Tuscobia Winter Ultra 2017

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Tuscobia State Trail, Birchwood

After four months of training, planning and gear accumulating, we finally did the thing–the Tuscobia Winter Ultra 80-mile run (ahem, walk)–a mostly unsupported footrace on the Tuscobia State Trail in northern Wisconsin.

Tailwind, crackers, gum, candies, dehydrated fruit, and more
Endurance event race fuel, didn’t touch several of these treats

Our group (Jen, me, 2 friends, 1 friend’s mom and dad, plus their 3 friends and one of those friend’s sons i.e. BIG group) opted to stay at a hotel in Park Falls so we could skip the early race morning shuttle from Rice Lake and drive ourselves to the start only five minutes away.

Gear Check (Rice Lake)

Jen and I emailed the race directors twice about a couple pieces of our required gear. Even before race weekend, we knew they were the nicest of people and responsive to our questions. Thankfully we took Friday off to finalize our packing and food prep. My nerves didn’t kick in until we were on the road and we both hung out in the car for a few minutes after we arrived, knowing each step toward the gear check building was one step closer to starting this crazy race.

Cory, Jen and others at gear check
Cory and Jen, gear check

Pre-race dinner

Our group decided to make our way toward Park Falls, and stopped at a bar along the way for dinner. The pitchers of Spotted Cow gracing our group’s tables were tempting, but Jen and I opted to hold off on alcohol and instead indulged in a shared glass of lemonade. I felt a draft and kept thinking, “if this lil’ draft is noticeable, how am I going to survive overnight, on a trail, in subzero temps…”

Re-packing

How many sleds can you fit in a modest motel room? Three! At least. Jen, Cory, and I each brought our sleds and gear into the room so we could fall asleep knowing we were set for the race in the morning.

The Start (Park Falls)

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Tuscobia Winter Ultra, fat tire bikes, pulks (sleds), & gear at the start

Unlike most race mornings where I have to stop myself from eating too much breakfast, I barely choked down a homemade peanut butter ball and coffee. I did make sure to down a bottle of Nuun (sugarless electrolyte tablet added to water). We left the hotel around 9am, sleds reloaded, nerves revived despite a surprisingly good night’s sleep.

The school common area was filled with racers and their cheer crews, volunteers, plus 160-mile runners passed out on sleeping pads under the lunch tables. The 160-mile fat tire bikers had taken off earlier Saturday morning, and the 160-mile runners and skiers started early the previous morning.

It felt a little chaotic, but the dominant force was excitement and trying to stay warm until the final minutes before the 10 a.m. start.

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Tuscobia Winter Ultra, Jen, me, & the perfect face masks for sub-0 temps

In below-zero-degree-Fahrenheit weather, the mass of skiers, fat tire bikers, and runners/walkers tethered to sleds gathered in the parking lot a.k.a our start line. The sun was shining and truly felt like a perfect day for this race.

First 30 miles

I was sleepy. Our group mostly stayed together, stopped briefly to eat Uncrustable PB&J sandwiches, and took advantage of a steep hill to ride our sleds down. We chatted, joked, and walked… and walked… and walked some more. It was… fun! Well, aside from my midweight leg layer digging into my hips, but other than that, great. We averaged an 18:00/mile pace. Jess’ family friends cheered for us, enthusiastically!

Tuscobia Winter Ultra 2017, sledding!
Tuscobia Winter Ultra 2017, sledding!

Eventually Jen and I trekked on our own and decided on our first stop, a bar in Winter, WI for a quick dinner and to rest our feet for a bit. The bar space was great, the greasy fries and not-fully cooked chicken strips weren’t ideal. Fortunately, there was plenty of space to sprawl out, warm up, and drink a glass of lemonade, plus the bar was just a minute or two walk from the trail. I also swapped out the batteries in my flashing red LED lights.

After an hour and adding another top layer, we continued on toward Ojibwa, home of the sole checkpoint.

The Checkpoint (~ mile 35)

It was dark, we were getting tired, so for a brief moment we thought, “What if we passed the turn for the checkpoint?!” Yikes. Luckily that really was not possible with how well-marked the turn-off was to the 80-mile race’s only checkpoint. Around 10pm we arrived at the old stone building, filled with incredibly helpful volunteers, soup, hot water, snacks, and heaters. We changed our socks and shoes, added more Vaseline to our feet (blister prevention), gulped down chicken soup and drank some soda (ginger ale to help Jen’s rawish chicken belly and Coca Cola for the caffeine for me). We stayed longer than we originally planned, but it was nice to use a ‘bathroom’ (outhouse) and ‘freshen up.’

