GPS Never Tells the Whole Story

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Good day all. I’m pleased to tell you all that my team walked away with what I consider the top prize at this year’s Quest for a Cure. No, I’m not talking about the lucrative entry to Primal Quest, but something far more important I think. Team Hyper-Active has won the Mark Johnson Memorial Courage Award! What is that exactly? Well, our team managed to raise the most funds of anyone for the Ottawa Regional Cancer Center Foundation. So to start what will likely be a long post, I’d like to thank all of you from the bottom of my heart for supporting me in this race! As you’ll soon find out, it wasn’t easy, but it was rewarding. SO with that, let’s embark on what will likely be great tale of more perseverance on our part! If you’d like to check out a few shots that we took before and after the race, click over to the flickr folder. You will probably also want to check out the GPS tracking maps that were created in real-time during the race.

Let me start off by saying, in case you weren’t sure, that a 48 hour race is never easy. If it was easy, everyone would do it, wouldn’t they? Keep that in mind as you read about this great adventure that I embarked on last weekend. What are some of the elements that makes it hard, you might ask? Well, for starters, you’re on a team of four people, then throw in exhaustion, sleep deprivation, hunger, thirst, and challenging terrain into the mix. In some races, it’s a wonder that any teams actually complete what they started. Although I wouldn’t classify this particular race as the toughest I’d ever done, it did have it’s challenges. There, have I adequately laid the stage for the drama that will unfold?

Our team of four has been racing for less than a year together. We’ve done our best to get in some good group training, but didn’t have what I’d call great success. We’ve all got busy schedules, with travel, work, and personal commitments. Also, poor Steeve suffered a physical injury in the month preceding the race. He was having some Sciatica issues, causing him to go see a massage therapist and osteopath quite extensively in the weeks leading to the race. He was hoping to be in tip-top shape, but sadly, that likely wouldn’t be the case. However, we planned to race as a team, push hard, and see how we could do in spite of any nagging injuries.

This year, the race was slated to be run out of Petawawa. The drive is about two hours from Ottawa, making it pretty accessible to the local racing community. As a result, it looked like this year would boast the largest starting field of the five years this race has been run. All told, there were twenty teams signed up for the 48 hr. race. Ten were in the 4-person category, and 10 were in the 2-person category. It’s always nice to have a well-attended race for these things. We aimed to be at the race site around ten in the morning, as that was when registration opened. The earlier you get on site, the sooner you can get through registration, get your maps, and get the gear ready.

We were only slightly delayed leaving Ottawa, so we arrived on the base at about quarter after ten. We got right to work sorting out the registration. This involves a myriad of little things. Donations needed to be sorted out, a ton of medical and waiver forms had to be filled out. Then , we had to undergo a medical base-lining (so that they could know during the race if we were in real trouble). We also had to do our ropes certification. All this stuff takes time, so by the time we had all that done and I had the maps in my hands, it was about 11:30. That’s when the fun starts for me, since I had to plot all the points on the maps, and get through all the detailed instructions. There were nine pages of topographical and orienteering maps, and four pages of instructions. This is always a stressful time for me, but with a bit of help from Carl, I had it wrapped up before 2pm. This is a good thing, as I had to sort through my gear quickly as well, and board buses bound for the remote start!

Things were made a little more complicated this year by the fact that the race was unsupported. How does this complicate things? Well, it means that before starting the race, we were each given a 121L bin for our gear. Within that, we had to place all the gear we would need over the entire duration of the race. Food, drink, and the varied equipment we’d need, like climbing gear, inline skating gear, biking gear, paddling gear, clothes, first aid, etc. etc. You get the idea. A lot of stuff. And it all had to be organized in a way that we could find it quickly and easily no matter what time and what condition we were in. I was looking forward to this aspect of the race, so I happily got my little bin prepped. When done , the thing weighed a tonne! I didn’t’ envy the military personnel that would be humping out gear to the various remote drops throughout the race. The bike was then also loaded into a military vehicle, before we all boarded the buses.

