Driving up to International Falls for the Arrowhead my head was brimming with the expectations of what was to come. I was filled with excitement to see my fellow participants and friends, and eager to get out on the trail. Arriving at gear check was like coming downstairs on Christmas morning. Jennifer was there, my eyes caught Race Director Ken, and moments later Paul, Jeff, and Randy sauntered in. This topped off my giddiness and we laughed about Tuscobia, recovery, and what the Arrowhead had planned for us.
While my parents were at the volunteer meeting I was working on repacking my sled…again. The conditions were looking favorable, but I was worried about a repeat of last year. Knowing this year we wouldn’t have access to dryers, I laid 12 pair of wool socks on the bed. Maybe excessive? I left them there to think about it. Before the pre race meeting started , Mom, Fred, and I sat one of the long tables and reconnected with people we’ve all met this last year. Thomas sat by us and I asked as many questions as I could about the upcoming Actif Epica. Thomas is so thoughtful, you can see it behind his eyes, and I tried to hang on to every nugget of advice. I asked him how many socks he was taking: four, hmmm not enough for me. A few people came over to wish me luck, and ask “soooo…. how ARE you feeling?” Referencing my escapades on the Tuscobia trail 3 weeks earlier. “I feel great, I think!” Knowing full well for the past few weeks I had been whining to my boyfriend about how my ankles hurt, my calves hurt, my hips hurt, I’m tired and fat. But we were at the Arrowhead, my game face was on and I wanted to start! Rachel came over, she was doing the foot division self supported and I could see she was down to business mentally already. I asked how many socks she was taking: six. That sounded reasonable, so I told her that’s what I will do as well based on her decision. “Please don’t” she said. Too late I chuckled on the inside. It’s amazing I’ve finished one race. The meeting is one of my favorite parts and I laugh at Ken’s jokes too loud, like an awkward first date. We eat our food, and head to the hotel for one last comfortable sleep before the Uncomfortable starts.
The morning was beautiful, the temp was in the easy high teens, and the 4-6 inches of predicted snow fall was down to “maybe one.” Still fearing the sloppy/mushy/sandy conditions from last year, I wasn’t going to relax until I see the trail myself. Ken promised us a surprise at the start, and as we headed over, fireworks went off! Fireworks! For us, I felt so special! Getting last minute hugs from Julio, Mom and Fred, I was still looking for Alex. Then I heard her yell and we exchanged hugs, she was following her boyfriend Jared at the Arrowhead after her win at Tuscobia, “He has it in him” I said squeezing her, so much wanting both of them to fulfill their winter ultra dreams this year. Ken yelled “Release the hounds” and we moseyed down the trail, hugs and kisses went to my parents in the dark, and the adventure started.
You could feel the excitement, marching down the trail the sounds of chatter, laughter, and dragging sleds filled the air. I walked and talked easily along, saying hi to friends and wondering how this will be. When will my body say enough? This was so hard last year, and I just finished my longest race ever a few weeks ago. When will my knees and heart just say no? As the sun rose, the answer was “never.” I felt energized… correction, I felt cocky! The snow was perfect, the temperature was perfect, my sled was perfect… I started to run. Not to win or get a good time, it was pure jubilance. Passing Chris on the trail he shouted “I think you’re on fire!” Smiling I ran on, this was where I wanted to be. Moving easily over the hard packed trail, I ate my naan wraps, vowing to keep eating and drinking consistently over the next few days. After burning off that excess energy, I wiggled into my march. The miles pass and then I hear that sound, THE sound that anyone who does a race with me comes to love: my Mothers cowbell. Running again I round a corner and there they are. Mom, Fred, and Julio, cheering on participants at an intersection. We exchange smiles and laugh at how great it is, I take the opportunity to go to the bathroom. For guys, they barely have to stop, nay, they don’t even have to go to the side of the trail to pee, just right there in the middle for Kari to drag her sled through. For the ladies, the harness comes off, the fanny pack comes off, and then find a tree. It’s a process.
