A night in the bivy

In preparation for my first winter ultra I decided to try and sleep outside last night in my sleeping bag and bivy. I wanted to see what it was like, and what I needed to change. I wasn’t sure if I’d make it all night, as I did need to go to work today, but even a few hours would be a huge benefit.

Here was my equipment list:

  • Eureka Lone Pine 0 degree bag
  • Outdoor Research Helium Bivy
  • REI Flash inflatable sleeping pad
  • Two layers of clothing on the bottom, three layers on the top, heavy wool socks

I ended up being outside from 8:30pm to 1:30am. The only reason I got up was that I had to pee. If it wasn’t for my middle-aged bladder I would have slept longer. I could have crawled back into the bag, but decided that I could call it good and go inside, since I had been out there for a solid 5 hours.

So what worked and what didn’t?

First, my bag was amazing. The air temps last night were in the single digits, so it was right in the range for what my bag was made for. I was probably overdressed on top and could have shed a layer there. If anything I could have used another thin sock on my feet. My only complaint about the layout of my bag is that the storage pocket is in an awkward place on the inside roof. I wish it was closer to the side as I felt like my phone was in the way when it was in the pocket.

The bivy sack did it’s job and kept all my heat inside. It actually got to be a bit too warm and I ended up venting the opening a bit, despite it bringing in cold air. The main issue with bivies is the condensation. When I woke up at 1:30 the top of my sleeping bag was a combination of wet and ice crystals. The entire inside roof of the bivy was coated in water as well. Thankfully, it wasn’t dripping on my face or anything, thanks to the pole that holds up the bivy over my head. However, getting my sleeping bag wet isn’t ideal.

Bivies are also somewhat claustrophobic. They’re small cocoons that aren’t much bigger than your body. There were a few moments when I bedded down where I had a brief moment of anxiety, but it passed quickly. It also helped when I vented the bivy as it allowed me to see the outside a bit more. In the summer I could use the screen closure instead of the solid one which would help a lot more as well.

The final piece of gear was one that I wasn’t that pleased with. I love my REI Flash pad, and I thought that its R-value of 4 would give just a bit more insulation below me. However, I tend to sleep on my side which means that my hip compresses the pad completely in a small area. That also meant that my hip got colder than the rest of me. It wasn’t terrible, but I think for my race I’ll grab a foam Z-Pad instead.

Finally, I should have cleared out my sleeping space better. I just plopped everything down and crawled in, and that meant that the snow was a bit more uneven than it could have been. I could have made things more comfortable if I had patted things down with my boots a bit more before laying down the bag. Not a big issue, but something to consider for another time.

Despite a couple of annoyances, I’m incredibly happy with how the evening went. In a winter ultra context, I’m never going to be bedding down for longer than a few hours at a time anyway. Getting 5 hours of sleep, like I did last night, would be a luxury in a race. If I were to go winter camping, I wouldn’t do it in a bivy, but would instead bring along a tent, and additional equipment to make things comfortable. Therefore, I’m counting last night as a huge success. I have a couple things to adjust, but otherwise I feel in good shape for Tuscobia.

Taking the plunge at Tuscobia

I’ve gotten very involved in the winter ultramarathon scene, including putting on our own winter ultra. One of the reasons I started a small 40 mile race is because I wasn’t sure if I could handle doing the longer distances myself, and I figured there were others out there in the same boat. However, being the race director of a race means it’s hard to actually compete in the event yourself.

However, last year our dear friend Randy Kottke passed away from his battle with cancer while we were all up at the Arrowhead 135 race. Being among everyone up north, celebrating Randy’s life, was powerful. When I attended a small remembrance gathering for him there was a board where you could put up a note, saying what you would do to remember Randy. I decided that I would take the plunge and attempt the Tuscobia 80 mile race.

This morning I signed up and put my money where my mouth is. This one’s for you Randy.

Arrowhead 135

This week I’ve been spending my time at the Arrowhead 135 winter ultramarathon. This is the iconic winter ultra in Minnesota, and it is known for being one of the most brutal and harsh races around. Participants much traverse (on foot, bike, or ski) from International Falls, MN to Tower, MN on the 135 mile long Arrowhead Trail. They have to be prepared to survive in any conditions, and therefore must carry mandatory gear including -20 degree sleeping bags, bivy sacks, and stoves with which to boil water and heat food. It’s a grueling event, and made even more difficult by this year’s extreme temperatures.

On the Sunday before the race, air temps hit -40 degrees F (well, and C at that point). Thankfully, by the time the race launched on Monday things had moderated to -10. Monday ended up being a good day overall with temps getting above zero for a large part of the day. I even managed to get out for a 4 mile run on the trail, and the conditions were amazing and perfect for a run. However, with nightfall came brutal cold.

IMG_0024As the temps dropped overnight, they stayed there. Ever since late Monday the temp hasn’t been above -15, and the mornings are closer to -32. Going out to start our car for 10 minutes every few hours has become a part of our regular routine. Thankfully, we have a nice warm hotel to sleep in, and when we’re working at the finish line we have a beautiful hot tent to keep us warm. Because it can sometimes be hours between finishers, we often get to relax in the tent and enjoy beer and whiskey and pizza cooked on a wood stove.

