Screaming Into The Abyss

2023 NSBR Race Report
By Ben Zvan
On September 28, 2023 at 00:22

Pre-race training and nutrition

I worked with a nutritionist over 9 weeks this summer to help fuel these long rides. We dialed in a strategy that’s easy to manage with minimal thought that’s been extremely helpful in my training as well as in this race. Pro-tip: you can set custom alerts on your bike computer to remind you to drink and eat every x minutes of activity.

Day 1: The Familiar

Riding through an amazing rock cut channel on the munger trail south of duluth mnI rode down the hill from my hotel with 15 minutes to spare, after getting as much rest as possible by biking over the night before. Chatted for a few minutes, lined up for the group photo, and headed out on the neutralized start. I always get dropped on the neutralized start because I’m a slow climber but I did get a chance to compliment Jessica’s custom Go Physio gilet before the hill started; I’m a fan of Paulie and if you need a bike fit, he’s a great bike fitter who knows body mechanics and physical therapy too.

I’ve ridden the southern section of USBR 41 many times on training rides and both directions of  the MS150 so not a lot stands out as novel to report here. I kept to my plan of 20oz of water with Skratch hydration plus my target grams carbs per hour, followed the twisty route around White Bear Lake, and onto the Sunrise Prairie trail, and made my first stop at the top of the hill in Pine City, after the roughest section of road on the southern half of the route. They’re slowly repaving and adding a trail but it’s going to take another decade.

I filled up my water bottles and added a lower concentration mix for the rest of the day, supplementing my liquid carbs with sour patch kids and buffalo blue cheese combos for some solid carbs and a little protein and fat to stay sated. I blew through Hinkley, which is a regular stop on this route for me when it’s hotter out but the temperature was perfect in the 10-15C range and I had plenty of fuel so no need to stop and rest or restock there.

The first few miles of the Munger trail are the most rutted, butt-bashing section of the trail and I was glad for my new suspension seatpost and my old suspension stem. Through the twisties after Finlayson  and on to Moose Lake for another restock.

Carlton always seems farther than I think but it’s mostly downhill from Moose Lake to Duluth, including the amazing rock cut section on the final miles of the Munger trail. My plan had been to get to Duluth and see how I felt about continuing. Last time I stopped in Duluth but this time I was an hour earlier and feeling strong so another restock at the Kwik Trip and onward to Two Harbors.

The temperature dropped to -1C as the sun went down but I was feeling good and had enough layers. It was much nicer than the 30C+ temps dealt with on training rides this summer. The hills of the route just barely start on this section and I was reminded again how slow I am uphill. I knew if I pushed too hard I’d burn out and have trouble continuing so I kept to my target effort.

Brian caught up with me on the way into Two Harbors and we chatted for a bit. I was feeling the extra miles from Duluth and planning to stop at a hotel and they were planning to continue on. I got the second-to-last room in the hotel and the racer right behind me got the last one. We both paid too much but it was worth it for a shower and a soft bed. I forgot to hit the convenience store across the street before stripping off my bib and taking a shower and didn’t feel like wandering over in a towel so I had my recovery drink and ate some food I had with me for dinner and hit the sack at about midnight.

Day 2: Hills

mist over lake superior at sunriseOut the door at 6 AM. Two harbors to Silver Bay is the first actually hilly section with a solid 200-foot climb. Getting through it on the first day would have made an even third of the total route but I was glad I didn’t try it the night before because it took me 3 hours. Back on and off of highway 61 after Silver Bay depending on the status of the Gitchi Gami State trail. Beautiful where it existed, often rough with angry and/or polite drivers where it didn’t. Kate Coward passed me going the other way before I made it to Beaver Bay so she was well over 200 miles ahead of me.

I stopped in Grand Marais about 3PM for a restock and booked a hotel room for the night. Even more expensive than Two Harbors but not unexpected. They mentioned another rider was going to get in around 11 that night; that was my plan too since I still wanted to hit the border before stopping. Nick was restocking on the way south and we chatted about their cascade of tire problems including sidewall tears and punctures. Never in my tens of thousands of miles of riding have I gotten a sidewall tear and it sounded awful.

pigeon river overlookArriving at the Grand Portage Reservation is a highlight of this ride and also a portent of doom. The pavement is the most perfect and pristine of the entire route but the last few miles to the border are the largest one-shot climb of the event with 500’ of gain over 3 miles and basically the same thing on the way back over the ridge. It wasn’t as bad as I remembered from last time, partially due to fitness but also due to lower gearing and packing lighter.

On the way back to Grand Marais, I thought it couldn’t be too far but then realized I was still on nice pavement so I wasn’t even 10 miles from the border.

3 miles from Grand Marais and I could see the lights ahead. I also saw a big spill of gravel out of the Ace Hardware parking lot. As soon as I hit the gravel I heard the pshht-pshht-pshht of a puncture, cursed, and stopped at the side. Turns out that conversation about sidewalls was just foreshadowing and I spent a good half hour in the rain draining sealant, sticking on a tire boot, inserting a tube, and swearing about the weird valve shape on the tube my tire gauge won’t seal with. I guessed at the pressure and continued on. When I arrived at my room, I pumped up my tire some more to get the bead to seat properly and eliminate the bump-bump-bump flat spot.

Day 3: More Hills

I had the impression that a place called The Hub would be a bike shop but I was wrong and didn’t buy a spare tube in case of another sidewall failure. Fingers crossed the first section southbound would be mostly identical to the first section northbound.

I spent most of the day thinking about where to stop for the night. I was well ahead of my previous race and if I stopped in Duluth, I felt like I’d be wasting my advantage against myself. But there didn’t seem to be any good options in Carlton or Moose Lake and I remembered one of my big problems last time was failing to stop on the 3rd night, so Duluth it is. I checked ahead online and found yet another overpriced hotel, this one with its own marina, and booked a room. The short day was good for me because the majority of the hills are between Grand Marais and Two Harbors and they were really tough after 400 miles of riding. The weather remained amazing in the mid 10s C without too much beating sun.

I arrived at my hotel late in the evening and was glad I didn’t try to go farther. I looked for decent delivery food for recovery and ordered a hawaiian pizza from toppers with some breadsticks. I didn’t realize pizza and crust could be that greasy. Eww. So I only managed ¼ of the pizza and a couple breadsticks and hoped it would be good enough. (I remembered when I got home there was a Pizza Luce in duluth.)

Day 4: The Final Miles

I was out the door by 5 AM which put me 5 hours behind last time but I knew how tired and slow I had been after riding all the way from Grand Portage that day and continuing on up the hill out of Duluth. So, continuing on up that hill out of Duluth, I stopped a couple times because it’s a long one with nice views. My first restock was at Moose Lake, which I got to later than last time (I thought) but I was feeling good.

The roughness of the last 5 miles of the Munger sucked, like they always do, but at this point, whatever…still glad for the suspension seatpost.

I skipped through Hinkley again and continued on to Pine City where last time I had to rest for a long while due to heat and exhaustion. Aside from some spiky pain in my calf due to sloppy left-leg pedaling and an overall lower available power than normal, I felt OK this time at 560 miles in. Even my saddle pain was pretty manageable, all things considered.

The section from Hugo to St. Paul feels amazing with what seems like more downhill than up. I knew once I got to the Gateway Trail I’d be even faster and the Vento would be faster still. I was probably slower on the Gateway this time than last because I had a burp flat on one of the bumps earlier this year that eventually earned me a new rim, which I wanted to avoid.

I got to Shepard Road, mere feet from the finish line where people were (yay) waiting with cowbells and cellphone video…and the light was red. Last time the two people right in front of me ran the red light, barely looking, which I was not willing to do at that intersection even at midnight. This time there was barely any traffic but there were two police cars sitting on the other side of the intersection so I waited, and waited, and waited for the light to turn green. I crossed to the serenade of cowbells and finished the race in 12th position at 85 hours, 4 hours faster than my previous time. After a short rest and some conversation, I rode the 10 miles back home.


Nailing down a hydration and nutrition plan really helped me. If I was better about evening recovery food and early morning pre-fuling I would have been able to shave more time off. Packing only the hydration/carb mix I intended to use, with only a little wiggle room, kept my weight low and significantly lower over time.

Packing lighter with smaller panniers was also a big help for the hills and the headwinds both ways on the North Shore.

Upgrading to an XX1 Eagle derailleur with a 10-50 cassette was great for me on the hills and the electronic shifting allowed me to spend way more time in the aero bars for comfort, efficiency, and speed.

My new gel gloves felt like cardboard after day 2, so I was glad I packed a spare set.

I focussed on building my base this year including several training rides this year close to 200 miles and I never felt like I was out of power, just getting really low. Now I need to continue building that base for the winter ultra season.


