People from all over the world gathered in the Backus Community Center dining room Sunday preparing for what is considered one of the toughest races in the country.
The Arrowhead 135 Ultramarathon kicks off at 7 a.m. Monday at Kerry Park, and a sense of excitement was in the air Sunday afternoon as racers registered for the event and checked their gear.
“It's really here,” said Ken Krueger, co-director of the race. “It's great to see everyone.”
The the 135-mile event takes participants from International Falls to Fortune Bay Resort in Casino in Tower. Racers can bike, run, ski or kicksled, and have 60 hours to finish. Men and women from across the country and world travel to Borderland for the race.
Stories from the diverse group emerged as bags were re-packed and checklist items were crossed off just hours before the event begins with a fireworks display tomorrow morning.
Sitting quietly in the corner of the dining room was Pierre Oster of southern France, observing the bustle of activity created by fellow racers. Not only has Oster competed in the Arrowhead 135 before, he is the one who started it in 2005.
“The idea came from races I did in Alaska eight years before I stated this one,” he said.
While he enjoyed the Alaskan race he competed in, his wife had had enough.
“The race always happened over Valentine's Day,” he said with a laugh. “So I started something else.”
In search of similar trail conditions to what he was used to in Alaska, Oster considered areas up the North Shore, but ruled them out because of high snowmobile traffic. Then, he discovered the Arrowhead State Trail.
“I really liked this one,” he said. “The first year there was about nine of us out there.”
The 62-year-old will ski in the 2020 event and hasn't been on the race roster for 11 years.
“This is my first time in the U.S. for eight years,” he said. “I mostly came to visit people. I don't have any expectations... I wish it was just a little colder.”
Don and Lance Gabrielson
If Lance Gabrielson crosses the finish line of the Arrowhead 135 this week, he'll be the youngest person to do so in the event's 16-year history.
The 16-year-old high school sophomore from Jacksonville, Fla., will bike the event alongside his father, Don Gabrielson, who has competed in the event four other times, finishing three of those four.
“In 2003, I didn't finish. It was -40 degrees below (zero) that year and the trails were un-groomed,” he said.
The U.S. Navy commander said he competed in the 2019 event that saw temperatures dip well-below zero. This year, with recent warmer air, he expects the trail will be softer, but is prepared.
“Every year is a new challenge, there is no such thing as an easy year,” he said. “But one of the great things about living in Jacksonville, is we live right on the beach. We can ride 50 miles in one direction down the sand, which is very similar to snow.”
Don said even though his job takes him all over the country, he's native to northern Minnesota and attended high school in Hibbing High School in Hibbing, Minn. He appeared excited to be back in Minnesota, ready for the challenge of another Arrowhead 135.
“It's a race you have to really respect and bring all elements to it,” Don said. “This is a bonding experience for my son and I.”
Lance said he expects the race to be the hardest, but most rewarding, challenge he's ever faced.
“I'm ready for it,” he said. “I'm going to finish.”
John Storkamp has not only competed in all but one of the Arrowhead 135 races, he's also won the event in his division.
The runner from Hastings, Minn., took first in 2018 and fourth last year. As a veteran of the event, he has seen all kinds of weather conditions.
“I bring all the same gear,” he said. “I always bring the same thing because you never know what the weather is capable of in the winter.”
The runner said his only goal is to finish the race and have fun, which is what he loves most about the Arrowhead 135.
“I come back every year because of the camaraderie,” he said. “That is what I love about this event.”
Amanda Harvey of Minneapolis was in front of the lens of a film crew, documenting her first attempt at the Arrowhead 135 Ultramarathon.
“This is like the quintessential Minnesota race,” the biker said. “I made it a goal to get here.”
Harvey said she and her friend, Brenda Croell, made a pact about two years ago to compete in the Arrowhead 135. The only expectation they have is to cross the finish line.
“There's no time goal, “she said. “We just want to finish... There's so many variables of what could go wrong and what could go right... We just didn't want the pressure of setting a time goal... I've been training for this for the past year. It's been a challenge, but it's been a lot of fun.”
Croelle said biking brought she and Harvey together, which led to the pact they made two years ago. With the race only hours away, she admitted Sunday that she was ready to take on the challenge of the race, but was feeling a rush of emotions.
“I'm excited to get out there because I love biking in the snow,” she said. “I'm nervous about how much my body is probably going to hurt afterward.”
Once her gear was checked Sunday, Croell set her sights on the finish line and steak dinner she'd consume after she was done.
“I'm going to eat a steak, sit in a sauna and fly back home to Tuscon, Ariz.,” she said. “I'm ready for warmer weather.”