Friday, January 4, 2013

Tuscobia Winter Ultramarathon: But what does it mean??

Term: Tuscobia [origin of place name]

Definition: From the American Indian word "tuscola" meaning "a level place". 
[Source: Milwaukee Sentinel, Aug. 29., 1939.]

I've never gone to a race and had strangers walk up to me knowing who I was (and not I'm not referring to the fact my name was scribbled so elegantly on my bib). What a bizarre feeling! Because of social sites like Facebook and dailymile I was connecting with racers before the big day and after just a few moments I was able to match the person before me to the person I knew online. It was surreal and very much like running Tuscobia was, my first (and last?) winter ultramarathon. According to Outside Online, it's the "slighty saner" winter ultramarathon so it can't be that bad, right?

At a Glance
Location: Tuscobia State Trail, 74-mile abandoned railroad grade trail in northern Wisconsin
Total Race Distance: 35 miles (although by the talk afterwards it might have been a smidge closer to 36)
Time to Finish: 9:45
Elevation Gain: Maybe 450 ft

Starting Temperature: About 22° F
Ending Temperature: About 17° F
Quotes of the Day: "Wow. How boring."
                             "But what does it mean?"
                             "I'm over it"

Toughening Up
The physical challenge of running on snow didn't worry me too much. I felt prepped enough from the sand running I did earlier in the year. Surprisingly for being utter extremes the two are similar in perceived effort. As long as my core and extremities were warm the burn from breathing in the chill never phased me. For the most part I feel like my training for this wasn't about mileage but learning how to layer. If I didn't dress warm enough I could freeze like I did at Kickapoo. Adversely if I dressed up too much I would end up sweating which could chill me to the bone. Learning what layers worked in order to keep me warm without provoking sweating proved a task but come race day I had layers tuned in for as low as 15 degrees and had run in temps as low as 11 degrees. Any lower and I would just have had to hope extra layers were enough.

Final Picks for Race Day
Winter hiking boots

Bra, merino wool socks and undies 
Outerlayer jacket (waterproof, wind-blocking, breathable)
Midlayer top (merino wool blend)
Pants (with a brushed interior)
Base layer (merino wool -- packed but not needed for this race)
Two water packs, one for undercoat with water, one for over coat with food/coconut water
Insulated water bottles for outer pack
Hat, wool mittens and water resistent mittens
Required safety gear: reflective vest, 2 flashing LED lights, headlamp
Salt capsules, chapstick

Race Start
For the first time in a very long time I arrived at a race early, way way too early. I had a whole hour to kill and although I was loving the late race start of noon, I was exhausted from tending to my sick daughter the days leading up to the race. Standing around killed what peppiness I had acquired from coffee. I soon found myself at a gas station buying a Mountain Dew just to stay awake but as soon as I returned the gang was leaving to climb onto the shuttle bus. Only one other time have I been shuttled from the finish to the start but that was merely a 10-minute shortcut across the route for the San Diego Marathon. We followed the trail, all 35 miles of it, to Ojibwa. It was best not to think how long the bus ride took knowing we had to make our own way back.

Off the bus and mingling I was fluttering to keep my core temp up. I wasn't gonna bunker down before hand like I did at Kickapoo. Thankfully there were great people to meet and by far the most organized chaotic start line I've been to yet.

Fellow BAMR and 2nd place female, Maggie
Photo Credit: Maggie's hubby
Photo Credit: Phillip Gary Smith
Pick Your Posion: Bike, ski, run or snowshoe
Miles 1-17
I must have been giddy over this race because I never did my self checks beforehand. You see, I hate sloshing. That rhythmic swish-glug-swish-glug coming behind me from my packs annoys me to no end. Within the first mile I stopped to dink around with my packs to stop the slosh. I took off again and a young guy filled with happy-nervous energy got a shock.
  • Him -- "Hey! How you feeling? Feeling good?" 
  • Me -- "I don't know man," shrugging shoulders. "I'm thinking of quitting."  
  • Him -- Cue jaw drop. "But we just started!" 
I felt the need to inform the guy I was just joking around. Of course it was too soon to be thinking of quitting. I hadn't even hit 2 miles yet! More sloshing started and I stopped to tinker with my straps once more. Damn the slosh. At this point I had an outrageous number of people pass me with these two gals being the last, and they would end up being the last runners I would see in front of me for the rest of the race.

I eventually made it 5 miles out from Ojibwa and hit Winter, a check-in station and only station until mile 24. After the race I found out some people dropped out at this station and one person never even made it. Looking back it seems my joke wasn't as funny as I thought. 

I was trying to play catch up to anybody in front of me but I couldn't catch even the slightest glimpse of anyone. I heard a creek up in the tree branches overhead. Stupidly I thought of the movie Predator. The infamous drum cadence crept between my ears. That'll send a shiver down your back alone out on Tuscobia.

