The Tuscobia 160 mile ultra had been on my mind for a year, ever since I had a successful 80 mile first attempt the year before. It was my first winter ultra and this year the 160 would be the furthest I had gone, I wanted to be prepared. I had been meeting with a small group of women every few months to talk logistics and dreams, each of us supporting the other in our own way. It was our Winter Women group. After a year of planning, passing gear check, and one last night of sleep, I was driving to the start in Rice Lake Wisconsin.
Once there, I was feeling happy and surrounded by my family and friends, as Chris Scotch laid out final instructions, Helen yelled “1,2,3, go!” and we were off. Waving kisses to my Mom and Step Dad, all of us 36 runners moved into the darkness surrounded by dozens of red blinking lights. The start was a confusing time for me, less than a mile in and I dropped a glove, returned to me by the beautiful Jennifer. I was over dressed, so after moving along at a fast walk I was already over heating. So I stopped to take off my puffy. Soon I was freezing. So I stopped again to add a layer. Then my hydration tube froze, so I stopped to put the pack under my two coats (where it should have been). This all happened in the first few miles, I was not in a groove at all! Meanwhile I got to chat with a few runners, my ladies Alex, Jennifer, and AJ, and the sun rose. The Tuscobia sunrise was beautiful, it was a bright winter morning.
The plan was to move hard through the day and night until the turn around in Park Falls, sleep, and then coast to the finish. Easy as pie. Going for the Order was my final goal, so I wanted to sleep more during this race so I wouldn’t bottom out at Arrowhead. All of this was swarming my mind, I was sweating and thirsty, walking I continued to crack my hydration tube trying to coax water out. Ten miles in, I could finally drink. I was making a lot of tiny mistakes, feeling spread out, and discombobulated. Walking along the trail that was in my dreams for a year, I looked into the woods at the snowy ground and sweeping fields. It was here I became aware of how still everything was, and how loud and intrusive my body and mind were in comparison to the landscape. The panic and anxiety of everyday life that had become my new “normal” became apparent, but had no place here on the trail, if I was going to succeed I needed to drop it immediately. Taking a deep breath, my race started then, in the quiet and healing winter.
Eating and drinking, the miles passed, and it was fun recognizing places on the trail from last year. I started leaving bits of “power” on the trail for the return trip. Stab a pole in the ground, power. Stab another pole in the ground, POWER! I saw Mom and Fred at an intersection, we chatted momentarily and I eased on. The blue snow started to turn orange, and the shadows of the trees stretched from one side of the trail to the other. The first day was coming to a close. Still regularly eating and drinking, darkness came and I started looking for the first check point, Ojibwa. Patience is not a virtue I possess, and the closer I get to a resting point the worse it gets. Fully dark and my mind bent on Tiki lights I hurry on, impatiently shoving Pringles in my mouth and following a red blinkie miles ahead. A lifetime later, the red blinkie was gone, a good sign! Then I saw a white headlamp look back at me, then turn and walk away (I found out a short time later that it was my friend Alex), I was at the spur trail to the check point! Rejuvenated I took the left off of Tuscobia to Ojibwa, and met Faye on her way out, it was good to see a Winter Woman on the trail! Soon, Moms cowbell could be heard in the distance, 45 miles is a long time.
Stepping into the warm shelter was awesome, and I was all business. Immediately drying gloves, headwear and coats. There was frost everywhere, in between every layer of coat and shell, and base layer. Once that was started, I put new batteries in my lamp, resupplied food in my fanny pack, and ate as much food as I could. There was no hurry to leave, and the resupply took about an hour. Getting ready to leave again, I noticed (for the first time) that my socks were wet, being warm I literally didn’t feel it! Feeling a rush of adrenaline at this potentially deadly mistake, the sock swap was made. I asked about the weather for the night and dressed “appropriately” for it, there was an emergency over coat in my drop bag, thinking I was prepared for the night, I stupidly left it behind. Kissing my Mom on the cheek, I moved toward the night, 35 miles to the turn around, easy as pie.
The first few miles were great, I was moving fast over the trail, smiling at the perfect sky above. The stars were bright and beautiful, the white Moon just behind me casting long shadows on the ground. It was truly lovely. Slowly but surely the temperature dropped. No worries, starting to get a little chilly I picked up the pace and soon warmed again. Then it got chilly again. So I picked up the pace…and didn’t warm up. Walking fast, my core temperature dropped, eating more food trying to get warm, my hands started to freeze from the exposure. Frost was building up again around my face and I moved at a fast clip. I was chilly but that was fine, I could maintain this until the turn around. Hours pass. It became clear that I could not maintain this until the turn around!!! Not wanting my hands to refreeze I opted out of eating and drinking, this put me in a downward spiral of cold and Bonk. I was getting dangerously cold and something had to be done. Idea time! I had a thermarest insulated sleeping pad, I could wrap that around me and be snug as a bug, right? Knowing that stopping would make my core and hands get even colder, I committed one last time to stop and get the pad out as quickly as possible. There are many things that I am grateful for: Smooshie, my Mother, a warm bed, and that no human ever saw the “Thermarest struggle of 2017” Flailing about trying to get it around my shoulders looked something like a cat chasing its own tail for MINUTES. No thumbs made the task impossible, and after an embarrassing amount of time, I gave up. Needlessly chilled even more, I moved down the trail, chiding myself for not taking my extra coat. More time passed, this was not sustainable. My sleeping bag! I could use that to wrap around instead. One last time I stopped and cracked that baby open. Easily wrapping it around, I soon felt the warmth returning, and walked with the heavy bag over my shoulders for the rest of the night.
