Sunday, January 31, 2016

Arrowhead 135 and The Gift of the Broken Pedal (Part 3 of 3)

 "The Adventure Begins When Things Start To Go Wrong"

It is difficult to imagine any 135 mile race going perfectly, let alone The Arrowhead. Yet, somehow I find myself surprised at times when things start to go sideways. " The trail is softer than I hoped for, The hills are bigger than I thought, I'm hungry, Why is this taking so long, my ass hurts....WAAAAAAAAAAH". With experience, and I am by no means an expert, one learns that things NEVER go exactly as planned. Accept the curve balls as they are thrown at you, don't fight them. There is a saying in Ulramarathoning I like ... " When something starts to hurt, don't worry, something else will take it's place soon enough." In other words, "This too shall pass." There are very few problems that either rest, food or drink can't solve. Identify the challenge, deal with it and move on. If what's bothering you is that the race is damn hard, what the hell did you think it was gonna be?!?!?! I laugh while writing this because i had this very conversation with myself more than once during the race. I do these races because of the intense challenge they provide. Sometimes, I need to remind myself of that and in so doing, it energizes me. I step into the battle instead of trying to hide from it.

The cool evening air and soft snow welcomed me as I exited the cabin at Melgeorges. My trusty steed waited patiently, blinky lights still on as I loaded my provisions back onto her. I had decided to pack as heavy as possible, calorie wise. My front fork held two liter and a half bottles. One I had filled with chicken wild rice soup, the other with apple cider. My insulated handle bar water bottles were both topped off with hot water and a couple Nuun hydration tablets. My frame bag looked a bit like an Anaconda after just eating a guinea pig. The dozen or so home made energy balls (thank you Kim Hopkins) in addition to the dozen or so chocolate chip cookies created a bit of a bulge in the Bike Bag Dude bag. (shameless plug, but hey, "the dude abides.") This was only my third winter ultra and I remembered Joe Stiller's words clearly. "The hills after the cabin are the real deal, considerably tougher than anything you will encounter the first 70 miles." If I ended up getting to the Ski Pulk (CP 3) with half of what I now carried, so be it. I certainly wanted to go as fast as possible, but was making sure to respect the trail and this race. It didn't get it's reputation by being easy. If indeed the second half proved to be more difficult than the first, I'd need every last calorie I could put on that bike. If I wanted more food, I'd have to get it at The Fortune Bay Casino buffet, after I finished. 

Rolling away from the cabin after just less than one hour felt great. I had taken my time, eaten pretty much everything in that building that wasn't nailed down and was excited to be excited. It wasn't long after leaving the cabin that the first "wall" presented itself. "Hello Mr. Cannon, I'll be your dancing partner for the next many hours." The steepness of this first hill made it an easy decision to walk. It would have been tough as hell under perfect conditions to ride it. The push was made a bit more challenging due to to all the footprints in the soft snow made by those who had preceded me to this point. If you stepped just perfect into someones track it was great, if you did not, you may end up an inch or two back from where you started. "Now this is The Arrowhead" I thought. "Let's dance." For a few miles after this big push, the trail rolled along nicely, to the point that I thought, perhaps Joe had been pulling my leg. Of course I knew better but the mind has a way of speaking even when not spoken too. The conversation between my two voices in my head was suddenly interrupted by a clicking sound from somewhere below me. 

"Little problems become BIG problems." This is one of the best things anyone has ever told me. Getting thirsty, you better drink, getting hungry, you better eat. Not in 2 minutes, not in one minute. NOW. Got a hot spot on your foot? It can be so easy to soldier on, but it is a bad idea. "Little problems become big problems." It was tempting to just ride on. Things were going great and "it was probably just a rock or some ice in my clip." I stopped pedaling and coasted a few feet and the noise stopped. It was definitely in or around the pedal. Unclipping, I dismounted the bike, took a seat on the edge of the trail and checked to see what was stuck in my boot. 'What the hell is that?!?" I thought to myself. After11 or 12 hours on the trail it took just a moment for my brain to decipher the picture in front of me. My pedal was still attached to my foot. I glanced over at the bike and a very clean, shiny spindle was looking back at me. "SHIT, this ain't good." In retrospect, perhaps I should have left my pedal clipped to my Wolvhammer's. I'll never know. I made the decision to try and put the pedal back on, hoping that once I got it back on the spindle and clipped in, that it would stay. It didn't. The clicking sound returned almost immediately and I unclipped hoping to kick it back onto the spindle more firmly. Soon after, my foot began slipping off the pedal with each rotation. I looked down. The pedal was gone. In the darkness and fresh snow I couldn't find it. I HATE littering and it sucked not being able to find it. I was at mile 80. The remaining 55 miles suddenly looked much different.

