I think it’s safe to say that winter is here in Duluth, MN and there is no turning back until the very beginning of spring. So, mid- to late-April. There are a few overnight backpacking trips that stick out to me as some of the most enjoyable times spent in the woods, period. It’s so hard, uncomfortable, cold (duh), but also relaxing, rewarding, and fun!

 

My first time winter camping was pretty tame. That’s how it should be, though. Almost four years ago to the day, I hiked out to the Fox Farm Campsite with Diamond. Click here for the whole story.

The next time I went out, it was with Diamond and Nick. This was a really short trip and more about cooking brats over an open fire and enjoying a couple beers. Click here for the Quickie Overnighter story.

In 2016, I started hitting it hard with aspirations of thru-hiking the Superior Hiking Trail. I also got serious about documenting gear and conditions. This trip was pretty difficult with deep snow and somewhat challenging conditions. In between Duluth and Two Harbors on the SHT can seem pretty remote and rugged. Click here for the next adventure and be sure to check my winter gear list!

It took my a while to make it up to a two-night excursion. There is a little more to lose in that scenario. This was a real backpack trip with hefty mileage and yes, two nights! Check out my Cross River adventure here.

 

Well, that’s a lot of reading but it’s a long and cold winter by the fireplace. Maybe you’ll become inspired to ditch the fireplace and hit the Superior Hiking Trail.

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)


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