Good Things Come in Threes: Jill Martindale Reflects on Her Unsupported Arrowhead 135 Win

I ripped dead branches off a pine tree just off the side of the Arrowhead Trail. I was trying to get a fire going inside a three-sided shelter so I could warm up a little bit. I wasn’t having great luck burning anything thicker than a pencil because the moisture in the branches was just so frozen. I had used all of the Fatwood I packed to get the fire started. I managed to soak up a little heat from my fire as I melted snow with my alcohol stove to fill one of my bottles. The plan had been to make it all the way to the third checkpoint before having to melt snow for more water, but in the deep cold, I found myself guzzling faster than I’d anticipated. I had started with 105 ounces of water in GSI MicroLite insulated thermoses, which were doing a fantastic job of keeping all of my water hot! Drinking calories was a lot more palatable than trying to eat frozen bricks of food. I had brought along my regular winter go-to’s: salami (solid blocks – nope), trail mix (but I get so sick of the same food), peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (solid, though I could take a bite and let it thaw in my mouth before swallowing), oatmeal peanut butter energy balls (I should have packed more of these – easy to eat), salmon jerky (wtf was I even thinking?), and cheese sticks (warmed up in my bra before eating) – putting the very cold food against my body to try to heat it up worried me because the food was just so cold. I didn’t want to put anything like that against my skin in these temperatures. I was having a hard enough time using body heat to even get my hand warmers going.

Jill Photo: Johnny D.

I had discovered that I had some piercingly hard pucks of skin on my butt cheeks during a trailside bathroom break and was trying to figure out what I could do to keep my buns from getting worse. Slipping on my puffy down shorts, I knew that my buns would be protected, but I was already sweating so much that I knew chaffing would become an issue. My sweat was freezing before it could evaporate, which trapped a wet body within an ice-covered exterior. That isn’t a good thing. Nothing was breathing. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d deal with chaffed bits, and they heal faster than frostbite, so here we go. I poured the warm water with pine-needled garnish into my flip-top container, added in two packets of Trader Joe’s 100% ginger juice mix, and made sure the coals from my tiny, sad fire were completely out before I hopped back on the trail. Minutes later, I was overcome by utter exhaustion. I was slowing way down, shaking my head from side to side, making exasperated sighs, and just so sick of having frosted things covering my face. I had been feeling great up until this point, but now the fatigue was setting in. The deep cold zaps you of your energy. I stopped and looked behind me. Do I go back to the shelter and crawl in my bag for a nap? No, I don’t like turning back. I rode a little further and found a cozy-looking spot trailside, propped my bike up in the snow, laid down a sheet of Tyvek, and dug out my -40℉ Marmot CWM bag. 

I crawled in, wearing everything. I shimmied around, trying to generate some heat. I freed my face and rubbed it for a while, basking in the glory of it. I found my handwarmers and willed them to toast up. I was so tired. I wanted to sleep for forever. I wanted to be at Skipulk, and I wanted to sleep for forever there. I wanted to be in the cloudlike bed at the Nomad in International Falls. I wanted to be done with this cold.

If it weren’t for those googly eyes… I don’t think she would be able to see?! Photo: Jenn Millas

Motivation to Move

I decided that I would pack up, ride the 10 miles to Skipulk, and sleep there for as long as I needed. As I was packing up my gear, I saw a cyclist coming towards me: it was another woman, and she was on the same bike that I was on – a Salsa Beargrease – the white one with blue accents. It was a pretty realistic hallucination, and I was relieved when I realized that it was, indeed, a real human and not myself. I tried to ride with Carrie for a little bit, and we laughed about seeing the groomer so many times, but when it’s that cold, you have to move at your own pace. Breaking a sweat to keep up is no bueno out there, and riding too slow can make it difficult to stay warm. “If we don’t get to stay together, I want you to know it was great seeing you out here!” she said, I agreed, and I watched her taillight move further and further into the distance. She was racing in the supported category, now in second place behind Kate Coward, and I was racing unsupported. Supported racers are able to warm up inside of checkpoints, utilize the volunteers, nap, dry things, and get water and food. Drop bags. So dreamy.

