A Human Powered Race Through Northern Minnesota in February
By Bill Shand
“Hello, this is Richard Chin. I'm calling from…” ” Oh great, another telephone survey. It was Saturday morning and I was packing for an adventure. A telephone survey was not going to happen. I was about to hang up when he said “…ththe Pioneer Free Press in St Paul. I'm a reporter covering the Arrowhead 135.” OK, this is interesting. I talked for about a half an hour, mostly about why I would enter such an event and what equipment I would be using. I hung up and continued with my packing. It's pretty rare that I get called by a reporter. I was a little flattered I guess. Pierre must have given him my number.
I have known Pierre Ostor since we did the Iditasport 100 together in Alaska. The following year he talked me into doing the Iditasport Extreme, a 350 mile winter race in Alaska. Now, here I was answering another email from Pierre. This time, he was the race organizer. He promised a 135 mile trail, a finish line, and a T-shirt. How could I resist an offer like that?
The race course followed the entire length of the Arrowhead State Trail from the border town of International Falls to the Bay View Lodge on Lake Vermillion near Tower, Minnesota. This is a snow machine trail in the winter. We would be using human power. This is the first year for the race and Pierre managed to gather twelve people who were willing to sign up for the challenge. Only ten would actually show up to start.
I have a passion for long distance mountain bike racing and winter events seem to favour my skills, likely because it is cold where I live for most of the year.
Pierre is always willing to take on very difficult events. He can bike or run in both summer and winter. The guy just keeps on going. Only seven days before this race he completed the Susitna 100 on foot in Alaska. Now he was here to do this race on a bike. I think that he might be crazy.
Matt Evingson is an experienced Mountain Bike Racer who wanted to take on a winter challenge.
Richard and Laurie Woodbury have done lots of long distance mountain bike races. They always travel together. This would be their first winter event.
Ron Kadera owns a bike shop in Minnesota. He wanted to take his long distance achievements to a higher level. He would be attempting the event on skis.
Michael Foster is a Major in the US Military. He lives in Georgia and just returned from Iraq. He had some leave to take and found this event on the internet. He has never done a winter event or even experienced winter conditions. I think that he might be crazy too. He would be on a bike.
Brian Robinson is a very experienced ultra distance runner from California who was also looking for a winter challenge. He would be attempting the event on foot.
Brian Block is from Iowa. He has experience with winter conditions having done a fair bit of high altitude mountain climbing. He would attempt this event on a bike.
Finally, Josh Peterson is an experienced mountain bike racer who has never done a winter event. He has been out of the racing scene for a while and wanted to try a long distance event.
We met at the Chocolate Moose Factory restaurant in International Falls to go over some race details and to generally get to know each other before the race. It was such a great atmosphere. We were a small group of people who all knew each other by first name at the end of the meeting. We also had a two person snow machine volunteer group who would pick anyone up who decided to scratch. They also joined in our meeting. It was good to know who our snow machine friends were out on the trail.
I had a restless sleep at the hotel that night. Nervous anticipation about the challenge that lies ahead was keeping sleep away. I did eventually get to sleep but it was restless. There is something about an unknown trail and a race that has never been done before that really makes me question my decision to do this. I was getting cold feet.
I forced those thoughts out of my mind and focused on my morning routine: coffee, cereal, get dressed, more coffee, a final quick equipment check, and off to the start line.
Day 1 - Feb 28, 2005
We did the pre-race photos and then took off at 7:00am. The trail out of International Falls was hard and fast. It was cool (+9F) but not too cold and the wind was at our back. It was such a great way to start the race. After about a half an hour of riding with Brian Block and Josh, I pulled into the lead and started to put some distance between myself and the rest of the field. I was keeping a close eye on my heart rate, being careful not to let it go too high. The area was flat so it was pretty easy to ride at a constant rate.
This continued for a few hours when a rider caught up to me. It was Matt Evingson. He had missed the start by a few minutes so it had taken him a while to catch up to me. We rode together for a couple of minutes but I soon realized that I would not be able to keep up with him. My heart rate was screaming into the high 160's just trying to ride behind him. I let him go. For me to try to ride that pace would be really bad after a few hours.
