Barb Owens, an ultrarunner from Maple Ridge is hoping to complete three epic 135 mile ultra races this year and has already finished two, the hot and humid Brazil 135, and the icy and frigid Arrowhead 135, both within a two week period. At the Arrowhead 135 Barb was the only woman to complete the race and was the only the second woman in the race’s seven-year history to cross the line in the time allowed.The third race, the Badwater 135 mile race through Death Valley, is next on her list.
Barb has written a great account of both races and she has graciously allowed us to post both on Trainharder. Thanks Barb and best of luck at Badwater!
A Race Report from Brazil 135 and Arrowhead 135
by Barb Owen
This is my first ever attempt at a race report, but I feel like it is kind of important to document this one.
It all started innocently enough poolside in Las Vegas last July. I had just finished crewing for New Zealand athlete David Walker’s successful crossing at the 2010 Badwater Ultramarathon and myself , David and fellow crew member Jon were poolside at the Excalibur Hotel
“You could try all 3”
By all 3 David meant all 3 Ultramarathons in the 135 series. Brazil 135, Arrowhead 135 and Badwater 135.
There was silence as the impact of doing two 135 mile races 10 days apart sank in. I can remember my first thought – well, I recover fast, the second thought was I like heat races and the third thought was I know what 40 below feels like. It just didn’t seems like too much of a chore on that sunny July afternoon. Boy, were things about to change.
I couldn’t shake the thought though, and knew the application process for both races were coming up fast. I did some preliminary talking to my coach Jon Ackland who assured me it was possible but still had a lot of trepidation. Only 3 men had been successful at all 3 races in one year – no woman had ever tried as far as I knew. And the closer I looked at the races the tougher they became. Only one woman had ever finished the distance on foot in the official time limit at Arrowhead – the legendary Sarah Lowell. Reading news stories of her made her seem superhuman – the only person to finish on foot in 2007.I signed up but was wondering what I had gotten myself into.
And Brazil was looking difficult as well. 30000 feet of elevation gain over the 135 miles. I applied for Brazil as well and started looking for every hill I could find. The steeper the better, lots of repeats mornings as well as at night. If I wasn’t going up, I was running down. I got accepted into Brazil and was very happy. I worked hard to study the course and the race route and the logistics. I made gear lists and tried to figure out what I would need for both races. I had help from my friend Paulo, a Brazilian athlete whom I’d met at Ultraman Canada in 2008. He helped me set up crew and lodging. But there were still things like Visas and GPS – it felt like a full time job prepping for the 2 races.
I was very fortunate to find on the Arrowhead web site the link to the Itiderod Invitational, a self propelled (foot, bike or ski) race held in Alaska and managed by race directors Bill and Kathi Merchant. The distance for the short race was 350 miles and the long race was 1100 miles. And on their web site they taught people how to manage in the cold. This sounded exactly like what I needed for the Arrowhead race so I contacted them and after dozens of emails flew down to meet Bill and Kathi in person in November. Their wealth of knowledge was amazing and in 3 days they taught me more than I could have ever hoped. I could not have started Arrowhead with out their guidance and I owe them so much and will always be grateful. After all, their short race from Anchorage to McGrath was 350 miles – Arrowhead was kindergarten to them. From that time on I really felt like I had a chance to get this thing. I trained pulling a tire behind me for hours and when the snow came I traveled to the Callaghan Valley – home of the 2010 winter Olympics and practice pulling my sled on the groomed trails up there. I ran every day, some times twice a day, and often ran 200 kms on the weekends. It was hard getting through Christmas.
We received our Brazilian Visas on January 10th, weeks after they had been promised to us. I was worried that we wouldn’t get them. Things got crazy as the mounds of gear got packed into boxes after Christmas and I shipped them to our hotel in International Falls. I was glad to get an email from the hotel saying all the gear had arrived safely. News reports flooded in of record rain fall and mudslides and calamity and I wondered how the race would even proceed as the devastation was in the same state of Brazil that we were headed, Minas Gerias.We headed off to Brazil on the 15th of January and after a 15 hour flight landed in Sao Paulo. We had a good bit of luck as the ticketing clerk had upgraded our flights to “more leg room” the whole way down to Brazil. Many things went our way like this during the whole event. It was hot and humid in Brazil as we expected, but after our drizzly Vancouver January it was still a shock. I was glad we had done heat training in the sauna for 3 weeks before we left, at least we would have half a chance with the heat.
