Choose To Suffer: Hypothermia, Frostbite And Exhaustion At ‘Arrowhead’ Race

The infamous Arrowhead 135 Winter Ultra, held each February in northern Minnesota, is among the toughest events in North America. This year, about 3/4 of the field did not finish. GearJunkie contributing editor Tom Puzak placed second overall. His feat was not without its difficulties and pain. See Puzak’s race story, “Fat Bike, Survival Mode, And Drinking Your Own Urine At Minus-27 F. How To Podium At ‘Arrowhead 135’.” Below, Puzak expounds upon the consequences and the choices, good and bad, that motivate him to push limits in a race like the Arrowhead 135.

By TOM PUZAK

I just took the bandages off my toes. They’re turning back to pink after the frozen, dead skin sloughed away. It’s been more than two weeks since my race on the Arrowhead Trail, a 135-mile route in northern Minnesota and home to one of the toughest endurance races in the world.

I am hardly the only person who suffered from the event. Temps averaged -20 degrees on race day this year, and 75% of the field dropped, mostly due to frostbite, hypothermia and exhaustion.


The Arrowhead 135 took its toll on Puzak’s feet

Each year I cross the starting line in many endurance contests, but this was my first attempt at an extreme winter race. The Arrowhead 135, held annually since 2005, proved to be one of the hardest things I have ever done.

Like towering mountains, events such as the Arrowhead tempt the adventurous with their mere existence; we attempt them because they are there. But I really signed up to explore myself. To push my limits. To find out if what everyone says is so difficult is something that I can do.

I and my like-minded ilk do not want to go to our graves without knowing of what we are capable. We suffer to find the breaking point. Will our bodies give in? Will our minds break?

We do it to explore our limit. My limit is different from yours, which is different from the next person. We are out there for our own reasons. We are adventurers. What we do on the trail does not impact the other riders. There are no teams, prizes, and few are sponsored riders.

I found my limit at the Arrowhead, but I was able to cross the line. As some of you have likely read, I melted snow with my own urine to save time over boiling water. (See my full story here.) I was not worried about saving time against the race clock; I feared that my sweaty gloves would freeze during the ten minutes it would have taken for my stove to melt snow in my titanium cup. I let my hands get too sweaty. I was a rookie.

Racing in the bitter cold at the Arrowhead 135

But the hardest moments on the trail were spent self-talking my tired body, again and again, through the steps needed to keep moving forward.

Always asking myself, “Where could my water hose freeze? When and what did I eat last? How high or low is my core temperature? How fast or slow should I be going to ensure I have enough left to get across the line?”

“Trust yourself.”

I knew the answers, but I had to trust that I would make the right choices.

When the body is failing, the brain becomes less capable of quieting the growing screams of pain and fear. This is when you find out what you are made of. Arrowheaders learn the ability to slow down and draw on their training to regain control of their falling body temps, low blood sugar levels, cold hands, fogged goggles… whatever stands in their way.

Self-reliance is our study and it is different for each person — average athlete, experienced survivalist, professional athlete — seeking to ride a razor-edge of performance, illusive to all but those who have gone over it.

Some Arrowheaders are interested in connecting with nature. Indeed the experience of plodding alongside trotting wolves under the massive dark night sky lends a connection to nature we don’t find under the city lights. Alone, miles from all but the cold forest, this is the ultimate classroom to study self-reliance.

Others are interested in finding a transcendent state in which we can overcome a great deal of suffering. I’ve heard it called “flow.” It’s an escape from reality. Or is it the most real reality we can find? Our normal tolerances for comfort go away, and a singular focus on what it takes to succeed takes over. A pure concentration that extracts the most from our ability. It can be had when we trust ourselves.

This state enabled me to accomplish something special on that day. That’s what I set out to do.

It’s a great challenge that affords a chance to get a look at ourselves. That’s why we sign up for the Arrowhead 135.

—Tom Puzak is a contributing editor.

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Stephen Regenold is Founder and Editor-In-Chief of GearJunkie, which he launched as a nationally-syndicated newspaper column in 2002. As a journalist and writer, Regenold has covered the outdoors industry for nearly two decades, including as a correspondent for the New York Times. A father of four small kids, Regenold and his wife live in Minneapolis.

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