Finding Silver on the Canadian Shield at Wilderness Traverse

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[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

Annotated Map 1

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

Annotated Map 2This 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

Annotated Map 3

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!




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