WitnessArrowhead 135. A 135 mile point to point race by foot, bike, or ski on a snowmobile trail from International Falls to Tower, Minnesota. Deliberately scheduled for the coldest week of the year. Solitude, distance, survival.
I’ve been talking about coming up to see it for years. It seems too insane to even exist. I had to see it for myself. Getting there is hard: (1) I-Falls is really far away, and (2) it runs Mon-Weds to avoid snowmobile traffic. But I've worked out my schedule. I've made the time. This is the year.
And what a year I've picked! A historic cold front is predicted to come in on Tuesday, plunging temperatures to -30F or colder, and wind chills into the -50s and -60s. As multi-time Arrowhead finisher and winner John Storkamp puts it, this year is "a good old-fashioned Arrowhead race."
Including, but not limited toSunday morning, I drive up, getting to International Falls in time for the 2:30 volunteer meeting. “Frostbite Falls” has lived up to its name with a vengeance, setting a new low temp record of -44F this morning. But by the time I roll in, it’s a balmy -5 and sunny, with views of Canada just across the Rainy River.
Runners have been checking in for the mandatory gear check. With only three checkpoints on the 135-mile course, and no outside help allowed, they must carry winter survival gear with them: a -20F sleeping bag, bivy sack, stove and fuel, and food, among other things.
|Gear check! (photo: Bob Marsh)|
I’ll be volunteering at the finish line, logging finishers, checking to see they’ve still got all their gear (pulled on a sled by the runners, in frame bags for bikers), and escorting them into the casino, where there’s a hospitality room.
After a briefing from Ken the race director and Mike and Frank, the finish line captains, I sign up for two 6-hour shifts.
|My car, just before leaving. The IKEA bag contains,|
among other things, 4 different coats, 4 buffs,
2 pairs of boots, and an insulated, fleece lined skirt.
Do your part — Keep our finish rate low
|photo: Bob Marsh|
The pre-race meeting is in the community center auditorium. Ken, the race director, says, “This is forecast to be the coldest Arrowhead ever. It’s cold for us, and we live here.”
He emphasizes frostbite prevention, making good choices, and cooperation on the trail.
|I enjoyed this entire slide, showing a cumulative 15 years|
of finishing rates, but especially the last line.
I catch up with a few friends who are running or riding this year, and meet a few more. It’s not the same crowd as at more temperate ultras, though there’s overlap. Winter ultras have their own unique subculture. Jamison and Lisa are here to volunteer, just weeks after directing their own winter ultra, the St. Croix 40. It's an event designed to help racers prepare for Arrowhead and similar long winter races, emphasizing survival skills such as bivying and using a stove in cold weather.
Race startRace start, 7 am Monday morning, at a ball field in town. It’s -9 and snowing lightly. I drive in behind a line of fatbikes, the riders wearing the required reflective gear and blinking lights. Runners unload pulks (sleds) from their cars. It’s quiet and orderly, but there’s an unmistakable vibe of prerace excitement.
|Prepping pulks, ready to run|
I tell her what my friend Todd told me when I broke my elbow at mile 2 of Zumbro 17 one year: “We’ll, at least you’ve gotten that out of the way.” I give her a giant hug and wish her an amazing ride.
|Fireworks, through a chilly camera|
The sky is just beginning to lighten as the skiers (all 4 of them) and kicksledders start, and then the runners.
|Go bikers go!|
(43 hours later, he finishes in fourth place.)
At 8:30, it’s -14, the sun is up, and I see sun dogs for the first time. It’s a beautiful morning.
|See the rainbow?|
|Me at the start, warm and|
happy (photo: Bob Marsh)
Gateway: Cold enough to snow
The Gateway checkpoint, at mile 35, is named for the Gateway General Store, a gas station and convenience store on a lonely stretch of Highway 53. In addition to coffee, candy and chips, they’ve got crockpots with six kinds of soup for sale, plus homemade pastries and cookies. Today, I learn, is their busiest day of the year.
