Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A135: The Whole Story.

(Might wanna freshen up your cuppa joe before starting in on this one. I accidentally got a touch verbose...)

Neither the hare nor the wolf saw me in their flight across the trail.

The hare had the enviable advantages of speed, lightness, and agility working for her, and seemed to be using them to maximum advantage as she cut left beneath a red pine, took two quick strides through untracked snow, then stretched a long leap across a dead snag before hitting the hard-surfaced trail. Two quick bounds and the little gal cleared the bank on the far side, landing a solid six feet out into the fluff before bounding again and again into the thick pines yonder.

The wolf had the advantage of hunger on her side, and that seemed to be more than adequate as motivation. She worked *much* harder than the hare, traveling ~half the distance with every bound, but sheer determination kept narrowing the gap between the two. When I lost sight of them the mottled gray and black canine was less than 6 meters behind.

And then all was silent again.

Come to think of it, that's *mostly* what I've heard out here on the Arrowhead Trail: silence. Sounds of (often labored) breathing, an occasional shift of gears, and the groan of fresh snow under fat tires have all morphed into a collective indiscernible white noise. Every few hours a snowmachine rider has ripped past but their screaming, whining intrusion generally lasts less than 45 seconds from the first hints of approach until the racket recedes into the piney distance. Then, again, it's back to silence, albeit one laden heavily with two-stroke exhaust. Smells like youth.

Although the early miles of this event held more of a circus-like atmosphere with riders, skiers, and walkers all vying for position and firm trail as we sorted out our individual rhythms, once we'd completed the ~10 mile long out-and-back traffic had dissolved to nothing. The circus soon existed only in each individual's head: Unless you'd pre-planned to traverse the trail with someone else you were suddenly and gloriously alone.

Fine by me. Although I hadn't truly planned to be here, it made sense to make use of the Arrowhead as another in a seemingly endless series of "dress rehearsals" or "shakedowns" for a quickly approaching epic Alaskan adventure. Nearly every local ride at home in Colorado is used to test or shake out some crucial piece of gear, but familiar territory and predictable climatic conditions can remove much of the anxiety attached to equipment failure or poor decision making. The only way to objectively test and evaluate gear or self is to get outside of one's comfort zone completely. A new trail, new event, and new people here in Northern Minnesota ensured that body, mind, and gear would be tested. Good.

A chat at the pre-race meeting with Arrowhead course record holder Dave Pramann yielded his insight that the course conditions were shaping up to be very, very fast. How fast? Although Dave didn't think that he'd be the one doing it, he was confident that his sub-16 hour course record would be broken. That thought had ballooned in my head as I'd packed the bike, so much so that I'd loaded double the food and fuel I thought I'd need. Knowing that I had zero chance of breaking the record and even less desire to push myself that hard, my thought process in carrying double rations was simple: If I finish in less than a day I'll just turn around and ride back to the start, effectively doubling my shakedown time.

I'd rolled out of bed at 5, eaten, dressed and loaded the bike by 6, threw all extraneous gear into the rental car, locked it, and was spinning down the highway toward the start line by 6:15. Three+ inches of new snow had fallen through the night, yielding a soft, silent spin down the shoulder of the highway. Little traffic, a quartering tailwind, and a crisp minus 17*f made for a comfortable warmup before arriving at the trailhead 58 minutes later. A chipper volunteer with a clipboard recorded my start time then I rolled out onto the trail.

Several others had started already, their progress plotted by a thin line of red LED blinkies stretching through the woods to the west. I passed a few of them as they fiddled with gear, pissed out the last of their pre-race anxiety, or simply adjusted layers.

Heading straight into the teeth of the wind for those first 10 miles meant that little conversation was shared: Most simply buried faces into layers and ticked off some distance.

Darkness slowly faded into wan twilight, then the sun crept hesitantly over the horizon and cast long shadows out ahead of us.

The first two cyclists to pass me did so with such speed and relative ease that I instinctively looked down to check for a flat tire, broken chain, or dragging anchor. They were hauling. Pramann sat on Charlie Farrow's wheel, the three of us exchanging friendly comments as they motored past. I caught but a teeny snapshot into the mind of each in that split second, with Farrow seeming relaxed and within himself while Pramann looked a bit on the rivet. Minutes later they hit the turnaround, reversed direction, and were motoring back toward me. If any one word could describe these two it had to be determined. These were men on a mission.

