I had been studying the weather patterns and making best decisions on what type of gear I would need. It looked like the low would be about -7 degrees which for races like these, is fairly benign. I left a few big pieces of gear home in NC because I didn't think I would need my toughest, warmest layers. This was a big mistake. This was a rookie mistake. I ain't no rookie.
I made it to Minneapolis and Haig picked me up at the airport. I had a solid flight and all my gear made it safely which is always a relief. We went to Haig's house to pack up and we were on the road. I decided that we would split the trip up and make a stop at my friend Jason Buffington's house. Jason is one of the strongest and most humble athletes I have met in the winter ultra world and he welcomed us into his house with open arms. Jason has a very sweet, conservative family and i'm not sure they knew what the hell to make of me! They warmed up to my wildness and we ended up having such a great night in Duluth, MN. Not only did we have a great place to get a good nights sleep, but Jason, as a previous WINNER of Arrowhead gave me some very handy gear ideas. Not only this but he GAVE me a few of his key, lighter pieces of gear.
Haig and I both got our own rooms and a great night sleep. After a great breakfast and a few good bye's we were on the road heading to the "icebox of the lower 48" International Falls, MN. We started the 2 1/2 hour drive and this was just the time Haig and I needed to reconnect and catch up on each others stories. I was emotional which usually means that a race is close. I played Haig a great speech by Steve Gleason, who is one of my heroes, and I was crying like a baby. My favorite part of Steve's speech was when he gave a definition of what he considers a LEADER to be: "A leader is somebody who helps others achieve their goals." Let that statement sync in for just a minute. This is so counter intuitive to what most leaders do these days. You know, the ol' follow me and you'll be fine leader. I don't like these types of leaders. I was fired up and humble which meant I was ready to go DEEP!!!
Haig and I showed up to the school where I was to pick up my race bib and go through gear check. When I finally met Ken, the RD, he asked me if I was doing the race self supported? I told him I was told I couldn't because I was a rookie at the Arrowhead. He looked up at me, looked at all the finisher patches all over my jacket and said "YOU'RE NOT A ROOKIE!!!, if you'd like to do unsupported, go for it". It didn't take me 10 seconds to realize that there was no way I was prepared to go unsupported especially bringing somewhat lighter gear. I told Ken I would go with my original plan which was to accept support and be able to go into checkpoints. This would be a VERY good decision for me. Experience.
We had picked up my dear friend Eric Johnson and now the three of us were hanging out with some time to kill. We went to a local eatery and had a great meal. Folks were coming up and saying hello and asking for Alaskan stories. Who am I to hold those back. I found the towns folks and people associated with this race to be my kind of people. They were kind and caring, which I find normal in the great Midwest. They supported the race not only because it brought commerce to their small town but they truly value adventure and toughness! Minnesota has some of the best people in the whole entire country!
We dropped Eric off at his hotel so he could help a racer that had a bunch of last second questions. We all help each other out and share secrets in this crew. We realize that some of the tricks we can share can end up saving your fingers, toes, life. Haig and I went to a place next to our hotel called the Chocolate Moose and settled in for a meal. We were having such a great time and the beers were flowing freely. I realized that it was after midnight and I had a few more beers that I would've liked. Such is life. We went back to our hotel room and I started going through my gear. I was up till about 1:30 when I was falling asleep taping my feet up. I would miss one toe because I was so tired and it would come back to haunt me later! But there I was in some random hotel listening to Haig snore while I prepped my gear one last time for a hell of an adventure!!
I was up at 5:30AM READY TO ROCK!! We went and picked up Eric and headed for the start line. I'm type A as they come so we were of course some of the first people there. I checked in and now had about one hour before we were to head out into the woods! Having been in this situation a number of times, I wasn't nervous, I just wanted to get moving! At 7:04 we were released into the Minnesota wilds. I was up front because I wanted to compete. I was shocked when I was being passed by hordes of runners actually running! What the hell was that? This was a 135 mile winter race and people were heading off the start like it was a local 13.1. Oh well, I let them pass. I had a feeling I would see the vast majority of these folks further on up the road!
