Tuscobia 160 – 2019 Race Report

So I could almost title this post “How to go from first to last” but I wasn’t quite last place at the end.  I did finish so there’s that I guess.  There’s a song by AJR called “100 Bad Days”.  Basically the premise is that bad days make for great stories.  I texted my wife on Sunday morning that this race should count for 3 Bad Days and that I’d be really interesting at parties.

It sucked!

We have a saying in ultrarunning that it’s type 2 fun.  If I haven’t described it before, this is what that means.  It’s not that fun during the event, but afterwards, you remember it as being fun, fulfilling, awesome, etc.  In reality it was fun, you were just so tired, hurt, etc that you didn’t always see in the present how fun it was.  I do have to say that there is almost always at least one moment, where in the present, I am overwhelmingly happy.  I mean I’m in nature in some of the most beautiful places in the world, how can you not take that in and be happy?  Overall though, the memories are much more fun than you remember it during the event if that makes sense.  If not, go run an ultramarathon and you’ll figure it out. (Wife edit- or your wife can go hiking with you and bitch and swear about how hard and sucky it is, then that night say, “That was pretty fun, we should do it again”).

While I did have a little fun the first day of this race, by and large, it doesn’t even qualify as type 2 fun.  It just basically sucked.  I’m glad I finished and I’ll get into that later but I guess what I’m saying is don’t expect this to be a race report that pumps you up to do this race.

So just what is Tuscobia 160 you may ask.  The short answer is it’s the longer version of the Tuscobia 80 mile I did 4 years ago.  It takes place on the Tuscobia Trail in Northern Wisconsin.  It’s an out and back that starts in Rice Lake, goes to Park Falls, and then returns to Rice Lake.  It takes place usually between Christmas and New Years.  This year it took place Dec 27-29.  You can go on foot like I always do, or go by ski or bike.  None were great options this year.

My main reason for doing the full 160 was I’m going for the Order of the Hrimthurs this year.  It where you complete the Tuscobia 160, Arrowhead 135, and either the 75ish, or 100 mile race at Actif Epica.  I think Hrimthur is an giant made of ice in Nordic mythology.  Anyway have fun guessing how to pronounce it and then google it to see how wrong you were.

The weather was forecast to be in the 20s on Friday and warm up throughout the day.  Saturday around noon was when the rain was supposed to start.  That’s right, rain!  I never thought I’d need to bring a rain coat to a winter race, but when 1 inch is forecast, that’s what you do.  The trail was probably the best shape it’s been in years at the start.  There was about 8 inches of nice hard pack in most places since they had a lot of snow early in December.

My plan was to try to run this race quickly.  Not the smartest thing when you’re doing 3 long races in 7 weeks but the trail is flat and there is always an outside chance I could win the thing.  The chance of that wasn’t great this year since there were 5 other people better than me signed up but winning this race has the added benefit of being entered into a drawing for a different winter race I can’t really justify the cost of.  So logic be damned I was going to at least try, but at the very least not ruin my chances of finishing.

Since the rain wouldn’t start until Saturday, I also wanted to get as far as possible before the poor weather hit.  That way there’d be less miles of suckiness.  I had a motel reserved in Winter at about the 110 mile point to sleep before the second night hit.  I thought I should be able to make it there without sleep based on previous races and timing.

I made a different sled for this race.  It’s a little smaller and lighter since I don’t need as much stuff for this race.  It worked out well but I don’t know if it really made me any faster or anything.  The more I modify and make new ones, it seems like it doesn’t make much difference as far as drag goes.

I got my sled, pack, and gear down to 20.5 pounds.  As you can see even with the warm temperatures, I didn’t skimp too much.  Wet clothes are worthless clothes and with an inch of rain, I was sure to get some wet clothes so I needed to bring stuff to change into.  With food and water it weighed 27 pounds.

I still put on my face tape.  I wasn’t worried about frostbite or anything but I figured it would keep any windburn away since it was supposed to be somewhat windy the first day.  I also put screws on my shoes.  Not so much because I thought I’d need them on the trail, but because everywhere else was ice.  I almost fell twice the day before and I didn’t feel like getting hurt the morning of the race just walking to the race.

