It’s been a month or so since we received the 1st part of Andy Lockery’s reflection on the recent Arrowead 135 winter enduro event. If you haven’t read part 1 yet check it out here, and then follow that up with part 2, below…
THE COMPETITORS It is worth providing those of you who are not familiar with the Arrowhead 135 with a brief description of some of the competitors in the event. It helps to make the event even more impressive, and also makes it easier for the reader to appreciate the achievements of our ICON during this Ultra distance cold weather event.
1. Jeff Oatley
I first met Jeff at last year’s Arrowhead when I served as our ICON’s Faithful Manservant for the first time. Jeff had travelled down from Alaska with a group of riders and proceeded to impress right from the start. Jeff, together with his fellow Alaskan, Pete Basinger, who has won the Iditabike 350 mile event at least 5 times to my knowledge, and Dave Pramann, record holder for the fastest ever completion of the Arrowhead, and now race organiser, had distanced the rest of the field by the first checkpoint at 37 miles. Not even bothering to stop for food or drink, they shouted out their race numbers to the official and headed straight back onto the trail. At Mel George’s, the halfway point, they did stop for perhaps 30 minutes before heading straight for the finish where they arrived some 17 hours after starting the event. Jeff in first place, Pete in second place and Dave in third place. Word has it that they were attacking one another and sprinting during the final few kilometers, much as one does when out with a group of fellow riders on a Sunday morning cruise. The very thought of trying to sprint on a Fat bike in loose snow boggles the mind! p>This year Jeff returned to defend his title, but this time neither Pete nor Dave were competing. Pete was training for the Iditabike and Dave is now organising the Arrowhead. Jeff had, however, brought his wife Heather with him, who was competing in the women’s cycling category. By the first checkpoint at 37 miles once again there were three riders off the front, Jeff, Jason Buffington, and Lance Andre, but this time there were only a few seconds before other riders came through. At the halfway point these three had extended their lead to a few minutes and this year Jeff knew the race route and instead of taking his time at the checkpoint was in and out in a matter of minutes.
This year the third checkpoint, at the Crescent Bar and Grill, stayed open all night. Jeff arrived about 15 minutes ahead of Jason and closer to an hour ahead of Lance. The Crescent Bar and Grill is only about 21 or 22 miles from the finish and Jeff demonstrated awesome power and strength by increasing his lead over Jason to about an hour and finished the event in under 16 hours. It is very important to note that this year the trail was softer than last year and in addition this years race was the coldest in the history of the Arrowhead with night time temperatures hovering around -37F. Both factors making the event slower than if the trail had been hard packed and the temperature closer to – 1 F .
I took the trouble to “Google” Jeff online and discovered that he has competed in many ultra distance cycling events, and that the more extreme the conditions the more he likes it. He is indeed one of the very best ultra distance riders in the world today. However, as I say that, and in keeping with the strict code of accuracy that typifies my writings, I have to tell all of you that in reality Jeff is not even the Best rider in his own family…… his wife is !!!
2. Heather Best
Heather, Jeff’s wife, competed in this year’s Arrowhead for the first time. I was unaware of who she was when I first noticed her at about 17 miles into the race, where the Arrowhead trail crosses a road. I had never seen anyone spin a Fat bike with such consummate ease, especially not a woman with the build of a super model or a world class triathlete. Not only was she happily spinning the pedals , she was riding in the lead group along side the likes of Jason Buffington, Josh Peterson, Lance Andre, Charlie Farrow, and of course our Icon and looked perfectly at ease.
