Part 2: Photo credit: Burgess Eberhardt
“Ask not for victory. Ask only for the courage to continue once you feel like quitting.” Unknown
Most us have a choice. Do we follow the easy path? Or do we take the road less traveled and go the more difficult route? The warriors that sign up for this race intentionally under most circumstances choose the more difficult path. It’s what drives us. It may not be normal, but that’s why when we all get together each winter we have such a close bond.
Upon leaving the 1st check point at mile 36 the mercury was in a downward spiral. We had reports of -30 degrees overnight. I was thankful I decided to don my snow pants and nano puff. It wasn’t long and I was wearing the big mitts too. The wind cut right through my thinner gloves yet again. My hands literally stung from the cold. This section is when the trail starts to get a little more difficult and hilly. From experience I also know this section takes me just under 12 hours to complete. I absolutely Love night running. I put my head down and start hunting headlamps. At about 13 miles out from the MelGorge check point, snowmobile volunteers, in the past have made a fire on cold years. As I click the miles off I look forward to the warmth of the fire. The hope of the toasty fire is enough to keep my mind occupied for a long time. All night I make progress up through the field getting to visit with other runners and the occasional skier.
Thirteen miles out I reach the final trail shelter before MelGorge. It’s completely dark and the fire ring looks like it hasn’t seen fire in years. I just laugh and shrug it off thinking what a luxury it was to have in the past. Now It seemed as though it was even colder. In anticipation of the lake crossing I stop and add my biggest down puffer over the top of my nano puff jacket. It helps keep me warm but it’s all I’ve got left. Two of my three hoods are up over my head. All night I am virtually alone. The sky is magnificent. The moon shining so brilliantly you hardly need a head lamp. A few miles out from The Elephant Lake crossing I feel my eye lids are getting heavy. My head lamp is going dim which makes matters worse. Thinking it will help keep me awake I decide to stop and put new batteries in. I only have my hands exposed briefly, but touching the cold metal instantly freezes my finger tips. After I get them changed I have to ball up my fists inside my mitts to regain feeling to my hands. That was dangerous and more than a little dumb I think to myself. I should have just used my back up light and waited to change out batteries inside the next check point. Finally I make my way out on the wide open lake and trek the mile or so across to the MelGorge Resort. For hours now I had been daydreaming about hot soup, grilled cheese, and warm cocoa. Not to mention seeing all the friendly faces. MelGorge’s never disappoints. It’s one of my favorite places along the route. I love sitting there and listening to all the combined knowledge being dispersed. You’ve got the likes of Pam Reed(Ultra legend), Sue Lucas, (course record holder) Eric Johnson(multiple Iditarod finisher), and Marcus Berggren(course record holder) all milling about. Not to mention some of the best and most generous volunteers you ever find.(Rhendie and Fred especially) After getting fed like a king I head upstairs to find a place to lay down. I set my alarm for 3 hours. I start out on the floor at the foot of one of the single beds. Soon a guy on the bed almost steps on me as he’s getting up. I jump up into his spot on the bed. My knees ache, I toss and turn, but do manage to get a couple hours of sleep. Soon I hear my buddy Paul(This Years Tuscobia 160 winner) down below packing up and heading out. This rouses me even though I still have an hour until my alarm is to go off. I head down to get a cup of coffee and gather my gear drying by the fire. There are lots of really good runners dropping with no readily apparent reason other than they have just had enough. I know all too well Arrowhead has a way of doing that. At the same time Peter Ripmaster is getting his macerated feet worked on as he prepares to go back out and battle. Every inch of his feet have tape on them.
I head back out and decide to dress lighter hearing that it is supposed to warm up and snow. It’s still -15 on the thermometer outside the cabin, but I figure thats a lot warmer than the previous night. It’s a blue bird day. The sun is out and the snow is crisp. There is a loud crunch with each step. As I head up the road to the trail entry a snowmobile comes flying by. Scottie is on the back. I’m happy I won our bet, but at the same time sad that Scott’s race has ended. I know all to well the feeling of having to take that ride as well. It’s something you can’t take back and it tends to eat at you until you have a chance to get back and redeem yourself.
It’s a new day and it takes me a little while to get the body moving again. I know I spent a lot of time in the aid station and lots of racers probably left before me. My goal was now to catch as many of them as I could. This is by far the most difficult section coming up. If you have never done it it can be a major mind fuck. Thankfully after last year and having done this section 3 times I know to just add an extra hour to my ETA at the next checkpoint. The hills are unrelenting and it soon starts to snow. This helps motivate me as I can see fresh tracks in the snow. If the foot prints are shorter than mine I know I’m gaining on someone. Over and over I real in other runners. I’m hoping to catch Paul to be able to spend some time with him. Last year we probably spent more than 100 miles between our time at Arrowhead and Actif Epica. He left the aid station about a hour before me so it would not be an easy task to catch him. Just before dark I started seeing the tracks in the snow of a unique sled. I guess it’s Alex because the foot prints seem small. Alex and Paul have similar sleds. My stride is longer so I know I’m gaining on whoever it is. Sometime before dark I catch a glimpse of a very familiar reflective vest I know so well. It’s Paul. I’m happy to see a familiar face. He has been breaking trail in the fresh snow for me for hours. You can tell it’s taken a toll on him. Once I catch him we high five and give each other a big ole man hug. Paul says, “we’re together again!” I ask if he wants me to break Trail for him for a while. He is pleased by my offer as he had been doing all the work for me in the freshly fallen 3-4 inches of snow. I figured we would stay together and take turns breaking the trail. After a hour and a half I’m just about to ask Paul if he’ll take the lead for a while. I look back and he’s no longer there. I’m a little sad, but that’s how this race goes sometimes. It can be a very lonely, god forsaken, and isolated trail. Somewhere in here I catch Dan from Maryland as well. We had spent some time together earlier in the race. He actually thanked me early on for writing my race reports and said that it helped him prepare as this was his first Arrowhead. Somewhere in here his GPS died so he was wondering how much further the Surly check point was. I wasn’t positive, but I told him at this pace I was hoping that I would be there by 9pm. I was a little remorseful telling him. I didn’t want to deflate him mentally if he thought we were getting close. It was still a couple hours out. Usually the Surly check point has Trailside indications as it’s getting close. They put out signs a few miles out to tease us just a bit. This year they had nothing! That was genius! Total mind bend for those expecting to see something. I thought that was brilliant if they did it on purpose. Absolutely mad scientist type of hilarity. I make it to Surly a little sooner than expected. Having spent too much time there last year my plan this time is to blow right by. Unfortunately I’m out of water so I stop just briefly from 8:46 to 8:54. I ask the volunteers if the know exactly how far it is to the finish. Like me, they aren’t sure, but they think it’s around 25 miles. I count it out on my fingers and come up with an estimate that if I could stay awake and moving well I could be done by 4am. This has me stoked! That would be a personal best by far. I thank the volunteers and take off running up wakeumup, the final hill of the race.
