Sunday, February 15, 2015

Arrowhead 135 2015

I don't even know where to begin. I haven't written a blog since the ugly (yet successful) Badwater of 2013.  I haven't raced since then either. Honestly, I haven't even run since then. But I need to get this down so I can remember my experiences for next time.

THE SICKNESS(es)  I have been trying to get back into running. Trying to get my fitness back. Trying to get my health back. And it has been one of those journeys of 2 steps forward, 3 steps back, 11 steps forward, 7 steps back and if you plug all of this into a magical metric the net result was yes, I improved my fitness, health and running ability but not very much. It has been a VERY slow process and has tested my patience.

Ultimately, for whatever reason, I decided that the Arrowhead 135 would be a perfect "come-back event". After my failed attempt in 2012 I have still dreamed of one day earning a coveted Arrowhead trophy. So I put in my application with a "veteran" status and hoped for the best. I got in and then realized..."Oh shit. Now everything has to come together."

So I started training, realizing that I had to train differently to accommodate my sluggish adrenals and lack of a fitness base. I started wearing a weighted back-pack for all runs with the cross country team and runs I did on my own.  I had to be careful though and not do too much too soon or too much to stress the adrenals.  I gradually increased my long runs to not really long enough until I realized that I needed to start focusing my "long" efforts to long walks while pulling the tire. So I did, gradually working that up to a 5 hour tire pull while maintaining a 15 minute mile or faster pace.

And that was my training. I got sick on Christmas day.  In an attempt to make a long sickness story short: I needed to get well fast so I could continue to train so I did everything, I mean everything, I needed to do to get better. I was in the middle of winter break, and being a teacher it meant I had no work obligations to deal with. So I rested and rested and rested. I did not run. I did not do anything but rest.  And still I got sicker. From Christmas day to the start of of Arrowhead on January 26th I developed pneumonia, the flu and a cold. I missed 10 days of work.  I did not run. I walked the dogs only twice.

THE GOALS  BUT because I didn't buy trip insurance on the the airline tickets I made the decision to go to Arrowhead anyway and just see what I could do.

I knew I wouldn't be running (my lungs couldn't handle it) so I would be walking as quickly as I could. I changed my goals from "earning the trophy" to "doing nothing fatal" and "being smart about my body".  I had no idea what I would be able to do but every single possibility was clearly visible in mind and I could feel in my heart.  I could see myself crossing the finish line, exhausted but elated, I could see myself dropping at the road crossing at mile 15 because my lungs wouldn't work, I could see making it to the first and even second check points but my lack of fitness forcing me to stop. I could see it all. So I changed my goals: I wanted to go as far as my body would allow. If I had to DNF it would be because of my body, not because of my mind.
Gear photo showing mandatory gear. Looking at my face though I can see how tired I felt. The pneumonia takes it all out of you. For my spare calories I took a bag of walnuts. Fuel this year was esbit tabs.
THE DECISIONS  The weather this year was predicted to be fairly mild, some snow in the forecast and mild temperatures, getting to above freezing during the day. Knowing I would be out there for a fair amount of time, and not moving very fast, I over-packed my sled with food and clothing. I thought that with the warm temperatures there was a greater possibility of sweating and moving slowly meant I would need more calories and warmer clothes. As my sled got heavier with gear I thought that I just didn't want to DNF because I needed something. I only wanted to DNF because of my body, not my mind or gear.

This time around I opted to use ropes instead of poles for my sled hook up. I managed to make it up to the snow one time to test this out and I was happy enough with the results. Honestly, I believe there are advantages and disadvantages to poles and ropes and it really just depends on what you want to deal with. I opted for ropes because they are much lighter and with my sickness and lack of fitness I needed the weight advantage.
This was the weather the weekend before the start. This would have "perfect" for race day. But really, anything is perfect. Just being there makes it perfect.
We woke up in International Falls on Monday at 5 a.m. with about 2 to 3 inches of fresh snow on the ground, more falling, and a slight breeze. The temperature was around 15 degrees F and it was getting warmer. I wore my warm running tights, a light weight, long sleeved smart wool layer, with a long sleeved biking jersey and my fleece jacket. I also started with a light weight beanie and a neck gator because of the wind. I wore my tall gore-tex gators because of the fresh snowfall and I am glad I did. The fresh snow which was melting a couple of hours into the race made these gators a smart choice.

For shoes I opted to wear my gore-tex trail runners (some sort of Salamon shoe), the same shoe I wore in 2012 (which I swore not to wear gore-tex shoes at Arrowhead as it was my biggest mistake in 2012). I hesitated wearing them because gore-tex is not breathable enough. However with the fresh snow and warming temperatures I felt it was my best choice. I wore only 1 pair of wool ski socks so there was a bit of space left in the shoe. My feet stayed dry from the outside and the inside this time whereas last time I wore two pairs of socks and my feet got damp.  I'm wondering if having more space made the shoes more breathable? Or it could just have been my slower pace this year. Either way, for the conditions this year I made a good shoe choice.

