Ode to Arrowhead

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I caught the Arrowhead bug the first time I heard about it. The year was 2019. Arrowhead had made national news headlines because a record-setting polar vortex had overtaken the northwoods just as Arrowhead 135 athletes prepared to take the trail. International Falls, Minnesota, was the coldest place in the United States – colder even than the South Pole – for those three days as wind chills drove the temperature down to almost 60 degrees below zero. 

Then somebody posted a video about Arrowhead in a running group that I had recently joined on Facebook. John Storkamp was the featured foot contestant in the video, and it said he lived in Hastings, which is right across the river from me. So I looked him up online, found an email address, and asked him if I could talk with him about how to prepare for Arrowhead. 

We met for coffee two days later. 

John is a legend in the ultra running community, especially known for his feats at Arrowhead. He summarized Arrowhead in three words: “All-consuming and expensive.” 

Sobering words.

I loved being outside in the cold, had started running longer than ever before in my life, and spent as much time as I could on the frozen river in my running snowshoes, but I had never participated in a formal race and didn’t know where to start. John charted out a multi-year plan for me that began with a 50K trail race and culminated in completing Arrowhead 135. I set a goal for finishing it by the time I turned 50 – nine years from that first conversation – and began learning from other Arrowhead veterans. Soon I was connecting with the trail running community, spending time maintaining trails, and immersing myself in a new world of endurance sports. 

My first time serving on a trail maintenance crew (March 31, 2019). Three people in this photo were also on the path to Arrowhead and have helped me immensely along the way: Steph Hoff (sawyer and crew leader), Tim Miller, and Brian Corgard.

Unfortunately, my new passion created immediate tension in my marriage. Melinda accused me of being more excited about an ultra than conception. (If you’ve followed our blog or hers, you know that infertility has been a major part of our lives and a defining component of our marriage.) She also associated my long runs with “running away from her future blindness” (you can read about the retinitis pigmentosa diagnosis here). I explained that it’s not about a race. It’s about new connections, new directions, new purpose–life coming together in new ways to get us to the next place together. She wasn’t convinced. The tension continued for three years, until I finally put my pursuit on hold. 

Marriage conflict wasn’t the only obstacle. Injuries, burnout, depression, financial pressures, and work demands all seemed to conspire against my Arrowhead goal. Despite feeling over and over again that I needed to abandon the pursuit, the dream never died. 

Humbled and inspired while volunteering at the Arrowhead finish line at Fortune Bay Casino (January 2020).

Why did Arrowhead grip me so tightly from the first moment I heard about it? It’s one of the top 50 most difficult races in the world. It’s the kind of race that Olympic medalists and Army Rangers tackle. Why would I think this is even remotely possible for me? What drives me to pursue such a lofty goal? Is the pursuit of big, hairy, audacious goals a character flaw that ultimately hurts the people I love most? 

In February of 2019 shortly after I heard about Arrowhead, I wrote in my journal: “I can see how the goal itself can become an all-consuming pursuit. John [Storkamp] said that he’s seen guys lose everything (their families, etc) in order to run. … Everything comes second to the next big push – expanding the limit, reaching beyond what they’ve yet accomplished.”

Family time on the frozen St. Croix River right down the road from our house.

I’ve always pursued big goals with tenacity. But at the wise old age of 41, I didn’t want to neglect my family, health, and career to go after a frigid finish line in northern Minnesota. So, from the first moments that Arrowhead took hold of me, I was cautious and reflective. Here’s what I wrote in my journal on March 3, 2019, less than two weeks after I met with John Storkamp to talk about how to prepare for Arrowhead: 

“What drives me to want to do Arrowhead? Is it something innate? Something deep inside my personality? That desire to explore new territory, push my limits, go for the highest, hardest goal?” 

“Is it the same reason I wanted to be an NBA guard like Magic Johnson when I was in junior high – read his book, trained in the basement? And a medical illustrator – staying after school every day to create my own dissection guides – a Grey’s anatomy for fetal pigs and sharks? And an exercise physiologist – borrowed a textbook from a coach and studied it on my own? It’s the way I approached football when I trained in the summer after my sophomore year with help from [a youth group leader who had played college football]. And botany – wanted to be able to identify every plant I saw down to the genus. And missions – go to the hardest place – my conversation with [a missionary leader] and plan to go to Afghanistan before the war where there were only 40 known believers. I was committed to singleness because I planned to die an early death by martyrdom and didn’t want to cause pain to a wife or kids – had to be focused on the goal and not let anything get in the way. 

“Then there was the Ph.D. Same basic impulse but something began to change, since I realized I couldn’t be the best. Then I just tried to survive – hang on to last place at all costs. The 120 hour work weeks. The 630 square foot apartment [with three children under the age of six]. The radical frugality – except for money spent on books. Yet all of that was for a cause – a big goal that took all of my focus. 

“Then church planting. I had to do it differently than anyone else and tie it to a bigger goal: starting a movement that would spread all over the place. Still pursuing a doctorate but in a non-formal path that fit my pioneering personality. 

