Blowing and Drifting - Christopher Tassava

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Life in and around Northfield, Minnesota.
Updated: 39 min 30 sec ago

Arrowhead VI: Riding Bikes through the Polar Vortex

Fri, 02/08/2019 - 10:47pm

The 2019 Arrowhead 135 Ultra – my sixth Arrowhead and thirteenth winter ultra – went about as well as any race I’ve ever done. I finished in 14th place in just over 21 hours, my second-fastest time but my most consistent effort. This year’s race was run in conditions that ranged from cold down to Arctic, which caused huge attrition. Of the 75 cyclists who started the race on Monday morning, only 39 finished – a rate of 52%. Attrition rates were even worse in the other disciplines: four skiers and three kicksledders started, but none finished; 64 runners started but only 20% finished – just 13 insanely tough human beings.

My good result involved some luck, for sure. We didn’t get any heavy snow during the race, for instance. I didn’t have a flat tire or mechanical problem. And I didn’t make a wrong turn!

But I also felt that I had prepared pretty well for the race. Though by race day, I had not logged as many bike miles as I would have liked, I did do some good training rides in November and December, building on more gym training than I have ever done. And I had raced well at the Tuscobia 160 at the end of December and at the St. Croix 40 in the middle of January. Were those good results flukes? The Arrowhead would tell me!

Preparation mattered right up to the start. On the night before the race, I packed the Blue Buffalo, my bike, more quickly and cleanly than I ever had before, which let me get to bed at a good time and wake up – after an anxiety dream about missing the start and then being unable to pedal because my frame bag was overstuffed – feeling rested and ready. I remember fumbling like a fool a couple years ago to pack up. Experience paid off.

Even better than a well-packed bike and good sleep, the weather forecast had continued to improve overnight. A few days before the race, the forecast – taking into account the irruption of the polar vortex – called for -20º or lower at the start, and very little improvement over the 24 hours I’d be riding – basically the same conditions we had had in 2018 (which had been about 20º lower than the forecast!), and similar to my first Arrowhead, in 2014. As race day approached, though, the forecasts moderated to a predicted 0º at the start, highs around 5º during the day, and then a dip back to about -10º overnight. This was pretty much ideal fatbike racing weather: easy to dress for, easy to ride in, easy to adjust to.

The possibility of super cold temperatures daunted me enough that I had withdrawn from the “unsupported” category in which I’d raced in 2017 and 2018. Unsupported riders could not use the three race checkpoint to warm up, rest, and dry out, nor to resupply with food and water. I had successfully finished the AH both years I’d gone unsupported, but both races had been ragged and hard. I decided I didn’t need to prove to myself that I could finish unsupported again, especially if the temperatures were going to be terrible.

I didn’t have a pang of regret about not racing unsupported as I rode on race morning from the hotel to the start line at the city ice arena in International Falls. Temps were just below zero – perfect . I spent a little too much time at the start saying hi to friends and then trying to troubleshoot another rider’s flat tire, so when the fireworks went off at 7 a.m., I still hadn’t turned on my GPS or buckled my helmet. Oops! I did manage to get moving before the skiers started two minutes later, though, and soon enough I as moving up through the pack. Waaaay up front, I could see the blinking red lights of the three guys who would vie for the win: Jorden Wakeley from Michigan and Ben Doom and Neil Beltchenko from Minnesota.

For the first ten miles of the race, heading south from International Falls on the Blue Ox Trail, I rode with a sizable group. We were moving fast, but not overly so, and even better, we were riding smoothly. None of the spastic passing or abrupt stops that sometimes mess with the rhythm in this early stretch. Within an hour, we made the turn off Blue Ox and onto the Arrowhead Trail: wide, smooth, lit by the sun that had just appeared over the treeline ahead. As usual, the big group broke up here, with a few riders stopping at the three-sided wooden shelter to adjust clothes or to eat and drink, a few others speeding up to take advantage of the good track, some others slowing to recover from too much effort already.

Typically Beautiful Trail

I rode on, enjoying the yellow glow in the sky ahead, and feeling a little chillier here in the open country than I had fifteen minutes before in the corridor of Blue Ox. I scrubbed the snow off my GPS unit’s screen and was shocked to see a temperature reading of -22º – an incredible drop in the last hour. I wondered if the forecast was going to be wrong again, but I did not wonder, as I would have in previous years, whether I should just ride through the cold. Instead, I stopped immediately to put on a facemask and a heavier hat, which worked wonders. When I tried to take a sip of my hydration drink, I found that the hose had frozen, so I tucked it deep into my jacket and hoped my body heat would thaw it. And I stopped to take a bad photo of the amazing sundog in the eastern sky, the biggest and brightest one I have ever seen.

Sundog

My hand got pretty cold taking that photo, but that was the only moment when I had any trouble with my extremities. After badly frostbiting my right fingers in 2018, I worried – and was repeatedly told to worry – that they would always be sensitive to cold, and that they would be more likely to get frostbit again. I was very glad that they held up during my training rides and that they didn’t act up during the race – even when I was taking barehanded pictures of the sky at -20º F.

