It is a race. It is a damn tough race.
It is a race that challenges those willing to take the test, physically, mentally, and spiritually. But it is so very much more than a race. Some races, some places, capture the soul. The Arrowhead 135 is one of those races, perhaps the best of them.
International Falls, Minnesota plays host to the race the last weekend in January every year. It is a race famous for its potentially life-threatening minus forty degree temperatures and its brutal 135 miles. Much like the race itself, International Falls is so much more than it appears on the surface. Nicknamed the “Icebox of the Nation", International Falls spends 110 days of every year below freezing. Yet, it is a warm place. The people who call this place home look out for each other--the environment demands it. It's in their DNA to be kind and caring. Once there, you will feel their warmth: a welcoming hug that says, "Everything's gonna be ok. We've got you.”
One hundred and thirty five miles on the Arrowhead Trail, from International Falls through Voyageurs National Forest to Tower, Minnesota--assuming you're one of the fortunate ones who make it all the way. Along the trail, await famous stops: CP1 - Gateway. Cowbells and cheering a-plenty!!
MelGeorges.CP2 - A winter oasis...and a trap if one stays just a bit too long.
the Surly/Ski Pulk. CP-3 Vuvuzela horns announce the arrival of all who dare.
and of course, the finish! Crossing this line, one is forever changed.
If lucky, a wolf serenade by the light of the new moon may accompany your entry fee. Hopefully that's as close as you will get to the packs that call this place home. Remember, you don't have to be the fastest one out there. Just don't be the slowest.
There is no such thing as an "easy" Arrowhead. You get either one of the bone chilling cold years or the occasional "warm" year, when temperatures rise near freezing, often bringing fresh snow and forcing bikers to push rather than pedal and runners to put on snowshoes so as to discontinue "post-holing" with each step. That makes Arrowhead a formidable and unique physical adversary every year. Veterans will tell you the cold years are the best. Movement is quickest on ice cold, hard packed trails. However, make a mistake at -40F, thirty miles from any help, and you may pay a steep price...in flesh.
Those who come to this place to race are warrior poets. They are those who will not go quietly into that dark night. They are those who gladly exchange comfort for adventure, realizing that in comfort there can be no real joy. The very definition of adventure is an undertaking with outcome uncertain. No one really DNFs the Arrowhead 135. Some may find their own finish line before reaching Tower, Minnesota, having pushed themselves to their absolute limit. I say here, not only did they finish, but perhaps they found more in their journey than others who were successful in making it through the entire 135 miles. Victory comes in many different forms. When the call rings out, piercing the early morning darkness, "Release the Hounds", all who depart have already won. To be in their midst is an honor.
But none of that is what makes Arrowhead great.
It took me two years to realize the true beauty of The Arrowhead 135. I was intoxicated by the natural spectacle year one. Endless stands of towering pine trees. Night skies flooded with so many stars it becomes hard to figure out if there is more light than darkness. Blood stained snow signaling a fresh kill, probably from the night prior reminds one that we are not the dominant species here. If you are lucky, the snowshoe hare, the bald eagle, pine marten, or whitetail deer may be an occasional companion on the trail. Seemingly endless sections of hills. Mind numbing straightaways. The final 20 mile trail to nowhere? These were the things that I had thought made the Arrowhead great. They make it very good, yes. But are they what make it great? No.
Even with all of this, the race would still be just a race, albeit an amazingly beautiful, gut punch of a tour through the best of the north country, alongside kindred spirits, kind of race. So what is it that makes Arrowhead great?
It's the people. The Arrowhead 135 is not a race at all. It's a family. Race director Ken Krueger, his staff, volunteers, the International Falls community, and the racers who come here annually to take the test become brothers and sisters in adventure, each person realizing that without the others none of this would happen. Ken jokes, sorta, "if it gets too hard, just give up...”, but behind the jokes is a man who has taken the test as an athlete himself, and who has a deep respect for all those willing to do the same.
The volunteers call this place home, they know how tough it is. Be it gear check, pre-race meeting, or getting your third grilled cheese at Melgeorge's before even asking for it, the volunteers here are the gold standard. Some I remember by name: Frank and Mike, finish line volunteers, we met pre-race and hung out together in Tower. I believe we will be lifelong friends. Others, I remember their faces, but more than that, I recall their generosity, kindness and enthusiasm. So often, endurance races leave us a bit in the "blues". The physical demands of the event draining the soul. A small price to pay, but a price nonetheless. Given time, each day the sun shines a bit brighter; the pep in our step returns, and life regains its "normal,” whatever that may be for each of us.
Arrowhead is different from other races. It has been just over a week since the race ended. All of us have returned home to share our stories with friends and family. But there is more to Arrowhead than just those stories of adventure, EPIC as they may be. If we look closely, we can see past the beast's gruff exterior and into it's heart, the best of all realities confirmed: no matter the news headlines and the endless social media bickering, people are kind and caring, wanting the best this life offers, not only for themselves, but for each other. Nowhere have I been where that is more evident than the Arrowhead 135. Thank you all.
Special Thanks to Rasmussen Bike Shop, BarYak, Bike Bag Dude, Out There Nordic,
Wilderness Sports, My Awesome Family and Friends For Supporting My Dreams!