We may well be dwelling a little longer than we should on last week’s Arrowhead 135, but even a week later we’re still trying to get our head around why on earth people would want to bike (or hike or ski) 135 miles across northern Minnesota in last week’s temperatures, when death was a reasonably smart play for anyone in a betting mood.
The closest we’ve come is the blog of Christopher Tassava, 40, of Northfield, Minn., who has written two posts on his blog (the latest today) describing his effort from International Falls to Fortune Bay.
It started off fine, from the way he describes it, right up to the first checkpoint 35 miles in, when people had already had enough.
The General Store must be crowded in the best of times, but it was almost claustrophobic with dozens of racers packed inside. I saw one rider bent over a trash can, throwing up. Another was being scrutinized by an EMT for frostbite on his face. Several racers were stripping off their kits and changing into street clothes, including a top-level racer I’d admired for a while. I bought some Gatorade and a Coke and found a quiet spot to sit, in a backroom next to shelves holding fan belts, fishing tackle, shotgun shells, and cans of pizza sauce.
He rode for 10 hours — 10 hours! — before he decided it would be OK to get off and walk the bike up hills. He couldn’t eat much because the icicles from his beard had grown too big.
Dreams of grilled cheese at another checkpoint — Melgeorge’s resort on Elephant Lake — kept him going. There he dried his clothes, ate some food, and set out to ride into the black with temperatures dropping to -40.
What do you do when you’re on this kind of trip? He composed playlists in his heads of song titles with numbers in them. As it got colder, he couldn’t tell if his ice beard had grown bigger, or his nose had swollen from frostbite.
And occasionally, he’d find another racer…
What helped the most through these hours and hours of darkness and motion was coming up on another racer, perhaps around midnight. He was walking when I caught him, and immediately confessed to being tired, as if he were disappointing me.
I complained that I didn’t want to eat any of my food, but offered some to him. He turned me down and offered me some of his food. I turned him down. We walked the uphills next to each other, saddled up to ride the downhills, and then rode the flats in single file. Sometimes I moved ahead and got away. Sometimes he’d move ahead and get away.
We didn’t talk much, but I did share that I was a rookie, and he told me that he’d finished all seven Arrowheads that he had entered, even the “other year it was cold.” He couldn’t remember which year that was, but he was sure it hadn’t been this cold. Something about the idea that he’d never been defeated by the race appealed to me, and made me think, in my foggy state, that I should stay near his lights.
As morning dawned, he reached another checkpoint, where a volunteer who had dropped out of the race took his picture to show him that his nose was OK.
That’s when he pulled out his phone and noticed messages from people.
My Facebook icon showed nearly 200 updates. Bizarre! What were they about? I tapped into FB and was shocked to find that dozens of my friends had been following my race all day and all night.
Many of them knew more about my race than I did, and all of them seemed to be rooting for me. For probably the first time in a day, I started sweating, but with excitement and even a tinge of nervousness. So many people! Why were they so into how I was doing in this crazy race? And what the hell was this?
The Minneapolis newspaper had my picture on the front of the sports section? I showed a FB photo of that page to the volunteer, who had just brought me a cup of chicken soup. He laughed. “Now you have to finish!” I was speechless. I just sat there on my camp chair too close to the heater, sipped my soup, and read messages, feeling better and better with each one.
That was enough, apparently, to get him through the last 26 miles.
The pain hit and he had to alternate walking and biking, thinking more about the Facebook messages.
Just over the road, I think, was a sign that informed me I was entering the Bois Forte reservation. For a second, I tried to figure out what “Bois Forte” meant, but gave up as I pedaled past.
The trail meandered now, jumping across a powerline cut, tracing the base of a hill, running between two ragged orange snow fences, and even paralleling the back of a big concrete building, but I was excited, powering – or seeming to power – through the turns and up and down the little rises. I kept my head up and forward, looking for the finish line. It had be here somewhere.
And then it was, he said.
“I’m okay,” I said, rolling onto my stomach and pushing myself up on to my knees, then standing up. “What time is it? What’s my finishing time?” The bearded guy tallied it. “29 hours, 9 minutes. Great job! When you’re ready, let’s get a picture of you and your bike!”
I stood still for a minute more, then went over to stand behind the Beast under the finish line banner while three different people shot photos (which I still haven’t tracked down). I grinned. I was beyond elated, just a couple notches short of the high of getting married or holding my daughters for the first times.
Which more than explain why on earth anyone would try this.
Related: Photos: The brutal Arrowhead 135 Ultra (MPR News)