Sunday, February 18, 2018

33 Below and On Your Own. 2018 Arrowhead 135. The Conclusion

Conclusion...(Part 3 of 3)

“Oh Shit!!!” I startled awake, alerted by nothing in particular, other than perhaps an internal alarm clock or an ego that was still attached to my race time and to a finish line that lay waiting forty miles away. 

There, a warm tent waited. More of a winter Shangri-La really, complete with wood burning stove, carpet—yes carpet, perhaps its best feature—and Frank’s home-brewed, super-secret (not even Frank knows the recipe) homemade berry tea! Now, understand, after thirteen to sixty hours (the time cutoff for the race) even a sock soaked in hot water would have been a welcome elixir to a body that had been in below zero temperatures for a day or more. Frank’s tea went beyond that, nearing the level of spiritual joy rather than mere refreshment.  One sip of the locally harvested, dried, and concocted juju rejuvenated body, mind and soul ... seemingly in an instant.

Time? How long had I drifted away, snug as a bug in my minus twenty rug? I had no way to know. It had been dark when I got here, it was still so. So still. And quiet. So very quiet. I could lullaby myself right back to sleep if I just let go. A tempting thought for certain. 

Perhaps, if you can recall the last morning when you had nothing pressing to do and a winter storm was in full force outside the slightly frosted windows of your bedroom, you will be able to understand my dilemma. Can you return there in your mind? To the warmth created by the perfect union of down and body heat? Even the cozy 70F temperature of a well-heated house is no match for the warmth that keeps you so firmly tucked in under the blankets. To hastily exit such a place, who would even think it?!?

The “cozy” house outside my tent that Mother Nature had provided for me was a less appealing -30F, were I silly enough to unzip the sleeping bag, leave the tent, and get back underway. There was no way to ascertain the exact temperature inside my bivvy at that moment, but I can safely say that moving from inside to out would involve a swing of some 100 degrees. I’m not proud to admit it, but do so now, grinning, that the thought did occur to me: Perhaps I’ll just stay here, a nice warm human sausage, till they figure out I ain’t gonna move and come get me.

Time is not our friend in these circumstances. The steps that had put me here needed to be reversed without many flub-ups. The cold waited for its prey to show weakness, like a wolf ready to pounce. Once I pulled down the zipper which ran down the right side of the bag, the cold which had been kept at bay for however long, would attack. Wild places like this one are without conscience. Like the predators that call them home, they simply just are. Do things correctly, and you pass through. Do things incorrectly or cut corners, and you will pay a price. Sometimes in flesh.

Sleep still had a grip on me, and I nearly botched it right from the start. Warm fingers, nice and nimble, full of blood, reached for the inside zipper-pull hastily. First rule of the cold, maybe for everyday life as well: Don’t hurry. Ever. Bad decisions are born out of haste.


A voice ... from a small bit of experience pierced through to the forefront of my mind. Step by step dude! What you gonna do first??? Then what....then what....and....then what.

The questions gave me needed pause. Reminded me that once the sand or in this case, snow, emptied from the top of the hourglass, shivering and palpable “unfun” would become my reality.

One by one, I played out in my mind the steps that would lead to me being back on the bike. Which would lead to me turning the pedals up hill twenty-six of forty-one—or wherever the hell I was—which would lead to body heat generated, which with a bit more time and effort would lead on to Frank’s hot tea.

With a plan and the necessary motivation in place, I confidently reached for the zipper and attacked with patience and precision. I was wearing every single piece of clothing I had packed. The makeshift rain-jacket pillow that had provided comfort moments before, was now my outermost layer, holding in every bit of heat possible. The cold nipped away, attempting to find a soft underbelly, a weakness upon which it could feast.

Once underway, alertness, strength, and a renewed vigor were my companion. Hill Twenty-six. Done. Twenty-seven. Steep bugger, pushed my steed up that one. Done. Body heat rising, unzip rain coat. Twenty-eight. Done. Raincoat off and stuffed away. Hill Thirty-four. Done. Suddenly I heard the words of Worsley In The Footsteps of Shackleton, crossing what should have been a soul-stealing section of ice: “Attack, Attack, Attack!”

Thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-nine, forty-one ... ROAR!!!!!

The assault interrupted. Sounds of music. A fire ablaze visible through the towering trees. It was Checkpoint Three! I’d arrived, feeling more alive than at any point in the race. Rolling in, a teepee, complete with heating stove inside, beckoned. To heed its call would mean relinquishing the small yellow ribbon that proudly proclaimed my unsupported status. I could see that a fire burnt trail left,  just past the teepee. Volunteers greeted me. I sat on the slightly thawing ground, enjoyed the fire's warmth and contemplated the nature of things for a moment.
No longer was my mind filled with thoughts or concerns of finishing.  No, now my thoughts were of a different nature. Have I honored my reasons to be here? Have I drunk fully of the place, taken full measure of the physical, mental and spiritual opportunities these events offer?

Smoke rising from the boots on my feet, left a bit too long too near the fire while in contemplation of such things, caught my attention and signaled it was time to go.

Wake-em-up Hill, a doozy and also the last, was all that remained before I had to deal with a mind-numbing twenty-two or so seemingly, but not quite, flat miles. Frank’s tea and a giant man-hug from his finish line partner-in-crime Mike Hedtke were now just a few hours away. The Arrowhead 135 unsupported would be mine!

Raising myself from the ground, I happily planted my nearly over-toasted boots one in front of the other onto the cold and snowy trail towards my bike. A heartfelt thank you to the wonderful volunteers, a few pedal strokes, and I was away. 

Everything behind me. Everything ahead.

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Sunday, February 11, 2018

33 Below and On Your Own - The 2018 Arrowhead 135 (Part Two)

It is like being the last person at the party to realize that you have had too much to drink. This is the way of such occurrences in these events. Slowly, as if intentionally preventing you from noticing what is happening, physical effort and the elements reduce you to a state of mental simplicity. Unfortunately, if certain details, like drink, food or exertion have not been attended to properly, well than that’s when you find you have already crossed the line. Decision making, forward progress, and safety all suffer.

A few miles back, I’d made the decision: at the next trailside shelter, (shown here during warmer times)

that I’d be stopping to attend to my feet. These shelters are randomly located along the Arrowhead Trail - I’d guess every fifteen to twenty miles or so - and are not necessarily available where you might need them. A few years earlier, after having a pedal break off in this same event, in this same section between Checkpoints Two and Three, I’d happily ducked into one of them. Elated, as I knew nothing prior of their existence. Safe and warm, out of the falling snow, I’d done my best to try and reattach or jerry-rig a pedal. (Who the hell was this Jerry guy anyway? An earlier version of McGyver perhaps.)

At the crest of each hill and the coming out of every bend in the trail, my attention always shifted, remembering years past,  immediately left. Hoping, needing for a shelter soon, I’d given myself a fifteen-minute time limit. If one did not appear by then, I’d set up my camp off-trail as best I could. My feet were not critical ... yet. I was not going to allow them to get that way either. I was less than thrilled about “bivvying” trailside in soft snow and exposed. The three-sided, maybe 30-foot-square, wooden shelters usually had a snow-free dirt floor, and there was something about the idea of a roof overhead that was mentally soothing. Perhaps someday I'll get tougher.

My self-imposed timer was nearing its end. Cresting what I guessed was about Hill Twenty-something of the forty-one hills between Melgeorges and the Surly Checkpoint, trail left, EUREKA, there she was!  

Yes!!! A shelter! I thought. Damn it. It’s an outhouse. Screw it, any portal in a storm. If I gotta get warm in a crapper, so be it. Beats setting up in a snow bank. The wisdom of this decision-making is certainly up for debate. I’d later find out that nighttime temps dipped to -33F. Brain juice, like oil, flows a bit slow in that kind of cold. Perception of surroundings do also. Were it a warm summer night, out for a spin, it’s a good bet that seeing the outhouse, I’d have immediately surmised that no one would just build an outhouse by itself out here. Of course a shelter must be nearby. I mean, we were in the forest. There are no shortages of places to relieve oneself. Now let’s say, just for conversation, that someone was planning on building a small shelter, the kind in which one or two folks might hang out for an evening, make a fire, enjoy a nice cup of tea, and such. Well then, that would seem like a smart place to also put a nice small outhouse as well.

