Park Falls to Ojibwa Checkpoint (34 Miles, 7h 15m):
At the 10:00 a.m. start of the 80 mile race in Park Falls, Wisconsin the air temperature was about -3°F with gusting head wind from the north-west. Along with 80 other crazy runners, fat-bikers and a few skiers, we set off towards our distant goal: the town of Rice Lake some 80 miles away at the far end of the Tuscobia State Trail.
As one can see from the above temperature plots (top is from Saturday, bottom is from Sunday) the air temperature didn’t get warmer than about 3°F for the entire race!
I started out near the back, letting the fat-bikers race slowly away into the wind. The first half mile was still on the city streets that had very little ice/snow so it was very difficult to move very quickly pulling a 40 lb sled. Why was I pulling a sled? Well Winter Ultras are designed to be mostly self-supported with only the occasional checkpoint with which to resupply water or pick up a drop bag of gear or food. The Tuscobia Winter Ultras were no exception as the 80 mile race only had one check point to resupply at mile 34. So I had to pack enough aid and extra layers of winter gear to get me to mile 34 and beyond. In addition every Winter Ultra has mandatory gear requirements. For this race the gear I had to have with me at all times were:
- Sleeping bag rated to 0°F degrees or lower.
- Bivy sack
- Sleeping pad
- Stove (to melt snow for water)
- Fuel (for the stove)
- Pot (to melt snow in)
- 3 individual flashing red LED lights
- At least 20 square inches of reflective material front and back
- 3000 calories
Here’s a photo of my mandatory gear at the required gear check. You had to pass the gear check to get your race bib.
The reason for the mandatory gear is if I got into trouble and had to bivouac until I could be rescued I had to be able to stay warm, hydrated and fed for at least 24 hours. So with all this mandatory gear, extra winter layers (base layers, sweaters, jackets, mittens, gloves, etc…), extra gear (trekking poles, yak-trax, spare batteries, tools and repair equipment) plus basically all the calories I’d need for 80 self-supported the weight really adds up! So, while there were a couple of folks who managed to cram all this stuff into a large back pack and hike, the preferred method of hauling all this gear is in a toboggan or sled that’s called a “pulk” to use the correct vernacular.
The above photos show what my pulk looked like. It started out as a 9’ long Black River toboggan that I scored on e-bay for quite a bargain. I then originally shortened it quite a bit to about 5’ long (top picture). However, I big consideration for me was that I wanted a pulk that I could easily fly with to a race. So it had to fit into maximum legal check baggage and not be oversize! I thought I’d be able to simply roll up this pulk as that’s how it arrived at my door, rolled up into a large bundle. But this was not easy to roll, the thick HDPE material simply wouldn’t rollup that well. So I had to cut it short again, now to about a 3’ length, basically to just behind the second wood cross piece from the left on the upper photo. The bottom photo is a terrible photo of my pulk, but it’s the only one I have with it fully loaded. Essentially I just strapped a 3’ duffle bag to the top of the pulk and away I went! To pull the pulk the sled had two strong 4mm kernmantle running lines that attach to a special harness that attaches to my waist around my outer clothing layers.
So, back to the race. Luckily we were all soon off the paved road and onto the beginning of the Tuscobia State Trail. Now, with the pulk being pulled on the ice and snow there was far less friction and I could begin to actually run (sort of). The pulk still has a lot of mass so it was difficult to run much faster than about 5 mph. The other thing winter endurance racers have to be wary of is overheating and sweating. If you sweat too much you get soaked under all your layers and then you get cold. If you get cold it can be very difficult to warm up unless you change base layers. So it’s always a fine balance of trying to move efficiently down the trail and not sweating. So that takes adjusting effort, the number of insulating layers you’re wearing or venting what layers you are wearing (unzipping jackets and sweaters or the side zips on my outer pants).
