Success in the Hills of Mansfield

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Welcome to another exciting chapter in the ongoing stories of Team Hyper-Active! How do you describe an event where you drive twice as long to get to it as you do participating in the actual race? Well, after leaving Friday afternoon, returning Sunday night, recuperating for almost a day, and now sitting here to write out my thoughts, I’d say it was awesome! I’m speaking of this past weekends’ convoy to the Mansfield Outdoor Centre for this year’s edition of the Salomon Adventure Challenge Winter Adventure Race. For this race, Team Hyper-Active consisted of me (naturally), James Galipeau and Sophia Tsouros. We were also joined for the trip by the threesome of Carl Buchmann, Steeve Lavoie and Anne-Marie Moisan, racing as Team NexxGen AR. Just to keep it extra fun, we also dragged along three other Ottawans (Pete, Melanie and Jill) to join in the fun. This was destined to be a grand adventure, and we figured the best way to kick it off would be to travel all together from Ottawa to Mansfield, a 5-6 hour trip depending on conditions. The following is our tale.

This year, I’m set to race mainly with Carl, Steeve and Anne-Marie as the base for Team Hyper-Active, but as this was a 3-person team race, and the fact that I’ve been waiting to race with Sophia and James for a while, we chose to enter the two different teams. Off the course, we were a single group, but during the race, we were friendly competitors, not one team 😉 The race was to consist mainly of skiing, snowshoeing, mountain biking, and sledding. The only tricky part was that up until a few days before, conditions were definitely not optimal. Namely, there wasn’t snow. That makes a winter race a tad difficult. However, the money was already spent, so the show would go on no matter what. Just in case, we packed extra running and bush-whacking kind of gear, expecting that we might actually end up doing trail stuff rather than snow stuff.

The gang all gathered at my place for a 12:45pm departure time on Friday. Well, we finally hit the road closer to 2pm, but that’s life. Too much gear, too many schedules to co-ordinate. It didn’t really matter a whole lot, since our only job was to get there by around 7pm for the pasta dinner we’d paid for. The trip down was pretty easy going. For the most part, our three cars stuck together on the highway. Eventually, we lost the other two cars, and realized none of us had the phone numbers for the others, and weren’t sure they had maps. Oh well, we guessed they’d find their way 😉 We made it by just before 8pm, and registered and had some lasagne. Shortly after, the other two cars made it. They had stopped for gas, and we had kept going. Once they were registered, we made our way to our cabin. Eight of us shared one pretty large cabin, which had room to actually put all our gear, including bikes inside. Bonus. By now, we had also been told that the sledding was out for sure, and that snowshoes had become ‘optional’. You wouldn’t need to carry them at all if you didn’t need them. Given the conditions, we guessed we might not need them the next morning.

Boy, what a difference 8 hours makes. By morning, we’d received a huge dump of snow. Fresh powder everywhere. Break out the wax and the snowshoes, we had ourselves a true winter race to get to! No time to think too much, since maps were being passed out at 7am. I got to the lodge early, and waited till Geoff could hand out the goods. Sophia, James and I then proceeded to get things set. This race had been designed a little differently than others, based on racer feedback from previous races in this area. Here is a rough description of what I’ll call the two main ‘stages’ of the race. At the sound of the gun, teams got treated to a hammer-fest. This first section was a bike / orienteering leg. Numerous colored checkpoints scattered in the area, and no specific order to pick them up. There were a number of route choices, some shorter, some longer, some with more obvious hills, some with easy trails. The idea was to let teams choose their own route and order, rather than play a big game of follow the leader. I really liked that aspect of it. After this stage, teams would bike back to the lodge, and transition to skis. Now you could declare whether you planned to do regular or advanced. Regular was just two CPs at opposite ends of the ski area, whereas advanced was two additional CPs, in other ends of the ski area, but which you couldn’t go to until after the first two. Again, order of each group of two was up to you, as were the route choices. All you had to do was adhere to the directional markers on ski trails. Looked pretty reasonable to us. There was only one CP that we figured would be the ‘crux’ CP, the hardest to get to in a maze of back-woods trails, most of them not on any maps. This would have to be reached by doing back-country skiing, so you had to be careful of other trails you found.

Once we hammered out the details of our strategy, we had about a half hour left to finish getting gear ready, and prepping the skis. It was a mad scramble. There just didn’t seem to be enough time to get everything done. Luckily, they postponed the start by 15 minutes. Gear had to be re-packed, since it was now clear we weren’t going to have ‘traditional’ transition areas. Just one bag with ski stuff, and the rest you would just carry with you at all times. It was pretty hairy, but we managed to get everything set just in time to bike up the road to the start line with the rest of the racers. You could already see the opening bike would be tricky. Snowy roads, plows and traffic to contend with, and a sea of racers trying to jockey for the front of the pack. Everyone was bundled up, and visibility wasn’t what I’d call great. By the time we finally crossed the start, it was 9:52am. I felt good on the bike, as did Sophia and James. We had a tow set up on James’ bike, since he’s the horse of this team. It was too tough to try any towing off the bat, with too many teams. Sophia took honours for having the first wipe-out of the race I think, slipping on the snow. Not long after, I was the second to go down I think. I was assisted though. As I was trying to pass someone, I noticed (too late) that there was a rider on my left. We touched handlebars, and down I went, cursing them for not warning me they were there. No worries though, we didn’t really lose any time on that, brush off, and keep going!

