Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Arrowhead 135, 2017.

This past Monday I toed the starting line of my 6th Arrowhead Winter Ultra.  Jen, her mom, and I headed up to International Falls, one of the few spots in Minnesota with good snow, on Saturday. Boy was it good!  On our (Charlie Schad, Ted Loosen, and I) test ride on Sunday we found hard and fast trails.  Even with the predicted 3-5" of snow on race day it was looking to be a fast race.

Myself, Charlie, and Ted at the start.  Both Charlie and Ted were first timers.  But strong riders!

I knew from previous races with JayP that the start would be fast from the word go (or in this case, Unleash the Hounds) with little to no let up till much further down the trail...if at all.
I was lucky enough to jump onto JayP's wheel from the start.  While the pace was fast I wasn't redlining and overall comfortable, much different from last year.  I'm always nervous about overheating during the starts but opting for my mid-weight Podiumwear  jacket and lightweight undershirt I was dialed all day.

Photo Credit: David Gabrys of 45Nrth.
The train early on, I'm in 2nd behind JayP.  

With the pace as fast as it was I didn't bother to look back to see who was still with us.  After an incredibly long pull JayP pulled off and it was my turn.  I just focused on maintaining the same pace he set as a precedent.  My pull was nothing compared to JayP's in duration!  When I pulled off I was finally able to see the damage that was done.  We were a group of 6 (JayP, Ted Loosen, John Lackey, Evan Simula, Kurt Barclay, and myself) with no one visible in back.  Nice work JayP!
Shortly after we made the left hand turn around mile 10 the pace shot back up and Evan and Kurt dropped off.  Now it was 4.
Note: drafting in fat bike races does matter.  Pulling my heart rate was up to 179 (very high for me).  While drafting I got it as slow as 135 (my level one effort).  And yes I had a heart rate strap on!

We took turns pulling all the way to Gateway, the first checkpoint.  It wasn't all business though!  We did chat and shoot the shit some.  But with the trail in such good condition and the potential for snow we kept the pace hot to get as much distance in before any snow fell.  We made it to Gateway (35 miles) in 2 hours and 41 minutes!  We were flying!  As expected non of us stopped and continued on to checkpoint 2 (MelGeorge's about 75 miles in).

The trail at this point was starting to soften up some but overall it was still great.  It was much of the same as before: taking turns up front, keeping the pace constant, chatting, etc.  This section also introduces the hills.  Nothing crazy but a lot of rollers that can wear on you after awhile.  I was nervous of this section as I blew up here last year!  I did fall off the pack at one point but I just needed to slow down a bit to eat some food, etc.  I would eventually catch back up.
Photo Credit: David Gabrys
Here I'm off the back, closing the gap.

It did start to snow off and on during this leg of the race as well.  It was never a whiteout or even big flakes but overtime it did start to build up.  Accumulating snow and warming temps let the legs know we were not in charge.  We just had to keep pushing.
Both checkpoints Gateway and MelGeorge's came up faster than ever before for me.  When we came to the 5 miles to MelGeorge's sign I was shocked.
I was sure the crossing of Elephant Lake to the checkpoint would be windy and a slog but as we crept onto the lake I was surprised to find the trail good and the wind a non issue.
Here we are almost to the end of the Elephant Lake and to the checkpoint.

We rolled into the cabin at 12:51...still flying!  JayP was doing unsupported so he checked in and continued on.  Ted, John, and I stood in line at the faucet to fill our hydration packs, slammed a Coke or two and desperately wished the volunteers were watching our spot trackers to know we were coming...the grilled cheese sandwiches were not ready!  I was bummed!  Nonetheless we were in and out in 3 minutes!  Crazy.

Pouring Infinite Nutrition into my bladder.  That stuff is amazing!
Note the snow crusted hair!  Mushroom Top.

JayP had stopped to let some air out of his tires and I think to get a bite to eat.  Soon after leaving MelGeorge's we were all back together.  The trail was much softer and slower than the start.  At some point we all stopped and let air out to achieve better grip.
Shortly after we all came back together JayP fell off the back.  We all just assumed he'd come back on at anytime.  However that was never the case.  When we came up to him after MelGeorge's I was surprised how much air he let out of his rear tire.  I noticed how much it was compressing with each of his pedal strokes.  I questioned, to myself, if I should let more out.  We would later find out that JayP had issues with air leaking out of both tires.