Early in the blackness of morning, a headlamp ahead stopped me in my tracks, as it drew near I asked “am I going the wrong way” The spirited balacalava said he was on his way back. I stared stupidly at him… then broke the silence by asking him to zip my pit zips shut! We chatted and parted ways and I marveled at how fresh and cheery he was. Dawn came, and I yearned for the turn around, daydreaming at the food and sleep I would soon enjoy. Feeling a little pep, I dropped the sleeping bag and tried to move quickly. In the dawn, another human was walking toward me, I have tears in my eyes recounting that sight. I was desperate for Park Falls. Shoulders on fire from carrying the bag all night, I was gassed, physically and mentally. Crossing an intersection, I heard Moms cow bell, turning around I saw they were behind me. In a daze I turned my sled around to go toward them and my Mom “white fanged” me telling me to keep going! Two miles later, moving through the city streets, I arrived at the school. No cheering in my heart, no “shew girl you did it”, just an internal sigh at arriving at the turnaround.
I gentleman opened the door and sled and all, I walked into the gym. Inside, Awesome Alex was just leaving, we chatted for a bit, but I was focused on getting out of my cold and frosty clothes. Food. All of it, bowls of soup, crackers, cheese, cookies, doughnuts, and hot cocoa. The man who opened the door brought me a cocoa, I thanked him for volunteering and he said he wasn’t. He and his son were in the bike race, but I “looked so miserable” he had to help! HA! Eyeing the sleeping pads while eating soup, I chatted with Mom and prepared for a much needed nap, not thinking about the next 80 miles, just bent on rest. Laying out my clothes to dry, I climbed into my sleeping bag and fell asleep. The gym is where the 80 mile bike and run start, but throughout the pre race meeting and hullaballoo, I slept without hearing any of it. Two hours later, Randy was standing over me singing Sweet Child of Mine. It was time to go. Preparing to go was slow, I wanted to eat more but was peeing brown (we’re friends right?) a sign of massive dehydration. I guzzled water promising myself not to leave until my pee was a more ladylike color. AJ and Jennifer were there, we chatted, shared stories and tears, and ate more food.
Feeling massively rejuvenated I continued the preparation for the final half. My stuff was spread out EVERY WHERE. I must have undressed as I walked across the room, and gathering myself took more time. Repacking the sled, I was ready to go, kisses and hugs to my parents and friends, I left the school a completely different person. The sun was bright and it was a beautiful day! Mom, Fred, and Julio were at an intersection a few blocks later and I yelled “I’m more than half way done!” On this 35 mile portion of the trail, I had some fear that it was going to be a suffer fest like the previous night, and I made the decision to not allow my mind to be weakened. Stay on top of your food and water, don’t think, just walk. I had started taking Vitamin I for my inflamed IT bands, they were excruciatingly painful, but I still didn’t like taking anything. The day passed in an instant and darkness came, along with another beautiful night. Instead of looking at my feet burdened under the weight of the sleeping bag, on the return trip my head was up, the direction of the trail was facing the Moon, and I eagerly walked toward her.
35 miles, done. HOW could something be so hard one day and a breeze the next? Either way, I was again at Ojibwa. My parents and Erik were there and we shared hugs and words. Maybe it was because I was feeling so good, but my diligence at preparing for the next leg dropped off here. I warmed some clothes, but not all. I ate some food, but not ALL the food. I drank some water, but was back to brown piddle. I should have slept, but ended up closing my eyes for 15 minutes. By the time I was to leave, I was fumbling and unprepared. Kissing my family goodbye, I left for the final stretch of the trail. 45 miles to go, less than a Voyaguer. Easy as….pie. I later told my Mom that the first half of the Tuscobia 160 feels like a half but the second half feels like two “half’s.” Think about it.
