“This is the police! I want to see your hands!” Roberto Marron’s 2013 New Year came unexpectedly alive like a shooting star over the frigid Tuscobia Trail. Stretched out in snowy northern Wisconsin, his sleeping bag rated to -40 surrounding him like an insulated cocoon, he groggily thought: “It’s New Years, man. What is this? I’m just sleeping.”
The county sheriff wasn’t in a celebratory mood at daybreak.
Marron lay deep, a baklava protecting his face. Just turning to see who provided his harsh wake-up becomes effort. The bag was positioned in such a way he had to lift his head back over his shoulder just to get a glimpse.
The officer’s suspicions were aroused when earlier he patrolled by, noticing a parked silver Chrysler PT Cruiser; he checks again later, the car is gone. In its place there is a body lying prone near the road.
“There’s a possible dead man,” he reasoned. Out loud he questions, “Do you have a weapon?” Marron began to think his outlandish idea of doubling the 150-mile Tuscobia Winter Ultra run, repeating the race just finished Sunday—this is early Tuesday, first day of 2013, second in his quest—might need reconsidering.
“No,” answering the officer’s question, speaking in his staccato Spanish inflection, one not generally heard in that area. He pulled hands from the comfortable oven provided by the bag, exposing them up to the frigid air.
The officer continued his quest: “Explain what you’re doing here, and show me some I.D. now!”
Lying flat in the snow, he faces potentially dire trouble for something of which he knows nothing. Marron finds himself in this situation when three years prior he entered the very first 150 mile Tuscobia Winter Ultra for runners. That was 2010.
The Tuscobia Winter Ultras began with the idea of utilizing the 74 mile Tuscobia trail reclaimed from the old Tuscobia Railroad whose operations began in 1914. The name is likely derived from an American Indian word “Tuscola” translating to level, flat land. The rail was known as the Omaha Line from ownership stemming to the Omaha Railway Company; later, controlled by the Chicago and Northwestern Railway, the rail became the Park Falls Line. The conversion to its present uses began in 1968.
Snowbikers, cross-country skiers and runners gathered to navigate either the full trail 75 mile, an out-and-back 150 mile or a 30 mile slice in the event founded by Tim Roe, Winter, WI. The 150 starts and ends in Park Falls. The other two have busses drive to the respective starting point and race back.
One way from the trail’s western end at Rice Lake meanders E/NE, passing through the Flambeau State Forest and Chequamegon National Forest. Several city blocks from the eastern trailhead lead to the finish line at Chequamegon Canoe Club (CCC). CCC is a quaint, rustic, and thoroughly unique Wisconsin-style bistro, perfect for Tuscobia’s appeal.
In 2011 new race directors, well-known Midwest ultra trail racers Helen Lavin and Chris Scotch, assumed control of the event. They stretched the 50 km distance to a 35 mile race by moving the start west to Ojibwa from Winter.
The Tuscobia 150 creates a true companion race for the granddaddy of U.S. continental winter ultras, the Arrowhead 135 staged in northern Minnesota. The well-known Badwater 135 challenges a parched desert endured in Death Valley as the marquee summer endurance event; Arrowhead is winter’s frigid reply.
Four signed on to attempt the 150 mile run distance in 2010, six in 2011. Only Scotch and Marron completed the entire trail of Tuscobia by running in its two years of competition prior to 2012’s race in December.
Marron possessed no winter racing experience at the time. The demands of Tuscobia are unique with long, straight and hypnotic trails of the former railroad bed producing a mentally tough layout. Why would he enter the first year’s event cold? “I’m trying to qualify for Arrowhead; this will do it.”
Arrowhead starts at the nation’s ice box, International Falls, also known as Frostbite Falls. The trail meanders a southerly route on what woodsmen recall as the Capekona Trace. Competitors may face extreme cold or raging snow coupled with a lonesome journey broken only by distant checkpoints. Winter ultra distance races are as far from big city marathons, with their aid stations, bands and applauding onlookers every mile, as a northern winter is from summer.
