Often described as one of the toughest bike races in the lower 48 states, the Arrowhead 135 challenges even the most prepared riders. This is a journal by a non-athlete's participation in an event where starting is often just as much a challenge as finishing.

Mistakes I Hope to Avoid
September 28, 2010
I've started looking though bog posts for the Arrowhead for the years prior to last year. I have found a couple that were quite interesting. 2007 was a particularly nasty year, with the daytime high about 15 below zero, and dropping to near -30 at night - extremely cold even by Arrowhead standards. Only 9 bikes actually finished.

One of the blogs I found was a local guy who had to drop out at the half-way point. Actually, he didn't actually make it to the half-way point; he was picked up about 5 miles short of that. He admits a number of mistakes that are worth paying attention to. Some I've already thought about and didn't plan on making, though its always easy to assume you're not going to make the same mistakes that others have.

First Mistake: Food. He took a bunch of Clif bars, which froze solid making them extremely difficult to eat leading to him not getting enough calories. I have been thinking of food a lot lately, and was planning to either make or buy a bunch of stuff and put it in the freezer to see what happens to it. And also do like Dong did in antarctica - cut it up into bite size pieces. Obviously Eric eats a lot of clif bars on polar travel - where does he keep them? how does he eat them? Figure this out because ounce for ounce Clif bars pack a lot of calories.

Second Mistake: Water. He underestimated how much he should be drinking. He ran out of water, and that nearly killed him (literally). This is an interesting problem because you need to not only carry enough, but also keep it from freezing. You can't really store water in the frame bag or in bottles - it'll freeze too quickly. Frozen camelback hoses and mouth pieces are also a problem. Eric has probably several solutions to this problem as well.

An interesting point about this, of course, is "race mentality" - that you can't stop until you get to a checkpoint. There was a point, several hours before his real bonk, that he realized he didn't have enough water. I don't recall now if this was still daylight or not. Race mentality says "just keep pushing to the next checkpoint - don't stop." Winter survival tells me that this is the time to stop and pull out your stove and melt some snow, refill your bottles, and have a warm drink. I mean what would it cost in time? An hour? I do realize that at -20 or whatever stopping moving is also dangerous. So its easy to say "stop and unpack all your stuff, then repack it" and have it seem simple. With frozen hands and fingers that don't work, though, the dexterity required to light a stove becomes a giant ordeal.

[As a side note, I was planning on bringing my MSR whisperlight stove and fuel. Maybe a smaller propane stove is better - something that doesn't have as much setup, pumping, priming, etc...]

Third Mistake: Checkpoint. Making ok good time on the first quarter of the course, he opted to skip the first checkpoint (a convienience store). I don't plan to skip any of the "normal" stopping points. 15 minutes or so inside can allow you to rest a bit, refill water, eat something, change something, adjust something. Not refilling all his water, combined with not drinking enough in the first place and not getting enough calories, lead to his dangerious bonk a few hours later.

Fourth Mistake: Gear Adjustments. While he had pretty good clothes for the daylight hours, when it got dark he started to freeze because he didn't add more layers. He also never talked about tire pressure or other gear adjustments, and I think all of this was part of his general bonk the second half of the first day. He just wasn't thinking clearly.

Fifth Mistake: Prep. In looking at the blog, it seems like he started serious training around November, and did a lot of flat miles and trainer miles. I'm a little bit in the same situation here, but I have a little bit of a head start. Its hard to find the time to do these long rides, so its easy to do "just enough". By the end of November, he was doing two 3-4 hour rides per week. I'm doing one 4 hour ride and the other stuff, but I know that I need to start doing longer rides. By that point (November / December) doing a single long 8+ hour ride per week is probably better than two 4 hour rides.

I was planning another century this coming weekend - two laps of the Dakota route, one forward and one backward. He was riding some of the gravel trails around, and while more difficult than pavement, I don't think its as good as hills. For this kind of ride, its both about strength and endurance - strength for pushing though the snow, and endurance for hours in the saddle. He was prob doing ok in the endurance category, but he realized in the first hour that pushing in snow was a lot harder than any conditions he'd trained in.

Another part of his prep involved a lot of effort in reducing the weight of his bike. Things like drilling holes in the wheels and that sort of thing. In the end, it wasn't the few hundred grams he was able to shave off his bike that did him in. The bottom line is that I have never thought that this event was a game of bike weight. Sure I want my bike as light as possible, no question there. But I'm not going to obsess about it and instead of spending 3 hours drilling out my wheels I think it better to work out or ride hills or something. By the time he skipped the first checkpoint, he was down 64 ounces of water, or half his load. So by this point, he was running very light anyway (water is *heavy*). For real general purposes, you can think of water as basically weighing ounce for ounce (1 gallon (128 fl oz) = 8.34 pounds or 133 ounces). So by not refilling his empty 64 ounces of water he essentially dropped 4 pounds from his load. This alone probably exceeded all his other weight saving efforts, and at the end of the day the weight saving wasn't the real factor. Plus, he didn't state it, but I'm guessing he didn't bring extra fuel for his stove. The rules require that participants start and finish with a certain amount of fuel. If you only carry the minimum (to save weight), then effectively you cannot use your stove without forfieting the race. So looking at his water mistake, as long as he was moving and hoping to make it to the checkpoint, it was "race mode" with no other option. A spare cannister of fuel would have given him the option of making water without dropping out of the race. Nothing says you can't bring two stoves, either. Some guys carry this super light Esbit stove and little fire tablets. The advantage is that it is light and satisifes the "stove" part of the required gear. But I could also bring a propane stove and cylinder of fuel as a real stove - an Esbit isn't really what you want at -20F. Is this lighter than bringing 1 stove and two cylinders? Maybe, maybe not. I'm not sure. All I know is that a stove can save your life, and its best to have one that can do the job if necessary and as simple as possible.

I don't really plan on skimping on the gear. I'll pay for it in weight, i know, but I don't want to limit my options. If I feel the need to stop - to eat, to make water, to sleep - I want to be able to safely take it.

All of this is reinforcing to me that doing this 75 in December is a good idea. I'll learn a lot about the "feel" and needs of a winter bike race. My main concern right now for the 75 is having enough time between the arrival of the bike and the race to have all the equipment sorted and ready to go.

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