Now a 50K might seem hard enough on its own accord, especially if it is your first distance above a marathon. Experienced marathoners know well enough that the last 10K is agonizingly brutal. Tack on another 4.8 miles and things get interesting. Run it in mid December in 10-degree weather through several inches of snow with your girlfriend, and life takes on a whole new meaning.
Early on it seemed easy enough. Our Camelbak was full. Stuffed in our other bag was Gu, bananas, Newman-O cookies, peanut butter sandwiches, hand and foot heating packs, headlamps, dry socks and mittens. The sun was out, the wind at our backs and, for the moment, the trail packed hard enough to actually get some good footing.
For the first few miles, the Tuscobia Ultra was no more than a relaxed easy trudge. We passed the time watching the faster competitors slowly fade into the distance. Well placed mile markers along the right side of the trail marked our progress. A need to drink crossed my mind and so I went to take a swig from the Camelbak. It was ice.
With fluid frozen within the spigot, quite suddenly our water supply looked highly unreliable. Twenty-seven miles to go and already we encountered a problem. Lucky for us, a gentleman from Mississippi came to our aid.
"Stick it between your pack and your back," he suggested. Who knew folks from the deep-south knew so much about winter survival?
After that little hiccup, little changed during the next 12 or so miles. The rail trail is remarkably straight, consistently revealing a good mile or two of the upcoming terrain. Our first goal would be to get to the race's lone formal aid station, supposedly at mile 16. Based on the mile markers, we had a rough calculation of when we arrived. So imagine our surprise when we arrived about 40 minutes ahead of schedule.
"You're sure this is mile 16?" I asked the race volunteer several times.
"Absolutely," she said. "We've been doing it here for years."
This sure lifted our spirits. During the past mile or two, the trail had become increasingly uneven and the footing deteriorated. My awesome girlfriend (honestly, she didn't make me say that) and I had been forced to start running single file as snowmobiles uprooted most of the suitable running surface.
We spent several minutes in the heated tent changing socks and refilling our stores. Now that we were halfway through, we were even comfortable dropping our second pack in order to lighten our load. At our current pace, we wouldn't even need the headlamps in our backpack.
Our only concern for the moment, were the beginnings of some blisters on Megan's feet.
In a moment we were off again, the only sound the familiar crunching of our feet in the snow and the periodic roar of a snowmobile going by.
On we trudged. And trudged. And trudged. The mile markers passed and we started counting down the miles that remained. Thinking we had eight miles to go, we saw the race director on the trail ahead of us. Wanting to make sure we hadn't missed a marker, we asked him how much distance remained.
"About ten miles," he said. Our hearts sunk.
"That can't possibly be right," I mumbled.
"My feet are really starting to hurt," Megan responded.
"Let's hope he's wrong then," I said.
Our biggest fear had been the cold, but as we slogged and slid through the mush, our bodies were producing plenty of steam. Blisters, it turned out, would be our biggest enemy, and our pace soon suffered greatly. Bad turned to worse when even placing the spigot of the Camelbak between my back and the pack couldn't thaw it out.
By our count, five miles remained. By the director's count, seven. Fortunately we were able to transfer the contents of the Camelbak into our handheld bottles. However, thinking that seven miles might still be left felt demoralizing. The winter sun was setting and the temperature dropped. The Tuscobia Trail would soon become a beast.
Several of the brave souls who dared the 150-mile bike ride option slogged by on their fate-tired Pugsleys. I was impressed by the brute determination of one particular rider who, 140-odd miles in, managed to climb a steep, snow-covered hill.
Mangled feet and all, we climbed the hill and soon found ourselves crossing a road. A red van containing the race volunteer from "mile 16" was parked on the side checking up on runners.
"How much left?"
"About six miles."
The race director had been right. The halfway station was really at the 13.5-mile mark. Our hearts deflated even more. Every step resulted in slippage of several inches. This 50K was probably more like 75K in terms of effort. As dusk came, we donned our headlamps. Thankfully, bears hibernate in the winter.
A little bit later we crossed another road. Same red van.
"Three to go," we were told. It didn't seem possible. This volunteer had no clue how far we were from the finish. Anyone who's tried to predict their splits over last few miles of a marathon knows how confusion and delirium make simple math impossible. Nevertheless I was quite sure we had at least four miles of ground yet to cover.
And so we trudged and trudged. Megan's feet were clearly now an issue and walking stops became more frequent. We came to another intersection and the same volunteer's van.
"Don't even bother," Megan said. But I had to ask.
"You've got 1.3 left."
She couldn't make up a number like that. Even if we walked it would only be another 20 minutes. Cold, tired, feet shredded, we finally were able to force a smile. In the dark, we anxiously scanned the horizon for the Park Falls water tower they said would mark the finish. Where was it? Minute after minute went by.
"She lied again!" I cried out.
More like two miles after the road we finally hit our turn. Slowed by Megan's leprous feet, we anticlimactically crossed the finish line marked by a man with a clipboard standing beside a minivan.
The post-race party was more of a mini powwow of exhausted souls sharing coffee in an inadequately heated tent. The atmosphere was noticeably unwelcoming. No congratulations for the finishers or awards. The only reminder of our run would be the nine silver-dollar sized blisters on Megan's ravaged feet. We quickly found the car, changed our clothes and headed out.
We will definitely do another 50K. Next time, however, we'll make sure it is in July.
The Tuscobia Winter Ultramarathon is contested on the Tuscobia State Trail in northwest Wisconsin in mid December. Participants have a variety of options of both distance and mode of competition.
Participants can choose to bike, ski, skijor, run or snowshoe.
The distances include a 50K point-to-point race from Winter to Park Falls. The 75-mile option takes the competition from Rice Lake to Park Falls. The 150-mile course starts and ends in Park Falls with a final cutoff time was of 72 hours.
• Head lamp or flashlight, flashing LED lights worn on each racer front and back and 10 square inches of reflective material visible to snowmobile riders.
• 64-ounce water container, 3,000 calories worth of food, sleeping bag with a minus 20-degree or colder rating, insulated sleeping pad, bivy sack or tent, 3.5 fluid ounces of fuel, fire starter and stove to melt snow for drinking.
For more information on cost and awards, go to www.tuscobiaultra.com or e-mail email@example.com.
Stephen Paske is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His novella about distance running, Breaking Stride, can be downloaded for free at www.breakingstride.webs.com. Signed print copies are also for sale.