Have you heard the news?? Eco-Challenge is back! Televised adventure racing at its best! But I digress. This post isn’t about Eco-Challenge. It is, however, a post all about a recent 24-30 hour adventure race that I just took part in, Wilderness Traverse. The linkage is that the whole reason I began adventure racing, and indeed my entire athletic ‘career’ was thanks to watching Eco-Challenge so many years ago. That show opened my eyes to true adventure and challenge in the great outdoors, and I HAD to get into it and experience if for myself. 16 or so years later, here I am, writing yet another race re-cap for this blog! Anywho, read on for a telling of the tale of my race in Parry Sound!
Off the top, no, the power napper was not me. However, this was going to be absolutely necessary to ensure finishing the race as a TEAM. That, my dear friends, is what adventure racing is all about. Doing the right things at the right times as a TEAM in order to get to the finish line. Of course, I’m reporting to you all on the 2012 Wilderness Traverse Race. This is the 3rd time the race takes place, and the 3rd time I participate. Also, for the third year running, I ended up racing with a completely different team. I figure as long as I keep racing with new people, I’ll eventually get ‘called up to the majors’, right? Every race more than 24 hours is a unique challenge. This one would prove so more from a mental standpoint than a physical one, but more on that later. This year, I was invited to race on a a variant of Team Spirit, a team that has been around since nearly the dawn of AR! Two of my team-mates (Dave Hitchon and Mike Popik) have reams of experience on the international, expedition-length circuit (think Eco-Challenge, Primal Quest, etc.). The third member was actually the 16-year old son (Will Hitchon) of our captain. I was also covering the event for Get Out There Magazine, and it seemed like it would make a pretty cool video to follow this rookie in his bid to complete his first ‘overnighter’. This was so true, that I ended up making it a 3-part video (See Part I, Part II, and Part III). I also took loads of pictures on course. Now read on for all the gory details!
Wilderness Traverse is designed in the classic mold of a true wilderness adventure race. There are lots of route challenges, tough terrain, remote locations, and the need to be self-sufficient for long stretches of the race. That is probably why those who take part always say they’ll be back, no matter their result in the race. Each year is a new challenge, and is exactly what we’re looking for. I’ve got to admit this is the one race that each year I not only dread, but look forward to the most. I’m always worried I might not be ‘good enough’, but in retrospect love every single minute of suffering. It’s truly good for the soul in my opinion. This year was no different and I have the race organizer and my great team to thank for it. Without further ado, let’s just jump right into the race, shall we?
Pictures from the Race
This year’s course would be split into 6 individual legs, and I’ll go over them one at a time. First up was an opening 25km paddle, followed by 25-30km trek. Rolling on next was the 30-35km moutain bike leg. From here, there was a divergence. Those who made it to a certain point before the time cutoff of 1am switched to another 20-25km trek, followed by another 20-25km bike, capped off with a 6k paddle. On the other side of the coin, teams missing the cutoff were to continue on bikes on a shortened (although no less challenging) course which increased the overall biking leg, and truncated the 2nd trek and bike legs, and once again capped off the race with the same 6km paddle. Teams had up to 30hours to complete the entire event to be officially ranked. Maps were distributed and routes chosen the night before the race. 6am saw us all at a pancake breakfast before boarding buses to get to the remote start. Our team actually had ‘local advantage’ as Dave’s cottage is in the area and had plenty of knowledge of much of the course. So much so that he had ‘guessed’ some of the course and even stashed a ‘care package’ on the assumed course for our consumption later. Did he guess right and did we get the package? Well, read on and find out!
Opening Paddle Section
The opening challenge started with a 2km running start, with all our paddling gear, to awaiting boats. There were some kevlar boats, and other royalex models. The allure of a lighter boat meant people were eager to run fast. To those ends, Mike and I took the lead for our team and stayed a bit ahead of the other two. It was all for naught though, and we ended up with two identical royalex craft. Oh well, no big deal for me, as we had agreed Mike and Dave would hand portaging duties while Will and I carried the gear (and I fulfilled my ‘media’ duties). We took a few minutes of fiddling to get our ‘paddling strap’ set-ups working (these help to brace you as you paddle on long distances). The weather was absolutely perfect and the lake was beautiful. We were already mid-pack, but that was no problem for us at all.
Over the course of the next 25km, we paddled a nice network of lakes, estuaries, swampy bits, and rivers. These were separated by the obligatory portages, both long and short. The shortest being maybe 35m, and the longest being 750m or so. We were also faced later in the paddle with a seemingly endless supply of beaver dams. These required constant getting in and out of the boats just to pull if over the obstacle, hop back in, and paddle off. We got pretty efficient at it. At one point, Mike and I tried a jumping move to clear a dam. Well, my end got over, leaving the boat balancing on the dam as we hear snapping. Luckily, it was branches, not the boat, but we decided that may not be the best approach!
For the entire paddle, there were only 2CPs. For the first one, we actually beat the volunteers, so there was nothing to punch. Instead, we just hit the ‘ok’ button on our Spot tracker (as instructed at the briefing) and carried on. The 2nd CP is where the first problem arose. Mike had the CP punch, and tossed it up to me. I hopped out, punched the CP then clipped the punch to my PFD while running around the next obstacle in order to hop back into the awaiting canoe. No problem, right? Well, much later in the paddle, after countless dams and swampy paddle sections, I realized I had somehow lost the punch, and the attached compass. The compass loss was no big deal, as it was our backup anyway, but the loss of the SI chip meant both a monetary charge, and the fact that we now had no SI!! The team, although gently ribbing me the entire rest of the race, was gracious about the loss, and luckily, at the next CP, which was also a TA, the organization was actually able to issue a replacement SI chip. Talk about a lucky break! We’d finished the opening paddle in 10th or 11th place, and were now set to tackle the first big trek.
