I’m usually happiest in two situations. First is when I’m pushing myself physically and mentally, and secondly, when I’m outdoors enjoying all the activities I like to partake in, like running, paddling, and mountain biking. Luckily, I get to combine both those into one package when I take part in Adventure Races. While I have planned to focus pretty much exclusively on trail running this year, I decided to get things started by taking part in the 8 hour Raid Pulse adventure race, now in its 15th year!! Since it may be my only AR event of the year, I wanted to make the most of it. I was racing and filming the event, and also decided to link up with my good friend and AR veteran John Ranson for the event. Read on for the skinny on the race.
Leading up to the race, my training was predominantly trail running, combined with my daily commute to and from work on my road bike. I did zero true mountain biking, and the only paddle I pulled off was when John and I got out for a nice 12k paddle on the Gatineau River. At that time, we chatted about our expectations, with John warning (read: foreshadowing) me that he hadn’t done much biking, so was pretty sure he’d be slower than me. I assured him that was okay, as my main goal was to push hard, and have fun with a friend on the race. He agreed to take care of navigation so that I could focus on filming.
Race day broke clear, sunny, and near perfect. It promised to be good weather for most of the day, with sunny to overcast conditions and not too hot. I had camped onsite the night before so that I wouldn’t have to scramble in the morning, even though the race was only an hour away at Mont Ste. Marie. This area has done a great job in building up its mountain biking options in the recent years, so I knew biking would definitely figure in prominently, but would actually be single track, aka the FUNNEST riding possible.
At race briefing, we got our maps and saw the course layout for the first time. The order of the sections were as follows: trekking, paddling, biking, trekking, biking, finish. The start featured a straight run up the ski mountain in front of us, which would help separate the race field and spread us out. We took off at a decent pace and I’d say we were in the top 10 heading up the hill. We had a few minor bobbles on the opening trek, but they only lead to a few minutes of accumulated errors in our estimation. We had ALMOST skipped a CP, but thanks to us both being navigators and double checking what we’d covered, we caught our mistake in time to not impact our routing too much. All in all, we were very efficient, and our navigation was quite strong on this leg, allowing us to pop out and get on the water in the top 8 or so position.
The water was glassy smooth in the late morning light, and our canoe was identical to most of the others, so we had no real excuse for any shortcomings in the paddle leg, which would actually total a shorter overall distance than our one paddle training outing! Once on the water, and headed to the first ‘advanced’ CP on the water, we were surprised to see the lead team already paddling back to transition! That meant they had 30-40 minutes on us. Also, I don’t think I have ever seen a canoe move so fast on water. There was a wake coming off the back. They looked like men possessed, even though there was no one near their tail. But, that’s what you have to do in order to secure a podium. Never give an inch, no matter what. 8 hours is still a long time, and anything can happen.
For our part, we wrapped up the paddle leg pretty uneventfully. Our time was nothing to brag about, but we generally kept our place on the water, perhaps losing 1 or 2 slots. I still had us pegged as contenders in some fashion, given the future trekking leg, and our strong navigation abilities. At transition, we took the chance to fuel up a bit and make sure we had all we’d need for the next long section. We were about head into the MTB trails of Velo MSM to catch a bunch of checkpoints before doing a bit of cross-country to reach the next trekking leg.
We headed off at a moderate pace, figuring we’d warm up a bit on the road section before tackling the trails. Already, John started dropping the pace a bit, but I was unfazed, even though he was already visibly irritated at himself. I did my best to encourage him and let up my pace a tad. I’m probably strongest on the road based on all my road bike commuting. 30k per day helps! We turned onto the Velo MSM trails, and thankfully we had more mental work to do in determining routes, etc, which helped mitigate pacing issues. However, it did become clear quite quickly again that John was getting frustrated at his own progress on the singletrack biking.
For my part, I was just having fun on the trails, and felt quite (surprisingly?) strong out there. I had forgotten just how much I do love mountain biking. Maybe someday I’ll get back into more cross-country riding rather than spending all my time running like a fool out there! I kept telling John not to worry about it, just focus on the riding, and not waste energy feeling frustrated, since it wouldn’t help anything. We’d get where we were going when we got there. I felt really bad later on when he outright told me I should just continue without him. I have NEVER abandoned a team-mate, and firmly believe in the team construct, and accept that a team will only ever be as fast as the slowest person, and all you can really do is help them. Unfortunately, there was almost nothing I could do for John. I took as much weight out of his pack as I could, but it wasn’t enough to boost his spirits much.
However, John knows the game. And he also knows how to push through. He is used to being at the pointy end of the stick, and I think wasn’t mentally prepared to deal with feeling weakness. Lucky for me, I’ve been there, A LOT, over the years. Being the weaker team-mate on more than one occasion, I felt qualified to know what NOT to do or say. I stayed positive and we just kept pushing. We got all our CPs and made it up to the top of yet another mountain (hill?) to arrive at the remote trekking transition. Back on our feet, we hoped to move smoothly through this section.
We did move well, with me trying to stay ahead and grab the CPs as quick as possible, letting John hang back where we could and focus on the maps. The best part of this section was the little swim that we had an option to take. I didn’t hesitate to strip down, head into the swamp / lake to cool off, pick up a CP, and head back. Since it was under 100m, John stayed on the far shore. The water was very refreshing, but smelly. I emerged like a swamp beast, with all the insects instantly attracted to me. Wasting no time, I re-dressed, and we got back on our way.
Back at transition, John got busy mapping the final few advanced checkpoints (which we didn’t get to see until this moment). It was more biking, so not John’s favourite. He was lobbying to skip a few and just make sure we finished under the 8 hr time limit. You could go over time, but the penalty was a point per minute, and with every CP worth a fixed 25 points, you had to make a decision on your approach. After a quick discussion and looking at the maps, I conceded that we could definitely skip one outlier CP, but felt we should do our very best to nab the rest. John agreed, and we were off. By now, things were also very hot, so dehydration was starting to fall over some racers. I’d managed my fluids pretty well, but John was low.
We kept hacking away on the bikes, making steady progress. Again, we bobbled once on the bikes, overshooting and adding a couple kilometers in distance, as well as probably 20-30 minutes over ‘optimal’ at our speed, but nothing major. Certainly nothing soul crushing. Overall, I can safely say I was still having fun, and although I will admit to being disappointed at NOT clearing the course this time around, it was still a positive experience. Being mentally and physically strong for an entire race felt good, and gave me confidence going into another race season.
We wrapped up the race on the bikes with a super-fun descent on more of the Velo MSM trails. I let myself get a bit ahead of John in this section, but only because it was a downhill technical run and I really wanted to bomb it for fun. I passed a lot of other racers, then waited at the exit of the trail for John. When he came into view, I hooted and hollered, and we rode the rest of the way down smiling having fun. UNTIL I did an endo!. 100m from the finish in a ditch. Sadly, it wasn’t captured well on film, but I basically was following a track that went straight down a dropoff into a ditch rather than the track next to it which had a clean path down and out of the ditch. Thankfully, no injuries were sustained, and we crossed the line.
When the dust settled and results were tallied, John and I finished off in 7th in our category and 11th overall, in a field of 40. Not podium material, but completely respectable, and still quite high in terms of number of CPs attained (we only skipped 1). After reflection, John decided that he got what he deserved, as he knows that you need to put the training in to do well, and he simply hadn’t been putting in the time to be a top contender. He also shared that he was used to being strong, and had hated the thought of slowing me down and/or holding me back. But while I would have liked to race harder and push myself to my limits, I was completely content to race the way we did. I accomplished my goal and spent my day in my ‘happy place’. What more can I ask for? It’s not always about winning. It’s about learning about yourself and about others, and savouring the experience.
As usual, the entire Raid Pulse crew put on a great event. Just the right size of event, with the right number of volunteers, and a well laid-out course. Thierry knows what he is doing, and I hope to be doing this event for another 10 years! Shortly after we finished however, storm clouds rolled in, and I suspect some racers may not share my fond memories, as they got caught in a torrential downpour on a very technical descent on mountain bikes! Yikes! Hopefully the rotisserie chicken meal at the awards ceremony made up for it!
Well, that wraps up my race report. If you haven’t done so already, please watch my race review below to get a sense of this race. Put it on your calendar for next year. If you’ve never done an AR event, this is one to try. With both a 2hr and 8hr option, there is no reason NOT to try it! That’s it for now. Stay tuned for my report from my first 50miler (80km) trail race of the season coming up next.
Greetings friends. I’m pretty excited to be able to write a blog post about a race I recently did in Pennsylvania. Why? Well, for starters, it was a 44 hour adventure race. Also, I have never been to Pennsylvania for a race. And finally, it was because this race was not even on my radar until a few weeks before, when Deanna pointed out a post on Facebook from a friend stating they were seeking a team-mate. Had she not encouraged me to throw my name in the hat, I wouldn’t have even raced a multi-day AR this year! How sad would that have been? Read on for my tale of climbing mountains on my mountain bike over and over again….
48 Hour races (44 in this case) in the AR world are one of the best challenges for a middling team. You have enough time to get into real trouble and/or make some really great decisions to help your standing. Anything can happen, and you definitely start to hit the wall of sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion. Going into a 48 Hr race, you know you will not sleep, so it is all about smart decisions and figuring out as much as you can in advance, so you are not planning when dead tired. Unfortunately, this race didn’t really allow you to use that strategy, and in my opinion, this race was more like a multiple stage orienteering race than a pure adventure race.
What do I mean by that? Well, here are a few things. First, the maps. They were huge, and not marked. We got them 1.5 hours before the start, along with a very brief (<1 page) instruction sheet. I started trying to furiously plot the points on it using the UTM co-ordinates before realizing they had master maps posted on a wall of a building. Unfortunately, all teams were trying to copy the maps at the same time, making it VERY challenging to transcribe, and also prepare all your gear, since it was the first chance we had of seeing the order of events. Oh right, and I should mention that I was in the navigator role so that my teammate Brad could focus on doing filming of the event, and my other teammate Jessica could focus on the fact that this was her FIRST RACE >8 hours in length!
Matters were made worse by colder-than-expected weather, forcing organizers to completely re-imagine the course a day earlier! They had to cancel rafting, swimming, and ropes sections right off the bat, forcing extra mountain biking on us. As a result, we also only got instruction for about the first 20 hours of racing. The next sections would be revealed to us later (or maybe just made up as we got there??).