Just a few miles down the trail I finally started to warm up and feel pretty good. At least good enough to get out the GoPro and snap a few pictures. Five or six miles in I caught up with Joe Osterberg, a young guy from not far away. I believe this was his first winter ultra. Anyhow, we passed the next several miles talking about other races we’d done or were planning to do. We also had the chance to ride our pulks down a steep hill! While the Tuscobia State Trail is by and large almost perfectly flat, it is an old rail road alignment so there are places where there used to be a trestle across a river or stream that now was gone. So that meant a short and steep downhill to the water crossing (always on a small bridge) and then short and steep climb back up the other side. Unfortunately there weren’t near enough of these “Dips” during the race, or when they occurred in more abundance, near the end of the race, I was a lot more hesitant to ride my pulk down them!
Soon Joe pulled away a bit before we passed through the village of Draper. So from about mile 15 on I would be going solo, only passing a few of the super crazy runners doing the 160 mile version of the race. Yes, they had started about 28 hours before the 80 mile race in Rice Lake and were trekking to Park Falls AND BACK! So by the time we’d started our race, a handful of the 160 mile foot racers had already passed through Park Falls and were on their way back to Rice Lake! I managed to catch a few fairly early on. But after Draper the only other athletes I’d see were the fat-bikers passing me by that were doing the 160 mile race (they’d started at 6:00 a.m. the same morning as the 80 mile race).
Around mile 29 I passed through the small town of Winter. The shadows were getting really long now and it wasn’t long until sunset so I took the opportunity to snap a few pictures. The downside of winter ultras was that you have very little daylight to work with, especially with a 10:00 a.m. start time. So the Tuscobia Winter Ultra 80 mile would be mostly run in the dark for me! But I love running at night and relished the experience on the Tuscobia State Trail! So as you can tell from the photos, I was very much alone on the trail. There would be the occasional snowmobiler zipping by at 50+ m.p.h. but other than that it was very quiet out there. Just the sound of my own breath and the pulk dragging along behind me. A little after six and a half hours in the sun finally set and I was forced to start using my headlamp. Fortunately I knew there was going to be a relatively full moon that night so I’d have some additional ambient light to work with.
Finally, after about 7h and 15m I arrived at the only resupply spot for the race at a small stone building near the town of Ojibwa. I parked my pulk outside, grabbed what I needed out of it and went inside. There was a roaring fire going and it was very comfortable! Too comfortable! I knew it would be a mistake to stay too long, but I needed some time to dry out my balaclava, gloves, mittens and outer jacket. So I carefully placed my wet items on a cargo net near the fire and attended to my other needs; scarfing down a couple grilled cheese sandwiches and refilling 3 ½ liters worth of Hydro Flasks with Sword electrolyte drink. After eating and drinking my fill, I changed out my base wool layer for a bit heavier wool layer for the coming, expectedly cold, night ahead. I then stood next to fire to let my pants dry out a bit as well; steam was quickly billowing off my legs! After a few more minutes I gathered my now mostly dry items, put them back on and was out the door. Somehow I’d still managed to blow almost an hour at this check point!
Ojibwa Checkpoint to Rice Lake (47.8 Miles, 13h 34m)
Back on the trail I started out with an additional synthetic down sweater layer as I knew I would be cold for a bit. This ended up being foolish because not even a mile down the trail I had to stop and remove the layer! Whoops! Which reminds me that I haven’t explained what I’d been wearing to survive the sub zero temperatures.
My base layer consisted of a light-weight Patagonia wool long sleeve and Patagonia ox-wool pants.
I wore a Patagonia Nano-Air Hoody jacket at all times. This is probably the most versatile jacket I’ve ever worn! Plenty warm but regulates and wicks moisture very effectively. Amazing jacket designed for just this type of highly active, extremely cold weather, activity.
I also wore an additional pair of wind proof pants that had double zippers on each leg which allowed easy on/off as well as the ability to partially unzip the sides for venting (something I did quite a bit).
On my hands I wore a pair of Craft liner gloves at all times (never expose your bare fingers to this kind of cold!), and over the top of these gloves I wore a pair of heavy, dual-layer, expedition weight OR mittens. They had a tough, wind/water proof outer shell and fleece inner mitten that was removable. Most of the time I wore all three layers, it was that cold! To do any activity requiring my hands, the OR mittens had a nice feature making it easy to loosen the extended cuff of the mitten to remove the entire mitten as well as a synch cord to tighten the cuff back up once you put them back on. Easy and intuitive!
