This is a long report, but that might be fitting given the long time it has taken me to finally finish this race. My Arrowhead saga began back in December of 2008, when I found out about the race from a friend and immediately wanted to try it. Unfortunately I had just had ankle surgery and was still in a walking cast by the week of the race, so I couldn't run it, but I did want to at least check it out. Since I couldn't walk, I decided to try the race as a skier (Arrowhead has different divisions for biking, skiing, and running) and just drop at one of the checkpoints, hopefully learning enough about the race to finish it the next time. But the next time, in 2010, I had stomach problems and dropped out, and the time after that (2011) I suffered from a lack of motivation and burnt out legs, and dropped out then too...
The best part about having been to the race in 2008 was that I met Carles, a runner from Barcelona, and we ended up seeing more of each other when I would go climbing in Spain and when he would come to the US every year for Arrowhead and/or Badwater. For 2012, Carles suggested that we run the race together, which was incredibly nice of him since he has already done the race several times and didn't have any need to do it again.
Arrowhead 2012 started off with the usual fun weekend of meals at the Chocolate Moose, a stay at the Voyageur Inn, gear check, and the pre-race meeting. Note that these are listed in order of importance!
Team Black Jacket Ninjas at the pre-race meeting in 2011
Having a forecast with incredibly warm temperatures for the whole race made the whole thing a little less intimidating. Race morning was warm (at least as far as International Falls in winter goes), probably around 11 degrees. Carles and I started off slowly, right near the back of the pack, and got into a nice pace with a walking/running mix. Before I knew it we were already at the turn onto the main trail at mile 9, and then the Highway 53 road crossing (mile 18.something) came pretty quickly too. Things were uneventful in a good way, all the way to Gateway (mile 36). My food and water was going down (and staying down) okay; I had separated all my food into little bags of about 75 calories each, so I could just know that I had to eat one bag every half hour, without having to think about it. I also had three mp3 players full of music and podcasts to listen to to stave off the boredom of the snow running and the unchanging scenery.
Carles and I got temporarily separated after Gateway because he left the checkpoint a bit after me and then had stomach trouble so he stayed back a ways. I was feeling great and was pleased to be still feeling reasonably wide awake during the night. During this stretch, at mile 50, I also set a new PR for the most miles into a race before throwing up, which I was rather pleased with! I met lots of people in this section--Lee from Scotland, who was running with multiple painful injuries and foot problems but who went on to finish; Heidi from Washington, who was extremely fast and seemed to have a better relationship with her sled than I did with mine (she had given hers a cute name, whereas I was telling mine each hour how long it had left to live), and Steve from California, who seemed to have done pretty much every hard race there is to do and didn't even look particularly tired at the end of the race.
Somewhere around mile 62 I felt like I was slowing down and tried sleeping but couldn't fall asleep even though I was warm and comfortable in my bag.
Comfy sled bivy (this was actually taken on a training run; I didn't bring a camera during the race)
After that stop I had a rough patch for 8 miles getting into Melgeorge's (mile 70ish) but I knew that it was just a minor bad spot rather than anything seriously wrong. I ended up at Melgeorge's around 8:30 in the morning and it was a beautiful run (well, mostly walk!) across the lake with the morning light.
It was extremely fun to finally be at Melgeorge's at a time when I wasn't dropping out of the race! My stomach was coming back to life and I was able to eat some hot food, and the volunteers got my clothes into the dryer. I met up with Lynn Saari, another racer, at the cabin we had rented and she proceeded to improve my race for me in many ways--she gave me her spare shoes, which unlike mine were perfectly waterproofed, nice warm socks, the best turkey sandwich ever made, and a waterproof jacket--and she reminded me of tons of things that I needed to do there but had forgotten, plus she told me that she had found my mp3 player on the trail after it had fallen out of a hole in the little pouch on my harness that I had it in. Thank you so much for everything, Lynn. Carles turned up a bit later with wet feet but an improving stomach, and we headed out together at 12:30.
We had a great time in the miles out of Melgeorge's. It was as warm as predicted, we were both feeling strong, and the miles were going by quickly. It was here that Carles came up with the excellent idea of tandem sledding, which would become the best part of our race. I had two sleds with me in the race: one with most of my gear and one tied behind it with my sleeping pad and sleeping bag, all unrolled and ready to jump into. I was also going with loose rope rather than stiff poles for connecting the sled to the harness, which people do so they can sled down the hills (if you have stiff poles, it's almost never worth the time it takes to undo your harness and get in the sled to sled down). Carles had stiff poles, but he realized that we could still both sled if I sat in my front sled and he sat in my back sled, with his own sled trailing behind him. It was really fun and worked very well, or at least it did apart from the hour-long period when I was so tired that I became a bad driver and kept steering us into snowbanks.
We stopped to bivy for 2 hours at 9pm, but again I couldn't sleep (great time to have insomnia...). It was nice just to be off my feet for a while though; they were getting to that point where the impact of each step is painful just from the repetitiveness. And I did feel rested and refreshed after the stop, and I think my driving even improved.
The weather: the weather was ridiculously warm by Arrowhead standards for the entire race. It made the snow soft and tiring to run on (and to pull the sled on) but on the whole, at least for me, not having to worry about freezing to death and being able to do things like get food out and change water bottles, without starting to freeze, more than made up for the snow conditions. It was a bit disappointing not having the regular Arrowhead challenge, but at least the soft snow and warm weather gave us some different challenges to deal with.
We made it to checkpoint ski pulk (mile 108ish) a little after 5:30 a.m. At that point, it was pretty much guaranteed that, barring major injury, we were going to finish. It was an exciting time. We got our hot chocolate from the checkpoint and then headed out for the home stretch, starting off with a successful tandem sled descent of Mt. Wakemup...
That last section is just so LONG. When we crossed the road by the Crescent bar at mile 112ish, I was mentally feeling like it was the home stretch, but it eventually sunk in just how long 23 miles with a sled really is. The visual and auditory (I think all the runners tend to hear phantom snowmobiles and/or people behind them) hallucinations which had been going on since maybe around mile 90 were getting tiring and annoying and I was sick of turning around to check if there was a snowmobile coming, only to findout that the noise wasn't real. It felt like absolutely forever until we started reaching landmarks that were vaguely near the finish, and even longer til we actually made it to the turnoff for the casino (for anyone who doesn't know, Arrowhead finishes in a casino!). It's about a mile from the turnoff to the finish line, and even though it felt like it went on for ages, it was an exciting, emotional mile and it was great to be there with Carles. And then it ended in a beautiful finish line banner, the casino, finally getting an Arrowhead trophy, a shower, the burger that we had been dreaming about for hours, getting to catch up with everyone, and a very very very welcome foot massage from Jennifer. Bliss.