Getting ready for the start of the 2015 Arrowhead 135. A 135 mile race through the north woods of Minnesota in the middle of winter. My teammate Jeff Eckert and I test rode the trail the day before the race and found the trail to be firm and fast. Temperatures climbed and several inches of snow fell through the night, making the trail soft and much slower.
On race day I was up before five o’clock to get ready for the race. Jeff and I had been preparing for months for this day. Twenty minutes before the start, We headed out the door of the motel with our fully loaded bikes and rode the few blocks to the start. In the distance we could see all the racers’ blinky lights as we approached. When we arrived, we weaved our way through the crowd of bikers, skiers and runners to get to the check-in desk inside the Kerry Arena.
After checking in, we headed back outside to meet up with our friend James Rasmussen and Jeff’s brother Greg. James and Greg planned to follow us throughout the race using our Spot Tracker. They were able to meet us at the checkpoints, a few road crossings and at the finish. Before the start we took a few pictures, headed to the starting line, started our Garmins and then anxiously awaited the start. I’ve done a lot of long distance ultra endurance rides, but this one was different.
Jeff Eckert sheds some fleece as the temperature rises. The temperature was hovering in the mid twenties and it was fairly damp. It wasn’t long before I unzipped all the way to my baselayer. The high humidity eventually led to fog in our goggles. I removed mine ten miles into the race and never put them back on.
Darkness slowly gives way to daylight as racers move towards the first checkpoint at the Gateway General Store. After thirty five miles of relatively flat trail we reached the checkpoint. We had considered riding straight through after checking in, but decided it would be better to stop and top off our water supplies.
As we turned off the main trail to ride to the checkpoint I could hear a cowbell ringing in the distance. We exited the forest and rode towards the race officials holding clipboards outside the store. They congratulated us on our arrival as they called out our bib numbers. James and Greg were there to cheer us on.
James Rasmussen took some time to tame the walleye at the Gateway General Store while he awaited our arrival.
We pulled up in front of the store and propped up our bikes against some sign posts and headed inside. The general store was very busy serving customers and racers. I was so focused on quickly refilling my CamelBak, that I never had time to really investigate everything this general store had to offer. It was a warm and inviting place with shelves full of all kinds of necessities and souvenirs. There were some tables and chairs set up for the customers, where they could eat, drink and sit and talk about the weather. This was the kind of place where I might like to relax and drink a hot cup of coffee, if I wasn’t in a race. We found an open table and quickly pulled off our layers to get to our hydration packs. I pulled off my hydration vest and opened the water reservoir. I then realized that my reservoir was still nearly full. I had not drank enough water during this first leg of the race. I grabbed a 20 ounce bottle of water off a shelf and started pouring. I wasn’t able to empty the whole bottle into the pack. I knew this was going to be a problem. I didn’t even bother to pour more of the Skratch Labs hydration mix we were using into reservoir. Even though I now had a full pack of water, I was now in the hole on hydration.
The forest thickens and daylight fades as we push on towards the second checkpoint at Melgeorge’s Resort. I was making a real effort to re-hydrate myself, pulling out my hydration tube from under my jacket frequently and drinking several swallows of water at a time. It wasn’t long before the tube started to gurgle. I was running out of water and we were still twenty miles from Melgeorge’s. Fortunately, Jeff had a small vacuum bottle of water in his frame pack. He was kind enough to let me have it. I took an occasional drink from the bottle over the next twenty miles. I needed to make this water last. I wasn’t a lot, but I would’ve been in real trouble without it.
The trail continues to soften and becomes more rutted as we pedal on, constantly searching for the best line. Occasionally we would pass places on the trail where a rider had obviously crashed; a big torn up spot on the trail; created by handlebars, pedals, sliding front wheels and of course the fallen rider.
Pushing the bike up hills seemed never ending. Some hills could be ridden as long as you could maintain traction. Some were too steep, soft and rutted. We were growing weary of the usual trail food of Clif Bars and Larabars. Even our excellent homemade peanut butter energy balls were getting old. The bite size balls are designed to be eaten easily while riding. They are packed with energy and will remain chewable even in sub zero temperatures. I was soon fantasizing about the real food we would get when we reached Melgeorge’s.
As we got closer to Melgeorge’s, the daylight was fading fast. We eventually needed to turn on our lights so we could more easily follow the best line and avoid the occasional deep rut that could knock you off the bike. In the darkness, we finally reached the crossing at Elephant Lake. Flagged stakes were put in to direct the racers across the lake. I knew we were close now and couldn’t wait to eat some hot food and get myself re-hydrated.
We rode up to the checkpoint cabin, parked the bikes outside and went inside. It felt so good to know that we could rest here for a while. I pulled off my gloves, headgear and stripped off my top layers and changed my base layer. The hospitality here was wonderful. There was plenty of hot food, drinks and snack foods for the racers. The bean soup was particularly good. After three hours at Melgeorge’s I had consumed several cups of coke, a cup of coffee, lots of water and three twenty four ounce bottles of water mixed with Skratch Labs hydration mix. It was time to head out and finish this race.
Jeff and I headed out to the trail and soon met up with Guillaume Forget, from Montreal. Guillaume rode with us all through the night to the next checkpoint. It was slow going all night up and down endless hills. The forest trail was dark and eerily quiet. We even saw a few wolf tracks along the way.
It was good to have company during this leg of the race. It was the most difficult section and we did our best to encourage each other. Guillaume’s homemade trail mix was a welcome treat. We saw many blinky lights attached to trees along the trail by racers who stopped to get some sleep in their bivy sacks. Despite our exhaustion, we pushed on through the night, arriving at Skipulk at daybreak.
After a quick stop for water and a bite to eat at the Skipulk checkpoint we left and rode up to the top of Wakemup Hill. The last big hill before the finish some 26 miles away. These last miles were relatively flat, but seemed to drag on forever. At this point we just wanted to be finished.
Jeff and I finally reach the finish line. The race volunteers and officials congratulated us on our finish and happily took photos for us as they inquired about our endeavor.
The traditional finishing trophy presentation and photos.
Sitting on something other than a bike in the Arrowhead Hospitality Room. It was a great feeling of accomplishment. Though tired and sore, we we were filled with that endorphin high that comes from pushing your body and mind to the limit for so many hours. It’s that high that keeps me riding my bike mile after mile.