Tuscobia – More Than Miles

6AM isn’t too early to get out of bed, but to be at the starting line of a 160 mile trek, pulling a sled filled with gear and grub, while the temperature is hovering near -17F is daunting. Sleep was unsettled so getting my feet on the floor at 4AM was a relief. As my friend Ryan (riding 160 miles beginning on Saturday) said, “Let’s just get this thing started!” We made the short journey from the Pullmen Motel to the Knights of Columbus Hall in beautiful Rice Lake, WI. I checked in, enjoyed some delightful full bodied coffee, and a bowl of thick oatmeal with brown sugar before venturing out to a mass of white LED headlights and blinking red LED marker lights. Tuscobia 160 was underway.

Ready to begin the journey.

Before making the right turn off of the Wild Rivers Trail onto the Tuscobia Trail, I generated enough warmth to open a few venting zippers on my outter shell jacket. Moving east, watching the rising sun with its full array of colors in the clear sky made me realize multiple times that I have a good life. Chatting with other participants, including Wayne McComb of Georgia (I met him last year at this event) also created an inner calm about the hours and miles ahead.

Coming to the west side of Birchwood, I stopped to continue my intake of liquids and calories, as well as to get this photo. Bright sun, a few hills, and beautiful scenery added to my positive attitude while maintaining an acceptable pace.

Connection between Balsam and Red Cedar Lakes

Ed’s Pit Stop (a haven on last year’s 80 mile journey) provided added encouragement. Free coffee, pleasant staff, salty snacks, cheesy breakfast pizza, indoor bathroom, and my initial contact with AJ and Jennifer reinforced my belief that this journey was off to a grand start.

Leaving Ed’s, I continued on the long, tree lined, cold, snow covered trail. The temperature had to be moving toward zero as I moved toward the checkpoint at Ojibwa (45 miles from the start at Rice Lake). Stopping in the afternoon sun where the trail crossed a gravel road seemed like a fine option. Turning my face toward the sun while savoring nutrition and hydration brought more gratitude. A fine day with nothing to do but move forward in the serenity of the Wisconsin landscape provided significant satisfaction. My introspection was interrupted with the sound of a vehicle door closing. Parked along the road was a propane delivery truck with Steve getting out of the cab. He had been making Saturday deliveries to Lakeland Cooperative customers. He had noticed people pulling sleds along the trail as he filled the large silver tanks. Steve had previously been involved with dog sled racing. An injury unrelated to sled racing caused him to give up this passion. However, he remained an outdoor enthusiast. After at least 10 minutes of sharing information, including a temperature reading of -11F, and connecting as unique individuals along a nondescript intersection in rural Birchwood, we parted ways with a strong handshake, well wishes, and broad smiles. There are more than miles on a journey.

Moving along the packed snow my sense of satisfaction continued for hours. As time moved forward, I too moved closer to two people ahead of me. I closed the gap rather quickly, as they had stopped along the trail.  Upon approach I realized it was AJ and Jennifer whom I had met briefly at Ed’s in Birchwood. What made this encounter significant was the honesty conveyed due to one of them making the necessary stop along the trail. “I’m sorry,” one mentioned. “I thought there was enough distance between us. I didn’t mean to be so gross.” she continued. Ah, the joys and realities of necessary hydration and release of said hydration being bundled up in winter gear. This encounter began a marvelous, helpful, funny, and unique connection with two engaging, determined, and adventurous women.

Our paces were similar. As darkness overtook the tree lined landscape we decided to trek together. Conversation was fluid, encouragement flowed freely, and we moved at a nice pace. Jennifer unknowingly dropped a bottle of her hydration. As I had plenty (over packing the sled) it was trail etiquette and friendship to share my bounty. It was far from the mixture of vegetable juice/puree that she was drinking, but it was calories, electrolytes, and branch chain amino acids. Maybe vegetable juice sounds better? We stopped at the next bar and grill so Jennifer could resupply her fluids. The establishment near Couderay (Riverside Golf Club) wasn’t too busy. Other race participants had left their dollars at the bar. I too left payment for Mt Dew and two bags of Cheetos. Indoor bathrooms, drying off a bit, and leaving a puddle of melted snow on their floor was also something I left behind. Our trio of trekkers left for the final push to the checkpoint at Ojibwa.