The race started at 6AM Friday.  Too early for me but it is what it is.  I didn’t sleep well either.

Basically everyone walked from the beginning of the race.  I had to run.  The trail was almost like ice and I couldn’t even tell I had a sled behind me.  I felt great.  At 4 miles is the turn onto the Tuscobia trail from the Wild Rivers Trail that leaves Rice Lake.  Luckily there was a porta potty there for me to use.  That slowed me down but I eventually caught back up to first place.  Mostly I was just running what felt good.  I wasn’t worried about sweating and such since it was so warm, I’d sweat no matter what.

I was the first to Brill and the first to Birchwood.  Basically I was 45 minutes ahead of schedule and running 11 minute miles.  I needed to stop at the bathroom again in Birchwood.  I also got water there since I was going through it faster than I thought I would due to all the mouth breathing and sweating.  I would never see first place again.

I still ran on and off, but wasn’t feeling it that much anymore.  I stopped in Radisson for water.  The trail was still in excellent condition.  I got to the first aid station (outside Ojibwa mile 45) I think around quarter to 5pm.  It was still light out which was my goal.  I was now in 3rd place.  Not completely out of it but not really in it anymore either.  The Sawyer County Gazette reporter was there and took my picture.  She interviewed me while I was changing socks and eating at the aid station but none of the interview made the article.  The photo did.  I guess I’m more of a photogenic kind of guy? 🙂

I managed my time well there and got moving.  I stopped in Winter for some more food and water before the long haul to the turn around in Park Falls.  Nothing would be open the rest of the night so even though I stopped less than 2 hours ago, I had to stop there.  I asked the clerk if she worked tomorrow night and she said “yes”.  I said “I’ll see you tomorrow night then when I come back through.”

Really I did a pretty poor job of planning out my stops this year.  I should’ve just taken more water along so I didn’t have to stop so much.  I had room for it but just didn’t think I’d use so much that first day.  Having to stop twice for the bathroom didn’t help anything either.

It was starting to get colder.  The sky was clear so I was pretty sure it would get colder than the 20 degrees forecast and it did but only to around 16 degrees.  Despite this, I had to keep putting layers on.  By the time I got to Loretto I was dressed for -10 weather.  This was kind of worrisome.  I was still moving at a decent pace.  Not as fast as I wanted but not slow either.  I was pretty sure I was trying to spike a fever.  The family had snotty noses 3 days before the race started.  When the 1 racer that passed me this section hiked by without a hat on, I knew there was something wrong.  I was getting super tired as well and knew I’d have to sleep some at the turn around in Park Falls.  Basically all hopes of finishing according to plan were gone.  By the way, “according to plan” finishing time still would’ve only gotten me 3rd place in the end.  Lots of great runners this year.

I got to Park Falls at 3:23 AM.  This was pretty much what I planned on.  Since I ran the first leg faster than I thought, even with the slow down after Ojibwa I still got there early.  In fact I finished this first 80 miles 90 minutes faster than I ran the 80 mile race 4 years ago!  That’s crazy to me.  I hadn’t planned on stopping for more than food and sock change but since I was so tired I knew I’d be here longer.  I ended up taking almost 2 hours to get out of there with just 1 hour of that being sleep.

I was 5th by the time I left.  And so began the long horrible hike to Winter.  The sleep did little to energize me.  In fact by the time I got out of Park Falls I was already tired.  There is a nice long slight downhill from town I planned on running but couldn’t.  Not just because I was tired, but because of the pain.  I had horrible cramping pain right behind my right knee similar to Volstate.  Only there I had lots of time to work on it and I wasn’t pulling a sled.  It spread to my calf.  It hurt a lot.  Nothing helped.  Going slow, fast, running, stretching, stopping, contracting, massage.  Nothing.  NSAIDs did nothing.  Of course everyone always has their cure for cramps and they’re all garbage.  They’re caused by muscle trauma and after 80 miles of snow, that’s what I had.

