By Stephen Regenold. Photography by Bruce Kluckhohn.
The cold claimed its first victim before the race began. It was predawn on Monday morning, Feb. 6, 2006, and the thermometer read minus 19. "Frozen solid," said Pierre Ostor, a 49-year-old engineer from White Bear Lake, as he sat in the snow, gloved hands working to spin the locked-up rear tire of a supine mountain bike.
Ostor puffed great plumes of chalky breath into the morning air. His headlamp illuminated the scene below. "It's so cold the grease must have frozen through," he said.
Online Extras:Photo Gallery of the Arrowhead 135
But the race had to go on. And so at 7 a.m., lined up at a snowmobile trailhead near International Falls, 31 men and one woman set off into the woods—the Arrowhead 135 Ultramarathon had begun.
The race is part of the BAD135 World Series, a new international series of human-powered races of 135 miles in extreme environments. The flagship race in the series is the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon, held in July in California's Death Valley. In the Arrowhead 135 Ultramarathon—the series' cold-weather event—participants hike, ski, or bike a course that meanders south through the Kabetogama and Sturgeon River state forests and past Vermilion Lake to the finish line near the city of Tower. Racers must provide their own food and water, first aid, and shelter, save for one checkpoint at a cabin 75 miles down the trail. All participants must finish racing within 60 hours. Sleep is optional.
I signed up to bike the Arrowhead 135 because I wanted a unique look at the wintertime woods—and to see what I am made of. Like most of the cyclists on the course, I would ride a custom snow bike equipped with 4-inch-wide snow tires and specialized gear racks to haul survival equipment, food, and water. My plan was to bike straight through, averaging 6 miles per hour on the hilly trail, and finish the course in about 24 hours of constant motion.
But things don't always go as planned.
On race day morning, a mile down the trail, my bike rolled along smoothly on hard-pack snow, its knobby tires spitting white pellets into the air. Racers kept tight in a pack for the initial stretch, huffing and puffing through face masks and scarves. Breath froze to beards, balaclavas, and eyelashes. Despite wool socks and mountaineering mitts, my fingertips and toes zinged in the chill.
Half the racers who started off that dim Monday morning would not complete the course.
"It's like Alaska out here," said Matt Evingson, a 36-year-old physician's assistant from Duluth and winner of the inaugural Arrowhead 135 Ultramarathon in 2005. I pedaled hard to keep up, panting a bit but moving blood to my toes, which were freezing through already. Evingson's face was red and frosty, naked against the cold, yet he was smiling.
"This is beautiful," he said.
As I pedaled on, the sun rose and the air temperature climbed to 10 degrees. The trail was hard and fast. My bike tires whirred on the snow and hummed on the ice. I stopped to eat a sandwich. I sipped water from my CamelBak hydration backpack, its snaking hose slowly freezing and clogging up. My ears warmed a bit. Toes regained feeling. At noon I put on a lighter pair of mittens.
"We're making pretty good time," Josh Peterson, a 31-year-old sheet-metal worker from St. Paul, said as he pedaled up next to me. Peterson had pulled out at the halfway point of the 2005 race, due to exhaustion. He was determined to complete the course this time around.
We rode together for a fast five miles. The Arrowhead State Trail, which rarely crosses a road, rolled up and down small hills, past bogs and lakes, and over icy streams. Rat River. Rat Root Lake. Ash River. Signposts marked the miles to distant lake cabins: 6 Miles to Melgeorge's Resort. Wooden deer stands, left by local hunters, appeared in trees, one per mile in stretches.
"Keep this pace and we'll finish easy by tomorrow," Peterson said.
By sunset I was 60 miles into the course, nearing the halfway mark and the checkpoint cabin at Elephant Lake. Peterson had pedaled ahead. The race pack had dispersed, and I was alone for two hours on the dark trail.
Night engulfed the north woods. A deep chill plunged the air temperature below zero. Silence overwhelmed. A scene was set, lifeless and otherworldly. Sky and snow. Black and white.
On the trail the sketch became elemental: twinkling stars and bright planets; hazy, peripheral trees and shadows; icy wisps of clouds; a giant lunar halo; and snow, bright and luminescent all around me. The backdrop was an abyss of winter sky, a pilled velour of deep space and time.
I ate a Snickers bar, wide-eyed and alone in the night. A space suit of wool and Gore-Tex wrapped my body. I was on my own, and I knew it. Feeling primal. Being careful. Being deliberate as I pedaled on the slick trail lined with wolf tracks and tree stumps. Taking life seriously.
At a turn in the trail, coming down a hill, traveling swift and quiet, I glimpsed a creature scurrying away. The hindquarters of a wolf? Just a black shape, in the corner of my eye. The vestige of something alone, like me, in this cold desolation. Just a black shape, like me. Disappearing into the deep woods, like me. My knees ached as I followed the bike tracks south. Hands froze again in their mitts. Toes disappeared.
