In the wise words of GI Joe "Knowing is half the battle". After crewing at Lean Horse 100 earlier this year it really sunk in that if I were ever going to run the Arrowhead135 that it would be wise to get a look at what I'd be getting myself into before attempting it. It's one thing to read that the temperatures during the race (without added windchill) can get down to -40F or colder & another thing entirely to experience it firsthand. Racer's food,water,toes,fingers & yes even eyeballs can freeze over the course of 135 miles in those conditions.
Since I knew three of the ultra runners at the race this year Rick Wagar, Bill Bradley & Ben Clark I decided this was the year to volunteer and finally get a view of what really goes on & what it takes to complete an event such as this.
On Sunday afternoon I met up with Rick who would be giving Arrowhead a third attempt. Despite all of his own pre-race preparations he was kind enough to point out and acquaint me with a section of trail I could run prior to my first graveyard shift at Crescent Bar the next day. Then we headed into Int'l Falls for the volunteer & pre-race meetings...
Following a quick run-down of what was required of me at my checkpoint, who I'd be working with & when our relief could be expected I was handed a swag bag. Inside was a race shirt and hat. Undoubtedly a very nice gesture, but more than a little conflicting for someone who is accustomed to earning said gear by participating in and completing an event. The question "Would I have really earned this when it's all over?" lingered. After all I was just there to volunteer. I now know the answer to that. Yes.
The pre-race meeting was a mix of heavy hitters in the ultra/cycling world & the average athlete with a strong mind to match their legs. Not much to add about what happened there, other than to say that the community at endurance races like these is truly phenomenal and the general vibe from those involved with putting on the event was "if you're here we assume you know what the hell you are doing & if you don't then you'd better be prepared to wait a while before help via snowmobile arrives."
The start of the race came bright & early the following morning. I cheered Rick on as he set off on the epic journey to the finish. A cowbell or two rang in the distance, but as I anticipated it was a fairly quiet send-off for the racers given the cold & the type of event that it is.
Eventually I started making my way down to my post stopping for a while at Melgeorge's for a run, dinner & a short chit-chat with the photographer and reporter from the Star Tribune who were covering the race.
The pictures below are a few frames from the trail outside of Melgeorge's. I ended up covering a conservative 6-8 miles. Just enough to hunger for more & little enough to not wear myself out before pulling an all-nighter volunteering.
The trail was absolutely beautiful! Winding turns, rolling hills, flanked by pine & birch. It reminded me of the numerous catwalks up at Lutsen. I'm not sure what I expected out of a snowmobile/multi-use trail in the winter, but this definitely wasn't it. Much much nicer.
I had heard there were shelters for the racers to set up their bivy sacks in for sleeping between the limited checkpoints and I came across one. The 2+ feet of snow atop the roof & 3ft drift at it's opening made it rather uninviting. Note to self: This will look like the Hilton when it's -29F and you've only slept 3hrs in the last 35-40.
I had also heard that snowmobiles can almost silently come up behind you quickly and round the corners without much care for what is on the other side of them. My experience with trails has been horse, mountain bike & hiking where people would feel more concerned for your mental health wearing a florescent vest out in the middle of nowhere than for your safety. So when it came time to pack for the trip I neglected to pack my vest, but thankfully I was able to jimmy rig a pair of blaze orange suspenders (sexy!) that I picked up at Menard's into something adequate. At times I felt a nerdish pride for my craftiness and others like a complete dork wearing blaze orange on a desolate trail in the sticks. That was until four snowmobiles swept past without warning. Note to self: There is no such thing as "too bright" when selecting gear for this one, think My Little Pony.
Crescent Bar (mile 112ish) would be where I would spend the majority of my time volunteering the rest of the trip.
