Tuscobia Winter Ultra Volunteering

For the past year I’ve been fascinated by the trend of winter ultras. These are long, self-supported, races that are descended from survivalist races in Canada and Alaska. Participants must get themselves through grueling conditions, with only their wits, and their equipment. There are two big races in the area, Arrowhead 135, and Tuscobia 160. This past weekend the wife and I went down to the Tuscobia race to help out and see more about what this crazy event is like.

CFNetworkDownload_YajTMH.jpgOne of the first key differences with winter ultras is the amount of gear that participants have to carry. It doesn’t matter if you’re running, skiing, or biking, you need to have enough equipment in your sled to survive in frigid temps until you can be rescued. That means bivy sacks, and sub-zero sleeping bags, as well as enough calories to eat well, yet have some left over at the end. When we arrived on Friday night, gear check was in progress, and runners (well, mostly walkers) were fidgeting with their bags, making sure that they had everything that was on the mandatory list.

We had the opportunity to meet up with many of our friends who were doing the 160 miles on foot or ski on Friday night. The 160 bikers would leave Friday morning, along with the 80 mile participants from the turn-around point of the trail. We gave hugs, met the race directors in person for the first time, and soaked in the atmosphere.

DA7493DE-8515-4E39-A8CE-26B521F3F0C4.jpgThe second key difference with these races is the culture. This isn’t just a laid back trail race. It is something different. It’s about your ability to survive, and your determination to just keep moving no matter what. You need to believe in yourself and your ability to even attempt something this crazy. This is a race where a 20% finish rate is a good year.

CFNetworkDownload_0U1wLc.jpgMany of the people here are repeat offenders. They love coming out to these races and testing their winter cred. I saw so many happy reunions that I knew something special was going on. Out on the trail you cannot receive help from anyone but volunteers and other racers. More often than not, another racer has saved the day for another, and that creates a lasting bond. When you’re all alone in the wood, with just yourself and other crazy people, it’s good to know that you can rely on the other folks in the asylum.

Once the pre-race meeting wound down my wife and I headed to our hotel room for a night of sleep before the start. The next morning we showed up and cheered as the 160 mile run/ski racers left Rice Lake, WI. We would not see any of these people for more than 24 hours.

IMG_1988.jpgOnce they had cleared out, we decided to go change and get in a short run for ourselves. The temp was zero, with zero wind, and zero gusts. It was a big zero kind of day! We did a fun 3 miler on the trail and then returned to the hotel to change and get packed for our trip to Park Falls, the site of the 160 turnaround, and our home for the next two days.

The drive to Park Falls was cold, but beautiful. There was an eerie frost on the trees during one segment of the drive, that reminded up of something out of a fantasy novel. Every branch was delicately covered in a thin layer of white. It was beautiful and surreal, and a harbinger of the cold that was about to befall the racers.

6305810701433284122.jpgWe arrived in Park Falls and got a bite to eat before relaxing at the hotel. The turnaround opened at midnight, but we knew that we could watch the check-in times of the racers to see when they’d actually be arriving. As evening approached it became apparent that it would be a long night of waiting. We hit the sack and set an alarm for 2AM to check again on the leaders progress. We sent another alarm for 4:30AM before getting up and heading to the gastropub that would serve as the race checkpoint until midnight Saturday night.

We arrived about an hour before the leader, Paul Schlagel, was visible down the street from the pub. It was dark, so I headed out to meet Paul and walk the final block in with him and see how he was doing. I was shocked at how positive he was, and how high his spirits were. I asked him how he was doing, he said fine, and then proceeded to talk to me about my interest in maybe (maybe) attempting one of these someday. When Paul finally asked me how many people were already at the pub, and I told him he was the first, he couldn’t believe it.

