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.

St Croix 40 Winter Ultra – RD quick recap

This weekend, my wife and I put on our first race. We didn’t just decide to put on something simple like a 5K or 50K foot race. No, we opted for one of the most complex things that we could come up with, a winter ultramarathon with foot, bike, and ski divisions. To make it even more complex we did the entire event overnight, meaning that just like the participants, we got almost no sleep for the entire event.

PC: Cole Peyton

Overall, the event went off amazingly. Almost every single participant came up to us and told us how much fun they had, despite the challenges. We managed not to lose anyone, and there were no serious injuries. The weather was amazing with temps in the mid-20s. Our only complaint was that it wasn’t clear skies overnight for a view of the stars. It cleared up for about an hour around sunrise, but other than that, it was overcast.

The trail conditions weren’t as ideal as we would have liked them to be, with freezing rain in the weeks leading up to the event. About 70% of the course was good, but then another 10% was really bad with glare ice that the participants had to navigate. Despite all of this, many people came in to the finish like saying that, based on our descriptions, they were expecting a lot worse, and actually found the conditions to be pretty darn good.

We have a whole list of Trello cards that we’ve started to keep track of around tweaks we want to make next year. Lots of little things that we know we can improve on to make everything work easier. However, one of the biggest compliments we got all weekend was from someone who said that they couldn’t believe this was a first year event. They felt that everything was going so smoothly that it must have been going on for a while. That’s a huge testament to the mentoring and examples that we’ve followed from the race directors we admire in our life. Without their help and support, this wouldn’t have gone as well as it did.

PC: Mike Wheeler

I have a lot more I could write, but I think it’s going to take a few days to process everything. There were a lot of emotions this weekend as we saw people try something hard and succeed. Seeing the joy on their faces was so fulfilling. Hearing their stories made us feel like proud parents who did something right when raising their kids. For now, I’ll just say that this was an experience that we’ll never forget, no matter how many years we do this.

There’s a lot more work to do in the coming days. Many of the boxes are still just packed in our garage. I decided to go in to work today, because I actually needed a break from race stuff. In the coming week we’ll finalize everything and complete our lists, and start the process of thinking about what’s next!

Doing some race directing

A couple of years ago I started hearing about winter ultramarathons. These are long winter events that are steeped in the survivalist culture of Alaskan events such as Iditarod. The idea is that you go a long distance in the middle of winter, with only your gear, and your wits, to help you survive.

Modern winter ultramarathons are still survivalist events, but in a slightly more structured environment. Participants traverse a set distance by foot, fat bike, or ski, within a prescribed timeline, carrying all their gear with them as they go. There are no lush aid stations, and you can’t accept help from anyone who’s not involved in the race. The biggest ones in the upper Midwest are the Arrowhead 135 and the Tuscobia 80/160. As the names imply, these are huge distances (135, 80, and 160 miles respectively), and for beginners, they feel out of reach.

I started having conversations with folks about shorter distance versions of these races, and discovered that none really exist anywhere near me. So, I did the next most logical thing for someone who thinks like I do. I created my own.

On Monday we announced our first ever race, the St. Croix 40 Winter Ultra, which will be held on January 12-13th at St. Croix State Park, near Hinckley, MN. This short-course event will give people a chance to see if they have what it takes to even attempt the longer distances. Participants will also need to prove that they can use their gear, such as their bivy-sack and stove. These are key elements for surviving a harsh Minnesota winter night, while traveling 40 miles alone.

I’m no stranger to running things, I do it for my career. I’ve also run multiple aid stations at some of the biggest trail ultras in the Midwest. Of course, none of that is going to make us any less anxious and nervous about stepping up to the big leagues and fully directing a race. However, I’m incredibly excited about this idea, and I can’t wait to show people how amazing winter in Minnesota can be. I want to give people a chance to experience these amazing events in a safe and constructive way, and help them build confidence for the future. I also want to help them learn to respect the history and tradition of these events, and how to give honor to those who are doing even more amazing things than this.

Today begins a new adventure. I’m stoked to see where it all leads.

Arrowhead 135 volunteering

Our quest to learn and experience more about the winter ultra scene brought my wife and I to far northern Minnesota this week to volunteer at the amazing Arrowhead 135 race. As with many winter ultras, this is a multi-modal, survival-focused, event. Participants have the option to use a bike, skis, or their feet, to complete 135 miles along the Arrowhead trail. The portion of the trail that the racers follow is from International Falls, and travels to Tower, MN.

IMG_2188.jpgAdditionally, racers must carry enough equipment to survive on their own. That means loading up tons of bags on a bike, or pulling a sled if you’re on foot. You have to have enough equipment to be able to survive out on the trail until help can get to you. That’s why these races have strict entrance requirements, with mandatory gear that is checked both before and after the race. We had already spent time at the Tuscobia race, and were excited to see another winter ultra in action.

