Winter conditions on the Arrowhead 135 ultra race

Arrowhead 135 - the 2nd 24(+) hours

By Alpkit

Arrowhead 135: The 2nd 24 Hours: Endurance challenges in extreme winter conditions.

27 hours 39 mins: It was snowing when I left the checkpoint. This irrationally annoyed me because the flakes kept hitting my eye lashes and ensured that I walked the next few miles with my head down.
28 -39 hours: the profile and condition of the trail changed dramatically at this point. What had been relatively flat, well-groomed trails gave way to rolling hills and softer snow. This created several issues for me. Firstly, it turned out that due to the swelling in my left foot I experience fairly significant pain when I was going downhill and secondly, I had set my pulk up with flexible poles which meant that the pulk could overtake me down the slope resulting in me crazily pirouetting as the weight of the pulk scythed down the slope threatening to smash into my ankles. There was nothing else for it: sledging! This is where the flexible pole system came into its own as I was able to sit on my pulk without taking my harness off. This was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the race and certainly beat walking!

Soon after leaving Checkpoint 2 Steve Ansell caught up with me which was a welcome relief as the thought of trudging 40 miles to the next checkpoint was sounding pretty grim. I’m fairly hazy about this period of the race due to tiredness and monotony. For me the race had boiled down to one foot in front of the other, trees left, trees right and trail in front and behind. There was no dramatic scenery to look at to take your mind off the discomfort we all were undoubtedly experiencing. The section when I crossed Elephant Lake before Checkpoint 2 was the most open the route had been the entire race and I had moved well as I was able to concentrate on other things and let my pace take care of itself.
As darkness fell I could feel the exhaustion creeping up on me. I would find myself walking along and then wake up as my knees buckled or I would stop to rest on my poles again to wake up as I teetered backwards. We decided that this was inefficient and had a quick “shiver bivvy” (according to Steve it’s basically a quick snooze on top of the pulk to be woken by your body’s shivering) which temporarily alleviated our mental fatigue. Had some cracking hallucinations during this period.

40 hours: Myself and Steve decided to stop at one of the trail shelters (picture a big log-cabin bus shelter and you get the idea). I pulled on my Alpkit Filo down jacket (which is genuinely immense) as I knew that I'd start to get debilitatingly cold whilst I attempted to sort my feet. Once that was done I contemplated lying on the bench under my jacket but then decided that was possibly one of the worst ideas I had ever had when I had a sleeping bag in my pulk not more than 20 metres away. Heading back to my pulk I spread out my roll mat and got into my sleeping bag. For the second year in a row I was using Alpkit's Hunka XL bivvy bag. These bags are phenomenal in the cold and the hour I managed to grab was blissful but too soon I had to be up and moving again.

47 hours 58 mins: Checkpoint 3. It's a tepee in the middle of the woods. It could also be described as the best thing I've ever seen. A chance to sit down and rest my feet and fill my Camelbak. At the time I thought I had a rapid transition through the checkpoint but looking at the times on the race website as I write this it seems I was in there for almost 40 minutes.
49 (ish) hours: reached Wakemup Mountain. The race directors and the guys at the checkpoint had really played this one up so I was expecting a behemoth to still my heart. It was steep, but realistically it was maybe 200 metres high and possibly 800 metres from bottom to top. I was slightly disappointed especially as I was now moving significantly more efficiently up hill due to the issues with my left ankle.
50 hours: I had calculated at the checkpoint that I had approximately 12 hours to cover the 25 miles to the finish line which on a normal day, even at ultra-pace, I'd be delighted about my odds of finishing. I struggled to work out that I had to average 2.1 mph and during the remaining hours I continually updated that to the point where, due to tiredness, I couldn't even remember why I was trying to work it out. These are the grim miles when each runner has to go within themselves to get to the finish line. My motivation for finishing was down to personal pride, the fact that by using the SPOT Tracker it's a very public failing if I DNF (did not finish) and the undoubted abuse I'd get if I pulled out. These are also demoralising miles as I somehow managed to convince myself that I was moving better than I actually was only to have my hopes dashed by one of the snow mobile safety guys who told me I was five miles furrther back than I thought. Boke!
The last ten (ish) miles seem to have been up on a forested plateau doing what felt like three sides of a square before heading off on another square that had a slightly different orientation. Up until this point the trail had regularly been marked by orange route markers every 500 metres %E2%80%93 one kilometre but these seemed (at least in my knackered wee head) to disappear as I found myself on a dead-straight trail. The paranoia that I had taken a wrong turning got so bad that I think I ended up wondering whether I was the only person still out on the trail only for one of the snow mobile guides to appear and tell me that I was only five miles from the finish.
He also said to me: 'Do you remember what you said to me last night at the shelter?%E2%80%9D Alarm bells start ringing that I've abused him somehow, 'You said that you didn't travel half way round the world not to finish this f@cking race%E2%80%9D!
58 hours 30 (ish) mins: with a couple of miles to go I was caught by an Italian runner and I didn't particularly care. My normally raging competitiveness was well and truly back in its box. For me the Arrowhead had become less of a race against the other competitors and more a competition between myself and the trail. It was trying to win by beating the crap out of my body and I was slowly grinding the distance down against the clock.
59 hours 7 mins: I crossed the finish line with mixed feelings. I had a little bit of a rage on with myself as I had been dawdling the last mile as I thought the finish line was closer than it actually was. There was no fan-fare. I'm delighted to have finished and glad I had managed to grind out the last 65 miles and as I was the the only UK competitor this year does that mean that I won my category as top UK finisher? No? Clutching at straws?

I was absolutely shattered. My feet were in the absolute worst state I had ever seen them (that’s not cream on the bottom of my foot in the photo, that’s the skin which had been wet for 65 miles) and I was struggling to hobble around the finish line. I also experienced hot flushes and light headedness which I was told was quite common at the end of 100 milers (re Garry Mac at the end of the Yukon Arctic Ultra) as your body tries to figure out just what you’ve put it through. All the pain was worth it though to finish the Arrowhead 135. I was 25th overall from 51 runners who starters (23 DNFd). If asked whether I’d recommend the race I’d say: definitely. It’s a big boy’s (and girl’s) race with big boy’s rules and is a great test of your fitness, logistical ability and mental strength. If asked whether I’d do it again: eh, no.

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