Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Finished! Rolled in around 5:30 this morning.  Details and pics later.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Arrowhead 135 2017 Starts @ 7am

Arrowhead 135: Rookie Year

It has been about 3 weeks since the Tuscobia 150 wrapped up.  I'm not sure where my body is at right now.  I've never done two big races this close together.  And I think one of my wonderful daughters gifted me an everlasting cold.  But, I'm excited and honored to participate in this revered race.  My mind is a bit different for this one, framing it less as a race and more of an adventure.  Adventures are good.  Good for the soul.

Bike is packed.  Drop Bags prepped.  The weather... warm and snowy.  Maybe up to 7 inches starting Monday morning through Tuesday morning.  Adventure...

The Arrowhead Ultra begins in International Falls at 7am on Monday January 30th.  It follows the Arrowhead State Snowmobile Trail to Fortune Bay near Tower.  I hope to finish early Tuesday!

For those who would like to follow my progress, Trackleaders will be orchestrating a common site to watch all racers with SPOT trackers.  You can find this at :  http://trackleaders.com/arrowhead17

Monday, January 9, 2017

Thinking about Biking the Tuscobia Winter Ultra

I've written this primarily with the aim of helping myself not forget all the details that time tends to wash away.  And I figure why not let anyone else who wants to read it also.  In preparing for these races I benefited greatly in reading other people's accounts, so let me add mine to the mix and hope that it can provide something to someone.  Everything with a grain of salt of course, just a noob.
Napkin-brewing coffee in a tiny wood paneled motel room while smearing mystery jelly across my face and undersides at 4 am is how I started this race day.  Around the room sat ordered piles of gear, each stack prepared by its time of need, and most important to not forget, blocking the door was a half eaten BBQ chicken pizza that I would dream of snarfing down in about a day as I finished this adventure.  After training for the last five months with a fully loaded rig, bags filled with sand and old clothes, my bike looked light over there helping the pizza block the door.  A mental trick this looking light thing, but mental tricks keep your legs spinning when the darkness closes in.

The first pile of gear I turned to consisted of layers, so many layers.  With temps projected to be below zero for the whole race, I was happy to have tested my system of thin, breathable, but incredibly warm uppers and lowers.  For the chest I would don a total of five layers to start, with two more packed should I need them, which I did.  Merino wool for the first two, then zippered synthetics for the next two, and topping off with a cycling jacket that kept wind at bay in the front but breathed in the back.  The insulated 100 oz. hydration pack goes under the jacket, with the insulated hose going under my arm and tucked along my chest.  This was my first mistake- should have put it deeper.  Lastly comes the reflective tape vest, a race requirement given the fast-moving snowmobiles we would encounter on the trail.

My legs I ran thin with only a pair of bike shorts under windstopper running pants, preferring cold legs to hot and sweaty.  Sweat is what gets you when it is this cold.  If it freezes solid, then it can't get off you.  Keep your layers breathing, keep the vapor moving, don't ever let it condense on you.  Ice is sticky.

Feet are the hardest part to keep warm, and probably the number one reason people drop out of the race and suffer from frostbite.  Clipless bike shoes are usually worn too tight, restricting blood flow to the part of your body that is already fighting against gravity to get warm blood moving.  And, I can't afford fancy winter specific bike boots!  Today I would rock the clunky but always warm and roomy Mukluks inside a Neos overshoe, with a layer of lexan plastic between to add some rigidity.  I would have no problems with cold toes during this race, and the Neos overshoes provided great traction for the bumps I hiked up at the end.

My headwear was a meticulously constructed system of layering that could be easily adapted with little effort to whatever conditions and symptoms presented.  First on came the back-up balaclava that would serve primarily as a neck buff.  Second was the blue-plaid balaclava with holes cut into it's mouth region for easier breathing.  Then the merino wool 45NRTH cycling cap, which is worth it's weight in gold.  Pull the plaid balaclava over the cap and get the headlamp in position.  An extra hat and two headbands were stashed in my handlebar bag.  Headbands are great for protecting your nose and cheeks without getting in the way of breathing.