So, where exactly was the race and what was it? Well, this was the Equinox Traverse Adventure Race, and took place in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania (near the Maryland and West Virginia Borders). This region features many state parks and state forests, leaving lots of options for adventuring. It is also very close to the highest point in Pennsylvania, Mount Davis, at 3,200ft elevation. While we did not climb that feature, we DID go up and down MANY >2,000 ft climbs during the course of our race.
So, back to the start line. Maps now marked and roughly folded to fit into my map carrier on my bike, we straddled our mountain bikes to get ready for the rolling start as a group. We had a roughly 2k road section where we were to stay together before we were cut loose to hammer to the next transition. This section was a taster for what would become a theme of this race. On our bikes. Climbing long sections, then bombing down others. On a combination of roads, gravel roads, fire tower road, trails, and singletrack. Not to spoil the surprise, but we basically spent ~35 of our 40 hours of the race on our butts doing this!! Not everyone was as ‘lucky’ as us, as you’ll learn.
Our first section didn’t feature any real CPs to be punched, just a nice bike section to the first transition of the day, where we were switching to trekking. We started the bike leg at 9am, and got into the first transition at 11:15 am. You can click here for detailed results and times for the race. At this point, we took the time to organize food and maps before heading out. We didn’t want to overlook anything, as we only had until 6pm to get as many CPs in this area as we could, and we wanted to get them all. This area featured some great trails and elevation gain giving us impressive views of the area. I wished I could pull out my camera and snap pictures, but my hands were full with maps and compass, navigating and keeping us on track. We quickly discovered that there were plenty of trails not indicated on the maps. When trekking, I can say that I personally HATE that! The easiest is to take a bearing and just bushwhack in my opinion. When you have myriad trails, you have to take educated guesses on which might help, and decide then to abandon them.
Luck was with us for the most part, and the route choices and trails made general sense. It helped that our destination was often the highest point in an area, so we could read the terrain around us for cues and clues. It took us a little longer than we’d hoped to grab our 2nd CP (the first was an easy grab on a small island not far from the TA). This CP also introduced us to the fact that this area was THICK with stinging nettles and briars. The best sum-up would come from a post I came across on Facebook after the event:
The only hints I’m giving away for the Equinox, is if your in the stinging nettles, briars so thick Peter Cottontail would have hard time crawling through, knee straining rock gardens, seeing occasional piles of bear poop and maybe hearing the sound of a baby rattle in the middle of the woods…..you might be close to a CP. Oh and ticks.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of pushing your way through a sea of stinging nettles, I do NOT recommend it. The going was very slow, and it definitely tested our mental fortitude. Looking at the time we’d spent already in this section, we got concerned about getting the remaining checkpoints in time, but pressed on, deciding to run to the furthest CP in the section, and making our way back. Once again, we had a slight challenge getting this one due in part to mis-reading the cue sheet descriptions. In reality, our navigation was in fact bang on, it was just finding the actual CP flags that seemed to challenge us, as they are often in an area of 100 square meters or so, and it can take time to locate them. Once again, although we were a little annoyed at the time delay, we again re-grouped and pressed on, with me adjusting our route plan on the fly in hopes of getting lucky on the next few CPs.
Luck was with us from that point for the remainder of the trek. We picked up some very useful trails, and had gotten more used to ‘guessing’ where the CPs might actually be. We also had the chance to do some classic straight-line bushwhacking, which netted us some solid progress and ending up finding the rest of the CPs on the mountain (while enjoying a few glimpses of the spectacular views). Time was tight, but we were confident we could run back to the TA in time. Luckily, backtracking was made simpler as the route I had chosen took us back to a point where we’d be able to basically just double back on the ‘right’ trails more easily. However, it was still a real push to wrap things up quick, as you’ll see by our time in at the TA. 5:56pm. Yup. 4 minutes to spare! While many teams had already left, we learned that several teams had not ‘cleared’ the section, so we took this as a small victory (and personally, I’d say in retrospect, that was our greatest accomplishment in the race).
The team was cooked from the recent effort, so time was spent re-grouping, filling water, etc, before taking off. This was perfect for me, as I had not even started planning out our next route choices on the bike, which involved plotting 3-4 supplementary maps, and preparing for a long night of cycling, much of it in remote park locations. As I sorted the routes out, it seemed very likely to me that we’d face our first true decision point on which CPs to skip, since our next deadline was 4am, and there was a LOT of ground to cover. Sadly, we mis-interpreted another little instruction on the sparse directions, which noted we had to check in at TA3 by 4am, and would not have access to any CPs north of a certain highway. Uncertain of which road that meant, we took that to mean we were not allowed to grab any more of the CPs in this whole quadrant by 4am. As we learned later (and others also made this mistake), that was not true.
So fast forward on the bikes now. I had plotted as conservative a route as I could (i.e. avoiding as many of the crazy long climbs as possible), while having a clear plan to get as many CPs as possible, while giving us ‘outs’ and shortcuts as needed in some of the parks. I was quite pleased with the plan I had devised as it should have maximized our ability to grab CPs. The plan involved working on clearing the ‘south’ area of this leg first, then working our way north before veering east to the TA. In effect, it meant we were grabbing CPs that we’d eventually (although at that time unknown to us due to not having the information yet) see again, and COULD have picked up AFTER 4am! Looking back at the maps, it isn’t clear that we would have done things differently, as the alternative was a LOT of trails and tougher biking, and we were already not that fast at this point.
I will state that although this section was now in the depths of the night, it was actually quite fun to navigate and ride. There was a good mix of route types, and enough trails and challenges that you had to be sharp, but not ‘perfect’. Given more time and speed, clearing it wouldn’t have been that difficult from a navigation perspective. However, hindsight is 20/20, and in the end, we left a LOT of CPs out on the course once we made our move to head to TA3. Some of the CPs were so far removed, and required really long slogs up or down trails that were un-rideable that losing an hour on 1 CP was quite easy. Again, we made our priority getting to the TA before that 4am cutoff a priority, as we were warned there would be ‘severe’ penalties for missing them.
Let me digress here to point out a complaint we felt is warranted here. The notion of a ‘severe’ penalty was completely unexplained to racers. There was not a single ‘rule’ about the race, nor how it would be scored or how we’d be ranked depending on these cutoffs, etc. This left us uncertain what the best choices to make would be. Rush to make cutoffs? Grab an extra CP or 2 to get more points? Would there be a short course option? Would we be disqualified for missing cutoffs? It was frustrating to have more questions than answers, especially when we were out there trying to make a decision on what to do in a pinch. So, we made the best decisions we could, and hoped for the best.
Digression over, I’m happy to say we yet again got to the cutoff with 8 minutes to spare. You’ll note on the timesheet we cut it closer than anyone else EVERY time :-). This particular cutoff was at a 24 / 7 gas station. At this point, it was FREEZING outside (like 4-5 degrees!), so we loved the heat indoors. We also loved the gas station Pizza, Burgers, and other food that we bought to fuel up. Once again, we took our grand time here. In part to fuel up, and also so that I could plot the next section, which was only revealed to us now. It involved quite a bit of back tracking, and then entering an area called ‘Bear Run’ and following what they said were orange ribbons to the next TA. We were given no information on what awaited us there, only that we had to make it there by 10:30am.
Seemed easy enough. 6.5 hours to bike to the next CP? Not so fast tiger. First, by the time we left, it was already 5am. Then, Jess flatted out as soon as we got underway, which I fixed as fast as I could on the roadside, but this still cost us time. THEN we made the decision to pick up 2 CPs from the previous section, now that we knew we were allowed to. We were happy to grab them, but didn’t realize the fresh hell awaiting us on the way to Bear Run. For starters, the climbing was really starting to wear on poor Jess. She was hurting and struggling, so we took some weight from her, and did what we could , but admittedly, progress on the roads was slow. The focus was on eating, drinking, and bouncing back, which she did by the time we got to the ‘entry’ of Bear Run, which was a flagged roadside trail entry. The directions just said to follow the flagging tape to the CP. We assumed that it would take a while with the mountains, but at least it should be straightforward, right?
WRONG! The flagging was pretty consistent for the first couple kilometers INTO this park, then, all of a sudden, it STOPPED! Ok, now what? We were well into the park, but with no map indicating ANY of the trails we were on (even though they were named). Once again, all we knew is that certain roads were completely out of bounds. Logically, we new that we might hit one such road, and wanted to avoid it, in case if would lead to disqualification. That meant a bunch of climbing up, looking for flagging, then changing our minds, doubling all the way back and dropping all the way down off the mountain, still not finding tape. We heard the road, worried about the DQ risk, and eventually decided to head back all the way UP, agreeing that either we’d missed flagging, or it didn’t exist, and that we should have just kept going up and around. This was definitely a low point on team morale, but the worst was yet to come.
Once we got ALL THE WAY BACK UP and a whole lot further, we finally saw another team, commenting “oh look, another team trying to follow the flagging”. They were trekking, so at least we knew what was next. They were kind enough to: a) share their own absolute frustration at this part of the race and b) share an additional map they had gotten AFTER the bike showing the trails and their names in this region. This indicated that we had to go ALL THE FRIGGING WAY BACK DOWN, and that we had been dangerously close to the TA and not known it (like 10-15 minutes away). We had lost many hours by now. Ultimately, although the cut-off had been noted as 10:30am, we only showed up at 1:21pm, but were told the cut-off was not being enforced here. Small miracles!
At this point, we got the lowdown on the next section, which was an orienteering leg in the Bear Run State Park. It looked quite easy (with the now-supplied map), but time consuming. Teams seeking to clear the whole course were taking about 4 hours to do so. Our main issue was that in order to make it to the NEXT transition, we still had a lot of biking to do, and were looking at a 6pm cutoff. We had the idea to grab at least 1 checkpoint near the TA, but after overhearing several other teams discussing the time it would take to bike to the next TA, we got spooked, and decided to pack back up and get right back on our bikes. All told, we spent 40 minutes in the TA. This was spent eating, addressing sore parts, and mapping out the next part of the race. This was the FIRST (and ONLY) chance we had access to our miniscule 40L team gear bin. It basically only had room for a little food, and spare clothes should we need it. In this TA, I was in a bit of a funk after the last major delay, and not excited about riding the saddle for many more hours. However, such is the way things go sometimes. We’d now been on our bikes from 6pm Saturday to 1pm Sunday, a total of 19 hours, and about to keep pedaling.