In terms of participants, this year looks like a very low finishing rate. The bikers are doing OK at 51%, but many of them were able to make solid progress all day on Monday and even finish the race before the temps got too brutal. On the foot participant side it’s looking like only 18% of participants will succeed. Most have (rightly) decided to end their race early, instead of putting themselves in danger. This year, not a single skier managed to complete the entire course, which was not ideal for skiing at all.

My wife and I have been lucky enough to have been able to work remotely for our jobs for a couple of days while we volunteered in the evenings. It’s been great to be around so many amazing people and see them achieve great things. It’s also marked with a bit of sadness, because one of our trail tribe lost his battle with cancer while we were here at the event. He was a frequent participant in this event, and his loss is keenly felt among the people participating. There’s a certain poignancy to his passing during an event that meant so much to him.

Tomorrow we head back to life in the cities, but for now, it’s nice to have been able to be a part of this amazing event, and the incredible people who are testaments to the power of human beings to survive no matter what.

St Croix 40 Winter Ultra – RD quick recap

This weekend, my wife and I put on our first race. We didn’t just decide to put on something simple like a 5K or 50K foot race. No, we opted for one of the most complex things that we could come up with, a winter ultramarathon with foot, bike, and ski divisions. To make it even more complex we did the entire event overnight, meaning that just like the participants, we got almost no sleep for the entire event.

PC: Cole Peyton

Overall, the event went off amazingly. Almost every single participant came up to us and told us how much fun they had, despite the challenges. We managed not to lose anyone, and there were no serious injuries. The weather was amazing with temps in the mid-20s. Our only complaint was that it wasn’t clear skies overnight for a view of the stars. It cleared up for about an hour around sunrise, but other than that, it was overcast.

The trail conditions weren’t as ideal as we would have liked them to be, with freezing rain in the weeks leading up to the event. About 70% of the course was good, but then another 10% was really bad with glare ice that the participants had to navigate. Despite all of this, many people came in to the finish like saying that, based on our descriptions, they were expecting a lot worse, and actually found the conditions to be pretty darn good.

We have a whole list of Trello cards that we’ve started to keep track of around tweaks we want to make next year. Lots of little things that we know we can improve on to make everything work easier. However, one of the biggest compliments we got all weekend was from someone who said that they couldn’t believe this was a first year event. They felt that everything was going so smoothly that it must have been going on for a while. That’s a huge testament to the mentoring and examples that we’ve followed from the race directors we admire in our life. Without their help and support, this wouldn’t have gone as well as it did.

PC: Mike Wheeler

I have a lot more I could write, but I think it’s going to take a few days to process everything. There were a lot of emotions this weekend as we saw people try something hard and succeed. Seeing the joy on their faces was so fulfilling. Hearing their stories made us feel like proud parents who did something right when raising their kids. For now, I’ll just say that this was an experience that we’ll never forget, no matter how many years we do this.

There’s a lot more work to do in the coming days. Many of the boxes are still just packed in our garage. I decided to go in to work today, because I actually needed a break from race stuff. In the coming week we’ll finalize everything and complete our lists, and start the process of thinking about what’s next!

Doing some race directing

A couple of years ago I started hearing about winter ultramarathons. These are long winter events that are steeped in the survivalist culture of Alaskan events such as Iditarod. The idea is that you go a long distance in the middle of winter, with only your gear, and your wits, to help you survive.

Modern winter ultramarathons are still survivalist events, but in a slightly more structured environment. Participants traverse a set distance by foot, fat bike, or ski, within a prescribed timeline, carrying all their gear with them as they go. There are no lush aid stations, and you can’t accept help from anyone who’s not involved in the race. The biggest ones in the upper Midwest are the Arrowhead 135 and the Tuscobia 80/160. As the names imply, these are huge distances (135, 80, and 160 miles respectively), and for beginners, they feel out of reach.

I started having conversations with folks about shorter distance versions of these races, and discovered that none really exist anywhere near me. So, I did the next most logical thing for someone who thinks like I do. I created my own.

On Monday we announced our first ever race, the St. Croix 40 Winter Ultra, which will be held on January 12-13th at St. Croix State Park, near Hinckley, MN. This short-course event will give people a chance to see if they have what it takes to even attempt the longer distances. Participants will also need to prove that they can use their gear, such as their bivy-sack and stove. These are key elements for surviving a harsh Minnesota winter night, while traveling 40 miles alone.

I’m no stranger to running things, I do it for my career. I’ve also run multiple aid stations at some of the biggest trail ultras in the Midwest. Of course, none of that is going to make us any less anxious and nervous about stepping up to the big leagues and fully directing a race. However, I’m incredibly excited about this idea, and I can’t wait to show people how amazing winter in Minnesota can be. I want to give people a chance to experience these amazing events in a safe and constructive way, and help them build confidence for the future. I also want to help them learn to respect the history and tradition of these events, and how to give honor to those who are doing even more amazing things than this.

Today begins a new adventure. I’m stoked to see where it all leads.