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Monday, February 29, 2016

LOSING MY MIND 6 MILES FROM HOME - THE TUSCOBIA 158 (part 3 of 3)

WARNING....A GRAPHIC PHOTO OR TWO  (and a bit of language) ACCOMPANY THIS POST!


The bartender and the few folks still in the bar welcomed me with a mixture of "What the hell are you doing out there" and "Get those clothes off and get by the fire". I wasn't in that bad of shape but I can imagine someone walking into the bar with a frozen face, off of a bike, at 1 am in these conditions, is not what the clientele were expecting. I accepted their offers and did as instructed, for the most part. I wasn't sweaty so I actually added a layer, but I did head over towards the fire and allowed the barkeep to make me a pizza of my own. Leaving Ojibwa, I'd have bet you that by this time, the lights of Rice Lake would be in my view. How had the wheels come off so fast? At the time, I only knew I was struggling and food, drink and rest were necessary before taking on the last 15-16 miles. Sitting next to the fire, wrestling my face mask in order to get food and drink into my mouth must have been quite a sight.Thirty minutes later, an entire Pizza in my belly and two water bottles full of nearly boiling water, so as to make it to the finish without freezing, I left my Saturday night beer drinking buddies behind. I had been on the bike nearly 19 hours.

Well fed, well hydrated and properly dressed, spirits were still good. Every piece of gear I had was now on. Wool knickers were covered by insulated wind pants. The three layers that had served me so well all day, sometimes zipped, sometimes not were all fully zipped up and safely shielded by the non breathable, body heat enclosing rain jacket. My hood was up and fully zipped over a head beanie and my 45 North wool cap. There was not a single part of my body that was not covered by at least two if not three layers. The "CobraFists" (hand protection that mount onto the handlebars), each had a couple hand warmers in them to keep the digits protected. At the time there was no way of knowing exactly how cold it was, but it was COLD. Make a mistake and expose any body parts to this weather and the damage could be permanent. Others had already found this out or were about to.

Andrea Cohen and Bonnie Gagnon would finish one two in the Women's division. Andrea Cohen would end up with frostbite on two of her toes and would be unable to compete at Arrowhead two weeks later. Bonnie nearly froze her ear off..." I thought something was hanging out of my cap so I kept trying to rip it off, only to discover it was my earlobe". The pieces of skin in this photo are from her ear.

 
Mark Scotch would finish the race on his bike in just over 22 hours. Towards the end of the race he had to abandon his goggles due to icing.



Mark has a ton of experience (and as you see, a great attitude) in these conditions. He didn't do any permanent damage, but after finishing and getting inside, these were his comments..."The lights and sudden warmth hit me in a couple of minutes and my left eye felt like someone stabbed an ice pick in it. The pain was so intense it caused me to lose my balance and I had to lay down for awhile."

Mark McCulloch would not fare nearly as well. So intent on finishing and qualifying for Arrowhead he pushed through the numbing of his feet. His reward for battling Mother Nature for 25 hours on the bike?


Mark would end up in an emergency burn unit for three days and in bandages for 6 weeks. He just got the bandages off this week. They were able to save all his toes. It should be noted that Mark DID finish. It's a real possibility he'll never again be able to race in cold temperatures. I'm guessing there were more stories like these and I am certainly grateful to not have had to test myself in these conditions my first year.

I knew the remaining trail well from the year before. It would be a hilly 8 miles or so before the trail turned north and intersect with the spur into Rice Lake just 4 miles from the finish. This was the home stretch. The freezing temperatures had nearly reduced the bike to a single speed. A few of the hills, which had been ridable earlier in the day, now had to be walked. The walking actually felt good and allowed some time to reflect and enjoy the harsh beauty of my surroundings. This was the sharp end of the stick. It was so cold you could actually hear the trees crackling. It was as if mother nature's icy grip was attempting to squeeze the life right out of them. Certainly, it was obvious that the conditions were dangerous, but I had never felt so alive.

The hills began to subside and I knew the turn to the north had to be soon ahead, which would mean just 4 miles to the Rice Lake spur. My pace had slowed to what seemed like a crawl. Even the slightest incline required rising out of the seat and standing on the pedals to keep them turning. It felt like someone had attached a damn anvil to the back of the bike in comparison to how it had felt just 8 hours earlier.  That right hand bend in the trail had to be soon. There were mile markers on the trail, which I had ignored all day. I had no interest in counting up to 75 and back down to zero, but I couldn't resist nor could I believe my eyes when the marker read "2". In my fatigued mental and physical state I had not noticed that I had already made the turn to the north. The barn doors were swinging open. I was 6 miles from home!!

Had it not been for the trail crossing the highway, I'm not sure when I would have noticed. Crossing the pavement, the bike nearly slid out from under me. There was no ice. Getting off the bike, I couldn't believe it. "How freaking long had it been this way?!?!" I had figured it was the snow, or the length of time on the bike or a combination of the two. Thinking back, I remembered the bike pump outside the turnaround back at the gym in Park Falls. That fleeting thought to check my tire pressure, ignored, had cost me who knows how much time and anguish. The back tire was completely flat. Pushing the bike 6 more miles would mean 3 hours or more. That's a tough pill to swallow when you have already plugged in 30 - 45 minutes. I made the decision to stop and air up the tire. No big deal, I had a fat CO2 cartridge to get me started and hammering on that hand pump to fill the rest of the tire would keep me from getting too cold.

