Among the toughest winter endurance events, the Arrowhead 135 Ultra pits competitors against its namesake 135-mile course in northern Minnesota. This year marked the 12th annual running, with moderate temps and soft snow adding to the Arrowhead challenge.
It all kicked off last Monday morning, January 25th. Cyclists start the race first at 7:00a.m., with skiers starting 2 minutes later, and runners at 7:04. They have 60 hours to complete the 135-mile course.
Peanut Butter Cage
In addition to a -20 degree rated sleeping bag, fuel and a stove, and a variety of other cold-weather survival gear, participants must start and finish the race with 3,000 calories of ‘food.’ A jar of peanut butter fits nicely in a low bottle cage.
Brazilian Marcio Villar do Amaral sits on his push-sled before racers line up. Foot racers typically choose a pull sled (pulk) or backpack for hauling their gear, but dogsled-style implements are increasingly popular.
Sveta At Checkin
Sveta Vold starts her second Arrowhead 135 just 7 weeks after giving birth. Husband and baby were out on the course; read more GearJunkie coverage on the super-mom’s race experience.
One of the lighter-weight setups we saw on the course, this titanium rig looked dialed-in for speed.
Some of the early race leaders chat while making final preparations at the start line in International Falls. Will Ross, center, finished second in the bike category, and Ben Doom, right, came in fourth.
Ken Krueger stands at the starting line as racers trail off into the wilderness. He and spouse Jackie are directing the race for the third time. Prior to taking up the helm, Ken had completed the race in all three categories: the “Arrowhead a Trois.”
First and second place winners Jay Petervary and Will Ross come screaming toward the first checkpoint through a tunnel of North Woods pine.
4th place finisher Ben Doom pushes solo toward the Gateway store checkpoint, about 30 miles into the race. Moisture and ventilation were major problems for racers, and the warm temps made head covering optional.
Three experienced racers line up to move fast. Charlie Tri, here in 4th place at the front, will later drop out from an aggravated prior injury. 2013 winner Todd McFadden, back, will drop out after crashing.
Riders muscle through soft snow on an exposed, rolling section of trail as temperatures rise.
Setting Records (With A Broken Pole)
One of just two skiers, Mike Brumbaugh approaches a checkpoint with a broken ski pole, after moving up from behind all of the cyclists to about 15th place at this point in the race. He will fix his pole with a found piece of PVC pipe and set a ski record by five minutes as the 9th person across the finish line.
Tracey Petervary pushes through a tough spot on her way to her third consecutive 1st place female win, but still in pursuit of the course record of 18:18 set in 2012 by Eszter Horanyi.
Smiling through the sufferfest
At this scenic spot near Sheep Ranch Road, Jill Martindale smiles at the view.
With darkness approaching, two racers make their way across Elephant Lake toward the second checkpoint at Melgeorge’s Resort.
A warm cabin, food, beverage, and maybe even a clothes dryer awaits Ron Williams at the midway point in the race.
Racers can have drop bags at the 2nd checkpoint at Melgeorge’s Resort, but they can only have food and beverage in them, and the bags are stored on a porch, so they are typically frozen by the time racers get there.
At the third checkpoint, the first racers have just appeared out of the darkness. A warming tent and a fire are welcome breaks for some racers, but others just fuel up and go. The Surly Checkpoint (also known as Ski Pulk for its former sponsor) is at the end of the longest stretch of trail, and most cyclists arrive sometime during the night.
Peering into the black
A spectator tries to identify a cyclist as they approach the Surly Tent. Family and friends are common at checkpoints and road crossings. Some riders use tracking devices to make it easier for their crew to locate them on the trail, and pretty much all of us spectators were doing calculations to estimate when our people would be coming through.
3rd place winner and race veteran Dan Dittmer spends just 2 minutes at checkpoint 3, mostly enjoying a Coke and refilling a water vessel.
At Melgeorge’s Resort, about halfway through the race, a sled awaits its pusher. Racers often spend some time at the resort checkpoint, where volunteers have hot food and run loads of clothes through a dryer.
A warm and familiar sight for veteran racers.
Morning At Surly Checkpoint
A Moonlander rests quietly outside the Surly Tent while its owner warms up inside. At about 26 hours into the race, daylight encourages racers still on the course.
After drying clothes in front of the wood-burning stove, resting, and eating, Justin Schuetz prepares to depart from Surly Checkpoint to head to the finish.
Officials await finishers at Fortune Bay Casino near Tower, Minnesota. Racers are guided from here to the gear check and storage location inside, then to the hospitality room to rest and regroup.
Tracks: Ski, Bike, Or Run
The Arrowhead Ultra 135 is unique in the ultra-racing world in that there are three propulsion modes. Any individual who completes the race in all three disciplines receives the “Arrowhead a Trois,” only seven of which have been awarded over the years.
He just won’t stop smiling
Even after 135 miles and 31 hours of hard effort, Justin Schuetz smiles at the finish line. For him, the finish is an important victory. After dropping out midway in 2014, Schuetz was determined to finish in 2015, but he suffered a pulmonary embolism just a week before the race. A condition that easily could have been fatal, he recovered, trained, and entered the 2016 Arrowhead with a mission.
Weird Gear: Sheepskin (?) Saddle Cover
People try out a lot of weird things on this race, because it truly is one of the most extreme events out there, if you count a decent chance of sub-zero temperatures and frozen precipitation. As more and more high-quality, light-weight gear has been made to cater to this market, the oddball stuff isn’t as common, but we like this solution for the age-old problem of “ice butt.”
Each finisher receives a trophy with a unique arrowhead inset. After 135 miles in the snow, and often 20-60 hours on the course, the competitors embrace the trophies as mementos of a challenge taken, and completed on, the icy northern reaches of a remote Minnesota trail.