Race Day: January 3, 2015 – 7am

“This is fun to me.”

After Wild Duluth 50k, I was pretty amped up on long running races and the whole ultramarathon scene. Tony, General Manager at Duluth Running Co., planted the seed in my mind after talking about this Tuscobia race in the middle of winter. The Tuscobia Winter Ultra takes in Park Falls, Wisconsin on the Tuscobia State Trail, which is a 75-mile snowmobile/multi-use trail. There are three distances: 35, 75, or 150 miles; and three modes of transportation that athletes can choose from: ski, bike, or on foot. The entire race is billed as “self-supported,” meaning no aid stations. If you have a leak in your water container, tough luck. If you forget to carry food, you’ll be hungry.

The more I did research, the more I became really excited to register. It would be fun to really embrace winter and get an idea what the whole winter racing thing is all about. The Arrowhead 135 is the big one, and Tuscobia would the perfect precursor to someday putting Arrowhead on my race resume. I registered for the 35-mile foot race in October.

Training didn’t really change from Wild Duluth. I kept my mileage up by trying to run daily and throw in a few 2, 3 and 4 hour runs in the mix. I had a pretty big setback in training while in Mexico over Christmas with the fam. I was nervous that my training would suffer in the crucial training time frame 2-3 weeks out, during which I would ideally have a really big mileage week and then taper off. In Mexico, I definitely didn’t put in big mileage with the exception of one 1:40 run, but the big setback was a separated AC joint in my shoulder after a bodysurfing accident. The AC joint is comprised of the clavicle, scapula (shoulder blade), and a ligament that holds it all together. I tore that ligament and will have a lifelong physical deformity where my clavicle is unattached and sticks up on the top of my shoulder.

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It was pretty painful while we were still in Mexico and traveling, and my running definitely suffered in the days after the ocean wave bashed me. That was just bad decision making on my part… I questioned whether I would be able to race, but the only thing I could do was to run as much as I could without pain and let it ride. Luckily, after a week, it felt much better and I was running pretty much pain-free, although putting on a shirt or backpack was terribly uncomfortable, which could be a major factor in an unsupported race where I need to carry supplies with me and in the winter where layering is key.

Race week brought nerves. I could only think of the different combinations of food, water, and clothes that I needed to carry. What if it’s below zero at the start? What if my food freezes? How much water will be enough? I split a lodge with Tony about 30 minutes out from the race HQ. His race (150 mile bike… crazy!!) started 25 hours before mine, so he was there on Thursday night and I drove down on Friday. The lodge was sweet, Tony left beer in the fridge and it was the perfect venue to calm down, visualize and prepare for the race the next morning.

My alarm went off at 4:10am and I was up and at ’em. I ate some Frosted Flakes and started sipping my pre-race good luck beverage, Mt. Dew. I loaded up my vehicle and made sure my pack was stocked up and ready to go, which it definitely was from the night before when I meticulously double checked the gear.

I arrived at the HQ at about 5am and checked in. I got lucky number 286 and boarded the bus that shipped us 35 miles out to the start in a small town called Ojibwe, WI. The bus ride was not fun. I had to pee, I was cold but my back felt sweaty and I desperately wanted to get running.

About an hour later, we got to the start. Everyone huddled into a brick shelter and the race director Helen went over some last minute details. Finally, we were herded to the start line where all of the 35-mile runners, bikers and skiers started together. The bikers went up front, I was right behind and the rest of the runners and skiers were towards the back. I was trying to scope down any potential competitors, but it’s impossible! In a long running race, anyone can win. In fact, the 150 run winner was a 51 year old woman. The overall winner. Of the 150-mile foot race.

The race started with a little loop-de-loop on spur trails from the Ojibwe parking lot start line to the Tuscobia State trail and back, which accounted for maybe a half mile or mile. The Tuscobia felt like concrete compared to the snowy spurs. I passed bikers, which immediately re-passed me on the hard packed Tuscobia, then passed them again in the powder, and then finally back on the Tuscobia the second time, they passed me for good. Chris, the other race director, was stationed at the turn-in point. The second time I saw him about 15 minutes into the race, I asked if I was the first runner out and he confirmed that I was. Perfect start!

