Arrowhead 135 is a race that evokes superlatives: coldest, most extreme, most brutal. Routine sub-zero conditions encountered on the 135 miles of Northern Minnesota snowmobile trails tests riders like few other races in North America. The stories surrounding Arrowhead tend to center male-dominated, human-versus-nature narratives and the gear that riders carry to overcome the challenge. When my friend Amanda Harvey registered for the race, I approached her about a project that offered a new angle on Arrowhead.
I began documenting Amanda’s preparations in November of last year. In addition to my photography, she and I recorded a pair of starkly honest and vulnerable interviews before and after the race, which took place January 27-29. What emerged from this project far surpassed a conventional first-timer’s race report. Below, Amanda shares what led her to Arrowhead and what she carries far beyond it.
Content warning: mentions of depression, suicidal thoughts, and sexual abuse.
I’m Amanda, I started racing bikes four years ago when I moved back to Minnesota. I originally applied to be on Koochella, a Minneapolis-based all-FTW (Femme, Trans and Women) team to race at the velodrome, but I didn’t get in. However, Koochella had enough applicants to form another team, so that’s what we did. We founded Fuerza Cycling, now named Corpse Whale Racing. Being a team of rejects is kind of a point of pride, but having the launch pad of Koochella support was really important.
An FTW-only team takes away some of the stress of bike racing. I grew up with three older brothers, and I always wanted to do the cool things they were doing but struggled to keep up. Of all the founding Corpse Whale members, only one of us had raced at the velodrome before, so I really appreciated that we learned it all together. I didn’t have to prove myself to anyone. We helped each other grow, and there was no mansplaining.
I first heard about Arrowhead in 2015 when Sveta Vold posted about it in Grease Rag, a Facebook group for FTW riders. She’d given birth just a month before the race, so at every checkpoint she stopped to pump and breastfeed. It sounded amazing! Like who does that? Additionally, I have a lot of climate change-related anxiety. Winters are becoming less severe, and I’m worried that eventually the character of Arrowhead will be forever changed. I wanted to do it before it ceases to exist. Last year on a Corpse Whale social ride, I was at Dairy Queen with my teammate Brenda [Croell], and she’s like “I want to do Arrowhead too! Let’s make a pact. We’ll do it together.” It was an ice cream pact, which is just as strong as a blood pact.
Qualifying for Arrowhead was a years-long process of doing longer training rides and carrying equipment on my bike. In June 2019, I completed the 100-mile Lutsen 99er on the North Shore of Lake Superior, which met the qualification requirement. I finally submitted my application for Arrowhead that fall, just to see what would happen. I was pretty surprised to get in! I thought Arrowhead would be a 2021 race. I felt like I didn’t have enough experience, but there I was.
Back in July 2017, somebody who had been huffing canned air dusters drove the wrong way down I-94 and killed one of my best friends, Adam Kendhammer, his boyfriend and their mutual friend. It happened during track season, and I tried my best to be kind of normal after the funerals. I have this fight, flight or freeze response, and I usually freeze. But in this case, I just wanted to flee from my friends’ funerals. I thought They’re not dead. This is a weird elaborate joke. This is wrong. I just wanted to leave at every point. It was this really surreal experience.
When I was talking about this feeling with my therapist, she said, “Why don’t you actually go somewhere and flee, but in a controlled way?” So one weekend I rode my bike to a bed and breakfast in Northfield, MN as a way to get these feelings out of my body. Riding for 50 miles felt really good and cathartic – to finally just go someplace. That’s one way bikes can be really therapeutic, if you’re using riding in a context that’s intentional and not just as a crutch. I spent a lot of that summer not being able to cry; part of your stress response is to release all that adrenaline. But biking really helped with that. When I rode I could cry. That summer was hard, but it wasn’t my lowest point.
The next spring after Adam died, I was in a low spot again. I rode my bike to the Mississippi and just cried, sitting on the side of the river and thinking about getting into the water. Because it was cold, I thought hypothermia wasn’t that bad of a way to go. I could have a peaceful end if I just got in. I remember riding my bike to and from the river thinking about suicide. I got a lot more help after that.
In my therapy, whenever I’d have flashbacks, my therapist would encourage me to, instead of freezing which is what I normally do, picture myself getting on my bike and riding away. And I’ve used that when I’ve been triggered. It was really great to just be gone. The first time it worked, I was delighted. It’s strange to be triggered, then suddenly, things feel better. I ride to stay ahead of the depression, but sometimes riding isn’t enough. When folks say, “I don’t need therapy, riding bikes is my therapy,” that grates on me because bikes can help, but they can’t get you all the way to healing. It’s OK to ask for help when your normal coping strategies aren’t enough. The idea that “I don’t need therapy, I have my bike” can be dangerous if that means you don’t reach out when you really need to. It’s made me feel weak, like I need therapy in addition to riding or maybe that I’m not riding bikes in the right way.
