THE ARROWHEAD 135 2013 EDITION
Last year was not a year of renown for our ICON in that he brought new meaning to the phrase ” Chickening Out “. Enroute to the race he consumed an inadequately cooked piece of chicken and spent 22 hours [or roughly his usual time to complete the Arrowhead race] attempting to rid his digestive tract of the offending bird’s parasitic pets. Enough to say that he was here this year to redeem himself and to reinforce his reputation at one of his favourite events.
This year was also a year in which his enthusiasm for Ultra Marathon Snow Bike racing had resulted in a veritable flood of fellow members of the Olympia Cycle Club coming down to test their strengths against the elements in the area of the North American continent known as the “Icebox”.
Including our ICON a total of 6 club members were racing in the Bike category, and an additional 3 had come down to help out as volunteers. The volunteers were Ian Hall, twice a finisher of the Arrowhead and organizer of the Manitoba Actif Epica winter race, David Pensato, rumoured to have close connections with the Manitoba Yeti, a friend of Ian’s who was curious to learn more about this extreme version of Winter self torture known as the Arrowhead 135, and thirdly Pete Macadam, a talented rider and maker of his own snow bikes who was checking out the event to get a feeling for what he would have to do in the next 12 months to prepare himself to race the event next year. All three were volunteering to run the third and final checkpoint,” Ski Pulk”, which is located only 25 miles from the finish and would give them ample opportunity to see how the race affected the individual athletes.
The Olympia racers were….
First Lindsay, our Icon, back for his fourth Arrowhead and hoping for a tough race to test his fitness prior to attempting the Iditarod Trail 350 mile event for the second time. All of you are probably aware that his first attempt was curtailed by a record snowfall where 34 inches of fresh snow buried the course and the racers. Our ICON, with a 30 inch inseam (editor’s note: Um, 30 inches seems generous) and weighing 130lbs, had enormous difficulties pushing his 70 lb bike through 34 inches of snow and after 210 miles of pushing at an average speed of 1.5 miles per hour had to withdraw from the race when an aid station worker took a picture of his frozen face which had reached a stage that could have seriously jeopardized a future modelling career for our intrepid ICON had he chosen to continue.
Second Hal Loewen, the “Nordic God”, returning from a stellar debut last year when he finished strongly as the first Canadian . This year he was hoping to again have a good race and his result from the Tuscobia 150 where he finished in fourth place four weeks ago certainly suggested that his preparations were spot on.
Thirdly Dallas Sigurdur was returning to the Arrowhead after successfully completing the race last year. Dallas is a well known ultra marathon runner who also has a fine set of results from long distance cycling. He tied for first with our ICON in the Trans Iowa race one year and was comfortably under 30 hours for the Arrowhead last year.
Fourthly we have Dan Lockery riding his first Arrowhead. Dan has a solid background in 150 mile “Gravel Grinder” races and has ridden the Actif Epica on a fat bike and the Tuscobia 150 mile event 4 weeks ago where he finished in 6th place. Dan was hoping to finish the Arrowhead race in 24 hours.
Fifthly Morgan Porath, the manager of the Olympia Cycle and Ski Portage Ave store in Winnipeg was attempting his first winter fat tire race . Morgan has a long pedigree as a Mountain bike racer and is a bit of a dark horse in this race as he is a very strong rider but has not got the specific experience in this type of event.
Sixthly we have Al Dixon, “Mr Dixon” to his friends. Al is a recently retired schoolteacher whose retirement present to himself was a fat bike. Al has set himself the goal of completing the Arrowhead and is here for the second time after having to withdraw from the race at Mel George’s last year as a result of several factors that conspired to hinder his progress. Al is in a very different category to the other 5 Canadians as he has never owned a racing license and his goal is to complete the event in two stages. International Falls to Mel George’s on the first day. Sleep at Mel Georges until daylight and then complete the event, hopefully in 48 hours or thereabouts.
