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Ultra-grueling Arrowhead 135 starts Monday

A solitary biker rides along a portion of the Arrowhead 135 ultra-marathon course between International Falls and Tower in 2012. The 135-mile race, which begins Monday, is considered one of the most difficult ultra-marathons in the world. Photo by Jeremy Kershaw1 / 2
A pack of bicyclists ride fat bikes along a snowmobile trail in the 135-mile Arrowhead 135 ultra-marathon in 2012. The race goes from International Falls to Tower. This year's race starts Monday morning. Jeremy Kershaw photo2 / 2

For some, the Arrowhead 135 apparently just wasn't difficult enough.

The brutal endurance race, by bicycle, skis or on foot from International Falls to Tower along a snowmobile trail, kicks off at 7 a.m. Monday. In this year's 13th running of the sufferfest, a new category has been added, said Ken Krueger of International Falls, who co-directs the race with his wife, Jackie.

Participants may elect to compete in an "unsupported" class, meaning they must do the race without benefit of food or drink offered at the race's three checkpoints.

"I thought maybe we'd get two or three people who wanted to do it that way," Krueger said. "Last I checked, I think we had 48."

A record 181 participants have signed up for this year's race, he said.

"The race is ridiculously hard to start with, and this throws a whole other curve into it," Krueger said.

It would be nearly impossible to carry enough water for the entire event, said Krueger, who has completed it seven times himself. He said some competitors probably will stop to melt snow for water.

Usually, fewer than half the competitors who start the 135-mile race race finish it, and the finishing rate for first-time competitors is even lower. The ultramarathon is ranked among the 50 most difficult races in the world in the book "The World's Toughest Endurance Challenges."

Temperatures during the race are often far below zero, although this year's forecast is relatively mild, with lows in the teens and highs in the mid-20s. The trail, slushy from a recent extended thaw, is expected to be firmed up by below-freezing temperatures. However, snow is forecast during the three days of the race, which could slow racers' progress significantly.

Racers choose to compete by running, cross-country skiing or biking. Bikers always finish first, and the course record — 14 hours, 20 minutes — was set by Duluth's Todd McFadden. He'll be back again for this year's race on his bike.

Nine people have completed the race by all three travel methods — running, skiing and biking.

All racers must carry sleeping bags, bivy sacks, campstoves and other survival gear. No racers may accept help, gear or rides from anyone else along the trail. The cutoff to finish is 7 p.m. Wednesday in Tower.

While the race is competitive, those who have taken part in it are part of a loose fraternity who help each other and share tips, Krueger said.

"It's competitive, but they're more friends than competitors," he said.

In that spirit, Jim Reed and Scott Hoberg of Duluth dueled during the running competition last year but eventually came across the finish line together using kick-sleds in 37 hours, 20 minutes. They won the running category.

"I don't think of it as a race so much as an adventure," said Reed, 57, who will ride a fat-tire bike in this year's race. "It's a winter adventure, a winter camping experience."

For more information on the race and a list of entrants, go to www.arrowheadultra.com.

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