Six Iowans took the challenge of the Arrowhead 135 ultra marathon in International Falls, Minn., recently. Josh Meggitt and Laurie Tulchin of Iowa City, Lisa Paulos of Cedar Rapids and Bonnie Busch of Bettendorf attempted to complete the route on foot. Craig Irving of Mount Vernon and Steve McGuire of Iowa City rode bikes. Only Irving finished.
Here is an excerpt from Busch’s story:
Cannot believe I am here. I have never been in this kind of cold, but staying in bed did not occur to me.
I have acquired the necessary equipment — pulk, poles, harness, sleeping bag, bivy sack, insulated sleeping pad, stove and fuel, multiple thermos, Gortex trail shoes, goggles, balaclava, face mask and an assortment of blinking lights and headlamps with lithium batteries.
I think I have the clothes for this. I am wearing three pairs of pants, two shirts and a jacket. I’ve got on wool socks, two pairs of gloves, one pair of mittens, a big thick over-mitt and two hats. I’ve got food and water, enough to last me days.
It’s minus-25 degrees and I am starting the 2014 edition of the Arrowhead Trail Ultramarathon. We will attempt to navigate 135 miles of trail that runs from International Falls to Tower, Minn. Participants choose between three modes of transportation — bike, ski or foot.
There are three checkpoints along the course where participants check in and enjoy the ability to replenish food and water. Those checkpoints are approximately at mile 35, 70 and 110 are the only opportunities on the remote trail.
We have 60 hours to complete this travel. I am on foot. I’ve never done this race before and I’ve never been this far north of my home in Iowa.
My goggles first fogged up, then frosted over. The required blinking lights on the pulk have died and I already have had to stop to put on the extra back up lights that I am carrying. Keeping my skin covered and trying to eat or drink is not easy, but will be a necessity. My friends are out of sight ahead of me and my pulk is too heavy. Only a few other participants are in sight and we try to have conversations when we pass each other, but our exchanges are very short and usually a muffled, almost unintelligible dialogue.
We give each other hand signals of encouragement. I am five miles from the start, just 130 miles to go.
The landscape is a winter wonderland. A thick blanket of clean, white snow mutes the landscape of tall pines and short brush or grasses, all awash in illuminating sunshine. The only sounds are squeaks from footsteps and scrapping of the pulk on the snow of the groomed trail. No birds, no wildlife, no cars. We will be getting farther and farther away from highways, small towns and remote residents. It is truly beautiful and I tell myself to remember that, no matter what happens. Hours, hours and hours are filled with the repetition of march, jog, march, eat, march, drink. All the while, being diligent about my condition. Adjusting clothing to stay warm, but not too warm, maintaining hydration and calories. Doing what’s needed, but not wasting time.
Hours and hours have passed. I have no idea how far I’ve gone and no idea how far I have yet to go.
My overmitts are keeping my hands toasty. When I need to do something, anything, I make sure my hands are good and warm. Then pull them out and perform that task as quickly and completely as possible. Then rush to get them back into in the overmitt. Same procedure for eating, drinking, adjusting my harness, wiping frost off my glasses, blowing my nose or whatever else needs to be done. As the night takes over, I become acutely aware of the slowly declining temperature and the fact that I am alone.
Race participants have long ago settled into their own patterns and we seldom see each. When I stop, I only hear my own breathing. The stars twinkle as does the loose snow that the wind tosses about in range of my headlamp. I am not cold, but I am scared.
I want for nothing, but I suspect that could change very quickly. It’s impossible to keep the frost off my glasses so I reluctantly tuck them in my pack. I stumble off the trail into deep soft snow several times and I wonder when I will see another person. My mood has tanked. I’ve got a headache from not wearing my glasses. My back hurts, my left ankle is sore. I tire from my clumsiness and from the effort needed to eat or drink, stay warm and keep moving. If I eat more, maybe I’ll feel better. I tell myself to enjoy this peace and embrace the moment.
It doesn’t help, now I am really scared.