I walked most of this portion with Randy and Paul, I’ve never done a race like this with someone before and it was nice having company. But I was falling asleep and veering all over, I had to take a nap on my sled at one point and when I found them waiting for me further up on the trail a wave of guilt rushed over me. I was starting to hallucinate so I took a 5 hour energy, and this aided in making me hallucinate faster! At one point I was standing on the trail staring at the ground waving my hand in front of my face trying to figure out if the bugs I saw were real. I like bugs and fear I wasted plenty of calories avoiding stepping on them. Sunrise came and my heart cheered. It had been a long night. We stopped to eat, I would nap or eat or drink, not enough of either. The three of us walked through the morning, occasionally chatting, and I yearned for a gas station. I wanted a breakfast sandwich, and was going to “wait” to eat. Literally hours pass, I was feeling so nauseous and couldn’t figure out why! Totally zapped I gave in on my breakfast sandwich extravaganza and started to munch on bacon. The nausea was gone almost instantly and I felt life and energy pour into me. We stopped and I drank more water, and felt more energy. Todd was out on his snowmobile, and it made the experience even more real. We happened upon an 80 miler, his “sled” had broken and one of the awesome volunteers made him a new one. He was dehydrated, hungry, and swerving. One of the boys gave him water and I gave him a bag of peanut butter pretzels. We moved a little way down the trail and there was Mom, we were very close to the last town and my freaking breakfast sandwiches! It was well after 1 pm.
I practically ran to the gas station, once there, I sat with Mom and Fred, slamming a Gatorade and two of the best eggie sandwiches in living memory. I went to the bathroom, and looked in the mirror for the first time in days, and wow, red faced, puffy eyed, bad assness happening! Getting ready to leave, I looked at the boys, and they looked the same. Chatting with Mom and Fred brought me back to sorts, and I felt a little fire grow inside me again. We left at 3pm, with 16 miles to the finish and plenty of time to do so. I was practically frantic with the energy from the sandwiches, some of that precious energy was wasted as I dropped items and fumbled along. Turning onto the last flat stretch of the Tuscobia trail, the energy was palpable. The boys were moving hard, no one was talking, we had a mission and were so close to completing it! Looking at Paul and Randy move down the trail ahead of me, I felt a deep sense of pride for them, to move all day when it’s hard and when our “fun cards” had been punched was quite the accomplishment. Soon we started spreading out, and night came once again. A driving sideways snow had begun, and the last few miles of the Tuscobia trail eked their way out.
I continued moving hard, eager to finish. Hallucinating only mildly but some things I started to see were disturbing and slowing me down. Two miles to the turn, then one, off in the distance I could see cars and knew I was approaching the final turn. Soon I was there and so was Mom and Fred. It was fully dark and the driving snow had stopped. We cheered at each other! The last part of the race was here, and I was standing at the foot of the four miles that had derailed me last year. I was determined to not let that happen again. Kissing and hugging, I turned into the night. Randy and I walked some time together, then I scooted along. I was bent on finishing but finishing well, only letting positivity in and saying goodbye to my short patience. The four miles passed, I reveled in the adventure we had been on, and the tears streamed down my face. I pondered on the point of all this and could come up with no answer at the time, looking back at the process I need to go through to mentally handle a race like this, the purpose is for my soul, and a tool to battle my depression. Hopefully these continue to emulate life. Moving closer I saw a blinkie that didn’t move, and soon heard my Moms cowbell. Another reason to do this? Making memories with my two favorite people! We reached for each other and I cried tears of joy in their arms. I couldn’t believe it, at the finish of the Tuscobia 160! Chris Scotch said some complimentary words which I shyly mumbled a response, he and Helen have the power to make me feel like an awkward middle schooler. They are just too cool!
We took pictures and I was inside sitting down, sharing victory smiles with my fellow participants. The inside of the KC Hall was bright but quiet, pizza and pop lay about as well as other racers. Helen came over and chatted for a bit, and I gazed starry eyed at her, knowing we would be sharing the trail at Arrowhead soon. Mom brought me Sprite, so dehydrated again I drank two liters before bed. The three of us headed to the hotel, driving past the finish just as Scott was completing his race. Pulling my boots off, knees screaming, calves rubbed raw from my wool socks, my biggest cheerleaders and I ate pizza and drank wine. We shared stories, and they told me of the people they met during their 62 hours of volunteering. I loved that they could have an experience that was exciting to them, beyond my tiny race.
The Tuscobia 160 was a “perfect” race for me, I made enough mistakes so I could learn something, but not so many that it resulted in a DNF. I always feel so humbled after an event like this, and the reality is, I haven’t truly been tested by the elements yet. The temperature was in negative double digits for the entire race, and yet it is still not THAT cold. Thinking now about using my sleeping bag at -18 gives me pause, what would I have done if it was -45? There is a lot of room for improvement, and I am grateful that Tuscobia allowed me to pass this year. I’m getting better at fixing problems as they arise, and am working on the patience bit. These are not natural actions for me but are crucial to winter ultra success. All in all, it took 24 hours before I started getting excited for the 160 next year, until then, the Arrowhead awaits!
…and if the Frost Giants permit, the Order as well.