Ten miles to the checkpoint cabin. Ten miles to my cache of food. Ten miles to warmth. Ten more miles of seeing things out of the corner of my eye. Delirium—a component of ultra events—is a temporary state of mental confusion characterized by anxiety, disorientation, hallucinations, and incoherent speech. But then again, it's only temporary.
"Stephen, welcome!" The lights of the checkpoint cabin were overwhelming my wide nighttime pupils, and someone was saying my name. "You're right in time for dinner."
It was 8 p.m., though it felt like the middle of the night. The cabin at Elephant Lake was warm and bright and full of life. A Formica kitchen table was stocked with food. Racers were sprawled out on couches. Jackets hung on chairs to dry. Windows were blurred and foggy with frost.
"We're halfway through the course," said Matthew Maxwell, a 27-year-old bike mechanic from Ames, Iowa. "Some people are sleeping here, but the leaders already took off."
I ate crackers, soup, cheese, and beef jerky. One of the race volunteers warmed water on the stove for hot cocoa. I took off my shoes to examine my lifeless toes. I took an hour-long nap on a couch.
On the porch at 10 p.m., bundled again and ready to go, I got a wrench to install wider, platform-style pedals on my bike so I could wear warmer boots on the second half of the race. I forced the wrench into the icy hexagon slot on the back of my pedal and turned it with force. The metal pinged and an object clunked at my feet—my wrench snapped in two.
The rest of the night would go just about as well.
Starting off again, a fellow racer and I swooped away from the cabin, into the night and on down the trail. But at a crucial turn, just a couple of miles in, we went the wrong way. And we kept pedaling the wrong way for two hours, meandering on a spur that eventually ended at a county road.
"Um, where are we?" said my partner, 28-year-old Dave Simmons of Grand Forks. "This really does not seem right."
It wasn't. Dave and I had been heading east and then north, not south as we should have been. I took out my compass to confirm the error.
We stood silent. I tried to get a drink, but my CamelBak had frozen again. "Let's pedal. It's frigid just standing around here," Simmons said. My eyes were drooping and blurry. It was 1 a.m., and I suggested we pull out our sleeping bags for some rest.
We kept at it instead, grabbing a cutoff trail and riding back to the cabin. Exhausted and embarrassed, I tucked myself in the back of the cabin by the bathroom door and slept four fitful hours. My head got stepped on in the middle of the night by somebody on the way to the bathroom.
Tuesday morning dawned bright and promising. I was on my bike by 8 a.m., following two racers and watching for that elusive right turn.
Matthew Staehling and James Metcalf, an attorney and a cop, respectively, from St. Cloud, allowed me to tag along with them for the remaining half of the course. Safe, responsible company, I reasoned.
We rode fast to Myrtle Lake, cruising 15 miles on the snow in two hours. The trail, which had been relatively flat and rolling the first day, became hillier. My feet dug in deep as I pushed the bike up a steep section.
Hours of constant motion passed. The day was sunny and temperate. Birds chirped in the trees nearby, and I flew over my handlebars only once—when I veered off the trail slightly and my front tire dug into deep snow that stopped my momentum.
By sunset we were nearing Lake Vermilion, a sprawling, icy mass visible from a highpoint. Twenty miles of flat and densely forested trail separated Staehling, Metcalf, and me from the finish line.
After dark, on a long stretch near the end, we saw a woman snowshoeing toward us on the trail. She paused and waited to say something as we passed by. I was in the back of the line, dragging a bit, feeling worn down and weary.
"You doing all right?" she asked, a mien of concern on her face as I coasted to a stop at her side. The sky was black and starry again, and the wind was picking up.
"Yeah, I'm cool," I said, putting a foot back up on its pedal. I took in a quick breath of frozen night air. "I'm going to make it."
In 2006 the Arrowhead 135 attracted 32 athletes to ski, hike, and bike the state trail from International Falls to Tower. The two skiers did not finish the race. Two of five hikers and 14 of 25 cyclists finished. The author placed ninth, completing the course in 37 hours.
Other race participants mentioned in the story included: Josh Peterson, a biker from St. Paul, placed eighth. Bikers Mathew Staehling and James Metcalf, both from St. Cloud, tied for 10th. Biker Dave Simmons of Fargo, who made a wrong turn out of the halfway checkpoint, and biker Matt Evingson of Duluth, who won the 2005 Arrowhead 135, did not finish. Biker Pierre Ostor of White Bear Lake, who helped a fellow racer with a frozen rear tire at the beginning of the race, finished fifth. The winner, 48-year-old cyclist David Pramann of Burnsville, finished in just under 16 hours - a new course record. For 2007 race information, see www.arrowheadultra.com.
Stephen Regenold writes a nationally syndicated newspaper column—The Gear Junkie (www.thegearjunkie.com). He is also a contributing travel writer for The New York Times.