A couple of weeks have passed since the Arrowhead 135 ultra race in Minnesota ended. Enough time for me to grab some sleep and wear out the excuse that my feet were sore so here’s my race report.
The Arrowhead 135 ultra race has been rated as one of the toughest races on earth by National Geographic. Having spoken to a few competitors at the race briefing the night before, I discovered that the calibre of runners was phenomenally high with several touting that they had completed most of the iconic ultra races in the US including Badwater and Leadville amongst others. Competitors have the choice of discipline: bike, ski or run. I can’t ski, am mildly inefficient on two wheels on a good surface let alone whilst floundering through the snow, so yet again I’m slogging it out on foot.
0 hours: slightly terrified. There were a lot of scarily-efficient looking runners wearing lycra, although in those temperatures that was never going to be something to brag about. In terms of average seasonal temperatures it wasn’t massively cold and I could foresee that being a problem. At the race briefing they talked of temperatures of mid –teens Fahrenheit (minus 9C) and all my gear was designed for far colder than that (during the Yukon Arctic Ultra in 2011 the temperatures dropped to minus 42C). In the flap to get ready I think I was actually slightly late across the start line.
I start the race with Steve Ansell, a Californian, who informed me that over the course of the past six years he has completed 20, 100 milers. To put this into perspective, I had completed one (the Yukon Arctic Ultra) and failed at one (the West Highland Way race, dropping out injured at 70 miles). I’ve done a couple of marathons and a dunter of a mixed bike, run and kayak up in the Outer Hebrides but I’m not a runner. I can plod with the best of them but amongst such vaunted competitors I felt a bit out of my depth. I end up running well over half the race with Steve, meeting up at various points over the 135 miles.
1 hour: the trail was soft underfoot after the snowfall overnight. Light snow falls for about half an hour giving me a taste of what is to come for large parts of the race. I become ‘that guy’ by cutting up another racer with my pulk to avoid being mown down by a passing snow mobile. Other racer justifiably annoyed so I put a boost on to avoid the road rage.
2 hours 24 mins: made the turn to head pretty much due east onto the Arrowhead Trail at 9 miles. Felt good after giving the legs a bit of a stretch.
5 hours: decided to alleviate the monotony of the race by running for 30 seconds every seven and a half minutes. Don’t judge. Not until you’ve done one of these things.
6 hours: caught a local skier, Ken Kreuger, from International Falls. I mentally high-fived myself delighted to be anywhere near any of the skiers at this point in the race so knew I was moving well. Ken complained that the snow was sticky and rubbish.
6 hours 5 mins: Ken nowhere to be seen as he hit decent snow. I didn’t see him again (he eventually finished in 49 ish hours).
7 hours: bored by the 30 seconds of running every seven and a half minutes so attempt to alleviate the utter brain-addling boredom by trudging step by step for an hour.
8 hours 30 mins: caught up with Roberto Aldovini from Milan and spent the next hour or so chatting with him. Roberto said that he took part in the Arrowhead in 2010 but had to pull out in freezing conditions after the sole of his trainer came off. His luck with footwear seemed to be continuing as the speed laces on his Salomons had snapped and were trailing behind him.
10 hours: Felt absolutely shattered. Started to experience pain from my lower left leg.
10 hours 27 mins: arrived at Checkpoint 1 (Gateway General Store) where I intended to take 15 minutes to resupply my Camelbak and thermos flasks. It was warm and there was food (I had some chicken noodle soup, smash down two Pepsis, a slice of pizza and a packet of chewy Jolly Ranchers) so I stayed just over an hour. I was ok with this as I was feeling pretty wrecked prior to going into the checkpoint.
11 hours 31 mins: exited from the warmth and I noticed that the temperatures had dropped fairly significantly. By the time I had left the checkpoint I was experiencing a very cold left index finger so I stopped to put on my Montane Resolute mitts. These had been a life-saver during the Yukon Arctic Ultra in 2011 where I had the same issue. Felt a little smug that I had the experience to recognise when the cold was affecting me and that I took early preventative action.
11 hours 45 mins: became aware that there was a snow mobile inching up the slope behind me with its full beam on which was really messing up my night vision. When I checked behind me I noticed that there was a camera man on the back of the snow mobile filming a runner dragging his pulk up the hill. The stubborn Scotsman in me kicked in, I was sure as hell not going to be the guy who this runner blasted past in full techni-colour so I leant into my harness, used my poles effectively and surged up the hill. The guy didn’t pass me and the snow mobile turned and headed back to the checkpoint. I like to think it was because I fought him off but in reality they probably had the shot they wanted anyway.
It turns out that the runner was Reza Baluchi who is a bit of a running superstar. By all accounts he had moved to Badwater six months ago so that he could acclimatise and train in an effort to break the record for the 135 mile Badwater ultra (which currently stands at a mind-boggling 22 hours 51 minutes and 29 seconds). He has also set the record for running from LA to New York and again in 2007 he decided to run the perimeter of the United States. He ran over 11,720 miles in 202 consecutive days. As an indication of the horrendous attritional rate of the Arrowhead 135, Reza failed to finish the race, pulling out at Checkpoint 2.
21 hours 58 mins: after crossing Elephant Lake (despite hallucinating heavily through the night I can’t recall any elephants but I did see a couple of giant lizards and an old woman with a young child on her shoulders – that was one I had to properly check with my head torch as I thought it was a bit inappropriate for a small child to be out in those temperatures) I made it to Checkpoint 2 MelGeorge’s Cabin (72 miles).
