Sunday, February 28, 2016

Arrowhead135 | My 2016 Journey on Foot

“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken;” Isaiah 54:10a

As I sit here trying to piece together what I experienced traveling the Arrowhead this year I cannot help but feel that words fail. Like much of my trail family out there, I was broken down & rebuilt over the course of 135 miles. Fifty-four hours and fifteen minutes of forward momentum later, I know, sometimes heaven & hell aren’t that far apart.

Day 1 | Kerry Park to Gateway Checkpoint

My sled hits the ground early as I make the short solo-trek from the motel room to the starting line. An annual tradition to calm my nerves. It’s dark and the mist filled air blankets the morning in the kind of stillness only winter can manifest. I love this.

Arriving at the start the energy is an interesting mix of anticipation and heightened apprehension. With Minnesota experiencing another low snow year, we didn’t know what to expect of the trail conditions. Reports of the ungroomed route, pulks rolling onto their sides due to the uneven terrain and an “impossible” year for skiers daunted us in the weeks leading up to the event. The pre-race meeting did nothing to assuage this. Only caution that the trail is rough. What that meant, we’d find out as the day(s) went on.

My heart is full as I greet so many familiar faces race morning. Faces illuminated by the shifting glow of hundreds of red blinking lights. I hug as many of them as possible before finding my place with Michael at the starting line.

Cheers and whistling break the morning stillness.
The hounds are released. The journey begins.

The trail is eerily well packed for the first ten miles thanks to snowmobile traffic from nearby towns. Is it all like this? Were the reports wrong? In 2013 I kicked myself for not running hard the first 35miles when the trail was still good. When it wasn’t covered in 10” of thick powder. I wondered if I’d be doing that again, but managed to stick with the plan and go out slow.

“But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Romans 8:25

The constant struggle of patience and pace is hushed by the beauty of the pine flanked trail. The mist now glistening in jeweled ice coating everything around us. I glance over, Mike’s smile says what my words don't. I have been craving this peacefulness since last year. It has been worth the wait, for all of us.

The farther we get from IFalls the looser the trail becomes. Warm conditions and human powered traffic are slowly churning the trail into mashed potatoes. It’s subtle. But the increased thirst & hunger are telltale signs of the building difficulty.

Groups of racers space out as the hours pass, but I somehow keep yo-yoing back & forth on the trail with Bonnie Busch. Each time we meet she shouts out an encouraging “that’a girl”. Kind words that would lift me long after they were spoken.

We round a corner to the smell of sap and pine needles so striking that I’m forced to stop, allowing it fill my lungs in what can only be described as the freshest of air. Amazing yet conflicting. My invigorated breaths are the result of vast logging clear-cut that I can see as I peer deeper into the woods.

People ask what I think about when I run these types of events. I often tell them “everything & nothing” but at this moment on the trail I’m stuck on the impact of industry, man vs. nature. It’s heavy.

Mike and I arrive at Gateway (mile 35) hours behind schedule. Getting here has been work & I’m “hangry” but thankfully we aren’t spent heading into night 1. As we go about preparing for the dark miles ahead, other racers around us are already making tough decisions...To fight onward or return to fight another year. I hurt for them.

Earlier in the day we passed a wolf kill that had happened right on the trail. Snow sprinkled red with blood, tufts of fur and aggressive paw prints left as a testimony to the brutal takedown. In a race that can eat it’s young, sometimes the atmosphere at a checkpoint can feel like the wolf kill looked. That was Gateway when we arrived.

I will not be taken down, my hope will not be swallowed.

“For it is you who light my lamp; the Lord my God lightens my darkness. For by you I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall.” Psalm 18:28 & 29

After catching up with loved ones, some warm food and the usual shoe/gear changes, our fight continues. Into the night we go.


As the darkness settles in, the senses dull and give way to efficient routine. A metronome of one more foot fall & trekking pole planted in the snow covered trail.