The ride out to the start was supposed to take a little over an hour. We tried our best to nap a little bit. Keep in mind, the clock is already running for the race at this time. Not the 48 hour race clock, but the sleep deprivation clock. We’d all gotten up by around 7am, so we’d been up for 7 hours already, and the race hadn’t yet begun! I also took this chance to munch down three pieces of pizza, which served as a combo of lunch and supper, so that I wouldn’t have to stop to eat on the way for a while.

Race Start Line
We got to the start, and had a race briefing for the opening section, which was going to be an inline skate to a put-in for whitewater rafting. Yup, we were going to paddle through the whitewater region of Ottawa once again in rafts thanks to Wilderness Tours. Four to a raft. The issue was the water levels. Last year, when we ran it, the water was a level 3. This year, a level 6-10! Much more dangerous. We also got a briefing on how to use our GPS transponders and emergency beacons, which would always communicate our location to the race directors, to ensure our safety. We were warned not to engage the emergency beacon unless it was life threatening, as they would be deploying full rescue teams, including helicopter, search and rescue, and medical teams! Yikes. Duly noted. Apparently, getting tired or hungry wouldn’t warrant a rescue of any sort here.

Before we knew it, we were off! It’s always a great feeling to finally start the journey to the finish line. A half hour into it, I was already saying thirty minutes down, 47 and a half hours to go! Overall, we were pretty fluid on the skates. Steeve was a bit tentative, but that’s because he’s never really skated! Oops. He also had the fastest roller blades, being race ones, but had no brake. Trouble was looming. To help him move along, we employed some basic tow systems as we could, including just a strap and some bungee cord. Luckily, the opening inline section was only about 8km. Just enough to spread out the pack a bit, and let the strong people get a bit ahead.

Another neat thing about this race was that the entire thing was being recorded in High Definition by a crew. They were on hand to capture all the drama and power for a one hour special that will be airing later this year on Global. Once I get more details, I’ll send it our. There will also be a DVD put together which will probably have a lot more footage. I’m sure I’ll make an appearance at some point in that one! The point of this little side note is that everywhere we would be going, there was a crew of camera people. They even had their own special gear for bike sections, paddling sections, trekking sections, etc. I think all told there were six camera people taking shifts recording footage. As we were putting our rafts in the water, we barely noticed, but there was a camera person underwater even! They were getting some cool shots of people paddling and rafting.

The rafting section was a nice diversion from the race at hand. Unfortunately, paddling a raft with four people is a lot like trying to sail a bathtub. They don’t go fast, and they steer pretty miserably as well. As such, we didn’t make up any ground, and in fact, were already towards the back of the pack. Luckily, we didn’t care a whole lot, as the rapids gave us plenty of excitement. Anne-Marie and Carl definitely got a few thrills at the front of the boat as we went through the rough water, while Steeve and I stayed comfy in the back. In the middle of the boat was all our gear, including the inline skates. We were really hoping not to go over into the water, as that would make the next long inline section pretty crappy!

We got through the rafting, and tried to find the put-out that was indicated on the instructions. Not too long after that, a dinghy pulled up to tell us we’d passed it. Hunh? We didn’t see any other rafts! It turns out that EVERYONE missed the put-out. So we thought we’d be in a better spot now, as we back-tracked to the right place. There was another duo, and another 4-person team with us at that point, and we headed up the trail we were supposed to in order to get back on pavement. You’ll notice on the GPS trace that other teams somehow found another (arguably) better way up, and I think managed to actually save time, even though they didn’t go the ‘official’ way. Oh well. We weren’t too far behind, and it was a long race. We kept our grins on, and walked / jogged up the road till we hit pavement. Here, it was back on the rollerblades, and on to the river swim.

As part of this section, there were some massive downhills. I took the opportunity to bomb down them as fast as I could. In retrospect, I probably should have been more cautious, but I was having fun. The camera people liked my antics, and I was filmed twice by them as I was speeding down. At the bottom, I waited and waited for my team-mates. Hmmm, what was going on? Well, at least they were being careful I thought. Unfortunately, the truth was that Steeve’s rollerblades broke! One of them totally detached from the boot, on the hill no less. He took a tumble, luckily at low speed and into a ditch. And not to worry, it was all caught on film! Hope that one makes the reel.

