Border Crossing MTBing

What: the marathon class (four-hour) event at the Border Crossing MTB race, part of the Minnesota MTB series

Where: Whitetail Ridge MTB trails, River Falls, Wisconsin – really fun trails that loop up and down a wooded hillside. Apart for a couple straight stretches along the cornfield at the top of the hill (perfectly situated for recovery!), the trails are very twisty and turny, and very rooty, and not particularly technical except for a section – near the end of our lap – that featured some burly rock sections. Our lap also included two short but steep climbs, which did a very good job of exploding my legs.

When: 8:50 a.m. till about 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 15, 2016

Why: I had hoped to do the Dirt Bag gravel race this weekend, but family plans made that hard or impossible, so when my friend Galen asked if I was interested in this event – rescheduled from July – I jumped at the chance.

Who: the Coyote, my Salsa El Mariachi with a new 1x drivetrain. 

My best gear was the bike, of course, and my new Revelate Wampak hydration pack – which I hope will be a key element of my winter-racing setup.

My worst gear was my new 1x drivetrain on the bike, which was wonky all day. Still, it never failed, so…

The low points were not very low:

  1. When I realized, halfway through lap four of five, that I wouldn’t be able to hold pace for six full laps. Not actually that bad a problem!
  2. When my Four Hour Energy drink wore off after three hours. False advertising!
  3. When the elite-class racers came ripping though about two hours into my race. Good lord they’re fast.

The high point was when, on my last lap – pretty much totally gassed – I still managed to clean all but one of the various fairly technical obstacles on the course. I had been hit or miss with them all day, so I was happy to put my experience with them to good purpose so late in the race. Now I just need to be able to do this on lap two, and at three times the speed!

It was in the bag when I made it up the last serious climb, a steep ramp covered with loose rock, and knew I pretty much just had easy, fun trails to the finish.

The key lesson learned was that Four Hour Energy isn’t, and that the Whitetail Ridge trails are great. I’ll have to try to do this race next year, at its usual time in July.

The takeaway is that the MMBS races are pretty damn fun. I did three this year (this one, the Red Wing Classic in RW in July, and the Singletrack Escape in August in St. Cloud), and found the race experience to be quite different from my usual kind of event – gravel centuries and fatbike ultras. I like the vibe, especially having racers around almost all the time. I look forward to getting better – smoother but especially faster – at this kind of racing.

Happy Birthday, Carleton!

Carleton College was founded on October 12, 1866 – exactly 150 years ago today. Actually, that’s not quite accurate: the institution was founded as “Northfield College” on 10/12/1866; five years later, its trustees renamed the college in honor of a key donor.

Anyhow, the college is celebrating the sesquicentennial of its founding – and its 150 years of history – in a typically low-key but fun way, with events such as a “Town-and-Gown Celebration” in downtown Northfield tomorrow, a convocation on Friday by Minnesota’s favorite humorist Garrison Keillor, a carnival and fair on Saturday, and a little birthday video featuring scores of students, faculty, and staff – including me and my cowlick. I’m talking trash to our bizarre, unofficial, worse-for-wear college symbol, a bust of the German Romantic poet Friedrich Schiller, who has also appeared with Bill Clinton and Stephen Colbert.

Schiller and Tassava
Schiller and Tassava

I’m glad I wore my sesquicentennial button that day!

Quirks like Schiller and birthday videos remind me of other ways that Carleton’s culture has bound me – and, I hope, others who love the institution – to the college. I couldn’t possibly list all the examples that have come up in the eleven years that I’ve worked at 1 North College Street (7.33% of the college’s lifetime!), but for me, the deal was sealed in summer 2006, when the college held a farewell party for a wonderful but falling-down piece of outdoor sculpture called Twigonometry. (Anyone interested in public art should check out the gallery of photos of the piece in its prime.) Twigonometry stood gorgeously and mysteriously at the north end of the Bald Spot, where kids like toddler Julia could wander through its chambers and arches, swirling in an organically alien way:

Julia and Twigonometry
Julia and Twigonometry

What kind of place holds a farewell party for a four-year-old sculpture made from branches and twigs? The kind of place that I hope lasts another 150 years.

