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Why Running Alone Through Snow For 135 Miles Is Harder Than It Sounds

Illustration for article titled Why Running Alone Through Snow For 135 Miles Is Harder Than It Sounds

Here's an excerpt from Alicia Hudelson's account of last year's Arrowhead 135, an unsupported endurance challenge through northern Minnesota starting today. It gives a pretty good flavor.

"...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…"


Then things got tough.

"...At some point 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."


Hudelson was the first woman runner—and by runner, I mean person on foot—to cross the finish line, 47 hours 59 minutes after she'd started.

Now in its 11th year, Arrowhead regularly makes it onto lists of the world's toughest races by dint of its distance (135 miles on snow-covered trails), conditions (temps below -20 for much of the 60-hour limit), and the strictly self-supported format (no pacers, no crews, not even a cup of coffee from a spectator, of which there are few). Participants can choose to bike, ski, or run, but they carry everything they need from start to finish. There are just three checkpoints where they can get in out of the cold. The 150-person field was designed to ensure racers spend a lot of time with their own thoughts, a frozen facemask, and some curious wolves.

"Anyways, one of the deals with us is you're out there by yourself," said race director Ken Krueger, a seven-time Arrowhead finisher. The other deals with Arrowhead are strength, endurance and survival, the latter of which has an important ring to it.

Because Krueger is "a soft touch," 171 experienced endurance athletes will be making last-minute gear checks at dark-thirty Monday morning in International Falls, Minnesota, coldest city in the lower forty-eight. Among them will be 33-year-old trainer/health coach/nutrition guy Jake Lawrence, from down south—St. Paul, Minn. He thinks he knows what he's getting into.


A wrestler in high school and college, Lawrence started running trails as an escape from the gym. "I could explore beautiful places on my own," he said. "I signed up for a trail half-marathon and had a decent showing, but the part that appealed to me was that you were very much on your own. A couple gels and a water bottle, no fancy outfit. I was mostly concerned with engaging with the terrain, so different from running on pavement."

One thing led to an ultra, and within the last two years, Lawrence has racked up four 100-milers and a slew of shorter trail runs.


"In longer events, you have to make a lot of decisions and deal with a lot of extremes. It's more mental. You might feel terrible at 40 miles, fantastic at 60 and terrible again at 75 with a marathon left to run. It's like a life in a day, managing the highs and lows, not dwelling on discomfort. Our daily life is pretty padded; we rarely get out of our comfort zone. I just think: It's one day and I'm going to run all day."

But he's never run for two days straight. In a snowsuit. Drawn by the self-supported challenge of Arrowhead ("I'm not a fan of pacers and entourages"), he applied and, on the basis of his 100-mile finishes, was accepted in mid-October.


It's not necessary to declare your mode of transportation—bike, skis or feet—until the week of the event, but Lawrence had no problem deciding. "Running is the only thing I'm efficient at. I think biking is a cop-out, plus it's stressful—more moving parts, more things to break, more gear and gadgets. And I watched a video of someone skiing with this huge pack—it just looked painful."

Surprisingly, Arrowhead fields are about evenly split between bikers, who finish in around 24 hours, and runners, who are out on the course more than twice that long. Krueger reported that only 17 skiers have finished in the race's 10-year history, mostly because, in extreme cold, skis don't glide and "you work real hard to go nowhere." One might imagine the extra challenge would be appealing to the Arrowhead participant.


The stone-cold ultra was founded by Pierre and Cheryl Ostor, St. Paul-area residents and avid participants in Alaskan endurance events. They chose the Arrowhead snowmobile trail for its remoteness, and the Monday-through-Wednesday schedule so there'd be less snowmobile traffic. Ten people entered in 2005, with entries growing every year since to the point that Krueger, race director the past two years, has to turn people away. Though all entrants have to prove ultra distance and cold weather experience, less than 50% finish.

In 2007, only 20% finished. That was Krueger's first year as a competitor. "It was absolutely brutal cold, something like -35," he said. "It took me 55 hours, and only one of those hours was above zero. When my wife picked me up, I said, 'Don't ever let me do this again.' I think about that race every single day."


He has biked the course five times, run once and skied once.

In an event this extreme, rules, including the mandatory gear list, are driven home in the plainest possible language. Some gentle reminders include:

  • If you take a ride, you are disqualified but hopefully still alive.
  • Minus -20F degrees sleeping bag or colder rating. Colder than -20F almost all previous races. If you skimp here you are foolish. And we will not allow you to skimp. So do not skimp. Fool. 2011 it was -42F on trail.
  • Keep music stuff out of your ears, listen to Nature, and your own hallucinations.
  • You can still be stupid with all the gear. Know how to use it.

