Tuscobia Winter Ultra Facebook Page
As posted earlier in the month, I didn't get a chance to train for xc-sking much this fall and early winter, either by roller skis or by doing the real thing. 5 times on snow before the race for a total of maybe 6 hours. Could have been a disaster and I surely wouldn't recommend doing what I did for anyone wanting to race an ultra-marathon, but sometimes work, family and then Mother Nature, too, has her own plans and working around her schedule days, weeks and months before the race is just as much as part of the race as what She deals out on race day.
That said, the times I did get to ski I felt good. The extra biking miles from the past year coupled with "muscle memory" I felt would be enough to get me by the worst of it. And, although my skating technique is far from perfect, I kind of know from experience how I'd need to handle the race come race day based on my amount of training. I wouldn't be able to hammer it too much, as the specific muscles needed to skate ski just didn't get the time to even come close to optimal strength and endurance. Luckily with a race of this distance and relief, rather flat, one can throttle back on the pace so not being 100% in skiing shape isn't quite as critical as say a mad dash, balls to the wall sprint over the dozens of hills for the Birkie.
I was able to roller ski and snow ski enough to get my lower back, arms, upper body and ankles somewhat acclimated as to what lay ahead. That said, the first day I strapped on the backpack with 25 lbs. or so was race day.
There were many things working in my favor this year in the ski category though, so I felt I needed to take advantage of them and give it a shot. Mainly, we had plenty of snow and the temps were mild.
My fear of it getting a bit cold in the evening hours didn't come to fruition and as a matter of fact it stayed at bit warmer than was predicted just a few days before the race. With highs in the high 20's to low 30's during the day and the lows in the high teens and low 20's at night, from the ski start on Friday morning to the end Saturday night, it actually got too warm for optimal skiing. But, first things first.
I shared a motel room with a 150 mile foot entrant. As he needed to rise around 4AM for his 6AM start we turned lights out around 10PM.
I fell asleep fast and really don't remember waking more than once before the alarm went off at 3:45...a bit earlier than I expected, but my plan was to go to the start, watch the 150 foot division folks off and go back to the motel for an hour or so of sleep then get my kit sorted and skis waxed and head off for the 11AM start.
As I was the only 150 mile xc-ski entrant, the race directors (son Chris and DIL Helen), gave me the opportunity of an earlier start and I took advantage of it. Went from an 11AM start to 8AM.
Me heading out below. It may look lonely, but I'm not. Just glad to get started and to begin reeling in the 150 mile foot folks of which there were 17 or so. It's the small goals or targets that help me. I find that I don't like to think of skiing 150 miles in 35-40 hours, I'd rather just look ahead to the next 2-3 hours and concentrate on what will happen in that time frame.
I had to walk about 4 city blocks to the start of the trail.
Photo credit: Tuscobia Ultra.
The early start gave me 3 more hours of daylight and it would also help me to accomplish a little goal that I set to stay in focus (especially as I was the only person in my category) which was to beat in the 150 mile bikes that would start the next morning. I had a 24 hr. headstart which sounds like a lot...and it is, but last year 2-3 bikes beat me in by 3-4 hours. All depends on conditions.
I also had a goal to beat my time from last year and if things went extremely well, to try to come in under 30 hours.
Another goal was to not actually sleep...maybe just grab a cat nap if it made sense. I figured I could skip one night of sleep. It would just depend how tired I got and that would depend on the amount of energy I used during the course of the race.
One other goal was to try to limit my time in the check-point stations. It's not that they suck me in and I want to quit, it's just seems that I seem to spend too much time in them in general.
Of course, the main goal is just to finish. That may seem like an obvious goal to some but it sure isn't a gimme. There are many things that could happen to prevent a finish, from breaking a ski or pole, to getting sick, or going out too fast and blowing up, pulling a muscle due to not enough training, not eating or drinking right to last the 30-40 hours it would take or to maybe just give up due to the mental aspect of the race which untold amount of reasons could contribute.