Coyote Nation

When I was growing up in the U.P. in the ’70s and ’80s, coyotes were considered the menace to farm animals. Back then, wolves were (temporarily, as nature assured) absent from the Yoop, so coyotes – kai-ohts – assumed the apex predator spot that Canis lupus should have held, and in fact resumed sometime in the ’90s.

I have no idea if any Yooper farmers lost any livestock bigger than a chicken to Canis latrans, but my male relatives were unanimous in their hatred of coyotes, and were eager to kill them all. I never understood why this was, but then I ever understood why it was fun to sit in a tree for hours in the hopes of shooting a deer either. 

I did understand that the coyotes’ howls were thrillingly wild. When we stayed at our family’s hunting camp – a one-room shack in the northwestern corner of the Ottawa National Forest (almost a million acres of woods that covers almost all of the Wisconsin end of the U.P.) – we often heard coyotes singing at night. I lay there in my keeping bag in the bunk bed and imagined the coyotes sniffing around the building, drawn by scraps of food and our weird smells.

I don’t recall ever seeing any coyotes, but I must have, for as Dan Flores shows in his superlative Coyote America, coyotes are now America’s most ubiquitous big predator, despite continuing to be killed in the thousands every year. Some of the only actual coyotes I’ve ever seen – on a years’-ago bike ride – were three dead ones, dumped in a ditch not a mile outside of town. More recently I saw two skinny specimens patrolling a river near Island Park in eastern Idaho. They watched me and a friend bike along the opposite bank, then effortlessly scaled a sheer snowbank to get up off the river and onto the flat plain. 

Notwithstanding this pair in the underpopulated West, Americans now live among more of these scrawny, intelligent, shy beasts than ever before – a story that Flores tells with care, detail, a bit on anger, and a lot of humor in his book and with indignation in this New York Times op-ed. After a century of incessant, brutal biocide against the coyote, we should admit defeat and admire the victor. 

By rights, in fact, we Americans should do as generations of a Native Americans – from the Aztecs to the Apache – did, and worship the coyote as a nature god. Like God, Coyote is everywhere. As my friend Charlotte pointed out the other day, they’ve surely watched me on a bike ride. They’ve probably watched my girls playing in our backyard. A family of them might be right now in the field to the south, perhaps looking warily between the light spilling from my picture window and the harvester that’s growling along the rows of soybeans. Maybe they made a meal of one of the hundreds of Canada geese that gleaned in the field all afternoon. Regardless I’m pleased to know that they’re out there, outlasting and outsmarting us. 

Sweaty Fun at the Red Wing Classic 

What: the Red Wing Classic race, event #4 in the Minnesota Mountain Bike Series

Where: the Memorial Park trails above Red Wing, MN

When: July 10, 2016

Why: To try a “short” mountain bike race! I decided to enter the “comp” class to get the most time out there – three laps of a decently tough 6.1 mile course. 

Who: my Salsa El Mariachi, the Coyote.

My best gear was my tire setup: Bontrager XR2s, tubeless. Good stuff. 

My worst gear was my sense of balance, which betrayed me on a tricky off-camber turn early in lap 1, causing a bad crash that screwed up my right hand for a while. 

The low points were

  1. when I crashed,
  2. when I got so badly dehydrated on lap 1 that I started seeing stars, which were only chased off by pounding three cups of cold water, and 
  3. When I reached the infamous Stairway to Heaven climb on each lap, a steep, straight, rocky bastard. I had to walk it each time. 

The high point was when, on lap 3, I felt like my legs had come around and that I’d finally gotten a sense of the course. 

