by Ben Haworth
February 22, 2010
4.00am… I’m wide awake… I’ve never really suffered from jet lag but on this trip it had been killing me, its race morning and with a 7am start to the race I was kinda glad of it… at least at this time it was proving useful to be awake and organised… the night before however I had struggled to even touch my food with a bad combination of nerves and tiredness.
Before that ill fated attempt at carb loading for the task ahead I had been to the pre race meeting… as I looked around it was a real who’s who of snow racing… Oatley, Pramman, Basinger, Andre, Farrow, Gray… all the old hands of snow racing were here and moods were high. Even a welcome letter from the Mayor couldn’t settle my pre race nerves which were amplified tenfold by the experience in the room.
My bike had literally been packed ready for 2 days… as soon as I had got my gear checked at sign in I had come back to the room and loaded it up followed by the obligatory spin around the block just to make sure all was well… the front rack looked a little bent after the flight but it wasn’t causing any problems.
I had bought an egg and sausage muffin and a selection of doughnuts for breakfast as I had been reliably informed that fatty foods were king when the temps are low… what came out of the microwave after putting in the muffin package was inedible so it was a few doughnuts and a lot of water.
The race start was luckily not far from the Voyageur motel… the sight of rows and rows of fat tired bikes with flashing led lights was a true sight to behold… the temperature was low.. Apparently -30 degrees Celcius… we were called over to what was a vague start line and with a voice from the dark shouting “its 7.03am… we better start them…” we were off and onto the first section of trail.
The Arrowhead trail this year was apparently in good shape… at its widest point it’s probably almost 6m wide narrowing to maybe 2m in places, every now and then the overhanging branches of snow covered trees forcing you into the centre of the trail away from the good line… the first section was so straight you could see the long snake of riders stretching out into the old morning… as my eyelids and eyebrows froze I maintained a steady pace holding wheel after wheel of fat tired pace makers… I was glad my front bag obscured my front tyre as up against the much larger fat bike tyres I may have got an inferiority complex… the more experienced hands had gone off so hard they must have been over a km ahead of me after not so long on the bike but my head was in it for the long game.. I had a time in my head I wanted to achieve and a DNF was not an option with this being the first of a trio of big races for me this year all interlinked.
I warmed quickly… my Montane gear, Dogwood Pogies and big boots were working well… people were already off and periodically running to force blood back into their feet and warm them… I could just sit and pedal my pace unaware of the hostile temperatures surrounding my exterior.
The bike was riding pretty well… the trail on the whole was ‘skinny’ tyre friendly (any tyre under 3″ in this world is considered a ‘skinny’) but occasionally you would find some soft snow and the bike would slide out and force a body contortion to keep it upright… mentally I had split my race up into four quarters with a checkpoint signifying the end of each quarter.
During the first section before the Gateway store checkpoint I was slowly eating my trail mix (a mixture of chocolate and yoghurt coated nuts and fruit) by placing a few pieces into the side of my mouth and letting it thaw before chewing… I had made the mistake of exposing the bite valve on my hydration pack to the cold and it had punished my mistake by freezing so as I stopped to take a drink from the insulated bottle in my frame bag I tucked the hydration pipe down the front of my salopettes to let my body heat melt the blockage.
At a major road crossing I passed Jenn (Hopkins), Jenn had lucked out and had been sent by Madison to follow my effort meaning she had to put up with not only my pre/post race moods but also the bitter cold of Minnesota. I had really started to get into this race… The trail had started to wind a little more so there was less distraction from riders ahead and you could just ease back into your own world… enjoy the trails… My only nag was that I was finding it difficult to find a good hand position on my Titec H bars that didn’t hurt… I was reckoning my bars were too low and too much weight was being transferred onto my palms*… I pressed on.
*(still can’t feel a portion of my hands through restricted blood flow )
The Gateway store was the first checkpoint and was about 35 miles in… There was a big row of bikes outside when I arrived… amazingly it had taken 6 hours to get here although it felt a fraction of that.
I had a strange combo of hotdog, chocolate and an apple… I’m always amazed by what the body craves doing stuff like this… I wasn’t here long before I was being encouraged by Jenn to press on so I filled the bottle and pack with fresh fluid and got underway again.
I knew the section I had ridden was real flat but this would soon come to an end and give way to rolling hills… the problem with hills was that they were rarely rideable and pretty short… A lot of mounting and dismounting and some super sketchy descending with some near miss tank slappers till I adapted hanging a foot off the pedal which seemed to give enough stability to gather controllable speed on the downs.