And then they were gone.

I executed a slightly less motivated turnaround and then rolled east back into oncoming traffic. A feature unique to this race, the initial 10-mile out-and back meant that every participant on course got to see every other racer, face to face, at some point. Combine pre-race anxiety with the chill in the air and the freshness of the breeze on our noses, and I don't think it a stretch to say that eastbound racers could catch more than a glimpse into the very souls of those westbound. Nothing was hidden in those early miles.

What I saw were scads of motivated bikers, followed by a few that weren't so sure about either where they were, what they were doing here, or both. Then came an assortment of skiers and runners with various levels of confidence and preparedness worn on their sleeves. Some, like Pierre Ostor, had their gear and gait so finely tuned that I had to stop and take note:

I don't run much but it's easy to spot an efficient and confident runner at some distance, and always a pleasure to do so.

Toward the back of the pack came a few racers that were either stopped and fiddling with gear, or furiously scribbling mental notes to do so with vigor before the start of next year's event:

With some 20 miles ticked off I passed back through the start line and out into new-to-me country. Last nights' snow laid almost 4 inches thick atop a concrete hard base. That firm base meant that any tire pressure would work: I'd left the hotel with ~20psi front and rear (pavement pressure!) and would have no need to adjust it throughout the entire ride. But the fresh fluff atop that firm base gave me serious doubts about a record ride happening for anyone ahead.

Those out in front were working very, very hard to punch a trail through the fluff. I doubted they could hold their pace while working that hard for another ~110+ miles. But then I didn't know these people, nor this trail nor landscape, and most importantly I had my own self to worry about. Lacking any on-course information about how things stood at the sharp end of the race, I let my attention wander to the immediate surroundings.

Three hours in and still not quite warmed up, I dismounted to push up a short incline in the trail. As I swung my right leg over the bike to resume pedaling, I caught motion in my peripheral and looked back to see a rider approaching. He introduced himself as "Lance" but I'll likely always remember him as 'the guy with the party in his mouth'. Every time he opened it out poured more noise: Revving race car engines, whistles, hoots, grunts, and non-sequiturs from another time and place. All in all, enthusiasm and energy oozed out of Lance, and then he too was gone.

Thinking back a few hours to when the early leaders had motored by, then comparing their relative paces in my head, I could only surmise that Lance was going to catch up quick and then, to paraphrase Paul Sherwen, "The effervescent young American won't wait--he'll go straight over the top and punch out into the wind on his own!".

Back in my own little bubble I enjoyed the unfolding scenery and stopped for snapshots as often as the fancy struck.

Early afternoon I still hadn't found my groove and thought maybe lunch could change that. I parked the bike in a sunny, sheltered-from-wind spot, then unpacked and fired up the stove. Within ~20 minutes I'd turned a quantity of trailside drift into ounces of near-boiling water, which I then used to rehydrate a baggie of sausage stroganoff. I tucked the baggie against my belly while waiting for it to fester, then wandered about snapping random pics in the immediate vicinity. A few riders toodled by as I lunched, among them was Terry Brannick.

Terry rolled nonchalantly up and spent a few minutes shooting the breeze. We talked (of course) about gear choices for snow riding, Alaska, trail conditions today, and compared notes on our Epic gear. Terry seemed relaxed and in no hurry whatsoever, eventually continuing on his way as I commenced to eating. Based on our few minutes of interaction I guessed that Terry and I would leapfrog each other along the course, neither in any hurry to get anywhere, each just kind of taking it all in.

Imagine my surprise when, over 25 hours later, I learned that Terry had won the race!

Lunch finished, I repacked the bike and moseyed ahead. The landscape seemed to be slowly morphing from lowland scrub and swampland to rolling hills with drier, sandier soils. I'm no forester but the proliferation of vast groves of enormous white pines seemed to point to this conclusion. Clear skies had been replaced by some scud and then light snow falling. Rounding a corner I caught up to Dennis Grelk, never quite making contact but tailing him at a distance for the better part of an hour.

If any *one* picture can capture the essence of the Arrowhead I experienced, it is the one above of Dennis. When I gaze upon it I see a human gliding silently and gracefully through the forest with alluring light, sinuous trail and a subtle sense of mystery all compelling him forward.

