Monday’s start to the Arrowhead 135 ultramarathon at Kerry Park was full of hope, determination and excitement.
With temperatures just dipping to about -11 degrees, 146 athletes took off from the 7 a.m. starting line down the 135-mile trail toward Tower. Along the way, temperatures dropped and so did racers.
Participants have 60 hours to finish the grueling event, and when 7 p.m. rolled around Wednesday, 36 percent of those who started ended up completing the challenge.
“That’s kind of what I would have guessed,” said Ken Krueger, co-director of the race. “People were very safe and there were very few injuries.”
Krueger and his wife, Jackie, said this year they received more media inquiries than ever before, and expect it to boost the event’s popularity in the future.
“We had to start making a list of everyone who called us,” Ken said. “It was just crazy.”
As the race progressed over the course of some of the coldest days in history, some comments on social media suggested the event should have been canceled or postponed. Krueger said he can’t see that ever happening.
“Maybe if we got a ridiculous snow storm where we couldn’t rescue people, but that’s unlikely to happen,” he said.
Arrowhead athletes travel from all over the world for the race and crave the bitterly cold weather.
“It adds to the challenge,” Krueger said, noting he hopes to be included in the roster of racers again in the future. “I’d much rather race than direct... This race is a life-changing experience. You really find out what you’re capable of.”
The 15th annual event started with 75 cyclists, 64 runners, four skiers and three kick sled runners. It finished with 39 cyclists, 13 runners, and zero skiers and kick sled runners.
What is it like out on the trail? Here are some stories from those who know firsthand:
Leah Gruhn, women’s bike division
Leah Gruhn was the first woman to cross the finish line on bike and said in the nine years she’s been coming to the Arrowhead, this is among the coldest experience.
“It took me a couple hours to warm up,” she said after her 22-hour, 15-minute finish. “This is my seventh finish... Some years have been this cold or nearly this cold... At some point, cold just starts to feel cold – the same.”
Finishing the event was Gruhn’s main goal, and she wanted to do as well as she could.
“I wanted to execute things as well as possible,” she said. “I was more disciplined about minimizing my stop time, so I cruised through the first and third checkpoint. I was only at the second checkpoint for 30 minutes. I got rid of wasted stop time.”
The Duluth native felt she had an advantage being from the region and knowing how to handle the weather.
“I have the opportunity to train for these events and come up and see the trails,” she said. “I tried skiing one year and didn’t finish... I’ve biked every year after.”
Tracey Petervary, women’s bike division
Challenges for Tracey Petervary, an eight-year Arrowhead 135 veteran, surfaced right away, creating some uncertainties as she took on the cold, hard trail.
The hose to her water supply froze shortly after the start of the race near Monday, forcing her to position the device under her clothes to thaw it out.
“I had to deal with that pretty much immediately,” she said.
In addition, the Idaho native, who finished in 28 hours, 20 minutes, said her food was freezing and she was stuffing the packets in her pockets, bra — where ever it would defrost.
“The race was hard and it was cold,” she said. “I wasn’t fully prepared... I wasn’t completely ready as far as being packed and organized.”
Although she was not the first female to cross the finish line this year, it is a feat she has accomplished in the past. Before the race started this week, she told The Journal she’s won the event on the bike the most.
“I have three wins,” she said.
This year, she was the first female unsupported biker to reach the finish line, meaning she did not receive assistance at any of the race’s three checkpoints.
“My feet were pretty much sore the whole time,” she said. “I did a lot of running and kicking so they wouldn’t freeze... Being out there, though, I feel special I’m able to do something like this and finish unscathed.”
And while she finished, she wasn’t sure if she’d return next year.
“As soon as I finished, I thought I was done (with the Arrowhead),” she said. “It was really hard dealing with everything and how cold it was. I don’t like being that cold.”
She credited the difficulty of the race and how well it’s run. Coming year after year is a chance to see other athletes who have become extended family, she said.
John Storkamp, men’s running division
John Storkamp is no stranger to the Arrowhead 135. This year marked his 14th year participating in the event as well as his 11th finish. He crossed the finish line in 43 hours, 7 minutes — good for fourth place.
“It was a lot of fun, like normal,” he said Wednesday of the race.
The Hastings runner’s 2019 time was slightly slower than his 2018 first-place finish, but it was also on the colder side this year. Storkamp recalled last year temperatures dipped to the -20 degrees range, however, it only last for about a 12-hour period.
“This year, it was more sustained,” he said. “Our saving grace was it wasn’t so cold on Monday.”
Storkamp is an experienced winter camper and said he’s accustom to the circumstances thrown at him during the Arrowhead.
“I’ll be back next year,” he said. “It’s a tradition.”
Faye Norby, women’s running division
As a rookie in the Arrowhead 135, Faye Norby was excited to reach the finish line of the race after 48 hours and 34 minutes on the trail – the first woman runner to finish.
“I’m a fairly experienced winter racer, but this was harder than I thought,” she said. “I was very motivated to finish.”
She said she laughed at the finish line at Fortune Bay Resort and Casino, Tower, where vehicles wouldn’t start because of the cold, while at the same time she just spent two days out walking in it.
“I really did it,” she said.
There were times exhaustion nearly got the best of her and she would do short sprints or take a caffeine pill to stay awake, and listened to a few audio books to pass the time.
“There were moments I felt like the checkpoints took forever to reach,” she said. “The second night I was definitely sleep deprived and caught myself stumbling a little down the trail... But I kept going and stayed relatively warm. It feels great to finish.”