A few hours later, walking along the still easy trail, I started wondering where I was. Last year I got to the first check point exhausted and well after dark. Nothing seemed familiar and my energy was ebbing, but I shook off the wondering and put a gummy bear in my mouth. That gave a little energy burst and my quick step returned. I passed two people and then heard behind me “oh there is the road, Gateway is the next turn.” Whaaaaat?! It was afternoon! Daylight! And I felt great! What a huge difference the conditions were making, I charged into the first checkpoint with Scott and we laughed at how this race was “practically over.” 30 minutes, that’s all I was allowing myself here, wanting to push hard to MelGeorges where I would take my reprieve. Downing two Gatorades and a sloppy joe, I changed my socks and looked disdainfully at my jacket. My wet jacket. Shrugging it off, I left the first check point as the sun went down. Helen came in as I was leaving, gliding over the snow,the reflective strips of her parka lighting up the night. Then Thomas came in and we shouted at each other, I took a right and was back on the trail. Laughing as I reached the point on the trail that last year I had my first breakdown. HA! What was the problem Kari? Into the first night I went, confident and happy.
I’m still a newbie at all of this ultra stuff, but the more I do them the more I learn. One thing I’ve discovered, like clockwork (pun intended) is that at about 12:30/1 a.m. is when the deep sleepiness sets in, then, after pushing through to 2 a.m. I take some caffeine and coast to daylight. The deep sleepiness does set in on that first night…at 9:30 p.m! Thinking to myself that this is going to be a long night, it took every ounce to not take a caffeine pill, but to hammer it out to at LEAST midnight. The Tuscobia Hangover had arrived. A grey silent shape swooped into and out of the beam of my headlamp just yards ahead. Heart skipping a beat I looked for the owl again but she was gone.
Feeling so tired, the thought of bivying entered my mind. Oh hell no! I put a gummie bear in my mouth and the familiar energy burst followed. A plan! I’ll eat a Gummie Bear Drip, one gummie in the cheek at all times until midnight and then I can take caffeine. This was going to work. As I was calculating I slowly became aware of a sound, like background noise that you unknowingly got used to. Stopping my loud sled my heart practically burst with joy as a wolf howled in the distance! A short time later I started walking and it became clear we were moving toward each other. He was so close that I could hear his howl was a bit raspy. That was a big boy. A few hours later and a whole wolf chorus penetrated the night, I could still single out the first wolf, the others were piercing and high pitched, he was low and raspy. Being out on the trail with them was so energizing, and was a reminder of how deep in the woods we were.
The Gummie Bear Drip got me to midnight, and I took some caffeine. Then I was hammering it, moving well and feeling awake again. Getting to Gateway before dark was great, now I wanted to get to MelGeorges before dawn. I had been walking with Joe on and off throughout the night, we had met last year when he had dnf’d Arrowhead for the second time. Looking at him and his cool sled set up, I told him this was his year. We moved easily, and I kept putting a single Gummie in my cheek. Meeting people along the way, we chatted a moment before Joe and I passed them, I could smell the barn. Soon enough the “five miles to Melgeorges” sign appeared, unreal! We were going to get to the second checkpoint before 6 a.m! When we got to the lake I shouted “Hey Elephant Lake we’re back you big bitch!” I could see a line of red blinkies ahead, indicating other people heading to the reprieve of the halfway point. Looking behind I saw Joe’s headlamp and others behind him, we were all experiencing the same thing heading across that lake. Almost there. It is a long trek and goes on forever though, my IT bands were massively inflamed again and I was unfortunately taking vitamin I to help. Being so close to a checkpoint, they began to hurt worse, the body and mind are an amazing thing! Either way, we got there, unclipping my harness I walked up the stairs into my Mothers arms. We laughed at how early I was and that felt great!