“What does all of this mean for me now? Is Arrowhead just a manifestation of something deeper and more profound? Is it connected to the rest of my life? Will pursuing it pull other priorities along with it? Family, finances, work, writing, etc. Or will it dominate and derail? I want to figure out a way to make it synergize so that everything else becomes stronger because of it. 

“So what happens if I drop the pursuit because it’s too big, costs too much, takes too much time, pounds my body too hard? Will something in me die?”

Those words were profoundly prophetic. 

Almost four years later, something in me has died. My old self had to die in order for me to experience the rebirth of a new identity. That’s a different story, but it’s intimately connected to my Arrowhead journey. 

When I hit the wall, sought medical intervention, and realized I was suffering from depression not just adrenal fatigue (March-May, 2021).

Through it all, I’m still in pursuit of Arrowhead … in a choppy, staggering, stop-and-start way. I’ve had to press pause multiple times over the years. 

Recently I had to take a year-long sabbatical from my goals to focus on family and financial priorities. I thought I was back in the game when Melinda gave her blessing for me to register for Tuscobia a few months ago. Tuscobia offers an 80 mile winter race that’s the next step in my preparation for Arrowhead. Then I injured my hip flexors on a training run two weeks ago and may be out of commission for months or longer. I’m hobbling around on crutches, sitting and rising very, very slowly with excruciating pain. Depending on the results of the MRI and the hip surgeon’s diagnosis, completing Arrowhead 135 at any time in the future may not be realistic or even possible for me. 

So, now with the uncertainty of the medical diagnosis and on the eve of starting a new job and beginning a new chapter in life, I’m reflecting on what Arrowhead has done in my life over the last four years. 

I’m realizing that Arrowhead is not just a goal but is actually a process. 

As therapist Phil Stutz says in Jonah Hill’s documentary Stutz, there’s nothing wrong with going hard after a goal. But reaching the goal won’t ultimately make us happy. The process is the path to joy, not the goal itself. But the process of pursuing the goal can help us discover and flow in our life force. That’s where we connect to our purpose, find the deepest satisfaction, and make the biggest impact in the world. So, the goal is just part of the process. The goal should never be the end in itself. 

So where has the process of pursuing Arrowhead taken me so far? How has it shaped my life, my family, and my community? It’s pretty profound. Arrowhead has impacted every part of my life and helped me become who I am today. 

My path toward Arrowhead has wound through intense marriage conflict, burnout, depression, infertility, marriage renewal, powerful mystical encounters, new spiritual practices, winter camping, career redirections, financial pressures, life-altering injuries, scores of transforming friendships, and initiatives that could shape the way an entire city grows and develops. I may never cross the finish line at Fortune Bay as a competitor, but Arrowhead has already changed me so deeply that I can be fulfilled even if a coveted finisher trophy never makes it to my home (I’m not giving up yet, though!). 

Here’s the chalkboard that crystalized the connections and catalyzed my revelation.

So, here is my ode to Arrowhead 135: 

Thank you for precious family times on river ice and gravel roads and winter campsites. You’ve provided joy and laughter. You’ve strengthened my relationship with my wife and kids. You’ve given them memories of their crazy dad that will live on for the rest of their lives.

Family time on the gravel road. I love when they join me for a some time pulling the tire.

Thank you for burn out and depression that led to new life. I didn’t want to admit it at the time, but you were a big factor in depleting my adrenals and initiating a debilitating depression. But you also provided the tools to help me make it through the darkest time of my life. You taught me to endure. You gave me mental toughness and showed me how to embrace pain and keep moving forward. Ultimately, you broke me. You brought me to the end of myself. You showed me how lost I had become and then led me to find rest, reprioritization, and renewal through cold water and the focused breathing of the Wim Hof Method. You introduced me to cold showers, then to Wim Hof, then to icy soaks in the St. Croix River and wherever else I could find frigid watery focus. That’s where miracles happened in me and through me.

Sneaking in a soak at deer camp in northern Minnesota (October 2021). Air temp mid 20s. Water temp mid 30s.

Thank you for marriage conflict that ultimately brought renewal and joy. You created so much tension with Melinda. Long runs frequently turned into loud arguments. You weren’t the only factor, but without you, we wouldn’t have fought so fiercely about priorities and time and money … and the pursuit of conception. Without you our marriage would not have almost ended. And without you, a cold, icy retreat in Duluth and a dark, starry snowshoe hike at Gooseberry Falls along Lake Superior would not have opened the way for renewal. So, I’m grateful for the conflict you created, because it brought Melinda and me to the end of ourselves so that we could discover new life together. 

Breakthrough getaway beside Gitchi Gami (Lake Superior), January 2022

Thank you for new friends and a trail community. You invited me to a whole new way of life as a trail runner. Because of you, I joined a team of volunteers with Rocksteady Running in the Zumbro Bottoms for a day of trail maintenance in preparation for a race. That changed me forever. Now I’m not only running on trails and maintaining trails, but I’m helping to create a whole new trail system that has the potential to shape the way an entire region develops. My new job will curtail some of the time I can invest in trail building efforts, but I’m a trail person now. It’s in my blood and will be part of my life forever.  

Thank you, Arrowhead 135, for changing my life

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