Before Arrowhead, I was nervous. Who did I think I was, signing up for this race? Would my hubs freeze? Would my toes get frostbite? Did I have the right kind of boots? Were my lights too dim? Would I have enough food? Would my water freeze? Was there going to be a sudden polar vortex? I was worried about a million different things. Physical preparation is really hard to figure out without ever having ridden Arrowhead. I did what I thought was good, but who knows?
The mental preparation was tough. I tried to remember that Arrowhead could go wrong in so many different ways and to be OK with that. It would have been a huge bummer not to finish, like if something broke on my bike or I got frostbite or something happened outside my control. But accepting that and remembering that I could try again next year was important. It didn’t matter to me how long it took, my goal was to finish. Mentally preparing meant trying to be OK knowing things might not go right.
At the Tuscobia Winter Ultra in December 2019, my friend James said that riding with somebody is tricky if you have different paces. That was some foreshadowing, because Brenda, my Arrowhead partner, and I don’t ride together regularly since she moved to Arizona a year ago. It was unknown if she or I would be the stronger rider, or if we would be evenly matched. It became apparent five miles in that I was riding stronger. I was in the lead and kept looking back to make sure Brenda was behind me. It was a little frustrating to not go the pace that felt good to me, but I couldn’t be mad at Brenda for not holding it.
In the past, Brenda’s always waited for me. I’ve been the slow one, and seeing what kind of pain she was in made me feel for her and how hard she was working. Pushing through ruts in the snow and fighting for rideable lines is really demanding if you haven’t had recent practice. You couldn’t relax, and if you did you might eat it. I felt guilty thinking that Brenda wasn’t going to make it. When we reached the [36 mile out] sign to Melgeorge’s, we calculated roughly what time of day our current pace would put us at the checkpoint. I remember thinking it was going to be difficult, because we would be riding longer at night than we’d anticipated.
Brenda dropped out at mile 53. I think it was the right decision for her, but it was a hard one to make. The remaining 20 miles to Melgeorge’s would have been really tough, especially since the trail got much hillier. You can’t carry any speed going down the hills in the dark, which makes going up them more challenging. Knowing the amount of work and worry Brenda had put into her race preparations and accepting that we wouldn’t finish together was really hard. Yeah, it sucked.
I started riding bikes again as an adult in college to get around campus. In high school, I’d had an abusive ex-boyfriend, and we’d seen each other on and off into my freshman year of college. When things finally ended I started riding my bike again, and during that summer at my parent’s house I rode around the trails from my childhood. My ex was sexually abusive, and I felt pretty worthless as a person. Riding made me feel strong, like I could go anywhere. I was my only limiter, and that felt really empowering.
In order to protect myself when I was being abused, I would just shut down. It was safer to not think about the things that were happening to my body. It’s a process called dissociation, and it’s a floaty feeling where you become disconnected from your body. Dissociating became unhealthy later on in life when I was trying to create close connections. But riding helped me feel like my body and my mind were one again. For a long time we were fighting against each other. Nowadays, being strong and counting on my body to do what I need it to do feels really cool.
After therapy sessions or out on a solo ride, processing the past trauma and triggers on my bike helps release the stress response cycle. Movement helps me to process the flight, flight or freeze response and move through the emotion. I spend a lot of my solo rides just thinking through stuff. But when you hold onto childhood traumas, you don’t necessarily always talk about those experiences. Riding and being open to talking about it really helps move traumas through to a place where they don’t hurt so much. I mean, they’re still there, they’re still a part of who I am, but it’s not as sensitive.
Summarizing my Arrowhead experience has been difficult. Finishing was a high point. Honestly, one of the best things I felt was the last section on the course. I felt strong; I was cruising. I had a system in my head for when I’d eat, and when I’d stand and stretch to shake my legs out a little bit. I’d calculated how many hours I had left based on my speed and rationed my date balls so I had enough until I finished. I had it all thought out, but then my computer died. So, I ended up guessing.
My feelings at the finish surprised me. I cried after climbing the last little hill to the line. I’d thought about that little hill and how I would’ve been so sad if I didn’t have the strength to ride up it. The tears just came out. I was happy to see everyone and a big weight of worry was lifted off me. I let go of all these thoughts like, I have Arrowhead coming up. I can’t get sick. I can’t hurt myself. I have to do all this training. Do I have all my gear ready? All these questions and worries ceased to exist. I actually finished it. It felt pretty amazing.
The Melgeorge’s checkpoint was another highlight of the race. The volunteers were kind and the grilled cheeses were the best, because I had been thinking about them for a long time. I ate one when I got in that night and another in the morning. Having some nice hot food was great.
