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!
As you may remember from earlier posts this year, I decided to add a few adventure races to my calendar this year, if for no other reason than for a little variety to my racing. Trail running has taken over most of my pre-occupation, but that isn’t without its drawbacks. So when my buddy Adam asked if I’d like to join his team for what is the pre-eminent race in Eastern Canada, I agreed with no hesitation. I’ve done ‘WT’ as it’s called several times, and it has always been extremely well run and offered a very compelling challenge. It’s also a bit of reunion of sorts, seeing people I haven’t seen in a few years. The community is even smaller than trail running, so people tend to know each other, and this is a great place to catch up!
In past years, I’ve done this race when it was held in the summer, with the race punctuated by heat, humidity, and clouds of unbearable bugs. A few years back the race moved into the fall, greeting racers instead with short days, cold weather, and the risk of hypothermia :-). I generally take vacation in the fall, so missed the last couple years. Loading up a car with all my race gear and heading to Parry Sound on a crisp Friday morning with my buddy James (racing on another team) felt like old times. Deanna would join us later in the evening and volunteer throughout the course of the weekend. Race start would be 9am Saturday morning, with the course officially closing by noon on Sunday. Let’s see just how much sleep I’d get!
Friday afternoon and evening was spent at the race HQ catching up with friends, sorting out gear, and awaiting the arrival of my team-mates before race briefing at 8:30pm. I had lots of time to kill and was itching to go. Once we finally got the maps and instructions, it was the typical pre-race scramble to figure out the best routes between checkpoints, and ask any questions that might come up with the race director. We were staying at Adam’s cottage, which was just over 30 minutes away, so by the time we got back there, it was already after 10pm, and there was still lots to go over and figure out. To spare you the gory details, we didn’t get to bed until well after 1am, with gear sorted, and maps ready. Sadly, we had to get up by around 4:30am to head to the race HQ for breakfast, drop our gear bins with the transport trucks for gear, and load into buses that would drive us to the start at 7am. So, before even starting the event, I’d only gotten about 3 hours of fitful sleep! Not exactly the best way to start a 24 hour race, but pretty much par for the course in mid-to-long AR events!
The race had revealed itself to consist of the following sequence of legs: Running/Trekking Start, followed by long mountain bike, followed by long overnight paddle, then onto a trick long night bushwhack, and capped off by a mad bike sprint leg to the finish. We felt relatively good about the first couple legs, but were curious how the paddle would shape up. We were a 3-person team, and I’d never met the 3rd fellow before (Jason), so you never know how personalities will mesh in an event like this. I knew my strengths and weaknesses, but he didn’t, so might not pick up on when I might be struggling. AR is a team sport, with teams made or broken by how they take care of each other. Luckily, I’d raced with Adam several times, and implicitly trusted both his navigation (he’s usually spot on!) and his temperament.
OPENING TREK / RUN (~16km, 3h 4mins)
Right from the get-go, our team opted for a different route than almost all teams. We conserved some energy on the opening road ‘sprint’, probably sitting mid pack. We watched everyone peel off a side road, while we forged ahead to find a trail-head we’d agreed to use the night before. We were searching for a faint back-country ski trail, hoping it would be decently marked. Once we actually found it, it was a solid choice, and we found ourselves making great pace for a trekking section. At one point, Adam mused we should be first to the CP. Not so fast tiger. As we approached the area, other teams started materializing. I think we were ultimately 7th or 9th there. Good, but not great. Turns out the navigation on the ‘other’ route wasn’t as bad as we’d hoped for the other teams.
Regardless, to get to that first CP we had out first plunge of the day. Yup. A river crossing wide and deep enough that you had to swim. So much for being mostly dry and warm! This was very early in Leg 1. Luckily, the swim was short, and the sun shining. We didn’t hesitate for a moment to dive in. Bag contents were well protected in dry bags! We stayed on course and followed our plan to a T for the rest of this leg. Later in the leg, after grabbing CP2, it was back into the water. While there WAS an option to bushwhack, our team, and many others, opted for a triple swim instead. One of these was about a 400-500m crossing, which sapped a lot of energy and warmth from us. With my near invisible fat layer, I got a chill emerging from the water. Luckily, Jason’s rain jacket was in easy reach, so after the 3rd and final crossing, I put it on as a cape as we jogged off to CP3. It helped a ton, and I recovered pretty quickly. More importantly, we’d passed some really strong teams on our way!
