Tuscobia Winter Ultra


It’s been a while since I’ve been racing competitively. The last few years I’ve been training because I enjoy doing it, but without a clearly defined objective. I’ve done some fun things like the NYC marathon and smaller local events, but it has been a while since I’ve competed with the same drive and determination that I was around 2010-2015. Having recently moved to Minnesota, the idea of running an ultra in the middle of a harsh Winter sounded like a really exciting challenge to me. I’ve run mountain ultras, flat ultras, ultras in hot & humid Atlanta Summer, and in a way, I’d gotten bored with doing more of the same. I didn’t want to run an ultra just for the sake of finishing a long distance. If you count races and training runs, I’ve surpassed the ultra distance over 100 times in just a few years, so I don’t really care about “finishing to finish”. Been there, done that. At this point in my running career, running ultras is about experiencing nature and facing unique challenges to learn more about myself & the world around me. The Tuscobia Winter Ultra seemed like the perfect candidate.

What is the Tuscobia Winter Ultra? Basically, it’s an 80+ mile mostly self-supported foot race across remote wilderness in Northern Wisconsin, where athletes are responsible for pulling about 30 pounds of required gear and supplies behind them in a sled. Average temperature with windchill varies year to year from -40 to 0F. This year it stayed around 0 degrees for most of the race. One of the challenges this year was a warm and wet week leading up the event, so the ground was mostly ice, not snow. This meant more challenging footing for sections of the race. There were sections of hard-packed snow which were great for running, but there were also some deeper snow sections and some ice-only sections, and some patches of exposed gravel. What does it mean to be mostly self-supported? There is one check point / aid station at mile 35, and a local business sets up an additional rest near the end of the race during certain hours of the night. The average racer needs to have 12+ hours of supplies on them at any given time since there’s only one real place to refuel, unless you leave the course near a small town to buy supplies.

Training and Preparation

I had just taken a month off of serious training for an extended vacation to Bali, and only started looking at this race when we got home at the end of September as a way to rekindle my training efforts towards a serious goal. This gave me 13 weeks to prepare for the longest race of my life, and my first Winter race. And by Winter, I mean actually cold & long enough to lose extremities or die, not “cold” as in doing a Hot Chocolate 5k. 13 weeks was not a lot of time to prepare for something like this, but my base fitness was strong, so it wasn’t the foolhardy endeavor as it may seem. The real challenge would be learning to pull a sled and race in Winter conditions, especially considering the unseasonably warm and dry Winter that Minneapolis would be experiencing. All in all, there was only about a 2 week period where I was able to consistently take my sled out for training runs, and the coldest training day was a pleasant 10 degrees, with most of my training being in the mid 20’s. Not the brutal Winter you’d expect in Minnesota, and certainly not ideal for Tuscobia training. 2 years prior, the temperature for the race was almost negative 30, so I was concerned that my training conditions weren’t nearly harsh enough and that I wasn’t getting in enough sled practice.

I’d never trained with a running sled before, and it had never even occurred to me that this was a thing people might do. When I heard about the race, I immediately reached out to one of my coaching colleagues, Nickademus, who had finished a similar race, the Arrowhead 135. He gave me some sled building tips and I got to work. There’s plenty of running sleds out there that cost several hundred dollars, but considering i was already spending a fortune on clothes to build up my Winter wardrobe (having just moved to a cold climate), I had to settle for a used $18 sled from Amazon that was definitely not designed for running. I did all of my training with the sled tied to my waist with a modified dog leash and some paracord, but the morning of the race I made a last minute upgrade to a harness system from RM Gear. It was a great $100 investment. I would have been even more miserable had I raced with my homemade harness. The RM Gear harness was super comfortable and offered insulated storage compartments on the front, and included a dampening bungee system for attaching to the sled to minimize sudden jerks / turbulence. I had purchased the new gear 2 weeks ahead of time, but it’s all handmade by the owner of the company who didn’t have it ready until race morning. I literally picked it up 10 minutes before the race started. Worked flawlessly!

Anyway, my 13 week training block for the race went pretty well. I generally stuck to my initial plan. I skipped one of my long runs but successfully completed all the others. I didn’t do as much mid-week mileage as I probably should have, but I was doing a lot of spin classes. Morgan is training to be an instructor and is riding at least one, sometimes two, classes per day at our spin studio, so I’m was getting in 4-5 rides a week in addition to 4 gym sessions and around 20 miles of weekday running each week. The weekends tended to alternate between 20-30 mile long runs and down weekends of lower mileage. All in all, I was averaging 10-12 hours per week of endurance training and 4-6 hours of strength training. My aerobic fitness was strong, with a “MAF” pace around 6:30/mile, though speed work was non-existent, so my mile TT probably would have been around 5:00 flat (not the 4:45 it was in my OCR days). I continued to make great progress in the gym, adding 8-10 pounds of lean mass since this time last year and setting a new bench press PR of 275, back squat PR of 375, and continuing to suck at deadlifts (but making some progress with hamstring hypertrophy). All of my long training sessions were on trail and I was doing very little pavement running. On my last long training run through (30 miles), the weather and trail conditions forced me to run on pavement. I did a sub 4 hour 30 mile training run exclusively on pavement and it wrecked my calves for a week. Then while my calves were still sore, I took a trip to San Diego and ran up a mountain even though I haven’t been doing any incline work, and that wrecked my calves again. All in all, I ended up having sore calves for 10-12 straight days while I was supposed to be tapering. Ended up feeling fine by race morning though so it all worked out. I had just gotten back from a week of traveling on Thursday before the race, so I felt really tired even though I hadn’t done much. Even though I probably should have “tapered”, I went for my usual run, lifted some weights, and even went to spin class the day before the race. I just really wanted to get back into my normal routine and feel like myself again before having to do a big race. I’m glad I did.