We managed to get a bus to Campinas following Paulo’s instructions and using the pocket Brazil Portuguese/English translator book. We were shocked when a drink and sandwich ended up costing over 40 Real that would be about 30 Canadian. Yikes. But the bus was cheap. After 2 hours we were in Campinas and found our hotel easily. We made contact with Paulo through the internet and after a nap met Paulo and his friends for a wonderful dinner. I met William who would be crewing with Mike but Bea our other crew member could not make it. William was a young triathlon coach and a 10 hour Ironman finisher himself. He had no English so we just shook hands and smiled. Dinner lasted until very late, after midnight, but I had read that that was common so we just enjoyed ourselves. The next day we caught the bus again to Sao Joao do Boa Vista which was the start of the race. We had planned to have our crew car and use it to scout the course but the car had been sold, Paulo promised us that he would have one for us to use during the race. Paulo to the rescue again. I was just as happy not to drive, the whole atmosphere on the road felt a bit Formula One. Pedestrians do not have the right of way in Brazil!
We arrived in Boa Vista on the Monday and the race did not start until Friday We stayed at the Libero Hotel and spent our time exploring the area, running a bit of the course, trying to feed the street dogs, shopping, and making friends with some of the locals. The coffee was to die for and once I figured out how to order something vegetarian I was happy. 3 days before the race I started to feel like I was coming down with something though and ended up starting the race with a wicked head cold. But it didn’t go into my chest – I’m not sure I could have competed if it had gone into o my chest. But there was all the usual prerace excitement as the days went on and the athletes started to arrive – it was exciting. The preface meeting was held in a sports complex and the setting was beautiful. Bea was there and she was awesome – she understood and spoke some English so was able to translate for William. She was a triathlete and worked as a lawyer. She was beautiful. The crew worked hard to bring in supplies and prepared the crew car. The car seemed very small but it seemed that was what most of the other crew were using, so I tried not to worry. I was used to a large van in the Death Valley crews I had worked on, but I know it is possible to do if a crew stays organized. It rained very hard in the days leading up to the event, the roads flooded and even though it was warm I was wondering how tough the rain would be to cope with. Watching the news in Portuguese at the hotel showed scenes of devastation with the mud slides wiping out whole villages and then weather forecasts of up to 300 mm of rain expected. Plan for the worst and hope for the best became my motto. We packed up the crew car.
The morning of the race I felt good but was suffering from my head cold. William drove us to the start and everyone took pictures and was happy and ready to go. Fernanda and Paula were there and translated for us. We had met the twins while out shopping and had become friends. At the start I met Ray Sanchez who had done the Brazil/ Arrowhead/ Badwater the year before and I peppered him with questions. The race was started and the athletes ran through town and out into the countryside for 8 kms. I felt good and was excited to start. My crew met me as planned at the turn off where the Path of Faith left the road and headed into a trail in the hills. I grabbed my hydration pack and prepared to go it alone until we would meet up in Augas Da Prata 11 kms away. There were many athletes together during this part and some of the path turned very steep and muddy after a while it was single track and it was difficult to pass. I remember Paulo quietly remarking that he had never done anything like this before as he pulled his body up a steep cliff with a rope. We passed some women who were struggling a bit in the mud and then he was off, his pacer Serge carrying his gear and they both looked so strong. I was not able to hang on to their pace and let them go knowing that the race was long and that I had to be careful not to spend everything too fast. My friend David had warned me many times about going out too fast and I had to agree that pacing would be critical. Too fast and I could crash and burn too slow and I would not make the 48 hour time limit I needed to apply for the 3rd race. I just tried to run steady and walk the steep up hills and run the flats and down hills.
The country was very beautiful and the day was glorious and I tried to absorb as much as I could and remember it. I passed some people and was passed by some people and was happy to reach the crew car in Aguas da Prata and get more water. They were looking a bit haggard already as the 11 kms for me was a very large 40 km diversion for them and the car felt very small and full of stuff. We parted ways and I asked them to meet me at the foot of the Pico do Gaviao,. I knew from David that the Pico was an epic accent and I wanted them to have the experience with me and to share it with them. It did not concern me though as I knew I would be relatively fresh and although it was steep it was five km up and five km back down. I had a good climb mostly uphill to the base of the Pico from Aguas do Prata, I felt there was no place on earth I would rather be that right there. Butterflies danced along the trail with me and I was very happy.
