An ultrarunner is always looking for the next big challenge. It may be a longer distance, it may be a run on more challenging terrain, or it may be a run that involves some extreme weather. A few years ago I realized that there were two 135 mile races in the United States, one in Death Valley in July and the other in Northern Minnesota in January, one in extreme heat and the other in extreme cold. This was fascinating to me, and I began to ponder the question, “Would I rather run 135 miles in Death Valley in July or in Northern Minnesota in January?” I determined that I run better in cold weather than in hot, so I added the Arrowhead Ultra, which starts at International Falls, Minnesota, “the icebox of the nation”, in the coldest part of the winter, to my bucket list.
For a few years now I’ve been gearing some of my training toward the prospect of running Arrowhead someday. Since the cold is at least as big a challenge as the distance, I decided to try winter camping for the first time a few years ago. I can’t say I was comfortable the whole time, but I enjoyed it in an adventurous way. Now I’m hooked, and I make a point to go camping at least a couple of times each winter. Since runners at Arrowhead generally pull their gear on sleds I started training with a sled at about the same time. For the last few winters I’ve made a hobby of tweaking my sled and harness setup, and I’ve done a lot of training runs with my sled and used it to carry my gear for winter camping trips. On one of my more adventurous outings I pulled my sled loaded to 47 pounds 28 miles on the the hilly Waterloo-Pinckney Trail on a Saturday before I met my friend Bryan Dangremond and set up camp for the night. Another time my friend Andrew Jablonski and I hiked about 10 miles including over 2 miles in knee-deep snow pulling sleds. We set up camp in single digit temperatures with wind chill well below zero, but ended up not staying the night because my feet got too cold, and I was worried about frostbite. We had enough sense to get moving again and get warmed up before anything bad happened. That night I swore off winter camping and the prospect of running Arrowhead, but the following week I ordered a pair of big, puffy camp booties to keep my feet warm on my next winter camping trip. I feel bad about not having stayed out that night, but if I went out again in the same conditions, I would be much better prepared with both gear and experience.
For the last three years I’ve been saying, “I want to do Arrowhead some day, but I’m not ready for it yet.” One weekday evening last winter I drove to Yspilanti, about a two hour drive one way, just to attend a presentation that Don Wood did about his experience at Arrowhead. I told Don the same thing, and Don told me I should pull the trigger. He said that, with as much as I do outside in the winter, I was about as prepared as anyone. Earlier that day I had gone for a run with Kim Owens, my friend and co-race director, and she had told me the same thing, that I should go ahead sign up. (I had made a point to run that day because the temperature was close to zero, and I was looking for cold weather training.) With two friends, including one who has done Arrowhead three times, telling me I should go for it, I started to think more positively about the prospect.
At the same time I had been experiencing a crisis of motivation. I assumed I would continue running 100 milers, but I was having a difficult time deciding which ones I wanted to do. There wasn’t one ultra at the time that stuck out in my mind as the race that really excited me, until I started thinking more seriously about Arrowhead. I thought about how it would be a relatively expensive race for my limited budget, when I add up race fees, gear, travel expenses, and time off from work, but now, for the first time, I resolved that, if I could only do one race a year, Arrowhead would be the one. So I decided to go ahead and run the Indiana Tail 100, which I was already signed up for, use it as a qualifier, and not plan on running any other races until Arrowhead, but to concentrate on training and getting my gear ready.
So now I have a plan, and a race that I’m passionate about training for. I won’t know for sure until October if I get into it, since that’s when registration opens for first timers, but I have a goal to get me motivated. If all goes as planned, I will be running my longest distance yet in the coldest weather I’ve ever experienced.
In the next several months I’ll post about the fun and crazy things I do to get ready for Arrowhead.