First Big Trek
After our paddle, we were roughly 30mins – 1hr ahead of our predicted schedule. Normally, you want to have really quick transitions. However, with a long trek ahead, and not wanting to forget anything or push Will too hard, we had a more relaxed transition. As a result, I changed every bit of clothing except for my shirt, so I was starting totally fresh. What a nice feeling. We set off with high spirits and feeling good. The first few kms were on a gravel road, giving us time to eat lots and jog a bit before heading into the tougher stuff. We were getting along well as a team and feeling good about our placing. Dave was our navigator, and alhtough we asked occasional questions and consulted the map with him a few times, we pretty much completely relied on his decision making, which made it even more relaxing from my perspective for this race.
If I had to rank or typify this trekking leg, I’d say it was a medium challenge. I’ve seen much tougher treks, but it was also no cakewalk. As far as elevation gain / loss, it definitely wasn’t all that difficult. It was rolling, but not mountainous by any stretch. Also, much of the woods were fairly easy to push through. There were only a few really gnarly alder-choked bits, and they were blessedly short. Dave had purposely chosen a route to the first CP which caught more ‘obvious’ features, making it easier than a straight bushwhack over really swampy areas. However, don’t get me wrong. There were still plenty of swamps, bogs, lakes, and rivers to cross. We’d been told to expect getting wet, as at a minimum there was a 100m mandatory river crossing.
One particularly nasty crossing involved ‘swimming’ through a swamp. Emerging from the far end, I was covered in nasty swamp juice. However, I’d adopted a new tactic with the knowledge of multiple crossings. I’d brought a big dry bag with me. At each crossing, I’d take off my gloves, hat, sunglasses, and shirt, and stuff these, along with my race bag, into the dry bag. Extra air was left in, the top sealed and presto! I had a buoyancy bag with me, and dry clothes in it. Surprisingly, this really didn’t take much time, and I think from now on, I’ll always do this. I don’t mind the wet shoes and tights, but having a dry top at the far end always makes me feel better! In one surprising twist, Mike came accross a secret grow-op near a swamp. Middle of nowhere, covered in chicken wire to keep animals away. However, there were no buds, so no, we didn’t ‘harvest’ anything 🙂 I will not reveal the location for fear of retalliation or incrimination!
For the most part, the trek was uneventful, and we kept a steady pace. We stopped at one point for a short while so that Dave could address a bad heel blister that had already popped and was causing discomfort. At the same time, I decided to address some early chafing on my hips with some taping. Preventative maintenance is one of the most important things in a long race. Small niggles soon become major issues as you get tired and things get worse. We dropped back from 11th to 16th at one CP, but by the end of the trek, were apparently back in 10th. Solid performance all in all, and we were still ahead of our schedule as we did the final swim across a river (at fear of being hit by a boat!) and jog to the transition to bikes. It was still light out, and we had another leisurely transition tending to all our needs. Time in transition was pegged at 22mins., but we knew we’d have a long, chilly ride in the dark ahead of us.
First Mountain Bike Leg
With the opening paddle and trek out of the way, it was time to hit the bikes. Little did we know this would be a very long ride, with darkness, dampness, cold, sleepmonsters, and just when we thought it would be over, the news that we’d be riding even longer. Yup, as luck would have it, we ended up taking the short course option due to missing a time cutoff, which is what the picture above shows. We started the bike in good position and quite pleased, but things did deteriorate, and we had no choice but to slow (and even stop many times) the pace to take care of the team. In our race, this was truly the ‘test’ and the ‘crux’. I’ve been feeling pretty strong on AR bike courses of late, so I was pretty optimistic until the deep of the night descended.
It is worth giving an overview of the biking. While we did start on a road, we quickly moved off into the ATV / Snowmobile trails that pepper the entire area. Dave was on the maps, and I had our only working bike computer, so was responsible for keeping an eye on distance so that we knew when to look for trails / routes, etc. Luckily, this worked perfectly, and I’m happy to say that our actual route-finding was flawless. It was truly more a matter of the terrain and tiredness overtaking us (or rather, poor Will specifically). With each passing minute, we could only joke that this was the longest time Will had ever been on a racecourse or awake racing. The terrain? Horrendous for much of the bike. The trails were rife with bike-swallowing ruts and extremely gummy mud. We suffered several mechanical issues due to this mud, not to mention our lightweight bikes gaining several pounds in caked mud! Things were complicated by the fact that just as we hit these trails, we lost most of our daylight and had to rely on lights. This made it more difficult to spot the ‘cheat routes’ around the big mud pits, and left us more often then no ankle-deep in mud walking. The drought of earlier in the summer was slightly erased by lots of rain in the past 2 weeks, just enough to cause all this carnage!
This extra work was taking it’s toll on Will, and by 10:39pm (yep, I looked at my watch) he finally needed his first ‘power nap’. I really didn’t know what to say. This seemed pretty early to need a rest for anyone, but you could immediately see by looking at him that this was needed. We gave him a quick 10 minute nap while we ate and consulted maps, etc. The other side-effect of this tiredness was that we were forced to walk quite a bit more, as he simply couldn’t bike upright! This was the first sign that we might miss the cutoff. However, when he got back up, we pressed on, and I hoped he felt a bit refreshed. To improve things, we even popped out on a road momentarily, which is when I had a big mechanical issue. Chain suck caused by entire chain to figure 8 around the chainrings, requiring some work. Dave went ahead and got Will down for another nap while I worked on the bike. Another 15 minutes lost, as after I fixed the chain, we took the time to clean our drivetrains and re-lube to avoid more issues while Will slept.
