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.
By Craig Irving, community contributor
I first heard of the Arrowhead 135 winter ultra endurance race in January of 2011. I was at a winter racing seminar the night before the Triple D, a 65-mile snow race that runs between Dubuque and Dyersville. Speaking at the seminar were two experienced winter ultra racers — Ames native Matt Maxwell and Triple D race director Lance Andre, both of whom had completed Arrowhead in years past. As they told stories of past attempts in the extreme cold, gear choices and tips for staying alive, I found my excitement building. By the end of the seminar, I knew this was a race I had to do.
Off and on throughout the rest of the year I would research, gear test and plan my strategy in anticipation of the 2012 version of the race. I had my doubts as to whether I’d had enough cold weather experience at that point to be accepted into the race (resumes are required for first time racers), but a week or two after mailing my entry in October, the check for my entry fee had cleared. I was in.
Excitement soon gave way to apprehension, however. The reality of the race now started to sink in. The previous year’s race had temperatures reach 40 below, and while I had plenty of winter riding experience, I had never actually ridden in subzero temperatures. As a result, the next few months became a gear geeking obsession.
As luck would (or wouldn’t) have it, the race that year ended up being relatively warm. Temperatures at the start were around 10 degrees and rose to the low 30s as the sun came up, turning the snow into a soft mush for the duration of the race. I finished that year, but it remains to this day the most difficult mental challenge I’ve ever successfully endured.
Despite the difficulties, however, I’d left the race feeling like I’d missed out on a large part of what makes Arrowhead so tough. After all, I wanted to test myself in the extreme cold. I went back the following year, but again the weather was unseasonably warm, the snow was soft and a midrace snowstorm forced me to pull out at the halfway point.
Fortunately, this was the year that I got my wish. With a starting temperature of minus-23 and a forecast promising subzero goodness for my entire time on course, this was going to be every bit the challenge I had been hoping to get.
The start of the race was a bit chaotic as everyone was huddled in the warmth of the check-in shelter until the last possible minute. I pulled up to the starting line just as the race was starting and pulled in behind my friend Don, a rookie racer from Missouri. Our plan had been to ride together, but within the first half mile I lost his wheel as he passed two other racers.
By the time I got through, I couldn’t pick him out of the stream of flashing taillights up ahead so I settled into a comfortable pace and rode my own race. To make matters worse, my front tire was losing air and I had to stop every couple miles to air it up again.
Eventually, I gave up hope of changing the tube in the warmth of the first checkpoint and pulled over to fix it in minus-15 degree temps. At least it was sunny.
After 20 minutes I was on my way again and pulled into the first checkpoint a couple hours later. My girlfriend was there waiting for me and let me know Don had already come and gone. I spent close to an hour there, warming up and eating before heading out for the second checkpoint. I was now in the hillier area and as the sun went down, the temperatures dropped. An hour past sunset my thermometer read minus-20.
I still was comfortable, but not for very long. Another hour passed and I was now having trouble regulating my temperature, sweating on the climbs and freezing on the descents. I couldn’t stop for more than a minute or two at that point, making eating and drinking a race in itself.
I guessed it was probably around 25- to 30-below at that point, but I was starting to feel a deep anxiety and was worried that verification by thermometer might put me at risk of panic. I pushed on, thinking happy thoughts of the cabin we’d rented at the second checkpoint. My margin of error had shrunk to a point I wasn’t comfortable with, so when I finally arrived I had decided to spend the night before heading out again in the morning.
Don was there waiting for me, having been evacuated from the course via snowmobile a few minutes earlier due to frostbite and clothing issues. As difficult as the first day was, the second had to be the one of the best I’ve had on the snow in a while.
I left the checkpoint shortly before 8 a.m. and dove right back into the hills. The recently groomed trail had set up hard and fast and the next 40 miles were a virtual roller coaster ride separated by the occasional flat stretch. I was all smiles as I pulled into Checkpoint 3 hours later, amid looks of alien disbelief as I gushed about how much fun the last section had been.
I stayed long enough to refill my water before taking off again, eager to knock out the last few hours of the race. Over the next 20 miles, I seesawed with another racer, Joe, who I’d invited to stay at our cabin the night before. We never rode together for more than a half mile, but as night fell it felt good to know that there was someone else nearby. Eventually, he rode off out of sight when I stopped to dig some food out of my pack.
I had the trail to myself those last few miles, which in the absence of Don was exactly how I wanted it. As I turned the final corner I saw the finish line banner stretched across the top of a short final climb. Relief washed over me as I rolled through, 36 hours after setting out on my adventure.
Not only had I finally been able to experience the Arrowhead I’d wanted, I had persevered and completed it.