PolarRoll Ultra – My First Winter Ultra

Two years ago my husband Al and I watched the documentary Safety to Nome. If you’ve not seen it, it’s about the 350/1000-mile human-powered (by bike,  foot, or ski) race through the Alaskan wilderness in the dead of winter. By the way, it’s going on right now. As we’re watching, Al turns to me and asks, “Do you think it’s fucked up that I secretly want to do this?” I have to carefully temper my response. What I want to say is “Fuck yeah it is.” I know what’s going on here. He’s laying the groundwork for something. 

I know he hates the cold, but I also know how much he hates being bested by Mother Nature. Years ago, Al made a similar statement after watching Ride the Divide. Guess what happened? In 2021, we spent 27 days traversing the Divide. Don’t get me wrong, I’m complicit in many of our adventures, however, I am not usually the one who suggests them. With a similar aversion to the cold, and a growing understanding of how expensive quality cold weather gear is, not to mention the fact that our bikes at that moment are probably the worst version of what one might consider a capable steed for riding on the snow, I can feel my anxiety mounting. If you’ve seen the documentary, you know that there are serious safety issues that arise for the protagonist.  I emphasize this point to Al. With a bunch of figurative exclamation marks. No way Jose. I’m out. I’ll support you but I have no interest what-so-ever in spending several nights, let alone up to 30, in the untamed Alaskan wilderness.

Enter Todd Poquette…..Todd is a cult hero of sorts in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Widely acclaimed for his “do hard things” ethos. Todd has become a good friend of ours and Al and I have sponsored  his events through our coaching business, mudslingersEC.com 

Al and I have participated in all Todd’s events starting with a 2020 COVID-adapted DIY race called the CrusherEX. A 250 mile gravel/mountain bike/hike-a-bike through some pretty remote areas of the UP. Other notable Todd Poquette races include the Marji Gesick, a 100-mile mountain bike race which boasts a 30-percent finisher rate, dubbed as the hardest single-day event by mountain bike pro Jeremiah Bishop. 

I both love and hate this guy. I knew I was screwed when Todd announced in November of last year that the 906 Adventure Team was putting on their inaugural PolarRoll Ultra, a 140+ mile winter fat-bike ultra. 906AT is a not-for-profit organization that promotes adventure for all ages but especially youth.Of course, Al wanted to do it. 

Historically, I ALWAYS, in my most adamant voice, say no to Al’s delusions of grandeur…..for at least two days. Then I cave. When I registered for the PolarRoll Ultra I knew to expect the challenge of my life. I would be disappointed if Todd failed to deliver one tough event. 

Monday morning we lined up at Otterlake Campground outside of Munising, MI with nothing but a few fire pits offering 27 intrepid souls warmth and light before we set off into the darkness. I agreed to do this race with Al not knowing if I would cross the finish line but excited for the adventure at hand. It wasn’t the distance that gave me pause but the idea of surviving in the Michigan wilderness during the winter, if only for the 48-hour time limit. The gear list alone was daunting… you must carry a -20 to -40 sleeping bag, a stove for melting water, a whistle because you might need rescuing, and you must finish with 3000 spare calories.. By the way, who’s gonna hear a whistle in the woods? A pack of wolves? Do you really want to attract an apex predator? Other mandatory items included insulated mittens (which caused a ton of controversy), a 1000-lumen light, batteries, hotties, an insulated ground pad, and frostbite protection. I tried hard not to pack my fears but I was scared, so you know…..my bike ended up weighing 70 pounds.

The miles to the first checkpoint at Lakenenland were great with some snowmobile track, some snow- and ice-covered gravel roads, and a short jaunt through Laughing Whitefish Falls. The sky was blue, the air crisp and the day ahead looked fast. In true Todd form, the race started getting spicy once we rolled into Marquette with two big climbs and our first dose of singletrack. Then it was on to Evan’s Camp, an oasis in the night and the second checkpoint. By now, the snow had started falling and the conditions were getting less than favorable. We followed one particular road for 11 miles as the snow fell and covered our bikes even as we rode. It was the kind of snow that makes you dizzy as it’s trapped in your lights.

