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Alone in the Woods

Follow the journey of a very ordinary Ultra runner doing extraordinary things

Actif Epica and The Order Of The Hrimthurs 

DISCLAIMER: Long and drawn out. These races are very personal. For some reason I have an insatiable desire to find out what I am truly capable of. I find it fascinating that things I once thought of as impossible are actually possible with enough hard work, stubbornness, and intestinal fortitude. Sharing these endeavors is very difficult for me for fear of being judged. I realize that I am not the best at putting pen to paper, but that fear is out weighed by my gratitude of those that have come before me. Not only have their reports played a huge role in my development, but they have also motivated me to dream big and go after those dreams. If I can play even just a small part in motivating just one person to go outside their comfort zone then it is worth it. My words cannot begin to explain how difficult this race was. Hard to believe warm conditions can make the shortest flattest race the most difficult of the 3, but it absolutely did.

It’s 3a.m. as the alarm sounds. I awake in not only a strange house, but a unfamiliar country. I’m in Canada for the first time, and it is very foreign to me. While some things are similar many are unfamiliar. My normal morning routine is off because we are house guests of a family we really don’t want to bother. Amazingly these folks so graciously opened their home to three of us on our quest to join the Order of the Hrimthurs. Mark Smith is also with us and this is going to be his first winter ultra. His in laws are from Winnipeg and are our hosts for the weekend.

By 4a.m. We make our way to the center of the city where the race will finish. There we stuff ourselves like sardines along with our gear on an old school bus. It’s a 2 hour ride to where we get dropped off to start the final leg of our journey. We arrived at starting point just before 6:30. I have yet to have my morning coffee. This makes me extremely nervous. When you start every day with coffee your body expects its morning dose of caffeine. Not to mention the other things morning coffee helps, but let’s just say that it can really throw a loop in the plan when you are about to venture out on a 100 mile journey by foot where the facilities are few and far between.


This is the first time the Actif Epica http://actifepi.ca/the-race/race-bible/ is offering a 162km or 100 mile option to their race. 16 of us brave souls gather outside a tiny community center in a town that can’t be any larger than a dot on a map. As the clock strikes 6:30 we are told we can go. We are already a half hour behind when we were supposed to start according to the race website, but as Ultrarunners most of us take great pride in being able to go with the flow and adapt to whatever difficulties come our way. This is a very minor one at best. The only worry would be that this could bring us dangerously close to the early cutoffs because as in most races the early ones can be tight.

This race is unlike most races as the course is not marked. This is new to most of us and it really throws a wrench into my plans. I had a GPS unit but I had absolutely no idea how to use it. The other option for navigating the course is to use cue cards and some sort of distance tracker. This is how I planned to go but this too seems to be troublesome because many of the turns are onto unmarked trails or roads. This wouldn’t be to bad if you only had a few turns, but our cues sheets contained 5 pages of turns.


I quickly changed my plans and hope to find someone going my pace with a GPS and team up with them. I had originally hoped I could team up with Paul since we had spent many miles together already at Arrowhead. The only problem was that I didn’t want to hold him back if he decided to go out fast. He’s a much faster runner than me. Mark is as well and from the get go I can see those two decided to work together and go out fast. Them and one other guy take off and open up a gap right away. Not thinking I could keep up I hang back near the front of the main pack still trying to come up with a good navigation partner.

I find myself with Chuck Fritz whom I’ve known for over a year. He’s also a former Marine and he actually did this race last year. I spent the weekend last year tracking his spot device during that race. So I knew he had what it takes to finish this. It was fun getting to hang out with him for a while as we have a lot in common. Soon we find ourselves heading off road onto the first of many untraveled trails. It’s already warming up nicely but this proves to be a huge problem as it makes the deep snow very slow going and arduous.


This is us the day before the race checking out the conditions of the first section of trail. I had heard people describe portions of this race with the term post holing, but it didn’t take long before I got to experience it first hand. Post holing is when the snow is deep and you basically sink up to your knees or even mid thigh with any given step. What makes matters worse is that with a crust on top of the snow you just never know when you would be able to stay on top or when you would break through and sink. I found myself doing two things, wishing I had brought my snowshoes, and trying to step lightly. Stepping lightly was only wishful thinking for a guy that normally tips the scales at over 200 lbs. Not to mention the fact I was carrying another 20 lbs of mandatory gear, food, and water on my back.

It wasn’t long before I was asking myself what the hell had I gotten myself into. Usually that takes 25 miles or so, but here it happened only after a few miles of post holing. Take a look at my face in one of the early sections of post holing. This was a look of concern to say the least.



At this point I was in 4th place with Chuck right behind me. After a couple more miles the pack closed what little gap Chuck and I had opened. This was a beautiful section of trail that followed a river bank. After an extremely difficult and long section of post holing we came back onto a dirt road. The road was a nice reprieve, but it only lastest a few minutes before we were back on a trail leading down to a swinging bridge that crossed the river. Before heading down the river bank a group of 8 or 9 of us gathered at the top where water and snacks had been left under a small canopy with a bench. Those that had snowshoes sat down to put them back on. The swinging bridge was very unique. Apparently it was made mostly from old tractor parts.


After climbing out from the river bottom we encountered more open fields and what seemed like miles more post holing. I was breaking trail, but soon a Stampede of snowshoe wearing runners in a conga line make their way around me. This makes it much easier for me as they laid down a decent track to follow. Finally we make it out to another section of road. Everyone wearing snowshoes had to stop to take them off.

