I was asked to do a race report by numerous people, and I will keep my promise to share my experience.
For starters, check out www.arrowheadultra.com for more details about the race.
In a nutshell, it's extremely cold, long, and difficult! Would you expect anything less from the "nation's ice box" in International Falls, MN?
I have not been to New York City or Los Angeles, but I have now been to International Falls, and I plan on going back every winter that I can!
So what happened to me out there that makes me want to go back?
First, I didn't finish the race. I had an injury about a month or two before the race that really hampered my training, and it flared up after about 65 miles (20+ hours) of dragging my sled and possessions through the forest.
I was having a great time out there. Everything seemed to be working in my favor and all of my gear seemed to be holding up great in sub-zero temperatures. My water stayed liquid, my food was chewable, my pace was fast and comfortable, and I was doing great. I was staying warm in temperatures that would range from 0 F to -35 F and mentally, I was thoroughly enjoying myself!
This event requires you to carry all of your food, water, and survival gear because you are your own mobile aid station. There are multiple checkpoints, and you can refill your water at each of these places. At two of the checkpoints, you can even buy additional food items. Another option for water, if necessary, is to melt snow on the trail using your camp stove. Other race participants can also share their gear, water, and food with you if you are in trouble out there. As far as safety is concerned, you are left to your own preparedness for the most part; however, there are volunteers out there on snowmobiles to check on participants and transport them to the checkpoints due to illness, injury, or for other reasons. Certainly anything can go wrong out on the trail and weather can be unpredictable, so preparation and training is key to stay safe out there, and it really isn't that difficult to do if you do your homework.
I had wanted to do this event two years ago but the timing was not right, so you might say that I have been preparing for this event for well over a year. I had prepared long enough and felt like I was going to explode if I didn't get out there on the trail and just start moving!
The start of the event was not your typical start to a race. Bikers started first for obvious reasons, and then foot and ski left afterwards with most people on the starting line. It officially began at 7 a.m., but the group that I was with got a little later start after breakfast, and we didn't get there until 5 or 10 minutes before the start. After getting my sled and gear all situated, I might not have left until 5 or 10 minutes after 7, but it didn't really matter that much. What is 5 or 10 minutes out of 60 hours...
It was exciting to finally be out on the Arrowhead trail, crunching through the snow and eventually being surrounded by pine trees. The temperature was a brisk -11 F, and the first destination was the Gateway checkpoint (35 miles). I did very minimal running on this stretch, but had trained to fast hike/power walk (or whatever you want to call it). I also used trekking poles right from the start even though the terrain was flat, and everything worked out very well, allowing me to get into my zone after only a couple hours. I wore a watch but rarely checked it, and I didn't really know where I was as far as mileage was concerned - and I didn't care or worry about it. I stopped frequently to eat and drink, and I just kept moving at a comfortable pace.
The day was ideal as I don't think it got much warmer than 0 F, and as I watched the sun shift in the sky, I began mentally preparing for the long night ahead. As I ticked away hours and miles on the trail, I surprisingly made it to the first check point. I was shocked to learn that I had made it to Gateway before 4:30 p.m. For you stats people, that is about 9.5 hours and a 16 min. 17 sec. mile pace. I don't think I wasted much time there other than adding some extra layers, filling up my empty water bottles, and eating my packed food. Before I left, I asked for the weather report, and I was told it was going to be a damp -30 F.
The trail up to Gateway was relatively flat and fast. The next 35 miles to Melgeorges contained rolling hills, so I expected a slower pace. I was happy to be back on the trail with some daylight remaining, and I made as much forward progress as I could before the light faded away and total darkness took over. I had passed numerous people and had been passed as well during the duration of time that I had been out on the trail. It call it "leap frog", since everyone was trying to stay single file to stay safe and allow snowmobilers the right-of-way. Even though I was around so many people, I managed to remain by myself, which was ok. Everyone was in their own zones for the most part, and if anyone was doing bad or needed help, they would speak up or it would be very noticable.
At night I could see the blinking red lights of anyone in front of me and that kept me occupied. I never listen to music (it's my choice, not my stance), so I am always left to my thoughts, which is what I prefer. I like to be able to hear what is around me even if there are no sounds at all. Since I was pulling a sled behind me, I had constant noise so occasionally I would stop to listen for any sounds around me. Nothing but silence. Clear skies and stars too!
The night was cold. Very cold. So stopping to rehydrate and eat required me to move faster than during the day since my fingertips became ice cubes within a matter of minutes after removing my gloves to grab my food and water. For the next few hours I was focused primarily on thawing out my fingertips after each food and water break. After my last stop, my fingers weren't warming up as quickly as I would have liked them, but I was fortunate to be close to a trail shelter where a volunteer had set up a tipi (also tepee and teepee) with a woodburning stove. Got to warm up my fingers, eat, and drink, and then I headed out for my next destination - another trail shelter where some of the snowmobilers had built a fire. I believe this was 9 miles from tipi, but all I know is that after an hour or two on the trail, I was looking forward to another fire as it made eating and drinking much easier since I could take my time. I was also planning on setting up my bivy and getting an hour worth of sleep, not necessarily at the shelter, but somewhere farther down the trail from it.
Eventually I could see the glowing light, and when I reached the shelter, I parked my sled, got my food and water, and plopped myself down in front of the fire. I was talking with some of the other runners/bikers/skiers that had been drying off clothes and warming up, and then I felt a burning sensation on my leg. An ember from the fire had landed on my pants and burned a dime-sized hole through almost all of my layers (not as bad as Michael Jackson and Pepsi)! Everyone got a good laugh! I planned on napping a little bit by the fire before I left, but I feared catching fire again, so I just killed a bit more time.
I was sleepy, but I wanted to see how far I could go before I started sleep-walking. So I hit the trail with another guy, Hugh, and we started marching towards Melgeorges which was another 11 - 13 miles. I was good for about an hour or so until I started dreaming while I was walking, and that meant that I needed to "rest my eyes." So I bid farewell to Hugh and looked for a suitable spot off of the trail to set up my bivy. After walking into a couple snowdrifts that came up past my waist, I finally found a good spot, unrolled my sleeping pad and bag, and crawled in with shoes and everything, setting my alarm for 4 a.m. I was pretty warm, but after about 45 minutes, I was up and ready to hit the trail.
At this point, I had some minor pain in my achilles, but I kept walking, assuming that the soreness would just go away. I had various soreness in my legs during the race that would come and go with no issues, but after another hour out on the trail, the pain got worse, and I know from experience not to strain the achilles, so I kept moving very slowly until I could flag down the next snowmobile. I didn't drop at first, rather I asked how far to Melgeorge. It was about 7 miles, and with the hills, I didn't want risk tearing my achilles, so I hopped on the snowmobile and took an icy cold ride to the resort.
I am grateful that some dedicated individuals decided to create something unique and challenging and then go through an even more exhausting process of organizing the entire event (and continuing to organize the event) - a feat probably more intense than the training itself!
I will be back!!!
Right now, I am still not 100% recovered, but I am getting there. It drives me insane. I took two weeks off and just started running again. I am sticking to shorter distances on flat roads and alternating days with plenty of rest and ice. I don't plan on doing any races until the summer, and I won't start incorporating trails and hills until May. Next time around, I'll make sure I get more recovery in between tough races and training so that I can stay healthy!