Specialized sequoia steel frame (steel is real)

Path Less Pedaled “PartyPace” and “SUP PLE” stickers (worth an extra 5 Watts)

Sun Deluxe dynamo hub

Sinewave Beacon headlight

Redshift shockstop stem and seatpost

Bisaddle adjustable saddle

Pirelli Cinturato Velo 35mm tires

SRAM Force/XX1 AXS 1x 10-50 drivetrain and Quarq power meter

Revelate feed bags and mag tank

Johnny D’s half frame bag and bits bundle

Baryak front aero/packing bars with sea-to-summit dry bag for sleep kit

Wahoo Elemnt Roam for ride tracking

Clipboard for cue sheet to major waypoints

Garmin InReach Mini satellite tracker for race tracking

Garmin eTrex 35 for navigation and back-up tracking

Garmin Enduro watch for heart rate monitor and back-up tracking

Ortlieb gravel-pack panniers

Skratch hydration mix, Skratch super-high-carb mix, Infinit :speed mix


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The One with the Coffee
By Ben Zvan
On May 14, 2021 at 13:24
Product Reviews

On This Day in 2009:

Because the opportunity presented itself: side by side mochas from Starbucks and McDonalds.

Starbucks has better experience, staff, etc, offered second shot on the house. McDonalds didn't know how many shots of coffee in a mocha.

Starbucks mocha still tastes like hot cocoa to me. McDonalds mocha has a slightly plasticky taste, bitterness reminds me of coffee.

McDonalds mocha has more coffee flavor but less overall flavor.

12oz cup from McDonalds was slightly under-filled, probably for whipped cream space. Hand filled Starbucks perfectly crested cup.

I found myself drinking from the Starbucks cup more than the McDonalds cup on the way to Caribou.

Caribou has more coffee flavor and more overall flavor than the other two. Has a buttery finish not present in McD, barely in Starbucks.

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The Wisdom of Solomon
By Ben Zvan
On December 19, 2020 at 16:57
General News

I don't often quote the bible but, when I do, it's the apocrypha.

This is from the Wisdom of Solomon Chapter 2 and it's intended to be a condemnation of "ungodly" people's reasoning about their lives. But I actually think it's beautiful (as long as you cut it off before it gets dark at the end). Please read this at my funeral some day.

"Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end,
and no one has been known to return from Hades.

Because we were born by mere chance,
and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been;
because the breath in our nostrils is smoke,
and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts.

When it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes,
and the spirit will dissolve like empty air.

Our name will be forgotten in time
and no one will remember our works;
our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud,
and be scattered like mist
that is chased by the rays of the sun
and overcome by its heat.

For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow,
and there is no return from our death,
because it is sealed up and no one turns back.

Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist,
and make use of the creation to the full as in youth.

Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes,
and let no flower of spring pass by us.

Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither.

Let none of us fail to share in our revelry,
everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment,
because this is our portion, and this our lot."


And at this point, he wanders off to talk about how ungodly people want all godly people to die in shame in order to vilify them to make his point about how his wisdom is important. Such is the Wisdom of Solomon.

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The Much Delayed Actif Epica 2020 Race Report
By Ben Zvan
On June 03, 2020 at 17:41

Starting Line at CN AmpitheaterActif Epica is the third and final race in the Hrimthurs series of winter ultras. At 205k on the prairies of Manitoba, it’s also the shortest and the flattest, which I thought would obviously make it the easiest. After failing the Tuscobia by not considering how checkpoint timing worked and scratching the Arrowhead by choice, I was expecting to bike for most of a day and then hang out in my hotel room for a while.

The gear requirements are similar for all three races, with variations around what temperature sleeping bag, how many lights, and how many emergency calories you need to bring. For this race, my packing list was very similar to others except I tried to lighten my load once again. I kept my sleeping gear the same as usual in a ready-to-use roll on my handlebars. I reduced the amount of solid food in my panniers and planned on mixing a new batch of liquid food at each checkpoint. And I kept my clothing options to what I considered “minimum safe” with enough changes of socks and hand warmers to stay warm and additional layers for the overnight low.

Ready To RollSaturday morning at the start of the race, it was -3°C (26°F) with no wind and a crisp layer of frost over everything. I was happy to be awake for a pre-dawn bike ride. I made one last check over my gear, filled up my hydration pack and put it on, and then heard a dribbling water sound from behind me. There was no bite valve on my hydration tube! What? No! That was my only plan for hydration. I didn’t even have a bottle packed, which was a bad plan now that I thought about it.

I knew exactly where it was, of course; sitting on the drying rack in the kitchen at home where I had taken it off and scrubbed it out and soaked it, trying to get rid of the gunk that’s a byproduct of not using only water.

I brainstormed possibilities and posted on facebook hoping someone would have a spare valve or tube. I was in luck! One of the racers had a whole pack they weren’t using. I headed over to the starting line early so I’d have time to get set up, thanked them profusely, and waited for 0600 to roll around.

Due to high water and broken ice on the trail, the first part of the route crossed a street and was intentionally slow, led by a pacer. Once we crossed at the stoplight and headed onto a narrow singletrack covered with deep, soft snow, the race began and group started to spread out with those who are good at riding a 3” path with 4” tires at the front and me getting closer to the rear with each foot I put down to stay upright. It was good to know there were others just as bad at this as I was though.

The Actif Epica is a unique race in this series, starting at The Forks in downtown Winnipeg and winding through residential areas, the University of Manitoba campus, and along a busy business street before reaching the flat, straight roads that divide the 1-mile squares of farm fields. In previous years, the race started at the US border and made its way north, but climate change has caused the conditions on the southern portion to be unpredictable and frequently impassable, so the race now starts and ends in Winnipeg.

As I made my way out of town, I was sort of adopted by a small group of riders at the back of the pack going about the same pace as me, including one guy who was acting as guide, but didn’t remember every change they made since last year, which was a lot of changes.

Checkpoint OneThe first checkpoint was on a gravel road near the Red River Floodway and reminded me of an ice fishing house on stilts in a maybe more like a deer stand but in a neighborhood. The trail under the bridge over the floodway was completely blown over with snow and very slow-going, but it cleared up on the other side and we were able to ride a bit before crossing over the levee and onto the road. We filled up our water, re-anchored one pack on a rear rack, and continued on after what, in retrospect, was probably too long a stop. The way back to the road on the blown-over trail seemed a little easier, but that was probably the fun-sized snickers bar I ate at the checkpoint talking.

The checkpoint was only mile 20 of more than 125; the sun had been up for a while and the wind from the west was increasing dramatically. Riding east, I had no trouble keeping up with the group, but riding west I was struggling to keep moving, much less keep up, so I stopped trying in order to conserve my energy for the rest of the remaining century.

PierogiesThe checkpoints seemed really close, which I suppose they were, given there were 9 of them in 125 miles. The Niverville checkpoint stands out for me quite a bit. They had perogies that were locally made and delicious with bacon bits and sour cream. The park with the snow-covered trail just after Niverville also stands out for me since it was a bit harder to ride than the gravel. Between Niverville and Crystal Spring was some of the most variable trail conditions I’ve ever experienced. There was ice, hard snow, loose snow, rutted frozen dirt, seemed like every time I got used to a surface it would change again, making it frustrating to repeatedly decide not to adjust my tire pressure.

After Crystal Spring was the really interesting part, and I mean that in the most Minnesotan of all possible ways. Between Crystal Spring and St. Pierre-Jolys, the “trail” dropped down onto the Rat River. After taking a wrong turn on the way down because I followed the track with more bike tire prints (which is always the wrong choice because the wrong track always has twice as many tire prints from the people who took the wrong turn and came back again) I got onto a nicely plowed section of river and enjoyed the change of scenery and the shelter from the wind. But the plowed section disappeared quickly and the change of scenery morphed into “I’m literally going 100m right over there but the river winds so much I’m never going to get there” for turn after turn after turn. The snow quality was difficult to predict with some drifts being quite passable and others only being passable for a few feet before my cycling race became a foot race.

Shitty SnowThe time I spent walking on the river and pushing my bike was soul crushing. There were obvious tracks where other cyclists had just ridden through, probably because they were fast and light and only packed the required gear, keeping their bike even lighter. I am not and will probably never be one of those people, so I had to keep reminding myself that these events are events where I compete with myself, not anyone else. As only one person came the other direction, I was pretty sure I had been in last place for quite a while.

When I finally arrived at the end of the river section, I wasn’t sure if I was exiting in the right place because the “trail” up to the road at the bridge was easily a 150% grade for 12 feet or more. So add another trail surface to the list I guess? Time to climb off the bike and climb up the bluff using tire studs and brakes as a makeshift climbing axe.