It was in the bag when I hit the top of the last climb and knew I had only a few hundred meters to go, finishing in 2:27 for 50th place – third from last and 44 minutes behind the winner. 

The key lesson learned was that going hard for 2 and a half hours is fun but totally different than racing a marathon. 

The takeaway is that these short races should be part of my “off-season” racing schedule. Many are pretty close to Northfield, all are inexpensive compared to marathons, and each (I learned) is quite different from the others. My lap times got longer through the race: 45:25 on lap 1, 49:58 on lap 2, and  52:15 on lap 3. Gotta get faster. 

Note: the photo above is by Todd Bauer, an excellent photographer who covers a lot of bike races! He published a great gallery of photos from the Red Wing Classic, including that shot of me

Cheq 80

What: The Chequamegon 100 mountain bike race – actually only 80 miles this year due to rain damage on one part of the trail network. 

Where: Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association trails near Cable in north-central Wisconsin. The CAMBA trails are tight, technical paths through dense hardwood and conifer forests. 

When: Saturday, June 18, 2016 – a warm, humid northwoods day.

Why: To redeem myself after failing to finish the Cheq 100 in 2015, when I stepped down to the 62-mile race after the wet trails proved too much for my legs and fatbike.

Who: the Coyote, my Salsa El Mariachi, which got a little buggy and dirty. 

My best gear: my Osprey hydration pack, a Syncro 3 that held a big reservoir and a few gels and nothing else. Light, comfy, ideal.

My worst gear: my lower back.

The low point was when I had to stop with ten miles to go to to stretch my aching back for the millionth time. The brutally rough trails were almost too much. 

The high point was riding the whole day with my friends Galen and Sarah, who though much faster than me, rode with me from start to finish. I valued the company and the inspiration as well as the chance to watch how they handled the trails. 

It was in the bag when we hit a high point on the last section of singletrack and saw the road that led back to this finish line.

The key lesson learned is that flow is everything on MTB trails. Being able to generate and maintain momentum is a far more important skill than being able to generate massive power. (Power and speed helps too though!) 

 The takeaway is that I became a better MTB rider between the 2015 and 2016 Cheqs. On to 2017: I hope it’s my first full MTB century.

Lazy Sunday

Today was a near perfect autumn day. Though I’d have liked to have done a hard ride on some local trails, instead I headed out with Julia on a big loop that included a little dirt in the Arboretum

before stopping at the Carleton library (where she checked out two Shakespeare plays – wha?) and then heading downtown to browse the art shop (cardstock for her new greeting-card project slash business) and bookstore ([this book on the famous Lewis chessmen]( looks great) and get a snack at the coffee shop. Small business Sunday! While doing all that, we chatted about everything: school, work, college, stores, food, biking, being a kid…

On our way home we rode through a street-construction project, which is always good for a little frisson of riding, harmlessly, where you supposedly shouldn’t. Six miles of east, fun, relaxing outdoors time.

Marji Gesick 2016: 100% Effort, 49% Complete

What: the Marji Gesick 100

When: Saturday, September 26, 2016: 7:47 total riding time, about 9 hours total time on course.

Why: Because the MG is supposed to be one of the hardest MTB races in the Midwest, if not the country, with more than 10,000 feet of climbing over the 100-mile distance, and because I need to finish a 100-mile MTB race. I’m 0-3* lifetime!

Also, because I’d never raced in the homeland!

Where: Marquette to Ishpeming, Michigan – in the center of the gorgeous Upper Peninsula. Our drive up to the race took me through some old stomping grounds and directly past my Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Channing. This is a fire tower outside Crystal Falls, not their house. 

The course was mostly singletrack in the woods – always demanding and often relentlessly technical. Though there was plenty of fast, fun trail

and lots of hike-bike for me and others.

Who: The Coyote, my Salsa El Mariachi 29er hardtail.

Best gear: My front shock and my Bontrager XR2 tires, run tubeless at about 20 psi.

