Running 135 Miles in the Dead of Winter

Have you heard of the Arrowhead 135? It's a human powered Ultra Marathon taking place in the coldest part of winter in the coldest city in the lower 48 states. With temps that get as cold as -40F, the Arrowhead 135 boasts a finisher rate of less than 50%, with many entrants walking away frostbitten and exhausted to the bone. Sounds fun, eh?

It just so happens that one of founder Jeff's dearest friends and friend of the brand, Greg Pressler, recently found himself crossing the finish line of this insanely challenging event. We were happy to know Trail Butter played a role in his effort, as stated in the recap below, "Trail Butter got me out of more than a few jams out there." 

Enjoy reading Pressler's account of his time on the Arrowhead 135 course and much more - we will forever be in awe of this unimaginable accomplishment.

The day I was born was a very cold day. My dad said he couldn't get the old Pontiac started, so they had to borrow the neighbor's car to get my mom to the hospital. Maybe before we move forward, through life or through a running event, we have to look to the past and ask ourselves if the lessons of our youth can be recalled when the walls get high. In other words, would the conditions I endured in the first day of my life have any bearing on what might be my last?

But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. Flipping the story on its head, I'll spoil the ending: I finished the damn 2023 Arrowhead 135 ultramarathon. It was neither fast nor pretty, but was just that: A finish. Harboring no illusions of a win, or a top-10, or even a top-20 placing, I looked for any legal and ethical advantage in getting to the finish line (but I draw the line at growing a beard).

I repeated one mantra in the weeks and days leading up to the start: NO QUIT. I wrote those six characters in huge letters on a poster board hung on my hotel room wall, and repeated them at every opportunity once the race began. No quit. No quit. No quit.

The temperatures…yeah, brutally cold, even for this race. -21 F at the start, for example, warmer at some points, much colder at others. I moved through the day, then night, then day again fairly well, though not without struggles of various sorts. My sled felt heavy, the short but insanely steep hills dogging me. I couldn’t drink enough (or was too cold to bother stopping to retrieve water from my sled). My fingers and feet and face were ravaged by the frozen fire felt when extreme cold ends, sensation and blood circulation cease, and gangrenous decay begins. I was hungry and tired. My feet began to feel like useless stubs at the ends of my legs, attached by cold sinews buried deep under layers of expensive clothing,

The yoke of No Quit hung heavy around my neck, but it was the only yoke I had. Checkpoints offered a seductive way to end the misery, with promises of a speedy, warm transport back to a shower and shave. The little voices whispering to me on wafts of the frigid northern wind said, “It’s o.k. to end it now. Go home. Stop the madness. Go home.”

When the voices start to get louder, we face a (often maddening) choice of submission or resistance. We can accept the discomfort, swallow our pride, and submit to the forces of nature and man, choosing comfort over self-inflicted struggle. The other path, of course, requires a much harsher internal dialogue of tough love. With experience, I’ve found this path to be ultimately more challenging, yet infinitely more fulfilling.

Somewhere around 105 miles into the journey, sleep deprived-fueled visions began to cloud my perspective. Cartoonish figures competed for my attention, mocked me, pointed. I ignored them as best I could, but their endless presence became too great. I yelled at one, an old man in a sailor’s cap, “You are not real! Leave me in peace!” They were deaf to my pleas.

At our third checkpoint–mile 110–I took serious stock of my mental and physical state. With enough fluids to last me to the finish, I took off with purpose, though my energy soon began to flag. With 20 miles remaining, the darkness, cold, solitude, and misery intensified into a swirling mélange of despair. I became so cold at one point that even a break inside my super warm sleeping bag failed to hold any appeal. The only move I thought I could execute was to build a small fire for warmth and hope for the best. As I gathered bits of dry twigs and dug into my sled bag for my lighter, my hands finally felt the folly of my choice. I stared at the ten fingers in my liner gloves and wondered about the long-term consequences my No Quit mantra might hold.

Trying to spark my lighter became silliness in action. Without pre-warming, basic lighters won’t produce a flame in extremely cold temperatures. I figured 10-20 seconds was all the time I could afford without my big outer mittens, and vowed to continue my death march if fire wasn’t a possibility.

"Trail Butter got me out of more than a few jams out there." 

Dead men walk the earth and don’t know they are amongst the living. Moving as dust through the blowing wind, they don’t feel the pain of mortal men. They move, buried beneath the ground walking above it, moving. Moving.

I continued, dead on my feet. Solo visitors standing in the marshy spruce groves multiplied, now forming as groups of tourists in an art gallery or a theater lobby. The only heat I could manufacture was in my head, drawn from memories of a happy, warm cabin alongside a roaring fireplace.

As the light came to the morning sky, I was finally able to accept the inevitability of a finish, though it was far (8 miles) from guaranteed. Battered and beaten by the effort, I was a tired, metronomic robot, devoid of feeling and caring.

Still, I retained the memory of my simple mantra. Why had I manufactured it in the first place? How simple I had been to assume six letters would be enough to get me through the entirety of one of the toughest foot races on earth.

“Be so tough that you can overcome your mistakes,” said my friend after the race. I had witnessed this in action many times over the years, usually from the same band of athletes. The ones who regularly, consistently, stepped up to the challenge of difficult conditions and finished the task at hand.

When I finally crossed the finish line, there were no tears, little laughter, and a small smile. But under my stoicism and sense of relief, I felt a profound measure of satisfaction. I thought I was finished. I thought I didn’t have the strength, speed, stamina, youth, or vigor to finish. I thought the words I wrote on that wall were just a placeholder and maybe some sort of silly talisman I could hang onto. But “thought will fuck you up,” said Minnesotan Bob Dylan.

I didn’t need to think. I needed to trust in myself and my preparation and experience. I needed to persevere and never stop. I needed “No Quit” more than I could have ever imagined.

I’m far beyond the days when I measured my self-worth in race finish places and times, eons beyond when I hid my insecurities under the disguise of developed quadriceps or abdominals. Yes, I am still disappointed when race day plans go awry or when I know I’ve given less than my best effort. Today, it’s more about sharing that message of perseverance.

What remains when we are done with these challenges? The Buddhist says that the “no-longer happening” gives us a memory holograph that changes with each time we remember. We have photos, perhaps. Feelings, mostly of confidence, accomplishment, consciousness. Some would say when the challenge is complete, there is nothing; only ashes lying at the bottom of cold, burnt charcoal. And, that we must plan, look forward, and try to accomplish again. That we must, in essence, rise from those ashes. The cycle of rebirth, one ultramarathon at a time.

There are prices to pay. Time, money, discomfort. Frostbitten finger and nose tips, swollen ankles, injured knees. Strained relationships, misunderstandings, accusations. But the prices are not without grand scale payouts: Belonging, joy, effort for the sake of effort. Love and wonder. Discovery.

In the woods of a dark, cold northern winter, we flashed like little frozen fireflies, blinking safety lights contrasting sharply with the moonlit alabaster snow and the inky darkness. We paid prices that if totaled, would shock the casual person on the street. With mantras like “keep moving,” “don’t give up,” and “No Quit” in our back pockets, we endured in conditions so harsh, spending days in an environment where no talking head weather person would dare set foot for more than a few minutes. We found love, joy, belonging, and much more.

Much credit has to be given to the folks that supported my journey, and the products I used that saved my ass. Trail Butter got me out of more than a few jams out there.

It was a cold day when my father told me I must go and find my own truth. A Saturday. The day I was born. It was cold. And I survived. 

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