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.

Long Weekend in the Mountains
January 24, 2011
The snow swirled around my headlamp. Not much else was visible in the dark, except a vague notion of the trees on either side of the trail and a small patch of light on the trail showing Eric's tracks leading off ahead. I was feeling a bit frustrated, but exhilarated at the same time. Damn the falling snow. Damn the wind. Damn the 26 degree temperature at 4 am. Damn this huge, long climb. Damn this altitude and my heart rate. All of it made me feel weak and nauseous and unprepared for the race. But here I was, in Colorado, in the mountains, in the dark, in the winter, and things were basically under control. I wasn't cold, and I wasn't in danger. Really, it was pretty cool. I trudged upward.

Three days prior, I had road tripped to Boulder to spend a weekend training with Eric. The goal was a few long snow rides with some winter camping thrown in. I just wanted riding time, and Eric needed to get some additional experience with his Pugsley. The closer I got to Boulder, the warmer the air temp got. I was listening to an audio book, which is a great way to pass through Nebraska (even if it was a mediocre book) but even with that distraction a bit of anxiety was creeping in. I didn't want it to be this warm. Warm means soft snow and wet. Warm means "not like International Falls." Warm means difficult.

I slept fitfully, still fretting over the temps, strung out from the road and in an unusual environment. Eric and I sorted gear, picked a trail, loaded the car and headed up into the mountains where we hoped it would be cooler and snowier. Cooler, yes, but not cold. We parked at the trailhead for a multi-use trail, immediately earning curious glances for our odd, fat-tire bikes from the hikers, skiers and snowshoers around. Heading onto the trail, we both promptly over heated. The trail was very soft and churned, so we continued to air down and strip layers. We walked some, rode some, and continued up for about an hour or so.

Here is one thing about riding in Colorado that I had learned previously: you always start by going up. Long, slow ascents that laugh at you and your nearly sea-level lung capacity. After 20 minutes or so of hard riding, I begin to walk. A few minutes later I feel ok again, then I ride and get winded and tired again. Repeat to the top of the trail. Probably what was only two or three miles in we ran out of packed trail and opted to turn back. An hour up was about 10 or 15 minutes down. It's often steeper than it looks.

After consulting a map and airing up the tires again, we opted to ride some gravel for a while since it was so warm and there were really no other trails around. Leaving the trailhead, the wind was so strong behind us we were able to ride UP a mountain road at 8 mph. We explored fire roads and some pavement for the next two hours in bright sunshine and light clothes. At one point, on a long downhill with the wind behind, my cyclo-computer registered 36 mph - probably close to a fat-bike record! Coming back, into the wind, it was a different story. 4-5 mph was typical. I was stopped dead by a gust on one slight incline. This wind was fierce! The last downhill, where the wind pushed us up, we were only able to make 13 mph while pedaling down - and this was on pavement. I was feeling the altitude and tired.

Heading back into town, bike in the car, we stopped at a bike shop, again gathering ooh's and aaah's as Eric test fitted rear racks to his Pugsley. He doesn't like the attention. Sometimes I like it and sometimes I don't. Its funny because in a bike shop I don't mind it so much, maybe because these are bike people and its interesting there. On the trail, around non-bike people, I just feel like a freak. I sort of wish I had had the Mukluk out at the shop for people to see - its so much prettier than the Pug :-)

We worked on fitting the rack later that evening, and some other maintenance things on the pug (the Mukluk was running ok). I was tired. I tried to relax and take it easy, but was still kind of crabby about the weather prospects. We didn't have a real plan for where to go riding/camping the next two day, and were looking at maps and weather reports for all over colorado and even Wyoming. Everywhere high temps were near 30. After my experience on the Luce Line a few weeks ago and the trail experience earlier that day, I was not looking forward to two days of mush riding at altitude. I worry about shit too much; I was having trouble relaxing. I slept poorly.

After consulting weather forecasts, maps, Eric's girlfriend and a chance encounter with a Forest Ranger at the closed station, we selected the Winter Park area as our destination for our overnight. The plan was to get there, pick a route/trail, ride for 6 or so hours, camp for another 6 or so, then get up in the small hours and do another 6 on bikes in the dark. We rolled though Winter Park proper to the next town, Fraser, where there was a bike shop. They were some help with suggestions, and gave us a map of the area. We at least had an idea of where to ride now and of the various forest roads. We parked in a strip mall parking lot and began to unload, getting chilled in the wind. Someone from an office saw us and our unique bikes and came out to talk. She explained that she and her husband had done the Great Divide Route on bikes, and recognized from our bikes that we were pretty serious. She was able to provide us with some great info about the fire roads in the area, and also let us know that there was a winter storm warning for the next day.

