Last weekend’s Tuscobia winter ultra in central Wisconsin was a tough event, a solid challenge, and, after 33 hours of racing, a satisfying accomplishment – 9th place out of 14 finishers (and 34 starters).
A week out from the start of the 160-mile bike race, I knew that I lacked the fitness to go fast. The night before the race, I could see that the conditions were going to be cold, slow, and demanding. The forecast called for temperatures below 0º F during the entire weekend of the race, though not for much wind (thank the goddess!) and no snow (too cold!).
Since I could not do anything to improve either my condition or the conditions, I prepared for a long ride from Rice Lake to Park Falls and back, packing extra food and clothes and making my usual decision to not give up unless I was in danger. I respected but didn’t fear the temperatures, having thrived in two other cold races: my first Arrowhead in 2014 and last winter’s Fat Pursuit. I’d finished that Arrowhead in 7th place and raced well through the cold of the FP, so I figured I could handle what the Tuscobia was offering.
The start at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday was, as promised, cold as hell – around -15º F – but welcome, too. Once the 30-some bikers in the 160-mile race started rolling north out of Rice Lake along the spur to the Tuscobia State Trail, which runs 76 miles to Park Falls, I warmed up quickly and easily, even unzipping my outer layer within a few miles. As always in these races, the first miles are marked with numerous racers stopping to adjust clothes, to eat or drink, to tweak their bikes or gear, or just to wonder why the hell we were out there. I soon made the turn off the spur and onto the Tuscobia trail proper.
A short jaunt on the trail the day before had been my first real ride on snow all season, but all the usual feelings came back right away: how to read the snow and find the best surface, how to hold the narrow line along the shoulder of trail, how to steer through loose snow, how to gauge whether my tires were at the right pressure for the snow. I got lucky there: I had found a good pressure and wound up not needing to make another adjustment.
I ate and drank as needed, though I made the rookie error of letting the hose to my hydration reservoir freeze, requiring me to bury it deeper into my clothes so it would defrost. I had a HydroFlask full of hot water, though, so I didn’t have to skimp on fluids while the hose thawed. Strangely, I did feel sleepy just after the sun came up, a moment in a race when I usually feel energized. I stopped and drank half a slushy Red Bull – only half because even as I drank, the other half froze solid.
Other riders criticize the Tuscobia for being “boring” or “uninteresting,” and while I can agree that Tuscobia doesn’t offer the mountains of the Fat Pursuit in Idaho or the rolling forests of the Arrowhead 135 in northern Minnesota, I love the simplicity of the straight, flat course, a rails-to-trails corridor. You can see up the trail for seeming ever, and breaks in the routine leap out at you: snowmobilers (few and far between in the frigid weather), intersections with roads and other trails, some farms and a few towns (a rarity in fatbike races), the occasional dip in the flatness, and, yes, some beautiful views, like this hoarfrosted swamp about halfway to the first checkpoint:
(Thanks to fellow racer James Kiffmeyer for the photo.)
One strange aspect of the race this year was the lack of animals, even in open spots like this. I saw a few juncos in one town and a big lazy bald eagle soaring near the Chippewa River, a wide black stream that the race crosses not far before the first checkpoint, a stop around mile 45 in Ojibwa Park near the obnoxiously well-named town of Winter. The race actually passes through Ojibwa twice: once on the way out and once on the way back at mile 115, after the turnaround checkpoint in Park Falls at mile 80. I had hoped and planned to spend less than one total hour in the three checkpoints, but this plan evaporated like sweat on race day.
As I approached Ojibwa around noon, after six hours of solid riding, I knew I’d need to stop there long enough to completely warm up and dry out. I was already well off my 2016 race pace and I still hadn’t seen a temperature above zero, so I had no reasons to skimp on rest. I wound up spending 50 minutes there, long enough to dry my outer clothes, to warm up, and to eat about a quart of soup.
I admit: I did not enjoy the first few minutes back outside after the warmth of the checkpoint. Though now “only” zero or so, the air felt solid, an invisible block of ice. I pedaled hard up the track back to the trail and then toward Park Falls, trying to warm up. A runner – just out for a jog, not a racer – came toward me, and she gave me a big wave and “Way to go!” as we met. Her braids were tipped with frost. The encouragement settled me back down for the haul to Park Falls.
