Well, the St. Croix 40 Winter Ultra did not disappoint. I had a great race, and highly recommend the event to anyone interested in trying a short, straightforward winter race.
A new event on the calendar, the St. Croix was carefully developed by race directors Jamison and Lisa Swift as an introduction to winter ultra racing. The distance – 40 miles, entirely within St. Croix State Park about 90 minutes south of Duluth – is as short as you’ll find for a winter ultra, especially on a bike, but Jamison and Lisa made a few tweaks to raise the stakes a little.
First, all racers – 36 bikers, 42 runners, and 2 skiers – were required to carry the usual equipment for longer-distance races: winter sleeping bag, bivy sack, insulated sleeping pad, stove, pot, safety lights, etc. Overkill for a 40-miler, but good to learn to pack and carry. Second, the races started late – 6 p.m. for the runners (and the skiers), 10 p.m. for the bikers. These start times ensured that everyone would have to race in the dark. Honestly, this was the tweak that made me sign up. I love riding in the dark! Third, and most amusingly, we had to actually use our sleep system.
Ten minutes before the start of the race, we climbed into our sleeping bags and bivy sacks. When Jamison clanged the cowbell to start the race, we climbed back out, packed the gear onto our bikes, and got moving. Fourth, at the midway checkpoint (actually 22 miles into the 38-mile course), each racer had to successfully boil a potful of water – à la the Fat Pursuit. All in all, these four aspects of the race seemed to serve as good tests for everyone, whether more or less experienced with winter ultra racing. I certainly enjoyed the silly seriousness of setting up my sleep system, lying quietly in it for 10 minutes, and then packing it up and tearing off down the course with about three dozen other riders.
And tear off we did. A couple guys were quicker off the start, but I caught them within a minute or two. I had to slow down for a deer that ran onto the course ahead of me and then took its time looking for a way off the trail, which helped two other guys pass me. I hung on their wheels for a few minutes, but by about mile three they were pulling away, taking full advantage of the wide, hard trail – for all but a few miles of the course, highly compacted snow over grass paths, gravel roads, and even a few stretches of pavement.
At the first fork in the trail, they went left and then stopped. This was far early for food or drink, so I wondered if one of them was having a mechanical or a flat. When I pulled up, they were debating whether the course went to the left or to the right at the fork. We studied our paper maps (which had somehow shrunk and blurred since we’d gotten them at the race HQ meeting!), decided that left had been the correct direction, and took off again.
Within a few minutes, the yellow bubbles of their headlamp lights had shrunk to baseballs ahead of me. Just after they finally disappeared around a bend, they stopped again, in the middle of another intersection, grousing now that we’d hit two intersections with no visible directional markers. One guy checked a big permanent map posted on a sign at the junction and saw that we had in fact gone the wrong way. Now, he said, we needed to go right for a couple miles to rejoin the course. Off we went. Within a half mile, having gapped me again, they blasted through an intersection and started up a steady climb. I slowed to see if there were any directional markers at this turn, and sure enough, found two course markers. I shouted for them, but they didn’t hear me. Shrug. I turned left and headed down the trail, soon encountering several more markers that confirmed I was on the course.
I knew they’d find the course soon and start chasing me, so I mashed my pedals for a good half hour, trying to get as much space as possible. I hoped to be the first biker to the checkpoint at mile 22, which would be enough of a victory for me. This seemed somehow possible. My legs and lungs told me that I was working hard but not too hard, and my GPS unit showed speeds upwards of 12 mph – ridiculously fast for me. In less than an hour, I had covered 10 miles, putting me on pace for a four-hour finish, my stretch goal.
At almost exactly 11 p.m., I started encountering runners, who’d by then been racing for five hours. Every few minutes for the next hour, I passed one or two or three. The trail here was a little tighter, so we had to do some silent negotiating. The runner felt my lights and edged to one side of the trail, letting me go to the other (often not even needing to tap my brakes). We traded encouragements (I love the way runners clack their hiking poles together to urge you on!), and then we left each other alone in the dark again. I even saw the two skiers who were tackling the course, two women who are the baddest of the ultra-distance badasses. I loved these little blips of sociability, so much like the second half of the Tuscobia, another race where the runners start well ahead of the riders. Thanks to the endless twists and turns of the St. Croix course, the runners appeared and disappeared in seconds, rather than hanging out for minutes ahead or behind me.