Low rolling hills were the MO of the next few hours, the trail descending off of one, often across a wood-bridged seasonal creek, then climbing another. I found these derelict structures irresistible in that they usually provided a window into the doings of the local fauna. Tracks of rabbit, fox, wolf, marten, deer, grouse and bunting were almost always in evidence along these micro-drainages.

As afternoon wore into evening the hills seemed to get longer and steeper, or maybe it was my failing energy levels?

Uncertain on which to blame but clearly unable to stay on top of a gear for long, I resolved to up the energy levels with another dose of real food. Near the top of a steep pusher I found a flattish spot off-trail, perfect for kicking back and watching the sunset while brewing up another hoosh. The jet-like roar of my stove made conversation difficult with the three riders that appeared over the next 20 minutes, each off and pushing up the same hill that had caused me to question my energy levels.

All three were plenty friendly and interesting to talk to, but each also seemed much more focused on what lay ahead than anything I had to offer, so before the last salmon light faded from the western sky I found myself dining solo on a chicken & cheese pasta dish.

The remaining 8 miles to Elephant Lake were memorable in their refusal to follow a straight line: The trail wound, ducked and dove relentlessly before finally exhaling us out onto the arrow-straight trail across the lake and into our halfway checkpoint. I leaned the bike and stepped inside, greeted by many familiar faces and an intense, discomforting heat. I'd been borderline too-warm all day and felt near to a swoon inside the closeness of the checkpoint cabin. Having just eaten and refilled my water containers with melted snow a few miles previous, I needed nothing from the cabin so I quickly excused myself and continued up the trail.

The ensuing three hours were memorable for their lack of excitement. The trail was always well marked, thus staying on-course seemed a foregone conclusion. Unless you were sleep-riding or staring intensely at your toes deviation would be difficult. The light winds that had blown throughout the day continued, never enough to demand action (like layering or goggles or warm gloves) but always acting in subtle ways to snatch your attention.

Shortly after ten I decided that I'd had enough for one day. Part of that decision was not wanting to miss too much scenery by traveling under cover of darkness. I geared down and spun easy for a few, allowing the diesel to cool down and cook out any lingering condensation. Atop a rise I found an intersecting trail that didn't look to get much use. I parked the bike here, hung the "Do Not Disturb" sign, and carried my sleep gear ~40 yards down the side trail to stomp out a bivy in the trees.

Once comfy inside the bag I poured scalding hot water from a thermos into my suppertime feedbag. Tonight's menu included beans, rice, sausage, and veggies, which I enjoyed while watching a galaxy of stars winking from afar. Satiated for the first time all day, I doused the headlamp and zipped myself in.

The first few minutes post-supper and pre-sleep are always unpredictable inside the bag, regardless of time of year. Your body has been laboring to produce energy and heat all day (or for many days) and suddenly you stop, pour umpteen calories down the hatch, then insist it's time for lights out and rest. Your body begs to differ. I laid there shivering violently for at least ten minutes while my system struggled to downshift into recovery mode. I envisioned internal switches being flipped, doors opening and closing, even buckets being wound up out of wells, all to help soothe my mind in preparation for what I hoped would be a good long sleep. Consciously and subconsciously I knew the shivering was unrelated to my core body temp: I was warm and dry through and through.

When consciousness resumed I was shocked to see the sun already in the sky. Camping has always been about tradeoffs for me--the reward of being out in the hills all day is tempered by the fact that sleep is rarely of quality. I drew a hand up from the depths of the bag to scrape the sleep out of my eyes and refocus: No different--broad daylight. Huh.

I sat up and stretched a bit, yawned, scratched, then checked the time: 7:36. Even accounting for camp set up, dinner, and time spent shivering while still awake in the bag, I'd slept at least 8 hours. While packing for the trip I'd made a rushed decision to try a somewhat unconventional sleep pad, reasoning that if it flopped I'd only have to deal with it for one night. As I stowed sleep gear back on the bike I ran through the physiological checklist to find all systems feeling fine. No kinks, no sorenesses, and zero recollection of tossing or turning through the night. The only conclusion I could draw was that the sleep pad was all that and a bag o' chips. I rolled, stuffed, and delicately packed it while softly whispering "You've been promoted, dear".