One interesting and even fun aspect of Tuscobia is that the event is actually six overlapping races: a big group of runners and skiers start the full 160-mile course on Friday morning, 24 hours before the full-distance bikers start; most of them are on the second leg of the course by the time the full-distance bikers start on Saturday morning. And a few hours after we start rolling, an even bigger group of bikers, runners, and skiers start an 80-mile race in Park Falls. The leaders of the 80-mile bike race hit Ojibwa as I was preparing to leave, and from there all the way to Park Falls, I encountered riders and runners (but only one skier!) every few minutes. It was fun to call out encouragement to them and to greet the few I could recognize, like my friends Mark and Tim. I even started to see some of the 160-mile riders on the way back home, including my pal Ben Doom, who dominated the race to win by nearly an hour. He was charging when I saw him, out of the saddle, but still had the energy to give me a shout and hold out a hand for a high five.
The closer I got to Park Falls, though, the less happy the racers looked, though, and around dusk, with the town’s skyglow in the distance, I met a few runners who were out-and-out disgusted. I helped one woman retrieve a mitten she’d dropped and commiserated about the cold with another, but tried to keep my own feelings about the conditions to myself.
I had yet to feel cold, apart from a couple moments when I’d stopped for a nutrition or nature break and the frigid air had wrapped around me like a frozen blanket. Each time, getting myself back underway warmed up everything again, even my hands, which – apart from my face, coated in iced-over whiskers – were the only parts of my body that really got chilled, and then only when I had to take them out of the big, warm pogies on my handlebars. Overall, I was comfortable and happy, pedaling steadily, joggling my fingers and toes to keep them warm, eating or drinking as needed, enjoying the view up the trail.
I did think a lot about why this kind of racing attracts me, when it breaks some who also love it and of course repels so many others. Looking down the snowy trail, I talked to myself about this. Having done eight winter ultra races before the Tuscobia, I was pretty sure that I have some sort of physiological advantage: my body runs hot, keeping me from getting as cold as other people, and functions well while cold. Maybe this is the genetic endowment of generations of Northern European forebears, a result of my childhood in a snowy, cold place, or just a freak thing.
I also think I also have some sort of psychological advantage: I don’t mind being cold when I am cold, and I like the challenge of figuring out how to get warm again, or to function while cold. I hesitate to use the word toughness, since I think that it’s really more a willingness to adjust to the cold, but I do challenge myself by asking – as I did pedaling down the Tuscobia trail – whether or not I was going to be tougher than the cold.
And then there’s an aesthetic component, too: I think that winter is beautiful, and best enjoyed by being out in it, ideally for long periods. Ultras are the best way I’ve found so far to immerse myself in winter and to see if I can handle its challenges.
Dusk was one of those challenges. The sun setting behind me seemed to slow me down, making it a little harder to get to Park Falls. More than once in the last ten miles to the turnaround, I mistook a road crossing or a lit-up house in the woods for town (and once, a tall evergreen for the town water tower), but I really did reach the trailhead around 7 p.m. – 13 hours into the race. A few turns on the city streets brought me to the checkpoint, at the nice little Park Falls Gastropub in downtown P.F.
Volunteers there set me up with food and drink, which I ingested while chatting with two civilian customers who could not quite understand what the race was all about. They seemed confused by the fact that no cash prizes were on offer. I didn’t mention that the main “prize” for finishing is a hat.
After I finished my food, I broke away from them to go up to the racers’ lounge, where I could rest a bit more and dry my gear. While draping my stuff over a chair in front of a tiny little old space heater, I saw that my friend Tom was there too. He and I had ridden together for almost all of my first Tuscobia, so we knew we were compatible and agreed to head out together. Though I enjoy riding alone, I thought the company would be nice, especially through the darkest and coldest overnight stretch of the race.
While my outer layers slowly dried in front of the underpowered heater, I armored up for the night: new compression socks, new wool socks, second baselayer tights and top, a dry buff. I felt unpleasantly plump and overheated while we finished preparing to head out, but I hoped they’d provide the extra warmth I’d need overnight. After a bit over two hours at the checkpoint, I headed out, Tom right behind me.