Darkness had fully enveloped us, but for the rare light from a house or yard. Both AJ and Jennifer broke into song at various times. Countless renditions of Madonna and Cyndi Lauper hits broke the quiet of the night. The music and banter distracted me from the increasing discomfort on the ball of my left foot. Fatigue was increasing. My attitude was cascading downward as evidenced by my self-talk. The serenity of hours past, my sense of nothing to do but move forward was being overtaken by the focused desire to reach respite at the checkpoint.

Upon arrival through a creaking, loosely hung wooden door the warmth of volunteers, as well as degrees propelled me out of my funk. My outter shell jacket was lined with frost. I needed to dry off the shell and my inner layers. Volunteers near the fireplace dried my jacket with the skill of a pit master turning the barbecue meat. Soup, soda, and salty snacks were consumed. AJ and Jennifer also took full advantage of this oasis. Jennifer wanted more time to rest, as we had a cushion of time according to our calculations. The outdoor vault toilet was better than squatting in the woods, but the cold seat wasn’t conducive for a long visit.  A further distraction and positive perspective was provided by a dog that had followed some participants for over 20 miles to the checkpoint. It didn’t respond to numerous chidings to return to its home. This tired canine (Beagle?) was the mascot of the checkpoint. It received massive amounts of love and attention from many, including a generous dose of my tender loving care.

Following an hour at the Ojibwa shelter we resumed our journey on the trail toward Park Falls. This turn around point was 35 miles ahead of us. Bolstered by the rest, dry clothing, and warm food all was well with me. We kept an adequate pace with the realization that the deep, difficult night filled with demons and delusions lie ahead. The hope that the starting temperature of -17F was going to be the event low was beginning to fade. The cold seemed deeper and more intense. My hands were not responding as they had been previously. This is my signal for hydration. However, the need to take off mittens, get into the cooler on the sled, unscrew the lid of the Hydro Flask and get moving again in short order was daunting in a cold, dark, weary state. Even with my hands in the pogies that covered my trekking poles, assisted by chemical hand warmers, it was difficult to maintain warmth in my digits. eating and drinking became more sporadic. All of this was not a good sign. The banter and music of my trail team was lessening. Snapping into consciousness from bouts of sleep walking came too often. The blister on my left foot became more pronounced.  Focusing on the white circle of my headlamp only provided for self-hypnosis.

At some point a bright, white light was shining in my face. After focusing out of my delirium I stepped aside of the oncoming light. It was the lead runner. He had been to Park Falls, turned around and was heading back to Rice Lake. His stride appeared effortless. He didn’t appear to be heavily layered in clothing and his cheerful, “Good going. Keep moving.” made me wonder if this was a vision. It was real and I was awake and alert for a little while longer.

My core was getting colder. My self-care wasn’t adequate for the task ahead. “Only a couple of hours before sunrise,” came the encouragement from Jennifer. It did little to change my attitude. The snowmobile patrol was last seen at the Ojibwa checkpoint. I began to wonder if he took the night off and we were going to be left alone.  I needed to make some decisions, none of which were positive for my long-term success. I finally heard some noise behind me, motorized noise. The lights and sounds of a snowmobile were gaining. Todd didn’t need to ask me more than once and my sled was in his sled, I was seated on a heated snowmobile seat, and I dipped down behind his back to stay out of the wind. My journey on foot was officially over. I bid adieu to AJ and Jennifer. I didn’t see them again until we met at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Rice Lake.

Todd and the volunteers at St Anthony School in Park Falls were generous and gracious. Mark Scotch, who gave my sled and my body a ride back to Rice Lake was supportive and kind.  I don’t have many details because I was emotionally spent, physically tired, and filled with mixed thought about my efforts.

My training and riding partner, Ryan successfully navigated and endured his 160 miles on the fatbike!

Ryan at the Finish Line

160 miles is a long way to travel by any mode of movement. I’ve asked myself many times if I was truly prepared for this journey. I have ceased to struggle with the question, as I believe there is no definitive answer.  Life itself is a journey composed of other journeys which we may or may not remember.  I have come to appreciate over the years that it’s the characters that grace my travels more than the distance covered that give meaning to the journeys. I set out from the starting line to see what lies ahead. I’ve been disappointed in myself at various times, but I have always gained perspective, friends, and unique insights along the way.  I’ll be at more starting lines before I finish the journey of life.

A gracious staff person at Ed’s Pit Stop.