Tuscobia 150 – Recap December 27, 2010Posted by whereschrisscotch in Races/Events - Recaps, Uncategorized.
In July I made a comment in my recap of the Voyageur 50 mile race that 50 miles is a long way. ” A real long way.” Doesn’t that seem foolish now? There is “perspective” rearing itself again. That day in July, 50 miles was a real long way, and I vividly remember being quite battered from that race. Turn to this past week, however, and I would like to add something to that original thought – - 150 miles is a long way. A real long way. Just not in the way you might think….
An ultra on snow with a sled proved to be an entirely different experience from trail running for me. The pace is much slower. There isn’t a thrashing of the muscles and body, rather it is more a kin to decomposition of the tissue. 60 hours of exertion with minimal and restless sleep makes for a degradation of the mind as well as the body. On trials I get lost in the contours of the the path, avoiding rocks, jumping over roots and picking the best lines. The mind gets occupied and the miles and hours can roll past quickly. On a snow covered, mostly flat trail, meandering aimlessly for an eternity, my mind felt every second pass by. The only things to think about were the miles yet to cover and when to eat or drink. The recovery is up and down, physically and mentally.
The race started at 7am Friday morning, December 17th. I arrived at the trailhead about 2:30 am Friday morning, forgoing sleep in a bed, and instead slept for a few hours in the car. I was checked in on once by one of Park Falls finest, about 3:30 am I think. He was pretty surprised to see my head pop up I think, but he was very friendly and even suggested I grab breakfast at The Frontier diner in town, which I did at 5:30. With a big greasy breakfast in me and more cups of coffee than I can count, I thought I was ready to go. I drove back to the trailhead about 6:15 and was a bit uneasy as I expected to see other racers there already getting ready. I can’t recall being the first person to a race all year, so I wasn’t sure what to do – was I in the wrong spot? Did I have the time wrong? I sat in the car for a while unsure what to do. I needed to change clothes and pack my sled, but I didn’t want to do all that if I was in the wrong place. I rechecked my printouts and notes and confirmed I was where I should be. By now it was past 6:30 and I decided to start getting ready. Shortly later everyone else showed up, fully prepped and ready to go. I went about my business of packing the sled and drop bags, trying to figure out what to bring with me and what to put in drop bags. This was my first experience with a winter race and my mind was quite uncertain about everything. I stayed calm and double checked everything – feeling satisfied with things I changed my clothes and locked up the jeep. I was just heading down the trail when one of the onlookers (Tim and his family I believe) gently reminded me my Thule was still open on the roof of my car. I can only imagine the amusement they all shared watching me run around like a headless chicken before I finally headed down the trail, about 10 minutes later than everyone else. Little did they or I know (or maybe they did), that my pants were on backwards! I unstrapped the sled and disrobed quickly in the in dark morning chill to dress myself more practically. A little drama getting going, but everything seemed in order from this point. I had the typical pre-race jitters and as I started running down the trail after the other competitors I focused intently on keeping my body from overheating. This would be something I remained very conscious of for the next 60 hours. This was my number 1 priority and concern, and I manged it effectively.
The First 50 Miles:
I jogged along at an easy pace for about half an hour and caught up to 2 of the 3 other runners, Scott from Utah and Mitchell from Minnesota. I settled in at their pace and enjoyed the next couple hours. Mitchell and I were moving at a slightly quicker pace than Scott, and soon we found ourselves alone. The 4th runner, Roberto, had started out quick and was still ahead of us somewhere. Mitchell has done this sort of thing before, in addition to running ultras and climbing mountains, so I just started asking questions and tried my best to soak up everything he was sharing. I learned a lot about what to expect over the next couple days, how to better prepare, how to eat, how to plan, what not to do and so on. These first 50 miles went quickly and I thoroughly enjoyed the time on the trail getting to know Mitchell and being his pupil. His plan was to do 50 miles, stop trail-side and sleep, so when we reach his stopping point around 1 am he found a suitable place to lay out his bag and I kept going. My plan was to get to the second checkpoint, at mile 62, and sleep there. We found out at the beginning of the race that the checkpoints, at miles 30, 63, 87 and 120 were going to be hotel rooms. I decided to do my resting at the checkpoints where I could dry out and not have to unpack my sled to catch some zzz’s. The course is an out and back, with the turn around at 75, so there were two checkpoints on each leg, and then repeated in reverse. Just as I was leaving Mitchell I caught sight of Roberto’s blinking red light up the trail. Within minutes I had caught up to him and passed him.
