I’ve previously said that fear is an excellent tool going into a big race, looking back on the weekend I see my confidence was one of the variables that hurt my attempt at the Tuscobia 160. There is a balance of fear, confidence and respect during an Ultra that if done correctly, will get you to the finish. If not, too much confidence and not enough fear for example, ah well, it won’t ruin your race but it can make things harder. A lot harder. At Tuscobia this year I moved the way I know how to move, but without fear, I didn’t move hard enough. I didn’t move with purpose. SO, if someone came to me race morning and said “Kari you will DNF this race” would I have done things differently? Absolutely! Do I believe it would have made a difference? I believe the phrase “not a snowballs chance in hell” is appropriate. A few mistakes were made, not mistakes, my friend Erin calls them “variables that contributed to said outcome. But I believe those variables assisted in my first DNF more than caused it. Could I have gotten away with it had the conditions been better? Definitely. But, like a teenager, I’ll get away with whatever I can when ever I can, for however long I can until the consequences become dire. In this case, I was faced with my own limitations, and wouldn’t/couldn’t make a change until I hit “bottom” Is this where I’m supposed to feel grateful for this hard earned lesson?
I wanted nothing in the world but freedom as I set off on the trail that morning. I was paying for (what I thought would be) three days of solitude, from work, from family, from life. All of my gear was perfectly situated as I headed out on the trail leading to the first right turn five miles away.
Shew I was hot!
For the third year in a row I was overdressed for the temperature. So I stopped to take off a layer. The hype about the freezing temperature had swayed my outfit choice. Fun fact, when winter hiking, you generate a lot more heat than you think, so even though it was what… -8 at the start, I was down to my over coat almost immediately. The quiet black morning crept away to a blue winter wonderland. When I crossed the road, I noticed that I was working hard, much harder than usual. I hummed about this as I turned onto the Tuscobia trail.
I moved as I usually do, keeping the pace of three miles per hour or more, I can feel what this is based on effort more than keeping a GPS watch on. The morning was chilly but I never felt it, and as morning wore on, and the temperature rose, so did my furnace. I shared some miles with Travis, we talked about adventures from the last year, and this race, and we leapfrogged during the day. I was also leapfrogging with Kate, who was doing the 160 on foot for the first time. We had trained a little together, and I distinctly remember telling her and others that the trail is so flat you can overload your sled because you won’t feel it! Well I was feeling my sled, and working hard. Karma. My two liter hydration bladder was totally drained. I was sweating, drinking a ton, and eating every hour. It was ON.
Off in the distance I could see Brian Kutz looking cool leaning against his car. He was doing the 80 the next day and came out to spectate and check out the conditions. Having consumed my water, I had to go into the reserves and drink out of my Hydro Flasks. Which would be fine but I was basing everything on “last year I did…” and wasn’t expecting to crack into those babies until 9PM! When I went to take a sip the water was boiling hot and I couldn’t drink out it. I asked Brian if I would get the pooping disease if I added snow to the flask. “Are you kidding!? This is clean Wisconsin snow” Good enough for me!
Off down the trail hiked, I had stopped again to shed layers so as on that chilly day, I was wearing two wool base layers, a merino wool hoody, and my gortex shell. That’s it! There were times I was wearing just my balaclava, and no other hat, it was cold but I was working hard and staying very comfortable. Stopping to fix things was essential for me to remain warm and dry. I knew I was working hard, didn’t really know why, and didn’t believe that it would effect me in any way. Down the trail I saw Mom and Dawn and learned that Erik was just a mile or so behind. I was glad to hear it, by this time I was getting tired and the idea of going through the night together sounded better and better and BETTER! Trying to warn Dawn about the conditions without sounding like I was bitching was hard! “It’s slow, I don’t have any water, tell the girls, it’s beautiful, I drank all my water, it’s slow, it’s beautiful.”
As the day came to a close and the sun set, I reveled in the beauty and how wonderful life is when I can be outside for an entire day and see the subtle colors of winter. The trail moves from black, to bright blue, as afternoon changes to night, the trail turns orange and then pink, and then the headlights come on and the world is as big as my beam. As Travis and I worked together to keep a decent pace going, Kate came up from behind. Her water was out as well and she stopped to refuel in the last town. She was moving really well and I made a note to do the same at Ojibwa, I was wanting that pep too! Just behind her was Erik, scooting along on his skis, his tiny sled following shortly behind. My relief at seeing this human I love so much died and made way for absolute horror as I saw he was wearing nothing but a light hat and a fleece! His beard was totally iced over! Holy SHIT! He assured me he was comfortable, and we shared stories from the day. It was now fully night and the temp was dropping, the line of racers was Travis, Kate, me and then Erik. My headlight was fixed on Travis, just waiting for him to make that left turn on the spur trail, indicating that the first checkpoint Ojibwa was near!
