There are few if any pearls of wisdom in this particular article when it comes to unlocking the secrets of successfully surviving the infamous Arrowhead Winter Ultra Endurance event. For a more in-depth discussion of those secrets, I would refer the reader to the website, www.arrowheadultra.com where a number of great, insightful articles have been written by a number of adventurous individuals far more experienced than I am, or ever will be.
In this article I will however, offer a somewhat philosophical account of what transpired from my perspective this year as well as an abbreviated description of how Arrowhead turned out for me personally. I also will apologize in advance for the lack of photographs appearing in this article as I had become far too focused on the tread pattern of my front tire while riding far more than I’d care to admit and of course, had no time to take out my camera. There are however, a number of excellent photo galleries on the Arrowhead website mentioned above that I think will more than make up for my shortcomings.
For those who like numbers, I’ll begin by summarizing my Arrowhead experience this year in the form of the following equation:
Arrowhead 2014: (a) + (b) + (c) + (d) = DNF* Checkpoint #1
(a) = Effen cold weather (-30C and getting colder)
(b) = poor food and water management (can’t eat or drink stuff when it’s a frozen mass)
(c) = minor frostbite (cheeks, nose and eyelids)
(d) = cold-induced fatigue that saps the spirit
(*Credit here to veteran Arrowhead competitor, Lisa Paulos for the reminder that the abbreviation DNF really refers to “Do Nothing Fatal”. This is a principle that I wholeheartedly subscribe to and like to think followed this year).
So that’s about the long and short of it for me and you may wish to read no further, but for those who’d like to learn a bit more about Arrowhead and all of what it entails, please read on – I hope you enjoy!
By way of a bit of history, those who have read the articles and general postings featured on the Olympia Cycle and Ski website may be familiar with the Arrowhead 135 Winter Ultra (or simply AH) and for those unfamiliar with it, may I offer the following Cole’s notes rendition of what it’s all about. The AH now in its tenth year, is a “race” that takes place on the last Monday of January beginning in International Falls Minnesota and concluding in Tower, Minnesota. The 2014 edition began on Febrary 27th and the route follows the popular and well-travelled Arrowhead snowmobile trail located in and around the surrounding area. The field of adventurous participants must travel under their own power for the entire length of the 135 mile or 216 km route within the prescribed 60-hour time limit. Participants may choose to cover this distance on foot, on skis or as I have attempted, on a bike. Oh yeah, I’ll mention that one must be ready for all contingencies and carry a number of required items that would ensure personal survival in cases of emergency. The event has a number of checkpoints that all must pass through and at these checkpoints, re-supply and rest is possible so it’s not a totally fend for yourself type of endeavor. Racers can help each other but the spirit of the event dictates that participants shall not take outside assistance from anyone other than at the designated checkpoints.
Sounds pretty harsh, but since 2009 there have been nine different Manitobans including myself who have participated in AH and for your interest, their names are listed here in addition to the years in which they participated:
Lindsay Gauld (2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014)
Dallas Sigurdur (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014)
Hal Loewen (2012, 2013)
Dan Lockery (2012, 2013)
Ian Hall (2011, 2012)
Morgan Porath (2013)
Pete McAdams (2014)
Sue Lucas (2014)
and myself (2012, 2013, 2014)
Let the record also show that whether they are participants or volunteers, the Manitobans who attend AH are held in high regard by both the organizers and their fellow competitors alike for their toughness and camaraderie regardless of final overall placing. To me, I always thought that’s what these things were all about anyway so I’ll say that’s a pretty high compliment, and one I’m proud to carry and always hope to pay forward.
It takes a lot of personal sacrifice to simply get to the starting line of an event such as AH and those that have been there know what I’m talking about. For some, it’s the pursuit of a podium finish that motivates them while for many including myself, getting to the finish line safely within the time limit is what it’s all about. Friendships are built and strengthened with every year’s effort and in my view, there is a strong sense of belonging amongst the participants as even after one visit it becomes well-understood that you too, are tough enough for AH and your final result is secondary. In my books, that’s pretty high praise just for being there and something that gives me the motivation to try again each year.