Eventually I figured out that walking a certain way and shuffling my right foot as I walked at least made it bearable.  Of course this meant something else would end up hurting because of the compensating I had to do.  It ended up being my left hip.  So now I was waddling like an old person with some good war stories.

The sunrise did nothing to help my spirits.  It made it worse knowing the rain would start soon and the 80 mile racers would start to pass me.  There are few things that make me feel worse than shorter distance runners passing me when I feel like absolute garbage saying things like “good job” or “looking good”.  Really?  The guy waddling and shuffling around at 3 miles per hour looks good?

The obvious call was to quit.  Only the first chance to quit was still hours away.  Oh yeah, and I’m doing that Hrimthurs thing so I really can’t quit.  I wouldn’t allow myself to do that.  I had plenty of time.  My “sprint” to the turn around gave me plenty.  Would walking the first half have prevented this?  I don’t know.  Probably.  But perhaps it was just a bug that was causing the issues with thermal regulation and the cramping as well.  It didn’t matter.

I had been listening to music the entire race basically since no one was ever around me save that 10 minutes I spent with the hiker that passed me near Park Falls.  Nothing helped to take my mind off the pain.  I just had to get to Winter and hope that the sleep would help.

It was sprinkling and warm.  There were still snowmobilers out on the trail even in the rain.  I’ve done that before and it sucks because you can’t see anything with a helmet on.  There were lots of snowmobiles on Friday too since the weather and trail were so nice.  With the slush forming on top of the trail, the snowmobiles completely trashed any nice surface that remained.

Finally I got to Winter.  I don’t even want to go look up on my GPS when I got there.  It was still a little light out so I’m thinking 5pm.  Basically 5 hours later than planned.  I got a bunch of food at the same gas station as yesterday and walked to the motel next door.  There was a fan so I hung everything up to dry and turned it on.  I ate well and then went to bed.  I wanted to sleep for about 2.5 hours but only got a good hour of sleep before waking up.  I was still super tired but I kept having these horrible dreams about the motel starting on fire or my feet swelling to giant size.  I couldn’t get them out of my head.  I knew they were just dreams and not real but it didn’t seem to matter.  I just got up and prepared to leave.  I knew it wasn’t enough sleep but I didn’t know what to do.  I started freaking out about time as well which made no sense at all.  I had plenty of time and sleeping here would be easier than sleeping somewhere else later.IMG_20191228_184828

I was frustrated with my mind but the one awesome thing about this stop was…the cramping was gone and I could finally stretch the muscles out.  There was only around 50 miles left.  I took the screws out of my shoes since I wanted to try my snowshoes and see if that would help on the soft trail.  The screws would ruin the snowshoes if I left them in.  I think I left winter around 7:15pm.  I filled up with water so that I wouldn’t need to stop at the aid station just 5 or so miles away besides to check in and grab some food.

It was now full on raining outside.  So much for putting on nice dry shoes and socks, etc.  I knew I couldn’t keep having gloves getting wet or I’d have nothing left for after the rain stopped.  I took the bags from the gas station and put my hands through them as a sort of raincoat for my gloves.  Water could still trickle in if I had them down at my side so for the next 12 hours or so I had to keep my hands parallel with the ground while grabbing on to the bags.  Yeah, bring on any Survivor challenge you’ve got Jeff Probst.  I had some pretty cool hand cramps by Sunday.

There were lots of people now.  Some were 160 milers and some 80 milers.  All were moving faster than me.  The snowshoes worked fine but the trail looked hard enough that I wasn’t sure if I needed them.  The last 2 miles before the aid station I took them off to see if there was a difference knowing that I could put them back on there if need be.  I could walk fine without them so I never put them on again the remainder of the race.

I was in and out of the aid station in I think 8 minutes.  There were some yummy grilled cheese sandwiches and I talked to friends that quit, otherwise it would’ve been 1 minute.