I was a little scared as we left the checkpoint. My GPS computer showed a temperature that was as low as anything I’d seen so far in the race, and of course the overnight temps would go lower. And while I enjoy riding at night, the cold made the prospect of riding for nine hours in the blackness seem more daunting than usual. The big warm-seeming orange moon hanging in the sky behind us didn’t help, nor did hearing creaks and ticks from my bike, the Buffalo, which had so far run flawlessly. The deep cold slowed the action of my brakes and shifter, making me worry about a breakdown. How could I handle a broken chain at twenty below? I decided I’d handle it carefully. Luckily, I had no mechanicals at all. The Buffalo loves the cold.
Then there were the mileposts on the left edge of the trail. Not every mile had one, but enough did that they both enticed and oppressed: 76 miles to go, 75 miles to go, 74… I had to keep adding the additional four miles for the spur back to Rice Lake and to do the mental math to put the race and our effort in context. At 25 miles, the afternoon before, the race had turned to “only” the distance of the Arrowhead – 135 miles. Just before the Ojibwa checkpoint, the distance had been a double metric century – 200 kilometers or 124 miles. Somewhere between Ojibwa and Park Falls, at 60 miles, the race had become a regular century – 100 miles. As we worked our way to Ojibwa for the second time, we reached the 62-miles-to-go marker – a metric century or 100k.
Tom and I stopped probably once an hour to eat and drink, to break the monotony or warm the extremities by walking for a minute or two, to pee (never have I needed so many nature breaks in a race!), or to just stand and talk for a minute. Once I stopped because I was falling asleep on my bike. When I told Tom that I was feeling really tired, he offered me two caffeine pills. Feeling like a junkie, I accepted them and was rewarded about fifteen minutes later by a magical surge of warmth and energy. I’ll definitely carry my own caffeine pills in future races.
Regardless of the reason, we could never stop for long: the -20º temperatures gripped us instantly and had to be endured for the time needed to unzip and rezip, to tear open a peanut butter cup and stow the wrapper, to swallow a mouthful of water. I’d need ten minutes of hard riding to warm up from each minute-long stop. Every now and then, but less often that I expected, we came on another racer. “You good? Need anything? Keep it up.” We talked a little bit to each other too, but I am not a chatty rider, so we mostly rode in silence. And anyhow my beard had iced up so thoroughly by midnight that I could barely open my mouth wide enough to speak. From our spot on the trail, we could only see a high strip of black sky, but even that ribbon contained thousands of bright stars.
We did talk about what to do at Ojibwa. As much as I would have liked to get in and out quickly, I knew I felt tired and hungry enough to need a real break. How about an hour of sitting down and of not pedaling and of eating and drinking new stuff? Tom thought this sounded fine too, so when around 3:30 a.m. the checkpoint sign appeared ahead of me on the trail – looking at first like a car parked on the trail – we turned eagerly. Inside, we set our clothes to warm by the fire, ate some of the junk food piled on the table, refilled our backpack reservoirs and water bottles, and then accidentally fell asleep. I dunno how long we slept, but when I came to, almost everyone else was asleep too – racers, volunteers, even the race director.
Tom woke up a minute later and we got ourselves moving. While he tended to some last-minute tasks, I visited the restroom, where the toilet seat was rimmed with icicles. My bike computer showed a temperature of -25º as climbed back on the bike at 6:30 a.m. for the last 45 miles of the race. Less than a half century! An easy afternoon’s ride under normal circumstances.
Thinking Tom was ready too I sprinted back toward the trail, out of my saddle and working hard to build speed and heat. When I looked back a few minutes later, expecting to see Tom right behind me, I saw nothing. I soft-pedaled a bit to see if he’d appear, but even that decrease in effort let the chill creep through my clothes. Get back on the pedals, trying to make progress but still let Tom catch up from wherever he was.
Then all of a sudden his lights washed over me from behind. I apologized for dropping him, trying to explain that I thought I’d seen him on his bike as climbed on mine. I think I heard him say that he hadn’t quite been ready, but that he hadn’t been worried or mad either. And at any rate now we were back together for the duration. The sun rose behind us, which helped dispel some of my fatigue and even started pushing the temperature up toward zero.