Great. Tiny warning light goes off in my brain - Fret-Level Yellow. I'm from Minnesota. I know enough about being in mountains to know I don't know jack about being in the mountains when the weather is shit. I have a healthy fear of mountains and their rapidly changing weather. But Eric is a pro, and we're prepared and not cocky. We have what we need and its still really warm. However, death aside, I need to get back on time. I cannot get trapped in Winter Park by a storm. The yellow light in my brain stays on.

We ride snow packed dirt roads for a while, slightly rolling but more up than down. Eric got out his camera and we shot some video of us riding, passing the camera back and forth. It was easy on the road where we could coast a bit, ride one-handed and keep a tight line.

Then the plowed part ended and road changed to trail, shifted to snow machine / rec only and turned decidedly "up". Soft. Mushy. We dropped our tired pressure a few times, shed layers, and climbed. Sometimes I walked. Keeping warm was no problem, but keeping my heart rate in a zone to avoid exhaustion was. Seemed like whenever I would ride the climb, my heart rate would shoot up and I'd start sweating. I would take my helmet off, unzip my jacket, etc, and still my heart was thumping and the sweat would come. It had to be the altitude. Grrr. I wanted this to be fun. Or at least not un-fun. I was on vacation after all, and while yes, a "training" trip that was meant to be work, I was frustrated at my inability to manage my body. The incline became somewhat less, so I rode, slowly, 4 or 5 mph, upward. At the top of a rise, I felt a tug in the cranks, then POP! My chain snapped. Oh for the love of Pete! I hollered ahead to Eric to hold up (he was setting up the camera for some shots). He's got bike skills, and I had tools, so he popped out the bad link plus one additional and rejoined the chain. No more big ring for me :-) Seriously, I was in the granny ring and wasn't planning to get to the big ring until spring, so not a big deal. But I was still frustrated, and it just added to my overall fret-level, now with a suspect chain in the mix. Other Mukluk owners have reported bad chains, too. There are concerns that this run is somehow bad. Not to mention that my chain has 500 very rough miles on it already in sand, salt, wet, component-eating conditions. If it breaks again I'm in trouble. We rode and walked on.

I'm used to riding to half my time allowance, then turning back. We picked a time then turned around, but again its the mountains - up on the outbound, down on the return. We turned back, and made good time returning. Everything is easier on the downhill :-) We rode back on the road for a while, passing the turn to the car, and continuing. We'd been out for about 4 hours now, and it was getting dark and I was starting to bonk. I turned back to the car, Eric rode on for a while, but was only maybe 10 minutes later than me getting to the car. He'd reached he end of the road we were on, and thought it a good place to camp. I was chilled to the bone getting our stuff loaded back into the car. I could not believe that the thermometer in the car read 30F. I was shivering and could not stop. Food was the problem.

We ate in town (pasta), then headed back up to set up our camp for the night. There was no one else around, so we picked a reasonable spot away from the main snow machine tracks and set up the tent as a few flakes of light snow began to fall. "Winter storm warning" she said. I was thinking about it. Setting up the tent was something Eric had done many times (and on Everest), so getting organized wasn't an issue. Plus it was warm, and after getting a good meal and shuffling gear it was very pleasant outside. Eric grabbed the wrong pump for his stove, but I had my stove will so we used that and started some snow melting for water. Between the air temp and stove, it was balmy in the tent (stove in the vestibule and not the main tent). It was very comfortable. Amazing what a couple layers of nylon can do.

Yet even though I wasn't cold, the wind kicked up and I could hear the snow on the tent. Fret-level "yellow" stayed lit. I'm not worried about the snow or wind for riding, really. What I am worried about is getting out of Winter Park and back to Boulder. Here was the situation: if there isn't much snow, we can ride as well as drive. If there is too much snow to ride, then we probably are also going to have trouble driving. I doze in and out of sleep for the next 6 hours. The wind is big. I hear a tree fall after one genuinely large gust blows down the mountain - crack! boom! Sigh. I cannot relax. Eric snores.

Alarm at 2 am, and I feel ok. I got dressed, went outside and peed. Not to bad out there, really. There are actually some stars among the clouds, and what snow is in the air is somewhat light and mostly blowing. I can still see plenty of tracks that were also there from the evening before. Still windy, though. Going back in the tent, I ask Eric if he's wants the optimistic or pessimistic report, as I am still a bit nervous from hearing the tree fall. He replies "neither", and I keep my mouth shut.

I puttered around quietly in the tent, reorganizing my gear and trying to decide what to wear. Eric got up and fired up the stove again and began to melt snow. In retrospect, I probably could have manned the stove since he did the previous evening as well, but oh well. We seemed to be dividing the chores ok.