At the first official checkpoint after 38 miles she was still only 2 minutes or so behind the leaders and was riding in the company of fellow Alaskan Jacques Boutet and our ICON himself. And as anyone in the cosmetics trade will tell you, horses sweat, men perspire, and women glow, and it was obvious that our ICON was riding in Heather’s glow! I finally managed to speak with Heather at the Halfway checkpoint after 70 miles of riding [Mel George’s] where I could see that here was a woman riding an Ultra Winter endurance event at a speed well within her capabilities, and taking her time at the checkpoint to eat drink and rest before setting off on the next, and toughest, leg of the event comfortably in the top ten overall. It was during the night, between Mel George’s and the finish that Heather saw two wolves standing beside the trail. I am quite certain that, for the wolves part, their curiosity had been roused by Heather’s glow, which was definitely much closer to Chanel #5 than the usual sweaty gym sock or used Man Diaper odour that characterises the Arrowhead trail during race days. However, make no mistake about it, Heather is an exceptionally talented rider. Last year a friend of hers came down to the race and set a new record for the fastest women finisher. Heather beat that time by almost exactly 6 hours finishing in 8th place overall just behind Lance Andre and Charlie Farrow and almost two hours ahead of our Icon who came in 10th. Anyone who can ride 135 miles in -37F temperatures in a little over 20 hours is undoubtedly worthy of the title ‘Best’ rider in her family and was, in more ways than one, the “Best” in the race overall !!
3. Jason Buffington
Jason typifies the character and physiology of competitors in this race. In the first instance, “character”, there is a level of mutual respect between the competitors that reflects and acknowledges the challenges that each of them will face in a event of this nature that differentiates it from less challenging races. In the second case, “physiology”, the competitors tend to be much more robust than one would anticipate from watching events like the Tour de France, or an Ironman triathlon . In the latter two events competitors tend to resemble recently released inmates from a prisoner of war internment camp whilst in the Arrowhead, and like events, competitors have to push a bike and gear up snow covered slopes where the bike weighs close to 50lbs or more. It is no wonder then that someone like Jason Buffington who looks as though he would be at home on a football field , would be perfectly suited to an event like the Arrowhead.
Jason confirmed his abilities with a superb ride. He rode with the the lead group throughout the race and after 113 miles or so at Crescent Bar and Grill he had only conceded 15 minutes to Jeff Oatley, and finished the race in about 17 hours only 1 hour off the pace . Most importantly he brought a rare smile to the face of many would be competitors who had the preconceived notion that they would never be successful bike racers because they were built too tough , and short of amputation, would never achieve a body weight below 180 lbs. Our ICON, just for comparison, who began his career racing on the road, weighed in at a delicate 118 lbs. Now as a seasoned off road adventure racer he weighs in at a porky 134 lbs.
4. Lance Andre
Although I have never had a one on one conversation with Lance, I feel that I know him better than many of the other competitors. Lance is a talented rider, outgoing , and as several of his friends commented, “He is a man who is never afraid to bonk !” For those of you who are not cyclists this term refers to the ability to drive the human body to the point of exhaustion. It is however not an accurate description of Lance and doesn’t really do him justice. In Lance’s case he is a competitor who fully understands the meaning of the term “Race”. “There is one winner and everyone else loses.” Lance therefore rides to win , and has no interest in finishing second. He would also never quit a race as long as he was capable of moving forwards. In this year’s Arrowhead Lance was riding at or near the front for the first half of the race and even launched a couple of blistering attacks just after the 20 mile mark when he noticed that Jeff Oatley was not right at the front of the race. Jeff had eased up a little to have a chat with Heather , who was a few seconds off the pace. At the half way checkpoint Lance was still with Jeff and Jason but by the time he reached the final check at Crescent Bar and Grill he was off the pace and exhausted and had to take a few hours of sleep to ride the last few miles into the finish, where he placed 6th. Everyone knows that he could have easily finished higher had he not ridden so hard earlier in the race, but that is not how Lance races.
To really understand Lance as a person and as a competitor one has only to read a fascinating article in the March 6th edition of the Alaska Dispatch [www.alaskadispatch.com and type ” Iowa Tough Man” into the search box]. This March Lance competed in the Iditabike Invitational , a 350 mile snow bike event, through wilderness trails that makes even the Arrowhead 135 mile event appear to be a little less daunting. Lance had covered about 50 miles on the first day of the race when he took a heavy fall . Only slightly concussed he figured out that he could still ride, despite some aches and pains , so got back on the bike and rode in to the first checkpoint. It was only after a quick nap that he awoke to discover that his left leg had changed colour, and swollen to an impressive size. He was having trouble walking but found that he could still pedal and realised that he was still up with the leading riders, so he got back on his bike and continued the race despite realising that he had broken his left leg. All went well for the next 2 days, the leg was painful but manageable and he had somehow managed to get up and over the mountain ridge at the 250 mile point.