Getting into the lively cabin is a great experience. Right away I started asking about my friends, where was everyone!? Where was Randy and Helen and Chris, where was Rob and Jared? Paul had just left, and every time I heard that some one was out already and doing well it was a sigh of relief. I looked up and saw Thomas, “when did you pass me?” I asked. With a beaming smile he replied “I dropped.” The relaxation on his whole person was evident and I was instantly happy for his decision. The Arrowhead is tricky, it makes it ok, even when it’s not. I ate a lot, but there were so many people around I was having trouble concentrating. Mom and Fred were bringing me soup and grilled cheese, I watched Mom bob back and forth looking after other participants. She was more in her element than anyone else there. Leaving a pile of wet clothes and headlamps with empty batteries I climbed upstairs to get some sleep. I had plenty of time, hoping for two hours of sleep, maybe three, and I could stay up for another day and a half. Slapping some desitin on my blisters, I stretched out on the bed and napped for one restless hour. Dreaming that Mom had tried to wake me, I prematurely came down to join the chatter not knowing that tiny hour would be my only true sleep at the Arrowhead.
Daylight had arrived and more racers were moving in and out of the cabin, I started to ready myself. Not taking care of things before I lay down meant more work now and the going was slow. Joe and I talked about leaving together, I sternly told him that we can keep moving together but I don’t want him waiting for me, “if you want to go, go.” He replied “no problem, chivalry is rightfully dead.” It was wonderful leaving the halfway point before I even got there last year! The marveling at how easy the trail was in comparison to the year before never stopped. Hugs and kisses to Mom and Fred and we walked down the road back to the trail. I looked out toward Elephant Lake and saw more people making their way across, and feeling a bit sad that it would be a year before I could cross it again. Getting to the trail I reached into my pocket for my watch… and it was gone! The last time I used it was when we were crossing the lake, dammit! I looked out at the lake again with a desperate little whine before turning onto the trail. Had I not gone through a watch-less Tuscobia the year before this would have melted me, instead it was just a minor inconvenience.
Wow what a beautiful morning! The trees had a fresh dusting of snow, the sky was white and the trail lay out before me. There are a couple giant hills right away and my climbing skills are not great so I lost Joe almost immediately. Relaxed now that I wasn’t trying to keep up, I settled into the grove. Those downhill’s are AMAZING! I just love riding my sled down the big ones… and the little ones too come to think of it! But you have to work for them, and my Tuscobia Hangover reared its ugly head at every uphill. I had no power and walked up each hill at an embarrassingly slow clip, and was eating an unladylike amount of Ibu’s. I know they helped, but I didn’t/don’t like the idea of telling my body to be quiet when it’s trying to say something. But the sharp pains in my knees and deep in my hips was intolerable and I had to maintain the anti-inflammatory. It’s not a good place to be and I hope to come back on my own power next year.
Enough of that.
I was having a GREAT time riding my sled! I came upon Rachel and we chatted for a bit, talking briefly on how it was going. She is so calculating and smart, I was happy to get some trail time with her. Then I came upon Helen at the top of a hill. She was half in her sleeping bag doing things, getting ready for a sleep, it was so sunny and she was so cute the image will always make me smile. Rachel was going to sleep there as well and as I left them, I shook my head in amazement. Both going unsupported, the true Arrowhead. Next year. I caught up to Joe, well he let it slip that he was waiting for me (what!) and then Randy and Jon. Going up and down the hills everyone was in good spirits in one way or another. We began to have contests for who could ride down the hill better! The trail flattened out again and we moved easily along. Randy was giving me tips for doing the unsupported division, like don’t melt snow that you gather from beneath a tree gesturing to his water or as he called it “Pine Tea.” It was a great day. After feeling broken for so long, I was starting to knit myself back together, the people I have spent time with on the trail had much to do with it. Randy is one of those people. I had started to bond with all the guys doing the Order as well, it made sense as we were all equally nuts for doing it. There was a puddle in the trail, one puddle. I stepped in it! No worries, at Melgeorges I put bags on my feet, I was getting good at this Ultra stuff.
