I am home and well rested a few days after I finished this race. It started January 9th at 10am in Park Falls, WI and ended for me at Rice Lake, WI 8:52am on the 10th. Starting temp was around 14 degrees with a windchill in the single digits. It ended at a temp of … well just read on.
So this was my first winter race pulling a pulk. I did Frozen Otter in 2015 but you just carried everything on your back and since it was 34 degrees outside, it was hard to call it a winter race either. My main purpose for doing this race was I felt it was a good training race for Arrowhead 135 next year if I get accepted to that race. It served it’s purpose well I think. I learned a lot of lessens and found areas of weakness that can be fixed. The race was changed this year to around 80 miles instead of the usual 75. They won’t change the name unless they continue this new course. I suspect they will as it seems to have worked out just fine in my mind. My goal for this race was 22hours 48 minutes. I based that on previous race results for the percentile I usually finish at plus adding an hour for the extra 4-5 miles this race course had.
When I checked into my hotel Friday afternoon, the lady said there was supposed to be a film crew doing a documentary or something about the race. I don’t know if that’s true or not but I never saw anyone filming at any point before, during, or at the finish of the race. Regardless, I was happy because there was snow. That was a real question just a few weeks before the race, as there was none at the time.
I realized on the drive to WI that I forgot my special brownies at home in the freezer. I had “food” on my check list of stuff to take but didn’t specify the brownies in the freezer so they were missed. And no these weren’t pot brownies. They are the special brownies I make with tons of oil, butter, nuts, coconut, peanut butter, chocolate chips, etc that you can still chew easily at -20 degrees. Most foods are solid chunks of ice at that temp. So I was mad about that and had to go to the store to try to figure something else out. I ended up getting the bites version of candy bars that are those unwrapped little nuggets of the candy bar. I got snickers, twix, and peanut butter cup versions. I tried all 3 out in my hotel freezer and all were edible at whatever temp that small fridge freezer got down to. Snickers was the easiest to eat for what that’s worth.
I had some time and so I drove to Birchwood to see if there were any pop machines in town that I could get something from during the race. I planned on being in town around 4am so nothing would be open then. There was 1 pop machine but it said it wasn’t functional so that meant nothing in that town. The next town of Brill had one but that was only about 8 miles from the finish line. So that meant I’d have to carry water from the aid station at mile 35 to last basically the remainder of the race unless I stopped somewhere in Radisson which was only 6 miles past the aid station so not much help there. At least I knew that going in, I know some racers didn’t think at all about when places would be open.
The check in was Friday night and we had to show our required gear. I just brought in what was required but would have more with me than that. I passed and got my race number. There was an informational meeting which talked mostly about the safety of running on a trail open to snowmobiles. If we were found to not have 3 blinking red lights on at all times, including the finish, we would be disqualified. It was a requirement to get the race permit. I would’ve brought 5 just to be safe if I’d known it was that big of a deal. All 3 of mine stayed on me the whole race so I was fine. The only thing they checked at the finish was the lights, didn’t care about the rest of the required gear. So make sure to bring good lights that you won’t lose!
So the next day I got up around 5am to get ready. Not too much to do. Put my vaseline/powder mix on my feet since I knew they’d be wet the whole time and I didn’t want macerated feet. Since it would be around 14 at the start, I put on my wind briefs, tights, and shorts for the bottoms. Just a compression shirt and breathable jackets for the top. I wore a buff on my head. Put on my light fleece gloves as well. At the start line I put on my cast socks and snow gaiters. I put screws in my shoes since the snow was getting sticky the day before since it was 34 degrees and I figured with the cold now that it would be icy in spots. Turns out I probably didn’t need to do that but no big loss.
We had to be on the bus by 7am. I was so paranoid my pulk wouldn’t get on the bus or it’d get damaged or something. I ended up sitting right next to it on the bus but then people kept putting more gear on top of it since there were too many people and not enough seats. Nothing got broke so that was good.
The bus ride was about 2 hours long so I thought I’d maybe get some sleep or whatever. But it turns out I was sitting next to Wayne McComb who ran Volstate twice and finished it once. Since I’m running that race this summer, I took full advantage of my seating situation and asked a bunch of questions. My throat hurt some since I was still finishing up getting over a cold and talking for 2 hours made it worse but I couldn’t miss my chance to talk to him. He was from Georgia and this was his first winter race. It seemed like he had done his homework well and he had finished Volstate which means he had grit but I’ll be honest I thought his chances weren’t great just because he wasn’t able to test out any of his gear in the cold before yesterday. In the end he did finish Sunday afternoon so that’s awesome! I’m sure he’ll never forget the cold.
