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.
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.