Evan’s Camp offered us a warming cabin, no more than 12-feet square, to eat one of Evan’s famous camp burgers and some cookies. It also had a few nails to hang our wet clothes. Al and I reluctantly left Evan’s knowing that a few of the racers planned on hunkering down here overnight and pushing at dawn. I thought this sounded like a pretty stellar idea knowing that Evan had offered us a bunk bed where we could catch a few winks. Al was rejuvenated after the food and warmth and wanted to press on. I threw my leg over my saddle and pedaled on into the early morning. There were just a few race volunteers out on snowmobiles who helped lay down tracks for us to follow. We crossed paths with them shortly before hitting the Iron Ore trail which led us into Ishpeming. This is where things got weird.

Al and I battled off the sleep monster and considered setting up our one-person tents in order to take a quick nap before dawn. I talked Al out of this. I know how much this would have sucked for him and his Raynaud’s, a condition where his hands turn completely white and numb if they get too cold. Setting up camp would have surely resulted in cold hands, especially during a snowstorm. So we pressed on, downed way too many bottles of 5-Hour Energy and took it one mile at a time. I was trying everything in my arsenal to keep Al from falling asleep. I asked him to recite the Chakras, tell me about his dream car, and sing Gangstah rap. This seemed to work all the way to Ish. Like a glowing beacon of hope, the bike shop was open when we got there. Westend Ski and Trail was a race sponsor and the location of the finish line. What a Godsend. Sleeping, if only for a few hours on a concrete bike shop floor was just what Al and I needed before tackling the most feared part of the course ….cue the ominous music….”dun dun dun” RAMBA. For folks in the know, RAMBA needs no explanation. For everyone else, RAMBA is a system of single track that weaves in and out of trees, back on itself, up and over pretty severe climbs and generally sucks the soul from your body.  This is where our tracker decided it did not want to go on. People following the dots on Trackleaders thought I had quit. The better explanation was that the race is so hard the trackers quit before the racers.

Two days prior, racers took on RAMBA during the PolarRoll 15/30-mile bike race in stellar conditions. A snow storm and “gale-force winds” (Weather Bug’s words, not mine) brought deep drifts and covered all of the groomed trails we hoped to ride. There’s a few cute sayings Todd has coined that I’ll drop here… It’s FUn, it was fun until it wasn’t, do hard things, adapt, hike-a-bike repeat, it gets worse before it gets worser, and enhanced racing. So you can imagine what was in store for us. This part of the ride is where I really shined and my swearing skills were on point. Not to brag, but I coined a few awesome phrases of my own. 

RAMBA, in true RAMBA form, seemed to never end, like a long hair you pull from a drain. We pushed our bikes up icy climbs covered in powdery snow, followed loops just for the sake of going up and over a Michigan mountain,  snaked our way through dense pine forests, and crashed a lot. You think to yourself that 25 miles really doesn’t seem like that far after traveling 115 miles already, but it’s a long way to go in RAMBA-land when the trails haven’t been groomed. I questioned whether we had made a mistake by not pushing on once we arrived in Ishpeming, choosing to sleep instead. When we finally popped out of the singletrack and hopped back on the Iron Ore Trail leading back to the bike shop, Al turned to me and said “I can’t believe we did it.” We rounded the corner, spied our van in the parking lot and knew the bike shop was just yards away. We rode into the arms of West End, Todd, and a few of the amazing volunteers standing outside of the shop to welcome us home. Al and I were swept inside to complete one last mandatory gear check, pose with the hand-forged polar bear belt buckle we earned, and bask in the finishers’ glory. We recounted stories with those who would listen and overall felt so accomplished. We didn’t die or freeze, we had everything we needed to survive. And we even had a good time. We finished in 33-and-a-half hours, well under the 48-hour time limit. Of the 27 people who started on Monday, 23 finished. 

Will I do the PolarRoll Ultra or any winter ultra again? 

I dunno, maybe… ask me in two days. 

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One response to “PolarRoll Ultra – My First Winter Ultra”

  1. Hi there! This post could not be written any better! Reading this post reminds me
    of my previous room mate! He always kept chatting about this.
    I will forward this page to him. Fairly certain he will have a
    good read. Many thanks for sharing!

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