It only takes a half hour to get up and over wakeumup, one of the biggest hills on the course. I’d like to say I was a little heartbroken, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. By now I can smell the hay in the barn. I am ready for the torture to be over. The rest of the trail is pretty flat and exposed. Some sections you can see for miles up ahead. Again I’m chasing blinkie lights and headlamps. I pass a couple people and try to go by with authority so that they don’t feel they can come back and pick me off. Soon I catch my friend Alex. She is struggling with a foot issue but is killing it for her first Arrowhead. I am blown away that she as not slept at all up to this point. We visit for a bit before I move on. Her strength and abilities absolutely amazing me. She ends up getting 2nd place female behind ultra legend Pam Reed. I bet you any money Alex will win this race one day.
Not long after and I am out of water. This hampers my game a bit as I am desperately hoping to see that final trail shelter. I get passed by Eric Johnson as I slow to grab a handful of snow. His sled indicates not only does he have multiple Arrowhead135 finishes but that he’s a multi Iditarod 350 finisher. I’ve got to say that made it not hurt so bad to be passed. He was the only person to pass me after the 1/2 way point. It’s about 8 miles from the final shelter. I occupy my mind by thinking about calling the Ten Junk Miles Bonk line. Jokingly I was going to leave Scott a message letting him know that I was not bonking, but that I would indeed #KrushKummer. I also wanted to praise him for his contributions not only to my success over the last year, but the countless others that he’s had an impact on. Dudes got a gift. He is inspiring more people than he can even fathom. His show is a big part of the reason I’ve been able to shed 20lbs and keep it off. Which in turn has helped my running exponentially.
At this point in the race one has got to be comfortable inside their own head. Occupying our own thoughts for 45 hours takes a little bit of insanity. I start trying to count how many sets of footprints are ahead of me. The left side of the trail is pretty easy to count. I see four sets. On the right side they are a little more over lapping but I’m guessing 5 or 6 more. If I’m right that puts me in 10th or 11th place. I have dreamed of a top ten in this race, but with the growing competitiveness of the athletes I didn’t really think it would ever be possible. As I near the final road crossing I see I’m going to be close to the 45 hour mark. Last year I was dreaming of breaking 50 hours if all went perfectly. I see the sign that says 2 Miles to go. It’s going to be close and I have to run a lot and hard. As I cross the road I see Ray Sanchez. He’s standing there looking for a lost glove. I almost feel guilty passing him, but I’m on a mission. I sure hoped my math was right. You just never know this late in the race. That final section seems to take forever and I realize I’m not going to make it in under 45. No big deal. I just shift the goal to get as close to 45 as I can. I get in at 4:07am 45h01m. A 3 hr 44 minute personal best for me and third finish. At the the time I have no idea about place other than the foot prints. It couldn’t matter less. I just achieved something I didn’t think I was even capable of. So much so it brings tears to my eyes as I write this. I’m a flippin mess!!
Upon finishing the volunteer brings me in for a quick mandatory gear check. Of which I have way too much extra. Then he escorts me to the hospitality suite where I get to collect my trophy and finishers hat. I could not be more pleased and thankful for this opportunity. I am humbled that Ken allowed me to enter this race once let alone 5 times now. Many thanks to Ken and Jackie and all the selfless volunteers. You are true ambassadors of winter endurance.
The hospitality suite is a special place. They have tons of food and drink, but more than that it’s a place racers hang out for hours and celebrate overcoming adversities out on the trail. I had been dreaming about chocolate milk for the entire race. That was the first thing I asked for and amazingly the had it again this year. I was jealous of those enjoying my favorite beer(Surly Furious), but I’m afraid my stomach would not have handled it too well.
Attempting an unsupported double presented another problem. I had no drop bags and my vehicle was back at the start with all my clean clothes. Thankfully I still had extra stuff in my sled to change into otherwise I would have been miserable. I had a few hours to burn before I could check into my hotel room, but the amazing Rhendie and Fred offered me their room to shower and get a quick nap since they were heading out for the day to find the equally amazing K2(Kari& Kate) They were in route to finishing up their Double Arrowhead. These folks are the epitome of kind. I am fortunate to have gotten to know them.
Lastly I would be remiss if I were not to thank my beautiful wife and daughters. Without their support none of this would be possible. Hopefully one day they to will see value in me out chasing my crazy dreams. So much so that they will find a passion and chase after their own. It helps that my wife has found a little humor in mocking me a bit too.