scene at the start of the race
Tom came through the door of the Gateway store, 35 miles into the arrowheadultra- a 135 mile winter bike race along snow-mobile trails in norhern minnesota- a broken boy. It was 2:30, seven and a half hours after the race start - the leaders had passed through nearly four hours before. A seventeen year old junior in high-school from grand forks, ND, tom was trying to be the youngest person to finish the brutal race held in International falls - the coldest city in the lower 48 - on the first week in february - historically the coldest day of the year. Things weren't looking good.
I was tom's chaperone, or guardian, for the attempt. He had been allowed to race only on the condition i stayed with him the entire time. but i flatted my rear tire 45 minutes into the race - my biggest fear - and so tom and I used our only spare small tube (i had a normal sized rear tire, rather than the typical fat ones used for snow-biking) and managed to get back on the trail after only 10 minutes, despite the minus fifteen cold. 45 minutes later i flatted again. after a futile attempt to cram an oversized snow-bike tube into the rear wheel we came up with a plan - tom would continue to the first checkpoint at gateway store with another rider, a co-worker, and i would drop from the race, catch a ride and try to trouble shoot the bike. the race directori luckily agreed - but if i was unablte to accompany him past gateway, he'd have to drop too.
In the warmth of the store, i managed to fix the tire. antsy, i decided to ride the trail backwards to find tom. i rode for an hour, finally coming across a rider i knew that had been half an hour behind tom when we had split up. he didn't remember passing him. I was worried, and rode back to the store hoping i'd somehow rode right by him but i hadn't. he finally arrived half an hour later and the look on his face was one of extreme humility, doubt, and disappointment. I'd told him the race would be harder than anything he'd ever done. while he might have understood this intellectually at the start line he now knew it viscerally, with every cell of his body. I didn't ask him if he wanted to continue of if he felt like he could finish - i just told him what he needed to do: take off his wet clothes. eat some soup. massage his legs (that had cramped badly miles before the store). He complied in a daze and eventually could spoon the chili-mac into his mouth without shaking. I took this as a sign that it was time to rebuild his confidence.
We left the store at 4:30, the last bikers to get back on the trail. Tom was full of reeses, soup, and coffee and I'd managed to borrow a bike from a guy (thanks Dave!) that seemed a bit more dependabe than what i'd been riding. Maybe he (we) had a shot. eventually we caught one rider, then another. It got dark and we entered some hills, climbing and descending in ten foot bubbles of white light. every hour we'd stop in our tracks and eat and drink. every two hours we'd hit a shelter, marking approximately 12 miles of travel. Tom had bounced back - he was riding up the hills that were covered in boot tracks, evidence that most that had come before us had walked. He resisted the urge to linger at the fires that had been built near the shelters, and worked hard to fend off the sleepmonsters (his first real brush with them), and we arrived at Mel George's, a cabin checkpoint at mile 70 just after 11 pm.
heading towards Mel George's
although he was spent, his spirit had been renewed. we ate the best grilled cheese ever, sent our clothes to the drier, and climbed up to the loft for six hours of sleep, planning to be back on the trail at first light. Tom has he wonderful ability to fall asleep with ease and was snoring within minutes, while i tossed and turned, wondering how the second half of the race would play out. I needn't have worried.
We were half an hour 'late' getting started - walkers coming in with obvious frostbite and reports of temps as low as 35 below on the trail gave tom a bit of pause to think and he was a bit slow to get ready. but once underway we gathered momentum quickly - averaging over six miles an hour despite the hills, hourly food stops, and a 10-15 minute walking break to warm up our feet during the very cold morning. we passed more racers - folks that had left the cabin hours before us. we rode all but the steepest of hills - relentless forward progress. Tom set a pace which pushed me, and i limited his refueling stops to 5 minutes, or left without him hoping he'd tire trying to catch me. we were moving fast, relatively warm, and enjoying the beautiful scenery. we hit wake-em-up hill, the last major elevation, just before two pm. the other side dropped away tom bombed down it with abandon, only to be startled by a snow-mobile roaring around the corner and fishtaling off the trail to disappear into the deep powder flanking the trail. he was smiling as he climbed out and we cruised the last few miles to the last checkpoint, the crescent bar and grill.
after ordering some real food and giving an interview for to a reporter from the minneapolis star tribune, we headed out into the cold one final time for what was supposed to be a flat and fast 22 miles. Tom was on fire - i couldn't keep up. I made him ride behind me to ensure that we'd stay together and perhaps to protect my ego a bit. despite taking a wrong turn and adding 2 miles to the distance, we covered the section in only 10 minutes more than Jeff Oatley, the first place rider (in fairness, he hadn't slept for six hours half way through the race). And just like that it was over - a sliding stop under a banner behind the fortune bay casino - 135 miles in 34 and a half hours.
Final Thoughts: Tom probably would not have made it on his own and some may think this detracts from the feat. maybe it does. but as a 17 year old kid, there's nothing in his life that had prepared him for what he faced during the race - no set of obstacles previously overcome gave him evidence that he had what it took. it was certainly invaluable to be able to borrow from my belief in his abilities to find the courage to press on after those mentally and physically devastating first 35 miles. so be it. next time he takes on something like this he'll have a benchmark - a frame of reference from which to extend himself even further. In a race like this where 35% of the field failed to finish and temperatures dropped to 35 below it's a hell of a benchmark. And after all, every pedal stroke came from his legs, every impulse traveling to those legs came from his head, and every ounce of will ultimately came from his heart. Nice work tom - can't wait to see what you do next.
Special thanks to Jim Grijalva for what ended up being tom's ride, Pat white and the guys at ski and bike for encouraging tom before the race, Billy Haug for the place to crash and good converstation, Nic for being a temporary 'guardian' and getting tom to the store, Dave Sears for the bike that let me, and thus tom, continue the race, Dave and Mary for letting us start, and all the volunteers for making it possible.