There is a saying ... "If you don't like elephants, don't make friends with an elephant trainer." I believe it translates to mean ... "If big dreams scare you, don't make friends with a big dreamer."
I sat in the Arrowhead 135 pre-race meeting in awe, surrounded by nearly 200 Elephant trainers!! These people were about to attempt to ski, run or bike their way from International Falls to the back door of The Fortune Bay Casino 135 miles away, carrying every single piece of gear either on their bike, their sled or their back. I wondered their stories. How did they arrive here? Why did they dare to take the test this race provided? Was I worthy to be in their company?
Race Director Ken Krueger welcomed us and began going over final details. He spoke of the conditions, the checkpoints and congratulated all on being there. He took time to honor the veterans in the room as well as the volunteers. In just 12 short hours,I would get to enjoy the kindness and support many of them would provide. It is said that a race is only as good as it's volunteers. Now completed, I can tell you, there are no finer volunteers anywhere. Ken asked all the racers to stand. The room was filled with volunteers, support people and racers. It was honor to be standing up among these folks. He then asked all the first year racers to have a seat, then the second year, the third and so on, until only a very select few remained standing. The silent respect given these racers was palpable. For sure, these were the BIG elephant trainers. Ken finished up the meeting with a few words of caution, wisdom and wished us all good luck. Marshall Ulrich and I headed back to the hotel for some food and rest. I'd met Marshall a few years prior while he was in Des Moines, Iowa (my hometown). He was there promoting his book, Running On Empty. He was kind enough then to chat for a while and we had since became friends. The details of this man's endurance accomplishments are too many to detail here, but if interested, take some time to read up on him. He is one of the great endurance athletes of our time and an even better man. I could have listened to his stories all night long. It was a challenge not to hit him with "just one more???" Sleep be damned. If he would have been willing to continue sharing his wisdom, I'd still be there listening. There was an adventure waiting for us however, and banking some sleep was necessary.
It was race day. The clock read 5:30. In just 90 minutes, the challenge would be upon us. The plan was, hop on the bike and ride the few miles to the race start, with a quick stop at Micky D's on the way. A light snow was falling and the temperature was comfortable, which sounds good, but is not. I arrived at the start and checked in 10 minutes before the race. "#18 Checking in,Thank you for volunteering." and with that, all was ready to go. Standing outside in the darkness, I marveled at the sight. I was so grateful to be in this place. I could think of no better way to live my life and was filled with gratitude that somehow, through all the twists and turns, this was my reality. The bikers made their way to the start line. "5 Minutes to the start, 5 minutes!!" The scene was a blur of bikers, runners with 40 pound sleds attached to their waist and two skiers. Red blinky lights were everywhere and the energy of the place was so off the charts. Jay Petervary once said, in an interview before the Tour Divide (my apologies to Jay if I don't nail it word for word), "Yes, I want the record, but more importantly, I want to go to a place inside I have never been before." I think all of were there that morning for a similar reason. "3,2,1...RELEASE THE HOUNDS!!" The gun sounded and and The Arrowhead 135 was underway.
I have no idea what was happening at the front of the race. Where I was in the middle of the pack, the trail conditions were wreaking havoc with some of the racers right from the start. The snow was soft and if your tire pressure was too high, sliding and in some cases wrecking was going to be your penalty. I made sure not too follow to close. It served me well as I was able to avoid numerous bikes that came right out from under their racers. The pre ride served me well on two fronts. One, my tire pressure was spot on and I had perfect control of the bike. Secondly, most, if not all of the bikes were following the tracks cut by the leaders and those in front of them. It's not a bad idea, but keeping a bike in a 6-8 inch wide groove is not that easy and if you do come out of that groove, sometimes you go down. Remembering my pre ride, I drifted to the far right side of the trail to see if the frozen snow I had ridden two days earlier near CP1 would be here as well. It was and my Dillinger 5's stayed on top of the frozen crust nicely. Not only was I moving easily, the sun was starting to rise and my view was not of the bike tire or groove in front of me, but rather the expansive beautiful northern countryside. 45 minutes or so into the race, I pulled over, took a moment to get my jacket off, stuff it into the seat bag and grab a few calories. It was a quick stop and the miles began to fly by. The pre ride had proved invaluable. An occasional swat from the tree limbs as I continued my path on the far right of the trail was a small price to pay for the smooth sailing.