I couldn't help but kick myself for wasting so much time tinkering with my gear. I kept a steady pace and then just stopped in my tracks. I had an overwhelming sense of boredom rush over me. I actually asked myself, "Do I really want to run this?" I never answered myself but I did start running again.

Up ahead after no more than a mile I caught glimpse of a bar across the road. I found myself standing on the trail side of the highway. I still couldn't catch sight of anyone ahead. I paused and looked behind me. I couldn't see a soul. So I crossed the highway and waited at the bar for a quick spell. When I came back out still no one. I pressed on.

Miles 17-35
It didn't take long for night to start settling down. I stopped to throw on my vest, get my blinkers going, have a snack and swap my empty pink guava coconut water for my mango coconut water. All of a sudden a shuffler approached me. It was another racer! We exchanged a few customary how-you-dos and he soon drifted behind. The sky was complete cast over so there was no chance of getting by with using any moonlight. My little bubble of world was stark and getting cold. I stopped to layer up. 

Nightfall came down and crushed my vision and that's when my body started behaving strangely. At first it was slurred speech which I assumed was just my typical Elmer Fuddism sinking in or it was from my face being exposed to the cold. The dizziness started to bother me, not that I was worried just that I was annoyed to be feeling it at all. I was also drifting really bad across the trail any time I would turn my head to the side. When I would take a moment to glance behind me the twisting would really catch me off balance. I didn't fully realize this for many miles though. 

The tiny little blink of light from the other racer slowly faded out of view only to be quickly passed by another. The new mass of lights seemed to have a decent pace. I toyed with the idea of slowing down so I would have someone to talk to. What madness I was speaking! But a slight dizziness was spreading over my head and I thought maybe slowing down wasn't such a bad idea. I thought if I walked a bit the racer would catch up. After half an hour the racer was closer but in order to wait for him to catch up I had to stop completely. 

In it 'til the end
 His name was Wayne, and he was more than happy to make conversation. This was his last race on a year long challenge to complete over 1000 race miles. I don't think I have ever run 1000 miles in a year so that pretty much blew my mind. I loved comparing war stories and finding out about races I've never heard of. We both were glancing behind us occasionally except when I did so I would just about crash into Wayne and get nauseated when I straightened myself back up but only for a sheer moment. What started off as amusing turned into frustration which turned into legitimate concern. I felt confident nothing was seriously wrong beyond some sort of exhaustion setting in and was content to just shuffle to the end. 

Meanwhile, on the trail...can you guess which was my fave? 
"I like your stamina, Call me! 867-5390" 
"Your legs will forgive you...eventually"
"Who needs toenails?"
Each time I stopped to take the above pictures I paused for no more than 30 seconds and yet each time I was already chilled and close to shivering when I moved on. I would shuffle hard for a bit then fall back to walking. I wanted to take off running but thought better of being alone on Tuscobia. I could feel that my body was on the verge of some point of exhaustion but I hadn't figured out what that was quite yet.

It took 9 hours and 40 45 minutes to touch the final marker. I was beyond stoked to leave the hypnotic tree tunnels behind me with barely any soreness throughout my body. It didn't take long to get stiff though once I stopped. Racers amnesia graciously kicked in immediately.

Ultramarathon chicks....just the right mixture of sassy and sweet
 The crew did an amazing job keeping us all fed when the race was over. I had Reuben pizza for the first time, some insanely delicious soup, cookies, cake, cheese...freaking yum! After relaxing for 1.5 hours I made the drive home. I was missing my daughter and ready for some solid sleep.

Just a couple little blisters. The right middle is being stubborn with healing.

I have had a hauntingly familiar feeling weigh me down since the race. So far I haven't bothered getting a check up, but it sure feels like I'm anemic again, which isn't surprising considering the 6 hellish weeks of red demon torture leading right up to the race. I feel the need to sleep 'round the clock and have needed to focus more to make basic motions at times. My concentration is currently out the window. The second day after the race I tried snowshoeing and couldn't catch my breath no matter how hard I labored. The lack-of-breath feeling sickeningly reminds me of my horrid track days in junior high when I was made to run the mile but physically couldn't. I often faked an Achilles tendon pain or cramp as an excuse why I couldn't finish. I thought my lack of breath was a sign of laziness and being physically unfit, not that I didn't have the oxygen in my blood to perform the task. I'm working on increasing iron sources from my diet as an alternate means of supplementing iron which never worked for me in the past and only created problems. 

I'll see if the fatigue lifts by Monday otherwise I will  finally consider checking in with my doctor. After all, I do have a marathon 15 days out.

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