My feet were in a state. I had blisters beneath both big toes creating a fair bit of pressure and pain. In addition to this I had redness and a lump on my left shin brought about by inflammation of the anterior tibialis. Thankfully Sabine Couteau, a nurse from Grenoble, France was on hand to sort me out. Using a scalpel, she was able to cut down the back of my toe nails to relieve the fluid which was causing the pain. She then taped up my toes using duct tape (it was the only tape that would stick to my horrible sweaty feet!) and then strapped my shin as best she could.
27 hours 39 mins: It was snowing when I left the checkpoint. This irrationally annoyed me because the flakes kept hitting my eye lashes and ensured that I walked the next few miles with my head down.
28 -39 hours: the profile and condition of the trail changed dramatically at this point. What had been relatively flat, well-groomed trails gave way to rolling hills and softer snow. This created several issues for me. Firstly, it turned out that due to the swelling in my left foot I experience fairly significant pain when I was going downhill and secondly, I had set my pulk up with flexible poles which meant that the pulk could overtake me down the slope resulting in me crazily pirouetting as the weight of the pulk scythed down the slope threatening to smash into my ankles. There was nothing else for it: sledging! This is where the flexible pole system came into its own as I was able to sit on my pulk without taking my harness off. This was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the race and certainly beat walking!
Soon after leaving Checkpoint 2 Steve Ansell caught up with me which was a welcome relief as the thought of trudging 40 miles to the next checkpoint was sounding pretty grim. I’m fairly hazy about this period of the race due to tiredness and monotony. For me the race had boiled down to one foot in front of the other, trees left, trees right and trail in front and behind. There was no dramatic scenery to look at to take your mind off the discomfort we all were undoubtedly experiencing. The section when I crossed Elephant Lake before Checkpoint 2 was the most open the route had been the entire race and I had moved well as I was able to concentrate on other things and let my pace take care of itself.
As darkness fell I could feel the exhaustion creeping up on me. I would find myself walking along and then wake up as my knees buckled or I would stop to rest on my poles again to wake up as I teetered backwards. We decided that this was inefficient and had a quick “shiver bivvy” (according to Steve it’s basically a quick snooze on top of the pulk to be woken by your body’s shivering) which temporarily alleviated our mental fatigue. Had some cracking hallucinations during this period.
40 hours: Myself and Steve decided to stop at one of the trail shelters (picture a big log-cabin bus shelter and you get the idea). I pulled on my Alpkit Filo down jacket (which is genuinely immense) as I knew that I’d start to get debilitatingly cold whilst I attempted to sort my feet. Once that was done I contemplated lying on the bench under my jacket but then decided that was possibly one of the worst ideas I had ever had when I had a sleeping bag in my pulk not more than 20 metres away. Heading back to my pulk I spread out my roll mat and got into my sleeping bag. For the second year in a row I was using Alpkit’s Hunka XL bivvy bag. These bags are phenomenal in the cold and the hour I managed to grab was blissful but too soon I had to be up and moving again.
47 hours 58 mins: Checkpoint 3. It’s a tepee in the middle of the woods. It could also be described as the best thing I’ve ever seen. A chance to sit down and rest my feet and fill my Camelbak. At the time I thought I had a rapid transition through the checkpoint but looking at the times on the race website as I write this it seems I was in there for almost 40 minutes.
49 (ish) hours: reached Wakemup Mountain. The race directors and the guys at the checkpoint had really played this one up so I was expecting a behemoth to still my heart. It was steep, but realistically it was maybe 200 metres high and possibly 800 metres from bottom to top. I was slightly disappointed especially as I was now moving significantly more efficiently up hill due to the issues with my left ankle.
50 hours: I had calculated at the checkpoint that I had approximately 12 hours to cover the 25 miles to the finish line which on a normal day, even at ultra-pace, I’d be delighted about my odds of finishing. I struggled to work out that I had to average 2.1 mph and during the remaining hours I continually updated that to the point where, due to tiredness, I couldn’t even remember why I was trying to work it out. These are the grim miles when each runner has to go within themselves to get to the finish line. My motivation for finishing was down to personal pride, the fact that by using the SPOT Tracker it’s a very public failing if I DNF (did not finish) and the undoubted abuse I’d get if I pulled out. These are also demoralising miles as I somehow managed to convince myself that I was moving better than I actually was only to have my hopes dashed by one of the snow mobile safety guys who told me I was five miles furrther back than I thought. Boke!
The last ten (ish) miles seem to have been up on a forested plateau doing what felt like three sides of a square before heading off on another square that had a slightly different orientation. Up until this point the trail had regularly been marked by orange route markers every 500 metres – one kilometre but these seemed (at least in my knackered wee head) to disappear as I found myself on a dead-straight trail. The paranoia that I had taken a wrong turning got so bad that I think I ended up wondering whether I was the only person still out on the trail only for one of the snow mobile guides to appear and tell me that I was only five miles from the finish.
He also said to me: “Do you remember what you said to me last night at the shelter?” Alarm bells start ringing that I’ve abused him somehow, “You said that you didn’t travel half way round the world not to finish this f@cking race”!
58 hours 30 (ish) mins: with a couple of miles to go I was caught by an Italian runner and I didn’t particularly care. My normally raging competitiveness was well and truly back in its box. For me the Arrowhead had become less of a race against the other competitors and more a competition between myself and the trail. It was trying to win by beating the crap out of my body and I was slowly grinding the distance down against the clock.
59 hours 7 mins: I crossed the finish line with mixed feelings. I had a little bit of a rage on with myself as I had been dawdling the last mile as I thought the finish line was closer than it actually was. There was no fan-fare. I’m delighted to have finished and glad I had managed to grind out the last 65 miles and as I was the the only UK competitor this year does that mean that I won my category as top UK finisher? No? Clutching at straws?