The second day passed in a bright blur of gentle hills and sledding. We would spread out, and then come together. At one point we scooped up Christiano, a Brazilian doing the Arrowhead for the first time. Night finally came, and as I switched on my headlamp I noted “last one.” It had started to snow again, the gentle flurries that had been falling on and off for the last few days were harmless. Until the sun sets. Then, you are sliding down a hill in the dark, the beam of your headlamp is cut short by the falling snow, you ride kind of squinting and praying that there are no surprises at the bottom. As Christiano, Randy, and I get to the flats, the temperature is mild but the driving snow and wind put us all in quiet business mode. There was a streak of frozen slush stretching out on half the trail, not wanting to go around but remembering the puddle incident from earlier, I smartly stabbed my poles (approximately 4 pounds of pressure) in the slush to make sure this portion was firm. When it held I took my 150 pound body and stepped down in to icy slush that went up to my calves, over my baggies and into my shoes. SHIT I yelled climbing out of the ice, “IDIOT I’M AN IDIOT!” Randy looked at me with a seriousness that shut me up, “what’s the plan?” he calmly asked. We were just a few miles from a shelter, I didn’t want to stop in the open and the temp was mild so loosing a toe wasn’t an issue. We would move to the shelter. Luckily I knew exactly where we were as I had come upon someone pooping in this very spot the year before, and you don’t forget something like that.
We make it to the shelter, and take a reprieve. Two bikers were getting ready to bivy and a fire was going. Randy lay down on the frozen ground to shut his eyes while I worked on my feet. The bikers kept chatting with us and I looked at Randy trying to sleep, I felt protective of the little time we had here, instead of asking them to be quiet I offered them Pringles thinking that might give him a moments peace. Fresh baggies, socks, and desitin did the trick for the feet, but I fear the slush water put a chill in me that would be there the duration of the race. Stopping was sapping our heat as well and we made a move. I’m tedious on the trail so it takes a long time to get my harness and gloves right, and as I’m adjusting the boys are waiting getting cold. Finally we move, 10 miles to Surly, the last check point. This was happening! This is the hilliest part of the trail, the uphill’s are steeper and more frequent and the going slow. I was still slow going up but my sled was on form for glide, at each hill I would loose the boys, then catch up to them on the downhill’s. I loved watching them come down the hill that night, just headlamps moving at an unnatural speed in dark.
Maybe I didn’t wait long enough to write this, so that I could process it. Maybe my writing skills are lacking. But I can’t tell you, dear one, how absolutely unending the last ten miles to Surly are. Other than to say, they are unending. Unending. It makes no sense, you cruise for seemingly miles down the hills and yet, the miles creep and creep by. Or they cease. I had no clue what time it was, we were all tired and it was early morning or so I thought. After seemingly hours two snowmobilers came by and spoke with Randy, after they left I asked “did they say 2.4 to the check point?” “6.4” was his response. On and on we crept to the checkpoint. Randy called it, ready for a nap, he was doing the unsupported so getting to a checkpoint was meaningless to him. I lay on top of my sled and immediately fell asleep. A few moments later I grunted awake, got up and started walking. We have to be only an hour away, I had to push through. Christiano caught up and we walked together. Getting closer to Surly there were signs and mannequins shoved in the snow, a mask here, a leg there. I prayed for patience. Finally a snowmobile came around the corner and said the check point was right there, I babbled quickly at Christiano and a few moments later we were there. Praise the baby Jesus we were there! And so was Mom. Totally drained we hugged and I got my camp meal going, heading inside the giant teepee to sit down I mumbled at Joe who was in great spirits. He was rocking it to his first Arrowhead finish!
So far ahead of the cut off and 19 hours to finish the last 25 miles meant I was in NO hurry. Chilled to the bone (probably from the mini plunge) I sat next to the fire soaking up the heat and eating my mesquite bbq camp meal… not recommended by the way! I should have slept, gone outside and bivyed, but stubbornly did not. Instead I sat there doing nothing until it was time to go. Rejuvenated a little knowing we were so far ahead of the cut off, I once again set out on that final stretch to Fortune Bay. Into the night once again, I thanked and hugged my parents before heading to Mount Wakemup. Christiano and I hauled ourselves to the hill, this time I would be going down in the dark which was thrilling in its own way. Sliding down into blackness I reached the bottom and waited for Christiano, we laughed and kept walking. Not too much later, my wheels completely came off. We were both tired, I was swerving, the temp was dropping and wind was picking up. We picked up the pace to warm up but soon dropped down to a slow slog. I took a caffeine pill which made me feel absolutely sick to my stomach. My body didn’t want caffeine, it wanted sleep, and as a result my core temperature was dropping. I had just a few moments of sanity left so at 14 miles to the finish with a blue stripe on the horizon, we bivyed. Just a few moments after I climbed in and shut my eyes, a snowmobile stopped. It was Robbie, we were on the trail. In my desperation I just plopped myself down in my sled, a very big no no. He picked up my sled and moved it a foot over, in my sleeping bag and bivy I attempted to hop on top of it. Which looks about as funny as it sounds. We laughed and he scooped me up and set me on my sled. I snuggled in and closed my eyes.
