You begin to intermittently sleepwalk, but to fall asleep exposed and wet is a death sentence for anyone in this apathetically austere environment. So, you’re faced with the decision to keep going and hope you won’t fall asleep suddenly (or) like most, you very quickly ‘Bivy’ (a tiny one-person tent-shaped, not unlike, a coffin). The snow falls incessantly on the trail, oppressing you and your gear with its sodden weight. The added load makes sled-pulling increasingly excruciating. The pain mixed with imminent trouble leaves a metallic taste in your mouth. The arduousness of movement offers bleak prospects as vicious pangs begin to molest your every step. The deadly cold could freeze you from inside. Deathlike exhaustion envelopes you whilst the hallucinatory winter wonderland undulates within the darkness flanking your periphery. You disappear from Earth into void blackishness–if only for a moment–to rouse and find you’re still trudging through frigid wastes. Perhaps, you never should have come this far into such wastelands of cosmic terror. Your heart’s on turbo boost – feeling surveyed by some unknown yet certainly grim apex predator of the hidden north. You gasp for a mere whisper of oxygen, but this crystalline dark air mockingly denies and cares not how you plead. This place is sacred and it’s commanding you to your knees lest you dare its massive killing capacity. This place wants you. It wants you forever. It wants you for dead. If you succumb to its serene sleep, this hoary wood is eager to swallow you. It’s pulling you away from yourself and into it. It’s pulling you into its endless phantasmagoric tangle of gossamer-laden snow specters. Most give in to the brutality, the exhaustion, and the hallucinations. Surrendered competitors dot the trail on either side around mile 80 – lying in wait to be rescued by snowmobile-riding angels. Several dark figures begin to scurry out of the trees and dart towards you, simply to say, “hey!” It’s time to get off the trail.
First off, for perspective – thank God life has afforded me the luxury of being able to choose my suffering. I do races like Arrowhead 135 in-part to remind myself how easy my life is and to see the ridiculousness of our addiction to comfort. Climate control, fast food, online shopping, commercial-free content. It all makes the primeval seem so distant. Yet, it’s an illusion – the primeval is within us. We merely deny its intrinsic connection ‘til sand & cold become intolerable as commercials & pop-ups become our new irritants. But our challenges–our true challenges–are what give our lives meaning.
In Minnesota, there remains a culture of self-sufficiency and self-support. It’s an olden day culture–perhaps waning–where we hunker under tree trunks to stay warm. So, Northern Minesstoans don’t seem to impress too easily when it comes to one having the ability to endure. This, pretty much, sums up what Arrowhead 135 is; despite three checkpoints, you were on your own with all your gear, carrying it through a place that wants to kill you. What’s more, this “gear” I was carrying around; it was an expedition sled I made myself in my garage in North Carolina. I had to trust in my craft and in my abilities to endure. I’m thankful I have had races where there were many miles between aid stations in an extremely remote wilderness. But this was beyond “next level” for me. You really have to know how to take care of things and keep your head together out there when things go wrong, and they DO go wrong.
Moreover, deadly problems compound very quickly. In extreme cold, you only have a few seconds to take your mitts off when you need the dulled dexterity of a gloved hand. You’ve got to have your plan together every time you expose your skin as frostbite becomes ever closer with each choice you make. The homemade gear and the deadly biting cold – this is what I thought was going to make this race hard. I assume that hypothermia, frostbite, and failing gear is what accounted for the notoriously high DNF (did not finish) rate of this race. I read many blogs, many books, spoke with people, and did plenty of homework. But I still wasn’t totally certain what it was about the arrowhead 135 that puts it in the ranks of one of the “world’s toughest endurance challenges”. And maybe that’s just the reason why I couldn’t find any specific reason because the reason is different for everyone who tries it. I think the possible answers to my question had simply become too convoluted in my own head. The hard truth is, Arrowhead 135 is just a generally grueling race. It presents an incredibly challenging set of circumstances and environments that those who try it fail, many times, and for many different reasons.
For me, the answer was quite clear quickly – my companions and I (I cannot call them competitors in this case) were lugging sleds that normally weigh a minimum of 40 pounds. We were lugging them, not just down some flat road, but up and down the highest peaks of ancient glaciers. This vertical zigzagging was brutal on the body. Once you begin an ascent, you have to keep going because, if you stop, the weight of the sled begins to drag you downward. With each step you dig your trekking poles into the ice, the forward momentum feels like doing a pull-up with a weighted backpack. You have no choice but to keep doing these “pull-ups” or lose precious momentum and bear the crushing backward-pulling weight of the ever-glazing ice layers forming upon you. This isn’t running. This is something else. The air is like frozen fire. It will take you lest you keep your core temperature stable via locomotion of any sort. If you stop you begin to immediately sweat, which quickly causes hypothermia. So, your reality becomes this – keep moving in pain and see where the body breaks, or stop and die quickly from exposure.
This race totes a roster of entrance every year, which comprise a lineup of some of the world’s most Badass endurance athletes and Winter athletes. Despite that, and for most of us, our first go at this race is like a “first draft” or test run. We go through a punishing gamut, fail, then autopsy the freakish memories as best we can. Most of us stubborn enough to start this race are stubborn enough to finish it – no matter how many times it takes. So, the magnetic true north harkens us back into the tempt of its deadly white.
Thanks to my Mom, Dad and wife Mary for doting over me and taking care of me afterward.
Thanks to everyone who was watching and worrying about me. Sorry to scare anyone!
Thanks to Todd Gabrielson and the snowmobile team who were our guardian angels. This race wouldn’t be possible without you all! Thank you so much for your encouragement, patience, true concern, and my ultimate extraction from the icebox.
Thanks to my coach Hayden Hawks. You did all you could to get me ready for this race. You’re an awesome coach and your support and encouragement have been a great tool when things get rough.
Thanks to Frank Edwards for his selflessness driving me around, and looking after me.
And lastly – Thanks to the Arrowhead 135 Race Director Ken Krueger for encouraging me after my last-minute breeze through Surly Checkpoint. Being at the captain’s helm is no small job – making sure a lot of hard-headed people don’t kill themselves and believing in the human spirit’s capacity to thrive in extreme difficulty. I’ll be back.
Photo by: https://markmanoutdoorphotography.com/