If Matt could ride at that pace for the entire race then he would easily win.
The sun was out and it was getting really warm. Not enough to melt the snow but it was enough to cause me to start to overheat. Too much sweating would not be good at all. For one thing, I had a limited water supply and I was depending on it to last me until the first refill point. The second issue is that I know that it is going to get cold at night. If I'm soaked with sweat when the cold comes, it is going to be a big problem.
I kept going until mile 40 where the trail pops out near the main highway and comes within sight of a gas station. This is our first refill point. I didn't want to waste any time so I got right to work. The first order of business was a refill of water for my Camelbac. I had been conserving water until now because I wasn't really sure how long it was going to take me to get to this gas station. It was pretty nice to know that I could drink all that I wanted to now. I bought a Gatorade, a Coke, and a Coffee Crisp bar. The Coke and Gatorade were gone before the cashier had a chance to ring them into the till. I put the Coffee Crisp in my pocket and decided that it would be a little reward for myself when I made it to the first checkpoint, 45 miles away.
I headed out with renewed energy. Pierre was pulling into the gas station at about the time that I was pulling out. We didn't talk long. A quick “How are you doing?” and “Have a nice day.” Neither of us wanted to lose time with idle chitchat. There would be lots of time for that at the finish line.
A short distance up the trail I met John Evingson coming back down the trail. John is Matt's brother. He drove his van to where the trail intersects the road and then rode his bike with Matt for a little while. I saw the extra bike tracks but until now I couldn't figure out where the extra tracks came from. For a while I thought that someone might have passed me without me noticing. Now I knew. John told me that Matt was about a half hour ahead of me.
Seeing tracks ahead is very comforting. While it is nice to be in the lead of the race, it is also nice to know that you are on the right trail. There was very little snow machine traffic so I could follow Matt's tracks without difficulty.
The flat terrain turned into rolling hills as the afternoon moved along. I heard that this would happen and for me it was nice to use a few different muscles. You can make good time riding on flat terrain but riding in one position for hours on end can really make everything pretty stiff. I was glad to see the change.
Now I saw something that I had not seen before, footprints in the snow. The footprints were beside Matt's bike tracks and that could mean only one thing, Matt was walking. Each time the trail turned to an incline, the footprints appeared. Matt was walking all of the uphill sections and I was still riding with no problem. I had to be catching him. This perked me up a bit. It is always nice to know that you are riding in places that others have had to walk.
At around 3:00pm my body reached steady state. This often happens to me in long races and today was no exception. I was no longer getting more sore or more tired. Parts that were sore or tired were still sore and tired but they were not getting any worse. This is one of my favourite parts of a race. Up until then, every part of my body is constantly changing. It is a steady revolt against what I am trying to make it do. For some reason, at eight hours, my body adapts to what is happening. I know that I can now keep going for quite a long time before a second revolt occurs.
I think that this is what people describe as being “in the zone”. Everything just feels right. My heart rate has settled into a constant range, barely changing, uphill or down. The trail, the bike, and me were no longer three separate entities working against each other. We were one, working together, flowing together.
At one point the trail pointed up, I geared down and started the climb. My glasses fogged over so I just closed my eyes and let the trail and bike guide me. I arrived at the top of the climb, perfectly on track. It was a bit of an out of body experience.
The rolling hills continued to become steeper and steeper. Sometimes I had to get off and walk but it was not often and not for long. At around 5:00pm, I came flying down a hill and geared down to start climbing the next. When I started pedaling, a loud “snap” came from my back wheel. All pedal resistance disappeared and the bike coasted to a quick stop.
My race was over.
I simply could not believe what was happening. Everything was going so well. I inspected the drive train and found the free hub was no longer engaging. This is an internal problem with the hub. There was no way that I know of to predict that this part was about to fail. Yet, there it was, no longer functioning.
“Maybe it is just frozen”, I thought. I have seen that happen before when it gets colder than -20F outside and the grease inside the hub becomes too thick. I checked my thermometer, it was +15F. It was very unlikely that my hub was frozen.
