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.
One 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.
The 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.
Many 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.
Once 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.
We 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.
We 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.
Before 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.
Back 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.
Out 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.
No 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.