Last weekend, I finished the Tuscobia Winter Ultramarathon along the Tuscobia State Trail in northwestern Wisconsin – my fifth winter ultramarathon. I placed 12th out of 29 finishers (25 men and 4 women) in a time of 23:38. I had a great, brutal, wonderful time riding my bike in the woods.
I’d been looking forward to Tuscobia for a while, having heard from other fatbikers that it’s low-key, well run, and straightforward. Many other racers use it to tune up for the Arrowhead 135, always held three or four weeks later. I hadn’t ever done that, but when I decided last fall that I couldn’t spend the time or money to go out to Idaho to race the Fat Pursuit again, I was pretty happy to be able to register for the Tuscobia instead.
In two ways, the 2016 race was a new event. For the first time, the full-distance race ran from Rice Lake to Park Falls and back (rather than from P.F. to R.L. and back). With the start/finish in Rice Lake, the course was lengthened by four miles at each end to take advantage of a flat, straight four-mile spur trail connecting Rice Lake to the Tuscobia trail. Race HQ was a no-nonsense community building with a back yard abutting that spur.
I rode that spur trail the day before the race, getting a sense of snow conditions and stretching my legs midway through a very pleasant day of travel and prep. The mandatory gear check that afternoon felt pretty casual, perhaps because I’d done gear checks four previous times. Some of the rookies looked awfully nervous as race officials scrutinized their required gear. I tried to stay relaxed by chatting with other racers, drinking water, and thinking about my race strategy. I was aiming for an 18 hour finish, but I was prepared for a 24 hour ride.
After passing the gear check, I had a quick dinner with my friend Ben, attended the race meeting to pick up any last-minute intelligence on the course (such as a warning about a dangerous spot on the trail), and then went back to the hotel to pack my bike, which as luck would have it I could do while hanging out with Ben.
Six hours of restless sleep – full of nervous dreams about racing and especially about missing the start of the race – ended at 4 a.m. I dressed, nibbled on some high-calorie food, and got myself over to the start in plenty of time to finish some last-minute tasks like attaching my sleeping bag and pad (both mandatory pieces of gear). I couldn’t fit my bike into my rental car when fully assembled, see! As always, I got a little bit high from the way the Buffalo looks when ready for a race:
Just before 6:00 a.m., the 44 bikers tackling the full 160-mile distance formed up outside in the starting area. My thermometer showed the temperature as being 10° F, which is pretty much an ideal race temp. After a few more words from the race director, we were let loose with a hearty shout of “Go!”
Over the four-mile run north out of Rice Lake to the Tuscobia State trail, the pace increased from easy to manageable to fast, but I hovered around tenth place, near enough to see the leader if I stood on my pedals. I relished finally racing: the squeak of tires on the snow, the breathing of other racers, occasional calls as one person passed another, the warm yellow glow of headlights and the unpleasant red blinking of tail lights – by rule, two on the back of every bike.
When we made the right-hand turn that took us over a highway and onto the Tuscobia trail proper, the speed went through the roof, stretching and then breaking the line of racers. I monitored my speed on my computer so that I didn’t get sucked into chasing racers that I’d never catch. Soon enough the leaders came back to me and we traveled along together for a few more miles.
As we headed east, my sleeping pad started to slide upwards, catching the bottom half of my headlight’s beam and reflecting the light back at me in an irritating way. Too, the tire pressure that had served me well over the first 5 or 10 miles was proving too hard for the softer, less heavily ridden snow that we were now on. Earlier than I would have liked, I pulled aside to adjust the pad (folding it in half and strapping it further down) and let quite a bit of air out of my tires. Though as always I second-guessed the new pressure with pretty much every pedal stroke for the next few miles, it turned out to be just right; I didn’t have to tweak it again.
Back on the bike, I could see the sun gradually illuminating the sky in front of me – or at least what of the gray sky I could see above the near-tunnel of trees. Around then, another racer caught up to me – Tom E., a guy with whom I had shared a table at the gear check. We said our hellos and decided without really deciding to ride together for a while, trying to find the right lines in the softer snow. We’d spend the next 22 hours within ten feet of each other, sharing the race and the experience.