IMG_1998.jpgWe found him a spot at a table, fetched him is bag, and proceeded to get him whatever he asked for to get himself ready for the return 80 mile trip. Soon more people on foot arrived, and we began tending to their needs as well. Things quieted down a bit until early afternoon when the lead 160 mile bikes arrived. They started at 6AM Saturday, and the two leaders were cruising. Ben Doom and Dan Lockery came in together, had a quick bite of soup, and were back on the trail before we knew it. Little did we know that this would not be the norm for the rest of the evening.

IMG_2007.jpgBefore this though, we had to get the 80 milers launched. I left the pub and headed over to a nearby school to help get things organized for a 10AM lunch of all of the modes of transportation. There are a lot more 80 mile racers than 160, so it was a bit of organized chaos getting everyone and their gear where they needed to go. The local church was awesome, and opened their doors to us, and gave out donuts for the racers. Everyone headed out to the start line in high spirits, and before we knew it, they were off.

IMG_2001.jpgBack at the pub, soon more bikers and walkers arrived, and the pub began to fill with racers who were trying to decide how to recuperate before the return trip, or call it a day. Many people just needed a couple of hours of sleep on one of the beds upstairs and were ready to head back out. Many other though were done the moment they walked through the door. This is not an easy race, and slowly, the -18 degree overnight temps and periodic wind, started to take it’s toll. We called in many drops over the next few hours, and helped folks find rides back to the start line.

By evening were waiting on the final racers to arrive, and all but 2 decided to call it a day. One of these two was tremendously inspiring. Jennifer came in as the final runner, but she wasn’t despondent or emotional. She was a bit confused about why it took her so long, but she felt fine and wanted to head back out. After a short rest, she decided to at least fulfill a lifelong goal of getting 100 miles. I was pleased to see the next morning that it looks like she made that goal, before finally succumbing to the race against the clock, and calling it a day.

IMG_2009.jpgOut of the final group of bikers, only one headed back out into the cold dark night. The rest decided that they just couldn’t handle another 12 hours of -18 temps, this time heading in to the wind. We helped them get warm again, and eventually arranged for some transport for them back to the start. By this time it was close to midnight, and although we had a wonderful time, we were also quite exhausted. My Garmin informed me that I had enough steps to be the equivalent of 10 miles, and I wasn’t even one of the racers.

We headed back to our hotel for a nice night of sleep before the 3.5 hour drive home on Sunday. Thinking back to our experience as volunteers at this event, it was obvious that we were witnessing something unique. This wasn’t anything like we had done before, and the participants were amazing people to watch, even when they didn’t succeed. They were inspiring and determined, but also the most humble people you’ll ever meet.

IMG_2005.jpgNo one was in this race for the glory. This wasn’t something you do so that you could brag about it at work later. This was about you, your body, and your ability to mentally handle days alone in the woods. If you could keep putting one foot in front of the other, or turning over one more revolution of the bike crank, you’d slowly make your way home. It was about survival, and accepting the world for what it is. No one chose the overnight temps that we go, but they embraced them as part of the experience. When you live in a climate such as ours in the Great North, you either accept the cold winter, and learn to embrace it, or you hate it and leave. There is so much beauty in the cold and snow, and once you learn how to survive it, it becomes a magical playground.

For three days this weekend, amazing people did amazing things in this playground. They created a story for themselves that will not soon be forgotten. The persevered and triumphed; they learned their limits; but above all they discovered who they are and what they’re capable of. There were no quitters or failures at Tuscobia. There were people who embrace hardship, learn from it, and grow, despite setback and disappointment. If there is only one thing I learned this weekend, it is that success doesn’t happen at the finish line. It happens as you take that next step, and then the next one, over and over, as you discover what you’re truly capable of.

Icebox 480

On Saturday the wife and I drove down to River Falls, WI to participate in a wonderful end of season race, the Icebox 480. Many of our friends have run this race in years past, and we decided this year was the year we were going to join in as well. Icebox is a timed race, meaning that you can run as much or as little as you want in 8 hours. The course is a 6.3 (advertised as 7) mile loop around some mountain bike trails. There’s a nice mix of mild elevation, rocky/rooted terrain, and quick rollers to keep you on your toes.