When I reached the base of the Pico there were many cars parked but my crew was not there. I got some water from another crew and tried not to worry as I headed up the path. It was fun to see the other athletes coming back down and I looked forward to the speed I could get on the return trip. About half way up my crew appeared and I greeted them with joy – knowing they would do the Pico with me. Mike and Bea got out of the car and walked up the rest of the accent with me, my check in time was 1:24 pm. I felt good and ran a steady clip down the backside of the huge hill I had just climbed. I was glad my crew was with me, it meant I could get rid of the weight of the hydration pack and just run with a small water bottle. I saw Mario, the race director and asked him if the crew could stay with me until the next town, Andradas. He said yes it was possible, the road was rough but they should be able to stay with me. I felt like I wanted to get things from the crew car but did not want to stop for the several minutes it would take to get organized so I had them stop several times in the next few kms. It was very hot and I took extra fluids and electrolytes to try to keep the heat cramps at bay. I found out later a lot of the athletes were hit hard in this section. There was a disagreement with my crew over whether they would follow me or take a diversion to Andrdas, I felt that we should listen to Mario and they should come with me but they had talked to another runner who told them they would get a fine if they traveled the road they were on. I yelled that I would pay the fine. Tempers flared and we parted ways. I immediately was sorry for what I had done and was discouraged that I had had a crew mutiny 8 hours into the race. There was no choice but to continue on to Andradas and vow that if I was to see them again I would not argue again no matter what. Twenty minutes passed and then to my amazement there was my wonderful crew. They had not abandoned me! Life was good again! I made every apology I could and continued to race on.
I had not been eating at all due to the heat only drinking water and perpetuem and coke and was getting hungry. I asked the crew if they could buy me some beans and rice in Andradas and I would keep running through Andradas and they could get them to me before we parted ways for the night. It seemed like a good plan, but I ended up entering the forest before they had caught up with me. This threw me for an absolute loop and I started to panic. Insane thoughts followed. I thought me crew was going to do a 40 km diversion, as that was what they were talking like when I left them. I was trying to communicate to them that the 40 km diversion was only in extreme rain conditions and we had extreme sun conditions but I was sure when they couldn’t find me they would just leave. I was scared because it was 6:18 pm and I had nothing for the night. I had read so many race reports of athletes getting hypothermia during the nights in the mountains and I had nothing. I walked up and down the road and filled with despair. I started to cry but spied a piece of cloth stuck in the sun baked dirt road so got busy and dug it up. I was delighted to find a long sleeve jersey and wrapped up the grubby cloth like a it was a treasure. Certainly I wouldn’t get hypothermia with my grubby piece of clothing!
I was in this state when an American runners crew found me digging in the dirt and crying my head off. They reassured me that I would be okay and looked at me a bit oddly when I told them my fear of hypothermia – turns out the American runner had been struggling with heat exhaustion all day and the thought of hypothermia was a real stretch for her. But she didn’t let on and she was very kind and she offered anything her crew had and instructed them to take care of me. What a nice person. Just then my crew showed up and dusted me off and sorted me out. Seems the rice and beans took way longer than they should have, but when I tried to eat them they were full of ham so I was to remain hungry all night. Oh well.
William my pacer came with me to from that point on and I was grateful to run with him. We stayed together as a team with the crew, going through Serra Dos Llima at 9:30pm and Barra at 11 pm. Bea and Mike left us after a couple of hours but William and I carried on, the hills were so steady and steep it was so hard to make any time. About 2 am we came to a camp were many athletes were having a meal. William inquired “Stop?” and I replied “Stop in Parasopolos” He understood that and just laughed. The backside of the hill was wicked steep going down and littered with many sharp rocks, I remember thinking that if I fell that I would be sliced to ribbons. It seemed to take forever to get down and I was tired of living in the circle of spotlight that was our night. William was wonderful to run with and carefully avoided the 3 snakes and many frogs we saw on the trail. We were careful to look for the painted yellow arrows that make up the Caminho da Fe markings as this was the area I thought my friend David had gotten lost the first year he had done the race and had spent 8 hours lost in the mountains. I had a GPS with me for that reason and when we were not sure we checked it. We ran through a tiny village with only a couple of lights on I’m not sure of the name but everyone in the whole village was out and visiting and looked at us very strangely and silently when we ran through. I felt like we had run though a party we had not been invited too. I wished I could have asked William what the people were doing but our communication skills were too limited. Probably just Friday night in Minas Gerias.
We met up with Bea and Mike at Crisolia at 6 am and Bea jumped out of the car to run with me and give William a much needed break. As the second day dawned I wondered if William and Bea knew what they had signed on for when they volunteered to help out! Turns out that Bea and Mike had had a very difficult time finding the town of Crisolia and Bea had to stop and ask many times before they found their way. Mike was unsure why but the GPS they had in the car showed no sign of the town they were looking for. Navigation in Brazil seemed very hit and miss, nothing marked and all poor dirt roads. Bea ran with me for 7 km until the town of Ouro Fino and although she was supposed to run for another section she passed off to Mike. Everyone was getting tired and the crew had had no sleep. I was hoping they would last for another day. After some minor back and forth with Mike I put on my headphones and enjoyed some music to take my mind off some of the doubts I was having about the crew keeping up for another day of this journey.