On my feet I used a prototype version of the Skechers Performance All Weather GoTrail2 mid-top boot. These lightweight boots had a 3 layer system that did a pretty good job of blocking the wind while still being able to wick moisture away from your feet.
I wore two pairs of socks, a microfleece, wind stopper sock and a conventional thick wool sock over that. The prototype boots I had are about a size larger than what I normally wear so I had plenty of room for the thick layers of socks. This is important because you don’t want to constrain your feet in a shoe or boot in the cold as this can reduce blood circulation and lead to a whole host of problems including frost bite!
On my head I wore a Patagonia fleece balaclava and over that, I would (depending on how warm/cold I was) don the hood from the jacket and put on the Patagonia fleece bomber hat I had (has fold down fleece panels that cover your ears).
Elsewhere in my pulk I carried spare liner gloves, fleece mittens, wool socks and additional base and insulating layers and wind shells. For true emergencies I also carried a heavy Patagonia down jacket that would come in handy later on…
Back to the story. I ran alone, again, leaving Ojibwa. I didn’t realize it at the time but I believe some of the other 80 mile foot racers were in there at the same time as me. A couple I believe left not long after I arrived and one would leave not long after me. At any rate, I didn’t see anybody on the trail. Behind me I could see, in the distance, the lights of other racers who were still approaching the check point. Intuition said they’d blow as much time at the checkpoint as me so, more than likely, I’d not see any other foot racer again other than whoever had been at the check point around the time I was.
On the other side of Ojibwa proper (around mile 38), the Tuscobia State Trail joins an old right of way, a wide snow covered road, with several residences or structures splitting off from it. It’s just another long straightaway for a couple miles before leaving the road and going back to the more comfortable, narrow, alignment. Anyhow, not much further down the trail I came to a confusing intersection. I’ll admit, I did not have my bright headlamp on but was navigating by moon light. Huge mistake! Ahead a saw a reflective arrow pointing to the right onto what I now know is Herte Lane. So I, stupidly, turned to the right and followed the road. After all, I’d just followed an old right of way so it would seem perfectly reasonable to have to follow another? Wrong! I should have known, the road quickly turned to a black ice rink, very sketchy footing. I took it slow and kept going until I emerged into a proper neighborhood bordering State Highway 27. Now I knew something was wrong. I approached the highway hoping to see some course markers as the course does cross the occasional highway. Nope. Nothing. Damn! So I turned around and walked through the neighborhood. Now I took a serious gamble. Rather than completely retrace my steps I decided to head almost due south on this other road, Endicott Road, I knew now that the Tuscobia State Trail had to be to the south of me as it clearly did not cross the highway around here otherwise I’d have seen the trail on the other side of the highway. As luck would have it as I headed south about another mile I saw a couple of snowmobilers traveling from west to east in front of me. That had to be the trail! It was! So rather than an easy ¼ mile section of the Tuscobia State Trail, I took a nearly two mile detour on a super icy road and blew even more time!
Just as soon as I turned back onto the proper trail I spotted a headlamp behind me. It was to be Joe Lang, another guy I’d seen near the start of the race and who was at the check point the same time as me. He quickly caught up and I told him about my scenic route detour. We talked for a while as we approached and passed through the town of Radisson but then he sped up and was soon out of sight.
Up until now, since the sun had set, there had been virtually no wind at all. So even though the air temperature was dropping, without the wind-chill it really didn’t feel any colder than it had been during the day. Well that was about to change.
Just before the small town of Couderay (the brother of Corduroy ;) ), and heading north-west, the wind returned. Not super strong but gusting enough that my face and nose was really starting to freeze; they burned! My balaclava was completely iced through and virtually ineffective. I was extremely worried. So I stopped and dug through my pulk to find a spare fleece mitten that I stuffed between the icy balaclava and my nose. This seemed to do the trick for a short while but then I came to the conclusion that I had to replace the entire balaclava as it was really an iced over mess and my eyes were still getting cold. So I stopped again just a couple miles later and methodically put on the heavy down jacket then found my back-up balaclava and another fleece mitten. I then quickly removed the iced over balaclava, stowed it away in the pulk and put on the new one. Unfortunately it was way too big for me but by adding a couple mittens between the balaclava and my face seemed to do the trick. Did I mention that the wind-chill now was easily -20°F with the frequent wind gusts? So I had to work quickly but I was still getting cold not moving. So, with the down jacket still on, I raced up the trail; running to generate heat. Soon I was warm again for the most part. My face was thawing out so that was good, but now my feet started to feel really cold. Damn!
