*Irena and biking brings out this smile. Note my mini companion…
In the four days leading up to the Arrowhead this year, more Life happened than I was prepared for. Leading up to the race itself I was scrambling, treading water, running blind trying to balance work and training. This Arrowhead was so incredibly symbolic, I know I should feel worse about my DNF, but I don’t.
My goal this year was to finish Tuscobia on foot, Ski Arrowhead, and Bike Actif Epica, for an A’Touis Order. With Tuscobia 160 done (thanks to my own tenacity and grit in tough conditions plus Fireball whiskey) it was time to prepare for the Big One. Gear for Arrowhead included some SWEET Fischer back country skis from Gear West, and borrowed poles for my sled. The gear for skiing and foot was almost identical which helped, just some tweaking here and there. Kate and I got some long training miles in at Theodore Wirth Park doing loops and testing gear, including her pump since she was still nursing. Looking back we actually got some awesome k’s this year, the last being the St. Croix 40, midwest’s newest Winter Ultra. THAT race was basically a Bitch Slap from the park for 40 miles, tons of ice, very little kick, and Kate’s sled tried to murder me. You should definitely do it. Long story short we were physically and mentally ready for the ski. We drove up to Tower pre race to get on the trail, it was cold (-40) and the snow was sticky, essentially it was the conditions that we would expect race day. Everything was on par when less than 10 miles in, Kate’s binding sheared off her ski. We were now in a position where not only would we have to scramble to get skis before the race, but now we faced an even bigger problem that we wouldn’t have known unless we went out on the trail pre race; our pace was not fast enough to make the cut offs. Even when we were working HARD the sleds and skis were anchors in the cold hard snow. So we made a last minute decision to do the bike instead. Last minute is an understatement.
About three weeks earlier I had purchased a Framed fatty with the intention of doing the Arrowhead next year by bike, one year to train ought to do it right? WRONG! I hadn’t even been on the damn thing, and now Kate and I were driving back to the cities Friday before the race emailing, calling, ordering gear and supplies. It was all hands on deck to get me to the start. Getting back to the city, we stopped at Gear West to tune bikes, and Steve Tannen’s house to pick up bike bags. On that drive home, I got a message from Paul about Randy. After scrambling all day I got home at 6pm. Erik was there, we hugged, turned around and went straight to the hospital.
What can I say? It was the last time I spoke with my friend. I wanted to take up his time, talk to him, ask him questions, hold his hand. But there is never enough time, a few hours later we left. I was so angry and sad of what was happening, but also so incredibly grateful for that broken binding for without it, I would have missed those last few minutes entirely. I was so grateful to be close.
The next day was a blur of last minute items, new boots, borrowed gear, trying to figure out how to fit pogies on my handle bars. What was my nutrition going to look like? No clue! It was a whole new game. I believed as long as I was adaptable and didn’t freak out… I would be fine. Sunday we made the trek to International falls. I loved the drive, northern Minnesota was so puffy and white! Erik, Brian, and I shared a room and it was tiny; plum chuck full of gear plus me trying to figure out where all this crap is supposed to go! Kate has a friend named Dave who was going to meet me in the parking lot of the hotel to donate more gear to The Cause. He handed me things that were completely alien, but would somehow carry everything I needed to not turn into a popsicle out there. Priority number one.
After the race meeting, and getting showered with advice from people I “know” via social media but have never talked to, aka, anyone who does the bike division, it was time to go back to the hotel and load everything. It all fit amazingly, but I decided to take a tiny pack filled with Oh Shit gear just in case (major good call on my part). I was full of love and support from these people, friends and strangers, who had no reason to advise or help but did. There were a few moments of clarity in the chaos. It was only a few years ago that I did my first winter ultra. Previously I believed in order to be strong I needed to be alone no exceptions. All of the time in every way. Tuscobia 160 in 2016 was when that wall was kicked down by, you guessed it, Randy and Paul. On that blurry cold and long night, he wouldn’t let me do it alone even though I repeatedly told him I was fine. The result? Well after the constant puking and pooping from my new partners subsided, the best days on the trail with my Guys. I unlocked my heart and it was the beginning of some awesome friendships with Randy, Jeff, Paul, and Daniel… fine Scott too.