Unfortunately, my wife is dealing with a toe injury, so she came along just to volunteer. When we arrived it was dark, and it was somewhat funny how you’d maybe bump into people you knew, but unless you turned your headlamp to all sides you could end up standing next to a friend and not even know it. At 7:30am we launched, and since there was no hurry I waited for a bunch of people to go before heading out. There was still a bit of a conga line for about half of the first loop, but it wasn’t too bad.

I settled into a comfortable pace, which meant that my time running with friends was somewhat minimal. Many of them are in much better shape right now, and so we would chat for a bit, and then they would move on ahead. I wasn’t upset or frustrated though, since I was enjoying myself and felt like I was doing quite well for where I’m at. I finished the first loop in about 90 minutes, and was happy with my time. I ran most of it, and felt strong. I could feel my body getting tired though, so I decided that my goal for the day would be three loops.

I grabbed some food at the aid station, and started out on my second loop. I took it a bit easier this time around, and I found myself walking more and more. When I got to the second aid station at mile 4, I asked my wife if she could meet me at the start/finish area with my coat. I decided that my third loop would be a hiking loop. As, I had talked about earlier this year, I decided to focus on shorter distances this year. That meant that even three loops of the course would be the longest run of 2017 for me.

IMG_1786.jpgI headed out for a nice leisurely third loop, enjoying a nice fall day. We had gotten a bit of snow this past week, but there was none to be had on the entire course. It was a bit overcast and windy, but thankfully, when you were in the trees the wind was a non-issue. I slowly made my way around the course, and when I arrived at the aid station again I told my wife to go ahead and meet me at the finish in a bit and I’d call it a day. Of course, as sometimes happens, there were lots of friends at this aid station. I think it took me a good 10 minutes before I left to finish out the loop.

I eventually arrived back at the start finish and started chatting with folks. My wife met me there and helped Robyn’s mom with some IT band issues. Eventually though, we decided it was time to go, and we headed over to the Rush River Brewery right next door. In hindsight I wish I had come back after the brewery to see people again, but with this 19 mile run being my longest of the year, I was wiped. We arrived home and I showered and fell into bed for a solid 2 hour nap. That’s not something I do very often at all.

I can tell that I’ve lost a lot of my endurance over the course of this year, and it’s something to look at building back up in 2018. I’m pleased with what I got done at Icebox though, and I can certainly see coming back next year. It’s such a nice low-key end to the season, with no pressure for how far you go. I can see why this one is such a favorite of runners in the area. I loved seeing all our friends, and getting to spend some time with great trail people. It was a great day outside, and a wonderful event with a wonderful community of people.

Race Report: Surf the Murph 25K – 2017

This was my third year at Surf the Murph. Two years ago it was the site of my first 50K and my induction into the ultramarathon distance. Last year I tried for a repeat, but after a big year with my first 50 mile race I just wasn’t up for two loops of the course, and DNF’d after 25K. Since I knew my running this year wasn’t up to snuff I only signed up for the 25K, and was very happy I did so.

The weather all week had been calling for rain on Saturday, and wow did it deliver. To make sure we got a decent parking place we arrived 90 minutes early for our start. We grabbed our bibs and then went back to the car to relax. I leaned back the seat and started to doze off just as the heavens opened up in a torrential downpour. I felt very sorry for all the 50 milers and 50K runners who were stuck out on course in the storm. I don’t know how long I slept, but when I awoke things had calmed down quite a bit. When we headed to the start the rain had slowed to a slight drizzle, and throughout the day it wouldn’t amount to much more than a steady spring rain.

IMG_1723.jpgWe launched at 8am, which is an hour later than I’ve ever done at Surf, and it meant that I didn’t need a headlamp. That was a nice welcome change as I usually have to stow it within a few miles once the sky lightens up. It was one less thing to carry which was fine with me. I had already overdressed and had to stuff my extra shirt into my pack within a mile from the start. I was thankful for my Outdoor Research hat as it is waterproof, and the brim kept the rain from dripping into my eyes.