Racers say of the Tuscobia that the trail is flat and straight, which some complain is “boring” – a quality that’s amplified, for some, by the unusual out-and-back format. You see everything twice, and “everything” is pretty much just a straightaway through the trees.
I’m a big believer in the grandmotherly maxim that only boring people get bored, so I’d been looking forward to this “boring” quality of the trail. I love out-and-back courses, and do quite a bit of training on them, enjoying the way they turn this uphill into the downhill, or that left-hander into this right-hander, or flip-flop the scenery so the big red barn that was on the left going out is on the right coming back. Very simple pleasures.
The Tuscobia was no different. Talking with Tom about this and that and the other thing, I soaked up the view in front of us, occasionally glancing to the sides if we passed over a river or through a swamp or crossed a highway. The low ridges of snow along the edges of roads were nearly the only bike-handling challenges. The landscape was very much like the low rolling woods in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where I grew up, or in northern Minnesota, where the Arrowhead is held – and very unlike the spectacular mountain forests in the Idaho of the Fat Pursuit course. I loved it all, even the little towns that were usually nothing more than a convenience store, a bar, and a few houses: Brill, Birchwood, Wooddale, Couderay, Radisson, Ojibwa. These names seemed familiar, akin the names of little towns elsewhere in the state that my family drove through on the way from the U.P. to Minneapolis or Green Bay.
The race’s first checkpoint was just past Ojibwa, an old stone cabin in a city park. The ride from the Ojibwa city limits sign to the park seemed painfully long, but we hit the checkpoint just before 11 – five hours and 45 miles into the race. At that 9 mph pace, we’d finish in about 18 hours – my target time.
Though we didn’t have a real plan for the checkpoint, Tom and I were pretty efficient at Ojibwa: checking in with the timekeeper, drying wet clothes in front of the fireplace. I melted off the day’s first icebeard so that I could eat and drink better. Soon enough, we were good to go, and checked out after 40 minutes inside. Tom started back toward the trail, then nearly took a wrong turn onto the driveway that led from the park to the highway. Calling to him, I led us back to our trail, laughing as explained that he’s just too used to riding on the road.
The leg from Ojibwa to the turnaround checkpoint in Park Falls was 34 miles, a solid ride under any circumstances and tougher thanks to an insistent headwind and a steady increase in elevation – nothing alpine, for sure, but plenty of false flats. Just after the checkpoint, we passed through more little towns – Winter, Loretta, Draper – before the emptiest part of the ride, a big, silent expanse of state forest interrupted only a few creek crossings and a bit of riding next to the highway. The snow thinned, and we even rode on short stretches of gravel here and there.
As we pedaled, Tom and I chatted. He talked about his experiences as a long-distance road rider, doing brevet rides of 300 and 600 and 1200 kilometers, including the famous Paris-Brest-Paris randonnée that’s held every four years in France. He also told me about his ride over the summer of the full Tuscobia trail, which gave him a nice sense of where we were and what we were approaching. Usually riding in file, we occasionally rode side by side and stopped about once an hour to eat something, adjust our clothes, or take a leak. I took every chance to stretch my back, which was tightening up as we rode, paining me especially on uphills.
What was new was race traffic. First, bikers doing the 80-mile half-distance race came through. The fast guys zoomed by while middle-the-pack riders approached more slowly, traveling more at our pace, and exchanged friendly calls and waves. Then the runners started coming, endlessly, pulling their sleds. Some were actually running, most were walking energetically, and a few were barely moving, even though they were only a third of the way into their races. We even met a couple skiers, who were standing at the bottom of one of the course’s only hills, waving their poles and cheering madly for those of us going in the other direction. Mixed into the short-event racers were the leaders of the 160-mile bike race. They appeared up the trail, closed on us with shocking speed, and then whooshed past. I waved to my friend Ben, riding alone in second position, and greeted the other guys in the top 5 or 10 as they came by in a small group.