I have seen a free hub fail like this only one other time in all of my years of biking. I've been riding a bike for 31 years. On that occasion, we were on a group mountain bike training ride. My friend Dave geared down to climb a hill, a loud “snap” came from his rear hub, and he coasted to a quick stop. His ride for the day was over. I still remember watching him push his bike back toward town as the rest of us continued on. Now I was the one doing the pushing.
I started walking down the trail. To say that I was frustrated would be the understatement of the year. Everything was going by so slowly. Three miles per hour was the best pace that I could do. I had not seen a snow machine or another racer for hours. It was getting dark. There would not likely be another snow machine tonight. This would be a long walk.
I knew that Pierre was coming somewhere behind me. Maybe I was missing something. Maybe there was an easy solution to this problem. If there was a solution, Pierre would know it. I looked forward to him catching me.
After about an hour of walking, I looked back and saw Pierre. “What's going on?” he asked.
“My bike is #@$%ed”, I answered. I showed him the problem.
“There's not much that you can do about that,” was his only comment. We discussed what to do next. I would have to walk to the next lodge. Once there, I would phone Pierre's wife, Cheryl. She is a race official. If I was lucky, someone behind us has dropped out of the race and there would be a wheel sitting at the checkpoint. Since there was no way to bring a wheel to me, I would likely have to walk to the checkpoint.
There were a lot of “ifs” in our conversation. Pierre left. One thing was for certain; I had to keep walking. I removed the Coffee Crisp bar from my pocket and ate it. There would be no checkpoint reward.
I maintained my three mile per hour pace and started doing some math to figure out what I was up against here. Several hours prior to my breakdown, I saw a sign for a lodge called Mel George's. I calculated that I would arrive at that lodge when my odometer reached mile 75. I was currently at mile 61 and I had already walked about three miles. So I had to walk a total of 17 miles to get to the next building. At three miles per hour, I had at least 4.5 more hours of walking ahead of me.
The sun went down and the temperature plunged. I put on all of my extra clothes and just kept plodding along. More math. After Mel George's, the next checkpoint was another 17 miles away. If I had to walk, that meant another 5.5 hours of walking. I really wasn't up for that. If I was certain that there was another wheel available then I would do it. Otherwise, I decided that I was out of the race.
That was a pretty tough realization for me. I've been racing bikes for 12 years and have never dropped out of a race in all that time. DNF has never been written beside my name. It would be today. I felt like throwing my bike in the woods and leaving it there to rot. The trail, my bike and me were no longer one. We were three separate items fighting against each other every step of the way.
I decided that it was only my reaction to this situation that would dictate how I remember this experience. I refused to be a victim. I had a mechanical breakdown, nothing more and nothing less. I have seen many people breakdown and drop out of races over the years. It happens all the time. Today it happened to me. End of story.
The stars were amazing that night. I normally would not be able to really look up at the stars while riding. OK, maybe there was one advantage to being on foot.
At around 8:30pm I reached a sign that said “Mel George's - 6 miles”. That meant two more hours of walking. My feet were beginning to complain. My winter biking boots are really made for biking, not walking. That said, I walked 160 miles in them during the Iditasport Extreme. On that occasion, I had multiple blisters on both feet and thought that I may have permanently damaged them. I did not want to go through that again. That memory only reinforced my decision to not walk past Mel George's.
At 10:30pm, Mel George's did finally appear. It was a sight for sore eyes. Pierre was there several hours earlier and had let them know that I was broken down and that I was planning to walk there. They stayed open well after their normal closing time to wait for me.
There was no rush now like at the gas station earlier in the day. I brought my bike in to thaw and the bartender made me a sandwich. They were the greatest people. After a short time, another employee wanted to see if it was possible to repair the bike. I didn't get his name so I now call him Mel George Guy (MGG). He got his propane torch and we gently heated the free hub, still clinging to the idea that it might be frozen. We had absolutely no success.