Though in any given year, two-thirds of the field at Arrowhead have been there before, a lot can happen in 135 miles. Krueger said immobilized racers are rescued every year by snowmobile patrols, but—knock on wood—no one has been seriously injured, or died. "Last year, we had more frostbite than I would have liked," he said.


Medical personnel at checkpoints will pull racers if they exhibit symptoms of frostbite, but it's 35 miles or more between checkpoints. The killer, if you will, is that the brain, much more so than muscles, needs a steady supply of fast-burning sugar to assess problems and come up with solutions. Sleep deprivation, fatigue, vomiting (the scourge of ultra racers) and the inability to shove one more sweet raspberry white chocolate gel down their throat conspire to turn even well-trained brains to mush. Poor decisions often ensue.

That's why Lawrence, like other racers at Arrowhead, keeps a laminated list of to-do's when he gets to checkpoints. This is his list:

Change into dry clothes/baselayer/socks/buff

Dry clothes/hat/gloves

Discard trash

Charge watch

Refill bladder and bottles (with skratch mix)

Handwarmers for bottle warming

Refill perpetuem

Restock vest/waist belt with fuel

EAT solid food/meal ... mtn house meal at MelGeorges / Ski Pulk

Vaniply - key areas

Headlamp - check batteries

Retrieve dry clothes

Repack sled


He's confident in his physical preparation. Minnesota weather cooperated with an unusually cold, snowy November, so Lawrence was able to train outside in below-zero temperatures, pulling a progressively heavier sled, up to 40 pounds, on long runs. Then the 20- to 25-pound sled he'll pull during the race will feel light. He put in back-to-back days, a 5-hour run followed by 3-½ to 4 hours the next day, and spent a lot of time in the gym, strengthening his hips for the demands of running and pulling a sled.


"The pressure of keeping a certain pace isn't there," he said. "It's about moving efficiently continuously. I can walk with the sled at 4 mph and run at 6 mph so I'm not worried about time. The plan is to sleep a couple hours at the second checkpoint at 72 miles, rest, dry my clothes."

He spent a -20 degree night in the backyard in his bivy tent and sleeping bag (thumbs up), but discovered an expensive Goretex jacket won't be in his pack ("You sweat too much"). Clothing is all about layers, and how easy those layers are to put on and take off.


Of course, keeping liquids from freezing is a key consideration. A drop of water in a tube or valve will freeze, rendering the whole system useless. The fix? Remember to blow back into the tube after drinking to clear it of water, and store the tube near your armpit or in a pocket with a chemical handwarmer.

Ultras, especially the self-supported kind, are both the chicken and the egg of gear and gadgetry. A cold-weather event like Arrowhead could be a virtual geekfest for the gear-vulnerable athlete with deep pockets. The water tube problem, for example, has a $120 answer in the battery-powered HydroHeater. Flip a switch and in minutes, the tube you left watery and flapping in the breeze is thawed and ready for action.


But like having crews and pacers, Lawrence is careful not to let technology get in the way of self-sufficiency. "It [HydroHeater] does feel a little like cheating," Lawrence said. "You're buying something that's taking out an element of self-sufficiency, of thinking. If someone gave me one, I might use it, but I'd rather spend the money on a pair of snowshoes."

Surprisingly, Lawrence's worst case scenario, when pressed, doesn't have to do with getting too cold but rather too warm. "I guess getting stiff after resting at a checkpoint, so it's hard to get moving again, would be difficult. Getting comfortable in a warm space and having to go back out by yourself, that might be hard. Not having a crew coddling you, giving you fresh things—not having that will help me stay focused on why I'm there."


He may listen to books on tape at night—"Jack London tells good stories about isolation"—but like every single item in his pack, the iPod has a carefully considered cost/benefit balance.

"This whole idea of being comfortable, you gotta get that out of your head. If you go four hours without drinking, you're not going to die. I don't want to be too reliant on distractions either. If you're really looking forward to music and your battery is frozen, it's a huge letdown. The more minimally you can race, and just be in the environment, the more successful you'll be. That's the draw for me. Just being self-sufficient for 60 hours, just moving. I want to find out, what kind of human being am I?"


photo credit: Flickr

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