Back on the trail, trying to press on, but not 20-30 minutes later, the wheels completely fell off Will (figuratively!). We knew he needed a real sleep, so Dave decided we’d need to give him at least 30minutes. This is when the mental game kicked in. I had expected a slowish pace, but these repeated stops and constant walking where we could be riding were hard to deal with mentally. THere was no way Mike and I were going to nap, as that would just kill any and all drive and momentum. So instead, we went up ahead and just cleaned our bikes and sat around telling stories about past races and commiserating over this unique ‘challenge’. It was obvious we wouldn’t get to do the full course, but even worse was that I feared we’d have to decide on the entire fate of our race sooner rather than later. The one saving grace here is that we had absolutely no choice but to press on to the next TA, as we were in the middle of nowhere, and were not in any danger, just sleepy. We knew Dave was also uncertain how things might play out, so one option was also that at that TA, the 3 of us would go on and Will would head back to HQ.
The other challenging part was that when Will was awake and talking, his personal outlook and attitude was rather defeatest, which unfortunately was also making it hard to keep up a good outlook and strong team morale. I really hoped he’d bounce back, as I didn’t want to have a bad memory of the race. It’s really amazing the stuff you can go through in a race of this type out there. We are all stripped to our basest emotional reactions, and you can really learn a lot about your fellow person in those situations. Luckily, it was easy to see that Mike and Dave were kindred spirits on this. The three of us had enough race experience to see all this for what it was, a rookie’s tough first race. We all wanted to see him finish.
Once we got him back up, things started to get a bit better. We still walked a bit, but he was also being encouraged to ride a bit. I think the TSN turning point was actually when I took a nasty endo on some rocks. I went over HARD, slid along a rock, and had my bike crash on top of me. Mike stopped to wait with me while I shook it off, and we told Dave and Will to press on and that we’d catch up. When we finally took off after them, it took a LONG time to catch up. Will was slowly but surely catching a second wind, and this was an exciting moment in the race. Arriving at the next CP, we were of course well past the cutoff, and knew that meant we’d have to keep biking on the shit trails. Whereas initially Will may have been very tempted to pull the plug, he pulled something deep from inside his own suitcase of courage, and stated to his mom who was there that he’d go on with us and finish. Yup. Even though I barely knew him, I was proud of his comeback. That’s why we were team “Spirit”. We took our time getting fed and putting on warm dry clothes, and inevitably re-mounted our bikes for the next biking leg.
Here’s the ironic bit of the final bike section. While heading out, we were told the weather forecast called for no rain, but some isolated showers. Isolated indeed. We got absolutely drenched by a sustained rain shower along this horrible trail. These isolated showers were apparently ‘isolated’ right above our heads. Also at about this time, Mike and I were both down to almost no light as our batteries had either died (in my case) or were nearly dead an throwing out minimal light. However, the silver lining to this section is that while we had been passed by several teams on that last leg, we actually passed by at least 3 teams on this section, and were gaining on others! Yup, we were back, and Will was doing a great job biking on now! It was totally awesome to see!
We finished off this section by pulling into the final TA just as the sun was starting to come up. The rain had stopped, we were all still warm, and knew that all the lay between us and the finish was a mere 6km paddle. There was even still a team there getting set up for the paddle. Whereas we could have pushed here though, we really didn’t care much, and took our time. Especially since this was where our ‘special drop’ was hidden. Will and I retrieved a taped up styrofoam mini-cooler to take with us to the final portage to the finish line. On to the final paddle…
Final Paddle to the Finish
Watching the mist on the lake as the sun just starting making its presence known in the early morning was a great way to start the final leg. That had truly felt like a really long epic night, filled with physical and mental challenges. I’m happy to say that for my part, I still felt at about 95%. I’m generally good for about 40-42hrs before I get wonky, so there was no problem at all for me. Also, my nutrition had worked well, with my legs, arms, and all muscles still feeling ready for the battle. No cramping at all, and I stayed warm all night. I’m really pleased with how I feel these days in longer races. I’ve come a long way from my first DNF 10 years ago!
Once we’d fiddled with our strap system once again, and got ourselves settled in the boats, we took to the water and paddled at a steady, if not slightly leisurely paddle across the calm waters. We could see 2 other teams in the distance, but felt no need to really push. Had we been interested in that, we could have just jumped in the boats and paddled off right away, rather than getting our package and fiddling with straps. Honestly, gaining a place or 2 really wouldn’t have added to the experience (other than to say “Top 10”).
The paddle was completely uneventful, and we just enjoyed it, chatting amongst ourselves and reflecting on the great times we’d had over the past 23+ hours. When we finally got to the pull-out, we once again took our time. In this case, it was to finally open our package, which was 4 iced Heineken cans to crack open. We had a nice team moment at the waters edge. Cheers all around, cracked them open and had a few swigs (except for Will, after all, he’s underage!). Canoes planted back on their heads, Mike and Dave started the final 200-300m portage to the finish, beers in hand. It was very quiet at the HQ, with just a few people there to greet us, but it did include both Bob and Barb who congratulated us on the finish. And with that, the race was over, and there was nothing more to do than drop the gear, and contemplate a nap. We finished in just under 24 hours. It was good enough for 12th overall, and 5th in the short course group. Huzzah!
And that, my friends, is pretty much it for the race. Once we stopped celebrating (it was fairly short lived after 24hrs racing), I dropped my gear bag, headed to the car and grabbed my sleeping bag and pad. Piled into the community center and took the stage with fellow racers to indulge in a nap. It was a fitful 1-2hrs of rest before getting up to start sorting through wet stinky gear in the team bins. By around noon, we headed over to the Legion for a nice BBQ lunch, then the final awards ceremony, where stories were told, prizes were handed out, and winners were acknowledged. Pentathlon des Neiges won for the 2nd year in a row, making them the first defending champions. They had managed to complete the entire course in under 19.5 hours! Amazing, and inspiring! As for me, I’ve actually oddly got the next 3 weekends off (although fully booked!) before tackling the 3-day Crank the Shield mountain bike race. Good thing I have the time, seeing as I have a bit of fixing to do on the ole bike! Till then, have fun all!