Later I learned that quite a few riders had been caught out by this cold snap, including several who suffered frostbite on their hands and feet. In my extra layers, though, I felt good, and rode smoothly over the next 10 or 15 miles. A few riders moved past me, I caught a few others, but I was mostly already alone – my favorite way to ride. Softer trail – chewed up by snowmobiles – required me to stop and let some pressure out of the Blue Buffalo’s tires, but 10psi turned out to be right for the rest of the race, even after the trails firmed up again. I did enjoy seeing my friends John and Bill, who’d driven up to the race with me; they were riding their fatbikes up and down the course to cheer on racers and take in the sights.

Riding Through (photo by Bill Nelson and John Rinn)

I knew they were not far from the first checkpoint at the Kabetogama Gateway General Store, so I pushed a little and rolled in to Gateway around 11 a.m. I had a loose race strategy that put me at Gateway by 11, at the second checkpoint at Melgeorges resort by four, and at the third checkpoint by midnight – and then to finish sometime overnight, perhaps ahead of my personal best time of 19:30 (a 2:30 am. finish). Or perhaps not; the trail would dictate!

Inside Gateway, I grabbed a chair and sucked down a Coke and a bowl of soup, chatting with some friends. Charly had dropped out with stomach problems, Aaron from overheating. Kellie was there just hanging out. Charly warned me that she was giving out hugs, but her squeeze around the shoulders felt pretty nice after four hours of riding. Charly did more helpfully say that he thought the second leg – from mile 36 to Melgeorges at mile 72 – was the hilliest of the race. I had always thought of the third leg, which I’ve always hit in the dark, as having the most climbs, but he reminded me that that leg included a very long flat stretch before the jagged hills started at about mile 95. Okay, so riding well to Melgeorges would get me past the halfway point in the race and over a good chunk of the climbing. Even after five races on the Arrowhead Trail, I was still learning stuff!

Refreshed, I headed back out at 11:15, ready for the hills. The sky had clouded over, raising the temperature to zero or so and making for some wonderfully easy and fast riding. I made great time with the Blue Buffalo on the flats, and enjoyed hiking up and then zipping down the occasional hills. I saw two or three other racers, but I don’t think I passed or was passed by anyone. I did have to stop at one road crossing – the infamous Sheep Ranch Road, where many racers drop out because it’s one of the last easy spots cars can reach – when a spectator urgently asked me for my name. He was disappointed that I was not another racer he was trying to find. Sorry, dude!

A bit later, I rounded a corner and hit the first big beastly climb. At the crest, a spectator was madly cheering for another rider who was almost to the top.

Steeper Than It Looks

He clapped for me as I pushed my bike to the top too, then gave me a great slap on the back when I made it. We chatted for a second while I caught my breath and ate (trail mix, Fritos) and drank (nutrition drink through the thawed hose!) and I professed my lust for his bike, a tricked-out Salsa Blackborow longtail fatbike. What a beautiful machine. Parting, he told me that I was now basically on the downhill toward Elephant Lake and Melgeorges.

I knew from my GPS that I was getting close to the Melgeorges checkpoint – and first to the midpoint of the course at mile 67 – but I liked his confirmation that the rest of the way to the CP was literally downhill. My legs had started aching a couple hours before, probably from riding a little too hard out of Gateway, and I was eager to sit on a sofa at Melgeorges. I had planned to stop for no more than 30 minutes at Melgeorges, but when I stopped a bit later, aching, to take a photo of the Blue Buffalo at mile 67,

Halfway

I decided that I’d give myself an hour or until my legs felt better. A bit more rest would, I hope, pay off with more strength for the third leg, and the fourth.

Just a few minutes after that brief stop, I saw Bill and John again, stationed helpfully at the top and bottom of a fast downhill. I gave them a wave on the way down, loving the free speed that carried me almost all the way to Elephant Lake. The lake is always dauntingly open and starkly beautiful, a last test before reaching the second checkpoint. After nearly 70 miles of twisting, undulating trails through the woods, the mile of flat and open path – marked by dozens of reflective signposts, by the tracks of snowmobiles, and by a thin thread of bike treads – is a shock. I hooked up with another rider to make the crossing. For whatever reason, we rode on the right side of the row of signposts, not the left, which really bothered me. The other rider kept talking, but between my bad hearing, my helmet and hat, and the wind, I could not understand more than a few words, which sounded to me like heavily accented English.

Gradually we reeled in the far shore of the lake, Melgeorges’ cabins growing larger and more distinct. Usually the cabins are lit up with Christmas lights, but in this year’s late-afternoon overcast, I didn’t notice them.

Coming off Elephant Lake (photo by David Markman)

We reached land again and turned down a tight trail that led to the checkpoint. I immediately crashed, unable to adjust to the six-inch trail after hours and hours of twenty-foot trail. Though the race photographer was just a few feet away, he didn’t capture my display of skill, and shook his head when I asked if wanted me to crash again.

