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2016 Tuscobia 80 Race Report

Dallas Wynne

I’ve come to believe that the most interesting experiences begin with a certain degree of fear.  For years I’ve admired the Arrowhead 135 competitors as some of the toughest people on earth.  To even sign up participants need to submit a resume that demonstrates the ability to survive and compete all day and night in the extreme cold.  After years adventure riding including 4 years of Gravel Conspiracy I was looking for a new challenge. The question was how to get started.   The gears started turning a year ago after reading the great race report Chris Locke wrote about the 2015 Tuscobia 75. The Tuscobia Winter Ultra offers a middle distance race that doesn't require a resume, I could use this to gain experience.

Before signing up of the Tuscobia I wanted to taste what it’s like to ride all day in frigid temperatures. Last February I asked my friend Keith to join me for a 90 mile ride through the Sand barrens on a five degree day.  We survived the day and learned how fast you can get cold if you’re not eating or working hard enough. Cold temperatures make it hard to eat frozen food, and when it’s cold you really don’t feel thirsty. The combination leads to reduced energy,slower pace, and getting cold. I’d hope to not have to learn this lesson again.  

After registering in August I began acquiring the gear that I’d carry during the race.  The required gear is similar to the Arrowhead 135 list including: a 0 degree sleeping bag, bivy sack, stove with fuel, 1 liter pot, and 3000 calories of reserve food for emergency use.  To carry all this gear I began sewing a complete set of bikepacking gear. I must admit that researching and designing my own gear is part of the fun.  The extended fall and warm snowless winter was great for riding but less than ideal for cold weather testing. In the weeks leading up to the race, temperatures continued to be way above normal, but in the final days it became clear that temps were going to fall hard.  
20160109_092807.jpgFriday before the race my friend Angus and I checked into our Rice Lake hotel and began narrowing down our final gear and clothing selections. At 5 pm we drove across town to the the Knights of Columbus Hall for the mandatory gear check and rider meeting. At the gear check the Race director Chris personally checked over every piece of equipment that each racer had and wished us all good luck.  The brief riders meeting went through the final course information and what we could expect at the aid stations.  Finally we loaded our bikes on the trailer that would take them to the 80 mile race start in Park Falls.
Racer meeting in Rice Lake

At 6:30 the next morning we boarded a school bus packed with other eager racers for the 90 minute ride to the other end of the course in Park Falls. The bus was warm and as it began moving I pulled my hat down low and attempted to sleep while leaning against the frosty window. Occasionally I’d scrape a small hole in the frost with my glove and peek out. It was on one of those overcast winter days where the snow and sky are the same color. The forecast predicted a temperature of 8 degrees, but the temperature was holding at 15 degrees. At 9am we arrived at the St. Anthony School that served as the turnaround for the 160 mile race, and the starting point for the 80 mile race.  We found our bikes safe and secure in the school storage garage and began final preparations for the 10 am start. The heated school gym was fully stocked with food, coffee, and hot water by race volunteers and local girl scouts. It was great to have a warm place to wait until we started. I made a short ride to the trail to check the conditions and make sure all was well with my bike.

Ready, Set, GO!

Adrenaline briefly spiked as 50 bikers, 20 runners with sleds, and 2 skiers began rolling out of the parking lot. I planned to get into a good position near the front of the pack before entering the trail, but I noticed an issue with my GPS that needed attention which meant I would be starting from the back.  At the back of the pack the trail was pretty soft and chewed up. 

The firm, smooth trail that I had pre-ridden 30 minutes ago was gone.  I decided it would be worth the effort to get closer to the front where the trail conditions would would be much better.  I began picking my way through a few riders at a time until I reached the gap between the fast group and the slower group.  I recovered for a few minutes then began worked up to effort level that I could sustain for the day. The rail trail grade was consistent, but the  changing trail firmness made it difficult to settle into a pace.  I tried to focus on effort at and cadence rather than speed. Upshifting in firm sections,  and downshifting for sections of soft snow. This was very similar to the testing I had done at the Stower Seven Lakes trail near my home.  After the first three miles I began executing my food and drink plan. 

On the bike I carried two insulated 32 ounce bottles of hot water with Camelback tabs. One had a long tube that I could drink through without taking the bottle out. My food was a random creation of chocolate covered raisins, mixed nuts, Combos, M&M’s and chocolate chips. The large bag of food was easy to reach in the custom aero bar fairing I made a week ago. At each mile I would eat 2-3 handfuls of  mix and take two or three good drinks.  My plan was to make eating a habit so I would not lose focus and run out of energy again.

By the 35 mile checkpoint in Ojibwe I felt the race was going well. I wasn’t fast, or slow, I but I was on pace to finish in less that 12 hours.  I had been riding solo for the last three and a half hours and the fantastic volunteers were great to talk with as I warmed my feet by the fire, put in new toe warmers, and enjoyed a fresh grilled cheese sandwich.  Angus arrived just as I was getting ready to leave.  I was glad to see a smile on my friend's face and hear that his day was going well.  After a 20 minute break I was on my way.

Studying the course is always a good idea. Knowing the location of difficult sections or places to take on food is critical to staying positive during long days. On my cue sheet I had the 22 mile stretch between Radisson and Birchwood marked as key segment for the long false flat that lasts almost 10 miles, and the lack of available support.  With this in mind, I stopped in Radisson for ibuprofen to soothe my back that had been bothering me for the last 15 miles. It soon began getting dark and my light lit the narrow wheel path left by the riders I was trailing. Every so often a small group of snowmobiles would ride by. They were alway very courteous and slowed down as they passed, but they usually erased the wheel path I had been riding and softened up snow on the trail. I maintained a conservative pace up and over the one hill and actual caught two riders ahead of me in the process.

At mile 65 we reached Ed’s pit stop in Birchwood.  Ed’s was the light at the end of 3 hours of darkness.  An oasis of made to order food, coffee and whatever you could need. My stomach was letting me know that I had eaten enough sweets, so I opted for an egg salad sandwich, jerky, and coffee heavily loaded with half and half.  I changed out my second set of toe warmers and prepared to leave when I noticed that I had sweated through all the layers on my upper body. I had been stopped for 20 minutes and was now cold and wet. I had worked too hard during the last section without removing a layer. I knew this was a major mistake and that my coat would quickly freeze in in the -20 degree wind chill outside.  I left feeling safe that I had a puffy down coat, windproof pants,and extreme weather mittens in my seat bag just in case I ran into trouble.  As I left the parking lot I could feel my coat begin getting stiff and my finger tips getting cold inside my bar mitts.  I had 15 miles to the finish and after the rest my legs felt fresh. I rode as hard as I could to build heat back, and after 20 minutes I was no longer cold, but still wet. The last few miles went by quickly, and soon I made the only turn of the race onto the Wild RIvers trail with 5 miles to go! This was the only tail wind of the day and I was happy to have it.  I began pushing the pace harder again knowing I was less that 30 minutes from the end.  As I entered the Knights of Columbus hall I was greeted by the race organizer Chris  and the fantastic volunteers. I had finished in 11:04 minutes and I felt great. I found a comfortable chair and enjoyed a few squares of delicious local pizza and craft beer. Shortly after I finished eating my friend Angus arrived.  I was happy to see that the day went well for both of us.  Having enjoyed this experience I plan to be back next year and apply what I’ve learned to the full 160.

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