Hands.  Sweat is the problem with cold hands.  With Bar Mitts on the bike handlebars to keep the wind off, breathability is my number one requirement.  First on was a thin glove, then a pair of Black Diamond fleece mittens.  I stashed a second pair of fleece mittens in the Bar Mitts, another super warm set in my front handlebar bag, and a third waterproof set for emergencies with my bivy gear in the seat bag.  To fight the demons of cold when their powers are greatest at night, a pair of hand-warmers provided mental comfort in my frame bag food stash.

Dressed and ready, I prepped by post-race duffel.  Filled with everything and anything, this is the one bag to grab from the car at the finish line to make a quick recovery.  At the finish last year I was in rough shape and didn't really know what to do to recover best.  This year- I would be ready.  And, don't forget the pizza.  In the car and driving at 5:15 to the start.

Checked in.  3 Blinky lights, a headlamp, and a 700 lumen bike light for when the dark got really dark- all mounted and working.  Race number 45 pinned to the front.  The 160 racers mill around the Knights of Columbus Hall, enjoying the warmth as long as possible.  The race director calls 10 minutes till start. We all begin layering back up and heading out to our rides.

The 2 minute warning is shouted, and this is where the fun begins, as no one is lining up yet.  So I hop up on the trail, placing myself 50 feet back from where the start line formed last year, thinking to myself that this would be the middle.  But then everyone starts lining up behind me.  No!  I start telling the people behind me that I'm not the front, that I'm slow, that seriously the front is up there and you are just going to pass me right away!  No one listens.  Two other rides join me in parallel at the self-established starting line and I recognize one of them as a past Arrowhead winner.  I have a feeling this will the only race that I will ever find myself at the front of the starting line!

The race directors come to the start, give a little pep talk, and shortly after 6 am the race begins.  I tucked behind super fast carbon fiber guy, and for approximately 30 seconds I was in 2nd place.  That was fun.  I was quickly passed by the real racers and watched the unbelievable pace they established as their red blinky lights crept further into the distance.  Surprised by the darkness I found myself in, I took a glance back and saw that I was alone.  The next group of bikers was far behind me.  I questioned my pace.  Was I going too fast?  Is this sustainable for the next 155 miles?  It felt good, so I kept it moving.  Sometimes pedaling alone is good, it lets you pick your own speed rather than latch onto the slower person in front of you or be pushed trying to keep up with them.

I settle in, focusing my headlamp beam on the trail and listening to my legs.  Time passes quickly and the sky lightens as we work East.  The trail is in phenomenal shape- well groomed, hard packed, wide and fast.  The tire treads of the leaders guide me to the fastest line, and I am happy to have set a higher than normal air pressure of 12 psi.  The cold is there, but it poses no problems.  I feel good and I find myself pushing it.  The thought enters my mind "Are you racing this thing?" and I find myself saying yes.  Last year, I just wanted to finish.  I really don't know how to race though...

Everything felt great, so I just kept going.  I wasn't thirsty, I wasn't hungry, and I wasn't cold.  The hills coming into Birwood were fun.  I stopped at the top of the big one, finally having the thought that I need to drink and eat for the future, not for the now.   My hydration pack hose had frozen itself solid.  While I had blown it clear when putting it on before the start, there is always a little water that will gather in the lowest bend.  I stripped all my layers, removed my pack, took the detachable hose off and shoved it down my shirt.  While I suited back up three racers passed me.  I set off, passing the three, waiting for my body heat to melt the ice blocking the hose.  Watching my clock, I stopped an hour later, stripped back down and dug out the now melted and clear hose.  This time as I suited back up I put my hydration bag much lower down, and this prevented any further freeze ups.  The three racers passed me again while I dealt with this, and for the next few hours to Ojibwa we leap-frogged each other through the beautiful northwoods forests and fields.