It was really cold now and the wind was gusting frequently in my face or slightly off to the side. I was in trouble. I knew I had to do something with my feet but what? I’d get super cold when I stopped and then anything feet related would involve having to take my shoes and possibly socks off! Madness! So I came up with a plan as I kept trying to run down the trail methodically flexing my toes constantly. I had some chemical warmers in my pants pocket which was good. I somehow had to get some of the warmers into my socks and next to my toes. Not so easy. But I had a plan. For the next five minutes I ran as hard as I could down the trail getting very warm in the process (except, sadly for my feet). At the end of five minutes I quickly stopped, removed my pulk harness and donned my heavy down jacket. I then sat down on my pulk and removed my outer mittens. Then I removed the snow gaiters I had around my shoes, quickly untied my shoes while making sure to really loosen the laces to make them easier to put back on. I then stripped off the outer wool sock, placed a chemical warmer inside it at the toe and put the sock back on and carefully maneuvered the chemical warmer to be over my toes. I then put the shoe back on, laced it up, put the gaiter back on and zipped my pants back over the top. I then repeated the process with the other foot. Near the end my hands were getting cold working only with liner gloves! At last I’d finished! I put the pulk harness back on and raced down the trail trying to generate some body heat!
Within a few minutes I could start to feel the heat on my toes, the circulation was returning and my poor fingers began to thaw out as well deep inside my heavy mittens. Ahhhh! Life was good again! But now I would have to battle the sleep monsters!
It was now the middle of the night and I still had over 20 miles to go. Up to now my energy had been good. I had a system. The vast majority of my calories on the trail came from consuming copious amounts of Sword (Ginger flavored). I supplemented with fig newtons and my own custom trail-mix: cashews, M&Ms, peanuts, raisons, miniature Reeces peanut butter cups, and mini Swedish Fish (yes, seriously). But now I was getting very sleepy and having a difficult time keeping my eyes open. Well, part of the problem was my eyelids were indeed trying to freeze shut! The moisture produced from breathing through my thick, custom balaclava kept building up on my eyelashes and developing stalactites and stalagmites. Every now and then the ice stalactites and stalagmites would bond together and force my eyelids shut! So I kept having to pull off my mitten and break off the ice with my hand! Crazy! But beyond that it was getting into the wee hours of the night and I clearly wasn’t getting enough calories in. So I kept stopping to drink more Sword out of the Hydro Flasks which, huge kudos to them, they never were much of a trouble to drink from; never froze enough that I couldn’t get into them for a drink. Quality gear and so much easier than the headache of dealing with a hydration bladder (although quite a bit heavier…). Anyhow, at one point I got so sleepy I was literally staggering back and forth on the trail and falling asleep on the trail (micro-sleep). It was very surreal. I couldn’t separate a weird dream state from awake state. It’s like my every thought would become visualized and believed to be true. Odd. Finally I’d had enough. I started running down the trail harder than ever (still probably very slow) and after a few running-walking-eating cycles I started to beat back the sleep monsters.
I didn’t mention it before, but there were mile markers just about every mile along the Tuscobia State Trail. I didn’t realize this fact until several hours into the race. The markers seemed to be counting down the mileage as well which was pretty neat except for the fact that the count-down was extremely slow! Anyhow, I could at least track how far I’d come and how far I still had to go. I was using my Garmin Fenix in UltraTrac mode (one GPS measurement every 60 seconds) which seemed to be doing a pretty good job of computing accurate mileage given the very long straights of the course and relatively slow velocity I was moving. You can see my final GPS track here: https://www.strava.com/activities/825266328
Somewhere in this long, lonely stretch of trail before the town of Birchwood, I suddenly came across a pair of very still, animal, silhouettes about 50’ off the trail. I came to a complete stop and stared. It was a pair of bull moose! Or was it?? After the “moose” remained absolutely still even as I started creeping forward and turned on my headlamp I knew I was being “had”. On looking a bit closer I finally realized the silhouettes were really, full scale, metal cutouts of bull moose just off a driveway leading to what had to be a residence or hunting lodge. Damn, sleep deprivation can do some funny things!