Once again, the route we were going to follow was a bit of back-tracking in the State Park, then we had to make a choice on how to get to the transition area. We decided to take a bit of a gamble by heading down an extremely steep ATV trail from the top of the mountain we were on down to the river, then follow this ATV trail along the river into a village before linking with the road many other teams were likely taking. What a ride! We had to stop numerous times to let our forearms have a break as well as make sure the brakes weren’t overheating or wearing out. It was STEEP! What a rush. At the bottom, we discovered our ATV track was not as ‘smooth’ as we’d hoped, so any time gain we might have had by taking the shorter route was likely offset by the slog we faced. I now hit my absolute lowest in the race. We often use a scale of 1-5 to share with the team how we feel. I reported a 0.75. However, that merely frustrated me, so I ate more, blocked out everything else (not even talking…), and just plowed on hard, taking no rest or giving me any time to get frustrated. I was determined to not make this be a factor in our race. After a little while I bounced back (as we always do), just in time for a stand-off we were NOT expecting!
Just before we hit a real road in the village we had targeted (and dangerously close to the cutoff) we realized we were about to cross a sign that said “Private Property”. A mere 500 feet from the road we wanted. And of course, the owner was on his porch, and none too pleased. We had a genuine standoff here, uncertain whether we were going to be fired upon, have police called or what. In our exhausted state, we did all we could to assure the gentleman we meant to disrespect, and were merely ‘lost’ and didn’t realize the property was private. In all fairness, this was true. From the map, this trail clearly went across state park land (free access) and was not clear that the final 500 feet might be private. We lost precious minutes before finally somehow convincing / promising him we’d leave quickly, quietly and would NEVER return. Apparently they are very zealous of property rights in this area. Duly noted. Reinvigorated by the adrenaline and fear, we roared off on our bikes, now more than ever determined to make the 6pm cutoff. A few quick route decisions, and we were pulling into the TA, seeing a sea of bikes, but no other teams. On the plus side, it was 5:59pm!!! We’d made it. Brad was ecstatic.
Just as quickly as he was ecstatic, he was crushed. As we were hugging the fact that we’d ‘made it’, the race crew clarified that we had to be on the water at 6pm, not arrive at the TA. So we had missed the paddle section! This also meant we would miss the next trekking section, since it involved trekking from the kayak pull-out BACK to this point before grabbing bikes and cycling to the finish. However, the “good news” was that we could just take our bikes and do the trekking section using our bikes before making our way to the finish. We had now been awake for about 35 hours, and on our bikes for the last 24 hours straight. We didn’t immediately see the fact that we’d get to keep biking as ‘good news’.
For my part, I let Brad and Jess sort through their feelings about this while focusing on plotting the next section on the maps anyway. There was little point to getting angry now. On the plus side, there was no way we wouldn’t be finishing the race at least, and getting out as soon as we could would be helpful, as we still had some daylight to use to find the final 4 checkpoints. I soon realized that we had a VERY long climb ahead of us, and didn’t want to share the extent of this with the team just yet, instead just encouraging everyone to get ready and head back out. Which we did, but not before witnessing the eventual winner of the race running into the TA having finished both the paddle AND the trek, and back to grab his bike to head to the finish! He had a mere 7-9 miles left on rail trail to finish the race, whereas we were now facing many more hours on trails and access roads on our bikes before getting there. If nothing, it was inspirational to see a solo racer that far ahead and winning!
Off we went! We made our way to the bottom of what was called ‘fire tower road’, a climb of probably over 2,000ft total lay ahead. Luckily, a nice old timer at his house invited us to use his outdoor hose to fill up our bladders with fresh filtered creek water. This kind of made up for the last cantankerous fellow. We were warned by him (and several other people we saw on our way) that this road was NOT friendly, and very steep. Lol. If only they knew what we’d been up to for the past 32+ hours. We slowly made our way up and up and up. When we reached the top and grabbed the 1st of the final 4 CPs, we started running across teams on foot completing this trekking section, including friends. They were a bit confused seeing us on bikes. We explained our situation, wished everyone well, and kept going. Night was now upon us again, but luckily, I felt confident about the route choices, and just settled in for many more hours of riding at a slow pace to keep us all together (Jessica didn’t have a proper light for night 2, and was a bit bagged).
For the sake of brevity, I’ll just say the last 3 checkpoints, while not incredibly hard to find, did take us quite a little while to get. The final CP involved a long ride on a fun single-track trail (usually limited to hikers, but we got to ride it), then a long road climb to a park summit. Once we finally located the CP hidden in the woods, we knew it was just a matter of downhill riding to the finish line. We had a mini-celebration up there, knowing we had succeeded.
We rolled across the finish line at 1:08am. Technically, this put our finish time somewhere in the middle of the pack, albeit having finished an ‘alternative’ course. Our category standing put us in 6th of 9 teams, and overall 8th of 16 teams, based on our points. However, more importantly, we finished the race strong, as a team, and with smiles on our face (proof above). We had raced hard for 40 hours, been awake for 45 hours straight, covered about 260 km (most of this on mountain bikes), and used our bodies to climb 25,000 feet or more of elevation! Not too shabby. I was happy to race with both Brad and Jessica, and proud to call us a ‘Team’. We had a great attitude, helped each other out when needed, and managed to show Jessica just how far you can push yourself. I’m pretty sure she’ll be back for more!
Now, as a reward for sticking with me through this really long post, I have a treat. As mentioned, Brad was filming for this race, and as a result, we have a full video of our experience. Click below to watch it. Put it on full-screen HD and see what 40 hours of racing looks like from the inside!
Well, the race season is shaping up quite nicely so far this season. I’m staying busy, but trying hard not to over-commit to racing in order to give myself to properly train for a few key events. However, it’s hard to say no to fun adventure races when I get the chance. With that, I bring you my re-cap of the ever-awesome Raid Pulse adventure race close to home. This early May race is a nice 8 hour duration, and this time, was held and hosted at Mont Ste Marie, a mere 1 hour drive from home. As a bonus, that means sleeping in my own bed the night before and after the race! Bonus.
This was, in fact, the 14th year that Thierry and his crew have been putting on events. In the world of AR, that is something to brag about. What makes it work and keep people coming back? Simple. The race is both accessible, and challenging. Top racers can put it all out there and try to clear the course to get all the advanced checkpoints, and novice racers can choose to chase less checkpoints yet still have a great day. Thierry has done an excellent job of crafting courses that can take you pretty much to the full 8 hr mark, both for the top racers and the newcomers. To make things even more accessible this year, there was even a 2-hour event, but I didn’t see any of that, given that we started before, and ended after their entire event and awards were done!
Based on the fact that the course was hosted at VeloMSM, the mountain bike trail group out of Mont Ste Marie, we had an inkling that this race would feature a fair bit of biking on the amazing trails of the region. We were not disappointed. VeloMSM has been around for a few years, quietly building up the trails around the ski hill. They have done some amazing work. This was my 3rd time racing in the area, and each time, it seems they have added to the trails, including building amazing wood berms and structures and ensuring there is a good mix of easy, medium, and hard trails. But I digress, back to the race.
Leg 1 – Mountain Biking
As mentioned above, our race began with a pseudo-remote start. For the start, we were bused back to where we had dropped bikes off on our way to the race HQ. This was about 10-12km from the ski hill, along rolling roads. The intent was to give everyone a chance to sort themselves out and separate the pack before the technical trails. After the roads, the next equalizer was the fact that most people opted to bike straight up the access road winding its way up the ski hill. This meant a steep climb, and chance to further spread out. A theme of this particular race was that pretty much all the checkpoints of the race could be picked up in any order within each leg.
For this leg, there were 8 regular checkpoints and 2 advanced checkpoints that we could snag. I had sketched out a tentative route at the briefing, but on the bus ride to the start, basically decided on the fly to try a completely different approach after the first big climb. The trick was to minimize the amount of double-backs on this section. Certain trails were 1-way only, and were scattered around a lake, so it was hard to tell on paper the most ‘efficient’ route. All in all, I’d say I made pretty good time. I learned early on that there was a faster way to get to one CP right off the bat, but only a few teams had lucked out on that (it involved a non-marked ATV trail from the original road INTO the ski hill area, where most of us got there via conventional trails). For that reason, I knew I was about 5 teams back from the get-go.
Another good sign was that as I exited this area of the course, I linked up with Adam Mallory and James Galipeau, both of whom are strong competitors, and whose paths I’d crossed on the trails a couple times. We all took slightly different routes, but all started the next KILLER climb on a dirt road to the first transition. And by climb, I mean hard walk up a near-vertical road with our bikes!
Leg 2 – Trekking
The next leg of the race was what I consider my strong suit. Trekking and orienteering. This time, we had 4 regular checkpoints and 3 advanced checkpoints to go after. Once we had reached a the transition zone at the peak of one mountain, we dropped our bikes, and headed off into the bush. A quick study of the may showed that the first regular 4 checkpoints shouldn’t be much of a problem, as they were located on ATV trails criss-crossing the area. Not only that, but our maps seemed to be pretty accurate, improving the odds we could run between these CPs. However, the 3 advanced CPs were placed at much further distances, and also involved some considerable elevation gain and loss.
I grabbed the first four points, then struck out on a bearing through the bush to reach the first of the advanced CPs. In this little section, I came across a few other racers, including James and Adam once again. Once again, we had NOT taken the same route in this section, but were together in the search for this particular point. Upon reaching the first point, we agreed that the most efficient route to the next point was down a pretty steep re-entrant along a stream from our high point. While it was not necessarily advisable to go at this one alone due to cliffs, we decided that by heading down together, there was some safety in numbers.
Not long after grabbing the next CP, I realized there was a serious problem with my navigation. James and I agreed on the bearing for the next point, but for some reason, we were pointed in complete opposite directions. Shortly after, I realized my compass was completely borked! The needle wasn’t moving. At first, I thought maybe it was a magnet or something, but I came to realize that the fluid in the capsule had somehow drained, to the needle was not able to properly moved. I guess 10 or so years of compass abuse in races leads to damage. Even more surprising is the fact that I *ALWAYS* carry a spare compass in a race….. until this one! I had NO backup. I was shocked. Not only that, but I was in the bush in the most remote part of the course. I had to trust contours, instinct, and most importantly, James!
I told him my predicament, and given the fact we had the same CPs left, we stuck together until the end of this leg. At one point I remembered my watch has a compass on it, but it wasn’t quick enough to give readings, and they were only bearings, making it harder to use in a hurry.