In what seemed like slow motion - recalling the events now - though I was fully resigned to wrapping myself up in my -20F sleeping bag, warming my body and, more importantly, feet in said outdoor lavatory, my gaze shifted slowly to the right. Not fifteen feet away stood a perfectly wonderful shelter. A good chuckle accompanied the realization that I was the last one to realize I was now the drunk guy at the party.

Moving to Alaska for the winter had prepared me for this eventuality. All the old timers will tell you, “It’s one thing to own gear; it’s another to know how to be comfortable using it.” I’m no expert—and will never be (we should always be learning) - but I’d taken the time after rides, when finishing back at the cabin I called home, good and tired and many times in similar temperatures, to practice exactly this scenario. If I goofed then, which I did often, I could always duck inside and warm up.

Now it was the real thing. Zip up all my clothes, pull out the puffy pants and jacket, get them on, and get to work. Sleep system comes out, then the cooking system follows. The only water I still had unfrozen was on my back. I’d need to get to that so I could turn snow to water. (Without some water to start with, heating snow in this temperature just burns it, doesn’t melt it.) So, before getting all my extra clothes on, I made quick work of getting my water bladder off and set it inside the sleeping bag (to keep it warm), while I re-dressed quickly. 

It was during all this that the practice of the past couple months paid off. Calm is a valuable commodity in these situations, one earned only through practice. I’d decided to leave the boots on for now and to just get into the sleeping bag. Once in, I figured everything would start to warm on my lower body as I got to work melting snow on the stove. The thought of a nice HOT drink had me salivating full on Pavlovian! Six ounces or so of water went into the pot for a quick preheat and then the remaining space filled with snow. As it melted down, I continued adding more, all the while feeling the lower half of my body warming as well. With all my focus, I made sure not to tip the now near boiling concoction. The entire process took more than a few minutes, and I did NOT want to tip the tea cart so close to success. It seemed prudent to not just settle for hot water but to take the opportunity and dump some calories into my system as well. Grabbing an insulated water bottle, long ago drank empty, I carefully, albeit clumsily with mittens on, poured in a generous amount of protein powder as I prepared to add the hot water. I’d be in this bag until my feet decided it was time to go. It made sense to use that time to not only re-hydrate but refuel. The stove got a bit finicky a time or two as these temps were at the limit of what the gas would fire at. Cupping my hands around the canister kept it warm enough to provide a consistent flame.

No better drink had I ever had. Made by my own hands, temps. at or headed towards -30F in a trailside shelter, unknown and unencumbered by anyone or anything. I was one with this place. Its snow had provided me relief and having just enough know-how, learning from those before me that had all shared so freely, I drank. The once frigid snow, gifted from the winter god's above, now a hot protein cocktail warming me from the inside out.

I had made my decision weeks before the race. Yes, I was here to finish to the best of my ability, but as I was doing it unsupported, making it to the finish was my only real goal. I didn’t give a damn if that finish came in fifteen hours or fifty-five. The yellow tag, pinned to my reflective vest, designated that I was racing on my own. To take it off and accept support at any point in the race would not have been the least bit palatable.  My warm belly and feet, now taken out of my boots with some Houdini like contortions, made for a comfy, content, and proud racer. I’d passed an important test in my maturation as a winter explorer. I’d been able to put aside an ego which was all too often chasing the “Joneses.” As Jeff Oatley had said, I’d “Solved the problem NOW.” Zipping up my sleeping bag, I left just a couple inch gap. With a rain jacket as a makeshift pillow, and the stars still visible, I was serene, perfectly at peace in this wild environment. Dozing off, my toes, body, and soul all warming nicely, the finish line lost all grasp on me. To be in this place, in this moment, safe and with a complete sense of belonging, time—with me alongside of it—drifted away. 
(End of Part 2)




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Friday, February 9, 2018

33 Below and On Your Own - The 2018 Arrowhead 135

“Yes!!! A shelter! Damn it—it’s an outhouse.”