Before describing the race, it is very important to acknowledge the sterling work of Dave and Mary Pramann. This is their last year as race organisers and it is equally important to let them know that everyone has appreciated their dedicated work to maintain and expand the excellent reputation of the race. The Arrowhead 135 is a very tough event and has an exceptional safety record given the severe weather,the wilderness nature of the course, and the exceptional demands it places both on the competitors and the logistical experts running the check points, patrolling the course, and monitoring where, and in what condition, each of the 140 or so competitors were as the race progressed.
This year’s race had attracted the largest number of past winners in all categories (run, bike, and ski) and the weather was predicted to be mild and the snow on the course to be a little softer than ideal. Dave, the cycling record holder, commented at the pre race meeting that a slower course was just fine. However it is important to point out that Dave’s record was set on a standard mountain bike long before the advent of the “Fat bike “. Thus Dave’s record will remain on the books until such time as another competitor beats it on a standard mountain bike.
Every year I am most impressed with the guys who run the gear check on each competitor. They conduct the most thorough and rigorous examination of every single item of gear and food supply that you could possibly imagine. So much so that you can hear mutterings from the competitors. However, just stop and think for a moment, each item required on the list is there to ensure the safety of the competitor, no matter what might occur out on the course, and no matter how severe the weather might be. This gear check saves lives and helps to maintain the excellent safety record of this very challenging Winter ultra marathon race.
So, on that note, let’s see what happened in 2013 Arrowhead 135…
And what a race it was!! Quite the most exciting of the 4 races that I have had the opportunity to observe as our ICON”s Faithful Manservant. At the Hwy 53 road crossing a lead group of 5 riders had a small gap over the rest of the field and the time they crossed the highway, somewhat impeded by a train for 2 minutes, was slightly slower than the previous year. By the time they reached Gateway (the first checkpoint) the lead group was down to 3 riders: Todd McFadden, Jeff Oatley, and Kevin Breitenbach. Jeff and Kevin, both down from Alaska, have three victories between them in the cycling event at the Arrowhead 135 and have both come close to eclipsing Dave’s course record. Todd, in his second Arrowhead 135 , is one of the world renowned Duluth based DBD “Death before Dishonour” group of outstanding athletes that have distinguished themselves in every discipline of the race: cycle, run, and ski.
I am led to believe by Charlie Farrow, one of the founding members of this group, that genetics plays a big part in their superb talents. Charlie himself assures me that he is the offspring of a promiscuous relationship between Amelia Earhart and Ernest Shackleton. His childhood was further enhanced when they traded him to Mallory on the understanding that Mallory would climb Everest with the young Charlie in his back pack. Sadly this plan was thwarted by Charlie’s lack of toilet training and as a result Charlie was traded to a wandering band of Yetis where he enjoyed a most adventurous childhood. Whatever the cause or source of the Duluth Talent it is both genuine and awe inspiring! It will be investigated further and a report will emerge in due course.
The three leaders had opened up a 15 minute lead by the time they reached the 35 mile checkpoint at Gateway and all of the top 7 racers just called out their numbers and continued on to the halfway point at Mel George’s. The Olympia cyclists were all riding well with the four seasoned riders coming in comfortably in the top 20 riders. Morgan was in 50 minutes behind the leaders, Hal was 3 minutes behind Morgan , Dan was 12 minutes behind Morgan and our ICON 18 minutes behind Morgan. All four stopped briefly and left Gateway with Morgan, Hal and Lindsay together and Dan about 8 minutes behind. Dallas was about 1 hour behind the others at this stage and Al, “Mr Dixon”, was cruising along at a similar pace to last year’s race and was feeling good. One important thing to note at Gateway is the “Alaska effect”. Our ICON’s faithful manservant had noticed three years ago that the Alaskan racers couldn’t figure out why racers stopped at the check points when they were used to racing for 20 hours between the checkpoints in the Itarod trail race. It was also noticeable that other racers after having ridden the Iditarod also developed this attitude. Last year in the Arrowhead Bill Shand’s experience in Alaska led him to stop at checkpoints 1, 2, and 3 for a total stoppage time of 8 minutes. This year our ICON had by far the quickest turn around at Gateway of the 4 Canadian riders.