I have to share a funny story here. I had put on multiple layers because it was COLD at the start. Some of my upper layers had the loop for your thumb to go through so your layers stay pulled up. Well, I had my thumbs through these holes and they were cutting into my skin. 1/2 mile into the race and it felt like my thumbs were going numb. It was -10F and I knew that it wasn't the cold doing this. I was worried. It took about ten minutes for me to realize that these thumb holes were cutting off blood circulation. I pulled my gloves off, took my damn thumbs out of the loops and laughed out loud. Micro adjustments: the name of the game!
Now, I was rolling with Eric and we were crushing the miles. Eric is a freaking stud and one of the most efficient ultra runners I know! We were getting though the early miles together. We even had John Storkamp cruise with us for a couple miles before he made his move towards the front. He would later WIN the race. He was great and everything I thought he would be. He is another one of these runners that I've been told countless times that I "have to meet". John lived up to the hype and was as cool as a cucumber. You could tell he was going for his 10TH Arrowhead finish. I blinked and he was gone!!! Eric and I continued to churn out the miles and before long we were at the first checkpoint. We were MOVING!!
My feet were hurting and I had a feeling they were in pretty bad shape already. See I was wearning Wiggy's VBL socks and nothing else and it was probably, looking back, one of the stupidest decisions I've ever made in my endurance life. Not only were the socks 100% saturated but they were wrinkled on the bottom and my feet paid the price. I took my shoes off to show some folks at Gateway checkpoint and they were shocked at how bad my feet looked only 35 miles into the race. Funny, I had heard that before during winter ultra races. Anywho, I taped the shit out of them, put them back in the wet socks and went! The next section seemed long and tough! I had 100 oz of water on my back and thought that would last me until Mel George's checkpoint which was mile 70. It didn't. About 66 miles into the race, I took one sip and I heard air working it's way through the tube. I had sucked it dry. Well, what to do? Stop and melt snow into water at -25F or push 4 or 5 miles to the next checkpoint. I chose the later. I tried to get there quick but was dehydrated and not feeling well at all. Eric was behind me a bit at this point so I waited for him to show me where the checkpoint cabin was. We went into the checkpoint and it was busy and hot.
I don't do well at all in very crowded checkpoints. There was a medic there (thankfully) and I asked him if he would take a look at my feet. When I got my shoes and socks off and showed them to him all he said was "holy shit". They looked awful. Not only were there blisters both popped and bubbled, it looked like I had trench foot. He did what he could but recommended that I stop. As he was lancing a couple different blisters, I started feeling very nauseous. With every single person in the cabin watching, I got sick about 7 straight times. I almost filled up a HUGE shopping bag with dark, nasty throw up. I didn't know what the hell was coming out of me and how it could look so bad. After getting sick, dripping sweat, I felt like I was 1/2 dead. I had no energy and couldn't for the life of me see the light at the end of the tunnel.
One of the racers watching me get sick was my friend T-Race Petervary. T-Race, along with her stud muffin husband, were friends from The Iditarod Trail. We tend to try to look after each other. Tracey had said that she had just got done with a 7 hour nap in a now empty bedroom upstairs. Well, it didn't take me two minutes to get up there and get horizontal. I figured Eric had already left so I just planned on getting better. I didn't sleep as there were a few others in the room now, but it felt really good to just be off of my feet and breath. I layed down for a couple/few hours. When I got up, and looked downstairs Eric was still there and asked if I was ready to go? Hell No I wasn't ready to go. I had told the checker I was done and now I wanted Eric to head out so he wouldn't be waiting on me. He left.
