Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Arrowhead 135 and Rovanimi 150 Cycle Race Preparation .. not for the faint hearted!

Well here we go again, jetting off to go and do a ridicules bike race. This time we were heading to a place in Minnesota called International Falls and its only claim to fame is that it’s the coldest place in America oh and it’s where Hot Tub Time machine was shot!

The Arrowhead 135 recognized in the book "The World's Toughest Endurance Challenges" by Richard Hoad and Paul Moore as one of the 50 toughest races in the world. It is a human powered Ultra Marathon taking place in the coldest part of winter in the coldest city in the lower 48 states. Our average finish rate is 50%, the finish rate for new racers is much lower.

135 miles Deep Winter across Northern Minnesota on rugged, scenic Arrowhead State Snowmobile Trail from Frostbite I-Falls to Tower, MN Fortune Bay Casino. Pick mode of transport at start: bicycle, ski or foot. Historically coldest race anyplace even the Arctic, check average temps, virtually every year luck has us -30 to -40C/F, we have frostbite to prove it. Or it snows and is a sloppy mess! Arrowhead 135 is an organization of local folks dedicated to the promotion of human powered ultra-endurance events across beautiful Arrowhead Region of Northern Minnesota. Our Race Mission is fostering national and international amateur endurance sports such as winter-biking, skiing and trail running.

I’ve now been snow bike racing for 3 years I have committed a lot and time and money into racing fatbikes in various locations around the world. Preparing to be physically and mentally fit for a race in January can be very hard work, especially with the endless wet and muddy conditions and long dark nights. This year I have been praying for a hard cold winter and I have ended up with the opposite. My body could be in for a bit of a shock with a second polar vortex due to hit North America next week with potential temperatures of -55oC.  Due to the very wet and muddy conditions in the UK I have mainly been training on some of the classic road routes within the Yorkshire Dales as well as strength training and structured training on the Turbo trainer. I had planned to do some long mountain bike rides up at Glentress over the Christmas period but I came down with a mystery viral infection which hampered those plans. This has not done much for my confidence going in the race but I’ve had to put this behind me and concentrate on the positive aspects of my training to date.     

Arrowhead 135 and Rovanimi 150 Race
Our journey up to International Falls went without a hitch and for once we arrived at the northerly outpost with a full complement of luggage and on time. We had taken the decision to stay in the Voyager Motel which was very popular with the other competitors because it was located right at the beginning of the Arrowhead trail and the race start.
We now had three days to build up our bikes and test our gear in the current conditions. It was looking like it was going to be cold which is good for the bikes because it makes the snow much firmer to ride on. Friday morning I got up and built up my beautiful Salsa Carbon Beargrease and had a quick check over it to make sure all was ok. After a hearty or heart attack breakfast at the fabulous CafĂ© Landing we decided to go for a little ride along the trail. 

The science of snow is very complex and the conditions can change vastly whether you are skiing or trying to ride on the stuff. Having the time to fiddle with tyre pressures was very important. I had taken the decision to run Surley Rolling Darryl’s rims with 45 North Dillingertyres which are both grippy and relatively light.

The temperature that day was around -20oC which once you got moving was very comfortable. We rode about 10 miles down the trail to the first shelter and it was so firm. I couldn’t believe it we kept stopping and adding more and more air in our tyres. I think we got up to around 18psi which is unheard of for snow riding.

Once back at the motel we ordered more food and chilled out watching cheesy American TV. I was feeling fairly confidant with how my bike felt and how the trail was riding. With snow riding you have to be very prepared to either have a very long push and to be covering ground at a very steady pace. I always set in my own mind if I’m riding averaging 5mph that’s a good thing because the alternative could be walking pushing a very heavy bike at 2mph. My motto is “Be patient” which is very hard for me as I am not known for my patience! 