We got to the start, which was a school, on schedule at 9am to allow the bikers to get their bikes together and their gear strapped on as some had to send the bikes up the night before since only so many could fit on the trailer at one time. I was ready to go but was now kind of sleepy after being up 5 hours already. At least it was warm and had food, bathrooms, etc. It was also the turn around spot for the people doing the 160 mile race. We started at 10am with the bikers in the lead. We went a few blocks on the roads before we got to the start of the Tuscobia trail. Wish I had a picture of the start but I don’t. There were bikes, and people attacked to pulks, and of course cow bells!
It was 19 miles before we would get to the first town and any sign of civilization. It was pretty crowded the first few miles but I kept to my pace pretty much. The snow seemed great, much better than what I trained in at home anyway so I was going faster than I thought. I kept passing and being passed by the same 2 men so we’d talk for a while every time we’d meet up again. I’ve have to walk some to keep from overheating and to always breath through my nose so as to not dry out my throat even more. I got to the first town about 30 minutes ahead of my planned time so that was good news. Plus everything was working as it should up to that point which was 2:45pm. It was snowing lightly the entire time as well which made for nice scenery.
The next town was Winter and about 10 more miles away. I think I put my hood up occasionally since you could feel the wind in the more open spots. I’m sure the wind wasn’t too bad but running 4-5 mph into a 5-10mph wind adds up. I was staying well hydrated and eating some but it was annoying to have to stop and get food from my cooler. If I had my brownies, I’d just have them in my vest and wouldn’t have to stop to get at it. Lesson learned. My feet were almost hot but I wasn’t going to take off the cast socks since I’d just get my shoes frozen that way. Dave Schuneman who I ended up finishing the race with had his shoes frozen pretty early on and got some major blisters on top of his toes before we even got to the aid station.
So by the time we (Dave and I had pretty much started to run together at this point) got to Winter it was about 5:10pm and dark. I had enough water but wanted some that was warm and wanted to buy some food at the gas station there since that was my plan so I didn’t have to bring as much with at the start. Dave kept going and I went to the gas station. It was probably between 0 and 5 degrees at this point. They had pizza there!!! I wolfed down 2 slices and got a bottle of hot water. I put on my headlamp and ran the entire 5 miles to the aid station to keep warm and because I felt so good after my pizza and sipping my warm water. I ate up about 15 minutes at the gas station but it was worth it for the pizza I think. I would’ve rather not had to stop at the aid station but it was required to check in. I passed 2 people right away outside of Winter and wondered how many other people had passed me while at the gas station.
I got to the aid station at 6:45pm still 30 minutes ahead of my planned schedule. It was a stone building with heaters in it. I drank my chocolate milk mix I had in my drop bag and a grilled cheese sandwich. Since I was going to add a layer of clothes and had to take off my shoes anyway, I went ahead and changed socks and reapplied my foot paste. My feet looked great but I think it was still the right call to put new socks on. I just put on the same middle weight injinji socks I had on before since they were more than warm enough. I put on my running wind pants that are windproof in the front only. I put on another compression shirt under my jacket. I also got out my actual hat. I got some warm water, should’ve put hot water in my jug in the cooler instead or warm looking back now. I loaded up my pack with the rest of my clothes and food I had in my drop bag, basically adding over 5 pounds to my pack from what I started with. The total weight of my pulk was about 28 lbs to start with so I was now around 35 lbs. Dave asked if I wanted to leave together with him and I agreed. He had been there for 15 minutes before me but since he was having his feet worked on, we were pretty much ready at the same time anyway. He copied me and put on another layer of clothes as well which he was happy about later he told me. We left at 7:30pm. WAY later than I had planned on. So my cushion was gone and I was now 20 minutes behind. I definitely could’ve gotten out faster if I had planned my time there better.
It finally stopped snowing around Winter but there was always this very wet feel to the air and you could feel small water droplets always hitting your face like it still wanted to snow but just couldn’t. After we left the aid station it was more of a frost constantly coming down. You could see it with the beam of the head lamps. My stomach was definitely more full after all the food the last hour and I was feeling sluggish. I knew it would be OK in 2-3 hours once the food hit my intestines but for now I had to go fairly slow and walk mostly. We arrived at Radisson at 9:30pm and it was the last chance to get stuff. I was doing OK. I asked Dave if he needed water and he then realized he hadn’t drank anything for a while and his tube was froze. He eventually thawed it out by putting it on his chest I think so we ended up not stopping in Radisson at all. Next stop wouldn’t be until Birchwood 22.5 miles and 6.5 hours away. We hadn’t seen a snowmobile since 6pm and wondered if we ever would again. We never did. In fact we didn’t really see anyone but the occasional 160 mile biker passing us to the finish line.
After Radisson the trail turns Northwest right into the wind. Plus there was open field along the trail until Couderay. There was nothing in that town that I could see. Barely a town really. I think we saw a few bars along the trail in that area and shortly after Couderay. The trail then turned Southwest and it felt much warmer with the wind somewhat behind us. Soon there was nothing but trees as far as I could tell.
