This years Tuscobia didn't get off to a great start for me. First, I had broken the zipper on last years sled making it pretty much useless. I had to scramble and put together another one the night before we left. Second, I had forgotten my hiking poles at home and had to borrow some from Tim's (the race director) parents. They were 145cm, which would have been great for skiing, but I was walking and would rather have had 125cm poles. Finally, I had been fighting a cold for almost a week and while it had seemed to be improving, I lost my voice the night before the race. All of which had me thinking: when is enough enough and can I just quit now, before I start?
Of course I didn't quit, but it was tempting. Last year's race had been such an ordeal that I had hallucinations, could barely walk for a week afterward, and seriously considered biking the Arrowhead rather than skiing as I had planned. Hopefully this year wouldn't be as bad.
The start in Rice Lake wasn't bad. Temperatures were fairly warm and the trail was reasonably solid. For about the first half mile I was keeping pace with all the other run/walkers pretty well. Then of course, some folks started to run. I was pretty sure that if I took off running I wouldn't be able to complete the 75 mile race, at least not in the snow, so I kept up my walk. I promised myself that if I could I would start running after the halfway point, mile 38. By that point I figured I would know how I was doing and could wear myself out without too much worry.
For a while I leapfrogged with the only two skiers, Anne and Leah, but once they found their stride they passed me and kept going. I found myself going about the same pace as Darryl Saari and two other guys who were working together. I was pleased that I was keeping pace with Darryl, but I knew it was temporary. I knew that he could keep moving at a good pace when I slowed down or stopped, hopefully that would be a long way off.
We passed by the 150 mile racers a few miles in including Roberto Marron who I had run with at Wild Duluth in October. He told me not to go too fast so he could walk with me after the turn-around. He was jogging along at a steady pace so I figured he'd catch up to me at some point. He didn't, but did finish the 150 which is an amazing accomplishment, especially for his first winter race.
I was on my planned pace of 3mph when I arrived at the first checkpoint at mile 12 in Birchwood. I had hoped to sit down for a few minutes, but the other racers seemed to be getting in and out without pausing and I was feeling good enough to follow suite. After refilling my Camelbak with Carnation Instant Breakfast I was on my way.
The toughest thing about the Tuscobia isn't physical. The terrain and weather are pretty mild, but mentally it is a real challenge. For me it is mentally tougher than the Arrowhead 135. The trail is almost perfectly flat and quite straight. There are no hills to break up your progress into manageable chunks and the scenery never seems to change, just trees converging in the distance. At Arrowhead I can focus on making it to the top of the next hill or around the next corner. That doesn't happen at Tuscobia. To make it worse there are markers every mile that tell you exactly how far you have to go. It might seem like that would make it easier, but it just serves to frustrate when it seems to take forever to go one mile. The mile markers also don't let me zone out and just walk. I'm never pleasantly surprised that the miles have gone by quickly and I'm further than I thought.
Dark seemed to come all too soon. I had hoped to be further along, but I was stubbornly keeping my 3mph pace. I could only hope that time would seem to pass more quickly in the night as it sometimes does. I turned on my headlamp, and used it to help me find the most solid part of the somehow softening trail. I passed by a bar at Couderay where I saw a runner's sled parked by the front door. I wondered who it was and started to think that I could use a bathroom and maybe some water. Still though, I kept moving. A few miles further I came into the town of Radisson and saw Leah and Anne, the skiers, getting underway again after stopping at a convenience store. It seemed like a good idea to me as well and I summoned the courage to go all the way across the street (it seemed like a long way out of my way, but wasn't really). After using the bathroom and refilling my Camelbak I drank an energy drink for a mental boost, physically I was fine, and started off again. It turned out that the sled at the bar belonged to Lynn Saari who caught up to me as I was leaving the store. She passed me by as I loaded up and started moving again.
Just after leaving town the trail joined a road for a couple of miles and I finally reached the halfway point of 38 miles. I had been using this point as a carrot for quite a while and promised myself that I would start running when I got there. Now that I was there I gave it a shot. I ran to the next mile marker and while it seemed a lot faster than previous miles I just felt too tired to run much further. Disappointed, I started walking again. Again, I tried not to think too far ahead and focused on just getting to the next checkpoint in Winter at mile 46. Somehow I just kept walking and counted down the miles until town.