Most teams chose the predictable route for the first couple marks, and teams ran close. Luckily, with a few hiking points to pick up, we knew the crowd would start thinning. Unfortunately, that’s when I started having bike issues. You know how you can sit on a bike and pedal backwards freely? Well, mine was doing that both backwards and forwards sometimes. Yeah, the freewheel was messed up. And you know how you can fix that on the road? Yeah, me neither. You can’t. It’s totally sealed. I think it was the cold, combined possibly with moisture in my free wheel, causing the ratchet to be stuck open. Let me tell you, it truly sucked. When it would happen, I’d have to ask James to tow me. Normally, that means getting a boost, but in this case, it mean he had to 100% pull me. Ouch. After a bit, it would engage again, and I’d be okay, but I’m sure we lost a few minutes here and there due to that. However, it was made up at one point by the fact that 6 deer ran across the road not 25 feet ahead of us. What a marvellous site of grace and power. Now, if only they could tow me!

The rest of the bike / orienteering leg was quite predictable. We pretty much nailed all the points we were trying to hit. We were one of the few teams who opted to strap on the snowshoes for a couple CPs. On the third CP in the woods, I decided I’d be quicker without them, since my shoes are more back-country (hence heavier) than the pairs Sophia and James were using. Mind you, running and climbing in snow-covered bike shoes is far from optimal either. However, it was more efficient than wasting time changing shoes. Overall, I’d say we raced the first half of the race exactly the way we should have. Our placement seemed to bear that out. Coming back to the lodge, we found out we placed securely in 5th place, not far back from the first 4. That was a nice feeling, knowing that in spite of the bike issues, we were still in top form. We ran fast along a road section (mandatory walk due to dangerous road conditions), then biked hard to the transition.

Once in transition, we did our utmost to be quick. Peel off shoes, change into ski stuff, pound back some Boost, and get skiing. We were glad to see we managed a quick transition, now back with a few of the other top teams. We were also happy to see that Classic Skis would be the way to go in these conditions, not Skate Skis. Of course, the choice was easy for me. I only own Classic! I struggled for the first little bit to keep up with Sophia and James, much stronger skiers than me. The issue was my poles. They have hand ‘harnesses’ that secure you to the pole much stronger. As a weaker skier, I need those poles firmly attached so I can make more efficient use of my hands. At a break in the trail, I got James to help get me strapped up (difficult to do with numb fingers all alone). Once attached, I was able to keep up by poling a lot more. That gave me a bit more confidence again.

Let me say this for Mansfield. The skiing was awesome! The weather was perfect, the setting very serene and beautiful, and the trails very nice. Of course, we couldn’t dwell too much on it, although we did comment aloud many times how awesome it was to be out there racing. That’s really why we all do it, isn’t it? As I mentioned later, this race truly had many more “Why I do racing” moments rather than “Why do I do racing” moments. The skiing was exemplar from that perspective. But I digress, back to the gruelling race at hand! We were tied up with a bunch of different teams during the first part of the ski. We found our way pretty much dead on to the first CP we wanted to pick up, a deserted correctional facility. Man, I would’ve liked to check that out, but sadly, it was in and out (and not even really in, since we were only on the perimeter). Leaving that CP, we headed on another trail heading north. We noted some teams seeming to double back, but paid no mind. Strictly speaking, anyone doubling back would be going the wrong way on a one-way track, and we weren’t going to race that way for our race. If they beat us to the finish, so be it, they did it unfairly. It’s their prerogative. We raced true.

To get to the second regular CP, it was just a nice ski along a marked, classic-groomed trail. No thinking, just skiing. We couldn’t help but notice some diagonal stride marks while we skied. Now, I don’t want to sound like a whiner (and I certainly never mentioned it later to Geoff), but we were a little ticked to see that. There were strict rules stating we were stick to classic if it was so groomed. This section WAS NOT powder, but clearly groomed, meaning someone was again breaking rules in order to advance their own race. Again, their prerogative, but annoying nonetheless. We also came across a team taking a ‘short-cut’ through the woods. This was fine, as long as you stuck to the directions. We decided to stay on the trail, which was well-groomed, rather than start bush-whacking. That lead to a funny result. We did about a 1km ski in the trail, where another team did maybe a 150m bush-whack. Guess what? We got there at the same time, and even passed them while they got their skis back on! Ha ha. That felt good.