Add all this to the fact that there was a 2pm cutoff back at the TA in order to be allowed to continue onto the next ‘advanced’ bike section, and you can understand my concern for our pace. We picked up the pace as best we could , but ended up over-shooting the TA by veering a little too far east. Luckily, we hooked back up with a trail and ran / jogged back as quick as we could. We showed up a couple minutes after 2. Normally, it would be game over, but the race organizers had decided to add 30 minutes to the cutoff. Sweet! Still in the hunt for a course clearing. No time to waste, it was time to grab a couple glasses of Nuun, plot the new advanced CPs onto my map, and head back out.
Leg 3 – Biking / Advanced Biking
Compass snafu aside, I was feeling that I was in a good position now. Not that many teams had made it to the cutoffs, and I was on track to finish and clear the full course. In other words, whatever position I was in at that point in the race should be the worst I’d end up in. With that in mind, I wanted to charge hard and see if I could pick up a spot or two. The rest of the race was bike / paddle / bike, and wouldn’t require the use of my compass, so I put that fear out of my mind. What I didn’t count on however, was how miserable the advanced biking leg would be. Ostensibly, it was on a ‘trail’, but this thing was horribly overgrown, and resulted in a lot of bike-whacking, and when riding, resulted in a lot of branches smacking me in the face. It was demoralizing. Eventually, I just closed my eyes and rode through the branches. Apparently, my wife does not approve of this technique.
There were only 2 CPs to grab, and both were super-easy to find once we were out of the really gnarly ghost biking trail. Having grabbed those, it was back onto backroads that were on the map, and the longish ride to the next transition. On the ride, I studied the maps a bit more to see if there might be a shortcut, and ended up devising a plan to cut back through the MTB trails at the ski hill and ultimately through a golf course rather than taking roads the long way around one spot. The jury is out on whether that was faster on the way TO the transition, but it would pay off later. There were a few delays as I had to consult maps and double check where I was.
Emerging as hoped by the golf course, it was a quick 800m bike to where the boats and transition bags were waiting.
Leg 4 – The Paddle
Considering I had only managed to go out once on my boat this season, 3 days before the race, and for a mere 45 minutes, I wasn’t expecting to break any records. However, I had the rush of being near the end of the race in my favour AND the sight of a lot of other racers around me. Keep in mind that these were racers that had skipped certain parts of the course, so there was the mental boost that I would likely keep up to, and/or pass them on the water. For this section, there were 3 main CPs and 1 advanced CP to grab. Looking at the distances and time, it looked pretty much a lock that I could grab them all and finish under the 8 hour mark, so off I went!
Not long into the paddle, I linked up with a few other solo racers in kayaks, and couple canoes. We were similar in speeds, so ended up paddling much of this section together. This lead to a few traffic jams near the CPs, and one spot where I tried hopping out of my boat only to discover that the ‘rocky shore’ was actually a dropoff. I dropped down to my belly button before propelling myself upwards again owing to the frigid water. Lesson learned. I decided to just wait my turn at the CPs and try to better position myself for the next ones.
James and Adam had started the paddle ahead of me (they got through the bike quicker), but I caught up to Adam on the water. James had gotten too far ahead, so we crossed paths with him on his way back to the transition. I’m guessing he had 10-15 minutes on us. I decided I had to at least stay ahead of Adam in this mini-battle we had set ourselves up for. After grabbing all the CPs, I gritted my teeth and focused on a smooth paddle stroke to get out of the water first. On the way, we also passed Deanna and Adam’s wife, who were racing as a team of two (ironic, no?).
I reached the shore at ramming speed, hopped out into the mud, and dragged my kayak up as fast as possible…
Leg 5 – Bike to Finish
It was down to the final 4-5k of biking. I knew that I would only be out for maybe 15-20 minutes from here. As a result, I made what I would arguably call my fastest AR transition ever. I left all my paddling gear on (well, mainly just PFD). Threw on my helmet, dropped paddle off in my bag (along with my map bag that I wouldn’t need) and hopped on my bike, all in one relatively smooth movement. I was back on the road probably within a minute or two of pulling off the water. It was time to put my shortcut theory to the test again.
Word on the street is that when Adam pulled off the water, he was gunning for me, and was fighting for an equally fast transition (although he took time to take off his PFD, which I think was a bad decision). I rode back up to the golf course, and turned in, now having memorized the exact route to get to the faint trail back to the ski hill. A few other racers watched me turn with some interest, as the conventional route was to stick to the road all the way. However, this was the time to gamble in my opinion. Adam might well have caught me on the road!
Pushing hard, I emerged right where I’d hoped, in the ski parking lot. I crossed the line, relieved to see no sign of Adam. James was already there, and let me know he’d only just gotten there a few minutes before! In the end the results show me as having arrived 5 minutes after James, and Adam arriving 4 minutes after me! Our standings were 3rd, 4th, and 4th in the solo category. I’ll take it. Sad to be a mere 1 step off the podium, but there was some heavy competition in this category in this race. 1st place had beaten us all by an hour, and 2nd had beaten James by about 15 minutes. I feel the main difference had to be speed in the advanced bike section, and time lost on the trek due to the compass issue. Oh, and for the record, my finishing time was 7 hours, 34 minutes.
Time to celebrate! We all made our way to the awards ceremony to await the warm meal awaiting us. It was a tasty spaghetti with salad and bread, followed by a desert. The obligatory awards presentation, then lots of random draws. Sadly, I won no prizes that night, nor did Deanna, but I was happy just having had the chance to run yet another fun race. Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention, I actually filmed the whole event with my array of cameras while racing ;-). If you haven’t done so yet, have a look at my re-cap video below. This should definitely give you a sense of the actual race. Enjoy! Next up, 44 hours of racing in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania!
You just never know how an adventure race will turn out when you start. This is especially the case in multi-day events, such as the 4-day staged Raid International Gaspesie that I most recently completed. Completion was far from certain. In fact, I finished on a different team than I started on! What follows is a tale of anticipation, teamwork, tragedy, rebirth, and triumph! It is also a concise explanation of why I love adventure racing so much. As my high school motto stated: “Palma non sine Pulvere” (No success without struggle).
Before I get deep into the meat of it, have a browse through the pictures that I have from the event. There are some real nice ones in there this time (click left and right to view more)!
As you may know, this race was the namesake of my summer adventure racing squad. We were entering this race with high hopes, and had been looking forward to it most of the year. However, 2 months ago, it was even doubtful we’d get to race as a team. We lost our 4th team-mate, and had to scramble to find a replacement. The search was truly International, and we FINALLY found a suitable replacement at the 11th hour in the form of Bruno, a racer and navigator from New Brunswick, who would even have some local knowledge, as he is from the area.
With our 4th in place, we had a couple hasty emails and even a group conference call with the team, including our excellent support crew (this was a supported race) to discuss final logistics and determine our plan of attack. It was go time! The race was 1 week away.
Upon arrival at Carleton-sur-Mer, we set about with the logistics of race registration, setting up camp for our first 2 nights at a seaside campground, and the all-important local brewery sampling (ok, only Bruno and I took part in that!). That evening, there was a welcome ceremony with all the teams on hand. After that, it was time to eat supper, bed down, and wait until morning when we’d receive our full set of race maps, instructions, and get set for the prologue. The race was slated to be about 300km for us, with 4 days of racing. Day 0 was the prologue, and only about 20-25km, subsequently, days 1, 2, and 3 were each to be up to 100km in length and featured an array of the typical disciplines. Trekking, running, paddling, ropes section, and mountain biking. The terrain was hilly, and beautiful. While it was relatively dry when we arrived, rains during the event ensured that there was plenty of mud to enjoy…
The prologue was a good chance to stretch our legs and test out our team. During the 3 or so hours we were out there, we realized this whole event would be like a giant sprint race, as there was very little difficult navigation, so everyone was going flat out. We learned we had to improve some of our communication, but were otherwise happy with the energy on the team. Crossing the line on Day 1 we were pretty happy.
We got to spend the 2nd night at the same camp, then had to get up early to pack up and head to the start of Day 1, which was about 55km away. This would be our first full day, and a true test for us. We worked well with our navigation and teamwork, managing to make some good early moves placing us well on the first paddle after the opening trek section. This was a long river paddle featuring some fun whitewater (nominally Class II water) and swiftwater. We emerged unscathed before tackling the next two long trek and bike sections.
Finishing the bike, we now had the task of getting back in the boats WITH the bikes to undertake another long paddle to the Day 1 camp site. We lashed the bikes into the awkward boats, made more difficult by the fact that we mostly ride 29ers. It was just ugly and unwieldy.
Our hope was that the river would be calmer water now, and so we lashed our two boats together to get a towing benefit. Well, unfortunately, just around the first bend was the biggest rapid of the day. With the boats tied together, all went to shit, with Bruno and I getting eventually flipped in the cold water. Amazingly, we didn’t lose either our packs or bikes, but had to pull off to completely clear the boats, and I had to put on a dry top to avoid succumbing to the cold. We actually managed to recover pretty quickly, and were just taking off again when we turned around to see another unfortunate team capsize in the same spot. A safety briefing would have been nice from the race organizer methinks, but that was just one of a number of nitpicks I’d level at the organization with respect to the actual racecourse and preparations.
We paddled the rest of the river with relatively little incidents, but admittedly, we were a little gunshy, and Bruno and I did NOT want to go in that cold water again. The wind was definitely chilling us at this point. We were quite relieved to finally pull off at the Mic Mac Camp and cross the finish line for the day. Time to warm up by the fire, dry up, and then get all the maps and gear ready for Day 2 before passing out for the day.
Day 2. What can I really say about that day? I’d really rather forget most of it, to be honest. We got up in good spirits, with Bruno and I heading to the water early to select the best boats we could (there were a few 17 footers in a sea of 16s, and we managed to snag 2, which we hoped would help. We hoped to make up some time this day and get a bit further ahead in the field, as we were sitting somewhere between 3rd and 5th place. It was chilly starting again, but not overly bad.
Our plan had been to hit the water, and see if the speed was matched, and if not, tie the boats together for towing again. Unfortunately, Bruno and I dropped back from Nat and James pretty early, and it was some time before we finally all came back together and tied up. We pushed hard to the first checkpoint, when we realized our passport had been left behind at camp. We might get a penalty for that, but you just have to make the best of it. So we punched the map, and kept going.