By the time I made it to Winter I was ready for a break. I my cold was starting to catch up with me and I was starting to cough more and have a runny nose. I hadn't sat down since the start of the race fifteen hours earlier. Lynn Saari was leaving as I arrived and the skiers were setting up their sleeping bags and resolved to sleep until dawn and then continue. I knew I didn't want to stay that long, but figured that three hours would do me good. After sitting down and having some soup I tried to lay down to nap, but I couldn't seem to manage it at first. John Taylor and a couple of other runners came and went and three more runners including the pair working together dropped at the checkpoint while I was there. Jan Roe who was staffing the checkpoint left me in charge for a while while she drove the dropped runners back to Park Falls. With a little quiet I was able to get a some rest. I slept fitfully for about an hour and a half inside the checkpoint while my cough worsened. Making things worse it seemed far too warm, I had to strip down to my underwear to keep from sweating, and there were weird programs on TV (which I didn't think to turn off) about serial killers and unsolved murders. Not the most restful situation. By the time Jan returned, even though my cold was getting worse, I was ready to get out of there.
At that point I was pretty sure I was the last 75 mile runner on the trail. I was surprised that Roberto, who was running the 150 hadn't caught me yet and I hoped he hadn't dropped. I told myself the good news that I only had 30 miles to go, but I knew that the bad news was that I had at least 10 hours left on the trail.
A few miles down the road I had one of those weird experiences that seem to happen in the middle of the night in races like this. Just as I arrived at a road crossing a jeep pulled up and stopped. I tried to wave him through, but rather than moving on a man got out and asked me, "Have you seen a little girl out here with two little boys?" I wasn't expecting that at 4am. I told him I hadn't and he replied, "Okay, just curious," and drove off. He didn't seem worried or any thing. Curious indeed.
I saw lights ahead and wondered who I was catching up to. It was a biker just packing up after camping. He started off just as I passed him and I figured I wouldn't see him again. It was a long slow slog to the towns of Loretta and Draper, the next landmark. This was where I started to have real trouble last year and couldn't ski any more. This year I was doing better in spite of everything and was still walking though I had to concentrate to keep my speed up. After passing through the towns the trail entered a spruce bog where I had had hallucinations last year, but this year I seemed to be better rested and in less pain.
As the sun rose I thought for a second that I was hallucinating again. There seemed to be a bike leaning up against a sign up the trail. No way of course, it must be a log or something, but it was. The same biker I had passed earlier in the night was camped out again. He must have been having some trouble like I had had the year before.
I finally made it to the spot, eight miles from the finish, where I had tried to quit last year, but couldn't get phone service. At this point my cough was getting worse, doubling me over a few times, my left hamstring was starting to act up, and worst of all my gloves were covered in ice from wiping my nose so often. Nothing worse than trying to wipe your nose with ice. Still it wasn't as bad as last year and I kept going.
About six miles out I had another run in with a local. A guy in Carhartts and Sorels was walking down the trail toward me. No snowmachine in sight. I said hello. He looked at me and said, "You're not from around here, are you?" I guess it shows.
Finally, with about two miles to go I saw a cyclist coming towards me. Nick, who had finished the 150 mile race on his bike the night before was coming out to look for me. I was happy to have somebody to walk with me and finally felt like I was going to make it. I picked up my pace a little and we also met Jan Roe again who was out on skis checking on the racers. I walked the rest of the way in with Nick and was relieved to have the Tuscobia behind me for another year.
Now, with barely four weeks to go until the Arrowhead, I still have some lingering questions that walking the Tuscobia didn't answer for me. While my hamstring injury doesn't seem to be serious, I'm over it already, how much worse could it get? Will it be a problem in the nearly twice as long AHU? Did the too long poles have anything to do with it? While I didn't have serious blisters like last year I did have some moderate ones on my heels that became a bit of a nuisance. Can I get my shoes/feet broken in before the big race or will I be fighting blisters there too? My finishing time of 29:06, while faster than I skied it last year, isn't too impressive. At that pace it'll be a close thing to finish the Arrowhead in under 60 hours. Could I have gone faster with shorter poles or could I have run more than I thought I could? How much did my cold affect me? Hopefully I can get the answers to these questions in the next few weeks and finish the big race this year.