The first checkpoint was around mile 35. Time was flying. With just a few miles left before Gateway, the race traffic had thinned considerably. I noticed the biker now just in front of me was wearing a kick ass 45Nrth jersey. Those don't just get given out. As I went by her, I wondered who it might be. We traded spots a few times, once she nearly slid out and took us both out. "Fu&K" she yelled "Sorry, I'm from Jersey". We shared a good laugh. The trail was crap and even doing our best not to get in the others path, it was not easy to keep the rigs under control. We emerged from the trail and rolled into the convenience store, greeted by hoot, hollers, cowbells and a loud "WAY TO GO TRACEY, YOUR KILLING IT!!" Ahhh, so that's who this bad ass gal in the 45Nrth jersey was...Tracey Petervary. I'll let you do your own research here also, but her and Jay are fast as heck and great ambassadors for the sport.
Checkpoints are not places to dilly dally if you can help it. On the other hand, The Arrowhead can jump up and bite so it is wise to never leave a CP without full supplies on board. Most all of us have learned this lesson the hard way. I was having a great day to this point. Out of the CP in 4 minutes, it was 37 or so miles to Melgeorges (CP2). I knew from the pre ride that soon, the flat terrain of the first 35 miles would be just a memory. The hard packed road of just two days ago was gone. The light snows of the past 36 hours made it almost unrecognizable from what it was, but still that right side provided a fairly solid floor. Occasionally I would break thru the frozen crust but it certainly provided a better ride than the left side gutter most were riding. I cant be sure just how much beeter, but not having to endlessly try and stay in someone elses tracks was far more pleasant mentally, that's for sure. I had begun to notice what looked like rabbit tracks to me, leading the way down the far right side. I imagined the little critter as my personal guide, showing me the way. It probably wasn't the same rabbit, but those tracks continued at different times throughout the entire race and every time I noticed them it made me smile. I'm sure it sounds a bit loopy and it probably was, but I felt like a little kid in a wintry fairy tale with this crazy rabbit laying out a path for his new found friend.
As the miles ticked by, the trail gained in difficulty. Hills were becoming more common. Most were still able to be ridden but not without chomping the bit. It had been some time since I had seen a racer, which I was cool with. I come to these places to reconnect, to get back to the basics. I am not here to chat away the miles. I am here to peel away the layers. I am here to realize the harshness of this place and in doing so better appreciate the day to day comforts I take for granted. I had been on the bike for over 9 hours and that harshness I yearned for was starting to manifest. The signed read "5 miles to Melgeorges." There has been some debate as to the accuracy of that sign. Those last however damn many miles to Melgeorges ate my lunch. The trail dumped us onto the lake and that meant just 2 miles to the checkpoint cabin. All day, in the woods, we had been sheltered from the wind for the most part. The wide open space of the lake allowed Mother Nature to give us a good swat in the face. Not yet dark, although pretty tired from the effort thus far, I couldn't help but smile at the EPICness of it all. Following the stakes in the lake, taking a gentle left around the point, a couple hearty souls stood on the icy lake to welcome us. "Just a bit further to the end of the lake, hop on the trail to the right and you can't miss it" the young man in the big coat exclaimed. Pulling into that cabin, I thought "How many times I have seen this in the movie and wondered what it would be like." 70 some miles lay behind me but I knew the real test lay ahead. The hills of the last 15 or so miles had been significant. I remebered Joe Stiller's words. "When you leave Melgeorges be ready for some of the toughest biking you have ever done." Those words were not lost on me. Once you leave Melgeorges cabin there is no more food anywhere!! The one remaining checkpoint "Skipulk" was 38 or so miles away and was stocked only with liquids. I promised myself I would not leave Melgeorges until I was completely refueled. The way I saw it, one race was over and the next race was about to begin. It was 5 pm. I had been on my bike 10 hours and although tired, felt alive and ready for the night that waited for me. What waited for me was beyond what I could have ever imagined.
Part 2 of Three - "Arrowhead 135 and The Gift of the Broken Pedal"
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