Working on a bike with big bulky gloves is not easy. Combine that with your mental state after 20 hours on the bike and it gets way tougher. The zippers on the Bike Bag Dude frame bag were nearly frozen shut. It wasn't that they had gotten wet or had any history of trouble. Far from it. These bags, hand made in Australia are the best. Nothing wanted to work in this cold.  The CO2 cartridge and I had a quick talk before attaching it to the tire. "We don't need any trouble here. You need to do your job now. This is why your here. Understood?" I wouldn't normally make a habit of chatting with a CO2 cartridge but this was not your average tire needing air situation. It turned out the cartridge was not a good listener. Slowly unscrewing the device to release the air, it puked it's contents right back at me."SH#T SH#T SH#T". Strike one. I tightened it back up in attempt to save what was left in the cartridge, checked the connection and gave it another go, each time taking off my gloves in an effort to make sure I didn't mess things up. The second attempt was no better. Strike two. Did anything work in these conditions?!?! Pumping up a Fat bike tire by hand is no treat. It takes forever. Time is not your friend in these conditions. Racers in the Iditarod Trail Invitational have a saying when it's gets really cold. "Move or Die."  The hand pump would have to do.

"Why won't this damn thing go on?!?!?" I couldn't get the pump to attach to the valve stem. This made no sense. Had I lost my mind? Had it abandoned me to the point that the simplest of tasks could no longer be performed? Then I remembered back a month earlier using the pump on my girlfriend's bike. She had a different stem so I'd had to switch out the small pieces inside the pump to make it work. This was not a huge problem. If you were doing this on a summer evening back in Iowa it was not even a small problem. Here, the clock was ticking. Yes, I was dressed right and yes I had kept myself from sweating and these things saved me from being in real trouble, but eventually the cold would win if I didn't get this show moving. It was necessary to take off the gloves again in order to get the end of the hand pump off and switch the two small plastic pieces back. I focused as best I could, so as to not drop or misplace a part. It wasn't easy. Exposed to the cold for this many hours, trivial tasks like taking off a helmet can be difficult. It took only a couple minutes to make the switch and...it didn't fit. "Ok, Dumbass, you gotta focus!" I must have taken the two pieces out and then put them back in the exact same way. Taking a deep breath and focusing with all my might, I removed the two pieces again, made sure to flip them correctly, placing them back into the pump and screwing it closed. Again, it would not fit. Removing it from the valve stem, I prayed that it was just cold. There was no way I could have messed this up. It would not go on. I snapped. "God DA#%, SONOFA#&@TH, WHAT THE #@%& IS GOING ON?!?!" I screamed into the dark, frigid air. There was more expletives in the barrage than I care for my mother to read here so use your imagination. This was the simplest of tasks, I thought, now nearly out of my mind. Remembering something I had read years before about Everest I did my best to calm myself. The quote was in reply to a question as to what killed most people on Everest and the reply was "panic". This was not the place to lose it. The problem was not the pump, it had no reason to fight me. My fingers remaining attached to my hands for the remainder of my life were of no concern to it. Focusing with the thought that "this is it, this is your last chance" I breathed deeply in an attempt to laser my focus. Mother natures ice cold tentacles were finding their way into me. Soon she would have me firmly in her grasp. Screwing the top of the hand pump back on I said a quick prayer before attempting to reattach it to the valve stem. If this failed, I'd have to start walking and was unsure if that would be enough to warm me. It's doubtful anyone has ever been forced into their sleeping bag 6 miles from the finish at Tuscobia. I hoped not to be the first.

It went on. I pumped for all I was worth, not so much in an effort to get back in the race as to warm up my nearly shivering body. Hand pumping a completely flat fat tire is no treat. I welcomed it. Switching hands when they grew tired, the activity was working not only to better the tire condition but I could feel my core warming. Optimism is a good thing. There was reason to believe the finish was once again near. The tire was not fully inflated but it was close enough to get me home I figured. The pump was stuck. I could not get it off the valve. Cursing ensued....loudly. If not careful, I could pull the valve stem completely out with the pump. When the pump finally disengaged, valve stem intact, I packed up, threw my leg over the saddle, and got the hell out of there. I was done with this place. It felt like a prison break. There was nothing to see looking back over my shoulder but it sure seemed like I was riding for my life.

It was clear within a couple of minutes that the bead on the tire had not sealed completely and I was losing air fast. If you have ever seen a tractor pull this was almost identical. With each stroke of the pedal it was as if the weight behind me got closer and closer. Eventually, standing on the pedals, pulling on the handlebars in an attempt to get every watt of power out of my legs, the bike just stopped. I was still 4 miles away. I could see the lights of Rice Lake, which only added to the cruelty.

I had turned the cell phone on, just in case this became a real emergency, which it was certainly close to. Text messages between those back home and Chuck (who was forced out of the run due to back problems) let me know that Chuck was waiting in the finish area, wondering where in the world I was and why I wasn't finished yet. Fortunately, with cell service, I was able to reach him and share with him what was going on. He was kind enough to share with the folks back home that I was all right. He'd had enough waiting and let me know he was on his way out. The 1965 western he was watching back at the finish couldn't compare with the real life drama taking place just a few miles down the road.

There would be no more chances taken. I  pumped that tire as full as possible, daring it to pop. Rage was my new found fuel. Desperation was the kindling. Less than 4 miles were left between me and the finish. The trail intersected the road 3 or 4 times in this last section. "3 one mile repeats", I told myself. I took off with all I had. Chuck raced ahead and I could see his headlights eventually turn in front of me. Blazing past him, tire still holding, I screamed like a schoolboy on his first carnival ride, his phone camera flashing in an attempt to capture the moment. 2 stops later, Chuck again waiting, I was convinced I had made it. Nearly falling off the bike, I realized I was not yet there.  "I can't do it bro, I can't go any further". Completely, physically and mentally bankrupt, the summit in my view seemed unattainable. Chuck offered encouragement and with one last deep breath I mounted the old horse for what I hoped would be the last time.

The blinky light at the end of the trail confused me at first. There was no way a bike could be in front of me. Had I miscalculated yet again? Would there be another mile, maybe two? My mind raced in desperation before realizing the red blinking light was not moving. The building lights just to the right confirmed my hopes. That small $2.99 red blinky light marked the end of the trail. I slowed as I neared it, Chuck howling that I had done it and laughed as I shakily came to a stop..."Dude, don't stop, not here, just across the street to the building!!"

