Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Final Chapter

By Eric Peterson

We turned off the main road and into the abyss of dark with the lights of civilization slowly disappearing behind us.  I had heard about this section of the race from others and although I was apprehensive I was also very excited.  Countless steep climbs and white knuckled descents sounded exactly like my kind of terrain.  The nature of this section of trail made the darkness seem rather vast and my world quite small since all you can see is the small area of snow illuminated by your headlamp.

My legs felt fresh and strong still but my intentions were to hold them back since I didn’t yet know what to expect and the ridiculousness of this event popped into my head repeatedly.  Am I really riding 135 miles on snow?  Am I really going to ride for over 24 hours?  People are settling into bed right now and we are just getting started on the second half of this craziness.  I smiled to myself and couldn’t help but laugh a little bit.  There is nowhere else I’d rather be right now.

I found this whole section of trail to not only be quite easy but also my favorite.  We walked a lot of the steep up hills and blasted the down hills.  To me every ascent was a rite of passage to the screaming exhilaration that followed over and over again.  Call me sick, but I love the limited visibility at high speeds combined with the unpredictability of the snowmobile packed trail.  So on this up and down circus went for hours and hours without incident until Mike and Ken realized that we should be coming up on The Teepee of Despair shortly.  We would crest a hill and they would say that ‘it should be just over the next hill’….  Just to find that when we crested that next hill it wasn’t there, so it must be ‘just over the next hill.’  After several hours of this build up and let down desperation started to set in and I became worried that somehow we had missed a turn.  Ken’s power at this point was quickly depleting and we started stopping more frequently.  I was in front at this point and I noticed that they had stopped behind me, so I did the same, got some food, and looked around as usual. 

I had grown accustomed to seeing reflective signage thru the woods at this point and when I looked ahead I saw what I thought was another sign off in the distance, but when I turned my head it continued to glow.  It took me a while to process what was happening since it was 2:30 AM but finally I realized that it must be the checkpoint.  I yelled back to Ken and Mike, hopped on the bike, and blasted up to the teepee.  The people at the checkpoint rang a cowbell as we approached which reminded me of my downhill ski racing days.  It’s amazing how much motivation a simple cowbell can give a person.  We climbed into the teepee and each had three cups of hot cocoa which was like drinking liquid amazingness! 

We hung out for quite a while and I felt that fire inside me start to grow again.  My legs became anxious to push hard once more and it was time to go.  We mounted our steeds and headed off again into the darkness.  I was seemingly growing stronger Mike and Ken were growing tired so we decided that I would ride up front which I was happy to do.  We crested wakemup hill and knew we had it in the bag.  There was plenty more trail left but it was mostly flat swampland.  Easy pickings.  We hammered our way thru the woods and Ken got worse and worse.  He begged us to leave him but we wouldn’t do it.  We hung together all night and it just wouldn’t be right to leave him at this point.  After several hours of this and with our pace slowing to a crawl he finally got us to just go.  We were only six miles out and he was convinced that he would finish, but he just needed some time. 

By now I was jacked on adrenaline knowing that I was going to finish which made my legs feel like they could lift a car.  I told Mike to just hang on behind me and off we went.  The sky was starting to lighten and we were flying.  We whipped thru the swampland like we were being chased by a pack of angry wolves and when we crossed the last road I told Mike that I wanted to sprint the finish.  I jumped up a few gears and off I went with no idea how much further I had to go.  It didn’t matter.  I cranked thru the soft snow pushing faster and faster.  I pushed so hard on my pedals that I thought they would break off, and then finally it appeared.  The finish.  I cruised thru to the most amazing feeling ever.  After I checked in and got some food, Dad picked me up and we headed to the cabin where I took a sauna and went to sleep (18 or so hours which was broken up only by dinner)…..