Race Video: Part I
Race Video: Part II
Race Video: Part III
It is my great pleasure to bring you another race report. This time, I’ll be covering my part in a 30-hour Adventure Race known as Wilderness Traverse. Yup, the very same race that I did last year. However, I’m sure this time the weather will be much better, right? Not so much, but you’ll have to read the whole thing to hear more about that. I had been planning on re-doing this race since last year’s DNF, but two weeks prior to the event, I still had no team lined up! Lucky for me, some last minute cancellations presented me with a couple options to explore, and I found myself on a great team to undertake the experience. Not to name drop or anything, but I would have two Mount Everest Summitters on my team in Adam and Laura, as well as a veteran racer who designs and builds map boards for navigation on mountain bikes! How cool is that? It was a pretty amazing race, and I can’t wait to share all the details with you all. Have a look at the various pictures that I took on course, as well as some from Deanna (who was volunteering), then come back and read the whole story!
My last-minute break came about mainly due to another race, Raid the North Extreme. This race was a 6-day event in BC a mere few weeks before, which left many racers injured or exhausted from the effort. As such, a few slots opened up on a few teams. I was about to email Adrenaline Rush, the team I raced with, but was actually contacted by them first! The timing was right, our goals were in line, so how could I turn down the invitation. Our plan was to race hard, and hopefully pull off a top-5 finish, which would be EXTREMELY difficult given the pedigree of the teams in attendance. Essentially, this was a who’s who of the adventure racing scene from Eastern Canada. All the hot shots would be there.
The style of the race was to be a back-to-basics wilderness adventure race. Long legs, with few checkpoints and few transitions. To wit, we were given advance notice of the course logistics. Open up with a 35+ km trek, transition to a 65+km mountain bike section, transition to a classic canoe / portage leg of 35+ km, and transition to wrap up with a 10+ km final trek on trails. Why the “+” everywhere? Well, all these sections allow for route choices, and of course the possibility that you’ll make wrong turns, which is all in the spirit of adventure racing. The bonus to having the course disciplines spelled out was that we could all prep our gear choices and food in advance. In fact, this was the most organized I’d ever been in a race, being almost fully packed 2 days prior to the race! That doesn’t mean I didn’t screw it up though, as you’ll learn. Food and key gear in a dry bag for each leg, and extra clothes in separate bags for each bin.
I took Friday off in order to arrive onsite early. We’d be camping the night before the race start, and I wanted to get everything set up and not be stressed about race prep. Also, Deanna was volunteering, and was helping with registration. I still hadn’t formally met up with my team, and was hoping to see them soon. At one point I walked outside, and Deanna was waving me over. I said “I’m not really looking for you, I’m looking to see if my team-mates have arrived”. To which she introduced me to Laura, one of my team-mates! That was around 5pm. It wasn’t till 7pm that the other two arrived. With registration wrapping up at 8pm, we were the 2nd last team to get through gear-check and paperwork. Whew! Just in time to receive our maps where we’d finally see the actual course.
As another change from last year, Bob provided us with maps that were pre-marked with the checkpoints and transition areas. All we had to do was work on the route choices and plotting the distances and any other info we wanted to. Adam and I worked together on this task. With 5 primary maps and 4 other maps to pore over, there was plenty to do. I worked on the bike leg marking distances and trails, while Adam sketched out rough trekking routes with bearings, as well as figuring out the best canoeing route. There was some challenge there, as we had a LOT of portages to figure out, and we had to choose routes that suited us best. We opted for as few portages as we could, while not adding too much distance in paddling and/or carrying boats. With that work all done, we all headed back out to finish packing our team gear into the 2 bins we’d be using for the race. After that, a fitful sleep of about 5 hours before getting up around 5am.
At 6am, we were in the firehall having our delicious pancake breakfast. This would be the last warm meal for the next 30hrs or so. We also had to make sure we were on buses by around 6:45am, as it was a remote start, and we had to be driven there. Tried cat-napping on bus, but it was no use. The 4 buses converged at the start area, and 40 teams poured out into the area, totaling about 150 racers, all full of nervous energy. Final words from Bob, and we were off at 8am promptly! The first 4k or so of the race was an ATV trail, which meant a lot of teams sprinting away fast. Laura had cautioned us that she’d start slow, in order to warm up. All in all, a good strategy, as sprinting out could lead to burn-out, and in a 6-12 hour trek, we knew we’d make up any lost time here by being fast and accurate in the bush. Sure enough, once we decided to bear off the trail and hit the bush head-on, we had a strong pace in the woods. True to Bob’s words, the trek encompassed a wide range of terrain, from ATV trails, to easy open bush, to swamps and floating bogs, as well as scrambling up some rocky pitches, and clamoring over heavy alders and deadfall. We felt at ease in all these different terrains, and with Adam’s spot-on navigation, made solid progress.