It’s debatable whether or not I slept. It just felt so good to rest, but soon my wet feet were chilled, and then my body started to shiver. I rolled off of my sled and sat up in the morning brightness. The sun had not risen, so I guessed we stopped for less than an hour. I told Christaino that I was leaving as I gathered myself. Very cold now from stopping, I shoved everything into my sled, made sure he was awake and charged into the dawn. Not wanting to eat food because of a nauseous stomach that was plaguing me for the last day, it was time for a Gummie Bear Drip. Yes! Life and sugar pulsed through me and I was moving fast over the last flat portion. Just stopping to rest my eyes worked wonders and I was once again hauling ass! Now that I was alive, my mistake from the night before came crashing down. I had not taken care of myself and pushed it to the point where my decision making skills were compromised, stopping on the trail, you IDIOT! I angry cried and hoped to find Robbie again before the end to apologize. Shaking it off, and shoving two gummies in my mouth, I easily took down the last few miles. Getting to the bog was wonderful! It was here last year where I totally cried my butt off, I laughed at myself and how weak and dumb I had been, completely forgetting the mistakes and tears made earlier on the trail this very morning. Isn’t life grand!
Gummie Bear Drip maintained, the Arrowhead trail wound through the marsh and trees, a bright sun and blue sky lit up my whole world. It was perfectly beautiful. Turning a corner, I saw a car and my heart leaped thinking it was my parents… then sagged seeing that it wasn’t….then leaped again seeing that it indeed WAS! My Mom climbed out and I stopped at the top of the hill and did a little dance. We laughed and hugged each other, 1.5 miles to go! Jon and Randy were just ahead so I headed down the last portion trying to catch them. What a beautiful day it was, walking through the trees, and when I saw the snow fences I wept with joy. Odd that I had been surrounded by beautiful scenery for two and a half days and it was an orange plastic fence that got the water works started. I thanked the trail for passage, and said goodbye vowing to be back next year.
The finish was amazing, Mom, Fred, and Jennifer were there along with a few other volunteers. We talked excitedly at each other and took pictures, the fatigue of the last few days gone. The trail was packed and easy, I had pr’d by HOURS without even trying! Heading into the casino finally, I passed the final gear check and went into the room with the other participants. Everyone has the same look on their faces, and the same waddle! I walked over to Ken and told him it was too easy, he said he would work on making it harder next year. I was reunited with my watch, which FRED found under the bed I was sleeping on! When Robbie came in I apologized for putting him in that position, I want to be an ambassador for my sport and in that moment I failed. We hugged and I was calmed by his reassurance, was again floored by the efforts and care that the snowmobilers have for us, Todd, Robbie, and others who were faceless helmets for days.
My friends were all accounted for, celebrating in their red faced and fatigued way, and I began The Feed. Two buffets, one for dinner, one for breakfast, that is all I wanted in the world, and a good sleep. Mom, Fred, and I ate like kings, we swapped stories and began planning for Actif. It was awesome celebrating with them, it makes the whole thing worthwhile, having them there, but they were tired too from 25 hours of volunteering at Melgeorges, so we made an early night of it. I slept easy, the Arrowhead is the One for me, I was grateful to be there, the sadness wouldn’t come for a few days and I already miss it. But that next morning at breakfast more war stories were swapped, more orange juice drank, and talk of the Order continued. One more. When I finish it I’ll be only the second woman to do so in the foot division.