Walk In The Woods — Report

It has been almost a month since the Tuscobia Winter Ultra. Following the event I spent time in Arizona and New Mexico visiting my older daughter and recognizing my father’s 90th birthday. I also had the opportunity to visit a couple of friends in Tucson and Mesa. Following these travels I also made a few day trips to southern Minnesota to see my mother-in-law. She had a severe stroke. She willingly received Hospice care and died late in January. All of these diverse events provided time to reflect upon Tuscobia, life in general, and my numerous emotions. This post will report on the Tuscobia Winter Ultra and my impressions of it. The next post will be personal reflections upon life’s events both planned and unplanned.

Driving to Rice Lake, WI took me from single digit Fargo into double digit above freezing temperatures. About 20 miles from Rice Lake I encountered fog and sporadic, gentle drizzle. The 160 mile runners and skiers began at 6am on Friday, entering onto and into moist and mushy trail conditions that hampered their progress. The forecast was for falling temperatures, decreased precipitation, and in my mind close to ideal conditions for an 80 mile walk in the woods.

The locally owned and operated motel was everything I expected. For a fair price I had a bed, small bathroom with sink + shower, microwave, refrigerator, wi-fi, and a flat screen television which probably couldn’t have fit in the bathroom. It was probably the first time the “No Vacancy” sign had been illuminated in January for years.

Portman Motel. Classic, retro, completely adequate lodging.
Pullman Motel: classic, retro, and completely adequate lodging.

The parking lot was awash with bike carries on vehicles. Fat tire tracks ran to doors more abundantly than the rabbit and squirrel tracks. My room had enough space for the sled while maintaining a path into the bathroom.

Check-in, gear check, and pre-race information was held at the Knights of Columbus Hall. As the mandatory gear was spread on tables the race directors (Chris + Helen) checked off boxes on the registration sheets, chatted with participants, and efficiently kept the lines moving. The large hall was abuzz with conversation and personal reunions. I met a couple of people (Bonnie and Chad) with whom I had previously interacted with on social media. Wayne (no previous connection), was a bonus to meet! He resides in Georgia. He wanted a winter ultra experience. Previous 100 mile trail ultras made him a fit and capable participant, but he had never pulled a sled, tromped in snow, or experienced snot hardening temperatures. We conversed, laughed, and formed a quick connection at the pre-race meeting.

Chris Scotch giving instructions. Long hair + beard....both on Chris & the wall decoration.
Chris Scotch giving instructions. Long hair + beard….both on Chris & the wall decoration.

Following Chris’ welcome, instructions, and precautions the regional Wisconsin DNR official spoke. His honesty, sense of humor, and appreciation for “all of you nut cases” made for a fitting conclusion and exit from the KofC Hall. I finished packing the sled and found favorable sleep in the austere quarters.

Back at the KofC Hall at 5:45am the Wild Rivers Trail was illuminated by the rhythmic blinking of red lights. The 160 mile bikers were ready to begin their journey. With loud shouts and whoops they forged onto the straight, frozen trail. After 4 miles of exiting from Rice Lake they would turn onto the Tuscobia Trail for the next 76 miles of peddling to Park Falls.

After getting the sled into the queue for loading onto a school bus the Kof C Hall was busy with people getting oatmeal, coffee, hot beverages, and using the two bathrooms. Hot, runny oatmeal (I added bananas which I brought) and strong, black coffee satisfied me prior to securing a shared seat on a tightly packed bus. The 2 hour ride to Park Falls was uneventful, but filled with good conversation about the event and life in general.

St Anthony of Padua School lunch room.
St Anthony of Padua School lunch room.

St. Anthony of Padua Catholic School gymnasium and lunch room served as the staging area for the 80 mile bikers, skiers, and trekkers. It also served as the checkpoint, aid station and turn around for the 160 mile participants. The spacious and dated facility was filled with interaction, warmth, and compassion. What would you expect from a faith-based school? Oh, it was a Saturday. The 8th Grade Class was serving a variety of baked goods and hot beverages. It was supposedly a bake sale for the public, but the racers, families, and support  crews took advantage of their efforts. A tip jar was on the counter, but we were informed that co-race director Helen was providing a sizable contribution to the class for their hospitality and support. Their help in filling hydration containers with hot liquids, homemade, portable + packable baked goods, and genuine interest in the racers was sheer grace. Oh ya, it’s a faith-based education center. In all sincerity, they served as those who have been served with compassion and joy!

Chad getting ready to trek.
Chad getting ready to trek.

With bikes and sleds unloaded from vehicles and trailers. Final preparations were being made, equipment and lights checked, and the anxious energy of participants rose into the double digit air temperature.

Bikes loaded for 80 mile riders.
Some of the bikes loaded for 80 mile riders.
Outside the Park Falls School waiting for the official start.
Outside the Park Falls School waiting for the official start.

Soon the noise of crowded participants, derailleurs moving chains onto appropriate rings, and sled bottoms scraping against the pavement subsided as entry onto the Tuscobia Trail was realized.

Straight, tree lined trail with a wealth of beauty.
Straight, tree lined trail with a wealth of beauty.

It didn’t take too long for the foot participants to gain greater distance between themselves. There were two or three people in an occasional grouping, but in a few hours I felt alone on the trail. The silent beauty was uninterrupted for a long time. There were a few wildlife footprints, the occasional sound of a bird, some vehicle noise as the trail came near a roadway, and the fairly regular discoloration of snow from well hydrated participants; yet for the most part this state snowmobile trail had very little snowmobile traffic. I had plenty of time to assess my physical and emotional condition, as well as much needed time to allow my mind to be distracted by the natural beauty of the surroundings. However, I found my mind often returning to calculations of time and distance when I would look at my watch. In other events I have thought about my pace and time, but during this event I had to consciously distract from the obsessive emphasis of calculations.