Just over the top on a descent called the Glacier he fell for a second time. The fall re-broke the leg bone and shattered his right arm. He knew the arm was broken because it had a 10 degree bend in it where arms don’t have 10 degree bends. There were two alternatives …. wait on the mountain top to be rescued and hope the rescuers arrived before Lance froze to death, or keep riding. Naturally Lance kept riding since he could no longer walk. Bill Shand, a Canadian who lives and works in the USA had caught up to Lance and rode with Lance the 50 miles to the final checkpoint. Lance didn’t tell Bill that he had a broken leg and arm, and when he managed to reach the final checkpoint he decided that he might as well finish the race … which is exactly what he did! He and Bill tied for 8th place out of the 50 racers!
The article in the Dispatch ends with a comment from Lance in his hospital bed in Iowa, where he tells the reporter that the Doctors are trying to assess whether to pin the bones before putting his leg in a cast, and also that they were going to have to rebreak the arm to align the bones properly before also placing it in a cast. What the article did not say, but I am certain must have occurred, was what Lance said to the doctors in response….. ” Do what you have to do Doc, just so long as I can ride home for supper after you’ve finished !
5. Charlie Farrow Charlie has to be one of the most charismatic riders in the event. I first met Charlie at the Red -Ass 300 mile gravel road bike race which was held in Manitoba about 4 years ago. He rode to a very creditable second place in the event behind Blair Saunders, a Manitoban who lives and works in voluntary exile on the Eastern seaboard of the USA. The first indication that suggested that Charlie was not your common garden bike racer occurred at about 7am the morning after the race when I observed a huddled form wrapped in an old duvet ,asleep on a sun lounger .
My wife, Val, and I were getting some beer out of the fridge in preparation for the arrival of the bulk of the finishers who were still out on the course. Charlie had finished about 5 hours ago and was clearly in need of nourishment. A hand shot out from under the duvet with the speed of a Cobra in heat. The beer bottle that had been in my hand vanished under the covers, only to re-emerge empty, some minutes later to the sound of a satisfied burp and some loud purring noises. I have since got to know Charlie a great deal better through both the Arrowhead and his unique blog site. He is the self proclaimed best looking male in the human race, a man who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Arctic and Antarctic exploration, and an erudite educator of youth who expects the highest standards of achievement, from both himself, and from those that he teaches [ Death before Dishonour is his motto].
In addition he has, to his great despair, lost his status as the Alpha male in the Farrow family to his dog Loki. He refers to himself now as Loki’s Faithful Manservant, whereas, in truth, the British Naval term of “General Dogsbody” is far more appropriate. Definition….. “Dogsbody” A person assigned to perform menial tasks, a drudge, such as picking up Loki’s excrement. Charlie has always performed heroically in The Arrrowhead 135 , always comfortably in the top ten and with a best finish of 2nd overall. Perhaps my favourite characteristic is that when Charlie is around, there is never a dull moment…. he is a true leader of men.
Dave is the man who engineered the design of the Surly Pugsley. A bike that has revolutionized snow and sand cycle racing. Dave is also an accomplished racer and past winner of the Arrowhead 135. New racers are strongly advised to read Dave’s reports on his races as his meticulous attention to detail, and the care he takes preparing for the event, always ensure that he is ready for whatever might happen out on the trail. Dave usually rides slightly faster than our ICON, but this year our ICON finished ahead of Dave by about 30 minutes as a result of Dave spending more time at the checkpoints. All of us owe Dave a great big thank you for turning the idea of a snow bike into a functional reality, and in doing so, creating rapid growth in winter bike racing. Thanks to Dave we can describe winter snow biking as ” fun” rather than “frustrating”.