And here’s when the trouble started. Jen’s hip flexors were giving her serious trouble that only got worse…

We departed the checkpoint after 11pm and just kept moving. We tried stretching and walking a little slower to ease the increasing pain in Jen’s hips and now, also in her Achilles tendon. Jess and her mom beat us to Radisson (around mile 40), their pre-selected drop-out point. Cory was with them too. Jen could’ve easily dropped at this point, but stubbornly (I would’ve done the same!) decided to keep going.

I wish I had taken a picture of Mars… this farm field in the middle of the night, covered in heaps of perfectly rounded snow mounds. The laser lights looked incredible as they extended beyond a farm building onto the trees and across the trail. We started to get chilly; a sure sign it was time to put on our toasty REI coats. It couldn’t have taken more than two minutes to remove our reflective vests, put on the coats, and re-add the reflective vests–but negative 14 degrees (or maybe it was colder?) has a way of permeating extremities. Our hands were frozen. We had kept them covered at all times with thin gloves, though and re-added our warm mittens, which fit into our big coat pockets to warm our hands back up after several minutes. Arm circles helped warm us up too. Unfortunately, the cold was the easy part. Jen’s hips were in bad shape. She could barely walk, each step looking like she had just stepped off a horse after a trek across the country. I couldn’t offer any solutions, just a few hugs and supportive words as we both knew what was coming…

We didn’t know Jess, her mom, and Cory would be parked at a crossroad near mile 45, but thank goodness they were there waiting to cheer us on. With no other reasonable choice, Jen called it in. I assured her I’d be OK on my own despite it being after 3am. If I got in trouble, and didn’t have cell reception, I’d use the 2-way radio we’d borrowed (in retrospect, awful plan, I didn’t know how to use that thing). She loaded her sled into the SUV, and I continued on, alone.

Alone at night

The hours leading up to sunrise seemed to go by quickly, alone in my own thoughts that didn’t extend beyond the race itself and silly song lyrics that somehow made their way into my head. I stopped briefly to drink cold broth from my thermos. I avoided turning my head to the left or right, because illuminating the woods with my headlamp would’ve almost certainly resulted in being startled by an animal.

Morning pep 

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Tuscobia Winter Ultra 2017, me, somewhere along the trail on Sunday

Suddenly, the sun was rising! At this point, pending any acute injuries, I felt convinced I’d make it to the finish. Jen, Cory, Jess and her mom stopped a couple times to cheer me on. They were amazing in transitioning from racer to cheer crew, and even picked up a guy who was trying without success to dry off his soaking cotton layers inside a sleeping bag and bivvy sack.

One guy I passed poking around in his sled, later zoomed passed me on the back of a snowmobile, his sled and gear towed behind in an even larger towing sled.

I subsisted on homemade peanut butter balls (chia seeds, honey, oats, dark chocolate chips, peanut butter) and Tailwind in my hydration pack (making sure to blow the water out of the hose after each drink to avoid water freezing in the tube). My waist pack was stocked with snacks–gum, ginger candies, Honey Stinger caffeinated chews, chocolate-covered espresso beans–that I nibbled on.

Frost freezing on my eyelashes and face mask
Tuscobia Winter Ultra 2017, it was cold

Somewhere along this long stretch from Couderay to Birchwood (17.5 miles) the lateral side of my right foot started to hurt. But then it’d subside. And come back, only temporarily before subsiding, again. I stopped off to the side to grab my original shoes from a duffel bag on the sled. They were so frozen and hard. I shoved them on anyway. Eventually they softened up, and the carbon Superfeet insert helped ease soreness in both feet.

Ed’s Pit Stop and the LONGEST 17 miles, ever

I made it to Ed’s Pit Stop around 11am on Sunday. The quaint dining area was filled with racers, some looking exhausted, some chattering away. Jess’ mom greeted me and talked, while I wolfed down a surprisingly good pre-made cheeseburger, washed down with a Starbucks sparkling energy juice. It was a great pick-me-up. Plus, I got to see Jen, Jess, and Cory (they had just returned from picking up the cars we parked at the start area).