Straddling the bike, I leaned over, hugging him. "You did it man..."Fu@#ing epic!!" He exclaimed. The building and the "official" finish could wait. Straddling the bike, hoping not to fall, I leaned over. "I love you bro. Thanks for being here. Let's go get warm."


This concludes "Losing My Mind 6 Miles From Home...The Tuscobia 158".

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Until next Blog,
Dream Big Dream
Steve Cannon
Author - "40 Days - Life, Love, Loss and a Historic Run Around One of the World's Largest Lakes"

Thursday, February 25, 2016

LOSING MY MIND 6 MILES FROM HOME - THE TUSCOBIA 158 (part 2 of 3)

PART II

The previous year at Tuscobia, my first attempt at any race on a fat bike, temperatures before the race were nice and cozy, somewhere around freezing. Biking the mile or so from the hotel to the trail head, the pre-ride skies were a perfect crystal blue. Winter had not yet provided any real opportunities to ride in the snow back home. It was super exciting taking the fully loaded Salsa Mukluk out onto the Tuscobia trail to test her out. Less than twenty pedal strokes down the trail, I was on my ass. The bike just disappeared underneath me. Hopping up quickly I looked around hoping no one had seen 'the rookie" dump it. "Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again", the song goes. Swinging my leg back over the saddle, I was sure it was just a minor issue. "Probably just need to get a feel for the old girl," I thought. Fifteen pedal strokes.....BAM, on my ass again. I was literally getting a "crash" course in fat bike tire pressure. Looking down the seemingly endless trail, it was not lost on me that I had come to this place to attempt 150 miles and had not yet made it 150 feet. This was not a good start. I let what seemed like half the tire pressure out of both wheels before attempting to remount my bucking bronc. Had this been a rodeo, I was still in search of my first 8 second ride. It helped, but  the bike still needed all the 6 foot wide trail to stay upright and had you been watching, I'm sure it seemed more like I was wrestling the bike versus riding it. Had a snowmobile been coming the other direction, it would have been a coin toss as to whether or not it would have turned me and the rig into a hood ornament. Thank goodness for Joe Stiller. I try to give this guy his props as often as possible. Out of the goodness of his heart he had shared with me the gear and clothing tips needed for this type of racing. He vouched for me to the Scotch's (Helen and Chris. Race directors), asking only that I don't make a fool out of him. He had been out with his lovely wife Tina and found me on their return trip back to the trail head. They were not wobbling all over the damn place. "Keep letting air out till you stop sliding all over, then your good." And with that he reached down and seemingly emptied my tires of air. We shared some words, some hugs, took some pics, he and Tina wished me luck and off they went. Continuing on, the bike was much more stable. I wouldn't say it was rock solid underneath me, but I was able to get my first 8 second ride in and then some. By the time the pre ride was over I had covered 5 miles. It took just over an hour. I was tired. Humbled would not do justice to how I felt going to bed that night. Scared sh*tless would be a better description. Trail conditions were better the next morning by comparison. The temperatures had dropped to -7F which hardened the trail a bit. I had never ridden a bike in those temperatures. My clothing set up was spot on and after the first hour I'd made it 8 miles. The day would warm quickly and the trail deteriorated with each uptick in the thermometer. I'd come to find out that warm temperatures are no friend to the winter endurance racer. 24 hours later, at about 6 am, making no stops other than to refuel at the checkpoints, I finished the Tuscobia 150. I was hooked!



This year's version of Tuscobia was the exact opposite. Pre-ride temperatures were at or slightly above freezing and again, that makes the trail crap!! From the moment the gun went off, sending us on our way at 6 am into the darkness, it grew colder and colder with each passing hour. Those unfamiliar with winter ultras would see this as a bad thing. Most, if not all of us racing, welcome it. Leaving the halfway checkpoint in Park Falls, I remembered making this same ride, on this exact same road as we started the race the year prior. I had been so apprehensive, even scared of what lay in wait. Not now. Now, I was fully fueled, 79 miles to go and although always respectful of the race and Mother Nature, this was not just an attempt to finish. The first half of the race had gone nearly exactly to plan. No longer was I riding a bucking bronc. My horse was firmly set underneath me. To the outsider watching it was a guy on a bike, separate. That is not the case however. I imagine the bike living, that we are in this deal together. "I give you my best, you give me your best." More than once, on rides when my tank gets low and times get dark, I tell the bike, no, I ask the bike for a little help. Sounds a bit out there, but this stuff is a real mental challenge and those who do it will tell you they have spoken to their bike, their sled and even the occasional tree that appears to be "old uncle Fred" who died years ago. Hallucinations are common place in this world.

It was difficult to remain patient. I've always been fortunate that I am able to eat ALOT and usually continue on in races without incident. Training and racing had taught me that the engine would process the new fuel quickly and that the muscles would warm to the task ahead quickly. Darkness would soon be upon the race. It was certainly at or below zero by now. It was of no consequence. All parts of the body, toes to the tip of my nose were good. Within a half hour, all systems are firing perfectly. My jacket, vest and under layer all unzipped, letting the northern air in to keep my body temperature regulated. The trail was getting harder and harder, faster and faster. Turning my headlamp on I laughed thinking if I went much faster I might actually out pedal my light. Full of gratitude, I thanked the trail god's for the blessing. This was why I come to these places, these exact moments. I was not riding ON the trail, I was riding WITH the trail. Me, Bike, Trail, all one. Grinning ear to ear, I was FREE. Not a soul on earth knew my whereabouts. I was only known to the trees that cheered my passing or to the deer or the wolf that called this place home. There was no fast or slow, cold or hot. It was 35 miles or so to cover the distance between the halfway checkpoint in Park Falls to the stone building in the park outside of Ojibwa.

