Friday, January 17, 2020

My St. Croix 40 Winter Ultra Experience Part 1: Welcome To Hinckley

As human beings who don't have perfect judgment, most of us, at least once during our time on this planet, question our life choices.  Maybe it's when we're going through a tough time at work or in a relationship.  Or maybe when our actions result in severe consequences for ourselves or others.  For me, it was twenty-four miles into the St. Croix 40 Winter Ultra.  Thirty minutes and two miles before I had reached this point, I rolled up my bivy sack and sleeping bag and stowed it away in my sled.  As I prepared to leave the check point and hit the trail to grind out the last seventeen miles, I heard a volunteer tell another runner that his car thermometer read seven degrees below zero when he arrived at the check point five minutes ago.  It was shocking to hear, but it wasn't until a short while after I had taken off that the insanity of what we were doing really sunk in.  As my mind processed the reality of this situation and what the volunteer said at the check point, I began seriously questioning what the hell I was doing out here in sub zero temperatures, pulling a sled full of crap in the middle of a winter night in the Minnesota wilderness.

One weekend morning in April, I was listening the latest episode of a running podcast to which I was a regular subscriber.  This episode was particularly interesting.  It was the usual hosts, along with Dusty Olson and another guy named Jamison, who they introduced as the Race Director for the St. Croix 40 Winter Ultra, as guests.  After I finished listening and hearing Jamison's running stories, I was intrigued.  "What exactly is this St. Croix 40 Winter Ultra?" I thought.  When I looked it up on I found out very quickly that this was no ordinary ultramarathon.  I was accustomed to California ultras that were held during the spring or summer in the mountains with fully stocked aid stations every six miles.  The St. Croix 40 Winter Ultra is a little different.  Runners traverse thirty-eight and a half miles along snowmobile trails through St. Croix State Park in rural Minnesota in the middle of January.  There are no aid stations, just one check point at mile twenty-two where participants test their winter survival skills.  The race is completely self supported, meaning runners must carry all of their food, hydration, and supplies by pulling a sled along the snowy trail throughout the entire race.  Wait, it gets better.  To ensure that the experience truly captures that of a challenging winter race, the event begins at 6:15 PM and continues through the night when temperatures can easily drop to fifteen degrees below zero.  The fact that the race was held so early in the new year was symbolic to me.  A new year means new experiences and challenges, and this seemed like an amazing way to kick off 2020.  I signed up for the race the day registration opened, approximately three months later.

Fast forward five months, race weekend finally arrived, and during my flight to Minnesota, I found myself feeling anxious about the events that lay ahead.  Despite having finished several ultramarathons, St. Croix was going to be a completely new experience, and my mind was whirling.  Would the store have all the gear I needed for the race?  And even if they did, would I still pass the mandatory gear check? Would I be able to keep warm?  Could I even complete thirty-eight and a half miles running on snow covered trails? The reality was these questions would remain unanswered, at least for now.  I don't do well with uncertainty, but the key to getting through this challenge, I soon realized, was focusing on the present.  Don't stress over what will happen and how things will go.  Just focus on what you can control in this moment, and that will lay the foundation for the future.  These thoughts put my mind more at ease.  I put on my headphones, closed my eyes, queued up David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust album on my iPod, and allowed myself to drift into a plane ride slumber.

Once I arrived at the Minneapolis airport, I made my way to the Enterprise Rent-A-Car counter.  The agent got the information he needed from me, tossed me the keys to the pick-up truck I was renting, and off I went.  Hinckley, the closest town to where the race was taking place, is about an hour and a half drive from Minneapolis, but I had a few stops to make first.  To my delight, there was an REI conveniently located ten minutes from the airport.  The guidelines of winter ultras require participants to carry specific gear that could potentially save their butts if something were to go wrong.  Some of this gear I had packed and brought with me, but the rest of it, I opted to purchase here in Minnesota, mainly due to time constraints.  Once I purchased the supplies I needed from REI, my next stop was the local Menard's home improvement store.  Upon entering, I headed towards the "winter" section of the store and spotted exactly what I was looking for; sleds.  A trusted source (the guy at REI) warned me that he had heard horror stories of people's sleds breaking during winter ultras.  Bearing in mind how brutal it would be to have a broken sled halfway through St. Croix, I decided to buy two sleds.  During the race I would have one inside the other, effectively creating a double layer, and minimizing the risk of the sleds breaking.  Once I made the sled purchase, the final stop was the local Target for food and hydration during the race.  St. Croix is entirely self supported and runners are required to carry all of their food and hydration throughout the entire race.  In fact, the rules state that runners must finish with 3,000 calories worth of food.  After exiting Target, I was finally ready for the journey up to Hinckley.  Although a small, rural community of roughly 1,800 people, the town is notable for being the midway point between the Twin Cities area and Duluth.  My friends Tony and Kim lived right in town and were generous enough to allow me to stay at their house with them during race weekend.  As I drifted into town, driving down the dark country road, I was on the lookout for their driveway.  Remembering the directions that Kim had sent me through text, I soon spotted a small green sign with their address off to the side of the road.  Once I made the turn, the snowy dirt road followed a winding, half mile long path through the dark and desolate woods.  Eventually the lights of a house emerged through the trees and I remember hoping I had the right house, or someone would promptly pull a shotgun on me and tell me to get my ass off their property.  When I opened the door to my truck, the frigid night air hit me like a ton of bricks, and I immediately began shivering.  My cold sensation was soon interrupted by Tony and his dog, Oreo, greeting me with hugs and doggie kisses as they approached my truck.  Kim was inside staying warm, and we all embraced in a hug as Tony and I carried my gear inside.  I dropped my baggage in their guest room, which would serve as my makeshift base camp for the weekend.  Shortly after, the three of us piled into Tony's SUV and headed out for dinner and drinks.  "We think you'll like this place" Kim said.  "Get ready for an experience".  Five minutes later we pulled into the parking lot of Bear Creek Tavern.  The building resembled an over sized cabin, similar to a ski lodge, and rested off to the side of a desolate stretch of country road.  We saw snowmobiles parked in the lot as we walked towards the entrance.  Walking inside and out of the the chilly night, we took at seat at the bar.  Although Tony and Kim only frequented the restaurant once or twice a month, they knew all of the
staff, and even the owners.  They introduced me as their friend from California who "was going to be running forty miles through St. Croix State Park tomorrow night".  Tony soon realized that his friends
were also there, and after dinner, they asked if we wanted to play darts.  I suck at darts, but it was a fun way to bond with the people in the bar.  When we first arrived earlier that night before I had met anyone, I could tell that my presence threw some people off.  Not in a negative way by any means, but Hinckley is a tight knit community, and I was getting lots of curious looks as if people were wondering "who is this guy?".  Luckily for me, I have no issue being the outsider (I'm an ultrarunner, after all), and thus everyone I met was welcoming, friendly, and made me feel right at home.  One of the girls with whom we played darts had dubbed me "California Boy", and as the night went on and the beers kept coming, it was "California Boy this, California Boy that".  The experience of it all made me smile.  Despite being the outcast in a rural Minnesota town, we all bonded, and spent the night sharing stories over beers and games of darts.  Yes, I was different, but rejoicing in those differences was really cool to me.  Bear Creek Tavern was quite the experience, as Kim had said, and I had such a great time, I told the staff I'd come back on Sunday for a celebratory beer if I finished St. Croix.  We embraced in hugs and handshakes and I went to bed later that night peacefully content.