Part of the wooded wetland beauty.
Part of the wooded wetland beauty.

As the sun set, I was mildly disappointed by the small amount of color I was able to observe. The clouds had been breaking and streams of colored, subdued light came through, but the trees which blocked the wind also blocked the full array of the colorful end of daylight. When I reached Winter, WI it was time for a break at the local C-Store. My mind was racing for a slice of pizza or a roller dog. Upon entering the store and removing my glasses so I didn’t need to stumble with clouded lenses, my heart sank. NO pizza and NO roller dogs. The checkpoint was only 5 miles away, but my plan was to ingest salt, fat, and protein at this location and quickly pass through the checkpoint. With a king sized peanut butter Twix in hand it was time to hit the trail.

The 35 mile checkpoint was a crowded oasis. A nicely heated, rock hewed shelter had been adapted to make an enclosed space. There were great volunteers with food and conversation, but large amounts of hot water was lacking. I grabbed some food, drank some hot beverage, and used the enclosed but drafty latrine. Back in the shelter I signed out, secured a small amount of hot liquid mixed with sugary soda, and began the next portion of the journey. It was getting toward 8pm when I returned to the trail. There would be no open businesses in the small towns along the trail. My calculations (that were still on overdrive) assured me that the next opportunity for purchased nourishment would be in Birchwood, WI where a C-Store opened at 6am.  I was wrong, however. I didn’t realize that I would pass an open bar along the trail. It was nearly 1am when I saw the neon beer logos. There were cars and snowmobiles in the parking lot, so it must have been open. I felt secure in my preparations for the next hours. I also had no need for a bathroom stop. Finally, I wanted to get some distance on the trail before the snowmobile operators who had been at the bar decided to make their way home. In checking the thermometer attached to the sled I saw -13. In looking at the sky I could see bright stars. The cold was settling in deeper than had been forecast.

As I readied to cross a county road, I saw headlights ready to crest a nearby hill. I needed a break so I waited for the vehicle to pass by. As it reached the bottom of the hill it topped and left its parking lights on. The driver came out and asked if I was alright. The driver, identified himself as a Tuscobia volunteer and was interested in my condition. In looking at the sled thermometer once again it registered -20. I stated that I was tired, but expectedly so. My feet and hands were beginning to feel the cold, but I stated that I was good to go. He informed me that Birchwood was about 4 miles ahead. In looking at my watch I was pleased to think that the C-Store would be open. I now saw blinking lights ahead of me, ultra participants or hallucinations?  It didn’t matter, I focused on four miles and a warm C-Store. This focus distracted me from thinking about my calorie and hydration needs. By the time I arrived at Ed’s Pit Stop, I was cold, tired, physically and emotionally spent. I had been moving forward for a little more than 20 hours.

The local men sitting around tables drinking coffee looked at me and the other participants who started to come in as if we were aliens. Maybe it was more like “The Walking Dead?” The counter attendant was a delight! She asked a few questions before telling us of free coffee for Tuscobia participants. I could enjoy a cup of hot coffee as I sent a text to my friend Rick. I informed him (6:30am) that I was dropping out of the event and turning off his SPOT tracking device. Not expecting a reply, as I assumed Rick would be sleeping on Sunday morning, I was surprised to hear my phone indicate a text came in. Rick was  up and ready to encourage me to rest, rethink, and then head back out. His Arrowhead 135 experience was shared in that the sun, some rest, some nutrition, and some positive self-talk would get me to finish the last 16 miles. Great encouragement, but I wanted nothing of it. Some other participants reaffirmed Rick’s advice.

Two hours later, my stiff muscled but greatly revived body hooked up the sled and headed toward Rice Lake. These were difficult miles, but the sun shining on a new day altered my perspective. The miles wore on and for the most part I was alone. A couple of people passed me and provided encouragement. Upon crossing a roadway a group of participants who had dropped out earlier in the evening cheered me on. Their enthusiasm provided a brief glimmer of hope. Along the trail a mother and her daughter were outside their home. They began talking with me and offering me encouragement. I stopped and chatted for a few minutes. When they responded to a question about distance to Rice Lake, their answer was heard but inwardly denied. “It couldn’t be that far!” I told myself. Once again I kept placing one foot in front of the other. My lower back was painful. I pulled the sled with my hand in about every conceivable configuration. I forgot about eating and drinking and focused with tunnel vision about the finish line.

Finally, the four mile, straight stretch to the KofC Hall was under my feet. There were more road crossings which I believed marked greater distance than was reality. I kept looking for the finish line over the next crest. More people passed me and encouraged me. The people passed over the next crest and weren’t seen again. I was sore, tired, and emotionally spent. “Where is that damn finish line?” I kept asking myself. And I recollect that it was asked or shouted out loud, as well. Finally there were a couple of people and a banner. It was 3;30pm and I was at the KofC Hall. 80 miles on foot. My greatest distance ever. Pulling a sled that weighed about 35 pounds and felt like 3,500 at the end. I was glad to be done. That relief was about the only emotion I could muster at the moment.

Tuscobia Winter Ultra is a well organized, well supported, and overall great event. The people of Rice Lake and Park Falls embrace the event, as well as the participants. Many of the stores in Rice Lake had signs to welcome the racers. We received Chamber Bucks from the Rice Lake Chamber of Commerce to spend. Store and motel owners were very accommodating and responsive to questions and needs. Chris and Helen Scotch are capable, top-notch athletes, but also insightful race directors who are organized and thoughtful. In 2011, my first winter fat bike event was at Tuscobia. I hope to return for this fine event and not wait 5 years to do so.