Over the next couple of days the Motel began to fill up with other competitors and the atmosphere was just amazing. There was such a vast wealth of experience from elite standard ultramarathon runners to ex SAS soldiers. I did feel slightly in awe of these people but everyone was very friendly and helpful. We all ended up as one big family for the weekend and went out for our meals together. The social side was fantastic but there was a slight undercurrent of fear spreading through the group. Everyone’s televisions were blaring out news of a severe weather warning that was to hit North America. The jet streams were all over the place and a second polar vortex was to hit with predicted temperatures of -50oC.  

Everyone was worried which didn’t do a great deal for my nerves. I think even the race organisers had their concerns too. The race brief was very blunt and to the point as was the mandatory gear check. I got a really hard time but you don’t argue as you could be pulled from the race before you’ve even started and it’s for your own safety. Stats were projected up showing the percentages of finishers over the 9 year history of the race. The rate of attrition is so high for Arrowhead but on paper it looks so doable. What is it about the arrowhead trail that makes it so hard?

It was soon Monday morning and I was ready to just get on with things my nerves were jangling but I knew once I’d started riding I would calm down. It was dark and cold when we lined up at the start. My entire face was masked up and I had goggles on which was very claustrophobic. At these temperatures you can’t have your skin exposed for any length of time. Then all too quickly the air horn sounded to start the race. I was determined not to get involved with the early race testosterone charge as it was a long race, but somehow I did get caught up and I was soon riding way harder than I intended too. I was very panicky inside my mask and goggles it was awful and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. To make matters worse I soon began to develop ice inside my goggles that was slowly taking over my vision. I really didn’t know what to do I couldn’t breathe or see. I was thinking my race could be over inside the first 5 miles! Other riders started to overtake me because I was forced to slow down and I noticed most of them had removed their goggles, as I was inexperienced with dealing with such low temperatures I didn’t know if this was the done thing but I was left with very little choice so off with the goggles it was! Hooray I could see again but my eyes kept freezing shut but itwas better than frozen goggles. I gradually settled down and it was so beautiful out there massive blue sky and glistening snow I was so lucky to be having this experience. I paused at the first shelter to have a quick drink and a little to eat. I was planning to do this on the move but it’s impossible when you are wearing a mask. Andy was having a slight issue with his right foot so I rode on whilst he adjusted his footwear.

It was so cold so I have to ride at a tempo that was slightly quicker than I had originally planned just to keep warm. Arrowhead 135 tail runs 135 miles from International Falls to Fortune Bay and there are 3 checkpoints along the route. 2 of these checkpoints were inside with hot food and tumble driers available. These checkpoints can be both friend and foe because once inside it takes a lot to leave. I was so happy to reach Gateway and was looking forward to removing my iced up face mask and to eat some hot soup. I quickly stripped down and handed over my clothes to be dried. Much to my surprise my primoloft jacked was all frozen. Andy arrived shortly after me and I was so pleased to see him and his huge icicle he had developed hanging off his face mask which had us all in stiches. It soon became apparent other riders had been forced to quit due to frostbite, one of them being the previous year’s race winner who developed it within the first 10 miles of the race.

Once fed and our clothes dried we decide to leave together which was great for actually getting out of the door and braving the cold. We rode along admiring how beautiful it was and it was great to be with Andy again. A few miles further along I could gradually feel the cold creeping in and I needed to ride a little harder. It was awful feeling riding off and leaving Andy but it was the right thing to do as we needed to ride at different paces to keep our temperatures right.

I plugged on at my own tempo looking forward to the next checkpoint that was the luxury cabin on the shores of Elephant Lake at Melgeorges. I was totally on my own and you have to be prepared for solitude during these races even with 165 other competitors you soon get well spread out. I am fine with being on my own, I actually really like it but I was nervous of the extreme cold. Whilst I was moving I was just about comfortable but as soon as I stopped it hit me. Even to eat and drink I needed to be super organised. I absolutely feared even a puncture because my hands were so numb and claw like even on the move. I kept moving this worry to the back of my mind and decided that momentum was my friend. I was constantly watching my garmin and doing calculations in my head so I could work out my eta at Melgeorges.

