INTERNATIONAL FALLS, Minn. — I lay breathless in a muddle of metal, rubber, survival gear and sweat, having flipped over my bicycle handlebars and landed flat on my back just a few feet from fresh timberwolf tracks.
Stick-thin racers on fat-tired bikes and skinny skate skis had successfully negotiated this sketchy downhill stretch of Minnesota’s snowy North Woods hours earlier. Outgunned by stronger legs and lungs, I was miles astern of most cyclists and awash in snow the consistency of mashed potatoes. Still, I righted the bike and pushed on alone, leaving behind a snow angel-like divot sure to draw a snicker from runners who were quickly closing the gap on me.
Daylight was fading and my water supply was frozen. Just 100 or so miles to go.
This was the Arrowhead 135 Ultramarathon, a self-supported race for bicyclists, skiers and runners that follows a snowmobile trail though forests, logging roads, bumpy bogs and frozen lakes from International Falls to a casino near the city of Tower, 135 miles south of the starting line.
The inaugural race in 2005 attracted just 10 participants, but the Arrowhead 135 has since gained a reputation among endurance athletes for being one of the toughest challenges in the Lower 48, an event that has quickly become infamous for frostbite, hypothermia and hallucinations caused by sleep deprivation.
The 2012 race attracted the most interest ever but was limited to 135 entrants. They came from 25 states and countries including Singapore, Spain, Scotland and Italy simply for the promise of a pint-size trophy and bragging rights for finishing.
Dave Pramann, a race organizer and former winner, said more than half of the racers who had competed in the event had failed to complete it in seven previous years. I would ultimately join that did-not-finish fraternity less than halfway down the trail.
Racers are required to pack a shelter, survival gear, food and water. They must end the race with 3,000 calories of emergency rations, such as a jar of peanut butter or a pound of butter.
Race organizers emphasize that a chance for emergency help is unreliable at best, warning: “Don’t expect mommy to rescue you.”
Bicycles, rolling on cartoonish tires some 4 inches wide, sport bags or racks to haul gear. Runners and skiers wear backpacks or pull sleds.
Racers have 60 hours to complete the course. No one is in the woods to cheer.
Kevin Breitenbach scorched the course in just under 16 hours, beating fellow Alaskan Tim Berntson of Anchorage by half the width of a bloated bicycle tire.
“I never want to sound condescending, but I was finished and doing normal life stuff in time for the evening news,” the 29-year-old substitute teacher from Fairbanks said.
It was Breitenbach’s first win in a winter ultramarathon, a discipline for which he’s well-suited.
“I don’t put on a jacket until it’s below 20 below,” said Breitenbach, who rode a $4,500 titanium bike but wore only old wool socks with the toes cut out on his arms.
International Falls, in northeast Minnesota, touts itself as the “nation’s icebox,” and typically the mercury can drop to 40 below zero during the event, making for a potentially deadly adventure.
The temperature on the morning of Jan. 30 was a balmy 8 degrees and would later climb to just around freezing — more than 60 degrees warmer than some previous years.
A fresh dusting of snow before the race and the mild temperatures allowed for seven skiers to finish the event, a number nearly equal to those who had finished in all previous races combined.
“At 20 below, skis don’t glide,” said Casey Krueger, a 28-year-old carpenter and ski racer from Aurora, Minn. “Skis glide best at 20 to 25 above so it was really fast and had good glide.”
Krueger finished the race in just over 22 hours, shattering the old ski record by 14 hours.
“I went into it not knowing what to expect,” he said. “I’ve never skied that far before with a 20-pound backpack.”
Krueger placed 15th overall, besting all but 14 cyclists. He passed dozens of so-called fatbikes, which typically have the advantage over skate skiing, the speediest of cross-country ski disciplines.
“Good morning,” Krueger said as he effortlessly swooshed by me at more than 10 mph on a lumpy stretch of trail.
I barely blurted out a grunt in response, because of lack of breath — and amazement.
“Most bike guys I passed did do a double-take,” he said.
Eszter Horanyi, a 29-year-old cycling coach from Crested Butte, Colo., entered the race after making a decision to ditch her indoor trainer and commute to work by bike. Hardened by the tough winter miles, she placed ninth overall, taking 18 hours, 18 minutes to best the previous women’s cycling record by two hours.
“It was an interesting fusion of surviving and playing in the snow,” Horanyi said. “Just showing up for that thing is a victory in itself.”
Jason Buffington placed second in the bike division in last year’s Arrowhead 135, but decided to trade in tires for running shoes this year.
The 42-year-old family practice physician from Duluth, Minn., set a new running record by some 45 minutes, completing the course in just more than 37 hours.
“My feet were dripping wet with sweat and I had blood in both socks from blisters,” Buffington said. “That was at the first checkpoint.”
Despite his problems, Buffington and another runner passed me and fellow cyclist Tim Wilt about 47 miles into the race. At the tail end of the cyclists, we pushed our more than 50-pound rigs along even flat sections of the trail that we deemed unrideable, blaming it on swarms of snowmobiles that had erased the hard-packed lines of the many bikes ahead.
“In a race like this, you expect to suffer and push but not like this,” said Wilt, a fit 55-year-old Minneapolis physician, veteran marathon runner and mountain climber four years my senior.
“It’s like pushing a piano through tar,” I replied.
Yes, misery does love company.
Demoralized and faced with the prospect of pushing our rolling luggage racks another 70-some miles, we abandoned the race at a road crossing and the only place where we were assured a ride back to the starting point.
Pramann, the race organizer and former winner, shows no sympathy for quitters.
“This isn’t just a race, it’s a race against yourself,” he told me.
“Myself won, or lost, whatever the case,” I said. “The Arrowhead beat me.”