Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Story from Spencer

Here's Spencer's recount of a truely Epic race. Enjoy.....

" ...the report of my death was highly exaggerated."
My Arrowhead 135 report

I ran across the website for the Arrowhead 135 over one year ago while trying to find a solution for cold hands and feet. I commute 5 miles to and from work but the “cold” temperatures were making the commute less than comfortable. The ICEBIKE website was helpful for clothing tips but I also started reading about endurance rides in Alaska and Minnesota. After reading Bill Shand’s article about the first Arrowhead 135, I was hooked.

I am a road cyclist who loves to tour and do randonneuring. The world is an amazing place and I love to see it from the seat of a bicycle. There is something about feeling every hill, smelling the air, having the time to see a bee land on a flower that makes it great to be alive. With the thought of the Arrowhead dancing in my head, my buddies and I toured mid-Minnesota in July. We didn’t have enough time to ride up to International Falls and see the Arrowhead trail so the desire to see that part of the country started to really burn.

Soon fall came and before a cool ride in late November, I checked the Arrowhead site and found that the race roster was almost filled. In a panic, I checked my calendar and called my wife to get permission to ride. I quickly registered and filled out the paperwork and mailed it in. I dropped the letter in the post and then it hit me. I am committed and I don’t even know what I am doing. I printed out all the ride reports I could find along with the required survival gear. I poured over them and then came to the realization that I didn’t have wide enough rims or big enough tires for the event and my last real snow riding was on my Schwinn Stingray when I was a child in Iowa.

This started the search for wide rims. Snowcat rims are a double-wide rim that will fit on standard mountain bikes. I started down this road but found that they are no longer being made. I talked to the local bike shop because being a road cyclist, I know nothing about mountain bike rims and tires. They gave me a funny look but worked hard to give me some options to fit my 15 y/o Cannondale. I kept reading more and more about winter riding and then ran across descriptions of the Surly Pugsley. I spent a couple of sleepless nights fretting over my options and then finally printed off my ideas of what I would want my PUGS to be and rode to the local bike shop. While trying to explain what I wanted, I felt like I was speaking a different language but eventually we had a plan to get a frame, cantilever brakes, single speed and a fixed gear Large Marge wheel set and Endomorph tires. Soon Shawn had the bike in and when I first saw the PUGS, I was in shock. Those tires were huge! Oh well, too late now, I wrote out the check and loaded up the frame set and the wheels and drove it home to build it up.

I did a lot of riding with my new bike fully loaded. I went out on hilly gravel roads for 5 to 6 hours at a time and also commuted with it. I took Kent Peterson’s advice and practiced with many different foods as well as doing the freezer test. My 8 y/o son Henry helped me with this. We would take a potential food and place it in the freezer overnight and then try to eat it in the morning for breakfast. It was fun and quickly narrowed the list of foods that I could take on the ride.

It was soon time for the race so I drove to my father’s house in Iowa after work on February 2nd. We loaded up the gear on Saturday and started out for International Falls. It was really nice having my dad with me to chat and help with the driving. We made good time and got to the hotel at 5pm. I assumed that I would be too late to get my gear checked but Don Clark (self described “Gear Nazi”) was still there and I hurried to pull my stuff out of the truck. He went through all of my “required gear” and made sure it was at least 15 lbs. I had my photo taken with my gear probably as proof that I had it at sometime and to help with the identification of my body at the morgue. I then went back to the truck and realized that it was really cold out. Like –20°F cold. All I could think was: “Your not in Kansas (or Missouri) anymore, Toto!”

Soon Monday morning came and I woke up 15 minutes before my alarm went off. I jumped in the shower and got my clothes on and went to breakfast with my father. We chatted with some of the other riders and had a nice breakfast. All of my neurons were firing with nervous excitement. The time is near and the Weather Channel says it is –28°F (actual temperature, not wind chill). We load my bike up in the truck and he takes me to the start 10 miles south of International Falls. I get out of the truck and get my bike on the road and then give my race number (#34) to Cheryl at 08:05 am and headed west for about 9 miles to the turn around.