That's why I keep mentioning the respect I have for the foot division people. Whatever problem the ski or bike people might have isn't comparable to what they have to deal with from my perspective. Yes, I know it's tough to push a bike or ski in soft snow. My first Tuscobia I did the 75 mile bike on my mtn. bike (skinny tires at 2.2") and I pushed at least 25 miles of the 75 miles due to soft snow. Yes, there are times it's impossible to continue on a bike but those times are few and far between compared to the absolute knowledge that every time a foot person goes out it's going to be hell. Knowing the cut-offs have to be met, knowing you won't sleep or get very little sleep for 40 to 50 to 60 straight hours. Knowing your feet are probably going to get totally decimated and the list goes on.
But, as I've never done any of these winter ultras on foot or bike for that matter I maybe don't have a clue what I'm talking about.
The first check-in/aid station is around 30-31 miles from the start. Conditions in this first section were very good to start, the first 20 miles, but got a bit worse the final 11. After a bit I locked into a cadence that seemed to suit me based on the conditions. Around 6 mph.
First check-in. Genevieve, one of many super volunteers, me and Logan, a 75 mile foot racer helping out as well.
Photo credit: Bill Barthen.
This isn't groomed xc-ski trail skiing. Although there was plenty of snow this year, it isn't really close to what a skier encounters on trails groomed for skiing.
I don't mind the ruts, uneven terrain, piles of snow ridges running parallel down the trail, random clumps of snow and ice chunks or the many road crossings that always required a slowing down and many times ski removal. I also don't get upset at the snowmobiles (and there were a lot this year) and what they do to the trail when they go by, basically turning the snow to mashed potatoes if it's warm (like this year) or sugar if it's colder. I just figure it's the same for everyone in the race so to me it's just part of the race. Sure, I, like everyone, talks about these and other issues, the temps, the wind, etc., but in the end, there isn't any point getting worked up about them. I try to spend energy thinking about what I can control and let the other stuff fly....much easier said than done though as many of these things influence the race in sneaky and insidious ways, like making feet super soft for the foot racers, cold feet for skiers and possible blisters for both. Head wind for bikers isn't fun and the list goes on and on. In the end, one has to more mentally than physically defeat these trail daemons to get to the end.
Bottom line, skiing these types of trails is very challenging and different than actual xc-ski trails and it requires one to pay attention. A slight loss of balance with 25-35 lbs. on your back can make things interesting in a heartbeat. Couple fatigue and darkness into the mix and there are plenty of opportunities for mishaps.
Being on the shorter side I have a much shorter kick and glide than a taller person has and maybe this helps a bit as I was constantly adjusting ski placement and kick and glide length to adjust for trail conditions. It helps avoid boredom as well. I guess one could say I have a high cadence or choppy style as compared to looong kick, looong glide and more powerful extended pole push off of a taller skier or one that is "crushing" the course.
I never really "cut loose" and stretched out into a full on kick and glide. Maybe one with better technique and skills could have, but I was always concerned of a slight loss of balance that would be hard to adjust to with the weight of my pack in the form of water, food, survival gear and extra clothing. So, with so many miles to cover I try to find an efficient cadence that just feels right. No excess exertion or reckless technique. I try not to over dress as well. Sweating too much is just a waste of energy.
After 5 hours I had caught all but 1 foot person. This is a real fun part of the race, to come up on folks and if they stop, stop as well for maybe 15-20 seconds just to see how they're doing and if they don't stop, just maybe double pole with them for a bit and talk to get to know each other some.
Of course when I came up on Chris, my son, we spent a little more time chatting than with the others, but soon either they tell me to get going as they don't want to hold me back or I decide to take off.
At the first check-point I'm feeling fairly good about things. The snow was getting softer and my skis were not getting up on top of the snow and were more plowing through it than gliding over it, so it wasn't optimal, but still, it was much better than not having enough snow.
After leaving the check-point I caught the lead foot person, Jason Buffington from Duluth, MN.
Jason at first check-in.
Photo credit: Bill Barthen.
He graciously pulled over to give me plenty of room to pass, but I said "no way, I want to pick your brain about Alaska". So I double poled as he hoofed it at his pace and he told me stories of Anchorage and the ITI, the 350 mile race that leads to one doing the whole 1000 mile enchilada should one want to.
I wanted to hear Jason's stories because unlike last year when I won the 150 mile ski division and didn't toss my name into the hat, this year I was going to. One lucky winner for each of the 3 divisions, foot, ski, bike male and female, would win the 1 guaranteed entry to the 350 ITI in Alaska via a random drawing.