Marron’s first Arrowhead attempt, Monday, January 31, 2011 ended disappointingly. Arrowhead saved its tricks that year—gelid air—for the overnight. Unofficial estimates registered lows plummeting to -40. Marron’s thermos cap froze solid to the container though the liquid inside didn’t. Still, he couldn’t drink it.
Dehydration attacks in extreme cold just as in extreme heat. Effects of fatigue, weakness in muscles, poor concentration, and slowing metabolism all affect one’s mood and ability to function. Add the deliberateness one has to use in bitter cold to do anything, the opportunity for failure increases dynamically.
“I tried to melt snow with my fancy stove I had bought” he explained. “It wouldn’t turn on” ending his ability to get liquids (returning the stove for a refund when he arrived home). “Bad clothes,” he described, soaked in body sweat froze. He did not have the technical clothing that minimizes that condition. The attempt doomed, Marron admitted, “I’m dehydrated, I could go no more.”
Early Wednesday a snowmobile sweep, those patrols checking trails for problems like competitors in peril or missing markers, happened by. Climbing on that machine ended his Arrowhead race after completing an estimated 99 miles.
“I was frustrated with myself; why didn’t I bring different gear?” On the course “Double socks didn’t work; it felt like fire on the bottoms. I feared frost bite. I changed to insulation boots, but (on the) second night it was worse. The first day I was wearing running shoes. The boots were worse because the insulation added heat; changed back to running shoes, but then freezing. Then I tried boot without socks that were worse. I was trying to figure out what to do.” Those feet required nearly two months to recover.
His second Arrowhead race, one year later, started Monday morning, January 30; four-minutes after the snowbikes and two-minutes after the skiers. Marron enters the first checkpoint, Gateway General Store, after 12 hours on the trails, leaving out in the dark at 8:17. He reaches MelGeo for the second time in his life some 16 hours later at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday.
Arriving Wednesday at the trailside SkiPulk tent (about mile 111) just before 8:00 a.m.—roughly 20 hours later—he zipped out to claim one dream, Arrowhead 135, accomplished in 56:51, three hours to spare, 21st of 50 entrants though only 28 completed the entire distance.
Marron has an incredibly strong mind-over-matter composure, which will pay off later in his biggest adventure yet. But it is important to realize these finishes are Herculean experiences requiring extreme athletes. Racers drag a 40-lb pulk, a specialized carrier sled, behind them the entire distance packed with survival gear, food, and clothing while traversing hills and trails. Experiencing temperature extremes and conditions oftentimes accompanied by heavy snows and bitter winds challenging their bodies is a testament to willpower and fortitude.
Consider the experience of ultra trail veteran John Storkamp Hastings, MN, a three-time winner of Arrowhead out of eight prior starts. He’s tallied five finishes, which included a bronze then a silver finish in the brutal January, 2013 edition. That means he DNF’d three times including 2012. Why, I asked him, does such an expert at this event not finish. His succinct answer said it all: “It’s.a.real.hard. race.”
Marron lives by the command, “Whatever you think is what your body will do. Think you will drop, you will drop. Think you can run, you can run.” He takes favorite DVDs on these trips to watch while prepping with favorite titles like Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. Without possessing strong mindsets like Storkamp and Marron’s, one can never seriously consider participating in these extreme endurance challenges.
Marron began to develop his hardcore determination as a young man back in Mexico where he lived before arriving Minnesota in 2005. Not a smoker or drinker, “. I joined the Mexican Army in 1993. I wanted to be a part of the Special Forces elite Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (Special Forces Airmobile Group, GAFE). (You) had to be an officer to join, but in 1994 (the military) needed more because of domestic problems. That’s when I raised my hand. My trainer was a U.S. Green Beret.” 420 signed up; 68 passed the finals. Then the last cut, a horrendously tough “four months training; 22 passed. I was one of those. I was also a police officer starting 2005.”
He strengthened his resolve and trail conditioning by completing both the 2011 and 2012 Sawtooth 100 trail races, one of the country’s Top-10 most difficult trail events, raced on the Superior Hiking Trails bordering Lake Superior. The elite can finish this kingpin of the Gnarly Bandit Ultra Series under 24 hours, but many push its cutoff of 38 hours. It is seriously hard.