Shortly after, we hit the 2nd ‘regular’ CP, and had to decide how to do the advanced ones. We had chosen a few plans depending on conditions, and stuck to our plan, we now left the safety of the marked ski trails and entered snowmobile zone! Once again, I’ve got to say, I was really impressed by how nice and understanding every single snowmobiler we came across were. Every one of them stopped, some asking what was going on, none of them impatient with us. It was very nice. Thinking about some local trails, I know if I’m running or skiing, these guys just gun there engines and blow past as fast as they can, which always makes me angry. But here in Mansfield, they were all super-nice. They made a good impression on me. Anyway, we again had great success in the navigation and the trails, and got to our first advanced CP in short order. The news? We were only the 2nd team to get there! Of course, teams may have tackled the other advanced CP first, so we didn’t hold our breath.

However, it did perk us up and get us motivated to push hard. There was one small problem by now though. All our hydration packs had frozen tubes, so we hadn’t been drinking or eating much. It got to me a bit. I was having a dizzy spell, and worried about bonking. We had to unscrew the bladders and drink straight from them. We each had some drinks and food, and re-grouped for the push to the final CP. We were racing great as a team, and things were going very well for us I’d say. Our plan that we’d formulated seemed to be working well. All our choices (and guesses at how it would work out) made sense, and it seemed we found most of the ‘right’ trails we wanted. We overshot at one point on the way to the last CP, but only by 100 or 200 meters, so that was no big deal. We knew this would be the toughest CP to find though. Eventually, we had to leave the safety of the trail and really go off-trail for this one. We chose a spot, which was actually a bit too far east, and started hiking up slope. The last CP was on the top of a big hill following a contour, so we figured even if we didn’t hit it right away, we knew we could bear west till we found it. We came across one team cursing saying they’d been looking for 45 minutes. First rule though, is never follow another team, and have faith in your decisions. We stuck to our game plan, and I’d say we found that checkpoint within about 10 minutes of when we started ‘really’ looking for it.

The news from that CP? We were the 9th team there. Okay, so clearly other teams went there first, and now it would be a race to see who made the right choice. We clambered down the hill and started trying to get back onto some sort of trail to get back to the lodge. That’s where, sadly, we made one navigational error I’d say. At one point we hit a trail. Seemed groomed and about the right location to be a trail on our ski map. Also, we thought we’d found a two-way black arrow, which would confirm the guess. I used that knowledge and the maps to estimate exactly where we were, which was close. Unfortunately, in hindsight, we think the sign was actually for snowmobiles, and we really weren’t on the ski trails left, so we ended up going much further east than we should have, and had to double-back on another trail to find the actual cross-country ski network. Crap! We probably lost at least 15-20 minutes due to that! We were also getting tired, so that of course makes you mentally break down a little bit. Once we knew were back on the right trails, we gave one final push to the finish line. 7th Place! Both in the co-ed category and overall. Yup, no all-male teams came close to the co-eds that day! We were quite happy with our results, and celebrated briefly at the finish with friends about the great day we’d had.

Of course, sitting here now, I can reflect on what could have been, and it saddens me a bit. Looking at the results, I see that if we had in fact lost 15-20 minutes at the end, that would have been good enough to give us between 3rd and 5th place, rather than 7th ;-( I hate seeing the ‘could-have-beens’! What you have to keep in mind, in a race like this, is that these things almost always happen. It can happen to any one at any time. I’m happy knowing that physically and mentally, I’d say we were definitely a top-3 finisher. Just one little boo-boo that cost us the podium. We still kicked ass as a team and did superbly, and I slept just fine with that knowledge.

Well, I see that my story has gotten quite long-winded. Sorry about that. After the race of course, we had the unpleasant task (as always) of digging through all our wet, stinky crap, and getting everything sorted out. All I wanted was my beer and a shower, but I resisted by cleaning out the gear bag and laying out all my race stuff to dry. I figured that way I could party hard that night and not worry too much. Sophia and James headed off for a massage, and I hit the shower. 30 minutes of delicious warm water. It was awesome. When I got out, Carl, Steeve and Anne-Marie were just about wrapped up their race too, so we all got back together to start the post-race chatter and partying.

As always, the race was capped off by plenty of prizes and story-telling over a nice meal and drinks. I was lucky enough to win a nice prize (an ice therapy device for injuries) from Dunbar Medical for telling my story about the deer. Afterwards, the licensed bar was in full swing to let us die-hards party into the wee hours. Well, the die hards consisted mainly of me, and the rest of the race organization. Most racers just faded out quietly and headed either home or to bed. I managed to stay up till about 3:30am, with just Geoff and Paula left with me. To remind everyone in the cabin that I out-partied them, and stumbled back to the cabin and took pictures! Sorry guys 😉

The next morning, I was supposed to join Sophia and James for a ski, but my knee was throbbing (well, my head was too, but I wouldn’t let that stop me), so I passed. The other two cars packed up and left, after our delicious pancake and sausage breakfast, leaving me to nap for an extra hour. How glorious. I got home by about 6pm, and spent the night re-sorting my gear and just generally doing nothing. Two days later, I’ve got to say, I truly enjoyed that race and everything about it. I don’t think I can suggest a single change to the format for next year. Now I’m looking forward to the rest of my race season. It’s great to get an early season reminder of why I love doing these things. Thanks Geoff and everyone at FAR!

If you’d like to see my pre- and post-race pics, check out the folder on flickr.

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