Before the storm...Arrowhead Ultra competitor Leah Gruhn was all smiles early on Monday as she took a quick break at the Gateway Store. But heavy snow Monday night forced her to pull out of the race at Melgeorge’s Resort. More than two-thirds of the race field dropped out due to the heavy snow.
REGIONAL—Participants in this year’s Arrowhead Ultra marathon were hoping to test their mettle against the extreme cold that the North Country typically serves up this time of year. Instead, it was heavy snow that proved the biggest challenge for racers as a sudden storm dumped as much as a foot of the white stuff on portions of the route Monday night.
Race conditions were excellent early Monday as the 135 racers departed International Falls along the Arrowhead Trail, bound for Fortune Bay. Participants compete by bike, ski, or on foot as they attempt to traverse the 135 mile-long route within the 60-hour race window.
For the fastest of the bikers, the conditions were excellent as the top few were able to finish in record time, ahead of the snow. But for the rest of the field, conditions deteriorated rapidly by Monday evening. “Trail conditions were good for the first 12 hours,” said Jacque Boutet, who traveled from Anchorage, Alaska, for the extreme competition. “The snow was a little soft, but we were getting through it. After the sun went down, the trail got a little firmer, but then we ran into this humongous snowstorm.”
With snow falling at an inch an hour or better, Boutet said trail conditions deteriorated rapidly. “Eventually, it was impassable except by pushing our bikes and trudging through the deep snow.”
Boutet estimates he pushed his bike for about 25 miles, before collapsing in exhaustion at about 5 a.m. on Tuesday morning. He set up a bivouac and slept for about two hours before getting up and pushing on to finish the race.
While Boutet managed to complete the grueling ordeal, the snow decimated the field according to race organizer Dave Pramann. “We’ll probably have a 30 percent finish rate, which is pretty low,” he said. “Some handled the snow pretty well, but a lot of others struggled with it.”
The Arrowhead Ultra is run each year on the weekend closest to Feb. 2, which is the date back in 1996 when the thermometer dipped to minus 60 degrees at Tower. Participants in the race— gluttons for punishment all— come from all over the world hoping to experience some of the coldest temperatures in North America. This year, the race coincided with one of the only brief warm-ups in the area in nearly two weeks. But the warmer temperatures brought the snow, and for many that proved a bigger challenge than the cold. “It’s kind of ironic that the biggest snow event of the year happens right in the middle of the race,” said Pramann.
But Boutet was taking it all in stride. “It’s just part of the game, and it added a real flavor to the race,” he said. “Maybe it was more adventure than some folks were wanting.”
This year’s race not only saw the biggest snowfall in the event’s history, it saw its first Minnesotan finish in the top spot. Todd McFadden, of Duluth, set a new course record of 14 hours and 20 minutes on his modified mountain bike.