To Build a Fire – Part 2

“Adventure, we found, was… the head-on collision between what we wanted and what we got” – John Long

I’m headed out to Minnesota tomorrow night so I thought now would be a good time to pause and reflect on my last experience at the Arrowhead 135.  Continuing the story where I had left off in Part 1:

Luckily I had stopped the flow of water before things became really bad.  I fiddled with the bite valve a bit and it seemed secure, then zipped up my jacket and started pedaling.  There wasn’t much more I could do while stopped beside the trail except get even colder so I moved forward.  As the water froze, a thick layer of ice on the inside of my jacket was all I had to show for my mistake. 

The first 20 miles had been on the relatively flat plain that surrounds International Falls, but as I fell back into a rhythm my mind soon began to wander to the final 65 miles that allegedly “defined the race with its many tough climbs” as the event organizers had termed it in their description. The Californian in me silently wondered where they hid the hills around this place. How bad could they be?

Delicate ice sculptures formed on the tubes of my bike and all parts of my body in a proud display of the primitive exhalations of my simian engine. I pedaled on in childlike fascination as if walking though caves of ice. I avoided eye contact with the long, sustained stretches of open trail as if not looking at them would make them disappear and banish the doubts that had entered my internal dialogue and festered in my brain. I had begun to wonder if I had what it takes to finish this race. 

Continuing my shifty mind games to the accompaniment of the medieval crinkling that each movement of my body imparted upon my frozen armor, I counted down the miles to the first checkpoint like a knight in need of a lube job. The incident with the leaking Camelback had reinforced my awareness of being completely out of my element here. The accretion of ice occasionally collapsed from my Surly’s frame like pride before a fall. I stopped thinking about the hills that lay ahead and returned to living in the moment. In addition, I stopped thinking like a Californian.

Of course, the moment it hit home that I could have been in big trouble was when it was already too late. The Arrowhead required passage through 3 checkpoints, the first at the Gateway General Store at mile 37, the next at the Melgeorges Resort around mile 70, then one final check at a bar located about 120 miles from the start before finishing up at the Fortune Bay Casino. 

I was feeling pretty good as I pedaled into checkpoint one. Granted I couldn’t feel my feet as they had frozen up a while back but I hadn’t really thought much about it. I was starting to become a little dehydrated as I had also run out of water. Dehydration has always been an issue for me in the past, a fact that EMT’s throughout the country at various races can attest to so I am usually very careful about hydration. However, the zippers on my jacket were almost completely locked in place by ice. Because of this I didn’t have access to the Camelback that I was wearing beneath my jacket. My matches for lighting my stove were also in the Camelback so melting snow for water was entirely out of the question. I was entombed until I could thaw the jacket out. I checked in at the General store and headed into the warmth of the building to warm up and shed my icy shrouds. 

Many others had arrived before me and a few people were clustered around a rider on a stool. I didn’t really pay attention to what was going on as I removed as much stuff as possible and went to look for some food. 6 hours in, I was eager to grab a decent meal to help provide fuel for the rest of the day. I found a bowl of black bean chili, paid for it and sat down near the cluster of people to eat. That’s when I noticed why everyone was mobbing the guy on the stool. 

All ten of his toes were blackened and blistered from frostbite. His shoes had been too tight and the lack of circulation compounded by the bitter temperatures had taken their toll in a short period of time. Still, it didn’t really hit home how bad his toes were until I looked at the black beans in my soup and almost gagged when I noticed the resemblance. Nothing warms the core like a bowl of Blistered Black Bean Toe-Licking Good chili on a cold day, know what I mean? While playing this Tim Burtonesque soup commercial image in my head I listened to them discuss evacuating him to a proper medical facility and the probability of him keeping his toes (I later found out that he kept them all). I thought about how numb my own toes were and the realization began to set in how serious riding in these temperatures can really be and how fast things can go wrong. I removed my boots and slowly warmed my frozen feet back to life. Afterwards I loosely laced my boots back up to allow for proper blood circulation and headed out onto the trail. Chili never tasted as good as that bowl, though it did have a hint of a spice I just couldn’t place… 

