Saturday, March 18, 2017

Arrowhead135 2017 | An Unsupported Journey

I must have weighed the pros and cons a thousand times before deciding how to take on the Arrowhead135 this year. Early season training runs and tire drags had me feeling efficient, strong and fast. The temptation to go for a PR was high. Even plausible. Then, at the peak of summer Jeremiah & I launched a business…a grand adventure neither of us saw coming. In the whirlwind of months that followed it became an easy decision. Unsupported.  I craved the quiet of the north woods. Solitude over speed.

The morning before the race I make the drive to Fortune Bay (the finish line) where I will leave my truck for the duration of the event. Locking it feels so final…I hope I have everything.  I book a room for the day I plan to finish, further incentive to get myself here, then hop on the cab back to IFalls with other racers doing the same.

Ed Thomas, a brother in the foot-division, is on the shuttle with me. Catching up with him brings some much needed levity to the day even as my thoughts wander mid-conversation going over the many checklists dominating my mind.

Less than 30minutes into the trip back the shuttle breaks down… awesome. We’re all increasingly anxious to get to town and finalize race-prep, but I couldn’t have picked a better group of guys to be stuck with waiting for the replacement cab to arrive.  Imagine the stories, the rumors of Sasquatch on the trail & the laughter.

“Be still, and know that I am God:” Psalm 46:10a

What is left of the afternoon is spent checking boxes on the lists. Loading and then reloading the bloated pulk. I finally reach the point where I have winnowed away everything I can safely go without before heading to the trail for a quick shake-out run with Ed.  All of the added food and fuel is heavy, but I’m confident with my setup and it drags well.

Going unsupported carries new mental burdens and I wrestle with them going into the pre-race meeting. I’m afraid of forgetting something stupid that will have a profound effect on my race. I do my best to talk with everyone I haven’t seen in a year, but my mind has already begun blurring everything else out in order to focus on the task ahead.  This is going to be tough…

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9

Day 1
Race morning I wake up rested before the alarm goes off.  I go about checking off the final boxes on the lists when Jeremiah calls. I savor every word. This is the last time I will hear my Beloved’s voice until my race is over, wherever that may be. I pin the green ribbon that indicates a racer as unsupported to my race bib, then duct tape it in place as a secondary measure securing my commitment to this approach. We pray, say our I love yous and out the door I go.

If I’ve forgotten anything, there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m all in.

Game face. (Photo Credit: Jason Johnson)

Fireworks send us off into the dark morning. Months of preparation finally put into motion. The glide of fresh snow is a blessing to my beast of a sled, but all day I struggle to settle into a sustainable pace. I find myself hustling between groups of friends attempting to soak in what I can of their sweet company and encouragement. Knowing it’s their voices I’ll want in my head when the going gets dark and I’m all alone.

Photo Credit: Maranda Lorraine

Sunlight begins to dwindle as I reach the last shelter outside of Gateway Store (Checkpoint  1). It is here that I have planned to stop to boil snow into water, get off my feet and make some hot food.  Racer after racer passes me as I gather snow and stick to the plan. I can see the doubt (or perhaps its pity) on some of their faces, but I’m happy here. The hustle of the day now hushed as I dig into my camp meal and soak in the silent beauty of snowflakes continuing to fall.

Michael appears outside the shelter just as I start on my final snow melt.  He’s unsupported too and has done a better job patiently pacing himself through day one.  I pack up and we travel the remaining miles to Gateway together. It’s like old times again. I’m so thankful.

It’s completely dark when we get to the first checkpoint, mile 35. Mike has some work to do so he stays behind getting set up for night. I’ve done everything I can do to avoid the temptation of going inside to warm up, rejoin my friends and eat that tasty cheese burger.  I am successful and quickly pass though.  

Night one is never ending as I make my way toward Melgeorge’s.  My legs and body feel adequate for the task but I am surprised by how tired I feel so early in the race. It’s only night one and I’m starting to fall asleep on my feet.  I’m forced to shiver bivy several times. Each time I unpack the down jacket I use as a blanket from my sled I’m greeted by the letter my husband sent with me the first time I attempted Arrowhead and failed. I never open it, seeing it is enough. The outside of it reads “when: the darkest hour before the dawn”.  I pass out and then press on as if I could somehow pull the sun over the horizon instead of my pulk over these hills.

