Arrowhead 135: Keep on

I glance over my shoulder. I thought I heard something, but the trail is empty. I haven’t seen anyone since I left the Surly checkpoint hours ago. It’s snowing, it has been for most of the race. I notice my mittens are frozen stiff. It must be getting colder. I shine my headlamp down the trail, it’s long and straight as far as I can see. Everyone told me this section is flat, but I swear it’s a constant, slight up-hill. It turns out it is. I march forward. My surroundings don’t seem to change. I’m sleepy. I close my eyes and notice myself drifting off to sleep. It feels so goooood…. I jerk my eyes open and shake myself awake. Less than 20 miles to the finish…

Last year, at my first attempt of Arrowhead, this race broke me. By Melgeorge’s I was limping along, barely moving. I was exhausted. Tendonitis in my ankle made every step so painful it was nauseating. I couldn’t imagine going another step. So, I quit. I vowed I’d be back. Now, I am. I’m eager and determined to find the finish line this year.

It’s a balmy 15° F at the starting line. I say goodbye to Alex and Tim and pull my sled onto the trail. Next thing I know it’s 7:04 am.

“Release the hounds!”

We’re off and running. I have a tendency to start races fast, and that’s exactly what I do today. The trail conditions are great. I run with Rob for a while. Eventually he starts to pull away. I’m tempted to follow, but decide to run my own race. I settle in at a comfortable pace for me. The miles fly by. This is the only time in the race the miles fly by.

ah-mile16

By the time I pull into Gateway (mile 35) at 3:34 pm I am ready for a break. I find a chair in the convenience store and sit with Alex and Tim. For the next hour I eat and drink until I can’t eat or drink anymore. I’m tired and appreciate the time off my feet. Eventually I pry myself out of my chair and start to get ready.

By 5:00 pm I’m headed back down the trail. As I’m leaving I run into Jeff Rock. He’s all smiles, gives me a high five and calls me the “Ultra Running Jesus.” I laugh and feel energized by his excitement.

The sun sets. I settle in at a pace that seems sustainable for the night. By around 9:30 pm my body decides it’s time for bed. I feel sleepy. I eat some espresso beans. It doesn’t seem to help. I get to Sheep Ranch Road and see Tim and Alex. Excited to see them I stop and chat for a few minutes. They give me some words of encouragement. I continue down the trail. An hour or two later my body seems to finally get it; we aren’t going to sleep tonight. I feel awake again.

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Photo credit: Tim Lupfer

Last year the section from Sheep Ranch Road to Melgeorges was a slog for me. Every hill beat me down, eventually leaving me feeling exhausted, broken and ready to quit. This year it feels like a different trail. The hills don’t seem as big. The beating is much more tolerable.

I pull into the Melgeorge’s checkpoint (mile 72) at 3:44 am, almost a full 3 hours ahead of last year. Most importantly I have no desire to quit. I don’t feel sleepy, so I decide to pass on the opportunity to sleep in a bed.  I spend the next hour and a half at the checkpoint eating and drinking as much as I can. I dry my feet out and change my socks. I’m back on the trail before sunrise, feeling good mentally and physically. That feeling doesn’t last long.

The sun comes up behind the clouds. It’s another day. I find the daylight energizing at first, but soon I feel the effects of not sleeping. I’m dragging. My legs get heavier and hurt a little more with each step. Rob pulls up behind me. We chat and decide to stick together for a while. It’s nice to have his company. It wakes me up and keeps my mind off of my tired legs. Eventually I fall back again. Everything hurts. My legs are bricks; stiff, sore bricks. My eyelids are heavy. I stop to eat a sandwich alongside the trail, hoping it will recharge me. It doesn’t. I’m hardly moving. I’m doing terrible. I still have 40-some miles left. This is impossible. I want to be done. I’m hours from anything. Even if I wanted to quit there’s no good way to do it.

I find a hilltop with cell service and text Alex. I complain about everything. She reassures me that I’m doing great and just need to keep moving. I tell her I want to be done. She continues to reassure me and reminds me of why we do these things; because it strips us down to our simple and primal selves.

What’s wrong with me?

Nothing.

Everything feels hard.

Duh.

A volunteer on a snowmobile drives up behind me.

“You doing ok?”

“Yeah I’m fine, thanks!”

“Good job!”

He drives off.

I need sleep. I should have slept at Melgeorge’s. I find a place to bivy just off the trail. I crawl into my sleeping bag and set an alarm. The warm cloud of down hugs me. I’m so comfortable. It feels amazing. I feel like I could sleep for days. I pass out.

I don’t sleep well. I wake up a few times. I check the time. Still ten minutes until my alarm goes off. I decide to get up anyway. I start to put my shoes on and realize they are frozen solid. I bring them inside the sleeping bag with me, like I should’ve done originally. I wait a few minutes. Still frozen. Fuck it. Time to go. I head down the trail with cold feet, feeling reenergized.

I drag my sled up countless hills. I ride my sled down countless hills. I try to move as best I can between the hills. The sun sets for the second time. I arrive at the Surly checkpoint (mile 110) at 8:48 pm on Tuesday. Alex and Tim greet me with enthusiasm. It’s refreshing to see them. I do the usual checkpoint things; eat, dry my feet, rest, etc.

I can smell the finish line. I also realize I have a long, difficult night ahead of me. I’ve only slept an hour in the last two days. Hallucinations are getting stronger.

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Photo credit: Tim Lupfer

I leave Surly at about 10:00 pm. I ride down the huge Wakemup hill. I’m onto the last 22 miles, or so, which is flat (besides the gradual climb that never ends). I’m excited. Maybe I can run the last stretch!? It only takes a few running steps to decide that’s a terrible idea. I settle into the quickest walking pace I can muster.

Hallucinations are getting worse. Everything looks like a person; trees, snow drifts, shadows. People standing, laying and sitting next to the trail. Some in a bivy, others just lounging around in a sweatshirt. Even some standing in the middle of the trail. I blink or look away to make these “people” disappear so I don’t run them over. This usually works, until I meet my stubborn friend who I’ll call Frank. Frank doesn’t want to disappear no matter how many times I blink or look away. As I get closer to Frank he becomes transparent, like a ghost. So, I walk right through Frank. Sorry, Frank.

I spot a biker in his bivy next to the trail. I am sure this biker is real. I stop to ask if he’s ok. He assures me he is. I continue on my way. It was nice to see a real person… wait. Was that a real person? I’m still not sure.

I notice it’s getting colder. The wind feels real cold. The temperature must be below zero. My fingers are numb. I add a couple layers. I’m wearing just about everything I have. I even put on my Everest mittens. I run for a while, then walk. I repeat these run / walk intervals for what feels like hours. I look at my watch, 9 minutes have passed. Damn.

A snowmobile approaches from ahead. It’s a race volunteer. He says the finish is only 3 miles ahead. Suddenly the hallucinations are gone. I snap back into reality. ONLY 3 MILES!!!! I start to run. Tears fill my eyes. I feel euphoric.

I turn the last corner and see the finish line in the distance. Alex and Tim are waiting for me. Alex runs up and gives me a big hug. I’m overflowing with all the feels – I’m elated. I cross the finish line and let out a huge sigh of relief and satisfaction. Alex gives me another hug. “You did it! I’m so proud of you.”

Finally, I can rest. And it’s the most satisfying rest I’ve ever had.

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Photo credit: Tim Lupfer (and a volunteer at the finish line who snapped the picture of all three of us)
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