Arrowhead 135 (not 270) Recap – The Final Chapter March 15, 2011Posted by whereschrisscotch in Races/Events - Recaps, Uncategorized.
It has been 6 weeks since the start of my final event for the Where’s Chris Scotch campaign. It is bittersweet, which is why I wanted to write the recap the day after I finished, but also why I have procrastinated to this late date. My goal was to finish the Arrowhead 135 Ultra on foot, rest one night, and then turn around and skijor the course backwards with our dog Cooper. Although I finished the Arrowhead race, I did not attempt to skijor the trail backwards upon the finish of the official race, and this still sits a bit sideways in my mind. On the positive, however, I finished the official race – 135 miles, on foot. Temps both nights on the trail reported reached -40F. Only 18 of 54 runners finished, so I am thankful to have even completed the first half of my goal.
The race starts on a Monday, thus giving a full weekend to drive to International Falls and spend the better part of two days going through the gear and making final preparations. I hitched a ride to I’Falls with Igor, a friend of mine who was also attempting Arrowhead for the first time. We arrived Saturday afternoon and passed the gear check-in, which was performed by Donny Clark. There is something about Donny that makes me smile, and I look forward to seeing him at the ultra events. He had a few last words of advice for me as I packed up my things and left the check-in. I bumped into Mitch Rossman, who I had met at Tuscobia 150 in December. We decided to get a small group together and grab some dinner at the Chocolate Moose. After dinner I grabbed a couple of Grainbelt Nord’East and moseyed over to Igor’s room, where he and Erik Dalgaard where staying. We talked strategy for a while and went through their various gear. As I had done Tuscobia and this was their first foray into an event like this, they had a lot of questions for me, which I was more than happy to give my two cents on. The discussions were fun and helped take some of the nerves down a notch. After a couple hours of hanging out with them I returned to my room and settled in for a night of cable quality movies. My excitement level was high and I had a tough time falling asleep at a reasonable hour, but made up for it by sleeping in on Sunday morning. After a huge breakfast and stop at Kmart for some last minute items I returned to my motel and started the arduous task of packing, unpacking and repacking all of my items. Trying to guess what I would need while on the trail was like throwing darts blindfolded. And my habitual pattern of over-packing wouldn’t work this time as I would need to carry everything I wanted to bring on the sled. Keeping the weight down was priority 1b, right after priority 1a of making sure I was prepared for anything that might happen.
The Pre-Race meeting and spaghetti feed gave us all a chance to mingle with the fellow racers. There were about 60 bikers, 54 runners and 6 skiers. While there were definitely some pre-race favorites and some big names hanging around, we all had similar look of cautious excitement in our eyes. The Arrowhead 135 doesn’t care how many time you have finished before, what kind of shape you are in or what you have won in the past, to the Arrowhead we are all fair game to its whims.
My dad (Dark, see his recap here) arrived in I’Falls as we were wrapping up at the pre-race meeting. He hadn’t had dinner yet, so Erik, Igor and I joined him for some food and a couple beers at restaurant down the street. Back at the hotel room I finished prepping my sled, which included filing down some of the hot glue that filled drill holes in my runners. The hot glue fill wasn’t flush with the runners, so Dark and I went to work getting them as even as we could. Thanks to Uncle Tom for the runners and help putting them on the sled. And thanks to Mari and Jodi for the hot glue.
Race day morning came too fast, as usual, for me. I felt rushed even though I had been prepping for days. I still wasn’t sure what to wear, but my plan was to under-dress as I figured the start of the race would cause me to heat up fast. The temperature was a crisp -10 degrees at the start. It was still dark, but light was coming up fast so I didn’t bother with my head lamp.
I was one of the last runners to leave the start line and really took my time the first couple miles as I tinkered with my sled and clothes, including putting my belt on. Yes, I started the race with my belt in my coat pocket and only after a mile of my pants sliding down did I remember to put it on. If I have anything to work on for races in 2011, and there is plenty to work on, I will try my best to show up to events fully clothed. But it adds a bit of humor in hindsight and to the other racers I suppose. Shortly after I had finished dressing, John Storkamp strolled up to me. We chatted for a few minutes and wished each other well as he pulled ahead of me. I needed another stop to make another adjustment to my sled. He was the last to leave the start line and although his goal was to win the race, he wasn’t in a big hurry right now. A race like this isn’t about who starts fast, or even gets to the half-way point first, as John would prove 44 hours later when he crossed the finish line first, winning an entry into the 2012 ITI. I knew this was a big deal for John, and was really happy to see him achieve his goal.