The tug-of-war with fatigue is constant, so is the hunger.  Despite devouring countless 800 calorie bags of food, I can hear my stomach growling every time I stop.  Every.Single.Time. I’m reduced to a zombie walking food-shoveling Neanderthal when Lisa and I meet up on the trail. Grateful to not be alone I follow her as she gracefully picks her way down the trail to checkpoint 2.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Lamentations 3:22-23

Day 2
Day breaks and we trek across Elephant Lake to Melgeorge’s, mile 75. A kind volunteer meets me outside the cabin so that I don’t have to go in to check in/out. I’m better off not knowing what I’m missing inside.  Lisa goes in to sleep and resupply, I head up the trail another 3 miles to a shelter.  In the time-warp to the second checkpoint I’ve found myself looking forward to these 3 miles. My first time on the Arrowhead Trail was here, when the thought of running the race was this mammoth dream. I fell in love with it then and here on my fourth year racing it, that hasn’t changed. 

I am mentally in a good space when Kari catches up to me on the trail. She’s fresh off of Tuscobia and there’s a certain degree of understanding in the words we exchange. This is work, but that doesn’t keep it from being wonderful.

Reaching the shelter I pull off to the side and stick to the plan. This is the second spot I have plotted out to melt more snow and make warm food, but my need for sleep comes first. I don’t want to mess with fire when I’m this tired so I crawl into the oasis of my bivy.

All of the pain and soreness fatigue had drowned out getting through the night now has me paralyzed in a sea of down.  My left knee is swollen and the front of my right hip feels like a gnarly marble has taken up residence in it. Lying flat I can barely straighten out my legs…Don’t freak out, work the problem.

I roll onto one side and grab out the compression shorts I have stashed in my bag.  Maybe they can help… maybe I’ll get some sleep.

I sound like a grizzly bear getting frisky with a plastic bag trying to navigate my legs into these tiny spandex shorts inside my bivy. The thought of waking Helen sleeping 20feet away mortifies me as I fight to get them on. I set an alarm and nod off in a literal hurt bag. 

Camp at the shelter outside of Melgeorge's

Helen (unsupported on skis) is busy making food and melting snow by the time I wake up.  I hobble my way around filling bag after bag full of fine snow to melt down before making breakfast.  The compression shorts help hold me upright, but my movement is incredibly slow & painful.

How can I do this...should I do this?  I do a lot of math waiting for the pots of snow to melt and question whether or not turning back to Melgeorge’s is the wise move. There is no sag-wagon along with me this year if I’m forced to drop and Surly checkpoint is a long ways away. 

The thought of going forward at the pace I’m moving just doesn’t compute… then I hear Helen whimper. A giant blister has unintentionally burst as she was taking care of her feet.  She looks over at me & matter-of-factly says “well, I guess that was going to happen eventually anyway.” before pulling a sock and ski boot back over her battered foot.

Some of the most courageous and accomplished people I know pass by as I’m mulling over my options at the shelter. How can I not continue when I’m surrounded by badasses? I pack up my kit and hobble back on the trail following in their footsteps. My legs may betray me further, but mentally I’m still all in.

Daylight is swiftly fading as I’ve eaten up a good portion of it setting up for the next portion of the race. I made the call to start taking ibuprofen at the shelter knowing I’d need every bit of my legs for the constant climbing this section.  These hills are written on my soul, in all their toil, in some insane way, I adore them. Thank God by the time I reach them some pain has subsided and I’m ready to conquer.

…Into another night I go. 

Darkness falls and with it comes more snow. The flakes flicker in the light of my headlamp and it feels like I’m pacing my way through the heavens.  Man I love winter.  I close my eyes and just listen to it, this is what I came here for…then I hear the growl again & it’s time to go.  Back to this wonderful work. Neanderthal Zombie: Phase 2

“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Psalm 121: 1-2

I’ve fallen asleep leaned over my trekking poles waiting for my heart-rate to recover climbing up yet another hill when Lisa appears.  I manage not to hallucinate as we continue down the trail together a second night, but my mind repeatedly doubts whether her presence is real or just some fatigued flash-back to the previous night. Either way, I’m thankful she’s there.

Lisa (Photo Credit: Jason Johnson)

Keep your wits. If I drink this much water between this shelter & this shelter it will leave me enough to boil snow with at Surly…I reached this shelter at this time so that puts me at this pace, meaning if I eat this much food here I can safely take more ibuprofen now and again there. ..Fuck my legs, fuck this fatigue.
I do so much math attempting to plunder the fatigue and stay on track throughout the night. I’ve never been so tired on so many levels.

If you’ve ever been on a long road trip with your car window rolled down slapping your own face just to stay awake all while growing more and more frustrated trying to hold your eyelids open and focus on anything you know where I’m at.

“ I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.” Psalm 130: 5 & 6

A cold snap nestles in like an icy hand over my shoulder as the wind picks up and we’re in whiteout conditions approaching the last shelter before Surly checkpoint.  Reaching it, it’s packed.  I’m so desperate to get out of the wind and get some sleep that I go in anyway. Lisa moves some gear out of the way on a shelf that’s mounted to the shelter wall to sleep on and I grab a spot underneath the shelving in the corner. Sitting down I know why this spot is the only one left. One butt cheek is propped up on a volleyball sized rock and the other is planted on a half dozen empty beer cans left behind by some snowmobilers. It sounds like an infirmary in here; everyone is coughing because of the cold and distance settling into their lungs. I want to send an SOS out to my family for prayer support knowing that this is the darkest before the dawn for me, but I set my phone alarm instead, pull my hood over my face and pass out sitting upright.

