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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A challenge worthy of my freaky love of cold weather running?

Ever since I can remember, I've liked to dream big.  My ideas usually come to me in the form of schemes.  Some of them are good, and some are plain awful.  There was that period of time around 2003 where I thought it would be a great idea to create a start-up real estate development company in central Florida.  I wasn't going to let the fact that I have no experience in real estate, no degree in architecture, and absolutely no financing stop me!  Good thing the new housing market crashed over there about a day later. 

There was also the time that I was a couple of paragraphs short of completing the business plan for my own family and criminal law firm with offices a few minutes from my house.  Of course, then the ball dropped on 2009, and we entered "The Great Recession".  No one would ever accuse me of having good timing. 

Now, not all of my schemes come crashing to the ground under their own weight.  I've had a couple of really good ones.  My recent marathon/honeymoon adventure through Team in Training is a great example.  Wow...my blog is referencing other parts of itself.  Check it out again for the first time.  Aren't you lucky to be able to read that literary gem all over again?

Anyway, I'm not sure if this one is a good scheme or a bad scheme.  This isn't even something that I want to do anytime in the near future.  I'm just thinking out loud for the time being.

BEHOLD!  My next great scheme!

It's not readily apparent what this link is all about, so let me explain.  This is a link to the website for the Arrowhead 135 ultramarathon.  The Arrowhead is an 135 mile race from International Falls to Tower, Minnesota along the Arrowhead snowmobile trail.  Okay fine, there are plenty of 100+ mile ultramarathons around nowadays.  Here's what makes this one special.

First, a little background on I-Falls.  International Falls has the nickname "America's Icebox" for a reason.  It is second after Mt. Washington, New Hampshire on the list of consistently coldest places in America.  The mean temperature up there is a balmy 23 degrees.  So it's fricken freezing up there Mr. Bigglesworth!  And just to put the cherry on top of this miserable pie, the race is held on January 31 at 7am every year.  The average temperature at race start is around -20 degrees F.  If you're lucky, the temp gets above zero by noon. 

In order to complete the race, you get three equally sucky options.  You can bike, ski, or run.  In any event, you have 60 hours to complete the course.  Most of the bikers finish in around 18 hours.  The skiers finish at around 35 hours.  The runners usually don't finish, but when they do they come in near the 60 hour mark. 

Still with me?  You won't be in a minute.  This race is also entirely self-supported, meaning that you are responsible for carrying all of the food, clothing, equipment that you need for up to 60 hours in the wilderness.  The run has to be unsupported really.  The northwestern portion of Minnesota has about as much infrastructure as the middle of Denali National Park.  There are whole counties in that area with only a handful of residents.  So there isn't enough manpower to make this race the roving buffet that most ultramarathons have turned into. 

Basically, this is the opposite of what ultramarathons have become lately.  You're not going to get a snack bar and a doctor every 8-10 miles.  Your five best guy friends aren't tagging along to tell you stories and keep you on your epic 14 minute mile pace.  You don't get a solid gold belt buckle at the end.  You get four checkpoints spaced 35 miles apart and a few guys on snowmobiles riding around to make sure nobody dies. 


Usually a picture is worth a thousand words.  I think this picture is worth two words: "OH FUCK!"  Remember how much fun it was to pull your kid on their sled up the hill for an hour?  Try two and a half full days.     

So why does this race seem like the one for me?  Well, as my wife would say, "Christian...the longer you run, the weirder you get."  Like many athletes, I feel an upward pressure to one-up my previous goals.  For a runner that means one of two things: a better time or a longer distance.  And I just don't get the same satisfaction from shaving a few minutes or seconds off my personal best than I do from completing longer distances.  After completing my first half marathon, I registered for my first marathon in the car on the way home.  Before I even completed my first marathon, I had already registered for my second and was looking at 50-mile races for the next year.

The problem with using distance as a measuring stick is that eventually you run out of race options.  After the 50-miler there's the 100K.  After that you complete the illustrious 100-miler.  After that what happens?  There aren't really any longer races to complete.  You now have ultramarathon blue balls. 

I think at that point you "Go Karnazes".  Essentially, you just go nuts.  You look for events that are far past the point of ridiculous.  That's why even Badwater has an entrance lottery lately.  Only a few crazies used to run 135 miles through the desert.  Then Karnazes wrote Ultramarathon Man, and everyone needs to buy a space suit and see how it feels to have their shoes melt.  I read the book too, and it didn't make me want to go rent a room in Death Valley.  But it get me thinking big.

But after we Go Karnazes, I think we all need to find our own particular brand of crazy.  I doubt I'll ever be able to run Badwater.  I pant like a bear just walking outside in hot weather.  But a run in the coldest temperatures in the nation sounds right up my crazy alley. 

What makes me even more excited about the race is that it looks like it is within reach for me in the not-so-distant future.  I still haven't completed a run over 26.2 miles, and even the 50K distance seems a little daunting for me.  But it looks like this race is within reach even if I haven't completed a full ultramarathon.  Since formulating my little plan, I've researched a few people who have successfully finished this race on foot.  It looks like those that were successful didn't do much more training than completing several marathons a year. 

That seems to be enough since it's not really possible to run this race like a traditional 100-miler.  With a trail that's groomed more for cross country skiing and snowmobiling, and a gigantic sled with all your gear behind you, I doubt you'll be in the mood to run this whole thing.  The race is more like an 135 mile hike than a run.  In fact, by my calculations you only need to go a lightning fast 2.4 miles per hour to make it in under the 60 hour window.  That even gives you a few hours of shut-eye.  Happy day!

Of course there are a lot of other logistical issues to work out for me before this race even enters the realm of possibility.  I think the biggest issue apart from the cold would be significant sleep deprivation.  If you aim to come in at or near the 60 hour mark, you'll spend 2.5 days awake and hiking with only a few hours of sleep.  I have a two-year old, so I think I'm pretty experienced in the sleep deprivation department.  But some sleep deprivation training might be in order.  I already start a lot of my long training runs at an ungodly hour, but it might be time to start waking up at 1am to begin. 

Lots of other issues to consider.  Doing training runs on x-country trails that involve a sled (or a weight vest).  Getting out there for some long unsupported runs and learning how to use different survival gear.  Working out methods for storing water and food so it doesn't freeze.   

So anyway...let's just say this scheme probably won't happen any time soon.  Maybe not even any time this decade.  But something about this race is calling to me.  Maybe someday, I'll answer the call.   


  1. I have no desire to do something crazy like that race, but I would love to read about someone else doing it. Go for it!

    -C. Beth

  2. WOW! I have big dreams too that probably won't happen any time soon, but it's fun to dream. I deal with the heat about as well as you. I'm looking for a cold weather marathon. Great dream!

  3. Fun!! the long treks like that fascinate me however the cold totally ruins it. If it were warm weather then yes!
    I will enjoy reading about your adventures though :)

  4. Jen, I don't know if there is a marathon in your area this winter, but in Minnesota there are several winter marathons and ultra marathons. Try www.race360.com as a starting point. They have a pretty good list of all the popular US marathons. I use other sites specific to Minnesota to find races also, like www.northlandrunner.com.

  5. Wow, man. You are a serious Type A personality, aren't you? Yeah. You should totally go for it. I wanna read about it. But you know I'll be sitting here in Sunny CA drinking a cocktail while you're freezing your ass off and getting all sleep deprived. Hee hee.

    For real, though. I admire you and your goal. I think its awesome!

  6. Definitely not type A Zap. Maybe type C for crazy. Or cold.

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