The Race Itself

I showed up the starting line 15 minutes beforehand, picked up my new sled harness, took an obligatory pre-race photo, and then started running. There wasn’t much to say about the start. The start of a long ultra is always super boring. No hype. No energy. It’s always just like “Okay, you guys can start now”, and then people start walking in the general direction of the course. It took about a minute to let most of the bikes get out of the way and start running. The trail conditions were great at the beginning so I started with mile 1 in 8:18 and settled into that effort for the next 38 miles. The trail got worse at times so I had some mile splits around 9:00 as well, but according to my GPS I averaged a sub-9 pace for the first 38 miles to the checkpoint. Running this kind of pace through the snow while dragging a sled generates A LOT of body heat. Even with the windchill hovering around 0 degrees, my whole body and jacket were completely drenched in sweat when I got to the checkpoint. I could have taken my jacket off and squeezed sweat out of it like a washrag. Luckily I had a change of clothes, so I spent 6 minutes at the checkpoint and put on some dry clothes that wouldn’t be as warm. I essentially had on tights, track pants, and a hooded long sleeve shirt. This ended up being perfect for the next 30 miles. I was amazed that I was generating so much body heat that I didn’t even need gloves in those conditions.

I like how the race is long enough that even when you zoom out to the see the entire state, it looks like a really substantial distance. I’d already run a third of the way back home!

I like how the race is long enough that even when you zoom out to the see the entire state, it looks like a really substantial distance. I’d already run a third of the way back home!

Because I had sweat so much while overheating for the first 6 hours, I was pretty behind on hydration and my pee looked like orange gatorade. I was now playing catch-up, putting down as much fluid as my stomach could handle. I would drink 20oz of fluid, power walk until I thought I could handle 20oz more, then repeat that several times in a row, with enough running mixed in to keep warm. I wasn’t tired yet, but I had to walk a lot just so I could hydrate. It took me about 10 miles to right my wrongs and be in a good place again physically. At that point, my watch was telling my I was at mile 48. By my calculations, there was a gas station and/or mini-checkpoint at mile 64, so I wanted to get there quickly before I ran out of fluids again since I was running low. Mile 64 came and went and I was still along in the dark. So did mile 65 and 66. At mile 67, I was beginning to worry since I was out of fluids and knew that there was still 16 more miles to the finish from that checkpoint. If I hadn’t come to it yet, then the race was certainly going to be longer than 80 miles. Or maybe I just missed the checkpoint and was only 13 miles from the finish? At mile 67 I stopped to check on a biker who’s chain had broken into pieces from the cold. Luckily for both of us, he had called for rescue a long time ago and the volunteer was only 2 minutes away by the time I had gotten to him. He and the volunteer told me that it was still another 5 miles to the check point and 23 miles to the finish. While I thought I might be only 2 hours from finishing, I was now 4-5 hours away from the finish line of a now 90 mile race.

Look at that temperature! My watch really kept warm on my wrist underneath a layer of clothes.

Look at that temperature! My watch really kept warm on my wrist underneath a layer of clothes.

Was anything really wrong with me? No. I honestly wasn’t even hurting that bad. Yes, I could have gone the 5 more miles to the checkpoint without dying of dehydration. But I had already been running the same boring trail alone in the dark for 5 hours and been chased by 1 dog, so the idea of doing all of that again was not appealing. By my count, I had run 67 miles and accomplished my primary goals: I had fun while it was still fun and I learned a lot while facing a new challenge.

I read a race report called “Tuscobia: Hard for the Sake of Being Hard” and couldn’t agree more with Naomi’s assessment of the race. There’s nothing particularly special about it. Yeah snow is pretty and you can see the stars, but you’re pretty much in the pitch black dark for the majority of the race running in a straight line down a boring trail, attached to 30 pounds of stuff that you spent too much money on. If I’m going to suffer that much, I’d at least like to be in some pretty mountains or doing something else more rewarding. So, when it stopped being fun, I called it. If that biker hadn’t broke down, I would have been forced to go the next 5 miles since my phone didn’t work. And at that point, I probably would have been too close to the finish to quit. So, it really was a stroke of good luck and/or bad luck that allowed me to drop early, but I don’t regret it.

The last paragraph kind of makes the race sound terrible, and it’s not. I totally get why people do it, and even with my experience, I’d considering doing it again. Maybe I’ll do it next year, maybe not.

GPS data link: https://www.strava.com/activities/2043369846/overview

Alec Blenis1 Comment