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Arrowhead Ultramarathon

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Racers begin ultralong, ultracold slog,


February 6, 2007 - 12:40pm.

Who would willingly endure 135 miles of Minnesota’s arctic? Brazilians, of course

NEAR ERICSBURG — Bicycle tires crunched over snow. Hikers pulled sleds packed with survival gear. Skiers poled their way between stands of aspen.

At dawn, endurance athletes were on the trail for the Arrowhead 135 Mile Ultramarathon — a human powered, Minnesota version of a race format made popular on Alaska’s Iditarod Trail. The race started Monday near Ericsburg, on the Arrowhead State Trail.

The event has gained more publicity and participants each year; it’s been colder each year, too. In 2006 it got down to about 20 below. This year is the third and coldest race yet: When the first riders set out on the trail the temperature — not the wind chill — was 29 below.

It may as well have been Alaska.

Marta Arato from Sao Paulo, Brazil, is among the 46 who started Monday. As Arato prepared to hike the race with friends Rodrigo Cerquiera and Mario Lacerda, both from Brazil, she said the three will help each other stay healthy during the event, which she was scared and excited to begin.

“We don’t have this kind of weather in our country,” Arato said.

Racers were shuttled to the start from International Falls, and organizers decided to forgo a pack start in favor of letting them begin when they arrived at the trail, to minimize standing around in the cold.

After making some final preparations to his bike, International Falls resident Ken Krueger started the race on new, wider tires he bought for increased traction on the snowy trail.

Krueger said he’s thought about the event every day since he heard about it in 2005.

“I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” he said. “My wife thinks I’m nuts though.”

An idea from far north

Cheryl Ostor is directing the race with her husband Pierre Ostor, who works as an engineer for Park Tool, a Mahtomedi-based bicycle tool company.

Pierre had been riding in races on the Iditarod Trail, which stretches from Nome to Anchorage. Cheryl said they got the idea for the Arrowhead 135 from the Alaska races. An event in Minnesota would be easier to enter and organize, compared to some in Alaska that can cost $700 to enter.

“It’s expensive, and we wanted to do something close to home,” she said. “We have a snowmobile trail just like they do and it gets cold. Just as cold.”

The Arrowhead 135 has a $100 entry fee and is part of a race series that includes the 135-mile Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathon, a foot race from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, Calif., and the 135-mile Brooks BR 135 Ultra foot race in Brazil’s Serra da Mantiqueira mountains.

In the Death Valley race, a support crew is mandatory, but in the Arrowhead 135, racers must support themselves.

“We didn’t want people getting followed by snowmobiles,” Cheryl said.

Participants must travel 135 miles on the trail in under 60 hours. They’re required to carry, among other things, a sleeping bag rated for 20 below, a stove to heat water and one day of food — or 3,000 calories — at all times. And they must start and finish with at least 15 pounds of gear.

“It’s so if they get in trouble they can survive out there,” Cheryl said.

Event volunteers on snowmobiles check up on racers, and there are indoor stops about every 40 miles.

Mind your mind, or else

****** and Laurie Woodbury have finished 14 Ironman Triathlons and numerous other ultralong slogs.

But for them, Ironmans got old. They needed a new, less controlled adventure.

So they headed up north.

The White Bear Lake residents have entered the Arrowhead 135 all three years.

“We love doing ultra event races,” ****** said, adding that he avoids the shorter races. “I don’t even get warmed up for the first hour.”

****** and Laurie stay fit all year by biking, running or swimming; they don’t take time off because they’re always racing or preparing to race. For them, training for a cold, multi-day event like the Arrowhead 135 takes preparation. Part of preparing means testing their gear beforehand. They use breathable layers, winter mountain bike shoes, layers of socks and bikes with double-wide tires — bikes built by Minnesota-based Surly to float over snow or sand.

One important component can’t be bought: the mental toughness required to push onward and up the hills, hills that don’t begin for dozens of miles into the race, near Ash Lake.

“I was hallucinating last year, so I don’t remember a whole hell of a lot,” ****** said.

The couple tied in 2006, rolling in at about 40 hours. In 2005, before buying their winter-specific bikes, they had to abandon the race due to mechanical problems.

****** said that overall, the event is laid back. But he and Laurie still push themselves to do their best.

“We don’t screw around. We ride. You don’t just go out there and lollygag,” ****** said. “You’ve got to put the pedal to the medal.”

Last year’s winner, Dave Pramann of Burnsville, finished in about 16 hours.

“Last year I was out on my own ahead of everyone by quite a bit. The trail — there was basically no one out on the trail,” Pramann said. “I didn’t see anybody for about 16 hours. The challenge for me was making sure that I was eating and drinking enough.”

Without eating enough, an athlete can suffer the dreaded “bonk,” a loss of energy that happens when the body switches to burning mostly body fat instead of carbohydrates.