(picture taken on a slightly warmer day)



Ojibwa was the only checkpoint on the way back to the finish in Rice Lake. Once you left there, it was 40 miles home. I took stock of where I was exiting the trail. Outside the old stone building were a bunch of runner sleds and a handful of bikes. Swinging open the giant old wooden doors revealed part mess hall, part M.A.S.H. unit.



"Number 18 In!!' I let the volunteer know. It would be impossible to fully describe the environment, due to all that was going on and also because I wasn't there to hang out. A fire raged in the huge stone fireplace. Crock pots full of soup lined the walls. This was a dangerous place. The kind of place that could convince the wary adventurer to relax, warm up and stay awhile. Checkpoints are an evil temptress, so beautiful and inviting. Overstay your welcome and she's got you. Some folks were sleeping in the corners, perhaps not sleeping as much as passed out. Others were attending to their feet or attempting to dry out some clothes or get on different/more clothes before venturing back out. The volunteers were magnificent, offering to help in any way you needed. If you were looking for a soft place to fall, this was it, but beware, you might not get back up. "Number 18 Out!!" 12 Minutes I stayed. Only the eventual race winner, Ryan Atkins, was in and out quicker. I had no idea as to my place in the race and didn't care. I was functioning at or near my best. I'd been on the bike 14 hours and 40 minutes.

The 40 remaining miles included a small town, Birchwood. The year prior Birchwood was a checkpoint on the way out. It was 25 miles down the trail to get there I figured. If in trouble, food, fluids or otherwise, it could provide some sanctuary. Looking back, it would be interesting to see what actually happened to the weather that night, when the cold REALLY hit. It felt like it started sometime very soon after leaving Ojibwa. There are some that would argue it happened much earlier. Certainly below zero is cold, but it was now at or headed to double digit below zero temps and things were starting to happen to me and my trusty steed that I had never before experienced.

Have you ever asked yourself why you don't see many mountain climbers or arctic explorers with big beards? Because as you sweat or the moisture from your breath reaches your chosen method of face protection, they freeze to each other. Eating and drinking was becoming a real challenge. The mask and the hair on my face were frozen solid to each other. To drink or eat, I would have to pull down on the face mask, which did not want to move at all, just to get anything into my mouth. Find an area on your body where you have some hair and give it a very, very slow pull until you fear the hair is going to rip out of the skin. How did that feel? The big, tough guy beard I had been growing all fall and winter was slowly forming a nearly impenetrable ice shield to my mouth.



It seemed that the trail had a bit of a grade to it soon after Ojibwa as well. My pace was slowing. Shifting the bike to compensate for the perceived slight grade, the gears would not hold. Each time the trail would get a bit easier, I'd up shift and then would be unable to shift down again when needed. My bike was freezing underneath me. In this kind of cold, any moisture or wax on the cables will freeze. It would seem that neither man nor bike were built to handle this. This was graduate studies in winter racing. I'd later hear that Race Director Chris Scotch told one of the racers that wind chills were near -40F. I don't know if that's true, but I do know the real temperature was at or near -15F.

The darkness, the never ending trail to nowhere and the seemingly slower trail conditions were starting to take a toll on me. Thoughts of doubt began to creep in. The "bad people" were paying me a visit. I don't like the "bad people". They remind me how dark it is, how psychologically painful the incessant stream of  lightly falling snowflakes in my headlamp are. "Your bike is failing. Your brakes are freezing shut. These are the kind of conditions that mame, or worse, kill people." The "bad people" are very dramatic and damn hard to shut up. I had hoped to blow right past Birchwood and attack the last 16 miles. Now I just begged for a sign of the small Wisconsin town. It had been pitch black for so long, without so much as a single bend in the trail. I fixed my gaze low to the ground. Occasionally my headlamp would catch an oncoming snowflake just right and I'd think perhaps it was a farmhouse or highway light only yo look up and realize it was nothing but my mind playing tricks. I was in the desert, able to think of nothing but water. It was light that I thirsted for though, any light would be a break from the total darkness that had my senses screaming for relief. This was Tuscobia at it's best...or it's worst.

Finally, a light. Then soon after a turn in the trail and another few lights. Birchwood was in sight. What an awesome relief. I couldn't wait to pull over at the first bar, score a Pepsi and just be out of the darkness. The temperature was probably -10F by now but it was the darkness that I longed to be free of, not Mother Nature's icy cold grasp. The looks one gets hopping off a bicycle at 11Pm, walking into a bar, face frozen are, as you can imagine, priceless. They had been prepped for my arrival however by another cyclist not far ahead who had stopped in for a soda and some pizza. I benefited from his leftovers and was quickly back on the trail.

Things seemed a bit amiss as I got back on my way. Realizing I was not yet to Birchwood was a very real punch in the gut. I was most certainly going slower and the legs, so strong just hours before were struggling to keep the pace my mind believed capable. "I should have been to Birchwood by now" I thought. Back into the darkness, with less gears at my disposal than just an hour ago, the sufferfest was beginning. I didn't feel low on calories. I was still peeing from time to time. "Why can't I make this bike go?!?!?!".

Birchwood was no longer a place to blow through and attack to the finish. It was now as much a goal as the finish line. I needed Birchwood and all it could provide. Shelter, food, drink, you name it, I was longing for it. Race mode was turning into survival mode. The legs were leaving me and with them, my attitude."

This concludes part 2 of 3 - "Losing my mind 6 miles from home and the Tuscobia 158"

If you have enjoyed this, follow the blog and check out previous stories/adventures here also.

Thanks for stopping by,
"Dream Big Dreams"
Steve Cannon
Author - 40 Days - Life, Love, Loss and a Historic Run Around One of the World's Largest Lakes








Tuesday, February 23, 2016

LOSING MY MIND 6 MILES FROM HOME - THE 2016 TUSCOBIA 158 (part 1 of 2)

WARNING PARENTAL DISCRETION ADVISED (FIRST PARAGRAPH ONLY)...