Tuscobia Winter Ultra 2017, after Birchwood. Bison.
Tuscobia Winter Ultra 2017, after Birchwood. Bison.

I took off before noon, eager to finish the remaining 17 miles. Traveling around 3 mph meant that even with less than 20 miles to go, I still had several hours before finishing. I only encountered a 160-mile racer and two fat tire bikers along this stretch. It felt endless, particularly as my right foot was hurting with increased frequency (luckily, still subsiding in pain in equal frequency) and I was confused about the mileage remaining on the Tuscobia State Trail and then on the Wild Rivers State Trail. It must’ve been a couple hours later that Jen, Jess, and Cory were just ahead, cheering me on again. That helped, a lot. Then I started feeling anxious knowing I wasn’t going to finish before dark, and started feeling bad for anyone from our group waiting for at the end. I couldn’t move fast enough! Really, I couldn’t. Not any faster than a 17:00/mile pace, and more often a 20:00/mile pace. But I kept moving. And took a photo of some bison.

Cold hands and the Finish (Rice Lake)

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Tuscobia Winter Ultra 2017, nearing the finish

Probably around 5pm on Sunday I started to feel chilly. I stopped to put on that cozy REI coat, unfortunately not taking care to make sure my hands stayed warm throughout the finagling. My hands felt rock hard, but I was lucky they eventually warmed up sans frostbite.

A half hour or so later I saw flashing red lights ahead, unsure if that was a biker that had passed me or the finish line marker. But then I saw the silhouettes of my Tuscobia companions and I picked up the pace.

31 hours and 30 minutes after starting, I was so happy to be greeted by my race companions–Jen, Cory, Jess and her parents–at the finish. One of the race directors congratulated me and took my photo under the ‘finisher’s’ Tuscobia Winter Ultra banner. I ate two slices of pizza, lay on the floor, recorded one more Facebook Live video thanking friends and family for posting encouraging comments I read a couple times during the race, and pet the unofficial race dog that had followed random racers for hours.

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Tuscobia Winter Ultra 2017, I finished!

Of the 146 racers that started (80-mile and 160-mile runners, bikers, and skiers), 86 racers finished. I feel proud to be among the finishers. I also feel SUPER proud of Jen for completing OVER HALF the race. As someone who was commonly skeptical of her own abilities, she pushed through discomfort, reaching far beyond her comfort zone into brand new territory and completed SO MANY miles beyond what she’d ever done in the past. We both wish she had finished. But that doesn’t take away all that she accomplished.

Looking ahead

Jen and I have talked about a few things we’d do differently next time, gear tweaks, major training changes… in other words, it’s not out of the question that we’d find ourselves on the Tuscobia Winter Ultra start line, at least once more…

Big shoutouts to our Tuscobia race group (including racers and cheer crew), the volunteers, the race directors, the team at Fleet Feet Marathon Sports (an awesome place for buying gear and working a side gig), Lyn Lake Chiropractic (they generously sponsored a few of my care appointments leading up to the race) and friends & family for their support!


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Tuscobia Winter Ultra 2017, Jen, me, & our sleds

THE GEAR

Footwear

I debated back and forth between water-resistant running shoes, short gaiters, tall gaiters, a boot-esque running shoe, and more. Ultimately, I semi-randomly ordered a pair of shoes that worked out for the absolute best (Gore-Tex trail shoe, modest heel-to-toe drop). And unlike a few other items I experimented with on race day, I did wear these A LOT beforehand to get fully acquainted. I’ve done well with zero-drop (i.e. Altra Lone Peak) for long running efforts, but I’ve noticed they don’t work as well for me in long walking efforts.

  • Vaseline
  • Primary socks: FITS Sock Expedition socks (thick and wool)
  • Secondary socks: FITS Medium Hiker Crew (wool)
  • Primary shoe: North Face Ultra Endurance GTX with a carbon Superfeet insert
  • Secondary shoe: Altra Lone Peak Neoshell
  • Yaktrax RUN (didn’t need ’em)

Apparel

Wool and synthetic-blend layers were KEY in staying warm and dry.