The Melgeorges Checkpoint

I wound up spending an hour and a half at Melgeorges, but the time was not wasted. I changed into dry baselayers, which felt marvelous, and set my gloves, hat, and facemask to drying. More importantly, I sat on the sofa and – after melting off my icebeard – ate and drank well (a couple of the famous grilled cheese sandwiches, a couple bowls of wild rice soup, a can of Coke, some chocolate milk, a lot of Doritos, some applesauce to calm my stomach…). I didn’t talk much to the other racers or volunteers; I didn’t want to pop my bubble of concentration on the race. A few racers came in after me, and a bunch left while I was resting. Several announced that they were dropping out. Some of them looked like hell; others looked fine. I didn’t know how I looked, but every time I stood up, I assessed my legs. Gradually their heaviness faded, and I felt ready to go.

The volunteer noted my checkout time and I went outside to handle a few more tasks in the waning light.

The Blue Buffalo Waiting

While I changed my headlamp batteries, put my puffy jacket in a better spot, refilled my trail mix, I wound up talking with Todd, an Arrowhead veteran who has seen just about everything. He filled me in on the racers who were vying for the win – Wakeley had a big lead – and offered some tips for handling the third and the fourth legs. I finally set off just as dusk fell, a bit later than I had hoped. I was happy to trade a few minutes of daylight for refreshed legs.

Last year, I’d roared out of Melgeorges and missed the turn off the spur trail to the Arrowhead trail itself, then rode five miles before two other racers corrected me – a cost of ten miles and more than an hour of riding time. This year, I crept up the spur, headlamp on high, to make goddamn sure I would not miss the correct turn. This hill, that curve, this long straightaway, and then the turn, very well marked! I stopped to double-check that all of the bike tracks were running in the direction I was traveling, and then I hit the gas. The next twenty miles – just as Charly had promised back at the first checkpoint – were easy, fun, fast cruising in my biggest gear, which I rarely touch in fatbike races. I hardly had to think, just keep my front wheel in the track worn in by the dozen or so riders in front of me. I could almost steer the Blue Buffalo by sound: if the sound of my tires on the snow changed from the sizzle of frying bacon to the crunch of crumpling paper, I had drifted off the track and needed to nudge myself back.

Even the few hills were straightforward. Some, I hit with enough momentum that I cruised most of the way up, and then could grunt out the last few legal strokes. A steeper few required me to ride as high up as possible, then jump off and push to the top. About the only problem I had was a sloppy dismount when I smashed my crotch against my bike. Stars, breathlessness, an ache that took a couple hours to dissipate… That’s bike racing!

Like the leg to Melgeorges, I was almost entirely alone in this section, riding into an infinity of lightly falling snow and wide white trail. Just a few miles past the checkpoint, I did come across one rider who was dealing with a flat tire. I think he said he had it handled, so I kept going. At a road crossing an hour later, I met the same spectator who’d misidentified me earlier in the day. He now asked if I’d seen a racer with a flat. I said I had, about ten miles before. The guy wondered if he should walk in to help the racer. I said that the rider was far closer to Melgeorges, if he turned around, than we were to him. The spectator seemed to want to talk more about it, but I needed to get going again. I was dressed for riding, not a chat at a windy road crossing at 10 p.m.! I felt a little bad at leaving the guy there, but then again, everyone riding in the Arrowhead should know how to get out of trouble. Turns out, this racer was fine. He did have to limp back to Melgeorges, where he dropped out.

Soon after that awkward moment, I reached the sawtooth hills. In full dark, with my headlamps illuminating a small yellow spot about ten feet in front of my bike, they all started looking alike: a steep white wall, marked partway up with a web of bike tracks and then the rest of the way with one or two tracks and a mess of footprints. I could ride a few of these slopes, but on the rest, I tried to ride further than the first footprints and then dismounted – without smashing my groin – for a few minutes of hike-a-bike.

The pushing was actually a relief, stretching leg muscles that were tight from riding and loosening my back. I varied my strategies for making it to the top. Sometimes I’d count out ten or twenty steps, pause, and do it again. Other times, I’d pick a spot on the hill and walk to it, break, then walk to a new one. Few of the hills seemed as steep or exhausting as I remembered. And every uphill meant a fun downhill, including quite a few that were so steep, I could not see the bottom from the top. I felt a lot more sure of myself on those descents than I did even last year, thanks to a ton of mountain biking over the summer. The Blue Buffalo too helped, being snappier than my previous machine and loaded very differently. Having my heavy sleeping bag on my rear rack made the front end so much more responsive.

I took a photo of the hill in front of me at mile 100, where I had century of trail behind me and only 35 miles in front of me.

The Hill at Mile 100

5 or 6 hours to go, unless something bad happened. Even though the race had gone as smoothly to this point as just about any fatbike race I’d ever done, I was still braced for a problem – mental, physical, mechanical, meteorological. I was a bit suspicious, in fact, of how well everything was working, from the way my clothes fit and kept me warm to the way the Blue Buffalo disappeared under me, just doing its job. I knew exactly how pedaling would feel when I shifted up or down, exactly how the bike would slow when I squeezed the brake, exactly how my saddle would feel (cold!) when I sat back down after a few minutes of pushing. The comfortable expectation must have resembled how an equestrian feels with her horse, a hunter with his gun dog, a center with a good point guard.