At the turnaround checkpoint, there were a couple people just getting ready to leave, so I didn’t feel like I was too far behind everyone else. I took a little time to dry off my wicking layers and have some food and drink. I need to drink more while I’m actually riding, which is something I remind myself of at every checkpoint, which is clearly not often enough. I chatted with the folks at the checkpoint for a while, they gave me a commemorative pin, and I discovered I was running critically short on time to make the checkpoints on the way back before they closed. Once again, I was bitten by the fact the finish-line cutoff was timed for runners, not cyclists and that I need to really look at the timing of the last checkpoints when planning a race like this. So...out the door I went, leaving some unfinished ham and a lot of morale behind. Back down the paved road to the bluff, which I decided to ride down while riding my breaks and crossing my fingers. On the way back up the river, I kept trying to judge my distance by the quality of the snow I remembered. But I kept waiting for the really shitty snow to start and it kept not starting, meaning I had a really long way to go. But then my GPS told me to turn right off the river and cimb up to the road again, so something must have changed.

The Tail EndA likely explanation for the firmer snow is that I guess I hadn’t realized how much colder it was now than when I started. When I left St. Pierre-Jolys, it was -17ËšC and it was all the way down to -23 by the time I left the river. My tires were getting softer, my feet were getting colder, and my time was running out. There was another rider at Crystal Spring who was also feeling the cold. I tried to give as much of a pep talk as I could while changing my socks for dry ones for better insulation and cramming a sticky bun and some soup into my face.

We ended up leaving at the same time but I was slightly faster down the road because I was so worried about time. The final checkpoint closed in a few hours and I had a very long way to go. It’s ok though, after we rode together for a while, I was going too slow for them to stay warm, so they passed me and finished an hour before I did.

Another big drain to my morale was a (surprisingly short at 2 miles) section of farm road that was completely impossible to ride due to footprints, soft snow drifts, and ice. I tried riding in the field next to it but that didn’t work either, so it was time to walk again. My bike computer says it took 45 minutes, but there were several times it didn’t think I was moving at all, so it was probably longer than that.

Fronch SignMore pierogies at Niverville; more slow progress as the temperature continued to drop. After St. Adolphe, I had two concerned support drivers basically shepherding me in and giving me directions and encouragement all the way to the University. I wasn’t sure I’d make it before it was officially closed to the 205k bikers at 0300, which was just a couple hours away, but they kept telling me they wouldn’t turn me away because the checkpoint was open until 0430 for the runners. I still don’t understand how that works, but I arrived at the checkpoint at 0315, which I guess was good enough. 25 minutes later I was back out on the road and on my way to the finish. But I got kind of lost on the way out of the rec center and took a scenic tour of that block of the campus.

The last 15 miles or so were hard. So hard. The temperature had dropped from -3ËšC at the start to -30ËšC a few hours back and -27ËšC as I left the last checkpoint. I was bundled up for warmth, which slowed me down. My bearings and wheels were cold, which slowed me down (probably...that’s my excuse). I had been riding for almost 24 hours straight and a little faster than I should with a little less food than I should, which slowed me down. But, by the magic of foot race checkpoint timing. I had 5 hours to go the last 15 miles of city streets, so it didn’t really matter how slow I was. I could probably walk that if I had to.

I was met a couple more times by the support drivers and given more encouragement. From time to time on the roads, I could see a car or truck sitting by the side of the road ahead with its lights on making sure the racers were ok. I passed many runners between 10 and 5 miles from the end, another reminder that this was a foot and bike ultra, not just bike.

Cross a cool old bridge again. Ride through a park again. Slip around a bit less on the narrow singletrack again. Cross the street at a stoplight again. Finally arrive at the finish line under the CN amphitheater at The Forks at 0600.

TrophyI walked my bike into the bunker under the stage, gave them my name, picked up my trophy, and biked back across the ice rink and the park to my hotel to take a hot shower/bath and sleep for as long as it took.

Overall, I guess it was a good effort. I finished in just under 24 hours for an average of 5mph including zeros, which is honestly not that bad for a single effort in winter.

As I keep doing these things, I keep learning things. The biggest thing I learn every time is I need to decrease my weight even more if I can. When I unpacked my bag, I had a couple pairs of socks and a hat and a bunch of food I didn’t touch. The food...I feel like I should have eaten that along the way, which is the next biggest thing I learn every time; the clothing and especially the hat...I’m still glad I had them because so many things could have gone wrong along the way and caused me to need them, which I learned on my first Arrowhead.

I’d post a gear list here, but it really was basically like every other gear list I’ve written. Most of the ride I was wearing a merino bottom base layer with my Naughtvind bib under wind pants, and a merino top base layer with a PI winter jersey and winter jacket.

See you next year!

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Arrowhead 135 2020 Unsupported...DNF
By Ben Zvan
On February 01, 2020 at 15:52

Loaded fat bike next to a sign reading it's the most wonderful time of the yearAfter the Tuscobia in December, you may recall I had some mild neuropathy; a slight numbness of the tips of my middle two fingers. I gave myself until January 19th, one week before the Arrowhead, for it to clear before making my decision on whether I was going to do the Arrowhead or not.

Fat bike on a stand half upside down

The week after Tuscobia, I took my Mukluk over to Paulie at Go Physio for a bike fit and to get some PT exercises for my fingers. Turns out at some point my saddle had wandered backward by almost 2cm, causing my position to change radically from my previous bike fit before the 2019 Arrowhead. A few other tweaks and a new stem later, and the bike should fit much better. I’m still considering extra padding and some custom parts to give me more cush and more hand positions inside my pogies.

On January 19th it had not gone away, which meant I was not racing the Arrowhead. Since I had failed to complete the Tuscobia, thereby botching my chance at an Order of the Hrimthurs this season, I at least had less incentive to go back on my earlier ultimatum.

As race day grew closer, the weather forecast looked more and more like the forecast we had for Tuscobia. The predicted high temperature kept increasing to just a few degrees below freezing and I was glad to not have to deal with that crap again.

But I already had a room booked and had paid the price of admission, so I decided to go north and at least pick up my t-shirt and goodie bag and have dinner with a bunch of bonkers people doing a bonkers thing.

Over the final week though, the forecast started trending cooler and looking much better. 20˚F with no rain seemed like nearly perfect conditions and I started itching to ride the trail. At the last moment, I decided to bring my bike and get out onto the trail the day before, then decide if I was going to be a DNF or DNS for this race. Since my fingertips were still numb, I wasn’t going to finish, but I might just start.

Me next to a wooden statue of a bear making the same rawry face as the bearI arrived in International Falls to a balmy 26˚F, literally 72˚F warmer than the -46˚F the morning before the race last year. I was staying at the Falls Motel again, since it’s convenient to the starting line and reasonably affordable. My room was a little awkward for my bike, but at least it opened directly outside, so I didn’t have to deal with hallways or stairs, like I did at the Tuscobia.

At gear check (and online), I was encouraged multiple times to at least start the race, if nothing else to keep the finishing rate low. Some folks wanted me to disregard my neuropathy and ride to the end anyway, but I like my fingers and I had already made plans to leave for Minneapolis Monday afternoon. At this point, my plan to ride to checkpoint one and then drop was pretty well solidified. I just couldn’t stay off this trail.

Black cordura duffle bag with the Arrowhead logoNote: The goodie bag was totally worth the 5-hour drive to International Falls. A little food, a great (still confusing to me) ¾ length t-shirt, and a snazzy black duffle with the Arrowhead Ultra 135 logo on it, among other things. I was super chuffed at the tube of official Arrowhead Winter Ultra lip balm which was just in time since my previous one is running out.

Sunday, before the race, I went out for a quick, two-hour ride on the Blue Ox/Arrowhead Trail to test conditions and tire pressure. The trail was mostly hard and fast but difficult to read. There was a shelf on the right edge that looked perfectly smooth, but it had a thin crust over the top that sucked Watts as my tires broke through it, and there were snowmobile-churned sections that were even worse. Sometimes the snowmobile tracks had a narrow strip of hard, easy trail and sometimes the hard, easy section was actually on that crust-covered shelf. This reinforced one of the things I learned at Tuscobia: I’d have to ride back and forth on the trail a few times to find the best line and if I ever thought my line wasn’t the best, I’d have to do it again.

Tracks in snow from running, biking, and skiingThroughout my test ride, there were times I thought I should increase my tire pressure to go faster and times I thought I should decrease my tire pressure for more stability. I don’t set my fat tire pressure by PSI anymore unless I just want to set it to 20 for fast commuting, and whatever pressure I was at seemed like a decent compromise. Several people asked what pressure I was running and my only honest answer was “I have no idea.”

That night at dinner, I was chatting with a few other racers and realized that there is no support between the start and Gateway. Since that was as far as I was planning to ride, there was no difference between supported and unsupported. I checked with Race Director Ken and I had until the next morning to make a decision and announce it when I checked in at the starting line.

