I started in the new year with the 80 mile version of the Tuscobia winter ultra at 10AM on New Year’s Day. Well we started late so more like 10:05. I’ve run at this race 2 other times, the 80 mile version in 2016 (the first year they had that distance) and the 160 mile version in 2019 in which it rained and sucked big time. I enjoy the small towns along the course and the people of the area but I don’t really care for the trail itself if I’m being honest. The 160 mile version was very boring and the rain didn’t help with creating a fond memory of doing that version of the race either. It’s the only race that the “type 2” fun still hasn’t kicked in. I’m still glad I did it since it was part of Hrimthurs but 2019 sucked, plain and simple.
So why all the backstory of this trail and why did you do it again? Well, in 2016, it was my first winter ultramarathon with pulling a sled. It got down to about -18 in spots and I barely made it through since I wasn’t expecting it to be that cold and I was new. In the end though, I finished in second place in just under 23 hours and so began my love with winter ultras. I came back in 2019 and finished the first half of the 160 mile race in 21.5 hours with much better snow conditions than in 2016. I knew I would never want to do the 160 again but I wanted to see just how fast I could do the 80 mile version. So, I signed up for the 2020/21 version which of course got cancelled and signed up again this year. My goal in essence was to win. I wasn’t there for the scenery or the thrill of it. I wanted to go fast and I wanted to win.
For a while it looked like this year might be a very low snow year in which I’d have to take a backpack similar to Actif Epica. I was kinda looking forward to that actually since it would be a nice difference for this race and 80 miles is much less than 104 so it’d be easier than Actif too. In the end they got close to a foot of snow that stuck around and compressed down to 1-2 inches on the trail depending where you were. It was enough to pull a sled on but there were rocks, sticks, and leaves in many places since it was so thin. The day before the race I tested out the snow in a couple spots. It sucked! I felt bad for the 160 mile people that started that day as I knew they were going through it. It was 2 inches of mashed potato crap that you just get nowhere on. I knew it would harden up really nice in the subzero temperature forecast for that night though so I wasn’t worried.
The forecast was essentially the same as what it was for the 2016 race. It was supposed to get down to around -20 during the night while the race was going on. There was supposed to be a little wind but that never showed up which actually ruined some of my race plan as you’ll see.
There was a gear check in the afternoon on Friday which was different than normal due to Covid, including a location change. It went fine. I came back for the required pre-race meeting. This being the third time I’ve heard it, there were no surprises. Usually it’s nice to talk to the other racers at this meeting but I only talked to a couple nearby to me since we were spaced out in an auditorium. Once I saw the results, I noticed a couple people listed that I didn’t even know were there. Some people with masks on just look like everyone else I guess and I didn’t notice they were there.
There wasn’t a long required gear list like most years. I’m not sure of the actual reason for this but I agree with it for this race. There is a road within sight for the vast majority of the race and decent cell coverage as well so getting help is easier here than Arrowhead where I would never, ever skimp on supplies. There is a section between Couderay and Birchwood that you are in the middle of nowhere but that’s it. If it wasn’t for the cold weather being forecast I would’ve brought even less than I did bring. I’ve been fooled with forecasts being conservative and it getting much colder. I didn’t want to be stuck not being prepared for the worst. Basically the only thing I changed from what I’d typically bring is that I left my sleeping bag, bivy, and sleeping pad back at the hotel. I brought my extra puffy snowpants and puffy coat that I wouldn’t normally bring for these temps in their place so I only cut a couple pounds of weight really. I also didn’t bring any sort of stove. There was no reason whatsoever that I’d need to make water with the plentiful fill up spots at this race. A 2L insulated thermos is all you need here.
In the end my fully loaded sled weighed 28.5 pounds at the start. WAY more than I was expecting but I wasn’t going to be the reason the required gear list came back to this race. This is the first race that I feel I brought too much stuff with. There were 2 thick layers I wasn’t even close to needing and I was testing out a couple pairs of gloves that added weight I didn’t need as well. I always bring too much food but I can’t predict what food will taste good ahead of time. I don’t know that 10 pounds less stuff and food would’ve made that much difference in how I performed but that’s about how much I could’ve gotten rid of and still been safe with the weather that actually showed up.
That being said, I never condone going with no extra supplies in winter ultras. People can “get away” with it in all but the worst conditions, and often they are at the front. I’ve sometimes had to get things out of their pack for them because their hands were too frozen or fix their sleds for them because they didn’t think to bring repair supplies along (another pound I could leave at home). I’ll say this here like I say it in person; If you need to use hand warmers in anything other than a true emergency you are doing something wrong! Seriously, having them in your race plan simply isn’t a good plan. Bad things can happen, so have them with for those times, but never plan to use them.
