Post 2016’s Arrowhead 135, Guest Blogger Ben Doom takes some time away from the bike to reflect on the race.
By Guest Blogger Ben Doom
It’s been more than a week since my fifth attempt at the Arrowhead 135 in International Falls, Minnesota. I’m taking time away from the bike, so the new effort comes in the form of conquering a race recap blog.
Spoiler alert: I finished ...
I was pumped for this race–nervous, too–but more excited and jazzed to get out and ride. I skipped the race last year to save some money for my ITI (Iditarod Trail Invitational) race, hence the excitement this time around. I had been having a pretty good year with racing, so I gave myself some high goals for the Arrowhead 135.
At the start, JayP and Will Ross took off (as expected). In the past I would tell myself to let them go and race my race. But this year, I decided to go with them. I’ve put the time in and was actually feeling great. I took some pulls on the front, but for the most part it was Will and Jay P leading the charge.
The conditions weren’t favorable, so it was hard for me to turn around and count how many were with us. Because it was still dark, I could tell it wasn’t many by the lights behind me. By the time we made the hard left around mile 8, there were a few riders several bike lengths back. A few miles later, we left them behind. I knew it was very early in the race, but I couldn’t help but think that this may be it … at a minimum, maybe I’d be third!
The leaders, 16 miles in ...
The temperature was warm–too warm. The trail conditions were soft and taxing. Holding any kind of line was tricky and was almost better to just make your own and not follow the tracks of others. Because it was warm, I was sweating pretty good. My toptube and framebag eventually became covered in a sheet of ice–from sweat! But I had plenty of fluids and stayed diligent about taking sips at a regular interval. Around the three-hour mark, I slipped and crashed. I let some air out of the tires and put my chase in. But I would never see JayP and Will again.
I was still feeling pretty good by the first checkpoint at Gateway. I didn’t stop, just did the “in and out” while on the bike. Many riders will tell you the third leg (Mel George’s to Ski Pulk) is the hardest because of the big hills. I will tell you its Gateway to Mel George’s (second checkpoint) is hardest for me. There are rolling hills after rolling hills. They aren’t long or steep enough to require walking, but for almost 40 miles they don’t end. This year was no different.
With the slow trail conditions and warm weather, I became very thirsty. I started sucking at my water more frequently. With about 2.5 hours left to Mel George’s, I ran out. I had an 85 oz. hydration back, 21 oz. thermos with electrolytes, and an 8 oz. Red Bull … all gone. I pushed on. I ended up not eating much in that 2.5-hour stretch, either. Any time I put food in my mouth, it became a giant cotton ball that I struggled to get down. As a result, my riding and attitude changed.
I became much slower and depressed I wasn’t to the level of JayP and Will. Eventually Todd McFadden and then Dan Dittmer would pass me. While I was happy to see those guys, I was bummed I was riding slow enough for them to catch me. I tried to grab their wheel as they passed, but that was short lived, and they rode out of my sight.
I hate to admit it, but I was pretty sure I was going to quit at Mel George’s. Jen (my wife) would be there, so I could quietly slip into the van and disappear. I had let myself down, and let my goal of third place or better slip away. Crossing Elephant Lake to the cabins of Mel George’s, I could barely see Todd and Dan on the other side. “Damn, I’m slow.” I was definitely dealing with the endurance demons on this section of the race. I can’t say what I would have done if Todd and Dan were gone when I walked into the cabin, but seeing they were sitting down and eating, I instantly had the thought that this might be just as hard for everyone.
I’ve learned checkpoints are traps, so I filled my bottles, slammed water, drank Coke, ate a grilled cheese, more water and Coke, and another grilled cheese. Not wanting to give myself too much time to ponder my situation, I was back on my bike in 9 minutes. Having Jen and her mom there providing encouragement was huge in keeping me on the bike. Plus the phenomenal attitude of the volunteers was contagious.
Refueling my emotions at Checkpoint 2 ...
As I left I told Todd and Dan I’d see them on the trail. Todd informed me he was hurt from a crash and might be done. About 30-45 minutes after I left, Dan caught up to me and passed me. At this point I was fine with whatever position I was in, I just wanted to finish. I came around and caught back up to Dan. Since I’ve started doing the Arrowhead, Dan and I have finished a spot or two from each other. We’re a good match for riding. Before the big hills, this third leg starts pretty flat. These flat sections had some of the best conditions. Dan and I rode together for an hour just chatting, and it was awesome!
But it wasn’t to last, and the hills eventually showed their unwanted faces. Dan and I would leap frog each other for the next few hours. I would ride out of sight only to be caught later, and vice versa. On one of the final downhills before Ski Pulk, I crashed pretty spectacularly. It took a bit to make sure I didn’t lose anything, and let out more air. That would be the last time I would see Dan.
Once again I ran out of water. How could I need more than 100 oz.?! I hadn’t planned to stop at Ski Pulk (the last checkpoint), but I was now committed. I was there only 5 minutes, so I still had thoughts that I could catch up to Dan. At the top of Wakemeup Hill, I stopped and put in my music. While I wasn’t fast that last 25 miles, I had a pretty damn good time. The trail seemed to be riding a bit better, it was snowing, and I was singing loudly and poorly.
If you haven’t seen Salsa’s video “The Push,” please look it up, it’s very worth the watch. Near the end it shows the orange snow fence near Fortune Bay Casino and the finish. That fence is an amazing site. I get goosebumps when I watch the video and see that fence, as I know how much work and effort it is to get there. Around the corner from the fence is the finish line. I let out a weak “whoop” and cruised up the last hill to cheers of Jen, my mother-in-law, and several race volunteers. I was done and in fourth.
I now have two fifth place finishes, two fourth, and one DNF ...
I was happy with that place, but even happier just to be done. I hurt. With endurance races, for me anyway, time changes how I feel. The should’ve, would’ve, and could’ve thoughts have been running through my mind. Did I let my third place goal just slip away? Was I not fully recovered from Tuscobia? Should I have refueled at Gateway? But that’s racing, and it’s what keeps me coming back. No two years are ever the same. I’ll be back next year for sure.
About the Guest Blogger--Ben Doom
Ben Doom got hooked on biking in eighth grade. Since then, his two-wheeled passion has spread from mountain biking to gravel exploring and racing, to fatbike adventuring. Ben is co-owner of Revolution Cycle and Ski in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He is married and has three daughters. Family, a business, and life in general keep him busy, but he manages to still get his rides in!