Worst gear: My rear derailleur, which failed catastrophically at mile 53.

The high point was when I realized at about mile 50 that I felt about as good as I’d ever felt near the midpoint of a long race. I was confident I had the legs and lungs to finish in 14-16 hours. 

The low point was when chain suck wrapped the derailleur around my cassette and neither I nor a fellow racer could fix it or switch the bike to singlespeed.

It was in the bag at no point in the race. It was on a pipe and in a tunnel at different moments in the event, though. 

The key lesson I learned was that I have the fitness for a long MTB race, and that my technical skills have improved enough that they’re no longer a liability (as they’d been at the 2015 Chequamegon 100). I just need to combine those qualities with a good day from the bike – or a different, more forgiving bike. It’s no surprise that virtually all the finishers rode full-suspension machines.

The takeaway is that the Marji Gesick is a great event run on a stupid hard course. I need to get back to there in 2017 and earn a finish like my friend Galen:

* My results in four attempts at century-length MTB races:

  • 2015 Chequamegon 100: switched midway to the 62-mile race, DNFing the 100.
  • 2015 Maah Daah Hey 100: quit at about mile 50 after the fatbike’s drivetrain blew up.
  • 2016 Chequamegon 100: completed the full course, which had been shortened to about 80 miles due to rain damage to the trails.
  • 2016 Marji Gesick 100: DNF at mile 54 with a mechanical.

Into the Woods

One aspect of cycling that surprises and pleases me is how a bike ride will sometimes – by accident or by subconscious arrangement – bring me to a place I didn’t know I needed to go. Fatbiking has done this figuratively and literally, creating or at least heightening a passion for being in the snow. Riding the Arrowhead literally changed my life.

But this happens often enough on regular old rides too. A mindless drift down a favorite road brings me at just the right moment to a view of a prairie landscape that shocks me with a feeling of being small but in just the right place.

Isaacson Corner
Isaacson Corner

A ride with the girls creates a sense – rare but welcomed – of being possibly okay at parenting.
Lebanon Hills
Lebanon Hills

Or yesterday: a careful plan for a pretty hard training ride delivered me to some wooded trails, just a few miles but a world away from home, that dripped with rain and a feeling of home – of my actual childhood homes in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and my ancestral homes in the woods of eastern Belgium and central Finland. Even barrages of mosquitoes couldn’t detract from my sweaty happiness at being deep in the trees and ferns and mud. 

Caron Park
Caron Park

Octopus Life

A while ago I asked for recommendations of natural-history and science books to read.
The Soul of an Octopus
Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus was heartily recommended by several people, and very much worth my time. The book is so beautifully and transparently written that it can be read quickly, which for me heightened its effect. Like an octopus using all eight arms to take in everything it can all at once, I wanted to gorge on everything the book has to offer: wonderful science writing on these utterly bizarre creatures; learned considerations of how humans can connect to wild creatures and, especially, what forms animal consciousness might take; and wonderful stories about her own relationships with several octopuses in a Boston aquarium.

The book contains too much of all that and more to summarize, so let me just say that anyone interested in animals or a nature beyond humans should read it. The closing passages were as moving as anything I’ve read this year, but every other page contained astounding stuff like this litany of octopus mythology:
Octopus Religion

Parenting by Bike

If there is one downside to my love of winter cycling – and there isn’t – it would be that my girls can’t join me out on the snowy trails. So as bummed as I am to see winter go (especially a short, mild winter like this one), I’m equally happy to go riding again with the girls, and even more so after we had so much fun last summer.

My spring cycling fever spiked on Friday when I learned that Northfield’s in-town mountain bike trails were scheduled to open for the season on Saturday.

But! When I told the girls this news, Julia said that she was too nervous to ride the trails again – and specifically that she was afraid of falling off the bridges at the trail. (This happened once last year, so it’s a semi-real fear.) I didn’t say much except that I hoped she’d change her mind, and went riding by myself on Saturday.