In the daylight – New Year’s Eve! – I recognized some of the same landmarks I had seen the day before. The Chippewa River crossing, with steam rising off the water. A smaller river that ran alongside the trail for miles. This or that desolate road crossing. This or that cluster of silos at a dairy farm. A sad-looking roadside bar. The scary-fun descent to the railroad tracks near Lemington, and then the grunt climb back up from them. Warning! Trains are moving at 60 mph!
In that magical way that they always do, the miles kept ticking by: the number on my bike computer kept climbing, and the numbers on the mileposts kept falling. Occasionally riding next to me or even in front, Tom said he wanted to stop at Birchwood, the biggest town on the course, for one last rest before the push to the finish. I agreed, both because I too wanted a little more time off the bike and because I needed to call my hotel in Rice Lake and beg them to let me check out far later than planned.
We reached Birchwood – bluegill capital of Wisconsin! – just before noon. A few other racers and volunteers were sitting heavily at tables inside a huge convenience store. I made my call and was relieved to hear I could just show up whenever; no problem. A machine-made cappuccino looked and tasted fantastic. We chatted with the other guys. I ordered french fries that looked amazing but tasted terrible. After too much idle time, we got back on the trail for the last 15 or 20 miles.
The rest of the course ran steadily downhill to Rice Lake after passing over some rollers that would be insignificant in any other race (and indeed that I had not even noticed on the way out) but that today, now, felt like Himalayas. I set for myself the dumb goal of riding all these “hills,” and nearly did – a bad gear choice forced me to walk part of the first one. But then I got back on my bike and started riding again.
The miles remaining were in the teens now, and the temperature had broken zero for the first time all race. As we came to the wetland that had been so beautifully frosted the morning before, a white-tailed deer jumped onto the trail, looked at me with disbelief, and started running easily up the trail ahead of me. It stopped at the far edge of the wetland, saw that I was still coming, and plunged back off the trail into the brush. I could only just see the top of its head as we passed.
We also encountered some other trail users: runners making their own slow progress back to Rice Lake. Tom and I had been seeing them here and there for a while, but now we started seeing more – on some straightaways, four or five of them. Some heard us coming and moved over. Others jumped in surprise when we passed, so deep in their efforts that they hadn’t heard our bikes or greetings. We didn’t stop for any of them, but I tried to encourage each one. The poor bastards would need three times longer than Tom and me to cover the remaining distance.
The mileposts started showing single-digit numbers. I kept adding the additional four miles for the spur, but then even that additional distance added up to less than 10 miles. Fueled by the food at Birchwood, warmed by the afternoon sun, enjoying the oh-so-slight downhill, and now sensing the finish line, we were moving at 8, 9, 10 mph. 90 minutes to go. 60 to go. 30 minutes. Milepost 2.
I knew from my pre-ride on Friday and from the outbound ride that we would shortly reach a sharp, tricky dip where erosion had narrowed the trail. I could see a runner ahead of me. He disappeared, and my fuzzy brain figured that he had gone down into the dip. A moment later I reached the lip of it, and sure enough the runner there, trudging up the far side. I yelled to him and zoomed down and back up, passing him narrowly and getting out of my saddle to keep the speed going so I wouldn’t have to walk this last slope.
I popped out on the far crest and suddenly felt like mashing the pedals. 5 miles to go – half an hour if I really pushed, less if I really, really pushed. I stayed up on my pedals until my quads couldn’t take it, then downshifted to try to maintain the same speed while seated. I heard traffic – cars on the highway parallel to the spur to the finish line. I glanced back for Tom, but he wasn’t there.
I zipped over the highway, turned left down the spur into town, glanced back again. Tom was just approaching the highway. Slow down for him? I couldn’t. I needed to be done. Standing or sitting, I tried to keep my speed as high as my legs would allow. Cars buzzed along the highway to my left. I bumped up and down and up and down over the berms of snow at each road crossing. I noted that I might be able to finish by 3 p.m., 33 hours after the start. A dumb goal, but why not? A junkyard. The city limits sign. And the finish line! I dutifully rode over the line itself and then turned, elated and exhausted, toward the race headquarters. As if on cue, the race director came outside to greet me. A handshake. An escort into the bright warmth of the HQ. Applause from everyone inside. A cold beer. The finisher’s hat. A chair to sit in after 32:57 of racing.