Unfortunately, that’s when we hit a major snag. Nathalie got with with first an asthma attack, which we got sort of under control. However, this then turned into a bout of hyperventilation and then full-blown panic attack. To spare the full details, we dealt with it as best we could on the water, but things got worse when we were <1k from the water take out. At that point, Bruno and I pushed hard to the transition to seek help while James and Nat went ashore to walk along the beach as a safety precaution. Long story short, we were intercepted by medical personnel, and eventually, an ambulance was dispatched to whisk Nat off to the hospital.
That was it. Game over. Race done. The organizers said regardless of outcome at the hospital, Nat would no longer be allowed to continue Day 2 OR Day 3. The three of us remaining could continue, or any 2 of us, but as a ranked team, it was done. Just like that. Most importantly, Nat was okay, and eventually released from the hospital about 2 hours later, and by now, we had switched completely off ‘race mode’ and instead were drying and sorting gear.
As far as any of us could see, there was nothing else to do. Frankly, it sucked.
As we cleaned up at a transition point, we watched and cheered on as the lead teams came through, with some friends looking quizzically at us, wondering what happened. As Nat was done, she and James opted to pack up and head straight back to Ottawa. Bruno, since he lived only 2.5 hours away, decided he would also just head home. However, he decided to join Deanna and I for a little trip up to Mont St. Joseph to see the view that we’d been unable to see during the prologue on account of fog. This little trip lead to the next stage of MY race.
On my tour of the top of the mountain, there were still race organizers up there, as this was the site of another transition zone. We chatted about my day, and I was informed that if I wanted to, the Costa Rican team of 2 were seeking a team or team-mate as one of them was injured and the other couldn’t race solo. I said thanks, but my race was done. That was my initial reaction. However, within 5 minutes, I was contemplating it seriously, and after about 15 minutes, I had discussed it with Deanna, who, knowing me well enough, guessed what I wanted to to. The arrangement was struck that as long as we got a hotel room for this night (the previous 3 nights of cold and wet camping was apparently enough for her), I was clear to race. So the rebirth took place. We headed out to the camp for Day 2 to see about meeting this new team and see if they’d be up for the new plan that I would race with their other racer, and form a NEW team, team Costa – Canada. I knew that without me, he would likely be out of the race, and having traveled all that way, I really wanted them to have a chance to complete the race as well.
After waiting several hours, they finally showed up, and we immediately started chatting about racing together. We all clicked right away, and made plans to have supper together in town, and prepare the maps. I would also be the navigator for the day, putting me back in the drivers’ seat for Day 3. I was excited. They had been racing well, and I guessed we’d keep the pedal to the metal the full day.
Getting a hotel room was awesome, as it poured rain most of the night, but my gear stayed dry and I was well rested and ready to push hard. My teammate Eduardo was similarly rested and good to go. With the starting gun, we took off like a bolt of lightening. Amazingly, for most of the bike leg, we were at the front of the pack, racing with the current leaders and staying with them. It was a great feeling of comeback.
Sadly, once we transitioned to the trek, we made a bit of a blunder in that we underestimated our speed by a fair margin, forcing us to backtrack and go hunting for a few CPs that we should have hit pretty quickly. However, after that snafu, everything else got dialed in, and our spirits were high. We had an amazing day of racing and getting to know each other, and forging a bond that can only be created through an event such as this. I was referred to as a Tico now (Costa Rican), and will be welcomed as an old friend when Deanna and I can finally visit Costa Rica.Overall, the day was another all-out speedfest, but we held on admirably, and pushed to the very end, edging out another team on the closing 500m paddle at the finish line. Crossing the line, we were elated. Team Costa Rica was able to stamp out a finish for their race, and thanked me profusely for this.
The fact is though, this day was as much for me as for them, as the end of Day 2 really didn’t sit well with me, and I was in the doldrums as a result. Having an excellent day of pushing at max limit with a new friend was just what I needed. Neither of us could wipe off the huge grins on our faces at the finish. This extended to the other 2 Ticos that were there with us acting as our support crew. All in all, it was an amazing feeling, and the story book finish to my weekend. Adventure racing is such an interesting sport. It’s physically challenging, but it is also an incredible mental challenge. These challenges manifest themselves countless ways in events, and this was yet another example of how you have to adapt and react to whatever situation is thrown at you in order to pull off a finish in a tough event. I don’t think I’d trade the way this event played out for anything. I’m sure this is exactly how it was destined to be for me! Huge thanks to everyone on both my original team and my newly-constituted team for how it played out, particularly to the behind-the-scenes support crews.
Up next, well, it was R&R in Vegas with hiking in many parks, but the next race is the County Marathon where I’ll be celebrating my wedding anniversary. Stay tuned as always for new stories!
[My apologies for not getting this race report written up sooner! Amazingly, two weeks have already passed! A few days were just for recovering, then life got in the way. But without further ado, here we go.] A mere three weeks before this race, I was tackling the toughest race I had tried to date, the 4-day Untamed New England. However, being slightly shorter, at 24 hours in length, does NOT make a race easier. In fact, racing with my ‘semi-pro’ competitive team actually made this another really tough race, thanks to the relentless pace, and the taste of podium pushing us hard the whole way.
Two weeks out, we had a good look through the roster, and figured we had a legitimate shot at winning this race, which is one of the toughest fought adventure races in Eastern Canada (if not Canada). It attracts top teams from all around, and this year even had 2 teams from France competing. However, a day later, I noted that a new team had signed up consisting of Benoit Letourneau, Alex Provost, Vincent Meunier, and Liza Pye. Yup, pretty much the dream team, and technically 3 time returning champions. They usually win by huge margins, so victory was FAR from assured, but we had to go in with a strong positive attitude, which we did.
With the race featuring a remote start early Saturday morning, we all converged on race HQ Friday evening for gear checks and race briefings. Maps were distributed around 8:30pm, and were pre-plotted with CPs and TAs. Harper then got to work on the important job of route determining. With tethered laptop we scoured Google Earth and Bing trying to make sense of the terrain to find the ‘hopefully best’ route. In AR, you are always taking a bit of a gamble when the course is predominantly raw wilderness. As the name implies, this race has that in spades. Race director Bob Miller never holds back, spending the better part of an entire year designing a kick-ass course. The asses being kicked of course are the racers’! Back at our hotel room, we wrapped up map prep and gear sorting and were in bed before midnight to get a solid 4-5 hours of sleep before rolling back to HQ to catch buses and start the race, knowing we wouldn’t be back there until sometime the next day (although we hoped for a quick finish by racing hard).
Stage 1: The Paddle
The first section of the first leg of the race was meant to put water navigation to the test, as it featured a canoe paddle amongst thousands of tiny islands to pick out a ‘needle in a haystack’ with a CP on one of the islands. You could either pick a direct route, or use a ‘handrail’ by sticking closer to the mainland and having visual cues of where to turn. We had chosen the ‘safe’ route as shown above (click to see full size), but unfortunately had our boats improperly balanced. Nat and I were in one boat, and James and Harper in the other. They were the stronger boat, so we had mismatched speeds. We arrived at CP1 to see many other teams had grabbed it and were on their way to the next CP already! Oh well, chasing from the back is easier, right? The full splits had us as 14th to arrive there!
We also delayed further at CP1 by shuffling the boats, now putting James and I in one boat, and Nat and Harper in the other. We all agreed it was ‘hammer time’, and set our goals on re-capturing the front of the race. With speed balanced out better, and fire in our paddles, we raced off. In short order, we had passed a number of teams, and were continuing to pull ahead. We then got a break further into the paddle when all the lead teams got tripped up in a ‘blind bay’ where the route back out to a river we wanted to follow was not obvious. We saw all the leaders, and even compared notes before we all set off en masse again.
We noted that Benoit (Team O-Store) and his crew opted to take a gamble and try for a portage rather than look for a tributary. However, we saw them just as we were actually starting the completely navigable stream, which in theory should help us. We traded paddle strokes with the other leaders, including the teams that had arrived at CP1 in 1st and 2nd. By the time we hit CP2, we were sitting in 4th overall, and held that placement until the first transition, where we were gearing up for the trek. All told, after the initial delays, we were pretty pumped with our position, especially knowing that our strength is in the trekking leg, which is what we were about to tackle. To buoy us even further, O-Store was still on the water, and we were leaving transition just as they were arriving. Their portage idea had hurt them, but they pushed hard to make up time.
Stage 2: Trekking
This section was where we knew we could pull ahead of many of the chasing teams by pulling off a solid trek. On the water, there is not much room to get ahead, as all teams are limited by hull speed on boats, as well as limited route options. With only 1 real portage, it had been just a straight up paddle. However, on the trek, there are many route options, and teams all have very different speeds when traversing real bush. We are fast on our feet, and have a top navigator to guide us. With over 20km of bushwhacking ahead of us, a LOT can happen.
We set to work on this section with a vengeance, with Harper leading the charge on a mission. Our first CP was a nice remote checkpoint where the staff had actually arrived by float plane on the lake! We crashed out of the woods to find out we were now sitting in 2nd place, and had arrived less than 10 minutes behind first place. We also learned that O-Store were now the team we were chasing! Yes, Benoit, the AR trekking legend, was working his magic once again and his team had completely overcome their earlier paddle snafu. As you’ll see, this is the theme that would define the rest of this race. O-Store in 1st, with use chasing hard, and a slightly longer gap behind us for 2 teams battling it out for 3rd.
The terrain had been [relatively] forgiving on the trek. Sure, we hit a number of swamps, but the bush itself was not super thick, which meant we were able to maintain a very good pace. At the end of the trek, Nathalie informed us this was the fastest she had ever moved through a bushwhack in a race. From CP4 to CP5, we veered NE to look for some features, deviating from the proposed ‘ideal route’ we saw later, which was a more easterly route. It resulted us in hitting a river, and following it for a while before catching on to an ATV trail that we’d revisit on the bike. Harper noted that we hit the river much further west than he’d hoped, but on arriving at CP5, and looking at the stats, I would say that didn’t hurt us, as we were holding steady at 2nd place, under 10 minutes behind O-Store. More notably, for the trek between CP4 and CP5, we were a mere 24 SECONDS slower than O-Store! That is an amazing stat for a race where you are literally crashing through the bush and everyone takes a slightly different route, hitting swamps, deadfall, etc.
The final leg of the trek was a straight bushwhack between CP5 and CP6/TA2. There were no good features or possible trails, so we just got to work on it. With more solid footwork, we emerged at the transition zone to see O-Store still there, with Benoit actually sitting down eating and resting. Imagine their surprise at seeing us so close! We had been only 2 minutes slower than them, and emerged still a mere 10 minutes behind them! They left in a hurry, but not fast enough, as we had a smell of blood! We pulled off a remarkably fast transition for trek to bike (fastest, at under 11 minutes), and left the peace of the transition zone now a mere 5.5 minutes behind the leaders.