In the year since I last had the chance to enter my name for the drawing I learned more about the race and mentally accepted the terms, conditions and I guess the consequences should something go wrong. From the info I gathered I figured I was up to it and it would be fun...a place I wanted to get to mentally before putting myself in contention to win the entry and commit to doing the race.
I also slowed down and talked to John Storkamp earlier in the day when I caught him as he and his friend Matt Long did the 350 ITI last year as well. John gave me some good insight but as John did the ITI on foot and Jason did it on bike I was curious what Jason's take was because if I did win the entry I would be doing it on bike.
Photo credit: Bill Barthen.
The eventual 4 winners of the 150 categories, all hoping for the ITI entry.
Photo credit: Tuscobia Ultra.
After 10 minutes or so listening to Jason I think we both had enough, him taking the energy to do the talking and me double poling so with that I said good luck as he to me and I took off.
My optimistic time to reach the next check-point was 6PM but the trail conditions deteriorated too much for me to make that goal. It was now mashed potatoes and although moving down an old rail grade that's not that steep, miles of a slight uphill pushing through a few inches of snow took it's toll on me. Up to this point I was skiing pretty much at will maintaining a pace that allowed me to not have to stop for rest. For the next few hours it was stop and go. Sometimes not being to be able to even go 100 yards without stopping to rest the exertion level was so high.
Couple that with the fact I just couldn't stomach the food I brought, Cliff bars and different ways to eat chocolate (chocolate covered peanuts and Hersey minis) wasn't working out and my energy level got very low.
Cliff bars served me well in past winter ultras but after eating the same food for hours upon hours sometimes one begins to hate it....and it seems my body remembered how it felt at the end of last years death march at the Arrowhead 135 and my body and mind went into full revolt.
Even chocolate was hard to gag down. All I could think about was real food....pizza, burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, anything with bread, it was all I could think about. I needed carbs and lots of them and my body was letting me know.
Around 8PM I finally rolled into the town of Birchwood, around 62 miles from the start. I dove into a gas station a few blocks from the check-in to get some "real" food. They were about to close so the "fast" food was all gone so I grabbed a rye ham and cheese sandwich and a beef stick with some coffee and devoured it all. A slice of pizza would have been heaven.
I then skied on down to the check-in and got into the rice soup. Needless to say, all the sugar and chocolate laid out didn't do anything for me. I ate as much as I dared, waxed my skis, ate some more and made a thick peanut butter sandwich for my fanny pack and said "see ya" to Jennifer, a friend manning the station, and took off to do the 26 mile loop to the turnaround and back. I hoped to see Jennifer Flynn, the lone sentry at the check-station and super volunteer, again around 3-4 in the morning.
Jennifer in the Arrowhead 135 in 2011. One of the finishers in the -40 below edition.
As I headed out the fog started rolling in and the trees and all the buildings were getting coated with a layer of hoar frost. Conditions were fine, temps were good and the freshly waxed skis were a little faster.
It's a lonely stretch...but I got to the end, made the turn and instantly my mental outlook lightened up. 1/2 way done! 75 miles in the bag. As long as I can keep finding real food I'd be ok I figured. With the coming day and establishments opening I felt optimistic.
At the 4 mile mark I met Jason coming down the trail. I was 8 miles in front of him, 4 down and 4 back.
He stays about 15-25 minutes in the check-in stations while I spent double that at the first one and over 90 minutes in the second one the first time and 2 hours at the second one the second time. He's a machine! I'm old and fat!
I met the 2nd place person on foot at mile 10, Sue Lucas from Canada. She told me that John Storkamp had dropped in Birchwood due to massive blister issues. She did not want to chat much it seemed and within a few seconds she was off. Sue would end up finishing 2nd behind Jason as the first women to have ever finished the full 150 miles in the short history of the race. Quite the lady.
Photo credit: Bill Barthen.
Sue and Greg at the CCC finish.
Photo credit: CCC
As I got near town and up over the last small rise I could see another light on the trail coming at me. It was about 3:45AM. As we met to turn to cross the road to the check-in Chris called out hi. We arrived at the same time....only thing was I was 26 miles in front of him. Man, I respect these foot racers! What a mental and physical challenge.
Photo credit: Bill Barthen.
