2018 Tuscobia 160 Race Report

 




The Tuscobia Winter Ultra is a self-sufficient winter ultra race held on the Tuscobia State Trail in northern Wisconsin. Participants can choose three different methods of propulsion; run, bike, or ski. There are also two distance options as well; 80 miles or 160 miles.

 

Growing up in New England, I’ve always been attracted to winter adventures, and recently, the winter ultra scene. Ultra races in general are a different breed of their own, however, winter ultra events are on an entirely different animal. Not only are you required to cover a one-hundred plus mile distance through the snow, (as if this isn’t a challenge in itself), you are to do so by pulling all of your necessary equipment in order to eat, sleep, and survive on a sled, or which racers refer to as a "pulk" for the entire duration of the race.

My setup. Harness, pulk, and my old high school hockey bag filled with all necessary survival equipment.
 

Around a year or so ago Ten Junk Miles did a great podcast dedicated to winter ultras, and more specifically the Tuscobia Winter Ultra Race. After listening to the podcast and hearing how difficult and challenging the Tuscobia Ultra is known for, it immediately became on my bucket list. After signing up for the race, I reached out to Chris Scotch, one of the race directors of the Tuscobia Winter Ultra along with his wife Helen Scotch. As with any race I sign up for, there is a large amount of time and research I will invest in prior to getting to the starting line. This race was no different, putting your body in this type of weather environment in an endurance situation could lead to frostbite or hypothermia with just one small mistake. I cannot say enough good things about Chris, he turned out to be more of a mentor to me leading up to the event by sharing some of his knowledge with me about what has been both successful and unsuccessful over the years at this event. Chris has an extensive background in ultra events, and even more specifically in winter ultras. Another person I would like to thank is Tim Hewitt. Tim has completed the Iditarod 1,000 mile event from Anchorage to Nome Alaska ten times on foot! Just take a minute and put that into perspective. Tim went out of his way on several occasions to share some of his knowledge and cold weather experiences with me. Throughout all of his accomplishments, Tim is a super humble human being and always willing to help someone else out.

Living in North Carolina can make certain aspects challenging in regards to training for a winter ultra event. A couple of months prior to the Tuscobia race I opted to pull a tire with my race harness early mornings before work and during my lunch hour. Personally I found this method beneficial because I was able to alter my workouts between both power hiking and running all while pulling the tire, as well as changing the terrain that I was pulling the tire on in order to increase or decrease the level of perceived exertion. If I wanted a easy workout I would pull the tire on gravel, if I wanted a more intense workout I would opt for pulling the tire in tall grass or on asphalt. Sometimes I would also wear a 20lb weight vest during the workout. I felt that pulling the tire engaged and strengthened the same muscle groups in both my core and hip flexors that were used when pulling the sled in the snow. Back in mid December mother nature gave us a treat by dumping over twelve inches of snow at our home and I was able to put my training to the test by pulling my seven year old daughter around the trails!
       
My daughter enjoying a sleigh ride through the woods.

 
On race day morning my wife Jen and I were driving through the town of Rice Lake Wisconsin and passed the local bank that had an outside digital thermometer that read 21°, with the forecast calling for below zero temperatures by nightfall. These temperatures were actually above average, but I wasn’t complaining.

Looking down the Tuscobia Trail
 

 As Jen and I pulled up to the starting line the race was just starting, we quickly unloaded the equipment in the car, tossed it in my pulk, and off I went following a swarm of blinking red lights from the other 160 mile competitors ahead of me.

 

The race started at 6:00am, which meant we would be starting the dark for around the first one and a half hours. As daybreak came, I got a chance to observe the trail and its surroundings. I looked to my right and looked at a large heard of bison in an open field looking at me just as weird as I was looking at them. Probably thinking which one was crazier. I knew that I was going to be on this trail somewhere between 50-60 continuous hours, so it was now time to get in my mental rhythm and embrace the solitude.

 
At mile 22 getting into my rhythm.



 

 One of the things I enjoy most about ultra events is the people you encounter along the way. Everyone you run into has their own personal story of why they choose to do this, and more times than none it’s a interesting story. Going outbound to Park Falls, I hooked up with a guy named Edward. Edward has done this race several times and provided me with some good insight of some things to expect going forward during the race. It was fun spending some time with Edward on the course and getting to learn more about him.

 

The first checkpoint was at Ojibwa at mile 46. I arrived there just after 11:00 pm. At this point I’ve been going steady on the trails for 19 hours, and everything was feeling good. I had been doing a good job managing my hydration, calorie intake, and layering system. I knew the temperature was going to drop to below zero in a couple of hours so I adjusted my clothing accordingly by adding a thicker cap and a additional layer. I didn’t want to spend any unnecessary time at the checkpoint, so I elected to get out of there as quickly as possible. Just after midnight I headed out towards the 80 mile turn around at Park Falls.

