Friday, February 1, 2013

2013 Arrowhead 135 Race Report: Be Careful What You Ask For

It's no secret that I love snow. The more the better.That's why I live in Colorado and not Arizona. The notion of having to dig through snowdrifts to get out of a remote mountain chalet is pure heaven.Thus, the lame excuse for a winter we have seen this year in Colorado has had me constantly grumbling and whining and even begging for snow.

Pre-Arrowhead 135, I followed the weather forecasts religiously and planned my weekend training rides in the coldest, crappiest, snowiest locations I could find only to be repeatedly disappointed with a severe shortage of the white stuff. I had pretty much thrown the towel in on the thought of an epic winter...

Then came last Monday night.

Old Mother Nature delivered. Bigtime. She brought me the snow for which I have been begging. Yeah, like eight inches in nine hours. precisely the wrong situation.  Maybe I should have been more specific in my request.

Note to self: next time include date, amount and LOCATION when you whine about wanting snow.

But I am getting ahead of myself, so let us digress for a moment...

Friday afternoon all the work shackles were removed and three Denverites headed east in a Chevy Silverado loaded to the gills with fatbikes, snowboards and every piece of outdoor gear one could fathom. The plan was to take shifts driving. Translation: my brother, Steve, drove until he couldn't keep his eyes open, then Les took over and I slept in the backseat until somewhere just south of Minneapolis. I lucked out. But seriously, I was thankful because I needed that sleep since I had been fighting a nasty cold. The only thing I remember about the entire trip across the "flyover states" was somewhere outside Lincoln, Steve got pulled over for going 67 in a 65 (ha, no joke!)  Routine license, registration please, where you all headed conversation ensued followed by Steve sitting in the police car for a good twenty minutes and being questioned until the cop finally admitted that he saw the CO plates and thought we were transporting weed.

Good ol' Amendment 64.

We finally rolled into International Falls early Saturday morning and set up camp at the Tee Pee Motel. After all the gear and bikes were unloaded the floor was barely detectable. Cozy and cheap, but warm, clean and an added bonus of killer shower pressure--true northern luxury.

I was fairly convinced for a while that we were going to be the only inhabitants...

Les and I then headed to the community center with our mandatory items to pass the required Gear Check while Steve got a nap.

Sleep and food were next on the agenda. Once these two basic needs were completed, I loaded the Pugs to almost race-ready and hit the hay.

A view of the motel roomed crammed with bikes, gear and stinky racers...

The next morning found Les and I in Canada at a tiny little diner called The Kitchen Table. The only thing open except for Safeway, we chowed down some eggs and were thoroughly entertained by two of the town drunks and Bob, the owner-waiter-busboy-cashier-host-cook-dishwasher.

Crossing the bridge into Fort Frances

Me and Canada Bob

We returned to the Tee Pee after our amusing international excursion and soon found ourselves at the Chocolate Moose for the Arrowhead Ladies Lunch. I was fortunate to meet two other women bikers, a runner, a skier and several of the race volunteers.

A huge part of this adventure was the awesome people I met who also share this passion

My nervousness began at the pre-race meeting a couple hours later. My stomach turned a bit and knotted up as I realized I was just short of twelve hours from starting. I had thought of little else for the past four months. I was ready, anxious and excited.

Spaghetti dinner followed a prize raffle and the announcement that the top woman would be receiving a new Fatback frameset. My ears perked up. No way in hell was I changing anything about the Pugs, but winning a new frameset had many lucrative options.

My plan was to ride a smart, fast race. I went in fearing nothing. I will admit I was a little concerned with the soft, warm and squishy snow on the trail and the mention of a possible 3-6 inches of snow, but all in all I was jonesing to get on my bike and just RIDE. I thought back to myself a year ago sitting in my tiny little attic in Durango ripping parts off my old single speed trying to figure out how to put a fatty together to race the 2013 Arrowhead 135 and I choked up a little. I smiled when I thought about the first version of my fatty and how I wanted to ride on snow so badly that I really thought this would work:

Yeah, not so much.

And now. Here I was one year later with a 36x20 Surly Pugsley (that I absolutely adore) cobbled together from a bucket of hand-me-down parts, ready to start a race I had never even heard of prior to last January.

Bring it, bitches.

Monday, January 28, 2013. 6:55AM

I lined up about two rows back from the start line at the Blue Ox Trailhead right in the middle of International Falls. I was right next to Les and another guy rocking a 32x20 Pugsley.

We made some tongue in cheek single speed jokes and wished each other luck just before the gun went off. The leaders took off hard and fast. Les was gone with the front of the pack before I knew what hit me. Figuring I would either pass him sometime that night while he was sleeping or see him again at Fortune Bay,  I tucked in behind the singlespeeder and sucked his wheel for awhile. There were bikes slipping and sliding all over the trail. It was quite a comical site, actually. At any given moment, there was someone crashing in front of, behind or beside me. Then, a minute later, it was my front tire getting out of the "track" and sprawling all over the trail. I laughed a little and cussed a little, put my head down and turned the crank over and over. There were no hills and I wasn't complaining. The snow conditions were sucking enough time away.