As Chris and I entered the check-in it appeared we needed to take a number. There were about 5-6 foot racers already there and before long 2-3 more would arrive. Most of them were bushed. Trudging through the soft snow dragging a sled that more snowplowed than slid over the snow had taken it's toll.
I ate a ton as I had only eaten the peanut butter sandwich and few small bits of chocolate and cliff bar that I could stomach over the past 5 plus hours since I had left here and like when I arrived into the checkpoint 26 miles ago but from the other way, I was almost bonked....or maybe I was.
It was about then that Chris decided he'd rather go help Helen get the rest of the race going than continue on and I mooched some food off of him and some money as I knew I'd be stopping anyplace I could to get real food.
Chris was still game to go out if anyone wanted a partner but nobody was jumping at the offer. With that I booted him off his sliver of the double bed he was sharing, the other bed had 2 guys on it already, and I asked Jennifer to wake me up at 5AM. It was now 4:30. I remember waking up hearing someone say it was 4:43 and I knew I had 17 more minutes to sleep. The next thing I knew Jennifer was tickling the palm of my hand to wake me up. She had given me an extra 5 minutes. What a sweetheart!
I geared up and took off, figuring that my body would start to wake up with the rising sun. The section that kicked my ass the night before was bothering me...this time I make 2 peanut butter sandwiches and grabbed a handfull of pretzels and took off. If the gas station that I had stopped at would have been open I'd have grabbed some food, but it wouldn't open for a couple more hours. I hoped I would have enough energy to get to the small towns 25-30 miles down the trail.
Out on the trial I started meeting the last of the foot racers. They were predictably upset. They knew the race was probably over for them. They wouldn't be able to make the cut-off times. Whatever issues had arisen to have forced them to the pace they were on probably wouldn't get any better and most probably would get worse.
I tried to be positive but honest with them when they asked about the trail ahead. I told them they were through the worst of it, but they also knew that with the temps slowly rising, any firmness they were enjoying would rapidly erode to mashed potatoes again and with the weekend snowmobile traffic promising to be heavy the sleds would tear up the trail that much more and that much faster as the day progressed.
As the sun rose so did my speed as the fuel I had taken in was getting processed and down to my muscles. The tough section that had given me trouble the night before was firmer and I was going downhill through it so it wasn't as much of an issue.
I met Daryl Sarri and we shared our food issue stories as he ran into the same situation I had. Daryl is a much more experienced ultra racer than me and he knows his stuff, so I felt a little better knowing that it even happens to the seasoned vets. Daryl ended up having to drop out.
Daryl at 1st check-in with Helen and the "kids" Cooper and Juneau.
Photo credit: Bill Barthen.
It was just a mental game now and all I could think about was food. I was going through near bonk conditions followed by gorging, my stomach kind of bouncing around between hunger pangs and being over stuffed from gluttony. The peanut butter sammies were gone, the pretzels were good but just not enough. I kept drinking as much as I could so as not to have hydration issues as well as food issues.
2 snowmobiles passed me and within 90 minutes or so, they came back. The 2nd guy stopped and asked me what the heck I was doing so I quickly explained the race. I asked if they were on a breakfast run and he said yes and said the first place to grab some grub was coming up in an hour or so. My mouth started watering as he described what he had just eaten. I got a surge of adrenalin and took off.
I had met the leaders of the 150 mile bike race by now. Friend Charly Tri was leading the pack at around mile 40-45, pumping like a champ through the soft snow sweating profusely. Ben Welnak of Mountain Bike Radio fame was 25 minutes behind him looking strong and controlled. Although living in CO now, Ben is a WI native, or at least I think he lived in WI for a period of time.
Charly would hold the lead on his new 9:zero:7 carbon bike and win the race, pretty much leading from start to finish, I believe, battling flu like symptoms himself. He told me when we met he wasn't sure if he was feeling ill from the effort or if he was coming down with something more serious. Turns out it was the latter.
Photo credit: unknown. Taken from Charly's blog page.
Charly took the time to hop off his bike and chat a little. I told him (as I did the other bikers) as best I could what to expect and when I explained my food issue, they all offered whatever I wanted from their stash. I declined suggesting to them that with the conditions they'll face ahead they will probably need all the nourishment they can muster. I figured I could make it to real food soon enough anyway.
