Tuscobia: a walk to remember

Friday, January 8, 2016: never again.

I left the Ojibwa aid station at 7:56 PM.

At 50 miles, I had successfully talked myself out of Tuscobia. I began to mentally tally every reason that I could not continue: it’s too far, your calf hurts too bad, it’s too cold, you aren’t ready for this. Soon my thoughts became my reality: it was too far, my calf hurt too bad, it was too cold, and I wasn’t ready for it.

After I dropped out of the race, I watched it methodically dismantle and deny racers of their finish. I could not help but feel a sense of intrigue and appreciation for its simplicity and elusiveness. I imagine knowingly and repeatedly subjecting yourself to mentally and physically painful experiences on the trail is a similar phenomena mothers of multiple children experience after giving birth. Ouch. Never again. Oh come on, it wasn’t so bad.


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Friday, January 6, 2017: maybe I’ll try again.

Photo: Tim Lupfer

Photo: Tim Lupfer

I left the Ojibwa aid station at 6:57 PM.

Night fell, casting my surroundings in an icy stillness. I took a deep breath. Inhaling the serenity of my surroundings brought order to my thoughts and peace to my mind. For hours, I shuffled forward, feeling completely in sync with my surroundings.

The temperature continued to drop. I stopped to add the only layer I had yet to put on. I couldn’t bear the thought of properly layering my down jacket under my hard shell so pulled it on backwards over everything. I am so cold. I pulled my hood up over my face, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. I am so cold. In the brief time that I had removed my gloves to clumsily fumble with zippers and move my lights to the outside of my jacket, all of my fingers went completely numb. Keep moving. Just keep moving. I stopped seconds later to grab hand warmers and jogged forward as I worked to get them unwrapped. When I went to finally put them in my mittens, I realized only one mitten was still tucked under my arm. It’s fine. Just keep going. You don’t need it. Jared is going to be pissed you left his mitten out on the trail. You need to go get the mitten. Ugh. I reluctantly backtracked for what felt like miles (likely 100-150 ft) to fetch it. Something caught my eye. Whoa. Are those cat prints? A big cat left those prints… don’t think about big cats right now.

I moved forward in a sleepy haze and looked up to see lights coming toward me. Fast. Soon I made out the shape of another runner, hurrying past me in the opposite direction. Oh no, poor guy couldn’t hang and is going back to the last road crossing to drop. Bummer. I suddenly felt proud of my ability to adapt and persist. I should have given my condolences and asked if he needed anything.

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As morning approached, Edward came by, moving well and startling me out of a sleep walk. “Scott is a beast. He is 20 miles ahead of us. WITH A STOP!” Oh. The runner that I mistakenly assumed was dropping was the leader. And he was lapping me. Glad you didn’t say anything dumb, like “sorry things aren’t going well”. I considered trying to stick with Edward and just as quickly decided that was not possible and went back to drifting in and out of my sleepy shuffle.

 

Saturday, January 7, 2017: how did the moon get over there?

I stumbled into Park Falls alongside Faye at 6:40 AM. We fell into sync with one another as we approached the turn around and silently urged one another forward. Faye is super tough and I was grateful to have her by my side. I am so tired. I am so cold. I can’t do another night out here. I was greeted by cheery volunteers and quickly moved to join the sleeping runners strewn about the floor. I am so tired. I am so cold. I can’t do another night out there. I couldn’t sleep. I was too uncomfortable. I found out later that I had started the race with a mild case of pneumonia and the cold air was causing my lungs to painfully constrict.

I got up and sat on a bench, staring blankly at the floor. I told Alicia I was done. I am so cold. I am so tired. She smiled and brought me soup. “You should change your socks”. She shuffled away, layered in a down jacket and down sleeping bag that I later realized she did not take off the entire weekend. I took off one shoe. My feet hurt. Twenty minutes later she came shuffling back over in her sleeping bag. Swish swish. “You should take off that sock and put on a new one”. I obediently followed her instructions. Ten minutes later she came back with more soup. Swish swish. “Now do the other one”. I am going to quit but she has a point, I might as well change my socks. Why does she care? Whatever. Fresh socks feel good. I could have used a sleeping bag to walk in last night. Kari was at the aid station. I gave her a big hug. She is so amazing. She is so tough.

Photo: Tim Lupfer

Photo: Tim Lupfer

Two hours and six minutes later I found myself back outside dragging my heavy sled down the street away from the checkpoint. Jared and Tim were excitedly wishing me well and telling me how great I looked. Liars. I don’t look great. Jerks. All warm and rested. Alicia drove by, honked, wished me luck, and stopped long enough to let me know her plan to go get warm and take a nap. Huh. Why would she tell me that?

