For the past few days I’ve been hiding in northern Minnesota at the Arrowhead 135 race spending time with old friends and volunteering. A few weeks ago the race director asked if I’d fill in and run the finish line this year, and despite needing to work remotely for my day-job while I’m here, I think we made it work.
For those unfamiliar with it, the Arrowhead 135 race is a winter ultramarathon that goes from International Falls to Tower (135 miles) on the Arrowhead snowmobile trail. Participants carry all their survival gear including sleeping bags, bivy’s and food, and there are only two checkpoints in the entire race. Folks can do the event on foot, bike, ski or even kicksled and some people come back year after year to try out each method.
We got the racers launched on Monday morning and then I proceeded to head to the first checkpoint to do some photography (gallery located here). I got some really great shots of the bikers and the first skiers before I had to head to the finish line to get checked in and start getting the finish line set up. The lead bikers do this race FAST and the finish before midnight on the first day of the race. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stick around to take pics of the foot people, and I think next year I might try and park at an early road crossing to get some shots of them in daylight.
Once at the finish line it was all about setting up the volunteer schedule and then waiting for racers to come in. The first night was really pleasant and warm with temps in the mid 20°F range, but overnight things started to change. By Tuesday the wind picked up and the temperature stated to drop. The wind got so bad that the finish line tent had to be taken down because it kept blowing away. The hearty crew of volunteers kept at it though and huddled by the fire while working hard bringing in participants.
When each racer comes into the finish they’re greeted by the volunteers (and usually friends and family) before we bring them inside to do a quick gear check and make sure that they still have all their required gear. Then they get to go up to the hospitality room and get a little food before to go and rest. Due to COVID this year was a bit more limited and the hospitality room wasn’t the 24/7 party that it usually is, but folks did get some chance to hang out before heading to their rooms.
With the wind came a cold front and by Tuesday evening we were down to single digit temps (F) and getting colder. Eventually the wind died down enough to put the tent back up, but many of us still just decided to hang out by the fire. Even in extreme cold a warm fire can do wonders for keeping you comfortable. The hard part is when the wind ramps up and blows all the heat away.
By Wednesday evening the final racers were on their way in and a small crew stood by to welcome them to the end of their adventure. Our final racer (Ryan) came in at 6:43PM, just 17 minutes before the cutoff. Our snowmobile captain Todd went out on course a couple hours before cutoff to let them know they had better hustle. Whatever he said did light a fire under their butt and got them moving because they closed the final miles strong.
We got the finish line torn down and the volunteers celebrated with a toast as another Arrowhead 135 completed. This was the 18th year of the event and every year is a different adventure. This year the weather changes added variety. The soft warm snow of day 1 gave way to bitter cold and packed trail by the end. The wind and occasional snow squall added challenges with keeping warm and avoiding frostbite. Overall, it was the same challenges that every winter ultra can have, you just never know which ones are going to crop up each year. Many people recall the polar vortex of 2019 where -30°F to -40°F temps were the norm for most of the race.
The winter ultra community is a special place with incredible people. We’re honored to be a part of it now with the St Croix 40, and time and time again this weekend I heard from folks who got their start at our little “baby Arrowhead” race and were now completing the big one. It was awesome to get back up here and see everyone and spend time with incredible people who have learned to endure the worst that Minnesota winters can throw at them.