This section to the just past midway point, Melgeorges Cabin, was about another 35 miles but with the hills seemed to take a lot longer… I was soon into the rhythm of descending the downs and pushing the majority of the climbs… I hooked up with Ken Krueger, an International Falls local and taking part in his 4th Arrowhead with a finish in his previous 3 so we chatted about what was ahead until his fat tyred bike allowed him to open a gap and slip up the road… 4 hours into this section it became dark and the temperature started to fall.. I already had my Alpkit Gamma head torch on my head so not wanting to stop and get cold swapping to my Light and Motion Stella I just used what was to hand… and it worked just great.
As I flowed down a descent past some snowmobilers (snowmobilers are a big feature of this race as the Arrowhead trail is a state snowmobile trail but come in 2 forms.. the Good.. these guys are out on the trail at all hours making sure we are good.. the Bad.. these are non race related trail users that slide the corners at great speed and scare the crap out of you) I noticed a pannier bag on the floor… realising it belonged to Ken I managed to strap it to the front of my bike with a bungee cord I had packed as a very last minute edition to my frame bag… I already had so much weight on the bike I doubted I would notice anymore and I imagined how sick I would feel to get to the finish minus some of the required kit and getting a DNF.
As the miles passed the frequency of the hills intensified… I got told after the race the Alaskan guy Billy (arcticcycles.com) and his friend Bob had had a conversation about how crappy the little short sharp hills were and Bob wasn’t loving them, Billy made the statement “these hills aren’t so bad… a 100 of them would suck though” 🙂 about 101 hills later Bob wasn’t amused.
On a long slow push I caught glimpse of a flashing led light halfway up and it wasn’t long before I managed to pull up to Ken… amazingly he hadn’t noticed he was a pannier bag down and was VERY happy to get it back although I declined his offer to keep hold of it and give him it back before the finish… I left the bungee in place and it now became a handy map holder… thanks for the 5 bucks to buy a beer Ken.
As we reached the 5 miles to Melgeorge sign myself and Ken were caught by the Alaskans Billy and Bob, their bikes glowing with fluoro tape in their rims, it was an impressive sight as they road almost on top of each other they were so close.. It was a good motivator to keep up with these guys and it didn’t seem too long till we popped out onto the pan flat frozen Elephant Lake… first frozen lake I have ever ridden.
The checkpoint took a tantalizing long time to reach but was worth the effort.
As I stepped into the big warm wooden cabin I was immediately offered grilled cheese sandwiches, soup and hot chocolate… all were gratefully accepted. As I stripped down to base layers I got to dry out all my gear while change to a fresh base and rest up for a short while. Jenn was here and made sure I was taking fluids as I waited for my outer layers to dry. The pull of Melgeorges cabin was overwhelming and difficult to break away from…a lot of riders came in as I ate and many had the intention of climbing into a bed until the morning. I knew I would be better to press on continuing my steady pace… I had reached Melgeorges in just under 14 hours since the start and had spent just under 2 hours getting myself fed and ready there.
At just before 11pm I made my move… filled my water carriers, put on the freshly warmed layers and slipped into the night…I stuck on my iPod for the first time to ease me into the night as I knew there was a big gap in front of me and not many riders following me down the trail for a fair few hours.. volume low and only one ear to keep it safe.
It wasn’t more than half an hour after leaving the checkpoint that I felt riding on the flat was harder than it should be… I then realised my worst nightmare had become reality… a flat tyre. I knew Shaggy had suffered this fate at last year’s Iditarod and I was dreading such an event to happen to me as after all changing a puncture is crappy at the best of times but lower the temperature to below minus 30 Celsius and it becomes a whole lot more horrifying a task.
I thought the most sensible thing I could do would be to walk to a trail shelter, these are 3 sided wooded buildings approximately 8 miles apart on the trail and usually stocked with materials for a fire, there I could either get some sleep or get a fire going and change the flat in relative comfort. I began to push the trail.
A snowmobiler stopped to check me out and as he was happy enough with my positive mood he told me I wasn’t far off a shelter so I pressed on… I walked for an hour and a half with the promise of a fire driving me on knowing if I settled for a snowy bivvi and then discovered the trail shelter not far along the trail I would kick myself… after this push I was caught by a rider who also reassured me that the shelter was not far off… after another hour and a half still driven by the thought of a good shelter I finally found a trail shelter. No wood for a fire:(.
