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Sports >  Outdoors

Oregon couple prepares for harsh 135-mile winter race

Chris and Helen Scotch demonstrate near Bend, Oregon, how they gear up for the Arrowhead 135, an ultra-distance race through Minnesota in late January. (Jarod Opperman / AP)
Chris and Helen Scotch demonstrate near Bend, Oregon, how they gear up for the Arrowhead 135, an ultra-distance race through Minnesota in late January. (Jarod Opperman / AP)
By Victoria Jacobsen Bend (Oregon) Bulletin

BEND, Ore. – Chris and Helen Scotch are not going on an Arctic expedition this winter, but if you took a peek at their packing list you might think so.

The Bend couple, both 39, will travel to Minnesota this January, both equipped with a sled loaded with an insulated sleeping bag, a camping stove, mittens and hats to go with their puffy coats and snowshoes, several days’ worth of food and water and plenty of other safety gear.

In fact, Chris Scotch insists that selecting all the essentials is one of his favorite parts of the Arrowhead 135, a 135-mile race through the northern Minnesota, held each year during the height of winter.

“People talk more about the gear than the times. Nobody’s really thinking, ‘How am I going to finish in 48 hours instead of 52 hours?’ ” said Helen Scotch, who has completed the race three times. “It’s more, ‘How am I going to shed a few pounds off my sled this year? Should I go for waterproof shoes versus breathable shoes?’ If you look at any of the (online) forums where people are chatting, it’s all about gear and how to maintain yourself through that race. That’s where I think the interest lies.”

Chris Scotch was born in Oregon but spent much of his childhood in northern Minnesota, where he learned to enjoy camping and exploring the outdoors in the bitter cold. Although he considered competing at Arrowhead as a bicyclist during its inaugural year in 2005, he finally entered as a runner in 2011, soon after he took up ultrarunning. While fewer than 50 percent of the 150 or so competitors finish the race in a typical year, Scotch finished the race in 2011 and each year he has entered since.

This year’s race, which starts near the U.S.-Canada border in International Falls on Jan. 31, will be his sixth. Helen, who started running seriously around the time she moved from Ireland to the Twin Cities in 2005, tried Arrowhead for the first time in 2014 after watching Chris compete in 2011 and 2013.

“I’m never in danger of winning a conventional trail ultra. I’m just not that fast,” Chris said. “I could luck into winning a winter ultra.”

Arrowhead 135 is one of a handful of “winter ultras,” or long-distance races in which participants can choose to compete on foot, bike or ski, where snow is expected and cold is a given.

Competitors are required to tow extensive gear and supplies to help them survive for several days in the elements (Chris and Helen said their sleds typically weigh 35 pounds at the beginning of the race, although lighter travelers can get the total to weight under 30 pounds).

The Scotches are also race directors for a similar race, the 80- or 160-mile Tuscobia Winter Ultra through northern Wisconsin held in early January. Racers who excel at Arrowhead or Tuscobia may earn a spot at the Iditarod Trail Invitational, which follows the route of the iconic dog sled race and includes race distances up to 1,000 miles.

The Scotches explained that the strategy needed to complete – or even survive – a winter ultra is vastly different from that of a typical ultramarathon.

“You have to fix everything now – don’t wait,” Helen said at the couple’s home in Bend last week.

“I think a lot of people who got into trouble, it’s because they put off stopping. They think, just get to the next shelter, next checkpoint, and then I’ll fix it. But really, in these races, if you’re getting a little wet from sweat, or too cold, too warm, or you need food, need drink, do that now. Don’t put it off. You really should remember what your body needs at all times, because things spiral out of control pretty quickly if you don’t eat for a few hours.”

Competitors have 60 hours to cover the 135-mile Arrowhead trail, where the temperature during the race often drops well below zero degrees (“Don’t let anyone tell you there’s no difference between 40 below and 45 below, because you can definitely feel it,” Chris quipped). But extreme cold is not the worst-case scenario for racers.

“The worst weather would not be 45 below, it would be 25 degrees and wet snow, because one year at Arrowhead it was like that,” Chris said, referring to the 2013 race, when just seven of the 42 runners who started the race reached the finish. “It was like 6 to 8 inches of really wet, heavy snow, so it’s just harder to walk in, pull the sled through, bike through. Everything is just slower and harder and wetter, and when you get wet you can get hypothermia more easily.”

Hypothermia and other cold-related medical problems are real concerns for competitors in the Arrowhead and other winter ultra races. The Arrowhead event website clearly states that participants who are not careful are at risk of cold-weather injury (or getting hit by a snowmobile), and the Scotches said they have seen fellow competitors go to the hospital with severe frostbite on their hands and feet.

“Before I did it for the first time, no, I wasn’t thinking this could be a life-changing decision potentially, in terms of health, because I was so excited for the next thing,” Chris said. “I was so excited about the whole ultra experience, and to be able to do a winter ultra, I wasn’t worried. But I will say I was very, very lucky, because it certainly could have been a very bad idea if things didn’t happen to go just right for me. So I should have been worried.”

Chris admitted that he was lucky to finish his first Arrowhead in 2001 – at one point, he had wrapped himself in every piece of gear he brought, including the bivy sack meant to keep his sleeping bag dry, to stay warm. But Helen said it is probably not a coincidence that she and her husband had completed all of the Arrowhead races they have entered.

“The people we know who got frostbite – and they would say it themselves – they missed signals,” Helen said. “They knew they couldn’t feel their toes, or they probably should have changed a glove. Everyone knows the things you should be looking out for, or at least you should make sure you’re aware of.”

While a 135-mile race would be a challenge for most runners, even in the summer, Chris said the best way to train for the event is to go on a camping trip. A camping trip in the snow, that is.

“Walk away from your car for a day, spend a day out there, and then come back,” Chris suggested. “You learn really quick how to maintain yourself and perform activities in the cold.”

Despite the warnings of serious injury and the horror stories about the cold, Helen and Chris insist winter ultra races are not nonstop misery.

“I’m sure there are moments I’m not remembering when it was like, can I just be done already?” Helen said. “But mentally, I was say in the almost 60 hours of being out there in each year, I’ve enjoyed way more of the hours than I haven’t.”

If nothing else, it helps to keep the race in perspective. Chris said his favorite book is about Douglas Mawson, an Australian explorer who was the lone survivor of an Antarctic exploration described in a Smithsonian Magazine article titled “The Most Terrible Polar Exploration Ever.”

“It’s insane what early polar explorers went through,” Chris said. “It really makes anything I’m going through look like nothing.”

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