The first part of the course is very hilly, and so I made the decision to go out nice and slow (a change from previous years as well). I ended up averaging around 14 minute miles for the whole race, but starting slow meant that I could pick up steam later in the race. I had some of my fastest miles at 11 and 12. I was feeling good at that point and decided to burn some excess energy. I wasn’t able to keep it up long, but it felt good to get a little faster for a bit.

IMG_1725.jpgHowever, the big story of the day was the mud. In the past, this course always has some level of mud, but due to the recent rain the entire course was completely covered. This is one of the muddiest runs I’ve ever done, even beating the 2015 Spring Superior 25K where I came back covered up to my knees. Surf added in a ton more puddles of standing water, which kept your legs a tiny big cleaner, but meant that you were plodding through water for hours. By the time I had hit mile 13 my quads were burning from all the prancing I had to do, leading with my toes to avoid getting my shoe stuck.

This year the beaver dam was once again bigger and more flooded than ever. The race organizers put down some boards to help with crossing along the top of the dam, which helped a little bit. Unfortunately, every step was not solid, and at one point I sank in up to my knee. I really feel like the park needs to do something about this section. It’s a part of a regular marked trail but it’s simply never going to be passable ever again (apart from the dead of winter) without destruction of the dam and massive ground mitigations. They need to either put up a real bridge or move the trail to a different location.

One of the the unique things about Surf is that all of the distances (apart from the 50) are very long. In order to make 3 loops equal 50 miles, each loop is actually 26.7K. That amounts to over a full mile beyond 25K, which after a long muddy day, feels like forever. Even though I know the loop distance, and have run it multiple times, I always get grumpy when mile 16 hits. I want the loop to be done, even though I know exactly how long it is. I need to figure out something in the future to stop myself from getting so pissed about something that I know right from the start line.

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photo credit: Lisa

I came across the line in 4:07:43 (Strava time), which isn’t my fastest ever time, but it was better than last year by about 7 minutes. I found some friends and said hi and then went to watch for Lisa to cross. She was only about 15 minutes behind me and I got to cheer her across the line. In fact when she saw me it made her realize that the finish was just around the corner I was standing on and that she could still make her goal.

Once we got our medallions of wood we headed to the fountain to get cleaned up and then to the car to get changed. Even walking around the start/finish area you could tell that the conditions were getting worse and worse. I know many people were dropping early due to the intense mud fest. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a nice mud run, but this was extreme, and I couldn’t imagine going out for even one more loop, let alone 2. Huge props to those who were able to get it done.

Once we wrapped up it was time for our traditional burger at Five Guys and then home to get cleaned and showered. Thankfully, I’ve run this race in years where it’s been beautiful, with lots of dry running. If this was the first year I had ever been to this course I would be leery about coming back. However, I know that next year it could be a totally different scenario, so hopefully I’ll be up for at least one loop around Murphy-Hanrehan.

 

2017 Grand Traverse 16 mile

Last year, the wife and I did a spur of the moment race up on the north shore called Grand Traverse. This is a low-key event with four different distances (27, 21, 16, 10), that runs along the Superior Hiking Trail from Jay Cooke State Park to Fitgers Brewhouse. It’s a small event, but it’s growing in popularity. Last year a few of our friends came up to do it, and they joined us again this year.

This year we opted for the 16 mile distance (we did the 21 last year), and that meant starting at 8am near the Magney-Snively trailhead. We launched promptly, and soon were back in the woods around Spirit Mountain ski resort. I hadn’t run 16 miles in quite a while, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from my body, but when I started I was feeling great. I kept pace with a few other folks around me, but eventually had to stop to relieve myself, and then found myself all alone (which is how I like it).