I went with the plan of getting into my sleeping bag and resting till light and warmer conditions for tube changing… unfortunately pushing my bike had lowered my body temperature too far although while moving I felt comfortable as I took off my outer layer and climbed into the bivvi I started to shiver uncontrollably.. I put on a brave face as the original snowmobiler finally caught up with me and apologised that it was further than he thought but worry was creeping into my mind as people have succumbed to the cold in this race and I wasn’t getting any warmer.
At this point I made a very positive decision… I got up… my outer layer and gloves had frozen solid so I dug out my spare jacket and mittens… with these on I started with some jogging and windmills on the trail to get some blood flowing… I then systematically changed my flat… every little action was interspersed with windmilling and jogging to keep a comfortable temperature… hands sticking to metal rims and metal pump… it took me an hour to get the tube changed and get everything packed and back on the bike, taking time to eat some food too.
I left pretty happy with myself… I had taken a situation that I felt was gonna end my race and had turned it around… I had faced the worst thing I thought would happen and with some clear thinking I had overcome this problem and was back making progress on the trail… albeit pretty slow progress as the hills came thick and fast.. all short and steep forcing sometimes to take a break midslope.
This section between Melgeorges and the Tipi at The Crescent bar and grill was only supposed to measure 40 miles but it was brutally relentless… time went on and on and every time a recognisable feature on the map was reached it was only to reveal the terribly slow progress.
The night sky was absolute perfection… no light pollution… no clouds just a perfect selection of bright stars above the trail forcing every now and then me to stop and switch off my headtorch to take it all in.. Although never for too long as thoughts of wolves out on the trail was always in the back of my mind…
As the night lifted and gave way to a warmer day the trail still continued with no sign of the next checkpoint… eventually the Wakemup Hill came into sight… I knew this was the last vertical obstacle on the course before flat trail all the way to the finish.
Wakemeup was brutal, it was definitely a push with 3 stops mid slope till it was crested and no time to enjoy the view at the top I slid the backside of it and ploughed on to the Tipi checkpoint.
That section alone with complications had took me near 12 hours.
At the Cedar Bar I ordered an unusual Red Bull and Dr Pepper combo which turned out to not be such a bad choice as it was like rocket fuel and revitalised my tired body as much as the knowledge that I had only 22 flat miles on well packed trails left to ride.
As I left the checkpoint and reentered the trail I was more than on top of my gear… I was now riding in just base layer up top and my Alpkit wooly bobble hat was off and I was cranking in a euro ski combo of salopettes, headband and sunglasses, the shame… but least I was comfortable and no one was there to witness it… the trail was totally as described… Flat and fast.
Not long after making the turn for Fortune Casino I ran into Jenn on course dutifully braving the cold as she had done the entire race to keep the finger on the trigger and document the first of this year’s challenges for me… she let me know I had about a mile left so I got going to lay this race to rest.
One final big crank up a short climb I was determined not to get off on saw me cross the unmanned finish line… 31 hours 40 minutes… a huge day on the bike by any measuring stick.
I rolled round to the back of the building to be let in by Dave Pramman, 3rd place finisher, who had been there for a LONG time and his congratulations for getting a finish meant alot… he is a quiet guy but you get that feeling he is a machine on the bike.
This race was the one of the Big 3 I plan to do that I feared the most and by no means was it a walk in the park but I walked away with a new found love of this winter racing… it requires so much more than a good set of legs.. You have to come to these events with your mind, body and kit dialed… finishing is never a given and you constantly have to adapt to the changing snow and weather conditions.
I enjoyed this event immensely… the race volunteers were second to none and a real driving force behind the riders… the riders themselves were always supportive and helpful on and off the trail… and finally the location was inspirational… I’m sure I’ll be back.
Big thank you to Genesis Bikes for backing me with not only bikes but helping with my expenses, Montane for providing me with warmth during this race, Alpkit for my bags and sleeping gear, Jenn ( it must of been cold out there), the Arrowhead Organisers and Volunteers, the local Police at all road crossings for ensuring our safety, Jerald at the Voyageur Motel for not only providing fantastic accommodation but going beyond the call of duty and running racers back to the start after they had finished… and finally Grace who puts up with me doing these crazy things even though I know she worries sick about me.
One down… Two challenges to go… countdown to Yak Attack begins.