According to a book featuring the same title, AH is also billed as one of the world’s 50 most difficult endurance challenges and while it may not be the official fat-bike Olympics, it’s pretty close. If you were a runner, I’d say it would be equivalent to the Boston or New York Marathons, for ultra runners, the Western States or Leadville 100’s, for cyclists the Paris-Brest-Paris endurance ride and for triathletes, the Hawaii Ironman (as a side note, some have reported the Ironman is way easier than AH – don’t know anything about that, I’m just saying I heard it). If you like adventure, risk and challenge then the AH is a bucket-list event.
As previously mentioned, for most the goal of finishing is the carrot that drives them and make no mistake, even if you get to the starting line it’s still a roll of the dice as to whether or not you will make it to the end and I’d say the numbers more than support this. The AH cares little how fancy your bike is or how light your sled is or how fit you think you are, as it is the weather and trail conditions that are laid out on race day that becomes the great equalizer for everyone in attendance. For example, since 2009 when the first Manitoban took part, the field of riders at AH has steadily grown from 27 to 89 in 2013 which to date, has been the largest group. The best year to finish successfully on a bike was in 2010 when 89% of riders finished and the worst year was this year 2014, when the finishing rate was a paltry 36%.
As a runner, the best year to finish was in 2012 when 88% of the field was successful. The years 2013 and 2014 produced some of the least favorable weather in that mild temps and a freak storm in 2013 laid down more than 10 inches or 25 cm of snow in a 12-hour period making the course route almost impassable. The extreme cold this year put the kibosh on most everything and the weather didn’t care who it was that took the hit as even some of the front runners/riders from last year were forced to abandon. Race director, Ken Krueger had announced that since it’s inception ten years ago and even when all modes of participation (ski, bike or run) are factored in, the overall completion rate of those who toe the line on race day is 50%.
OK, by now you get it that AH is really tough and you might be asking why is a middle-aged fart like me laying it all out there when the deck is so stacked against him? Well, I can only guess it’s the challenge of doing something that not many can do even on their best day that keeps me going – either that or I’m really, really dumb. I’m also motivated to silence that not so little voice in my head that continually reminds me to quit, give up and take the easy way out as there’s no hope you can ever do this because your too short/too heavy/getting old/not smart enough, yada, yada, and whatever other negative stereotype you care to add in. I should also mention that this year was my third attempt at completing AH and you should also know straight up that I fell short yet again. I say fell short as opposed to “failed” because you only fail when you don’t try so let’s just say that by “falling short”, I have some unfinished business ahead of me and I’m highly motivated to finish that which I start.
To those who know, like and follow sports, I often describe what I’ve been trying to achieve over these last few years in the form of a somewhat hokey baseball analogy. Maybe if I was smart enough, I might be able to think of a better way to explain it, but at this point I’m drawing a blank so I’m sticking with the baseball thing. Anyway, I don’t really know that much about baseball but I do know that at the Major League level, one hit for every four at bats is considered a pretty good performance stat so let’s just say you’re going to strike out more often than you’ll ever get on base. I’d also describe myself as the perennial minor leaguer who has got the call to the big show and is standing in the on-deck circle preparing to give it his best every time I get to the plate.
I’ve had a pretty good run as a utility outfielder in the sport so far, have had a few hits and even been on base a few times in some big games but usually with little fanfare and cheering from the crowd. Now as I step to the plate for my turn, I’m staring down MLB award-winning pitcher, Randy Johnson the “Big Unit” as he prepares to deliver a hundred mile an hour heater right under my chin in his attempt to brush me back from my stance. No doubt he wants to strike me out, but I also know that with that warning shot, he’s sending the message I’d better be ready for what’s about to come next.