Me, Erik, and Kari start to make our way onwards as the others securely stow their snowshoes. Hoping the worst sections are now behind us we spend a couple hours opening a gap as we make our way toward the first check point at mile 26.45. Upon arriving Kari is already getting word that we need to be in and out as we will be close to the cutoffs at the next aid station. At the first aid station I finally get to do my business after holding it all morning. Thus far my feet are wet but I didn’t have any hot spots so I decided to not change socks. I drank a can of Pepsi, had a couple snacks, and changed my headlamp batteries. I quickly filled my hydro blatter to just over 1 liter and I was ready to head out. So were Kari, Erik, Randy, and Danial. We all left together.

This next section is 17 miles so we won’t get to the next aid station until after dark. Kari, Erik, and myself are moving a little faster than Randy and Danial, but we all stay within sight of each other most of the afternoon. Eventually we start to real in Mark. As we pass him you could tell his feet were bothering him. He already had quite the hobble going on. After a couple hours we started to close the gap on Paul as well. Once I could see Paul up ahead I started to push pretty hard in an attempt to catch him. I couldn’t believe we were able to catch either one of them because I figured we wouldn’t see them again until the finish. As Paul made a turn into an open field I made one last really hard push to catch him. Somewhere near the middle of the field I finally caught him. Once we were together at about mile 35 we would stay together right up to the finish. We made a great team. It was getting late in the day and as a road section came to a (T) we could see the trail went straight ahead but unfortunately the trail also went straight through an enormous puddle with virtually no way to go around it. Paul lead the way sinking up to nearly his knee in the icy water. Seeing that he broke through in a really deep spot I took a slightly different line through and only got a little bit wet. After that I knew my feet were going to be in trouble. 60 more miles to go and with wet shoes. I was going to definitely need to change my socks at the next aid station.

Just after dark Paul and I made it into the Sugar Shack aid station. We hear Kari’s Mom ringing her cow bell before we see the aid station. The sound of that bell will bring us overwhelming joy more than once during our travels. The aid station had some phenomenal volunteers. They were all over us trying to help in any way possible. They even offered to dry my shoes and socks with a hair dryer. I laughed and said,”thank you, but I would never put someone through something like that.” However they did get to watch as I operated on my feet before I changed into dry socks. My right foot was in rough shape already from being wet. It had developed a huge blister on the ball on my foot. It took a while but I did get it to drain before lubing my feet up and putting on my only extra pair of socks. The kids working here were some sort of Cadets, probably in their late teens. They seem pretty fascinated by my rough looking feet. Paul and I had some split pea soup and a couple cups of coffee and soon Erik and Kari showed up.

As Paul and I took off Randy and Danial made their way to the Sugar Shack. The next section was about 10 miles. This section we were alone on the trail. Toward the end of this ten mile section was the only section of trail that was marked. I think it may have been a detour, but anyways it was really nice to have a marked trail. The trail was good too and it weaved its way through one of the few wooded areas up to what I believe was a hog farm. At the hog farm they had an amazing aid station set up. They welcomed us in and had quite the spread for us. It was almost midnight so the sleep monsters were upon us. I had 2 more cups of coffee, a bowl of soup, some BBQ spare ribs, and some cookies.


Again Erik and Kari were right behind us and came in as we were finishing up our coffee.

As we were about to leave we made the mistake of asking about cutoff times. This got us all in a panic as we were going to be cutting them awfully close. We weren’t even sure Randy and Danial would make it here in time as we were being told 12:30 was the cut off. With 10 minutes to spare the four of us were out the door together. Randy and Danial were coming in as we were leaving and virtually had to check in and check out. All six of us were now together as we had 12 miles to go to the next aid station in which we had to be there by 4:30. Working together we gained some ground. We spread out but stayed mostly within eyesight. At one point we all missed a turn into a park and had to back track a bit. We arrived at the Nivervill Arena well ahead of cut off. Here volunteers had Pierogies for us. I had never had a pierogie, but I was willing to try anything that was warm and contained the calories that I was desperately seeking. They were absolutely scrumptious. Apparently pierogies are a potato dumpling filled with cheese of some sort, but damn were they good. As we were about to head out a group of runners were brought in and we’re dropping or had been pulled from the race. Mile 65 and we were the only six left on the course other than the leader. All of us other than Erik were still on our quest to join the Order or the Hrimthurs. http://orderofthehrimthurs.com/ Now more than ever we were in this together. Each of us wanting this for the other almost more than we wanted it for ourselves.

We all left together just after 4 a.m. Now the cutoffs would no longer be hard cutoffs so we were able to put that stress behind us. As we spread out again Paul and I ran into a couple navigational problems. We made a right turn using my cue cards onto a dirt road that was clearly the right road according to the cue sheet. After a half mile or so Paul says,”we were supposed to go the other way.” We stop and I double check my cards. I assure him it’s right. However Paul’s GPS clearly says it’s the opposite direction as my cue sheet. Now this could have been bad and we could have just as easily parted ways because we both felt strongly about which way we needed to go. However we were in this together and if one of us was going to get lost we were both going to get lost. We went with Paul’s GPS, but that made us back track the 1/2 mile back to the intersection. After a few more turns we realize both ways would have got us to were we needed to go, but never the less we lost about 15 minutes and added a mile to the course. No big deal. Just a better value for our money. It didn’t take long and it happened again. This time the cue sheets brought us down a hwy heading into town. Paul realized his GPS was telling us we should have gone straight to what looked to be a paralleling frontage road. This time we chance it a stay the course instead of back tracking. Erik, Kari, and the others go the other way and follow their GPS. It wasn’t long and we were turning off the Hwy and climbing up onto a dike and back on GPS course. On top of the dike there wasn’t much snow but all the bikes and runners ahead of us had left tracks in what must have been slush. Now it was frozen, uneven, and very unforgiving. It felt as if we were running barefoot on a gigantic cheese grater. All of our feet were taking a beating from being wet so long. For me each step was excruciating. After a mile or so we made it to the Pharmacy aid station at mile 73.

