Thursday, January 14, 2016

Decompressing Tuscobia

I've been writing an injury-free running post for a while--it's a bit long, kind of an essay on running, actually. I don't know if it's good or bad that I didn't finish and post it before Tuscobia, seeing I've left that race injured two years in a row.

Gotta fix that.

Tuscobia is a wonderful event, put on by wonderful people, Chris and Helen Scotch and a slew of selfless, passionate volunteers.

I'm not a sailor, but winter ultra events remind me of sailing. There's a minimum complexity--if perfect weather and conditions, they're summer events with added gear. At best, it's a long, slow haul across the ocean. The perfect race is one of few waves and constant, steady progress. But like the unimaginable power of the ocean, weather and trail conditions can take what was a peaceful journey and turn it into madness.
"A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for." ― William G.T. Shedd
Like walking a slackline, high above a canyon floor--it's that slim path of safety so close to danger on each side that draws people to it. It's climbing, one missed hold away from falling. It's about controlling what you can, and giving in to what you cannot.

I didn't know I was a thrill seeker.

Though my safety net is a bit safer than others--a sleeping bag and a spot device.

The race

The race started off well-enough, except that I accidentally found myself in front. I didn't even put on a headlamp until just a minute before we took off, and I hadn't planned on turning it on unless I needed something from my sled, yet somehow my 16-minute pace was leading. There was a few inches of new, wet, unbroken snow on the trail as we left Rice Lake, and it started snowing more as we headed north to the Tuscobia trail. I expected some idiot to run by at some point, but alas, I was the biggest idiot for the first 5 miles, breaking trail, until it got light.

When Scott Hoberg and I made quick stops a bit onto the Tuscobia trail, Carla Goulart and Kevin Alldredge scooted by for a second. They tried to sled the first hill, but didn't slide far, and Scott and I pulled ahead, Scott breaking trail for the next spell. At some point, Grant Maughan, from Australia, and Carla went ahead, running a bit. Scott followed, keeping them in sight. Even Kevin went ahead as I stayed at my 16-minute pace. Then, as the trail got hilly before Birchwood (mile 18), I kept pace past Kevin and Carla, before stopping at the first gas station for the bathroom and liquid.

I came back out to see Kevin and Carla just ahead, then Scott and Grant, who must have stopped at the second gas station. Still nobody in sight behind us. I made my way past Kevin, Carla, and Grant, and caught up to Scott. We had wonderful conversation, taking turns breaking trail. Grant stayed with us as Carla and Kevin fell off. Around mile 36, Scott stopped to check his feet, and Grant started running a bit. Scott went after him, and that's the last I saw him until mile 74.5. Grant eventually pulled out of sight, but he was at Ojibwe (mile 47) when I got there, and I left just after him.

I told Alicia, at Ojibwe, that I wanted to go quick, because I didn't want my right leg to tighten up--a sign of things to come. The night was uneventful, and lonely. The weather was good, and the trail ok. I was following Grant and Scott's steps, but was alone most of the night. My pace started to drop around mile 60--a combination of the pain in my right leg and sleepiness. The lone remaining 150 skier, Dan Powers from Alaska, caught me not too much afterwards, and I had new tracks to follow.

As the miles went on, the pain kept building in my right leg behind my knee. I wasn't able to fully extend it, or use my right calf or hamstring, but I could still push with my glute at a decent pace, so I kept on. A similar pain developed last year, though later in the race, and I was able to finish. I figured as long as I was able to keep my pace up, I'd be fine.

Soon, a single light started at me in the darkness, and Scott was on me. We talked briefly. He'd picked up the pace when he took off before Ojibwe, and hadn't slowed. At mile 74.5, he was 11 miles and a 45-minute break ahead of me. Amazing.

I got to the turnaround at Park Falls, mile 80, at 8:30am, 25.5 hours into the race. Dan, the 150 skier, and Grant, the Aussie, were sleeping. I fixed my feet, grabbed some warm water, and put my feet up for a few minutes. I took off again, just after Grant, but the right leg was slowing me a lot.

And that's about it.

I got back out on the trail and struggled to maintain a decent pace. It was ok, right away, especially as I passed the other 150-mile runners headed to the turn-around, and it wasn't long before the 75-mile bikers, skiers, and runners started by.

I had to put my parka on early because I couldn't keep my hands warm, then the wind picked up after dark, and the temps kept dropping. I told myself, "I can do this," a billion times, and I believed it, for a while, but the pain kept building, and I kept slowing down. Every few steps, my leg would move in a way it shouldn't, and the pain would blur my vision. I was tired, but the pain was exhausting.

At this point, around mile 103, I'd been moving at a paltry 27-minute pace the 23 or so miles since Park Falls, and I kept slowing. Doing the math, I'd be fine with even a 30-minute pace to the finish, but I couldn't fathom 26 more hours of wincing, vision-blurring pain. I came to a road crossing and checked my phone. No service. I kept going.

Logan Polfuss caught up, and I wasn't alone anymore. It was nice. We chatted a bit about the race, and life, and a few slow miles went by, but I was quickly losing the will to go on. We were 105 miles in, some 9 miles out from Ojibwe, and 4 miles from Winter, but I was done. The next road crossing came up, and I hit my non-emergency "come get me" button on my Spot device, tossed my sleeping pad out in the snow, pulled out my bag, and laid down. Logan joined me.

It was glorious.

Alicia and Kerry came and picked us up 3 hours later, and we crashed at a hotel in Winter.

By the time I woke up, Scott Hoberg had finished, and we made it to Rice Lake the next day in time to see Grant, the Aussie, finish. John Taylor and Thomas Keene, from Tennessee, each hung on to finish. 4 of 23 finished. The rest of us swung and missed, but that's ok, too.

Next time.

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