Sure enough, this morning she announced that she did indeed want to go riding – which made Genevieve upset because she couldn’t come along, being already committed to going to a party. Kids!

I calmed Vivi down by promising to take them next weekend to a nearby mountain bike park (what a burden!), and then Julia and I hit the trails.
Shooting the gap

She did great, riding the bridges without any problems and re-conquering several features that she’d learned last year. She even insisted on posing for a picture:
Semi-scenic overlook

Altogether we rode ten miles in about 90 minutes, which is a great first outing of the season. In addition to the planned trip to other trails next weekend, we decided at dinner to sign up for a short gravel race near Northfield in May, and are thisclose to convincing the non-cyclist in the family to let them do a MTB race in the fall. Yay bikes!

The Pitchy Blackness

I’m finally reading *Danny the Champion of the World* by Roald Dahl, which both family and friends have said is great. It is, not least because the book includes paragraphs like this one, which stopped me as cold as an unrideable hill in the middle of a fatbike race.

The Pitchy Blackness
The Pitchy Blackness

Shoulder Season

I feel, I think, the same way about the end of winter that many people do about its start: a little depressed, kinda crabby, grouchy about the change in scenery.

With spring now on the way – early, in my view, and tentatively, in all likelihood- I am nonetheless trying to find some beauty in the melt and gray and muck. These two views of the same field east of town do include some things worth looking at.

Looking West

Looking South

Arrowhead Clothes

I get several recurring questions about fatbike riding:
"Do you get cold?"
"What do you think about?"
"What do you eat?"
"What do you wear?"

The questions interlock: I do get cold, sure, but not usually that cold, in part because I spend a lot of time thinking about whether I’m cold or hot and adjusting accordingly. I also spend a lot of time thinking about eating and drinking, and of course actually eating and drinking. And when I get everything just right, I don’t have to think about being cold or hot because I’ve chosen the right clothes, and can think about the race itself, about conditions on the trail, about the state of my body and mind, about other racers, et cetera ad infinitum.

I’ve already thought a lot about the race-day weather. Conditions at this year’s Arrowhead look to be similar to last year’s – around 20°F – though we might get a little snow this time. Given this straightforward situation, I’m going with a very reliable set of clothes that I’ve used in other races and long rides, stuff that keeps me warm and, as important, dry but that is also comfortable and easy to adjust as needed. After I put this clothing on around 6 on Monday morning, I hope I don’t have to think about it again till I’m done!

Layers are key from top to bottom, because they help manage moisture – preventing excessive sweating that could lead to dehydration or, worse, frostbite. In pursuing layering nirvana, I have not chosen much cycling-specific clothing. In fact, only the boots are something I couldn’t wear for any other outdoor winter activity.
Full Kit

The boots are 45NRTH’s Wolvhammer cycling boots – sturdy, warm shitkickers that clip into my pedals. Inside, I wear compression socks inside thin wool socks. (If I expected colder temps I’d wear thicker outer socks.)

On my legs, I wear thermal windbriefs, fairly lightweight Craft baselayer bottoms (super long so they stay tucked into my socks), and an old but wonderful pair of fleece-lined Craft skiing tights. I’ve never had cold legs, so I know this combination works.

On my trunk, I often wear a thin wicking undershirt under a long-sleeved but lightweight Craft baselayer shirt (the match to the longjohns). I may forego the undershirt this year as it’s too effective an insulator for 20° weather. I wear fairly thin fleece gloves, as I usually have my hands buried in the big overmitts called "pogies" that are fixed to my handlebars. I carry several pairs of gloves to have options if one pair gets sweaty or if the temperature fluctuates. (At the halfway checkpoint this year, I plan to change into a completely fresh set of baselayer items: both pairs of socks, windbriefs, long bottoms and top.)