The first night we only saw cyclists come thru. Thick ice adorned eye-lashes, face masks & beards were a common sight. Many of them tried to shed the ice by flaking it off before it melted and soaked into their gear. Moisture is a killer. When outside anything even partially wet that isn't close enough to the skin to be heated will freeze pretty quickly and only make a person colder especially when you're on a bike where wind can penetrate the layers.
Perhaps it was spending most of a day with little sign of another human being out there, the cold or the fatigue, but I was surprised to see that a lot of the racers (cycling and on foot) had some sort of culture shock after entering the bar. Unlike most aid stations where volunteers rush in to help oncoming racers, that wasn't the best idea here and had we done that I'm fairly certain we would have overwhelmed them. In a negative way. So I did my best to maintain distance and only inform them of what was available if they needed it.
Then came the really crummy part of volunteering at a check-point that isn't a designated a sleeping area. Waking exhausted people up after a short nap. It's like taking the plate away from a starving person. You know they want/need more but you can't let them have it. Eventually I got it down to a system though and not a single racer complained which helped a ton.
4 Cokes, 1 Redbull & numerous cyclists later our relief showed up just after dawn. It wasn't until the drive back the hotel that I realized that the head cold my husband had been battling all week was finally starting to attack me. Bad timing. I exchanged a few words with other volunteers before putting myself into a dramamine induced coma to get as much quality sleep as possible before my next graveyard shift.
On to shift #2 I was starting to get excited. The last cyclist was thru and we were going to start seeing the people on foot. Unfortunately the update came thru that Bill & Ben had dropped at Melgeorge's, but pings from Rick's GPS unit kept tracking him closer and closer to Crescent. I just kept praying that he would be able to keep going as the outside temperatures turned even colder to -40F that night.
Some of the runners came in looking pretty rough and we had to keep a close eye on who may have indicators for hypothermia. A lot of them wisely opted to try drying their gear by the fireplace and downing some drink/food before heading out. It was a rare runner that didn't order pizza out of the kitchen during the time I was there. Dean would be proud. :)
The most surprising thing I noticed was that despite the exhaustion, hunger and cold the majority of the people on foot were in better walking shape than a lot of the racers I've seen at shorter ultras out there and they had already covered 112miles by the time they reached us.
Blisters & dehydration were the most common issues I saw. A lot of blisters on the heels. I'm guessing from the many uphills they had to climb prior to the checkpoint. Judging by the amount of people who complained about said hills, they must be brutal.
In the lulls between racers coming in I chatted with the man who I ended up volunteering with that shift, an endurance XC Skiier, prospecting the race as well. He was such a valuable asset to the runners that night, I can't even begin to explain. It was such a relief as the head cold started taking over me. I went thru a ridiculous amount of kleenex in those 13hrs and as much as I wanted to help the racers, the last thing I wanted to do was get them sick too. So I handled the technical side of keeping the snowmobile crews, family & fellow racers informed of where everyone was.
This turned out to be convenient for me as I could keep a close eye on Rick's progress at the same time. In the early dawn hours he reached us. Looking strong. A lot can happen in the last 22 miles or so after Crescent, but I was really confident that he'd make it to the finish. 54hrs & 25minutes after the start he did just that! 3rd time really was the charm.
I thought I would leave the race feeling like someone who had just seen a child being born, needing some time to forget before even thinking of having a child of their own, but I didn't. I now want to do the race more than ever! The difficulty in the journey, my love for winter running & the beauty of the terrain calls to me like Sirens.
But, with that calling comes a lot of questions. When? Is probably the biggest one right now. Tendinitis is one problem, acquiring all of the gear needed is another. There are also essentials I need to learn like how to run fast enough to stay warm, but not so fast that I sweat and end up with damp gear. How to camp out in a bivy sack. How to pee w/o getting too cold, sinking into the 3+ feet of snow at the side of the trail, or accidently hitting my gear.
What I do know is that it will happen when my God wants it to and I'm hopeful that it will be as good of an experience from the trail as it was volunteering. It was a lot of work & wore me out, but I really enjoyed it! :)