I know this trail, it WAS close, and soon we were all marching down to the park. Kate said this is fun to bike down because it’s all downhill, I marveled at how different the experience is for each person, for each mode of transportation. Getting to Ojibwa it was first things first, bathroom! Then I went in to refuel and re hydrate. I have a bag of Skratch, my drink of choice, in my drop bag as well as my sled. I didn’t drink a single drop. Not fully understanding how much I was sweating, how much I was burning, instead of drinking I yawned, shed clothes, melted my gloves, and let Chaylane work on my calves. The Weakest Link I like to call them. I had the ingenious idea to wear leg warmers over my knees to keep them snugly bugly, but they cut off something on my calves and now they were super tight, she wrapped them in pink magic tape and they never peeped at me again.
The Great Sit. Not only did I spend too much time here, but I wasn’t doing anything to help myself either. Drying clothes was the most productive thing I did, but I was probably needing an electrolight drink in a bad way. I was falling asleep as we got ready to go, and after a while longer, Erik and I headed out into the night. I was sleepwalking almost immediately. All we had to do is maintain a 3 MPH pace and we would arrive at the turn around by 10 am. I still had no idea of my impending doom, I DID know something was wrong. After crying through my first overnight three years ago, I am now a (self proclaimed) pro at getting through the night. I know how i get tired and WHEN I get tired…. and I don’t get tired before midnight on the first night!
Regardless there I was, walking behind Erik’s beam of light, eyes closing, then SMACK I walk into a tree. “What’s that?!” Erik says. Then repeat. I’ve heard of people sleep walking down trail and I never really bought it…. until now. So I walked and dozed down the trail which seems like multitasking, but it wasn’t sustainable, I was slowing down more and more. I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t move, I took a caffeine pill and nothing. Erik stopped to eat, and I took the opportunity to collapse on my sled and immediately fell asleep. One minute, maybe two and we were moving down the trail again, I felt a little better, a little more focused. Who knows how much later though, not much, and I was walking into the trees again.
“What was that?”
“I fell asleep”
At some point I found what I was looking for: a farm road. Just enough space to park off the trail. I told Erik I would catch up with him, I needed to lay down. I swung the sled around and passed out on top, hearing Erik’s skis squeak away but not hearing them stop a few seconds later. Usually I can’t Shiv-a-biv until day two, but there I was, in a tiny coma on my sled, not yet to the turnaround. Less than five minutes later my eyes were open, and I cannot express to you how amazing I felt! Holy shit did that take the edge off! I stood up, and a few feet away standing guard like a sentinel, was Erik. Shoving a caffeine pill in my mouth and a gummie bear in my cheek, a few seconds later we were hauling ass down the trail! THIS is what I was waiting for, clipping along the night, laying out 3 MPH, Erik’s beam behind me. I was setting the pace.
All I need to do is just keep moving like this. Three miles per hour. Get to the turnaround.
Three miles per hour.
Throughout the night, I was fairly comfortable temperature wise, I got a little chilly at one point and added a down hat which took the edge off nicely. I knew the next night would be colder and had a puffy borrowed from Kate to be used then. I was ready for it. I was wearing my Hoka Tors which gave me some grief last year, but this year I was warm, dry, and comfortable. The plan was to change into my Altra Neo Shells for the return trip. We kept eating and drinking “enough” which wasn’t enough probably. We were moving “hard” and based on feeling I was on pace, which of course, we were not. Ah the glory of perception!
As 4 AM passed, I started wondering where the other racers were? Last year it was 3:30 and I started meeting people on the return trip. Where WAS everyone? I started feeling like we were the last people on earth. Then we passed through the Bivy Graveyard. Every time I saw a red blinky I thought we were catching someone, but it ended up being a sleeping human. I have no idea how many there were, but we would pass one and either Erik or I would ask if we should stop, at this point we were slogging. Hell no I didn’t want to stop! I wanted to push to the turnaround, then sleep two hours, get up and go! We talked about the plan all night: eat, sleep, then haul ass. Plenty of time. I kept checking my watch, dawn came, where were the people? We passed AJ and Mary they had tried to bivy and were freezing! It was cold, not able to stop we moved on. Kate came up, it felt so good to hear her voice! We swapped stories from the night and the day was fully on! Then a hill came, I told Erik what a treat it was going to be for him to see us all slide down the hill on our sleds! A few moments later and he laughed at us four as we scraped, clawed, grunted, and heaved our way down the hill. I was on the DOWNHILL sitting on my sled and it WOULDN’T budge. Like a hammer the realization hit. The snow. It was so dry my sled was gliding like a ball of sandpaper.