Nobody talks about their bathroom experience at Arrowhead, at least not in the race reports I’ve read. I think it’s important! People just pee standing out on the trail; they should pee on the ridge of snow on the side! I was afraid I was just going to hit a rut wrong and fall into someone’s pee-snow. Early on in the race I was like, “Brenda we need to stop, I have to pee. I’ll let you know when I see a good tree!” But when I found one, I took one step off the trail and sunk up to my knee. So that’s when I peed out in the open in front of a bunch of people, but they were also peeing. It was like when you go camping and the normal rules of society go out the window.
I was really curious about the times it took riders to get between checkpoints. After Arrowhead, I calculated all the ride times for the race, so I could see how I stacked up against all the other bikers. At the beginning, Brenda and I were going slower than my calculated averages, but by the time I got to Melgeorge’s my pace had picked up. Then Melgeorge’s to Surly checkpoint was still a little faster. From Surly to the finish was my fastest leg, and I rode it the fourth fastest of all the riders! I think it had to do with resting overnight. Obviously weather, trail conditions are still variables too, but it gives me hope that I can be competitive next year.
As someone with low self-esteem and depression, it’s easy to think that I don’t matter, that people would be better off without me. Later in the race I found myself reflecting on what I was taking away from the ride, and the main thing was my community – a community who believed I could do something ambitious. I wouldn’t have fallen in love with racing if Brenda and the rest of my team hadn’t waited at the top of hills when we first started riding together. My friend Risa gave me a sleeping bag to use, and for Tuscobia, a bivvy as well. My friends Erin and Kadence wrote notes that I brought on the trail with me. It’s almost impossible to express what it meant to carry that love with me and to know people were rooting for me at home. A lot of folks talk about solitude on the trail and doing these long difficult events by themselves. I never felt alone.
Having a strong network of friends and being honest with people, instead of having to contain all my feelings, helps me be true to taking care of myself. Talking about mental health lets others know they can reach out to me if they’re feeling down or if they have suicidal thoughts. It’s not something that’s going to scare me. You can get through this. It was really nice and freeing when I learned that, and it helped me realize I’m not alone in these kinds of struggles.
To get more FTWs interested in racing, we need to keep sharing our experiences and be honest about what it’s actually like. Talking to people afterwards and seeing them express interest in the race made me feel good. Like, yes, you should do it! There’s nothing I like more than a competitive FTW field. It’s always a bummer when there’s not equity in the representation of people racing. At Arrowhead, when we were leaving Fortune Bay Casino, someone we passed just assumed that my husband had done the race. He corrected his mistake right away, but it’s not the first time that’s happened. He should’ve been able to tell – I was the one who had the thousand-yard stare!
Some of the other barriers that FTWs face really depend on who you are and what privileges you bring to racing. There are a lot of economic barriers – this shit’s expensive. Especially winter ultras, but that’s where sharing gear is helpful. Altogether, including a bike, you could easily spend over $5k on the Arrowhead, and that’s probably a conservative estimate. The race itself, getting there, gas, food, training inside. All these things add up.
My goal for this project was to show other FTW riders that they can do tough races. I didn’t attempt Arrowhead because I’m special; I was able to try it because my community is special. For any FTW who is new to racing: You have so much potential, even if you don’t believe it’s there. We must hold space for people in our communities to learn and grow. Mine has helped me through some really tough times, and maintaining mental health while racing is a delicate balance. Sometimes it’s going to hurt, and other times someone else can lift you up because they might be further along. It isn’t just about technical skills and being fast. You need your community. There are so many more facets to bike racing than who is standing on top of the podium.
I want to thank my husband Andy and recognize the support and love he gave me throughout this endeavor. He gladly crewed for me at races, drove me across the state and beyond, put up with my training schedule and lack of a cleaning schedule. I would also like to thank Ken and Jackie Krueger and all the race volunteers. Everything ran so smoothly, from the spaghetti dinner the night before race day to the hot chocolate at the finish line.
This project would not have been possible without Amanda being vulnerable about her experiences. I am humbled by your courage and appreciate our friendship. Thank you for entrusting me with your story. I also want to thank Rebecca Stillman, who assisted on the entire shoot at Arrowhead. Their positive outlook and willingness to be flexible was invaluable. Thank you to Kurt Stafki and Otso Cycles, Amanda’s bike sponsor. They generously lent me a Voytek fatbike so I could access remote locations on the trail and provided important support for the project. Additionally, I’m grateful for help planning navigation and selecting equipment from Mike Reimer at Salsa Cycles and Hansi Johnson. Finally, in no uncertain terms can I thank my friends Atsuko, Brenda, Erin, Kat, Ken, Patrick and Spencer enough for their help throughout this project. Thanks for being my community.