Now, allow me to whine for just a moment about this type of racing. Transition zones, especially between two long legs, are a great chance to fuel up, change, and recharge. However, when you are racing at the level we were here, it is sheer panic and pandemonium. We are going through everything like a well-oiled machine, but you have to forego things like eating and sitting for a moment. O-Store had spent over 16 minutes in this transition, and the slower teams? They spent over 45 minutes there! Obviously, this is what you HAVE to do to be competitive, but inhaling two poptarts in 30 seconds is an impressive feat, but starting the bike with a mouth full of dry pastry and still putting gloves on can be a bit of a mental challenge! I seriously questioned whether I rather this kind of race or the more relaxed pace I had experienced at Untamed New England. Perhaps something in between?
Stage 3: The ‘Hydro Line’ Bike
Man oh man, what can I say about this leg of the race. It was by far the mentally most difficult, and technically pretty challenging as well. We were lucky, as we did 3/4s of this section of the race with daylight, and in dry conditions, but it was still a HELL of a slog! The beginning of this section was easy enough. About 12km of clear road riding. We formed a paceline, and just hammered. arriving at the next CP still about 9 minutes behind O-Store. Unfortunately, we were aware that the next, and super-long section of biking could be our weakness. As a team, we knew we’d be slower on the technical power line section than O-Store. We were also unsure how far our nearest competitors were, nor how fast they may be. All we could do was push hard, and maintain our pace.
We literally spent much of this leg glancing behind our shoulders, expecting to get passed at any point. Our nerves were also severely tested by a completely unforeseen foe. DEERFLIES! OMG. I have no words for what these bastards did to our spirits. Even Steely Harper completely lost his shit with them. Our speed was simply not fast enough to out-run them, and they kept flying directly into the vents on my helmet, eating chunks of my ‘head buffet’ as I battled the tricky riding, with both hands on the handlebars. All 4 of us were unanimous in our loathing. In a tough race, you do your best not to complain or be negative, but this was simply too much for us, and we basically were all whining like little babies, at times cursing at the top of our lungs at these buggers. Harper said he had NEVER experienced bugs this bad in ANY race he’d done (hint: he’s done LOTS, including in jungle climes).
Ok, rant over. The point is, the riding was tough, our going felt painfully slow, the trail was long, the terrain endlessly undulating, and our nerves shot from the bugs, AND spirits worried that we’d be passed at any moment. The hallelujah moment was at the next CP, where we were STILL in 2nd place, albeit trailing by almost 45 minutes :-(. This wasn’t the end of the bike though, and we were now continuing on in the dark, and the rain, for the final push to the next transition zone. Without the bugs though, this didn’t seem quite as miserable (yes, even in the rain). It was about another 12km of ATV trail riding.
On the closing kilometers of the bike, we passed by a slightly tired-looking team O-Store, who were starting the next trekking section. We knew the transition wasn’t too far ahead, and this lifted our spirits, knowing they were not super far ahead of us. They were also WALKING which had us surprised. Emerging at the TA, we discovered why. Apparently, Benoit was having some GI issues, and was periodically ill. Small blessing for us I suppose. By executing another blazing transition (over twice as fast as O-Store), we managed to leave that transition about 30 minutes behind O-Store, and not willing to give up the victory just yet.
Stage 4: Final Trek and Bike
Well, this is it! The final push, and location of yet another ‘close call’ for Mr. ‘Zero percent body fat’ Meyer. We left that transition running hard. So hard that we momentarily set off on the wrong trail. D’Oh! We recovered quickly, but were annoyed at this trip-up. Our plan was to run the entire section where possible, in the hopes of closing the gap to O-Store, and ensuring we kept the 3rd place team safely at bay. Unfortunately, they did to us the exact same thing we had done to team O-Store. Namely, we crossed paths with them at nearly exactly the same place O-Store passed us. This meant we only had about 30 minutes on them too! Damn! That meant we had to keep pushing hard, in spite of starting to feel the effects of a long day racing at 100% output.
At this point, it was raining, but nothing too hard yet, so the terrain wasn’t too bad. For this section, we had about a 10-12k trek to pull off before the final bike leg. As part of the trek, we also had the ‘option’ to swim to a couple checkpoints rather than taking a long trek around. Of course, it wasn’t really an ‘option’ for us, as we knew we had to do this to keep the pressure on. Armed with that knowledge, I had put a dry shirt and rain paints and raincoat in a dry bag in my pack with the intention of changing directly after our swim.
We made good time on the lead-up to the swim, and wasted very little time in ‘taking the plunge’. Our progress was only slightly nerve-wracking in the fact that we were tackling this in the depths of the darkness. Although it was supposed to be a full moon, the rain and clouds meant no visibility. Luckily, the volunteers at one CP had lit a fire, so we essentially had a beacon for the first swim. The distance was likely around 300m. Had we had daylight, I suspect we could have chosen a spot just a bit further that would have made that 200m. Regardless, off we went, swimming out little hearts out.
Unfortunately for me, I started cramping about halfway into the swim. These were leg cramps that I couldn’t get massaged out. I have to be honest, this was a bit frightening, as we had no flotation, and not a lot of chance for any sort of rescue, so I knew I had to suck it up. Luckily, my years of swim lessons (and lifesaving lessons!) kept me relatively calm, and I just focused on using my arms only. It made for slower progress, but I got there. Once at the CP, I hopped out to take a minute to attempt to massage out the cramps, before we hopped back for the next swim.
Harper estimated this swim at 100m, but in reality, it was as long as the first, and I guess 300m. Looking at the maps, it was painfully clear that we *could* have cut that to between 50 and 100m by going a little way around the point, but in the darkness, we opted to just head straight towards our landmark, which was a stream on the other side. By the time we hit the far shore, I wasn’t the only one getting a big cold, and we took the time to ensure we’d stay warm for the next bit. For me, that meant stripping off a layer on top and bottom, and swapping out for a dry shirt and putting on my rain gear. I instantly felt better. Well, except for my legs, which were left rather sore from the cramping. I wolfed down as much food as I could while everyone else finished getting set. Then off we went, back in pursuit.
This bit wasn’t too bad, and we managed to hit a good stream that took us basically straight to the final trekking CP. Elated with that, we bushwhacked quickly back to the ATV trail which we’d follow back to the road. Guess what we did once there? Yup, RUN. Ugh. I was feeling pretty beat, but didn’t dare say anything, and just joined in. Within a very short time, I was then overheating with the extra layers, AND had to have a nature break, but had nary time to deal with either. Eventually, James helped by carrying my pack while I peeled off my jacket and pants WHILE RUNNING. It was tricky, but allowed us to not lose much time. For the nature break, try as I might, I was unable to do the ‘running pee’, and eventually pulled off, did my business, then had to run twice as fast to catch back up. Double ugh. But, these are the things you HAVE to do to win. We were also paranoid that team Epitact from France would emerge behind us at any time.
This effort did net us the fastest split on the final run from that CP to the transition, and ready to mount up on our bikes for the final push. On arrival at that TA, we learned that O-Store was still exactly 30 minutes ahead of us. D’oh! Apparently they found their mojo again. The final leg was a biking leg, and was supposed to only take about an hour, which meant catching them would likely not be feasible. Despite that, we left quickly, in order to keep a gap on 3rd place. At that point, we had no way of knowing they’d eventually fall over 1.5 hours behind us at that transition! Soggy and tired, we mounted our bikes, and pedaled off into the darkness, aware there was one final ATV section, before grabbing roads to the finish.
This final ATV section is where something interesting happened. THE SKIES OPENED UP! And I mean sheet rain. It was the heaviest rain we’d ever raced through in Ontario, and it lasted. Not just 5 minutes, but for HOURS! Knowing O-Store was probably out of the ATV section by then, we were totally sunk. We had to navigate the final bits of the race in rivers that were forming on the trail. Eventually all we could do was laugh. We knew everyone else was stuck in the same shit, so it would be a great equalizer, and guarantee our placing basically. Luckily, it wasn’t too cold.
Emerging at the 400, all we had to do was jump on the access road to town, and ride the big hill back to the finish area. Our time on this section was the worst of the 4 teams that eventually actually did it (only the top 4 teams did the full course including this ATV section, the rest of the ‘full course’ teams were allowed to go by roads the whole final section. We lost another 15 minutes on O-Store, meaning we finished off 45 minutes behind them at the finish. Despite this, they all told us this was the hardest they had to race to ensure their victory in this race in their last few years, which made me feel pretty good. They were nice enough to still be up to greet us. Apparently they had been quite surprised to see us in the transition zones where they did. We gave them a good run for their money (both figuratively and literally, given the $1500 cash prize on offer!).
When all was said and done, we’d raced nearly 21 hours non-stop at full throttle, and had a great result to show for it. All our gear and nutrition worked perfectly in this race, so big shout out to all our various sponsors and supporters (Xact Nutrition, 2XU, North Face, Nuun, Milk2Go Sport, and Osprey Packs popping into mind right away). 3rd place was another 1.5 hours behind us, and 4th place another 1.5 hours behind them! Amazing race. Undoubtedly, much of this likely had to do with the extreme rain that had taken over the course. As we went to sleep for a couple hours, it was insane how heavy the rain was falling down.]
Once we were back up, we dealt with gear, had a first breakfast, then a BBQ lunch, and finally the awards ceremony, and time to catch up with our fellow competitors. All agreed that this was yet another epic Wilderness Traverse for the books. Bob always puts on a great race, and it seems every year, the weather also plays a starring role. We’re already looking forward to returning next year for another run at Bob the Beaver (the winner’s trophy). But till that time, there’s still lots more racing. For me, next up is the Bruce Peninsula Multisport Race, which I’m really looking forward to. For that one, I’ll also be filming, so keep your eyes open for that report! Till then, hope everyone is having as much fun this summer as I am!
This is a race report that was a long time coming. For many years now, I’ve planned on tackling a proper expedition-length adventure race, and Untamed New England was my first crack at it. With our team racing basically non-stop for 4 days and 4 nights, and covering about 380 km, it truly was an expedition. We were a new team, unfamiliar with each other, and with me acting as captain and navigator for the full race. We hit absolute highs and absolute lows. Although we were ultimately ‘short coursed’ early on, it didn’t detract at all from our overall experience, as we managed to snag 24th place in a field of the top teams around the world, and completed the course as a team. In this sort of race, for many teams, that is the ultimate goal.
