Runners Brave Minnesota Polar Vortex for 135-Mile Ultramarathon

You may be bundled up during the polar vortex that’s sweeping the nation, but for some outdoor enthusiasts, it was the perfect temperature for this year’s Arrowhead 135 ultramarathon.

The a race is purposely held in late January or early February each year to line up with what they hope is the coldest temperatures of the year. It runs roughly 135 miles between International Falls, Minnesota, to Lake Vermillion in Minnesota along the arrowhead State Trail. This year, they were right on the money, as temperatures dropped as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit.

“It’s supposed to be coupled with this time of year,” race director Ken Krueger told Runner’s World. “It’s really cold on the skin.”

There were 146 competitors this year split between the four disciplines allowed in the race: running, cycling, skiing, and kick-sledding. Seventy-five riders, 64 runners, four skiers, and three kick sledders started the race.

As you can imagine, the frigid conditions wore on the racers from the moment they set off at 7 a.m. 

“I was out there for 21 hours,” Don Gabrielson, who fat biked this year’s event, told Runner’s World. “I did get on the edge of hypothermia at the end, but it always amazes me how much heat your body produces. Unless you stop. You can’t stop, or at least not stop for long.”

Many runners still had to carry provisions and survival equipment with them, which could get a little difficult all bundled up. And even with the mittens and all of the high-tech, cold weather gear—plus duct tape on the face, in some cases—the cold weather still got to them.

“I wanted to make a wrestling mask with tape this year with black underneath and sparkly red tape on top,” Gabrielsonsaid. “But I ran out of time, so I just did the black and looked like Batman. I did get some frostbite on my cheek, though.”

The numbers dwindled as the days went on and contestants pulled out. Of the 146 that started the race, only 48—39 bikers and nine runners—had finished the race with seven hours left. When Runner’s World spoke with Krueger at 1 p.m. Wednesday, there were still four runners out on the track, 43 hours after the start of the race. They were all within 25 miles of the finish at the time after going through the final checkpoint.

If those four finished, the total would be 52 participants or 36 percent of the total field that started. This is down from the mid-50 percents the race usually sees for finishers. Krueger credited the extreme cold weather this year for the decrease.

Despite the cold, the racers, whether they finished or not, were just happy to be out there.

“I think people like to challenge themselves,” Gabrielsonsaid. “It helps redefine what they’re capable of, and this remarkable group of people is dedicated to doing that, and to understanding the difficulty of competing under extreme conditions. No matter if you finish or not, they leave with an incredible experience.”

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The fastest time for this year’s runners came from two finishers who crossed the line together, Jovica Spajic of Serbia and Scott Hoberg of Minnesota, who finished with a time of 36 hours, 9 minutes. The fastest female runner was Faye Norby of Minnesota, who crossed the line at in 48 hours, 34 minutes.