Saturday, February 1, 2014

Arrowhead 135 race report, 2014

Arrowhead doesn't start until a Monday, but the Arrowhead experience starts the Saturday before.  This is when racers head up to International Falls, when you get to see all your old friends and meet new ones, when you get to stuff yourself silly at the Chocolate Moose, and when the fear sets in.  The fear was particularly strong for me this year because the weather forecast kept deteriorating; by Sunday afternoon we knew it was going to be about -30 degrees F and very windy at the start.  I heard wind chill predictions of -50 to -60, and the first 15 miles or so of the course are pretty exposed.  What had I gotten myself into?

At 7am on Monday morning, the bikers are set off, and the runners' race starts 4 minutes later. Getting going is the best antidote to the fear because at least even if it's cold, you now know exactly what it's like.  And fortunately, it really wasn't that bad.  My layers were just right, and after we made a turn at 9 miles, the wind was largely a tailwind.  Everything was going well with the actual running too.  My legs felt strong and I wasn't coughing too often despite having some pretty bad bronchitis.

The first significant thing that happened to me at Arrowhead:  my watch froze.  This was roughly 5 minutes into the race.  What's more interminable than Arrowhead?  Arrowhead with no watch.  Up to 60 hours of having no idea how you're doing, fun!

Not to be outdone by the watch, my music quickly joined in with the technology problems.  The very first time I got my ipod out, my headphones snapped in half.  What's more interminable than Arrowhead without a watch?  Arrowhead without a watch or music.

I tried singing as entertainment, but all I managed was the sound of a dying seal (I could say that this was because of the bronchitis and trying to sing through an iced-up face mask, but in actuality these had nothing to do with the dying seal sound), so I moved onto talking to myself and looking out especially hard for the various geographical landmarks that I remembered from past races and training runs.  There's the Double Hill, the Swamps of Despair, the Tim Roe Curve, and finally, fortunately, the Conga Line Hill, which signifies that you're less than a mile from the first checkpoint, Gateway, at mile 36.

I got into Gateway feeling very good.  Everything had been going well physically, and I had made it to Gateway at almost the exact time I wanted to get there (within 5 minutes, despite not having a watch!).  Before the race I had made myself a little index card with a list of everything I should do at Gateway, in order of when I wanted to do each thing, so that I could do everything as quickly as possible and not forget anything essential.  Having the list was helpful and definitely something I would do again.

I headed out of Gateway feeling strong and excited for the night section.  I could tell I was moving quickly when I got to a road crossing, which I knew from a training run was 4.8 miles after Gateway, in what seemed like a very short time.  After a few hours the temperature began to drop quite a bit and the wind picked up.  Although I was still feeling good, the night was a bit scary at times.  It was cold enough (-32 or so) that stopping for any length of time wasn't an option.  My hands were staying relatively warm while they were inside my liner gloves, heavy mitts, and holding onto chemical hand warmer packets, but I knew I had to be careful not to take off the mitts for longer than a quick food grab.  I was also starting to throw up frequently and had to make sure to keep walking as much as possible while throwing up, to avoid getting irreversibly chilled.  On the plus side of the nausea, I wasn't able to eat much between miles 60 and 72, so I didn't have to stop to refill my food bag from my sled at all.

I ended up not seeing anyone else for the entire 36 miles to Mel George's--a very long way without company, a watch, or music.  The stars were beautiful, though!

It was even colder and still the middle of the night when I got near to Mel George's, the mile 72 checkpoint.  The last mile before the checkpoint goes right across a large lake.  More scariness here--my eyelashes had frozen so solidly shut that I couldn't get them open enough to see the markers showing you which way to go across the lake.  I tried to pull some of the ice off with my fingers, but that was getting my liner gloves wet so I had to stop trying that.  I ended up just tilting my head at some bizarre angles so that I could look out of the unfrozen bits of eyelash.  The joys of winter races...

When I got into Mel George's, I discovered to my surprise that it was only 3:50 a.m., far better than the 6:30 I was guessing it to be.  I was the second runner and first woman in, but I knew that didn't mean much since I planned to sleep off the nausea there and stay as long as it took to get my stomach back together.  Unfortunately I couldn't manage to get to sleep, and my stomach stubbornly refused to calm down.  I tried ondansetron (a chemo drug used to control nausea), toast, juice, grilled cheese, and plain water, but nothing would stay down.  I alternated between trying to sleep, throwing up, and trying to eat for about 6 hours.  Eventually I realized that it just wasn't happening and that I might as well get going.  I was a little wary of going into a 38-mile stretch on major calorie deprivation and dehydration, since I didn't want to end up in trouble and needing a snowmobile rescue, so I decided that I'd walk a few miles out of Mel George's, and if I didn't feel any better, I'd turn back.  I have to admit that I didn't feel any better when it came to the decision time and that I went on ahead anyway based on nothing more than a hunch that everything would work out.

