Popular Science

Hell? Yes!

It is 10°F outside of the wood-beamed shelter at St. Croix State Park, a 34,000-acre pine-and-oak expanse in eastern Minnesota. Hell, it’s cold inside, despite two fireplaces blazing, their smoke pulled into flared metal chimneys that resemble the business ends of rockets. The 54 athletes standing around keep their hats on, for the most part. Each has spent good money to embark on exactly the kind of endeavor most people would pay to avoid: running or skiing—whichever suits their fancy—for 40 miles. At night. In Minnesota. In January. While pulling a sled packed with 30-plus pounds of supplies.

This torturefest is called the St. Croix 40 Winter Ultra, and its participants find pleasure in the hardship. At 4:30 p.m. they jiggle their legs and apply insulating tape to their cheeks and noses while the organizers give a prerace pep talk.

Of sorts.

“No one died last year,” says Jamison Swift, deadpanning. “Let’s keep it going.”

He soon passes the stage to Lisa Kapsner-Swift, his co-organizer and wife, who talks about what the racers can do if they feel like they’re coming down with the winter-ultra baddies: trench foot, frostbite, hypothermia.

The advice washes over Meredith O’Neill, who wears glasses and bright blue snow pants; two Heidi braids hang down her shoulders. She’s prepared for months, training to be alone, cold, and tired for what might feel like forever as she runs across an Upper Midwest oak savanna, passes through stands of pines, and treks across acres of trees felled by a storm. She’ll go and go and go until she returns, finally, hopefully, to this same building sometime tomorrow.

It’s fun. Not the normal, easy kind that comes with games of horseshoes or beach volleyball. Wilderness-seeking enthusiasts often call that “Type I Fun.” Instead, this is the when you’re doing it but seems cool in retrospect. (Their categorization system also includes “Type III” activity, which is never actual fun and puts your life in danger.)

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