The parallels between Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and my experiences on this ride are distinct. The protagonist in the story knows he has placed himself in a tenuous position. He recognizes that he walks a fine line between success and failure. When he ignores conventional wisdom by traveling alone and falls into open water at dangerously low temperatures he has but one shot at thawing his clothes out quickly by building a fire. He eventually kindles a fire with shivering hands.. However, in his haste he fails to notice that he has built it beneath a snow laden bough and the heat of the fire melts the snow just enough to melt it. The snow falls from the tree and extinguishes the flames. His hands, now useless and frozen as he slips into hypothermia, cannot grasp the matches. Unable to build a fire, he dies in the snow a victim of his hubris, of his human frailty. A victim of his choices. 

Everyone makes mistakes, but if you’re lucky you can begin again and try and avoid the mistakes of your past. I was lucky to start again after I dried my clothes out a little in the warmth of the General Store. I didn’t dry them completely though as I wanted to get going as soon as possible. In retrospect I also didn’t investigate the issue I was having with the bite valve as closely as I should have (ahh the wisdom of looking over the shoulder rings clear as I write this). So with a belly full of chili I headed back out into the cold. 

The afternoon passed beneath the crunch of snow and tires as I continued along the course. The sun began to cast long Minnesota hardwood shadows across the black and white earth. A section of tough rollers began and I crawled up the climbs, relishing the opportunity to walk at times and increase the circulation in my toes. I began to overtake a few riders that had moved ahead of me and we struck up trailside conversations as we continued toward the next checkpoint at the Melgeorges resort. Everyone seemed to get quite the kick out of hearing where I was from and thought me crazy to be in Minnesota doing this race. I was one of the race jesters it seemed. I should’ve worn bells.

The joke was on them however as almost everyone I met had done this race at least once before, and some of them had done it every year since it inception. These were tough, tough people that rode through the year in their hometowns of the upper Midwest, mostly from Minnesota, Michigan and North Dakota. In contrast, my last ride before flying out had been in 70 degree sunshine. I’ve always been “that guy” who has ridden in the rain, ridden in the dark or ridden in the cold no matter what. But riding with this bunch I began to question my own dedication to my hobby. 

I began to feel that I was riding with a pack of lunatics, especially the ones back here at the slow end of the field who knew they were going to need to either ride through the deathly cold of night or be forced to bivouac along the trail if things got sketchy. The beauty of a race like the Arrowhead is it is within the realm of normal people like me. It is a chance to dip your feet in the water of something new in a somewhat controlled environment, but it can bite you if you’re not careful. Sleeping in the snow at 20 below is not that difficult with proper gear, but when combined with caloric depletion, dehydration and mental fatigue all of the little things add up. Things can go wrong in a hurry.

These people were nuts, and I was excited to talk to each and every one of them as I encountered them on the trail. Someone once asked me why I do endurance races when I’m obviously not “in it to win it”. I mean, I’m a terminal midpack finisher and frankly I don’t care how I finish for the most part. So in answer to that question, this is why I race endurance events: I do these things for the experience. I am inspired by the people that I meet along the way and the group that I was riding with was a special breed indeed. A passion for experience burned in them and I basked in the warmth of it.

Anyway, it was unfortunate that the field began to thin and I encountered fewer riders as the sun finally set as I definitely could have used that warmth, the shared experiential passion fire that sustains me though moments like these. The weather forecast had called for increasing clouds and warmer temperatures with some light snow overnight, but as I looked up through the trees a clear sky presented itself through the boughs like the absence of thought. My own thoughts were empty and I pedaled on in silent wonderment of the still of night. Little did I know things were about to go wrong yet again as night’s grip deepened and the temperature began to plummet. I was about to learn what it feels like to be left out in the cold.

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