A year ago I made a half-hearted attempt at the Tuscobia winter ultra 160 mile version. There is saying in ultrarunning that you “can’t fake a hundred miler”. That is likely even more true for a 160 mile race at subzero temperatures. I won’t say I tried faking the 2016 version but I wasn’t as committed to finishing as I needed to be, which is obvious since I dropped at the turn around point (Park Falls, 80 miles).
Running the race this year I had more motivation. I wanted to finish the race I had DNF’d last year. I wanted to get the first step in the Order of Hrimthurs completed. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do something that seemed impossible. I had spent the last year telling myself I could have finished if I had just kept going at the turn around. I have been waiting for the chance to prove myself right, to prove that I had the physical and mental strength to finish what I started there.
My last post had some of the background of the race. Simply, it is out and back, from Rice Lake, Wisconsin to Park Falls and back. 80 miles, turn around, repeat. The time limit is 65 hours. Since the race takes place in the dead of winter, over long, remote distances, there is a list of gear required to aid the racer in an emergency situation, since help may be hours away.
§ –Zero (0) F degree or lower
§ (matches or lighter).
By rule, you have to start and finish with all of this gear. That means you have to carry it the whole way, in addition to any extra clothes, water, and food. The simplest and most common way to move this gear around is by pulling it in a sled.
The other critical rule is that there is no outside help. Other racers, race officials and volunteers can help you. You can stop in a business in town and buy something but you cannot accept help from friends, family, crew. Self-sufficiency is required.
I arrived in Rice Lake on Thursday afternoon and checked into my hotel to relax for a couple hours prior to attending gear check and a pre-race meeting. The meeting included photos of a case of frostbite one participant had the year before. If you don’t have to look at frostbite pictures, don’t.
This year I recognized many of the faces from last year as winter ultras are a very small subset of the very small set of ultrarunners in the world. I have to say that being around these familiar people is starting to feel very comfortable and welcoming. We all share a love for what we do and, probably most importantly, we share common experiences that often involve long periods of suffering but end in persevering. I like these people.
I slept decently but not great, even waking a few minutes before my alarm at 4 AM. I arrived at the start with time for a coffee, a bite to eat and few minutes to sit and think about what was about to happen. 6 AM came quickly and the 160 run was off.
The start temperature was around -15 F but I didn’t feel too bad. I just tried to settle into a comfortable pace for this first 4 mile stretch before turning onto the reportedly 75 mile long Tuscobia trail (though I believe it to be closer to 77 or 78 miles). By the time I was 2 miles in, potential disaster. I looked down and my red “blinkie” light was out. I turned it back on and checked the 2 on my back. Both out. 5 minutes later all were out again. Without these lights functioning I was terrified I would be disqualified due to safety concerns, since these are intended to help protect racers from being struck by a snowmobile. I was panicked. Luckily the race director was at the 4 mile mark guiding people onto the main trail. I discussed it with him and he was very understanding. He ended up bringing me a couple spare lights a few miles down the trail and I had no further need to worry about that issue.
|Herd of buffalo 8 miles in|
I rolled along at a good pace, stopping briefly at bar around 36 miles in for a plate of fries and a beer. The sun was just setting at this point and I began to try to mentally ready myself for it. Around 3 hours later I walked into the Ojibwa checkpoint, close to the same time I arrived last year. I spent an hour getting some warm food, changing socks and drying my shoes.
|This little lady followed 2 runners 22 miles to Ojibwa|
The next stretch is where I lost my will last year and it almost happened again. A couple hours in, I approached another racer who appeared to be staggering from one side of the trail to the other. I knew he was sleep walking so I caught up to him and told him I’d stay with him and talk to keep both of us awake. We spent the next 2 or 3 hours together, which turned out to be very helpful. I was wearing down so he went off ahead.
