Monday, January 8, 2018

Cold Lessons

Minutes before the start


As I sat waiting to start Tuscobia for the second time in 2017, I began to worry that I had not been taking it seriously enough. Nearly 12 months ago I had run the Tuscobia 160 and it changed my life. It may have been the hardest thing I have ever done. 160 miles on foot in temperatures around -20 F. A year later I am still trying to comprehend how I did it but also why I did it. In order to complete one of these events, being physically and mental fit helps, but most importantly, there needs to be a reason that drives you to the finish. I knew I didn't have a good enough reason to get me through another 160 miles so I decided to "only" do the 80 mile version this time around. The worry I was experiencing prior to the start was the realization that even though I was doing much less this time, it was still going to be very, very hard.
The shorter version of Tuscobia begins the day after the full version, at the turn around point in Park Falls, Wisconsin. Starting at this time would allow me to see some of the course in the daylight that I had only traversed in the night each previous attempt. The morning was bright, clear and ridiculously cold. The starting temperature was around -15 F. This did not worry me too much since I used the exact same gear last year and I survived. However, I began to worry in the first couple of miles when my feet felt very cold. I then recalled that this happens every time and forgot about them. Sure enough, within the first hour my feet felt nice and warm.
The days leading up to the race I had not been feeling 100%. For several days I had been experiencing what could politely be called an intestinal issue. This is not ideal going into a 80 mile race where you are bundled up in many layers of clothing. Luckily, it never turned out to be a problem. I was able to eat and drink without ill effects.
The 35 miles to the only checkpoint on the course at Ojibwa were fairly easy. I was moving along consistently, occasionally leap frogging other runners, but mostly alone. I made a conscious effort to take in the scenery and enjoy my time outside. When the flags indicating the turn off for the checkpoint appeared, I was surprised I was there already. Everything was going well. I looked forward to taking a quick break to sit and warm up.
The check point was much warmer and more organized than in the past. I took a few minutes trying to thaw my face cover off my beard. The condensation from my breath had frozen into a solid block near my chin making it impossible to remove the cloth cover. I ate and refilled my water. I felt good and was eager to get back out on the trail and to not spend too much time here. One of the hardest part of Tuscobia is leaving the Ojibwa checkpoint. It was made even harder this year since there were so many people in the cabin that I knew from previous races. The winter ultra community is small and close.
Feeling good at Ojibwa
photo credit: John Taylor

I was in and out of the checkpoint in less than half an hour. Back out into the cold night, the difficult part would now begin. I left Ojibwa at 9 PM. The night was clear and brightly lit be the nearly full moon. The moonlight is made even brighter by reflecting off the snow covered landscape. It is bright enough to travel without turning on your headlamp. It is an experience that I often think about on a random day in July. I long to be in that place, out in the middle of a northern forest, on a cold, moonlit night, alone, with only what I can carry and pull on a sled, miles from anywhere. It produces an intense feeling of freedom and tranquility. There is only the moment. The outside world is so far away that none of it matters. For the hours or days that I'm out there, nothing else is of consequence. I can exist without distraction, focused only on the task in front of me.
I had 10 more hours of night to get through and 45 miles to the finish. It was not too long before my old friend, the Sleep Monster appeared. I had several cans of Starbucks shots I had warmed by the fire at the checkpoint. I opened the first shortly after leaving and discovered, not unexpectedly, that it was completely frozen. No caffeine for me. I walked on for a while before coming up with the brilliant idea to put a can under my arm to try to thaw it. I have learned that decision making in winter ultras can be slightly impaired and slow. After 20 minutes or so, I had sufficiently melted my frozen coffee and drank it down. Almost immediately I  felt awake and alert. This was short lived. Within an hour I was drifting from side to side and struggling to keep my eyes open. I repeated the thawing technique but this time I opened the can too soon and was only able to extract about half the contents. I struggled to keep moving.
The night dragged on and on. I desperately wanted to lay down but didn't want to make the effort to get my sleeping bag out, so I kept moving. I kept an eye out for promising places to bivy but would just move on when I spotted one. I knew I would feel much better when the sun came up so I needed to just move forward.
As dawn approached, I began to feel really cold for the first time. I tried moving faster but my mind and body were not agreeing. A bit of doubt and worry entered my mind at this point. I just kept moving as I had learned to do before.
I reached the town of Birchwood shortly after the sun rose. This is the last town before an approximately 17 mile stretch to the finish. I stopped at large gas station where several other runners were resting. I put down a breakfast burrito, a donut and hot cup of coffee. I wanted to stay but I also just wanted to be finished so I gathered myself and stepped back out into the cold morning.
This final 17 mile stretch was much more of a struggle than I expected. My legs were aching. My feet, which had been in very good shape, began to develop blisters. I calculated the time left to finish. 5 hours. 4 hours 3 hours. Each time I did, it felt unbearable to continue that much longer, yet I would just keep the feet moving. Time slows down. The pain becomes all consuming.
I finally reached the turn off the Tuscobia trail to the 4 mile straight stretch into Rice Lake and the finish. I passed the scene of the toast hallucination. All appeared different in the daylight. This stretch was long but not nearly as bad a last year. I rolled into the finish, ending a nearly 6 month drought of ultra finishes.
Finished!!!
photo credit: Scott Kummer

I shouldn't have been surprised with how I felt after finishing 80 miles because I felt nearly exactly as I did the previous 2 years. I couldn't imagine turning around and doing it again but that is what I did last year. It is a reminder that even when I feel like there is no way I can continue, I still have plenty left in the tank.
I stepped inside to warm up and decompress. After several pieces of pizza and some beer, I laid down to wait out the inevitable cramping that was setting in. Finishers would come inside and we all would clap. The race had taken quite a toll as the finish rate was one of the lowest across all the race versions.
After. Not as bad as last year. 

This was a good start to the new race season. I got the DNF monkey off my back, at least temporarily. Arrowhead is next, which is 55 miles longer, more remote and with many hills. My confidence was not improved by this latest outing but I always learn so I should be fine.

Tuscobia has become one of my favorite races to attend. I have gotten to know so many inspiring, positive people. Paul Schlagel, who completed the Hrimthurs last year, won the 160 Run. I was hearing about his progress throughout the day and was so happy for him. His wife, Julie, who had never run a race over a half marathon, finished the 80 mile on foot. I had trouble keeping up with here for the first 35 miles. Hrimthur Scott Kummer had to drop due to having a bad cold but still battled to get to Ojibwa. I passed Hrimthur Kari and Erik, who I finished Actif with last year, early in my race, as they were approaching Park Falls. Unfortunately they had to drop there but 80 miles in those conditions is nothing to discount. I was also given a boost by seeing  Hrimthur Randy and John Taylor at Ojibwa, where they were selflessly volunteering. Bridget Durocher, who I met during the Midwest Slam in 2016, was the only female to finish the 160. An amazing performance. All these folks and everyone else I encountered before, during and after the race inspire me so much. Each one has an amazing story and I'm honored to share the trail with every one of them. Finally, Chris and Helen Scotch, the race directors, put on a fantastic race. They genuinely care for every participant and do great work providing an unforgettable experience.
A small step on the way to completing my goals for this year is done. I've got some hard work ahead but it is all worth it.