This season’s Tuscobia winter ultra was my best race ever. I was happy from mile 0 to mile 160 with the way everything worked: mind, body, bike, kit, nutrition. Conditions ran the gamut from WTF to silky, but most of the trail was fast as hell, which helped me finish in 21:20, almost three hours faster than my previous best on this course and good enough for a tie for sixth place. I hope this all bodes well for the Arrowhead 135 at the end of January, but even if the Tuscobia was the high point of the season, I’ll be pretty satisfied with my sixth winter of fatbike racing.
I don’t think I am wrong in ascribing some of this good result to regular old experience. Tuscobia was my twelfth winter ultra* and (it turned out) my tenth successful finish**, so I had decent reason to feel, as I set up my bike in the hotel room on Friday night, that I knew what I was about to do. I was even comfortable enough to risk using new gear in the race. Zip ties for the win! My friend Ben Doom, a threat to win any race he entered, watched and lounged on his bed. I had hoped to get to sleep by 10:30 – for my sake and for Ben’s – but that didn’t happen. Oh well. I had plenty of caffeine pills packed on the bike!
My confidence or at least comfort carried over to Saturday morning. I took my time making final preparations, and wound up downing my last spoonful of oatmeal as Chris Scotch, the race director, shouted that we had one minute till the start. I scrambled outside, rolled my bike up to the starting area, reset my GPS unit, and started riding.
The opening miles of the Tuscobia are a flat, narrow run from the edge of the town of Rice Lake to the Tuscobia trail proper. With a relatively small field of about 35 starters, the pack riding was easy. I enjoyed the fact that each number plate carried both the racer’s number and name (or close to it: “Chris Tassava” in my case, since I guess my full name didn’t fit), allowing us to greet each other by first name. I didn’t catch the name of the guy riding in blue jeans. I wonder if he finished.
True to trail reports and my pre-ride the night before with Jill Martindale and Alexandera Houchin, the trail was hard and fast – a thin layer of snow or ice from being totally bare, and perfect for my Dillinger 5 tires. By the time we made the right turn across the highway and onto the Tuscobia State Trail, everyone had been pretty well sorted. Five miles or so further, the snow deepened a bit, so I stopped to air down from pavement pressure to gravel pressure. I never did have to go down to real snowbiking levels of single-digit PSI, which was amazing and, given the speeds allowed by 15 pounds on packed trail, welcome.
Over the rest of the leg to the first checkpoint in a park near the tiny town of Ojibwa, a couple riders passed me, and I passed a couple. I had trouble with the chunder on one of the rolling hills in the town of Birchwood, but judging by the footprints in the snow, so did almost everyone else. I took off my gloves and hat, far too warm for the conditions, and stowed them in case I needed them later. I kept up with my eating and drinking (trail mix and Infinit Go Far, mostly), which is sometimes hard to do when I’m going fast-ish. I slowed down to admire the Chippewa River, which was running low and black, like a ribbon of night sky, and to take a photo of the trail, striped with icy patches:
I’d hoped to get the checkpoint at Ojibwa – 44.5 miles into the race – by noon, so I was very happy to get there at a quarter to 11. I drank a big helping of chicken ramen (in my own cup: organizers didn’t supply any cups, bowls, or utensils this year!), drank some tepid water, and headed back out in about 20 minutes, a really quick stop for me.
Tuscobia is unique in that a half-distance race is run at the same time as the long race. The 80-mile runners, skiers, and riders start at 10:00 a.m. in Park Falls, the turnaround checkpoint for the long race, and head towards Rice Lake, where the bikers in the 160-mile race had started at 6:00 a.m. and would finish 18 or 24 or 30 hours later. It’s always fun and weird to encounter them 80-milers, and my good mood was only heightened by seeing the first 80-mile riders coming towards me a few miles outside the checkpoint. We exchanged encouragements and shouted trail reports back and forth, but everyone mostly kept motoring. The snow deepened here again, forcing everyone to share one four-inch deep slot. I was pleased to be able to do this pretty well, enjoying the way this riding felt a lot like mountain biking.
Occasionally I’d veer into the powder to let an 80-miler have the track, but more often they moved aside for me, which was generous. I waved to Ben as he came roaring toward me on his way to the finish, and later stopped briefly to talk with my friend Mark Seaburg, doing the 80 as a warmup for a far tougher race the next weekend in Idaho. He was his usual gracious self, complimenting my pace so far and telling me that the trail improved drastically nearer to Park Falls. I told him that he’d have to deal with the rut for a while, and some icy sections later, but that after Ojibwa, everything was fast as hell. Fists bumped, we headed out in our opposite directions.