The race traffic thinned again as we approached Park Falls. I knew from my cue sheets and from common sense that we’d start crossing roads more frequently as we neared Park Falls, but dammit, not all the roads were signed where we crossed them, or they had a name that didn’t jibe with my cues. Still, my computer told me that we were getting close: 75 miles. 75.5 miles. 76. 76.5. Where the hell was that town? We saw the silvery water tower, which then disappeared as the trail curved. Finally, we could see something that wasn’t trail ahead of us – a trailhead sign! We sped up and popped out with relief onto the city streets. A few turns later, we pulled in at the checkpoint, a Catholic school which had given its cafeteria over to the race. I leaned the Buffalo up against the wall to unpack some stuff I’d need inside: an energy drink, a change of clothes, fresh batteries for my headlamp.
By no means plush, the cafeteria was comfortable – too much so, it turned out. Amazingly and (in retrospect) dismayingly, Tom and I spent a full 80 minutes there – eating soup and pasta and grilled cheeses, resting our legs and stretching my back, drinking soda and coffee, chatting too much with each other and with other racers (including my friend Mark S.), changing our wet clothes, swapping new batteries into my lamp. It felt great to put on fresh, dry clothes and to see that my headlamp would be nice and bright when the sun went down again, but had I been watching the clock, I would have tried to get us, or at least myself, moving sooner than we did. Lesson learned, at least for the next race.
We finally headed back out at 5:20, with the sun already gone. I got a little thrill from seeing that we would be riding in the dark again – “already,” it seemed. Riding the Buffalo in the dark is one of my favorite things, and here I was, literally in the middle of a big race, about to do just that thing for another 10 or 12 hours.
Weaving over the streets back to the trail, I checked my thermometer. As forecasted, the temperature had dropped all day, and was now at a nice round zero. I’d put on thicker layers inside, so I felt ready for that temp, and for the even colder temps that we’d have overnight – all the way down to minus 10 or 15.
When we hit the trail, I couldn’t help myself, and stomped on the pedals. I wanted to go. Behind me, I could sense Tom’s headlight fading, and then he called for me to sit up, not ready yet to go so fast. With 80 miles to go, I was okay with that, so I pulled back a little. This yo-yo’ing occurred on and off throughout the rest of the race, but I was fine with going at about 80% of my maximum. We had a long way to go, riding with someone – especially overnight – is nice, and making the race take longer would, I hope, have a good effect on fitness for the Arrowhead.
The trail was the same, but different. What had been on the left was on the right. What had been steady uphills were now steady downhills. Or, no, wait. They weren’t downhills. They’d somehow become regular flats. Signs we had read as we approached P.F. – like the ubiquitous ones reading “Dip” that marked literally every bit of uneven terrain – were now just silver shapes on posts, and ones that had been silver shapes were now legible. The trail mileage markers now counted down, though I had to remind myself to add four to each number to account for the spur back to Rice Lake.
The big difference was that the trail that had been lit by gray light all day was now a black tunnel – my favorite view, equal parts scary (what’s up there?) and comfortable (the trail is up there!). The abyssal blackness was punctured by our headlights, which lit up a nice cone to help stay in the track other racers had worn into the snow. I had decided at the halfway to use my Princeton Tec Apex headlamp rather than my handlebar-mounted headlights. The headlamp has a big sentimental value (I won it at the first Fat Pursuit), but I also like the way the beam, cast from my head rather the handlebars, lights up a wider patch of trail. And since the lamp is on my head, I can shine it off to the sides of the trail to light up that mountain lion that’s waiting to pounce. Oh, no, that’s just a snowy log. I think.
The black trail was also intermittently broken up by the blinking tail lights of a few runners whom we were now catching – some 160-milers and lots of 80-milers. In the blackness, the blinkies were visible from a mile away, which created many opportunities to chase, not that it’s difficult for a cyclist to catch someone walking. More difficult and more satisfying to catch was a group of four cyclists who had left Park Falls in the half hour before we did. We exchanged encouragement as we went by.