Even a few days later, I still can't figure out why I was able to keep going "quickly" (in the Arrowhead sense of quickly, which is to say very very slowly in the normal world) on so little food and water, especially with having to pull a sled of gear behind me.  I was keeping down 10-20 calories occasionally, maybe once an hour, which was not nearly as much as I would have expected to need to be able to do any running.  And I was still doing some running right up until around mile 100.  Was just a few calories all my body really needed to run slowly?  Was it the thought of possibly being able to get a good time?  The constant nagging feeling that my friend Helen Scotch was about to catch and pass me??  I would love to know, as it will undoubtedly be useful in many other races.

That whole second day on the course was a mix of good and bad experiences.  The good ones included finally getting some company (Greg, from Portland, who provided plenty of good conversation for the several miles we were together), feeling strong leg-wise, and enjoying a comfortable 45 minute rest in my warm cozy sleeping bag at the mile 98 shelter.  There weren't many bad parts--strangely, I had no real low points during the entire race--but there was the constant stomach and chest pain, and I was bored out of my mind for hours on end in the mile 98 to 110 stretch (which I SWEAR must be longer than 12 miles!).

At mile 110 the tipi checkpoint was serving hot cocoa and my stomach was actually interested in it, so I took a few minutes to sit by the fire and hang out with Matt Long and Greg.  I filled up a water bottle with more hot cocoa and then set off with Greg about 15 minutes later.  From here there are a couple of miles uphill, one super exciting fast descent down Mt. Wakemup, and then the flat, loooooong 26 mile home stretch.  My legs were still feeling oddly good but I was nervous to run since I hadn't been eating--I was concerned that if I started running, I might just pass out and get hypothermic (or Helen would catch up, which was obviously a greater concern!).  So I decided to settle into a nice fast power walk.

About 10 miles from the end, I finally had a brain wave (the cold weather must have been inhibiting the production of them, or at least that's what I'll tell myself).  I put a chemical handwarmer into my mitten and threw my watch inside the mitten.  Five minutes later, I had a working watch.  I discovered it was 4 in the morning.  If I could do the last 10.5 miles in about 2:45, I could make it under 48 hours.  Time to pick up the pace...!

Things were tough here though.  Since it had been so long since I had eaten, my body wasn't producing much heat and I was getting extremely chilled.  I ended up putting on both my warmest down jacket and my down pants.  At some point around here I thought about how I was "running" this race by doing a mix of walking and stumble-jogging, how I was wearing a face mask full of frozen vomit, and how my pants were on backwards and were falling down, and I started wondering if road runners who think ultras are ridiculous maybe have a little bit of a point.

As I got closer and passed the turnoff for the old course's finish, I started to get more and more concerned about why it seemed to be taking far longer than it should have.  Just as I was considering whether I might be lost, I caught up to a very cold Jeremy Kershaw, who was also convinced we must be lost since we were heading away from what appeared to be the lights near the finish.  We talked it over for a while and he eventually called the race director, who confirmed we were in fact going the right way and that we had about 2 miles to the turnoff and then another 2.5 to the finish.  I was freezing cold and knew it was going to be very close on the 48-hour front.  I took off at a fast walk and then broke into a run for the first time in many miles.  At the turnoff I looked at my watch and saw I had 33 minutes if I wanted to get in under 48.  I decided to spare one of those minutes to take off the enormous down jacket and down pants and then got started running.  It was probably more of a lurch but felt like a sprint.  There was one tiny little steep downhill where my sled went in for the kill (it knows it can crash into my Achilles on those little downhills if they're steep enough) but missed, so that gave me a nice morale boost to speed up.  I really didn't think I was going to make it but somehow pulled into the finish line at 7:03 for a 47:59.

And that was Arrowhead finish #2.  Thank you to all the racers, race founders Pierre and Cheryl Ostor, race directors Ken and Jackie Krueger, and the volunteers for making the race what it is, which is the best event of the year.  Congratulations to all the racers and especially to my husband Divesh and to Helen for both having a fantastic first Arrowhead.  They clearly have a faster learning curve than I do!

I'm not sure I'd run the race again, since it's unlikely that it would go better than it just did. But as Carles and I were discussing the day after the race, there's still a bike race and a ski race that we've never done...