Trunk and Arms
My outer layer is a soft shell jacket by Eddie Bauer’s "First Ascent" line. It’s a fantastic piece of clothing: close fitting but very stretchy, with two deep side pockets and a deep chest pocket, a full zipper, and a huge hood that, pulled up, protects the neck and even my lower face. I also wear a very lightweight reflective vest, to comply with race rules that mandate a certain amount of reflective material – the better for other racers and especially snowmobilers to see you.

Keeping my head warm but not sweaty is a challenge. I usually carry two or three different hats so that I can change out of a sweaty one or into a warmer one. The jacket’s hood is a secret weapon here. I always wear some sort of eye protection – usually clear-lensed cycling glasses, though I carry regular cycling sunglasses too, because even an overcast day can be damn bright on the snow. I wear a headlamp all night so that I can see and be seen, but also in the hours before and after dark when I need to be seen in tricky flat light. Fatbike races typically don’t require racers to wear helmets, so I forego that too, which makes regulating my head temperature a lot easier.

Though all this stuff is expensive, it’s all very effective at keeping me warm and dry and therefore safe. And I’m inordinately proud of the fact that I didn’t pay full retail for a single one of these items, except the boots, which I bought with a bonus a couple years ago.

Crush Snow at the Snow Crush

I was happy on Saturday to race again, this time in the inaugural Snow Crush event at River Bend Nature Center, a gorgeous and well-run educational preserve on about 750 acres of prairie, woods, and river floodplain in Faribault, just south of Northfield. I’ve been to RBNC many times, most often for school field trips but also just to enjoy the landscape, which is pretty great for walks and mountain biking. 

The Snow Crush races were RBNC’s first foray into bike racing, so the center’s staff worked with the local MTB club, Cannon River Offroad Cycling and Trails (CROCT). Together they put on a hell of a good event, including presentations on winter cycling, vendor booths, beer from a local taphouse and coffee from a local roaster, demo bikes for adults and kids, and two races on a great five-mile loop – a one-lap race for "beginners" and a three-lap race for "experts." Notably, all the race registration fees went to RBNC and CROCT, which was pretty great. 

I went down to the race with my friend Dan, a good athlete who was eager to race his brand-new fatbike. We formed up at 1:00 sharp for the expert race, looking into a westerly breeze that was taking the -1° F air temp down to something like -10°. Though I didn’t know how my legs would feel five days after the big ride at Tuscobia, I couldn’t resist going out pretty hot when the race started. 200 meters later, I knew my buuuuuuuurning legs were not in fact ready for race pace!

I pulled back a little and focused on a sustainable effort as we left the short opening pavement section and hit the snow. The track was in good shape everywhere except a few corners, so I was able to ride pretty smoothly throughout the first lap. A couple guys went by me, but they didn’t get too far ahead, and then one took a spectacular crash when he missed a turn. I avoided laying it down and took note of spots where I bobbled, trying to remember them for the second and third laps. The best bit of the lap was a set of downhill switchbacks that could be descended at a decent speed and didn’t require much braking. My friend Jim Wellbrock was shooting photos at a choice spot in this section, which meant that I got a rare photo of myself riding. 

Lap one went by quickly, despite a couple headwind sections, and ended with a fast run down the hill we’d started on and then quick whip through the finish area. I saw the leaders going out on their second lap and gave a wave to a couple friends. Heading out for lap two, I felt much better – like a bike racer. Back on the snow after the pavement stretch again, I could see another rider in front of me – black jacket, dayglo orange and pink bike. Whenever I could, I counted the seconds between the moment Orange passed a certain spot and when I did.

