They say we all have a story. Maybe it’s because we are all a little broken in our own way. I am no different. I’m special by no means and at best no better than your average runner. Not only is this old body more than a little broke, but I’m not sure my mind is exactly right either. I struggle every day in one way or another. If I am any little bit different from your average Joe it would be that I enjoy suffering a bit more than the next guy.
The build up to this race was the culmination of a lifetime of experience. I have been competing in winter ultras since 2013. This race however draws uniquely on a lifetime out outdoor experience not just your ultra running. Every tool you have in your toolbox increases your odds for success.
I’ve been told the Iditarod is a graduate race. unlike most winter ultras that’s why there is no gear list for this one. If you made it here you know what it takes to not only survive, but to thrive in whatever harsh winter conditions Mother Nature can throw at you. It’s often said that one packs their insecurities. Which means the less confident you are the heavier your sled tends to be. This may slow you down, but at least you will have a better chance to survive if the shit hits the fan. You see when it comes to running in the back country of Alaska on the remote Iditarod Trail you better have your shit figured out. Like most winter races any small mistake could cost you not only some of your digits, but maybe even your life. This rings especially true here with not only its remoteness, but it’s lack of traffic. This is not the place to cut corners and pack super light for speed. There is nobody out patrolling the course checking on racers. If you run into trouble your best bet is to keep moving and get to one of those check points. Worst case scenario you have to hunker down for a day or two. That being said you better hope you have the know how and gear with you to do so.
This years Arrowhead could’ve been summed up by saying it was never a failure and will always be a lesson. I learned some very valuable lessons about packing light that I was able to take with me to Alaska. Lessons that helped me thrive out there on the trail. The single most import lesson I received from not finishing Arrowhead was to take what the trail gives you. It sounds simple because it is. All too often we over plan things and when the plan isn’t working things quickly start to unravel. The brilliance of not having a set plan is that you can never be disappointed when the conditions dictate your race and your pace.
More often than not I write a race report in hopes of not only helping others, but in hopes of inspiring people to dream big. If I can do this anyone can. However this year when it came to Arrowhead and the Rambler passing away I just couldn’t find the words to do it justice. He was a big part of why I chose to race Arrowhead unsupported. The year prior he had an extremely difficult time dealing with his unsupported attempt. If I were a betting man I’d bet it wasn’t often Randy came up short on anything. As such it hit him pretty hard. I had a feeling it had because he seemed to have disappeared after the race. I didn’t find out until much later just how hard he took it and where he ended up post race. Bob Coolidge filled me in much later the first time we went down to visit Randy in the hospital after he got sick. His and Randy’s paths seemingly just needed to cross that day in the middle of nowhere and out of the blue. They spent hours that day talkin smart and getting his head back together.
The weather forecast leading up to Arrowhead had most racers that originally chose to go unsupported changing over last minute to supported. With record setting cold that certainly would have been the wise choice. However this year was special. Randy was sick and dying from a rare form of leukemia. The week before Arrowhead it wasn’t looking good. His days were numbered. I made a beeline down to see him one last time. As we embraced the tears flowed. We just happened to have met at Arrowhead back in 2014. We had grown close over the following years participating in many of the same races. We were in a small group that made a run at the 2017 order of the Hrimthurs. I think we both knew this would be our last visit. We shared stories and laughed. He made plans to take me and the family out to dinner the next time he made it up north. When he asked me about going unsupported I told him of course I was and no matter what I would not waiver. This brought on his almost famous wry smile that we all had grown to love. In my mind I knew this would bring him great joy if he was well enough to follow along via race tracking. As the week went on Randy went home from the hospital one final time. We were getting word that cars were lining the streets as friends and family went to say their final goodbyes. Randy was a special individual and all the love he got in his final days was a testament of the man he was. Arrowhead was a somber place without him. It was almost fitting that Randy passed away during Arrowhead.
My not finishing Arrowhead and Randy passing had me questioning everything about my trip to Alaska. Then Sue Lucas(One of the best winter Ultra athletes of all time) decided not to go which had me wondering if I was even worthy of toeing the line at ITI. I was also torn about being away from my family for so long. I damn near pulled the plug on the whole thing as I was feeling sorry for myself.
However somewhere deep inside me I still had that fire burning. I needed to find out just what I was capable of. The only thing I would get from not going would be a lifetime of regret. I had no choice but to go.
The plan was to fly up with a number of other athletes from our area. I was flying out of Duluth and going to meet up with everyone on a connecting flight in the twin cities. From the get go my plans didn’t quite work out. My plane out of Duluth was delayed with mechanical issues for about 5 hours. Already I was scrambling. By the time we were air bound I had already missed my connecting flight to Alaska. Now my biggest concern was losing my checked luggage. All the stuff I needed to survive the wilds of Alaska was in my checked luggage along with my sled. The airline ended up putting me up in a hotel and rebooking my flight for the next morning, but now it wouldn’t be direct. I was trying to stay calm. No reason to panic yet.
I finally landed in Alaska. A day late, but still a couple days before the start of the race. As I head to baggage claim I know it ain’t gonna be good. My sled somehow made it but no bag full of gear. I head over to the lost baggage counter and file a claim. I was giving it about a 60% chance of getting my gear in time. The nice lady behind the counter did a search and found my bag on another flight, but the good thing was at least it was headed to Anchorage. She made sure it got flagged and she said when it arrived they’d be nice enough to send it to my hotel. Feeling a little uneasy I call for the hotel shuttle and go meet up with everyone at the hotel.
Later that evening we all walk to a bike shop for the pre-race meet and greet. It’s only a few miles away from the hotel. As we mill about I feel strangely out of place. They say not to judge a book by its cover, but as I look around all I see is a bunch of super fit and extremely grizzled world class endurance athletes. I think to myself that I may be in over my head. After another long walk back to the hotel I start the guessing game. Will my bag show? I check with the front desk every time I go by. Still nothing. In the back of my mind I have to begin to hatching a plan just in case my gear doesn’t show up. What would be the very minimum amount of gear I would need to get to the finish line? I certainly didn’t come all the way to Alaska just to scratch because my gear didn’t show. I’m still fairly calm. No need to panic just yet.
The next morning we all decide to Uber to the pre-race meeting instead of walking. Still no gear! The race directors talk for a hour or so and I don’t seem to comprehend much. In retrospect I should have been taking notes on my mileage card about all the course information they were dishing out. Something that would come back to haunt me a little during the race.
After the meeting we walk over to REI to get some last pieces of gear for the race. I purchased a 3 liter hydration bladder so I could carry a little more fluids. The check points in this race are as far as 100 miles apart which made this a very wise purchase.
We head back to the hotel. Now I really needed my gear to show up……… Time was ticking…. The race started the next day at 2pm……
To be continued…….