When I arrive a bit after 10 am, six bikers have already come through, barely stopping to check in before blazing back onto the trail. I say hello to the checkpoint volunteers and admire the fully-loaded fatbikes leaning against the store wall, their owners warming up inside.
|Riders in early morning sunlight (photo: Bob Marsh)|
Russ, the on-the-ground race coordinator is here and recognizes me from last night’s meeting.
“Hey, Robyn, when do you have to be at the finish line?”
“Not till midnight.”
“Could you help out here for a few hours? I’m short a volunteer.”
Well, sure. I change into my boots, put on another buff, and don a reflective vest.
We’re standing outside the store, checking racers in and out. We spot their race number (on their body and bike) and record their time in. Then — the tricky part — record when they head out. At this hour, it’s all bikers — the runners and skiers won’t be here for a few hours. Some barely stop (especially the small group of people in the “unsupported” category, who can’t go inside or accept any outside help, not even water), but some are in Gateway for an hour, drying off, getting ready for the next, 35 mile leg.
It’s warmed up to about 5 degrees and, defying the forecast, it’s snowing lightly to moderately. I joke with volunteer Mark that maybe the snow will keep things warmer. He says, “Yup. Up here, there’s two kinds of winter weather: cold enough to snow, and too cold to snow. We prefer ‘cold enough to snow.’”
Bikers are rolling in steadily now, most wearing masks or face coverings. There are epic frost beards and snotcicles. The biggest difficulty seems to be moisture management — it’s really tricky to dress so you don’t sweat out there, and the snow is complicating things further. Still, this is the front half of the pack, and, aside from a few people dropping early, they look pretty good.
|Kari and another rider, coming |
into Gateway (Bob Marsh)
At 2 pm, the next shift of volunteers arrives and I’m done. I thank them and the folks I’ve been working with, and head out for something I’ve been looking forward to, getting onto the trail myself.
Arrowhead solitaireAnother hour or so down the road, the Arrowhead Trail crosses the Orr-Buyck road. Jason has recommended it as a nice section to run. I find the crossing a few miles back from highway 53, park, and lace up my trail shoes.
|Strained sunshine in a winter sky|
It’s 3 pm, 4 degrees, and still snowing. The trail’s been packed by snowmobiles, but there are no footprints or tire tracks I can see. My feet crunch in the slightly soft snow as more filters from the sky.
|So much solitude|
I crest another short, steep rolling hill and turn around after 30 minutes or so, following my footsteps back. Two bike racers pass me, pedaling steadily on the snow, and disappear around a bend.
After a burger at a snowmobiler bar, I reach the finish line, at the Fortune Bay Casino and Resort in Tower, MN. The finish line is a canvas tent in the back, heated with a portable wood stove. I can see smoke pouring from the chimney and blowing sideways as I sort my gear in my hotel room. I manage a few hours’ sleep before my first shift there begins at midnight.
Finish line, Monday nightIt’s 11:50 pm Monday night, I’m wearing crazy winter gear, and I’m trying to find the door leading out to the finish line. Eventually, Lisa, who’s returning from her shift, points me out the correct door and over the correct snowbank, and I’m sweaty but there. It’s -6F and cooling off fast.
Paul and I are the new kids on shift, and Frank, one of the finish line captains, gets us up to speed on our duties. As racers arrive, we record their number and time, then help them get a finish line photo if they want one. We escort them into the casino through a utility corridor where they can leave their bike or sled, and conduct a gear check, making sure they still have the required -20 sleeping bag, bivy sack, stove and fuel, lights, reflectors, and 3000 calories of food. (Frank: “I’m usually ‘Minnesota nice’ about the gear check, and ask but don’t make them show everything. But if it’s someone who’s first in their division, then really look.” Other finish line captain Mike: “Or if they give you any attitude.”) We then escort them up to the hospitality room, where heat, food, and company awaits, and hand off their timing sheet to the volunteers there.
|Warm inside the stove-heated tent!|
I snap a photo (“look epic!”) and walk him inside.