I know who Randy Johnson is and I’ve read about his reputation, studied him and agree he’s one of the 50 toughest pitchers in the history of Major League baseball. At first, I was even a bit intimidated by him but now I don’t care and in fact, I’ve even faced him a few times before with a bit of success. In a couple of those games, I’ve fouled out once or twice and even made it to second base, but in the end I’m not going to be satisfied with just a hit or an on-base, I plan to drive one out of the park off of one of the best arms in baseball before either my time is up and the career is on the skids or I get sent back to the minors real soon. I’m not even worried if the crowd doesn’t go wild when I eventually get that hit, but deep down I’ll know what I’ve done and will draw inner strength from it. There probably won’t be many groupies or fans waiting around for autographs after I get that hit, but I don’t care about that either. And so it is for the Arrowhead and my baseball analogy – I hope you can see where my motivations are coming from.
This year during AH a lot of good people had trouble and some of them got into some very serious cold-related trouble and it wasn’t pretty. Even as Canadians who know cold, I like to think we know when to come in, call it a day and have a beer but a few of my fellow participants didn’t and learned the hard way just how brutal and unforgiving the cold can be. This was evident not only with the elite front riders but all the way to the back of the packers like me. Many including myself, had a number of cold-related hardships but a lot of them had it way worse than I did and by now I hope they are well and on the road to recovery. When daytime temps are in the range of -30C plus wind-chill, I think we all know the potential for danger is very high especially during strenuous exercise, and it certainly was on that day. To my friends Andy Chadwick of Yorkshire, England and Rima Chai from Singapore, may you both recover and return to AH real soon and to all the others out there who may also be in rough shape, you’ll get better because you’re tough and know what AH is all about. We send our healing energy your way and may you soak it all in as you get better – we need to have you back as we all draw strength from each other and I for one, need all the extra strength I can muster.
Unfortunately for me, my event came to a screeching halt at the first checkpoint after 58 km of riding on what seemed like square wheels and hubs that were reluctant to rotate due to the cold. To use my baseball analogy again, I’d say Randy Johnson tagged me pretty good with the ball after just a few pitches, so I had to leave the game. It didn’t help that I couldn’t seem to keep food down either so while I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, I could tell that my body was sending me the message loud and clear that it was time to consider DNF’ing (remember, Do Nothing Fatal) even after a substantial rest and attempt to re-supply the body in the comfort of the Gateway General Store.
At this point, I’d like to acknowledge the companionship provided during the first stretch of the event by my riding partner, Tom Lais of Wisconsin and while it didn’t work out for both of us exactly as planned, we will return and finish together another time. Tom and I were two of the oldest guys participating in the ride part of AH this year and in our own kind of perverted way, we were pretty pumped to finish because of that. The one rider Tom and I admire and chase every year is Erwin Berglund of Minnesota who is one awesome dude at age 71, and this year he finished in 36 hours and change – outstanding! Congratulations also to Tom Woods of Colorado, Rick Paoletti and Robert Tuma of Minnesota who were all at the Gateway checkpoint with Tom Lais and myself and pushed on to finish within the time limit – well-done gents!
And so it was for my experience at AH 2014. For those reading this article and might be contemplating if the AH could be an event for them someday, I would wholeheartedly encourage them to follow that dream. Maybe it will start for you just as it did for me by thinking of and embracing the goal but also knowing full well it’s going to take an awful lot of work to get there one day, along with the chances that you might fall short a few times along the way just as I have. Sometimes its not just about how many times you get knocked down, but how many times you get back up that defines your character in things like AH. So let’s not beat the idea over the head any further and let’s just say there are a lot of factors to consider not the least of being time to train, equipment to buy as well as the potential for danger. That would be a discussion for another time.
As a side note, if you are contemplating something like AH later in life as I did, it is a fact that few in the fifty-five plus age group such as I was, finish it their first time out. By all means that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and this comment is based only on statistics and we all know what they say about statistics. There are always exceptions to age-related rules like this and they often come in the form of athletes such as Lindsay Gauld who finished his first AH in 2009 at age 60. While many including myself hope to be as competitive and as active as he is at his age, in my opinion, it is always best to be realistic and compare yourself to yourself, and no one else.