  • Lightweight wool tights, form-fitting fleece tights mid-layer, wind-resistant Saucony Siberius running pants (men’s version, because pockets)
  • Mizuno wool long-sleeve baselayer with a Saucony light fleece long-sleeve on top
  • REI quarter-zip fleece pullover (added warmth Saturday evening)
  • North Face windproof jacket (love the chest pocket, loose fit, zippered hand pockets and hood)
  • Featherweight Mizuno running jacket (added warmth later in the race)
  • REI Stratocloud Hoodie Jacket (added warmth late Saturday evening and Sunday evening) – I LOVE this coat; Jen and I refer to them as our sleeping bag coats. Even more perfect with the chest media pocket, deep inside pockets, and cozy hood.
  • Gator Sport fleece-lined face protector (kept our faces warm, easy to breathe out of)

Required

  • 0-degree sleeping bag
  • sleeping pad
  • bivvy sack
  • camp stove
  • stove fuel
  • firestarter
  • 1 pint pot
  • 3,000 calories
  • 3 flashing red LED lights
  • headlamp
  • extra batteries
  • reflective material

The Good Stuff

Not required, but we found this stuff to be essential.

  • pStyle (a super simple stand-to-pee device I commonly describe as a water slide…)
  • REI microfiber towel in lieu of tissues or handkerchiefs (SO SOFT on the nose)
  • Ziploc baggies with the slider closure (so much easier with frozen or mitten-clad hands) for snacks
  • Hand-warmers and more hand-warmers
  • Mountainsmith Drift Waistpack – swapped out our padded tool belts for these to store snacks, lights, and attach our pulk system; perfect size, fit and durability
  • Insulated thermos (not essential because we had hydration bladders, but liquids stayed liquid-y)
  • Camelbak with insulted hose, filled with Tailwind and worn over baselayer (didn’t freeze!)
  • Lithium AAA batteries
  • A sled.

Tuscobia Winter Ultra 2017, sunset
Tuscobia Winter Ultra 2017, sunset

30 miles on the Luce Line

Luce Line Trail
Luce Line State Trail, 2016

Following a lazy, lazy Thanksgiving holiday — sure, we hauled tires for an hour one day and went for an easy 3-mile walk another day, but nothing within the realm of a full training load — we haphazardly decided on going 30 miles this past Saturday, with a 12-15 mile walk on Sunday.

Wagon re-hitched with PVC pipe (thanks to Jen’s handy work and mighty drill) and gear packed up Friday night, we took off Saturday morning for the start of the Luce Line State Trail in Plymouth. We were both in… moods of sorts, meaning neither of us was really game to start this hike that we knew would last all morning and afternoon into the evening (that’s a terrible way to get going, obviously). Tack on a still wobbly wagon (guess it’s meant to use with a handle) and groups of runners (hey there, dose of envy) looking dubiously at our 4-wheeled companion, we had a rough start.

Fortunately, we still had 29.75 miles to work it out.

It’s funny how the simple act of placing one foot in front of the other, over… and over… and over again can clear up a tough mental patch. We both settled into an acceptable pace and enjoyable conversation. We stayed hydrated, ate homemade energy balls and daydreamed about that burger and fries we planned on grabbing post-all day walk.

Although the crushed limestone Luce Line State Trail starts in a populated suburb, each side of the trail lined with big houses, eventually you make your way into rural Minnesota, complete with cows, horses and sheep. We saw a llama farm, but sadly no llamas. We also saw a cat, but it had no interest in us and ran off before we could even try to coax it for a pet or two. I had high hopes of spotting a coffee shop off to the north or south as we crossed each intersection, but instead settled for our insulated jug of hot water and ginger tea. Snacks were top notch, specifically honing in on the savory side i.e. crackers and plantain chips. The homemade energy balls were filling, fatty and not too sweet i.e. perfection.

Moving ahead to mile 14, Jen and I debated back and forth about which mileage tracker to use–my watch or the posted wooden mile markers. I was all for taking a photo with mile marker 15; however, we opted to turn around before that point, when my watch hit 15.00 (I’m the one who will do circles around the car or apartment building to get that extra fraction of a mile for an even .00 or .50, while Jen begrudgingly follows me or simply sits in the car waiting for me to finish up our days’s trek).