I checked into Ojibwa at 10:56 am in 6th place, approximately 45 miles in, averaging about 9 mph for the first leg of the race- faster than my goal of 8 mph.  Four other bikers soon arrived.  Not needing to refill water, I chugged some warm broth and checked out 12 minutes later.  The next stretch to Park Falls went fast.  The clear sky brought welcome sun, and it was uplifting to pass and cheer on the 80 miler bikers, skiers, and runners heading the opposite direction.

My legs felt great, and I kept pushing it.  I began passing the 160 mile hikers heading towards Rice Lake, and any fatigue or pain I felt seemed insignificant relative to the effort they were enduring.  I didn't see a single biker heading my direction, arriving 35 miles later in Park Falls at 2:55pm in 5th with one of the leaders dropping out.  My average speed had maintained itself at about 9 mph, putting me 1.25 hours ahead of my 8 mph goal for the race.

Knowing that the return trip back to Rice Lake in the cold darkness is the harder half, I slowed down a bit at this checkpoint, taking care to think big picture and get things set right.  Filling water, eating delicious baked goods, using the bathroom, reapplying mystery jelly where applicable, and thawing the frozen ice off my balaclava, the time passed quickly.  Another rider checked in and headed out in an impressive 18 minutes.  I checked in to the digital world, and upon finding that my SPOT tracker had given up in the cold, I moved it into the top sunglasses pouch of my hydration pack, hoping that it's proximity to my body warmth would allow it to function.  I spoke briefly with a few loved ones, then began the process of suiting up again.  Stomach full, extra upper layer on, and ready for the coming darkness, I headed back to Rice Lake checking out 33 minutes later at 3:28 pm.

I began to feel the first-half's fast miles as the sun set.  The familiar background ache that precedes cramping started to make its presence known and I adjusted my effort level accordingly.  While I never got a full on cramp, my pace was greatly hampered as I battled against this lurking enemy.  Rather than pushing it effort wise, I found myself shifting easier to spin more.  This was a better choice than pushing it hard, cramping, and then having to work out of that deep hole.  I also began to take electrolyte pills every 30 minutes to supplement the mix in my hydration pack.  Stopping every 30 minutes to drink, eat, and stretch, time crept forward and the miles ticked away.

The moon replaced the sun and lit the snowy landscape well.  My headlamp kept me on the well worn fast line.  Snowmobilers zoomed past and the temperatures dropped.  Just like last year, this was the shift.  Heading West into Winter, the last place to stop before the checkpoint in Ojibwa, I did not fall into the trap of saying "you're almost there" and ignore the signs.  This year, when the cold started biting deeper, I stopped immediately and pulled on the last upper layer in my arsenal- a thin down jacket.  What glorious warmth!  Rolling into Winter, I pulled up to the only gas station there is, adding my bike to the 3 runner's sleds parked in front of the Crushed Ice freezer and bundles of firewood.  Heading inside, I joined the other racers in the corner by the coffee machines, stretched, chugged a large coffee/cappuccino, and mowed down a delicious slice of pepperoni pizza.  Preparing for the cold night I opened up the hand warmers that I had been carrying for the last 110 miles, only to find they didn't work.  Luckily the gas station had a fantastic selection of very effective and working warmers to choose from.  Chatting with the hikers and one other biker that I shared the gas station with, I couldn't help but feeling a bit guilty knowing that I was going to leave here on a bike, fully enjoying the wonder and efficiency that is the wheel.