I really struggled the last couple of hours going into the turn-around at Park Falls. My feet were feeling sore and blistered. I was getting very sleepy like last year and I was wondering how it would even be possible for me to turn around and do what I had just done. About half an hour out, the 80 mile racers passed me coming from Park Falls since they start there on Saturday morning. While they gave me good words of encouragement, once they all passed, I felt crushed and started crying. I was filled with doubt and was mad at myself for even thinking I could possibly do this, being so bold as to start a blog and have people follow along online. But I reminded myself that the plan was to take a nap at the turn around. I would not make any final decision until I did that. I owed that to myself. I was arriving a couple hours later than last year, which was also discouraging but I still had plenty of time, if I had the will to use it.
Park Falls checkpoint is opposite of Ojibwa. Ojibwa is rustic, cold, and uncomfortable. It’s better than being outside, but not by much. Park Falls is too comfortable. It is way too easy to stop there and not leave again. Again, I had some hot food and got down on the ground for a nap. I gave myself an hour and a half and would then reassess my situation. It didn’t feel like I slept much but the time went by very quickly. As I was waking up I heard a couple other racers discussing leaving. I didn’t want to go but listening to them, I thought, “If they can go, I can go”. I could at least try to get back to Ojibwa and make another decision. So off I went again.
This next section was fairly uneventful. Night had set in again and almost passed again by the time I got to Ojibwa. I had had only one good hallucination the previous night, I thought I saw a giant snow owl on the trail and yelled at it to go but, of course, it wasn’t there. This second night, however, the visions were very common. Every shadow, tree branch, or light would appear to be something odd. Looking down most of the time, I would watch the footprints on the snow become faces which shifted and changed as I moved over them. I finally reached Ojibwa after about 13 hours, ate and took a brief 15 minute nap.
Leaving Ojibwa, I told myself there was only a couple hours until sunrise, which should help the sleepiness and mood. Also, I was on the home stretch, although this home stretch was 45 or so miles long. I hadn’t even thought about the fact that I had already gone further than I ever had before; around 120 miles. I kept putting my head down and taking step after step. I began saying, out loud to myself as I got into walking rhythm, “You just have to keep doing this one simple thing, over and over, until you get to the finish. It’s simple and it’s all you have to do.” I don’t know how many times I did this but I continued this mantra to the end.
I entered Birchwood just before sunset and would have to finish the final 15 or so miles in the dark. I watched for the trail mile markers to slowly count down but it felt like hours between some of them. The hallucinations stepped up even more at this point. Every shadow was a person or creature. I saw multi-limbed creatures silhouetted in the windows of the cabins I passed. Snow covered bushes at the side of the trail looked like piles of discarded furniture and boxes. A couple miles from the finish, I swore I saw a huge piece of toast (mascot-like with legs and arms) slow dancing with a man as they gazed across a moonlight field.
Finally, I saw the finish a couple hundred yards away. Unlike any visions you may have of crowds cheering you on as you finish an epic run, ultramarathons are typically anticlimactic to an epic degree. There was only one person standing by the finish line, my brother Matt, which was a bit of a surprise and I will forever appreciate it. I fell to my knees, sobbing a bit, at the finish line. It was finally over. 63 hours and 45 minutes. I had done it. I had redeemed last year’s failure. I had also continued on and finished even when I thought it would be impossible.
|Park Falls - Half way|
A week prior to the race, I happened to listen to a philosophy podcast on the sublime. Sublime is one of those words I see occasionally but never really got a grasp on the definition. From Merriam-Webster "tending to inspire awe usually because of elevated quality (as of beauty, nobility, or grandeur) or transcendent excellence". The discussion on the podcast was around what the sublime is and what inspires humans to seek it out. I immediately thought that running a 160 mile race in subzero temperatures may count as a sublime experience. An experience so grand, beautiful and difficult to describe that it invokes an overwhelming sense of awe. I believe the awe here isn’t in those outside observers, who though they may be impressed, do not have the physical and emotional experience of the event.
I suppose this begins to scratch the surface as to why people like me do these ridiculous things. The experience, sometimes joyful, sometimes miserable, but overall, so powerful and awing that there are no words to describe it, is one of reasons I continue to do this.
|These poor feet|