So, those first 15 miles weren’t bad. At 16, I somewhat sarcastically commented how happy I was that our car was parked 14 miles away. And then suddenly–an hour+ later–we approached mile 20. Time to pull out the earbuds for the first time in all of our training for some podcast listening and a brief stretch (focusing on the hip flexors and lower back).

While I found my second wind (partially due to being free of wagon pulling for the day after completing my three shares of 5 mile sessions), Jen’s enthusiasm was in decline mode at mile 25. Fully immersed in an episode of Ten Junk Miles and the bit of path I could see lit by our headlamps, I didn’t realize the pain settling into Jen’s feet.

“Fast” forward to miles 26/27, as we make our way out of a tunnel and up a tiny hill, I turn around to ask Jen if she’s doing OK and realize NOPE, not OK. For an ultra distance newbie, she’s prepared for the discomfort that comes with ultra territory, but at this point she’s experiencing intense foot pain, maybe blisters? Maybe flesh-eating-walking-way-too-much-in-one-day-and-newish-shoes-disease? Who knows!

Fortunately, I, 1) bypassed hard-ass mode with ‘don’t worry/you’re doing great/I’m proud of you/just take it one step at a time and don’t even think twice about the upcoming (EIGHTY MILE) distance mode’ and 2) she toughed it out and kept moving despite each painful step, plus 3) I took the wagon back for the last mile.

I also talked her through our three race day goals:

  1. Cross the START line
  2. Walk as far as we possibly can
  3. Cross the finish line

In other words, we have an excellent chance of accomplishing 2 out of 3 goals. Not bad for our first ultra together and her first ultra, ever.

Recovery, part 1: Delicious homemade soup (even in pain, Jen willingly whipped up one awesome dinner), hot epsom salt bath, early bed time

Recovery, part 2: We skipped the second long walk, but still mustered up 5 miles on Sunday around Lake of the Isles. Jen’s feet are doing well (no blisters, ‘just’ intense burning for a full day). My left foot has hurt unrelentingly for the past few days. The joys and mysteries of endurance training.

Next up: This Saturday and Sunday we’ll fit in tire pulling and long walks before and after a myriad of weekend plans.


Quick Specs

Total Time: 10 hours, 45 minutes

Footwear: Altra Lone Peak 2.0 neoshell

Food List:

  • Late July organic crackers (fancy Ritz)
  • Back to Nature crispy cheddar crackers
  • Plantain chips
  • Wild Ginger Harvest bulk trail mix (dark chocolate chips, dried ginger, almonds)
  • Beef jerky
  • Ginger tea
  • 2x jugs hot water
  • 2x bladders with Tailwind
  • Homemade beef, spinach, cheddar cheese tortilla wrap
  • Homemade no-bake energy balls (Whole Foods crunchy PB, Wedge bulk oats & ground flax seed, dark chocolate chips, local honey, real vanilla)

Testing 1, 2, 3

Four people, a dog, two wagons on the a trail
Lunch break on the Tuscobia State Trail

A weekend away for a dry run on the Tuscobia Winter Ultra course couldn’t have come at a better time–just days post-2016 presidential election. Add in the company of good friends, spouse, and no cell service for a much needed, albeit quite temporary, reprieve from the increasing uneasiness accompanying the results.

I take that back; Jen and I acknowledged the risk of four women venturing to rural Wisconsin post-election. I can’t get over that there was even the need to be appreciative that we didn’t encounter any trouble. I suppose it helped we stuck to an empty campground and a mostly desolate trail… only one confederate flag strewn across a pickup truck crossed our path. As someone who falls into the realm of gender non-conforming and a skin tone whose origin is often left up to viewer discretion, the recent increase in hate crimes left me with a valid concern, but like I said, no harm done beyond heightened awareness.

Back to the trail…

Camp set-up

Tuscobia State Trail sign
Passing through another town, Tuscobia State Trail

After a pre-sunrise departure from Minneapolis, we set up our tent with a 35-degree overnight forecast in mind. Similar approach to dressing for the weather: Layers. We lined the tent with a space blanket, grandmother-made sheep’s wool quilt, inexpensive plush mattress pad (that yellow-ish foamy kind), sleeping pads, and finally, cozy zero-degree sleeping bags.

