Arrowhead 135

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.

IMG_0024As 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.

Some XC skiing

We had some beautiful snow the last few days, and I wanted to take advantage of it and get on skis again. I skied one time last year in a short lesson, and so I wasn’t sure if I would remember anything this year. Everything went swimmingly while I was in the chalet and picking up my skis. The real fun started when I tried to remember how to actually strap the suckers on.

I stood out next to the rack for a good 5 minutes trying to get my boot to attach correctly. I’m sure I looked like an idiot, but eventually I got it figured out. I started out along the main trail and headed over to the practice area to try things out again. I went back and forth a few times and realized this was going to be a really hilarious evening. I couldn’t quite get the gliding right, but I managed not to fall.

After practicing for a few minutes I decided to head out on one of the trails. I started moving slowly, but consistently, as most people passed right by me. I didn’t mind though since I was still moving forward. I got to a fork and decided to go left. I ended up going down a big hill, and as I approached the bottom the first fall of the evening happened. Thankfully snow is soft and I managed to get myself upright again.

As I continued down the fork I came to a large uphill. I recalled what I had been taught and tried a couple different techniques to get up the hill. However, no matter what I did I just couldn’t get more than a few feet up the hill before I slipped back down. Thankfully, I was all alone and no one had to witness my epic failure. I headed back and took the other fork and continued on my way.

At this point I was doing pretty good, and the trail was nice and flat. Earlier in the journey I was told by an oncoming skier that some of the lights up ahead weren’t working. As I approached this area I realized I forgot my headlamp, so I had to make a choice to keep going, and hope the track kept me going the right way, or turn around. I was really enjoying myself, so I decided to plow onward into the darkness, leaving light behind.


It was a beautiful, bright, moon so I could see the track faintly. I cruised along in the dark, breathing in the cool night air, with the sound of owls in the distance. I came across another hill and this time I told myself nothing would stop me from getting to the top. I dug into a herringbone prance, and committed to getting to the top. The next thing I knew I was cresting the rise and the rest of the trail was ahead of me. It was at this moment I decided I needed to take a couple pictures. In particular I LOVE the one that I attached to the top of this blog. For an iPhone camera it came out beautifully.

I continued on and the lights eventually came back into view. As I approached the 45 minute mark I could tell my body was getting tired. My form was sucking and I even fell once on flat ground for no reason. I made it back to the chalet in exactly one hour from when I started, tired and sweaty, but feeling incredibly fulfilled.

I had to pass on a different social activity to get this done, and despite missing that, I was happy I made the choice I did. The night was so beautiful and quite, and the challenge was daunting. However, I found myself loving it and wishing I had more time to improve my skills. After an hour I had gone 2.8 miles, which is slower than I could have walked that distance. I didn’t really care though, as I had challenged myself with something new, and didn’t give up, even when it was hard.

Cross Country Ski Lesson

One of the things that I lament in the winter time is my lack of dedication with cross training. Indoor exercises with machines are fine, but when I don’t have a gym membership, and don’t really want to take the time to use the fitness room at work, I’m left with coming up with other options. I know that many runners use cross country skiing in the winter time to cross train so I decided to give it a try.

I signed up for a lesson in ‘classic’ skiing at the park where I often run, and spent 90 minutes learning the basics. One of the biggest issues I discovered right away was balance. Learning to keep my center of gravity forward was tricky, and took a lot of concentration. I also discovered that, because my feet tend to bow out a bit, keeping my legs straight in the tracks was difficult and I sometime felt like my foot wasn’t placed right where it should have been.

When I went into the experience I had assumed that my biggest issue would be the coordination of the poles with the skis. Perhaps it was all of my running experience, but that aspect didn’t turn out to be quite as challenging. Trying to not let the skis slide out from under me, and keep myself leaning forward was by far the bigger problem. I’m happy to say I only fell once, but there were plenty of times when my rhythm was thrown way off because I suddenly felt like I was falling backwards.

All of this was an interesting experiment. I’ll probably give it a go again sometime, but I think the next time I go out I want to just spend some time on my own practicing, and drilling the muscle memory. Much like changing up a running stance it takes a lot of practice and concentration to get it right. In a group lesson there was a lot of demonstration of different techniques, but now I just need some time to practice.

It was certainly a good workout. I forgot to start my watch, but I estimated that I got a good 2K of skiing in about 45 minutes. I know I was sweating a lot when I finished up. I can certainly see how this is a great tool for cross training, as it works muscles in a different way than straight running, and is low impact compared to running.

I love that in Minnesota we usually have snow with options for different types of activities that others in warmer climates might not get to try. I can do without the bitter cold, but being active in the snow can be a lot of fun.