It was nice to be in the company of these winter warriors. As we sat there we all knew we only had about a marathon left to go. The volunteers again took good care of us. I had a couple hash browns and some coffee.

One of the volunteers tried to explain that he would be sitting at the end of the spill way waiting for us. I had know idea what a spill way was but we were about to find out. We all left together again and it was a couple more miles on top of the gigantic cheese grater before we had a couple miles of roads. Finally the roads gave way to the vastness of the spill way. As far as the eye could see was open fields with a tractor path zigzagging its way across and towards the dike off in the horizon. As the sun came up the frozen ground gave way to what is known as Manitoba gumbo. A slippery almost impenetrable black mud that collect on your shoes as if being weighted down by cement. Every few steps you would have to try to knock it off he soles of your shoes.


Once again our groups had spread out just a bit. Finally after a few hours of this torture we were at the dike. This meant back into the deep snow, but the surface was still hard enough to mostly prevent post holing. We had about a mile of following tracks laid by the shorter race runners and bikers as we made our way along the dike. Near the end we heard that glorious cow bell. We high five them as we pass by. We aren’t allowed to use the bridge to cross the spill way but they do have a path marked to go under the bridge. Once we climb out of the spillway on the other side it seems as though we are on the outskirts of the city. We will only have road ways and sidewalks for most of the way to the finish. After the crap we had been through that was a welcome relief. Paul and I were making pretty good time. We could no longer see the other four behind us, but we knew they were still close. Some of the neighborhoods we go through along the river are really nice. It’s a nice change of scenery from the vast nothingness of the country side. As we make our way onto the U of M campus we can’t for the life of us remember what the building was called that we were looking for as the last aid station. My cue sheets had the wrong final aid station so we were at the mercy of the GPS. Before long we heard more cow bell which brought a smile to my face. Kari’s Mom told us we had a surprise waiting in the final aid station. As we walk in Mark is there waiting for us. Even though his race didn’t go as planned there he was to support us in our final push to the finish. Such an amazingly selfless act of Brotherhood.

We didn’t stay long as we were beginning to smell the hay in the barn. As we were heading out Kari and Erik were just arriving. As we get outside Randy and Danial are also arriving. All that is left is a 6 mile section of mostly sidewalk and then 3 miles of riverside trails. As we cross a bridge Mark is there to direct us through a park. Paul and I start to pick up the pace. We are ready to be done. Normally we would finish the last section on the river, but because of the warm weather the city closed the river ice trails for safety. A race official was at the other end of the park to guide us to the final trail since it was a last minute change.  As we got close I texted Scott (who ran the shorter race) so he would know we were getting close. As Paul and I climbed up from the river trail into the Forks court yard it was almost fitting that a band was playing. With a huge smile we see Scottie waiting for us. Finally with much relief we cross the finish line side by side. We made it. We were about to enter the realm of legends and the Order of the Hrimthurs.

The rest of the crew was not far behind.


Every one of us that went to Actif Epica in search of the Order made it. I find that remarkable and a testament to the toughness of the people that make it this far on this quest. This is a bond we will share forever. I am honored to call these folks my friends.

DREAM BIG THERE ARE NO LIMITS!

2017 Arrowhead 135 – A Journey to remember

“From struggle comes strength.” 

I’ve been blessed with parents who brought me up to believe that through hard work and determination that anything is possible. There is nothing special about my abilities as a runner, but nobody is going to set limits on what I can accomplish. All my life I’ve tried to learn from everyone I’ve come into contact with. In recent years some of those people are very, very, special. By surrounding myself with positive like minded people and distancing myself from negativity my life has improved exponentially.

2016 taught me many lessons in struggle. I failed at Arrowhead 105 miles in. I had three experimental procedures on my knee one month later which had me on crutches, struggling to even walk, and questioning whether or not I would ever be able to even run again. I was pulled from the Superior 100 for missing the final cut off by 6 minutes, but that is when the magic started to happen. You see I thought I was done at Temperance (mile 75), but this amazing group of people,(trail people) whom I had never met, gathered around me and got me moving again after I thought I had nothing left. I spent the next few hours on the trail with certain young lady that was able to get an effort out of me that I didn’t even know existed. Though I failed it set me on a path to what is quickly becoming an almost unbelievable 2017.

On January 6th I completed the longest race of my life and somehow ended up in 2nd place at the finish. See Tuscobia report here: The 2017 Tuscobia 160 Mile Winter Ultra   Now this past week I completed the Arrowhead135. This is all in hopes of completing The Order Of The Hrimthurs. The Order is a Grand Slam of sorts that includes 3 Winter Ultras within 6 weeks. Something only 3 people have ever completed on foot. This year in fact will be the first year that the final race of the 3 has offered a 162k option. So actually nobody as ever completed that as of yet. There will be 4 to possibly 7 of us going up next week to give it a go. Find more details here: http://orderofthehrimthurs.com/

The Arrowhead 135 has a special place in my heart. I love everything about this race. This would be my 4th attempt. The 1st year brought failure at -50 degrees as I had no idea what I was doing and my gear was grossly inadequate for those temps. Wisely I called it quits at mile 36 as I was severely dehydrated and hypothermic. Year 2, having learned many lessons from my DNF, I was able to get my first finish. The 3rd year I made it 105 miles but made a crucial fueling mistake that left me again severely dehydrated and throwing up for almost 12 hours before finally throwing in the towel. Which brings me to this year, my 4th attempt.