I tried pedaling on the spindle for a mile or so. It sucked. The boot would slip off with each stroke, making it necessary to pull off the pedal and try to hit again as it came back by. Not ideal on any ride. It sure as hell wasn't a welcome development in these conditions. I remembered the Race Directors words. "You either get to the next checkpoint or go back to the last checkpoint." Turning around was not an option. I decided to channel my inner Mcgyver and attempt a platform build. If successful, the time it took would certainly pay off. If I had to ride this spindle the rest of the way home, it was gonna suck. Jill from Michigan rolled up on me and was kind enough to lend her light blue puppy duct tape. Marcus Steele was not far behind and threw a couple zip ties my way, "just in case" you run out he said. I certainly appreciated their kindness. They didn't have to stop, but I have a feeling this is the brother/sisterhood of the AH135. 

It was time to get to it. I determined that my multi tool, in its sheath, if duct taped and zip tied to the spindle, might provide a pretty workable platform and it did...for about 30 seconds. I couldn't believe it disintegrated so quickly. It was damn solid. Fifteen minutes and a roll of doggy duct tape, wasted. I pedaled, sort of, and pushed on. If there was any blessing to the situation it was that we were now into the hills Joe had warned of. it's entirely possible that I am exaggerating or misremembering here but it seemed as though for the next many hours, I pushed the bike to the top of the hill, bombed down the other side, occasionally sliding out due to the speed, snow quality or lack of skill. The good news is I didn't feel as though I was losing too much time. I could push the bike just as quick as the next person, didn't need two good pedals to push up a hill or fly down the other side. When I was able to pedal, i continued to think, "How can I fix this? What can I do to make this better?" And then it hit me. "I got it!!! I'll take my spare tube and tie my boot to the spindle and crank arm." Create a sort of power strap. It seemed genius and to quote Andy Dufresne from Shawshank Redemption ... "Hope is a good thing." I took that tube and wrapped, twisted and tied that sucker every which way I could. I'd have bet you money my biggest challenge was going to be getting freed from this pedal octopus when the next hill presented itself for walking. Strike two!! The spindle was winning, seemingly shinier and more proud with each victory.

"Bleep Bleeping Bleeper of a Bleeping Bleep Bleep God D#*% Son of a Bleeping Bleeper!!!" was just the start. Sorry Mom, I know you raised me better than that. With that out of me though I was able to take account of the situation and get my head right. " Could I fix the pedal?" Obviously not. "Could I still pedal the bike?" Yep. " Was it easy?" Nope. "Did anyone ever say it would be?" Nope. "If I could finish with just one good pedal, would I have a hell of a story to tell?" Yep. It is never the easy ride with the wind at your back you remember. The ride through the driving rain, the giant headwind, the times you really had to dig deep, those were the rides of value. My pedal was broke. I was done bitching about it. I was on one of the biggest adventures of my life. Time to embrace the challenge, be greatful for what it would teach me and get moving. This was my bike and we were going to the finish.

