Somewhere near to the Canadian border in the northernmost reaches of Minnesota USA, lies the town of International Falls, aka Frostbite Falls. It is where Paul Errington has ventured to take part in the Arrowhead 135 Ultramarathon. Starting on Monday 1st February, the Arrowhead 135 is a 'fun' yet challenging endurance event travelling 135 miles along the Arrowhead State Trail, a popular snowmobiling trail cutting through the Kabetogama State Forest. The event can be tackled either by foot, ski or, as in the case of Paul, bike. Singlespeed of course.
Last year 26 started the race on bike, just 15 finished, with Terry Brannick coming in as top dog with a time of 21 hours. This year Paul is aiming to do it on his singlespeed and finish within 24 hours and certainly avoid the coveted Myrtle the Turtle, aka Last Lone Wolf, award. Winter temperatures in this part of the world can be unpredictable from year to year, they have been known to drop as low as -50 ºC. Last year it was a mere 36 ºC at night and in 2008 the first day saw sweltering temperatures of +1 ºC. Along the route there will be 3 checkpoints, the 2nd of which will be serving up hot soup but otherwise its self supported all the way, with a cut-off time of 60 hours. Although wanting to finish within the 24 hours, as part of the rules Paul must carry a mandatory amount of food, water and gear to cover him for a potential 3 days and 2 nights outdoors.
Training: Alpkit take Paul somewhere snowy and cold
Despite signing himself up for the coldest race on the planet Paul has had little or no experience of riding in the snow. Since we were heading out to France for the ICE climbing festival and the guarantee of good snow we thought it would be a great idea to take him with us.. how were we to know that the UK was about to experience its biggest dump of snow in years!
Paul lives up in Newcastle and had had a good share of the snow, but he sure didn't have endless kilometres of virgin snowed up roads winding through pine trees overlooked by beautiful snowy peaks. When they say they are going to get 40cm of snow over night out here they really mean it. Unfortunately this meant that some of the higher trails which we thought would be good for Paul were strictly out of bounds, it was also a lot warmer than we were hoping. Not wanting to lose Paul in an avalanche we settled for a jaunt along the road from Les Claux to Ailefroide.
In summer this is a 10 minute drive but in winter it is closed off and left unpisted. Paul set off breaking the trail leaving the rest of us to figure out how to get the skis working. As he disappeared around the corner in slow motion we could see this wasn't going to be a casual stroll in the mountains. The 40cm of fresh snow were going to make the going slow and riding was out of the question. It was easier on skis, and as soon as we realised we could release the heels we began to reel him in!
It took 3 hours to cover the 4.3km itinerary, tiring enough for us on skis but at least we weren't pushing a 22kg bike! Even though Paul's bike tyres slotted into our ski tracks his feet were plodding through the deep snow on either side. It was back breaking, mind numbing work. We would plough ahead, stop for a breather while Paul caught up before pushing on again. As we waited for him we all agreed that the experience would hold him in good stead during the race. It was clear that Paul isn't one for throwing in the towel.
Temperatures were a lot higher than Paul would be expecting on the Arrowhead but he was getting a good workout and valuable practice pushing his bike. It is fair to say that we were looking forward to the descent more than Paul, there was just enough of a slope, and we had compacted the snow enough for us to ski down.. Paul, well he would be pushing again!
Part of the reason we were out here was to give Paul a taste of sleeping out in the snow. During his race he is required to carry bivvy gear in case of emergencies.. so it was only prudent that he should know how to use it. The edge was taken off the evening by watching the final of the dry tooling comp followed by a good meal. To keep things as realistic as we could we partied until 1.30am before sorting out our bivvy gear.. good practice to do this kind of thing when you are slightly fatigued. Paul's place was outside in the snow on a foam mat. Jim and Ken had the tent and were soon joined by Pete and Dan.. taking Paul's back up shelter. Now he was committed!
As you read this article Paul will be in Minnesota preparing for the race which starts on the first Monday of February. We will update this page with the results as they come in.
Accommodation and cold facts
Paul and the team stayed with Alpsun in Les Vigneaux and would like to thank Helen for keeping the drive free from snow!
Ski equipment was hired from Montagne Blanche in Vallouise.