Pramann also skis in the winter, but this year he’s biked more than skied because of the lack of snow. He said these days there are a lot more people biking in the winter than there used to be.

“It’s kind of a unique but growing sport. We try hard to stay out of the snowmobilers’ way. That is why this race is being held during the week, on a Monday, when there’s less snowmobile traffic,” Pramann said.

The route

The northern half of the Arrowhead State Trail is flat compared to the southern half. Racers will be chugging up the hills by the time they reach the Elephant Lake area near Orr, and they’ll finish near Lake Vermilion and Tower.

The Arrowhead trail is used mostly by snowmobilers, but it’s open to cyclists.

In 2005, the race started in International Falls at the trailhead of the Blue Ox Grade trail, and followed that approximately eight miles southwest to the Arrowhead.

In 2006 and 2007, the race has started near Ericsburg.

The International Voyageurs Snowmobile Club did not give race directors permission to use the Blue Ox Grade, which it grooms for snowmobile use, and the race directors — not wanting a fight with the club — decided to start the race farther south and shuttle participants and their gear from International Falls to the start.

Jim Bigler, president of the club, said the club took the position that the trail should be used only by riders of snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles.

“We just don’t feel that bikes and snowmobiles belong on the same trail,” Bigler said.

He said club members think it’s unsafe to have snowmobiles operating at high speeds while cyclists are on a trail.

“I don’t want to see anyone get hurt whether it’s a snowmobiler or bicyclist,” he said.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources lists the Blue Ox Grade as open to ATVs and the Arrowhead State Trail as open for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and snowmobiling.

Race rules state that participants must yield to snowmobiles by moving to the side of the trail. Racers also must carry flashing red lights and at least 10 square inches of reflective material on front and back. Race directors have obtained a Special Event permit from the DNR in order to advertise the event as such, as well as $2 million of liability insurance.

Cheryl said marketing and directing the event would be easier if organizers could involve International Falls businesses. But sensing a gray area and the possibility of vocal opposition from the club, race directors decided to move the start to avoid a fight over the trail, according to Cheryl.

“We said OK, we’ll just start down by the highway,” she said.

Wildlife encounters

Cheryl said the race is more about psychological endurance than being fast.

“Stuff freezes, stuff breaks, they encounter animals, snowmobilers. They’re out there at night alone. They get spread out,” she said. “They’re pretty much alone out there.”

She said wolves follow the racers but don’t get too close. One year, somebody spotted a cougar.

What was thought to be a great gray owl even swooped down on a racer for the kill, but upon closer inspection it settled for a fly-by.

“They’re attracted by motion so they just fly right at you,” Cheryl said.

On the course in 2006, out front and alone near Lake Vermilion, Pramann’s bike tires left tracks in fresh snow.

The only other tracks on the trail were from wolf paws.

“It was really cool,” Pramann said.

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While 32 of the 46 racers in the Arrowhead 135 Mile Ultramarathon had dropped out as of around noon Wednesday, International Falls resident and newcomer to ultralong races Ken Krueger was six miles from the finish.

His prospects looked strong for finishing a race that more experienced endurance athletes had abandoned.

The race started Monday morning, when it was 29 below zero.

Many of the endurance race hardened entrants have dropped out, including one of its organizers, Pierre Ostor, who tried to race by foot this year instead of by bicycle.

Around noon, Krueger was reported to be six miles from the finish, contending with another racer for the last two spots.

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Krueger finishes grueling 135-mile race,


The International Falls resident carries on as frostbite forces others to drop out

Nobody had seen Ken Krueger. Temperatures were well below zero. He was out in the woods somewhere, after more than two days of racing.

When volunteers on snowmobiles found Krueger, a resident of International Falls and a newcomer to ultralong races, he was about six miles from the finish of the 135-mile slog — and still going.

Krueger had to push his bicycle most of the race because a gear malfunction prevented him from pedaling. He crossed the finish line at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.

“There’s nothing that would’ve made me stop,” Krueger said.

When he’d started Monday, the air temperature was 29 below zero.

The third annual Arrowhead 135 Mile Ultramarathon was a race of attrition for cyclists, hikers and skiers — 46 started but only about 10 finished — and Krueger was one of the few racers still out on the course Wednesday.

The cold made it a grueling race for most everybody, said Cheryl Ostor, one of the race directors.

“This is the coldest it’s ever been. It was awful. Terrible,” Cheryl said. She said the trail this year was in poor condition because few snowmobiles had been on it to pack down the snow, which she said was grainy and soft in some places, and like two-by-fours in others.

Some people do this ultralong race for bragging rights, Cheryl has said.

But this year fewer will be able to say they finished.