So that was it, my last hope to repair the bike was dashed. I decided to call Cheryl and let her know that I was out of the race unless she had a spare wheel in her back pocket. I tried all of the numbers on my phone list given out at the pre-race meeting but there was no answer at any of them. So I was stuck. We waited half an hour and tried the numbers again. Still no answer. The lodge had rooms so I said good night to the staff and went to one of the rooms.
Once in my room I had a shower and ate a bit more food. I took out my cell phone to let my wife, Joanne, know that I was out of the race. I opened the phone and found that there was actually enough signal strength to make a call. I started dialling and realized that up until now I had not actually announced to anyone that I was out of the race. I remembered a motivational speech that I attended several years ago by three time Iditarod Dog Sled Race champion Martin Buser. In his speech he talked about his formula that allows him to never drop out of a race. One element of that formula was to always wait until morning before dropping out. I remember his words like I heard them yesterday, “Things have a way of changing when the sun comes up.” I hung up my cell phone and turned on the TV. The movie “Kill Bill” was on. I turned it off and went to bed.
Morning came, the sun came up, but nothing changed. I turned on CNN and sat by the window of my room looking out at another beautiful day. A biker walked through the parking lot and up the trail. Now I was really feeling sorry for myself. I was certain that everyone passed me during the night. Even though I was out of the race, it still hurt to get passed.
I heard some noise outside my door and looked out to see what was happening. It was Ron Kadera, the bike shop owner from Minneapolis. He arrived at 2:00am, found a room, and stayed the night. I told him about my problem. Once again I was clinging to the hope that there was something that I did not think of and the hub could be easily repaired. I showed him the problem. “There's not much that you can do about that,” he said. The statement sounded familiar.
Ron left and I sat in the restaurant with MGG. After about our third cup of coffee he suggested that we call my list of phone numbers again. Maybe someone would be there now.
“Hello, this is Richard Chin”. The voice sounded familiar but there was no one named Richard on the race committee. “I'm a reporter from the Pioneer Press in St Paul. I spoke to you on Saturday”. Now I knew who Richard was. I told him about my bike problem, told him that I was stuck here and asked him if he minded picking me up. He said that he did not mind, he wanted to do an interview anyway. “By the way, I brought my bike with me, you can use the back wheel if you like.” Boy, am I glad that I didn't hang up on him last Saturday.
I'm back in the race! Richard arrived about 20 minutes later and after a few minor adjustments, I had his wheel working perfectly on my bike. I gathered all my stuff and hit trail by 10:30am. I couldn't believe my luck. Fuelled by coffee and cereal from Mel George's I rode hard. I hoped to catch at least a few of the people who passed me during the night.
The day was sunny with a slight tail wind. It couldn't have been more perfect. The trail was hard packed and after a cool evening the night before, conditions were fast. I rode the 17 miles to the checkpoint non-stop and arrived there in just under two hours.
Myrtle Lake was the only official checkpoint of the race. There was a cabin with some food and our re-supply bags. I re-stocked my bike with food, re-filled my Camelbac with water and sat down at the table to have a bowl of stew. Ron and Michael Foster had both just arrived at the checkpoint. Michael was the biker that I saw walking through the parking lot at Mel George's earlier that morning. He told his story of the previous day. He got tired of biking at some point so he walked almost non-stop all night. This guy is from Georgia and the temperature dropped to -17F that night. Michael said that he was never so cold in all his life!
I looked at the sign in/out sheet and quickly noticed that only Pierre and Matt had been through the checkpoint. How could that be? I walked for 5.5 hours the day before and then sat at Mel George's for 12 hours waiting for a wheel. I figured that my total delay time due to my wheel problem was over 15 hours. In all that time, none of the others caught up? I didn't argue. I finished my meal and left the checkpoint in third place. Only Pierre and Matt were ahead of me.
The trail after Myrtle Lake was described on the web site as “rolling hills”. Well, they rolled all right. They rolled straight up and straight down. I am amazed the snow machines don't have trouble climbing these hills. It was a steady routine of coasting down a hill and walking up the next. There was very little pedalling required. This continued for about three hours and then the hills abruptly came to an end. It was like they were just switched off and the trail was suddenly flat again.
