“Nausea, hypothermia, frost bite…” those words blurred out of Tom Puzak’s mouth. Our phone connection was a bit choppy, with some echoes and static burps interrupting a call from the far north reaches of the state.
The race started on Monday morning in 27-below-zero air in International Falls, Minn., and it tracked south through remote winter woods to the town of Tower, 135 miles later.
Before the race began Puzak knew the dangers of the brutal Arrowhead. The forecasted temperatures added to his meticulous preparation, skills honed through his experience as an adventure racing national champ.
He’d been going strong all day. He passed rider after rider “pedaling at 7mph steady,” which is enough to net a win in the snowy trail conditions this year.
While he took second place overall, he nearly won.
But that was before he bonked, hit the proverbial wall, tipped over in the snow, and pushed his bike at 2a.m., all alone under stars. “It was 127 miles of awesome, then 8 miles of nausea, and survival,” he said on our phone call.
Tom is currently en route back home, exhausted, battle wounds in tow, including severe frostbite. With the heat blazing on in his truck bound for Minneapolis, he is pleased with his efforts, and contemplating whether they were worth the danger endured, and sacrifices made.
Survival mode. Puzak found the definition of that phrase last night. About three-fourths of the way on the trail, Puzak did not get the full bladder of water he requested at a checkpoint. This miscommunication was the start of a chain of events he said led to his race going south.
With a shortage of water, he had to begin rationing his liquid with 15 miles remaining on the course. (15 miles on snow can be 3+ hours in good conditions.) He ran out of water with just 8 miles to go. “My blood felt thick, I could barely move… a switch was flipped.”
His gear was dialed. His bike, the carbon Yampa from Borealis, fast; Bike Bag Dude bags made from sailing spinnaker cloth, light. At 44 pounds race-ready (with all mandatory gear loaded on), his fatbike setup may have been the lightest ride on the whole course.
Jay Petervary, a champion ultra-cyclist, was in the lead. At the halfway point, Puzak was over an hour behind. At a final checkpoint — now 17 hours into the race — Petervary was only 8 minutes ahead.
Puzak took off. “I was feeling strong,” he said. He was gaining. On a remote stretch, he saw Petervary ahead. Pedaling hard, snow crust breaking under fat tires like it’d been doing all day.
Puzak and Petervary were in a heat for first place.
“Jay saw me behind him, and he took off, seemingly with gas left in the tank,” Puzak said. “I have trained with Jay and we are good friends. I knew he would not go down easily. He is a warrior.”
It was minus-25 degrees F. It was black, the dead middle of the night, stars whirling above.
Then, very fast things went bad. Puzak ran out of water. He did not know at the time, but racers were dropping out, dozens of DNFs, miles behind him on the trail. No racer ever dropped in front of Puzak, the attrition occurred behind him. Frost bite, exhaustion, hypothermia. No joke.
Puzak nearly became one of the stats with just a couple miles to the end. His water was gone, he could barely move.
But he had to pee.
He put some snow in a water bottle, unzipped and urinated inside. The slosh melted and made some liquid, then Puzak drank it. “It saved me,” he said.
The Bear Grylls move got him back on his bike, pedaling. He’d been walking at less than 2mph, too weak to balance. But on the bike, in a granny gear, he could move at around 5mph, fast enough to finish without losing fingers and toes, just strong enough to stoke the fire that staves off hypothermia.
A couple minutes after 4a.m., racing for 21+ hours, Puzak cranked across the line. He’d overcome the hardest race of his life.
He was elated and done. “Not going back,” he said on the phone call. But I told him it’s way too early to make those kind of claims. He had first-place in his sights.
What did he learn out there? “In this race there is zero tolerance for error; one thing wrong and you’re in immediate trouble.”
It was minus-27 at the starting line. At the end, the temp had dropped another degree. Frozen feet and a foggy head, Puzak went indoors. He undressed and let blood flow back to his toes, pain spiking then his feet going numb again.
—Stephen Regenold is the editor of GearJunkie. He completed the second edition of the Arrowhead 135. See his original story on the race in 2006.