Day 1 – 20 miles

We (four humans, one German Shepard and one chihuahua) set off on the Tuscobia Trail toward Birchwood, fully loaded with two heavy duty garden wagons and one little Burly for the chihuahua. Since we hadn’t yet pulled a wagon in training, Jen and I opted to switch off every couple hours hauling our new wagon and trying out an ancient (yet quite effective) pair of ski poles that worked well as trekking poles. We lucked out with another gorgeous fall day, around 50 degrees and sunshine.

Jen, Cory, and Jess pulling wagons and hiking up hill
Trekking up one of few inclines, Tuscobia State Trail

The trail, a mix of sand and gravel meant for ATV’s, was a welcome mindless switch from our other long walk endeavors. No maps or trail markers to watch for, no distance or route decisions to be made, just keep moving forward on the seemingly endless trail (spoiler: it does end at 74 miles in Rice Lake).

The goal was to keep a 3-mile an hour walking pace (20-minute miles), and despite quick breaks for snacks, water for the dogs, re-adjusting wagon set-ups, and a 40-minute lunch break, we averaged an overall 25-minute per mile pace.

To pass the time, we chatted, sang (some of us sang, not me, I don’t sing for the best interest of everyone), walked ahead in silence, and occasionally noted that with each step we were that much closer to the tator tot hot dish awaiting us back at camp. Exhaustion, aching feet, and antsiness crept in, but not one of us complained. We simply kept moving forward.

Mishaps

Elizabeth pulling a sled and using trekking poles
First time pulling a sled and using trekking poles

While rope is suggested for rigging up our sleds in the race, rigid poles work better for controlling a wagon in training. Jen and I learned that the hard, wobbly-front-tires way.

Don’t stick a nice winter hat in your little pants pocket expecting it to stay there. It will fall out and you’ll realize it two miles down the trail. On the bright side, you’ll get a gear-free, bonus run in to find said hat while your training mates hang out near a local gas station and bear witness to the aforementioned confederate flag. (Don’t worry, I found my hat.)

Day 2 – 12 miles

We headed the opposite direction of day one with two major highlights: no wagons and only six miles out and back to easily cover in four hours. Compared to Saturday, the miles flew by and we ate lunch while in motion.

The Gear

Two pairs of Altra Lone Peaks
A pair of Lone Peaks with a side of Lone Peaks

Apparel

  • Altra Lone Peak neoshell (zero-drop trail shoe)
  • Merino wool socks
  • Long boxer briefs without too many seams
  • Adventure pants (quick drying active-wear pants with pockets)
  • Lightweight merino wool long sleeve
  • Heavier weight 1/4 zip running pullover layer
  • Light zippered jacket with a hood
  • Lightweight gloves
  • Winter hat

Wagon

  • 400 lb. capacity yardwork wagon
  • Attachment set-up: $17 padded tool belt, two carabiners, thin rope looped through the axel meant for the wagon handle
  • Snacks: Lone Grazer cheese curds, turkey sticks, dark chocolate chips, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, homemade banana walnut muffins, beef jerky
  • Lunch: Homemade beef, spinach, cheddar cheese tortilla wrap; apple; Pirate’s Booty (a luxurious slightly salty co-op treat)
  • Extra trail shoes
  • Extra socks
  • Rope
  • Knife

Backpack

  • Bladder filled with H20 plus Tailwind
  • Red LED lights
  • Headlamp
  • Reflective vest
  • Pocket knife
  • Water bottle
  • Portable USB charger
  • Phone
  • GPS watch attached to one of the straps with a carabiner

What’s Next

Elizabeth and Jen, on a bridge with sun shining on a creek
Training partners for life <3, Tuscobia State Trail

Logging so many miles boosted our confidence. Sure, 20 miles wasn’t easy (to me it felt more tiring than running 20 miles, but I’ve also never done a long run pulling a wagon), but we pushed through it and only have to tack on another 60 miles in two months (breathe in, breathe out, on repeat!). Jen and I are feeling on track with training, but also re-realized the importance of pulling weight at our waists, so we’ll be breaking out the old car tires for a weekly longish walk.

Experiencing the boredom, fatigue and hiking from daylight to sundown provided critical physical, and likely more importantly, mental training. I don’t know that I’ve ever said this before, but… I’m eagerly awaiting snow so we can practice hauling our gear on sleds.