The Arrowhead 135 is an annual winter ultra at the end of January in International Falls, MN. The race is 135 miles point to point from International Falls to Tower, MN, and racers can choose to bike, run (with or without a kicksled), or ski on the secluded Arrowhead snowmobile trail.
I think everyone has their favorite race/event. For me, it’s Arrowhead. The only other winter ultras I’ve raced so far are the Tuscobia 160 and Actif Epica, but of the three, there’s something about Arrowhead that keeps me wanting to come back. I think it is a combination of the beautiful terrain and profound solitude.
This year, the long range forecast for IFalls was warm and did not improve as race day approached. By the morning of, the temperature at the start promised to be in the single digits with highs and lows in the mid 20s through Tuesday afternoon. My experience is that all temperatures have pros and cons. Mid 20s means racers can generally carry less gear. But sweat is more difficult to manage, and water intake increases. The worst part is snow becomes mushy and slow (with the ideal temperature for snow being somewhere around 0 or less). The combination usually makes for slightly higher finish rates and longer finish times.
I decided many months ago that I wanted to race unsupported and on a fixed gear fat bike. I spent months trying to find the perfect setup that I knew didn’t exist. The final bike including clothing, food, electronics, spare batteries, etc. weighed in around a chunky 60 pounds, and I settled on a 30/19 setup for my gear. This worked well on flat sections of snow, and although I suspected the snow would be much worse later on down the trail, I’d rather push a gear that is too big than be left wanting for more on flats or downhills.
The first time I raced Arrowhead was 2018. It was my first winter ultra; I was prepared, but I wasn’t smart. I didn’t know how, or didn’t have the clothing, to most efficiently layer and race; I ended up wearing too much and overheating heading into the halfway. Consequently, I stayed the night and waited for my clothing to dry/the temperature to warm (the overnight was -25, and having not experienced lows like this before, playing it safe was the right thing to do). I ended up finishing no worse for the wear in over 36 hours. Since then, I have ridden more ultras and learned a lot more about layering and pacing on snow. My goal this year was to break 30 hours. I figured even if I had to walk significant portions due to hills or snow conditions, this would be possible.
The race has 4 segments that are broken up relatively evenly by mileage and neatly by terrain, the first is flat and 35 miles; the second is hilly and 35 miles; the third is hillier and 40 miles; and the fourth is flat and 25 miles. Overall, depending on the app used to measure it, the climbing comes in around 6,500 feet of gain. My background is in randonneuring, which is long distance and largely self-supported endurance road riding. I’ve found that while strength on the road doesn’t quite translate to strength on the snow – for me at least – , the mental fortitude forged through countless hours of sleep deprivation and various physical and mental suffering does.
I don’t know how other people cope, but my personal strategy is to treat each checkpoint as its own race. I don’t give much thought to the other segments until I get there aside from giving myself the mental boost of, “Only X miles/or X checkpoints to go from there!” I also mentally view Arrowhead as over once I hit Surly (the third checkpoint), since at that point there is only one big hill left followed by flats to the finish. In the race between each checkpoint, I create mini races in my head of multiples/increments of 5 miles to the finish (15, 20, 25, etc); under 10, when I can count down on the GPS in 100ths of miles, I am in the home stretch.
The first checkpoint was pretty fast for me, though I started to take a couple of spills on some softer snow on smaller downhills on the final approach. I got to meet a couple people who were riding single speeds and we all wished each other luck. I rode right through the first checkpoint and into the hills. This segment was actually a little easier than I had anticipated until about halfway through when I started having to walk up a lot more hills. I fell into a couple more snowbanks. The one real virtue of temps in the mid 20s is that I didn’t have to worry as much about the snow exposure on my hands or legs, because I warmed up quickly. As always, the last few miles into the halfway were mentally taxing, but I was excited to get to Elephant Lake in the waning daylight, since I had previously only seen it at night. I had run out of water at this point and had to stop for an exorbitant amount of time at the checkpoint to melt three liters of snow. The saving grace was my father-in-law who is more experienced with winter survival had told me ahead of the race that fresh snow does not have to be boiled to be safe for consumption, as I had always assumed. Still, all told, I was stopped for about an hour and a half.