The next 57 hours or so are a jumbled mixture of vivid recollections and hazy, fleeting memories. The first 70 miles of the race were really tough for me. I found out very early on that I wasn’t able to run at all. My lungs just couldn’t handle the heavy breathing and after only a few steps I was buckled over gasping for air. The condition of my lungs, or lack thereof, was probably due to the stress put on them at Tuscobia 5 weeks earlier and the subsequent cold I picked up and still had. While I was discouraged as the cut-off times for Arrowhead are pretty tight, at least I knew this early on and was able to plan around it. I would have to keep my stops to a minimum and do my best to keep my walking pace as fast as I could without over doing it.
I reached the first checkpoint, the Gateway Store, around 7pm. 12 hours to go 35 miles. I wasn’t thrilled with how long this took, but also wasn’t overly concerned. My plan was to get inside, get as much food in me as I could, restock my water, change my clothes and get back on the trail as quickly as I could. This all sounds good and easy, but once you step into the warm air and feel the party going on inside it is easy to sit down in front of a big bowl of chili and lose track of time. I was one of the later runners to get to the checkpoint, so the place was filled to the rafters with other racers, crews and volunteers. Some of the racers had decided to drop here, some were unsure and others just trying to break free of the binds of this place. It is akin to the island of Siren, gently being lulled your demise. I manged to spend 90 minutes here, although most of the time was well used. I headed back out on the trail dry, well fed and hydrated , at 8:30 pm with 35 miles to go to the halfway checkpoint.
I left the Gateway store with Daryl Saari who I have mentioned before. Daryl was the one that seemingly appeared out of nowhere at the Tuscobia event with magic power-boosting pop tarts. I have bumped into Daryl at a lot of events over the past months – he logged somewhere close to 1,000 race miles in 2010, which is utterly amazing. I was excited to be heading out on the trail with him, as he is someone I really respect in the ultra community for not only his experience and durability, but also his kindness. The first few hours went quickly as we chatted and kept pace with each other.
But as the night went on and the temps plummeted to -40 Daryl was having trouble keeping warm. Eventually he succumbed to the cold and had to drop, picking up a ride from a snowmobile. I think this was sometime between 2 and 4 am. This was a tough moment for me. I was feeling pretty unsure about my own race, even as I walked along with Daryl, and when he dropped I felt what remaining air I had left in my sales slip away. I assessed my situation – I was tired and sore, but at least I was not freezing (a relative term). I tried not to think about what might happen as the night wore on and just focused on the present. I kept going and tried to make progress. The next 6-8 hours fall into the category of hazy. I didn’t see many people, and when I did it was like ghostly spirits passing each other without recognition. I was starting to see snow shapes, for lack of a better term. Snow shapes are all the things you think you see ahead of you on the trail, but when you reach them, all you really see is a clump of snow. I don’t know if these “hallucinations” come from sleep depravity, exhaustion, an over active imagination. Perhaps some combination of the three. I experienced the sa
me sorts of things at Tuscobia, so this time I just accepted the shapes are part of the deal. I also started sleep walking – just letting my eyes rest for a few seconds as my legs continued to move forward. Every now and then re-opening one or both eyes to make sure I was still upright and on the trail. I trudged onward toward dawn, hoping that sunlight would awaken me and refresh my systems. Eventually the sun rose, and slowly I made my way toward MelGeorge’s resort and a safe haven. My plan for this race was to push through the first 70 miles without sleeping. This would put me at MelGeorge’s resort with a place to rest out of the elements, and b
e a place for moral support from Dark, Helen and Cooper. As I spilled out on to Elephant Lake Iknew I had less than a mile to go. I saw Cooper and Dark, but they didn’t really register to me. Between the addition of my down coat, the layer of ice I had accumulated over my body, and my zombie death march, Dark didn’t recognize it was me until he said hello.