My goggles quickly fogged up and I switched to lab goggles. They also froze up so I am now down to my prescription glasses. They seem to be holding out pretty well with the exception that my eye lashes keep freezing to the glass. I am feeling warm but my legs feel heavy and my stomach is bloated from the pancakes. I tone it down and then get to what appears to be the turn around point. There was to be a snowmobile at the checkpoint to prevent anyone from cutting miles. In its absence, I decided to take off my Foxwear coat and put on my Showers Pass gortex rain jacket and get some water. As I pull the pop bottles (filled with water) out of my back jersey pockets, I noticed that by stuffing all my food and 1/2 of my water into a wool jersey, it hung well below the coat and was starting the process of freezing. Ooops, I quickly adjusted and put the pop bottles down the front of my jerseys and decided to drink some Ensure. When I opened the bottle, it was frozen solid. I grabbed a second and a third and they were the same. I packed them into my panniers and then went for the gorp that I had placed in water bottles on the frame. I was able to eat the gorp and soon the snowmobile was there. I guess they had problems because of the cold. Oh well, soon I was off and really enjoyed seeing other bikers/walkers/skiers. The tail wind and the packed trail made this section go by quickly. Soon I was across the highway and back onto the Arrowhead Trail. I look down and saw that a number of cyclists have already come through. I glanced around and saw a beautiful forest and the bright sun on this wonderful cold day.

This part of the route was not as packed as the previous section and I wondered if I should stop and wait for more cyclists to pass me in order to better pack the trail. I decide against it because I wanted to spend as little time as possible out at night due to the predicted low near –30°F. Eventually I pass a few cyclists and started to see the trail roll a little bit. It was nice to get my butt up off the seat and stand up. I crossed a road at 35 miles and give them my race number and headed down the trail thinking that the convenience store was only about 3 or 4 miles away. After covering that distance, I stopped because I was now out of the 1 liter of fluid I had under my coat and needed to get into my 1.5 liter Isotherm container. I found the top was frozen tight. I took off my outer gloves and bang the container on various trees trying to free it of the ice. Soon Ben Wacker pulled up on his SS mountain bike and I asked him if the store was up ahead. He tells me that it was back at the last road but that he didn’t want to stop and disrupt his “groove.” He pulls of his coat and camelback and takes a big drink out of the top because his tube had frozen. I was amazed as he hoped back on his bike and cruised down the trail. His news of missing the store hits me like a ton of bricks because I realized I have no stops until mile 75. Against my better judgement I took off my left hand glove liner and cranked on the Isotherm bottle. After about two minutes the ice finally gives in and it was open. I was elated as I filled my two 500 ml bottles. I went to put my outer gloves but wondered why my left hand won’t go in. I pulled my hand out and tried it two more times before feeling my left fingers and finding two of them as hard as a rock. My mind freaked out but I stuck my hand under my arm pit for a few minutes. They were still hard so I stuck them inside my tights but it didn’t help either. I dug out a hand warmer and with my right hand, wrapped the fingers of my left hand around it. I shoved my glove on and started down the trail before I started to chill.

I put my head down and followed the tire tracks in a trance. My mind felt like it just had a huge dose of caffeine injected into it. I was cussing myself for being so stupid and wondering what I would do if it didn’t improve soon. I came to another road and notice the tracks go right along the road. I follow it but wondered why there was only one set. As I started to believe I was on the wrong road, I looked up and saw Jim’s Ash Trail Store. My mind was part elation and part confusion because I didn’t think there was another stop along the trail. I got to the store and saw a cool Surly Karate Monkey parked outside. I grab some coffee and some food and start to talk to the kind soul who got me to this oasis. He explained were we were and how to get back to the trail. I forcefully wrapped my cold fingers around the coffee and chatted for a while. As he got ready to go, I told him that I would see him down the trail. He stops, looks me square in the face and tells me that he is wet and that 35 miles is all he is going today. I tried to talk him out of it and to dry his clothes in the store. He wouldn’t hear any of it, after telling me for the fourth time that he is going on, I think to myself, dude it is only 2pm, we have 60 hours to finish but he was soon out the door and I turned my attention to my hot dog and coffee.

As I was sitting there, a gentleman comes up and introduces himself as a reported for The Timberjay Newpaper and asked to talk to me. I told him that it was fine as long as I didn’t have to move from the booth. We chatted for a while as I ate and drank. Soon we were done, my fingers had thawed , I filled all my water bottles and headed out the door to the trail.

I had talked to Dave Pramann while watching the Super Bowl the night before. He told me that the route was pretty hilly and tough from about mile 50 to 110. As I neared this point of the ride, I was wondering if I was up to the challenge. I was struggling up the trail when I saw the first footprints in the snow. I assumed it was Ben since the prints were pretty big and he was on a single speed. I assumed that people like me, without variable gears, would be walking a lot of the middle stretch. I was on a 32 x 20 fixed gear so I jumped off the bike and started pushing. I spent much of the next grueling 25 miles to Melgeorge mounting and dismounting the Pugsley. I got so tired doing it that I was having trouble kicking my right leg over the seat to remount.

Much of the next section was a little foggy in my mind. I do remember turning on my lights and putting my reflective gear near sundown. I looked down to my cyclocomputer to see how far I had gone but it was not registering. It too had succumbed to the cold. I kept pushing the bike and repeating to my self a quote from Yoda: “Do or do not, there is not try. Do or do not, there is no try. Do or do not, there is not try.” It appeared to help as I continued to make very slow but steady progress.

I was pushing the Pugs when I heard a snowmobile coming up from behind. It stopped next to me as I stopped to see what he wanted. He ask: “how are you doing?” I tried to say “fine” a few times but my frozen balaclava made it too hard to understand. I finally pulled the balaclava down so my voice could be heard. When I told him that I was doing fine he told me that I was “looking good” as well as “looking strong.” I ask him how far it was to Melgeorge and he said about 6 or 7 miles. I was crushed but thought if I was looking good, I wondered how everyone behind me was doing. I was starting to chill so I continued to push my bike up the ungroomed trail as one of my favorite Iggy Pop tunes was pumped into my ear by my iPOD.

I am the passenger
And I ride and I ride
I ride through the citys backside
I see the stars come out of the sky
Yeah, theyre bright in a hollow sky
You know it looks so good tonight

Darkness soon swallowed the trail and the temperature really started to drop. Soon I was covered in frost but thankfully my wool jerseys felt like they were drying up. I eventually came to Elephant Lake and tried to ride the Pugs again. It was slow going due to the snow and my fatigued legs. I quickly gave up and dismounted again and started pushing. I concentrated on the lights across the lake and started to watch my breath as it was caught by my headlamp. I am not sure if I was seeing things but it appeared that as my breath came out of my mouth it would turn to frost or snow and fall to the lake. I watched it over and over in amazement and I eventually made it to the lake shore and was told that the cabin was still 200 meters away. I was again floored, I couldn’t believe that I had to push that Surly ballast for another 200 meters but put my head down and pressed on.

I parked my bike and walked into the checkpoint at 10:30pm. It was alive with riders about ready to head out. Charlie Farrow was there keeping the group awake and alive. An angel made me some soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. I drank some Mountain Dew and ate cookies as life started seeping back into me. Cheryl found out what room my dad was staying and then I pushed my bike back another 200 meters to the Inn and made my way to the room. I took a shower and went to bed as I had planned weeks before. I told my dad that I would plan to leave at 7am when the sun came up. I wanted to maximize my daylight riding (or walking) and shoot to be at Bay View between 5 to 7 pm on Tuesday.

The morning was non-eventful and I had a breakfast of three previously frozen Ensures, two Red Bulls, and a 20 oz Diet Mountain Dew. I checked out and reviewed the directions to get back on the trail and headed out. It was reported to be about –30°F but I was riding with newly energized legs. Soon after getting back on the trail, the conditions got terrible again and then some really big hills began to appear. It was really slow going. Thank goodness I had my iPOD to get me through this section. The mix of punk on my iPOD and remembering many of Bob Fitzpatrick’s corny jokes (a morning riding partner) kept my spirits up despite all the walking.

The sunny day was wonderful and the landscape was breathtaking. My hands were a bit cold so I was glad to have a fixed gear. This way when there was a downhill section that I could ride, I could brake with my legs by skidding. In fact it was such a blast that I was bombing down more than a few of them. I even hit a dip on a downhill while going about 20 mph and was totally airborne before I crashed into the deep snow beside the trail. This section would have been better if I would have been able to ride the flats and the hills. I finally got the courage to look at my watch and it was already 1pm and I was only about 20 miles into the days ride. I still had 41 more miles! At this point, I was sure I had walked at least 3/4th of the miles so far. I started doing the math in my head: if I pushed my bike at 2.5 mph and take a one minute break every 15 minutes, I calculated how far I could get by sundown. I then consulted the map and started trying to plan out available shelters to camp for the night. This planning kept my mind busy as I prepared for the worse case scenario.

"Strength does not come from physical capacity.
It comes from an indomitable will."
-Gandhi

The trail started to improve and I got into a section in which I could ride. I pushed my bike to the top of the hill late in the afternoon to find another rider lying on the ground. I was thinking the worst when I ask him how he was. I found out that his name was Bill Shand and he told me he was taking a break and was doing OK. I suggested that he get out something to lay on so he didn’t get hypothermia. He either didn’t hear my suggestion or was unphased by it (I later find out he was from Canada). I guess I should have kept my Missouri mouth shut since he was obviously much more experienced with cold weather than I.

He suggested that I push on because he was doing fine. Needless to say, I was still a little worried about him so I kept looking back to be sure he was still moving. He appeared to be doing fine but we yo-yo’d back and forth because he was on a geared bike with a free wheel and I was on a fixed gear. The trail greatly improved and I was able to ride all except the steep hills. Things started to look brighter and I started to feel better.

It was now late afternoon when I finished the rest of the 2 liters of fluid I was carrying under my coat for the day. I stopped and tried to get into my Isotherm bottle for the other 1.5 liters of water. As the previous day, the top was frozen on the bottle. I tried a few things to get the lid off but was not going to make the same mistake of taking off my glove liners again. I would just have to go without water for as long as possible. I was hoping that the better trail conditions might get me to the Lodge between 8 and 10 pm that night.

Soon darkness was upon us as we crested the last major hill. I stopped to take some photos but my camera was now frozen. The cold was affecting most of my equipment but thankfully my bike was doing well. I looked up at the brilliant sky but started getting sleepy. I dug into my handlebar bag and pulled out some of my secret weapons: chocolate covered expresso beans and expresso flavored Hammer Gel. I got some into my system and within 20 minutes the sleepiness started to fade and I was beginning to really enjoy the bright stars.

I talked to Bill at the next couple of stops. I finally realize he wrote the story that initially got me interested in doing this ride. Despite his experience, he kept telling me I was riding a lot faster and to keep going but I knew he had a GPS and the experience of getting to the Bay View Lodge, so I told him I was sticking with him. We were able to ride the nicely groomed trail but our stops became much more frequent. Eventually we rode for 15 minutes and then walked for a couple of minutes and then repeated the sequence. I was getting very thirsty but kept moving and eating. Soon we made it to a sign that said “Bay View Lodge 2 miles”. I was elated. I stopped to point out the sign to Bill but he ask me: “Do you want to finish together?” I said something like “Heck yes I do.” We turned and pushed our bikes up the next to last hill on the way to the lodge.

At 9:05 pm we got to the end and entered the lodge. I must have had a huge smile on my face as I felt warmth for the first time in over 14 hours. I looked around the room and was very happy to see my dad in the corner. We chatted and ate and I finally called my wife to let her know that I hadn’t frozen to death. When I talked to her, she asks me were I was. I told her that I had finished and was at the lodge. She said, no your not, the blog said you DNF’d yesterday. This caught me totally off guard as she told me she had fielded many phone calls from very concerned friends and family who wondered what had happened to me. I assured her that I had finished and had never gotten any assistance along the route. After I hung up, I ask Cheryl about my wife’s comment. She said she would check into it because according to her records, I was an official finisher. Her comment was enough for me as I ate pizza and talked to the other finishers before packing my gear and going to bed.

It is good for a journey to have an end,
but in the end,
what matters is the journey.

After I arrived home in Missouri, I checked the Arrowhead website. It appears that racer #42 had DNF’d and they must have looked down the list and thought my age (42 yrs) was my number and that I didn’t finish. I fielded some phone calls and many e-mails about the ride and what had happened. I found it very flattering that so many people followed the ride so closely. I am a bit embarrassed by all of the attention because it was just a bike ride. A riding buddy of mine (Bob FitzPatrick) suggested a Mark Twain as a good title for my report: " ...the report of my death was highly exaggerated."He He would appear to know much more about cold weather than I.






When ask to define the value of putting oneself through this amount of suffering, he pauses for a moment before answering. "That's a good qualifying criteria - was it a good race? Well, did you learn something about yourself? Did you have a cool adventure?"
- John Stamstad

1 comment:

jspell said...

Great write up! I really enjoyed reading it. Spencer, That must have been an awesome experience and you have humbled all of us who think a 2 hour ride in the snow is tough! Keep it Up!