The Leadville 100 mountain bike race in Colorado and the Western States 100 mile endurance run in California get most of the “wow, can they really do that” media headlines. Not to be overlooked, Minnesota deserves some attention for hosting one of the toughest endurance events in the United States.
Early on Monday, January 27th, 2014, competitors will cross the starting line of the 10th annual Arrowhead Ultra 135 in International Falls, Minnesota. The Arrowhead, featured in the book,” World’s 50 Toughest Endurance Challenges,” will challenge riders with bitter cold temperatures and hours of solitude.
The field, limited to 150 competitors, is divided into three classes: on foot, on ski or on a bike. In the first 9 years of the annual event the overall finishing rate is just 50 percent. “The high DNF rate doesn’t deter people from coming back. They want to cross that finish line,” says Ken Krueger, race director, Arrowhead Ultra 135.
Competitors follow a multipurpose trail normally used for snowmobiling in the winter. Bike riders fight to maintain a steady pedaling rhythm as their wide tires break through drifted snow. All the competitors face many hours of the voice in their heads screaming, “please stop.”
A series of steep rolling hills on the southern portion of the 135-mile course challenge competitors when their physical and mental resources have already been stretched thin.
Ken Krueger and his wife Jackie handle race management responsibilities. Committed to providing a memorable experience for competitors, Krueger is quick to point out that race support is very limited. Competitors are required to check in at 3 checkpoints, each with a timed cut-off point. “The last of the three checkpoints is a literally a fish house equipped with a propane stove and water,” says Krueger.
Observers may call the Arrowhead experience crazy, but race organizers take safety seriously.
Competitors are required to carry 30-40 lbs of equipment including a sleeping bag rated minus -20F, a bivy sack or tent, stove, fuel canisters, 2-qts of water and flashing LED lights.
Hours and hours of training can prepare riders for the physical requirements of riding, skiing or hiking 135 miles but its far more difficult to be mentally prepared for the cold, dark, lonely environment Mother Nature delivers.
“In 2012 the race started at 7am and by 4pm 8-10 inches of heavy wet snow had fallen,” said Krueger. “That just crushed the competitors. We saw bikers trying to push their bikes through the deep snow and it just didn’t work.” Only 36 percent of starters finished the race. In nine years the finishing rate has ranged from a low of 25 percent to a high of 73 percent.
While there are categories for people who want to cover the 135-mile course on foot or ski, the majority of the competitors ride bikes. The introduction of fat tired bikes has also influenced finishing rates. Once used by just a few racers in ultra distance events like the Iditarod in Alaska, fat bikes are commonplace. “Last year we had 89 bikes, only 3 weren’t fat bikes,” says Krueger.
Elite competitors push through to the finish while mid and back of the pack participants will stop at the halfway point checkpoint to warm up, refuel and take a short nap. Between a relatively small field and hundreds of miles to cover it’s not uncommon to feel isolated and alone on the trail. Krueger noted that on one of his Arrowhead races he went 20 hours without seeing another competitor.
In 2013, a fat bike rider set the course record finishing in 14 hours and 20 minutes. Krueger notes that the average finishing time is over 30 hours.
One by one, competitors straggle in to the finish line where a volunteer in a fish house checks them in, records their time and guides them into the hotel so they can get warm, rest and recover. Once recharged competitors take a moment to take a photo and pick up their finishers trophy and head for home.
“We intentionally keep the race small. If there were a 1,000 people out there it would be a much different race.” says Krueger. “Solitude, survival and endurance are part of the culture.”
The 2014 race is sold out. To follow the race and register for 2015 visit [www.arrowheadultra.com](www.arrowheadultra.com)