Published February 01, 2009, 12:00 AM

Local biking enthusiasts set to compete in winter marathon

Steve Moulds, 54, East Grand Forks, and Pat White, 42, Grand Forks, are among a handful of local men who’ve been training for a 135-mile marathon that begins at 7 a.m. Monday on the Arrowhead Trail in northeastern Minnesota.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

Christmas Eve, while most Northland residents were opening presents or huddled indoors with a glass of eggnog, Steve Moulds slept in a snow bank in subzero temperatures.

This he did by choice.

Moulds, 54, East Grand Forks, and Pat White, 42, Grand Forks, are among a handful of local men who’ve been training for a 135-mile marathon that begins at 7 a.m. Monday on the Arrowhead Trail in northeastern Minnesota.

Perhaps you’ve seen them: They’re the guys who’ve been riding bikes on even the coldest days, peddling through snowstorms and blizzards and just about any other nastiness Mother Nature throws their way.

It’s all par for the course — even the sleeping in snow banks part — in training for the Arrowhead Ultra 135 Marathon. Now in its fifth year, the marathon is part race, part winter-survival test, taking participants on foot, mountain bike or skis along a grueling course from International Falls to Tower, Minn.

Competitors must complete the course in 60 hours.

Moulds and White will tackle the Arrowhead on high-tech mountain bikes with 4-inch tires on 26-inch rims that are made for floating atop snow-covered trails. Extremely low gearing allows the bikes to cover off-road terrain at speeds of 6 to 12 mph.

Picture a mountain bike on steroids, and you’ve got the idea.

“The bike lends itself to exploring,” White said. “You can go pretty much anywhere.”

White, who’s a jack of all trades at the Ski and Bike Shop in Grand Forks, built six of the bikes from Surly-brand components, customizing them to fit the owners’ needs. Depending on how they’re accessorized, the custom Surly bikes can cost anywhere from $1,800 to $3,000.

The Surly bike company is based in Bloomington, Minn.

Also riding bikes that White built will be Dave Simmons, 30, a Grand Forks native now living in Fargo; Jim Grijalva, 44, Grand Forks; and Greg Ames, 28, a former Ski and Bike Shop employee from Fargo.

“I want all of the guys riding what I built to finish” the marathon, White said.

Marathon series

The Arrowhead Ultra is part of a series of “human-powered” marathons organized by AdventureCORPS, a firm that sponsors ultra-endurance and extreme sports events. This year’s Arrowhead Ultra features 61 competitors from as far away as Italy and Bolivia.

As part of the marathon, participants must carry a minimum 15 pounds of gear, including a bivouac sack or tent, sleeping bag rated to at least -20F, sleeping pad, camp stove and fuel.

Rules also stipulate that participants carry 2 quarts of water and finish the race with at least 3,000 calories of food.

White, who’s a longtime competitive racer, participated in the Arrowhead Ultra in 2007 but fatigue and extreme cold kept him from finishing. Last year, he broke his collarbone four days before the race and had to drop out.

This year, he hopes for a better outcome.

“For me, it’s just a really neat balance between physical and mental,” White said. “You really have to plan for it and really have to make some ‘go or no go’ decisions and you have to stick to them.”

Moulds, entering his first Arrowhead Ultra, said he’s not going into the event with any big expectations.

“I’m just going for a ride in the woods,” said Moulds, who farms near Fisher, Minn. “I’ve done a lot of extensive camping winter and summer, backpacking, hiking and winter climbing, so I’m looking forward to it a lot in that respect, just being in a beautiful place for a couple of days.”

Physically ready

White and Moulds say they’re physically prepared for the race. This winter’s cold and snow has been a training asset, they say. Early in January, Moulds spent seven hours bicycling gravel roads to Oslo, Minn., and back in a blizzard. He said he didn’t feel any ill effects the next day, which he took as a sign that his training regimen was working.

“We’re at such an advantage,” White said. “Unless you live in International Falls and get to ride the trail, no one is going to be in better condition.”

According to White, weather conditions play a big role in the event. Too warm and the trail will get soft, causing the bikes to bog down and making the course more difficult. Extreme cold saps the body and is hard on equipment.

