For Jeremy Kershaw, it was babies in trees. For Leah Gruhn, it was a farmer on a tractor.
In the wee hours of the night, many of the bikers, runners and skiers grinding along in the grueling Arrowhead 135 ultramarathon race from International Falls to Tower report hallucinating — or at least seeing things that aren’t there.
This year’s 12th annual Arrowhead 135 will run from Monday through Wednesday along the Arrowhead State Trail. The race starts in International Falls and finishes at Fortune Bay Casino near Tower. A total of 163 competitors have entered the event, according to the race website. Of those, 104 will ride fat bikes, 55 will run and four will ski.
Bikers always finish the race well ahead of runners and skiers. Last year, rookie Jorden Wakeley, 24, of Grayling, Mich., won a sprint to the finish on his fat bike, winning in exactly 15 hours, nipping Tim Berntsen of Alaska by a bike length. Todd McFadden of Duluth, the course record-holder, was fourth, just four seconds behind Wakeley. Tracey Petervary of Idaho was the top women’s finisher, in 18 hours, 27 minutes.
McFadden’s course record, 14 hours and 20 minutes, is still intact. At 51, he’ll be back in the race again this year.
Kershaw, 44, a registered nurse from Duluth, has finished the 135 twice on foot, once on skis and once on a bike.
He reported hallucinating with 7 miles to go in 2014, a cruelly cold year. He had run most of the race but was walking at the time.
“It was about 3 a.m.,” Kershaw said. “All the snow on the black spruces became people — all ages of people in my life. Every time I looked in the woods, it looked like people getting up, like those animated Christmas people you see in stores.”
He decided to quit looking in the woods and went on to get an adrenaline rush that carried him through the remaining miles. He’s one of just a handful of entrants who has completed the race in all three disciplines — biking, running and skiing.
Gruhn, a geologist with Barr Engineering in Duluth, finished third among women on bikes in last year’s race. She has finished the race on a bike in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
Her first year in the race, she saw a few things that weren’t there.
“It’s like your brain isn’t quite processing quickly enough,” Gruhn said. “I looked off to the side and saw a guy on a tractor. Then I saw he was only wearing a T-shirt. I got closer and thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. It’s a downed tree.’ ”
Despite those challenges and others, both Kershaw and Gruhn will be back to compete in the race again this year, both on bikes.
The average finishing rate among participants in the 135 is less than 50 percent, according to race organizers, and the finishing rate for first-time racers is much lower.
The Arrowhead 135 is recognized in the book “The World’s Toughest Endurance Challenges” as one of the 50 toughest races in the world. Several Duluth and Northeastern Minnesota residents are among this year’s entrants.
“Physical conditioning is a big part of it, but I still consider the mental aspect, the mental fortitude, to be more important. You go through so many highs and lows,” said Kershaw, who puts on the annual Heck of the North 100- and 50-mile gravel bike races in October and will add the 100- and 50-mile Le Grand du Nord gravel bike race in Grand Marais this spring.
His best time biking the race is 24 hours, while his best running time is 47 hours.
The race has just three checkpoints — at 35 miles, 70 miles and about 111 miles.
One year, Kershaw fell asleep walking in the race. One competitor had a flat on his bike that took him an hour to change in the cold, Gruhn said.
Competitors leading the race often have tougher conditions than those who follow, she said.
“(Todd) McFadden and those guys up front are breaking trail,” she said. “By the time I get there, 30 people have been through.”
She appreciates the community of racers who take on the 135.
“It’s like the same people, year after year,” Gruhn said. “The quirky characters. That’s what I’m excited about. It’s nice to go back year after year and learn from other racers.”
This race is a warm-up — if that term applies — for Gruhn, who plans to compete on a bike in the Iditarod Trail Invitational’s 350-mile bike, run and ski race in Alaska starting Feb. 28.
This year’s Arrowhead 135 ultramarathon race will begin at 7 a.m. Monday in International Falls, and finish at Fortune Bay Casino near Tower.
More than 150 athletes — runners, skiers and bikers — from five countries are entered. The cutoff time for finishers is 60 hours — 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Athletes must meet minimum qualifications — completion of another long-distance race — to gain entry to the Arrowhead 135.
Competitors must carry a mandatory set of survival gear in addition to whatever other gear they need to complete the race. Bikers pack gear on their bikes; skiers pull sleds; runners either push or pull a sled.
The forecast for International Falls on Monday calls for a chance of light snow and highs in the 20s above zero. Two years ago, temperatures at the race start were about 30 below zero.
Find more information about the race at arrowheadultra.com.