The race is so large in scope and in effort, that it is kinda hard to figure out how to write up the whole report. The easiest would be to break it up into chunks once I get started, and I’ll do so in legs. Overall, the course had 5 unique legs, each of which had a combination of disciplines involving trekking, orienteering, bushwhacking, canoeing, whitewater rafting, packrafting, mountain biking, and a ropes course. Teams must be pretty much entirely self sufficient during legs, only having access to food or gear at the 4 ‘transition areas’ between legs. For this race, that mean carrying extremely heavy packs for long stretches (some of the legs were over 24 hours for us!).
For a quick intro to how I got there, I joined a ‘media team’ a while back, as just another team member. Over time, my role morphed and I stepped into more of a leadership role. Then, with only 2 weeks to do, one teammate had to drop out due to health reasons, and I had to scramble to replace them. In the end, our team consisted of me, and 3 ladies. This is relatively unique in AR, as usually a team has only 1 female. However, as our goals were all aligned, and the mix of experience seemed to lend itself to a good dynamic, we rolled with it. I think it was the best decision I could have made, and it was really cool to race with all ladies. I learned a lot in that race, and will definitely be better off for it as a leader on other teams as well.
So, back to the race. We got on site on the Monday night, with the race starting in earnest Wednesday morning. This gave us time to get to know each other a bit, as well as deal with all the pre-race gear bin packing issues. It also gave us a chance to sample the tasty beers that were brewed onsite at the host venue, Kennebec River Brewery at Northern Outdoors Resort. Good way to calm the nerves! Tuesday night, we finally had a look at the race course, by way of a video fly-over before getting the maps. To give you a sense of the scale of this thing, check out the actual video below. As some people have noted, they got tired just watching this!
Shortly after the video, maps were distributed, and they were massive! You can see a picture of the maps as part of my slideshow a little further down. These maps were handed out around 8:30-9pm on Tuesday. I had to plot out all our routes, and also make it to a captain’s meeting by 6:30am the next morning. That mean staying up till about midnight, then getting up at 5am the next morning. So, total sleep the night before the start? A mere 4 hours!! But who needs sleep, right? Let’s now dive into each leg of the race and give a quick rundown of how things went. But first, the slideshow (click right or left to cycle through the images):
Ugh. I wish I didn’t have to start here, as it was probably the one place I wish things had gone differently. I’ll blame it on race nerves, but ultimately we came out of this section 3rd to last! It was meant to be a simple little orienteering leg on ski trails at the Birches Resort, but one bad turn lead us to end up in what I’ll call a ‘black hole’ without knowing it. Essentially, we were wandering around all kinds of trails that didn’t exist on the little map that we were given right at the start line (just to add to the pressure, at certain sections, you are given ‘supplementary maps’ that you need to use on the fly). While the controls weren’t that hard to find in the end, we lost over an hour on these ‘non trails’. I’d like to say it didn’t shake my confidence, but it did! On the plus side, it took the pressure off a bit, as we were already on our own, fighting from the back. Plus, it reminded me to be super-careful with the decisions where there is any uncertainty. Regardless, our spirits were still intact, and we loaded up the canoes to start Leg 1 properly.
Leg 1 – Canoeing, Trekking, Ropes
Next up was a gorgeous paddle on lake Moosehead, a huge body of water that can display some nice waves in the right wind conditions. By the light of day though, this made for a straightforward paddle to our next challenge, which was a hike up a mountain to rappel off the backside. Knowing our position, I was convinced that there would be a backlog at the ropes, which meant that losing an hour in the prologue would quickly be washed away. How true I was. Once at the mountaintop, we learned of the horrible wait times. For us, it was nearly 4 hours sitting around doing nothing. We dried gear, ate, tried to nap, etc., but it was far too early in the race to be tired, so we cursed our luck. It even rained for a bit before we FINALLY got to descend the ropes. We polished that off, picked our way through the craziest boulder field I’ve encountered in a race, then bushwhacked down to the trail to hike back down to our waiting canoes.
Once back in the boats, we had another shortish (1hr) paddle to a nearby island which we’d ultimately circumnavigate on foot to grab a few more controls. By this time, night was already falling on day 1, For the trek, this was no big deal, as we had good lights, and the trail was relatively easy to follow. One of the controls was high up on a fire tower, so we were sad we couldn’t catch the view, but such is life. We boogied on back towards our boats for the next, LONG paddle leg, which we’d have to face in the dark.
Luckily, it was a clear night. Unluckily, it was a windy night. For the first time in a race, I ended up navigating by moonlight and stars, which was pretty cool. However, we all had to fight the water, which kept throwing us around. We did a fair bit of ‘surfing’ the waves, and just paddled on through the night, with only the starlight and the faint light of our glowsticks attached to the boats. We basically paddled all night in order to reach TA1, which we did at about 4:30am on day 2. This was the first time we saw our gear bins, and this gave us the chance to replenish our food supplies, and change into our biking gear, since the next leg was primarily mountain biking.
Leg 2 – Mountain Biking and Team Orienteering Relay
The next section of the race looked rather daunting on paper. We were set for a pretty long mountain bike section, following a series of gravel roads, logging roads, ATV trails, and hiking trails for what looked like an eternity. About halfway through we were slated to get a reprieve in the form of the ‘pancake paradise’. At this spot, the team was supposed to undertake the team orienteering relay, where each person has to do their own mini orienteering section while the rest stay at the lodge where it was located. On the plus side, for $10, each person could indulge in all you can eat pancakes! However, there was a lot of biking to get done before that, and we had a time cut-off to contend with. Those not COMPLETING the orienteering by 7pm on Thursday would be sent along onto short course 1. It was now just around 6am when we started, so we had 13 hours.
The first part wasn’t too bad, as we were on main(ish) roads, and I was being very careful on my navigation (I had pre-measured every single turn to make sure we didn’t mess up). The riding was a nice change from paddling, and we were collectively feeling good. However, eventually, we made our way to progressively tougher riding conditions which slowed us down. To add to the pace issue, one of our team was really not feeling well. Candice was feeling nauseated, tired, and was forced to walk a fair bit. We tried a few things, but it was clear that we’d likely need to stop and regroup. After spurring them on to a serene checkpoint which actually featured a little amphitheatre-type shelter, we decided to outright stop and make her sleep for an hour or more. Ultimately, we stayed there for 1.5 hours. I only got 20 minutes of sleep, as I was also plotting an alternate course in case things didn’t improve and we had to pull the pin on an emergency route.
Luckily, after the sleep, Candice bounced back just enough that she agreed that we should press on. We assured her we’d take it easy and just focus on getting to the pancake paradise. Checking on our speed and the timing, it became clear we were unlikely to make it before the cutoff, but didn’t let that dissuade us. Given the terrain and challenge that lay between us and the ‘paradise’, it was probably good that we rested a bit. Things got TOUGH as we pressed on, culminating with a solid 1.5 hour bike-whack uphill. We had mentally prepared ourselves for the misery of bushing a bike uphill through dense forest off-trail, so we ultimately popped out the other side relatively happy. That’s the trick with tough sections. Acknowledge it is going to suck and be hard, and do it anyway, since EVERYONE has to go through it (unless of course they magically find a trail, which does happen).
With that challenge out of the way, we made a few route changes on the fly, on the advice of another team we encountered out there. While I had plotted more direct routes with more elevation gains, we ultimately chose the ‘long way round’ on some of the roads. The benefit was being able to ride more, at higher speeds, but at the possible cost of time. However, it was the right call. I don’t recall the exact time we finally pulled into paradise, but it was definitely after 7pm. The sun was setting, so it was probably around 8:30pm or 9. We’d been under the impression we’d still be doing the orienteering, but were informed that was not the case. Amazingly, we were literally disappointed that we wouldn’t get to race more right away 🙂 However, we go over that as we tucked into some pancakes and thought about our next strategy, since we’d now been short coursed.
The short course meant we would not do Leg 3 at ALL in this race, and would instead bike directly to TA3 to start Leg 4. However, we also learned that the upcoming long canoe leg had been cancelled for all teams as the wind was too high on the lake, and safety was a concern with tired racers paddling for 12 hours on a choppy lake. However, no one knew for certain how that impacted the race. So what did we miss on Leg 3? Well, apparently the absolute hardest trek that many racers had EVER seen. Ultimately, I think our missing the cutoff was a blessing, as we would most certainly have missed another cutoff in the future, and might not have seen the other parts of the race we were looking forward to.
Faced with a decision, we opted to stop and sleep here for a couple hours (I got about an hour), before heading out at midnight to bike the long roads back to TA3. Then we planned to sleep down there as well, depending on what we learned (we heard there might be a hard stop down there). We might have pressed on right away, but now it was Tessa’s turn to be really tired, and she simply couldn’t focus anymore. The sleep did us well, and by shortly after midnight we were back on the bikes heading to TA3, which also featured tents to sleep in, and had our gear awaiting us. On arrival, we were informed we had to stop and wait for the lead teams to arrive from Leg 3 before starting again. Luckily, that meant we got a time credit, and had no time pressure right away, since lead teams were still a few hours away. We took the time to cook some proper warm meals, change clothes, and prep our packs for the remainder of the race. This was a bit of a challenge, as for the rest of the race, we basically had to carry EVERYTHING with us. Packrafts, PFDs, paddles, trekking shoes, clothes, food, mandatory gear (sleeping bags, tent, first aid, etc), trackers, trekking poles. It all added up to really heavy awkward bags, but again, everyone had to do it. Once we were sorted out, we decided to crash in a tent until someone would wake us to let us know we were free to continue.
Leg 4 – Mountain Biking, Trekking, Urban Orienteering
For us, this was the leg that would have the most trekking, which had me pretty excited. Of all disciplines, I like trekking and bushwhacking the most (although with 40lbs on my back, that is debatable!). Tessa was already awake to let us know the leaders were on their way in, so within a few minutes of their departure, we were also on the go. We had to backtrack on bikes back to the town of Greenville first, where we had our ‘urban orienteering’ which was quite nice. We raced around the town finding clues like names on plaques, etc. in the warm sunshine. It was also cool because we were now essentially racing with the top teams, and got to catch up with friends on the course. It was easy and straightforward, just the thing for a little mental boost. We also had the chance to grab food. Crepes and hamburgers, and on the way back out of town… ICE CREAM! It was AWESOME! You have no idea how nice something like that is when you’re on your third straight day of racing.
