This post is probably going to be a long one, but there’s a lot on my mind about all of this. So buckle up and let’s go for a little adventure.
Ever since my last attempt at Tuscobia I’ve wanted to get back to it and get revenge. As a race director of a winter ultra who’s never completed a winter ultra, there’s also a pride aspect to continuing to bang my head against this wall. I signed up as soon as I could after my first DNF and was ready to go last year, however COVID had other plans and the race was cancelled (along with all the other winter ultras including our own). That meant that this year was the first time I would be able to see if I could slay my demons.
Back in September I was attempting a thru-hike of the Superior Hiking Trail and ended up bailing because of back pain. Lots of issues contributed to that, but in my emotional haste upon returning I decided to switch from the foot division to the bike division at Tuscobia. I figured my back would be happier on a bike. Plus, I bike thousands of miles per year so how hard could this be?
I knew I needed some more fat bike training so I spent time this fall on some really long rides on Minty (my Surly Ice Cream Truck) to get used to pedaling a heavy bike over long distances. I got in a 50 miler and a handful of 30-40 milers in an attempt to get my legs in shape. This is in addition to all the other biking I do on my regular bike.
Going into Tuscobia I told my wife that the one thing I wasn’t very worried about was my fitness level. I know it would be tough, but I figured I had that in the bag. Famous last words.
I was in a bit of a frenetic panic the week before the race as I tried to figure out how to do all of this on a bike. I’m much more dialed in with pulling a sled and so trying to decide what to bring and how to pack it became a logistical nightmare. One thing that caused me no end of frustration was my sleep system. I have a -20°F sleeping bag but it’s so incredibly heavy that at the last minute I decided it was too much. I also have a 0°F bag, but it’s incredibly bulky and not easy to pack on a bike.
I ended up doing some jury-rigging to come up with a sleep system that I knew wouldn’t pass an Arrowhead 135 gear check (or St Croix 40 even), but was sufficient for me to feel safe. The nice thing about the Tuscobia trail is that you never need to survive for long as the trail goes alongside roads and towns for much of the event. Since Lisa would be around the course volunteering, I would never be more than an hour or so from rescue. Thankfully, I didn’t have to put the sleep system to the test.
After getting everything attached I felt a bit better about things and we headed to the race for all of the pre-race festivities. I got some good tips from my friend Kristine, who’s an avid fat biker, that helped me out the next day, and before I knew it, it was time to get some sleep and get ready.
Due to some logistical issues the start line for the 80 mile race was in a different spot than normal, but it meant we got to start the race by going across a lake. I love lake riding so this was something I was looking forward to. Soon enough the race started and off we went. I tried to keep myself somewhat calm in this first section but I managed close to 8mph going across the lake.
Once we left the lake we entered just over 2.5 miles of winding singletrack. This was a super fun section to ride, and the short hills were brutal. I even hopped off and walked up one of them. I think on a non-loaded down bike this section would be a huge ton of fun. However, at the beginning of an 80 mile long race, I knew I was just getting eaten alive out there and that I just needed to get to the main trail to get to something more stable.
Soon enough we joined the Tuscobia trail and it was straight on the rest of the day. The temps were cold but in the bright sun it was a perfect day for riding. I settled in to what I thought was a good pace between 5.5-6mph and got ready for the slog. Too soon I started to realize that I was getting tired a lot quicker than I expected. My quads were burning and I felt like I was barely moving. I eventually started taking walk breaks to give the muscles time to recuperate and work some different ones.
By mile 20 I was one hurting unit. All that confidence in my bike fitness? Gone. In the first 20 miles I managed an average speed of 6.3mph and my average heart rate was 157bpm. That’s right… 157bpm for 20 miles. I have NEVER biked with a sustained heart rate that high for more than 7-10 miles in my life. Even my 50 mile fat bike ride on the Luce Line only averaged 128bpm. This was turning into a hard lesson about how difficult something like this can truly be. The trail conditions weren’t terrible, though they could have been better. It was just really hard.
I had 13 more miles to the checkpoint and after texting with my wife she agreed to meed me there to see how I was doing and if I wanted to go on. She still had to finish her volunteer shift, so I beat her there by about 30 minutes. I sat down in the shelter and started to asses things. First, I needed food, so I grabbed as much hot food as I could and started shoving it in my face while I got my change of clothes arranged.
The last attempt at Tuscobia was a DNF at the Ojibwa checkpoint (course mile 35, but 33.5 on my watch with the new start line). When I arrived and my back was in pain so I pulled the plug. That checkpoint was strongly associated with my failure to get this race done and so there were a lot of emotions as I rode in. I figured I was close to the last of the 80 mile bikers as I had been getting passed all day and was struggling to maintain a 5mph average. All this to say my head wasn’t in a good place when I arrived.
Yet, this checkpoint would be the site of my greatest victory in this DNF. As I sat there and ate food I talked with folks about how miserable I was and how I wasn’t sure if I was going on. But I also made the decision in my head to keep doing the things I needed to do if I did go on. I started warming my change of clothes and changing in to a new top layer. I dried out my old set of clothes (which were not too wet actually!) and packed them away. I continued eating food and repacking my bags and the next thing I knew I’m standing there with my helmet on ready to walk out the door again. The act of just committing to doing the routine meant that I had little excuse to not continue.