About two hours into the race, I had finally gotten into somewhat of a rhythm. I looked ahead, shocked, to see Les about 1/8 mile ahead.


We rode together, trading sarcastic jokes about our sanity and soon rolled into the first checkpoint, Gateway. I quickly filled water, grabbed a hamburger bun from the chili feed, shoved it in my mouth and left for MelGeorges. The conditions seemed a little better, but by no means fast, as Les and I continued on. The temperature was warm and remained constant. I wore only my base layer, vapor barrier layer and really light jacket on top and base layer and light rain pants on bottom. My boot and sock combo was absolutely spot on. My feet were as comfortable as they have ever been and did not sweat. My hands, however, were too warm (a first for me) inside my bar mitts and I had not even put on anything besides light summer gloves.

The course started to throw a few hills at us and I soon witnessed one of the most brilliant downhill snowbike wipeouts Mr. Handy could muster. Unfortunately, this tactical move sent his camera flying into a snow bank. A mile later, when he realized this, we parted as he retreated in search. I must say that my respect deepened greatly for his fortitude in finding his camera.

There was not a snowball's chance in hell (pardon the lame pun) of me going back for my camera had I have lost it. Yes, it was only a mile, but the race clock was ticking and in this last mile, the snow had gotten softer and we had climbed and descended at least three hills. This is what makes Les a complete badass--it was not an easy, enjoyable mile--but he rode back and found his camera.

I put the hammer down and played leap frog with the other singlespeeder and a few more guys until the sun went down and I found myself just a few miles from Elephant Lake and the second checkpoint. The last ten miles had given me two gargantuan hills and a long flat section that was actually some pretty good riding. I hit Elephant Lake and could see the faint light of MelGeorges in the distance. I remember hearing that it was a long ways across the lake, so I didn't get too excited. The lake was really sloooooooooow going but before I knew it, I could see the headlamp of a volunteer and the sign for the cabin.

I walked into the homey, warm living room and stripped off my sweaty baselayer, jacket and gloves. Mary put everything in the dryer and offered me a shirt and vest rather than the bath towel I was wearing while waiting.
Inside the cabin at MelGeorges. Thank you, Mary, and crew for all your hospitality

I ate a grilled cheese and a bowl of soup and looked up to see Les roll in about 45 minutes later. It had started to snow while we were in the cabin and he got going about 25 minutes before I did.

As soon as my clothes were dry again, I started out knowing I would catch Les, who had decided to bivvy in the first shelter. It was snowing hard and accumulating fast. I smiled and stuck out my tongue in an effort to catch a few flakes. Here was my beloved white gold--the coveted substance I had been begging and pleading for since October.

The next 16-17 miles took me 9.5 hours to complete. I rode (as in actually pedaled) a grand total of exactly 1/4 mile on the plowed road from the cabin to where the Arrowhead trail resumed. After that, I followed Les's faint footsteps and tire track at an impressive 1.5-2mph average. I did see one guy pass me and he was actually pedaling. But that ended about 1/2 mile up and I followed his footsteps until I came upon the first shelter and paused. I expected to see a snow covered bivvy containing the one and only Mr. Handy, but shining my light revealed nothing. He had trudged on!

In about another 45 minutes of slow pushing beneath the snow dump, I saw two red flashing lights and knew it had to be Les. I saw his tracks leading back amongst the trees.

I started giggling and yelled: "You are one of the craziest mofos I have ever met!"

A barely audible grunt returned from inside a warm bivvy and I continued on laughing at the spectacle. The notion of bivvying up was the furthest thing from my mind. I was in all out go mode, set to push through until daybreak.

I passed three racers who had just stopped to bivvy and declined the offer to join the party. I was getting pretty sleepy by this time and the pace was slow, but I have become a virtuoso in the art of  handlebar napping. With practice, I have been able to find the perfect spot to rest my head on the bars and my right knee on the pedal. This alleviates some weight, allows me to close my eyes and (I kid you not) actually sleep for about 30-65 seconds before the bike starts to tip. When the tipping occurs it is like an alarm clock and I resume forward movement. Repeat this about 10 times in a period of 9.5 hours and one gets almost ten minutes of high quality sleep...or something like it.

The thought of dropping the race never occurred to me until I came upon the Myrtle Lake shelter about 16 miles from MelGeorges at about 6am. Three racers were sitting inside their bivvies on dry ground.

"Hey ya, girl!"

"We have a plan!"

My ears perked up. "A plan? Hmmmmm, do tell."

"Highway 23 is exactly one mile from here."

Shit. I lodged my bike in a snowbank and crawled underneath the roof onto dry ground. We all chatted for ten minutes or so and they informed me of their bail out plan taking 23 into Orr. I still had myself convinced I could push on to SkiPulk that was now 25 miles away. I had occupied the long night hours with calculations in my head of pace and time to SkiPulk and the finish. Over and over and over, I had to reconvince (aka trick) myself into believing the snow really didn't accumulate further south like it did here and I could push on for another full 24 hours without sleep.