The morning of the race, after final preparations and decisions were made, it was time. Brian assured me that I at least looked like I knew what I was doing. To dial in my clothes, I decided to bike to the start, less than a mile away. I felt like a queen on my fancy new bike loaded up with coats and snacks. One block to the start, it felt like things were getting hard. I looked down in a panic… and my rear tire was FLAT. Ohhh My Fucking WHAT IS HAPPENING!?!!? So I get into to the already chaotic warming room and am VERY aware that I cannot lose my shit because I KNOW EVERYONE HERE!!!! I missed New York SO BAD at that moment as I was unable to disappear in the noise! SO! I am trying to find out how to fix a tubeless tire because, you guessed it, I have NEVER done that before. Meanwhile people kept asking me stupid questions like:
“Good morning Kari, how are you?”
“What kind of rims do you have?”
“What sealant did you use?”
“Have you ridden this bike before?”
No dammit! To all of it, to everything! I…was…. freaking…. out.
Talking to my Mom outside Steve Cannon overheard and added that if we pump up the tires, they may reseal and hold, and the flat was probably due to taking it outside and jumping on right away. Good enough for me! So there I was, pumping up my tires like a crazy person, the fireworks went off, and the bike division would start any second. Finally I got them firm enough, hugged my Mom and took off. Well… took off sounds like I was going fast. “I went on my way” is a little more accurate, the bikes and skiers had already left. Those first few miles were great, I was just puttering along as the sun rose all pink and beautiful, and I took Randy into my heart. We were going to have a great race together.
Three miles later I thought “this is getting hard”… OH NOOOOOO!!!! I look down and my TIRE IS FLAT! I climbed off and when I did, could hear my Mom’s cowbell. There must be a road nearby. But I was the last biker, anyone who could even potentially help is long gone. My day was done. I cried into my sparkly goggles, apologizing to my friend for failing almost immediately. I got to my Mom, told her what happened and that it was over. Then, a biker comes squeak squeaking by and asked if he could help. I shut him down, it was a tubeless flat and I’m done, it’s a race and he was unsupported and I would not take a tube from him, so I told him to go! He climbed off of his bike, pulled a tube out, flipped my bike over and started working on the tire. I was dumbfounded. Number 32, I kept repeating to myself, do NOT forget his number. Then Ken came over and I said laughing to my Mom “Oh God Ken’s here act like you know what you’re doing!” 32 left and Ken and I kept on the painstaking task of filling the tire with this tiny pump in the cold. Once full I tried to detach the pump the valve popped off and the tire would deflate! There we were, pink goop staining the snow trying to figure this out. THEN Chris Scotch comes over, we had already tried three times but with Chris’s special tool the tire was finally full! Oh I’m sorry am I boring you with all this tire crap? Because during this WHOLE time I was having a FREAKING HEART ATTACK!!!!
It took four people. Four. But I was back in business! Leaving my Mom and a pile of pink snow behind, on to Gateway I went. The perfect part about this was I got to schmooze with all of my friends as I puttered along because during the tire escapade the entire foot division passed by. I got to say HI and send well wishes to my friends on foot. I missed them, and it, on this super cold morning.
In my imagination, being on the bike meant I would go super fast. What I found was, no matter WHAT you do, Gateway ALWAYS takes a million years to get to. But what a great ride, I coasted through the long forests of the trail, the sun rose, and I was the master of all I surveyed. It was glorious. It was also very cool to see the lead pack runners, Scott and Carla, and Carl, all just looking normal but kicking some serious butt at the same time!
Getting to Gateway was nice, I needed to dry out my layers big time. It was so cold, but all I had on was a base layer, a light midlayer, and my shell and I was still sweating big time. Also, because I was still working out the kinks, I still had to stop riding in order to drink and eat, I needed a refuel. I bought some Gatorade and soup to have a mini feast, adding the drink to my hydration bladder that now consisted of Tailwind, Carbo Pro, and Gatorade! Surprisingly tasty! It was here in Gateway next to the icecream where I chatted and made some new buddies, one of which was Lynn Estes, drying out his Empire Wool poncho. Bob Marsh was awesome taking pictures and dishing out encouragement but before long, it was time to go! I climbed on my bike dry and refueled. Just a bit down the trail Lynn was stopped at the intersection, he’s someone I’ve known only in passing LITERALLY as he does bike and I do foot. “Are you ok?” I ask….