Mike settled down and we started to cover some good miles this part of the course being the most flat of any of it. During one section of trail we came upon Paulo sound asleep next to a small creek with loyal Serge standing guard. We whispered and asked if he was okay and Serge said yes he was good but very tired. Finally I had caught up to Paulo! When we got to Inconfidentes at km 115 Mike and I were running well together and he decided to try to run with me for the day and see what happened. I remember running into a little shop that sold coffee and having the best double espresso shot in the world. Brazil coffee is the best! I was so grateful and we put in many miles and covered probably the most beautiful part of the course. It was another beautiful day and we saw how the mountain people lived and worked, men brining the milk to the towns in horse drawn carts and pilgrims making their way on their spiritual journey. We passed through herds of cattle and tried to move with out startling them I tried not to be nervous but their horns were very big. We saw a huge lizard that looked like a crocodile but it didn’t move and I made sure Mike didn’t poke it! We passed through Borda Da Mata and stocked up on water, coke and gels, but the heat and humidity were very great and as the afternoon wore on the hills got steeper and the effort much more. About mid afternoon I noticed that I was not feeling very good anymore and had stopped sweating. This is a very bad sign and I knew that I had to cool down fast. We reached Tocos do Moji at 3:15 pm and I asked the crew to get bags of ice. I put the ice under my arm pits, in my groin, under my hat, around my neck and laid down with an icy chamois to cover my upper body. Even though I never want to stop when racing I knew that if I didn’t stop I would be in trouble. I laid still for 15 minutes and then gathered Mike and we continued on. I guess people were unsure of what to make of my little show because after that time the medics never left me alone and I was forced to stop and weigh and get blood pressures etc every stop after.
The ice did its magic however and we left Tocos do Moji feeling good. I started running after about a half an hour and was able to keep a really good pace – good enough that after 69 kms I was leaving Mike behind as he was no longer able to keep up. We met Mario and I remember asking him if it was possible to make 48 hours. He looked at his watch and looked at me and said – “If you want 48 hours it is yours”. We covered the next section faster than planned and arrived in Estiva (km 175) with me on fire and Mike finished and no crew in sight. I filled my bottles in a small store with coke and water and had espresso and frozen fruit bars. Still no crew. The medics weighed me and I was only down 1 kg and they took my pulse and they were happy but still no crew. I tried to get a pacer from any other crew that dropped out but there was no one available, and then I had one of the volunteers phone Mario to ask if I could continue on my own with no pacer through the night. No luck. The rules are the rules and novice racers must travel with pacers from 6pm to 6am. Just then Bea and William showed up – they surprised Mike saying they thought he was running all night. Mike surprised William saying he would have to run – he was finished!
William is a champion and took the fact that he would have to run the next 42 kms with me in stride. No sleep and another marathon to go! We left Estiva running well and it looked like the rest of the race was in the bag! Only Consolacao and then Parasopolos – it was so close I could taste it! But the hills got steeper and steeper. At about 190 km it seemed the hills were the steepest yet. It felt cruel but we worked hard to get through them. Again we were living in the world that is spot lamps and night running, I’m glad I couldn’t see how steep things really were. About midnight I put my right leg forward yet again and felt my muscle right above my knee tear. I cried out and pounded the area with my fist but it was agony and I was unable to run down the hills anymore it hurt so bad. I was so mad, the 48 hours was with in my reach and once again was being taken away.
We arrived in Consolacao at 2:40 am with just 22 kms left to cover, Just over 5 hours, but I was having trouble going down the hills with my sore leg and once again the medics grabbed me – this time was a full meal deal, blood, weight, everything. They even made me eat and all I could think about was getting going and making the 48 hours. We finally left just after 3 am with me in a panic, only to limp down a huge hill. Agony. I took Tylenol and then Advil and worried about my kidneys and took some more. Nothing helped. We met a man on the trail who seemed as agitated as I was about the time. He ran ahead and then thought he was lost and we found him and he had taken the wrong path and was so discouraged. We told him of the right path and showed him the GPS and we managed to move at a very fast pace and he was unable to keep up after a while as his stomach was very bad. But he had some English and he said the time was very important to him and I told him it was very important to me as well. He spoke in his language to William about the need to reach the finish before 48 hours and William manor changed and he was very sharp and commanded me to move faster. We left Julio behind but were forced to move as fast as we could. I felt we were so close I took off my hydration pack and stopped eating and drinking and focused all my energy to moving as fast as I could. We raced and raced and felt like we might make it but came around a corner and found huge hills. But William would not let me give up now and we worked so hard as hard as we could and then Julio was with us and made us move faster and the 3 of us moved faster and faster as the light of the new day came and I felt like I was in a very special place with these two men and the huge effort we were making. And then Julio said we were running with 4 of us and I understood that the spiritual part of the Caminho da Fe to be very real and very close to all of us at that moment. There was pure joy when Julio said we would make the time and we ran up and down the steep hill and down the cobblestone streets in the town of Parasopolos and I felt so grateful to William and Julio and so close to them and we ran so hard and came to the finish line with 8 minutes to spare.