Having just completed the Tuscobia 160 3 weeks earlier I had no idea how my body was going to respond. I had every intention of taking it easy and just hoped to get a finish. If all went really well I dreamed of going sub 50 hrs, but I was trying to be realistic. I had signed up to go unsupported so I had no drop bag and didn’t plan on getting any aid at the 3 aid stations. This meant my sled would be even heavier than normal as I would need to carry extra fuel, food, and water because again I would not be able to restock at the aid stations.

7:04am Ken(the race Director) said release the hounds!! We were off and running. As usual I quickly found myself up near the front of the pack because I have very little self control and always start too fast. This meant runners would continue to pass me as I slowed down and settled in to a comfortable pace. Like past years some of the faster guys like Rob Henderson and John Storkamp would come by and we would visit for a bit before either they would take off or I would let them go. It didn’t take long before I realized that there was some major residual muscle fatigue still going on from the 160. My legs felt like stone. Like in almost every Ultra I was hitting the wall by mile 25.

 

 

By mile 35 I was questioning my sanity and was already considering dropping from the unsupported category.

Only one mile later I find myself on the spur trail into the first check point. On my way in I see Jared coming out. I tell him how awesome he is doing and remind him to save some energy for the 2nd half of  the race. Cheering him on somehow gets me out of my funk. As I pull into Gateway Store a Volunteer is standing outside with a clipboard to check us in. I see about 10 sleds sitting there so I give him my number, thank him for volunteering, and head right back out.

 


Upon leaving check point 1 I was chuckling that I gained so much ground while everyone else was enjoying hot food and a warm place to relax. I knew this could come back to haunt me, but I was happy to be ahead of previous years having never left there during daylight. As darkness approached the legs finally started to feel good. Night time is my favorite and things begin to click. Throughout the night I meet and leap frog a few different runners. Parker Rios, Tosh, and Paul Schlagel. I did know Paul having met him at Tuscobia and we rode up to the race together. About 1/2 way between check points my stomach began to go south on me. I could no longer eat. I knew that this was bad, but thankfully I had jolly ranchers to suck on. Somehow this was enough to keep me moving. Tosh, Paul and I started to work together taking turns breaking trail. Early in the day when Tosh had passed me I guessed he was a former Marine just by the way he carried himself. As we talked he confirmed my suspicion. Come to find out not only were we both Marines, but we were both infantry, and  we both went to the same Security Force School. I was hoping to reach Check point 2 by morning, but as we got closer I figured It would be more like 4am. As Tosh and I reached Elephant Lake Paul had gapped us a bit. Tosh stopped to pee and add a layer.  I went ahead and also stopped to put on my puffy jacket. I was now chasing the red blinking light that was already crossing the wind swept lake. I gained on him, but never  was able to real him in before we got to the resort. As I rolled back onto shore I knew I was in trouble having not eaten for the last few hours.

My best option at that point was to change to the supported category and utilize the final 2 aid stations. I entered the aid station and began changing into dry clothes immediately. Then I attempted to replenish the calories I so desperately needed. I had a couple cokes, a couple chocolate milks, and a grilled cheese sandwich. Unfortunately the sandwich was not going down well. I ended up only eating half. A volunteer gave me 3 Alieve. It took a few tries to even get them down. I was having a difficult time swallowing without throwing them back up. Finally I was able to choke them down. I put my shoes on the heater and headed up stairs to lay down for a quick nap. As did Paul and Tosh. I set my alarm for 2 hours. I slept, but did a lot of tossing and turning. While we slept Parker was outside melting snow to replenish his drinking water. The alarm went off way too early, but I knew it was time to get moving. I head down stairs and grab a cup of coffee. I quickly gather all my belongings and fill my water containers. With one last thank you to the volunteers Paul and I head back out at 7am. Tosh was still asleep, but we were in hot pursuit of Parker.

Day two brought more snow and the unrelenting hill section of the Arrowhead trail. It was fun having company for this section. Paul and I were working well together. Eventually we caught up to Parker as he had stopped to make a fire at a trailside shelter and dry out his shoes. We stopped to join him for a few minutes as I knew I was way behind on my fueling again. I hadn’t eaten anything but Jolley Ranchers the last few hours on the trail. After grabbing a couple different types of food that I hadn’t tried yet I climbed into the shelter and took a seat along the wall in the dirt. This shelter was just three walls and a roof but it didn’t have a bench around the inner wall like some of them. I ate a big stack of Pringles and a few chunks of beef jerky. After quickly eating I hopped back up and readied my sled to depart. Paul was doing the same as I began to violently throw up everything I had just eaten. After about 5 hurls I apologized to them for having to witness that. As we leave I think to myself I guess it’s back to Jolly Ranchers.

As daylight on the second day starts to come to a close Paul tells me we just passed the 100 mile mark. We celebrate by sliding down yet another of the endless hills.

 

 


Soon it was dark again and going off the mileage card all day I was estimating that we would be at the final check point by 7pm. Then Tosh caught us and straightened me out. He said it would be more like 8 or 8:30 before we made it there. That caused me to unleash a whole slew of cuss words because it had already seemed to take forever. I didn’t dwell too long however knowing that that kind of negativity can absolutely kill your race. I just adjusted my target to 8:30 and hoped we would get there before that. You would not believe just how much your attitude can affect your race. It can be the difference between a DNF and a finish. That was my last negative thought of the race. We arrived at the Surly check point at 8:15pm. Paul and I were both having stomach issues most of the day. We needed desperately to get a little break and rally.

I grabbed my clothes bag from my pulk and headed into the teepee to change into dry stuff. My feet were pretty thrashed. Coming into Surly I had concerns that my toes were frostbitten. Thankfully the pain I was feeling was not frost bite. It was just a nice collection of blisters. I sat down in front of the wood stove and began to operate on my toes using one of my bib pins. It felt so good to release that pressure. After that I decided to try to dry out my feet and shoes at the edge of the stove before putting socks back on. The next hour or so I just sat there and shot the shit with other runners, volunteers, and supporters. These are some of my favorite times in these races. The camaraderie of this fraternity is unmatched anywhere.