After grabbing the third CP with no trouble, the trail to the first transition (once found) was a real treat. It was basically a single track trail running type trail. Again, with little effort, we moved at a good clip, and passed another team. I believe we were around the 5th team to arrive at the first transition. I chose to do a complete outfit change for the upcoming bike. With 60km of rough trails ahead, I wanted to be dry and warm. The full change cost us a bit of time, but I know my limits, and knew this was the right call. Not sure what position we left in, but probably 7th or so again.
BIKING LEG (~60km, 6hr 17mins)
Biking legs in this sort of race, and specifically in the Ontario area, always seem to feature two things prominently. Power line cuts and ATV trails. They are the only logical way to link wilderness areas, so they feature a lot. ATV trails are hit and miss, with many of them being a miss due to deep ruts. And power line cuts, pretty much the same thing. Almost the entire 60km followed these two major features, with only a couple short road stretches to break up the hard work. We started things out with a pretty solid pace, with the three of us fairly evenly matched. Jason seemed to perhaps be in his element the most here, moving strongly. Adam was solid as always, but also had to pay attention to the maps and navigation cues. We made no mistakes as we progressed, which is always good for morale.
What wasn’t good for morale were the conditions of the ‘trail’. The key phrase here would be ‘mud pits’ and for me ‘chain suck’. With recent rains, there was an overabundance of lake-sized puddles to navigate. I usually let Jason lead out and scout the bigger ones. If one side was too deep, I’d try the other side. In the end, it was always a lottery, and we all took our turns at bailing when we made the wrong call. So we were definitely wet and muddy, but at least the weather wasn’t too bad… yet. It was overcast but not as cold as earlier predictions. However, the mud caused me no end of grief with my chain getting sucked into my frame. Eventually I HAD to force a stop to try and clean and lube the chain, as on every uphill, I’d get chain suck and have to hop off and run the bike up. Maddening!!
About a 1/3rd of the way through the bike, we had to do a mandatory ferry crossing. We’d passed a number of teams to this point, and arrived in good time, being told we were the 5th team to arrive. Unfortunately, we had to wait for the ferry, as it had left with the 2 previous teams. Oh well, good time to throw some calories into us and add more lube to the chains. The ferry was a short, but welcome reprieve from the mud onslaught, but soon we were back grinding away on terrible ATV / Powerline trails. The weather also went south on us, unleashing torrents of rain making a wet course even wetter. Chain suck continued to plague me, wearing on my psyche. Adam also seemed to be flagging a bit, with Jason and I eventually slowing our pace a bit to make sure we weren’t pulling too far ahead.
When we finally pulled into the next transition (paddle transition), we were soaked, slightly chilled, and definitely a little low on energy. Thank goodness for great transition volunteers with hot soup on offer for us! Once again, I went all-in on a full clothing change. I knew we were heading into the night, and that paddling can get VERY cold. I had on lots of layers and waterproof gear, hoping I’d be good. I was toasty at the start, but let’s see how that would last. I could see that Jason wasn’t a fan of the extra few minutes I was taking on ‘costume changes’, and tried explaining I knew what was best for me, and that it would save us down the line. Apparently last year they’d had problems with a teammate that went very cold during the race, so I hoped he’d appreciate the fact that we’d avoid that fate by my changing into dry clothes!