The next day was race day, and it was a beautiful, sunny winter morning as I looked out the window from Tony and Kim's living room.  The back of the house had a large deck, and a frozen creek rested about thirty feet down a steep, snowy hill in their backyard.  After lazing around with Oreo and Tony's cat, Lil' Homie, and having a filling lunch of lasagna and garlic bread, courtesy of Kim, I began the meticulous process of preparing for the epic journey ahead.  Tony and Kim's friend Steve had been kind enough to lend me his bivy sack and zero degree sleeping bag, which runners were required to carry throughout the entire race.  Steve had attempted the Tuscobia Winter Ultra two weeks prior, which had the same gear requirements, so it worked out well.  Once my backpack was loaded with food and supplies, my hydro flasks filled, and my sled packed up, Tony and Kim wished me luck as I headed out the door.  They seemed convinced that I would finish strong, but I wasn't so sure.  We would see.  "Thanks guys!  See you tomorrow morning" I said, trying to remain optimistic.  Their house was a ten minute drive to St. Croix State Park, and when I arrived at the Trail Center at 3:30 PM, gear check was in full swing.  The fire places were keeping the interior of the building warm, volunteers assisted runners, and participants weaved in and out, waiting for the pre-race briefing to begin.  After checking in, a volunteer handed me my bib and instructed me to lay out all of my gear on one of the many picnic tables in the room for gear check.  I had arrived in Minnesota safely, found all the gear I needed at REI and Menard's, and next would be yet another hurdle; the volunteers confirming that I had all of the proper gear.  Among the gear checklist was a zero degree or colder down sleeping bag, a bivy sack, a camping stove, fuel, three blinking LED lights, reflective clothing, 3,000 calories worth of food, seventy-five ounces of hydration, and a sled.  Not to mention all the layers that I needed to wear to keep warm.  Now would be the moment of truth.  I hoped that my gear would meet all of the requirements, since it would have been a shame to come all this way only to be told I couldn't race because I didn't have the proper equipment.  Luckily, I did, and when I passed gear check, I felt I had won yet another battle in a major war.  Once gear check was complete, we all gathered around as Jamison and Lisa, the Race Directors, gave us the pre-race briefing.  A majority of it was common sense.  That is until Lisa warned us about snowmobiles on the trails at night.  "Just so you guys know, if you get hit by a snowmobile, you will most likely die".  That drew some nervous laughter, but she wasn't joking.  All it would take is one accident, and the St. Croix 40 would be a cooked goose.  She then mentioned the possibility of trench foot, frostbite, and hypothermia.  Not the most fun things to hear about before running thirty-eight and a half miles through a cold winter night, but it was important that we knew the risks.  It was on us as experienced runners to take the proper precautions and keep ourselves from succumbing to these conditions.

The final announcement from Jamison was how the start of the race would play out.  St. Croix is a winter survivalist race, and the rules state that runners are required to demonstrate to volunteers that they are proficient in using their winter survival gear at two points during the race; we would need to use our stoves to boil water at the start line before taking off down the trail, and we would need to bivy down into our sleeping bags and bivy sacks at the check point at mile twenty-two later on in the night.  With twenty minutes to go before race start, the volunteers helped each of us fill our cooking containers with twelve ounces of water, and we made our way outside to the start line to set up our stoves.  The sun had now set for the night, and I shivered in the frigid air as I unpacked my stove and fuel in preparation for our first test.  I opted to use the most compact stove possible; a pocket stove that used Esbit tabs for fuel.  Esbit tabs are composed mainly of hexamine, a flammable solid substance that produces no smoke, leaves no ashes, and is capable of producing strong, long lasting flames that can endure strong winds.  As Jamison began counting down the minutes, he advised us that at 6:15 PM, he would say "go" and we would light our stoves, kicking off the start of the race.  Once our water had reached a boil and a volunteer gave us the go ahead, we could then pack up our stoves, and hit the trail.  With a few claps and cheers, we heard Jamison speak: "Everyone ready?! Okay....Go!" We lit our stoves up, and the race was on. 


No comments:

Post a Comment