Photo Credit Robbie Skantz (man is it hard to keep your eyes open when someone’s using a flashing the dark)

As I sit there I can’t help myself from doing the math as I begin to smell the hay in the barn with only one more climb and about 25 miles to go. I try to get Paul going as I think just how cool it would be for us to finish this thing together. We both agree, a couple of times, just a little bit longer. Finally the pull of the finish line has us both up on our feet and gathering our things. We spent way too much time there. The warm teepee had left us both battling the sleep monsters.

As we hooked up our sleds we begin our 3 mile climb up the final hill. Paul is still throwing up and he began to worry that the black color of the vomit was serious. Maybe even blood. I give him a couple tums hoping it will settle his stomach. I’m also still having issues as all I can keep down is Jolly Ranchers. Paul asks if I have any left. I dig the rest out and gladly give him half of what I have left. We finally reach the top of  Wakumup hill. I give Paul a heads up about the big turn at the bottom and we ready ourselves for one final slide. After Wakumup we click off a few final miles. Everytime we stop he throws up. Now we are both worried. Paul starts talking about bivvying for a couple hours. I’m not ready to bivvy, but I stay to help him figure out where to set his up. As we part ways I get an overwhelming feeling of guilt for leaving him. I start to pick up the pace now that I’m alone. However, after a couple hours I find myself standing in the middle of the trail asleep on my feet. From past experiences I know it’s now time to bivvy. Instead of trying to push through and continuously finding myself standing there making no headway I promptly pull over and set up my sled to bivvy. The first time I just put on my puffy jacket, cold weather mitts, and pull my neck gaiter up over my face.  Instead of taking out the bivvy I sleep right on top of the sled. I hope all I need is a quick 15 min nap to get me to the finish. It don’t take long and I wake up chilled. I pack up and get moving again. After only a couple hours it’s happening again. I can’t keep my eyes open. I know I’m close to the final trailside shelter so I push on to the trailside oasis.

This time I do it right. This will be my last bivvy. I pull out my whole kit and crawl into my sleeping bag. After about a half hour the cold wakes me once again. I hastily pack my stuff and quickly reference my mileage card to see how many miles are left. Knowing I’m going to be slow I figure the final 10.5 miles could take me as long as 3 hours. I put my head down and embark on the final leg of my two year odyssey to get back to the finish line. Minutes later my biggest savior Robbie rolls up on his snow machine. Robbie, with his always smiling face, came to a complete stop to reveal some desperately needed encouragement. That is when the supernatural happened. Robbie told me I had only 6.4 miles to go. When he said that I was in utter disbelief. I must have looked at him like he was crazy! Could my card possibly be 4 miles off?! With his big old grin Robbie pointed to his odometer and assured me he was correct. What happened next I’m still trying to thoroughly process. It was as if my body no longer had an internal governor telling me I had just gone 130 miles. It also didn’t hurt that the trail was finally firming up for the first time since the very beginning of the race. I was off and running! Everytime the footing got good I’d pick a tree up ahead and make a surge until I’d reach it. I was making really good time. Soon I realed in another runner. It was a young lady from New Jersey. I’m not sure what I said to her, but I’m sure we exchanged pleasantries as I passed. Now I had one more goal, not to be caught. I continued my surges to try and open the gap between us. I knew I was getting close to the finish. I started to search for any sign of the up coming road crossing or signs that the Casino drawing near. Soon I come to some power lines as I make my way to the final road crossing. After crossing the road I know I’m on Casino property. Two years ago Harvey Lewis came out here and interviewed me about what I thought of the Arrowhead 135. At the time I was in rough shape. This year was a different story. I pulled my phone out to document just what a difference a couple years can make.

 

 

Soon the Casino is in sight and I make one final push to the finish line. At 7:49 am my race comes to an end. As I cross the finish line a giant of a man with a monster beard comes out to greet me. With an enormous grin and his arms out wide Steve Cannon welcomes me home with a big old bear hug. Now I’m not normally a hugger, but even I can make an exception when something this special has happened. I have been blessed with many really good friends and Steve has quickly become one of them. My place is of absolutely no consequence. The only person I was racing was myself. I beat my finish time from two years ago by 4hrs and 43mins. If all went well I had a dream of breaking 50 hours. I finished in 48:45. Somehow I still have a lot of room for improvement.

My biggest take away from this race is that we all have an enormous untapped potential. Our biggest limiting factor is our own mind. The only reason I write these reports is to hopefully inspire someone to go outside their comfort zone and dream big. There truly are no limits to what one can accomplish if only they believe.

So many people to thank. Ken, although I don’t know why you allow me to be chosen to run this race I want you to know that I am extremely grateful for the opportunity. Thank you Ken, Jackey, and all the amazing volunteers for all you do.

Last, but certainly not least, thank you to my beautiful wife and kids who pick up my slack when I’m gone and enable me to chase my crazy dreams no matter where they take me.

 

The 2017 Tuscobia 160 Mile Winter Ultra 



“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
T.S. Eliot

I had no idea if I could go 160 miles on foot in subzero temperatures, but God Damnit if I wasn’t going to find out. I’m not an elite runner. Matter of fact their is absolutely nothing special about me when it comes to running. So if I can do this anyone can. To run these races in subzero temps you are required to carry mandatory gear for safety and self rescue should the shit hit the fan. Check it out here: https://tuscobia.wordpress.com/race-information/rules/

Most of us use sleds that weigh between 20 and 40 pounds to carry all our gear. Mine came in right in the middle there somewhere. For me this was down about 10 lbs from what I’ve been using the past few years. This year I was able to upgrade to some better quality gear. As you can imagine when it comes to gear you get what you pay for. The big upgrades for me were my sleeping bag and winter jacket. My old bag was military surplus and weighed 12 pounds. I found a used down 800 fill -20 bag on gear trader for only $250(Retails at $800+)and it weighed only 5 pounds. I also found a deal on a 800 fill Mountain Hardwear puffy jacket that only weighed a pound. 