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Part 4

By Eric Peterson
I reluctantly rode thru the soft junk snow for the next hour or so until something wonderful happened.  Up from behind came some new faces and with it an escape from the prison of mental misery for which I currently resided.  Some people came and went but I ended up riding with Jason Novak from Rochester for most of this leg.  It was a treat to talk to him while we rode and it totally revitalized me, but he on the other hand was getting worse and worse in comparison.  This leg of the race starts to get hilly and it felt great to get off and push the bike.  As dusk started to approach, Jason sensed that he was holding me back and he told me to go on ahead.  This was his third year racing the Arrowhead and he said that it’s really great for morale if I made it to the next checkpoint before dark.  I was reluctant to leave him but since I knew we were getting quite close I decided that it was time to let the legs do what they had been begging me to do for quite some time. 

I hopped on the bike and opened up the throttle a little bit.  The speed felt really nice and my legs felt strong.  I pushed a little harder for several miles and then finally there it was.  Elephant Lake.  Joy poured over me like a hard rain and I felt the fire within grow.  This new found drive was incredibly invigorating and when my tire touched the lake it was go time.  I shifted up a couple gears, cranked the cadence to my max, and “let ‘er buck.”  I felt like a brand new race car.  My body floated motionless across the landscape while my legs mashed down on the pedals like the pistons in a fine tuned engine.  The cold bite of the now much stronger wind felt amazing on my bare face and before I knew it I was at the next checkpoint just before dark. 

I pulled up on the shore and there was my dad.  It was great to see him and he pointed me to the check in cabin.  I ditched the bike and walked in.  It was incredible in there with racers and volunteers everywhere.  I found a chair and started to strip down to my base layer.  The volunteers in there were like angels.  They filled my camelback, made me grilled cheese, got me soup, poured me a cup of coffee….  It was incredible.  Not too long after I got settled in Jason showed up.  He told me he wasn’t doing too great and if he didn’t start feeling better he was going to drop the race which he ended up eventually doing. 

After an hour and a half of eating and enjoying the warm company of fellow racers I decided it was time to go.  Apparently my timing was perfect because I hit the trail at the same time as Ken and Mike.  I quickly rode up behind them to ask if I could tag along and they said that would be fine.  At this point twelve hours had passed since the start, it was night time, and we were now headed into the most challenging leg of the race…..

Monday, February 6, 2012

Part 3

Part 3

By Eric Peterson

The first ten miles of the race are on an old railroad grade, but now we make a sharp turn to the east and it’s time for things to get interesting.  The Arrowhead trail meanders its way thru some really fascinating terrain which frequently dips thru otherwise unused swamps and marshlands.  These lowlands are rather difficult to travel thru during the summer and due to the soft trail conditions they are not all that easy for the race.  I started out with pretty high pressure in the tires and I’m feeling like I would be more comfortable at a lower pressure so I stop to make some adjustments.  I’ve had the idea that I should drop pressure for some time now, but I just hadn’t been able to tare myself away from the tire in front of me and the group that I was with.  I pull to the side of the trail and the group pulls away, so I change to my light weight gloves, get some food, drink some water, and adjust the tires.  I pause for a second before taking off again to listen for something and I hear it.  Silence.  It’s the kind of silence that you can only get in the woods during the winter.  I do most of my riding near Duluth and it is never quite as peaceful as this. 

Now that the group I was riding with is gone I’m alone which feels great, although this early in the race people aren’t too spread out yet so soon I hear someone behind me.  Several of us would end up kind of riding together for the next ten miles or so.  One would pull away but then would stop to drink water and we would catch up.  Then the trail would get smooth and I’d pull away only to have them catch back up when it was rough.  Finally we split up totally and I finished the first leg uneventfully by myself.  My dad was waiting at the checkpoint and we went into the store for some soup and to take a break.  The Gateway General Store was a mess of racers, workers, and volunteers.  I was a little lethargic at that point so stepping into that place was like walking into a beehive.  I kicked off my boots and sat down to eat my soup at a table which was terribly out of place.  It was obviously set up for the race and I greatly appreciated it even though I was really uncomfortable eating there.  Something about eating food in a grocery type store just seemed odd.  I looked around and saw grocery store type things like shore lunch and flower, a cooler with soda, one with ice cream sandwiches, and gift shop trinkets, but there I was in my bike gear eating soup.  It was weird but I was glad to have had the chance to sit down for a bit, eat some soup, and chat with my father.