Not long after that, I started meeting the 80-mile runners. So many of them, all pulling sleds loaded with all the required gear that I had strapped to my bike. They cheered for me, I cheered for them, and then I happily rode down the smooth groove packed down by their sleds, happy for some easier riding after six or more hours of effort. I had started to feel a little tired, so I consciously dialed things back. Reviewing my cue cards, I could see I had about 20 miles to the checkpoint in Park Falls, which meant about 100 to the finish – just a century! Very doable. The slower speed also let me enjoy the views of long walls of snowy trees, a sight I always love.
I still hadn’t fallen into my usual pit of watching the odometer on my GPS unit – a sign that my concentration is waning – when I saw the first puff of smoke from the paper mill in Park Falls. Getting close. The town’s old-fashioned silver water tower loomed ahead and then receded on the left, flickering in and out of the trees. How can something so big and tall disappear so easily? Finally, I saw the sign at the head of the Tuscobia State Trail, and then arrows directing me over the streets to the checkpoint, run again this year by the Park Falls Gastropub. I wheeled in at 3:00 p.m., a couple hours ahead of my goal of getting there by dinnertime.
Inside, I ate a grilled cheese and a giant bowl of salty soup, drank a can of Pepsi and took another for the road, chatted with the other racers, and studied the race tracker on a big TV over the table of food. Those of us in the checkpoint were in positions sixth through twelve or so – respectable spots, but far behind Ben Doom, who we could see had already left Ojibwa. He would finish around 7:30 p.m. in a time of 13:27, just shy of the course record but more than three hours ahead of the second-place rider. Ben in fact faster over the full distance than the winning 80-mile rider did over the shorter distance. Not a bad day on the bike!
Goaded a little by the checkpoint coordinator, who told us that we had only a half hour of daylight now, several of us began stirring. I didn’t want to ride with a big group, so I was happy to see that only Jill Martindale was really ready on leave. She and I headed out at four, pointing ourselves at the twilight peeking over the trees. On the forested trail, dusk came fast. I turned on my lights even before we passed the last few houses on the outskirts of Park Falls, or the creepy-looking bar with with its falling-down beer sign. In the gloaming, we met a last few 180-mile riders heading toward Park Falls, including our friend Leah Gruhn, on track for a second-place finish.
Trading pulls with Jill, I relished this moment of exertion and focus, which doesn’t come in every race. My legs are heavy, but I’m not gassed. My stomach doesn’t feel normal, but it’s full of food, and not upset. My shoulders and neck and butt ache, but I can still stretch away the pain. I have many miles behind me, but there are many, many more ahead. And, best, darkness has fallen. As far as I need to know or care, the world ends at the edge of my headlamp’s beam. All I have to do it ride into that spot.
Jill and I had discussed at the checkpoint whether she was on pace to break the women’s course record of about 22 hours. As we rolled out, she was, and so long as we kept our speed up over 6 mph, she’d be fine. I worried a bit about the rutted section where I’d met the 80 milers a few hours before, but the runners had widened and packed the ruts, so we barely noticed it.
What I did notice, in the deep black of the woods, was light, exaggerated by all the darkness. The faint reflection from the numeral on a mile marker glowed like a cell phone. Runners’ taillights – or, often, the Christmas lights draped over their sleds – flared like TVs. Lights on distant houses and garages, even screened by the trees, blazed like fires. And the headlights of cars or occasional snowmobiles seemed obscenely atomic, far too intense to look toward, before blessedly vanishing behind us. After one string of snowmobiles blasted past us, Jill said, aptly, “They sound like they’re breaking!”
Here and there, we paused to eat or drink, to take off or put on some item of clothing, or just to not pedal. We would start moving again after a minute or two, maybe saying a few words to decide who would lead. We told each other ghost stories – the windigo, the Michigan Dog Man – and pointed out things that looked like other things, like the tree that I was sure, until we passed, was a guy waving to us. We really did see an all-white hare run across the trail. I listened to my tires: a harsh static on loose snow, a high sizzle on the compacted stuff. Eyes forward, I could stay in the track by simply listening for one sound or the other. It felt a little magical. The chatter of the tires was my own real awareness of my bike, the Blue Buffalo, which functioned perfectly the whole day.