Conversations dwindle as Mike and I make our way through the wee hours. Each of us slowly making peace with the fact that the trail conditions aren’t going to improve. The going will be slow, but for those brief moments we’re flying downhill sledding on the pulks, it won’t matter.

I haven’t bothered to look at my watch much, but my internal jukebox has “Africa” by Toto on repeat for the last three hours as the snow is coming down. Perhaps it’s my brain’s tired attempt at staying warm in the damp cold.

Eventually a group of us end up clustered together as we make our way past sheep ranch road. Tosh’s jukebox is stuck on “Papa loves Mambo”. His voice echos in the dark as he belts it out. Songs are traded in a short partying caravan in the woods.

Tunnel vision is deep in the hours before first-light breaks. I wake walking in my sleep several times. The promise of rest and a warm camp meal in my drop-bag at Melgeorge’s keeps me going into the morning.

Morning comes and Mike & I have a moment. Last year we were crossing Elephant lake as day was breaking, this year we were well into morning without even seeing it. I know the math of pace per hour isn’t good.

The stunning views of still rivers & trees dusted with fresh snow can’t silence the ringing reality as we finally reach the lake. The wind has kicked up and I’m quickly getting cold from the fatigue & added exposure. I purposely put my head down & trek hard across the open expanse, distancing myself from Mike. I have been traveling in horrible footing for 27hrs with no sleep. All I want is sleep. Rest.

Tears stream down my face as I cross the water praying/pleading for hope. All of the hours I planned for rest & to reboot were spent just getting here.


I check in then head to the cabin where my Jeremiah is waiting. Our eyes meet and the words escape him “oh my gosh, you’re so tired”. We hug. Every minute has to be intentional, but I’m in a daze. Just trying to get my camp meal down is a huge effort. Mike arrives at the cabin and I do my best to hide how broken I am, but I’m pretty sure I just come across pissed. As he gets things sorted I lie down for the shortest nap of all time.

The cabin is so cozy. If I quit my race right here I could get the rest I desperately need and have a really enjoyable weekend with my husband and friends in the northwoods. My alarm goes off & I just lie there yelling at myself to get out of the bed. COME ON! Then my internal jukebox flips on again, this time to a favored poem.

Get up.
The ground is your reward
It will hold you when you are done.
Cancel all forks you are not done.
Put a silencing finger to the lips of all singing fat ladies.
This is not over.
Reel in all finish lines,
Steal the sound of the metal ringing hanging in the air and put it back in the bell.
One more round we go,
Get up.

A Letter To Remind Myself Who I Am (excerpt) | By Shane Koyczan

We’re out of time as the cut-off for leaving the checkpoint comes crashing in. Despite the almost insurmountable struggle Mike & I manage to get out of there. 12 minutes to spare...12minutes. In a 60hr race.

The Journey to Ski-Pulk

The terrain only gets tougher from here as the climbs build as much as the fatigue does. My memory from this point on goes from blurred to crystal clear, then back again, but here is what I remember.

Michael and I stay paced together for a few hours after Melgeorges, but as day two goes on I can tell he’s working harder than he should this early in the race. It’s time to race separately and so it goes.

As sunset approaches I get to share some of the sweetest miles with Kari, an Arrowhead rookie whose countenance radiates joy no matter how sore or tired she may be. Somewhere in those miles I realize that my fatigue has turned to fervor. Another dark and lonely night is coming, but I’m ready for it.

Darkness falls and I can tell I’m making up time. Precious time that could allow for a nap at Ski-pulk, if I push hard enough. I cover my headlamp with my mitten and gaze ahead & then behind me hoping to see the light of another racer somewhere. But there is nothing. Absolute solitude for hours.

“And behold,I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20b

A few more hours pass and I start noticing that there are fresh fatbike tracks ahead of me. Signs of life.Then there’s the blinking red light. It’s Wilson! A veteran on foot racing on bike this year. This was not a good year for bikers, yet Jim was still laughing & making jokes nearly 100 miles into it. I count myself blessed for the short miles we shared together.