That was apparent two years ago, White said. The air temperature the morning of the race was 35 below zero, White said, and a biker who in 2006 had completed the course in less than 16 hours needed 34 hours and 10 minutes to finish the race in the harsh conditions.

At one point, White recalls having a “beard” of condensed moisture the size of a pop can frozen from his face mask. Only 10 of 46 people who started the race that year actually finished.

White dropped out at the halfway point.

“The cold just saps you,” he said. “You lose so much moisture. That year, people pushed themselves too hard for the conditions and put themselves into bad spots. And they no longer could be reliant on themselves to make the right choice.”

Other extreme

Rick Mangan, Grand Forks, entered the Arrowhead Ultra last year, when the air temperature soared to 35 above zero the first day of the race. Despite training two years, Mangan said the conditions forced him to walk his bike much of the time. Pushing it, Mangan said, he was walking about 2.5 mph, and reaching the first checkpoint took him 13 hours.

Mangan at that point opted to drop out of the race. He’d done his homework, observing the race the previous year, and knew that continuing would be dangerous.

“I just couldn’t produce power,” he said. “I knew I was not doing well after a few minutes on the bike. I was slowing, and I did not see my day getting any better.

“It was a smart decision. The race is unsupported, and it’s your discretion to make wise decisions. No one’s going to stop you from going out and trying to push it farther.”

Mangan, who’s riding the sixth bike White built, opted not to enter the race this year and instead will compete in a different event next summer. But he’s making the trek east to support Moulds and White however he can.

And he plans to enter the race again.

“I like the fact it’s a race,” Mangan said. “It puts an urgency to it. Sooner or later, you ride alone. It’s just nice to be out doing something for a long time.

“And if nothing else, you know how you did vs. the course.”

Why do it?

Few would argue it takes a special person to subject themselves to the rigors of an event such as the Arrowhead Ultra.

Moulds and White say they’ve been asked why they do it.

“Constantly,” Moulds said.

“It’s just understood for me,” White said a laugh.

Weather will dictate how they approach the course. In a perfect world, both say a morning temperature of 20 below zero and light wind would be ideal. The trail would be firm, but it wouldn’t be so cold that they’d have to expend too much energy to stay warm.

That’s a factor because race participants carry a full load on their bikes, with sleeping bags strapped behind the seat, a center frame bag for tools, stove, fuel and other heavier gear, a front pack for food and two insulated water containers. Below their jackets, they’ll wear CamelBak water containers, which feature a sip tube, to stay hydrated.

The bikes and full load of gear weigh between 50 and 60 pounds.

Clothing-wise, White says they’ll dress sparingly on the trail, wearing a lightweight base layer that quickly wicks moisture away from the body, a windbreaker top and bottom and winter cycling shoes. A neck gaiter, high-tech balaclava, fog-resistant goggles and winter cycling shoes round out the wardrobe.

They’ll carry a heavier, insulated outer shell to stay warm during trail breaks, when they’re not generating heat. Shot Bloks, high-energy bars with the texture of jellied candy that don’t freeze, will comprise the bulk of their diet, but White says he also might fill sausage casings with high-fat meat for an energy boost.

“Protein lends itself really well for rest,” Moulds said. “It doesn’t burn up as fast, and so you tend to sleep a little better.”

Race strategy

Ideally, White says he’d like to ride for an hour and then walk five to 10 minutes throughout the race. Some competitors choose not to stop, and the course record on bike is an amazing 15 hours, 45 minutes.

White says stopping for a few hours to rest is the best strategy.

“It’s a tough one to guess, because until we see the conditions that day, we don’t know what we’re in for,” he said. “Conditions play such a factor in this thing.”

Moulds, too, says he’s going to play it by ear.

“If the trail gets real soft, I’m going to take an early break and then go when it starts to firm up again,” he said. “Climate is going to dictate strategy.”

The key, both say, is to maintain a steady speed throughout the race.

“There always tends to be this point where, if you can push yourself to the right speed based on the snow conditions that are always variable in front of you, you are working a lot less than what you are if you’re going slower or faster,” White said. “You’re always looking for that sweet spot.”

On the Web:

Arrowhead Winter Ultramarathon: www.arrowheadultra.com.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com.

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