I had reason to be a little worried. Last year, I’d had a flat tire somewhere around mile 100. I wasted 90 minutes of time on the trail and countless calories trying to fix the flat, and wound up frostbiting my right hand pretty severely before – finally – two other racers came along and helped, saving my race. Mulling over this problem during the year between then and now, I wondered if I had caused the flat by riding too roughly over one of the many bridges that span frozen creeks running between the hills. Maybe, maybe not, but I tried hard this year to ride the bridges as smoothly as possible. Maybe this helped, maybe not, but I did avoid a flat!

I could not avoid the building fatigue in my legs. Hills that would have been rideable a couple hours before were now, hours out of Melgeorges but maybe still hours from the third checkpoint, hard enough that I had to push them from bottom to top. Mile 103 was the worst, a series of hills that defied my pedaling; compelled me to pause, chest heaving, at every crest; and then provided seconds-long downhills that offered no recovery. I’ll bet I needed twenty or thirty minutes to cover that mile.

I tried to force myself to eat and drink as I walked, but everything on my bike tasted like ash – except for my energy gels, which I normally take only if I’m bonking and need their fakey sweetness. This year, they tasted delicious, so I slurped one down every half hour or so.

And then up ahead I saw the red glow of a biker’s taillights. Company! My rookie year at Arrowhead, I’d been caught around here by Charlie, a vet who gave me the boost I needed to get to the third checkpoint. A couple years ago, I’d ridden this stretch with Jesse, a Michigander who rides a singlespeed bike in the race each year. Jesse was here again, but I had no idea if he was ahead or behind me. Last year, I’d here been following the two riders who had helped with my flat tire.

I didn’t have to speed up to catch this rider, who turned out to be my partner in crossing Elephant Lake about six hours before. He was in rough shape. About the first thing he said to me was, “Fucking mile 103! That must have been five miles long.” He turned out not to have an accent at all – well, to have a Minnesota accent. On the lake, he’d just been too tired to speak clearly. Now we chatted a little. He was close to bonking, but couldn’t have any of my food because he could not have any gluten. So he plugged away on peanut M&Ms and nutrition drink, here a few yards ahead of me, there a few yards behind.

Having him nearby helped me stop counting the pedal strokes and hills and miles to the third checkpoint, which appeared out of nowhere after a curve in the trail. Usually I have to beg the gods for permission to reach this spot – just a shelter and a bonfire along the side of the trail – but this year they freely gave it to me. I didn’t argue, just grabbed some stuff from the Blue Buffalo,

Resupply (photo by David Markman)

leaned it in the snow,

Resting Bikes (photo by David Markman)

got a Dixie cup of hot water, and went into the warming tent. A few volunteers and unsupported racers were standing around the bonfire a few feet away. Someone – I hoped not a racer – was smoking a joint.

The tent was disappointingly chilly. I sat as close to the wood-burning stove as I could, shivering but trying not to burn my knees. I dried my facemask and gloves a little, but I didn’t want to burn them either, so I basically just steamed them. I did melt off my icebeard, which I hoped would prevent frostbite over the last leg: 24 miles at ten or twenty degrees below. I chatted a little with Dave, the race photographer, and with a very dedicated spectator who had come all the way out to cheer on his son.

Thawing Out (photo by David Markman)

I also talked to a couple other racers who came and went, including the guy I’d linked up with just before the checkpoint. When he left, I decided I need to get going too. I had not felt very tired yet – I don’t think I’d even yawned, much less starting wrestling the sleep monster – but just in case, I washed down a caffeine tablet with a swig of Red Bull and stowed more tabs and a second Red Bull in a pocket where I could get them easily even if I was bonking. After swaddling my head in hat, buff, and face mask, I put on my puffer jacket – an extra layer of defense against the cold on the open swamps I’d cross on the way to the finish. I probably needed a minute to arrest my shivering hands enough that I could fit together the impossibly tiny pieces of the zipper. I was lucky to still feel good enough that the trouble was comical, not scary.

By now though I was thoroughly cold. I rode as hard as I could away from the checkpoint, building some heat. A mile later, I pushed my bike up the last big climb on the course, Wakemup Hill. I paused at the top – if not the course’s highest point, then at least the one that offers the longest view – to drink in the stars. Orion seemed just a little bit further out than the end of my headlamp’s beam.

I cautiously rode the Blue Buffalo down the rollercoaster descent off Wakemup, not eager to stack it up with about twenty miles to go. Two, three hours. 500, 600 calories. Not bad. I’d finish by five a.m. unless something bad happened.

Nothing did, and gradually less and less trail remained where trouble could lurk, even with my GPS showing -10°, -15°, -20°. A light tailwind pushed that air temperature down a few more degrees, but I didn’t notice the breeze except as ice on the back of my sleeves. I straightened my arms to break up the plates.

I came up on that rider I’d caught just before the third checkpoint. He was struggling, still or again, but seemed able to continue, so I went on. Having suffered my way through this section in several of my Arrowheads, I knew what he was going through, but I didn’t feel too guilty about feeling better than he did.

