Minnesota’s weirdly warm winter made one of the world’s toughest races even tougher, two top finishers say

A side by side of two people on a bike
Kate Coward (left) and Jill Martindale (right) both competed in the Arrowhead Ultra 135. Coward was the women's champion and Martindale took third.
Aaron Ehlers and courtesy photo

One-hundred-thirty-five miles on foot, bike or skis — and usually in below-zero temperatures. That’s the Arrowhead Ultra 135.

It has been called one of the 50 toughest races in the world. The official website for the marathon openly boasts that less than half of racers finish, a number that’s even lower for newcomers. Veteran Kate Coward has done nine races with 11 finished. Including once on foot while pregnant.

“I’m an achievement-oriented person, so I like having that sense of accomplishment that you did something really, really hard,” Coward said.

On Tuesday she became the 2024 women’s first-place finisher on bike, unsupported — meaning she wasn’t allowed into checkpoints for provided food or water. In normal year, racers who go unsupported often melt snow to drink and stay hydrated during the race. But this year was nothing like normal.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Because of unusual warmth during Minnesota’s winter this year, the race was especially difficult for different reasons. Jill Martindale is a friend of Coward and the 2024 women’s third place finisher. She has completed the race four times before and set the course record for women in 2017.

This year, the soft snow and general lack thereof led to a bumpier ride and caused many racers at the front of the marathon to effectively dig out a path for others.

“My palms hurt so bad. I think I’ve ruined my palms from how bumpy the course was,” Martindale said. “There wasn’t enough snow to smooth down all the frozen bumps in the fields.”

But despite the physical strain and challenges mentally, both said the accomplishment of finishing such an intense race with others, made it worthwhile.

“I think so much of it is have the mental mindset of it. With so much pushing, it gets really difficult,” Martindale said. “Having the mindset to overcome that is one of the things about the Arrowhead that I really enjoy.”

Coward is also glad she pushed through.

“There are feelings that you have out there that you can’t replicate in any other situation,” Coward said. “We’re a family.”