Race day came and hundreds of red blinking lights gathered outside the Knights of Columbus in Rice Lake Wisconsin. You could cut the tension in the air with a knife as nobody seemed to want to line up in the front at the imaginary starting line. Soon Helen or Chris(the race directors) yell go and as quickly as we gathered we disappeared into the cold dark morning. Temps were hovering around -17 degrees Fahrenheit and would stay in the double digits below for most of the race.

Now I’m sure that when it comes to race strategy every single racer had a different view of what was about to unfold. What I’m going to do is attempt to tell you what I had in mind for the next 2 and a half days. Try to keep in mind that I have no idea what I’m doing and in this group of experienced ultra runners I am ranked near the bottom. I believe Ultra Sign Up had me 2nd or 3rd from the bottom. However the extreme cold, extreme distance, and a 40 lbs sled seem to close the gap and become a great equalizer. Not to mention the fact that it gave me a lot of added incentive.

So anyway I lined up near the front and when the word was sounded I took off!!(DUMB, but nothing new for me as this is what I do in these winter races normally) The plan was to go out hard and try to create separation from most of the field thinking most were probably going to start slow and try not to sweat with it being so freaking cold. What I didn’t realize was that I would be in 3rd place right from the get go and even passed the amazing Scott Hoberg. That didn’t last long and soon he shot back by. From that moment at about mile 2 I was telling myself that this was probably just another one of my bone head moves and I really should not be up here… Everything that I have ever read about ultra running says to start slow then slow down even more. Even more important don’t out run your fitness. (at least as far as 100+ mile races) It didn’t take long and we were at the 5 mile turn. It took exactly an hour to get there. 5 MPH in a 160 mile race while pulling a 40lbs sled is insane! Helen and Chris(the Race Directors) were there waiting for us. I gave Chris a fist bump. I couldn’t believe the separation we already had. 

This next stretch I was familiar to me from when I did the 75 miler in 2013. Here is my race report from that race: http://runningwithheart234.blogspot.com/2014/01/tuscobia-75-mile-winter-ultra-marathon.htm 

 I started seeing Randy Kottke’s brother at every road crossing. Now I’m running scared! I figured him and Kirk are going to team up like they did at Arrowhead last year and come flying by me at anytime. After rolling through Birchwood I stopped seeing people. From here to the turn around I would only see the folks at the aid station and then Scott Hoberg as he flew by me in the opposite direction 8 miles out from the halfway point. 

Just after leaving Birchwood I did pick up a pacer.(a little basset hound) It was interesting how my mind used this event to help pass the time and break through the first wall of the race. Knowing pacers are not allowed I would make up stories as to how I am not to blame for the outside help of my new little friend. I gave her a full piece pizza thinking maybe it would give me time to get away while she ate.(yes I carried pizza) Nothing doing tho. She scarfed it down and was soon right there with me. As I watched her tracking animals I gave her the name Tracker. Every deer or rabbit trail she came to she would pick up the sent of that animal and stand there on the trail hoping to pick up movement. After about two hours I did manage to lose her. It seemed as though she found a house she was familiar with and went to check it out. Little did I know until later that pup had quite the adventure. The afternoon was gorgeous. There is something about the long shadows that the sun puts out in winter that is absolutely magical.​


With every long race I’ve done their comes a point when I ask myself, “what the fuck was I thinking?” Thankfully this feeling always passes and I soon find myself in a groove and lost in thought. The first aid station comes a couple hours after dark. It’s lit up nicely with blinking lights and a tiki torch. It would be almost impossible to miss. As I roll up I already have a plan of what needs to get done and how long I want stay there. My trail math had me getting there by 6pm. I roll in at 6:05. I wasn’t there long but I was surprised nobody else pulls in while I’m there. The building that the aid station is in is super cool. It’s made of stone and is being warmed nicely by a raging fire at one end of the room. The aid workers are amazing. They just keep bringing me stuff as I changed into dry clothes. I had soup, a couple grilled cheese sandwiches, and some Coca Cola. I was out in 33 minutes. As I was leaving the next place runner came in. It was Alex. I knew who she was from her and her boyfriend being at Arrowhead last year. They were both at Mel Gorges the same time I was. Alex was crewing and Jared was running that time. Now their rolls were reversed.

I left the check point at 6:38pm and my next goal was to make it to the turn around by 6 am or at the very latest sunrise. It was a long night but it seemed to go really well. Not once did I get cold or tired. I made it into check point 2 at 5:17am. well ahead of my prediction even though the trail seem to go on and on forever. The second place runner was still there and was crashed off to the side of the room. This aid station was an old school and the aid workers here were again amazing. They continued to offer and bring me almost anything I could have wanted. As I changed into ice cold but dry clothes from my sled.(I chose not to have a drop bag here) once in dry stuff I decided to go lay down at the side of the room in a lawn chair.  I set my alarm for 1 hr and hoped I could get a little sleep. A volunteer came by and draped a blanket over me as I drifted off to dream land. Once my hour was up other runners started filing in. I saw the second place runner leave, but I wasn’t to concerned with him. I visited with some of the incoming runners and I noticed Edward was making a quick turn around and packing up to leave. After reapplying lube to my feet and getting fresh socks I was out the door in hot pursuit of Edward. I had met Edward once before briefly at Zumbro, but I knew a lot about him since I had been reading his blog for a couple years. 