The start of the race was in a different location than usual but I never heard the reason for it other than it was out of our control. It looked to be pretty much the exact same distance anyway so I didn’t care. We started at Northern Pines Resort on Butternut Lake. This was the first time my family ever came to a winter ultra. The hotel had a hot tub and since it was so short they’d hardly notice I was gone anyway. The added benefit was I didn’t have to ride the school bus to the start line and I didn’t have to drive myself home after I was done!
We got to the start line just after the bus did the way it looked as they were still unloading bikes from the semi trailer. I waited for the porta-potty in what felt like the slowest moving line ever. I was nice and cold by the time I got back to the car which isn’t really a bad thing at these events. You don’t want to start out nice and warm if you plan on running. I checked in before heading to the car.
About 15 minutes later it was time to get things ready and head to the starting line. The family stood out of the way and I got lined up behind the bikers. We were going to go a mile or so on the lake to start the race so we were told to stay near the cones to keep from going through a fishing hole. It’s not as scary going on a lake during the day than at night at Arrowhead for some reason.
The bikers started off first since they’re usually faster. I took off running once it was possible and pulled up towards the front. It was sunny and -3 according to the car. We would be going with what little wind there was for 4 miles before we turned west once we got to the Tuscobia trail. It wasn’t supposed to get more than about 5 degrees above zero for the day and I was expecting more of a breeze once we turned so I wore my clothes that protect some from the wind and not much else.
Once we were off the lake, it was a single track route for a mile or so. No chance for passing for the most part on the single track. When we got to the road leading to the trail, things were spreading out a little. I was feeling pretty good and almost a little too warm but I knew that would change once we were in the trees and not going with the wind. Jeff from Indiana was in front of me a little bit. Once on the trail for a few miles, Jeff, Eric and I were together for much of the beginning of the race. There would be a little back and forth as we stopped for food, etc but we got to talk for a long time. We were pretty much together for the first 20 miles or so. It was nice to get to know a couple new people. I think Eric said that he had read my blog before. It’s always nice to hear that people get something out of them. Without it being said, it was pretty clear we were all going for first place.
We were probably averaging 12 minute miles and the snow was pretty good. There was about a 3 mile section that was as good as snow can get. There were a few bikers with us as well. Jeff’s family was cheering us on at most every intersection. They didn’t have a cowbell at first but they had one after about the third one. I knew I wouldn’t see my family, they were bowling and having fun.
Somewhere between Loretta and Winter I started pulling ahead a little bit. I still felt good running and I was going to run as long as it felt good. Plus, it was finally cooling off a little again so I wasn’t worried about getting too hot. The first “larger” town on the course is Winter at about 29 miles into the race. I normally stop at the gas station here to get some hot food but I wasn’t really in need of hot food. It was 4:15PM when I got there and just over 6 hours into the race. This was faster than I was expecting but I didn’t get too excited since I knew the section after Couderay would be much slower. I was expecting to get under 21 hours for the finish but under 20 hours was a real possibility based on how things were going.
I went into the heated indoor bathroom at the train depot in Winter which is super nice. I wanted to add a shirt layer for the colder temps coming, checked my phone, and got a few other things done in preparation for the dark. It took me 10 minutes and Eric passed me here and was in the lead from then on. I could pretty much always see his lights since it’s such a straight course for long sections. After Winter I didn’t see Jeff behind us anymore, only an occasional biker.
The only official aid station of the race is just before Ojibwa. Eric was leaving just as I arrived. I got some hot water, and some chips and left. I had already taken care of everything else in Winter. I was anywhere from 2-10 minutes behind Eric depending on when we’d have to take breaks for food, water, etc. Radisson came and I added a coat there.
It was getting colder and I thought it would get much colder than expected since there weren’t any clouds in the sky for most of the evening. But then around 10PM or so the clouds rolled in so it looked like it wouldn’t get super cold anymore. I still only had on 1 pant layer and thought it would be prudent to put on another pair once I got to the snowmobile clubhouse at mile 60ish. I wasn’t cold but I could see myself having to put on another pair if it got much colder and I didn’t want to do that in -15 degree weather. It was about -10 to -12 at this point.
While on the long uphill after Couderay I saw what I thought was Eric’s lights but they looked slightly different. Indeed, they were a bikers and not his. My muscles were getting annoyed with me but nothing major. The snow conditions had gotten slightly worse as well. Sleds never pull well over real cold snow to begin with but it was the snow that the bikers went over that was the worse. It almost seemed like there was a static charge that they gave to the snow somehow and my sled would just stick to it. I had the option of either going on the path made by the bikers that gave better grip to my feet but made my sled stick. Or, go on the other parts of the trail where you’d collapse into the snow with every step but the sled would run better. I usually ended up taking the better footing option.