Based on time and feeling we should be there any minute, and yet, no site of the other runners on the return trip, the sun was up and 10 am came and went. 11 AM came and went. Finally we started seeing other people, Kate was rejuvenated by this and was off like a rocket. I continued slowing down. The last 8 or so miles I was moving at about a 1.5 mile per hour pace. Erik said our pace was “moseying.”
By the time we got to the turn around, reality had set in. We were three hours behind and slowing down. In order to make the return trip, I would have to turnaround without stopping, and complete the last 80 miles as fast or faster as I did the first one. My day was done. I still didn’t give up, we got into the bar and Erik and I were still on the “plan” which was to sleep and then decide. Still, laying down in a bed upstairs and taking stock at the 80 mile mark meant some harsh realities needed to be faced.
The weaknesses that I had been experiencing this year, the hips, unfiring glutes, Achilles issues, chronic calf pain, all of those things I have put off fixing now ran out of places to hide when I needed raw strength to push through the slow conditions. I could no longer “push” through and eek out finishes with a weak body. I had been sick for nearly a month, all of the training I did leading up to race day was wasted, the last month I did nothing but sleep. I was face to face with IT, that thing that I fear and yet ignored … I just wasn’t strong enough.
If it sounds like a list of excuses I assure you it is not. ALL of these things could be controlled and/or prevented including being sick. Work stress was high due to the holidays, my diet and drinking was out of control meaning if I got sick my BODY could not fight it off. My hip and glute issues that have been a problem for a year have been brought to light but of all the resources I have, I waited until the last minute to reach out to a friend for an assessment. Thank you Craig from Twin Cities Orthopedics! A long journey of healing and PT await. But at the moment, I was in a dark room, above a bar, sitting on a bed with my boyfriend, we were holding each other and crying.
I felt so broken.
Downstairs I called it. I felt like people were staring. This thing that was happening made me feel exposed and weak… I WAS weak, but I felt like people could now see it. Mom and Fred volunteered at Ojibwa that night, so they dropped us off at the hotel to sleep. I ordered us a pizza and sprite, Erik picked it up, and we sat on the hotel bed and quietly ate dinner. We continued to discuss the events of the day, everything felt surreal, my legs were fat, and I was exhausted. Erik was too having done an 80 mile ski. We did something amazing, and yet somehow it didn’t count because we never finished what we set out to do.
The next morning I opened my eyes to a new day. Erik looked at me and asked “what do you think baby, should we Mark Smith it?” Hell yes!
So my parents, Erik, and I ate breakfast and jumped into the car to find our friends and cheer them on. Kate and Jeff were both still out and I really wanted to find them, the Spots had frozen so we wound up waiting at an intersection for a while. During that time, we cheered on Sandor, Damionique, and Bridget. Kate’s day ended before we found her, I felt a pang in my heart, had we stuck together, would we have made it? Later we found Jeff marching down the trail at a good clip somewhere before Birchwood. Going out and cheering people on really helped get my head right. Later we went to the finish to cheer in the last competitors, there were just a couple left out there, the finish rate would be low this year.
As the evening wore down, we hung out in the KC hall drinking beer and talking. I shared stories with my Winter Women and friends, even though it was NOT the way I wanted to be there, I would’t want to be anywhere else. Word would get out that someone would finish soon, and we would go out into the black night to watch a tiny white light slowly get bigger and bigger. We had been waiting for Jeff to come in, Rick, who drove from the cities, Erik and I went outside to cheer him in. I spent some time talking with Faye about dogs and life. Often, for Erik and I, our eyes would meet and we would share a knowing look. We experienced something huge out there together and I was still, AM still processing it.
The happiness of friends finishing would make my emotions skyrocket, then I would be tearing up as we all swapped stories together. Jennifer and I had talked about her completing a 100 mile race, and even though she didn’t finish Tuscobia, she finally hit that mile that had previously escaped her. There was joy here, good stories, better hugs, and a ton of food. It was time for perspective. It wasn’t too long ago that this 80 mile race was the hardest thing I had ever done. It took everything I had at the time, to make it to that finish. Now, experiencing my first DNF, I needed to tell myself that it still counts for something even if only for me. 80 miles on this trail in these conditions is still pretty fucking cool, my fat ankles could attest to that. Erik SKIED the damn thing! No one finished the ski in the 80 or 160, and I was so proud that he was the only one to go 80 miles. Sure, my race will say DNF on the results, but that is just it; SO much happens out there, and if we let it, our experience can be reduced to a list on a page whether it is a time or a DNF, that is all it is, a name, and a result. But in between the name and the result, there is time, time filled with jokes, tears, snacks, and friendship. It is filled with what we choose to take away from it, experience, lessons, and desire. Am I happy with the result, well no, but am I still that broken person sitting in that dark room?