At this point in the race our ICON’s Faithful Manservant had time for a leisurely bowl of Macaroni and Cheese at Gateway and was intrigued to learn that a new snow bike was in the design stages with even larger tires than those used on the Surly Moonlander. That was news to get our ICON’s attention… anything technological that could offset the effects of the ageing process is guaranteed to have him salivating like a walrus in a salmon farm.
The drive from Gateway to the halfway checkpoint at Mel George’s fishing resort takes a little over 1 hour whereas the stronger cyclists usually take 5 to 6 hours. I arrived there a little after 1pm and went straight to the checkpoint cabin to deliver both my son’s (Dan’s) and our ICON’s drop bags containing the food that they would need to complete the second half of the race. Mary Pramann is in charge of this aid station checkpoint where the racers can dry clothes and get grilled cheese sandwiches and bowls of soup to fortify them for the second half of the race, all courtesy of Mary and her small band of volunteers. Given the mix of cyclists and runners this aid station/checkpoint operates night and day for over 48 hours. This kind of workload makes me appreciate even more the hard work that the volunteers face and I think that their efforts match those of the racers. I asked Mary if there was anything I could do to help and she asked if I could take all of the empty cardboard boxes over to the Lodge where they have a recycling facility. I agreed to do that and when she asked me when she could expect racers to arrive and I said that given the soft snow conditions that I wouldn’t expect them to arrive much before 3 pm at the earliest . That said I headed for the Lodge and a nice warm cup of tea to fortify me before walking out across Elephant Lake to cheer the racers in. I was still drinking that cup of tea at 10 minutes past 2pm when I saw to my amazement three riders coming off the lake and heading for the checkpoint.
Their elapsed time of 7 hours and 10 minutes to the halfway point is unprecedented in the history of the race and despite the hilly nature of the course between Mel George’s and the last checkpoint at Skipulk, where it is necessary to dismount and push the bikes on numerous occasions, it suggested that Dave Pramann’s record ride was clearly under threat. Despite wanting to run over to the cabin and find out what the trail conditions were like from the three leaders I decided I had better head out across the lake and watch for more riders . If conditions on the trail were as good as it seemed the Olympia riders should be into Mel George’s around 4.30pm. Tim Loewen, Hal’s brother, had joined me at the Lodge and he rode out across the Lake on Ian Hall’s bike whilst I walked.
Ben Doom, Jason Buffington and Steve Yore all came in at short intervals, Ben was about 36 minutes off the pace of the leading trio with Jason and Steve 5 and 10 minutes behind Ben. The snow on the Lake was very soft and difficult to ride on. I watched numerous riders falling off their bikes 2 or 3 times during the lake crossing and was becoming more and more puzzled by the contrast between apparently slow snow and extremely fast riding times.
I headed back to the lake shore about 4.15 pm and could see 4 riders coming across the lake about 100 feet apart and it turned out that all 4 Olympia riders cruised into the checkpoint just after 4.30 pm. All four stopped to eat the delicious soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. Our ICON once again showed his Alaska effect and left first at 5.15 pm, Hal left 4 minutes later whilst Dan and Morgan were about 9 minutes behind our ICON. All of them had met their goal of leaving Mel George’s in daylight and based on previous year’s results all four appeared to be on schedule for around a 21 to 22 hour finish.
Tim and I figured that we had time to eat supper at the lodge before returning to the cabin to check on Dallas. Sure enough, when we returned at 6.5 pm Dallas was there providing entertaining conversation to anyone willing to listen and at the same time preparing to head back onto the trail. The cabin was full of riders and more were arriving so Tim and I quickly picked up the now empty drop bags of the Olympia riders and headed out. Tim was planning to stop at Orr and pick up a bottle of Champagne which he would leave at Skipulk, the final checkpoint, in case our ICON was in a celebratory mood from completing his 1,000,000th kilometre [600,000 miles]! He would reach this milestone about 10 miles before the checkpoint.