I don’t know how much time passed but I eventually reached the edge of Elephant Lake I was overjoyed. I knew I just had to cross the lake then I would soon be sat by a roaring fire. By now it was dark and the temperature had plummeted even further. At least riding across a frozen lake would be flat and in my mind I thought it would be just fine. How wrong I was, I dropped out of the comfort and shelter of the trees and onto the lake. The first thing that hit me was the soft snow as my bike squirmed and wriggled, then the wind that just bit into the side of my face even through a mask. Shit this was going to be awful. I rode on the best I could but it was like riding with your brakes on and the lights of civilisation did not appear to be getting any closer. Without sounding over dramatic I had to keep moving otherwise I would have been in serious trouble, I don’t know how long it took me and I pushed my bike on foot for the last section I had at last reached the cabin.

The welcome inside the cabin was overwhelming and the ladies that devote their time to making sure the races are well cared for are phenomenal I can’t ever thank you enough. I had to dig deep not to burst into tears. I was soon sat down by the fire and offered soup and grilled cheese sandwiches but I had a slight problem. My face mask had frozen its self to my neck warmer. I was stuck and couldn’t eat with it still in place so frustrating. Eventually it defrosted slightly and I painfully managed to drag it over my head. Freedom!

It was now around 9pm and I had learned that the temperatures on the lake were -55oC no wonder it was painful. I was sat gently defrosting and worrying about Andy. Pre race I had decided I wasn’t going to stop and sleep but now with these temperatures I was considering having a knap in the comfort of the cabin as sleeping out in a bivvy

wasn’t  something I really wanted to consider at -55oC! Then Andy arrived I was so happy to see him, but the lake crossing had taken it out on him too. The ladies were very quick to realisehe had suffered frost nip on his right ear and quickly checked it out. Fortunately it was just nip and it would be fine providing he kept it covered. After a quick catch up and food we decided to have a sleep and I was considering hitting the trail at around 2am. This would give me a good 5 hours rest wow! We both laid down upstairs with many of the other racers. It’s not a time be prudish as you snuggle up with people you hardy know in various states of undress. You do what you have to do. The cabin was very noisy and too hot but I just closed my eyes and tried to relax a little. After a little time Andy sat up and said my foot feels weird. He removed his sock to reveal the horror that was 5 black toes on his left foot. I felt like I had been hit by a steam train and his face went ashen.

He has suffered frost bite; this is something that happens to other people! Amongst the ladies in the cabin was a nurse from Minnesota and has seen many cases of frostbite and without a fuss or panic got on with treating him straight away. She dug out a casserole dish and began to very gently give him warm foot baths to try and restore blood flow. Her actions without a doubt have help prevent Andy losing a large portion of his foot. I feel a bit sorry for the next people who use that casserole dish totally oblivious to what it’s previously been used for!

I was lost and devastated for Andy. He had trained so hard for this event and I have absolutely no doubt he would have finished but being pulled out on medical grounds was just unfair. I just didn’t know what to do I too was suffering with my feet and my right foot had swollen up but the blood flow was fine. Gradually more and more racers were filling the cabin and this included the lady who was in 3rd place behind me. I can’t deny this fired me up and she said she was going to have a few hours’ sleep and get back out there at 5am so a group of 4 of us decided to go out together at 5am. I was in the cabin for almost 9 hours and that wasn’t really in my race strategy but given the circumstances it was the right thing to do.

After some more sleep and food I started to get my kit together in preparation of carrying on. I really can’t say how I felt part of me didn’t want to quit, part of me wanted to quit and most of me didn’t want to leave Andy. It was awful, frightening and just confusing. I went to put on my boots and I just could not get my right foot into my boot. Hooray I have got a genuine excuse not to go outside but Andy came up with a cunning plan. Take my boots I don’t need them, so that’s what I did. I rode off in a pair of size 12 boots when I only a 4!