I pulled into the diner in the town of Radisson famished. Ordered up some eggs, pancakes, hashbrowns and bacon. Washed it down with decaf and I got out as soon as I could.
As I was leaving, walking across the parking lot to get back on the trail, Helen and Chris saw me as they were driving by. They jumped out on the trail and....well, we talked a bit.
Then I started meeting more and more 150 mile bikers. Many I knew so if they wanted to take a blow in the soft snow I'd stop as well. I figure I lost an hour talking to people in this section. That's one thing about this race and these types of races. It's a great format to be a little social should one want to be. At this time I wasn't sure if I'd beat my time from last year, but I was pretty sure I'd beat Charly to the finish. Figured one out of these 2 goals met was good enough.
I knew my food issue was a problem and could become worse but I also knew there were stops ahead that would take care of the problem....it's just that my time would suffer. My mantra out here is to have fun, so I did as I caught up with a few friends while on the trail. Misery loves company. :-)
I ran into Chris one more time at the tail end of the start of the 35 mile racers. After a short chat with him I was back at it.
I make the last check-point, ate as much as I could, found out my backup light had dead batteries, as did my primary light, couldn't find my spare batteries and spent way too much time there. An aid station person offered to run across the street and get some batteries at a gas station and after making sure that it wouldn't disqualify me, ate more while she made the run.
With that I took off for the bar 11 miles and roughly 2 hrs. down the road where I'd get that "big friggin' burger" I talked about earlier in the video.
The snow was pretty soft and slow in this 11 mile section. Once I got to the bar I asked what was the quickest food to prepare, they said a philly kinda hoagie...I asked for 2 with an order of fries and a Coke. With 20 miles to go, I needed to take some food with. While the food was being prepared it gave the young lady tending bar and the old boy on the bar stool next to me a chance to ask me a few questions about the race. Although I hated to have to have stopped, I really enjoyed the time sharing with them what was going on.
Wolfing down the food I asked for the 2nd hoagie to be wrapped in tin foil and I took off.
The next section, as mentioned around 20 miles worth, was much improved and I put all I had into it. Was going right at 6mph, the same speed I did it earlier some 25 hours ago. Definitely not my Birkie speed which is around 8-9 mph but fast enough for these conditions and in the dark.
I started to catch some of the 35 mile foot racers and in a couple of hours was looking forward to stopping at the roadside aid station that was mainly for the 35 mile people. Genevieve, one of super volunteers mentioned above from the first check point who knew me from some summer races said she'd be there and wait for me...and she was.
What a gal! She flopped down the gate of her Element and handed me a cup of Coke as I dug out half of the 2nd hoagie (Chris ate the other half around midnight in the finishing tent). In 3-5 minutes I started to get chilled. The food and drink was gone and with that I took off for the home stretch.
Photo credit: Greg Gleason. Winner 75 mile bike race.
I pulled into the finish around 9:30 PM, in time to enjoy some of the evenings festivities. I tried to stay awake to welcome in Charly the 150 mile bike winner and the 75 mile ski winner Lindsay, but by 2AM or so I had to call it a night and I went off to bed.
77% of the 150 foot and bike racers dropped. 9 of the 38 registered ski, bike and foot racers finished.
Lindsay Gould, winner of the 75 mile ski. Another old coot. Wonder when the kids are going to show us how it's done?
Photo credit: Jennifer Flynn, Birchwood super check-point volunteer.
I accomplished a few of my goals.
Beat the bikes in and bettered my time from last year but sub 30 hrs. wasn't in the cards what with snow conditions, my food issues and lack of ski specific training.
I didn't win the ITI entry, but I guess I couldn't control that.
Photo credit: Tuscobia Ultra.
Jason won the entry last year as well....lucky guy!
Didn't win the 9:zero:7 frameset either!
Photo credit: Tuscobia Ultra.
Photo credit: Mark Seaburg. 150 mile biker from MN. Finished 3rd.
Photo credit: Thomas Woods, 150 mile biker from CO.
Main thing is I had fun.
Photo credit: Sveta Kovalchuk. Minneapolis, MN 150 women bike racer. Sveta ended up dropping this year but she was the 150 mile women winner last year.