My spirits are lifted as I make it closer and closer to ski-pulk. Helen Scotch materializes out of nowhere behind me and after a quick greeting, just as quickly vanishes over an uphill.

Then the flux starts. I go from beastmode, to barely awake, to wanting to throw up. I need sleep & it can’t wait. Less than 40min at Melgeorge’s wasn’t going to cut it. With my head on the cooler in my pulk and most of my body trailing off of it, I shut my eyes. 15 minutes later I’m recovered enough to keep eating and moving again.

Every now & then I hear three children playing in the woods. Not wanting to use any music until after ski-pulk I do my best to logically talk myself out of their presence, but I’ve reached my limit. They are freaking me out.

Music is my company as I cover the final miles into ski-pulk checkpoint -mile 110.

Ski-pulk to the Finish

Ski-pulk is so tucked into the woods that it’s approach is deceptive, you just happen upon it. It is an oasis to my tired body. I’ve made up 4 hours since leaving Melgeorge's buying myself some time to sleep.

A short nap, some caffeine and a brief chat with my Sweetie later I leave ski-pulk revived. Into date three I go.

Another morning breaks, but this one is different. The sky is bright pink and it only gets better as time goes on. I’ve spent the last two days trekking in the gutter of the trail dragging my pulk over knee high sticks because that’s the only place where the snow was even remotely packed. Finally the temps and traffic have dropped enough to firm up the trail. It seems impossible, but I am somehow running. 115 miles into the race, dragging a loaded sled.

Todd passes me on snowmobile just as the weather begins to turn (red sky at morning) and lets me know Helen is just ahead. I got the update from the guys at ski-pulk that I was 3rd place for women. Meaning that if I could catch up to and pass Helen I can take 2nd.

I don’t want to be the best, I just want to beat my best. Since there would be no beating my time from last year with these trail conditions, the best I could hope for was a better placement than last year, so I kept pushing.

It’s taken awhile, but I pass Helen and immediately begin planning in my tired head what to say that will encourage her when she passes me again.

There is nothing sexy about the trail at the end of Arrowhead. It’s flat, mostly straight and mix of scrub pine in marshy areas or areas of tall pine forests. The effort and monotony really take their toll.

It is in one of these pine forests that the snow really starts coming down and “All the Heavens” by Third Day begins playing on my shuffle. Snowflakes fall as the lyrics talk about how the heavens cannot hold you Lord. I can feel the presence of my God so tangibly in that moment. My arms raise in praise, my pace quickens.

Then the wheels fall off. I reach a marshy exposed area and the wind begins pelting my face with snow. The exhaustion is mounting and eating has gotten tougher & tougher. I’m ready for it to be over. 

Then somewhere in the final struggle to the finish I’m reminded of the day my grandmother died. It was our first snow of this season and it pelted me in the face just like this as I ran into work that morning. Last year when her health was failing I named my pulk with her middle name because it’s white, just like her hair was and a silent strength, just like she was.

I looked behind me on the trail and the only thing that wasn’t fighting me was the tension of the sled,125 miles in, it now felt weightless. Like her, another blessing.

I did my best to suffer gracefully those last miles to the finish, but it wasn’t pretty. Reaching the finish line I collapsed, my yearly humbling complete.

I thought I was exhausted when I finished last year, this year ratcheted that up another level. I can’t wait to go back. :)


Anonymous said...

Amazing my friend. So proud of you and the journey you completed once again this year!

Rick Utecht said...

My dear daughter, I so appreciate how articulately you have shared your experience with all of us. I find much inspiration in your accomplishment and a great deal of insight into the heart of a champion. Thank you... Dad

Phillip Gary Smith said...

Nicely done, Rachel. Your pieces like hearing the three children playing in the woods ring so true, yet those who haven't experienced an endurance feat aren't aware such things can become, well, common to an athlete. They become somewhat like company, friends, somebody's out here. Best next year, too. Phillip Gary Smith

Mike Gorski said...

It was such a pleasure to read your memories of the trail. Thanks for sharing.