This meant that Steeve now had to walk the rest of this section, which again put us a bit further behind. D’oh! Not his fault of course, but it was still sad. At least he wasn’t hurt too bad, although he was starting to complain of a sore butt. At the end of this leg, we were supposed to do a 300m swim across a river, but upon arrival, were told we’d be boated to a spot only about 50ft from shore. The current was far too strong. This was a blessing, as you may recall Steeve isn’t that fond of swimming. We rushed to get on the boat before another team did, and once on the water, jumped overboard and paddled to the shore, soaking wet. We now had to jog another couple km to get to the transition area to start a 55km biking leg. Steeve was now feeling quite a bit more pain and was having a hard time keeping up. I took his gear, and encouraged him to push hard till the transition.

Once at the transition, we rummaged in our bins for food, fresh drinks, and dry clothes. This next leg was going to be a few hours of biking on both rail beds and ATV trails. We’d be out there well into the night, so we needed our bright lights on the bikes. In spite of that, we still managed to get in and out pretty quickly. I was setting arbitrary times to get out of transitions, and that was working pretty well to keep us on track. This bike leg was really nice. For the first while we were able to work as a team, and make pretty good speed by towing each other in an AR train of 4 racers. After the flat section of the rail bed, we turned off into the hills to follow ATV trails high up some hills to a lookout. The trail was in great shape, so we didn’t have too much trouble. However, as in all races, there were the beginning of some tiredness, so we had to go up some of the hills a little slower than we’d like in spots, and take it a little easier on the downhills. There were also a few extra breaks to add or remove clothes, and to eat and drink. At the end of the hilly section, it was back on the rail bed to wrap up this part of the race.

We were pretty happy to finally see the transition area where we’d switch to paddling. There were still a number of teams there, which mean that we hadn’t totally fallen off the face of the earth for this race. By this time, it was well into the night, and teams were already starting to feel the beginnings of fatigue. I was still feeling quite strong, but I did have to have a rewarding little nature break. Our transitions were starting to be a little slower than we’d like, but at this point, it seemed to be prudent to make sure we were all comfortable before the next leg of the race. Steeve’s sciatica was causing him some pain, so we wanted to make sure he had a chance to get food and such.

The volunteers were great. There were a number of military folks working the logistics. As soon as bins were finished with, they were loaded back onto military transports to go to the next transition area. They were also there to take the bikes right off our hands, and pop them onto trucks. We weren’t sad to see them go, but knew there was more biking ahead. After stuffing some food into us, we decided to set out on the 1+km hump down the road with our boats before putting in. As a team of four people, we had two different boats, one fiberglass, and one Kevlar. The difference was probably around ten pounds. This made the Kevlar boat relatively easy to portage, but we weren’t all that skilled with the fiberglass boat (we only found out towards the end that we could portage it the ‘proper’ way).

At about this time, it became clear to us that we should have practiced portaging a bit more, since it was quite awkward to us. Steeve and Carl were in the Kevlar boat, with Anne-Marie and I in the fiberglass boat. Carl was portaging their boat, and Anne-Marie and I generally did a 2-person carry. This was fine on road, but was a bit tricky through the woods. Regardless, we hit the water, and started paddling. Similar to last year, the night paddles were fantastic. The light of the moon guided our way. The pain about the first paddle, which would take us several hours, was that we were paddling against the current, meaning that our forward progress was quite slow. I don’t mind paddling at all, but it really annoys me when you watch the same damn light on the shore for 20 minutes. All in all, the team was pretty capable on the water. Not speed demons, but quite steady. The route was pretty simple, with no checkpoints and only a couple and only a couple portages to worry about.