I got into a pretty fast pace immediately. I felt like I was pushing hard, but I was jacked up being in first place and felt like I should establish a buffer on the other runners who may have been caught up in the traffic jam on the spur section. In the blink of an eye, 48 minutes had ticked on my watch. I saw the first non-35-mile athlete way up ahead and they were walking their bike. I hoped it wasn’t Tony, who I had been religiously tracking on the internet all night and morning, but heard “Mike!!!” and knew it was him. I stopped and we high-fived. I asked why he was walking and if it was a mechanical issue. He said he was just tired, and I looked in his eyes and realized that he looked TIRED. His eyes were red and I could only image the mental toil of walking a 40-pound bike after not sleeping for at least 26 hours. I continued on running without spending too much time and felt a little bad leaving T-Dawg in the dust.

The first of two checkpoints in the 35-mile race was at about 6 miles in. I got there in a bit under an hour. The volunteer seemed surprised and cheered me on, and I definitely felt like I was zooming past him.

An hour and a little bit into the race and I realized I should probably keep up with the calories I was expending. Around 1:40 in, I finished off my first package of Honey Stinger Chews (Cherry Cola with caffeine), and took down a double caffeine gel. Perhaps it was the caffeine buzz or a nice stretch of hard snow, but I was really cooking along. I felt like I could really push it here, I was breathing hard and going fast. I finally hit some slower snow and my pace dropped to a nice steady, comfortable effort. I was walking and eating, looked behind me and thought I saw another runner gaining on me and running strong. I quit walking and got into a solid zone. I started running scared, which definitely helped.

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The next two and a half hours went by without incident. In fact, I don’t really remember anything from this section. Just some steady running, a few snowmobilers, passing some bikers, getting passed by some bikers, eating and drinking, and a little bit of talking to myself. Every now and again, I’d look behind me and see nothing. The trail was so straight and flat that you could seemingly see for miles.

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I hit the second checkpoint, 25 miles in, at about 4 hours. I was walking more and more by this point, but could still keep a steady running pace for a while. It was this point that I remember that I started to feel pretty bad. My legs were sore, my feet hurt, my shoulders hurt (but not my bum shoulder, luckily!), and the snow was feeling more and more soft and powdery. Every step, I’d lose grip and the lack of traction became very frustrating.

I thought that the last home stretch of 10 miles would be easy to mentally manage, but then realized that 10 miles is a long way. At this pace, it would take me at least 1:30. That is no home stretch! This is when my mantra was really coming into play. I would say “This is fun to me,” and laugh and laugh. I kept thinking that life is too easy and doing something hard is good. There is pleasure in the pain. There is happiness in the un-fun. The struggle was an exciting challenge. This race is how I get my kicks and a great leisure-time activity. Life is way too easy.

I started seeing less and less bikers and more and more long-course people on foot. These people looked rough. Nobody was having fun. At that point, I’m sure, it was a major mental struggle to press on. I realized that 35 miles is child’s play. My race was nothing like the 75 or 150 mile races. Not even close to the same thing. Yet, I was still struggling. I felt a slight tinge in my left knee which gave me more and more pain the more I ran. I was walking a lot. I would run very, very slowly with my feet dragging on the snowy ground, then have a spurt of energy and start running, and then nearly collapse in pain and exhaustion, reduced to a walk once again. This was the program for the last 8 miles or so of the race. Miles were going slowly and the last hour seemed to go by as quickly as the first four. As mid-day broke, there were more and more snowmobiles chewing up the nice hard sections of trails. I would get frustrated and swear. I was sick of snow, sick of cold, sick of the stupid Tuscobia State Trail, sick of eating sugary exercise food and candy, and really sick of running!

Then, I saw a blue water tower and knew I was close. However, I could still see so far down the trail and I knew I wasn’t really that close. A couple more cycles of slow run, fast run, walk, and it was very relieving to see a sign that said “Tuscobia State Trail” and the end of the trail. Finally, no more damn snowmobile trail. A sign led me onto a road, which snaked about a half mile to the finish in Park Falls. I hadn’t seen another 35 mile runner since the first 50 feet of the race, and when I got to the finish tent in first place, I let out a guttural roar, laid down and closed my eyes.

After a beer and pizza, I realized Tony wasn’t going to come in for a few hours yet. I drove home with a cool first place award, $30 gift card and jar of syrup. I was certainly happy to be done, I felt accomplished and definitely satisfied with the win.

I made a few mistakes. One was with training. I definitely would have benefited with a few 6 hour runs and even more 4 hour runs. It was about 3 months in between Wild Duluth and Tuscobia, and I should have done two 6 hour runs and two 4 hour runs, instead of one 3 hour and one 4 hour. Easier said than done, I guess! My second mistake was not bringing more caffeine. Boy, what a boost! I definitely could have used that sort of boost five hours in.