It was now John, Ted (a fricking rookie), and myself.  I was super stoked to be with these guys.  I've never been in the lead group at the Arrowhead for this long!  I've ridden with both these riders before (Ted a lot) and know they are super strong riders.  Honestly I thought Ted may crack at some point as this was his first winter ultra and only his second month on a fat bike, ever!  Couple that with him having little time to train I thought the wheels may come off.  But there was never any indication of this.  Super Ted.
John holds the ITI record to McGrath.  If he was ever hurting he didn't show it.  I felt, at times, that he was just being nice and sticking with us for the company and could amp it up anytime he wanted!

With the now soft snow we opted to walk a lot of the bigger hills.  Some we could have made it up on the bike but the energy to do so was too much to warrant it.  Every year I've done the Arrowhead I've had to turn my lights on sometime after MelGeorge's on our way to checkpoint 3 (Ski Polk, Surly).  We made it to the Surly checkpoint at 5:26!  No lights were needed!  We slammed a Coke, took on some water, and were off on the final leg in 4 minutes.  We stopped a total of 7 minutes at the checkpoints!

Shortly after we left the last checkpoint I stopped.  I'm weird!  I like to ride alone and I really wanted to ride the last section with music.  It's something I always do and really enjoy.  I know this is a race but the last section at night is something special.  Toss in some crap music and I love it and look forward to it.
So I stopped: peed, let air out of my front tire, put on new gloves and headband, and dug out my music.  I almost gave up on the music as the earbuds were a gnarled mess.  It seemed to take forever before I was back pedaling.  I questioned what I just did but during the descent of Wakemup Hill I knew I chose correctly. 
I was feeling great, was happy, and had a extra boost in each pedal stroke.  I'm not sure when it happened but sometime during the 25 miles to the finish I started to see the flashers of John and Ted!  I was gaining on them!  I continued to sing poorly, smile, and stand on the pedals.  At one point I was getting too close too soon.  I didn't want to take my music out just yet so I eased up a bit.  I really didn't know what my intentions were.  I wasn't sure I'd catch them.  If I did then what?  I was super stoked with 3rd but was I giving up by not trying for the top?  Somewhere around 7 or so miles left I decided to close the gap.  I should have gone a mile sooner!
I was about 100 yards our from them when we came to the orange snow fence that indicates the finish is not too far off.  I started to scream go, go to them and I was kicking it in myself.  I'm sure I had a permanent grin on at this point.  I was feeling stupid good.

Ted took the win...Ted took the win!  What?!!!  Finish time was 13 hours 15 minutes.  John was 15 hours 15 minutes 1 second.  I was 13 hours 15 minutes 15 seconds and with a big smile.  This destroyed the previous record (14 hours 20 minutes) but really in theses races the conditions determine records with some input from the riders!
I'd be lying if I don't think how things would have played out had I rode in with those guys.  But I absolutely have no regrets on my decision.  The choice to stop and put my music in made this event for me, as silly as that may sound.
Ok maybe not the best of smiles but I really was happy!

John  Lackey, Ted Loosen, and I.

5th AH135 finish.  Best yet at 3rd.

I now have two 5th, two 4th, and a 3rd place finish.  If history is any indication I will need another 3rd before I move up!  But I'm getting old!  However the average age of the top 6 is 43...I got a couple years left!

Huge congrats to Charlie Schad as well.  He finished 6th in his first AH135!  Awesome!

While I'm not sponsored I would say I'm Supported by...
My wife, Jen, and her mom.  They come up every year to cheer me on and help with the logistics.  Jen also understands my nutty lifestyle of riding too much!
My mom and dad.  They take in our 3 kids and make sure they get to where they need to go.
The guys and gals at the shop, Revolution Cycle and Ski, for covering for me in my absence.  
Salsa Cycles for the help through the years and for producing amazing bikes.
Onyx Hubs for hooking me up with the hubs like no other.
Hed Rims for helping me get the lightest rims available.
Podiumwear for the jackets that allow me to dial in my clothing no matter the weather.

Also thanks to the volunteers that give up days of there lives to make sure this event goes on!


Joel Schneider said...

Great Job Ben !!!!

the schad family said...

Good stuff!

John said...

Awesome ride Ben!!! I had a great time out there with you and Ted!

Christopher Tassava said...

Fantastic ride! So glad you finally got the podium!