A group of nine toed the line for the 2012 150 mile foot version of Tuscobia—seven men, two women—on Friday three days after Christmas. Another eight events of varying sports and distances followed over the weekend. The 6:00 a.m. start earned a police escort from the CCC to the trailhead some half-mile away.
One competitor—Marron—announced a shocking goal: do a double 150. Finish the race, then turn around and cover his same tracks for another 150; a breathtaking 300 miles while pulling his lifeline behind him the entire way.
The Tuscobia 75 and 150-mile races like Arrowhead are semi-supported meaning food, beverages and drop bags are at distant checkpoints. Competitors can buy anything from restaurants, gas stations and so on during the race, “but there is not to be any other outside help, crews, or pacers,” the rules dictate, though racers may assist other racers. In other words, you’re on your own.
Marron arrived at the first checkpoint in the tiny town of Winter—named in honor of a railroad official, John Winter— 30 miles out at 1:50 p.m., just under eight hours into the contest. Pulling with him came Logan Polfuss, the race’s youngest competitor in any class at 17, both eating heartily from the teen’s seemingly endless supply of Fritos.
Living in Pickett, WI, near Oshkosh, Polfuss has a surprising ultra background for one under the age of 20. He completed 2012’s Kettle Moraine 100 mile, one of five races chosen for the Wilderness Athlete’s Gnarly Bandit Ultra Trail Series. He debated whether to race the 75 or 150 but fate determined his choice as the shorter distance filled quickly. Perhaps destiny awarded him an amazing experience for his first winter ultra distance challenge.
They leave the checkpoint along with Scotch at 2:35 p.m. Saturday afternoon after a 45-minute refresher. Alicia Hudelson, 2012’s first-place woman at the Arrowhead 135, zoomed out in the early overall lead at 1:15 p.m. Storkamp and Matt Long, third place in 2012’s Arrowhead, followed.
Hudelson while in the lead dropped 33 miles later entering the next checkpoint, Birchwood, a little before midnight. Highly experienced ultra runner Lynn Saari struggled in much later, pulling out of the event. Chuck Fritz didn’t leave Winter.
New leaders Storkamp and Long, also in before midnight, were already gone for more than an hour when Marron arrived at 1:42 Saturday morning, minutes ahead of Polfuss. Six remain in the 150 race as Polfuss leaves at 2:40 followed moments later by Marron, Scotch, and then Taylor.
Tuscobia Trail terminates at Rice Lake, 12.5 miles further away. The 75-mile return trip along these same trails looms large for the six foot-racers rounding the turn. Back to Birchwood, adding a near-marathon distance to their totals since they were there, Long and Storkamp scoot out minutes before 11 Saturday morning. Scotch takes off 20 minutes later, Marron in the noon hour, Polfuss an hour later then Taylor leaves mid-afternoon.
The last checkpoint heading in, Winter, stretches 30-miles from Tuscobia’s finishing banners, nine or more hours away. The distance becomes brutally longer for some of those remaining like Taylor who clocked in at Winter just before 6:00 a.m. Sunday after more than 14 hours on the trail. He pulled on his extensive 100 mile experiences as one of the 2012 Wilderness Athlete Gnarly Bandit Ultra Series winners to bravely capture his finish almost a dozen hours later at 8:28 Sunday evening, wrapping-up the race weekend.
Storkamp has command of the lead (he only slept 4 or 5 5-minute naps on the trail) leaving for his finish roughly an hour ahead of Long 10:30 p.m. Saturday. Scotch is out the door at 3:40 a.m. They win 1-2-3 in that order.
“Eight miles before Winter,” about 112 miles into the 150-mile race, Marron concludes, “I need to stop and rest. I felt something, sleepy, aching but found something telling me to get to the checkpoint: hallucinations happened while wandering from the center of the trail.”
Marron comes in the Winter door at 2:52 a.m. The five hours spent there included a much-needed nap. “I knew I need water, change clothes, slept couple of hours first.”
Marron prepares for these events, like all strong endurance competitors, with a thoughtful strategy. “Before any race, I think about what I can do when I’m (back) home, when I’m holding my baby. I imagine I’m on the trail, so I decide everything (like) food, gear, training. Once I break down everything, then I test.”