Unbelievable. William and I looked at each other and we didn’t need words to share what we had both just experienced. We had made it!
Bea and Mike were waiting at the finish line and we crossed all together and messed up the finish picture but I didn’t care. They made me come back after and run through again for the proper photo, but I knew that I couldn’t have done it with out this wonderful crew. Amazing stuff.
It felt hard to stop and realize that it was over and I was babbling to Mike and not knowing if what I was saying was making any since. Mario was sleeping and Elaina his wife greeted us with great joy. She was so happy for us and for our journey. We talked to her for a while and then talked to Ray Sanchez who was resting at the finish line and watching the runners come in. Ray had had some difficulties after the Pico and had not achieved the time he was aiming for but still completed well in 39:37. I had not been across the finish line for more that 5 minutes before Ray started talking about Arrowhead and the challenges that were coming up. I heard Ray’s story of not knowing what to bring, loading 60 pounds of gear on a sled and then struggling the whole way. I was awed that anyone could manage that kind of a load but he claimed that that was how he stayed warm. The load pulled him back down steep hills many times, but he never gave up. He was excited for the challenge of this years Arrowhead as he knew what to bring and would have half the weight. I was starting to get tired just sitting and made Ray promise he would share more at a later time.
I made my way to our Pousada across the church square. The room was a jumble of single beds and gear from everybody, Paulo’s crew and my crew etc. I’m still not sure whose room it was or who had stayed there but I took a shower and flopped on the bed and slept like a rock. For two hours. I woke up in a world of pain but even worse I WAS HUNGREY! I looked around and there was no one awake so I gathered my purse and my flip flops and walked half a block down to a little restaurant I had spied on my way in. I was thrilled to see Paulo’s wife and children and they got me organized with food from the buffet and helped me pay. They were wonderful. I learned from them that Paulo had taken some naps in a hotel and was expected to come in later in the afternoon, Paulo’s son stayed with me and I had 3 plates of food and we laughed and laughed as I told him stories about the race, I got my moneys worth from that buffet. I went back to the hotel and remember William sleeping like a rock – he slept for 12 hours that day.
Bea, Mike and I went back across the church square to the finish line where people were meeting and congratulating each other on their finishes. Mario gave Mike and Bea special crew metals because no athlete crosses the finish line with out their crew and then he gave me my gold finisher metal and there was much hand shaking and hugging and picture taking. We sat and visited and watched other athletes come in to their finish. Finally just after 4 pm Paulo and Serge came running to the finish line and everyone was very happy. I was glad Paulo had not given up, but he has a big heart and he finished.
I could not imagine how but Paulo left right after the race and traveled back to Americana as he had to work in the morning! I sadly said goodbye to William and Bea and Paulo’s crew.
I did not sleep well but never do after a long race. We spent the morning sorting through gear and answering emails and congrats, it felt strange to be putting away the Brazil gear for good and deciding what I still needed. I was working slowly and just getting through the day.
That evening we went for the wrap up party. Everyone was celebrating and Mario and Elaina spoke, and we drank pop and ate tapas. Ariovaldo White (who had placed second) stood up and proposed marriage to his girlfriend and there was much happiness when she accepted. Things got confusing however when people jumped up and tied a tablecloth around her neck like a wedding train and gave her a palm frond. Suddenly a priest appeared and in a few minutes Ariovaldo had a blushing bride. Now that’s how to get married!
After the wrap up party we walked through the streets of Parasopolos and watched as the town people, young and old alike visited in the square and enjoyed the bands that were playing. It was very warm and although me legs hurt I was glad to be there to see the people dressed in their finest.
We stayed in Parasolpolos until Tuesday and then caught a bus to Americana. We arrived at Paulo’s place about 4 pm and I was anxious to hear his stories of being on the trail, and wondered how his recovery was going. I was starting to swell up like a balloon and was looking at my poor feet that seemed twice their size. Paulo was not home but his wife and son made us feel at home with a meal and shower. We stayed overnight at Paulo’s and visited with him until noon the next day. After eating the best rice and beans in the world (made by his cook) we got a ride to the bus station in Campinas with his secretary. The bus system is very good in Brazil and we were at Sao Paulo airport for our flight to Houston before we knew it. This time I paid for an upgrade on our seats, a couple hundred dollars bought us a few more inches of leg room. But it seemed worth it at the time as my legs were still sore and swollen. I was counting on a quick recovery and it wasn’t happening as quick as I had hoped. I tried not to worry.