My own plans were to drive to the finish in the hopes of seeing the three leaders come in somewhere between 10.15pm and 11pm. I had left Mel George’s just around 7 pm and headed south on hwy 53. I had just passed through Orr at 8.20 pm and saw what looked like a fog or mist bank across the highway up ahead. It turned out to be a very spectacular snow squall that was at first mixed with rain and sleet, but quickly became heavy wet snow. Well before Cook the visibility had deteriorated to 50 yards, and several trucks and other vehicles had pulled onto the shoulder, presumably to wait for better conditions and visibility. I gambled that the truckers knew something that I couldn’t be sure of; that maybe it was a short lived snow storm. Otherwise they would have driven into Cook or Orr. Anyway, I continued to drive between 30 and 40 mph, turned off Hwy 53 just before Cook and headed down County road 115 to Fortune Bay which was about 21 miles further. The snow didn’t stop but it did lessen enough for the visibility to improve to about 400 yards some 12 miles before Fortune Bay.
Up until that point I had been so focused upon driving that I hadn’t given a thought to what this sudden and most unpleasantly wet snow might do to all of the racers out on the course. Not only would it soak them to the skin with temperatures right on the freezing point, prime conditions for hypothermia, it would also really slow down the course as loose fresh snow is very difficult to ride in and it could become a “push fest ” similar to what happened in Alaska at last years Iditarod, when our ICON had to withdraw from the race with frostbite after pushing his bike for 190 of the 210 miles he had covered in 5 and a half days. Fortunately the Arrowhead is shorter and the snow inches rather than feet deep! Either way it would change the character of this year’s race, especially if the racers didn’t have some kind of vapor barrier clothing to protect them from hypothermia. The rate of snow falling was close to 2 inches in an hour between Cook and Orr but the amount was just less than an inch by the time I reached Fortune Bay at 9.10 pm.
I quickly registered and headed up to the room where I flipped on the weather channel and saw “Winter Storm Warning”: Up to 6 inches of wet snow falling at rates between half an inch and 2 inches per hour, temperatures slowly dropping from 32F to 23 F . I headed down to the hospitality suite where Gerry Gray had arrived from Mel George’s about half an hour ahead of me. He had had an uneventful drive down and was totally unaware of the snow just to the north. I also learned that the first three riders had left Skipulk at 7 pm and were expected at the finish close to 10 pm. They were clearly on track to complete the race in 14 hours and in the process setting an unbelievably fast new record for cycling the course. I quickly headed back to my room which had a balcony overlooking the finish, made myself a hot chocolate, and sat out on the balcony to watch the anticipated sprint finish. At almost precisely 10.20 pm a lone rider came into sight and it was neither of the two Alaskan superstars, but Todd McFadden of the Duluth “DBD” [ Death before Dishonour” ] racers led by that mystic savant Charlie Farrow, variously son of Mallory or Shackleton and Amelia Earhart.
What an amazing achievement to ride the two Alaskan superstars, both past winners of the last three Arrowhead races , off his wheel. Only 30 seconds behind Todd, Jeff Oatley cruised in showing that his class and talent is still improving with age! Jeff has now ridden the Arrowhead 3 times, won it twice , 2nd this time, and improved his finishing time in each race. Less than 5 minutes after Jeff, Kevin Breitenbach rode in, last year’s winner again demonstrating his resilience and mental strength to keep riding as hard as he could despite watching the gap between himself and the other two slowly stretching out on the long straight sections of the final 25 miles of this epic race.
What really impresses me is the remarkably even time split between the start and Mel George’s and Mel George’s and the finish. Each half of the race was ridden in roughly 7 hours and 10 minutes despite the second part between Mel George’s and Skipulk having climbs where riders have to dismount and push. Jeff did tell me the next day that the leaders had encountered light snow when they were 2 hours from the finish but that it hadn’t accumulated as quickly as it had further north so that the trail was not significantly slower than what one would expect at temperatures close to the freeze-thaw mark.