Nose, toes, and fingers are items I hold in higher regard than overall standings. There is a certain amount of inherent discomfort I accept in these races, but I’d crossed that line. My feet needed some love.

Frostbite is a sneaky, diabolical, and—given enough procrastination as fuel—vicious predator. It stalks our little piggies all the way home. Where a match, placed under the foot, initiates an immediate response, frostbite lurks. Like the wolves that call the woods of Voyageur National Park home, it is a constant companion on the trail and a danger much more real and nearby than we like to admit. So patient in its attack, we as racers can easily fail to give it the respect it’s due. We convince ourselves “It’s not that bad; just another hour or two until I’m at the checkpoint, and I’ll get my feet warm then.” Sometimes, it’s not that bad. Sometimes, it is. Toes go numb. Pain gone. Ride on. Big trouble. The wolf has you now.

My piggies wanted to go to market and eventually wee-wee-wee all the way home to Tower, Mn., the finish.

The best piece of second-hand winter racing advice —and perhaps life advice also—I’ve heard was from Jeff Oatley, a legend in the FatBike community: “When a problem arises, fix it. NOW.”

Starting line temps, 15 hours or so earlier, had been around -11F. Wind speeds were low, and trail conditions solid. Nighttime lows were predicted to be -14F. Damn near perfect. A beautiful moon, already visible as the sun began its journey to the other side of the planet, and crystal clear skies eventually found me riding with my headlamp off for short stretches. Stars danced above. The trail was lit by a moon whose beams stretched in every direction, touching nary a cloud. A more pristine winter night one could not find. The scene was so compelling, so inspirational, so fulfilling, that occasionally I’d unclip from the pedals and coast to a stop. Placing my right foot on the ground, looking to the sky, gazing into the abyss, and breathing deeply with intent, I’d allow my eyes, ever so slightly frosted, to close and then.... listen. Silence. The sort of silence only the wild places can offer. A silence that words, even those of the greatest poets, cannot do justice to. It can only be experienced. In a world that is so very busy, so incredibly noisy, this symphony, the Arrowhead 135 Concerto, is magnificent in its simplicity. And those who hear it, never forget it. No matter the time nor place, even now, reading these words, if you have heard the silence of the wilds and experienced the void, you can close your eyes and return there in an instant.

Crystal clear northern skies do not come free of charge, however. Typically, they also bring cold. Real cold. The silent symphony could not be enjoyed long. “Move or die,” the old timers say, when asked about what to do in "real" cold...cold in the -40 degree range, where the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales meet. I was unsure what the current race temps were. Based on the amount of gear I had on and the chill still nipping at me, we were damn sure south of the -14F that had been predicted.

I was well prepared for all eventualities. I’d packed with respect for the weather, not relying on the forecast. “Plan for the worst. Enjoy the best.” Mother Nature is not to be taken for granted. I’d chosen to take on the Arrowhead this year without support, meaning... well... NO support. Food, water, and gear, were all on the bike. There would be no going into the Gateway Checkpoint to resupply or get warm, and the same was true with Melgeorges Cabin. “No grilled cheese for you!” If I got cold, thirsty or hungry on trail, I was on my own. Build a fire, boil water, get in my sleeping bag. Figure it out.

Todd McFadden is a bad ass on the FatBike and a great friend as well as mentor. His wife must be pretty cool too; she has a saying that Todd had shared with us at breakfast the morning prior to the start of the race. “If you’re dumb enough to get into trouble, ya better be smart enough to get out of it.” That sums up perfectly the reality for anyone taking on the Arrowhead 135 unsupported. It’s you and you alone.

(End Part 1)



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Part 2 will drop shortly. If your enjoying the reading you can download my first book “40 DAYS – Life, Love, Loss and a 1037 Mile Run” Free just by clicking the link.


This also gets you on the early reader list for upcoming book #2 “Upside Down in the Yukon River”


Thanks for stopping by. #dreamBIGdreams