At this point I was hoping it would get much colder. I wasn’t going to be able to run the last 25 miles. It was looking like the only way I would win was if Eric had to stop for a while to warm up or make lots of clothing adjustments to deal with really cold temps. It didn’t look like he had a lot of supplies with him but it’s hard to tell since a puffy coat can be compressed down so much. The wind that was supposed to show up never did either. It wasn’t supposed to be much (just 5mph) but when it’s -15, it makes a huge difference. I still put my nose cover on since it was about -12 and I didn’t feel a need to be cold for no reason. I even ended up getting my mittens out but they were too hot so I’d take them off about half the time to keep from sweating. Looking back to the first time I ran this race in the exact same temperatures, I was much better prepared now. In that race I was pretty cold and miserable the last 25 miles of the race. Plus my water froze before Birchwood that year. This time I felt great and still had 2 more layers if I needed them. Experience is a great teacher!
I couldn’t remember exactly where the snowmobile clubhouse was located since I don’t even think they had it open for us until 2019 and that year it was closed by the time I got there. Eventually I could see it and I pulled in just as Eric was leaving. I had already made up my mind it would be foolish to not add a second bottom layer and since I was taking off my shoes, I might as well change socks. I tried to be efficient but I knew it would take awhile, plus I had never seen inside so I didn’t know where things would be located, etc. I got some soup and crackers as well while changing my socks. I was there for almost 40 minutes so now Eric was that far ahead of me. I don’t even know how it took that long but that’s what my watch shows. I think I walked back and forth in there about 20 times so clearly I wasn’t efficient at all!
I made a new glove choice that ended up being the wrong one and had to change them soon after I left as well. Even more time gone. I passed the 15 mile marker soon after I left the clubhouse which meant 19 miles left in the race. That’s not much distance to make up that amount of time. It was clear that unless Eric quit, I would be second. I couldn’t see anyone for miles behind me so I wasn’t concerned with getting passed. Finishing under 20 hours was still a real possibility so I kept plugging away as fast as I could, running very rarely and mostly speed walking as best as I could.
The hills after Birchwood weren’t even sledable this year due to the cold and rocks on them. Once I got to the long straight sections through the woods I just started to zone out and count down the miles. If I couldn’t see Eric here, I had no chance of catching up. I ran through my head a bunch that I didn’t really have to stop to change all that stuff at the snowmobile club. If I had only spent 5 minutes instead of 40, perhaps I could’ve run Eric down. Of course he probably didn’t push as hard as he could’ve either since he never saw me the last 5 hours. It is what it is, he clearly made better choices than I did.
The cold they predicted just never seemed to show up. It was about -12 most of the night. I could tell the last 3 miles of the Tuscobia trail got colder, probably down to about -18 at most but more likely -15 and completely calm other than what wind I made moving. You could see smoke from houses and such go straight up. All in all, I’m sure it was a good experience for a bunch of people to get a feel for what long term cold temps are like. I’d just caution them that with even a little wind, things will feel much colder. 2016 felt much colder with the 5mph side wind that year. I likely would’ve needed googles this year if there was a little wind.
There were quite a few dogs barking at me this year the last 10 miles of the race. Someone let their dog out of the house at 5AM to bark at me. I was surprised someone was up that early on a Sunday.
Finally I reached the junction with the Wild River Trail where we go for almost exactly 4 miles south to the finish line. Again no one was in sight. I ran most of this section just to make sure I got in under 20 hours. I’m always skeptical that my watch is recording the distance correctly so I always think it’s further in this section than it is. I saw my first and only wildlife of the race, 2 rabbits in this section. I reached the finish line just before 6AM to absolutely no fanfare. With covid I wasn’t really expecting anyone there outside anyway like there often is other years. I got inside and told them my time. We weren’t allowed to hang out at the finish line for long due to covid so I never saw Eric to congratulate him and see how his race went. Jeff ended up getting 3rd which is great. The white beard gang from the beginning got the top three. I really miss the finish line stories at winter ultras. It’s probably half the fun to me. I’m glad we could still run the race but this covid crap is getting old.
My official time was 19:57 which was almost 3 hours off my time in 2016 under the same conditions. The snow and weather conditions in every year affect the finishing times but sub 20 hours is rare for this race so I feel pretty good about it. I got my 2nd place wood medallion and a $30 gift certificate award for TwinCityRunning in addition to my finisher hat. I called my wife to wake her up and come get me. It was nice to get to go to a hotel to take a bath and sleep in a bed before going home unlike the usual of sleeping in the car and then driving home myself.
So once again I got second place. I’m not sure if I’ll be back to Tuscobia. It’s nice and close but I don’t know how much better I could do. All together I was not moving for less than an hour. For a winter ultra that’s not much at all. It’s not a course that calls to me like Arrowhead or the mountain races do. We’ll see.