I walked across the parking lot to the portable toilets as my wife was arriving. She was 100% convinced that she was arriving to pick me up, but as I walked towards where she parked I told her I was going on. She hid the shock well and soon enough she was seeing me out on to the trail.
This may sound cheesy, but working through my demons of getting out of that checkpoint was a huge victory for me. I still didn’t know if I was going to make it all the way, but I was incredibly proud of myself for just doing the work to keep moving and get back out there.
Despite this victory things continued to deteriorate. My legs were complaining constantly and I was spending large sections of trail just walking the bike (and hitting my shin on the pedals). This frustrated me because if I wanted to walk I would have much rather had a sled instead of the extra weight of a bike, but I put that out of my head and kept plodding along. Though whenever I was actually pedaling a new issue was starting to raise its ugly head.
Before I said goodby to my wife at the checkpoint I said something akin to, “Let’s just hope I don’t get a mechanical issue now that I’m continuing on.” Maybe I cursed myself, but sure enough something mechanical was starting to brew. Even before I had reached the checkpoint I noticed a couple spots where my crank would “thunk” and slip. I thought maybe just some ice kicked up and was no big deal. As I got further and further into the race it started happening more and more often.
By the time I was 37 miles in it was becoming noticeable. I stopped and looked down but couldn’t see anything wrong so I just kept going. The issue was incredibly inconsistent and I couldn’t feel anything more precise as it continued. Sometimes it would work fine for a couple miles and other times it would happen multiple times in less than a quarter mile. I still seemed to be able to pedal, but I was getting more and more concerned about what might be going on.
At mile 41 I reached the town of Radisson. There was a gas station there and so I pulled up under the bright lights near the pumps to see if I could figure anything out. I jiggled and pulled on all different areas but nothing seemed amiss. I was worried that it was either the hub freezing or perhaps something wrong with the derailleur, yet nothing seemed bent and the problem didn’t result in a loss of power.
I pedaled back over to the trail entrance and debated what to do. By this point my anxiety started kicking in. I knew that after Radisson there was only one more town before I headed into 17 miles of nothing. The temps were dropping into the -20°F overnight, and my confidence to fix a bike issue in the dark, in those temps, was zero. I had finally reached a point where I just wasn’t feeling safe to continue. Between the tired legs and the anxiety inducing bike issue I decided to call it quits. Thankfully there was a bar right across the street so I called my wife and had her come get me.
I had managed to go over 7 miles past the checkpoint and spent two more hours pedaling, so she had already made it back to the finish line. It was going to take her about 50 minutes to come get me so I decided it was time for a beer. I posted on Instagram about my drop and very quickly in walked three friends, Brian, Tim, and Craig who had seem my post and were all too happy to commiserate. Brian and Tim had dropped earlier in the day from the 160 so we swapped stories over beer while waiting for Lisa to arrive.
On the ride back to the finish like to help volunteer I spent a lot of time processing the events of the day. Even if the mechanical issue hadn’t reared its head (more on that later), I still wasn’t sure if I would have been able to complete the distance. Or I would have frustratingly just had to walk a large part of the rest of the course. As we drove I shared a lot of thoughts out loud as I processed what had happened.
Going in to this event the one thing I was most confident in was my biking fitness. I took that for granted and I was served a heaping pile of steaming reality faster than I ever have been before. I knew I would make technical mistakes, such as overpacking or not dialing in my air pressure. I just wasn’t prepared for how un-prepared I was physically for the effort that was required. Even though things never got worse (physically) past the checkpoint and I might have been able to push through, I was just shocked at how much I underestimated things. That was a huge wake up call.
It’s led to a lot of soul searching over the past week, and I’m not at a point where I’m ready to put any of it in to words, but I feel very much like I’ve been languishing the past few months, and this drove home that I’m not where I want to be right now. I’ll save those musings for another time though.
I know I can finish Tuscobia. I just need to figure out how. I know I want to go back next year, though which mode is up in the air. I know I have work to do. I just need to decide what that means, and has ramification for who I want to be in my life, and how I structure my life. The failures and successes of this past year are going to take some time to process.
For now though, it’s time to move on to putting on the St Croix 40 and getting back with my winter ultra community to help others achieve amazing things. The winter’s not over yet, so I might as well enjoy what I can.
Oh, and as for the bike, here’s the skinny. My mechanic spent a bunch of time trying to figure it out and it appears that it was a bad chain. The Shimano SLX drivetrain has something called HyperGlide+ and apparently it doesn’t like non-Shimano branded chains. Apparently at Surly they never got this memo and the bike came with a KMC chain. After 41 miles of really tough riding on top of a big mileage year the chain starting sticking.
Normally a chain releases from the top of the cog at the 12 o’clock position. On my chain it was intermittently sticking and staying attached to the cog until the 2 o’clock position. This meant that the chain was getting stretched and pulled and I felt the ‘thunking’ noise as it was forced free. We have no idea if it would have failed completely, or caused any damage, but it wasn’t an issue I could have taken care of out on the trail for sure.