I again wore my insulated 3L camelbak, filled with hot water, tube down the sleeve. I carried no additional water on my sled. My strategy was to start the race very hydrated, drink my water quickly as needed (not to ration it) and fill up my body and camelbak at the checkpoints.  I knew this risked leaving me thirsty but it was a gamble I was willing to take. Given my effort level and time "out there" I felt this wasn't a big risk.

Learning from last time, I carried enough calories on my body to get me to the first checkpoint. I rigged an old "fanny pack" to be worn on my front but connected to the straps of my camelbak. In it I carried a few bars, several different flavors of trail mix, a large baggie of Fuel 100 Electrobites, my inhaler (for the pneumonia) and antibiotics. I also carried some foods in the back pockets of the biking jersey.

A belly full of breakfast and we headed to the start.

MOTION  And so we started on Monday morning at 7:04 a.m. sharp. I didn't run. I couldn't. There really isn't much to tell here. I was walking at a pretty solid clip, my sled had a lot of resistance. The problem with the warmer temperatures is that it makes the snow more difficult to pull a sled on. This happened in 2012 as well and was a big reason for my DNF.  This year it was ok. I was in a better place mentally and just thought I would take whatever nature had to give me. I would control what I could and enjoy what I couldn't.

At some point in the day I ended up walking a fair amount with Barb Owen. This was a super awesome experience for me as she had finished Arrowhead in 2011 (after finishing Brazil 135 two weeks prior and going on to finish Badwater 135 that summer) and I had read "all about her" as I was researching Arrowhead for my 2012 attempt. In that research I had elevated her to "super star" status so to be able to walk and talk with her was something I will cherish always. She was using Arrowhead as a training event for the 350 mile Iditarod in March and she pretty much has me convinced that someday I would like to attempt it. Some day.
At the 1st road crossing. Lungs feeling good. Sled is hard to pull. The sky was gray the entire time. Except at night when it was too dark to see. It was above freezing by this point. 
You get yourself all amped up for an event like Arrowhead. You want it to be cold. And arduous. And an adventure. But ultimately, it is an experience. No matter what happens or how it ends, it is your event, your day and your memories. I believe it is how you choose to experience it that determines how you experience it.

Barb and I eventually separated before Gateway (checkpoint 1, mile 35) and we each got to have some hours alone. I was feeling great, and moving consistently and knew I would be able to go on past Gateway as long as I made the time cut-off. I got there at 7 p.m. and spent 44 minutes taking care of business, including eating some good chili, drinking a Pepsi and filling up with water. John, Elena and our good friend Dave (from Ely, MN) were there and it was great to see them and get some hugs and some nasty humor directed at me.

Barb came in after me and spent about 2 minutes there and then left about 9 minutes before I did. I was hoping I would be able to catch her which I eventually did. We hiked together again for several hours but we had different plans and goals for the first night. She knew she would be chasing cut-offs and wanted to get in and out of Melgeorges as quickly as possible. I wanted to bivy the first night because I had no idea what my body had would be able to do and I wanted to experience a night in my bag on the side of the trail in the cold of northern Minnesota.

At 3 a.m. we went our separate ways. I decided to bivy and Barb kept moving on. I got out my sleeping pad, emergency blanket and sleeping bags and set everything up. My strategy for bivying was clear: pee before getting into the bag, eat and drink a ton before sleeping and then sleep. I peed 15 minutes before deciding to bivy so I made the mistake of thinking I didn't need to. As soon as I lay down, I could feel my chest/lungs start to get uncomfortable.  Then as I lay in my bag trying to cram a bunch of maple bacon jerky down my throat I had visions of choking to death so I had to stop eating. By 3:09 I set my alarm and closed my eyes. I didn't think I was tired but I was out like trout. Next thing I knew, I heard someone go by me on the trail and I could feel I needed to pee. I tried to forget about it and sleep more. Like that works. A bit later (minutes? seconds?) I heard someone else go by. Then I really had to pee. I tried to forget about it, but then I heard someone else go by. Then I had visions of peeing in my bag and having a mess to deal with. I looked at my phone and my alarm was set to go off in 3 minutes (at 4:23) so I called it a bivy and raced out of my bag so I could pee.

After getting up, my legs felt fresh, my head felt great but my chest was not so good. I used my inhaler and started down the trail.  There are some hills in this section so I got some really good down hill sledding in which was beyond fun and way easier to do with ropes compared to poles. (However, I wasn't exactly graceful or efficient at it. It takes some skill but worth the effort.)