What happened next was just meant to be. I went downstairs and was just sitting around bull shitting with other racers, Some had dropped some were still in the race. Next thing I knew, I was overhearing another athlete talk about how he was really beaten up but how it wasn't going to get much worse and how shitty he would feel if he quit. Something about his words resonated with me and right then and there, I decided I was going to get back on that trail and finish this beast of a trail. Minutes later, I was out the door with a Russian Lady from New Jersey. As we were chatting, we missed a very obvious turn and were heading down a road that didn't "feel" right to me. Just then A truck stops us and tells us we had missed a turn! Oh well, I like even numbers and would prefer 136 to 135 any day!!
Ella and I were cruising and she showed me how to sled down the hills! She was so efficient and it looked like so much fun. So there I was, flying down hills sledding much faster than I could ever hike down hills. Ella and I had a blast. She had some frostbite starting to form on a couple of her fingers and her nose. We were about to head into the worst weather on the course. Therefore, I dug out a nose patch for her. I think it was big for her and I felt good about her chances, now, of staving off frostbite. We went a number of miles further than slowly split up. I was now on my own and felt pretty good. I was now going straight through the second night on the trail and I was ready to do what I needed to do. I put one foot in front of the other and reached the 110 mile Surly Teepee checkpoint.
Once in the teepee there are rules that you can't lay down and sleep or you will be dq'd. That's fine but it doesn't say racers cant fall asleep in a chair so there we were. 3 or 4 of us falling asleep in chairs as we were drying out our gear and ourselves. After drinking a cold beer and filling up my water again, I was off into the deep dark night!
I was cruising until I wasn't. 2 nights with no sleep was catching up to me. I was starting to fall asleep while hiking. Not only that, I was now playing the game where I would pick a spot on the trail, close my eyes for 10 seconds, then open them only to readjust. I had enough experience to realize that I needed sleep. I was not going to be able to cruise straight through the night all the way to the finish. Therefore, I decided to bivy. There was another racer close by and I asked him if he wanted to bivy next to me. He jumped at the chance and before long, I was in my sleeping bag, off the trail SNOOZING. I think I got some REM sleep. I Think.
Anywho, I woke to the racer saying, "Pete, it's 6AM, i'm cold and am going to get going!". Well I was too. I was up and back on the trail within 2 minutes and I was moving again! In fact, I was moving well. I could not believe what a few short hours of sleep did for me! Now I was on a mission to finish. Many people passed me while I was sleeping and I wanted to pass em back at the end of the trail. I didn't waver and put my head down. I called my Grandma, Sister, Brother and Wife on the ol Sat phone and was ready to dig deep!
Next thing I knew, I started seeing signs of civilization. I was getting close! I turn a corner and who do I see? Damn straight, my boy Haig filming me as I shuffle in!!! There were all of 2 people at the finish which is par for the course!
I did it. I finished. I got 18th place and finished my "rookie" year in 51+ hours. None of that meant shit to me. I was happy deep inside that I had what it took to persevere. Not only that, I made some stupid mistakes that I sure as shit need to tighten up before I head north in a few weeks for the biggest adventure of my life.
I adore these races. I like to say long winter ultra's are not races, they are vision quests. You will end up digging deeper than you even realized was possible. I adore my other racers. They are each unique yet so similar to each other. They refuse to live a normal life and are out finding their own path. I am so happy that I have found my tribe on the Earth. These are my people. These are positive people who make the very best out of tough, sometimes nearly impossible situations and come out the other end tougher and wiser.
There is NO DOUBT in my mind that I will be back at The Arrowhead 135. This is a new extended family to me and I couldn't be more appreciative. Were all a little weird but isn't that what makes the world go around???? I'll finish this race report with two pics. The first was in the bathroom at the place we ate in International Falls. I thought it was wonderful. The second is a picture of my very first pedicure that I got in the Charlotte, NC airport on the way home. I take back EVERYTHING I've ever said about men who get manicures and pedicures. EVERYTHING! Yee Haw!
Oh, and here is a sweet note I got from Ella after the race:
I told y'all, we look after each other!!!!