I’m plagued most days with incessant inner dialogue that scurries and nags. But ultras are my refuge to drop off from myself, mute the sound of thoughts, and enjoy my own experience. I often don’t think during long hours spent in the company of only my bike. At least, I don’t know what I think about, nor do I want to think. I go hours unaware what’s going through my head – peddle, and shovel in thousands of calories. Much of Arrowhead 135 was like this for me.
It’s during the spans of a race when I do hear myself thinking loudly that I start losing it. A single line from a shitty pop song on repeat. My mind hissing doubt. Much of Arrowhead 135 was also like this for me.
Leading up to Arrowhead, I hodge-podged loaned bags and gear onto my bike, used duct tape on my rear rack, and stuck a party fanny pack on the front for good measure. I felt like an aluminum circus compared to many of the sleek, carbon fiber, lightweight setups I encountered race day. But no matter. I'm fond of the eclectic bike that took me across the Arrowhead 135 finish line.
Part 1 - Release the hounds!
January 29, 2018. International Falls, MN. Setting tire pressure inside before a winter race can leave you with a seriously low PSI or flat as the tire pressure drops when taken from cozy indoor temperatures and exposed to cold. I planned to take my bike outside first thing race morning, let it sit in the cold, then adjust tire pressure accordingly. But race morning was frenzied, running around the hotel barefoot and half asleep – I allotted 40 minutes to put on a trillion pieces of clothing, eat, drink coffee, and fill my water before biking 1.5 miles to the race start.
Naturally, I forgot to set my bike outside during this early AM catatonic dash. I would also discover that I failed to close the cover of my Camelback mouthpiece and route it under my sleeve in my hurry to make the start on time….
“RELEASE THE HOUNDS” a microphone boomed through -14F temperatures. We were off. Whatever benefit earned from sleeping in was lost as I bounced past biker after biker asking, “does my rear tire look flat to you?” Yes it did. I went 4 miles before coming to grips with this oversight and pumping my bike up from 1 PSI.
Time passed quickly and happily while buried within myself rolling through biting air and the frozen Minnesota forest. On top of tire pressure negligence and freezing my Camelback before reaching the start line (leaving 1L of water to make it to the first checkpoint), I have a nasty tradition of swapping parts off my bike the night before every race. Commonsense and experience pleads then screams at me not do to this. But I always give in. After 30 miles at Arrowhead of feeling strong, but persistently wobbly and with growing shoulder pain, I discovered the new stem I swapped on the night before was crooked. I cursed myself for giving in to yet another last-minute bike change! Exposing my hands from gloves at such negative temps to re-position the stem while trying not to strip the bolts - since I couldn’t quite hold the multi-tool or feel what I was doing – was, unpleasant.
No matter. I felt great zipping down the fairly-flat, hard-packed trail when I arrived at the first Checkpoint – Mile 34.
Part 2 - On to the halfway point
My “race” strategy is to ride fast never, stay happy, consistent, and stop as little as possible. This holds true for checkpoints, so I minimized the first checkpoint to filling up water/defrosting my Camelback and eating a basket of fried cheese.
The stretch between the first checkpoint and the halfway point was the only section of Arrowhead where I had a fully-functioning water system. Which is probably why I felt fantastic during this leg of the race. Consistent hills rolled out from underneath me as the sun moved from the top of the sky and sunk to the tree line. I welcomed the rise and fall of elevation, and rode all but 1 and ½ of the [super steep] hills here.
I was truly euphoric watching the sun set around me while I made my way across a frozen lake to the halfway point – 70 Miles.
Part 3 - Everywhere hills and dark
Ticking off another checkpoint helped mentally refill depleting energy levels - I left the midway point riding into the dark with spirits high.
But I quickly became distracted by temperature, despite riding through a mesmerizingly beautiful landscape of full moon and dark towering trees that felt more like an acrylic painting of the North than reality. It dropped, then became abruptly cold. It froze my full Camelback shut. I ran out of my accessible 1L of water much too soon and I felt it bad.
It was only supposed to get down to -14F during the night so I convinced myself there was no need to put on additional cold-weather clothing. Even as a fought to see through the gaps between the ice pillars growing on my eyelashes, I was in denial about the temperature. I wore a thin windbreaker as a jacket with my layers, a pair of tights, and my face was largely exposed. My solution to the cold was to whip hands/feet back and forth whenever my extremities had been numb long enough that thoughts of frostbite crept in. I would find out hours later that many racers were unable to escape this frostbite.