IMG_1644I’ve gotten pretty familiar with the southern portion of the SHT, but with all of the new bike trail additions, there were moments where I had to stop and look around to make sure I took the correct turn. There were a few spots where I took a couple of steps down the wrong trail before turning around and going the right way.

One of the benefits of running the race this year was the weather. It was beautiful and perfect for running. Last year, the hillsides were shrouded in fog, meaning that we couldn’t see anything beyond 15 feet or so. This year I could see everything, and stopped far too many times to take pictures of the view I couldn’t see last year.

IMG_1649The portion of the trail from Beck’s Road to Highland-Getchell is VERY rocky. Even though I was feeling good, I wasn’t able to move as quickly as I would have liked because of all of the rocky footing. I was still having a great time, but it meant that I my feet ended up much more beat up than on a regular trail run. In addition, the course was VERY muddy, and I ended up with the back of my legs looking quite coated in brown.

IMG_1642I eventually made it to the second (and last) aid station of the 16 mile distance, and from my memory the only thing left was the climb to Enger Tower, and then the long descent to the path that leads to Canal Park. I forgot that the climb to Enger was a good mile in length, and by the time I got up to the top I was ready to be done. The descent down the other side is very rocky and relentless. I picked up a running partner on the way down and we chatted a bit to keep each other company on the tricky footing.

Once we hit the pavement we decided to jog the rest of the way in. I followed the blue line into Canal Park and then down the lakewalk to Fitgers. I had really hoped to beat 5 hours, but alas, I just didn’t have that much in me and I managed 5:09:29. I would have had to really push harder on some of the earlier miles to make 5 hours a reality.

IMG_1648.JPGI climbed the stairs to the finish line behind Fitgers and met my wife. She had also started on the 16 mile route, but due to a sprained ankle a week ago, she only did 12 of it (which she was very happy with). She would have dropped down to the 10 mile race, except for the fact that the bus was full. The race director was happy to give her a ride back from the final aid station to help her get her miles in.

Once I finished, I got cleaned up and we waited for our friends to finish. They were doing the 27 mile and many of them decided to run together. They came up the stairs smiling and happy, and excited for what they had done. Once everyone was cleaned up we hit the brewhouse for some food. I had a burger that really hit the spot, with some delicious tater tots. When we finished eating we still had an hour before the recognition ceremony, so we headed down to a new brewery a few blocks away (I’ll write about that tomorrow). I tried out some new beer, and then headed back for the fun recognition ceremony and the door prize giveaway. I walked out with a nice pair of socks, and a great bike tire lever.

I really love this race. It’s a great course, nice and low-key, and a lot of great people run it. I know that they’re growing a bit, but I hope that they still do what they can to maintain that small feel. It’s a wonderful example of the trail community on the north shore, and an excellent way to spend a great autumn day.

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PC: Wendi B

 

Surly Trail Loppet Half Marathon

Hot. That was the word for the day on Saturday when I ran the Surly Trail Loppet Half Marathon. I had signed up for this race a few weeks ago, since my wife was gone during this same weekend running a Trail Ragnar. I had never run this race before, and had only ran at Theodore Wirth park a few times before. This made me excited to see what more this park had to offer.

However, because of that word I started out with (HOT), this was more than just a simple half-marathon for me. The past week or so, Minnesota has been having a strange warm spell with temps in the upper 80s most of the week. What should have been a nice cool fall race, was shaping up to be one of the warmest I’ve ever done.

Because of the parking situation near the start, I went to a trail head on the Luce Line trail 2 miles away and biked to the race village. As I was biking I could tell that the day was already shaping up to be downright tropical. I arrived at the start and got my bib, and wandered around seeing if I recognized anyone. On the bike ride over I passed Rob H. and said hello, and then as I was waiting near the start line I met up with Kari. We talked about the heat and she declared that she was going to run so slow she wouldn’t even sweat! On a day like this, I personally proved that wasn’t possible.