My legs were tired but not dead. My back didn’t ache. My hands and feet felt bendy and toasty. Another applesauce was keeping my stomach calm, a couple more gels keeping it full enough – but not banishing dreams of a burger and fries. When – despite my caffeine at the checkpoint – I started having trouble maintaining my line, I stopped and guzzled my last Red Bull. No need to be virtuous with ten miles to go! My lower lip froze momentarily to the lip of the can, but I licked it free and emptied the can from a safe distance above my mouth. A last few drops turned to slush in the rim of the can.

Bored now of looking up the trail, I rode for long stretches while looking off to the sides at the low evergreen scrub, the field of cattails wearing identical snowcaps, the trail signs hidden in overgrown trees, the snowmobile tracks leading off to who knew what. When I looked forward again, I seemed to be riding into a thin snow flurry, maybe six feet ahead of me and a foot above me. Was I actually just illuminating with my headlamp part of a low cloud? No, when I looked away, I saw black sky, the crescent moon, stars. But ahead of me, seemingly stretching off infinitely or at least to the finish line, was this weird line of snow. Finally, I realized that I was seeing my own condensed breath, carried by the tailwind up and away from me, where the water vapor turned to snow that floated down just as I rode through it. I started playing with it: a big lung-emptying exhalation created a miniature blizzard, a long hissed-out breath created a snaking line of flakes, turning my head as I breathed out created a fan of white dust…

I chased my personal snowstorm over the last road crossing. The finish line was just a mile or two ahead, outside the Fortune Bay casino. I glanced back to look for the guy I had passed. Nothing but white trail. I kept peering off to my right, hoping to see the glow of the casino building, which would mean I was within a few hundred yards of the finish. I kept not seeing the building, and then suddenly I saw instead the glow of the finish line itself: lights, a tent, the banner.

The Arrowhead Finish Line (photo by David Markman)

A jolt of adrenaline carried me up the last incline and over the spray painted snow. Volunteers came out to welcome me and take a photo. I was eager to get inside for soup and a beer.

Finished Trophy Shot
Categories: Citizens

Countdown to Arrowhead 6

Fri, 01/25/2019 - 8:29pm

I have three sleeps till my sixth try at the Arrowhead Ultra, which starts at 7 a.m. on Monday, January 28, in International Falls, Minnesota. As I write this on Friday afternoon, the forecast calls for some classic Arrowhead conditions: temperatures at the start of about -25º F, at midafternoon of about -5º, and of -25º overnight – by which time I hope to have earned my sixth Arrowhead finish. Again this year, many (but not all) of the racers can be followed online through Trackleaders.

So, yeah, the weather will be the dominant story this year, as it was last year when the forecast was about 20º too high. I adjusted to the cold pretty well but made two big mistakes – taking a wrong turn just after the halfway point, and then mishandling a flat tire in the middle of the night – that forced me to spend more time on the course and gave me a pretty good case of frostbite. Turns out, spending 90 minutes handling metal at 2 a.m. and -30º isn’t a safe thing to do.

In aiming to finish this year in under 24 hours, I’ve made a few changes from last year. First and foremost, I’m not going to race in the unsupported category, which means that – unlike last year and the year before – I can use the checkpoints to rest, eat and drink, and warm up. I don’t want to spend more than a total of an hour in the checkpoints. A little less self-reliance means I’ll be a little faster than last year, which was my slowest year on the course since my first race in 2014 (another super-cold year). I aim to spend no time at the first checkpoint, around mile 30, and as little as possible at the checkpoint at mile 60 (just enough time to eat a grilled cheese sandwich and down some Coke), then to rest better at the third checkpoint near mile 100 before making the push to the finish.

I would love to set a new PR of less than 19:30, but I’m not sure I have the fitness for that pace, or that the conditions will allow it. Tuscobia went well, to be sure, and St. Croix went even better, but those two events are a far cry from Arrowhead! Who knows, though. The trail will bring whatever it brings.

Beyond racing in the supported category this year, I’ll be on a different bike this year, the Blue Buffalo, a Salsa Mukluk XO1 that has treated me very well in three races so far.

The bike is a “one-by,” with 12 gears in back but no front derailleur, and it’s the most comfortable bike I’ve ever had, as well as probably the lightest slash fastest. Carbon from the HED Big Deal rims to the Whisky handlebars! I’m running 45NRTH Dillinger 5 tires (studded in front, bare in back), set up tubeless to save a little weight. D5s aren’t state of the art any more, but I love them and don’t want to change to something else right now. Under its first owner, Ben Doom, this bike finished second at Arrowhead last year, so it knows the course. As Ben said, “Put it on cruise control and relax.”

The Blue Buffalo is set up with racks and bags to carry all the stuff that we must or want to take with us on the trails: fork and rear racks by Salsa (Anything Cages and the Alternator rack, respectively); a front bag from Yeti; a frame and top tube bag by Cedaero in Two Harbors, Minnesota; and handlebar bags and a seatpost bag from Revelate in Alaska, which also made the all-important pogies that I’m using on my handlebars. The biggest change I’ve made this year is using the rear rack to carry my sleep system: a -20º F bag, bivy sack, and pad. Having all that weight and bulk off the front of the bike made the rig a lot more manageable at Tuscobia and St. Croix, and I’m hoping for a similar payoff on the relentless hills at Arrowhead. Here’s the Blue Buffalo before the St. Croix race a couple weeks ago, set up for the race except for the pogies (which weren’t needed because it was fairly warm).