We made our way across the lake and I checked in with the race officials and stumbled to our cabin. My entire body was freezing, except my feet, which I couldn’t really feel. My legs were throbbing with fatigue and swelling. My nose hurt badly, and I feared it was frostbitten. The physical pain combined with 27 hours on the trail had me in a place I didn’t think I could return from. The past 5 hours I had only thought surviving long enough to get to the safe harbor of the checkpoint – thoughts of anything further down the course never crossed my mind.
Igor, Alicia, Erik and I decided before the race to rent a separate cabin here so we would have our own space. Igor and Alicia had already dropped, and Erik ended up resting at the cabin used for the checkpoint. The next three hours was a convoluted stream of eating and fitful sleeping as I tried to elevate my legs to alleviate the swelling and pain. I told Helen I was finished, resigning myself to dropping, eagerly accepting that I would start recovering faster knowing that I wouldn’t have to go back on the trail through 65 more miles of misery. My feet and legs felt like they might explode. My lungs were burning. My brain had shut down from exhaustion and lack of sleep. I was a mess. Two and half hours passed, feeling more like two and half minutes. Helen and my dad made several attempts to encourage me into dressing myself and getting back on the trail. I told them I couldn’t, that I hurt too much. I got out of the bed and made my way to the couch, thinking that if I showed some progress they would stop encouraging me and let me drop. Once to the couch I lost the faint grip I had on my situation and broke down. Not only was I not going to complete my goal of 270 miles, I wasn’t even going to finish the 135 miles of this forsaken race. Failure was staring me in the soul and it reduced me to a whimper. I thought of Katelyn and I got tears in my eyes. I was letting her down. I thought of how I would have to come back next year and try this beast again. All of these thoughts swirled through my mind and just when I didn’t think I could handle any more of it, I felt a tiny bit of something fighting back. Something inside was showing some sort of faint resolve. Helen was strong by my side with encouragement. Katelyn was in my thoughts with inspiration. After realizing all the self-pity I was allowing I started to get angry. I was angry because I knew I needed to do better for St. Jude and the cause I was supporting. I was angry for losing my grip. I was angry at the course, knowing that didn’t want to ever try this race again, but I also knew would have to keep trying until I conquered it. Doubts streamed through my mind – should I have trained more? Should I have slept on the trail over night? Should I only have done 75 miles at Tuscobia instead of 150? Why did I think I could ever do this anyway? What would Katelyn think, and everyone that had supported me? Dark and Helen had rearranged their lives to be here. Aunt Mari and Jodi were driving all the way from the Cities to the finish line in Tower, to see me off on my return trip, and I couldn’t even finish the first half of my plans. Then something snapped. I suddenly felt the unwavering support and confidence coming from my crew, Dark and Helen. They just assumed I would get up and finish. They knew I was in pain, but they didn’t accept dropping as an answer. The anger I felt welling inside turned to resolve. Maybe it was Helen soaking up all my self deprecation, self-doubt and self misery, and tossing it aside. Or maybe it had something to do with her suggesting I just try going 2 more miles, where there was a road crossing, and they would pick me up there if I wanted to drop. Whatever it was, I suited up and headed out. The pain and misery of the situation still existed, but I was choosing to ignore it. Instead focusing on the positives of the situation, and of my life.
I left MelGeorges with Roberto, whom I met at and ran with at Tuscobia. Roberto is a quite but strong person. I felt a sense of confidence as we headed out. We left at 1:45pm on Tuesday, where someone made the comment “No one has ever left this checkpoint this late and finished the race.” Something that would stick in my mind for the next 27 hours.
There are quite a few large hills out of MelGeorges but I had designed my sled with sledding in mind! Roberto and I got separated as I made good time on the downhills. At the top of each climb I turned around and made two short steps back to my sled and eased myself into position. I packed my sleeping bags and bivey in a stuff sack at the back of the sled. This acted as my seat. With most of my weight on my bag, my legs rested on top of my plastic tote, with my gear safely out out of harms way. I designed my harness and rope setup to attach to the sled in a manner that allowed me to sled the downhills without having to unstrap myself. I could steer with my poles behind me acting as rudders, or with my heels digging into the snow in front of me.
Turns out that road crossing Helen and Dark baited me with to get me back on the trail was closer to 7 or 8 miles away, not two as Helen had suggested. But no matter, I was feeling much much better. The afternoon sun and the downhill sledding had turned this nasty event into something else entirely. Now I was back to my core, just a boy out enjoying winter. My body and spirit responded and I was having fun again. The pain in my feet and legs gave way to a smile on my face, and I was making good time. I thanked Helen for getting my rear back on the trail and headed off into the evening.