Things that worked well for me:
-Having food divided into bags of what I wanted to eat every half hour
-Hoka Bondi Bs with a windproof cover glued onto the top (thanks, Lynn Saari)
-Stopping to bivy as soon as the sun went down on the second night, instead of doing a few hours of slow sleepwalking and then having to stop to bivy anyway.
-Not using poles.  Although they would have allowed me to walk faster, I find them incredibly annoying for this race because they're constantly in the way when you want to eat/drink/etc.
-Keeping my sled light.  It ended up right around 19 pounds after a few last-minute additions and subtractions.  Unfortunately even a light sled was only slightly better than proportionate to body weight compared to most of the guys in the race, but it was a start.

Things I should have done differently:
-Bought some tape and tried to fix my headphones at Gateway.  I think I could have gone a good bit faster on the second night with some music.
-Saved some more weight with less food.  Even if I had been eating well, I don't think I could have eaten all the food I brought.  And even if I had eaten it all, it wouldn't have been the end of the world to have had to ration a little near the end.
-Put my down trousers on a little earlier when I started getting seriously chilled towards the end.  I think I got too complacent because it was the home stretch and I didn't consider how cold I could get in two or three hours when I wasn't eating.


  1. You are one hell of a crazy lady, a million kudos to you. x

  2. My favorite part: "At some point around here I thought about how I was "running" this race by doing a mix of walking and stumble-jogging, how I was wearing a face mask full of frozen vomit, and how my pants were on backwards and were falling down, and I started wondering if road runners who think ultras are ridiculous maybe have a little bit of a point."

    Way to go on squeaking in under 48 hrs!! That is a long time to be out there. What an experience! I think skiing it would be fun, but how does one train for it living in Georgia?

    Congrats on the new course record! How many course records do you hold now? I noticed you're atop the Marquette Trail 50 list too.

    1. Yeah the Georgia thing could be a problem. Maybe rollerblading??

      I think it's just arrowhead, Marquette, and this small race called the Winona lake 30 mile in Indiana. I can't see that list getting too much longer:)

  3. Thanks for sharing part of your experience with me, Alicia! Congrats on a fantastic race.

  4. Wow, you are really impressive. I take back all the things I said about you. Well, maybe not all. Maybe not any! But I'll add that I had no idea you such a bread-apart. I'm not much of a fanboy, so I don't read about elite runners much. Every once-in-a-while, something extraordinary happens and I force myself to read about it. We all bleed the same, elite or not, but that makes what you did more amazing, really. And inspiring.
    I enjoyed reading a out your adventure.
    Hopefully I can annoy you again on a future run.

    1. Haha! Jeff, you can annoy me anytime if you keep picking routes as nice as the one we did.

  5. Alicia - thanks for sharing your race with us. What a fantastic effort!! And I would add that even some of us "ultrarunners" think winter ultras are a little ridiculous.

    I wonder if the "forced rest" of illness was a benefit this year? Or maybe you are fully recovered from the anemia and all that low iron training paid off?

    Congratulations on smashing the course record and a sub-48 hour finish in pretty brutal conditions.

    1. I think the forced rest could have been part of it, but also all that walking I was doing when I couldn't run must have been a big help. I think I got a lot faster at walking plus probably had more walking endurance.

  6. You are so absolutely incredible, it is beyond all kinds of regular incredible. I don't know how you managed to make it without calories, and my only thing is that you're so tiny, 20 calories is all you need:) Frozen vomit could have been providing you some of them as a vapor. Alicia, this is bazzarly inviting, struggles do draw attention of some weird folks. Congratulations. And you got to meet my old friend Greg Pressler.

    1. Thanks Olga! Wow, small world. And about the food, I keep thinking about that study that came out a couple of years ago where runners who even just swished a carbohydrate drink around in their mouth and then spit it out did better than runners who only swished water in their mouth. Maybe I was doing the equivalent by trying to eat even if it didn't stay down long.

    2. I heard of that study. One of those "anything is better than nothing, the rest is in your head". You saw the story of a few men escaping from Soviet Siberian camp in the winter across winter forests, mountains and Gobi? It's about strong heart and committed head. You got those.

  7. You're insane, though I say that affectionately. :) This was fascinating to read, and you are truly an incredible athlete. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Fantastic! I'm also baffled how you got through it so well on so little calories. I have puked my way through some summer ultras before, but all of my worst, scariest bonks have happened during winter events. But everything else sounds like it worked fairly well. Thanks for posting — always great to learn insights.