More than one says, “Great course for bikes, but those runners... wow, I just don’t know.”
In between arriving racers, we follow their progress on the SPOT tracker (which about half the racers are using), peek out the tent door to check for incoming lights, and tell stories about winter camping, Scouting, kids, and work. The tent is cozy and there’s wi-fi from the casino. It's a surreal little island of civilization in a savagely cold night. Every time we step outside, it’s colder and windier, and when I remove a mitten to record a rider’s number, my hand rapidly becomes painful, then numb. You can feel the wind tearing away body heat. By 6 am, it’s -19F, which is also the predicted high temperature for the day.
|Don’t believe the hype. There was MOST CERTAINLY wind chill.|
|Some incredible rigs!|
Moments from first volunteering shift:
PAUL [returning to the tent]: "That guy I just took in? He's an admiral in the Navy!"
FRANK: "What? Retired?"
PAUL: "No! Active service! Oversees a fleet of 82 ships!"
ME: "How on EARTH did he train for this?"
PAUL: "Well, he did mention he was kind of undertrained..."
Multiple conversations about winter gear, because that's what you talk about at a winter ultra.
ME: "Mike, are those Steger mukluks?" [Steger is a well known and well regarded mukluk maker — or so I thought! — in nearby Ely, MN]
MIKE: "Are you kidding? These aren't mall-walker mukluks! They're from Empire." [proceeds to extol the virtues of the guy in Duluth who makes 10 pairs of muks a year and has a waiting list]
ME: “I’ll get a finish line pic for you. Turn off your headlamp.”
BIKER [struggles with frozen headlamp for a full 90 seconds, failing to turn it off]
ME: “Never mind. I’ll do a profile shot. It’s more epic that way anyway.”
|Congratulations, David! You do look epic.|
FRANK: “Do you all want to be recorded as finishing together?”
THEM: “Oh yes.”
|Congratulations, Jere and Leah!|
A few minutes before 6 am, the next shift shows up. 28 riders have finished. We show the new volunteers what we’ve been doing, shake hands, and head back to the casino for some downtime. I’ll be back in in 6 hours, at noon, so I’m focused on getting some sleep and eating. I pull the curtains in my room and crash hard.
Finish line, Tuesday afternoonA few hours' nap, a shower, and a square meal later, and I'm on my way back to the finish line.
I run into dropped runners and riders as I walk through the casino. Sveta Vold is there — I'd embarrassed both of us yesterday at Gateway when I said, "You're Sveta? Wow! I'm a huge fan of yours!" Now, I start to tell her that I'm sorry she's dropped, and she waves off my concern. "It's okay. I'm not bothered by it. It was the right thing."
Alex and Jared have dropped from the foot division. They've both completed this race before in some tough conditions. Alex tells me, "We just couldn't stay dry. All our baselayers were soaked. And when we changed, everything wet just flash-froze. It wasn't safe to keep going." She's matter-of-fact about it. There's no question it was the right call.
|Alex on the trail (photo: Bob Marsh)|
We're now 29 hours into the race. After a comparatively torrid stream of bikers (15!) in my last shift, only seven more have arrived in the previous 6 hours.
There are about 11 bikers still on the course. The DNF (Did Not Finish) rate for the bikers is hovering around 50%. Dozens of runners have dropped, though 13 will eventually finish (an 80% DNF rate). We expect the first runners to arrive some time after dark tonight, 36 hours or more after they've started. All but one kicksledder has also dropped (he'll eventually DNF too). All 4 skiers have dropped, including a few incredibly strong ones — the snow's so cold that skis don't glide.
Our volunteer complement for the noon-to-6 shift is me, my friend Bob, and Eliza and Megan, two young outdoor guides from Ely. We learn that they work with a dogsledding outfit, and spend their days guiding, winter camping, and skiing with the dogs.
Unsurprisingly, they're well prepared for the current weather (now -20, dropping fast, and quite windy), and we all stand around outside for a while enjoying the weird conditions (how can it snow when it's -20?!) and filtered hazy sunlight. It's probably 60 or 70 degrees warmer in the tent and transitioning back and forth is a shock.