Of course, given the bushwhacking and route options, we had no idea where we stood in the rankings. However, shortly, we popped out on a trail that should lead us to CP1, a hunting camp. We arrived at the spot, but no staff were there. We’d been told if that was the case, just remember the name of the camp, and head off. We did one better by snapping a picture. We wasted no time second guessing, and were off again. Soon after, we were passed by a couple teams we’d assumed would be a bit ahead of us. Seemed our strong navs were keeping us in the game. Once again, we dove back into the bush, and now chipped away at the features we’d identified would take us to CP2, on the side of a lake. As we were getting there, we heard splashing, and noticed a team swimming in the lake. Not sure why they chose that, since it was fairly easy to go around it, but to each his own. We’d rather keep as dry as we could. Incidentally, the weather had been awesome so far. In fact, it was a bit too warm! We had a quick chat with the volunteers at CP2 and kept on going. Our speed seemed pretty solid, and we had a good feeling about the trek. Sadly, we had a bit of a mishap on the next trek from CP2 to CP3.
Along the way, we were climbing some rocks, and Laura had her weight on her thumb. She slipped and *POP* it slipped out of joint! Much pain ensued, but it went back into joint fairly easily. Unfortunately, she was basically down a hand and we had to do some wilderness first aid. By sheer dumb luck, another team was actually within shouting distance. I asked if there were any doctors, and THERE WAS! He popped over, gave it a quick assessment and confirmed that although it had dislocated, it was in place now, and had only ligament damage likely. As a result, we opted to do a splint. One stick, a wad of duct tape, and a tensor bandage later, and we were good to go! This was not Laura’s morning. She’d been feeling nauseous much of the trek too, so we’d taken all her weight out of the pack and were helping in any way we could, but now we were concerned how this might impact the next legs. However, I’ll say this: anyone who has summitted Mount Everest can roll with the punches. There was NO stopping her. Her focus was awesome, and she had no hesitation in pushing on hard, in spite of the pain. Very impressive, and a great attitude to have for adventure racing. In fact, I’d say we all felt a renewed sense of energy and pushed harder due to this. In short order, we were at CP3, and there we met up with Pete and Team Random. We asked the CP staff to radio ahead to the transition to see about getting a proper thumb splint, and with that, we were off again in the bush!
We basically cat and moused with Pete’s team for the next whole leg from CP3 to CP4/TA1. Towards the end, it seemed they were content to follow our footsteps all the way till we hit a trail. Once there, we let them go so that we could bandage up Laura’s foot, which was now also blistering! Poor Laura! As always though, tough as nails. Also great to see the dynamics of a brother/sister combo that are used to taking care of each other in extreme circumstances. Adam never once said anything, and always seemed to know just what to do. It also helped that Laura is vocal and knows when to say stop in order to deal with issues. The foot thing was dealt with super-quickly, with Adam removing her shoe and sock, taping it up, and getting us back ready to go. Awesome teamwork. We jogged out the last bit to CP4/TA1, and were impressed to learn we were team #6 to arrive! And that was just after Pete’s team, who we’d been with. Just shows what good navigation can accomplish in a long trek. We’d completed the 6-12hr trek in just over 6 hours! It was now time to switch into biking mode for the next 65+km. Not a problem, since we’d all packed bike shorts, etc to change into. Well, all except for me!!
Yup, turns out I’d packed the wrong clothes bag in each bin. Luckily, I still had my helmet, shoes, lights, etc., just not the actual clothing. That meant I’d be biking with the same underwear on, and could only change into another pair of tights. Plus, it meant I’d have to pack my paddling clothes into my backpack to carry with me the entire bike leg, just to make sure it was with me. Ugh! Oh well, only option was to suck it up and go. A little banter with the TA staff, a little nudity while we got changed, some eating and drinking, and we hopped on our saddles. The medic on site didn’t actually have any thumb splints, so Laura opted to leave all as was, and just push on. Gear shifts would be tricky, as it was her right hand, and she’d have to shift with either her palm or fingertips. This would inevitably lead to some challenges, but we were up for it. Between us, we had bike tows on 3 of 4 bikes, and had lots of food and horsepower to burn up. Once again with strong navigation, I had no concerns for our chances.
As to the terrain of the bike section. Well, it was a mixed bag, but generally, I’ll sum up the next 65k as follows. Opening section was absolutely horrendous. Bus-swallowing mud pits interspersed with lakes and un-rideable terrain in between. Initially, we thought we’d get out by around 7pm if we did well. Suddenly, midnight looked more likely, as we were walking more than biking. However, that eventually switched to good solid double track, and we were able to actually bike smoothly. Between Mark and Adam towing Laura when they could, and taking all the right trails, we now were back to thinking we’d be done by around 8pm. We picked up CPs 5 and 6 with no great issue, and these were both unmanned CPs along the trails. CP7 was actually a total treat, as it was on the end of a lake and popped us onto paved road. PLUS, it was manned by Deanna, so I got a kiss on the racecourse! And more importantly, got to slap on some Vaseline to treat the beginnings bad chafing arising from not having been able to get bike clothes on. Spirits buoyed, we headed back out onto the pavement, which soon turned back into dirt trails. Thus far, the navs had been going really smoothly, and looked like they would the whole race. On the trek, I’d been keeping time between waypoints so that we would never go too far without being sure we’d chosen the right path. On the bike, I was calling out distances between points, again, to make sure we’d never overshoot. I also kept in close contact with Adam about what we were doing, sort of as a back-up. I’d like to think that this communication kept our team on a perfect course most of the time.
Although navs were still going smoothly, the final section of the bike, from CP7 to CP8/TA2 was back to a hell zone. By now, we’d been passed by several teams, and we were feeling a little bad about the now slow progress. To make matters worse, it started raining, and got progressively heavier and heavier. So much for the dry racecourse. It was now full-on can’t see beyond 10m heavy rain. Oh, and did I mention it also went dark now? We had to pull out our bright lights to keep going, and things just got more and more miserable. We were all looking forward to a few things. Firstly, getting off the bikes. Then, getting some food and drink from our bin. Then, changing into dry clothes again. And finally, we looked forward to getting in the boats and paddling 🙂 After all, we’d be doing that for pretty much all night. That’s where things would get interesting.