We arrived in International Falls on Sunday, and since we had a little bit of extra time, we headed over to Voyageur’s National Park. This is the only National Park in Minnesota (though I think we should fight Michigan for Isle Royale), and so we wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to at least pay a short visit. We stopped by the visitor center and got our swag, and then went outside to look out over Rainy Lake at Canada.

DSC05989After a short visit we made our way back to the community center to attend the volunteer meeting, and soak in the atmosphere of the pre-race participant meeting and pasta supper. One of the things we love about these events is the ability to connect with people all over again. A large portion of the evening was spent catching up with people we hadn’t seen since Tuscobia, or longer.

We also got to see two of our friends, Kari and Kate, come in from their double Arrowhead adventure. They had started on Thursday, at the finish line, and then proceeded to hike the course backwards, all in time to be there for the Sunday night meeting, and then turn around and run the race back down to the finish. They are the first women in history to complete a double Arrowhead, and everyone there was in awe of their guts to try and do something like this.

DSC05996.jpgEventually, it was time to head to the hotel and get checked-in. We took advantage of some free time to his a brewery in Ranier, just down the road. I got to have some nice beers, and a couple other folks from the race were there as well to talk with. Soon though it was time to get some sleep for the long few days ahead of us.

The alarm went off early, and we made our way to the start line. All of the racers were twittering with nervous energy, ready to start their adventure. Adrenaline had taken over many of them, and they wanted nothing more than to just get out on the trail. For one runner though, other issues had suddenly appeared. Our friend Scott from Winnipeg had gotten his car stuck outside the parking lot area. He wasn’t sure what to do, so we happily told him to just give us his keys and we’d take care of it.

DSC06002At 7am the fireworks went off and the bikers headed down the trail, followed shortly by the skiers, and finally the people on foot. The quiet crisp air was suddenly alive with the sound of tires, skis, and sleds moving across firmly packed snow. Within moments the blinking lights that are required to be attached to every participant, faded into the distance, and we began the rest of our day. The first task of which was to get our friend’s car un-stuck. I won’t go into too many details, but it involved a tractor, which got stuck, and a truck that had to pull out the tractor, before we finally had his car safely in the parking lot. It was quite the adventure to start the day with, but we were more than happy to do whatever it took to make sure he was able to get on with this race he’s been training for.

We headed back to the hotel, and then proceeded to make our way to the finish line in Tower, MN, at the Fortune Bay Casino and Resort. We arrived safely, got checked in and then helped set up some of the finish area before trying to get some sleep before our first shift at the finish line started at midnight. Neither of us have worked an overnight job in many, many years, so it was certainly interesting trying to make it all the way to 6am, but we got through it. Frankly, it went really fast until about 5am, when everything seemed to slow down and take forever.

IMG_2190.jpgHowever, it was a ton of fun taking care of all the bikers who were coming in during the early morning hours. The temps were hovering around -25F, and they were all grateful to be done, and that we were there to help them. For every racer that came in we had to get their gear stowed, and do a quick gear check to make sure they had everything they were supposed to. Then we got to bring them upstairs to the hospitality area and get them checked in with the folks working there. They got their award and some nice hot food, and a chance to rest and recuperate a bit before trying to get some serious sleep.

Once our shift was over we also tried to get some sleep. I managed a solid 4 hours, and then went outside to see how things were going. More bikers were coming in, and we were tracking the progress of all the people on foot. I helped for a little bit and then headed inside to get myself ready for a short run.

I headed out on the trail for a 5 mile jaunt, and when I left I realized I had overdressed. I felt great so I took off my jacket and tied it around my waist. I was surrounded by tall pine trees, and the trail was nice and hard-packed. When I reached the 2.5 mile mark I had moved into a young growth forest, so there wasn’t as much protection from the wind. I didn’t think much of it until I turned around and realized that for the past 2.5 miles I had a SOLID tailwind. When I turned I was blasted in the face by a massive amount of blowing snow and blustery wind. I pulled my jacket off my waist and proceeded to get it on. However, the wind was so strong that it was blowing like a flag, and it took me 3-4 minutes to get my other arm into the sleeve. Needless to say, the run back was much slower and colder.

IMG_2186.jpgOur next shift was the 6pm to midnight shift, so I wanted to get in one more nap before we headed back out. We arrived a little before 6 and continued to help with a steady stream of bikers. The first skier had already arrived before we got there, but the lead runner was still a little further away. Our friend John Storkamp had left the last checkpoint with a 45 minute deficit behind the lead runner. However, knowing John I knew that this was going to be one battle he wouldn’t give up easily.

