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