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As arctic blast smacks Minnesota, Arrowhead 135 racers will hit the trail

Jan 28, 2019 06:21AM ● By Editor
Just minutes after leaving the Gateway store, Arrowhead 135 bikers begin their trek to the next checkpoint at Melgeorge's Lodge on Jan. 27, 2014 near Ray, Minn. Photo: Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2014

By Andrew Krueger of Minnesota Public Radio News -  January 27, 2019

Before dawn Monday, dozens of athletes will gather in International Falls, Minn., to begin an extreme test of endurance.

They'll set out on foot, on bikes or on skis for the 15th annual Arrowhead 135 race. It's a round-the-clock, 135-mile trek across the northern Minnesota wilderness — with minimal or no outside support.

It's a tough test in any weather conditions. But this year the forecast calls for temperatures of about 23 below zero at the start — and perhaps in the 30s below zero with wind chills near 60 below during the race.

Ken and Jackie Krueger serve as race directors. With the frigid forecast, Ken Krueger — who also has participated in the Arrowhead 135 — said that among competitors there's "a lot of nervous energy, a lot of second-guessing gear and equipment and bringing extra clothing, extra food, extra water, extra hand-warmers."

As of Friday, about 160 athletes were set to start the race; they choose whether to run, bike or ski. Biking is the most popular option. Some competitors also choose an option allowing no outside support, even at checkpoints; they must carry all of their supplies from the start. (The standard policy is support only at checkpoints.)

Competitors partway through the Arrowhead 135 Ultra race
The faces of competitors are seen partway through the Arrowhead 135, in which racers run, bike or ski in a 135-mile race through Minnesota's north woods, on Jan. 27, 2014. Photo:  Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2014

The Arrowhead 135 is notoriously difficult, with an average finish rate of about 57 percent. It's been as high as 82 percent in a given year — and as low as 20 percent, depending on weather and trail conditions. Krueger said that's part of the appeal.

"We're one of the 50 hardest (races) on Earth, and people want (that)," he said. "We're a very small town... and we get, literally, people from all over the world to come to this race."

The finish line is at Fortune Bay Casino near Tower, Minn. The first finishers — on bike — are expected on Monday night. Runners and skiers will take much longer to complete the course; there's a cutoff of 60 hours.

Bikes parked
Bikes sit parked outside the Gateway store near Ray, Minn., on Jan. 27, 2014 as their owners check-in, relax and recover 35 miles into the Arrowhead 135. Photo:  Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2014

What the biggest hurdle to completing the Arrowhead 135?

"It's a mental thing — people say the race starts at the midway checkpoint," Krueger said. "It's just a mental game. You're so tired, you're so cold, you're so hungry — and you're only halfway and you have to go back out."

On further thought, Krueger also noted that "the biggest challenge, to me, is signing up. The rest is all just training and execution."

Jim Wilson
With fogged and frosted glasses, Jim Wilson makes his way toward Highway 332 about two hours into the Arrowhead 135 on Jan. 27, 2014 near International Falls, Minn. Photo: Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2014

Krueger said success in the race depends on mental toughness, physical fitness and making smart decisions. Most of race is done in the dark, following the thin beam of a headlamp, with no one else around. The experience can be disorienting; some competitors have reported hallucinations.

To read more of this story, listen to an audio report and see a photo gallery, follow this link to the MPR website.

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