[Not so Triumphant] Return to Overnight Racing!

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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!

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