We left Brazil at midnight and I felt sad because I didn’t want to leave beautiful Brazil. I wished we could have gone to the beaches of Rio and had a bit of a holiday but it was not to be. Sleep evaded me on the plane, and after connecting in Houston, arrived in Minneapolis around noon. I had rented a car on line and we picked it up, a big one for all the gear we knew was waiting for us at International Falls. It didn’t seem too cold, just below freezing but was winter and kind of gray. I felt nostalgic for Brazil and wished we were back there. We drove north for about 5 and a half hours before we reached the Gateway store. This was check point number one at Arrowhead and I wanted to see what food would be available. My puffy feet still in sandals drew same stares at first, but the people that owned the store knew lots about both the Arrowhead race and all the 135 races, so did not seem surprised when I explained that we had just come from Brazil. But the man seemed concerned about the edema in my feet and ankles. There looked to be lots of options for a vegetarian and they explained they would make vegetarian soup and sandwiches for the racers and I was surprised but happy. This was the last thing I had expected in Minnesota. I met more vegetarians in Minnesota than I have in my whole life. Who knew? After checking out the store we finished the drive to International Falls and drove to the AmericInn, where we had a room booked. I dragged my 4 boxes I had sent UPS weeks before to our room and fell asleep shortly after.
I woke up Friday morning after 12 hours sleep and found the swelling down in my legs. This was a good sign. My coach Jon had warned me that I must be vigilant that I didn’t lay on the bed and relax and watch TV so I got busy and put the sled together and dragged out the stacks of winter gear I had bought. I organized the gear into stuff sacks and organized the stuff sacks into the lightweight sack my Mom had modified for me. Bill and Kathi had warned me that weight was everything and not to pack any more than what I needed. Mike and I used the Garmin to find the start of the race and while Mike tried to get the car unstuck from the snow (the first time for this but not the last) I pulled my sled down the start of the race course. The next couple of days were like this, fine tuning gear, getting stuck and unstuck with the car, and watching the racers arrive into town for the Monday 7am start. I was starting to feel good again and sharp but watched with some concern as the weather network promised a cold snap starting Monday.
We had the usual prerace meeting with all the athletes on Sunday afternoon and then had pasta and called it a night early.
It seemed much colder Monday morning but the car started and prerace nerves kept me warm. I had a plan for just about everything to do with Arrowhead and felt confident that I could handle just about anything I would find out there.
The bikes headed out first and a minute later the runners pulling their sleds were sent on their way. I knew that I had to do more than a walk if I was to make the 60 hour time limit but was wary of cooking myself and moving too fast. Part of traveling wisely in the severe cold is not to sweat, because if you get wet you get into trouble when the temperature drops. So it seemed to be a bit of a balancing act, but I moved at a pace I had practiced with at the Callighan and got into the groove. I started noticing my right foot hurting, not sure why but my metatarsal area in the front of my foot was aching with each step. It was overcast and cold and gray but I felt good other than the annoyance of the foot and worked on eating steady and drinking from my Nalgene every half hour. I had two 1 liter Nalgenes in insulated covers, they were part of the required gear and I felt I could last 12 hours with 2 liters with only slight dehydration. The zippers on the covers were difficult to use and kept getting stuck open. I had to stop several times to shut them. Equipment malfunction!!!There are only 3 points to get water at Arrowhead unless you melt your own from the snow with your stove. I was confident I could do this if I had to but to save time would rather not.
I reached the Gateway checkpoint a bit later than I thought I might at 6: 15 PM but was okay with the time. I wanted to make a fast stop but took off my Marmot coat and was horrified to find a huge layer of frost had formed on the inside of the coat under the wind proofing section of the coat and I was soaking wet on my midlayers under that. I had no choice but to strip down to my woolen base layer and toss everything else into the dryer. Arrrggg. Another equipment failure! The people at the store were so helpful and amazing they had everyone’s gear organized and they got it as soon as you asked for it. I grabbed my Nalgenes and filled them with boiling water, ate some bean soup and egg sandwich and got my gear from the dryer. I was really wondering what I was going to do as I had no other layers and just had my down parka after that. I vowed to be more aware of how much sweat I was generating and was on my way for the start of the night with a hot chocolate in hand. It got very cold very fast after that. I started to get very sleepy which I found strange as usually I have no problem with sleep deprivation. I think it might have been the cold because some of the other racers around me were complaining about being sleepy as well. We traveled together in a line and took comfort from each others lights and company. I can remember feeling a bit pissed off but tried to disassociated from that feeling of negativity. I did remark out loud to no one in particular that I thought it might have been the stupidest thing I had ever signed on for. My headlamp started to work intermittently and after much fiddling I manipulated a wire to make it work. But I had to keep adjusting the wire and monkeyed with the headlamp off and on all night. THIRD equipment malfunction! We came upon a racer who had been traveling for some time in the dark and had come off the trail several times, I invited him to join us and he was grateful. We came across a trail shelter about midnight where we stopped. I took a caffeine pill to help stay awake – first time I have ever done that while racing. I grabbed my down parka out of my kit and took off the Marmot coat. Putting on the parka was instant warmth. At that second I knew I was going to be okay. I had wondered if the parka was even any good, I had bought it as an 18 year old heading into the wilds of the Yukon. The parka was 34 years old but was just as good as the day I had bought it. Bill had said that if it used to keep you warm at 40 below it should still keep you warm at 40 below and he was right. I had some water and got some new Hot Hands going and decided to keep moving. I was getting no warmth from the fire and was only getting smoked out. I headed out alone but found the fellow with the bad headlamp traveling with me once again and he seemed happy when I started running down the hills. I think the temperature was very low minus 35 and there was a steady stream of racers being taken out towards Elephant Lake on the backs of skidoos.. Some bikers and skiers had bivyed off the trail for the night and I was jealous but knew I didn’t dare stop to sleep or I wouldn’t make it. It got easier to keep awake after 4 am as that is the usual time I get up, but I still looked forward to the light of the new day. My water had frozen solid and I had no water for probably 3 hours – I was nervous as I knew dehydration can lead to very cold fingers and toes, but I pushed through, running when I could.