"God Da*^mn it, Son of a bi#$h, What the &%*^ is going on?!?! Why won't this #%*#ing thing work?!?!?!" "F^%#!!! F^%# F*^#!!!!" I raged at my dilemma, alone in the most frigid temperatures I had ever encountered. If I didn't get moving quickly, there was going to be REAL trouble.

70 miles earlier I sat in the halfway checkpoint, refueling as fast as possible for the return trip to Rice Lake, Minnesota.



The legs felt great, temperatures were falling fast and my spirits were high.(The energy bar frozen in  my beard nearly took a minor surgery to remove after finishing). I was here to race, to push myself to the absolute of my abilities. I'd been on the bike for 10 hours,  now in the place where body and mind are fully aware of what is going on, unified in the single minded pursuit. Day to day, minute to minute trivial ramblings of the mind, emails, twitter, text messages, all static, now gone. Everything was very simple now. Stay warm, but not too warm. Sweating can be deadly in these conditions. Keep the food and fluid intake consistent. I wouldn't necessarily categorize it as survival mode, although it can become that. This place, this race will show you exactly who you are. It will strip you down physically, mentally, even spiritually. If you are able to hang on, to push through, it will also provide you with a deeper connection to all that is real and an expanded version of what you believe possible. The thermometer was  headed toward an overnight low of somewhere around 15 below, with the wind picking up a bit, chills could dip to -40 F.

This was my second go at Tuscobia. One year prior I had come to this place with only one goal, to finish my first winter fat bike event. A 150 mile Alaska ITI qualifier seemed like the perfect place to do so, right? Understand, one cannot just pay the entry fee money and show up to run, bike or ski the Tuscobia 150. I only got in based on a decent warm weather ultra resume, but more so because a race veteran and now great friend (Joe Stiller) vouched for me. No one has ever died on this race, but visits to the trauma burn unit to save toes or other extremities are a real possibility. There are no aid stations waiting for the athletes every 2 miles, or 10 miles......or 20 miles. The race directors are not so much concerned with your ability to finish as they are your ability to survive on the trail overnight if things go haywire. The required gear list is extensive and you either pull it behind you on a sled if you are running or in my case, load it onto the bike.



150 mile racers must carry a -20 degree (minimum) sleeping bag, a stove to heat water or create it by melting snow. 3000 calories (typically in the form of a large jar of peanut butter) must be on board at all times. We are instructed  to "figure it out" if we are unable to continue on. No one is coming to your immediate rescue here. There are few problems that rest, water or food can't solve. Race director's, and damn strong racers also, Helen and Chris Scotch,  tell us in the pre-race meeting, "get off the trail, so you don't get run over by a snowmobile, get your sleeping bag and bivy out, grab some calories and water, a few zzz's and continue on." We are given 48 - 60 hours to finish, depending on the method of forward propulsion. The majority of DNF's at these events come from mental exhaustion, not physical. It has been said that "cold, tired and hungry makes cowards of us all."

Tuscobia provides a very unique mental test. Imagine pedaling, running or skiing down a never ending tunnel where the view never changes. Close your eyes and go to that place. Imagine yourself, looking up hour after hour, minute after minute, step after grueling step only to see the exact same view in front of you. This race is a never ending effort to nowhere, a real life Chinese water torture. Each time you look up from the trail, beyond your conscious perception, a bit of your spirit is taken away, until eventually it breaks the will to continue. Once darkness falls, the sensory deprivation multiplies exponentially. The first 10 hours or so one can at least enjoy the beautiful trees lining the trail, the contrast of colors from the white of the snow, to the green of the pines, to the occasional sliver of blue sky and sun.The view rarely changes, but at least it's a view. Now, darkness is your only companion. Go to the nearest closet in your home, step into it, turn off the light, close the door, hop on the bike trainer or run in place for 8 hours. That is an evening at the Tuscobia 150.

Riding the last 10 miles or so into the checkpoint I played a fun game of "count the leaders". The previous year I was probably 50-60 miles into my journey when the first biker passed me going the other way. I was in awe. This dude was like 30 miles or more ahead of me. "Damn, that is awesome!!" I thought. It would be another 30 minutes or so until I'd see another bike coming my way. I'd met Jay Petervary the night before at McDonalds. I've since found out, he too enjoys the more than occasional ice cream cone, winter or not. They must have given him the "secret sauce" ice cream. He went on to win in record time. My ice cream, delicious as it was, had a slightly less superhuman effect. I finished in 24 hours, maybe 9 hours after Jay. It's great watching some of these cats throw down and sharing the trail with them. They are quick to share what they have learned through the years and inspire me to get better, faster.

Each mile that ticked by that I didn't see the leader coming back at me was encouraging. These races are such a mental challenge. I'd suggest that is where most underestimate the difficulty. Everyone who shows up has the physical ability to get to the finish line. As your attitude goes, you go. The ability to stay positive in all conditions is the most valuable skill one can possess. The bike leader came back my way just 10 miles or so from the halfway. I spent the remaining miles counting riders. 2...3.....4.....5....6....7....And there it was, the end of the trail. I recognized it, as last year it was the finish. The race was being done in reverse this year. I'd spend just enough time in the school Park Falls gymnasium, where the checkpoint and turnaround was, to get some soup and me and top off the water bottles before getting out of there. There were no delusions of catching the leaders but I had plenty left in the tank and was eager to take up the chase. Rolling away from the checkpoint I noticed a bike floor pump near the back door and a fleeting thought to check my tire pressure disappeared just as quickly as it came. The chase was on.


This concludes Part 1 of 2 - Losing My Mind 6 Miles From Home - The Tuscobia 158

If you have enjoyed this, "subscribe to/follow" the Expand Your Possible Blog and check out the previous stories from this year's Arrowhead 135 and Actif Epica.