I was surprised that I was able to catch him and was fortunate to get to share the trail for a little while with him. Edward has done some amazing races(Hardrock, Barkley, and UTMB) and his blog is not only funny as hell, but very informative for new Ultra runners. I had a lot of questions for him and I was a little worried I was beginning to annoy the shit out of him. We also kept running into runners coming the opposite direction. We both seem to know most of the incoming runners so we would chat a bit with each group we met. One of the groups had a lady that hadn’t had water in a while because her cap froze on her water bottle. I had hot water in my sled so I helped her get her cap unstuck. They still had 8-10 miles to go to the turn so I’m sure she was happy she could now drink. 


After sharing the trail with Edward for a little while we came to a road crossing. A truck was waiting there. As we came up a couple got out. They asked if I was Jeff Rock?! I was in shock. It was my Dad’s cousin and her husband who live in Park falls. They were following the race online and came out to cheer us on at the urging of one of my uncles.(Thanks Uncle Lloyd) I don’t remember how or why Edward and I split up, but I was soon on my own again. It was another gorgeous but crisp day and I was feeling good having gotten a little cat nap in at the turn. To pass the time I worked on the calculation as to when I thought I’d make it to the last aid station. I figured 8pm. I got there a little ahead of that around 7:36pm. I had thoughts of skipping the aid station and just check in and head right back out in hopes of gaining ground. Thankfully I decided not to do that. 

As I made my way in the volunteers swarmed me getting me anything I wanted. Here I met Mary. She had the list of runners and I had to report to her with my bib number. I asked her how many 160 runners were still in front of me not knowing if the two in front had dropped or were still in it.  This is when her face lit up. She held up one finger. I was in shock!! I asked her who had dropped?! Just as I asked they were carrying #2 out the door to take him to the hospital. Apparently that guy won the 75 miler the year prior. I’m sure my eyes lit up at that point, not because he was hurt, but because I could not believe I was now in second. I look at my watch and I tell Mary I am out of there by 8:30…  She was absolutely awesome to me!! Every five minutes she’d give me a count down with a huge smile on her face. She was so incredibly encouraging. I had only one dry shirt left and all my gloves and mittens were wet. I used the fire to dry some of my stuff out as I stuffed myself with anything they’d offer me. Quickly Mary’s count down was over and I was out the door. I had her use my phone to take some photos of this cool little building with its awesome volunteers. As she wished me well she said she would try to be at the finish to see my finish. I said my thank my yous and I was gone. 

^^^Me and my trail angel Mary^^^ aid workers are always so good to me.

The famous Chalayne as interviewed on Ten Junk Miles heading up her crew.https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/ten-junk-miles/id977007408?mt=2&i=1000361249351

As I headed off into the night for my second night I knew it was not going to be a walk in the park to finish this thing. I broke it down mentally into a 22 mile section from the aid station to the town of Birchwood. There I knew I could stop at a convenience store if I needed to.  Then I would have only a 16 mile section in to the finish. It didn’t take long and the sleep monsters were on my heals. By midnight I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I would find myself standing in the middle of the trail bent over my poles standing still. I knew I had to bivvy. The temps had to be around -20. I wasn’t sure I would be able to stay warm knowing I was a little wet, but I had to give it a try. Quickly I found a spot off trail and pulled out my sleeping bag and pad. I didn’t bother setting an alarm as I knew I’d awake from the cold soon enough. By the time I woke my hopes of 2nd were now dashed thinking half the field probably passed me while I slept. Still I only have one option and that is to trudge on. I made it a couple more hours and needed to repeat this process again not once but 3 more times. Each time I get more haphazard with the way I would bivvy. Finally the last one was only a few minute and it was just laying on top of my gear wearing my warmest jacket and crossing my arms. At one point in this stretch I thought I was having my first hallucination. I started seeing what I thought were hundreds of fire flies floating around in the air. It was the strangest thing. My rational mind knew with it being -20 these were definitely not fire flies. Just then a house came into view and I see more of the lights on the side of the house. Finally my brain puts two and two together and I realize it’s just the new laser style Christmas lights. By now my feet were now falling apart as well. I never did change my socks or reapply lube at the last aid station. That was a huge mistake because now my left big toe was one huge blister. As was the bottom of my foot. At a road crossing I had to make yet another emergency stop to operate on my big toe. As I take off my socks I stash them inside my shirt so they don’t freeze. I use my bib pin to lance the blister. Releasing that pressure is a huge relief. It was hard as hell to get my socks back on. My shoe was now a block of ice from sitting there in the cold. I have to run hard to warm back up. 

It’s hard to explain what it’s like to be on the trail for 3 different sunrises in one race, but it is pretty extraordinary. As that sun comes up you start to realize that this is really going to happen. It kind of gives you a renewed vigor. You start to move with a little more purpose. As I get closer to Birchwood mentally I have resigned myself to just a finish. The thinking is a little disappointing that I let the race slip away do to sleep, but I never came here with any intention of being in contention. I really would have never even fathomed it unless maybe everyone else quit.(which in a race such as this is not unheard of)

I had a plan to not use any local businesses and use this race as training for a run at Arrowheads new unsupported division. However by the time I reached Birchwood I was pretty down from not being able to eat much and thinking everyone had probably blown by me while I slept. The food I had with me was no longer palatable. I wasn’t able to eat anymore as my food was all too sweet. Everything I put in my mouth I felt like hurling it up. So I decide to go into the convenience store. Unfortunately the kitchen wasn’t open but I was able to get some hot cheese sticks and jalapeño poppers. My stomach was so happy! I filled my hydro pack and dumped all my extra water to make the sled lighter. 

