Winter endurance challenge returns to Northwoods
Posted: Monday, December 3, 2012 5:00 amWhile the shift to winter weather has left many in a sofa-bound state of hibernation, 120 brave souls from across the country are taking all the snow and cold the season has to offer as a challenge.
A mix of runners, skiers and bikers will flock to the Wisconsin Northwoods December 28-30 for the Tuscobia Winter Ultra, an endurance event spanning 35, 75 or 150 miles – athlete’s choice. Every step, turn of the peddle and cut of the ski will leave its mark on the Tuscobia State Trial, a scenic stretch of pathway that runs from Rice Lake to Park Falls.
Chris Scotch and Helen Lavin, fellow ultra-runners and soon- to-be husband and wife, are back to co-direct the 2012 Tuscobia Winter Ultra.
Last winter, Scotch and Lavin stepped up to save the ultra less than a month before participants were set to hit the trail when the previous director announced he’d no longer be able to run it. This is the fourth year the northern Wisconsin trail has served as the setting for the winter challenge.
At the time, the couple was primarily living in Minneapolis, with Lavin commuting to California for work throughout the year. Now, they have both settled in the northern region of that West Coast-hugging state. The distance hasn’t dampened their commitment to making the event a success.
“We’re directing from far, far away,” Scotch said.
The co-directors rely on a network of folks on the ground in Minnesota and Wisconsin to offer updates on weather conditions as well as to help coordinate details of the event.
The Friends of the Tuscobia Trail make up one group of Wisconsinites that have been a big help in working through some of the logistics of planning this year’s ultra, Scotch said.
Facebook has also served as a sort of window into the north, with contacts from the region supplying a steady stream of updates and photos.
As competitors in various other ultra running events, Lavin and Scotch see directing the ultra as a way of giving back to the race world, Scotch said.
One of their goals with the event is to make the winter ultra accessible to competitors of all different levels of experience with the race type.
The shortest course is an approachable 35 miles long, not too much of a stretch for those who have some experience in distance events.
“It’s not super crazy and you don’t have to be half-insane to start a winter race,” Scotch said.
From here, participants are free to move to the more extreme end of the distance spectrum at their own pace – or they can stay put at 35.
In addition to co-directing the race, Scotch has signed up to run the ultra’s 150-mile event. This is the third year a run this distance has been in the mix of ultra events and the third time Scotch will accept the challenge. Without the benefit of snow to train in, Scotch has been taking advantage of the California coast’s natural features to build up his strength for the winter ultra. Training mainly consists of a lot of uphill climbs. Scotch also plans to get in some runs on the beach, lugging a sled along with him as he will during the ultra to transport all the required gear – a sleeping bag, food, a small stove and more.
“Probably at night so people don't think I am totally insane,” Scotch said.
For Scotch, a run in the sand doesn’t take the place of a trek in the snowy trails of Wisconsin and Minnesota, cold winds and all.
“I miss winter,” Scotch said.
Ideal temperatures on the weekend of the ultra – relatively speaking, of course – would be a daytime high of about 15-degrees F and a low approaching zero. The worst-case scenario would be temperatures in the thirties and rain that washes the trail clear of snow, Scotch said.
Conditions in the weeks leading up to the event are just as important as the weather during the event itself, as Scotch explained. Cold temperatures and snowfalls now help to build up a travelable, wintry base on the trail.
Snow last year was a mix of patchy and crusty, leaving rocks exposed in some places and competitors to continually fall through the surface in other stretches. This combination proved to be a recipe for rough traveling.
With more than a month to plan this year’s ultra, there are a few things the co-directors are doing differently. Along with using a new Web site to streamline the registration process, Scotch and Lavin have staggered start times this year to give more competitors a chance to run into each other on the trail and to allow more people to finish at around the same time. The nice thing is that this should result in a steadier stream of finishers, making the event more spectator-friendly, Scotch said.
Spectators are encouraged to cheer on participants from the finish line, which will be set up at the Chequamegon Canoe Club (CCC) in Park Falls. The CCC is scheduled to reopen in time to again serve as the headquarters for this year’s ultra. Scotch guesses that the best time to see participants cross the finish line will be in the morning and afternoon of Sunday, December 30.
The 150-mile event will kick off at the CCC at 6 a.m. Friday, December 28 with the turn around point found in the southern terminus of the Rice Lake trail portion. Those participating in the 75-mile and 35-mile races will also meet in Park Falls ahead of their events and will be bussed to their respective starting lines, Rice Lake for the longer event and Ojibwa for the 35-milers. The start time for the 75-mile race is set for 10 a.m. Saturday, December 29. Racers in the 35-mile event should take off at noon, also on Saturday, December 29.
As one other new feature at the 2012 ultra, the 150-mile race is a qualifying event for the 2014 Iditarod Trail Invitational, a race following a 350-mile course over Alaska’s frozen terrain.
The Tuscobia’s top 150-mile finisher will win a place in the exclusive Iditarod challenge and have their $1,000 entry fee for the event covered. Spots are so limited in the Alaskan race that guaranteed participation is perhaps a bigger prize than paid entry, Scotch said.
Becoming a qualifying event for the Iditarod Trail Invitational has served as good national exposure for the event and in turn has stirred up interest in the Alaskan event among Midwest ultra runners, according to Scotch. Participants in the 2012 Tuscobia Winter Ultra are set to come in from 14 states and two Canadian provinces. Around 40 of those hitting the trails for this year’s event are return competitors.
On the morning of November 26, all 120 spots in the race had filled up, though directors decided to continue accepting 150-mile entries so that more people would have a shot at earning their way into the Iditarod Trail Invitational.
That’s a big change from the 50 or so participants seen at last year’s event.
“We’re very excited,” Scotch said.
Along with creating a positive and memorable race experience for competitors, Scotch said that he and Lavin would like to involve communities scattered along the Tuscobia State Trail in the event as much as possible. A big part of this involves securing prizes and covering race needs through businesses close to the race zone.
It’s Scotch’s hope that community members will come to see the Tuscobia Winter Ultra as something they can take pride in, laugh at or simply observe.
Race directors plan to make a donation to support maintenance of the Tuscobia State Trail at the end of the event like they did last year. They’d like to help preserve this resource for those getting use out of the trail, whether running, snowmobiling or biking, throughout the year.Volunteers are still sought for various aspects of the race, from helping out racers at checkpoints to making sure course markings stay put. Anyone who’d like to help out with this year’s Tuscobia Winter Ultra is asked to email Scotch and Lavin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Businesses are also encouraged to get in contact with the co-directors if they’d like to get involved in the race in any way. More information on the 2012 Tuscobia Winter Ultra can be