And this was pretty much the end. I monitored my lungs and they never improved. To be true to my goal of being smart I had to honestly evaluate my health and the condition of my body. It was not an easy call. I would tell myself I was done and would stop at the next shelter but then as I looked at the snow in front of me I would remember that trophy and how much I wanted it and I would push harder. Then I would feel my lungs and remember my health, my shoulders would slump and I would know what the smart decision was. These two thoughts cycled back and forth as dawn brightened the gray sky.

And so at mile 59 (Black Dog Shelter) at about 6:30 a.m. I climbed back into my bivy and rested and waited for a ride to Melgeorges.  At 11:30 a.m. me and 3 other guys who dropped at the same spot headed out on a snowmobile rescue which was WAY FUN. I knew I accomplished my goals and the rest was about enjoying the experience: I listened to my body (I did no harm) and my mind was strong the entire time. It wasn't my "come back event" but it was a hell of a time and my soul was so happy to be out moving in beautiful country with wonderful people.  Simplicity.

MEMORIES  At some point before Gateway my hands were VERY swollen. Scary swollen.  I took my gloves off to show Barb and my fingertips were getting black. In an event like this, when you are hyper vigilant about everything going on with your body so you can fix it, Barb and I were both shocked to see my blackened finger tips and our minds raced with how we might fix the problem (which didn't make sense to be getting frost bite when the temperature was above freezing). After a processing delay we realized my fingers were stained black from the fabric of the gloves I was wearing.

Upon leaving Gateway it was around 8 p.m. and I suddenly felt like I was going the wrong way. I turned my phone on for the first time to check the GAIA gps. A text came through from my friend Linda, saying she was sending me all her love and energy. I texted her back, asking for her knees and legs instead. Then she called.  I got to talk to one of my best friends who was far away but felt so close at heart.

Elena, 14 years old, decided to experience the great white north this time around. She hung out with John and Dave and got to experience the ice highway, the cold (although it wasn't too bad) and the snow. She had more experiences than I will ever know about but she also hung out with two adult males and managed to keep herself entertained and sane without one of her trusted parents there. If you knew the type of humor that Dave has, you would understand how this impresses me. He is sort of a mix of sarcasm, bull shit, kindness and honesty. All the best types. Then throw John into the mix and it gets all kinds of not normal.
My girl. I'm so proud of her. She never once complained or gave me a reason to drop because of her. I was worried going into Arrowhead that I might use her presence as an excuse to drop ("Elena might be bored or uncomfortable without me.") I never once went there in my mind because she gave me no reason too. 
The email I got from Greg 10 days before the start. It was understanding, supportive and just what I needed to hear from someone who has "been there, done that". Thank you.

The support of John and my family and my friends. This was a tough thing to do, going into it as sick as I was. But there was never a doubt that there was a whole village of people who had my back and would support me no matter what but some who would hold me accountable to my decisions. My sister, Trenna, my friend, Janice. So many times during those 23.5 hours of being in the event I kept thinking of how lucky I am, how fortunate, to have such wonderful, caring and supportive people in my life. I didn't want to disappoint anyone but I knew that I couldn't really. This was only an event and a DNF wouldn't make me any less loved or cared about.

Almost not getting to go because the race fell on the first day of the semester. With special permission I was able to get the time off of work but I'm sure they will NEVER do that again. So my next Arrowhead attempt will be after I accrue 4 more personal leave days and the race falls on the last week of the semester OR I have quit teaching due to retirement or quitting teaching. Would I quit teaching to do an event? Anyone want to dare me?

So that was my event. It is February 15th and I'm still not fully healthy. There is some inflammation in my lungs but the fluid is gone. I can feel it on occasion. I haven't run yet but I'm looking forward to it. I'm excited to get out there and feel that freedom. And I got into Cascade Crest 100 which was my very first 100 mile finish. I'm really looking forward to the training and experiences I get to have on that journey.

(All pictures are from John Pearch. I didn't take any.)


  1. "Life is inherently risky. There is only one big risk you should avoid at all costs, and that is the risk of doing nothing." --Denis Waitley

    Well done, Heidi!

    1. Greg, Thank you again for your input and support. Your words meant a lot to me in that last week and while I was out there. It can be so hard to make decision, to do the smart thing (because what is "smart", really?) and still be true to the effort but your input made it easier.

      Also, Congrats on getting into Badwater! If you need any crew I might know of a person or two (actually two as my good friend Linda and I are an awesome working pair).

  2. Heidi,
    Thanks for the kind words, and thanks for posting your Arrowhead experience this year. When I was first preparing I read every Blog about Arrowhead that I could find. I learned a lot from those who didn't finish and respect them for allowing me to learn from their mistakes. I have a feeling our paths will cross again. Lisa Paulos

    1. Lisa, I can't wait for our paths to cross again. you are a genuine spirit and I hope that someone sometime can learn from my mistakes! maybe even myself!