It is roughly 40 miles from MelGeorges to the Crescent Bar and Grill, the third and final checkpoint. This section of the course is home to the hilliest stretch of the course. More or less 40 miles of up and down. I made good time into the evening and night hours. Just before dark, Todd Gabrielson, one of the snowmobile volunteers, approached me from further down the trail. He pulled up to me and stopped to check on me. He had a demeanor about him that was greatly reassuring. He asked how I was and assured me I looked great. I had a few questions about distances ahead and how far behind Roberto was. Todd said he was going to continue on past me and check to see how Roberto was doing and would come back and let me know. This offered great comfort – I was feeling good for the most part, but as darkness was ascending for the second night I found myself wishing for someone to walk with. If Roberto was close, I wanted to wait for him. Todd left to check on Roberto and I continued on. A short while later Todd returned to tell me that Roberto had decided to pull off the trail and get some rest. I realized that I likely going to be alone the rest of the night. Todd gave me some distances and let me know he wouldn’t be back on the trail until morning. He was “signing off” for the night and I was going to be alone. I told him thanks for the information and let him know how much I appreciated that he was volunteering. While he couldn’t do anything for me while I was racing, it was a comfort to know that he was out there somewhere should the course of events take a turn for the worst. As Todd sped off I added my headlight and some clothes and prepped myself for the long night ahead.
At about mile 98 I started getting very sleepy again and decided I would make a stab at sleeping on the trail for a while. I debated myself for the past hour if stopping to sleep was wise. The clock would continue to tick, the cutoff time getting closer and closer. But I also knew my current pace, probably less than 2 miles per hour, was too slow. I also longed to find other racers on the trial, hoping companionship would help keep my eyes open and my feet moving forward. I was again fatigued and having trouble keeping my eyes open. It was about 2 miles to the next shelter, Elbow Lake, and I decided to push through, desperately hoping I would find other runners there to join up with. When I got there I found nobody. I hesitated a bit, asking out loud, “should I push ahead and try to catch up or should I sleep?” In the end it was a fast decision, I needed sleep and I needed it now, especially since I was now asking myself questions out loud, and more telling perhaps, answering my own questions out loud. I surveyed the shelter and determined that it was best to lay my sleeping bag on the ground just outside the shelter (large rocks on the floor of the lean-to). I decided to keep all of my clothes on, including my shoes. I had a liner on the inside of my bag, so I wasn’t worried about dirt or tears. For whatever reason, I had my phone with me, so I set the alarm and tried to sleep. 3.5 seconds later my alarm went off, and I was agitated with myself for messing up the alarm. But when I looked at the time, I had slept for 35 minutes. This was good! And better yet, I had managed to wake up to my alarm (there was a concern that I would be so tired that I would sleep through my alarm and wake up sometime in the middle of the next day, having missed the cutoffs and ending my race). I crawled out of my sack and packed up my things. I had a good chill throughout my body so I set out immediately, already feeling better and able to stay awake.
About two miles down the trail I came to a depression where the trail flattens out and continued in a straight line for the better part of a mile. There were no trees and when I looked up it felt like being in a planetarium. The sky was crystal clear and abundantly littered with thousands of stars just waiting to be touched by my outstretched hand. I looked up behind me, in the general direction of north, hoping to see the northern lights. At the time I was a little disappointed not get a glimpse, but looking back I think I was standing right in the middle of them as they covered the entire sky, for there was a reddish hue radiating everywhere I could see. The crystal clear stars blinked with a red tint and it was beautiful. I stopped for a minute to admire the beauty of it all. It was absolutely silent and still. The natural world is so beautiful and refreshing, if we only stop to observe it from time to time. I felt an overwhelming surge of content and happiness. Snapped back to the reality of my situation by the stark temperatures in this low-lying area, I continued on.