“On the trail, I try to follow my strategy but if gear not working so well or the body isn’t responding as I expected, I start to correct my strategy.”
Logan, seriously considering ending his race, entered a few minutes after 5:00 Sunday morning. “I was thinking about dropping the past several miles, but when I woke up and saw Roberto leaving, I had to join him. I saw him do amazing finishes at Kettle and last years Tuscobia. He was all excited since we had about nine-and-half-hours to finish.” Marron’s enthusiasm boosts Polfuss to his finish.
Scotch left as they slept. “Logan was there when I woke,” recalled Marron, “We’re tied at fourth. John Taylor was on the floor resting. I wanted him to come along. ‘Come on,’ I said. He said, ‘I’m tired.’”
With that sleep, Marron heads toward the finish moments before 8:00 a.m. while Logan manages to get out the door 14 minutes earlier. Soon they’re back together.
Marron and Polfuss share one amazing incident before the Pine Creek Road crossing. Marron explains, “We waited for one another” eating Fritos, running, walking then, “We (both) had to go to the bathroom (about) 12 miles before finish.” They move off the side of the trail, taking the time required to get clothes unzipped and off for this major undertaking. And what happens? 150 mile snowbiker, the women’s winner, Sveta Kovalchuk, passes by heading to the finish line. She quips “Isn’t that nice,” then “It’s okay, it’s okay.” Polfuss grins, “We couldn’t help but laugh, and Roberto kept saying ‘Man; that was a girl! I can’t believe that was a girl!’”
Even though the two came to the trailhead together, Marron explained, “This is a race; so we race from that point to the finish” with Polfuss crossing first for his inaugural winter ultra, a big one at that. Marron’s bigger goal was next.
The Tuscobia 150 Double
“I wanted to be the first to do the 300 mile double. I thought maybe Chris Scotch would be the first, but I wanted to as a validation.”
“My plan to get in, call home, reorganize gear but…at the finish, John (Storkamp), Tony Oveson [who is to play a surprising role in the double] Helen and Chris are all there on finish. I’m tired but I want to wait for John Taylor. I walked up and met him (at the trailhead).” It is almost 9:00 p.m. now.
Oveson observed, “I didn’t think he was going to (do the double) since he looked so beat up. From my perspective he really would have rather not have done it at that instant, but since everyone asked him, he said I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it.”
“I needed some privacy (so I) went to my Mason Motel, arranged gear until 1:00 a.m. like switching sleds (to my longer one) to carry more gear. I used Desitin on chafing I had on legs; it worked. The alarm I set for 8:00. I went to the restaurant, seven already there talking about race.” Marron orders hash brown potatoes, steak, French toast, a lot of coffee . . . then doubled the order with another entire serving.
Did Marron ever question his idea of repeating the distance again for the double? “Always my mind was focused on doing the second 150, and take 4-days.”
Polfuss was astounded. “After we finished (on Sunday night) we were all hanging around the table at the CCC talking and telling stories. When the Chris Scotch asked him how he feels about another ‘set,’ I realized he was doing another 150. (Monday morning) we all met at a local diner, and he was all smiles and running around. He went back to his motel to get ready to leave. I was shocked. I couldn’t imagine doing the 150 all by yourself.”
He left his compact wagon at the Mason Motel. “They would start it for me. I got water, filled bottles and left exactly noon. It took 15 minutes to trail head.” The saga of the second 150 mile trek on the Tuscobia Trails began.
Marron is a master at self-talk, the mental work required to overcome obstacles and doubt, a process known well to champions. “I feel the Tuscobia 150 is mentally tough” because of the long and straight distances stretching out ahead. The hardest of any race of an out-and-back layout is the turn, particularly when the trail is deteriorating in the sun even though temperatures were cold. Coaching himself, he repeated, “I wanted to do this from summer, and this is the only way I can come back . . . by myself.”
Oveson went to Logan’s truck where stored where more bags of Fritos. “I want to be there on the second 150,” Oveson decided. “In my mind I wanted to stay and help.” Already repacked, he took off in pursuit of Marron “to the to Pine Creek road where the aid station was” about 11 miles away.