It was right then when that old bitch, Reality, slapped me upside the head as one of the guys asked me. point blank, if I could push my bike for another 49 miles. I am not sure why it took audible words to bring forth what I had been denying to myself.

I looked out into the huge snowflakes still falling, got up, and bid my new friends farewell. Still not fully convinced I was going to bail at the highway, I came upon a hill that took every ounce of my strength to climb.

It went like this: Ten steps, grab the brakes to prevent backslide. Lift the back wheel up and push. Push. Push. Grab the brakes. Turn a bit to the left and push. Ten steps. Turn back uphill. Ten steps. Grab the brakes.

The snow was so deep that I began to wonder if I was going to get up the hill or not. Then I remembered how I had about a million more of these in the next 25 miles. I turned around to see the lead skier just behind me. I watched him struggle and cuss up the hill and glide away from me on the downhill. I tried to ride down and could not keep my bike moving in the deep snow. That pretty much did it for me. I came to Highway 23 and caught a ride into Orr (14 miles away) with a guy, Dan, from the camera crew that was filming a documentary and following the skier.

Yeah, that's a lot of snow....
A mere 24 hours after I started, I was now 50 miles away from where I anticipated being: Fortune Bay Casino. My 2013 Arrowhead 135 adventure was over. I hung my head in disappointment for a bit and began to think about how I was not mentally prepared to push through deep snow at a proverbial snail's pace. I came to the realization that not once had I even entertained the notion of it. I was more than ready for 20 below temperatures. I had no problem holding off hunger and thirst, but 24 hours of solid pushing through deep snow broke me. I knew at some point I had to sleep for at least an hour. I can go 30-36 hours without sleep, but 48 was not possible. Any delay (like sleep) meant losing precious time. Could I keep a 2mph average? Most were struggling at this point to do so. Could I make the 60 hour cutoff with no sleep? I was low on food and water but not out--yet. If I could make it in 24 hours I would be hungry and thirsty, but still ok. Physically I felt fine to go on to the finish, but mentally, I just couldn't convince myself that I could logistically justify another 49 miles of pushing.

No tears of sorrow accompanied this DNF. I was taught a lesson that only experience can teach. I am so thankful for this and although I have walked around in a melancholy sort of mood for the last two days, I think I am most sad that the race and the experience is over.

Tears did come a few days later as I was unpacking my gear and stopped to wrap my head around my life. I stood in the middle of the living room today, surrounded by two-wheeled adventure vehicles and a literal sea of outdoor gear and sobbed tears of joy and gratitude. I live a beautiful, rugged, wild and free life. I have an able body and a heart that is on fire for adventure, exploration and challenge. My soul tells me big things are on the horizon as I begin my third year of bicycle racing. Some will punch me in the face and teach me more valuable lessons such as this one. Some will allow me to soar higher.

Either way, look for me again in Minnesota because I will be back at the start line for Arrowhead 2014.

Here are a few more pictures from the far north:

If anyone ever tries to tell you that snowbikes are fun in fresh powder, laugh loudly in their face...and then walk away.

Les and I minutes before the mass start...

Ready to walk out the door and pedal to the start..

Les's bike outside Checkpoint #2

Back of the Pack Racing's  "White" Sheep

Trailside shelter between MelGeorge and SkiPulk

Another look at the fresh powder that made for hellacious trail conditions...

Photo credits: Les Handy


  1. great recap, I felt like I was there, but I'm glad I wasn't.

  2. Followed your pieces leading up to the AH135, enjoying them thoroughly. Was bummed when your SPOT tracker showed you in Ft Frances (from Sun.) until the live results confirmed your arrival at the first checkpoint. You are probably safe in assuming that you won't encounter BOTH unseasonable warmth and snow/rain/snow pellets/sleet/more snow again in 2014. The cold was back in the -20's by the end of the week, too (-28 in Orr Fri afternoon). Thanks for sharing - and keeping things epic!

  3. nice read, better luck next year...Mark the skier.

  4. Great write up/story Jill, although I did not like the last 50 miles. Your a strong woman and I love it! Snow biking is not always about ridin', and now you know that. Looking forward to seeing you out there! Stay great!

  5. Nice write-up for sure! How long did the other bikers take to finish those last 50 miles in those conditions?
    I like what T-Race said about snow biking not always being about riding, she would know having trudged many miles in AK. Keep the stoke! Hope to see ya in Durango in July!!

  6. Hi Jill!

    Great write up! My father in law had a cabin in Orr, near Moose Lake, and reading your post made me want to go and visit. Get'em next year!

  7. Hi Jill, I saw you on the trail Monday night. I was the one pushing the skinny tire bike. I also saw you at Hwy 23. I went a few more miles and decided I coulden't go on so I turned around and pushed it back to Hwy 23 than rode into Orr

  8. Great write-up! thanks for sharing what was in your head before and during the race. I tried it on foot last year (I am a runner) but could totally relate to what you went through. Hope to see you there next year!