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.
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.
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…”
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)
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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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)
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.
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.
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!
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.
- 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)
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)
- 0-degree sleeping bag
- sleeping pad
- bivvy sack
- camp stove
- stove fuel
- 1 pint pot
- 3,000 calories
- 3 flashing red LED lights
- 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.