The Middle 50 Miles:
I arrived at the Birchwood Checkpoint (mile 63) about 3:30 am, roughly 20 hours after I started and about an hour ahead of Roberto. I changed into dry clothes, set out my wet clothes to dry and ate for about an hour. I was just trying to settle in for some sleep when Roberto came through the checkpoint. He had decided not to rest and pushed on after refueling. I slept for about 2 hours, got myself put back together and back on the trail by 9 am. I figure Roberto had left the about 3.5 hours before me and would be reaching the turnaround at mile 75 very shortly. I was anxious to close the gap and was moving quickly this morning. The 75 mile race started at the turnaround at 10 am, so I would be going past some familiar faces. John Storkamp was the first one I saw, as expected. He is one fast moving guy. He stopped to say hello and we chatted for a few minutes. He could tell I was pretty excited about catching up to Roberto and he told me to just be patient. This helped calm me down and get my body heat back under control. Next I saw Alicia – she was looking great and moving well. She ended getting sick and having to rest for a few hours later in the night, but she hunkered down and pushed through. I am always amazed at the people who can pick themselves up when they are sick and keep on going. Next I say Daryl Saari, who completely and utterly surprised me with pop tarts. He so matter of factly said, “have some blueberry pop tarts for you”. I was floored. How did he know pop tarts were about my favorite thing when running? I was totally thankful and had a pretty damn optimistic view of things after this encounter. I also saw Lynn Saari, Jason Husveth and John Taylor. It was a great boost to my moral and energy to see them all. As I was about an half mile from the 75 mile turnaround, I finally saw Roberto. He had just left the turnaround after resting a spell and having some spaghetti on his stove. He looked good and and told me someone was waiting for me at the turnaround. Indeed, it was my mom!! She had come up this morning to crew for the rest of the race. I sat with her for a few minutes at the turnaround while I ate and discussed when I would be back at the Birchwood checkpoint, only 12 miles away. There is nothing like having your parents supporting you at an event like this. My dad had crewed for me at the Sawtooth 100 and now mom was here. I was really feeling good now, especially knowing that I was only a couple miles behind Roberto. I had only gone 12 miles so far today, with 45 yet to go, but it seemed so attainable at this moment. I never caught up to Roberto over the next 12 miles back to Birchwood, which were fairly uneventful, except for meeting Mitchell on his way to the turn around and the couple of decent downhills that I decided to jump in my sled and ride down. Nothing like reminiscing about my childhood when I spent hours and hours sledding down every hill I could find growing up in northern Minnesota. It was fun. And it still is. I returned to Birchwood ahead of Roberto, which didn’t make sense as I hadn’t passed him. The volunteers, Misty, Alicia and Dan, and I couldn’t quite figure it out, until Roberto came through the door with a pizza! He had stopped to order some food for everyone. What a guy! While Roberto ate pizza, I ate everything else I could find. We both filled up on food and fluids and heading out the door into the dark night. We paced each other for about 10 miles, chatting about all sorts of things. We were racing each other, but it never felt like that. We were a team of two pushing through the cold and dark with our sleds in tow. We had 33 miles to go when we left Birchwood and it was nice having someone to talk with for the first few hours. I don’t know if it was sleep deprivation setting in or just the monotony of the time on the trail, but soon I found myself alone. I looked back and couldn’t even see Roberto’s headlamp. Somehow I had zoned out and moved ahead of him. I passed the place Mitchell had camped the night before and planned to camp again tonight. This meant I had travelled a total of 100 miles so far, with 50 remaining. I contemplated pulling over and waiting for Mitchell, getting some sleep and rest. I was pretty tired and was feeling the effects of the longs hours. But I pushed on.