I hopped back on the bike feeling completely refreshed and was riding down the short spur trail which happened to be completely chewed up from spectators walking on it.  I was really looking forward to getting back on some hard packed bike tracks, but when I got there they were gone.  Apparently some snowmobiles had gone by when I was at the checkpoint and now the trail was mush.  Previously, when you would go off the packed bike tracks it was crusty but now it was like riding thru lumpy mashed potatoes.  I noticed my speed was drastically slower than earlier in the day and I could feel the darkness of frustration setting in.  It was like a cancer from behind the brain slowly devouring my motivation, but somehow I rode on.  Soon I saw a track and I tried to ride it, but it didn’t offer much relief from the dreaded mash potatoes.  Creeping up on me from behind was an emotionally dark place and I just couldn't ride fast enough to outrun it.  The world around me was closing and I had myself convinced that I could never finish this thing, but then out of nowhere another track would mysteriously appear and then another as if to tell me to keep going…….

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Part 2

Arrowhead 135 Ultra

By Eric Peterson

 Of all the professional shots taken at the start this is definitely my favorite, and it was taken by my father with his smart phone.

The temperature is just barely above zero and I’m pretty cold which is good, since if you are not cold at the start then you are overdressed.  The strategy is to stay just a little bit cold all the time in order to keep at bay the number one enemy.  Sweat.  Hydration and nutrition are key in an event like this and excessive sweating means extra hydration will be needed.  Not to mention clothing becomes wet and the insulating properties of any garment are greatly hindered when wet.

When the gun went off the entire group lurched forward and before I knew it we were all in single file.  The movement felt rehearsed and strangely comforting which was a very pleasant surprise.  What I found next brought me back to reality in a hurry.  The unpredictability of the trail proved to be something that I wasn’t prepared for.  I would be riding along having a good ol time and then without warning, bam, the bike would sort of kick out sideways.  This wonderful phenomenon was caused by everyone riding on the “path of least resistance,” which in this case is the track made by the twenty or so bikes in front.  This “sweet spot”  ends up being roughly six inches wide with little raised edges which holds your tires in the track.  This is all fine and dandy until your body wanders outside this track, but because of that little edge, your tires don’t want to follow.  The result is a momentary front tire skid followed by the tire breaking thru the edge of the sweet spot and the bike shooting several feet sideways across the trail.  Needless to say, this is very exciting in the dark.  The whole thing takes place in a nanosecond and the recovery, if executed skillfully, can put you back into the sweet spot in less than a second.  The first time it happened I almost peed my pants, although I’m not entirely sure that I didn’t.  After it happened a few more times (the sliding, not the peeing) I noticed that it was happening to most everyone else and I started to feel a little better.  The thought of riding like this for 135 miles quickly became rather daunting and I started to rather seriously wonder if I have what it takes to finish this thing.  