The gap was 30-some seconds when I first noticed him, but crept down into the high 20s when we crossed the bridge over the Straight River (a spot where racers could be traveling in both directions, requiring my friend Todd to do some traffic control). The gap was in the low 20s on the only real climb in the back section, then the teens as we reached a long straightaway at the far end of the loop. I was jazzed. Orange got away a bit on the fun switchbacks, but when we came back toward the front section, he was close enough that I could read the text on his jacket. As we crossed the train tracks that seemed to be about three-quarters of the way through the lap, Orange was five seconds up. I took note of the time on my computer so that I’d have a sense for the last lap of how many minutes were left to race from that same point. I got onto his wheel on the long gentle uphill that came right after the RR tracks, a moment that CROCT maestro Griff Wigley captured.

I sat in for a few minutes as we rolled toward the lap zone, recovering, then went around Orange just as we crossed the lap line – and immediately bobbled in soft snow on the next corner. "Sorry!" I called back to him. I dunno if he had to put a foot down, but he was right behind me as we rode up the pavement section for the last time and onto the snow. Checking my computer, I saw that I’d hit the RR tracks about seven minutes before, so I figured that a hard push from that spot at the end of the lap would mean maybe six minutes of riding to the finish line.

The fact of being on the last lap was motivation enough to press a bit right there. Maybe I could catch the next guy in front of us! I bombed a fun straight downhill that came immediately after the turn onto the snow and tried to hammer the subsequent flat straightaway. Zooming through a very low tunnel under the railroad tracks and then through a gorgeous stand of cottonwoods, I could sense that Orange was close, but not too close – I couldn’t see his shadow. Over the river, up the climb, down a drop to a little bit of prairie, back up a gradual slope to the far-side straightaway, and then through the switchbacks again. My back was getting sweaty, finally, and I could feel the familiar sense of constriction on my cheeks where an icebeard was forming.

Glancing back from the bottom of the switchbacks, I couldn’t see Orange anymore, but I didn’t trust my glance. Maybe he was still there, and I somehow didn’t see him or his insanely bright bike. Going over the bridge across the Straight for the last time, I got up out of the saddle to fight a little harder against the headwind. Some softening track slowed me down a little as I rode along the edge of an open area, but then the trail took me onto some singletrack through woods that I didn’t recognize, even slightly! Bizarre to have ridden it twice in the previous hour but have no memory of it.

That mystery section ended in sight of the railroad crossing. Six minutes! Up out of the saddle again. Up the grade where I’d latched onto Orange. Through some twisty stuff, including a couple soft spots where I managed to find good lines. Looking up, I could see the volunteer at the spot where we jumped onto the trail back to the finish area. I figured I had two minutes of riding left, all of which I could do standing in my biggest gear. It felt great to really be hammering – first up a small incline and then down the hill where we’d started the race. I slowed to take the last turn, a sharp mushy thing, then got up again to sprint myself to the finish line. I crossed in 1:22, good for tenth place – a very satisfying result given how I’d spent the previous weekend.

Cooling off, I hung out for a bit in the River Bend interpretive center, watching other racers finish and running out to cheer my friend Dan when he came through – happy, tired, and well icebearded. The overall atmosphere was great, with smiling racers, warm volunteers and sponsors, free-flowing beer and coffee, and some spectacular bikes. It was easy to feel like I’d spent the afternoon doing just the right thing.


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.

Gear: checked
Gear: checked

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:

Ready to Roll
Ready to Roll

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.

The Trail at 9:41 a.m.
The Trail at 9:41 a.m.

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.

At Checkpoint 1 (11:00 a.m.)
At Checkpoint 1 (11:00 a.m.)

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.

At Checkpoint 2 (4:01 p.m.)
At Checkpoint 2 (4:01 p.m.)

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.

Entering Checkpoint 3 (9:44 p.m.)
Entering Checkpoint 3 (9:44 p.m.)

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.

Inside Checkpoint 3 (10:50 p.m.)
Inside Checkpoint 3 (10:50 p.m.)

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.

After the Lemington RR Crossing (1:22 a.m.)
After the Lemington RR Crossing (1:22 a.m.)

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:

Finisher Face (5:46 a.m.)
Finisher Face (5:46 a.m.)

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.