Turns out it was an easy decision to make. The choice was basically if I was going to bike to checkpoint one and drop there or if I was going to bike to checkpoint one looking like an unsupported Arrowhead badass and drop there. So when I checked in, I announced my intention to go unsupported and got the big orange “X” through my bib number that broadcasted my badassery to the world.

Fireworks at the starting lineAt 7:00 AM sharp(-ish) the fireworks went off and I got passed by most of the other riders while I put my phone away after taking pictures.

If anything, the trail was better this morning than yesterday. Since I am not a fast or strong rider and a I am a photographer I was well toward the back of the pack so the fat-tire-packed line was wide and solid. I averaged about 8 MPH up to the first turn where the Blue Ox and Arrowhead trails split at a small shelter. Last year, this was where I remembered I hadn’t eaten breakfast and pulled half-frozen chicken tenders out of my pocket. No need today, just a few small clothing adjustments and a photosphere and I was back on the trail.

My bike at the junctionThinking back to last year again, mile 13 was where everything started to get slow. The trail had more churn from snowmobiles and deeper snowdrifts causing me to lower my tire pressure to keep from washing out. This year, I couldn’t detect any change in the trail at all. Maybe it was my new Dillinger 5 tires having more float than my Dillinger 4s from last year. Maybe it was because my bike was packed much lighter. Maybe the trail just didn’t change. Whatever was causing it, I was glad for the continued speed and easy pedaling.

The trail stayed great all the way to the next shelter where there was, thankfully, an outhouse of sorts. Really, it was more of a box with a toilet seat inside. Looking down through the opening, there was a surprising amount of sunlight illuminating what could have been either snow or frozen toilet paper. I didn’t matter but I did consider the difference between peeing off the side of the trail and peeing under an elevated box was maybe not that significant.

My speed continued to stay high. I’m not sure I can trust the average reported by my Wahoo Elemnt Roam since it showed my max speed as 378.1 MPH, which seemed somewhat unlikely. I suspect there’s some interference between my Garmin InReach transmitting my information to space and my Wahoo trying to read GPS signals on a similar frequency.

Construction on the trailJudging by my speed though, it was somewhere around mile 31 where a construction crew had torn up half the trail to get their trucks through. That left the right-hand side for snowmobiles, which meant it was too chopped up to be stable for bikes. Where the trail had been plowed down to frozen dirt it was extra fast but where there were ruts and drifts it was extra sketchy. It was even more sketchy when a dozen snowmobiles were sitting “off the trail” in the plowed down section so they could all stare at some mechanical problem one of them had. I didn’t quite fall while moving over and I didn’t quite walk past them on the other side.

Bicycles on snow heading into the woodsOnce I got past the creek where a backhoe was installing new culvert, the trail returned to its prior awesomeness and my speed went back up. The hills just start to begin this side of checkpoint one, so I had a few fast descents and slow climbs. At one point, I must have hit a soft spot I wasn’t prepared for because I was suddenly under my bike on the side of the trail. Luckily, the waist-deep snow off the edge was very soft and the trees were very small. Any landing you can walk away from, right? Besides, it’s not an Arrowhead without a couple snow angels.

IcebeardJust like last year, as I approached checkpoint one I wasn’t sure if I had somehow missed the turn. Even though I had a distinct mental image of what the turn looked like and no memory of passing anything like that, on a ride like this strange things happen. I needed to stop for a drink anyway, so I checked Google Maps. Less than a mile to go, of course.

I sped down the hill to checkpoint one at Gateway General Store and called out my bib number to the volunteer checking people in. Normally, as an unsupported racer, I would just turn around here and head back to the trail once I knew my number was in the books for this checkpoint, but I was dropping, so I continued on to tell the next volunteer. They all gave me a hard time about quitting at 35 miles, but I had accomplished my goal for the day and was ready to stop. Oddly, I felt as though I could continue unsupported to the end even though I would need to melt snow for water and eat all the solid food I had with me because I hadn’t packed as though I would ride without support.

On the drive home, I was super hungry and thirsty. I really hadn’t managed my nutrition well for those 5 hours and I lost a lot of exhaled water to my epic ice beard. Next year, I’ll plan this better, and maybe I’ll take home one of the “toughest of the tough” trophies for an unsupported finish.

Things I learned:

  • Packing lighter helps. Like it helps a lot.
  • Cover your face even if its warm. You’ll save on hydration and reduce the risk of a migraine later on.
  • It’s never too late to switch to unsupported.

Trees against a field of white snow

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Tuscobia 160 2019 DNF
By Ben Zvan
On January 30, 2020 at 22:12

After completing the Arrowhead 135 in 2019, as a rookie, with a bad knee, during a polar vortex, and loving the scenery and the accomplishment, I started considering the Order of Hrimthurs. “I’ve completed the hardest race of the three, in some of the worst possible conditions,” I thought, “so how hard could this be?”

Last summer, I signed up for the Tuscobia Winter Ultra 160-mile bike, The Arrowhead Winter Ultra 135-mile bike, and the Actif Epica Winter Ultra 200k bike, with the intention of finishing yet another impossible task on my first try.

So here’s how that went.

Optimistic MeThe weeks leading up to the Tuscobia, the weather looked grim; temperatures right around freezing with the possibility of precipitation. What’s so grim about that, you ask? Warm weather and snow sounds great, but soft trails and rain sounds terrible. Back when I used to winter camp as a boy scout, we were always glad when it was a few degrees below freezing and snowing instead of a few degrees above and raining because winter gear is rarely waterproof gear.

In 2018, the conditions were similar and the trail conditions were the subject of much talk from the participants. To add to the concern, the weather forecasts as the event grew closer kept predicting even warmer weather and an even greater chance of rain.

Despite the predicted conditions, I felt like I was reasonably well prepared. Waterproof outer layers, sufficiently wicking under layers, multiple changes of all my layers packed in my paniers, and an optimistic view of the relatively flat course ahead.

Geared UpMy hotel was about 3 miles from the starting line, and check-in was at 5:15 AM, so it was an early morning for me. It took only about 15 minutes to bike to the KoC hall to check in, but nobody was there for at least another 15 minutes. Not a big deal, but the lack of hot porridge did change my breakfast plans a bit.

The race started promptly at 6:00 AM and we all set off down the Wild Rivers Trail toward the start of the Tuscobia Trail...and pretty much all of us at the back of the pack missed the turn and had to back-track at least a few feet. (We were a bunch of rookies.)

The first 18 miles of the trail were amazing. Hard, fast, flat, and scenic. I was really looking forward to a quick 160-mile ride and step one of three completed for the Order. Then we hit the town of Birchwood and everything changed.

The trail east of Birchwood was oddly softer and more churned-up by snowmobiles. Constant snowmobile traffic (we were warned they were not required to slow down when passing bicycles and there is no speed limit for snowmobiles in Wisconsin) kept breaking up the hard crust I was riding on and turning it into a soft, sloppy mess of half-baked mashed potato snow.

For folks who haven’t fat biked before, mashed potatoes is how we describe the worst snow for biking. It has this stick/slip thing going where you can be riding along fine and then your tires just move to the side, throwing you off balance. This is, however, what fat bikes were built for; the trick is just to lower your tire pressure until you start rolling over the top without it shifting under you. The downside is you lose a lot of speed.

After letting some air out of my tires, my average speed dropped from around 7 mph to around 5 mph. Not terrible, and it still gave me a reasonable finish time, but it was a solid kick in the morale.

Ice BikeBy the time I reached checkpoint 1 at Ojibwa, 30 miles and almost 5 hours later at 1:00 PM, it had been raining long enough and cold enough that my bike and all my gear was covered in a layer of ice that had broken and fallen off more than once. My outer layers were soaked through but I had dressed right and my base layers were mostly dry and I was in no risk of getting too cold.

Continuing down the trail after spending too long trying to dry my gear and refuel, the conditions kept deteriorating. It took me far too long to figure out that the left side of the trail was faster since the 80-mile crew had set out that morning and kept to their right, meaning all the snowmobile traffic passing them had torn up my right side of the trail, making it nearly impassible. This is about when the winner of the 160, Neil, passed me going the other way so fast I barely had time to wave as he called out “hey yo!” on his way by. “He’s going to finish before any of the 80-mile racers, isn’t he?” I thought, as I kept pedaling. (narrator: he did)

As the hours and miles lumbered past, the snow got softer and softer, making it hard, even with 4.8” tires at 1-2 PSI, to keep from falling through. The extra weight of my tendency to over-prepare certainly didn’t help, and I considered trying to figure out how much disposable stuff I had with me, but I couldn’t come up with enough weight to make a difference.