Assuming that the Ojibwa checkpoint would be pretty busy with runners, we decided to stop at a gas station in Winter, just a few miles on the near side of the checkpoint, where we would also have a wider selection of crap to eat and drink. They didn’t have any of the ginger ale I craved to settle my stomach – now a little burbly after 13 hours of citrus-flavored nutrition drink and trail mix – but we managed to find some other stuff to devour, and I happily accepted Jill’s offer of a squeeze packet of applesauce. I did rudely decline the offer of a guy there – apparently supporting another racer – to pull off my ice beard. Usually I’m good natured about that sort of thing, but this guy had probably been warm and dry all day, and the joke bugged me. “No. Don’t do that. Don’t ever fucking do that.” Sorry for being a jerk, Spectator Man!
Jill and I downed our snacks over a few minutes of sitting by the live-bait tanks
and then headed back out. As expected, the Ojibwa checkpoint was crowded with runners and a couple bikers, but since we had refreshed ourselves at the gas station, we didn’t linger. I did get my glass of ginger ale, which tasted like heaven.
9:16 p.m. and back on the trail, aimed at the finish line, still on pace for the new women’s record time. I flipped my cue sheet to the last page: 44.5 more miles. Now the race was very simple: stay warm, eat and drink, and pedal as hard as possible. After climbing to an afternoon high of about 15º F, the temperature had fallen back to about 5º, with a slight headwind pushing back at us. Chilly, but easily managed. Keep the jacket zipped, the buff tucked in, the hood piled up.
We continued to trade pulls, passing through one small town and then another, dropping down to a scary railroad crossing and then climbing away from it, zipping over roads more frequently than we had in the far part of the course, chatting now and again but mostly just riding. I kept waiting for the sleep monster to slither out of a yawn and dig its claws into my skull – even going so far as to put my caffeine pills in spot where I could find them if I bonked – but the monster never showed up. The only things that did emerge from the darkness
were a couple riders who’d passed us while we were resting with the live bait. One was bonking badly, and asked for an energy bar. I didn’t have one, but I offered him a couple caffeinated gels. He took them, asking, “How far to the finish?” “Do you really want to know?” “Yes.” I told him, but couldn’t tell if he found relief or oppression in the number. I was glad I didn’t feel that bad, and that Jill apparently didn’t either.
It was after midnight already, maybe 20 miles from the finish but a few minutes of riding from Birchwood, the Bluegill Capital of Wisconsin and the last big town before the finish in Rice Lake. Some volunteers there had offered to put up a rest stop for any racers who were coming through overnight. According to the race director, the amenity was partly charity, partly a way to prevent racers from knocking on Birchwooders’ doors at 3 a.m., begging for warm places to rest, as had happened the previous year, when temperatures had ranged down to 20º below zero. I hadn’t done that, but I had rested way too long at a convenience store in town. Though I neither wanted nor needed to rest as long this year, Jill and I still stopped for a bit.
The volunteers seemed a bit perplexed by us, staring silently as we drank cocoa and beef broth. I tried to eat an oatmeal cookie but couldn’t finish it. Riders and one runner whom we’d recently passed came in to eat and dry their socks.
One rider – the guy who’d asked for the bar a few hours before – left after just a couple minutes, drawing Jill and me back out onto the trail. We caught him almost immediately on a steep up-and-down roller. I chose the wrong gear and had to hike up the far side of the hill while Jill cranked her way up.
From that spot, the course is literally downhill – at maybe negative half a percent grade – for the last seventeen miles, except for a tricky dip at a washed-out culvert near the finish. I don’t think Jill and I said more than seventeen words over those miles, but I did carefully watch my GPS unit, happy to see speeds of 8 and 9 mph. I kept recalculating our finish time, trying to assure myself that Jill would beat the women’s record. By the time we zipped down and up the dip – exactly five miles from the finish – she had the record in hand. We made the last highway crossing and took the left turn onto the straightaway to the finish. Now we just needed to crank our biggest gears past the final new landmarks: a supper club, some driveway crossings, a radio tower, the industrial park, two bridges. Jill pulled up next to me and we decided to cross the finish line side by side. No need to sprint! We rolled over in 21:20 – more than half an hour ahead of the old women’s record.
Exhausted and happy, we collapsed inside the finish line building. I zoned out, then came to and chatted with Jill, race co-director Helen, and a couple other racers and spectators. I’d been dreaming all day of chicken fingers and French fries, but I was satisfied with a slice of pizza and a cup of beer. The new finisher’s hat was nice too.
* Arrowhead 135, 2014-2018; Fat Pursuit 200k in 2014-2015 and 200-miler in 2017; Tuscobia 160, 2016-2018; Actif Epica 120k in 2018.
** I DNF’ed the 2014 Fat Pursuit 200k and the 2017 200-miler.