Either way a truly remarkable race ending in a new cycling record, with all three of the first finishers breaking Dave Pramann’s old course record. I stayed out on the balcony for an hour after the leaders came in and saw Ben Doom finish 4th in 15 hours and 46 minutes, Steve Yore was next in 16 hours and 14 minutes, and Jason Buffington 6th in 16 hours and 16 minutes. Again the quality of the riders was impressive. Ben had finished second in this year’s Tuscobia 150 mile event, Steve had won this year’s Tuscobia 75 mile event and Jason had won this year’s Tuscobia 150 mile event. All three are from Minnesota, and I am pretty sure that Ben and Jason are from the Duluth genetic super race of DBD members, whilst I recall Steve saying that he worked for QBP in the Twin Cities. It wouldn’t surprise me, however, if he had genetic links to Duluth.
After a night of little sleep punctuated by dreams of hypothermic racers shivering in their snow soaked down sleeping bags I rose at 5 am and went down to the hospitality suite where the finishers are photographed holding their trophies. I discovered that only 8 more riders had finished since I stopped watching at 11.15pm the previous night. The volunteers at the finish had also heard from the snowmobile partols that no racers were moving after midnight between the 70 mile Mel George’s checkpoint and the 110 mile Skipulk checkpoint. They were all sleeping beside the trail hoping that the snow would stop before continuing to the finish or to Skipulk if their energy levels were too depleted for them to continue. I also learnt that this was the first Arrowhead in 9 years where a major snow event had occurred during the race. I could see from the worried looks of the officials in the room that they were wondering if the competitors were going to be able to survive the snow storm without help and at least make it to a checkpoint or whether they would have to initiate rescues… only time would tell!
Just before 6 am a rider appeared out of the bush, the 16th finisher, and it was Hal Loewen repeating his last year’s performance as first Canadian, and completing the event in 22 hours and 59 minutes. Hal was cheery and happy to have finished but had left Skipulk at 12.53 am before any of the other three Canadians had reached it, even though he had spent close to 30 minutes warming up beside the bonfire. Hal had once again demonstrated that he has a real talent for these very challenging winter ultra marathon races and I’m looking forward to watching him improve still more as the years of experience and added training take effect. Just before 7 am the next finisher came in and it was Dave Gray, the designer of both the Pugsley and the Moonlander snow bikes.
I had watched Dave leave Mel George’s just a few minutes behind the 4 Canadians so was sure that he would know how the other three were doing. He had passed a rider #67 about 5 miles before the Skipulk checkpoint. The rider was in his sleeping bag and was projectile vomiting onto the course. #67 was Morgan Porath, one of our riders, and he had asked Dave to tell the Skipulk officials where he was and that he would make his way there when he felt better. Dave, who was riding his Moonlander with much wider tires than most snow bikes, had been able to ride more easily through the new soft snow and had passed our ICON not too far from the finish so I now knew where Lindsay was, and where Morgan was, but didn’t know where Dallas or my son Dan were. Dave didn’t know my son so didn’t have a clue where he might be. I had been chatting to Dave for close to 15 minutes and at that point I heard voices in the hallway outside and three riders were walking in, two of normal height and one unmistakably our ICON.
The other two turned out to be my son Dan and Tim Ek, yet another of the DBD super athletes from Duluth. They had climbed off their bikes about 30 feet from the finish and walked side by side across the line in 24 hours and 21 minutes,tied for 17th place and exactly 1 hour and 22 minutes behind Hal. All of the finishers, Hal, Dave, Lindsay, Dan and Tim were cheery and happy to be finished but all looking a lot more at ease than our ICON’s Faithful Manservant who felt absolutely knackered after a night of little sleep, punctuated by nightmares of hypothermic racers and still wondering what to do about Morgan and Dallas and Al, “Mr Dixon” who were all still out on the trail. Little did I know as I took Dan and Lindsay up to the room for some well earned sleep that Hal, Dan, and of course our ICON would be the only Canadians to finish this year’s Arrowhead 135 .
More to come…