Traveling 135 miles by bike, ski or on foot is challenging for even the most extreme athlete.
Covering that distance in subzero temperatures puts the accomplishment on a completely different level.
The grueling Arrowhead 135 ultramarathon starts at 7 a.m. Jan. 28 at Kerry Park, takes racers through northern Minnesota’s wilderness and ends at Fortune Bay Resort and Casino in Tower. Hailed as one of the toughest races in the world, the 15th annual competition draws athletes from around the state, county and world.
Bill Bradley is one of those athletes.
Born and raised in northern California, Bradley has been temporarily living in International Falls since mid-December, acclimating himself to Borderland’s climate and preparing himself for his eighth attempt to finish the race on foot.
“I haven’t been able to cross that finish line yet,” he said. “This is my year.”
The 58-year-old dropped out of the race because of problems with his feet, such as blisters or trench foot that caused his feet to swell out of his shoes. Other times, his sled has encountered mechanical errors and there was even an instance his fingers suffered severe frostbite. Regardless, the runner’s energy is contagious and his spirit is inspirational. Even though seven attempts at the challenging race have fallen short of his goal, he keeps coming back.
“I was put on this earth to motivate people and I thought my message was to tell people to get outside of their comfort zone,” he said. “I realized my message is don’t quit on your dreams... So I keep showing up.”
Bradley’s athletic resume is lengthy. He holds the world record for seven continuous rim-to-rim crossings of the Grand Canyon, he ran 584 miles through Death Valley – twice, biked 3,021 miles across America in 16 days, swam 20 miles in the English Channel with no wet suit or breaks and the list goes on and on.
Still, he can’t crack the Arrowhead code.
“It has always been something,” he said. “Not this year. I’m doing it.”
Going into the 2019 event, Bradley knows his physical ability is strong and his gear is top-of-the-line, it’s the mental component he needs to keep in check.
“It’s mind, body and gear,” he said of what is needed to finish the race. “I’m not worried about my fitness... I just gotta get my head in the game. I know I’ve got this. I just gotta do it.”
Among fans rooting for Bradley’s finish are race directors Ken and Jackie Krueger. The International Falls couple are gearing up for the fast-approaching event and said they’re excited to see Bradley back on the roster.
“He’s a character,” Jackie said with a laugh. “This is his year to finish.”
But, they know the race is a challenge – physically and mentally.
Jackie said at about the halfway point of the race, finishing becomes a mind game.
“Ken knows from experience,” she said of her husband, who has finished the event in past years. “The people who show up are physically fit... It comes down to how they can handle the weather, both the cold and it being wet while maintaining the right body temperature. It’s interesting. There are a special breed of people out there.”
This year’s race will feature 94 bikers, 69 runners, 12 skiers and four with kick sleds who have 60 hours to finish. Thirty-six of those athletes will race unsupported, meaning they are not allowed to stop at any of the checkpoints along the route.
“This is our third year offering unsupported,” Ken said. “It adds to the challenge.”
Ken credited the diverse group of dedicated racers, many who continue to sign up year after year. Some even attempt to earn the “Arrowhead a’Trois” trophy, which means they have have finished the race by skiing, running and biking.
“They usually save skiing for last,” Jackie said. “That is why our skiing number is up a little this year.”
The race directors also gave a nod to the volunteers who help the race run smoothly.
“Without them, we wouldn’t have a race,” Ken said. “We’re very appreciative of all the volunteers we have... And this community, too. We’re looking forward to another great, cold race.”