I focused on pure speed now. Constantly looking for the best section of trail. It was 50 miles from Myrtle Lake to the finish line. I knew that I could do this in one shot. No stops would be required for food or water.
I felt even better on this day than I did the day before. I was back in the “zone” and it was great. The ride was now very flat. No hills at all. Darkness arrived but nothing changed for me. I was able to maintain the same speed as in daylight. I eventually came to a sign that said “Bay View Lodge - 2 miles” and an arrow pointing down a new trail. Bay View Lodge is the finish line. I was almost there.
Another fork in the trail showed “Bay View Lake Access in one direction and “Highway 77” in the other direction. Neither sign said Bay View Lodge so I looked for Pierre's bike tracks. I found them heading in the direction of Highway 77. I followed.
After what seemed like forever I popped out at Highway 77. The trail went parallel to the highway. This was wrong. The trail was supposed to cross the highway. I looked again for Pierre's tracks and now I could not find them.
I saw some lights on at a house down the highway so I went there to ask for directions. I hate backtracking if there is any way to avoid it. The guy who answered the door said that I was less than a mile away and showed me which way to go. I rode up Highway 77 in the dark. There was no traffic thank goodness.
A sign appeared, “Bay View Lodge - ˝ mile”.
My legs started to shake. Not because I was cold but because I realized that I was actually going to finish this thing.
I rolled into the lodge and heard the familiar voice of Cheryl and Pierre yelling to me. It was over. I finished the race in third place. Total time - 37 hrs and 13 minutes.
Pierre arrived four hours before me and Matt finished four hours before him. Matt had to go back to Minneapolis right away so he was already gone by the time that I got there. I never got the chance to congratulate him.
I had a shower and went into the restaurant at the lodge to order a meal. Here I discovered almost everyone else who was entered in the race. So now I understood why people did not pass me during my night at Mel George's. They were all having problems of their own.
The Woodbury's dropped out at the gas station on the first day. I'm not too sure why. They picked up their bags and were already gone.
Brian Robinson dropped out at the checkpoint due to frostbite on his hands. He showed me his blisters on all ten fingers. At least he still had all ten fingers. It could have been much worse.
Brian Block had problems with his rear derailleur from the very beginning of the race. He eventually dropped out because of it.
Josh Peterson dropped out at the checkpoint due to exhaustion.
Ron and Michael were still on the trail.
I ordered my meal and the bartender told me the kitchen was closed. I guess that she must have seen my face drop. She said that she would see what she could do. A few minutes later a full steak dinner arrived. The people around here are so nice!
At 1:49am Ron opened the door to the cabin and the cold air woke me immediately. I congratulated him and told him to shut the door! He was skiing for the last few hours in his full down parka. It was really cold out there. We all worried a bit about Michael from Georgia. I figured that if he could survive Iraq, Minnesota should be a piece of cake.
Pierre and I got up at 6:00am and had some coffee. As soon as the sun came up Pierre woke John and Rao, our two person snow machine volunteer group. He asked them to go looking for Michael. It was -19F.
About three hours later the snow machines returned. Michael was ten miles away and doing fine. He had a flat front tire and was pushing his bike but otherwise in great shape! This was exactly the news that we wanted to hear. Brian Block took the front wheel from my bike, strapped it to Pierre's bike and set out to ride the rest of the race in to the Finish with Michael.
A few hours later they arrived at the finish. Once again, Michael had walked all night. It turned out that Michael's pump was frozen. Once he warmed it up he was able to pump up his tire and ride again. He never used my wheel.
This race was certainly more than I signed up for. For one thing, I actually travelled 140 miles according to my odometer even though the race was only 135. The detour to the gas station, the detour across Myrtle Lake and the finish line problem all added up to five extra miles. I expected to finish in under a day. I almost didn't finish at all. I expected heavy snow machine traffic and I was prepared for all of the verbal abuse they would throw my way. There was actually almost no snow machine traffic. Those that I did meet always slowed down and waved.
The point to point aspect of this race is the most appealing part for me. You never know what lies around the next corner. It was a completely unknown trail.
I came looking for an adventure. I certainly found one.