We finally arrived at the transition to some cheers and warm greetings. What a relief. We each set about our own little routines. I got changed, and got some boiling water to make some Mr. Noodles. I also carefully pulled out and checked that I had all the gear I’d need for the overnight paddle, including warm clothes. Unfortunately, I had no rain pants, so I was a tad worried about getting cold. However, I had a neoprene cap on, and a Gore-tex jacket, and also had a space blanket if I really needed it. All told, we probably spent over 20 minutes in transition. Not blazing fast, but not too long. In fact, what impressed me was that even though we were doing our own things, we were all ready at the same time, with Mark having prepped our boats for the paddle. We said farewell, and slowly slipped into the inky blackness of the night. With the rain, and temperature change, conditions couldn’t be much worse. It was pitch black, and there was fog coming off the water, making it nearly impossible to see ANY features around us. Adam was going to have to navigate this paddle by near dead reckoning! Good thing I now had 100% faith in him. I’d follow him anywhere he told us to go. He’s that good.
How can I summarize a paddle that takes you all night and is mainly in the rain? Well, for starters, you might think, “well, at least the terrain is predictable”. Wrong. Remember the word portage? We had lots, and they all had varied terrain that we’d have to hike on. Once again, Mark and Adam proved themselves as supermen. Our routine was this. Paddle to the portage. Everyone out, all gear out. Mark and Adam pop the boats on their heads and hike out. I grab the packs and Mark and I’s paddles, and Laura takes the last 2 paddles, and off we go. I haven’t said much about Mark, but he’s an animal. He’s very strong, loves doing this stuff, and can just keep going. So what was my role here? Well, I’d say my job was to be pretty much the independent guy. Never needed help, and did what I could when I could, like carrying an extra bottle on the trek, making sure we stayed close as a group, etc. etc. I simply didn’t have the size and power of Mark and Adam, so the idea of me doing any towing made no sense. It would just wear me out. I don’t think that made our team and weaker, it made us smart. We knew intuitively what we had to do in order to move in the most efficient way, and we did it.
But back to the paddle. Once again, we made pretty intelligent route choices, and it showed in our position. Basically, from the moment we finished the bike to crossing the finish line, I don’t think we changed positions at all. We saw lots of other teams on the water, but they were all at different points in their races. We had one challenging portage early on where we had to more or less bushwhack to a river (couldn’t seem to find the official trail), but apart from that, clear sailing. On the water, we were all staying warm, but I found that every time we got out of the boats for a portage, I’d get really cold. The other thing is that we’d now been racing all day and all night. We were getting sleepy. I think all 3 of them popped caffeine pills. I was offered some, but declined. I’m usually good up to about 40hrs. Sleepy, but not falling asleep. It was fun listening to Laura and Adam in one boat singing, shouting and talking to stay awake. At one point, I think they spent nearly 20 minutes reciting the Abbott and Costello classic ‘Who’s on First’. Both of them! Too funny. Mark and I were more quiet, but did a fair bit of chatting about everything under the sun. Eventually, Mark really wanted a nap, so he ended up taking a 10minute power nap while I kept up the paddling to stay with Adam. I think Laura was also taking cat-naps at the time. Can you blame us?
My only real concern came near the end of the paddle. We seemed to have slowed quite a bit, and seemed to stop a lot more. It was still quite dark, and I wasn’t sure Adam was still 100% certain where we were. However, I should NOT have doubted him. Once, again, out of the total darkness, we took a left, and cruised straight into a little opening into a bay which was ultimately going to take us to the put out on Raven Lake. Amazing! I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d been a little uncertain, but truth is, he was just being very methodical, and making sure he identified exactly where we should go. My spirits once again lifted. In another 20 minutes, we were pulling out of the water for the final 400m portage to the transition area. As a bonus, it was now getting light again. All that remained was the final 10-12km trek to the finish.
Now you know the drill. Change clothes, stuff in some food, check out, and move on. We had somehow convinced ourselves this was only like an 8km trek, and assumed we’d be done in an hour and a half. TA staff told us it would be closer to 2.5 hours. We hoped not, and set out in the hopes of wrapping up before 8am, thus breaking the 24hr mark. However, experience should have told me to trust them. Even though we ran most of the flats and downhills, there was a lot of climbing that we had to walk (after all, this was called the 5 viewpoints trails, each one starting low and finishing high!). The final two CPs were a piece of cake to grab, it was just a matter of the slog along the trails. Laura was starting to have a concern about pulling her groin, and couldn’t run up hills. For my part, I was now walking like a duck, and had earned the nickname ‘Quack’. This was due to my very uncomfortable chafing issues. All along however, we stayed in good spirits and laughed and talked most of the way to the finish. When we finally crested the final hill and saw the finish area, we mustered up all our energy for a final ‘run’, which was more of an easy jog. Happily, the race director Bob Miller was at the finish to greet us, with medals awaiting us (and delicious chocolate milk!). Deanna was also on hand to see us in and cheer for us. It was the end to a technically near-flawless race, characterized by a fantastic course and molded by our team’s overall determination to see it through to the end as strongly as we could.
We learned that we were 12th overall, and had captured 10th in the Elite Co-Ed Category. Not to shabby considering there were 40 teams, and lots of tough competition. 9 teams ended up withdrawing from the course, and a further 10 teams finished, but on various modified, shortened courses. Our result was certainly nothing to be embarrassed about! We milled around for a bit, but shortly after that, I cleaned up and headed to the tent to try and grab a bit of sleep. I ended up getting around 3.5 hrs sleep before the head woke me up in the tent. Deanna had left me a Tim’s breakfast sandwich to eat, and some water. What a gal! I got up, and started the gruesome task of sorting stinky gear from our [returned] bins, and loaded the car back up. Awards took place in the mid afternoon, and we were soon all heading our separate ways again. It was a whirlwind race and weekend, but I’ll always have fond memories of it. Adrenaline Rush was a great team to race with and I hope they had as much fun racing with me as I with them! I’d be honored to race with them again someday :-). Now, time to rest up a bit, as I have an iron-distance triathlon to race in less than 2 weeks! Hope you enjoyed the story!
