Every year at the end of January, athletes from around the country and the world come to International Falls, MN to compete in one of the toughest endurance races in the world, the Arrowhead 135. Racers compete on bike, ski, or foot and have a total of 60 hours to traverse 135 miles of snowmobile trail from International Falls to Tower, MN.
Known as, “The Icebox of the Nation,” International Falls has over 100 days per year with an average high temperature below 32F and an annual average snowfall of over 70 inches. It is the weather that makes this race both difficult and unpredictable. If racers are lucky, temperatures will be relatively cold, and there will be no precipitation. If they are unlucky, temperatures will either be really cold (leading to frostbite) or really warm (creating unrideable snow), and there will be snow/rain during the race. This year had a little of everything.
You won’t find the Arrowhead on any Randonneuring calendar. It’s not a brevet, per se, but it embodies the key characteristics: fierce self-reliance and friendly camaraderie on a fixed, long distance route.
The race started just before sunrise. My Weather Channel app said the temperature outside was -12F with a wind chill of -22F. Much colder than I had ever experienced. I bundled up with the warmest clothes I had with me and headed to the starting line. All of the bikers congregated at the starting line. At 7:00 a.m., a deafening salvo of fireworks lit up the pre-dawn sky followed by a race official bellowing, “RELEASE THE HOUNDS!,” and we were off.
I was surprised at how slowly I was moving compared to other bikers, but rather than try to match their pace, I decided to follow in their tracks. I knew it would be a long race. The trail was ideal, and there was no snow or rain in the forecast, making for a pretty perfect day.
The first 35 miles of the ride were flat and uneventful. I took more time than I wanted to at the first checkpoint to fill up on food and water. Checkpoints are great, but they are warm, and the longer you stay, the harder it is to leave. Half an hour later, I was off on the next 35 mile stretch to the halfway point, which was anything but flat.
Several sections were steep enough to force me off my bike entirely. The ones that I could bike up took a lot of exertion. I didn’t realize how much I was sweating until it was too late to do anything about it, and I resolved to ride as hard as I could nonstop until I reached the cabin at MelGeorge, the halfway point, where I could rest and dry my clothes. It seemed to take forever, and without a really reliable way to track distance to the checkpoint, I was going nuts. I remember seeing a sign that said, “5 miles to MelGeorge,” but it felt more like 20. It was getting dark, and I was starting to get cold from the wet clothes. Survivorman Les Stroud always says, “You sweat, you die.” These are words to live by, and they will save your life if you listen.
Luckily, I finally reached Elephant Lake, and I knew the cabin was only a short distance off. I was super excited by this point, because even though I was a bit chilly, I was riding on top of a frozen lake with all the stars in the galaxy overhead!
Shortly after I arrived at MelGeorge, the thermometer outside read -25F. The windchill had to be in excess of -30F. Without the clothing I wanted and unwilling to try any other untested gear and having to end my ride prematurely, I stayed the night to wait for dry clothes and warmer temperatures.
The second day of racing was warmer, but I was promised by volunteers and racers that the terrain would be much more difficult. The forecast also indicated 3-5 inches of snow and 10-20 mph winds.
I set off with Mike from Minneapolis at sunrise. We stuck together most of the way to the third checkpoint. When we hit the first large hill after about 10 miles of flats, I was afraid that the rest of the hills that day would be the same – hike-a-bike. The remaining miles to the third checkpoint were hilly, but much to my delight, despite a steady snowfall, there weren’t too many hills that I had to walk. All the years of Pennsylvania rollers had prepared me for this moment (or 5 hours of moments). The third checkpoint is a kerosene heated teepee staffed by Surly employees. When I got to there, I was offered a shot of bourbon and warm water for my water bladder. I took both and set off again, trying not to waste any time.
There was one last climb up Mt Wakemup and then 20 or so flat miles to the finish. The snow really wasn’t a factor on the way to Surly, but the last 20 miles were murder. The perfect trail conditions of the day before were replaced with the unrelenting resistance of fresh powder. This last stretch took about another 5 hours to complete. 5 hours for 20 miles. Even I couldn’t believe it.
Every foot of trail from the bottom of Mt Wakemup to the finish looked exactly the same to me. At some point, I came up on Phil who I had met the night before, and we rode together for about an hour. The company helped to recharge my batteries. Very shortly after I rode away from Phil, a text came through from my wife: my gps tracker predicted me to finish in about two hours. I peddled as hard as I could; I wanted to finish so badly I could taste it. Finally, at just under 38 hours, I finished the race.
It was such a fantastic experience. I have been infatuated with fat biking for the last couple of years, and finally pulled the trigger on my Salsa Mukluk in October.
The biggest issue I had on the trail was the internal struggle with myself that came as a result of not knowing how far along the trail I was. I think I’m a bit different from most Randonneurs in this regard. I need to know where I am at all times and how far the next turn or the next controle is. To me, it was maddening to not know how soon I could expect to arrive at the next checkpoint. My advice to anyone attempting this is to have a reliable gps unit with the route preprogrammed.
I would recommend fat bikes and winter ultras to anyone looking for the challenge. It’s just so liberating and so much fun. I am planning on other winter ultras including the Tuscobia 160, JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit, and ultimately the various 130, 350, and 1000 mile iterations of the Iditarod Trail Invitational that got me into this in the first place.
What makes brevets and events like this so amazing are the volunteers and riders. It just couldn’t be done without a large group of dedicated volunteers willing to devote their time to make things run smoothly. As for riders, well…we always seem to be such a tight-knit community, because sharing in the pain, joy, and satisfaction of something as epic as this brings people together in a way that nothing else can.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t give an honorable mention to my wife, Barbara, who has always been supportive of my riding and feeds the addiction by letting me buy new bikes. One other common thread I’ve found with other riders is that we all have somebody who makes it all possible with their love and support.
I’ll make another post about the nitty gritty of gear, including what I took, how much it weighed, what worked, and what didn’t soon.