All of these bags have served me well in many races and rides, so I trust them to carry my food, spare clothes, batteries, stove (the classic MSR WhisperLite), fuel, medicine, hand warmers, pump and repair kit, etc. Below is some of the core gear that I carry in every race, including required stuff, plus some of the food I’ll carry in the Arrowhead and my helmet and boots – and the Spot beacon that will transmit my location to Trackleaders.

I’m carrying over almost all of the kit and gear I’ve used over the last few year. From bottom to top, I’ll be wearing 45NRTH Wolfgar boots over a thick pair of wool socks and a thin pair of compression socks; Sugoi Titan pants over my heaviest Craft baselayer tights and a pair of lightweight but padded cycling shorts; and my beloved Eddie Bauer Ascent softshell jacket over a wicking Craft tank top and a Craft long-sleeve thermal top. (I’ll have a reflective vest on top off all that – a requirement for these races.

As needed I can add layers on top of the jacket: a thin windvest, a light fleece vest, a thin puffer jacket, or a thick puffer. I’m going overboard – “packing my fears” – with all those extra layers, but as temperatures dip overnight, I’ll probably pull on the lighter jacket for the extra security and the warmth. I expect to walk many of the hills in that stretch of the race.

Those safety layers are a reaction to getting frostbit last year. For that same reason, I’m over-preparing with handwear. I plan to wear my midweight Outdoor Research PL400 gloves on my hands at all times, and besides the warmth of the pogies, I am bringing three set of reinforcements: thin OR gloves to put inside the gloves, OR mittens for outside the gloves, and a pair of down mittens from Black Rock Gear. Based on experiments in warmer conditions earlier this winter, I think the down mittens inside my pogies will be the best option if shit gets unreal and we see -50º or worse.

My frostbit nose and cheeks demand some special care now too, so I’m planning both to use Dermatone as a skin protectant and to wear this crazy balaclava from 45NRTH that is basically a neck gaiter, a light hat, and a nose guard all in one. As needed, I’ll add a regular hat (or my Black Rock down hat) and a heavier neck gaiter.

All of those layers have to fit under my Giro Timberwolf helmet, which is as ridiculous looking as it is warm. The helmet also carries one of my two Princeton Tec Apex headlamps. The other is strapped to my handlebars. Between the two lamps, I can throw quite a bit of light down the trail, which is important since I’ll be in the dark for at least half of my race time.

And I am fine with that. Better than fine. I love riding in the dark.

The peace, the solitude, the quiet, and yes maybe a little whiff of fear – I love it and can’t wait to experience it again. Someday I hope to go up north and spend a day on the parts of the Arrowhead trail that I’ve only ever seen in the dark. This year, though, I’ll relish seeing that six feet of light in front of me all night. I hope I can follow it all the way to the finish at Fortune Bay!

Categories: Citizens

A great day at the St. Croix

Mon, 01/14/2019 - 10:33pm

Well, the St. Croix 40 Winter Ultra did not disappoint. I had a great race, and highly recommend the event to anyone interested in trying a short, straightforward winter race.

A new event on the calendar, the St. Croix was carefully developed by race directors Jamison and Lisa Swift as an introduction to winter ultra racing. The distance – 40 miles, entirely within St. Croix State Park about 90 minutes south of Duluth – is as short as you’ll find for a winter ultra, especially on a bike, but Jamison and Lisa made a few tweaks to raise the stakes a little.

First, all racers – 36 bikers, 42 runners, and 2 skiers – were required to carry the usual equipment for longer-distance races: winter sleeping bag, bivy sack, insulated sleeping pad, stove, pot, safety lights, etc. Overkill for a 40-miler, but good to learn to pack and carry. Second, the races started late – 6 p.m. for the runners (and the skiers), 10 p.m. for the bikers. These start times ensured that everyone would have to race in the dark. Honestly, this was the tweak that made me sign up. I love riding in the dark! Third, and most amusingly, we had to actually use our sleep system.

Ten minutes before the start of the race, we climbed into our sleeping bags and bivy sacks. When Jamison clanged the cowbell to start the race, we climbed back out, packed the gear onto our bikes, and got moving. Fourth, at the midway checkpoint (actually 22 miles into the 38-mile course), each racer had to successfully boil a potful of water – à la the Fat Pursuit. All in all, these four aspects of the race seemed to serve as good tests for everyone, whether more or less experienced with winter ultra racing. I certainly enjoyed the silly seriousness of setting up my sleep system, lying quietly in it for 10 minutes, and then packing it up and tearing off down the course with about three dozen other riders.

And tear off we did. A couple guys were quicker off the start, but I caught them within a minute or two. I had to slow down for a deer that ran onto the course ahead of me and then took its time looking for a way off the trail, which helped two other guys pass me. I hung on their wheels for a few minutes, but by about mile three they were pulling away, taking full advantage of the wide, hard trail – for all but a few miles of the course, highly compacted snow over grass paths, gravel roads, and even a few stretches of pavement.