The next section once out of town was a nice long trek up two mountains, Little Moose and Big Moose, ultimately ending up at the summit of a ski hill and running down to the bottom. For the most part it was just a nice trek on trail. We ended up doing a little bit of a bushwhack at one point when we couldn’t find a trailhead, but that likely only cost us 15 minutes or so. Everyone was feeling pretty good, so we actually thought we *might* have a chance at getting to the whitewater rafting section before the darkzone imposed from 6:30pm until 10:30am!! How naive we were on that call. Ultimately, no one made it in time, not even the worlds’ best athletes. Ha ha.
The views from the tops of the mountains was quite frankly, incredible. We had 360 degree views of the surrounding terrain, and it was a bit emotional to realize all the ground we’d covered under our own power, and the fact that there truly was NOTHING out there. Just wilderness. Hence, the 100 Mile Wilderness. Beautiful lakes, rivers, and the Appalachian Mountains as far as we could see. Very uplifting.
The part that killed us was the mountain bike coming up… However, the highlight, and most surreal experience of the day has got to be when we finally came down off the ski hill. As we arrived at the CP, I could hear a familiar voice, but it made no sense. It took a little time for me to realize that my dad and his wife had driven 8 hours from NS to witness me in my element, mid race! It was both super-cool to have him there, as well as sad, as I really couldn’t stop and visit. However, he tagged along, and I tried to explain everything to him as best I could while scrambling with gear, food and maps. This was actually our last TA section, known as a ‘remote TA’. We had access to only a special bag we’d pre-packed. Just enough gear to get us through the rest of the race. However, with the darkzone coming up, we needed lots of food, as we’d be out a long time. I’m pretty sure dad was proud of our team, and I for one was really happy that he had a chance to experience a bit of what it is that I love to do, and maybe see why I love it so much (even though it can be sheer torture!).
Leg 5 – Mountain Biking, Whitewater Rafting, Trekking, Packrafting
Ahhh, the final leg of the race. Just a quick little jaunt, right? Well, not quite. When we left TA4, it was around 9:30pm. We didn’t finish the race until 2am. So this leg actually took a total of nearly 29 hours (counting the dark zone). The first part was another ‘pressure cooker’, as the volunteers handed me a map as we arrived at the base of the ski hill. On it were just 2 CPs plotted that we had to grab on bikes before heading to the rafting section. However, they were far to get, and one of them was located in a mess of ATV and logging trails. Add the fact that it was night, and our 3rd night racing, and you’ll understand why I say that for us, that opening mountain biking was our most challenging part of the race to date. We had actually paired up with another team (Towanda RWG) for part of the leg, until parting ways to pursue our own routes. Unfortunately, when we parted, we both assumed we knew exactly where we were, which was slightly wrong, and lead to a slew of problems. Ironically for our team, we stayed on course (well, ‘A’ course)the whole time, but didn’t realize it. We were making progress to the CP, but thought we were on a totally different route. That lead to me eventually forcing a complete stop and re-evaluation of the map to prevent screwing up too bad. We’d been heading more or less SE, with some SW sections, where I had been expecting to go more or less SW with some SE sections. Not a big deal, but we were also crossing water, and there should not have been any on my chosen route.
The team, being a bit tired, and everyone working through their own little demons, was starting to fracture a little bit. We were not all together, and spirits were low. I made the decision to pull us off the trail, stop completely and talk it all out. I had a hot meal and worked through the choices we’d made since the split from Towanda. Candice agreed with all my logic, and we made a plan to only go about another 2.5k before stopping for until daylight, rather than risking a major error. However, after we finally had the map all folded up and were ready to leave again, we heard voices behind us. It was Towanda! The news was interesting, as they said we’re 100% on track, and that they had been off. It took a lot of sleuthing on their part, but after we talked it through and examined the maps further, we came to the same conclusion. From that point, we agreed to work together and stay together until we finally reached the whitewater dark zone checkpoint.
The remainder of the biking to the remote checkpoint was still pretty tricky, but with good conversation and company, and 2 navigators working together, we got through it in one piece. What a feeling to finally reach that CP. Of course, we still had to now follow a different route to the whitewater dark zone, but after I showed them the route I had drawn, the agreed it looked good, and we followed it. In fact, the route was a veritable highway compared to the hell we’d just gone through. Our only problem now as the fact that it was only about 5 degrees out, and we were all starting to freeze. Even with jackets and pants on, with thin biking gloves and wet socks and shoes, we were feeling the chilling effects. Nicky had to keep pedaling ahead and doing circles to try and stay warm. However, we made it, and pulled into the ‘dark zone’ by the early dawn light at 4:30am!
Amazingly, the volunteers here had s’mores for us to make, and also cooked pizza, onion rings, and chicken fingers over a fire! It was heaven. Since we had roughly 6hrs until the dark zone was lifted, we set up our tent, and also borrowed a volunteers tent in order to all bed down for a couple hours. I probably got a solid 2 hours of sleep there after eating my fill and properly warming up at the fire. It was sublime.
Near-Disaster and the Final Push
Okay, this is STILL leg 5, but deserved it’s own subsection. With the bright Saturday sun on us, it was time to head out on the final few sections of the race. First up, whitewater rafting. 4 miles WITH a guide, 8 miles self guided. The best part for me was NO NAVIGATING. I was free to switch off my brain and just have fun. The rafting was amazingly fun. We hooted and hollered, and you’d never tell that we’d already been racing 3 full days and nights. We hit water up to Class IV with the guide apparently, and emerged unscathed. Our self-guided section probably only reached 2+ or low 3 class, but was still fun. We pulled off the water thoroughly drenched, but feeling fine. I put on a jacket and pants to stay warm as we headed out for the last trek of the race. This trek consisted of some road, then only a trail which lead us along the ‘Dead River’ to where we’d ultimately put in with out packrafts and make our way back to the original take-out. Or at least, that was the plan.
The hike was no problem. In fact, I even helped one of the pro teams by telling them I thought they were way too early in looking for a CP on the trail, to which they agreed and took off running. It was a small moment, but made me pretty proud of being able to recognize where we were at this stage of a race :-). So, we finally made it to the put-in and inflated our rafts. It was now later in the afternoon, with the sun still shining, but the water was cold. Having no experience in whitewater in my packraft, you can imagine my surprise when I got sucked into a hydraulic on the first set of rapids, and took forever to finally break free. I’ll never figure out how I managed NOT to flip, but I didn’t. Of course, flipping isn’t relevant in the rafts, as regardless, you are basically piloting a bathtub full of water as you go. Bailing the boats is pretty pointless, as they fill right back up in about 2-3 rapids, depending how you hit them. What does that mean? Well, with only a thin pair of summer tights, and a single long-sleeved polypro shirt, I was getting cold. And by cold, I mean rapidly becoming hypothermic. At first, my discomfort was a result of being unsure about the rafting, but once I gained confidence in running the water (and as it was just starting to be fun), I discovered that my uncontrollable shivering was probably not a good thing.
We hoped we’d make it to a portage where we would get out for a CP, but had almost no way of gauging our progress, as all attention was focused on the rapids. I kept trying to push on, but the convulsions were so severe that I eventually pulled off to some sun-drenched rocks on river right hoping I’d warm up. No dice. I was a machine-gun of rattling bones with my 0% body fat. Luckily, my team was there to help, and in no time, my three lovely ladies had literally convinced me to strip naked and had me in an emergency bivy and warm sleeping sack. Problem was, we were on the wrong side of the river, and were now clock-watching and concerned about impending darkness. Luckily, while the body was weak, my mind was still sharp, and I was fully committed to getting us out of this jam. Eventually, we ferried me back to the other side, and regrouped. I properly laid down and allowed myself to dry off. Within 5 minutes, I stopped shivering, just in time to avert my teammates from sending out an emergency message. I’d already convinced them not to signal that we needed rescue, but we had been contemplating sleeping out again.
Then, I had a stroke of genius. Everyone was getting a little chilly now. We decided that everyone should put on dry clothes. We would then make a short bushwhack back to the main trail, and hike back out towards there the final CP was. From there, we’d send 2 people over in a raft to punch the final control, and just hike back to the spot where our bikes were waiting. Obviously not as fast as rafting, but imminently safer! Turns out our instincts were good, because when we arrived at that spot, we learned of several other teams that had gotten into even deeper problems than us, and had called for rescues. Ultimately, this move both saved our race, and meant we didn’t have to camp out overnight, and could now focus on getting to the finish line. While I was a bit run down from the ordeal, I was still strong mentally and physically (fit for duty as they say), and lead the charge onto the final section.
The final section was just one final reminder that this is a tough race. It was a relatively straightforward mountain bike leg with only a single checkpoint to grab, but they managed to send us up one final mountain, and a nice screaming descent back down to the finish line. Apart from some exhaustion, it wasn’t overly tricky, but finding the motivation to push our bikes up another really long, steep uphill with our heavy packs was a bit of a challenge. I kept saying that once we reached the top, things would be better. Thankfully, they were, and our final 10k or so were quite nice. Well, apart from the very final 2k which was VERY steep and rocky descents into the resort. We were extra cautious as it would have really sucked to get injured here! However, I’m happy to report that we crossed the finish line sometime after 2am on Sunday morning, with a great sense of accomplishment, beers in hand, and a desire to eat lots of food, then crash out!
So ends the longest post I’ve likely ever written, on the toughest race I’ve ever done (so far). In spite of the challenge, I was immediately thinking about the next one. Re-integrating into ‘normal society’ has been a bit tricky, and I’m now quite sick a few days later, but I’ve definitely proved myself capable of this kind of feat, and know I could do even better. I know it is virtually impossible for anyone reading this to REALLY know what it is like if they haven’t done it, but hopefully this gives you a flavour. I’d like to thank Deanna for her unwavering support when I undertake these adventures, and also a huge shout-out to my dad for actually showing up on course! That was really cool! I have a few weeks to rest, and then it’s on to the 24 hour Wilderness Traverse race, which I’ll be doing with my ‘regular’ team. We’ll be pushing for a win here, so this will be a completely different style of race in terms of pacing, so stay tuned for that report next! Till then, get out there, and soak in the natural world around you!
To close off, I’m embedding a couple summary videos from the event as well, that can give you a sense of this race. The first is a short overview video, and the second a more comprehensive video that tracked all parts of the race.
Stories from an athlete, adventurer, and lover of life