I kept on and eventually arrived on the outskirts of Birchwood with about 16 miles to the finish (12 more miles on the Tuscobia State Trail). As I was about to cross the highway, I noticed a truck parked next to the road with the flashers blinking and a voice called out to me. It was one of the race directors, Chris Scotch. He was out there checking on athletes who were still puttering along the course still. Was good to see another person after so much time alone. Even though I knew the gas station in Birchwood would closed, I asked Chris anyways if it would be open (a miracle or last minute change perhaps) but sadly it wasn’t! The gas station here has typically been utilized in the past as another place to pay to resupply and get a chance to get out of the cold for a short time. Not to be this time around, as I was passing through during the few hours it wouldn’t be open. Oh well! With thoughts of a promised free cup of coffee or cocoa spinning in my head I kept on trucking towards the finish!
Passing through the far side of Birchwood I could spot the downtown district just across the highway, the bank thermometer was showing -13°F (Chris had just confirmed the same temperature reading from his truck) and there was still a persistent light breeze with occasional stronger gust of wind. But I was keeping reasonably warm by now; just having a bit more difficulty getting into my Hydro Flask bottles to drink as the screw top lids were becoming progressively more frozen to the containers. Also, any spilled liquid on the side of the bottle instantly froze solid right before my eyes!
Not far past Birchwood the trail started to get a bit more rolling for a while. Basically several “dips” in the trail that steeply dropped downhill to cross some frozen over creek only to climb steeply back uphill on the other side. Some of the dips were a bit rougher than others with steep side slopes or sometimes even exposed rock due to lack of snow. In all cases I gingerly led my pulk downhill ahead of me. I’d tried a few times on some shallower dips to outrun my pulk on the downhill slope only to be overtaken by it and have my legs nearly swept out from under me! I took no more chances in this regard! This was also when the Tuscobia State Trail and Ice Age Trail link up for many miles almost until the end of the Tuscobia State Trail.
I now settled into a pattern of (had so now for many hours) of trying to run continuously until I passed by a trail mile marker. Then I’d walk for a few minutes (okay, probably more like a ¼ mile) or stop and drink/eat and then try and run the rest of the way until the next mile marker. Rinse, freeze and repeat! Problem was the mile markers weren’t always very reliable, especially if (I suspect) the mile marker came close to where the trail crossed a road, driveway, etc (which the trail did, a lot). So sometimes I found myself running for far longer than a mile, which was fine, it was manageable but I had to make sure I didn’t overheat nor go too long without eating or drinking.
The miles were getting tough now. Super long straightaways punctuated by a road crossing every mile or so. Some of the crossings were more rough than others, particularly passing through the heart of the town of Brill around mile 73; as had to follow a street and cross diagonally across an intersection completely bare of ice or snow so my sled really didn’t want to slid and it made such a horrible racket I thought it was going to wake the dead! Also seemed like the sun would never rise again. But eventually, on the last long stretch of the Tuscobia State Trail the sky began to lighten up just a bit and the wind seemed to finally die. I swear, way off in the distance I could see a light on the trail but I couldn’t be sure. I figured it had to be Joe Lang but there was no way I could catch him now with so few miles to go, especially as it was extremely difficult to tell how far ahead he was.
At last I reached the end of the Tuscobia State Trail! I crossed the highway and made the turn to the south on the Wild River trail that would lead me straight to the finish in just four more miles! I let out a loud yell of elation! I’d made it end-to-end on the Tuscobia State Trail and arrived in the tiny village community that is the namesake of the trail. The sky began to turn yellow, orange and red; the sun’s waking rays piercing the low clouds along the horizon and I was trekking down the trail enjoying the light show! Amazingly beautiful!