Eventually, 30 miles and nearly 10 hours after I left checkpoint 1, I arrived at checkpoint 2. It was 11:20 PM and the checkpoint closed at 11:30. In the last few miles I had been doing some math over and over in my head. I was right on track to complete Tuscobia in the same time I finished Arrowhead last winter. I was halfway there and it was before midnight, so I was even ahead of schedule. I finished Arrowhead in 38 hours 9 minutes, and I had a full 41 hours to finish Tuscobia, so I was doing great!

Beautiful TrailThe Park Falls Gastropub was full of people who had decided to drop and a few people who hadn’t decided yet. I took too long again to refill my hydration pack and recharge my electronics. They had a delicious soup, but my stomach did not want to have anything to do with it, so my cup ended up wasted, but I did have some coffee to keep me going. I was still soaked and kind of tired of it to be honest, so I switched for a hard shell to try to stay a bit dryer on the way back. Every time I reached into a ziplock or a pannier, I dumped water into it and the softshell jacket I took off probably weighed an extra pound from rain. So much for keeping all my stuff dry.

On the way out, I guess my stubbornness convinced a couple other people not to drop and four of us rode across the slick, icy streets of Park Falls, Wisconsin back to the eastern end of the Tuscobia trail.

At this point, the trail was absolute garbage. As the early morning went on, the number of times we fell through the crust increased. Eventually, the other three riders decided to take a left on a paved, ice-covered road, dropping from the race and making their way on more passable surfaces. But I checked my time and, even with the newly-reminded knowledge that checkpoing 3 closed at 10:00 AM, math told me I just had to do 3 MPH for the next 9 hours to make it.

Three hours later, I had gone 10 miles. Now I had to average 3.5 MPH.

Three hours later, I had gone 8 more miles. Now I had to average 4 MPH.

The next two hours, I only went a mile each. 5 MPH became 10 MPH...

I’m not going to make it.

TiresThis is when the logistics of winter ultras became my foremost obsessive thoughts. Checkpoint deadlines should never be considered as goals. If you’re getting to a checkpoint as it closes, you’re probably in trouble. Of course, I considered this when planning my time for the race. But I was too stuck on my Arrowhead time being less than the available time to think much about the checkpoint deadlines themselves and completely missed that checkpoint 3 closed 13 hours before then end of the race but only 10 hours after checkpoint 2.

As I hiked my bike, postholing with every 3rd step, I thought about how the fast racers have completely different events than I do. At the Arrowhead, I was out in -35˚F weather well after the winner (and newly minted course record-holder) had finished in a relatively balmy -20. This morning, the winner of the Tuscobia had finished the day before, with a relatively passable trail, not this delicate surface of iced-over mashed potatoes.

At one point, there was a section of trail that was obviously saturated by rain. I had already had some experience with the deep snow in the gutters really being slush with some snow over the top, and I knew there was no way to ride over it, so I hopped off my bike and carefully chose a path that looked the driest. I was wrong. That path was also slush with some snow over the top. Oh well, my boots were already soaked through (they took days to dry out).

About 9:30 AM, with another 10 miles to go to checkpoint 3 and 101 miles into the 160-mile race, I got picked up by a snowmobile. We strapped my bike into a sled pulled behind and made several stops to make sure nothing was too loose. On the way, I learned there were many sections of trail with standing water on them and was kind of glad to not be trying to ride through them, even if it meant my race was over. We arrived safely at the checkpoint, my bike with a significantly more scratched up steer tube, as it officially closed but nobody had been through in a while. Everything was pretty much packed up.

Dip In RoadLater, at the hotel, I took a long hot shower, once again forgetting to turn on the fan with the pleasant sign above the switch warning that the fire alarm may go off due to steam (narrator: it never did). Lying on the bed, checking up on social media, I fell asleep at about 4:00 in the afternoon, 36 hours after I had woken up the previous day. When I woke up at 8:00 in the morning, I felt pretty well rested and super hungry. Luckily the hotel breakfast was still going on and I made good use of the waffle maker. This is when I noticed the tips of the middle two fingers of my left hand were slightly numb. Oddly, the same thing happened to the same two fingers of my right hand after the Arrowhead; it eventually went away. Is something wrong with my bike fit? Why didn’t I notice it the day before?

What did I learn?

  • I pack too much and need to lighten my load. I can’t eat everything I bring and more weight in the back just makes me more likely to fall through the trail.
  • Start with a hard shell if it’s raining. Even though my wicking system kept my base layer dry, I didn’t need the extra weight or the reduced insulation of wet layers.
  • There’s always next year.

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2019 Arrowhead 135 Race Report
By Ben Zvan
On February 08, 2019 at 12:48

When I heard about the Arrowhead 135 it sounded like a fun adventure. When I read the race rules on the website, I realized I’d have to do some work to get prepared and accepted as a racer but, like any good mediocre white man, I applied anyway. I have no race resume except that one time I did the Minneapolis Duathlon as a relay and we came in 8th. But I was born and raised in Minnesota, I used to go winter camping all the time. I’ve been riding a century every month since May including the Powderhorn 24 on my fat bike and I knew that as winter approached, more of those centuries would be on my fat bike. Next thing I knew:

Congratulations you have been selected to participate in the 2019 Arrowhead 135 - 135 Miler!

What have I done? Now I have to prepare for and participate in this ride with the intention of actually finishing.

So I read through many ride reports in preparation; here are some of the takeaways

  • Whatever you planned for is not what’s going to happen (AKA no plan survives contact with the Arrowhead 135)
  • If you’ve identified a potential problem, deal with it before it becomes a problem
  • Lots of people like vapor barriers
  • Be more worried than you think you need to be about your water freezing
  • No last minute gear changes
  • Don’t lose your valve core!
  • You’re not going to win

BikeMy strategy: keep riding at a low enough output that I could ride indefinitely. I learned in training and shakedown rides that I’d burn through my energy reserves much faster on this 135 miles than I had on any other 100 mile ride in the past. The snow and tires just eat wattage like it’s going out of style so the pace is slower and harder. I also have a bum knee and I knew that ibuprofen alone wasn’t going to keep it working for that amount of time on a bike. Not only would I have to be constantly aware of my leg position, but I’d have to make sure I wasn’t overexerting my damaged joint.

On the day before the race, I rode out a few miles on the trail to check conditions. The trail was cold and hard, so I added pressure to my tires to reduce rolling resistance. I also found that my toes got cold below -26F still, so I knew I’d have to keep on top of that with hand warmers. At the pre-race meeting/dinner, some other racers convinced me to use a vapor barrier to keep my outer sock and boot dry. I decided on a thinner baselayer merino sock, a plastic bag, and a thicker outer merino sock. I’m not one to make a last-minute gear change (see ride report takeaways above) but I’m glad I did.

On the morning of the race, I rode over to the start line at about -30F and checked in. The fireworks went off (way bigger than I expected from videos I had seen) and we all started lumbering forward, some much faster than others. After 4 miles, my goggles were uselessly frosted over, so I secured them to my bike and put sports tape on my face since I forgot the facetape I bought specifically for this event. After 8 miles, I stopped at the shelter at the corner of the Blue Ox and Arrowhead trails to add hand warmers to my boots and have breakfast. I hadn’t managed to have enough time to eat before the race start, which was a mistake but not an insurmountable one as I had a pocket full of leftover chicken tenders from our takeout dinner from the Chocolate Moose restaurant the night before. I have to say that fried chicken with ice crystals is a weird texture; the first two were much tastier than the second two.

PrerideThe hour after sunrise is always the coldest and after breakfast, the temps started to rise for the day. About 15 miles in, the trail conditions shifted from hard packed to soft and squirrelly and the track made by other bikes became a narrow safe line with quicksand on either side. I wanted more control and float, but I didn’t want to increase rolling resistance much for such a long race. 5 seconds of air out of the front tire and I was a little more stable over the soft stuff. The soft snow continued for another 5 miles, which took me an hour to cover, then hardened back up with a clear path where other tires had left their mark.

A little after 14:00, I crossed a road that felt like it was large enough to be the one where Gateway and checkpoint 1 was, but I didn’t see any indication that I was supposed to turn. I stopped and checked my phone and sure enough, it was the right road! I rode back and turned south to head down to Gateway and was reassured by the sight of several other fat bikes and people greeting racers as they arrived. Inside, I checked in at 14:20, answered that no, I didn’t think I had any frostbite, and looked around at what was available to maintain myself. A few other racers, including KariAnn Gibbons, who did a double Arrowhead on foot the year before, were stripping off their outer layers and letting them dry in the warm air coming out from under the freezer section’s coolers, so I did the same with my top two layers and checked on my makeshift Holiday bag vapor barrier. My hand warmers were still warm, so I swapped base-layer socks, made sure everything was in place and put my boots back on.