I arrived at Elephant Lake Resort at 9:15 am and although it was a bright, sunny morning it was still wicked cold and my eyelids kept freezing together. This was the 70 mile mark of the race – 65 more miles to go – just over 100 km. All the weekends of 100 km per day runs made me feel like this was in reach. Just 100 kms to go! And loads of time to get it done. I met Mike just near the checkpoint cabin and we entered inside. The checkpoint was littered with runners and their gear – people were making arrangements to be taken back to International Falls. I was sad to see so many runners dropping out, and tried to talk one of the other young girls into keeping going. But her race was finished and I moved on to filling my Nalgenes and eating rice soup and the best grilled cheese sandwiches ever. After I dried a bit of gear and restocked it was time to move on. Mary Praman seemed unsure of what to say to me – she tried Good Luck and that didn’t seem right so I told her just to say – See you at the finish line!
I didn’t know it at the time but no other women carried on foot at this point. But I wasn’t worried – I was on the back side of this one and it was a beautiful day. The temperature was coming up a bit and the sun was brilliant. And I had time! I headed up the trail with out a care in the world and just enjoyed the day and the countryside. I made unremarkable but steady time and came across a racer. We talked for a bit and seemed to be moving about the same speed so we enjoyed each others company. We talked about the difficulties of the night before and how so few people had continued on. The hills got steeper but I laughed as my traveling companion laid on his belly and rode his sled down the steep hills. It seemed no faster and I dared not try it myself for fear of crashing my sled and wreaking my poles but it was fun to watch and it woke him up. He seemed to fade after a while though and soon he was vomiting and laying on his sled. I was concerned for him – especially when he quit moving and just laid on his sled – it was well below freezing and I didn’t want to leave him. Pretty soon he had recovered though and it was his turn to move faster than me for a while. My foot had quit acting up after 24 hours but instead a tendon at the front of my ankle started to swell. I loosened my shoe and tried retying my laces to take the pressure off the front of my foot but the damage had been done. Every step was painful once again. The hills continued getting steeper and steeper and my companion and I took turns fading and getting stronger, leading and then falling back. I took great comfort thinking I had found someone to travel on the remote part of the course with as the skidoos did not travel to the racers on the second night and you really were alone. Day started to fade and we passed a trail shelter but kept going. Once again the temperature started to drop, and we reminded each other and stopped to drink every hour. Dark was spooky and I started to hallucinate. I had used a flashlight instead of my wonkey headlamp but dropped it by accident and crashed into darkness. Back to the stupid headlamp. When my partner stated that he should have stopped at the trail shelter we did some calculations to figure out when the next one was, but it was hours away. At that point I suggested we bivy on the trail and he agreed. We found a straight stretch and put our blinking red lights like beacons on both sides of us so the skidoos would not run into us and crawled into our bags.