There was no one for hours and I both loved and hated the intimate seclusion with the night. It was so beautiful and so quiet.
My body began feeling hollow while pushing my absurdly heavy bike for 40 miles of climbs that seemed impossible to ride. I needed water and didn’t have a clue how far I was from the next checkpoint. A deceitful hope that the Surly checkpoint would be just around the next corner continued luring me along. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t. It wasn’t. For so long, it wasn’t around the corner. Then it was - Mile 110
Part 3 - It's ah, a little cold
“Are you seriously only wearing tights right now,” a fellow rider asked me as I zipped myself into the Surly tent and final checkpoint around 2AM. “It’s below -30F out there right now, not counting wind chill. You’re crazy”.
Ooops. This explained why I was physically shaking…. it was cold as balls outside, and I was severely under-dressed. I melted onto the floor then folded my body around the stove in the middle of the tent – tucking my feet underneath, hunching my face over the top and extending my arms and hands till they were barely an inch from the surface. Although this warming approach was efficient, it also burnt a hole through my socks. No matter! I had extras of just about everything packed on my bike.
Someone informed me only one other woman had come through, and she just left. I was currently in second. Ok, Ok, Ok. I dragged myself out of the warmth and into the speculated -40F real feel, pulled on shell pants and jacket, overboots, warmer gloves, and refilled my water bottle and Camelback.
Rehydrating and wearing appropriate clothing perked me to the point of being overly ambitious for the last 25 miles. How hard could they be?
Part 4 - 25 miles [scratch that] 34 miles of forrrevvvverrrrr
I was cruising [probably going a whole 7 mph!] when a I saw the headlamp of a biker coming toward me. “I think you’re going the wrong way,” the voice behind the bright light desperately stated. “I just went that way and it doesn't look right”.
Foolishly, in a stubborn denial built on the tire tracks I had been following for so long, I convinced the man to turn back around. We had to be going the right way, look at the tracks!
It turns out I was going the wrong way. I made it all the way into a town before coming to grips with the truth, then made yet another wrong turn before making it back onto the Arrowhead trail. This mistake cost me ~9 extra miles, 2 hours of putzing to figure out where the hell I'd gone wrong, and drained my optimism. I couldn’t stop a disappointed mantra from beating down on me over and over and over and over. My mind raged on and my pace slowed. To make matters worse, the mouthpiece had fallen off my Camelback (what the hell?!) immediately after the Surly checkpoint, and my only water bottle froze shut with .5L water inside as ice crystals formed on the rim, preventing me from threading the cap on straight. I was cramping from dehydration, much of my food was frozen in blocks too thick to bite through, and the trail was so straight and flat that I wished for hills so I could trick my mind into hoping the finish was around the bend.
Witnessing a solitude sunrise of vibrant oranges and pinks offered respite. Few things compare to the swelling of emotion I felt surrounded by something that beautiful after coming through dark for so long. Except maybe my discovery shortly thereafter that a fudge-covered brownie in my party pack wasn’t frozen to the point of breaking teeth. Now that was glorious.
Memories of the bad times are short for those who like ultras.As soon as I saw a sign for the casino where I knew the Arrowhead finish would be, I was already recollecting how incredible my race had been. I biked across the finish line frostbite-free and all smiles as the 2nd female to reach the end - Mile 144 and 25 hours later.
“It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or [...] or even with getting from point A to point B. It had to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.” ― Cheryl Strayed.
By Whitney Beadle, February 2018.
Appendix 1: Good, bad, and ugly
What failed me hard
What worked fantastically
Quick clothing shout outs:
Appendix 2: Clothing choices
Here is a list of exact pieces/brands of clothing I used during Arrowhead, but I tried to put in parenthesis generically what this translates to:
Appendix 3: "Prepping" for the race
As far as training goes, I consistently commute to work and hit up trails with friends. I race because it's fun for me, and I bike because it's fun for me....if it's not fun I don't do it. I'm not someone who has a strict training plan for a race. For Arrowhead, I did step up my mileage a little about a month before the race: most days consisted of 1-3 hours on the bike paired with 1 hour of weight training 3 days a week.
But my routine lacked something vitally important - I never. ever. stretched. While I was was growing strong on the bike, my body was simultaneously falling apart as my left hip flexor tightened then skewed my body. By the time race week rolled around, I was doing foot and wrist PT for injuries stemming from the over-rotation of my left hip.
Going forward I will forever respect and honor the sacred fitness triad: cardio, strength, AND flexibility.