Ahhh Adventure Racing. Probably one of the ‘fringest’ of the fringe sports, right? We toil in obscurity, with both the racers and the races themselves pretty much unknown. We train for hours on end in places unknown, be it the wide open roads or deepest forests or raging rivers. And what for? Well, the chance to take part in really cool events like the Wilderness Traverse, a new 24-hour adventure race put together by the incomparable Bob Miller. Yup, whether you finish or not is never certain when you start, but you can pretty much be guaranteed a good time. That brings us to this post, a brief tale about my teams performance at this race. I hadn’t done a 24-hour race in a couple years so I was pretty stoked. Read on to learn more about it, and don’t forget to check out the pictures I managed to get from the event.
As I talked about earlier this year, my racing plans for this summer included a lot more off-road races, and the intention to return to more pure off-road racing. This race piqued my interest early in the season, as a lot of people I know would be racing it, and it was put on by Bob Miller, a well-respected racer and course designer. The fact that it was a 24-hour race was just the icing on the cake. I’d also confirmed with Carl early on that he was game to do it, so we just needed two more people to round out our team, and that came in the form of J-R and Marie-Noel from the Montreal region. Sweet, let the games begin!
The location for this backcountry adventure was the Haliburton region. Plenty of lakes, hills and trails criss-crossing this way and that. It had all the hallmarks of a classic race, although we wouldn’t be privy to exactly what style race it would be until the race briefing and map distribution the evening before the race start. Our first challenge was finding the start location, as we had no map or directions. Oops. Our convoy of 3-4 cars sort of drove around till we found it. Ha ha. Once onsite we worked through gear check and registration, and waited for the maps.
Maps in hand, the race was on. Yeah, I consider this part of the race, even though the start gun hasn’t gone off, since you have to scramble to prep maps, pack bags and get everything ready. Goal was to be set early enough to get a decent amount of sleep. It was soon clear that this was definitely going to be an interesting race. Although things looked straightforward at first (Trek start, transition to paddle, back to trek, finish with biking), they were anything but. A deep dive into the paddle route quickly uncovered an impressive amount of portaging that we’d need to tackle. Luckily, Bob had secured relatively light canoes for this epic lake paddle. I think about a third of the total distance was portages!!! The mountain bike leg also appeared as though it would be a great mix of trails, although we’d never actually see it (more on that later). The treks, well, they were just what we expected and hoped for. Long distances, few checkpoints, and lots of route choices, including whether to swim to shorted treks.
I focused on the treks and bike legs, and let the rest of the team sort through the various paddle maps to better understand that route, and where all the portages would be located. The team-work helped us wrap up in time to head back, laminate all the maps, and hit the hay.
Weather in the morning looked ok, but we were aware that rain was a definite possibility later in the race. No problem, we all had extra clothes in the transition bags, and waterproof jackets just in case, right? The answer is yes, but you’ll see how that wasn’t quite enough :-(. There were lots of teams taking part, and before the race, we had a nice pancake breakfast where we all got to mingle and chat about our thoughts for the race. All agreed the paddle would make an interesting section with all the boat hauling. Before I knew it, we were loaded onto buses and heading to the remote start. And yes, the majority of the race was quite remote, perfect!
Opening trek: no problemo. We chose the route that the majority of teams did, and it was basically some nice bush-whacking with only one checkpoint between the start and the transition to the paddle. We worked really well as a team, and made good time. We arrived at transition in 9th place, gaining 4 spots between CP1 and the transition. There a great chart of all the splits on the website as well. Of course it gets depressing when you see where we screwed up :-(.
In the paddle, we continued to work well as a team, and had a pretty good system with our portages. Everyone did some portaging, and Marie-Noel was easily proving to us how strong she will likely some day be in this sport. After all, this was only her 2nd race, and 1st race of this length. I actually felt really good in the paddle, and towards the end, was happy to shoulder the boat for a lot of the portages. I guess all that paddle training in prep for UXC paid off a bit. It helped that the canoe was quite comfortable to carry. I will say this for the paddle though. DEATH TO ALL MOSQUITOES!!!! Towards the end, all four of us were literally losing our minds from all the friggin buggers! We had chose to paddle a series of lakes at the end rather than take a super-long portage, and may have made the wrong call, as the bugs were uber-intense in all the portages, and each put-in had us in little creeks moving slow, so they were able to harass us all the way!
By the time we got off the water, we were totally bonkers over the bugs, and did everything we could to avoid them, but in transition, it was basically a buffet for the bastards. At one point there was apparently blood all over my head from bites. Yuck! on the plus side, it forced us to move quickly, and get ready for the next section, the crux of the race, an epic trek. We’d juggled a few spots during the paddle, but ended up in 10th coming off the water. We were happy with that.
The next trek had lots of route choices, but we had all agreed on our strategy, and got right to work on it. Part of the strategy involved a pretty long swim, but would shave several kms off the trek. We agreed that if it was still light, and weather was good, we’d swim. Otherwise, do the trek. It was close, but we made the call to swim. Rather than give anyone time to think too much, I stripped right down, put my clothes in a dry bag, and got in. J-R is not a very confident swimmer (understatement), but we coaxed him in, with the promise that he’d only have to do the first section, as we’d stop at an intermediate point, and only a couple of us would swim on to get the next CP. Carl and Marie-Noel volunteered for that task while J-R and I ate, and I checked maps, times, etc. Marie was kick-ass, and just put her head down and swam hard like a true triathlete. Carl stayed at about the mid-point, then they both came back. We took the time to let them regroup a bit, then took off before they got cold. By this point, darkness was coming down.