At one point we were suddenly inundated with 4 bikers who arrived one right after another. Myself and another volunteer got them all settled and up to the room, and as I returned outside I come to find that John had just finished. He crushed the final segment of the course and came barreling in so fast that the other volunteers first thought he was another biker. Myself and two other volunteers watched as we did a full gear check to make sure he had everything, and then he was brought upstairs to celebrate. It was an amazing accomplishment to witness for his 10th Arrowhead completion.

Returning outside we also got to help the second place runner, as well as the first unsupported runner. Racers can elect to do the race completely unsupported, which means they can’t even take water or warmth from the checkpoints. They have to go completely on their own. Parker Rios was that first unsupported runner and he did an amazing job. He came in right after midnight, so my wife and I brought him up together before ending our shift. He was hurting, but in good spirits and was an amazing inspiration to everyone.

Due to work commitments we couldn’t stay long on Wednesday, and so after getting some rest we went and hung out for a bit with folks before packing up and heading home. We were both a bit bummed that we had to leave so early because we missed out on seeing so many of our running friends. One of the things we want to change for next year is to make sure we can be there till it’s all done.

IMG_2185.jpgWatching these competitors complete Arrowhead, like Tuscobia before it, is so incredibly inspirational. The sheer determination and grit that was on display this week makes you feel like you can accomplish anything. These are ordinary folks who choose to put themselves through horrendous conditions to achieve amazing things. They test their limits and learn what they’re made of. Even people who drop early are powerful examples of what you can do when you put your mind to it. Just being willing to toe that start line, in the cold Minnesota wind, and see if you have what it takes, is amazing.

Arrowhead 135 was an amazing event to be a part of, and I can’t want to go back in future years. It’s a wonderful community, and I feel honored to be able to play some small role in it. When you’re surrounded by such incredible forces of nature, you can’t help but be inspired to do whatever you can to overcome the challenges you have before you, and conquer them.

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Tuscobia Winter Ultra Volunteering

For the past year I’ve been fascinated by the trend of winter ultras. These are long, self-supported, races that are descended from survivalist races in Canada and Alaska. Participants must get themselves through grueling conditions, with only their wits, and their equipment. There are two big races in the area, Arrowhead 135, and Tuscobia 160. This past weekend the wife and I went down to the Tuscobia race to help out and see more about what this crazy event is like.

CFNetworkDownload_YajTMH.jpgOne of the first key differences with winter ultras is the amount of gear that participants have to carry. It doesn’t matter if you’re running, skiing, or biking, you need to have enough equipment in your sled to survive in frigid temps until you can be rescued. That means bivy sacks, and sub-zero sleeping bags, as well as enough calories to eat well, yet have some left over at the end. When we arrived on Friday night, gear check was in progress, and runners (well, mostly walkers) were fidgeting with their bags, making sure that they had everything that was on the mandatory list.

We had the opportunity to meet up with many of our friends who were doing the 160 miles on foot or ski on Friday night. The 160 bikers would leave Friday morning, along with the 80 mile participants from the turn-around point of the trail. We gave hugs, met the race directors in person for the first time, and soaked in the atmosphere.

DA7493DE-8515-4E39-A8CE-26B521F3F0C4.jpgThe second key difference with these races is the culture. This isn’t just a laid back trail race. It is something different. It’s about your ability to survive, and your determination to just keep moving no matter what. You need to believe in yourself and your ability to even attempt something this crazy. This is a race where a 20% finish rate is a good year.

CFNetworkDownload_0U1wLc.jpgMany of the people here are repeat offenders. They love coming out to these races and testing their winter cred. I saw so many happy reunions that I knew something special was going on. Out on the trail you cannot receive help from anyone but volunteers and other racers. More often than not, another racer has saved the day for another, and that creates a lasting bond. When you’re all alone in the wood, with just yourself and other crazy people, it’s good to know that you can rely on the other folks in the asylum.

Once the pre-race meeting wound down my wife and I headed to our hotel room for a night of sleep before the start. The next morning we showed up and cheered as the 160 mile run/ski racers left Rice Lake, WI. We would not see any of these people for more than 24 hours.

IMG_1988.jpgOnce they had cleared out, we decided to go change and get in a short run for ourselves. The temp was zero, with zero wind, and zero gusts. It was a big zero kind of day! We did a fun 3 miler on the trail and then returned to the hotel to change and get packed for our trip to Park Falls, the site of the 160 turnaround, and our home for the next two days.

The drive to Park Falls was cold, but beautiful. There was an eerie frost on the trees during one segment of the drive, that reminded up of something out of a fantasy novel. Every branch was delicately covered in a thin layer of white. It was beautiful and surreal, and a harbinger of the cold that was about to befall the racers.