The Final 50 miles:
When Roberto and I left Birchwood we thought we had 30 miles to get to the Winter checkpoint. This was my carrot on a stick. I planned to sleep at Winter for a few hours and then go the last 30 miles on Sunday. This meant that Saturday would be a 54 mile day, and Friday was a 63 mile day. But somewhere in the snow, I had miscalculated. The Winter checkpoint was 33 miles from Birchwood, and those 3 extra miles at 4 am on Sunday morning were the most difficult 3 miles I have experienced in my brief running career. The mind has a way of getting your body where it needs to go – if you are out for a 2 mile run, a marathon or 100 miles. It is one of the most amazing and perplexing abilities we have. There were mile posts on the Tuscobia trail so I had counted down the mileage and when I reach 30 miles and realized that I wasn’t at the checkpoint I wasn’t ready for what would happen. I had seen a road sign a couple miles back that said Winter was 5 miles away. I remember remarking to myself that sign couldn’t be right. That I had gone about 30 miles and the checkpoint should be just around the corner. But it wasn’t. My mind had consumed all its energy getting me the 30 miles I told it to go. Without my mind pushing it, my body slowed to a snails pace, exhausted from the last 45 hours. The range of emotions came – anger and frustration for not being able to figure out how far I was supposed to go. Defeated at the inability to move forward any faster. I stopped a few times and sat on the trail, doing nothing to get closer or to unpack and sleep. My body ached, especially my feet which felt like they had been put through a wood chipper – every step they throbbed with pain. It all seemed futile and for some reason I felt a sense of failure. I had made a promise to my friend Bryan and his wife, Carissa, in memory of their son Nolan, that I would give this race my absolute best effort. I realized sitting on my ass feeling sorry for myself wasn’t cutting it. As painful as it was to walk, I pushed on. I figure the last three miles of this leg took me over three hours, but finally I made it. I had to stop and gather my bearings a few times, the last of which I knew was only about 1/3 of a mile from the checkpoint. It was still dark and while I gathered my strength leaning on my poles a pack of coyotes started their ghoulish banter. I don’t typically fear coyotes, and I don’t think I did at this moment either, but there howls snapped me to attention and got me moving. Finally I arrived at the Winter checkpoint at 6:30 am. I barely had the strength, mentally or physically, to take my shoes and clothes off. I took a quick shower and laid in the bed with my feet up the wall while Jan (Tim’s mom) graciously brought me food and water. My feet were swollen to the point of engorgement. My right pinky toe had a blood blistering covering 75% of it. My knees were on fire, and burned hotter as the fluid from me feet flowed down my legs. Eventually I positioned myself properly in the bed and tried to sleep. I tossed and turned with pain as my lungs tried to their best to expel the mucus that had built up deep within them over the past 48 hours. I felt at this moment like I did after 100 miles at Sawtooth, except this time I had to wake up and run another 30 miles with a sled. As I drifted off to sleep I questioned if my body could handle any more.