My wave launched at 9:15 and I started down a simple bike path until we veered off into the woods. My first miles were pretty good, and I was feeling relatively positive, but I could already tell that the heat was going to play a major factor. I stuck around 12-13 minute miles and made sure that I took it easy on the uphills.

Something that I’ve learned in high heat running is that you can sometimes drink too much water. Often times when we are hot and sweaty we want to drink to cool down. However, what can happen is that you flush out all of the salts from your system as you’re drinking. I think that was a direct contributor to the heat exhaustion I got on a race in Vegas a few years ago. Therefore, my strategy was to use my water bladder to drink when I was thirsty, and at aid stations drink a bunch of sport drink. While at the aid stations I would also dunk 2-3 cups of water over my head to cool myself down. This meant that I was staying cooler, but also getting in more than just water. Overall, I felt like the strategy worked out mostly good.

As the race wore on my body started to fatigue severely from the heat. Eventually, I was dragging myself along at a 17 min/mile pace, and just trying to regain some energy by moving slowly. I was savoring every moment of shade in the woods that I could. However, there were long stretches of exposed trail as well. In fact, one of the things that I discovered about this race is that a large portion of it is on paved bike trail, as well as dirt. I’d estimate about 30-35% of the race is on asphalt, which is great for introducing road runners to trails, but on a hot brutal day, I dreaded every moment of pavement.

Somewhere after mile 10 I decided to ditch the shirt, as the black fabric was absorbing the sun. Thankfully I still had my vest to cover my lily-white chest, and spare any of my fellow runners blindness. I started to feel better between mile 9-10 and felt like I was moving with determination. I wasn’t running a ton, but my hiking was solid. I hit the final aid station for a final shower before making my way to the finish. There is a short section of residential road at this point, and it’s all up-hill. Needless to say I was a little bummed that there was no way I could run it. Soon I was back on a bike trail and heading for the end.

I crossed the line, triumphant over the conditions, and with the slowest half-marathon time in my running career at 3:17 (technically Blood, Sweat, and Beers was slower, but it was also a full MILE longer than a half marathon). Given the amount of pavement, and the sub-1000ft of elevation gain in the race, I know I could easily have gotten closer to 2:35-2:45. I was the victim of a circumstance that I know is my nemesis, running in heat. I feel like I should train more for some heat runs, and perhaps I’ll make a point of that next season. Many of my toughest races have seemed to be bogged down by heat related issues.

I looked around at the finish for any friends and spotted Anthony, who I’ve run into a ton at races recently. He came in a bit after me, also suffering from the horrendous conditions. We chatted a bit, I had a half a glass of beer, and then it was time for the very, very slow bike ride back to my car. I had thankfully spent a few minutes just laying and recovering, so by the time I hit the bike I wasn’t doing too bad. Riding with no shirt felt great, as the self-generated breeze cooled me off amazingly.

Soon I was back at my car, and I loaded up to go home and clean up and spend some time in air conditioning. My recovery was swift, which I think it a tribute to how smart I ran this race. I managed my fluid intake really well, and perhaps the only change I’d make is to carry a bottle of some form of energy drink as well. I also didn’t hydrate to excess, and had no signs of any ill effects from the heat when I finished.

As for the race itself, this was the first year I had ran it, and it was a fun time. The race directors can’t do anything about the weather, and so they were as much a victim of it as all of us runners. I was a little disappointed with how much pavement there was on the course, but I understand that they can only work with what they have available to them in the park. Almost all of the bike paths were through tree-lined sections of the park, so they were just as beautiful. There were some short jaunts along railroad tracks which were a new thing for me, but to some degree that gave it a cool urban-trail feel.

I’m unsure if I’ll be back next year. This particular weekend in September always seems to fill up with various races. There’s still In Yan Teopa that I want to get down to, so perhaps Surly Trail Loppet will need to wait a while before I return to it. If you’re a road runner looking to get a taste of trails, I’d recommend giving this race a try. It’s a good time, and well managed. Hopefully, in future years, the heat won’t be such a huge factor.