20 minutes later the alarm goes off just as one of the fat bikers lets out a colossal fart waking everyone in the shelter. The brutality of the state we’re in is broken as we all start laughing. I love this moment… these people. One by one they crawl out of their bivies and get back on the trail.

I hit the trail more alive than I’ve been the entire race. My unspoken SOS heard.  The wind is still unrelenting, the slog to sunrise long and I have to lift my betraying legs with both arms onto the pulk every time I sled a downhill but, somehow, I’m happy.

A few miles later I catch up with my friend Jay going for the a`trois. Everything in his body posture reads pain, but he assesses the problem, ties a bandanna around his bum leg and continues down the trail.

How can I not be badass when I'm surrounded by badasses?

More miles and math in I’m finally at Surly, mile 108. Too pissed by the mocking signs leading up to the checkpoint to stay long I check in/out and stick to the plan heading down the trail to set up camp. Bivy before boiling.

I open my eyes and in an instant any doubt I had that this unsupported approach was worth it, is gone.  The morning sun glitters over the new snow and through the pine forest all around me. It’s cold, but that brings a perfect stillness, the stillness I craved when I signed up for this adventure.  I’m soaking it all in when a volunteer on snowmobile stops to check on me. I give him a run-down of my plan to get caught up on hydration and get a meal in before departing. I can tell he’s concerned that I won’t make the finish line before the cutoff and I know it’s tight but I’m confident. This section has been strong the last two years and for the first time in 3 days I can tell my body is finally healing. I just have to top off all the tanks before I can move on.

Beauty and brutality often travel side by side on the Arrowhead. That reality came crushing in when I grabbed the stove out of my bag to start on the snow melt. Sometime in the night my fuel tank had started to leak and the canister was now sitting in a pool of white gas….Don’t freak out, work the problem.

With my gloves off in the freezing cold I started wiping down and re-pressurizing the tank.  It worked, but there wasn’t a lot of fuel left. The ups and downs were harsh as I kept at it setting up for the final leg. One moment I was enjoying the first cup of coffee I’d had in 30days watching the sunrise and the snow melt in the pot. The next I was scrambling to save any clean water left when that pot of snow slid off the stove drowning out the flame and soaking my gloves. With fuel & time quickly vanishing I rushed to get back on track and on the trail.

Leaving camp I immediately start running. Fumbling with my stove has cost me most of the dexterity in my ring finger and I can’t let it (or the others) get any colder. Be the furnace. My once betraying legs are on now on board and I find myself at the base of Wake’m Up before I know it. A snowmobile volunteer comes by again, he asks how I’m doing, nods & turns back toward Surly checkpoint.  Its then I know… I’m the last one out here. This news is both heavy and an honor.  I press on.

“God, the Lord, is my strength; He makes my feet like the deer’s; He makes me tread on my high places.” Habakkuk 3:19

I see the foot prints of Ed’s mukluks in the snow as I make my way further down the trail. I think of the countless badasses ahead of me and how thankful I am to race among then. Then I’m reminded of the conversation Ed and I had on the shuttle. We talked a lot about finishing before sunset. I want that more than I want to be done, so I keep running, racing the sun.

The distance and effort catch up with me in the early afternoon. Exhausted and progressively more nauseous I keep plunking away when I meet Ashley, a Florida native and Arrowhead rookie. She looks the way I feel. We make tired conversation, but we aren’t in our own heads. How can we be so numb and so focused at the same time? Frustrated with my current condition I become paranoid that I’m radiating negativity and I don’t want to be “that guy” so I pull ahead creating some distance.

I’m comforted by the familiar landmarks I pass as I get closer and closer to the finish line. Then my foot slips off of the hard-packed edge of the trail and my Achilles is on fire. Fuck! 10 miles to go and I’m crawling deep into my pain cave. “Finish before sunset” I tell myself over and over as I bite my neck warmer, my wooden spoon for the pain and keep moving.

By the time I’ve started toying with the idea of duct taping a stick to my ankle for support Tod passes by on his snowmobile and shouts out “Enjoy your finish”.  Finish.  I’m overwhelmed and so excited at the same time…Just keep moving.

The sun is nearly set when I reach Fortune Bay, mile 135.  A crowd of people stand in the cold cheering me across the finish line and it’s actually over. The math I couldn’t compute at Melgeorge’s finally solved.

“The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.” Proverbs 21:31

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