The only tricky spots came once the morning light was on us, at places where the current was far too quick to paddle against, so we had to portage. We’d been given a special map to use for this spot, to show us where the portages were. The first portage was quite short, but the second one was through the old canal (or so I read somewhere). There was some tricky footing here, and we started thinking that we’d end up paying for some damages to the boats! At the end of these portages, we got into the wide open waters of the mighty Ottawa river. This marked the beginning of the canoe orienteering section, a first for me in a race. This consisted of using a navigational chart showing all the local islands in the river. In this area, there were probably about a hundred such islands.

The task was to visit four such islands in any order you’d like, and pick up the checkpoints. Finally, something I was waiting for, some real navigation / orienteering! Although in the old days I would be hesitant about such things, I’ve gotten much better at this part of races, so I actually look forward to having the opportunity to try and find hidden checkpoints. I took a bearing early in the strait, and we bee-lined directly for the first island checkpoint. There was another team ahead of us in the distance, but they seemed to head quite a bit further south than I wanted to. I opted to stick to my bearing, and was glad to see them veer back to pick up the first island. Apparently, they thought it was more sheltered in that direction.

This section went very smoothly for us. We nailed all the islands in the order I wanted to hit them in, and made pretty good time. Anne-Marie and I would take the bearings, and head straight to the islands, with Steeve and Carl following suit. As we’d pick off the checkpoints, we’d yell back to them what direction to turn next, so that they wouldn’t have to paddle all the way back to each island, but just keep steadily making progress. Getting to the end of this paddle felt like about the halfway point of the race. Once the canoes were beached, we just had a nice little run / walk back to the headquarters. At this point, it became abundantly clear to me that Steeve was definitely hurting. He could barely walk with us. I had taken all his weight again, but he just couldn’t keep up. Not only that, but he was popping Ibuprofen at a rate I didn’t think was very safe. He wanted more, but I told him he had to get to the transition before I’d let him have his bag again, where he had his ‘drugs’. He wasn’t happy about that, but it’s not like he could catch me if he tried to. Ha ha.

Upon arrival at the transition, we again saw some other teams still getting geared up, but we were still at the back of the pack for sure. This didn’t really matter to us though. The other funny thing was that at this point in the race, we were arriving at the headquarters to see the teams racing in the 24 hour event arrive and get checked in. I even stopped to chat with some of them while the team sorted through gear for the next leg. I even managed to find a Doctor to chat with Steeve. Geoff Outerbridge, one of the fine Docs at the Holistic clinic was racing in the 24 hour race, and was able to try and help Steeve with his injury. As we stood in the transition, it was remarked that we were the first team to have an ART (active release therapy) session during transition. It was meant to put Steeve at a little more ease so that we could push on.

The next leg was another nice bike leg, supposed to be about 55km. The terrain was mainly going to be gravel back-roads, with a bit of orienteering thrown in. The orienteering was simply finding a checkpoint using whatever trails and/or roads you wanted to. We started on the wrong side of the highway, and had to double back about a kilometer and a half. Not a big loss of time, but pretty annoying. It was a case of not paying close enough attention to the instructions and maps at the same time. This would come back to haunt us. We made our way to the remote unmanned checkpoint quite easily, only having to stop once so that Carl could fix a flat tire. He did that quite quickly, which was a good thing, considering the bugs out in the woods!

After the checkpoint, it looked like a pretty easy route to get to the next checkpoint, but by this point, it looked like we might have some time cut-off issues. We were supposed to make the next transition by 4pm, or we’d be short-coursed, forced to take a shortened paddle section. By this point in the race, we weren’t going to cry over having to paddle 7km less. However, we were also (okay, I) was about to make a critical mistake. We came to an intersection on the base, and we hesitated for a moment. There was a road heading off to the right which looked like a side road. The main road continued straight, and seemed to curve to the left. When Carl asked me which we should take, I assumed we were to take the left road, as it would follow the base perimeter, which is what we wanted, until the gate to Algonquin Park. I had not plotted another key point on the map, and this was our undoing. It wasn’t plotted because there was an issue with the horizontal map lines. The numbering on the left and right sides of the map were different, and on that point, I thought there was a mistake, so I didn’t plot the point. Had I realized the mistake, I would have noticed that the park gate should have been within a kilometer of the intersection, rather than the 9 or so km I was assuming.

