It’s the end of January in International Falls and the temperature is about 25 degrees Farenheit, much warmer than I expected. It’s also sleeting. This isn’t the Arrowhead weather I’ve heard about. I’m concerned about how soft snow is, especially with the tendinitis that recently developed in my ankle. Oh well, I don’t think there are ideal conditions at Arrowhead. It’s just dealing with one thing or another.
I make some final adjustments to my gear and say goodbye to Alex before heading down the trail at 7:04 am. There are 55 people racing on foot. Most are pulling a sled, but there’s also quite a few on kick-sleds. I even spot one guy using a backpack.
As the race starts it’s still dark out, the trail lit up by hundreds of red blinking lights.
I make my way through some crowds, eventually finding an opening and settling in at my pace. I watch the leaders quickly disappear in the distance as everyone begins spreading out. The snow pack is surprisingly good. I decide to take advantage of the conditions by moving a little quicker than planned. I have a feeling the conditions aren’t going to stay like this for long and it doesn’t. After nine miles the snow abruptly changes, becoming loose and soft, forcing me to slow.
As the trails turns away from the road and civilization the snow conditions deteriorate. The trail feels just as I imagined; remote, barren and desert-like. The sky is overcast and it’s foggy. I’m surrounded by a sea of small, weathered pine trees. I can’t blame them for looking so haggard, Arrowhead is their life.
A few more miles pass and I decide to stop for a moment to eat some peanut butter cups. I soak in the silence. Everything is snow covered. The trail is beautiful. I feel grateful.
After about 20 miles pass I notice a familiar pain in my left ankle. Just a few weeks earlier my ankle started giving me problems on a training run. It seems like tendonitis. I’m wearing an ankle brace to protect it. I’m concerned that it’s bothering me so early. I adjust the brace and slow down my pace, but it doesn’t seem to help. I take a Tylenol. It helps a little, but I’m worried. It’s much too early to be dealing with an injury.
I make my way to Gateway, the mile 35 checkpoint at about 4:30 pm. Alex is there waiting and cheering as I arrive. It’s nice to see her. It’s nice to eat some warm soup from the store. Mentally I am already feeling a little defeated. As I’m changing into dry shoes and socks I’m grumbling to Alex about my ankle.
She asks me, “Are you having any fun out there?”
I stop to think. “Not really.”
I leave Gateway and meet back up with a nicely packed logging road. My pace quickens again. I forget about my ankle. I feel my mood shifting. I start to enjoy myself again. I remind myself what I love about racing. I love the simplicity of it. Just me, my sled, and a beautiful snow covered trail. The only sounds are my foot steps and my sled gliding across the snow. My mind is clear from clutter. I only need to eat, drink, and move forward. Not many things in life are this simple.
After about 4 miles I leave the snow-packed logging road and return to more soft, sloppy snow. I slow down again. The first of the rolling hills start to unfold, one after another. Pulling my fourty pound sled up each hill feels hard, but I settle in and find myself enjoying it. At least for now.
I reach Sheep Ranch Road (mile 50) feeling good. I see Alex waiting for me here, cheering me on. It’s a treat to see her after spending the last 15 miles alone in the dark. I stop to chat for a few minutes. She wishes me luck and I head back down the dark trail. Twenty miles to the next checkpoint, Melgeorges.
The next 10 miles I find myself playing leap frog with Lindsay, a former olympic cyclist from Canada who’s doing the race on a kicksled for the first time. On the descents he comes flying by me. On the flats and climbs I catch back up with him. It’s nice to have his occasional company throughout the night as we make our way through a very remote sections of the course.
The first half of the night goes well. The pain in my ankle seems to have faded. I’m feeling good and moving well.
Then, somewhere around mile 63 I notice my other ankle (the right one) starts to hurt. It’s very subtle at first but steadily gets worse. It feels a lot like the tendonitis I’ve experienced during longer races in the past. My previous experience with this problem is pretty terrible, but I’ve always found a way to push through it.
The pain worsens quite a bit over the next few miles, shooting through the top of my foot and up my shin. I keep slowing down until eventually I’m limping.
It’s early in the morning, maybe 3:00 am. I notice it’s feeling much colder. Maybe because temps are dropping, but slowing down doesn’t help either. I stop and add a warmer mid-layer and my big mittens. Much better.
Lindsay passes me and asks me how I’m doing. He notices my limp. I tell him about my ankles. He suggests resting for a couple hours at Melgeorges.
I try to remain optimistic and committed, but with each painful step I feel those feelings dissipate.
A mile or two from the checkpoint I start considering dropping. Getting a ride from one of the rescue snowmobiles starts to sound more and more appealing. I decide I’m going to at least get to Melgeorges with my own two feet.
At about 6:30am I limp up to the cabin at Melgeorges. 70 miles complete. Alex is waiting for me outside. It’s a huge relief to see her. I want to be done. Inside the cabin is filled with racers. Some half asleep, others eating and talking. Everyone seems to be pretty tired and beat up.
I sit down in a chair. Alex and I are discussing my ankle issues. I don’t mention my intent to drop, but I’m pretty sure she can tell I’m considering it. She offers me encouragement and ideas to keep going, even just for a few more miles to the next road crossing. Several other racers offer me things like ace bandages, Tylenol, and moral support to keep going. The amazing volunteers bring me grilled cheese and hot apple cider.
I hate the idea of quitting, but the idea of continuing seems impossible. I can’t find the will or courage I need to keep going. The last 4+ hours of limping along, slowly seems to have drained me both physically and mentally. My ankles throb with pain, even as I sit.
I know what I need to do, but I have trouble saying the words aloud.
Finally, about an hour later I find the courage to accept defeat.
Holding back tears, I tell Alex. Then I let the volunteers know.
I gather up my things and limp out of the cabin. I feel both sad and relieved.
Entering this race I knew failure was possible, even likely. That’s the allure of Arrowhead. I signed up to experience a race that breaks about half of the people that have the guts to start it. I came to experience myself in a different way. To suffer yet hopefully find a way to endure. And if not, to experience my breaking point. I did.
Inevitably, I will continue to crave the satisfaction of crossing the Arrowhead 135 finish line. Not finishing this race has been hard to accept, but it has also reminded me there’s so much more to the race than just crossing the finish line. The battles and struggles that happen on the trail are what make the experience what it is.
I had the privilege of experiencing 70 miles of Arrowhead. I had the privilege of sharing a trail with a group of extremely hardy individuals and getting to know a few of them while I was out there.
I had the privilege of learning a lot about myself and discovering my limit on that day. I had the privilege of learning this race is no joke. I’m truly humbled by my experience.
And until my next attempt (hopefully next year) I will continue to remind myself to, “Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.”