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If it’s not the cold at the Arrowhead 135, it’s something else.
Sure, a 135-mile footrace on snow-covered trails in northern Minnesota is going to be inherently challenging, requiring days rather than hours, and loads of extra cold-weather survival gear towed on a sled.
But in the midst of a “heat spell” that saw temperatures in the mid-to-upper 20s at the 2016 race, which started Monday morning, Arrowhead’s mind-numbing cold wasn’t its usual obstacle. Rather, it was the snow that softened underfoot in the El Nino heat and made the going wetter and sloggier than usual.
One of the World’s Toughest
Run from International Falls, near the Canadian border, to Tower, Minnesota, along the multi-purpose Arrowhead State Trail, the Arrowhead 135 is regarded as one of the hardest endurance races on the planet. In addition to the run/sled category, the race includes divisions for skiing and biking.
Arrowhead, which was one of the subjects of the film “Among the Wild,” began with 10 entrants in the inaugural 2005 race. This year, there were 55 runners and many more bikers. (Only two were entered in the ski.) Its average finish rate is under 50 percent. Following a 7 a.m. Monday start, the cutoff is 7 p.m. Wednesday, 60 hours later.
Arrowhead’s checkpoints feature shelter, which many racers take advantage of to warm up and sleep. The race requires a litany of mandatory survival gear, including a negative-20-degree-rated sleeping bad, a stove and a two-quart insulated water container; participants typically carry that and more on a trailing sled.
The 2016 race “was one of the warmest I remember,” says Jim Reed, 56, of Duluth, Minnesota, who tied for the win this week and has finished the run/sled edition of Arrowhead three times. (He won the skiing category in 2010.) “Most of us are used to 20 below, not 20 above. It made the trail really soft.
“The bikers really had a problem with it,” he continues. “I think the runners did, too.”
The four layers of warm clothing Reed packed went mostly unused, though he says he could have used more than one sock change in the slush.
“I got some really nasty blisters,” he says.
“The lack of snow caused some problems,” says race director Russ Loucks. “The Arrowhead Trail hadn’t been groomed at all, so all the little holes in the trail, the sticks, twigs and rocks, were showing. This made biking and running tough—lots of crashes and falls.”
After 37 Hours, a Tie
Reed and with 2014 winner Scott Hoberg, 37, also of Duluth, completed the race together in 37 hours 20 minutes after a protracted back-and-forth over 25 miles between the final aid station and the finish line.
“For 15 or 20 miles we were never more than about a quarter mile from each other,” says Reed. “Finally, with one or two miles to go, we said, ‘You want to finish this together?’ So we did.”
They were over three hours ahead of third-place Marcus Berggren. They were both using kicksleds, which allow users to glide while standing on the sled’s runners. At the moment, sledders and runners compete in the same category at Arrowhead.
“I think [kicksleds] are quite a bit easier than running,” Reed says.
Carla Goulart, of Brazil, won the women’s division in 52 hours 51 minutes.
Complete 2016 results can be found here.