"Dream Big Dreams"

Steve Cannon
Author - 40 Days - " Life, Love, Loss and a Historic Run Around One of the World's Largest Lakes"




Thursday, February 18, 2016

Actif Epica and The Order of the Hrimthurs (Part 2 of 2)

"From the northern land of cold, ice and darkness come Hrimthurs (Old Norse “rime thurs”); a tribe of powerful Frost Giants. Strength, cunning and resilience are the way of the mighty Hrimthurs.
Among us today, the spirit of the Frost Giants lives on. Midwestern winter ultra racers show perseverance and power of a legendary scale. On those who complete the Tuscobia Winter Ultra, Arrowhead Ultra 135 and Actif Epica in one season, we will confer The Order of the Hrimthurs.
The names in the Order will pass into the realm of legends, a process acknowledged with a special ceremony and award. Membership in this small but powerful tribe is a lifetime honour bestowed on incredibly few." - (From www.theorderofthehrimthurs.com)

I had stumbled upon "The Order" a couple years earlier, reading "300 Mile Man" by Phillip Gary Smith.  Weeks earlier I had completed my first winter ultra at Tuscobia and had won the book. Remember earlier, that bit about how your destiny can find you? Tuscobia had taken me 24 hours on my fat bike and the thought of taking on Arrowhead 135 two weeks later and Actif Epica two weeks after that seemed insane. It was my plan to finish all of them, one year at a time. So, with that plan in mind I took the leap and signed up for Arrowhead this year, hoping to finish a race that is legendary for it's toughness. I was certain it would be the toughest single day test I had ever put in front of me and indeed it was. Month's earlier, good friend Chuck Fritz let me know he was going to head back to Tuscobia after failing to complete it in 2012 on his feet. Asking if I wanted to come along, I agreed.  Actif Epica was not even a consideration. Helen and Chris Scotch put on a great race and joining my great friend Chuck just seemed like a fun thing to do. Funny how the universe works. I was oblivious to the devious dealings my destiny was involved in. The Order of The Hrimthurs lay in wait.

Chuck and I sat in the Rice Lake Italian restaurant, minding our own business when the Scotch clan came crashing in on us. If you see them coming your way and are not wanting to get talked into the next BIG adventure, run like hell. "Your signed up for Arrowhead?" Mark Scotch asked, overhearing Chuck and I chatting. I can't be sure which of them said it first..."You gotta do Actif then. You gotta go for The Order of The Hrimthurs." The rest of the conversation was a blur. "S#*T, they're right", I thought to myself. If I could make it through Arrowhead, I had to give it a shot. The deceptive gods of destiny had done it. They had hidden in the shadows, putting "coincidence" after coincidence in front of me before revealing their true intention. 

Paul and I arrived at the "fish shack" after a 2.5 mile stretch into the wind that I am not skilled enough with words to describe. Darkness was upon us, temperatures were rapidly falling and the wind had found renewed strength. I started in on the bag of chips, Paul on the cold pizza slice.It was a full on feeding frenzy. Moments earlier, fully in the battle there was no thought of hunger. Now, at this "oasis" in the arctic, our bodies screamed for food and fluids. I handed the water bottle, filled with warm water to Paul. He chugged half of the 24 ounces, handed it back to me, I killed it and asked the kind men to "fill 'er again". I have no idea how they understood me as I made the request with a mouthful of chips, pizza and chocolates. Some stayed in my mouth, some did not. Paul and I knocked off two more water bottles before stopping, fearing we would both puke. We were both down to the most primal version of ourselves. I can only imagine what the two locals who had stopped by to investigate must have thought. Their questions of what, where, how far, and why all remained unanswered as we attacked the provisions laid before us. We apologized for our lack of decency and departed just minutes after arriving. It doesn't get any more basic than these moments. Eat, Drink, Move. 20 miles to go. It seemed we were home free. Paul was a strong rider and was on his third Actif. He knew the course by memory it seemed.

The ice tossed the bike right out from under me. Landing awkwardly, I jumped up quickly, in a bit of a panic. A loud noise came from the back wheel as I tried to get back on the bike. The cold, the effort of the day, the jolt of the crash all made detecting the source of the noise difficult. I try to slow down in these moments, rushing just magnifies the problem. Paul's blinky was drifting off into the darkness, unaware of my demise. I'd fallen onto my back derailleur somehow and bent it into the spokes. In my haste I grabbed it, jerking it out of the spokes. Luckily, I didn't snap the damn thing off.Back on the bike, I saw Paul's headlight headed back my way. Quality dude. He didn't have to do that. There is a brother/sisterhood out here though. We all know what's at stake. With each event like this I do, I fall more in love with these people. They are the toughest of the tough, and the kindest of the kind. The God's of the North had just reminded me, that here, in this place, at every turn, danger lurks. 

Entering the city limits of Winnipeg was a huge relief. The building and homes provided relief from the wind and if the forecasted snow storm were to hit, we would be safe from the visibility issues those still out in the open would face. Among them, my friend Chuck  who had accompanied me here to attempt the 125 km run course.  All who come to this race are to be commended, those that do so on foot are on course for as long as 25 hours. (Chuck would tame the beast with just 16 minutes to spare. It was one of the coolest things I have ever witnessed.)



Paul led the way off the bridge and down onto the frozen river. We had made our final turn. The river was divided into two trails, one for skaters, one for bikers, walker, and runners. A very light snow began to fall as Paul and I made our way to the finish. The Winnipeg skyline was now in view. I recognized a couple of the unique structures near our hotel and realized the finish was now a certainty. To our left, skaters gracefully approached, some holding hands, enjoying a romantic evening, others passing a hockey puck between teammates. This was the best of what winter offers. Paul was just a few bike lengths in front of me. We had not exchanged any words since dropping onto the river. Finishing an event like The Actif Epica, The Arrowhead 135 or The Tuscobia 150 change you. It is a very private moment, a time for reflection. I thought of relatives no longer here. I thanked them for never giving up on me when there was no reason to believe. I hoped they could see what i was seeing, feel what I was feeling. It was their finish as much as it was mine. I thought of all the friends back home. So many times the past 5 weeks, I had reached through my SPOT tracker, asking for their help, knowing they watched on the other end. They were my strength when I had none left.

