The race this year was pushed out to the Jan. 9th weekend so as not to compete with the snowmobiles quite as much as over the Christmas/NewYears break.
This worked out well as it was a poor snow year and it at least gave us attempting to ski it a chance for more snow and cooler temps.
Friday AM Danny Powers from Fairbanks, AK and I took off in high 20 temps that peaked out in the mid 30's. The 3-4" of heavy wet snow seemed like a blessing.....until one xc skated in it and it piled up on the skis and caught and held the ski tips. Further, it packed down really, really good for the foot racers that left 5 hrs. in front of us into a hard, icy 12-18" wide path, which was great for foot traffic, fat bikes and maybe classic xc-skiers, but not all that great for skate skiers.
One ski on the icy hardpack and the other on the somewhat deep heavy wet snow. At times there was a snowmobile track parallel to the hardpack that helped.
Danny and me at the start. Rice Lake.
Photo credit Danny Powers, via Chris Scotch photographer.
Danny and I skied together for the first 4 miles, exchanging pleasantries and getting to know each other a little. We had communicated a little before the race via IM about gear and such as well. He's a native Alaskan who has done a fair amount of skiing, racing and travel for a 27 year old. Based on his stories, comments and skiing technique, I knew he'd be stiff competition.
Bill and Sheryl Flemming formerly of 9:zero7 in Anchorage and Chester (Chet) Fehrmann also from Anchorage via Wisconsin, had been so nice and helpful a couple of years ago when I went to Alaska to do a couple of races, I wanted to help Danny as much as I could, even if he was the competition, to return the favor.
That's one thing that sets this community apart in some respects. The camaraderie of the racers, even if they are competing against each other, are competing against themselves even more, so what someone else does is of less importance than what one does him or herself.
Down the Trail, Danny and I.
Photo Credit Dave Greschner, Rice Lake Chronotype.
My goal was to win the 150 mile ski once again to get a shot at winning the ITI entry in Alaska.
After 4 miles Danny stopped to get into his backpack and I kept going at my normal speed.
After a mile or so he was a 1/2 a mile back or so but he caught me quite handily. He followed behind as we talked some more. I had broken my thumb in early Dec. and had the cast cut off 4 days before the race. The Dr. had fitted me with a lighter removable cast that, thanks to my seamstress sister Pamm's alterations, fit in my ski straps. A fall could re-break the bone so I was skiing a bit tentatively because of it.
Due to the weather/rainy fall/winter and lack of snow and the thumb, I hadn't skied or even roller-skied all fall or early winter. The last time I had skied was back in Feb. for 4 hrs. at the Birkie.....and before that the winter before. So, I hadn't been on skis or even trained for skiing but for 4 hrs. in the past 18 months or more.
But, after the Birkie last year, which I was able to finish decently due to extensive bike riding, I felt Tuscobia was doable.....even after turning 60 in December and no ski specific training in months..
Danny had mentioned that they had skiable snow since October in Fairbanks, if I heard him correctly.
After awhile I pulled over and let Danny by me. I needed to take a short blow and get a good drink down with some food. I had been sipping and eating all along, but I felt Danny was just hanging to be nice and I wanted to let him set his own pace (I knew he was faster than me after catching me) and also I didn't want to break trail anymore or ski harder than I would have by myself just trying to keep in front of Danny. No place for my ego to take over.
I watched him pull away....but at some road crossings he'd stop to get some food from his pack and I'd catch him. He offered me some of an orange once, but I passed. Finally, around mile 12 or so, I stopped to re-post a race sign that had fallen off a marker at a major road crossing and from that point on I never saw him again......till some 24 hours later when I would meet him on my bike, after I had bailed from skiing.
With marginal snow conditions comes rocks on the trail. The snowmachines churn up rocks and at times all there was was a narrow 20"-24" "chute" to try to ski on that was as much rock as snow. Other places they had plowed the trail as it served as a road for residents and loggers. I could see where Danny skied and it helped to follow at times....we'd double pole for a time, I'd try to marathon skate, keeping one ski on the hardpack the runners had created and push off in the heavy, wet snow with the other, and any other technique that I thought would work.
I knew I was using muscles that I hadn't used in the skating specific motion for a long time. I relied on muscle memory and just wanted to keep moving at a decent pace, not crash (broken thumb and all), not pull a muscle and just see how things went. I was hoping the groomers would come out to compress the wet snow and set a firm base so we could ski with wider and more gliding action. No such luck for that till mile 65 or so, at the far end of the trail, where they had groomed.