The twists and turns also meant that I would not see any riders coming up on me until they were right on my back wheel. I tried to resist the urge to glance back, but every now and then I did. I saw nothing but the yellow glow of my headlamp on the trees. Empty snowy woods always feel welcoming, but they have rarely comforted me more than they when, over and over, I did not see my chasers among the trees. I felt surprisingly good, and really only had to work hard at relaxing. Deep breaths. Looser grips on the handlebars. Longer drags of nutrition drink. I told myself that they would catch me sooner or later, and that when they did, I’d stick with them as long as possible, then conserve energy for a late push to the line. Maybe they’d be tired from the chase.
Jamison and Lisa had alerted us to a couple trickier sections of trail, and just as I started anticipating the checkpoint (at this speed, having gone this far, I should reach it at this time…), I hit the first of them, a narrow footpath that the runners had really beaten up. Doing some real fatbiking over the rough snow, I decided that if the trail stayed this bad (good), or got worse (better), I’d stop and let some pressure out of my tires. Maybe take a photo of the trail too, for memory’s sake. Within a couple minutes, though, I popped off the path and back onto the main trail. I had hardly started cranking again when I hit the second section that the race directors had warned about: a paved road now covered in a evil layer of glare ice. Here and there, I found a few yards of gravel or leaves to ride, but for what must have been a mile, I crept carefully over the ice, wishing I had studs on my back tire too. I resisted the urge to push a little harder, choosing a slower pace over a crash – and either injuring myself or losing time to the chasers. Or getting caught while I was flat on my back on the ice. They had to be close by now!
Coming off this icy stretch and back onto snowy trail, my hands were cold and numb from white-knuckling my grips. Fortunately the course passed through some open country – oak savannah like the Carleton Arboretum – where I could steer with one hand and shake the other hand awake. Even better, my GPS showed that I was just a few miles from the checkpoint. I was going to make it at least that far in the lead. I didn’t want to rest at the CP, but I was eager for a few minutes off the bike.
I wove around a few more runners and hit the checkpoint at 11:51 p.m. My friend Bill, volunteering at this race, guided me to an open spot where I could lay down the Blue Buffalo and do the boil test. I felt a little like an octopus doing eight things at once: stick my gloves in the straps of my sleeping bag so I wouldn’t lose them, dig out my stove and fuel and cup and matches, find that Red Bull and an energy gel, set up the stove and light it, fill the cup with snow, open and guzzle the Red Bull, slurp down the gel, put new batteries in my headlamp, check on the water (simmering but not boiling), have another drink, stow the dead batteries and the empty Red Bull can, show the boiling water to Bill, turn off the stove and stick it in the snow to cool, stow the fuel and matches, pour out the hot water and stick the cup in the snow to cool, stow the stove, stow the cup, zip everything up, put my helmet on my head…
As I finished, Bill looked back down the trail. “Looks like a couple bikers coming in!” This was fine. I was going to be gone for ten minutes before even if their boil tests went well. If they caught me before the finish, fine. I pulled my gloves back on. “Oh, nope, I’m wrong. Two runners. No bikers yet!” Really?
Excited, I thanked him for volunteering, hopped on the bike, and headed up the trail at 12:04 a.m. 13 minutes at the checkpoint, and now 16 miles to go. 90 minutes or so – less if the trail was super fast and I didn’t bonk, a bit more if the trail was slower or I just started losing it. The first stretch after the checkpoint was a wide paved road covered in hardpack snow, ideal for getting back up to speed. The effort warmed up my hands and arms, which were chilled from the checkpoint. My legs ached a little too, tired from two hours of riding and stiff from crouching in the snow. I zoomed down the only big descent on the course and grunted my way up the climb on the other side. I felt super slow going uphill for one of the only times in the race. Weak. Heavy. Those two guys I’d chased early had been so freaking strong, they’d zip up this climb no problem, taking back minutes and minutes of my gap.