“Just waiting on you”
I gulp. My mind going back to that first Tuscobia 160, when leaving Ojibwa and Randy saying those words to me after I insisted he and Paul head out. There was so much Randy on the trail just in the last 7 hours I could barely handle it. Ok let’s do it! We head down the trail together and right away come to the spot, just last year, where My Guys, the Hrimthurs ran down to Kate and I, laughing and skipping to escort us to Gateway. The tears kept coming as I passed this very special place, but now I noticed something fun was happening! I realized all the years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen this section in daylight, what a treat! As Lynn and I biked the 40 or so miles to MelGeorges, he gave me little nuggets of advice for the bike division. Out of everything, the one I used the most was “Don’t try to overpower the bike by steering it”, essentially, on the downhills, just let her go! Not something a control freak like me can easily do, but every down hill got better and better! There were a couple doozies where I was standing on one peddle with the other leg on the ground trying to keep the bike upright on the downhill. THOSE were awesome! I was having a BLAST!
And I LOVED riding with Lynn, hearing his story, soaking up his expertise, and just getting some good company on the trail was so awesome! There was a warming tent at Sheep Ranch Road, this year only, and we stopped to take advantage of it. I took the opportunity to put tape on my face, the wind was kicking and the burn I got on my cheeks the Thursday before was barking at me. Armed with hand warmers and Joe Stillers encouraging “19 miles to MelGeorges” cheer we headed off into the night. I was still wearing the same layers as the temperatures dropped. The bike was weird, I was hot and sweaty but cold all at the same time. Still carrying my pack with the Oh Shit layers, I felt confident that if my bike exploded, I had the tools to stay warm and get to safety if need be.
I have no idea how cold it got that night, but during the race, they closed Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois… so it was THAT cold!
But what a beautiful night. The stars were AMAZING, it was also 100% humidity, so up and down the hills we went, bright stars above, and snowflakes falling all around. Everytime I went downhill I said a little prayer, not really trusting my ability quite yet. Just as I was getting comfortable, we pass the sign indicating the lake was coming soon. Memories from years past flood my brain. Whether it is the first time or the last time, the crossing of Elephant Lake never disappoints. I get to the lake and stop, taking in the giant and humbling night sky, now completely open with bright shiny stars. Lynn pulls up and I fist bump him,
“Nice job. Let’s do this!”
Head down, I push hard to cover the two miles as quickly as possible. It’s always a head wind, but I focused on the red blinkie of a stranger ahead, having a little race in my head trying to catch him. The wind burned my cheeks and lungs, but soon we were at the edge of the lake, another crossing complete. I hopped off the bike and started hiking towards the cabin. The biker ahead of me took a left, at first I thought he had rented a cabin, but he looked lost, so I yelled through my face mask “wrong cabin! Hey biker!” It was all very nondescript!
Eventually he, Lynn and I walked into MelGeorges at 11:30pm.
I have wanted to sleep a ton here in the past, but never have enough time. But not this year! SO I peeled off my soaked layers, set them up to dry, ate a ton of food, and went up to sleep in one of the bedrooms. There was an incident with me talking to myself thinking I was alone…. and was NOT. But this race report will get too long if I list ALL of the stupid stuff I did.
I lay down and thought about the last time I was here, Randy and I were laying on the floor, holding hands laughing and crying about his 80 billion pound sled and the end of his race.
Sleeping too long, I get up and start packing. There is something to be said about not sleeping, the body doesn’t shut down which keeps me in my flight/fight mode. Personally my favorite modes! When I woke my body was DEEP in recovery mode. Like, “that was fun but now we binge eat and watch Netflix and sleep 12 hours a day” mode. I did myself no favors by sleeping that long. Not that it would have made a difference in the outcome, but I learned something for next year.
Knowing the next push would be a push for the finish, I loaded the bike with calories, dumping loose almonds and Swiss Rolls into my Mountain Feed Bag. 9 to 11 hours to Surly. I might be done the next morning! Kissing my Mom I walked down the trail. Two of the biggest climbs awaited but they would be great to warm up on. I had plenty of time, as long as I just kept moving along. Lynn was just getting up when I was leaving, having as much time as I did, I should have waited. I really should have waited.
Another fantastic morning WOW! Pink and blue and snowy trees everywhere! I was a bit chilly but I knew after those hills I’d be snug and warm. After the first climb I got on my bike and noticed right away I was a bit wobbly? Probably from sleeping too long and also from biking, the reality that I was now biking longer than I ever had made the feat of the Arrowhead and my lack of preparation seem laughable. WHAT was I thinking!? I rode down the Big One without incident (amazingly) and for once welcomed the climb up. Now I was COLD. Plus the sun was coming up and it was ridiculously beautiful! So I stopped to add layers and the fur ruff, made by Mom, to take the edge off. During this time two bikers passed me. “Well shit” I said to my bike, “I thought we were the last ones out here.”
Oh, at some point since the start I began having deep and meaningful conversations with my bike.