Spirits high and hands warm I headed out of Winter to the Ojibwa checkpoint about 5 miles away.  The ever lurking cramps seemed to have been pushed deep into hiding, but a new struggle reared it's head.  The arctic air was taking its toll on my lungs and my breathing was slowly becoming impaired.  I was not surprised to feel this after last year's struggle with breathing in the cold.  My focus shifted.  No longer was my pace to be dictated by my legs or impending cramps, but by my breathing.  Despite this observation, I maintained high spirits and kept a pace that I was happy with.  I had not entered survival spin mode like I did last year, but felt confident in my body's ability to keep functioning at a fairly high level.  Onwards I went, now chasing Venus as it set into the moonlit snowy landscape.

Passing many hardy hikers trucking West, I pulled into Ojibwa in 6th place at 8:20pm.  With my stop in Winter my average speed had dropped to about 7 mph.  This last stretch would be the hardest.  45 miles.  What did I need to do here, in the warmth and light of the shelter, that would help me get through this?  Headphones.  Trying to get headphones in, connected, and strung through your layers in the cold dark with numb fingers is a great way to kill your spirit on the trail.  Do it now and be prepared for later.  I pulled out 14 minutes later at 8:34pm.

Breathing slowly got more difficult.  I slowly shifted easier.  Cramps weren't an issue any more.  My knees started to hurt.  Ibuprofen helped that.  I was tired.  Sleepy tired.  Had some caffiene tabs that helped.  30 minutes at a time.  Stop, drink, eat.  30 more minutes.  Started setting goals.  Pedal till 10pm, then you can turn on your big headlight.  A glorious 700 lumens lit up the trail, instantly brightening everything.  Another 30 minutes.  Passed another burly beast of a hiker.  Gosh wheels are awesome.  Midnight comes.  Just keep pedaling.

Finally to Birchwood.  Bank sign reads -11.  Last year it said -13.  There is no wind this year.  The hills heading out of Birchwood are a welcome change.  Going down.  I spin up most of the way, walk the rest - a nice reprieve from pedaling.  My knees hurt more.  More ibuprofen.  The railroad tracks, the long gentle upslope that lasts forever.  I feel good.  My breathing is labored, but not worrisome.  My pace is good, pushing it and not just spinning.

Mile markers to the end start showing.  Just get to that one hill, a dip the signs label it as for the snowmobilers.  Pass two 80 mile bikers.  First bikes I've seen in hours.  Here is the hill!  The hill means half a mile left to the left turn into Rice Lake.  And there it is, the turn!

Getting to the final turn and reflecting back on a year ago in this same spot, my spirits jump.  Last year at this point I was a wreck, physically broken down into survival spin mode.  Last year I was euphoric at reaching this turn, knowing that there was only five miles left to suffer through as the sun rose for the second time.  This year the sun is still far below the horizon, my body is far from wrecked, and I find that despite aching my energy stores are high.  I decide to push it that last five miles, and it feels wonderful.  I feel fast.  With no bike computer to state my speed I have no idea what fast means at 3am and 155 miles in.  Probably around 9 mph.  But fast is fast in your head.

I pull into the finish at 3:31 in the morning.  160 miles in 21 hours and 28 minutes.  I am grateful to see the race director and staff, who welcome me, snap pictures, pass me a finisher cap.  Incredibly happy, pleased, proud- not sure how to describe it, but I know it is good, of how the race played out. Leaning my bike against the wall, I speak to it as you would a horse at the end of a long ride, giving thanks and praise in soothing tones.  I am tired.  I grab my post-race duffel and let my recovery gear warm up in the hall.  And finally, I eat that pizza.

Time to recover.  Arrowhead 135 is in 3 weeks.  I'm grateful for the opportunity tackle these adventures and learn that which can only be done by doing.  I look forward to many more doings.

- Todd

Tuscobia Ultra Facebook Page

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Tuscobia 150 2017

Link to SPOT Tracking for Tuscobia 150

Link to Results and Checkpoint Times.

  • The race begins at 6am on Saturday January 7th.  
  • Tracking will be turned on shortly before to confirm it is working.  
  • This link will only show Hunter's progress, not other racers.
  • Updates will be posted on this blog site as time allows.