Later in the afternoon, Marron hears a horn honk. “It was Tony! He wanted to be with me for a couple days.”
“My joke was,” Oveson quipped, “What would you think of a Spanish guy knocking on your door asking for a ride?”
Marron arrived once again at Winter, near midnight on New Year’s Eve where he celebrated with hot pizza (medium with everything) and Pepsi. The waitress asked, “Are you a snowmobiler?”
The temperature slipped to -13. He trudged on to Ojibwa (about 5.5 miles) arriving past 2 a.m. “I was cold and couldn’t find the campground; looking for the shelter, can’t find it, but thinking, why do I need the shelter?” Why, indeed: his sleeping bag and pad are enough, so he chooses to sleep out under the stars.
“I stopped and cleared the site to grass; had two trekking poles with reflectors, lights (he stuck in the snow). Laid waterproof material (a poncho-like thermal rest) and set the alarm for 7:30; 4 hours sleep with 30 minutes to pack gear.”
Oveson finds him, and then leaves, parking his silver PT back in the little town for his sleep. “I showed back up again, saw the officer and got out to explain Roberto’s 300 miles, and that I had finished the official race Sunday.”
“You tell me you’re 65 and now you’re out here running?” the surprised officer answered. “You’re crazy.”
Oveson replied, “If it’s okay, I’ll take his I.D. I got it and took it back. Then I said, ‘Roberto, Happy New Year.’”
We rested in car with hot coffee, pepperoni pizza and two sandwiches. “Our New Years breakfast.”
13 hours later around 9:40 p.m. Marron makes Birchwood. His sled experiences trouble as 4 holes are dragging in snow like scoops, adding weight. As a result his left calf is cramping.
Once again, they seek out Burritos at the gas station. Oveson asked if they could stay overnight on the property. They told him, “Yes, just don’t park next to the building since they’ll think you’re robbing us. Both of us slept outside, not in car, but on the snow.”
“Hey! This is the police,” arriving with weapons drawn. What happened, Oveson added, was “Somebody goes by and sees two bodies on the ground and called 911. The Barron County Deputies arrived. They checked everything all out.” Two nights, two police encounters.
7:30 Wednesday morning, the station opens, they get burritos. Marron heads out to the Rice Lake turnaround where Oveson meets him with hamburgers.
As he passed a buffalo farm, he recounts his plan to make Birchwood in late afternoon with more self-talk: “I always told myself I’d finish; it will be easier after the turn.”
Social media adds a whole new dimension as live tracking in races and photos of the terrain by the competitors light up the “likes,” comments and tweets, too. “I checked my FaceBook. It was good to know that people were tracking.”
In between posts, questions compounded such as “Anyone heard anything?” “Where is he now?” as his outlandish goal became everyone’s experience.
Arriving Birchwood, he was slowing; they ate again at the same restaurant. When Tony explained his goal to the waitress, “She thought it was cool.”
Only 62.5 miles to go but it was painfully obvious he would not be back before Thursday morning. He had to call his wife; she needed to take another day off from her job. “Made me feel happy” to talk with her, but he had to push and be back in St Paul—5 hours away— Friday morning at 6:30.
They planned to meet at the town of Couderay, famous as one of Al Capone’s hideouts. Oveson explained, “I told him I’m at Couderay, but Roberto said ‘I can’t go no more.’ You’re only two-and-a-half miles away I told him, and he made it about one hour.”
“I was so tired,” he explained. “I told my wife (Quyen), I had to stop and sleep, but Tony motivated me to push on.” About 2 a.m. Thursday, “I have to sleep.”
With the police encounters, the duo finally slept in the car with a stack of Oveson’s blankets. On the trail by 8:00, he tried “picking up pace to make the deadline.”
Marron is honest in his self-appraisal. “Sometimes I feel, man, I think it’s getting hard; once I finish I don’t need to do this any more. But I think of the finish line. Then (afterward) I get to buy myself something, like hungry when I finish. I wanna go to the restaurant and eat a lot of food. When I’m tired, I’m (imagining) going to sleep for two days; of course, that never happens.”
Now arriving Radisson, named after Pierre-Esprit Radisson the French explorer and trader—the namesake of the Radisson Hotels, too—he enjoys more nutritious burritos and another sheriff, “but very friendly; he shook my hand.”