The Arrowhead is all about quandaries just like this.  Do I continue doing what I’m doing and suffer thru crappy conditions?  Do I give up?  Or do I find some way to make this easier on myself.  It sounds simple and rather minor in context but this is one of those life defining situations.  Problem solving is something that I am very good at and my mind starts to race with possible solutions and related experiences.  Information starts flooding in from so deep in the catacombs of my intellect that I momentarily forget where I am and I almost ride right off the side of the trail.  I regain my composure and try to hold back the flood gates of information so I can devote at least some concentration to actually riding the bike.  After a few miles I develop a process for tackling the task at hand and I find myself quite at ease on the bike again.  The sun is starting to rise and I find myself looking around to enjoy the scenery.  The pack has started to spread out at this point and I’m cruising along with four or five other bikers.  We come up on a ranch that has horses and when we ride past they run next to the fence parallel with us and at about the same speed.  There is about five adult horses with two or three smaller yearlings all running together with their mains flowing together behind them as though they are one.   It’s a beautiful thing to behold.  I picture a family having a picnic at the beach on a sunny summer day and the parents running with their children down to the water for the first time.  I allow the emotion of the experience to overtake me and I feel that I could stay in this moment forever, but I’m brought back to reality as quickly as I drifted off by my tire grabbing the edge of a rut.  I almost crash again.  “Ride your bike idiot,” I think to myself.  This is going to be a long race…..

More to come later.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Big Dance

Arrowhead 135 Ultra

Part 1: By Eric Peterson

The dreaming started years ago….. 

Many can attest to my thoughts of the AH over the past 8 years being quite different than they are now.  I used to be in the “that’s crazy” crowd, which I must admit is astoundingly enormous, but over the past few years I have somehow migrated to the “challenge yourself” crowd.  It has been a transformation which has pushed and prodded me along this rocky uphill path to greater self-awareness.  I only mention this because knowing the “why” is what this event is all about, and the answers to that question are limitless.

I find myself driving up to International Falls on Saturday for the mandatory gear check with so much excitement that I can barely sit still.  I get there and walk into the conference room and there he is, the legend, Dave Pramann sitting behind his laptop checking in the racers.  I check in and he shakes my hand.  Awesome.  The room is so packed with people and gear that you can hardly see the carpet, and instantly my stomach feels like it has just imploded.  I cruise back to the truck to get my gear for inspection and jump back in line.  I get thru the gear check in what seems like hours but I know that it was only minutes.  My gear is good to go and the paperwork is done.  Walking back to the truck I feel a sense of relief so amazing that it’s like a warm blanket on a cold night……. And I can’t help but smile.

Dad and I drive back up the next day for the racers meeting and spaghetti feed.  That evening I happen across Charlie Farrow in the pool area.  We chat for a while, and I end up helping him haul some gear to his car.  On the way we see Pramann who is headed to the hotel bar so we join him.  The two of them regale me with tales of past events which is certainly an awe inspiring experience.  I would happily listen all night long but I need to try to get some rest, for Monday is going to be a long day.  I hit the pillow and try to sleep but it just isn't happening.  How surprising.  The alarm goes of at 5:30 and with maybe 3 hours of rest I’m ready to go by 6:30.  I run into Charlie in the lobby and we end up riding over to the start together which is about 8 blocks away.  He tells me to grab onto the lead group right away and I respond with a laugh.  Jay Petervary and many other elites are in that group, so there is no chance for me to hang with them.  Simply to finish is merely the goal.  Next he tells me not to bivy.  If I get tired, “just push the bike for an hour or two.  It’ll come back to you,” (more on the irony of this statement later) which sounds like something that I would definitely try if need be.  We get to the start and check in.  It’s a sea of chaos with cars, bikes, skiers, runners, and sleds everywhere.  Blinking lights, headlamps, and reflective vests in the dark make the whole scene feel surreal.  "Can this really be happening?  Am I still sleeping," I think to myself.  I pull off my glove and put my hand to my exposed face.  It's cold to the touch and I see my breath in the crisp morning air.  Yeah, this is real.  6 minutes before the start Pramann comes by with the bullhorn telling everyone to line up on the trail head.  I sneak into the middle of the pack, get situated, fiddle with my gear, and bang.  It’s a mad dash for the finish which at this point feels like it’s on the other side of the world........

More to come later.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


If we are lucky, coming soon we will have a guest blogger making his second post on this blog.  He will be doing a writeup as a participant in the 2012 Arrowhead 135 Ultra.  I am really looking forward to reading his firsthand account.