Most racers never finish. Sixty percent, to be precise, surrender somewhere along the route. In the 2007 race, when the temperature dropped to minus-35 degrees during the night, only 10 of the 46 starters crossed the finish line at a lodge on Lake Vermillion, 135 miles and many cold hours down the line.
During my race, the sun rose bright that first icy morning, bursting yellow and gold, with rays skipping over the snow. The air was 20-below-zero, thin and still. Ice crystals floated like glitter, glinting in the light.
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’s like Alaska out here,” said Matt Evingson, a physician’s assistant from Duluth, and the winner of the inaugural Arrowhead 135 Ultramarathon in 2005. We were pedaling side by side, the treeless expanse of a frozen bog glowing gold in early morning rays. “This is beautiful,” he said.
The natural beauty of the North Woods is a top draw for Arrowhead racers. Competitors come from as far away as Brazil — and as close by as Ely, Minn. — to ride, trek or ski the remote and rolling trail. Trees, in the guise of birch, pine and poplar, make up most of the scenery. But frozen rivers, ravines, lakes, bogs, huge ridgelines, cliffs, and hills so high I had to push my bike create a course of ever-changing Ice Age-era topography.
The further you go, the harder the race becomes. The hills get bigger. The trail becomes more remote. You get cold and run low on food.
There are three bail-out points within the first 60 miles of the course, including two road intersections and a checkpoint cabin on Elephant Lake, which is the halfway mark. But head out from there and you face a remote leg with few roads and no civilization, on your own for 60 miles in the frozen woods.
My race went well to Elephant Lake, bike tires humming fast on snow for most of the day. I arrived by early evening, happy to get off the bike for a break. But after leaving the cabin with a fellow racer, Dave Simmons of Fargo, N.D., my race took a literal turn for the worse: Simmons and I missed a crucial dogleg and got lost.
It took about four hours and almost 20 miles to correct the mistake. We circled and searched for a trail back to the cabin, pushing our bikes alone under the night sky.
At 2a.m., we staggered back across Elephant Lake, returning to the halfway point, where Simmons quit the race.
continued on next page. . .