It’s been almost 12 hours from when I started and I finally see the lights of Checkpoint 1. My husband ushers me into a small country store. In stark difference to the trail, this is littered with people, clothes and supplies. It’s colorful and noisy with a carnival like atmosphere. I am thrilled to see friends here and I eagerly devour warm soup and Cokes.
I need to tend to the mental list of things I’ve been creating on the trail: eat, drink, change socks and maybe a shirt, change the pulk hookup on the harness, take electrolytes, use the bathroom, eat and drink some more. I challenge myself to hurry while I want to simply enjoy being here. I am convinced I need to leave with my friends, we could make a strong team, but I am shaking like a leaf and am strongly encouraged not to leave so soon. I think it is stress, others think I am cold. I painfully watch them leave as I try to calm myself. It’s not working.
I have to leave this checkpoint within the hour or I won’t be allowed to go on. The store slowly begins to empty. I am encouraged to end my race here and I enter into a debate about what I should do. It’s minus-30 and it’s going to get much colder. But I’ve only gone 35 miles, which really is not much of an experience. I chat briefly with another participant who shows me her hands where three finger tips clearly have frostbite and the rest of them are at risk. I’ve come so far — pulled a tire around my neighborhood for six months to prepare for this, I’ve slept outside in the cold and snow a dozen or so times to gain experience and confidence with my equipment. I was scared to leave and embarrassed to stay.
About 10 minutes before cutoff, I left the store with two others. An experienced volunteer encouraged us to team up for the trek through the night, we would be safer together. I had asked my husband to wait 45 minutes at the store, in case I change my mind when we get out on the trail. In the dark, we start getting acquainted and our mood was light. I never thought about turning back. We walked maybe an hour before we saw lights ahead from another participant. Our three turned into two as one man rushed ahead. We would never see their lights again. The two of us walked and talked. My companion suggested bivying alongside the trail. I discouraged that. The topic came up an hour later, but this time as statement not a suggestion. It was near midnight and again the mental debate started again, whether to stay or go.
I didn’t want to leave my new friend and I certainly didn’t want to continue in the dark alone. Too cold to dwell on this for long.
I started down the dark trail alone, whether it was a good decision wouldn’t be known for quite some time. The stars were brilliant and snow in the air sparkled. I talked to myself, I sang, I ate and drank. I was reasonably comfortable and tried not to think about the time that had already passed, my slow speed and the likelihood that I would not make the next cutoff time
I kept marching. Bright lights were speeding toward me and the two snowmobiles stopped for a quick chat — “how are you, where are the others.” And then they were off to check on the few guys behind me. An hour later they returned with updates and offered me my last opportunity tonight to quit. They guessed it was 4 miles to the next shelter and 7 miles to a small warming hut along a country road. It was 2 a.m. and while I had some hesitation, I shook off their offer.
I walked on alone. While time moved slowly, the miles were even slower. Planning what I would do when I got to the shelter consumed me. I would slide into my sleeping bag and quit. Now if I could just find that shelter.
At 3.45 a.m. I saw some odd lights ahead. Cannot be snowmobiles, they wouldn’t be out until day light. It’s a truck, blinking lights from a couple of pulks, a small hut and a muffled voice saying “There you are!” It was my husband and a friend, Jim Glasgow, wow.
Wait, where am I? My two friends are here and they explain that I missed the shelter and I am at the hut by the road. I am so happy to be with them. We eat and share stories. We circle around to the dialogue we need to have, what are we going to do. One declares she is not going on. The other says she is ready to go on if I do. I don’t like this position. Seems like we all are healthy and frustrated about where we are at this time. Doing some math, it doesn’t seem like we could make the next checkpoint by the cutoff.
I see a mountain of reasons to continue on and another mountain of reasons to stop now.
The dashboard displays 4 a.m. and minus-33 degrees.
It’s not a feeling of relief to end this adventure here. No way to know what could have been. No damage done, learned some things and have a new level of admiration for this place and everyone associated with the race — participants, organizers, volunteers, the people that live here and the people that tried to help me prepare.
Guess I got what I wanted, although it wasn’t what I thought it would be. We have hotel reservations for next year before we leave town.
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