Riding away leaving Andy and the warmth of the cabin was one of the toughest decisions I have ever had to make but once I was back out there I just discovered how strong I could be. The second half of the course is much tougher and hiller and it was colder. I soon discovered that I just wasn’t going to be warm no matter how hard I rode. I one point I was making myself do 10 second sprints to try and increase blood flow. My head and face were incased in ice which was starting to hurt my face. I soon rode away from the group that had left Melgeorge with me. I did feel very rude doing this but I needed to maintain my pace. I had no doubt in my mind if I could just get to Ski Pulk I would be able to finish.

Head down and making me pause to eat and drink every 5 miles I made the lonely 40 mile journey to Ski Pulk. I don’t really know how long it took and there were times I was terrified because my hands wouldn’t work and I was struggling to eat and drink and as soon as I stopped the situation became worst very quickly. I was hoping to be lucky enough to see some wildlife as there was plenty of very fresh wolf tracks but it was not to be.

Suddenly out of the forest I could hear voices and a cow bell. I was at the last checkpoint and was given the biggest hug from Mike I’ve ever had. I was fighting back tears once again. I was so well looked after. I was bundled into a tent and handed a much needed hot chocolate. I took the decision to try and eat and drink as much as I could stomach whilst in the shelter of the tent. I was still cold so I changed my hats and face mask and also put on my huge down jacket I had with me in case of an emergency.

I was determined to finish in daylight as I couldn’t face the cold of the night for second time. This was the driving factor that got me to the end. My legs felt amazing but my shoulders were done for. I could hardly hold myself up right on the bike. I think I finished the last section with my chin on the stem.

The very last section was very confusing and my brain wasn’t functioning as it should have done. I was so concerned about getting lost at this late stage but eventually I saw the signs for Fortune Bay. Then I saw the finish banner ahead I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes. I had done it. Somehow I had managed to finish Arrowhead 135. This time I did burst into tears then both my eyes froze shut!

The journey was a mixture of emotions and I am still sad Andy wasn’t there with me. After Arrowhead he endured a hellish week in hospital and is still on his long road to recovery. I am blown away by his determination and he is already planning a comeback in 2015. I still haven’t got my head round that I am the first European lady to have ever finished Arrowhead 135 and I managed to hold on to 2nd place.

I am more than happy to share my kit list and clothing list but I just want to include the following caveat. Riding in these conditions is very dangerous and I am learning and modifying my set up all the time. Just because the following works for me it might not necessary work for you. Please come and visit me at All Terrain Cycles should you prefer to talk bike packing/ adventure racing in person. I am more than happy to help and we have a good range of adventure bikes in stock.

Bike:                            Salsa Carbon Beargease

Luggage:                     Relelate Designs – Alaska     

Sleeping bag:               Mountain Equipment Everest

Bivvy bag:                   AlpKit

Sleeping Mat:              ThermarestNeoAir

Stove:                          MSR XGK

Pots:                            Alpkit titanium

Clothes:                       Boots 45 North
                                    Liner sock
                                    Lorpen expedition socks
                                    Smartwool socks
                                    EnduraEquipeWindstopper tights 
                                    Mountain Equipment fleece trousers
                                    Craft Vest
                                    M&S Sports Bra
                                    Endura Baa Baa base layer
                                    Gore Primoloft Gilet  
                                    Primaloft Jacket
                                    Endura Stealth jacket

                                    Various Gloves          
                                    DogWoodPogies (bar mits) Alaska
                                    Endura Baa Baa beanie
                                    Cold Avenger Face mask  
                                    Oakley Goggles and glasses

Extra Clothes:             Various Gloves
                                    Face mask
                                    Rab Expedition down Jacket

Lights:                         USE Exposure Joystick
                                    USE Exposure Flare

GPS:                            Garmin Edge 800 with USE Exposure battery back up

Hydration:                   CamelbakSpark 

                                    Hydro Heater Alaska


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