Many who finished the race in 2006 did not finish this year: The DNF list includes Richard and Laurie Woodbury. Brazilians Marta Arato, Rodrigo Cerquiera and Mario Lacerda didn’t last longer than the first day. One of the race directors, Pierre Ostor, who finished the race in 2006 on a bicycle, this year opted to walk. He dropped out at Orr with a case of frostbite.

“He had frostbitten toes. His toes were turning black. But they’re getting better,” Cheryl said.

Krueger finished with frostbite on one of his thumbs, but was in otherwise good condition.

Others weren’t so lucky.

Race volunteers pulled several ailing racers off the course, Cheryl said, including one who may have had hypothermia and had been aided by fellow racers.

One participant, David Heitkamp of New Haven, Ind., was taken to Falls Memorial Hospital with a serious case of frostbite.

Cheryl said Heitkamp’s water froze early on. He became disoriented and took a wrong turn. While at the Gateway General store near Kabetogama, he rested in somebody’s vehicle instead of entering the store. The vehicle happened to be open with the keys in the ignition.

“He just sat in there and warmed up, because his toes were frozen. He put a $20 bill on the dashboard,” Cheryl said.

One of the owners of the Gateway store, Ellen Hart, looked at Heitkamp’s toes and convinced him to take an ambulance to the hospital. He had told Cheryl while at the hospital that he was being prepared for the worst, meaning he could lose all his toes, Cheryl said Wednesday.

Around 11 a.m. Wednesday, he was discharged from Falls Memorial. His son had flown to International Falls to get him, and he could not be immediately reached by phone.

Hart, who is a registered nurse at Falls Memorial, said Heitkamp will not know if he’ll lose any toes until later, because it takes time to see what kind of tissue damage has occurred.

Despite his toes, she said when she first saw Heitkamp at the store he was in very good shape, “considering he was out all night.”

“He was determined that he was going to keep on going. It wasn’t until we looked at his feet that he decided to go to the hospital,” Hart said.

Cheryl said racers are cautioned about the dangers of the cold before they start.

“They know the risks. We pound it in their heads about frostbite and safety,” she said, adding that racers know what they’re supposed to do in the cold. “He knew the risks. I feel bad. Last year we pulled him out of the race.” She said she feels better about their decision to pull him out of the 2006 race, given what happened this year.

Race directors obtained a Special Event permit from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in order to advertise the event as such, as well as $2 million of liability insurance. They also require participants to carry at least 15 pounds of gear at all times, and indoor rest stops are provided about every 40 miles.

This year’s winner was Dave Gray, who finished Tuesday. Dave Pramann, the 2006 winner, finished third.

Krueger took the second to last spot, a few miles ahead of North Carolina resident and teacher Sarah Lowell, who was racing to raise money for a student diagnosed with cancer. Lowell had done races in Alaska similar to the Arrowhead 135. She was reported to have taken a wrong turn and ended up sleeping on somebody’s porch, before finding the correct trail again, Cheryl said.

Lowell became the first woman to finish the Arrowhead 135 on foot. She finished Wednesday, close behind Krueger.

Krueger, a martial arts instructor and an employee at Boise Cascade LLC, said he had frequently used the workout center at Boise to prepare for the race. He said he’s more of a skier than a cyclist, but had completed some long, outdoor training rides to prepare for the event.

He had outfitted his bike with wider tires and racks to carry gear, with the help of Milt Layman, owner of The Sports Shop.

Layman congratulated Krueger for finishing.

“Good for him. I’m proud of him. He’s not a hardcore biker by any means. But good for him,” Layman said.

Krueger was the only International Falls resident to enter the race.

“I tried getting a bunch of people to do it with me,” Krueger said before the race. But no one he asked committed to entering the event. “Maybe this will break the ice and next year we’ll get some.”

The Arrowhead 135 started Monday near Ericsburg, on the Arrowhead State Trail. The race is a human powered, Minnesota version of a race format made popular on Alaska’s Iditarod Trail, and is part of a series that includes the 135-mile Kiehl’s Badwater Ultramarathon, a foot race from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, Calif., and the 135-mile Brooks BR 135 Ultra foot race in Brazil’s Serra da Mantiqueira mountains.

The 2007 race may have been the most difficult Arrowhead 135 yet. It was cold. The trail was in rough shape. Experienced racers who’d completed numerous other endurance events dropped out of this one.

According to a race report posted during the race on www.arrowheadultra.com: “The southern section of the trail was groomed and fast, but the northern section has had no grooming, and is slow going. Extra snowmobiles have been added to assist in pulling off weary competitors, and wolves have been spotted.”

Cheryl said the last five miles of trail were in really good condition.

“The rest was terrible. But they had fun anyway. A lot of them said, ‘It was a hell march,’ with a smile on their face,” she said of the racers. “They were happy to be here.”

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