At the first fork in the trail, they went left and then stopped. This was far early for food or drink, so I wondered if one of them was having a mechanical or a flat. When I pulled up, they were debating whether the course went to the left or to the right at the fork. We studied our paper maps (which had somehow shrunk and blurred since we’d gotten them at the race HQ meeting!), decided that left had been the correct direction, and took off again.

Within a few minutes, the yellow bubbles of their headlamp lights had shrunk to baseballs ahead of me. Just after they finally disappeared around a bend, they stopped again, in the middle of another intersection, grousing now that we’d hit two intersections with no visible directional markers. One guy checked a big permanent map posted on a sign at the junction and saw that we had in fact gone the wrong way. Now, he said, we needed to go right for a couple miles to rejoin the course. Off we went. Within a half mile, having gapped me again, they blasted through an intersection and started up a steady climb. I slowed to see if there were any directional markers at this turn, and sure enough, found two course markers. I shouted for them, but they didn’t hear me. Shrug. I turned left and headed down the trail, soon encountering several more markers that confirmed I was on the course.

I knew they’d find the course soon and start chasing me, so I mashed my pedals for a good half hour, trying to get as much space as possible. I hoped to be the first biker to the checkpoint at mile 22, which would be enough of a victory for me. This seemed somehow possible. My legs and lungs told me that I was working hard but not too hard, and my GPS unit showed speeds upwards of 12 mph – ridiculously fast for me. In less than an hour, I had covered 10 miles, putting me on pace for a four-hour finish, my stretch goal.

At almost exactly 11 p.m., I started encountering runners, who’d by then been racing for five hours. Every few minutes for the next hour, I passed one or two or three. The trail here was a little tighter, so we had to do some silent negotiating. The runner felt my lights and edged to one side of the trail, letting me go to the other (often not even needing to tap my brakes). We traded encouragements (I love the way runners clack their hiking poles together to urge you on!), and then we left each other alone in the dark again. I even saw the two skiers who were tackling the course, two women who are the baddest of the ultra-distance badasses. I loved these little blips of sociability, so much like the second half of the Tuscobia, another race where the runners start well ahead of the riders. Thanks to the endless twists and turns of the St. Croix course, the runners appeared and disappeared in seconds, rather than hanging out for minutes ahead or behind me.

The twists and turns also meant that I would not see any riders coming up on me until they were right on my back wheel. I tried to resist the urge to glance back, but every now and then I did. I saw nothing but the yellow glow of my headlamp on the trees. Empty snowy woods always feel welcoming, but they have rarely comforted me more than they when, over and over, I did not see my chasers among the trees. I felt surprisingly good, and really only had to work hard at relaxing. Deep breaths. Looser grips on the handlebars. Longer drags of nutrition drink. I told myself that they would catch me sooner or later, and that when they did, I’d stick with them as long as possible, then conserve energy for a late push to the line. Maybe they’d be tired from the chase.

Jamison and Lisa had alerted us to a couple trickier sections of trail, and just as I started anticipating the checkpoint (at this speed, having gone this far, I should reach it at this time…), I hit the first of them, a narrow footpath that the runners had really beaten up. Doing some real fatbiking over the rough snow, I decided that if the trail stayed this bad (good), or got worse (better), I’d stop and let some pressure out of my tires. Maybe take a photo of the trail too, for memory’s sake. Within a couple minutes, though, I popped off the path and back onto the main trail. I had hardly started cranking again when I hit the second section that the race directors had warned about: a paved road now covered in a evil layer of glare ice. Here and there, I found a few yards of gravel or leaves to ride, but for what must have been a mile, I crept carefully over the ice, wishing I had studs on my back tire too. I resisted the urge to push a little harder, choosing a slower pace over a crash – and either injuring myself or losing time to the chasers. Or getting caught while I was flat on my back on the ice. They had to be close by now!

Coming off this icy stretch and back onto snowy trail, my hands were cold and numb from white-knuckling my grips. Fortunately the course passed through some open country – oak savannah like the Carleton Arboretum – where I could steer with one hand and shake the other hand awake. Even better, my GPS showed that I was just a few miles from the checkpoint. I was going to make it at least that far in the lead. I didn’t want to rest at the CP, but I was eager for a few minutes off the bike.

I wove around a few more runners and hit the checkpoint at 11:51 p.m. My friend Bill, volunteering at this race, guided me to an open spot where I could lay down the Blue Buffalo and do the boil test. I felt a little like an octopus doing eight things at once: stick my gloves in the straps of my sleeping bag so I wouldn’t lose them, dig out my stove and fuel and cup and matches, find that Red Bull and an energy gel, set up the stove and light it, fill the cup with snow, open and guzzle the Red Bull, slurp down the gel, put new batteries in my headlamp, check on the water (simmering but not boiling), have another drink, stow the dead batteries and the empty Red Bull can, show the boiling water to Bill, turn off the stove and stick it in the snow to cool, stow the fuel and matches, pour out the hot water and stick the cup in the snow to cool, stow the stove, stow the cup, zip everything up, put my helmet on my head…

As I finished, Bill looked back down the trail. “Looks like a couple bikers coming in!” This was fine. I was going to be gone for ten minutes before even if their boil tests went well. If they caught me before the finish, fine. I pulled my gloves back on. “Oh, nope, I’m wrong. Two runners. No bikers yet!” Really?

