A brightly lit, solitary trail.
I first learned about the Arrowhead 135 on the news many years ago. As I took in the formidable shapes of unrecognizable athletes, I caught only slight glimpses of their wild eyes peeking through the narrow opening in the frosted layers swaddling their faces. That was silly. I was captivated.
As I peeked through the narrow opening in the frosted layers swaddling my face to view my surroundings, I was captivated. This is silly. This is wonderful! The moon was casting long shadows against the brightly lit pillows of snow lining the trail. It was so clear. It was so cold. I was not sure how low the temperature had gotten. I switched to a warmer mitten, exposing my hands only briefly; the frigid night air quickly bit at my fingertips and left my hands rigid and numb. It was so cold. I quickly shoved them deep into my down mitts and tried to bring movement into my fingers. I knew I had to keep moving to stay warm. I followed wolf tracks paralleling the trail deeper into the night.
I arrived at the Melgeorge Checkpoint early Tuesday morning. The cabin was overflowing with race casualties and hollowed out shells of my fellow racers. Once eager and strong spirits lay strewn about, defeated. I liked how it felt. After spending hours alone on the trail, being surrounded by those experiencing similar levels of misery brought comfort. And relief. Our armour had been stripped away by the miles and the elements outside of our control; vulnerability remained. I peeled off frozen layers that had formed a protective cast around my face and neck; the warmth of the room quickly drew me in. I sat on the floor next to the door, physically and mentally depleted, drowsily attending to the distant murmur of others' battle stories with the night. Temps bottomed out at -27, with -40 wind chills in the swamps and low areas. The air was heavy with the stench of damp clothing and thawing, tired feet. My stomach lurched and twisted. It smelled awful. Ugh. I felt terrible. I wanted to stay. You have to leave.
Arriving at Melgeorge at 5:00 AM Tuesday morning. The buff I had covering my nose had froze to my face. 📷 Jared VanderHook.
On the first day of the race, the air was charged with nervous anticipation and spirited determination. The early miles passed quickly as I shared miles and conversation with winter ultrarunning legends that I am honored to call friends. J sent me down the trail at the 7:00 AM start, still warm from his sendoff hug and feeling confident and energized from his palpable excitement and unwavering belief in me.
Day one fun. 📷 Jared VanderHook.
As I headed back out on the trail with over 100K and some of the toughest miles in front of me, my mind was drowsy but the sharp climbs and steep descents propelled me forward. In October, I traded my reckless and casual training tendencies for structure. Working with a coach breathed consistency and intention into my previously winded training.
The temperature reached a high of 24 degrees on the second day. As the trail softened, the promise of snowfall hung heavy in the air. I tried to cover as much ground as I could while the footing was firm, but my pace was slowing. I started to do math. Do not start doing math. I knew I was not supposed to do math. But I did math anyway. And of course, I did it wrong. I overestimated my arrival to Ski Pulk by hours. It crushed me. I began to leave the trail. My mind began to slowly dance with the idea of quitting. I was too tired to fight it. Meanwhile, my ankle was losing power and efficiency with each step. I stopped and fell into a pile onto my sled, defeated. Then it started to snow. And I started to cry. Then it started to snow harder. Are you kidding me?! And I cried harder. This is impossible. Then the snow started to blow sideways. And I laughed. Almost immediately, I felt refocused. You are doing a race in January in the middle if winter. It's winter. It's January. Duh. These challenges are what you hope for during these events. Glad no one saw that. As for quitting, I had no idea where I was and no service, so that option was eliminated almost immediately.
You can't hide those cryin' eyes... unless you put goggles on.
I arrived at the Ski Pulk Checkpoint around 8:00 PM Tuesday night. J excitedly greeted me at the checkpoint with a big hug. My ankle had started to swell and pain shot up the front of my leg with every step; I knew I could not stop long. After loosening my shoes to the point of nearly falling off with each step to relieve the pressure on my foot (thank you Tim!), I continued to shuffle down the trail toward the finish.
Game face. 📷 Jared VanderHook.
After one final steep climb and another harrowing descent on my sled, the trail gave way to a flat, luminous tunnel lined with enormous moose and hundreds of bivying racers. Even as I passed close by my delusions, they persisted. I resigned to passive observation rather than trying to resist the reality of their existence. That would require more energy than I had to give. The trail was long and seemed to stretch out impossibly far in front on me. My ankle continued to swell. I had hoped to run much of this section and instead was reduced to an agonizingly painful, weary shuffle. I need to get off my feet. You can keep going. Keep going and cover some miles while I get off my feet. I will just be a minute. I grew frustrated trying to persuade the little girl walking alongside me to keep going without me. We need to finish by 7:00 AM. You have to keep going. I got us this far, you need to get us the rest of the way. As I rowed myself along the side of the trail with my trekking poles, desperately trying to avoid putting weight on my debilitated foot, I looked to my right. Nothing. There was no one there. Who had I been talking to? Oh no, it is happening again. I stopped and looked at my watch. I had only covered two miles in the past hour while entertaining my delusions.
The beautiful and wild Arrowhead Trail.
It is almost 5:00 AM. You only have two hours left. I snapped out of the odd stupor that followed me as I drifted through the night. J and I maintain a healthy (a relative term that is highly dependent on the day, event, and who you talk to) spirit of competition. While wishing one another the very best at all times, we still like to challenge each other. At Arrowhead, the time to beat was J's 2017 48:02.
I made my way through the swamps and made the final turn to the finish. The finish that is on top of a hill. That felt cruel at the time. I saw J standing, waiting for me next to the tent. My breath caught in my throat; I was overwhelmed with gratitude and excitement that I had someone so incredible to share these special moments with, someone who made them come alive. And someone to compete with. I finished Arrowhead in 47:36, under the lunar eclipse.
Finish line fun. 📷 Jared VanderHook.
Arrowhead by the numbers:
- Time: faster than J's
- Place: 2nd
- Low Temp: -27
- High Temp: 24
- Foot division finisher rate: 58%
- Frostbite rate: >30%
- Sled weight: much lighter than Tuscobia's sled weight
- Sled: Northern Sled Works Siglin Racing Pulk
- Top: Arc'teryx: Rho LT Baselayer, Ellison Fleece, Atom LT Hoody, Patagonia Houdini
- Bottom: Arc'teryx: Rho LT Baselayer, Trino Tight, Atom LT Pants
- Food: didn't work at all. Brought a variety of Hostess and Little Debbie snacks that I would never eat under normal circumstances and found that I definitely didn’t want to eat them during a race either.