Around 10:45pm I looked up for some reason. I saw stars. Crap! I looked down and told Dave we were screwed. The clouds weren’t supposed to be gone for hours which meant it was definitely going to get a lot colder than the -8 degrees forecast for sunrise on Sunday. In the back of my mind I partly agreed to team up with Dave in the aid station because I knew there was safety in numbers. I was even happier with that decision now. In the next hour or so the temp went from around zero to -10. I put on my wind jacket over everything else and got on my warmer and dry gloves. My water was likely not going to stay liquid until the end of the race. I’d have enough but it would be frozen and unusable in hours since it was getting so cold and a cooler can only keep things liquid for so long. I knew the pop machine was in Brill so at least I could get something not frozen there but I’d have to hope my water stayed good until then.
The other thing that started around this time and went on most of the night was hearing the bark exploding off the trees or maybe some branches exploding as well. I remember an episode of Grizzly Adams showing a whole tree exploding from a sudden drop in temperature. I couldn’t find it anywhere on YouTube but did find this video from Russia. Go to 44:00 to hear it.
Of course it didn’t echo like that in northern WI since there are no canyon walls to bounce off of. Basically it was over 34 degrees for the couple days before the race and fairly wet from the new snow. Really the whole winter up to this point had been warm. Drop the temp fast and crack! Kind of creepy but at least I knew what it was when I heard it. If not for Grizzly Adams I might have been a little worried. I never heard anything crash down so it was likely just the bark on some trees and not any tree trunks. I had never heard it before that night, but I’ve also never went for a run in the woods all night long with below zero temperatures.
It was around this time but maybe even around Radisson I think that Dave complained about his toes. The tape job they did at the aid station was rubbing on his other toes. He took off his shoe and sock while sitting on the snow to take care of it. His butt got all wet so I know he later cursed that decision. At least his toes felt better. Every once and a while we’d see a bar along the trail in the few hours after Radisson but then it was just trees. I couldn’t see a road anymore so I don’t know how far we were from one. We encountered a skier in his bivy sack along the trail. I thought it was best to see if he was OK or needed help since I think we’re only supposed to use them in emergencies. He said he was just taking a nap so we left him. Soon after that Dave said if I didn’t see his headlamp anymore that he was probably doing the same and to just keep going.
While we were running as a team, we weren’t stride for stride the whole time. Sometimes I’d run to warm up and then he’d run to warm up, etc. He walked faster than me as well so it was fairly often that we weren’t together. We talked on and off pretty consistantly until around 3am. Then it was really cold and I didn’t want to open my mouth to breath the cold air in to talk. Best to keep breathing through my nose. Not that we didn’t have anything to say but it gets to a certain point in a race where you kind of zone out as well. Up to that point we had to pretty much yell to hear each other since Radisson. The cold snow was really loud with both our feet and sleds going over. His sled was somehow louder even though they were the same brand and style sled. His was just orange and mine black, weird. Plus with our hats muffling everything it was hard to hear. When we’d stop to get water or food I could hear my ears ringing from the constant noise. I put my goggles on around 1 or 2 am to keep my eyelashes from freezing and eyes from tearing up. I still felt warm enough as long as I kept moving.
Dave never did bivy up and caught up to me about 3-4 miles before Birchwood. I had really starting to kick it into gear around 10:30 when the food hit my intestines. I was warm and had lots of energy. Dave must have as well since we pretty much stayed together the whole time other than the hour or so that he was back a bit. I could pretty much always see his headlamp though. This trail is an old railroad bed so it’s pretty flat and mostly straight. We had erased the time problem and would get into Birchwood on time at just before 4am.
It was really getting cold now. Food would freeze within a minute of taking it out of the cooler. I figured it was close to -15 and told Dave that. He didn’t disagree. We finally got to Birchwood. I was happy just because I knew it was only 16 more miles to the finish line. But I was sad because I also knew we’d be going into the wind more and there was less shelter from it on the trail through town. We later found out it had little shelter the entire way to the finish line.
I heard a voice yelling from across the road in town. He said he was open if we needed anything. Uh, awesome! We’ll be right over. Now we probably could’ve made it to the finish but my water was starting to freeze and there was 4.5 hours to the finish line yet. I was happy to spend 15 minutes to get hot water to guarantee myself liquid water untill the finish, plus I wouldn’t have to waste time in Brill now either. I considered it insurance in case something happened. I ate a snickers bar there and gave him $4.50 for it. Random I know but it was 4am. I hoped it would help make him be open next year as well, who knows. We really just lucked out because he locked himself out of the bar after closing and had to go home and get his keys and soon after he heard a biker banging on the door to get in. So he just stayed open and more people just kept coming in. Thank you! We asked how cold it was and he said about -15 and to look at the bank on the way out of town. We left but what I should’ve done was put on my balaclava first. I didn’t know we were going to be more exposed to the wind the rest of the race like it was.