The hills were relentless. The snow continued to fall and as it did, the trail continued to get tougher. Push up, coast down. Push up, coast down. Pedal, Pedal, Push Up, Coast down. This was a beast, but with each hill I became more and more determined to finish. I was now one of those folks I had watched and admired from the comfort of my couch. I had asked to be tested. I paid to be tested. I'd ridden two Tuscobia 150's to earn the right to be right here on the sharp end of the stick. There was no where else I would rather be. It was perfect. I noticed a blinky not far ahead and eventually caught back up to Jill from Michigan. What a warrior she was. Her bike had to weigh at least half of what she did. I marveled at her toughness pushing that rig up hill after hill. I asked her if she would like a cookie, my stash still had a couple left. It was really a beautiful night and we knew the end of this section was probably less than an hour away.  My gps had died so I was unsure how long we had been battling this section. I was however sure that it had been long enough that my chicken soup, apple cider and two bottles of water were gone. They had been for awhile now. I was hopeful that I had put enough in my tank throughout the race that I could make the remaining few miles to Ski Pulk aka "The Surly Teepee". A few miles doesn't seem like much unless your pushing a bike or pulling a sled in soft snow. That distance can take an hour or more. To be safe, I started putting a handful of snow in my mouth every 5-10 minutes. If mother nature was going to give it to us, I was going to take it and say thank you. The viking totem pole along the side of the trail I thought surely would be a marker for the upcoming Skipulk check point. Imagine my disappointment when I realized it was nothing more than a snowy pine tree. "Hmmmm, a little hallucinating."  I can remember at one point being so delirious that I actually attempted to shift gears while pushing the bike up one of the steeper hills, thinking it would make things easier The Arrowhead was starting to flex her muscles. We were both certain the CP had to be close. We became defiant with each passing hill and corner. Jill was a fighter and had great spirit. It was as if we were saying to the trail "Bring it on. We are here to take the best you got and in return you will get the best we got." It seemed unfathomable that the Cp was not in sight. It was as dark as dark could be. Surely if it were near we would see a light piercing the darkness. It sounded like a fog horn welcoming a ship back to port. Twice the sound found it's way to our ears. I asked "Michigan" (which is what I called Jill now), to please tell me that the sound was real and not another mirage of sorts. We laughed a bit and turning the corner we were greeted by the horn blower ... "One more turn and you are there. You made it!" I can't remember for sure if we hi fived, hugged or both. It had been nearly 40 miles since Melgeorges. It had taken nearly 11 hours.

The volunteers at the Skipulk, like everywhere else, were fantastic. They helped us get our bottles filled, poured me the best damn cup of Jo EVER and informed Michigan that Tracey Petervary was just an hour ahead. We knew the trail was going to get better soon. The hills were now mostly in the rear view mirror. 23 miles or so remained between us and the finish line of The Arrowhead 135. We pushed our bikes up what we believed to be the last BIG hill. No words were said, none were needed to be. "Michigan" started to pedal away. She was hunting the leader and with just one pedal, and maybe even with two, I may not have stayed with her. I'd find out later she nearly caught Tracey, finishing second by three minutes. I was proud to have shared the trail with both of them. 

The sun was beginning to rise and I knew I had done it. In a few more hours I would finish the Arrowhead 135. The trail was soft and slow. I was giving her all I had. Each 10-15 minutes I'd have to stop, catch my breath and repeat. I would never take a pedal for granted again. The beauty of races like Arrowhead is that, after completing them, or giving all you have in the attempt to do so, you don't take anything for granted any more. Food tastes better, couches feel better, friends and family mean a bit more to you. The race takes away all that doesn't matter.

I took a moment to just stop and sit down on the trail. Sipping the hot water, I wanted to just be present, to soak up this place, to remember...burn it into the hard drive. Back on the bike, the end I knew had to be near. A couple gentle turns and the the fork in the road let you know that you had reached the end of The Arrowhead Trail. There were two signs. One marked the trailhead, the other directed you left to Fortune Bay Casino. A quick pause and a "Thank You" to the trail and I was on my way. I scanned the tree tops, looking for any signs of civilization. Finally, to my right, a rooftop appeared and ahead of me I could see snow fence that sure as hell looked like a possible finishing chute. It curled to the right and there it was. The finish banner was dead ahead and wouldn't you know it, one last little steep hill that if I was completely honest, I would have walked were it anywhere else but here. One pedal or not, I was finishing ON the bike. I gave her all I had, popped up over the hill and crossed the line. I had hoped my great friend Jarred would be waiting and he was. It was fitting we shared the finish of our great adventure together.

Slumped over the handle bars, grinning ear to ear, the volunteers took photos and offered congratulations. It had been all I could have hoped for, everything happening exactly as it was supposed to.One of the men at the finish tapped me on the shoulder asking "When the hell did that happen?" "What?" I replied. "You know your missing a pedal, right?"

"Yeah, I know."  It was a ride I'll never forget. "The Gift of the Broken Pedal."

The 2016 Arrowhead 135




  1. Amazing...........simple amazing! You Rock! Brewer

  2. That was AWESOME...EXACTLY as a you relayed it to me when you got home!!! Loved hearing it again!

  3. A great story/adventure will leave you with tears of where are my kleenex! Much Respect my Brutha.

  4. Amazing, much respect! Thanks for putting it in words for all of us!

  5. Great story and great effort Steve ... and what a great adventure! Congrats!!

  6. Nice job, Steve. Congratulations.

  7. I was at the finish line when you came across, Steve. When we saw your pedal we were speechless and amazed. Congratulations!