6305810701433284122.jpgWe arrived in Park Falls and got a bite to eat before relaxing at the hotel. The turnaround opened at midnight, but we knew that we could watch the check-in times of the racers to see when they’d actually be arriving. As evening approached it became apparent that it would be a long night of waiting. We hit the sack and set an alarm for 2AM to check again on the leaders progress. We sent another alarm for 4:30AM before getting up and heading to the gastropub that would serve as the race checkpoint until midnight Saturday night.

We arrived about an hour before the leader, Paul Schlagel, was visible down the street from the pub. It was dark, so I headed out to meet Paul and walk the final block in with him and see how he was doing. I was shocked at how positive he was, and how high his spirits were. I asked him how he was doing, he said fine, and then proceeded to talk to me about my interest in maybe (maybe) attempting one of these someday. When Paul finally asked me how many people were already at the pub, and I told him he was the first, he couldn’t believe it.

IMG_1998.jpgWe found him a spot at a table, fetched him is bag, and proceeded to get him whatever he asked for to get himself ready for the return 80 mile trip. Soon more people on foot arrived, and we began tending to their needs as well. Things quieted down a bit until early afternoon when the lead 160 mile bikes arrived. They started at 6AM Saturday, and the two leaders were cruising. Ben Doom and Dan Lockery came in together, had a quick bite of soup, and were back on the trail before we knew it. Little did we know that this would not be the norm for the rest of the evening.

IMG_2007.jpgBefore this though, we had to get the 80 milers launched. I left the pub and headed over to a nearby school to help get things organized for a 10AM lunch of all of the modes of transportation. There are a lot more 80 mile racers than 160, so it was a bit of organized chaos getting everyone and their gear where they needed to go. The local church was awesome, and opened their doors to us, and gave out donuts for the racers. Everyone headed out to the start line in high spirits, and before we knew it, they were off.

IMG_2001.jpgBack at the pub, soon more bikers and walkers arrived, and the pub began to fill with racers who were trying to decide how to recuperate before the return trip, or call it a day. Many people just needed a couple of hours of sleep on one of the beds upstairs and were ready to head back out. Many other though were done the moment they walked through the door. This is not an easy race, and slowly, the -18 degree overnight temps and periodic wind, started to take it’s toll. We called in many drops over the next few hours, and helped folks find rides back to the start line.

By evening were waiting on the final racers to arrive, and all but 2 decided to call it a day. One of these two was tremendously inspiring. Jennifer came in as the final runner, but she wasn’t despondent or emotional. She was a bit confused about why it took her so long, but she felt fine and wanted to head back out. After a short rest, she decided to at least fulfill a lifelong goal of getting 100 miles. I was pleased to see the next morning that it looks like she made that goal, before finally succumbing to the race against the clock, and calling it a day.

IMG_2009.jpgOut of the final group of bikers, only one headed back out into the cold dark night. The rest decided that they just couldn’t handle another 12 hours of -18 temps, this time heading in to the wind. We helped them get warm again, and eventually arranged for some transport for them back to the start. By this time it was close to midnight, and although we had a wonderful time, we were also quite exhausted. My Garmin informed me that I had enough steps to be the equivalent of 10 miles, and I wasn’t even one of the racers.

We headed back to our hotel for a nice night of sleep before the 3.5 hour drive home on Sunday. Thinking back to our experience as volunteers at this event, it was obvious that we were witnessing something unique. This wasn’t anything like we had done before, and the participants were amazing people to watch, even when they didn’t succeed. They were inspiring and determined, but also the most humble people you’ll ever meet.

IMG_2005.jpgNo one was in this race for the glory. This wasn’t something you do so that you could brag about it at work later. This was about you, your body, and your ability to mentally handle days alone in the woods. If you could keep putting one foot in front of the other, or turning over one more revolution of the bike crank, you’d slowly make your way home. It was about survival, and accepting the world for what it is. No one chose the overnight temps that we go, but they embraced them as part of the experience. When you live in a climate such as ours in the Great North, you either accept the cold winter, and learn to embrace it, or you hate it and leave. There is so much beauty in the cold and snow, and once you learn how to survive it, it becomes a magical playground.

For three days this weekend, amazing people did amazing things in this playground. They created a story for themselves that will not soon be forgotten. The persevered and triumphed; they learned their limits; but above all they discovered who they are and what they’re capable of. There were no quitters or failures at Tuscobia. There were people who embrace hardship, learn from it, and grow, despite setback and disappointment. If there is only one thing I learned this weekend, it is that success doesn’t happen at the finish line. It happens as you take that next step, and then the next one, over and over, as you discover what you’re truly capable of.