I turned back on to the trail. All you need to do is get back. Just get back. I met fellow runners Anjanette, Jennifer, John, Logan, Scott, and a few others on their way to the checkpoint. Depleted, raw versions of themselves remained as they continued to propel themselves forward. I was inspired by their fortitude and determination. This is what humans were meant to do: adapt and move. This is wonderful. I was re-energized. Seconds later, I jerked awake. In the midst of my renewed excitement, I had slowed to a stop and was leaned over sleeping on my trekking poles. I am so tired. I shuffled forward. This is awful.

Go toward the light… the magnificent, red blinky light signaling the Ojibwa checkpoint. It’s getting closer. I am so tired. Crap, where did it go? I looked back. Oh there it is. I backtracked into Ojibwa. Back out on the trail, I caught up with Edward. We slept walked and hallucinated side-by-side for a couple hours then separated. I saw green dragons made up entirely of lights, people staring blankly and threateningly out windows, runners that were not there, fallen trees over the trail (that I could not help but step over and then stumble). I am so tired. Keep the moon on the left. Soon the moon was on my right. I was going the wrong way. Get the moon back on your left.

 

Sunday, January 8, 2017: can you see my nose? …‘cause I can’t feel it. I think it fell off.

I made it. I had been eagerly awaiting it since sunrise: Ed’s Pit Stop. I was so hungry. And so thirsty. I rushed in and immediately became so overwhelmed by possibilities that, after staring blankly at a shelf full of the same crap I had been eating for days, grabbed a Red Bull and left. I don’t need much. I needed a lot. I am almost done. I wasn’t almost done. I bet Edward is almost done by now. Edward was behind me.

Attempting to stab J's phone with my trekking pole.

Attempting to stab J's phone with my trekking pole.

Then came the next best thing about making it to Birchwood: the hill. I had been looking forward to plopping my depleted body down on my sled and riding down since the turnaround. After numerous attempts at making hills out of non-hills that involved me sitting on my sled and pushing myself across flat sections, I was so ready for this. And it was just as wonderful as I had imagined. Then I hit the rock that almost split my sled in two. I am sure it is fine. I am almost done. It was not fine. I was not almost done. The bottom of my sled was shredded and now it felt like I was dragging my sled through sand. And it was filling and overflowing with snow every few feet. I stared at my broken sled and tried to think of a solution. I fell asleep in the process of thinking. I woke up and decided to drag it backwards. That’s better. It wasn’t better. I quit trying to empty it and just let the snow spill out as it filled.

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Finally, after much mental deliberation about which way I needed to turn (it’s well-marked with arrows), I found myself on the final stretch. I felt energized. I started to run. That was both unwise and unsustainable. I returned to shuffling. You’re almost there! You did it! That was hard! That was amazing! I started to become overwhelmed by emotion and felt my eyes well up with tears. That was too much work too. Save it and keep moving. It was cold. I grabbed a glove out of my bag and put it over my face to block the wind (it made sense at the time). I wonder if Edward is already done. He was running when he passed me. Edward hadn’t passed me.

I was greeted at the finish by Alicia, Jared and Tim. Jared and Tim spent the entire weekend tracking me from a cold car and cheering for me, popping up like little gophers at a few random road crossings to tell me I was doing great, dispelling the delusions I shared with them, and quickly sending me on my way. Sue and Pete had also been tracking my progress all weekend and drove all the way up to be at the finish. It was wonderful to share those moments with them.

Photo: Tim Lupfer

Photo: Tim Lupfer

And just like that, it was over. Tuscobia was so wonderful. Then it was awful. Then it was wonderful. Then it was even more awful. And then it just pretty much stayed awful with occasionally even more awful moments mixed in with the awful. And then it ended. And now I miss it: the incredible people along the way, the icy stillness of the overnights, the bright starry night sky, the solitude, the wild hallucinations and overwhelming Déjà Vu (sorry to anyone I told stories to in the last 16 miles…please disregard), the complete acceptance of the unknown, the comfort in discomfort, the miles of sleep walking, the contentment and fulfillment that mental and physical depletion leaves you with.


Gear:

  • Mostly just some junky gas station food and a couple of sour Jolly Ranchers.

  • The required stuff and all the warm clothes I own.

  • A flimsy black sled.

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Sled Weight:

  • I was told by two people that it was heavy, maybe 45-50 lbs. I packed scared, not light.