Not much more to say. I continued to plod along the Wild River trail and eventually started seeing more houses and the outskirts of Rice Lake. Then I passed by the city limit sign and at that point I could definitely see Joe ahead of me; but too far to catch as right about when I figured out there was indeed another foot-racer ahead of me I saw him turn right off the trail; a sure sign that he was cross the finish! Just a handful of minutes later I too crossed the finish line to literally no fanfare. It was just me and the finish banner! Ha! Very appropriate for a solo, self-supported, survivalist type of race! Truth was it was too cold for anybody to want to linger outside for very long! I don’t blame them. As soon as I stopped I too scurried inside the warm building to tell them I’d finished. Turns out I'd finished 6th overall (of 22 finishers, 41 starters) just six minutes behind Joe. Interestingly I was also only 24 minutes out of 3rd and 38 minutes out of 2nd, first place was Joe Osterberg (who I'd run with very early in the race) who finished in 19:46. So my little detour *might* have cost me a top three finish? We'll never know. I don't really care, all I wanted was to finish with all my digits intact!
|Photo by Helen Scotch|
What an amazing experience that was! Finishing this race was a redemption on multiple levels!
First, I could finally add Wisconsin to my list of states I’d finished a marathon or longer in! Back in 2005, my wife Kathy and I (along with her brother Scott) traveled to La Grange, Wisconsin to compete in the Ice Age 50s (Kathy the 50km and Scott and I the 50 miler). A mere mile into the race my quadricep seized up rock hard; I could not bend my leg! So I limped back to the start, humiliated and dropped out. Turns out I’d slightly turn my quadricep muscle in the previous week while training. I didn’t realize it at the time, thought it was just a bad muscle cramp.
Second, and more importantly, I’d finally finished a winter ultra after three attempts! In 2003, my wife Kathy and I travelled to Alaska to attempt the Susitna 100 miler out of Big Lake. Unfortunately we’d brought the warm weather with us. The race was almost canceled because of unseasonably warm (above freezing) temperatures meant most of the course was inaccessible because the reliably frozen over Susitna River was not frozen over! So the route was modified to a series of long out and backs on mostly chewed up snowmobile trails (although parts of the route still passed across some gorgeous frozen lakes and swamps). After 40 miles worth of the course we decided to drop out as we weren’t having any fun. We’d come here for the full wilderness experience and this wasn’t it. I’m confident we could’ve finished the 100 miler but we just didn’t have our heart in it.
Then in 2013, we both traveled up to International Falls, Minnesota to attempt the Arrowhead 135. Once again we’d brought the warm southern air with us. Race day the temperature soared to above freezing and the trail became a sludgy mess that was very difficult to pull a pulk through; so much friction! So by about 50km in we were both struggling. And as we went in as a team we would pull the plug as a team at the first checkpoint at mile 35. As night fell and we waited inside the Gateway Store for a ride back to the start (licking our wounds) all of a sudden a thick, heavy wet snow began to fall while the temperature outside dropped to just below freezing. Bad conditions! In all it dumped nearly a foot of snow overnight which wreaked havoc on the racers still out on the course. Most had to be rescued off the trail by snowmobile, many of whom had to emergency bivouac on the trail because they’d been soaked through and couldn’t stay warm! In the end only a handful of veteran foot racers finished and in times many hours slower than they were normally capable of. Not a good year for rookies! So, in retrospect it was a good decision to stop as were ill equipped to deal with extremely wet conditions like that.
So what’s next? I’m definitely hooked on winter ultras now. It especially a real treat coming from the Deep South (Alabama) where we don’t near the extreme temperatures nor any snow to speak of (where even the hint of snow flurries is enough so shutdown the entire state!). It truly is, what I would consider, a post-graduate ultramarathon experience. In a similar vein as what some mountain 100 mile races bill themselves as such as the Hardrock 100 or the Barkley Marathons. In all cases being mentally strong, self-reliant, and self-sufficient are important traits to have. The other really awesome thing about winter ultras is you can have an entirely new experience every time you go not only because of wide ranging weather and trail conditions but also what discipline you choose to participate in for the event: foot, bike, or ski. I also fat-bike so would love to also experience this race from that perspective someday!
But for next year I’ll probably attempt, on foot, the 160 mile distance at Tuscobia or perhaps return for some redemption at the Arrowhead 135.
Total Time: 21h 47m for 81.8 miles, 15:59 min/mile average