dave Pramann who graciously let us borrow a couple of SkiPulk Paris Expedition sleds and polls. So basically you pack all your gear into a large duffel bag, secure it to the sled then there are these poles that connect the sled to a harness that you wear around your waist. Ideally you want to pull sleds like these in conditions were the snow is very firm and smooth meaning it really needs to be very cold out!
Race morning as Kathy and I quickly got our race kits in order at the race start at the Kerry Park Arena, it was already 25°F! This is crazy warm weather for International Falls, Minnesota where typical HIGH temperatures this time of year aren’t even on the positive side of the Fahrenheit scale! Kathy and I could only chuckle; the Southerners have yet again brought very unseasonable weather to the higher latitudes! I’m alluding to our 2003 Susitna 100 attempt in Alaska in February. That year was also unseasonably warm, so bad that they had to move the Iditarod dog sled race start further north closer to Fairbanks! The Susitna 100 course had to be drastically modified because the race’s namesake river could not be crossed because it was not frozen! We walked around in downtown Anchorage in nothing but long sleeve shirts. Crazy. That race started out at 7°F but quickly got well above freezing for most of the day. We ended up dropping out after pulling our sleds with similar emergency and recommended gear a single 40 mile out and back of the alternate course because of the rough and non-wilderness experience. This wasn’t the Susitna 100. The route was a rough, chewed up heavily used snow-mobile trail that had a lot of bare, snowless ground and overflow risky swamps; I even punched through the ice up to my thigh just a few miles from the finish! My pant legs froze solid! So it’s funny that going into the 2013 Arrowhead 135 the weather is looking much the same!

The race starts; the bikers head out first followed by a handful of skiers a couple minutes later then it’s the foot division a couple minutes after.  Kathy had this idea to try and take advantage of the mostly flat first leg of the course by sticking to a run walk schedule of four minutes running followed by six minutes walking. I personally wanted to just stick to a strong, fast hike for the duration but so it goes. Very quickly Kathy, sticking to her guns, ended up getting ahead of me for many miles as I stopped a few times to adjust gear. No worries, it’s a long race and I’d catch back up sooner or later, or she’d wait for me at some point (maybe?). I found out very quickly that pulling a 30-35lb sled through soft snow is not fun and it’s tough for those uninitiated! I really struggled trying to run at all that first nine miles on the Blue Ox trail that led to the Arrowhead trailhead. Even shuffling continuously for 30 minutes straight didn’t seem to get me any closer to Kathy who was sticking to her run-walk schedule!
After a few miles I was finally warmed up and settled in to my burden and ended up matching pace with Steve Bailey from Minneapolis. Steve and I chatted quite a bit about our racing backgrounds, the weather forecast, our gear choices, etc… and eventually we caught back up to Kathy right before the turn onto the Arrowhead trail.  We made the turn at 9.5 miles in around 2 ½ hours; we were actually making pretty good time. As we began the next run cycle I found it very difficult to keep up with Kathy even though it didn’t seem like she was exerting much effort. I realized that perhaps I needed to adjust the load on my sled which I did at the next walk interval. I believe that my duffle was a bit too far forward in the sled causing the front to dig into the snow! I moved the duffle all the way to the back of the sled and re-secured it and Voila! While there still was significant drag friction on the sticky snow, it was noticeably easier to pull.
The next several miles to the highway 53 crossing all passed in a blur; the three of us chatting about past race experiences and the last weather prognosis that called for 4-8” of snow overnight.  We crossed the highway a little over five hours in to the race, dragging our sleds over the rough, snowless asphalt and train tracks and continued on; back into the deep woods.  We started seeing a bit more non-race volunteer snow-mobile traffic; these guys really don’t slow down!  The terrain started to get a bit more rolling and you could tell snow was in the air as the humidity seemed to rise a bit; you could taste it. I could also tell because the snow underfoot was starting to stick to the bottoms of my shoes and pulling the sled became even more difficult! The one section that seemed to buck the slow pull trend was when the Arrowhead trail veered onto an icy logging road for a short way. Wow what a difference! Running on the ice was almost effortless by comparison! Sure enough the Arrowhead trail turned off the logging road and we were back into the sticky, wet snow! Yuck!