 

Later that night I started to get really tired. I tried all the tricks to stay awake, I tried taking some candy and 200mg caffeine pills that I had brought with me, but no luck. I started falling asleep drifting off the trail. It was time to bivy down. I looked for a area in the woods just off the trail, took out my sleeping bag and laid down in my sled and went to sleep. This was the coldest part of the race, laying down in the snow, in zero degree temperatures, I kept reminding myself how hot I was back in July while running Badwater 135 to try and mentally offset the cold chills. It didn't work. I was still cold.

 
Running Badwater 135 in Death Valley, July 2018

 After about an hour, I awoke feeling like a new person. I packed my gear, loaded up my sled, and off I went. I marched along to Park Falls, the halfway turnaround point for the race. This was also the starting point for the 80 mile racers. As I got into Park Falls, the 80 mile bikers, skiers, and runners had just started their race. It was fun seeing this enthusiastic group of people start their race. As I got into Park Falls, I quickly refueled, changed my socks, and headed back to Rice Lake. The first half of the Tuscobia 160 was in the books.

 


Heading back to Rice Lake from Park Falls



My plan was to make it back to Ojibwa, the final checkpoint before the finish, and bivy for an hour after leaving this checkpoint. However, when nighttime arrived, I was getting really tired, this was now my second consecutive night on the trails. Aside from laying down for an hour the previous night, I had been going nonstop for over 32 hours at this point. I remember Chris, the race director telling me before the race that on your second night is when you will start hallucinating. I remember knotting my head to him not really giving this a whole lot of attention. I’ve run long distance races before, and hallucinating had never been an issue with me. Well, boy did it make up for it at this race! The hallucinating begins as you start to see people hanging on the trees ahead of you on the trail. At first you just shake your head and the complete image of the tree comes into perspective (with no people attached to the tree). But then, as you become more and more sleep deprived, the trees appear to look more like people, to the point to where you are 1-2 feet away from them and you are now talking to the people...or trees...or people. Anyone that hasn’t run a winter ultra will think I’m crazy, and that's okay, if you have run a winter ultra you know exactly what I’m talking about. Another racer was telling me that he'd seen not people, but Easter Bunnies on the trees. That was crazy, at least they were actual real people in my hallucinations. At this point it was time to abort my original plan on not resting until after Ojibwa and to lay down immediately. I was clearly in a state where I needed some rest. I found a nice spot in the woods just off the trail and laid down. I ended up sleeping two hours which felt more like eight hours. It’s amazing what just a little of sleep will do for your both your mind and body in these conditions. I got up, packed, and headed towards Ojibwa. I rolled into Ojibwa around 3:00am. Like the previous two checkpoints, I wanted to get in and out as quick as possible. I refueled, changed the batteries in my headlamps, and was on my to the finish line, only 46 miles away!

 
My feet had been hurting me for the better part of the second half of the race. I adjusted my gait and stride to help relieve the pain. Finally, at mile 130 the pain was unbearable and was really slowing my pace down. It had felt like I was stepping on a thousand needles each step I took. I pulled off the trail and took one shoe and sock off at a time to see what was going on. Trench foot. Trench foot got its name from the First World War when soldiers developed this condition after spending long periods of time in the cold wet trenches while on the front line. I had trench foot on both of my feet, I looked at my watch, knowing that I had 30 more miles to go, and not a lot of down time in stored away to make the finish line cutoff. I had to address this issue, if I didn’t I’d risk infection and this condition would get much worse and just slow me down even more than it already had by this point. I cleaned my feet, added moleskin where needed, put on fresh socks, and off I went. My feet were still in a great deal of pain, but there was no way I was dropping out of this race after all I had been through up to this point. I was determined to finish this thing. Looking back at the situation, I tried a particular technique to my feet prior to the start of the race using a vapor barrier because of the wet conditions at the start of the race, and knowing what I know now, I should of made an adjustment earlier in the race. But, that’s what these races are about, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and learning from your mistakes and make better decisions going forward.

 



My feet at mile 130.





As nightfall came for the third night, all I had in my mind was the finish line. I got hooked up with John, another 160 mile competitor on the final leg of the race, we talked for a while, I enjoyed our conversation together. Finally after 63 hours and 28 minutes at 9:28 pm I was at the finish line!

 

Finish line of the 2018 Tuscobia Winter Ultra!

I’d like to say thanks to my wife Jennifer, for supporting me and coming out as a volunteer for the race, along with all of the other volunteers who sacrificed their time and energy for days and days to make sure this event ran smoothly. To Chris and Helen Scotch, the race directors of this well organized event, and to everyone that towed the line in both the 80 and 160 mile race. This race is no joke, it will test you both physically and mentally to your limits. I described this race to someone as a race that you finish a different person than the one that started the race. I learned so much from this race that I will be able to take with me and apply to everyday life events.

 
Congrats again to everyone that volunteered and participated in this wonderful event. Off to Arrowhead in three weeks!

 

Chris



 

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