There are no big crowds welcoming you home at these races. There are no big cash payouts. If you are really fast, you may race on a free bike pimped out with the best gear or perhaps, like me, your local bike shop gives you a nice discount because you are in there all the time getting your bike fixed. No money, no big crowds, no bright lights. No, this is for something so much more. These races offer you the chance to find yourself, the very best of yourself. They peel away layer after layer of BS until you stand bare before the challenge. If you can find the will to push, pedal, ski, run or even crawl into the unknown, the ultimate prize awaits. 


Paul and I shared a picture and a hug. There were maybe ten people in the finishing area. Sitting alone with my thoughts, someone tapped me on the shoulder. A bit startled, I quickly looked up. "Welcome to the Order", the gentleman said. He smiled, shook my hand, turned and walked slowly away.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Actif Epica and The Order of The Hrimthurs (Part 1 of 2)

It has been said that some create their destiny. For others, it seems, their destiny finds them, regardless of how many times they veer far from the path. It has certainly been the latter for me. Many times I have read about the great adventurers and how as a child they were mesmerized by the adventures of Ernest ShackletonAmelia Earhart or Hillary (not Clinton, the mountain climbing one). They knew, after reading the stories and being mesmerized by the pictures, that they would , like their new found adventuring heroes, lead a life filled with adventure and exploration.
If indeed our destiny calls to us from somewhere beyond our perception, I was very adept at ignoring it. Looking back, there were a few signs. Uncle Bill was a retired WWII fighter pilot and I would sit at his feet for hours listening to his dog fight stories. Eventually shot down, he would share tales about prisoner of war camps in a far off country and his eventual liberation by General Patton. He never claimed the journeys to be his own, but rather those of "Big Jerry". Maybe it made the stories a bit easier for him to tell using a different character name.

Growing up in the city, I was always curious as my Uncle Bob would head out long before sunrise, occasionally returning with a deer that had fallen to his homemade longbow. He would speak of sunrises, the sound of the forest and the almost magical quality the outdoors would provide. His library was full of books about great hunters and the big game they pursued in far away places. During the summer of my 12th birthday, Uncle Bob, for some reason invited this "punk kid" who he feared would never amount to much, to the boundary waters to join him and his sun for a week of hiking, canoeing and fishing. The crystal clear waters of the north, the violent tug of a northern pike on my line and the stories of the animals that called this place home, captivated me. It was the first adventure of my life.

Returning back to Iowa, the memories of the north faded fast and the "punk kid", still trying to reconcile his parents recent divorce, was back on the road to nowhere. There was no sense of destiny, no direction, nothing.  Fifteen years later, two drunk drivings and too many bad choices to recount, I found myself in an alcohol rehab center. This was the last Y in the road. Get clean or die. It was an incredibly tough journey to get back to square one. I had traveled hundreds of marathons from myself. The goal was simple, but to get there I had to remain focused on the moment. One Day, one hour, one step at a time. These lessons would later serve me well. What I couldn't know then and am just grasping now is that the seeds of adventure that lie within us all, once watered, never die. They may lay dormant, waiting for the light, but they never disappear. The second adventure of my life was underway. I had embarked on the never ending journey of self exploration.

The frozen landscape of The Actif Epica surrounded me and the 100 mile journey I was on provided ample time for random bouts of  joy, pain, doubt, exhilaration and reflection.


35 years ago my Uncle had brought me to the boundary waters of Canada, opening my eyes to the wild places and now, here I was racing my Specialized Fat Bike in the middle of what seemed an Arctic desert. I owe him and all that have helped encourage, inspire and educate me a huge debt of gratitude. It is one of the many beauties of these races. Seemingly everyone here has had someone or many some one's help them get here and because of that, are very willing to help all those who dare step into the unknown.

The Actif Epica is held each February, finishing in Winnipeg, Canada. Temperatures regularly drop well below zero and the wind howls across the frozen plains. Wind chills can be -30, -40 or even lower. Make a mistake in this race and frostbite, hypothermia or worse is a real possibility. Weeks earlier, at the Tuscobia 150 temperatures plummeted to -15. Two weeks later would be The Arrowhead 135. Many, planning to do the Arrowhead 135 were unable to do so. I know of two people who went to the hospital with frostbit eyes. Another racer spent three days in a burn trauma unit and will never be able to race in the cold again. Thankfully, he was able to keep all ten of his toes. No disrespect to ultras held in the spring, summer or fall, but make a mistake here and ten minutes later you may have lost feeling in your fingers, nose or ears...forever.

The starting pace was fast, but not unbearable. I made the decision to stay with the leaders as long as possible. Navigation was a real concern here and staying close to a local or two would help minimize the chance of getting lost. I can't be sure, but even armed with cue sheets and GPS, I'd bet you nearly every one stopped a few times to make sure they were still on track. The bank clock in St. Malo (the start town) read -25 as we bussed into town. The wind was out of the south,which would serve us well later in the race, but the first 20k or so we were going right into the teeth of it. -20, -30, -45, whatever the hell the windchill was, it was damn cold. Everything had to be covered. Everything. Goggles were a must. Eyes wouldn't last ten minutes exposed to these elements. What I love about these races is that one mistake, one oversight can end a race. The environment is SO harsh. The payoff is that if your systems are all as they should be, you get to play in the wildest of places. My goggles have never given me a bit of trouble, even in the -15 temperatures at Tuscobia. Yet, with each passing mile, they were freezing, slowly reducing my field of view. Eventually, I couldn't see a thing. I'd stop, spit into the glasses, clear a small slit and pedal my ass off into the wind to get the back wheel of the leaders, just in time to stop and do it again, and again until the effort became too much and I was forced to ride on solo. Once the turnaround was made, maybe 15 miles or so into the race, with the brutal wind at my back, I could get rid of the goggles. The first checkpoint was back at the hockey arena where we started. Once inside, investigating the goggles, I realized the magnetic lens was not completely popped in. The small slit along the top had allowed the freezing wind to find its way into the goggles and freeze them from the inside out. Like I said, one mistake, one small oversight in these races can end you. I left check point one all systems go. The dilemma had cost me many places in the race but I was here for more than just an attempt a high placing...