Excited, I thanked him for volunteering, hopped on the bike, and headed up the trail at 12:04 a.m. 13 minutes at the checkpoint, and now 16 miles to go. 90 minutes or so – less if the trail was super fast and I didn’t bonk, a bit more if the trail was slower or I just started losing it. The first stretch after the checkpoint was a wide paved road covered in hardpack snow, ideal for getting back up to speed. The effort warmed up my hands and arms, which were chilled from the checkpoint. My legs ached a little too, tired from two hours of riding and stiff from crouching in the snow. I zoomed down the only big descent on the course and grunted my way up the climb on the other side. I felt super slow going uphill for one of the only times in the race. Weak. Heavy. Those two guys I’d chased early had been so freaking strong, they’d zip up this climb no problem, taking back minutes and minutes of my gap.

A flat, a turn off the road and back onto tighter snowmobile trail, and suddenly a bigger climb, one that resembled the endless kickers in the third leg of the Arrowhead. By the top, I was gasping for air. Oh shit. I was cooked. But at the crest, I hit a Y in the trail. A directional arrow pointed right. I realized this was the couple-mile loop at the far end of the course, one that would end by sending me back down that tough incline and point me toward the finish. This then wasn’t quite the home stretch, but the approach to the home stretch. The loop was rough, a mental challenge after the zoned-out speed riding on the road from the checkpoint. 7 mph or 10 mph was fine here, a good speed given the ragged snow – a speed I’d be happy to average in a longer race.

My compass told me that I was now pointed south, finishing the loop. Just after passing the directional sign that told me I was back on the main trail, I met two riders coming toward me, about to start the loop. I couldn’t tell if they were the guys I’d last seen early on, but if these two weren’t those two, those two guys must be even closer behind, somewhere on the loop. We cheered each other on, and then they were gone.

I plummeted down the hill I’d struggled up twenty minutes before, downed one last gel to stave off any bonk in the next few miles, and settled in for a push to the finish – six, seven miles. Back and forth and back and forth to work. A half hour. I could go fast for a half hour, I hoped.

Now my legs really hurt, though. Not just my quads and hamstrings, but my knees, from mashing a big gear for hours and hours. Thank goodness the Blue Buffalo had functioned flawlessly the whole night, but jeez sometimes riding bikes hurts. Trying to use different muscles, I stood, crouched, leaned forward… My mouth dried out. I took a hit of drink, but it made my mouth and throat tingle in a pukey way. I would have been embarrassed to get passed after crashing on the ice earlier, but I would have been much more embarrassed to get passed while throwing up in the snow. Plus Jamison had warned us to leave no trace!

Take a few deep breaths, sit back and sit up. A couple solid burps cleared the digestive system. The trail here cut between forest to the left and prairie to the right, and the thinner trees let me see a couple sets of blinking lights ahead. I passed another runner, a guy who really running, unlike almost everyone else I’d seen. Almost immediately I saw another runner ahead and figured that this guy had seen the other’s lights and was trying to close the gap. In a minute I was up to and then past the chasee. A yellow glow in the distance resolved into lights around buildings. Maybe the race HQ and the finish? No, I had at least a couple miles to go. Probably one of the many campgrounds in the park, like one I’d seen on the icy road.

Another fork in the trail. Almost too late I saw a directional sign, hit my brakes, and skidded from the far side of the left fork across the trail and onto the right fork. A “Race HQ” sign glowed on the side of the trail, and I could see the brighter lights through the trees – not just lights, but the reflective cones set up in the finishing chute. I had to look back to see if my chasers were there, but nope: nothing but the dim glow of the runner I’d just passed.

No freaking way. I was about to finish first. Without thinking I put my hands on my head, dumbfounded, then had to grab the bars and wheel through a tight corner and up the finishing chute. Should I raise my hands? Wheelie? Pump my fists?

Instead of all those alternatives, I rolled across the finish line and crashed into the snow, legs seized in a wonderfully satisfying way.

Immediately, Jamison and a couple other volunteers came over. I laughed at how ludicrous it was to have crossed the line first, but then tried to explain to Jamison about the wrong turns. He listened, nodded, and said he’d check my online tracker to see how much of the course I’d missed. Within a few minutes, he came back to say that given the course-marking problems and the fact that others had also taken wrong turns, I really would receive first place, in a time of 3:25 – as Jamison said with tongue in cheek, the new course record! Second and third finished together 11 minutes later, telling me how they’d taken a couple more wrong turns after I had found the course. Nobody seemed too annoyed by any of it; racing is racing. Later I saw that they had reached the checkpoint just four minutes after I left it, and left it sixteen minutes after I had. They had been closing the gap, but I had gone fast enough to save some of it!

If I never finish first again (and honestly, I probably won’t!), I’ll relish the experience of winning this one. And even if I had not gotten lucky, I would have enjoyed the race. Jamison and Lisa put on an excellent event that should only get better in the second year. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in trying an overnight winter race.

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