These spurts of motivation helped shorten the 34 miles from Park Falls back to the Objiwa checkpoint. Though Tom and I were hardly talking anymore – just a few words now and then about mileage or time – we still stopped a couple times to have a snack and a drink and adjust clothes. I tried to work my back loose, too, and needed both on and off the bike to shake my hands back to life. Thanks to the cold and a recent tweak of my handlebar position, my palms and pinkies kept falling asleep. I pondered how to correct this for the Arrowhead.
We couldn’t quite reach Ojibwa in one push, deciding out of hunger and thirst and tiredness to swing off the trail in the little town of Winter (aptly named!) for some nourishment at the gas station there. I leaned the Buffalo up against three massive ice cooler and went inside to let my stomach identify its needs. My icebeard alarmed the clerks who gamely sold me some orange juice, which looked so incredibly good in the cooler and tasted even better. The two skiers who’d earlier cheered madly for us were there too, having dropped out of the race. They liked my icebeard, and asked me to pose for a picture with them. I really want to see that picture.
Though I don’t think we stayed too long, we probably did stay too long before wheeling back out onto the trail, especially since Ojibwa was only five miles away – well under an hour of riding. The distance was wearing on us, and my thermometer was now showing five degrees below zero or so now, which meant for the first time meant that the air felt bracing, even unpleasant.
Within the hour, we came on the reflectors that marked the trail down to the checkpoint. I hadn’t taken a photo of the trail since my early-morning shot, so I paused as Tom headed in to take a murky picture of the trail leading on toward Rice Lake and the finish.
The Ojibwa checkpoint had been tidy and energizing when we hit it on the way out, but now, after about 12 hours of solid operation, the atmosphere was different. Racers and volunteers packed the place, first of all, with a group of French-Canadian runners occupying the prime spot in front of the fireplace. The food tables were in disarray, having been attacked by waves of racers since the morning, and the volunteers were working hard to supply everyone with soup, hot water, pancakes, oatmeal, and other warm stuff.
Tom and I chowed down and thawed out and bitched with less and less good nature about the fact that everyone seemed to be forgetting to close the cabin’s giant swinging door. I pulled hunks of ice out of my beard and tossed them into the fireplace. I did a round of back stretches in a bit of open space on the cold floor. We chatted a little bit with other racers about how things were going for them. Opinions were mixed. The lead woman looked disappointed as she messed with her tire. She headed out soon after we arrived, back to the race, I thought. I learned later that she’d dropped out. Gradually the crowd thinned and we realized that we needed to get moving too. We checked out, appallingly, after another 80 minutes of stoppage – the same amount of time we’d spent at Park Falls.
We rolled out just before 11 p.m., with the last 45 miles staring at us out of the dark woods. We knew that the leg to the finish would be tough, and we were pretty much silent, focusing on the effort we needed to make. We’d agreed again that we’d stop every hour or so to drink and eat, which I understood to mean that we would not stop anywhere else if we could help it.
I was in front, as usual, listening for Tom’s tires and watching for his lights behind me. I’d occasionally have to sit up to keep him close; at other times, we’d come up alongside me for a bit, joking a couple times about my tail lights’ obnoxious blinking. I could understand that, even as I was getting foggy from about 18 hours of work.
Surprisingly, the witching hour was not as empty as I’d expected it to be. Soon after Ojibwa, we passed the same group of four riders that we’d caught as we approached Winter. They were still traveling together, a nice little team that cheered as we went through. I was surprised that they didn’t stick to us, but within just a minute or two of catching them, they were behind us again, for good.
We didn’t find any other cyclists on the trail. Instead, we regularly came up on runners who were working their way back to Rice Lake too, including that group of French-Canadians, who took up all of the trail and only moved aside with sluggish surprise. They were a tired bunch. A few runners’ lights were turned off, or burned out, so we didn’t know they were there until we were almost literally on top of them. Moving without illumnination was strictly against the race rules, but what could we or they do?