Climbing back on, the warmth gradually came back to my core and it felt wonderful. But…. my feet. Everything was fine except for my feet. So I picked up the pace,feeling a bit wobbly earlier was a red flag, my Engine was out and I needed to get it started again. The problem was, when I biked faster, the cold from the wind sucked the heat from my feet even more. So, I climbed off the bike and started hiking and running, Christ Scotch said earlier that he hiked for miles and miles to keep his feet, so I was mentally ready for it.
Three hours later however, and I still had stone cold feet. The situation was getting dangerous. I KNEW I could walk to Surly, less than 40 miles away, I had done it three times before dammit! But my feet were going to be the deciding factor, after hours pushing the bike to no avail the reality of the situation was clear. If I kept going, I would make it to Surly, but would most certainly have to drop there and probably would have to drop a few toes as well. I know how to stay warm on foot, but lacked the experience on how to fix this with my unfamiliar gear. I couldn’t be selfish (hard) and I needed to call it. Now my race was truly done.
But my heart wasn’t.
I would turn around and walk back to the last checkpoint which was who knows how far back. But I needed a few more minutes on the trail with Randy. There was this beautiful section of the trail, it was a perpetual curve, and the sun was rising just behind it. I just kept walking looking for something just around the corner. Wanting a little bit more time with him. A little bit more time living in a world where he is, here with us, pushing us to be better, more honest, more carefree. This curve in the trail didn’t end, it was me who had to let go, say goodbye, and turnaround.
*Randy and I last year on the trail before Gateway. Per usual, he’s happy, I’m tired!
Walking back now there was still a task to be done, and a long way to go before “warm.” Jeff was heading down the trail towards me on foot, I laughed and said “You’re going the wrong way” and seeing the shock on his face realized this was not my best joke. Heading down the trail after a road crossing, a man waiting for another participant ran down the trail after me yelling “you’re going the wrong way!” I explained that I was dropping and he suggested taking the road back to MelGeorges because it was faster. Tempting. But the TRAIL is where they will search for my body so I thanked him but passed. Then he offered to drive me back… ya’ll are CRAZY if you think I’d pass THAT up!
I threw my loaded bike in a snowbank faster than you can say “down with frostbite!” and we were off to MelGeorges! He had been in the race and dropped as well so I was in good company. Getting back to the cabin I headed in to surprise my Mom and Step Dad Fred who volunteer at MelGeorges Checkpoint every year. Almost immediately I sat down and pulled my socks off to look at my feet, the bottoms looked like they were filled with embalming fluid, I shit you not, and it was then I knew I made the right call. 70 miles biking on the glorious trails of the Arrowhead and NO frostbite. Mission accomplished.
Christ Scotch and I drove to pick up my abandoned bike and when we returned I saw the most spectacular sight, Eriks skis and poles standing upright in a snowbank. I practically ran inside to see him and we shared a long hug, his race was over as well.
We got to Fortune Bay Casino a day early, I was sad but still knew I made the right call so the sting wasn’t so bad. We had a dinner buffet, Mom, Fred, Erik, and I. Daniel was there as well so we had a jovial feast!
That night, I checked my facebook and noticed a bunch of people had been writing on Randy’s page, curious I clicked and saw “RIP Randy”….
My heart bottomed out. He left us when we were on the trail.
The next day, it was time to cheer my friends in, we cheered as Faye, Jeff, and Brian came in. An absolutely incredible feat! Faye and Brian were rookies and Jeff went unsupported. Inside, my stoic resolve disintegrated when I saw Daniel. We just sat there and hugged. I can’t say what it all meant to be together, my writing skills only go so far, but I will only say, I’m bonded with these guys, and that will never go away.
*Erik, Scott and I cheering in the humans.
There is risk in these events and they are not for the faint of heart. People are in danger of losing toes, fingers, and even their lives to compete in these Winter Ultras. We also risk our hearts, as our community grows, our community also diminishes. Is it all worth it? Well not the toes part, but as someone who wanted NO one, ever, I can honestly say that part is. People have shown kindness to me when I don’t deserve it. Strangers lending me gear and sharing insite. Friends and family have offered a seemingly endless amount of encouragement over the last four years that I could never repay but will always endeavor to. My thought, keep doing it. Keep taking care of eachother. Keep getting excited for each other.
I went home with new friendships and new goals. Lynn, Ken, John and I went on to complete Actif Epica in Winnipeg. Riding with those guys did at the time and continues today, to give me great happiness and hope. You all are the best part of my life.
*Wind swept snow fields in Canada…