Can you guess where my story goes from here? Well, the road we took was in fact the wrong one. This road was actually going into the base, not around it. What I also hadn’t noticed on the maps was an orange-colored road, as the base was shown in pink. This made it hard to see the road at a glance. So while the road headed the right direction, and the features were similar, we were actually on a parallel road to the one we wanted, with no way to get to the other one. Unfortunately, that meant we added on a 10km piece to our biking (20km when you have to fully backtrack). I didn’t realize this mistake until we’d climbed and descended many hills, and kept curving left. At one point, about a kilometer further than where I expected an intersection, I decided to take a bearing. We were headed due east. That was bad, as we were supposed to be going south, then curve westwards. Oh crap! Carl and I consulted the maps, and pretty quickly figured out exactly where we had gone wrong. But as mentioned, there was no recourse other than back-tracking.

Unfortunately, Steeve was pretty beat, and Carl was also having a low point, as we had been doing some towing on the bikes to try and keep up some speed. I felt okay, but was feeling the early effects of dehydration, so had to take it a bit easy on the muscles. Anne-Marie on the other hand was looking strong! That girl can push on I tells ya! With grim hearts, we set about retracing our steps. We had almost gotten back to the intersection when a volunteer in an SUV came to us to make sure we knew we were off course. We assured him we knew exactly what had happened, and that we were back on track. As the time cut-off had passed, he now instructed us to head to an alternative check-point, which you’ll see on the GPS print outs. This took us a little further into the next paddle, in order to stay out of Algonquin Park after dusk. The kind man also gave us bottles of water to replenish our liquids, which was a god-send, as we were pretty much bone-dry.

Once back on track, we got to the next checkpoint with no difficulty, except for the massive hill to get there!! Anne-Marie and I decided to give it one last push, and pedal up this seemingly endless hill. This gave us a little extra rest at the top, as Steeve and Carl were helping each other get to the top a bit further back. At this transition, we decided to take a good little rest, as we’d now been racing for over 26 hours, and awake for over 34 hours. I thought about taking a 15 minute cat-nap, but just couldn’t do it. I think Steeve and Carl managed to get a couple quick minutes of rest, which was a good thing. I didn’t want to stay too long though, as night was approaching again, and we were heading to the water for more paddling. We also had to find a portage to get around some rapids, and I wanted to hit them in daylight. So, I tried to get us hustled out as quick as possible, but it still took us over an hour I think, in our tired state, to get all the gear sorted.

This was to be the last leg of the race, and was estimated to last between 13 and 16 hours. Not only that, but we were going to need paddling gear, climbing gear, trekking gear, and inline gear for this section. We wouldn’t see out bins again until the finish line. That meant a lot of food, water, and weight to carry with us to the finish. We finally started the trek to the water, which was all the way back down the massive hill we had just scaled. It took longer than I’d hoped to hike there, then had to get the canoes prepped again. By the time we finally hit the water, it was around 8:30pm. Uh-oh, it would be dicey. We were also quite slow paddling, due to our exhaustion. By the time we got to the area of the portage, it was already starting to get dark.

So what happened next? Well, you guessed it, we missed the portage. We tried navigating a little ways into the swift water, as I thought the portage would be a little further. Well, that and the fact that some fishermen said it was a bit further. I quickly figured out that wasn’t the case. But not soon enough. Steeve and Carl were following behind, and I tried to tell them to turn and head back upstream. As they started turning, the boat got caught in a bit of current, and it dumped their boat. Crap! To help our boat get around, I decided to jump out and pull the boat along the shore, but I slipped, and next thing I knew I was fully submersed. So we were three drenched racers, one swamped boat full of gear, and darkness descending all around us. Not good.