Hydration...I knew I needed to keep up on that, so I wandered around the store and found that everything listed as available at this checkpoint was indeed available, but none of it was provided. I bought 2 quarts of gatorade and a bratwurst, topped off my hydration pack, and put my slightly drier clothing back on. At 14:55 I headed out. 35 miles in 8 hours was slow, but not unexpectedly so given it was the hardest 35 miles of biking I’d ever done. Only another 35 miles to MelGeorges, so I should be there by...11?

I headed back up the road to the Arrowhead trail, turned right and followed the turn markers at the next junction. In the distance, I saw a gas station that looked suspiciously like the one I had just left. What happened? Oh! The trail does go here, I just had to keep following it instead of second-guessing. Time to turn around and follow the next set of turn markers to continue onward to checkpoint 2.

After Gateway, the hills start. I remember reading a race report by Joel “sweet beef” Swenson that described Wakemup hill as “I was told I’d know when I reached it because I’d come around a corner, see it, and utter some sort of expletive” well...every hill made me utter some sort of expletive and they just kept on coming. I’m not a hill climber at all; most of my riding is on flat rails-to-trails style paved paths with no real challenge. These hills, on the other hand, were often as steep as 80% both up one side and down the other. I was dragging my breaks on the way down, then hopping off and hiking my bike up the next hill. Just multiply that by 35 miles and you’ve pretty much got it. Then remember it got dark when the sun set at 17:00. One thing I started to get good at was finding the safe trail down the hill so I could let off my breaks and ride it out. I was also happy to find my footprints weren’t always the lowest on the uphills.

Somewhere on the trail, I met with another biker who was having tire problems. I helped out by holding his bike while he tried to inflate it with a hand pump, then gave up and used a CO2 inflator. It was a tubeless tire that must have burped off the bead and not re-seated properly so he was really worried he wouldn’t make it to the next stop. The CO2 seemed to reseat the bead, so we parted ways and I hoped he would make it. It was a long way to walk from here.

KariAnn told me at Gateway that there was a sign reading “MelGeorges 5 miles” that lied, so I ignored that and continued on. When I got to Elephant Lake, the wind picked up a bit, but it was the flattest section I’d seen in hours. I had been looking up at the stars through the trees, keeping a general Idea of which direction I was going by where Orion was in the sky. On the lake, there were no trees to obstruct my view and I was overwhelmed. I haven’t seen that many stars in a long time. So I stopped in the middle of the lake, turned off my headlight, and just stared up for a few minutes enjoying the view. -20 degrees wasn’t going to keep me from a little stargazing.

Eventually, I reached the other side of the lake and pulled up on the shore. The main resort building and restaurant was to my left (and I was tempted to stop for a full meal inside) but checkpoint 2 lay somewhere to my right. I started down that trail and luckily KariAnn came up behind me and actually knew where we were headed. I followed her in and checked into the lodge at 23:28, a little behind schedule after the hardest 35 miles of biking I’d ever done.

Everyone at CP2 was great. Grilled cheese sandwiches, hot wild rice soup, cookies, chocolate milk, hot chocolate, coke...everything you could possibly want plus running water, a fire, and a place to dry out my mittens. Other racers came and went, or came and stayed. Runners ate and kept going, a skier decided to drop to protect their knee. KariAnn was family with the people volunteering and decided to nap for a few hours.

I rested and I debated my plan for the rest of the race. It was after midnight and getting colder, but I knew the temperatures Tuesday night and into Wednesday were going to plummet into the danger zone. -40 was something I was theoretically prepared for, but not sure I really wanted to deal with. My speed had been less than the 5 MPH I had hoped for and if I left now, I might just get to the finish by sunset. So the volunteers refilled my hydration pack and melted the slushy gatorade out of my back-up water bottle, I layered back up with some of my clothing still slightly damp from condensation, and headed back out into the night at 02:09 for the 40 miles to checkpoint 3. Should get there at 14:00 maybe? 12 hours should be enough time even at my snail’s pace.

Unfortunately, my Garmin InReach Mini GPS tracker had died in the cold outside the checkpoint. I was pretty sure it had just turned off due to “extreme cold” temperatures, so I tucked it into my jacket to warm it back up enough to power on at the next intersection 2-3 miles down the trail. Good enough to get it started again. I made a mental note to figure out a better way to manage that thing in winter.

SunriseThe trail was still beautiful and the sky was still clear and bright with stars. The hills came back with a vengeance and I was hiking up bigger and longer hills, some of which were extra sneaky and continued after turns. I was feeling more confident rolling down with less brake than before, but still braking hard on the steepest downhills to reduce my fear of a race-ending crash.

 The temperature continued to drop over night and the trail was just a series of hills in the cold darkness. At some point in the morning, I realized I couldn’t close the vents on my helmet because they were frozen, so I switched to a hat and hood with my ruff pulled up to block wind and attached my helmet to the front of my bike once I realized my pogie was about the same size as my neck. When sunrise came, it was bitter cold again. At least -30 by the thermometer on my bike. I was glad I changed the handwarmers in my boots at MelGeorges even though they were still warm, but I was starting to feel the cold penetrating my upper layers. I decided to stop and add a layer under my shell just for a couple hours until it started to warm back up again. That’s when things went wrong for me.

My jacket wouldn’t come off over my gloves, so I took them off; both layers. I put on my new layer and slipped my shell back on, but my gloves had frozen solid in the few seconds that took and I had a hard time getting them back on. I managed to get my fingerless bike gloves on, but my left pinky was so cold it was numb in only a few more seconds. I threw my left merino over-glove into my right pogie with my fully-gloved right hand to try to thaw it while tucking my left hand as far under my armpit as possible. I couldn’t feel my hand getting warmer so I thought about the next most accessible warm place on my body and shoved my left hand down my pants and between my legs, over my bib but under my fleece. In a few minutes I was able to feel my pinky again and my glove was soft enough to put on. Job done.

But then I found that my jacket wouldn’t zip back up. Something, snow or ice maybe, had gotten into the zipper box and was preventing the teeth from lining up correctly. “Shit, now I have to completely swap outer layers.”

I pulled my back-up puffer jacket out of my fork bag and got it ready. There was no way I was going through the glove thing again, so I loosened the cuffs on my shell and pulled it off over them with no problem. “Why didn’t I do that before? I have no idea. Excellent! All the zippers work now and I just have to shove an extra jacket into my overstuffed pannier. Why is my bib number falling off? That can’t be good. How did that skier have theirs last night, can I do that? Would it be more secure?”

As one of the bikers I had chatted with at MelGeorges caught up with me, they asked if I was ok. I said that yes, I was fine, I just had a series of unfortunate events. At this point I was just mucking with my bib number and they told me that sounded like a really trivial problem, which I agreed with and explained my failing zipper. They seemed satisfied that I had everything under control and wasn’t deliriously hypothermic and continued on. Swap my Namakan Fur ruff to my new outer jacket and it’s time to move on.

The trail and the day continued to be amazingly beautiful. There was really no wildlife except for one fox checking out the bikes at MelGeorges, but the snow on the trees and the bright blue sky were something to behold. If only it wasn’t for all these hills. So many hills. I had a little song stuck in my head from the hills I encountered even before CP1. Sing this to the tune of The Kinks’ Tired of Waiting for You

“So tired Tired of pushing Pushing my bike up these hiiiillllls”

I decided there must be no end to the hills and there was no way I was going to be able to continue past checkpoint 3/Surly/Sky Pulk unless there were no more hills. Even one hill was going to kill me at this point. But the trail was opening up a bit to fields and slightly fewer hills already. That meant more wind, but it also meant I could actually use my bicycle as something to support my weight and act as a sort of conveyance rather than just a means of transporting all my gear as I hiked beside it.

Around the corner, I saw smoke. Was that it? Was that the teepee? It was! Finally!

I sat down by the fire and considered my options. I could refill my hydration pack, but that was a lot of work and I was pretty sure I had 25 miles worth of liquid in it. I cracked open my spare supply and was happy to discover it was still liquid, so I drank 1L of gatorade by the fire. I asked about what was coming up on the trail and they said “there are a few rollers, then one really big hill, then one really big downhill, then it’s mostly flat.” That doesn’t sound too bad. I asked what time I checked in; 14:37. Wait, only 14:37? I’m not hours behind schedule? I can do this!

CP3Jodi came by and greeted me and encouraged me. I was obviously in quite the state and our dog was still sitting in the car, so it wasn’t much of a conversation. She took a few pictures of the heroic adventurer (me) and I mostly just sat there drinking my gatorade until it was gone, being careful not to close the lid or touch the bottle with my lips because any liquid I dripped onto it was immediately freezing to the threads.

I don’t know why I didn’t go into the teepee and refill my water bottle with hot water or check my boots and socks or have a shot of whiskey. There was a frozen bottle of whisky outside on the table that might have scared me off. After my shortest stop yet, I walked my bike up the short incline after the checkpoint at 14:58 and rolled off down the first of the rollers.