Not long after my stop in the planetarium, I thought I saw a red light ahead of me, but it was disappearing as fast as it appeared. I dismissed the idea that it was another racer – earlier in the night, perhaps spurred on my desire to find other racers, I had seen a red light and became extremely giddy. Only to be let down once I realized it was a radio tower I was seeing. This time I wouldn’t let myself be disappointed. I tried to keep my head down, not allowing myself to peer into the darkness ahead. But the temptation was too much. Was it possible I had caught up to John Taylor finally? I knew he had left MelGeorges less than two hours before me. The light would blink, and then disappear for a few moments. Then another blink. Then disappear. Was I imagining this? How delirious had I become? This game continued on for close to 30 mins, as I picked up my pace to close in on the target. I still didn’t know if it was a real target or imagined, but then all of sudden I was close enough to see the outline of a body. I was ecstatic when I saw a headlight swing around and look at me. It turns out I had caught up to Mike Stattelman. Mike had started the race on skis, and for the better part of the first day he was able to actually ski. But when the sun set and the temps dropped Mike had to start walking. When the temps get so cold, skis can’t generate enough heat to melt the snow beneath them, which is what provides the glide skiers depend on for forward momentum. Mike had his skis tied to a string that was looped behind his neck. The tips dragging along beside him as he walked. While Mike’s pace was slower than mine at this point, I adjusted to match him. I didn’t mind at all, as I finally had some company. Ultras have a particular aspect about them I find appealing. There is so much time spent alone on the trail. There is something peaceful about it that allows introspection in a setting that lends itself perfectly to it. But at 4 am, and nearly 48 hours into the race, I much preferred the company to being alone. Mike and I took turns talking about our gear and strategies. I think he got quite a quick out of my sledding demonstration. Probably even longing for a sled of his own at this point (skiers typically use a back pack for their gear, as a sled causes to much disruption on skis). Mike is from Duluth, and as it turns out is friends with Kevin Kinney. Kevin and his wife are the owner/operators of Empire Canvas Works, the creators of my Big Mitts and my self-named wool Arrowhead Coat.
Mike knew that I was able to move at a faster pace and urged me to move ahead of him. I declined the first couple times he suggested this, enjoying his company was worth the slower pace to me. Eventually I agreed however, and at one of the downhills I jumped in my sled. At the bottom of the hill, instead of waiting for Mike like I had done previously, I kept moving on. My best guess is that I had less than 10 miles yet to reach the next checkpoint. It was close to 6 am and I looked forward to the sunrise and the warmth of a new day.
I was closing in on morning and the Crescent Bar and Grill, the mile 110 checkpoint. I had two more memorable experiences before I would get there however. With the impending sunrise the night had started to retreat, but it was still dark enough to need my headlamp. The trail approached an intersection with some sort of road/open area. Due more to my lack of coherence and the difficult lighting than to the lack of trail markings, I couldn’t seem to find where the Arrowhead left the road and continued on. I spent about 30 minutes walking back and forth over the same 100 yards where the trail and road merged. In retrospect, I was too concerned with taking a wrong turn. Eventually I found the right way and continued down the trail and towards Wakemup Hill. The sight of my last major event.
I was again having trouble keeping my eyes open and staying awake. The sun was nearly over the horizon as I turned the corner and vaguely registered the the steepest grade of the course. This must be it – Wakemup Hill. It is probably only a couple hundreds yards long, but it seemed like it was straight uphill. I trudged to the foot of the climb and took a deep breath. After adjusting my harness I put my head down and started the climb. Slow and steady. So slow I had time to fall asleep as I climbed. Then I slipped into a dream-like place. But this dream became nightmarish quickly. I was see-sawing between drowning and being suffocated by something over my head. I flashed back and forth, was I drowning or suffocating? With each fruitless breath my fear escalated. I couldn’t breath and I couldn’t take it anymore. I screamed out as my arms flailed about my face and head. I screamed a second time, waking me from my dream. As I floated back to the real world I struggled to grasp where I was. At the top of Wakemup Hill my stocking cap was 5 feet away from me on the ground and in my hand was the gator that had been around my face to protect my frozen nose. I was gasping for air as I struggled to unzip my coat. I wasn’t drowning to be sure, but I was suffocating. The exertion of climbing the steep grade has sent my lungs into asthmatic spasm. I had slept-walked up the hill and my physical body lent the fuel for this horrible airless nightmare. It took me a couple minutes to calm myself down enough to get adequate air and recompose myself. As I was putting myself back together I looked down below me from the perch of Wakemup Hill. The sun was just breaking the horizon of another bluebird day, showing pink hues across the horizon. In the span of only a couple minutes I was submerged in a microcosm of this race, a microcosm of life. At our worst moments, there is still beauty and joy around us.
