Tuesday, February 23, 2016



"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"


  1. So correct, the mental struggle is so much more difficult than the physical. For me, a 2 hour break let me reconsider + push to the finish line pulling a sled for 80 miles.