A flat, a turn off the road and back onto tighter snowmobile trail, and suddenly a bigger climb, one that resembled the endless kickers in the third leg of the Arrowhead. By the top, I was gasping for air. Oh shit. I was cooked. But at the crest, I hit a Y in the trail. A directional arrow pointed right. I realized this was the couple-mile loop at the far end of the course, one that would end by sending me back down that tough incline and point me toward the finish. This then wasn’t quite the home stretch, but the approach to the home stretch. The loop was rough, a mental challenge after the zoned-out speed riding on the road from the checkpoint. 7 mph or 10 mph was fine here, a good speed given the ragged snow – a speed I’d be happy to average in a longer race.
My compass told me that I was now pointed south, finishing the loop. Just after passing the directional sign that told me I was back on the main trail, I met two riders coming toward me, about to start the loop. I couldn’t tell if they were the guys I’d last seen early on, but if these two weren’t those two, those two guys must be even closer behind, somewhere on the loop. We cheered each other on, and then they were gone.
I plummeted down the hill I’d struggled up twenty minutes before, downed one last gel to stave off any bonk in the next few miles, and settled in for a push to the finish – six, seven miles. Back and forth and back and forth to work. A half hour. I could go fast for a half hour, I hoped.
Now my legs really hurt, though. Not just my quads and hamstrings, but my knees, from mashing a big gear for hours and hours. Thank goodness the Blue Buffalo had functioned flawlessly the whole night, but jeez sometimes riding bikes hurts. Trying to use different muscles, I stood, crouched, leaned forward… My mouth dried out. I took a hit of drink, but it made my mouth and throat tingle in a pukey way. I would have been embarrassed to get passed after crashing on the ice earlier, but I would have been much more embarrassed to get passed while throwing up in the snow. Plus Jamison had warned us to leave no trace!
Take a few deep breaths, sit back and sit up. A couple solid burps cleared the digestive system. The trail here cut between forest to the left and prairie to the right, and the thinner trees let me see a couple sets of blinking lights ahead. I passed another runner, a guy who really running, unlike almost everyone else I’d seen. Almost immediately I saw another runner ahead and figured that this guy had seen the other’s lights and was trying to close the gap. In a minute I was up to and then past the chasee. A yellow glow in the distance resolved into lights around buildings. Maybe the race HQ and the finish? No, I had at least a couple miles to go. Probably one of the many campgrounds in the park, like one I’d seen on the icy road.
Another fork in the trail. Almost too late I saw a directional sign, hit my brakes, and skidded from the far side of the left fork across the trail and onto the right fork. A “Race HQ” sign glowed on the side of the trail, and I could see the brighter lights through the trees – not just lights, but the reflective cones set up in the finishing chute. I had to look back to see if my chasers were there, but nope: nothing but the dim glow of the runner I’d just passed.
No freaking way. I was about to finish first. Without thinking I put my hands on my head, dumbfounded, then had to grab the bars and wheel through a tight corner and up the finishing chute. Should I raise my hands? Wheelie? Pump my fists?
Instead of all those alternatives, I rolled across the finish line and crashed into the snow, legs seized in a wonderfully satisfying way.
Immediately, Jamison and a couple other volunteers came over. I laughed at how ludicrous it was to have crossed the line first, but then tried to explain to Jamison about the wrong turns. He listened, nodded, and said he’d check my online tracker to see how much of the course I’d missed. Within a few minutes, he came back to say that given the course-marking problems and the fact that others had also taken wrong turns, I really would receive first place, in a time of 3:25 – as Jamison said with tongue in cheek, the new course record! Second and third finished together 11 minutes later, telling me how they’d taken a couple more wrong turns after I had found the course. Nobody seemed too annoyed by any of it; racing is racing. Later I saw that they had reached the checkpoint just four minutes after I left it, and left it sixteen minutes after I had. They had been closing the gap, but I had gone fast enough to save some of it!
If I never finish first again (and honestly, I probably won’t!), I’ll relish the experience of winning this one. And even if I had not gotten lucky, I would have enjoyed the race. Jamison and Lisa put on an excellent event that should only get better in the second year. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in trying an overnight winter race.