I texted my wife this picture with the caption,”16 more to go. Kill me now!”

That made me smile and I headed out the door. I was surprised I hadn’t seen any other 160 runners. As I go to leave I can’t find my poles. I figure someone took them by mistake. I head off without them. After a couple climbs In and I know I need to find a couple sticks to replace them. Soon I pass two different 80 milers. I now have a new goal! It’s to somehow get separation on them and make sure they can’t pass me back. I make pretty good time. I start seeing Alex’s Boyfriend(Jared) and I figure she is closing on my. I start picking out trees and running hard to them. Then I walk a bit. Then pick another tree and run. Over and over I repeat this until I can’t see anyone behind me. As I make the turn into a fierce headwind I think to myself 5 miles and this sufferfest will be over. I continue my run walk and try to get more separation. As I make my way to town I find it strangely familiar. Thinking to myself it’s seems as though I had been here before. My brain took a while but I finally realized that we ran this same section when we started the race. No wonder it seemed familiar.  I do my best to run it in! A couple people are there cheering. Helen comes out and I have to let her know just how hard this race was. She tells me I took 2nd. All the struggle just melts away. I am utterly shocked. I can’t believe nobody passed me while I slept. Helen and Chris are both there to congratulate me. Again I repeat to Chris how unbelievable this race is. We get some photos and I see Mary. She made it to the finish and comes over and gives me a big hug. I can’t even put into words just how grateful I am to her for all her kindness. They guide me inside and hand me my finishers hat and 2nd place medallion. Quickly I have a beer in my hand and all is right in the world.



All my life I have strived to make my family proud. Without the support of an amazing family this would mean nothing. My wife and daughter hand made the food that carried and it worked beautifully for the first half of the race. Many thanks to my beautiful wife and daughters for allowing me to chase these crazy dreams.

Also many thanks to those that followed my journey. My friends, family, and running family, I will never be able to adequately put into words just how much your support has meant to  me. I am always hesitant to post a link for people to follow for fear of failure, but knowing that I have the possibility of inspiring just one person it easily out weighs that. A few years ago I struggled to run a mile. By surrounding myself with positive like minded people I no longer feel the need to set limits. I know anything is possible. If I can do this anyone can. #DreamBig my friends! There are #NoLimits!

86/146 finished the 2017 Tuscobia Winter Ultra

14/30 160 mile runners finished

Many thanks to all the brilliant Volunteers and to Chris and Helen. Without you none of this would be possible.

Gear: sled $35, used Marmount 800fill down bag $250, emergency bivvy $16, insulated sleep pad $25, 300 lumen headlamp $4, mini stove $10, red blinking lights $5 each, Mountain Hardware parka $100, lots of assorted neck gaiters, hats, and gloves. Injinji sock with wool socks on top inside one pair of Altra Olympus. 2 liter water in hydro pack plus 2 insulated 32oz containers in sled 

Food carried: beef sticks, almond bark dipped pretzels and animal crackers, and sunflower nuts.

Chasing the infamous Arrowhead 135

It all begins with a belief…  You first have to believe it can be done…  For most, running 135 miles seems impossible..  For a select few it not only seems possible, but it sounds like fun… Then throw in the fact that the 135 mile run is not only a run, but it’s a race that takes place in one of the coldest places in the lower 48 in the dead of winter…  That is just plain crazy talk… Then we have to mention the fact that it’s mandatory that runners pull about 40 pounds of survival gear behind them on a sled…  O.K. now I have your attention…

Yep. We are talking about the Arrowhead 135. Look it up. It’s real. I shit you not. The Arrowhead 135

Anyways, in a few short weeks I will be toeing the line at this amazing race for my 4th straight year. I have fallen in love with this race and everything about it. This race seems to get a more amazing field of runners each and every year. I still find it shocking that they let me run it. We have to apply to this race many months in advance and then be chosen. There is absolutely nothing special about my abilities when it comes to running. I am average at best. It’s kind of intimidating when you look up some of these folks on Ultra Sign Up. Many of them are multiple time winners of many races.

Being that this is going to be my 4th year I started up grading my gear. You can probably imagine that you get what you pay for when it comes to gear. That gear can not only have an effect on your proformance but it may be the only thing that keeps you alive when the temps drop to -50F. The biggest upgrades I’ve made this year is my jacket and my sleep system. I was using a military surplus sleep system, but it weighed in at just over 12 pounds. The one I upgraded to weighs less than five pounds and is insulated with down. Same goes for the jacket. My new one is 800 fill down as well and it weighs in at about a pound. All the best gear in the world still ain’t gonna get you to that finish line. I’ve been fortunate enough to get to that finish line once. In my opinion the biggest determining factor that is gonna get you there is the belief that you will get there. All the training will certainly help up your odds, but your mental game has got to be something special. 135 miles leave a lot of time for things to go wrong. 

Below is a little video of what I do to try and get ready for this race. Everyone does it a little different and I’m sure we all tweak it a bit each year. 

2016 this years training for 2017’s race


2015 training for 2016’s race


Now one would think signing up for one of these type of races would be enough to challenge you, but for some reason I can’t leave well enough alone. I kind of have a problem when it comes to peer pressure. A fellow racer made a post asking people to join him and sign up for not only the Arrowhead, but also the Tuscobia160. The Tuscobia 160 

I don’t know what the hell possessed me, but if he could do it, so could I. Thanks Scottie!! Scott Kummer Tuscobia is the same type of race, but usually not as cold because it’s a little further south.  The biggest challenge is the fact that it’s only two weeks before Arrowhead. Hopefully my feet hold up. Somehow I have convinced myself that that’s my biggest challenge. 

Wish me luck! Stay tuned if your interested in this journey, and until next time, dream big my friends. There are no limits!

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