In Radisson I had to put some more layers on.  The rain wasn’t getting through my raincoat but I needed more insulation than just shirts between it and my skin.  So I put on a coat and also a poncho underneath the raincoat.  I know that seems weird but ponchos go down almost to my knees so it kept the rain from running down my legs or blowing onto them since it was pretty gusty as well.  My gloves were for the most part dry enough.  I was so tired but I had to keep moving.  It seems like I wasted a huge amount of time here.

Here’s maybe a good spot to tell about the daydreams I had this year.  So usually it’s hallucinations I have when I’m this tired.  While I did see some waterfowl that didn’t exist in the swamps on Sunday, for the most part I didn’t “see” things.  I basically had full on dreams while walking around.  Like conversations in my head with people that weren’t there and I didn’t even see.  Kind of like I was watching a movie but then also not really.  Maybe more of like a phone conversation just without a phone.  Occasionally the person would say something that struck me as odd so I’d recognize that it was a dream and not real but then I’d just keep on going along with the dream.  This basically continued until the next day when I slept in Birchwood.  It was kind of weird as I’ve never had that happen before.  Of course I had never hallucinated until Arrowhead a few years ago either.  Remember this is all with music playing the entire time too in my headphones.  I turned it off for a bit to see if that did anything but I just got more tired.

I tried to stay awake with some comedy podcasts and even just tuned into a NPR radio station somewhere.  They talked about people getting head trauma and then waking up with skills they never had before.  Like one guy can play the piano amazingly but had never played the piano before and can’t even read sheet music.  Weird stuff, or maybe just another dream?

Cauderay is the next town and there was supposed to be a bivy spot there.  It was still raining and was getting windier now.  There were people sleeping on picnic tables under a shelter.  It was windy but still better than sleeping in water.  It seemed to take forever to get organized to treat my feet and put on dry socks.  My sleeping bag was completely soaked.  While I had everything else in ziplock bags and even had a tarp over my gear bag, water still soaked in through the bottom of the gear bag.  I thought the bag my sleeping bag was in was waterproof but obviously not enough.  It wasn’t cold really so I just put my sleeping pad in the bivy sack and tried to sleep in there that way.  I’m not really sure if I slept any at all or not.  I think I had 1 or 2 of those same dreams I had while awake so who knows.  I do know that I didn’t feel any better and wasted another hour of time.  To top it off there was a 5 inch deep lake at the road edge I had to cross to continue on the trail so my dry feet were yet again completely soaked.

The sled still pulled fairly easy which I wasn’t sure if it would.  I could tell there was more weight due to all the water but it wasn’t bad.  The roadways were easy to cross since the rain was freezing to the roadways.  They wouldn’t salt them until the next day.

The rest of the night was varying degrees of more suckiness.  It was very rare that I would ever see anyone.  I was staying warm better than I was before so I took that as a good sign considering I was now going barely over 2 miles an hour.  I remember it seeming to take forever to get to the railroad crossing.  Eventually I was with someone for a little while.  It helped to keep me up but I soon lost him.

Closer to sunrise the trail crosses a road and then goes up a pretty steep hill.  This hill was basically a vertical river.  The nice 8 inch pack of snow was a slush field.  It was impossible not to posthole basically every step up this long hill.  My feet were already wet but now they were pretty cold after walking through ice water for a couple minutes.

Around sunrise I was already somewhat waking up but it helped more.  A biker caught up to me just as the race director showed up on a snowmobile.  We talked to him for a little while.  He said there was supposed to be a bad spot similar to the hill I went up closer to the railroad track crossing.  I must have gotten past that point before it finally succumbed to the rain.

Probably a couple miles past that slush fest hill, my feet were telling me they needed to be dried out.  It was daylight now and seemed windier again.  I stopped at a road crossing where there was enough of a snowbank to sit on to change my socks.  If I had time I would’ve just sat there with my shoes off to totally dry out my feet in the wind but I didn’t.  My shoes were still wet but I needed to get some dry socks on to stop the progression of my feet.  My plan was to totally dry my feet out, somewhat dry my shoes out, put on my last pair of socks, sleep, and eat at Birchwood.  That was now my mission.