Temps were going to plummet the next day/evening and I was concerned about that. I knew I would have to sustain a certain amount of energy "burn" to stay warm. If I wasn't able to maintain and stay on the high calorie burn end of the equation, I'd be in trouble. The forecast was for -5 or so with -15 windchill, which we'd be skiing into on the way back.
As it was, the temps went to -15 and -25 WC, so it got a bit more brutal out there than expected.
I had around 46 miles to go to the first check-point/aid station. Somewhere around mile 30 I started thinking about my pace and energy level. It was taking much longer and I was using up a lot more energy than I wanted to to finish before the bitter cold hit. In my thoughts I began working out options. Should I continue on after the check-point? I'd have to re-trace through all the rocks/crappy trail on the way back but the difference would be that it would be colder. No glare ice as the trail might be groomed by then or chewed up from snowmobiles so at least that would be an improvement, maybe. Or maybe it would be like skiing on sandpaper due to the cold snow temps.
I decided that based on my energy level and level of ski fitness I didn't want to retrace through what I had already gone through nor contend with the frigid conditions forecasted. I could bail at the first check-point, get back to the start (Rice Lake) and enter the 150 bike race in the morning.
Yes, my ITI hopes would be dashed, but again, an ego out of control out here with these conditions isn't a good thing. I really didn't want to bivy, get severe frostbite or even get recused by the Race Directors.....I'd never hear the end of it!
If I continued on and bailed after the first check-point, I'd not be able to try to complete the 150 bike ride.
That decided, I pushed on to the Ojjbwa check-point and arrived around 10:30 PM for a "blistering" 4 mph pace! Danny beat me by 2 hrs. at around 5 mph, but not the 7 mph pace or so that I was shooting for (on the trail, not including aid station stops) to beat the cold.
Lynn was there and I told her and the check-point person in charge I was done.
We drove back to Rice Lake with a couple of foot racers that had also bailed. Foot racer Kirk helped to keep me awake as I drove my jeep that RD Chris had come in to Ojibwa with and Lynn drove hers with the other foot racer that had dropped.
I got to bed around 1 AM, after setting the alarm for 4:30AM to get the bike setup for the 6AM, 150 mile bike start.
I missed the start by 30 minutes as it was already very cold and I had trouble getting the final touches set on the bike. Straps, clips and cords just didn't want to cooperate in the cold parking lot.
I placed my headlight over my head, turned on all my blinkies and then tried to turn on my headlight as well but I couldn't find the "on" button....as I was checking in Helen told me my headlight was on backwards....to which I replied "no wonder I couldn't find the switch"....not a good start.
I took off and along the 4 mile connector to the main trail met a guy heading back to the start. He wasn't talking...then I saw RD Chris at the turn. I was finally pretty much awake and I took off chasing the blinking lights down the trail.
I met another guy with 2 spokes broke on his rear HED rim, a couple other guys fixing a flat. My legs were stiff, wrists sore and neck even stiffer and more painful than my wrists....but I was moving at least twice as fast using less than half the energy of skiing, so I was happy.
It was fun coming up on racers I knew like Bonnie, Tom, Sue, Leah, and Lynn.....giving them all a little crap or words of encouragement, whatever came to mind at the time.
I got to the 45 mile check-point, where I had bailed less than 12 hrs. before to see Steve and Chris there. Both racers I enjoy bantering with. They were just leaving.
I hit the first checkpoint absolutely famished and thirsty as hell even though I had eaten and I'd been drinking well.
I spent an hour or better there, refueling and getting my body sorted out from my 10 hr. plus outing the day before. I decided to add the vapor barrier bags to my boots.
As I took off after the next aid station just about everyone I had caught was back out in front of me again.
It was a fun ride up to Park Falls. The trail was in good shape and things were running smoothly, until my derailleur started to act up. Over the next couple hours it got worse and worse until I was reduced to one gear, but luckily it was a gear well suited to the trail. On the few dips I screamed down the hills as fast as possible and went as far uphill as was efficient and not tromping the pedals for fear of breaking the chain and just got off and ran up the hill to the top. A nice break actually.
Around mile 60 or so I saw Danny coming back. We stopped and he gave me another hug....the first being at the start of the ski. We talked for a few minutes where he told me he was pretty much cashed and we parted. I knew I'd see him one more time before the finish.
Not that long before I saw Danny I saw the 75 miles skier. He was skating looking strong and fast....the trail on this end had much better snow conditions. More challenging conditions lay ahead for him.
Got into Park Falls while still light....averaging 9-11 mph from what a friend told me that was doing some tracking. Left after an hr. or so feeling good after putting on my gaiters.
