“On the morning of February 6, 2006, in the Kabetogama State Forest of northern Minnesota, the ground was frozen and dead, a chalky medium that squeaked when I walked from the car pushing my bike. The air was sharp, elemental and shrill, hurtful to breathe even through a mask. It was predawn on the Arrowhead State Trail, a multiuse track that connects International Falls to the town of Tower more than 100 miles to the south. My hands ached from the cold, fingers going numb within minutes that morning as I got on the bike to pedal into wilderness as desolate as the dark side of the moon.”
Thus starts my story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on my experience in the Arrowhead 135 Ultramarathon, a race held each February through the woods of far northern Minnesota. It kicks off for its fourth running today, February 4, and goes through the cut-off time on Wednesday night.
As ultra races go, the Arrowhead 135 is an odd fish, more akin to an Alaskan sled dog epic than the Ironman. The race requires competitors to combine athletic strength with survivalism, sending cyclists, trekkers and skiers solo and unsupported on its namesake 135-mile course.
I did it in 2006 on a bike, braving temps down to 20-below and deep snow that kept my wheels spinning for traction, mile after mile. (That’s me in the above image somewhere around Mile 40 on the first day.)
I pedaled a bike custom made for the snow, four-inch-wide tires and racks to carry gear. The trail, primarily a snowmobile route, was packed and solid for the first few miles of the race.
From a trailhead near International Falls, the course began with a prologue there-and-back leg west about nine miles into the woods. I tagged the checkpoint intersection after an hour of motion, then turned around to pedal east and south to the inner reaches of the Kabetogama State Forest.
It took me almost two days, and along the way I made a wrong turn that cost 20 miles of wasted time. But I finished far under the cut-off, indeed taking 9th place that year out of the 30+ people who started.
The race was a formative kind of thing for me, and I’ve written on my Arrowhead experience a couple times, most recently in a story last week in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (click here). Two years ago I also wrote this piece for the New York Times.
Monitor this year’s race on the organization’s home page: www.arrowheadultra.com