That move bumped us up to 9th place overall, and we pressed on hard. We made great nav choices, and moved quickly through the brush to the next CP. The logs show that we gained another spot, and moved up to 8th place here. Sweet. The next section looked pretty straightforward. Circle a big lake, then bear straight east to CP8. Seemed we’d be home free. WRONG! This is where things fell apart for us. It was around midnight now, and the darkness had engulfed us. The maps lacked great detail, and every time we tried to pick our way to the lake where we wanted to be, we’d run into more rivers and creeks. We’d decided to try and stay dry in order to avoid any risk of getting cold. We also ran into other teams having similar issues, some of which I have great respect for. If *they* were confused, what hope did we have? Well, we should have just trusted out instincts I think. In the end, we lost at least 2 hours in that area. VERY disappointing, but that’s AR, right?
Eventually we DID get on the good foot, and got to follow our East bearing. The result though? Well, once we got to CP8, the transition to bikes, we’d lost 3 spots, and were sitting in 11th once again. Not only that, but during the last hour of the trek, the rain started. And I’m not talking a sprinkle, I’m talking about a soul-crushing rain. We ignored it for a long time, just focusing on the trek, but upon arrival at CP8, it was clear this was going to put a wrench in our plans.
The other thing? Well, it was now 5:30am! We’d already been racing almost 22 hours. This was called a 24-hour race, but we knew the bike was gonna take a minimum of 7hrs for us in good conditions, probably more! An impossible feat in our minds. In truth, we had 30 hours to finish, but at this point, with the weather, finishing that section was pretty unlikely. At that point we were given an option. Bob Miller informed CP staff over the radio that teams coming in now could take the roads to return to the finish instead of the trails, and would be ranked officially. It was still 50km, but on roads, rather than 75km of trails. I made the team decision at that point (yup, the tough decisions you have to make when you are ‘leading’) that we’d take the roads. My primary goal was for all 4 of us to finish together, in order for Marie-Noel to get an official finish, and I just didn’t see the math working if we attempted the trails, which would now be a complete disaster.
Given that even the very best teams took 7+ hours to finish that section, I stand by my decision. We just didn’t have it in the tank. Truth be told, if we hadn’t had that option, it isn’t even clear to me we would have continued. But we were glad to have that option. We took the time to warm up a bit, all changed into dry clothes, and figured it’d be a slog, but we’d wrap up the race in the next 3-4 hours. Then to celebrate.
We took off in good spirits, singing and chatting. After all, straight roads on bikes, minimal nav, and only 50k separating us from ‘personal’ victory. Sadly, mother nature decided to mess with us a bit more. The rain was absolutely relentless. And the temps dropped to 9 or less. Funny thing about the human body after >24 hours of physical exertion. It has no ‘extra’ energy for warming you up. We started getting cold, and it got worse and worse. Eventually, it was clear a couple people were succumbing to early hypothermia. Every downhill where our speed kicked up, would send bone-chilling winds through us. No amount of Gore-tex would appear to be able to help.
Eventually, we had to pull off, and Carl huddle with Marie-Noel, who was in very bad shape, under a space blanket. I chose to continue with J-R (who was also very rough) to seek somewhere dry and warm to call for help. As we rode, J-R was shivering and shaking pretty uncontrollably, and could no longer speak. I was very concerned he’d wipe out and get injured any second, and was desperate to find safety. We finally found an ‘outdoor center’ open at the early hour, and popped in there.
Once there, J-R stripped down and was given towels to dry and warm up. I broke out the radio and made the very difficult call of requesting a medical evacuation. We were unsure how Marie-Noel was, and needed to get picked up. I’ve never had to do that in a race, and it was not a happy or easy thing to do, but it was the right call. Later, we learned we were only 12k away from the finish. Very rough. C’est la vie though, and we’d all live to race another day with smiles on our faces. For the record, we were far from the only teams to have to bail.
Out of 19 teams that had started the race, only 15 of us got to the bike start, and by the time the rain cleared, only 8 teams ended up finishing the race. Yup, 42% success rate. That’s another hallmark of a ‘classic’ race, when a lot of teams don’t even finish. We were in good company.
Much later, once all back at HQ, relatively dry and looking back on our race, we were still happy. It was a hard race, and we did well to get as far as we did. The screw-up on the trek is obviously a sore spot for me, but even if we’d gotten those 2 hours back, I’m not convinced we’d have completed the full journey. However we might have at least seen some of the epic mountain biking that they had in store for us. I guess the best part of the post race was when J-R turned and said “So when do we do it again?”. We had a great team dynamic, and had worked through all our problems with relative peace through the course. That’s not always easy in this kind of race. We also are always learning from these races, so you want to try again, just to see if you can do better.
So when do we do it again? Not sure right now. Next couple events are more solo events for me, but there’s always another race, right? At the moment, I’m seeking 2 people to round out my FAC champs team for September, so if you’re interested, give me a shout 🙂 Post race festivities were minimal, and after the awards and packing up, I headed out for Toronto, where I was slated to attend a conference starting 7am the next morning. Could be interesting given that I’d gotten no sleep all weekend, and had to clean gear and [happily] would also be spending time with Deanna later that night!
So endeth the tail of Wilderness Traverse. Next up in the story-factory… Ultimate XC!! My most grueling solo race to date. Lots to say there too, so stay tuned 🙂 Till then, stay cool kids, it’s mighty hot out there!