On the way back to Ojibwa I met bikers and passed many racers on foot. I usually try to say a word or two as we meet or pass. One guy answered back, "hi Mark" and I stopped in the darkness and yelled back "who goes there"? It was long time friend and foot racer John. We talked for a few seconds and when asked "how's it going" he stated his light was getting dim. I said I had a spare and I gave it to him. Why not any of the spare batteries I had, 2032, AAA and AA instead don't ask me except that giving the light was much easier than digging through my frame bag to find batteries.
I figured I'd ask at the Ojibwa checkpoint if any racers that might have dropped wouldn't mind loaning me a spare light....but when I got there I totally forgot to ask.
By the time I got to Ojibwa again it was getting noticeably colder. The checkpoint was a bit busy. Racers were bailing, some were trying to get dry/warm, one was changing a flat. The volunteers were making pancakes and I over indulged to sedate my hunger. Volunteers were working feverishly to keep the gears turning smoothly for the racers.
I barely drank or ate from Park Falls to Ojibwa, figuring it would be faster to cram food at the checkpoint and just pedal at 100% the whole way to Ojibwa.
One young lady that seemed rather exuberant said "hi Mark". I had no idea who she was. She saved me the embarrassment and time trying to figure out who she was by saying that I didn't know her but she knew me from the Arrowhead 135 film. She said I was the reason she was out there....I kinda laughed and said "don't blame me for that"!!
I added a mid-layer and took off. I crossed the Chippewa River bridge an hr. or so later and saw crossed skis sticking out of the snow with blinking lights. Danny had decided to bivy. I felt REALLY good about my decision to bail and switch to the bike at this point.
After the race Danny told me he stopped at 2-3 bars from Ojibwa to his bivy spot to warm up and soak in the local "flavor". He also waxed for classic skiing at some point as well as skating became difficult. He said if I hadn't had bailed he wouldn't have bivied, concerned I'd pass him in the night. Glad he didn't have anything to worry about, but even if I had stayed in, he'd have had such a lead by then he could have waited till spring to leave and still beat me.
Somewhere with around 23-25 miles to go I ran into RD Chris picking up a biker who had bailed. By the time I got to Birchwood with 10-12 miles to go I couldn't keep my fingers warm anymore inside the Pogies. I stopped, got out some heavier gloves and took off but the gloves were so cold my hands would not warm up.
It was either stop and warm my hands and gloves by stuffing them down the crotch of my ski pants or.....pull into the bar that was still open at 2AM. I opted for the short hop across the hiway and got into the bar entry area, between the outside door and inside door. I knew if I went in it would take time. I could hear folks were in there having a great time and they'd probably ask a number of questions so I just hung in the entry. My gloves warmed while I jammed my hands down my pants for 3-4 minutes.
I chugged water and stuffed as many Hammer Blocks in my mouth as possible and took off, beating feet for Rice Lake. Yeah, a hot toddie would have been great......
While exchanging gloves on the trail, my glasses fogged up and a layer of ice formed. Taking them inside the bar just added to the layer of frost so I put them away. I had the RMor Tuscobia Headband around my nose and cheekbones and the warm air exhausted up to keep my eyes warm.
Throughout the race I had ridden alternating closing one eye as they were getting irritated but I didn't think much of it.
I remember passing a biker and some foot racers in the last stretch and also finding it hard to concentrate and stay on the best section of the trail for biking.
Finally the Tuscobia Trailhead appeared and I turned left after the road and spun 4 miles to the end.
I felt rather spent....but ok, until I got inside. The lights and sudden warmth hit me in a couple of minutes and my left eye felt like someone stabbed an ice pick in it. The pain was so intense it caused me to lose my balance and I had to lay down for awhile. Lynn got the Jeep ready and we went to the motel. Sleeping went fine but when I awoke the left eye was still in a ton of pain.
We got to a emergency room Dr. where he discovered cornea abrasions to the left eye but no frostbite.
Not wearing eye protection was most probably the main reason, with the extreme cold reducing air moisture and either my eye dried out and/or was windburn or rubbed rough from blinking while dry.
Lynn again got to take care of me, this time making prescription runs, driving me to the Dr., guiding me around when I couldn't open my eyes and administering eye drops and cream to my damaged eyes. She's getting dang good at playing nurse at these things!
It was an interesting and fun weekend.....ski/bike biathlon.
The End with Lynn. Results.
Photo Credits Chuck Fritz.
The next day the eye was very light sensitive and I wore a patch.....My grandkids that came up Sunday with one of our other sons/DIL got a kick out of Pirate Maaaarrrrrk. By Monday/Tuesday it was feeling almost normal.
Danny ended up finishing the 150 ski and winning the ITI drawing between the finishers of the other 150 mile races. I'll be tracking his progress in 2017.
Photo Credit Helen Scotch, Tuscobia Ultra.