7. Josh Peterson
Josh is a very talented racer who I first met at the Mel George halfway checkpoint during the 2010 Arrowhead 135. Josh had cruised in to the checkpoint just a few minutes behind the leading trio of racers and had then proceeded to regale fellow competitors, volunteers and spectators alike with lively conversation for about 14 hours before some hidden urge persuaded him to return to the race. I don’t know whether his friends had teased him about the length of his stay at Mel George’s last year, but this year Josh was in and out of the checkpoint in short order and rode strongly to finish in 4th place, confirming his talent as one of the top winter bike racers in the field. Josh is the exact opposite of Lance. Lance rides to win , and Josh rides for the enjoyment that the race provides, whether he finishes 4th or 40th is not important.
8. Charlie Tri
Like Josh, Charlie is one of the strongest riders in the race, but for two years in a row now he has not been able to finish the race. Charlie suffers from Cold weather induced Asthma. He has confirmed his talents as an ultra distance off road bike racer in many events, but has yet to demonstrate his full talents in the Arrowhead. It says a great deal for Charlie’s strength of character that he continues to train and race these winter events , knowing full well that if the air is unusually cold, or low in humidity, all of the time and effort he has put in to training and race preparation could be for nought.
My last chat with Charlie, in the finish line reception room, was very encouraging. He had chatted with another racer who was wearing a special mask that offset the asthmatic effect of the cold air and was going to see if it would solve his own problems.
9. Chuck Lindner
This brief survey of some of the competitors in the Arrowhead would not be complete without including Chuck, and the many racers that face the same challenges as he does whilst training and preparing for the Arrowhead Race. Chuck is from Warroad Minnesota , where he runs a demanding business. In addition he has a young family that naturally expect his care and attention. Despite these commitments I have watched Chuck ride and finish in two Arrowhead 135’s. In 2010 Chuck rode a strong race and finished not too far behind our ICON who rides 125kms a day as part of his “work” as a full time bike courier, has retired from his business, and has no young children placing demands upon his time. All he has to put up with is his snivelling faithful manservant . I mention these contrasts because in 2011 Chuck rode the Arrowhead but was clearly not in the best of form.
At the first checkpoint he told me that he was really suffering and just didn’t have the legs, as cyclists say when they are not on form. Despite this Chuck continued to race and finished the event despite taking many hours longer than would normally be the case. Again , what is important is to recognise the strength of character that all of the competitors in this event exhibit, no matter how well or how badly things go for them.
10. Jeremy Kershaw
This year, 2011, Jeremy competed as a runner in order to achieve the exalted status of having completed the Arrowhead in all three of the disciplines of Cycling, Running, and Skiing. I always considered Jeremy to be a top cyclist in the event , and it was only when I watched him run this year and looked at his skiing result that I realised that I was in the presence of an athletic deity! The 1st year that Jeremy skied the event he finished first! p>This year when he ran the event he finished second. There is not a doubt in my mind that our ICON has noted Jeremy’s performance and will be determined to achieve the exalted rank of a three discipline finisher at some point in the future.
11. Mike Stattelman
Lindsay and I met Mike at the finish just as we were about to leave the hotel for our journey back to Canada. Mike was the only skier in this years event to make it as far as the Crescent Bar and Grill , some 21 miles from the finish. He dropped out there as he wasn’t sure that he could finish inside the time limit of 60 hours. Mike has finished the Arrowhead on skis in past events ,and it was as a result of our giving Mike a ride back to the start in International Falls, to collect his car, that we gained some insight into this least popular discipline in the race. And “Why?”, you ask should this be the least popular method of completing the Arrowhead? The answer is simple: Just try and ski for 135 miles on snow that has never seen a groomed ski trail, that has absolutely no glide at -37F, whilst pulling a sleigh with 40 lbs of equipment and food.
Several times on the 85 mile drive back to International Falls Mike fell asleep in the middle of answering our questions about the challenges of trying to ski this event. Despite Mike’s honesty and accurate description of the challenges he faced, I could see from the look on his face that our ICON was clearly plotting a timetable whereby he could complete the Arrowhead in all three disciplines before he turns 90!
PART 3 THE RETURN OF THE ICON AND FRIENDS…To Follow!