Either way, I had fun. There were ups and downs, and I am really glad it is over, but definitely fun. Tuscobia is an awesome race, very well produced, and I was relatively satisfied with my performance and execution. Above all, I was happy to get a winter ultra in my belt and some experience to help build up to a “real” winter ultra.

Results

Race Stats:

Shoes: Nike Terra Kiger, size 11
Pack: North Face Torrent 4l (Plus 2l Camelback bladder)
Time: 5:59 (Watch said 5:58:59)
Pace: 10:15
Place: 1/21 (24 started)

Hike date: Saturday, December 6 – Sunday, December 7, 2014
Location: Superior Hiking Trail (Normanna Road Parking Lot to Fox Farm Pond Campsite)
Distance: 8.5 miles out and back

“As I sit in my sleeping bag with 5 shirts on, Diamond shivers behind me where my head will ultimately lay for the night.” – trail journal.

Ever since I first became suddenly enamored with backpacking, hiking and camping late summer 2013, I’ve wanted to try camping in the winter. It just seems like the hearty Minnesotan thing to do. Obviously, one cannot just pack up and hike out. This winter, I finally amassed the necessary gear to safely make a winter excursion. Keeping a keen eye on the forecast, December 6th was looking like the perfect weekend to dip my toes in the winter backpacking game.

I knew I had to work Saturday morning until noon or so, and the rest of the weekend would be wide open. The forecast was calling for sunshine in the mid- to high-20’s and nights in the teens. With a 20-degree sleeping bag plus a warm bag liner, that temperature range was perfect. Any warmer and the snow gets sloppy and everything’s wet. Initially, my biggest concern was daylight, since the sun sets at around 4:20pm in early December in the northern reaches of Minnesota. That limits my hike time substantially compared to September, where I could hike until 7pm and still have plenty of light to set up camp.

I hit the road around noon and got to the Normanna Road Parking Lot, which is on the outskirts of Duluth due north, around 12:30pm. I had a thirty pound pack, snowshoes and trekking poles. Most of my clothes were packed away because it was pretty warm and I didn’t want to get all sweaty hiking out. Latched to my waist was Diamond, who was carrying a 5 point pack with her sleeping pad and food.

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I figured that the third campsite northbound from the trailhead was between 7 and 9 miles away, and we could make it before it gets too late to gather enough wood and set up camp in the light. The hike in was truly beautiful–I caught myself bellowing to Diamond, “BEAUTIFUL! JUST BEAUTIFUL!”. As well, the hike was pretty easy going, not too much up and down. We were going through forests, across recently forested land and along the scenic Sucker River. I probably switch this opinion with every change of the season, but I think winter is my favorite time of year to be out in the woods.

I thought the first campsite was around 1.5 miles in, and we reached it after 30 minutes. I was pleased with 3 miles per hour and we kept trucking. There was about 4 inches of snow on the ground, so the snowshoes weren’t necessary to float on the powder and I would have been pleasantly snow-free without them. They were very clutch, however, on the uphills and downhills when I could really utilize the crampons. So I was happy about having those babies strapped on my feet, but the trekking poles were a different story. I had never tried using trekking poles, and I doubt I really will use them again except perhaps during a long multi-day trip where my legs could potentially give out. The poles got in the way and were cumbersome, but handy for poking Diamond in the butt from time to time.

In the trees behind a small bluff, it appeared as if the sun was setting at 2:20pm. I got a little anxious to get to the site at this point, maybe two hours in, especially because we hadn’t been to the second campsite (the Sucker River campsite, which I had stayed at before). I knew our campsite was right past a spur trail to the Sucker River Trailhead, which was a half hour or so past the Sucker River campsite. After passing the spur trail, my spirit was lifted and we were excited to arrive at our destination. Well, I guess I can’t speak for Diamond because she is always excited when we’re on the trail!

Almost immediately after the spur trail intersection, there was a big sign describing the strategic logging operations in the area (cutting down old, decrepit trees to make way for a young, healthy forest) that overlooked a vast, frozen beaver pond. Our campsite was called Fox Farm Pond campsite, so I kept a sharp eye out and figured we were very close. We circled the beaver the campsite trailpost was on the opposite side.

It was a short hike off of the main trail to get to the fire pit and tent pads, which were pretty close to a landing onto the beaver pond. It was 3:30pm–the hike in took almost exactly three hours. After plotting the route ‘ex post facto’, our hike was 8.5 miles, which comes to 2.83 miles per hour. Not a bad pace.

