This weekend I embarked on an adventure I won’t soon forget. Back in August, Matt encouraged me to sign up for the Tuscobia 80 mile winter ultra. Never one to shy away from a challenge, I signed up, and with guidance from my coach, started training. Saturday, December 30, I lined up with my fellow racers in Park Falls, Wi, with temperatures around -15* F. It was 80 miles to the finish line in Rice Lake. We had 37 hours to do it in. We could not accept any outside assistance from friends or family. One could however get help from other racers, the race volunteers at the 1 checkpoint or stop at businesses along the way, but otherwise we had to carry anything we would need with us.
To carry the required gear, nutrition, water & supplies I would need, I pulled a sled. Training leading up to this event included pulling a tire to stimulate a sled before we had snow, strength training, running, and then pulling the actual sled once we had enough snow to do it in. Temperatures leading up the race had been mild most of the winter until the week before when an arctic blast settled over the Midwest, sending temperatures into the double digits below zero. Going into this at that temperature was going to be a whole new challenge. Things freeze very quickly when it’s that cold!
Friday afternoon before the race I met up with fellow racer, Angela, to ride to Rice Lake & split a hotel room with. Traffic was bad, and it was slow going to get to race check in. We got there with just enough time to do gear check before the mandatory race meeting at 7pm. The race meeting lasted an hour, and we were getting hungry, since neither of us had eaten since much earlier that day! After the meeting we connected with a couple other runners, and headed to Perkins to get something to eat.
By 9pm, we were checking into the hotel & nervously making last minute gear adjustments. How cold was it going to be? How many layers do I need? Where’s my “oh shit jacket” (the warmest jacket you can find that you’d put on only if you needed to stop & bivy.) It was probably after 11pm when we settled in and turned out the lights. The 5:30am alarm would come soon.
The next morning we got up and got to the race headquarters to drop the sleds in the trailer and load the bus for the 2 hour ride to the starting line in Park Falls. I had grabbed a donut at the hotel to eat, since planning breakfast had been the farthest thing from my mind. As we rode up to Park Falls, I realized I didn’t have anything to eat! Who doesn’t plan breakfast?? That was quite an oversight on my part. I was hoping for something in Park Falls, but given the remote nature of the race, I kept my expectations low.
We arrived in Park Falls, and were deposited at a church, which graciously opened their doors for us and inside they had hot coffee and more donuts! So, I had a second donut…. I wouldn’t recommend fueling for an event on donuts, but given my lack of forethought, it would be what it was going to be….
At 10am we were lined up outside and with a quick announcement, we were off into the chilly air. The first few miles we tried to find our rhythm on the trail and get warm after standing around at the start. I enjoyed chatting with some folks along the way, but it’s hard to talk and hear when you’re so covered and the sound of the sled is rumbling along behind you. It didn’t take long for everyone to get spread out. From then on, all you could see were the blinkie lights of others down the trail.
As with most ultra and running events, this is a solo endeavor, and you spend quite a bit of time alone, but it is the community of the other athletes, volunteers, and friends cheering on from home, that keep you moving.
As the morning turned to afternoon, the sun was bright, the snow was crunchy, and I was moving well. It was a beautiful day; I was warm in all my layers, and happy to be out experiencing it all. At 25 or so miles, I dug out my phone and sent a couple texts to my mom & Matt let them know I was fine. The sun would be setting soon, and I knew they were curious how it was going. I had to be careful how much I used my phone because in the extreme cold, my phone would die almost instantly. I had to keep it buried deep in my pocket close to my body, so digging it out was an ordeal in and of itself!
Before sunset, we came to a road crossing where there were a couple of bars about a block away, I was feeling good, so continued on, thinking there would be something else soon. I was still a long way from the checkpoint. The race had 1 checkpoint at 35 miles near the town of Ojibwa. I wouldn’t have minded a gas station to stop at to get some more food and water that wasn’t frozen to the point of being slushy.
I continued on, scanning the trail for any sign of civilization. Nothing. My hands were getting cold and I mentioned that to another runner as we shared a short conversation as he passed me. He suggested to make sure to eat enough. I was eating plenty, I assured him. The sun went down, and I fully enjoyed a gorgeous sunset that will live in my memory, because I didn’t want to waste the effort & battery to get my phone out! Soon my legs and my arms were cold. I tried to eat more; I had peanut m&m’s, nutty bars, beef jerky… I couldn’t seem to shake the chill that was settling in. And where is a gas station?? Nothing as far as I could see. Time and miles started to move slower.
The doubts and negativity started to creep in… It’s so cold. If you’re getting cold now, how are you going to make it through the night? Then tears started. This is so hard. Everything about it is hard. Crying is a waste of energy. Pull yourself together… Oh look, a brightly lit gas station! Thank goodness! Then the tears really started.
I walked up to find a few other sleds parked outside, and a couple other runners sitting on stools in the back with the fishing bait and gear. They asked how I was, and all I could do was shrug my shoulders and sniffle. I needed food. My logical mind knew that, but my emotions were all over the place. I just wanted to quit.
I located a slice of hot pizza, a gallon of water and a cup of hot chocolate. There were 2 other guys there who I had sat near on the bus, Mike & Brian. As luck would have it, I would find them at every stop I made throughout the race. I spent some time at the gas station, crying, eating, changing socks, adding another layer, and generally pulling myself together. I decided that no matter what, I would make it 4 more miles to Ojibwa checkpoint and then make the decision if I would continue on. A few minutes before I was ready, my friend, Shawn rolled in, she was looking good, took one look at me and said, “I’m not leaving here without you.” I was grateful to have someone to head into the cold and dark with.