It was in the next long stretch that I could tell Kathy was struggling a bit more now as we’d abandoned the run-walk cycle now and were simply walking; still walking with a purpose, but not much running. We’d passed through the marathon point and soon through 50km according to Steve’s watch; all well ahead of even the best case pace chart I’d prepared. Still, Kathy was starting to have issues with her lower back (she’d had the issue since the day we went snow-mobiling a few weeks ago) and the constant jarring of tug-and-slack of the sled were beating her up!  The going had been tough all day and I think this really was getting to her mentally as well. She was humbled a bit I think. I’d known all along that these events can’t be taken lightly that I had serious concern about our chances, which our best option was to take it slow from the start and just settle into a nice hiking pace and not worry about running.  But we tried it her way and now it looked like we were going to drop out when we finally got to the Gateway Store checkpoint at mile 37. Personally I felt very good both physically and mentally and would love to have continued on to try and finish. BUT that wasn’t part of the deal; this endeavor was a team effort from the start; both of us or none of us. So the decision for me to stop was easy. No worries for as we soon discovered; not long after we both agreed to stop, that the odds of me continuing on to finish would be extremely slim!
The sun sank lower in the sky and the temperature dropped slightly though noticeably and then it began to snow! Ever so slightly it began to snow; big, heavy wet flakes.  By the time we reached the turnoff the trail for the Gateway Store checkpoint, a few miles later, the snow was fall much faster and harder! We dragged our sleds the final quarter mile to the 37 mile checkpoint and immediately informed the volunteers that we were done.
That night over 10” of snow fell on the next, LONG, 35 mile section of the course causing many foot races, bikers and skiers to abandon their finish hopes. Some racers had to be rescued from the course by snow-mobile while most either turned around to return to the Gateway Store checkpoint or else pushed ahead to one of few road crossings where they could be picked up. In the end only seven wily winter ultramarathon veterans finished in the foot division out of 42 starters; a humbling 17% finish rate!  The slowest of which took almost 24 HOURS to cover the next 37 mile section that we were about to face! Yikes! In retrospect, this is why I know my chances of finishing, as a Arrowhead rookie, were very slim. At best I’d struggled to make it to the next checkpoint at 72 miles and probably missed the cutoff; at worst I might have ended up like the guy that got rescued off the trail; they found him naked in his sleeping bag shivering trying to dry his snow soaked clothing!
So, the grand “Couch to Arrowhead 135” experiment was a failure but I believe not for the obvious reasons.We made sound gear choices, our equipment, food and water supply were ample and we didn't over pack. I think coming from a state that doesn't see regular snow fall and snow on the ground for months out of the year is a huge disadvantage but not insurmountable. I think a big part of these winter ultras is just having the courage to jump in with both feet and experience them and learn from them to build towards future success. That's what we did and I'm extremely proud that we gave it a good attempt! NEXT YEAR!

On a happier note, as Kathy and I now had some time to kill before our flight out of Minneapolis on Thursday afternoon we decided to drive back to Minneapolis and visit the Mall of America. We had a great time riding all the roller coasters; been a very long time since we’d been on such rides.
We also came away from our Arrowhead 135 experience very intrigued by the many fat-bikes we saw at the event. They honestly looked like a lot of fun! So the gears and wheels started turning in our heads so we decided to visit a bike shop in downtown Minneapolis, Freewheel Bike, that had several fat-bikes in stock that you could test ride. Long story very short, Kathy and I came home with two brand new Surly Neck Romancer Pug fat-bikes! These extremely large (effectively 30” diameter) and wide (ground patch is 4”+!!!) are what Surly dubs “omni-terrain bicycles” and that is exactly why we bought them. I’ll leave the details for a future blog post but suffice it to say these bikes are NOT JUST FOR SNOW but eat up ANY terrain quite well!