Eventually I got there.  Still enough time to finish the race but I was almost positive I’d be last by the time I got there.  I couldn’t believe there were still people behind me.  I felt so slow.  It was during this time that I took a couple pictures to share with my wife.IMG_20191229_091412_01IMG_20191229_091234

I had to pick my foot placements very carefully.  I didn’t want to get my shoes completely submerged anymore.  There were plenty of footprints in front of me to show where NOT to step.  Lots of bike wipeouts carved into the snow as well.  The flat areas around Birchwood were pretty much all like the photo above.  You could see the water moving through the snow along the edges of the trail.  I must be lighter than some people since I was able to not punch through almost the entire way.

Finally Birchwood arrived.  Crossing the roads now sucked since all the ice and snow were gone.  I spent an hour I’m sure ordering food, drying shoes with newspaper, airing out my feet, talking to the people who quit and others waiting on the racers they knew.  Someone asked if I was dropping.  No way I came this far to quit.  I would’ve done that over a day ago.

I couldn’t sleep there at the gas station so I went back on the trail trying to look for a picnic table or something.  The trail was in horrible condition with water and slush everywhere.  It was slow going just because you had to meander everywhere and take your time to find where to step.  I wasn’t going to have soaked feet the last 8 hours and get horrible trench foot.

Towards the edge of town there is a display for the Ice Age Trail.  I crossed the road and walked over to it and slept on the bench they had there.  It wasn’t the most comfortable and I’d get woken up occasionally with the traffic noise but I got close to an hour which should be enough to get me to the finish line.  I felt fairly awake now.  Well at least comparatively.

The trail was sloppy with open water in areas until I finally got out of the hill area and into the more swampy area.  I could see someone in front of me and I thought I’d be able to catch him but then I slowed down again.  Not sure why but I just couldn’t keep a decent pace.  I had to make one pit stop and then I never saw him again.  I’m sure a few people passed me while I slept so I was pretty sure I was close to last place.

I saw about 20 mosquitoes, a couple spiders, and some other winged insects.  Yes these were real, and the reason you keep your dog on year round heartworm preventative.  I was too lazy to take a picture of them.  I did see some imaginary waterfowl through the fog of the swamps.  It was really foggy in some areas, kind of pretty really.

It got dark and I still wasn’t done with the race.  I’ve never started a third night in a race other than Volstate.  It’s not something I’d recommend.  Eventually I got to the end of the Tuscobia trail and turned on the Wild Rivers trail again.  Just 4 more miles.  I was awake enough to listen to In Our Time podcasts about Napoleon’s defeat in Russia, the Rapture, and one other one I can’t recall.  That’s how slow I was going.

I saw a headlamp behind me with a half mile or so to go so I finally had a reason to really force myself to run. It hurt but I didn’t care.  I didn’t feel like losing another spot.  I finally finished to the sound of a cowbell at 8:12PM, 62:12 race time.  The cutoff time is 65 hours.  They took my picture at the finish line but I haven’t seen it posted yet.  It was dark anyway so it probably didn’t turn out very well.

Someone did some analysis of the foot division people.  Not to my surprise, I was by far the slowest person the second half of the race.  I still finished 10th male with 3 people behind me.  Only 16/46 starters finished the race in the foot division for 35% finishing rate.  This was by far the largest foot division field that started in race history.  The largest before was 32.

I got inside the building, got my finisher hat, and ate almost an entire pizza, some soup, pop, and other items.  After eating and talking, I loaded up my stuff in the car and slept in there.  Eventually I woke up and drove home.

While I do like this course, I don’t know if I’ll ever do the full 160 again if I finish the Order this year.  It’s a great race for newer winter runners since there are lots more food and water sources.  Plus you can go in any warm business you want.  Lots of road crossings to bail out at as well assuming you have phone coverage.  I have AT&T which basically only had coverage to about 5 miles past Birchwood and then not again until near Park Falls.

Arrowhead always calls me back though.  There are always periods during that race that are so inspiring and beautiful, something you just can’t see any other way.

One thought on “Tuscobia 160 – 2019 Race Report

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s