We left the tent up but packed most of the gear back into the car for safe keeping. There was snow in the air, but a few stars in the sky, so it was hard to tell if the snow was blowing in from nearby clouds or just blowing around. Either way, there wasn't much new snow on the ground. We decided to take the trail that left from our campsite, but we rode for 20 minutes or so on the road to warm up before taking up the trail. Again, the trail turned upward almost as soon as we left the main road. I worked for a while, pedaling, until I could feel my heart rate climbing again and beginning to sweat. I stripped off a layer, and I'd already skipped the helmet for this ride. I weighed the relative benefits of helmet or not, and decided on this surface and the slow speeds that the risk of head injury was pretty minimal. I have not yet decided about helmet vs not on the arrowhead.

So I walked. Pushed, really. My upper body got as much of a workout as anything else. Between all the heavy breathing and pushing my arms and chest were as sore as hell. At one point, Eric stopped and came back around (even riding he was not the much further ahead of me) and said if I was going to just push all the way up the trail we might as well turn back and ride on the road. I chose to accept this as a pragmatic assessment of the situation rather than anything else, even though i myself felt more than just a tinge of frustration at my body's inability to manage the hill and guessed he was probably feeling some of that too. I suggested we go another quarter or half mile to see if the trail levels out a bit. He agreed. I pushed on, he rode. The snow - and it was actually snowing now, the stars were gone - swirled and danced in my lights.

No too much later the trail did become less steep, and I was able to ride, slowly. 4-5 mph was typical. Still, it wasn't walking. The light snow made the trail a little easier, actually, it smoothed out the snow machine ruts and provided a good cushion for our tires. We could pick a line and go with it instead of being jerked around. It was still soft, but generally easier. The trail reached an intersection and we picked the direction that continued up. The other direction was a steep downhill, a downhill that would surely require walking back up. The opposite, while up, was less steep and more rideable. The trail rolled for the next 45 minutes, but went generally up to another intersection at what seemed like the top of the ridge - the two trails leading forward both went downhill. We decided to turn back.

It was blowing and snowing pretty good at this point. We had the wind behind us on the downhill, and often I could feel a boost of speed from a particularity strong gust along with a big swirl of snow. I was feeling sick though. I knew I needed to eat and probably drink; I really just wanted to barf. I ate a shot blok and rode on, following our tracks from the way up. We arrived at the first intersection again, and decided to repeat the last hour. We turned around again, and headed back up. I attempted to continue to follow our tracks - its obvious that the riding is easier when in the tracks. They were blowing away now, however, and filling in with snow. The riding was ok, if slow. We made it back to the top, turned around again and I ate a couple more shot bloks. I was feeling a little better, not the least of which was because it was mostly down now back to the car and campsite. The cruise back down was fast, 10 mph (!), and took about 30 minutes. Even though it was downhill, it was a different kind of hard than climbing. The soft snow wanted to strip the bike out from under me. Again my upper body was working to keep the bike in control. I had to make a conscious effort not to use my front brake, to the point of saying out loud "no front!" - I think even a slight tap would have sent me sprawling. I should prob just strip it off for the race. I froze with the added windchill.

By the time we returned to the campsite, it was really snowing seriously. My concerns about getting out of this valley were talking to me again. The tent had blown over. We got it sorted and stabilized, and rested a bit a took a few photos. We had been out about 3.5 hours by this point, and we both wanted a little more, even if I really didn't. My mind wanted more time, my body wanted to get in the car and go. Dawn was coming very slow, turning the world to a blue-gray and removing all relief from the road. It was hard to tell even where the road curved. We rode on the road, downhill, for another 15 minutes before I opted to turn back. I knew that the 15 down would be 45 to get back to the car, uphill and into the wind. My glasses were plastered with snow. It was hard to see and I was still feeling sick. Eric rode on, and I figured I'd get back to the car and tear down the tent. He didn't get very far before turning around himself and catching me before I got back to the car. I was spent. It was a little past 8 am.

I packed the car and cleaned the snow off it, loading our bikes and gear while Eric knocked the tent down. I was chilled and wet by the time we pulled out, needing 20 minutes of very slow driving to get back to the main road. I was going slow to make sure I didn't slip into the ditch on either side, knowing we'd be stuck fast. Back to the main road, it was another hour of slow snow driving to get out of the valley. We were lucky, they closed the pass only about 3 hours after us and it remained closed for the next two days. Coming down the other side we saw 4 cars right in front of us collide at an intersection.

It was 55 and sunny by the time we got into Boulder.

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