A few odds and ends about the race.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a couple more of the volunteers that came up for the race. Bill Barthen was there Thursday evening for the gear check and then to my surprise he opened the door for me at the first check-in station the next morning. Then to top it off he actually ran the 35 mile event finishing a very respectable 5th place. Quite the ultra-marathon weekend for Bill it seems.
Lisa Messerer who Captained the first check-in station is always a refreshing and comforting face to see. No nonsense but highly concerned for every racer, she has a sense of humor and demeanor that lets you know quickly excuses won't be tolerated and she'll let you know, in a nice if not funny way, to get your butt out the door when she thinks it's time to go.
When Jason and I were at her station, I pulled out my bag of Ibuprofen, Advil, aspirin and other assorted "aids". I very, very seldom take any of these things in my day to day life but I kept hearing about them so much as I listened to other racers over the years from mountain bike races to regular marathons I figured they are a normal part of it and maybe I needed them, too.
As Jason is a doctor in his normal life I showed him the bag and he just laughed asking me something about a high school pill party and said don't take any of them. Lisa, who also works in the medical field, agreed and poured a few tiny sprinkles of something in my hand and said to put them under my tongue and let them dissolve, which was quite the task while shoving mouthfuls of food down my gullet. She then explained a couple of days later while at breakfast how some of these over the counter drugs, if taken in excess, can cause more issues then they help by over taxing an already overworked liver and kidneys in ultra marathons such as this. Good info.
Coming back through the check-point on my way to the barn, she borrowed me 10 more dollars to make sure I had enough to cover the "big friggin' burger" that had my name on it 11 miles down the road after I had to buy batteries which ran me low on cash.
I felt I kind of returned the favors when the last day her car wouldn't start due to the cold weather and I helped her get it going so she could head home. It all works out I guess.
Photo credit: From her FB page.
Helen and Chris know what they want and have very high expectations for themselves when it comes to the race, the racers and the community. As ultra racers themselves, they know what works and what doesn't. I get to see it firsthand behind the scenes. Being so close to them and getting to see small glimpses of the time, effort and concern involved and also being an actual racer gives me a bit of a unique perspective I think. It's fun to watch it all come together.
Chris and Helen on the trail getting things ready.
Photo credit: Helen Scotch
As much as the race has evolved in the 3 years that I've been involved, it's also been satisfying to see the Park Falls, and now the Rice Lake, WI communities with Out There Sport come together.
Greg Broome at the Chequamegon Canoe Club, or CCC (FaceBook link) as it's known, really adds a touch that's unique to the race. To the special drinks he offers for the race to the pellet stove in his bar that the racers all huddle around when they come in, the CCC is like coming home. Greg makes us all feel welcome and his enthusiasm and interest in the race is infectious. Stop in some time off season and check out the sled Roberto Marron, the 300 Mile Man, donated to the CCC, a possession that Greg is just giddy about displaying. Greg always has some behind the scene story to share and his selection of micro-brews is always satisfying as well as his made to order pizzas. I think he enjoys putting together the toppings that people dream up more then they enjoy eating them!
The CCC offers a chance for relaxing conversation as well, even not considering the race.
Sunday, as the last of the racers were coming in and we were watching the Packers/Bear game in the bar I noticed Chris Plesko sitting by himself. He came in 4th in the 150 bike race...on a single speed. No other 150 mile bike racers would finish after him as they all dropped.
Chris I knew was from CO. We started talking and he had a wealth of knowledge and stories about a few of the races that he shared info on. The ITI and the Tour Divide Trail in particular interested me.
Very low keyed and down to earth. As interested in talking about and sharing stories with my wife about his 2 kids as well as about biking. He seemed to me a very down to earth well grounded young man.
Chris was the lucky winner of this entry drawing.
Lastly Mike and Gail Boushon. As with Greg and the CCC 3 years ago, Mike and Gail stepped up and are the Community Connection. From getting trailers, drivers and tents rounded up to parking, signs, radio adds and local business raffles, they take care of all the non-race details. Great local presence, knowledge, enthusiasm and energy as they add the finishing touches to the race before and after we're off the trail. Great people.
The CREW. Mike, Gail, Helen, Greg and Chris....somehow reminds me of this movie.
Photo credit: CCC
Yours truly in the CCC after the race.
Photo credit: Greg Broome, Owner of the CCC. Check out that stove!!
Some write ups on the race: