Internatonal Falls Minnesota, 7am Feb 4 myself and 55 other runners started the Arrowhead 135 mile race. This would be my second attempt at the most dangerous race I have ever attempted! The temperature at the start was minus 9 deg F. The snow was soft do to 8 inches of snow that fell just a few days before the race. The soft snow made the going tougher and slower. My race strategy was to power walk the flat and uphill then run the downhills while pulling my 40 lb sled with survival gear and food. My plan was to stay on my feet, keep moving and take no breaks till the 35 mile check point. The cut offs at Arrowhead are very tough for me so a minimal rest strategy was what I was going with.
I felt good and was banging out 20 minute miles like clock work when another runner caught up to me at mile 30 after 10 hours of racing, It was about 5pm and the temperature was about 10 degrees the racer said “You look like a human snowball your fleece is all cover in frost! He then asked me “Are you sweating? I said “If I was sweating couldn’t that kill me.” He said ” Eventually yes!”. I replied “Then no I am not sweating!!” I try to always be positive!
At mile 34 It was now dark and about 6:30pm when I missed the turnoff to the 35 mile check point at Gateway. Two women on skis turned me around about a mile down the trail. I ended up going an extra 2 miles to the check point. It ended up costing me a precious 40 mins. I tried to put a positive spin on it by telling myself 2 miles is nothing it could have been a lot worse. When I finally arrived at the check point I asked my friend Roger ( who has climbed Mt Mckinley) if the frost on my fleece was from sweating? (I was in no hurry to freeze to death as the race was still early! ha ha! ) He said “No”. Oh the power of positive thinking!!!! I had stuck to my plan and not taken a break or been off my feet in the 12 1/2 hours since the race started. 26 of the 56 runners who started the race would not make it past the first check point.
I stayed at the check point 1 hr and 30 mins eating and drying my clothes preparing myself for the minus 20 degree weather that was now outside and the 12 hour trek I would be taking through the night to the 73 mile check point at Mel Georges. Four of us left the check point at the same time. I ended up pairing up with a college student named Ben from North Dakota. Our plan was to push all the way through the night with no sleep all the way to the 73 mile check point. At about 2 am we came across a lady walking,( the safety patrol guys say 1am is when all hell breaks loose because the temperature drops just as the racers are getting real tired! ) She told us her water was all frozen and she had quit an hour ago but nobody had come along to pick her up yet so she just kept walking to stay warm. We gave her some water and left her with the next guy we came across about a half hour later who also had quit with frozen water but also had to keep walking to stay warm. At 3 am the temperature dropped to minus 30 degrees. Anyone who tells you anything below a certain temperature is all the same is wrong! You could feel it in your bones as it got colder! At this same time we arrived at an unheated Tee Pee where my friend Ed had a fire and was serving hot chocolate at around mile 53. Here I would take my second break since the race started I had been going at it for 20 hours. Ed radioed out to the snow mobile safety patrol that they needed to go pick up the two people on the trail who had quit. I told Ed I felt great! He told me “But Bill you haven’t slept!” We left Ed’s Tee Pee after about a 30 min break.
As we got back on the trail I had jinxed myself. We were now in the hills and me and my new friend Ben were no longer feeling great! The fact is we were both falling asleep on our feet at the same time as the temperature dropped to minus 35 degrees. I told him we need to fight through this I said I am now Superman and you are the Terminator! Cold doesn’t bother us and we can’t be stopped!! We had left Ed’s Tee Pee with a 2 hour cushion on the cutoff. At 4am my camelback hose froze. I was wearing 4 layers of clothes and had the camelbak under 3 layers. I would take the hose out to drink when necessary. But as I got tired and delirious I left the hose out a few minutes to long in the minus 35 deg temperature and it had frozen solid! I put the hose back under all 3 layers and kept moving figuring it would thaw out from my body heat. After an hour it was still frozen solid! I had to drink. The last thing I wanted to do was stop in this cold. When you stop you are no longer generating heat and you freeze! I was also slowing drastically from the lack of water, I told the Terminator to go on without me. I had no choice but to stop and go for my spare water. I pulled off my harness at 5 am and in the dark of night ran quickly back to my sled to get to my spare water. I pulled on the zipper to the cover of my sled, nothing happened it was frozen and wouldn’t open! I reminded myself I was Superman and gave it a mighty yank and it opened. I grabbed my spare insulated water bottles that had been filled with boiling hot water at the last check point. I saw I had left the both zippers open about an inch and both bottles were frozen solid! I grabbed my insulated food bag yanked on it’s zipper and it just fell apart causing the cold air to get to my sandwiches and freeze them. I took a couple deep breaths to calm myself down and figured I better get in my sleeping bag and regroup. My friend the legendary Alaskan Racer Bill Merchant taught me always get in your sleeping bag while you still can! I was now starting to shake with hypothermia and figured I better get in my bag quick. I threw my pad down on the snow and put my sleeping bag on top of it. Then I reached for the zipper on my minus 20 degree rated sleeping bag and it wouldn’t open, it also was frozen shut! I tugged on it a few times and couldn’t get it to budge! I remember looking down at my fingers through delirious eyes in the dark and seeing totally black fingers and saying” Oh Crap this isn’t Good!” ” What have I done to my fingers!!! I then realized I still had my inner gloves on! I gave a big sigh of relief! I was really starting to shake with hypothermia and my fingers were now going numb! I decided If the sleeping bag wouldn’t open on the next try I would start running before I got any colder to generate heat back into my body. I summoned all my strength grabbed the zipper with my shaking hands gave it a mighty tug and broke it free and open it! I climbed in my sleeping bag and zipped the bag up over my head.
Although I had had my inner gloves on while I had fought the zipper wars. And they were way better then bare skin I knew they were no match for the minus 35 degree weather. My fingers definitely felt frozen. I knew they were also frost bit but I didn’t know how bad. I put them under my armpits and had to stifle a scream as the blood flowed back into them. After they thawed out, I said to myself well I guess I am out of the race everything is frozen and my fingers are frost bitten. I then heard a snowmobile coming up the trail. I crawled half out of my bag to flag him down, he already had another exhausted racer on the back of his snowmobile. I told him everything I had was frozen and I had frost bite on my fingers so I was out of the race. He told me the next check point was 15 miles away and he would drop off the other racer and then come back and get me! I laid down and fell asleep for an hour. I woke up really cold around 6am even with 4 layers on and in a minus 20 degree sleeping bag the wet minus 35 degree cold was again getting to me! I was so uncomfortably cold, I decided to get up and just start walking to stay warm till the snow mobile comes back for me.
I then saw three other racers coming up the trail they said were staying in the race and thought they could still make the cut off. I told them everything I had was frozen and I was waiting for the snow mobile. As I got up out of my sleeping bag I realized I had slept with my camelbak on. I thought I wonder if this possibly could have thawed it out? I then sucked on the hose and water came out. I also had slept with a couple sandwiches in the pockets of my jacket and they had thawed too!!! I decided to do positive thinking on my fingers and figure they weren’t that bad! I decided not take them out of my gloves to look at them! I would deal with them later!!!
I then said “Bradley get your ass moving you are out of excuses you are back in this thing!!” About 15 minutes later the snow mobile came back and asked if I wanted a ride? I said No I am good!!! I am going to push on!!!
It was now daylight I was at mile 59 I would have to average just over 20 minutes a mile to hit the 73 mile cut off about an hour early. I would have very little time to sleep when I got there as that cutoff is for leaving but I would just deal with it when I got there. I was strong for about an hour then I started nodding off as I was walking. In a desperate effort to stop the nods I tried laying on my sled and closing my eyes for a few minutes a couple times. But it was to no avail the battle with the nods would go on for 6 hours right to the 73 mile check point. I had lost all my cushion I would hit the check point with no time to spare. I remember wanting to call my dad to get his advice as I came up the final straightway. He had always helped me to find more strength when I thought there was none! He had talked to me at critical breaking moments in RAAM and Double Badwater and several others. But my cell phone had frozen and my battery had died. I would pull up to the cabin just a few minutes before the cutoff! I was hoping for a miracle!!! When I stopped in front of the cabin all the fatigue from pulling that 40 lb sled for 73 miles through survival conditions hit me like a ton of bricks! I had pulled that sled for 28 of the 31 hours I had been on the trail with only 1 hour of sleep! My fingers were frost bitten! My knees buckled when I took off my harness! I opened the door and the devil had got me!! There would be no miracle!! I needed sleep to go on!! I was done!!!!
But as my friend the Terminator would say ” I will be Baaaaaack!!!!
- I made it 8 hrs faster then I did last year to 73 mile check point.
- I am already designing a new training plan and figuring out how to get my sled lighter to finish next year.
- Only 20 of the 56 runners who started finished.
- Congratulations to my friend Nick who is only 20 years old and was one of the finishers. Amazing!!!
- Thanks to my friend Ray Sanchez for teaching me how a real pro prepares for a race.
- My fingers would blister and peel. But they would race another day.