“I was feeling the pressure of time,” trying to make Winter in early afternoon. Getting hot, he peeled off layers. “He was wet because he was working so hard” noted Oveson. Not stopping, Marron’s traveling aid station caught up with him bringing more pizza and Mountain Dew, cornerstones of any nutritious snack. On the trail, one eats anything that keeps energy, mood and momentum going forward.
Entering Draper before 4:00 Thursday afternoon, where the trail crosses to the north side of Hwy 70, 19 miles remained to complete the double. The time remaining left no room to coast, the pressure was building, and this is after trudging these paths seven days. As winds picked up from the west now Oveson brought even more pizza and “Dew,” encouraging him with “The wind will push you to the next meeting point” at Pine Creek Road when only 11 miles would remain..
“He stopped there for about 45 minutes,” Oveson remembered, “Eating more pizza and two croissants, jogging and walking at a fast 3.5 mph pace.”
Marron had company; “I saw tracks where wolves were 2-by-2 hunting while I’m eating turkey.”
Oveson dashed to the CCC to tell them a finish was in the cards, then back-tracked in several miles, pulling his own sled, to get Marron in.
Finishing, Marron didn’t celebrate; the CCC had closed, the time was 11:25 p.m. Thursday night; Park Falls remained quiet.
“Mentally I was tired. At trail head, I felt more relief” than anything. After getting the car, packing the gear, and completing 300 miles on the Tuscobia Trail in the past week, Marron returned to life by having to now rush to St Paul with the car. The clock ticked to 1:00 a.m. He had to be there at 6:30.
“My brain was off,” so he pulled over to sleep. Somebody knocked on the window; a guy not a cop, just checking on him. After Black River Falls on I-94, “I lose the road home” and just misses his most important race cutoff: his wife’s, by ten minutes at 6:40.
Marron has launched a whole new element to these ultra distance events with his remarkable 300 mile-double at the Tuscobia Trail Ultras. To consider repeating these distances immediately after a finish while most can barely complete them and if so, can’t walk so well afterward, demonstrates extraordinary mental and physical acumen. It is a concept that is way out there in physical challenge, particularly when enduring cold, snow and pulling one’s survival on a sled. The mental side? Hard training and a strong personal life.
When arriving home on that Friday morning, does he hit the bed to sleep for a day? Not hardly; young Tepeyollotl, his son, (name means “Heart of the Mountains”) played with dad all morning. “I was happy I was with him,” and at noon, “We slept three hours.” Finally relaxed, holding his child, Marron embraces his accomplishment. “I feel so proud.”
PostScript: the 2013 Arrowhead, less than one month after Tuscobia, became a wet-snow fest as warm temperatures brought rain changing to heavy snow burying trails, competitors, sleds, skis, bikes and the forests bearing watch. Snowbikes, whose time is much less on the trails than on foot or skis, still had a DNF rate over 50%. Only 7 of the 42 entrants for the run made the cutoffs for a chance at the finish. Parker Rios, WI, won with a fast start, a lead he held, crossing in 45:40. Storkamp scored a second place while conserving strength for his upcoming Iditarod Invitational 350 Mile run, February 24, across Alaska. Scotch earned a finish, but Taylor and Marron, like many of the group still racing, lost the race’s cutoff battle entering the MelGeo checkpoint.
On the “Where’s Chris Scotch” blog, Scotch wrote after the 2011 event, “Arrowhead doesn’t care how many times you have finished before, what kind of shape you are in, or what you have won in the past; to the Arrowhead, we are all fair game to its whims.”
Scotch left Thursday morning after his Wednesday night finish on his way back up the Arrowhead trail to International Falls. He wrote me, “After breakfast, I slipped out the front door of the Fortune Bay Casino (host hotel) and around the back of the building to where the finish line for Arrowhead was. I slowly made my way (on the Arrowhead trails) back to my Jeep in (International) Falls, arriving Sunday afternoon. Yup, a double-Arrowhead. And what a year to do it,” inaugurating the double-distance for the master, Arrowhead 135. The era of the ultra double is underway . . . .