Back out on the trail I saw that most of the race seemed to have passed me by in the night. Instead of staring at the same four tracks laid out ahead there seemed to be dozens, and instead of seeing *only* tire tracks the trail was often punctuated by footprints, schlepping along not just up the hills but even across the flats.

I smiled a bit forlornly as I realized that my non-race mentality had missed many small details along the way, among them memorizing the boot soles of the competition back at the start. Nothing more motivating than chasing in the waning miles of a race and recognizing weaving tire tracks giving way to familiar boot prints. Ahhhhh--those were the days...

Lack of time to train and lack of motivation to suffer were two of the primary motivators in my eventual withdrawal from the racing world. The former unfortunately and ironically led to its own kind of suffering on this day: Two gaping new ones over my sit bones. Comfort is not a word I associate with seated pedaling on matching saddle sores so I stood and cranked until a break was required, then I sat, spun, and grimaced. Taint (<-snort!) the end o' the world but it did dampen all enthusiasm for finishing then riding back to the start.

As the low overcast burns off and patches of blue sky start to elbow through, I round a corner and spot a rider pushing up the next climb.

Thusly motivated I climb the hill and catch up to Bill Shand.

Though Bill and I have been acquainted for years mostly through the AK events, we've rarely spent any time together and today will prove to be no different.

Bill hints that he had a rough night and didn't sleep very well, and though I'm riding a mellow pace and even stopping to compose and shoot pics along the way, he falls steadily back until I'm riding alone again.

I stop and wait atop one hill expecting Bill to come around and into the good light flooding the trail, but when after 5 minutes he still hasn't appeared I gather that he'd prefer to suffer alone so I pack up and roll on.

Miniature drifts finger across the trail when crossing meadows, then back in the protection of trees evidence of last night's cold shows itself in hoar frost feathers grown up out of the snow surface. Neither are prevalent enough to make a lick of difference in the overall trail condition--it remains hard and fast and makes for very easy cruising.

I catch myself smiling repeatedly on this morning, impressed mostly by the roller coaster nature of the trail. The steep ups are welcome respite for my aching ass, and the descents and flats are just too fun to do anything but let off the brakes and hang on.

Pushing up then screaming and carving down is repeated dozens of times until I crest one particularly steep hill and spot the top of a teepee ahead--our last checkpoint.

I pull back the flap and poke my head in, chatting briefly with the checker and fellow racer Chuck Lindner. Chuck is thawing frozen bottles next to the fire, and after a minute I notice that he's shivering even though fully layered. The checker asks if I want to come in and no time is wasted answering him: Not a chance! It's a beautiful warm day out here, and it looks kinda cold in there. I hop on the bike and roll down and across a few more hills before leveling out on a logging road. Pre-race I'd been told that before the teepee I'd be wishing for the hills to end, then a mile after the teepee I'd be wishing for them to start back up, merely to break the monotony of the flat swampy miles ahead.

I didn't find myself wishing the miles or the swamps away but I could see how those who came ahead (sans sleep), and especially through the night, would have pined for these last miles to end as quickly as possible.

Not much to look at and often the trail arrowed straight ahead without discernible grade change or bend for as much as a mile at a stretch. Uninteresting. Roughly twelve miles from the finish it occurred to me that I hadn't yet eaten today so I stopped and fired up the cooker one last time. Mac and cheese topped the menu (OK, OK--it comprised the entire menu...) and as I stuck it inside my shirt to rehydrate Chuck Lindner rolled up.

We conversed casually for a few minutes about alleged differences between Arctic, gray, and timberwolves (Chuck did most of the talking here because I know little about any of them), habits of ruffed grouse, his home of Warroad to the west, and the timeless unblingy awesomeness of Moots bikes. Eventually the call of the finish pulled Chuck away and I set to snarfing my cheesy pasta.

The remaining hour or so of riding was punctuated by many trail intersections, all of which seemed to be created to lure travelers (one of them was actually called the Lure-Me-Inn) off of the main artery and into nearby resorts where they'd be fleeced of their money in exchange for food, fuel, booze, or games of chance.