Choosing to ride unsupported meant that I couldn’t do any of those things. The last two attempts I had made at finishing the Arrowhead Trail as an unsupported racer were thwarted because I tried to keep up with the supported racers. I had tried to win both of those times; I tried to ride as fast as I had when I set the women’s course record in 2017. Not this year. I told myself over and over, months before we took the starting line, multiple times each day: I am not racing this year. I am riding at my own pace, and I am finishing what I started. I was still working towards my finish, the casino was 35 miles ahead of me, and I was slowly moving through a deeply cold, groomed ribbon of trail in the woods. 

Where’s Jill? Photo: Jenn Millas

I would occasionally see wolf prints bigger than the palm of my hand in the freshly groomed snow; I wanted to see a wolf. I knew they could see me, and I’d never catch a glimpse of them. My mind began to wander, and it was such a relief that I wasn’t focusing on how tired I was anymore. I rely on my imagination so much while riding solo out there, and I love that being by myself gives me the opportunity to weave intricate stories in my head. That was a rough rut to get out of, and I was happy to have the distraction of my new wolf friend – until I began to see sign after sign marking that I was approaching the third checkpoint hosted by Embark Maple Syrup. I slipped back into the rut of being tired and impatiently wanting to get to the checkpoint, so I could warm up next to a fire, and I could take inventory of the frozen things on my bike. 

Finishing in Community

The Skipulk checkpoint used to be hosted by the Surly crew, and they liked to trick racers by putting signs out that said, “1/4 mile to the checkpoint,” when it was really another mile or so. I’d envisioned that the Embark Maple crew would be too wholesome and kind to play tricks like that on the racers, right? Wrong. Sixteen or so signs with foxes later, I finally saw the red glow from a bonfire and one last small hill before I could go back to sleep. People started cheering and ringing cowbells once they saw me, and I tried my best to answer back with a very small sounding “woop woop!”

Who was I kidding? I wasn’t going to sleep at Skipulk. Seeing friends on the trail typically gives me a second wind, and the Embark crew was full of smiling faces. I was a little more awake, but I had to do a double take because I recognized two other jackets at the checkpoint: I was shocked to see that my 45nrth teammate, Evan Simula, and our friend Jake Colantonio were at the fire. I had been trying to catch up to these friends all day but was consistently behind them by a couple of miles. 

Evan, Jake and Jill Photo: Johnny D.

I don’t know why I doubt myself, or think I’m so incredibly slow compared to others – I’m gritty and pretty dang good at playing in the snow – why do I put myself down so often? I spent so many of those last 25 miles apologizing to Evan and Jake, or getting frustrated and believing I was holding them back – when I didn’t have anything to be sorry for, and we were all riding the best we could, especially in the consistently frigid temperatures deprived of sleep. At one point, Evan asked if I had any caffeine. All I had left was some instant coffee tucked way down in one of my panniers. The effort of retrieving it seemed too much, and we just kept moving forward. 

We began to coax the sun, begging it to rise, because we needed the sunlight to wake ourselves up. It was a gorgeous sunrise, and the contrast between the sky and the snow-topped jagged conifers was rugged and beautiful. Jake mentioned how lucky we were to be riding in together, and I couldn’t agree more. This was Jake’s second unsupported finish, and he was riding it on a single speed this year. I was so proud to be experiencing this with him. Evan and I had linked up with our friend Kurt Barclay years ago near Skipulk, and we had ridden in together then when conditions were much different; we had been nearly 10 hours faster on the trail. Since that finish, Evan and I had both DNF’d in the unsupported category twice. Yet here we were, riding in together again, closing in on the casino. 

The gratitude you feel when you’re doing something like this is unbelievable. I was so thankful to be there in that exact moment. Nothing else prior to that moment mattered. Everything in my life pointed me toward this. Cautiously, boldly, and unabashed by the icicles on our bodies and food stuck in our buffs, we finally did what we had wanted to do, and we got to do it together. I couldn’t have predicted it ending better than that. The third time was a charm, I was patient, and I was able to finish.

Jill was the first female unsupported finisher of 2023 Photo: Johnny D.

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One response to “Good Things Come in Threes: Jill Martindale Reflects on Her Unsupported Arrowhead 135 Win”

  1. Arizona native here. That looks absolutely frigid and miserable and I am in awe of all who take this on. “Toughest of the tough”? Yeah I would have to say I agree with that. Congrats!

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