The bank said -14. After less than a mile it felt way way colder than that. Not just the wind but you’d hit a low spot and could really feel it. The sleds started pulling a lot harder as well. I know there is a point where it’s too cold for skis to run well on snow and it starts to act like gravel. I don’t know if we got to that point but like I said the sleds dragged way more than normal and the snow looked the same to us, plus it felt way colder. I guessed it was -20 in spots the rest of the way until the sun started to come up. We later found out that bikers with thermometers had anywhere from -19 to -21 at times so it probably was really that cold. With the windchill it was more like -40 at times. And yet, I never stopped to get my balaclava on since I didn’t want to get cold by not moving and I could still feel my nose and everything seemed normal.
We started counting down the miles with the mile markers. Dave went up a bit to stay warm I think. I couldn’t run well anymore, just not enough energy and at this point eating wouldn’t take effect before the race ended and would likely just make me more cold by eating essentially 6oz of ice. Plus with the sled pulling hard, I could walk almost as fast as run, but with half the effort. I finally caught up to Dave. We had passed another runner at Brill. There was a guy that passed us going pretty fast. Not sure what race he was in but he was moving. I had guessed there were around 5 people in front of me at the start of the race. There were 4 in front of Dave and I at the aid station I found out later. So I figured we were essentially in the same place as when we started unless some people quit.
The sun started coming up and that’s always promising. I looked and we were still making good time. I don’t know how since it felt so slow and we had spent 15 minutes in Birchwood. We made it to the end of the Tuscobia trail and headed South on the Wild Rivers Trail. Finally no wind in our face. You could actually feel some heat from the sun. I know it was just dawn and it’s January but we both could feel it. I changed into my warmest gloves since my other pair was getting cold from my hand moisture building up the last 5 hours. We walked this whole trail basically. Maybe ran 300 yards of the 4 miles.
We had agreed to tell them we tied when we got to the finish line. The finish line was us going into the Knights of Columbus door and telling them we finished. Kind of funny since you have to leave your sled outside. We got in and said we tied. We finished at 8:52am just 4 minutes over my “goal” time. That’s 22:52 total. I think much to both our surprise we were tied for second place male and third overall. The winner finished just an hour ahead of us. I had no idea we were that close. We had spent close to 2 hours with all the stops we had during the race, I’d like to think we could’ve easily gotten rid of 30 minutes of that had we known how to manage our gear, food, etc better. Little more effort on our part and boom there could’ve been a contest for first. That’s easily the closest I’ve come to winning a race. Even when I beat the course record at Frozen Otter, there were still 5 people that beat it by more than me and I was something like 2.5 hours from the winner. We got our finisher beanie and socks. Since we were second place male we also got engraved wood medals and gift certificates. I ended up with the third place medal but they sent me a 2nd place one in the mail which I appreciated. While I wasn’t horrible in sports growing up, I never got any medals either so this is kind of a big deal for me. In the end 20 of the 36 runners finished the race which was better than I thought it’d be. Only 4 of the 23 runners finished the 160 mile race that started on Friday morning.
I went into the bathroom to see the damage to my face. Didn’t look too bad. Had a small spot on my cheek which was the side away from the wind so I couldn’t figure that out at all other than there was a zit nearby so maybe the blood flow to that area was effected? Around my nostrils was frost-nipped though. Not bad but it’s a little crusty and sore now. Should’ve put the balaclava on in Birchwood and dealt with it freezing up later. Of course I didn’t expect it to get to -20 either. Lots of small lessons learned during the race which was the whole reason I did it. My feet felt fine and no blisters. Small area on the outside of my foot that the vasaline must have come off too soon that got a little macerated but it never hurt so must have happened pretty late in the race. Dave didn’t take off his shoes at the finish so I never got to see the damage. It couldn’t have been pretty though as 3 miles before the finish he said he thought he could feel a blister pop and start rubbing a lot. My shoes just began to freeze while walking the Wild Rivers trail, probably because we just walked it and didn’t make much heat anymore. My feet never got cold though. It had warmed up to -15 by the time we finished the race. Heat wave!
I ate and drank some and then went out to put my gear in the car. Wow was it cold!!! Felt like -40. Had I really just finished a race in that cold and felt fine? Weird really. The car barely started but it did so at least I didn’t have to deal with a dead vehicle. I’d have to say it was a pretty good race. I met a lot of nice people and the race was well run. I was kind of surprised I didn’t see anyone checking on us with a snowmobile after 6pm since it was so cold but that’s what our emergency gear is for I guess. I may do it again someday but hopefully Arrowhead is my next winter race.