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Ultra rugged, ultra cold: Arrowhead 135 marks 10 years

It's not every race that makes a point of noting how many participants DON'T finish the event. But for the Arrowhead 135, which begins Monday morning in International Falls, that statistic adds to the allure of what is widely regarded in enduranc...

Arrowhead 135
Arrowhead 135 riders approach the first checkpoint of the 2012 race at Gateway General Store, along U.S. Highway 53 near Kabetogama. (Photo by Jeremy Kershaw / www.jeremykershaw.com)

It's not every race that makes a point of noting how many participants DON'T finish the event.

But for the Arrowhead 135, which begins Monday morning in International Falls, that statistic adds to the allure of what is widely regarded in endurance sports circles as one of the toughest competitions anywhere. On average, only about half of the athletes who start the race reach the finish. Some years, it's far less.

It's certain to live up to that reputation this year -- its 10th -- as temperatures are forecast to be in the 30s below zero when dozens of runners, cross-country skiers and fat-tire bikers strike out along the 135-mile trail that ends at Fortune Bay Casino Resort near Tower.

"No matter how well-prepared you are, there's adversity -- whether it's a flat tire, cramps, frozen water," said Duluth's Todd McFadden, the defending champion and record-holder for bikers in the race. "I don't know that anybody can say they went through the whole thing without any mishaps. In the middle of the night, in the middle of the woods, a lot of things can go wrong."

It's how a racer handles those challenges, he said, that makes the difference in finishing the race or not.

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"It's one of the hardest races on Earth because it's the coldest part of the U.S. at the coldest part of the winter," said race director Ken Krueger, a seven-time Arrowhead finisher who's also among the few to have completed the race on skis, on bike and on foot. "The way the forecast is looking, it looks like this will be a memorable race."

A race motto, Krueger said, is "strength, endurance, solitude, survival."

Strength

The first Arrowhead 135, in 2005, drew 10 racers -- eight bikers, a runner and a skier; only five finished.

The number of participants more than tripled in 2006, and the race has since grown to what will be a record field of more than 160 this year. Athletes have traveled here from six countries and more than two dozen states to see if they have what it takes to conquer the Arrowhead.

To qualify, participants must have completed a previous race of at least 24 hours or 100 miles. They have to carry a set of required gear including a sleeping bag, stove and tent or bivy sack.

The Northland will be well-represented again this year. Among the entrants is Leah Gruhn of Duluth, a veteran of three past Arrowheads with one completion; she'll be on a bike this year. Gruhn, like many participants, first heard about the race through word-of-mouth.

"I thought to myself, 'that sounds impossible,' " she recalled. But after completing the Heck of the North 100-mile gravel-road bike race one fall, she thought, "If I can do that, I should keep trying to do things I think are impossible and keep pushing my boundaries."

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She volunteered at the Arrowhead in 2010, and then entered in 2011. She failed to finish but wasn't discouraged.

"It made me want it more, and I was able to look back at the reason I wasn't successful," Gruhn said. "I was able to learn from it."

She finished in 2012. Gruhn said the race draws elite athletes, but "what's amazing is how many folks do this who aren't gifted or special athletes but are intensely driven, hard-working -- and therefore inspiring."

Endurance

Gruhn's dedication isn't unique.

Mike Stattelman of Duluth is back for his fifth Arrowhead; he has two completions in his previous four attempts on skis. This year he'll be running, pushing a homemade kick sled with his gear; others choose to pull sleds.

"It's a very wild area, traveling under your own power, in the dark -- it gets to you," he said. Even after an unsuccessful attempt, "in summer, you just start thinking about it again" -- and sign up.

It'll also be the fifth start for Jeremy Kershaw of Duluth, who -- like Krueger -- has completed the race all three ways. This year he'll be going on foot.

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"I'm still drawn to the challenge of it," he said. "It's never a gimme. ... I really like the simplicity of it, of going from point A to point B. My only job is to keep going forward and stay safe."

Solitude

Those who make the Arrowhead 135 field "are wonderful athletes," Krueger said. "But you have to be able to survive."

As much as it's a physical challenge to run, bike or ski 135 miles, it's also mentally taxing to keep going day and night. Back-in-the-pack racers may be on the trail for more than two days by the time they finish; the race cutoff is 60 hours.

"I tell people, you have to comfortable suffering alone, in the dark, when you're cold and hungry," McFadden said. "You've got to be able to block it out and think about other things."

McFadden thinks about his family, and where other racers are at.

Kershaw keeps an eye out for the constellation Orion in the night sky. And he carries on a conversation -- with himself.

"I talk to myself out loud probably more than is healthy," he said, asking himself how he's feeling, how his gear is holding up. "It seems to work well. It's like a flight check."

But after a couple of nights on the trail, even the most veteran skiers and runners may struggle to keep focused.

"The landscape has an effect on you, especially the spruce forests," Stattelman said. "As you get really tired, your mind does its own thing and puts shapes and figures to all these things in your peripheral vision."

Survival

Among the biggest logistical challenges of racing when it's 30 below zero is keeping water from freezing. Some racers use heavy-duty canteens; others keep Camelbak hydration systems layered underneath their clothing. Some use battery-powered heating lines to keep water flowing. Whatever method they choose, it's vitally important.

"It's easy to not eat and hydrate when it's that cold," said McFadden, who makes sure to drink every 15 minutes and eat every 30 minutes. "It's hard to eat, hard to drink, hard to get your hands to your mouth."

With the amount of physical exertion involved in the race, a skipped drink or snack can quickly spiral into bigger problems.

Other concerns?

"When it gets that cold and you're moving, it's hard on your lungs," Stattelman said. "Everyone gets an aggravated cough."

Plus there's the ever-present risk of frostbite and hypothermia. While self-sufficiency is a cornerstone of the race, volunteers on snowmobiles keep tabs on the participants, as do the racers themselves. Kershaw said he stopped to aid a hypothermic racer in the middle of the night in 2011, adding the responsibility for their safety to his own.

"It was intense," he recalled.

But if it wasn't cold, it wouldn't be the Arrowhead 135.

"This is what we signed up for," Gruhn said. "It's such a unique event and we're so lucky to have it in our backyard."

Video of 2013 Arrowhead 135, by Mike "Kid" Riemer and Salsa Cycles:

Related Topics: ELYSKIINGWEATHER
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