This week I’ve been spending my time at the Arrowhead 135 winter ultramarathon. This is the iconic winter ultra in Minnesota, and it is known for being one of the most brutal and harsh races around. Participants much traverse (on foot, bike, or ski) from International Falls, MN to Tower, MN on the 135 mile long Arrowhead Trail. They have to be prepared to survive in any conditions, and therefore must carry mandatory gear including -20 degree sleeping bags, bivy sacks, and stoves with which to boil water and heat food. It’s a grueling event, and made even more difficult by this year’s extreme temperatures.
On the Sunday before the race, air temps hit -40 degrees F (well, and C at that point). Thankfully, by the time the race launched on Monday things had moderated to -10. Monday ended up being a good day overall with temps getting above zero for a large part of the day. I even managed to get out for a 4 mile run on the trail, and the conditions were amazing and perfect for a run. However, with nightfall came brutal cold.
As the temps dropped overnight, they stayed there. Ever since late Monday the temp hasn’t been above -15, and the mornings are closer to -32. Going out to start our car for 10 minutes every few hours has become a part of our regular routine. Thankfully, we have a nice warm hotel to sleep in, and when we’re working at the finish line we have a beautiful hot tent to keep us warm. Because it can sometimes be hours between finishers, we often get to relax in the tent and enjoy beer and whiskey and pizza cooked on a wood stove.
In terms of participants, this year looks like a very low finishing rate. The bikers are doing OK at 51%, but many of them were able to make solid progress all day on Monday and even finish the race before the temps got too brutal. On the foot participant side it’s looking like only 18% of participants will succeed. Most have (rightly) decided to end their race early, instead of putting themselves in danger. This year, not a single skier managed to complete the entire course, which was not ideal for skiing at all.
My wife and I have been lucky enough to have been able to work remotely for our jobs for a couple of days while we volunteered in the evenings. It’s been great to be around so many amazing people and see them achieve great things. It’s also marked with a bit of sadness, because one of our trail tribe lost his battle with cancer while we were here at the event. He was a frequent participant in this event, and his loss is keenly felt among the people participating. There’s a certain poignancy to his passing during an event that meant so much to him.
Tomorrow we head back to life in the cities, but for now, it’s nice to have been able to be a part of this amazing event, and the incredible people who are testaments to the power of human beings to survive no matter what.