In terms of AH preparation, a great event to begin with is our own Actif Epica winter enduro to be held later this month and it features a number of aspects of winter endurance racing that will give you a good taste of what events like AH are all about. In addition to Actif Epica, another great event to consider is the Tuscobia Winter Ultra in Park Falls, Wisconsin and features a choice of run/ ski/bike distances from 50 to 240 km. Park Falls is a good day’s drive from Winnipeg but its distance from home makes it more than a weekend outing so be sure to take this into consideration. It should also be noted that Actif Epica, Tuscobia and Arrowhead are three of the most popular events of this type in the mid-western US/Canadian prairie region and for those up to the Herculean challenge (read, you’re effen nuts for doing this) of completing all three in one season, the Order of the Hrimthurs award awaits you. This is a very select group of individuals to say the least!
If you like to do your homework on the events just described before jumping in, remember that the event often will host an extremely informative website and/or Facebook page to help you go into them with eyes wide open. While I personally like reading up and studying the events thoroughly before I commit, I always rely on the opinions of those who have participated as well. So, if you think at all like I do on this, be sure to talk to anyone and everyone who has done something nutty like this and they’ll give you the straight goods. I also think it’s safe to say that most individuals who have participated in these type of fatbike/ running/skiing ultra endurance events have probably made a lot of mistakes along the way and more often than not, have come away from those mistakes much wiser. There is no reason to make the same mistakes as they have so be sure to talk to them about it. Personally, I still have an awful lot to learn about so many aspects of this fat-biking thing, but I will state that I’m not the neophyte I was just a year or two ago, and know I’ll be a lot further along the road with each successive year of experience that I gain. So the moral of the story is, don’t be afraid to take a chance and challenge yourself – it doesn’t have to be a whole new lifestyle, but be sure to make your own decision based on facts as to whether or not this is the challenge you’re looking for.
And now back to the conclusion of our original story. In the end, I think the Manitobans who were unable to finish and Did Nothing Fatal were pretty excited to be at AH regardless of the outcome. After it’s over, it’s natural to swear up and down “never again” and it seems that after just a few days of rest you start to come around a bit and begin to think, “well OK, maybe one more time but this one will definitely be different”! For example, I know full well that Lindsay will bring both his bike and skis next year and make a race day decision instead of committing to potentially skiing on sandpaper once again, Dallas will promise himself to heed the mechanical advice of the Olympia shop Yoda’s and get his bike properly dialed in before the event and Dan will likely be a little more careful with what he eats leading up to event day. Sue has already had second thoughts about selling off her fancy, schmancy Alaska sled to some kid in Dauphin for use as their general duty toboggan and while Pete has said never again, he needs to come back, break 22 hours and remind those out there that he’s a force and totally awesome! As for me, I’ll continue with my batting practice and be ready to stare down whomever it is on the pitcher’s mound next year, and do my best once again to hit one out of the park and into the cheap seats.
Here’s how the Manitoban’s did at AH 2014:
Pete McAdams, Bike, 10th place finish, Top Manitoban, Top Canadian, Woo Hoo!
Dallas Sigurdur, Bike, DNF, mechanical problem at the start
Dan Lockery, Bike, DNS, sickness
Lindsay Gauld, Ski, DNF Checkpoint #1, Gateway General Store
Sue Lucas, Dauphin, MB, Run, DNF Checkpoint #2, MelGeorges Resort
and myself, Al Dixon, Bike, DNF Checkpoinr #1, Gateway General Store
It should also be noted that two tireless Winnipeggers by the names of Tim and Hal Loewen performed above and beyond the call of duty as volunteers at the dreaded Ski Pulk/Teepee of Despair Checkpoint #3 this year. That checkpoint comes at a pretty ominous point in the event and without a doubt the collective energy helped get everyone home.
Editor’s Note: The author of this piece, Al Dixon is an Olympia Cycling Club member and has previously written web articles on both the CANDISC bike tour as well as his experiences as humble manservant to Sir Lindsay Gauld during the first day of his Trans-Canada Trail adventure back in July of 2013. Those articles can be found by scrolling through the Events Archives – we hope to have a homepage link to articles like Al’s soon so readers can reference them more easily.
When not riding or working at Olympia, Al spends a good chunk of time staring at the bicycle-related mess in his basement figuring out if it will ever return to order once again.