To spare you the agony we were experiencing, we did eventually get the boats back upstream, where I found the cursed portage, marked by a little bit of flagging tape. This was also not a very fun portage, stretching about a km and a half through rugged terrain. We were pooped by the time we put back in. Next stop would be the ropes section, which was going to consist of an ascending station, followed by getting maps for an orienteering course. This was followed by a zip line across the river. From here, there would be an orienteering course (in the pitch black now). Once that was done, we were to rappel back into the water, and swim back across the river to our boats. The idea of doing all this in the middle of the night, soaking wet, no longer appealed to some of our team. On the next bit of paddling, we discussed the issue at length. Unfortunately, the difficult decision we made was that we would be skipping that section.

When we arrived at the ropes section, it looked pretty cool, but I had to scale a cliff to relay the news that we weren’t going to tackle it. At the top, I was informed that we weren’t the only people to skip through. That was pretty relieving news. At least we wouldn’t be the only ones to do a shortened course. I should have guessed as much though. It’s very rare that all the people complete the entire course. This left us with the final paddle and portage section, followed by an inline section to the finish line. Sounds easy, but the final portage was hell to us. It was another long portage, with an unmarked spot to put our boats back in. I’m not sure what to tell you other than the fact that it took us well over an hour to get past the final portage. It was with great happiness that we did though, as it meant all we had left to do was paddle a final kilometer or two, the get out of that damned canoe for good!

Seeing that boat put-out felt awesome. By that point in the race, we really weren’t putting much effort into our paddling. It was more like what we call lilly-dipping. The current was doing most of the work at this point. We pulled out of the water, elated to know we were on the very last section. Day was threatening to break once again as we strapped on our inline skates to finish off the final 9km inline section. Steeve was a big hurtin’ unit, but we urged him on every ‘step’ of the way. You may recall he had broken his skates early in the race, but we managed to borrow a pair from another racer who had already finished. Thank goodness. There was a lot of weight on our shoulders, but we just pressed on.

Crossing the finish line was pretty anti-climactic. It was about 5am in the morning, and although the sky was just beginning to get pink from the morning, we were too exhausted to really appreciate it. We had our picture taken at the finish line, and quickly got busy with the business of going to bed (well, if you can call a 3-hour catnap after 48 hours awake a sleep!). After the sleep, we were greeted by a great sunny day to get our gear sorted and dried out. This is one of the best parts of a long race; being able to sort through your gear before heading home. There is nothing worse than waiting two days to open a race bin. That smell could peel paint off a barn! Since we had the day ahead of us, we laid out all our wet stuff on the ground to start drying, while we headed off to a restaurant for a big breakfast.

And what a big breakfast it was. I ordered a meal with two eggs, bacon, ham, sausages, home fries, and toast. I also ordered a large chocolate milk. As if that wasn’t enough, the wait was taking too long, so I went next doors to McDonald’s for a quick egg McMuffin. Yum! After breakfast, I had a chance to test drive Range Rover LR3, which was the title sponsor of the event. It was an obstacle-type course with big pot-holes, inclines, and ditches to drive through. It was quite a rush, given my sleep-deprived state. It was a good thing the vehicle pretty much drives itself, or there might have been some issues. From there, it was back to the headquarters, to rest and catch up with other teams before the awards ceremony. It was nice to have everything put away and ready to go before the ceremony. That way, before we fell too deeply asleep, we could drive home. After all, I was scheduled to work the next morning around 9am.

The awards ceremony was another of those terribly emotional affairs for me, especially when we picked up the Mark Johnson memorial Award for Courage. It truly was a special moment for me. I made a brief speech at the time, and although I don’t remember all that I said, it apparently got to some people. One of the best moments of the ceremony came after all the awards and the video presentation. The winning team was chatting with me, and said that winning first place wouldn’t mean much next year if they couldn’t also win the Courage award. That was a wonderful sentiment. If I can get a few more teams to work harder at raising funds, we’ll surely bring in another huge pot of money for a worthy cause!

Oh my. I’ve just noticed how long I’ve been babbling on for. I didn’t mean to take up all your time! As you might imagine, a race like this truly impacts you on many levels, and I always have a lot to say at the conclusion of such an event. If you’ve held in with me this long… thanks! If you’ve got more questions about it, please don’t hesitate to ask, you know how to find me!

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