More than a runner, Parker Rios is a survivalist.
A husband, father and human resources executive, he has no time or inclination to race the typical 10K or marathon. His pursuits are epic: early-morning training runs of eight hours, pulling a car tire with a rope, and races spanning 135 miles across the snow-covered wilderness of northern Minnesota.
Late last month, the 46-year-old from Brookfield won the run division of the Arrowhead 135, the annual race from International Falls to the Fortune Bay Casino in Tower.
Breaking through eight inches of fresh snow, he pulled a sled and 35 pounds of supplies for nearly 46 hours, fueled by four gallons of water, PowerAde, soup, granola bars, licorice and off-the-charts competitiveness.
Over the last 24 miles, uncertain of his lead, Rios checked over his shoulder every three or four minutes, scouring the darkness and frozen landscape for the head-lamp of a gaining pursuer.
"I was scared," Rios said. "I thought ‘after all this, I could lose this race, after breaking trail for 45 miles, after thinking I was lost.’ I couldn’t bear that thought and I ran hard.
"It seemed to never end, and I’m hoping and praying I could see the finish line and it didn’t come," he said. "I was hunched over. If you saw my silhouette you would have thought I was a 100-year-old man. Any time I had an ounce of energy, I was running rather than walking."
He stopped to gather himself 10 yards from the finish, pushed ahead, then collapsed on a volunteer, unable to move any more.
He won by five hours.
Rios first attempted the Arrowhead 135 in 2010, but dropped out after 73 miles, unprepared to pull his gear for nearly two days in the sub-zero cold near the Canadian border.
He finished second in 2012, and turned that disappointment into motivation.
Instead of pulling a car tire for six hours every Saturday morning from June to January, he trudged for eight. It worked, giving him the mental impetus to push on when he reached that pivotal cross-roads that all competitors reach, when they debate whether to quit or forge ahead.
His moment of crisis came just before dawn on the second day, 75 miles into the race. He encountered other competitors on bikes heading backward on the trail, declaring "this is impossible."
"My thought was that I was truly only going two miles per hour, and I needed to get to mile 111 for the next checkpoint," he said. "I’m thinking is this even worth it. Instead of walking 36 hours in one direction I could turn around and be back at the shelter in three hours. I wanted to quit, and it was no fun. But I had been getting up at 1 a.m. every Saturday morning for the last six months, and I didn’t do that to quit."
He was mentally tougher than most. Only seven of the 42 runners reached the finish line, in some of the toughest conditions in race history: sleet, snow, rain and temperatures that dropped from the 20s to near-zero by the end.
Even a race organizer noted, "That Parker Rios seemed a bit intense."
Rios found his passion for ultra running during law school at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He played the usual sports – basketball, football and golf at Shorewood High School – ran marathons as an undergrad, then moved on to races like the Ice Age Trail 50 and Kettle Moraine 100 in his early 20s.
"Before our first daughter, I ran with my trail friends every Saturday morning; 20 to 25 miles," he said. "I love ultra running, the people, the camaraderie. It’s an eclectic group that shares a similar passion.
"I love the fact that my body, through luck or training or good fortune, can go out on a trail for eight hours."
The Arrowhead 135 satisfies the survivalist mindset Rios developed climbing mountains, including McKinley and Ranier.
"If things can go wrong, they can really go wrong," he said. "Arrowhead is a different beast that takes a different mentality. I view it as a flat-level mountain expedition."
It’s a personal challenge, an outlet for his competitive drive. Even the victory left him less than wholly satisfied.
Rios had set out not just to win, but to set the course record of 37 hours, 16 minutes that Jason Buffington set in 2012.
"I’m excited. I’m proud. I’m thrilled. I’m happy," he said. "But there’s still a little nag in there regarding the wasted time. I could have had a faster time."
Rios is undecided about returning to Arrowhead in 2014. His victory in January earned him a free entry in the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska, scheduled within a couple weeks of the race in Minnesota.
Whatever he chooses, it’s a good bet he’ll be back pulling that tire.
Memories of running cross-country for the Slinger Owls motivated Tom Held to get his body moving again when he turned 30. Almost two decades later, he's still on the move. The 49-year-old bikes, runs and skis, and covers news for similarly active people as a freelance writer and blogger.
He spent 26 years as a daily news reporter, and applies that experience to dig out stories about athletes, races, endurance sports, fitness and self-propelled transportation. His work has appeared in Silent Sports Magazine, Wisconsin Trails and Cross-Country Skier.
Held lives in the Bay View neighborhood, where he counts being Dad to twin daughters part of his daily workout.