Lessons Learned at Tuscobia

By: John Porter

Mid year in 2016 I decided to go back to Rice Lake Wisconsin and enjoy the winter fat bike race called The Tuscobia Winter Ultra for the 3rd time. This time the 160 mile version of the race.   https://tuscobia.wordpress.com/

This race is special to me because I first went up to Wisconsin in 2015 to do what was then the shortest offering at Tuscobia, a 35 mile short race to figure out if I would like the winter racing or if it was just another 35 mile ride..anyone can do that right?  After 6+ hours on the trail slogging along at 5-6 MPH in snow and cold I decided I was in love with winter fat bike racing!  In 2016 I did the 80 mile version of the race and had a great time!  So 160 was next on the agenda!

After an uneventful drive to Rice Lake Wi.on Thursday,  Becky and I checked in,  unloaded the bike and luggage and drove to the start/finish area to further feed my nervous energy. Task completed!  Friday dawned with bright sunshine and very cold temps. A perfect day for a pre-race test ride to confirm my kit, bike setup, etc.  I rode a short 10 mile section of the trail and discovered good trail conditions and after a slight tire pressure adjustment declared the bike setup good to go.  While loading my bike back up on the car to head back to the hotel I met Mark Scotch.  Mark is the father of the race director and a legend in the winter ultra-endurance community.  We had a great conversation and he offered advice on the clothing kit I was wearing.  Bottom line was that I was way overdressed.  After a short 10 mile ride I was already sweating heavily.  Mark suggested a more breathable outer layer with vents in the back and fewer layers underneath.  Good advice that I ignored..

Lesson #1.  Pay attention to the experienced veteran athletes!

The rest of the day was filled with race prep, gear check, racer meeting, good food and a sleepless nervous night.

Saturday…Race day!

Tuscobia Ultra, John Porter
Tuscobia Ultra, John Porter

After a good start at 6:00 AM sharp a group of 5 or 6 riders settled in mid- pack and cruised along the trail at a brisk (translated to too fast) pace . Sweat was happening way too early. By the time we reached the small hamlet of Birchwood at 17 miles, my feet were cold, very cold. I had packed several chemical toe and hand warmers in my frame bag and immediately put 2 warmers in each boot. I was good for about another hour on the trail until the toes were freezing again. The next stop wasn’t until the checkpoint at Ojibwa, 45 miles in. At that point I was able to change my base layers to dry ones and re-supply my water, energy drink and eat some hot soup, cookies and have a Coke. I stripped my boots off and put as many chemical warmers in each boot as I could squeeze in. 35 more miles to the next stop at Park Falls. By about 65 miles my feet were again very cold and miserable. I decided that I should walk the bike for a short while to hopefully generate some warm blood flow to the toes. It helped but not nearly enough. At that point I knew the sooner I reached the checkpoint the better . I pushed the pace hard for the next 15 miles dropping the guys that I had been riding with. At the checkpoint I made the decision that going back out for another 80 miles was risky at best and that I would be taking a chance on frostbite and decided to pull the plug and not risk the consequences.

Lesson #2, There are no bad conditions, only bad equipment.

My Lake 303 boots had served me well in previous endeavors but weren’t up to the task of 10+ hours in sub zero conditions. While I didn;t get real cold otherwise, I wore my Gortex outer shell and too many layers underneath which caused me to sweat far too much and risking dehydration as well as inviting issues with the cold. Overall it was a great learning experience and I can’t wait to take another shot at the winter ultra challenge!

My race by the numbers:

Temp at the start -15 deg F, Highest observed Temp -5 deg F

Wind from the Northeast increasing as the day wore on. Humidity 80+%

Moving speed was 8 MPH which was 1 ½ MPH faster than the year before. Moving time was 10 hours. Fitness was very good. I felt good at the turn thanks to my DDRP riding friends keeping me motivated!

Tuscobia Ultra Finished