My recollection of the segment between the halfway and Surly was that it wasn’t all that bad or much worse than the first checkpoint to the halfway. This year it was undoubtedly more difficult. There were a couple decent hills in the first few miles that had to be walked, followed by some relatively flat sections that lull you into a false sense of security that the hills are overstated. The hills started in earnest about halfway through the segment, and I began to have to walk up and down the climbs because the snow was so squirrely. By the looks of it, most or all racers also had to walk up, and at least one other was using the strategy of walking downhill so as to not fall over. I honestly don’t believe gears would have helped me here. The last 12 miles took me about 4 hours to cover, which was pretty much the worst case scenario I had been banking on. Around the same time, I was also having heartburn/stomach issues which happens to me sometimes on longer rides, and I basically had to stop eating. Unfortunately, of all the things I packed, I forgot Tums… Finally, I reached the third checkpoint around 4 am, and the race was basically over.
The only tough part left was the climb (or push) up Mt. Wakemup about a mile later. The only bummer about this year as opposed to 2018 (besides the snow) was that I reached this point in the dark and didn’t get to take in the view. The most difficult part of this last stretch was trying to stay awake in the last hours before sunrise. A couple racers caught up to me, and we rode together for a little bit. This gave me enough of a boost to stay up until sunrise, and I finished at 8:08 for an official time of 25:08. Of course, the snow at the end forced me off the bike, so I had to push the bike across the finish line. A fitting end to the race if I do say so myself.
All in all, I have no regrets, though I need to be more confident in my gear choices and pack less, especially on these one day events. I have had my fat bike set up fixed for a long time now, and have had a lot of fun with it in the woods and on the road, including some long distance rides for proof of concept. Arrowhead was a big mental plunge to fully prove that it could work, due to the terrain involved, but I’m glad I did it. I’m convinced that this is a viable setup for riding at least other one-day events. My obsession now turns to creating the lightest setup I can to get as fast as possible; I believe that at least in this race, weight was a bigger factor than lack of cassette. I know I brought too much on the trail, but I still have a tough time balancing the “what-ifs” with the practical or risky. I finished about halfway through the cycling pack (23rd of 47 places), but I would love to improve my time and placement. I don’t know if I’m brave (or stupid) enough to attempt a race like Fat Pursuit or the ITI 350/1000 on a fixie though. Time will tell.
Gear and food
Wool pants baselayer
Thermal cycling pants (brand unknown)
Gore Tex shell pants
Sweat wicking short sleeve baselayer
Wool long sleeve baselayer
Wool long sleeve jersey
Forty Below zone vapor barrier vest
Thermal long sleeve baselayer
Columbia rain jacket
LL Bean down jacket (nanopuff equivalent)
LL Bean expedition down jacket
2 pairs wool socks
2 pair cycling socks
2 pairs turkey bags
Garmin Edge 520
Garmin eTrex 30
GoPro Hero 8
Battery pack (chunky one, added a lot of weight to be able to record a lot)
4 AAA lithium batteries
4 AA lithium batteries
Ski goggles (for snow)
15 Lightlife hot dogs (11 consumed – would have consumed more, but heartburn)
15 Clif block packs (11 consumed – would have consumed all, but caffeine disagreed with me)
5 rice/peanut butter cakes – Feedzone portables (3 consumed, worked okay, need to reconsider)
That’s roughly 4,140 calories consumed on the bike and 480 immediately prior (boston kreme donut and small slice of leftover pizza).
I also drank 6 liters of water in total.
-20 sleeping bag (LL bean sleeping bag inside OR bivy all in dry bag on the rack)
Foam sleeping pad
Fire starter (magnesium stick/waterproof matches)
Pot (Snowpeak titanium cookset and spork)
Stove (MSR Pocketrocket)
8 oz fuel (2 8oz propane canisters)
Insulated water (Revelate Designs Wampak with 3L bladder)
Hand warmers (3 pairs carried)
3000 calories (jar of peanut butter and 2 Clif block packets)
Headlamp (Princeton Tec Apex)
Front and rear flashing red LEDs