When my eyes fluttered open at 8:30am Sunday morning a familiar outline was in the room. It took my brain a few seconds to realize it, but my mom was there, ready to help any way she could. I was still hurting, barely able to walk to the bathroom, but a familiar pillar of support in my life was present, and my mind knew it would have to find a way to finish this race. Mom found a cinnamon roll with oodles of frosting somewhere nearby. I inhaled that with other assorted sugar-laced goodies and started to prep for the last 30 miles. Roberto hadn’t some through while I was sleeping and we were starting to wonder where he might be. But just then he came through the door. I have to admit, he looked pretty damn good. Turns out he had stopped and slept on the trail for a couple of hours. His plan was to shower and rest up a bit, so I decided to head out before him as I was dressed and ready to go. I put my shoes on and strapped the sled to my body. Almost instantly I felt better and I jogged out of the hotel parking lot, across the road and back on the trail. I set about gearing up my mind and crunching the numbers. I left at 10 am, had 30 miles to go. My initial guess was that this would take me about 12 hours. I didn’t like the sound of this so I looked at the task a different way. If I could just get this down to a marathon, I knew I could finish. So I started running, quickly. I ran the next 4 miles as fast as the sled would allow, getting this down to a distance I knew I could handle. The trail at this point parallels some paved road for a while, and mom met me twice at some road crossings to offer encouragement. She commented that I was moving fast and looked good. She is my mom, after all, and is supposed to say things like this whether they have merit or are even true at all, but I felt like she really understood and meant what she was saying. I was energized and feeling good. I had a game plan and was nailing it down. The sun was out and its warm rays were on my back. The next 26 miles were a euphoric trip down the rabbit hole. I had a brief but pointed conversation with each mile post as they counted down. I wanted the trail to know that I had it in my sites. When I got 15 miles left I let out a victorious scream – I was halfway for the day, and was ready for the challenge of the “middle miles” of a marathon. That time when it gets tough. Still to far from the finish to smell the end, and the initial burst of endorphins has wore off a bit. When it hit me I was ready for it. I hunkered down and made sure I was eating and drinking. Then I got to mile post 1o – now I could smell the finish. Another yelp and a few pointed words at the mile post indicating that I was going to beat this trail today. The sky was clear as the sun started setting behind me, spraying the horizon with majestic pink hues. In front of me a nearly full moon tinted with the sunset rose into the night sky. The time and setting made for one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever been a part of. Then the rabbit hole got very interesting. I saw all sorts of strange objects ahead of me on the trail and in the woods. Ranging from the pink foam sheets of insulation used in buildings, to toilets, to an artistic blue bird that you might find on an Inuit totem pole. Of course none of these objects were ever really there as I approached them, vanishing into nothing but mounds of snow and twisted branches. But at the time the separation between reality and fantasy had melded and my brain wasn’t making note of that anything was out of sorts. I was focused only on finishing. I turned off my headlight to soak up the night and enjoy the last 2 miles with only the moon and snow to show me the way. As I made my way up the turnoff to the trail head parking I found my mom waiting on the trail about 50 yards from the finish. Fittingly, she ran with me to the finish and congratulated me with a hug and later on a most appropriate 6 pack of New Glarus Moon Man ale.
Thank you to my parents, especially my mom for crewing for me and making me as comfortable as I could be on Sunday morning and for running to the finish with me Sunday night. To have you by my side made this event special. Thanks to Tim Roe, the Race Director, his parents and the Birchwood checkpoint volunteers, Misty, Alicia and Dan. You guys don’t get to sleep either, and your volunteer efforts offer a reprieve from the struggles of a tough race. Thanks to Mitchell Rossman, you taught me a lot on the fly and I look forward to see you out on the trail again soon. Thanks to Helen for your support from abroad. You have taught me so much about running and myself over the past few months and without your insights and support I wouldn’t have dreamed that I could finish a race like this. And thanks to all of you that sent along wishes of good luck and support before, during and after the race. I feel blessed to be a part of the extended family of ultra runners. And finally, thank you to Katelyn Atwell, my inspiration for Where’s Chris Scotch and my ongoing campaign for St. Jude Children’s Hospital, and to Bryan, Carissa and Nolan. Your generosity in your own time of difficulty will help save the lives of children at St. Jude. And your faith in me, literally picked me up off the snow and willed me to finish.
150 miles on snow with a sled. 60 hours and 25 minutes. Dedicated to the memory of Nolan Magnus Keister.