One roller, two rollers, “is this the big hill yet?” Another hill up and down and a bit of a straight shot to…”what is that? All I see is snowy trail going up into the sky. Fuck. Me.”

Wakemup mountain, after all the other hills on this course, is at least not the steepest, but it is certainly the tallest and the longest. I don’t know how long it took me to get to the top, but it felt like forever. The view was totally worth it though. I considered stopping to take a picture and I probably should have, but I didn’t feel like dealing with...anything really, at the moment and continued onward.

After a harrowing downhill on the other side of Wakemup, I was on the false flat 1% uphill grade through the lowlands and on the final stretch to Fortune Bay. The wind picked up and I started to hope I’d be staying in the trees because the sun was going down and it was going to get bitter cold again.

I honestly don’t remember much of this stretch. I remember wetlands and trees and tall grasses all covered in snow and ice. I remember a small bridge with such a big snowdrift in front of it that I preemptively got off my bike and shoved it through lest my rear wheel get sidetracked and throw me to the ground. I remember the sun going down, but not in any detailed way. And yes, I remember it getting colder. Tuesday’s low was supposed to be brutal and there were forecasts of wind chills in excess of -55 for Wednesday. I kept an occasional eye on my thermometer and watched as the temperature slowly dropped.

Hours later and with hours to go, the temperature passed that magic mark between -26 and -27; my toes started to get cold. I regretted neglecting to check on my socks at Surly I guess because my handwarmers had still been warm at Melgeorges after over 15 hours of riding. That was not the correct decision to make. There was a light breeze, but it felt like a blast chiller at these temperatures and it was flowing directly down the trail between the tall pines. I knew I needed to deal with my boots, so I got off my bike and laid it on the trail at an angle where the bedroll on the handlebars could act as a mediocre wind block and started to attend to keeping my feet warm.

I knew I would have very limited time to have my boots off, so I made sure I had two opened and shaken hand warmers ready before sitting down in the snow and taking off my left boot. Then I discovered I definitely should have taken care of this at Surly in a shelter rather than out here on the plains. The plastic bag I was using as a vapor barrier had slid down my leg and half of my foot, meaning my outer sock had a chance to get wetter than I’d like and therefore less insulating. I hadn’t grabbed a change of socks before sitting down to take off my boot, and my outer sock was wool, so it had a better than average chance of staying warm despite the moisture. I rearranged everything and replaced the no-longer-warm hand warmer. When I put my boot back on, it had stiffened up significantly in the cold...or I had...either way, it was harder than it should have been to put on. I made the call to only deal with my left foot since that was the one likely to get cold, put the second handwarmer in my pocket, and got back on my bike.

My energy was sapping and I had no idea how far I’d gone. My GPS tracker was only checking in every 10 minutes to save battery so with the twists and turns the distance it showed me didn’t seem to match with the distance I knew I had gone. On top of that, I’d been having a terrible time trying to keep it warm enough to run and needed to tuck it under my jacket to warm it back up nearly every time I took my hand out of the pogie where I was storing it for any extended period, like the time it takes to put a hand warmer in my sock. That meant the distance it showed was from some arbitrary location on the trail and wasn’t useful at all. I knew it didn’t really matter how far I had to go because it was the same distance from start to finish no matter where I was now.

The hours of being awake were taking their toll and I felt like I was going to fall asleep riding. Luckily, it turns out clif shots are not solid at -30 and slightly softer if you put them in a pocket with a hand warmer for a couple hours, so over the course of the final miles, I downed 3 of them trying to stay awake enough to keep upright and have enough energy to keep pedaling. My strategy of drinking the last of my reserve gatorade at Surly and leaving my hydration pack as it was for the last leg also worked well as I continued to have warm-ish gatorade that provided a few ready calories.

For some reason, I kept wanting to know where I was and how far I had come. I referred multiple times to the cuesheet someone (I’m sorry I don’t remember who and I can’t find the post) posted in the Arrowhead facebook group over this last 25 miles. “I’m crossing a road, but it doesn’t have any signs pointing toward the trail. What road is it? Is it this one on the sheet or some other one? I see a shelter! Is it this one? Do I really have another 10.5 miles to go? That’s like 3 hours! Wait, is there another shelter that isn’t on here? Why does that sign say Vermillion when that’s supposed to be before the shelter, not after? I guess I’ll just keep cranking and hope the casino is still in front of me somewhere.”

The driver of a snowmobile yells out “2.6 miles left!” Probably the longest 2.6 miles I’ve ever ridden even though I’m pretty sure it was less than that.

FinishFor what had seemed like the last few hours, I saw the glow of lights on the horizon that pretty much had to be the casino. They kept moving back and forth as the trail twisted its way across the plane, but they never seemed to get closer. Suddenly a bright orange snow fence I remembered reading about in people’s race reports appeared and then the trail had a bright light at the end with a big flag that said “finish” on it. As I got closer, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to cross the finish line riding my bike because the tiny 10’ hill in front of it was just not something I could climb at this point. As I got still closer, I could hear hooting and hollering and cowbells. They continued for what felt like minutes as I made my way to the finish line. I thanked everyone for their patient exuberance and one of them said “you have to actually cross the finish! Keep going another 3 feet” or something to that effect.

In the hospitality room, I picked out my trophy (with a nice black, burnt-looking arrowhead) and got my photo taken in front of the sign. I sat down and stared into space for a bit. I answered the post-race follow-up questions for the sports nutrition study Jonathan Erber was doing but I hadn’t taken any notes while eating so my answers probably weren’t as accurate as they could be. I ate a bowl of chicken soup he got for me, which turned out not to be what I wanted. Then he said someone who won in the past, Jay Petervary I think, always had tomato soup with Doritos and it sounded way better than I expected. I tested by dipping a chip in the tomato soup and the combination was ok, so I crushed a double handful of chips into my bowl and mixed them in. That ratio turned out to be much better and exactly what my body wanted; don’t laugh.

Finding my way back to my bike was harder than I thought, but I managed it after a couple extra elevator rides, rolled it outside into the cold, stripped everything off of it, put it on my car, and climbed into the passenger seat for the trip to my hotel for the rest of the week.

Other people have said that at the end of the Arrowhead, the answer to “would you do this again” is always “ask me in two weeks” but I was already on the side of “yes.” It was a hard ride and I was embarrassingly slow at an average speed of 3.5 mph, but I made it from one end to the other of what is widely considered one of the hardest races in the world. In the days leading up to the race, I had consoled myself in advance with the knowledge that just by being accepted, I was in an elite group of athletes who had accomplished amazing things. At least one had climbed Mount Everest, another had swam the English Channel (and DNF’d the Arrowhead 7 years in a row). So if I finished before I reached the finish line, I had still accomplished something great just by showing up. Finishing as the 5th from last cyclist to cross the line and in the half of cyclists who did cross the line rather than dropping early, was a strange sensation of accomplishment I really couldn’t properly appreciate at the time. I go for Order of The Hrimthurs?


Packing list:

Required Gear:gear

  • Aqua Quest mummy bivy
  • Big Agnes Crosho -20F sleeping bag
  • Therm-a-rest RidgeRest SOLite sleeping pad
  • 2 cheap, red, Schwinn blinkers from Target (1 on bike, 1 spare)
  • NiteRider Sabre 80 rear light (spare)
  • Planet Bike Superflash 65 taillight (on bike)
  • NiteRider Lumina Micro 450 front light (on bike)
  • Black Diamond Storm 375 headlamp
  • Lithium AAA batteries (note lights optimized for using AAA batteries)
  • Esbit Pocket Stove
  • Esbit Solid Fuel Tablets (8 oz +)
  • Box of matches
  • Ultimate Survival Technologies Klipp Lighter
  • JetBoil pot
  • Geigerrig 3L hydration bladder
  • Revelate Wompak hydration pack
  • Emergency whistle
  • Reflective vest/straps
  • 3000 calories of emergency cashews

Gear to Wear:Clothing

  • Smartwool Merino 250 base layer top
  • 45NRTH Naughtvind bib tights
  • PEARL iZUMi Select Thermal LTD jersey
  • PEARL iZUMi Elite Pursuit softshell jacket
  • Columbia Whirlybird jacket shell
  • Fleet Farm fleece pants
  • Showers Pass Transit pants
  • 45NRTH Wölvhammer boots (with reflectix and DryGuy Boot Gloves)
  • Bontrager bike gloves
  • Outdoor Research Flurry Sensor gloves
  • Seirus Magnemask Combo Clava
  • Giro Zone MIPS snow helmet
  • Oakley Canopy snow goggles
  • Holiday Stationstore plastic bags

Gear on Bike:

  • Spare 1L insulated water bottle with reflectix coozie
  • Random Amazon carbon handlebar accessory bar (think baryak only cheaper in all possible senses)
  • Sport tape
  • 2 Spare tubes
  • Paper towel (for sealant)
  • Gerber multitool
  • Bike tool
  • Pocket knife
  • Tube patch kit
  • Park Tool valve core tool
  • Tire levers
  • Tire pump
  • Hand warmers (20)
  • Sierra Designs Stratus puffer jacket
  • Columbia whirlybird liner jacket
  • Columbia C9 Tech Hoodie
  • Down skirt
  • Puffy pants
  • Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor Extreme sleeping bag liner
  • Spare hat, gloves, base layers, socks, and more socks

Mounting on Bike:

  • Topeak UNI Super Tourist Fat rack
  • Topeak MTX Trunkbag
  • Ortlieb Back-Roller Classic panniers
  • Salsa Anything Cages
  • Sea to Summit lightweight dry sack - 4L
  • Revelate Mag Tank top tube bag
  • Revelate/Salsa Mukluk frame bag
  • Moosetreks stem bag for snacks
  • Custom sleep roll bag made by my wife
  • More velcro and other straps than were strictly necessary


  • 2016 Salsa Mukluk SUS GX1
  • Salsa carbon fork
  • Salsa carbon bars
  • 45NRTH Cobrafist pogies
  • 45NRTH Dillinger 4 custom studded tires (tubeless)
  • Surly My Other Brother Daryl rims
  • Salsa generic hubs
  • Thompson carbon seatpost
  • Sel Royale Lookin Athletic saddle


  • Gatorade mix in seal-a-meal pouches
  • Trail mix of Red Table salami, cashews, chocolate covered fruit balls, and dried pineapple
  • Kit Kat minis
  • Snikers minis
  • Reese’s minis
  • Dill pickle cashews
  • Sour patch kids
  • 6 Clif bars
  • Stinger honey waffles
  • Clif shots with caffeine



Post-race notes:


Too much food. I brought about 12000 calories and used maybe 3000. Too much salt in food/water. I retained water until Saturday after the race (5 days)

What worked

  • Dried pineapple
  • The more chocolate part of the mix
  • Clif shots! I wouldn’t have finished without them because I’d have fallen asleep on the trail
  • Hydration pack remained usable except for the very beginning.

What didn’t

  • Cashews and sour patch kids in the same bite. Do not recommend!
  • Back-up water would have been inaccessible after one use. Need to wax threads.

Still have questions

  • Reese’s minis. They were really good and then suddenly gross, but they got me through to surly.


Too much gear; bike too heavy. Pushing up those hills was not fun.

What worked

  • I had plenty of layers and mostly didn’t have difficulty staying warm
  • The way I packed worked ok
  • Zero mechanical failures
  • Starting with high pressure
  • My phone as a camera, mostly
  • Namakan ruff! I could move it to another jacket when my zipper failed.

What didn’t

  • Everything froze solid from perspiration
  • The zipper on my jacket completely failed and would not re-zip after I put on a new layer under it and had to abandon it and switch to a completely different set of layers
  • I packed my paniers by “new clothing”/”clothing changes” and couldn’t remember a) which bag was which and b) how things got categorized.
  • Tire pump lock lever froze in place from too much moisture in/around trunk (maybe that’s why people have those screw-on pumps?
  • Need insulated pouch for garmin/phone with hand warmer inside. Spend way too much time dicking around with the garmin to warm it up after the “critically low temp” shutoff and it wasn’t easy to take pictures.
  • Be careful with velcro! There was no overlap on the tabs holding my bivy to my handlebars so there was nothing to grab to release it
  • Smaller or no backup battery. I didn’t use it and I didn’t need the weight
  • Too much extra gear. I was overprepared, which was good, but also very heavy

RouteCurtis Eberhardt Photography

  • First 35 miles were the hardest ride of my life
  • Second 35 miles were the hardest ride of my life
  • Next 40 miles were the hardest ride of my life
  • Last 25 miles were ok and mostly flat, which was nice


Overall, I did ok. I kept my output low enough that I could continue nearly indefinitely. The problem was the hills pushed my heart rate up and took a toll on my knee

Post ride symptoms

  • Right pinky, 3rd finger, and thumb have some numbness. Probably due to elbow stress.
  • Left middle finger base knuckle sore and swollen. This was a problem in the weeks before the ride, but probably exacerbated by the ride. Whole hand swollen after climbing across a bed to get to the window at the hotel
  • Right knee really rough, but expected.

What worked

  • Kept my output low enough to continue
  • Mostly kept my ibuprofen up to date
  • Legs were tired but didn’t give out
  • Mostly stayed warm enough
  • No frostbite!

What didn’t

  • Needed to take and bring more ibuprofen
  • Needed to have a better plan for taking evening drugs (melgeorges was to late)
  • Needed to keep on top of my emergency inhaler. Coughing for days after.
  • Toes could have been warmer. Should have done vapor barrier maintenance at surly; the bag pulled down and allowed my outer sock to get wet
  • Coughing a lot, but i was already coughing from a multi-week cold

Last image courtesy Curtis Eberhardt Photography

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So...the Arrowhead 135 then.
By Ben Zvan
On December 23, 2018 at 13:58

When I heard of the Arowhead 135, I thought "that sounds like a lot of fun!" and when I found out registration was open, I knew I wouldn't be accepted but I thought it would be good experience to go through the process. So I tackled that application with all the gusto of a medeocre white man.

Then I received the acceptance email...

Oh my, what have I done?

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oneplus sample image"The OnePlus 5 features the highest resolution dual camera on the planet,” says the marketing copy. After a few months of using the phone's camera, it’s easy to see that resolution has been squandered by software. In the early days of adding cameras to phones, it was expected that the quality of the camera would suffer greatly, but after a few years, they began to surpass many low-end point-and-shoot cameras. We’ve come to expect the camera in our pocket to be fast, clear, and have more features than most others, with dual lenses, depth detection and effects, and great HDR rendition. The 5 squarely hits many of these marks with fast focus, face detection, and a second camera to mimic shallow depth of field, but in low light or using HDR, the images show a distinct watercolor-like quality to them.
Some users have found that downloading a hacked version of the official Google Android camera fixes this problem, but risking malware isn’t what photography is all about. It’s important to note here, that if you want Google’s photosphere option, installing the hacked app is also the only way to add that feature to your phone. The interesting thing about this is it shows the hardware to take great photos is in place, but in forking Android to create Oxygen and eschewing Google’s code for the camera, OnePlus has gone the opposite direction they intended.
The vast majority of the 5 is great. It feels snappy, and the Oxygen OS is almost exactly like Android, but with more out-of-the box options for tweaking preferences. In fact, some of the default preferences will send you directly to the settings asking “how do I fix this?” One place they saved money in the process of creating a budget flagship killer is the screen resolution, but the screen is plenty high-resolution for most users. The fit and finish is top-notch with a textured plastic back that keeps you from dropping it but doesn’t feel cheap and very clean lines. I love that switching environments frequently is a breeze with the normal/DND/silent slider on the side of the phone. I won’t bore you with the specs, but there’s enough RAM and storage in this phone to last you quite a while and hold all but the most audiophile of users entire music collections.
In addition to the camera problems, I’ve run into some frustrating bluetooth and wifi connection issues, possibly because of cost-savings in the radio. When you’re in range of a recognized WiFi network that requires you to log in or accept conditions (think your favorite coffee shop) the phone will have zero internet connectivity until you turn off WiFi or log into it. Bluetooth audio has random choppiness, but it’s particularly bad when you’re anywhere near a WiFi access point and sometimes it will pause your music for no discernible reason.
So if you’re looking for a flagship Android phone and don’t care about the camera, this phone is probably perfect for you, but don’t buy it because of the photography-centric advertising on the OnePlus website.

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Expirimenting With AWS
By Ben Zvan
On February 05, 2017 at 16:15

AWS logoI tried out AWS's EFS (Elastic File System), which is basically a drop-in replacement for NFS. It made sense at the time as a way to allow scaling of my small (1 server) cluster of machines. Unfortunately, it took Wordpress's time-to-first-byte from 1 second to 6 seconds, which was not reasonable. As a result, I switched back to EBS (Elastic Block Storage). At some point, I might try moving to a mountes S3 bucket, but I'm not sure the software exists for easily doing that on Amazon Linux.

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New Pictures 8: Sarah Jones
Minneapolis Institue of Arts
04/18/2013—02/02/2014 - Free

31 Years: Gifts from Martin Weinstein
Minneapolis Institue of Arts
11/02/2013—08/31/2014 - Free

New Pictures 9: Rinko Kawauchi
Minneapolis Institue of Arts
02/20/2014—08/10/2014 - Free

Finland: Designed Environments
Minneapolis Institue of Arts
05/10/2014—08/17/2014 - Free


Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
at State Theatre
06/21/2014 \ Doors 8:00pm


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