Most of the time, we could see the runners from hundreds of yards behind thanks to their blinkies or their reflective vests. As fatigue settled into my brain, these spots of light started to play tricks. At one point, I saw a red ribbon hovering over the trail that turned out to be two pairs of blinkers on sleds behind two runners who were walking next to each other. At another place, my eyes told me that a car was parked on the trail. I could see the running lights! I knew it couldn’t be a car, and sure enough, the mirage turned out to have been created by solid red lights and reflective panels on the sleds of two runners who were standing at the edge of the trail.
I tried to call out encouragement to the other racers with a voice that was getting hoarse and slurred with tiredness and cold. I could feel a big icebeard growing on my face, and when I glanced down, I could see the rounded shapes of ice under my nose. I was having a hard time focusing on my cue sheet, too, but I knew we were approaching a railroad crossing that my friend Minnesota Mark, a very experienced ultramarathoner, had warned me about. Though the crossing had been a straightforward down-and-up bit in the daylight, I was a little worried about it in the dark. I didn’t want to hit the rails at the wrong angle and crash on them, to miss the noise and light of an approaching train and ride into its path, or – perhaps worse – to get stuck waiting for a train as it passed or idled. I focused whatever energy I had at that point on this tiny little bit of the race: looking and listening for a train, setting my bike straight down the trail so I’d cross the rails perpendicularly, plunging down the descent, getting up off the seat to ride over the rails as smoothly as possible, and then grunting up the other side. We stopped at the top of the incline for a drink and a snack and a photo of the ominous warning sign. 29 miles to go.
Those 29 miles are mostly lost to me. I remember not catching any more runners or riders. We were alone out there, pedaling down the trail at 7 or 8 mph – 9 if we were on a downhill. I remember watching the elevation reading on my computer, then trying to figure how many feet we still had to lose before Rice Lake. Of course, I couldn’t remember Rice Lake’s elevation( 1,148 feet), so I my arithmetic was futile, just something to occupy the brain. I remember needing to stop a few times to stretch my back, which was stubbornly tight, verging here and there on spasm. I remember talking now and again with Tom about the mile markers, and trying to remember to add the four extra miles to them so that I had an accurate distance to the finish. I remember being disturbed by how drunk I sounded when I tried to let Tom know that the roads we were crossing were clear of traffic. I remember my thermometer showing a temperature of minus 20. I remember seeing a SUV alongside the trail in one of the last towns on the trail, with a couple racers sitting in back. I remember a guy yelling and waving to us as we cruised through another town. I remember thinking that the bars and restaurants looked awfully sad at 2, 3, 4 in the morning. I remember at one point starting to weave from side to side on the trail, falling asleep on the bike. I stopped immediately to down a caffeinated gel, which chased the fatigue just enough to let me ride straight lines. I remember trying to calculate from the display on my GPS how many minutes we needed to go a mile, and failing.
Somehow my legs didn’t stop turning, and nothing on the Buffalo stopped working, and we covered the miles. I had to slow way down to negotiate the bumps along the highway that marked the end of the Tuscobia trail and the start of the spur trail to Rice Lake. Turning my handlebars to make that left turn felt monumental, but then we just had four miles. Tom was right behind me as we made this last push, jostling over the frequent road crossings. Finally, far far far ahead I could see a blinking light – a runner? a rider? No, a tail light on a sign at the finish line. The anticlimax was fitting: no banner, no clock, no spectators, not even a timekeeper. We rolled over the line at 5:41 a.m., leaned our bikes up against the wall of the community building, and went inside to announce ourselves to the two volunteers who were recording finishes.
The hall was full of racers, every one of them asleep in their sleeping bags. The indoor warmth and light made me feel nauseous. Before I started shivering violently, I let one of the volunteers take my picture, needing to record the icebeard:
Gradually I warmed up and stopped shivering. I might have had some water or a snack. When I felt reasonably whole, I said goodbye to Tom, whom I’d see soon at the Arrowhead, and rode my bike a few more yards back to the car. I managed to load the bike into the car without too much trouble and to drive the deserted streets back to my hotel. There I took a shower and a nap before meeting Ben – who’d finished second, in 15:47 – for breakfast. It had been an amazing 24 hours.