With only 2 miles to go until Crescent, I knew I had the race in hand. The 30+ miles from Crescent to the finish was flat and the sun would be shining. I started to feel the excitement of knowing the finish was attainable. I had close to 35 miles to go, but I again believed it was possible.
As I walked into Crescent just after 7:45 am Wednesday, I spotted Helen, Mari and Jodi inside. I was again physically demolished, but I had a little more exuberance than when I reached MelGeorge’s.
And I was happy to be in the company of my crew. John Taylor was also there, having arrived just 30 minutes ahead of me. My plan for Crescent was to get my clothes off and let them dry, eat a pizza and try to catch a nap for an hour. The first two objectives were met, but I found out that sleeping at this checkpoint wasn’t allowed. Helen and I talked about things – I had until 7 pm. If I could leave Crescent by 10 am I would have about 9 hours, to go the remaining 30+ miles. If I could average just 3 miles and hour I would have time to sleep on the trail if I needed. I laid down on the floor with my feet elevated on a chair and a pizza next to my head. After eating and recouping some of my energy I got dressed and set out to finish this race. I left at just after 9 am. John Taylor was 30 minutes ahead of me, Barb Owen 10 minutes ahead, and John Finn was 2 minutes behind me. I had not met John Finn or Barb Owen before, but within minutes of leaving Crescent we had formed a group and were making progress. Barb, coming off her finish of the Brazil 135 just days earlier (amazing!!) was moving pretty slow. John and Barb dropped back just a bit and I made a bid to catch up to John Taylor. The rest of the day the 4 of us traveled more or less together. John is another runner and great person I have met over the past few months and I was happy to finally be able to share the trial with him. He is prolific in 100 miles races, doing as many as he can each year. He has oodles of experience and is always happy to help other runners. I saw Helen, Dark and Cooper a couple times during the day, and with each meeting we all shared in the happiness of the nearing end.
Finally, at 4:13 pm on Wednesday I crossed the finish line with Helen, Dark, Cooper, Mari and Jodi. 57 hours and 12 minutes to cover 135 miles from International Falls to Tower. In the heart of winter.
This was not only the end to the race, but also the end of the Arrowhead 270 attempt. Helen and Dark were of the opinion that I not try to skijor the trail back. It didn’t take much for me to agree with, as I was spent in every way possible. While it was disappointing to not complete my goal, I was satisfied with finishing the actual Arrowhead 135 race, and I can always make another go of trying to do the return trip next year!
There are many people to thank:
Thank you to all of the supporters of the Where’s Chris Scotch campaign. Your moral support of my efforts are wonderful and your donations are making the difference in the lives of children.
Thanks to Dave and Mary Pramann, Race Directors of the Arrowhead Ultra. I peppered them with emails and questions for months leading up to the race. They graciously answered every one. Dave and Mary put on a top notch event, even if they do like the bikers more than the runners or skiers!
Thanks to Ellen and Phil Hart, of the Gateway Store at the mile 35 checkpoint. All of the employees/volunteers were amazing as they fed us and dried our gear.
Thanks to MelGeorge’s Resort, especially Carla. Mile 70 checkpoint. Helen, Dark, Cooper and I stayed for the Thursday night following the race to enjoy some down time and skiing. The Log Cabin has a perfectly relaxing northwoods feel to it, and it is puppy friendly!!
Thanks to the Crescent Bar and Grill. Mile 110 Checkpoint. Great pizza and laying on the floor of the restaurant sure beats laying in the snow!
Thanks to Todd Gabrielson and all of the volunteers that make this race much safer than it otherwise could be. Thank you to the volunteers for countless hours of prep and sleepless nights during the race supporting the racers on our way.
Thank to Aunt Mari and Jodi. Having you guys at the finish line meant so much. Your continued support of my campaign this past year has been amazing!
Thanks to Dark. Having you around always makes the challenges seem a bit less daunting. Thanks for rearranging your life to be there to help me and to keep an eye on Cooper. Seeing the wolf hat on the trail always gives a little laugh!
And finally, thanks to Helen. Your championship experience is a comfort, as I know I am in capable hands. Moreover, your guidance, support and understanding have helped me tremendously. Without you I never would have known this was possible. Without you I wouldn’t have finished.