I carried all I needed or wanted of any of those, so I continued rolling right up to the official finish line. Never even made it in the door of the joint before being met by Cheryl and Pierre and a handful of already finished racers. Pierre demanded an on-the-spot decision: Hang out here overnight while spending time with what remained of the early finishers, or hop in the car with him and get immediately schlepped back to the start where a shower and a change of clothes waited.

It was a tough decision, to be honest. I chose the latter mostly for the shower option, with the result that I never got to spend any real time with the other finishers, nor finish any of the conversations that had been started on-course. No sharing or commiserating with the others, just quick redelivery to where I'd started.

After showering I felt great but immediately sensed the emptiness of not connecting with the others. So--to Dave Gray, Dennis Grelk, Bill Shand, Lindsay Gauld, Chuck Lindner, Terry Brannick, Josh Peterson, Dave Pramann, Lance Andre and Charlie Farrow: I look forward to hearing about (or reading about) how it all shook out out there, and hope that we can finally finish those conversations someday.

Thanks to Pierre and Cheryl for having me, and to all of the volunteers that made this event run so smoothly. Can't think of a single way to improve it.

All the best,



  1. Awesome report, Mike. We don't get to see this many pictures from the trail very often. Well done.

  2. Mike, Nice write-up and awesome pictures. I raced the A135 the last two years. Decided not to take part this year, then broke my arm to finalize the decision to sit out. Your post has me really missing the ride. I rode the entire distance alone last year. The silence you describe is what I remember the most. I want to experience that again.

  3. So very glad you took part and are showing the photos Mike. I look forward to Part 2. Cheers!

  4. Thanks, I love reading your write ups. And the pictures speak for themselves!

  5. Silence? You mean that shrill squeaking derailer pulley was in my head? I figured that's what kept you behind me. Couldn't tell if it was the der pulley or just the chain rubbing the cogs funny. Dropped to the granny gear and it went away, so I stayed there. Maybe it was me that was squeaking...


    Thanks for capturing the experience, you're right on.

  6. So what happened to the rabbit?

  7. Thanks Mike, you just made me have to stay here another hour to miss the traffic on 285.....good stuff as usual and perhaps better than most?

  8. Mike...Thanks so much for the great narrative and the beautiful photography. You now have me wanting to this race more than ever.

    It's been just a thought, but now I can see it easily becoming an obsession.

    I hope I can seek you and others for advice.

    Thanks again!!

  9. great texture photos as always Mike

  10. Thanks Mike nice report and stunning photos...I'm going to post two pics [credited to you] and a link to your report on my blog unless you object.

    Safe travels...


  11. Thanks Mike, I really enjoyed reading this ride report and viewing the pictures.


  12. Great race report and awesome photos. You really took us right into the race with you; it was a fun read.

  13. Beautiful account of the race from your prospective. It was great to live the race on the trail. I only get to hear the stories from the store as you all arrive and this was gorgeous. We are making a winter book for the store to show to our summer guests, would you mind if I used some of your pictures and give you credit. Ellen Hart - Gateway General Store

  14. WOW, you have a very nice skill. Thx for documenting your experience for others to enjoy. Your fav pic in now my wallpaper. signed...A YBB rider.

  15. Super report and photos! Thank you for posting this!

  16. awesome. one of the best race reports i have ever read. hope to be seeing you next month???

  17. Great write up, both style and attitude, and I am oh so glad you found time and desire to take all the fantastic pictures which go with it. This stuff rocks!

  18. Excellent report Mike and very nice photos. Thanks for capturing the essence and your experience.

    What was the new sleeping pad??

    Sorry we didn't get to meet this year since I couldn't make the race- Navy has kept me busy. Maybe we'll get to meet another year when you return. Welcome to my neck of the woods - most of the trails were groomed by my cousins and you're right they were rock hard by the reports...

    Good luck on your next adventure.

    Cheers, d2g - Don Gabrielson

  19. You did a great job of allowing the rest of us to ride along vicariously through your event! Great job with the pics and the verbal landscaping!

  20. Mike,
    Thanks for the great photos and recap!
    I spoke to the winner of the race (first Bike & overall) Terry Brannick and he sang your prasises, said it was an honor to chat with you.

  21. Nice photos. I saved it. Its like a live race.

  22. Useful information ..I am very happy to read this article..thanks for giving us this useful information. Fantastic walk-through. I appreciate this post.

  23. Great website, looks very clean and organized. Keep up the good work!

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