THE PADDLE (~37km, 7hrs 12mins)
One good AND bad aspect of the paddle is that we were doing it as a 3-person team. Good in that there is no risk of a ‘slower’ and a ‘faster’ boat, which you run into with a 4-person team. Bad in that it means the boat is more loaded down, and someone is stuck in the middle, making paddling a bit challenging. With Adam clocking in at over 200lbs and quite tall, and Jason nearing 180lbs and taller than me, guess who was the 122lb middle man? Yup, me of course! Thankfully, a few days prior to the race I’d fashioned a serviceable canoe seat that was easily removable during portages. Oh yeah, portages! Everyone’s favourite, right? Again, in an Ontario race, it is normal. For this race, as part of the 37k paddle, we had nearly 5km of portages spread over 13-15 different [unmarked] portages. Although on the maps, the paddles always look relatively easy, try doing it in pitch black with a cloudy sky! Not so easy. Lucky for us, we got underway still in daylight, and managed to get through the first few portages being able to find them. As they were all unmarked, we didn’t have the normal signs to show where to take out, so it was a bit of guesswork on Adam’s part as the navigator. In those first few sections, we also played around with a few configurations to figure out weight and balance, with Adam and Jason swapping spots, and me trying either in front or behind the middle yoke. Ultimately, the best was Jason, then me right behind him up front, and Adam at the back with more room for the bags and ability to navigate with the maps.
Once we had our positions dialed in, we were all quite pleasantly surprised by our pace. Far from what I’d call a ‘strong’ paddling team, we nonetheless managed to hold, if not better, our position relative to other teams around us. Once darkness fell, we probably did even better thanks to solid route-finding. The general drill was that as we pulled out for portages, I’d grab my pack, 3 paddles, and the seat, Jason would grab his and Adams pack and the bailer, and Adam would portage the boat. As the tallest, he had the easiest time. Jason did a few turns as well, and I did not. It just made no sense to even try. I’ll add that the portages themselves were also no picnic, as they were generally rough and overgrown. Add to the fact that we had to go around rapids and waterfalls as well, and things stayed pretty interesting. Rather than paddling for hours on end, we were constantly getting up and out of the boat. Good to prevent cramping, but with every stop, we’d start the portages getting increasingly cold. By the last one, I could tell I was nearing hypothermia conditions. I’d try jumping jacks and running back and forth along the trail to hold it off.
The other funny part was that even though we weren’t eating or drinking much, both Adam and I seemed to be bottomless piss fountains. At every portage, it seemed we had to pee by the far end! I guess it means we were hydrated, but geez… Volunteers all along the way were great, with almost all checkpoints manned, and with a fire. We dared not stop at the fires, but it was nice of them to check on all racers and have that available for those who might need it. I will say that by the far end of this paddle, I was more than ready to be done, since I knew staying warm would be easier during a trek (provided we didn’t have to swim!). As you trek, it’s MUCH easier to eat, and eating builds up heat, so I was stoked to finally get out. Oh, and do I need to mention that once again, I did an almost complete outfit change??!? I was soaked from the boat, and again, knew I should change. This led to a little tension with Jason, who was cold himself, but had nothing much to layer on and wanted to move on.
Sadly, this was also where I had a slight mental lapse losing a few minutes. I was the holder of our ‘dibbler’, the little finger device we use to check into all the CPs and in and out of transitions. I had placed it on my gloves right by the bin, knowing I’d put it over the glove. However, when we were finally ready to head out, I couldn’t find it!! I (and others) searched frantically, dumping gear bin contents, etc. I searched a ditch where I’d dropped a snack, all to no avail. Finally, on a second pass of a pack pocket, I found the red dibbler nestled amongst red mini Crispy Crunch bars! Several expletives and apologies later, we finally trudged out onto the course.
THE BUSHWHACK (~13km, 5hrs 2mins)
Every race has what we’d call a ‘crux’ leg. This is the one where teams have major challenges with navigation or conditions, or a mix of both. Although the bike leg was a close contender on this race due to conditions, from the outset, most identified this trekking leg as the crux. We were banking on it. Our hope was with solid navigation, we’d better our position during this final leg. We’d had a solid race to date. Unfortunately, we had a few teams close to us, but were an hour or so behind the lead teams. So the pressure was there. Moving up would be hard, but losing places would be exceptionally easy. With a sense of optimism, we set off. This was a section where we were still in the depth of night, with relatively featureless terrain to traverse, and plenty of swamps, and surprisingly, little cliffs to go up and down. Often, you might have features like roads or rivers you can rely on as waypoints between the objectives, but in this case, it was only swamps and bogs, which at night there is no way to see the size of or be able to identify on a topo map. As such, all the trekking here was by dead reckoning. We’d set a bearing, and gradually make our way through the terrain, counting on being close enough.