I started to shiver violently but had read enough race reports to know that this was normal and I didn’t get scared. What was strange to me though was how hard my heart was pounding and it was racing so fast. I tried to just calm down and relax and gradually it worked but had to pee. Arggg. Out of the warm bag and into the cold night and then back into the bag to start the shivering all over again! I was sure I was only there for 10 minutes when a voice said we had slept for 3 hours! We had bivyed at 7:30pm and it was 10:30pm. I had an awful though when I asked if we were going to make it. I knew it would now be a chore to get to the finish line in time. We packed up in a rush and started running everything we could. Time was our enemy once again. The hills were the steepest yet and it was baby step to get up some of them. It got down to minus 40 in the valleys, I saw the sparkles that happen in the extreme cold shining in our headlamps. We faded and surged but kept our eyes open to make sure each other was okay. After probably 12 hours of traveling together I learned my friends name was John and he learned my name. He thanked me for being there for him and remarked that he would have probably been curled up in the fetal position if we hadn’t been together. I felt the same. I also learned that John was the same racer who we had rescued from no headlamp the night before and he made me laugh when he told me how he had kept crashing off the trail until we found him. I was not the only one with malfunctions! I took Tylenol to help with the pain of the tendon and caffeine once again to try to stay awake. Guess it was no wonder my heart was racing! We worked hard to get to the third checkpoint at Crescent Bar and Grill and John hurried ahead and promised to have a meal waiting when I arrived.
I arrived at the third checkpoint at 8:23 am. We still had 22 miles to cover and only until 7 pm before the cut off. John had a nice pasta and seafood salad laid out for me, I was willing to eat it but found an egg sandwich instead. After refilling the bottles and having a coffee I headed out before John, nervous that I wouldn’t make the time cut off. There were other runner still there, 3 or 4 and they all assured me it was in the bag, but I really didn’t want to take chances. Once again the day was sunny and beautiful and the temperatures started to rise. It never did get above 0F (minus 16C) either day but after 40 below it felt like spring!
I took of the parka and put on the Marmot coat again and removed the balaclava. I put on my I Pod and enjoyed the music and the day. I was able to run – no more hills! And ran and walked at a steady pace for hours. John caught up to me and passed me but could not pull ahead like he wanted. I caught him once again and he complained that this was the part of ultras he hated – the hard part was over and why couldn’t some one just come and gather us survivors up! I gave him my I Pod to see if that would cheer him up but he returned it after only a half an hour, and asked if that was what the kids were listening to in the clubs these days. Not sure what he had to listen to but I guess it wasn’t his cup of tea. I was glad to get it back anyway. I played games and would run one song and walk one song. Run to a clump of bushes and walk to the next. I let my mind study the shapes of snow caught in the trees and saw amusing little animals form. The pace was good and when a skidooer told us we had 7 miles left, I finally knew I would make it. I traded places with John and 2 other racers and we all made good time to our goal. Seven miles turned into 2 miles and finally I relaxed and just quit running and walked the rest of the course. I almost didn’t want it to end, it had been a very long journey and I relived all the months of preparation and the sacrifices Mike and I had had to make to get to this spot in our lives and the people that had helped us along the way. It was a peaceful place and a good place and I no longer felt the need to rush to the finish line. People came out to meet me and to finish the rest of the race with me and I was glad to see Lisa Paulos and Jennifer Flynn. Jennifer had finished on the bike in 50 hours, Lisa was proud of her race as well. She finished it at Melgeorge but I am sure that it will be all hers next year. I crowed the finish line in 57 hours and 38 minutes, close to 10 hours slower than Brazil. I was grateful simply to make it. I was sad to learn that Ray Sanchez got a ride back to Crescent due to hypothermia. You take a ride and it ends your race. He was so close – 15 miles from the finish line. Someone took my sled – I was not sure if it was checked to see if I had the manditory gear at the finish, 3000 calories of food and 8 oz of fuel, but I really didn’t care if I saw my sled for a very long time. Everybody was happy when I entered the room that was head quarters. I got my finisher trophy and picture but was wondering where Mike was, so with Lisa and Jennifer we headed into the hallways and finally found Mike. He had been sleeping and was convinced when he saw me finished that I got a ride in. I laughed and told him I finished! It was over! I was the only woman to have finished on foot, and only Sarah Lowell and I had finished at all.! I guess he had waited for me for so many hours 6 hours at Elephant Lake and the same at Crescent that he was sure I would race in under the wire just like Brazil all over again.
The chef at the restaurant made me a wonderful vegetarian meal and I found our room and tucked into it. Amazing stuff. Mike came into the room and said I had won the Shakelton Award and they wanted me to go pick it up. I felt so finished though, I asked him to bring it and explain to Dave and Mary I was finished. Gear strewn everywhere I faded into black sleep.
I have had some trouble with my tendon since the race and have only stopped dreaming of pulling the led and not getting to the finish line. I am extraordinarily tired and have slept 10 hours a night for many nights. I know the tired feeling will fade and I will get my life back and I am looking forward to that. But no matter what happens now no one will ever be able to take this extraordinary experience away from me. I wish I could thank all the wonderful people who have helped me so much and all the amazing volunteers in both races who were there for us to take care of us.
Thank you David Walker for putting it out there! Thank you Mike for making it happen!
Barb Owen Feb. 13th 2011