This concludes part 1 of  2 - "Actif Epica and The Order of The Hrimthurs". I hope you enjoyed it and will follow the blog.

Tomorrow night - Part Two of "Actif Epica and The Order of The Hrimthurs."

Thank you for reading.

Dream Big Dreams,
Steve Cannon
www.expandyourpossible.com






Tuesday, February 9, 2016

COWARDS WON'T SHOW AND THE WEAK SHALL PERISH

Jeff Rock's 2016 Arrowhead 135 Recap......

I just want to take a minute to thank all my friends and family. Your well wishes kept me going long after I probably should have pulled the plug. Upon leaving check point 2 (mile75) I was unable to hold down food or drink. That started a LONG downward spiral which ultimately lead to my demise. Considering I wanted to quit long before mile 75, making it to mile 105 or so was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life.
Being unable to fuel the furnace is not a good combination when you need to continue to expend energy. Then throw in dropping temps it starts to get a little dangerous. At mile 98 after throwing up all day I tried to wait it out and see if I could somehow recover a bit. I crawled into my bivy and slept for about an hour. (I use the term slept loosely!) I may have fallen asleep very briefly only to be woken by uncontrollable coughing that turned into puking. Fun huh?! I had no choice but pack back up and to push on. Finally at 3 am my race was over. I took the ride of shame the last 4.5 miles to the final check point. 104 miles pulling 42lbs feels like failure. In reality I know I gave it my all.
My pride is a bit wounded, but I will survive.



The Arrowhead 135 is listed as one of  "The World's Toughest Endurance Challenges". Jeff Rock, although unable to finish, won.

 I do not know Daryl Saari, but it would be an honor to meet the man. The Arrowhead 135 offers no safe haven. It is 35 miles or so between checkpoints. One way or another, the race is always brutal. Temperatures can dip to -40 and if race day temp's are in the teens or low twenties, you get fresh and or soft snow which offers it's own unique challenges. If things go sideways you are instructed to figure it out, press on or turn back. Race director Ken Krueger makes it clear. If it's not a medical emergency, we are not coming to get you. The race t-shirt says all you need to know. ARROWHEAD 135 STRENGTH/ENDURANCE/SOLITUDE/SURVIVAL "COWARDS WON'T SHOW AND THE WEAK SHALL PERISH" Daryl Saari pulled his 40 plus pound sled for all 135 miles, crossing the finish line in 60 Hours and 13 Minutes. To be awarded an official finish, racers must finish in 60 Hours. He missed his mark by a mere 780 seconds. A DNF? Nope, just a "Did Not Finish In Time."

The toughest of the tough however, goes to female fat bike racer Sveta Vold. Imagine taking on a race of this magnitude just two months after having a baby. The Arrowhead takes even the fastest of bikers nearly 24 hours to complete. This presented a unique and I'm pretty sure, first of it's kind problem at The Arrowhead. Sveta had to figure out how, when and where she could either pump or breast feed her two month old. By races end, just over 31 hours without sleep, she had stopped 7 different times to take care of her "feeding" duties. Her entire story, was featured by "TODAY". Sveta finished third in the women's field. Simply AMAZING!




Ultra means many different things to many different people.To me, it simply means pushing beyond what you think you are capable. Do you have doubts that after all these years, that you can finish the local 5k? I'm here to tell you that you can. Whatever you believe may not be possible due to your particular situation, someone, somewhere, in the exact same situation is doing it. Jeff Rock, Daryl Saari and Sveta Vold are not super athletes, no more or less gifted than you or I and that is what makes their stories so beautiful, so inspiring, so REAL. They teach us that if there is a will, however cliche it may sound, there is a way. The 'winning' is in the effort. The winning is in being able to look yourself in the mirror and know that you gave it a go. It has been said that we have no obligation to be any better than anyone else, only to be better than we ever thought we could be. 

Here's to YOU in 2016!! 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Another Dream Come True

Sometimes, I don't even care what they are talking about. The voices of Iowa Public Radio and NPR are enough to keep my mind happy. They are all unique in some way. Just listening to them is a bit of an adventure in and of itself.

I spent much of my youth and early adult life lost. Bad decision after bad decision. Lucky for me, eventually the fog lifted and I saw a different way. Adventure became my addiction and anywhere I could go, watch or listen to get some, I would. Scanning the radio dial many many years ago, I stumbled on this great voice on this random station I had never tuned into before. The ladies name was Charity Nebbe and her voice grabbed me, so I removed my finger from the radio console and settled in. That was the start of my love for IPR/NPR.

I never liked the news. It always seemed filled with negativity and many times with an agenda. Iowa Public Radio/NPR was so much more. It was so broad and seemingly without agenda. The people interviewed  and the topics covered were so interesting. It was adventure by radio. I was hooked!!

A few weeks ago, I received an email from Lindsey Moon asking If I'd be interested in being on Talk of Iowa. Refraining from typing back "HELL YEAH!!" fearing that may be a bit unprofessional, I settled for a more subtle reply. "ABSOLUTELY!!!". Could this be any better??? Well, actually, yes it could. They decided to have me come into the Grand Avenue studios in Des Moines on Iowa caucus Monday. I'm no expert, and could be totally off base here, but on a day when the whole world was watching Iowa, this seemed like a pretty sweet day to be on the show.

At 10 am this past Monday, that captivating voice from years ago introduced "Steve Cannon from Mediapolis, Iowa" and welcomed me to the show. You can listen to the show in it's entirety here.

Thank you Lindsey Moon, Charity Nebbe and all the folks at IPR/NPR for all you do.