We get out on the trail, and she’s moving faster than I could. But I can see her blinkie lights ahead of me. Pretty soon, I find myself gaining on the blinking lights in the distance. I catch up to her and next thing I know I’m moving well. I feel like a new person.
I’m even running some, I can’t believe how much better I feel. But I’m worried about what’s to come if I continue past Ojibwa checkpoint. Soon, I see the trail markers, pointing down a two track to the Ojibwa checkpoint. I follow it to the checkpoint, and it’s a busy place. A stone shelter in what feels like nowhere, with a warm fire, bright lights, and hosts of trail runners volunteering, taking care of our every need. I walk into hugs, cheers, and more help than I knew what to do with.
I know I still need to pound calories; so grilled cheese and coke are on tap. My neck gaiter, and hat are hanging by the fire. Pictures are snapped, a real bathroom is out back, and after a little while, I know I need to leave. But I’m scared. It’s a long night ahead, and no resources after bar close in Wisconsin.
My friend, Kari, who is an amazing winter athlete was doing the 160 mile option (yes, there is the option at this event to go 160 miles), her Mom was volunteering at the aid station. I asked her, “Rhendi, what do I do, if I can’t make it?” She tells me, “Kate, you just keep walking.” But Rhendi….”Kate, keep walking.” I get her phone number, just in case. But I take her words, “Just keep walking,” and head out alone into the darkness.
It was 6 miles to the town of Radisson, I knew I needed to stop, if I had any chance of making it through the night. I pulled into a bar, to find 2 sleds and some fat bikes out front. Mike & Brian were there. Yay for friendly faces! I wanted a hamburger, but the bar tender said at that hour (11:30pm) they only were serving pizza. So pizza and another coke it was. Calories are calories, and I needed them all right now. I used the bathroom (yay for running water!), ate a slice of pizza, filled my water, and hit the trail. Mike & Brian had left a little bit earlier, and we had made a pact – Breakfast in Birchwood (the next town 22 miles and 6-7 hours later.)
This section gets a little fuzzy. The most noteworthy parts were the moon (so bright I didn’t need my headlamp until it set in the wee hours of the morning), the solitude, and a few other athletes that I came across. A conversation with a guy who was biking the 160 mile distance, and taking a break from riding, so he hiked & pushed his bike while we chatted for probably close to an hour. I came across another runner who was struggling, who asked if I knew how to get a hold of help, since he wanted to drop. We dug my phone out of a deep pocket and I called the race director. He had help coming, and I needed to keep moving, since just that little stop and opening up my layers had caused me to get chilly. Rumor has it the over night low was pushing -27*F. I watched the moon move from over my left shoulder to in front of my right shoulder. I kept eating, drinking, and moving. I tried to think of another word besides “long” night… I didn’t come up with anything. Any way you slice it, it was long.
I started to get impatient, looking for the town of Birchwood, I really wanted real food & my feet were killing me. The moon had set, the wind had picked up again, and I was starting to get legitimately cold. After what seemed like an eternity, I came across Birchwood and Ed’s Pit Stop gas station. There were Mike & Brian warming up! Hooray, we made it through the night!
I was a bit of a mess. As I took my parka off, the inside was covered in ice. My fleece jacket was also covered in ice. I was chilled to the bone. I pulled off my shoes and socks to find 2 nasty blisters on my right foot and the beginning of a blister on the ball of my left foot. Time to do some damage control. I knew that if I was going to finish this thing, I needed to get warm and dry. Plus my stomach was growling. I was hungry!
I spent a lot of time here. Messages exchanged with Matt & Mom again. I knew I had to finish this thing. It wasn’t going to be easy. But I had gotten this far, what’s another 17 miles…. Pain is temporary, pride is forever.
So, I ate, put on dry base layers, popped and dressed blisters, put on dry socks, different shoes, and loaded up to start moving toward the finish.
This was the longest 17 miles ever. A roller coaster of energy and emotions. I’d feel good enough to run at some points, and then at other times, I’d be barely moving. I needed to keep eating to keep my energy, but I was not at all excited by what I had with me. One can only fuel on jerky and peanut m&m’s for so long… But I pressed on. For 75 miles, you follow the Tuscobia state trail and then for the last 5 miles you turn onto another regional trail that takes you into the town of Rice Lake. In the last few miles of the Tuscobia state trail, I noticed a truck parked at a road crossing ahead. I knew it was Matt. The tears started. I just wanted to be done. To crawl in the truck and stop moving. I was so happy to see him and the dogs though! A quick hug at the corner and I had to keep going.
Pretty soon I made the turn onto the trail for the last 5 miles. It was wide open and straight as an arrow. I was shuffling a long at a snail’s pace. It would be a long 5 miles. I kept looking ahead and hoping to see any sign of the finish area. Although I didn’t know what it would look like, but just some clue that I was getting closer. Nothing. I came across a spectator at a road crossing and promptly burst into tears again. I was an emotional mess, but I just kept walking.
There was something up the trail. I couldn’t tell what it was, I kept staring at it, then I saw Matt and the dogs. And then I heard the cheering. What? I was done? This was the headquarters? And with that, more tears, I just wanted to be done, and now I was!! I couldn’t believe it. I had persevered through the night and the cold, and made it 80 miles while pulling a sled. This was by far, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
A full day later, I still can’t believe I did it. I persevered through extreme cold, fatigue, blisters and chafing to walk/run/hike/slog 80 miles. Only 50% of those that started the 80 mile finished. This was not an event to take unnecessary risks, because risks could be deadly. I have so much respect for everyone brave enough to start. Thank you to all the volunteers who gave up their weekend to stand around in this cold, and to the race directors, Helen & Chris, who put on an amazing event.
Until next time.