Thursday, February 05, 2009

Arrowhead 135

I borrowed these pics from MC. My camera was pretty much froze up from the start. Mike's got a real knack for capturing the experience both visually and in prose, so be sure to check out his writeup.

Thanks for all the comments. My effort was merely putting one foot in front of the other, powered by chocolate covered espresso beans and peanut butter. Much learned, yet much to learn.

This was my first attempt at a "self sufficient" race event. It's not a completely self sufficient event, as there are three checkpoints, two of them with restocking supplies and heat. The third was a simple ti pee with a fire, good for warming hands, but that's about it. There's a pretty big required gear list, you can see that here, a 15lb minimum limit on the mandatory gear. 133 miles of snowmobile trail in the coldest place in the lower 48, racing with an international gathering of endurance athletes, some with the knowledge and well honed skills to brave any condition, some not so much. The distance had been known to take as little as 16 hours or as much as 60 hours depending on conditions and method of travel.

I started thinking about and researching for this race right after Triple D last year. Spent a good 6 months collecting gear for it, of which, some was still showing up the week beforehand. But every bit of it was obsessed over, as is my nature. I didn't get anywhere near as much training time with the whole kit as I would have liked, one good ride on snow with the Pugs(Triple D), one -18deg bivy in the front yard, and one short ride with the whole kit loaded up. Every one of those experiences were priceless in the knowledge and confidence gained. I also had lots of time suffering through bitter cold and windy metrics and centuries thanks to the Cup O Dirt challenge. A fair amount of time spent practicing the biggest lesson learned from Triple D last year, walking next to my bike to keep circulation in my feet.

Weather coming into the event was unpredictable, but I've come to expect that lately. Cold spells and heavy snow, followed by heat waves and freezing rain, followed by sheer winds and another cold front. The drive up was windy, but the roads were clear. Trail conditions were good, hard pack. Ten minutes after checking into a mom and pop motel in Orr the power went out. Fell asleep listening to the wind roar in an unheated room. Slept well knowing there was nothing left to do but put all the preparation to use. The morning revealed powdered roads and calmed winds. We scouted out a couple of key bail out points should the need arise, and headed for the gear check in. The race headquarters was a melting pot of languages. Lots of new faces, a couple familiar, and few known though the blogosphere. Grilling by the Gear Nazi went well enough with a few pointers I hadn't thought of. Required gear weighed out to 19lbs without water, primary food, or prolly a third more weight in other random gear still on the bike. I knew I was carrying more than I needed, but the extra insurance was making up for my lack of proper test time.

A couple hours later we were all back in the meeting room for the prerace briefing. Symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite, course markings, checkpoints, question and answer. Mike gave an abbreviated insight to Iditarod(worth the trip in itself). Group photo. Back to the hotel for last minute tinkering and sleep. Already an inch of new snow on the ground. That's not gonna help.

Morning comes early, pack the bike in the van and head next door for breakfast. I take my time with breakfast and chat with a few other racers that come in. This race is staggered start in the manner that you can start any time between 7 and 8:30am. Show up early and you break trail for everyone else, show up late and you're losing daylight. I'm aiming for somewhere in the middle, hoping a few bikers will get out and set a track. I figure all the fasties will wait till later when its packed and fast, conserving energy for trail breaking and hills later in the race. I have no real intentions in the podium, only to finish and learn.

It's a ten mile drive South of town to the start. Temp is about -8 deg F or so. The race starts with an ~9mile out and back straight in to a mild wind. The trail is well packed by bikes, runners and skiers sleds. I take off at 7:30. Tempo effort is about all I plan on doing all day, but it seems that is enough to reel the earlier starters in pretty quick. I've definitely got the largest gear load of any of the bikers I see, but it handles ok, and it doesn't seem to matter at the moment. The tracks of skate skiers dragging sleds side to side seem horribly inefficient. Runners seem to be keeping up with the skiers pretty well. Matt Maxwell looks to be frosting up already. The trail clears out a bit into stands of little scrubby evergreens and the headwind hits a little more direct. I meet Pramaan and Charlie barrelling down the trail back at me. I wasn't expecting to see Dave out front breaking trail right off, seems strange. Mike is rolling pretty quick behind them, but rolls off the bike with camera in hand to take a shot of me spinning down the trail towards the turn around. He rides that Smoots like he's rolling down the street on bmx bike, totally smooth.

I meet a few more riders before reaching the turnaround, maybe five or six more, and then turn back to see who's following up behind me. I'm already ahead of all the skiers and runners. There's a pretty big gap between me and the next rider. Lance is passing people pretty fast going the other way. I manage to catch four or five more riders before crossing over the highway and heading for the much less traffic ed trail. No snowmobile traffic yet this morning. Down to following the Endomorph groove left by the leaders, switching from one side of the trail to the other every quarter mile or so, searching for faster snow. Must be four more to catch ahead of me, not that I think I have any chance of doing so, but Dave and Charlie must be working awfully hard breaking trail up there. Mike surely has caught up to them by now. I wonder who the fourth rider is? Twenty minutes later Lance catches up to me as I fumble a bridge crossing. He says he's "conserving energy" as he passes at +12mph. I try to keep pace for a little bit, but it's just faster than my load wants to roll. A couple snowmobiles go by. We both fumble a little on a rutted corner and stop to eat a little. A little further on we catch up with Lindsay. I exchange greetings and roll ahead. Lance hangs back and chats alittle, then he flies past again and off in the distance as I continue my tempo touring pace. I doubt I see him again, he should catch up with the lead group in no time.

Hours pass and hills get a little bigger. I'm off pushing hills as it's more effort than it's worth to ride them, and sometimes it's nice to walk a little. Temps are nice, around 5-10 degrees. Riding resumes. Another rider glides by at road bike speed breaking trail up the other side of the trail. Not sure who that was, but he sure looks packed light. The first checkpoint, the Gateway Store is just around the corner. I've still got plenty of food and water, no need to go inside. Check in and keep moving. More hills, a few trail shelters sparsely thrown in there, some of them pretty well hidden. This section of trail has had a decent amount of snowmobile traffic on it, but it's still easier to ride the untracked edges of the trail, and follow the leaders Endomorph prints. I top a hill to see Mike sitting along the trail eating a meal. It's tempting to stop and join him, but I simply great him and roll on. The forest is silent place other than the squeaking of one of my derailer pulleys, or maybe it's just the chain rubbing the cogs funny. It seems to change as I shift. Either way it's like my very own flock of birds following me down the trail. An hour or so later I pause to silence some hunger and find Mike catching up. I remount as he rolls up and he asks how its going, I state that I had to feed the engine. He asks if I have to eat alot, my brain seizes up and all I can say is "well, I have to eat". I must have had some crazed look like I could butcher him for food or something, cause he fell back and ten minutes later he was nowhere to be seen. It's either that or the flock of birds was screwing up his solitude.

Hours go by without a soul in sight. There should be one more trail shelter before turning toward the lake crossing. The sun is setting and I'm getting a little drowsy, so I spend some time picking the chocolate covered espresso beans out of the super g.o.r.p. mix. An hour or so later I finally see the trail shelter. I pass a sign stating four miles to the MelGeorges Lodge, the halfway checkpoint. I'm well into dusk at this point. I was kind of hoping to be at the lodge by sunset, at least I'm close. An eternity later I see another sign, two miles to MelGeorges. Oh good, only one more eternity till the halfway point. Time to turn the lights on. Finally the lake shore comes to me, theres a faint glow somewhere off in the distance. The lake is drifted and slow going. The markers seem to be in a big arc and eventually the resort lights show up bright in font of me. Cheryl and a couple other volunteers come out to great me and send me down the foot path to the checkpoint cabin.

I walk in the checkpoint cabin to find Josh Peterson already hanging out. I didn't even know he was ahead of me. He doesn't sound very enthused with going on tonight. The race volunteers whip up some chicken noodle soup and grilled cheese and I pull off my outer layers to dry in front of the fireplace. About the time I finish up my soup Lindsay walks in. Change base layer, and hey, they've got a washer and dryer in this cabin! I was wearing a polypro baselayer, Nike rain jacket as a vapor barrier, and my RBH NTS jacket as my outer layer. Somehow the RBH jacket was soaked. As far as I know the Nike jacket is not a waterproof/breathable fabric, so I'm not sure how my outer layer ended up soaked. Anyways, they're both going in the dryer cause there's no way I'm starting the second half with soaked layers. Temp was -8 at dusk, -15 before I came in the cabin. Browse for snacks, reload my food supply out of my drop bag. I only went through one bag of super G.O.R.P., one bag of peanut butter bars, and about a liter and a half of water. Looks like I brought enough food. I was carrying three bags of G.O.R.P one bag of peanut butter bars, one bag of grapes, one bag of peanut butter cups, one bag of chocolate covered raisins/junior mints/cookiedough balls, a flask of Hammer gel espresso, and two liters of water from the start. Somewhere in here Dave Gray and another rider come in, and Mike sticks his head in the door, checks in, and keeps moving on down the trail. Dave is feeling the lingering effects of the flu, and none of the riders here currently sound like their going back out tonight. Well, that should make things peaceful out there. 45minutes later my outer layers were dry, so I dressed, added another bag of peanut butter bars and filled all three 1 liter bottles I was carrying with water, and headed out the door.

The next ten or so miles of trail in the loop between the resort and road leading to the resort were filled with some of the steepest hills and most exhilarating roller coaster hills of the whole route. The snow had frozen just a little harder, the air was a little more brisk, the moon was out bright, and there were large canine tracks down both sides of the trail. My light, loaded bike handling, and bike pushing skills were all to be put to good use here. Thoughts of my headlight shutting off mid downhill and catching up with whatever canine was patrolling the trail wandered around in the back of my mind. Soon enough I reached the road crossing and started the endless climb. I'm still not sure if it was real, but it seemed like the trail after the road crossing was a good ten/fifteen miles of arrow straight gradual incline. I kept thinking, man there's gotta be a huge downhill after this. Eventually it turned back into small rollers, but no really huge downhill. Somewhere in here I saw Mike's Smoots stuck in the snowbank where he'd stopped to bivy for the night, and then shortly after that my primary headlight battery died.

Now I was down to my weak headlamp only. Navigation was accomplished by staring straight down to follow the Endomorph tracks, and watch for the right turn that would take me to the third checkpoint, the ti pee. I'd left the second checkpoint(the halfway point) at ~7:00pm, I wouldn't reach the ti pee till ~4:00am, and I wouldn't have seen a soul in 9 hours. For awhile I thought I'd missed the last checkpoint as I'd been wandering around in the dark for so long after the turn, the ti pee was supposed to be pretty close after the turn according to the map. I kept looking for this huge hill that was supposed to be before the ti pee, and it kept not coming. Finally I crested what seemed to be just another hill, popped out into a clearing, and there was a dim glow of the third check point and a pair of flashing tailights. As I got closer I could see it was Lance's Fatback and a Pugsley sitting next to the trail. I stumbled around to the door and almost fell under the bottom of the ti pee when I stepped on the plastic footprint they had under it. When I made it inside I found a smokey little fire and a full house. Lance and Pramaan were wrapped up in their sleeping bags by the door, and two volunteers were in their sleeping bags on the far side of the fire. Lance's frozen mushing suit was thawing by the fire. There was just about enough room to kneel and warm my hands on the fire. Inside the ti pee was not warm, as a matter of fact it might have been warmer outside, but it was enough to warm my numb fingers back to usefullness. Earlier on the trail my sweat soaked hands finally caught the chill and went numb. I had to open a set of hand warmers, warm them up enough to regain dexterity, get a dry set of gloves out, and swap gloves. Fifteen minutes of hard pedaling in dry gloves was enough to warm them back up as long as I was in my poagies, but as soon as I stopped at the tipee they started getting cold again. Before the ti pee I was thinking it would be nice to bivy there, as my pace was creeping with my good lights being dead. However, with the ti pee already at max capacity and the location being so exposed to the bitter winds, the last 25miles into the finish seemed a better alternative. So I warmed my hands by the fire, went outside and grabbed a baselayer, my down coat and pants, and my RBH mitts. My RBH jacket and Nike rain jacket were both soaked again, so I pulled them off, swapped base layers, and put all my down clothing on. One more hand warming on the fire, put on the mitts, grab my now frozen soaked clothing and head out the door. Kneeling in the ti pee had been cutting the circulation off to my feet, so now they were a little cold, a first on the ride so far thanks to my mukaluks. I packed everything back up on the bike, and walked briskly down the hill towards the finish to get the circulation back in my feet.

I think the hill after the ti pee may have been that huge downhill I was climbing up to twenty miles ago. And I walked it. After reaching the bottom the trail turned left a little and continued straight and flat nearly til daylight. One foot in front of the other, staring down, following the two pugsley tracks in front of me. Funny, I started this ride hoping to finish, and now I'm lost in third place. A T-intersection appears in front of me and the Endomorph tracks seem to have been drifted over, crap. Ride in circles a few times in the intersection looking for tracks. Nothing. Pull out the compass. Head East. The tracks reappear, whew. I keep half expecting Lance and Dave to go blowing by me as I'm creeping down the trail. The sun is coming up and thoughts of the approaching finish start tormenting me. I know there's another T-intersection and a turn that heads off to the finish. Every bend in the trail is a cruel joke. Maybe that's the intersection, ride alittle faster, only to round the bend and see another 2 mile straight to another bend. Maybe thats the intersection.....repeat a dozen times. My impatience suprises me. Watching the two sets of tracks ahead of me I can tell the leaders were riding together yet, and walking as much as they were riding, so it seems. I can relate, at times I'm off walking just to keep myself entertained, and it's nearly as fast.

The forest is starting to thin and I've passed a few logging roads to the left. The trail is getting wider and there are signs of snowmobile traffic. Soon enough I can hear a chainsaw in the distance. I've got to be getting close. The Sign for Bayview Lodge passes, only a few more miles before the turn towards the finish at Fortune Bay Casino. The trail now looks like a superhighway for snowmobiles. Puts me in mind of some of the pics I've seen of the Iditarod trail, sparce scrubby evergreen trees and expansive spaces.

Finally I see the turn for the Casino, up a nice steep hill naturally. But it's a nicely packed hill, almost like riding pavement. The next few miles roll by quick with a buzz of snowmobile traffic and fast hardpacked snow. One last grunt up off the trail into the parking lot of the casino. A finish banner hangs overhead, but the finish is upstairs in the casino. Just a little more route finding to do inside, two more sets of stairs, and finally into a mostly empty banquet room for the finish.

There was only one volunteer taking names and times and updating the other volunteers at the finish area. I never saw the winner after I got to the casino. 2nd place Charlie Farrow wandered in after awhile. Then I took a shower and went to get something to eat. Eventually half a dozen people (finishers and dropouts)showed up. Lindsay Gauld, Lance Andre, Dave Pramaan. Talking with fellow bike nerd Dave Grey of Surly Bicycles was interesting. And then I started to fall off the deep end of consciousness, so we loaded up and headed for home.
I started the race at 7:45am Monday and finished at 9:08am Tuesday, 25 hours and 23minutes total. 4 hours and 23 minutes behind the leader, Terry Brannick, and 3 hours and 25minutes behind second place Charlie Farrow. The rest of the results can be found here.

This race was everything I was hoping it would be and more. Truly a stepping stone for larger more self sustained multi-day events, whether it be racing or touring. Much was learned, yet there is much to learn.

Many thanks to my parents for "crewing" and not freaking out, Pierre and Cheryl Ostor for putting together such a great event, all the volunteers and fellow racers for helping make the event what it is, and to Lance Andre for providing the stepping stone of Triple D that got me into this frigid obcession in the first place.

I can't put my finger on what it is that makes this sort of event so appealing to me, all I can say is that this was the most enduring event I've ever done, and yet the most lucrative. The gear and knowledge required to finish this event is the most expensive and rewarding that I've ever strived for. Who knew racing at 8mph could be so addictive.



Lance Andre said...

Great focus! I knew you'd finish no matter what. And I thought you'd win until i saw all that gear! Way to keep trudging along, great finish for your first AHU, not an easy task at all. I hope DDD helped in some kind of sick way.

jdstamp said...

Great Job! I am interested in reading you report from this event.

Steve Fuller said...

Congrats again Dennis. Looking forward to reading the race report

cvo said...

dude, congrats,

saw some sweet pics on mc sight

way to go

bikeiowa said...


Can't wait to read about it!

Cornbread said...

Congrats Dennis! You crazy moefoe!

Looking forward to reading about it.

Squirrel said...

more damn it..give us more!


Paul said...

Great job Dennis! Excellent write up!

gpickle said...

Hey DG, thanks for the story and congratulations to you on such a solid ride. It is fascinating to read of these adventures and some of the moments (when you left the 2nd check, for instance) stir up my blood a bit and get me thinking of diving in to that icy pond of hardcore winter riding but then I think - nah, Dennis will do it and then I can just read about it!

Looking forward to talking with you about it when next I see you.