Below is a picture looking back onto our campsite’s spur to the main trail.

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What an awesome site for winter camping! I let Diamond off the leash and we explored a bit looking for firewood. It was intriguing to walk across the frozen pond to the beaver den, on which Diamond was climbing and digging her nose into and investigating like a caged beast let loose. I gathered some prime pieces of firewood by snapping off dead, barren trees from their icy foundation in the middle of the beaver pond; prime firewood inaccessible during any other season.

After gathering enough wood to last for at least 3 hours, I set up camp. Below, I snapped a picture while facing the beaver pond. Note the dead, barren trees sticking out of the pond’s icy surface.

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I started with a fire. I had a lighter and used a punky piece of bark as a base. I found some dry, peeling birch bark and used a ploofed-out cattail for tinder. I carefully sorted my kindling in order to capitalize on a hot flame from the quick-burning birch bark. The cattail nearly exploded! I had a roaring fire in no time. With the tent set up and my snacks on hand, I felt a little overwhelmed with how the sun was nearly below the horizon. Night was certainly setting in.

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I put a garbage bag over Diamond’s small square of foam sleeping pad and settled next to the fire. My shoes and socks started steaming like a huge pot of vigorously boiling water. I took my shoes off and realized that my merino wool socks were soaking wet. I changed to a dry pair and put my shoes back on only to find out that my soaking wet shoes left me with another pair of soaking wet socks. An ember landed on my technical wind layer, burning a small hole into it and I noticed it was pitch black. Diamond was barking at me and I started to question my life’s choices. Why was I out here? My basement is dry and warm and I can sit on a couch.

After eating a bunch of snacks, and attempting, with no avail, to dry some of my wet items and melt snow for the dog, I figured we could go into the tent. She was shivering and trying to move snow out of the way to curl up in the leaves. I gathered some of my items and retired to the tent for the night. Once in the tent, Diamond went straight for my sleeping bag. I guess a 2×2′ foam pad isn’t as attractive as a big puffy sleeping bag. I put my stove an arm’s reach outside of the tent’s zipper and boiled two cups of water for my freeze-dried chili. I started to write in my trail journal as the food was cooking and began to feel pretty cramped and claustrophobic with Diamond hogging my sleeping bag. I couldn’t organize all of my crap. Having a lot of gear is nice, but sometimes is overwhelming! More benefit for going minimalist, I guess.

Once I scarfed down the chili, I wrapped up my journal entry and laid down to sleep. That is easier than trying to get comfy enough to read and write. I turned my lamp off at 8pm. It seemed like I didn’t even sleep, although I think it was more like sleep for an hour, wake up, go back to sleep for two hours, and repeat until 7am the next morning.

I let Diamond out of the tent in the morning to go pee and of course, she wants to play or run around like a nut or something. She was wining as I was rolling up my pad and bag. I stuck my head out and saw her with my shoe, frozen solid, swinging it around in a circle like a bucking bronco. Nice.

I quickly packed up and we hit the trail. I felt good despite the crappy sleep and rock hard ice shoes. I told Diamond that we should really try and push it and hike out fast. It was a beautiful morning, but perhaps a bit colder and windier. Either way, the hike out was equally stunning with Diamond and I completely immersed in the white, quiet and solitary landscape. On a small overlap section with the North Shore State Trail (a snowmobile trail that intersects the Superior Hiking Trail countless times), I came across a couple of fat bikers eating breakfast. They looked like they were on a bike overnighter. We arrived back at the car, 100 feet after passing a girl and her dog who asked about hunters. She was the only person I saw on the Superior Hiking Trail the whole weekend! No hunters, no nobody, except those bikers. We made it back after almost exactly three hours again.

For next time, we need to find out a comfortable sleeping arrangement. I may experiment with making a light and packable dog bed, or just purchase a cheap sleeping bag that I can cut in half and sew back together. Also, I need to figure out how to melt snow. My melted snow tasted like a burnt stick. Either way, the two-day excursion was extremely enjoyable and I’m looking forward to the next one!

Key Gear:

  • The North Face Cat’s Meow 20-degree synthetic sleeping bag
  • Eureka! 2-person tent
  • The North Face Banchee 65 backpack
  • MSR Pocket Rocket stove
  • Dion Snowshoes
  • Hand-knit merino wool hat
  • Mizuno Wave Kazan trail runners
  • Gander Mountain self-inflating sleeping pad
  • Closed-cell foam sleeping pad

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