The stream of incoming riders has slowed, but now that it's daytime, friends and family are coming by to wait for their riders to finish. Ashley and Grant show up, waiting for multi-time finisher Marcus Berggren to come in on the bike. They're both previous Arrowhead finishers themselves, on foot, but dropped from this year's race. We have a convivial time standing around the tent with our coats off, eating cookies one of the volunteers brought, talking about races, camping, trails, and good times.
Frank stops by to thank all of us. He says, "This has been the best year ever as a volunteer, because we've had so many people helping out. Thank you, all of you."
Every few minutes, we unzip the canvas door a few inches and peek out of the tent so we can see riders approaching. When we spot one, we all throw on layers, run out, and start ringing cowbells and banging pots and yelling.
The riders are icy, masked, grinning fiercely, proud to be done.
There's a lull. A Fortune Bay publicist stops by, takes pictures of us outside by the tent, does an interview. We're all bemused.
The talk turns to gear again, and Megan and Eliza put on a winter-footwear clinic for us. We get a demo of their favorite socks and boot-liners, mukluks ("yeah, these are Stegers, I wouldn't wear them for anything serious, but I got them at the Ely Goodwill for $20"), and overboots. I learn more about how to keep my feet warm in truly Arctic conditions than I ever have before.
As the wind whistles in the tent door, I spot a bike coming up the trail. As Phil finishes, a second bike appears — Marcus! We stand outside, with our backs to the wind, and make noise as the two of them finish.
Marcus stops at the finish line, digs in his pack, and pulls out a Swedish flag. Ashley laughs. "You've been carrying that for a long time!" He poses with the wind whipping the flag, then we head inside.
Marcus holds the course record for fastest Arrowhead on foot. As we go inside he comments, "Every time I do this on the bike, I cannot imagine doing it on foot. And I say that as someone who's *done* it on foot, multiple times!"
Let's do it againIt's 3 pm. I look at the race tracker pages, talk to Frank, who's in the hospitality room, and come to a realization: There are no bikers still on course who have yet left the 110 mile checkpoint — no way they'll be here in under 3 hours. The first runners won't be in till after 6 either. There will be no finishers for the rest of this shift.
With Frank's encouragement, I return to the tent and suggest that 2 or 3 of the 4 volunteers could leave. Megan and Eliza tell me they were planning to be here till 6 anyway, and they live less than an hour away. Bob's ready to go inside; his feet are cold and he'll be here for another day and more volunteer shifts. Me, I'm working tomorrow, back in Minneapolis. I gratefully take the chance to start driving back in the daylight instead of after dark.
I shake hands with everyone in the tent. Stop off at the hospitality room to pick up my luggage and say goodbye to the volunteers. Make sure Megan and Eliza get their race shirts and swag bags.
Frank thanks me for coming. I tell him, "It was an incredible experience. Let's do it again soon."
I carry my bags out into the whipping snow and rising wind. My car sounds offended as it starts. I think of the runners and riders still on the course in the early twilight — the first won't finish for several more hours, and the last won't finish till this time tomorrow.
I point my car south. And I begin the trip back home.
WitnessI came to Arrowhead because I knew that experiencing it, even as a volunteer on the edge of the activity, would tell me more than I could ever learn by reading or listening. I came because the first time I volunteered at an overnight aid station, at Superior in 2014, it genuinely changed my life. Curiosity brought me, and a desire to go deeper.
What I brought from it was a renewed sense of community. Volunteers who, though they've never run or biked the course, come back and stand in the cold for days, year after year. Riders and runners finishing the race for their fourth, or sixth, or tenth time. Veterans welcoming newcomers. Racers helping each other in ways you'd never need, or see, on a more conventional course.
It's a special world, with its own remote, fierce beauty. I'm glad and grateful that I witnessed it. I'll be back.
|Prerace excitement with Kari and Dawn (Bob Marsh)|