INTERNATIONAL FALLS, MINN. -- Some of us tolerate winter. Others embrace it. Then there's this bunch.
The first frosty streak of daylight cuts through the blackness at 6:45 a.m. as the 58 bikers, 54 runners and six skiers wait for the signal that it's time for them to begin braving death.
For the next three days, they will haul themselves and their survival gear 135 miles through Minnesota's North Woods -- from International Falls to Tower -- in the most mind- and toe-numbing endurance race in the lower 48 states.
Trekking the equivalent of St. Paul to Iowa while dragging a sled behind you on 30-below nights might seem a sadistic death sentence to most. Relocate the quest to Minnesota's most remote wilderness in the midst of a bitter winter -- with rescue an iffy proposition -- and you've got a race that's irresistible to some.
"There a lot of people who can't do this kind of race, and a lot of people who would never want to," says Ken Zylstra, 48, of Prior Lake. "Maybe that's why we do it."
Along the way, one competitor will marvel at wolves that sprint out of the forest and eye her as she pedals the Arrowhead Trail. Zylstra will get sidetracked fetching help for a hypothermic competitor shivering in a trail-side sleeping bag. And a sleep-deprived, hallucinating runner from Duluth will see the snow-dusted balsam and spruce branches begin to resemble skeletons by the morning of his third day.
"These are brave, brave souls," Janine Burtness, secretary for the local Chamber of Commerce says just before the start Monday. "My car says it's 20-below, and it's just unbelievable what these folks are about to endure."
'Release the hounds'
The night before the start, jittery racers sit at folding tables in the community center here before easing into a spaghetti dinner.
In one corner, there's Dick and Laurie Woodbury from White Bear Lake, the race deans. He's 66, served in Vietnam and sells life insurance. She's 55 and works as a risk manager. They met at a triathlon clinic 25 years ago and have completed all 14 Ironman triathlons they've entered. By comparison, they've finished two of their five Arrowhead 135s.
"Everyone can do an Ironman," Dick says. "This race lets you find out what's inside you, and there's a great common bond with all the others seeking this kind of challenge."
Tom Fisher, a 17-year-old from Grand Forks, cajoled race director Dave Pramann into bending the minimum-age cutoff on the condition that his neighbor, 35-year-old Andy Magness, chaperone him through the woods. At another table sits first-timer Jennifer Flynn, a plant pathology lab assistant from Coon Rapids. Privately, Pramann put her odds of finishing at one in 10. More than half the field will give up before finishing.
Apropos for such an unusual race, the Arrowhead 135 begins with a signature shout.
Pramann, who is both the race director and its record holder, fires a starter's pistol and hollers: "Release the hounds."
Crunch-crunch-crunch sounds come in response, bike tires, runners' boots and skiers' edges biting into the snow.
At the 135-mile Bad Water ultra marathon in Death Valley -- the 123-degree yang to this race's frozen yin -- racers need a support crew. At the Arrowhead, they must be self-sustaining with sleeping bags, stoves, food and an emergency whistle. Help is prohibited except at three checkpoints spaced roughly every 35 miles -- the Gateway general store, Melgeorge's Resort and the Crescent Bar and Grill.
After 20 miles, Tom Fisher is a wreck.
"My legs were cramping terribly," Fisher says. "I was super fatigued and surprised how hard and long this was, wishing that first store was around every corner so I could quit."
Phil and Ellen Hart say two people might visit their Gateway store on Lake Kabetogama on a normal day. Now, it's packed with racers devouring the 12 pots of soup that Ellen's cooking. Fisher downs three bowls of macaroni beef and feels better. Magness, his chaperone, is disqualified with two flat tires but persuades race officials to let him change out a tire and unofficially ride along with Fisher the next 90 miles.
Buck naked at Mile 47
John Logar, a West Virginia doctor, leaves the store on a too-fast pace. Sweating can kill a racer in this cold, the body's core temperature plummeting in wet clothes.
At 8 p.m., under a moonless 30-below sky, Logar stops suddenly at Mile 47.
"I used every ounce of my energy and made the mistake of getting wet," he says. "I was knocked down as low as I could go and wanted to quit when I realized I couldn't warm up."
Recognizing his peril, he strips off his sweat-drenched clothes and stands naked under the watching stars. Rummaging up some dry clothes, he jogs on.
"I had to do that or die," he says.
At Melgeorge's Resort, a converted logging camp on Elephant Lake north of Orr, racers pedal and stomp over the frozen ice to the Cedar Cabin midpoint check-in, where they nap, eat grilled cheese sandwiches and sip wild rice soup.
Zylstra is a mile away from the lake when he sees a racer flailing in his sleeping bag, trying to kick snow off. He looks in and finds a shivering man, clearly in distress. Zylstra pedals on and finds a crew of volunteer snowmobilers. They speed to the spot Zylstra described, and Lance Russell is rescued from frostbite, or worse.
The Woodburys pedal into Melgeorges just after midnight, grab some sleep, then take off at 8:30 a.m. The hills that come next take a punishing toll. They decide to quit.
"I was dehydrated," Laurie says. "And we couldn't get warm."
No shame there: Nineteen of the 58 bikers, two-thirds of the 54 runners and all six of the skiers will drop out.
"Maybe next year we'll race on the beach in Florida," Laurie adds.
As the Woodburys give in, Zylstra rides off. He soon loses the trail, circles back and finds a sign saying Melgeorge's is 2 miles ahead.
"It was like a punch in the gut," he says. "But we rode on. Sometimes we'd stop and turn off our lights and look up and it seemed like you could throw a snowball and hit the stars."
'135 miles of pain'
At Mile 87, Flynn, the first-timer, comes riding between the pines, smiling. "There's no bad weather," she says. "Just bad gear."
The last of the countless mounds she pushes her bike up is called Wakemup Hill at Mile 113. Flynn thinks of turning off her head lamp to enjoy the stars and the faint green of the Northern Lights. "But I would have to take off my gloves to work the buttons."
At 30-below, it's not worth it. But Flynn is getting gutsy about making time as she nears the finish.
"I started taking the downhills full gale with enough force to make it up the next hill," she says. "It most have been an impressive maneuver because a couple snowmobilers came by and gave me a thumb's up."
At Mile 122, Duluth nurse Jeremy Kershaw is struggling with sleep-deprived visions of skeletons in trees when he finds a stray water bottle and then a racer acting delirious and childlike, unable to button his clothes. He warms up the man's cell phone and calls for a snowmobile rescue.
"One slip out here in the 30-below and you enter what we call the pain cave of hypothermia," Kershaw says.
One by one, the 57 finishers arrive, walk into a hotel hospitality room and pose for snapshots with little paperweight-sized trophies showcasing an arrowhead. After 50 hours and six minutes, Flynn pedals into the Fortune Bay Casino in Tower -- the last of the 39 bikers and one of only three women out of 12 who started out to complete the Arrowhead 135.
More than 40 hours elapse between the time Alaskan Jeff Oatley defends his title in 15 hours and 50 minutes and the last walker, Barb Owen, completes the race in 57 hours and 38 minutes. In between, Fisher rides in, branding the race as "135 miles of pain."
Heather Best, Oatley's wife from Fairbanks, smashes the women's record by more than six hours. Besides the trophy, she takes home the wolf encounter that would only happen on the Arrowhead 135.
"It was 9 at night and I was riding alone when I saw the first pair of eyes running full speed right at me," she says. "Then I saw a bigger set of eyes and a huge gray wolf goes by, just hauling ass. At first, I was thinking it was sweet. Then I was like, 'Oh my God, how many more are going to come out of the woods?'"
Curt Brown 613-673-4767