As Adam stated at one point when we emerged very close to a CP (somewhat surprisingly to him it seemed): “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good”. The going was very slow, and we were definitely at the high end of our time estimates. We could only hope that everyone else was as well. There was one team in particular we were worried about. We had traded spots with them throughout the race since the beginning of the paddle leg, and we knew they wanted to beat us. As we nabbed the final CP on the trek, we felt pretty good, and hoped we’d built a buffer. No sooner did we start along the now clear trail to the transition did we come across them!! We now knew EXACTLY where they were, and the gap that existed. Timing was bad, as it was a quick 2km jog to transition followed by an ‘easy’ 13km bike to the finish. Nowhere to rely on navigation. As a result, we were now forced to push hard and fast, and communicate exactly what we needed to do.
We arrived at the transition and I immediately felt guilty. Deanna was the captain there, but I had literally no time to even acknowledge her. Instead we scrambled to get bike gear on to head out. Note that I did NOT change this time. Just helmet on and shoes on. There’d be time to dry out at the finish! There was a fair little crowd gathered, and we learned we were sitting in 4th overall, but that the next closest team in front was 45 minutes ahead. In other words, they’d finished by now, so we could only lower in the rankings at this point. The mission was clear. Hammer time!!!
THE FINAL BIKE (~12km, 39mins)
Lights on, maps at the ready, and mounting the bikes on the road, it was time to go. Oddly, my front suspension seemed quite squishy. Not ideal for a ‘road’ biking section. OH SHIT!! I had zero PSI in my front tire! Completely flat!! To make matters worse, as I realized that, the next team arrived in transition! We didn’t waste a second looking their way. Instead focusing on finding a CO2 cartridge or a good pump. A volunteer even ran to their car looking for a foot pump. However, by the time he returned, Jason and Adam had managed to get a full cartridge into my sad tire to return some pressure to it. It wasn’t full, but it would have to do. Although I had worried my legs might be too cooked to race hard, I vowed to dig deep and ensure we held out position.
We veritably FLEW down the road. We set up a pace line with Jason, then me, then Adam. We had pretty much memorized where we’d need to turn, so we could focus on the hammerfest. I was so determined to prove I had the drive left in me, I took several long pulls at the front keeping our pace up. I may not always be the most competitive, but I will NEVER allow myself to be pipped at the finish in another race if I can help it (inside joke…). At one point the lads were remarking there is no way they would catch us now. All I could think of was another flat or a missed turn, and I urged us to not let up until we crossed the line. We did so at full speed, with me slipping the dibbler in the time box at the finish to mark our finish. We expected the other to arrive any second. In the end, it was a full 6 minutes before they arrived. They’d done their level best, but couldn’t’ catch us. We also learned they’d forgotten a pack at the TA, which incurred a stiff 4 hour penalty, so their hard-fought 5th ended being 9th I believe. I felt a little bad for them, but that’s what happens in a sleep deprived state when the pressure mounts. Mistakes are made!
For our part, we finished just over 22 hours, with the overall victory for the male category, and a 4th place overall. Strategically, I’d say we’d run a very good race. There’s always a few spots in retrospect you could have done something ‘better’, but AR is an imperfect pursuit. Anything can, and does, happen. We’d had relatively few errors, and it showed in our finish. With a bit more fitness on our collective part, we might have been in the fray with the next top couple teams. However, I’m very happy with our finish, and was a happy finish for my return to overnight AR. Here’s hoping that I can keep doing these events for years to come, probably in a more ‘recreative’ fashion, but in the end, the competitive juices always seem to come out, no matter where I sit in a race.
So ends my tale from Wilderness Traverse. My last big adventure race of the season, and a good way to end things! I’ve got one more 50k trail race on the calendar this year, then it’s off for a trekking trip before going under the knife (hopefully) before Christmas! Stay tuned for more exciting stories, and make sure you get out there and enjoy the world around you!
Even though I didn’t make my own video of the event, my buddy Brad from Get Out There Magazine was also in the race, and put together an awesome 10 minute mini-doc of the event. Check it out below for some sweet footage of the race and a good overview of the entire thing. His team wasn’t too far from us during most of the race, although I only make a couple short appearances starting around the 8:43 mark, including footage of Adam re-inflating my flat front tire!!