Glancing Nervously Behind at the FAC Fall Classic

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Finish Line Photo

Welcome back friends! What an exciting tale I have to share with you this time. In this blog post, I’ll be taking you step by step through my experience at this years Frontier Adventure Challenge Fall Classic, a 12-hour adventure race which took place in the Muskokas. To be more specific, it took place near Rosseau, at the Muskoka Woods camp. This race was the last race I had on the schedule for what I’ll call my ‘summer season’. After this one, the plan is to basically take the next month to month and a half pretty easy. Recover and do some light training before gearing up for the winter race season. Because of that, I was heading into this race with pretty high hopes, even though I’ve been going pretty hard over the last month. My chances were improved by the fact that I was teaming up again with my new friends on Adrenaline Rush; Adam Mallory and Mark Honsberger. Read on for the full story. As per usual, don’t forget to check out some pictures that I snapped, as well as the race video I shot for Get Out There magazine.

As I’m sure most of you are aware, I’ve taken part in this race for many years now. It’s a great event to wrap up the race season with, allowing me one last chance to push hard before turning the race thing off and tuning out for a bit. In years past, I’ve often taken newcomers to the sport along to this event, to expose new people to the great sport of adventure racing. However, this time, I was given a chance to once again race with Adrenaline Rush, whom I recently raced with at the 30-hr Wilderness Traverse. They’re usual teammate was still not fully recovered from previous events of the summer, so they reached out to me again. I jumped at the chance, as I knew that we’d be strong contenders. Last year, they finished second in the all-male category, 40 mins behind the 1st place male team. We were all pretty keen to do well, and based on our solid chemistry at WT, knew we had a chance to do something special.

In the days leading up to the race, I really didn’t think much about it, or stress about it at all. Work kept me pretty busy, and in the evenings, I’d putter around doing stuff around the house, and didn’t even really think about packing up till the night before heading off. My plan was to leave work as early as I could on Friday, as it would be a 5+ hour drive to the race site, and we had to register, as well as prepare all our maps and gear before heading to bed. Race start was 6am Saturday morning. On the drive up, the rain started coming down pretty well, and I was worried it would be a sign of the race we had in store. We already been warned this could be a pretty soggy race, so extra rain had me on edge before even starting.

Upon arrival, I shot some footage for the video, including a little interview with Geoff, the race director. As part of our chat, I learned a couple things about the course. Firstly, the overall distance of this course was actually SHORTER than the 8 hour race he’d put on earlier in the year! That only further raised my anxiety about what the course held in store. However, it wasn’t until we got the maps at 8:30pm that I’d see the actual terrain. On paper, it really looked pretty reasonable. The overall course was to be a big loop. The initial paddle took us from the start to a remote CP, and back to the only transition area of the race. From there, we’d hop on our bikes, and have to take all our trekking gear with us. At the far end of the bike loop, we’d stash the bikes, and complete an orienteering loop. Once that was wrapped up, hop back on the bikes, and complete the loop which would take us to the finish line.

The paddle looked like it would take around 2 to 2.5 hours, which led us to the obvious conclusion that we may need to take enough food and liquids at the transition zone to last us up to 10 hours of slogging through the woods. That was the tricky bit. Also, we were warned about a few sections of the bike which would be, shall we say, wet. In fact, there was even a warning that if it was too dodgy in our minds, to backtrack and take a road at one spot, and that we wouldn’t be penalized. This was an area that would need a ‘bike portage’. Very ominous indeed. Instead of worrying about it too much, we just plotted the maps as best we could, then headed back to the cabin to finish getting gear ready and trying to get a decent bit of rest before the race start.

Once we got up the next morning (at 4:45am!), we had to start the day by driving our bikes to the transition zone and leaving them, along with our gear, there for us to pick up during the race. Due to a bit of confusion, race start was pushed back to 6:15am. That didn’t make any big difference though, as it was still completely pitch black when all the teams were finally in the boats in the water ready for the starting gun. It was a cool site to see all the boats in the water with all the bobbing headlamps.

In our canoe, Mark was in the front, I was in the middle (sitting on a paint bucket), and Adam was manning the stern, doing both the navigation and the steering of the boat. we lined ourselves up at the front of the field of competitors, to give us the best chance at staying at the front. When Geoff gave the starting signal, team immediately went for broke. The initial pace was frenzied, with teams all vying for good spots by sprinting right out of the gate. Our cadence was super high, and our balance was a little off, causing us to roll pretty hard both left and right. After the first 10 or 15 minutes, the pace dropped just a little bit, and we found a pretty smooth rhythm. We were not at the complete front, but we were definitely well positioned, and not falling too far off the leaders. We made a slight navigational error which probably cost us 3 or so minutes before getting to CP1 at the far end of a bay. As it was an out and back paddle section, we had a good sense of our gaps, as the 2 lead kayaks, piloted by Ben and Nathalie, passed us by on our way. After that, another canoe, and another solo kayak passed us before we grabbed CP1 to the many camera flashes of photographer extraordinaire Bill Young snapping pics.

After grabbing that CP quickly, we spun around and started paddling back towards the other end of the lake again, trying to make up some time on our leaders. It was now starting to be more light out, and we could clearly make out more features, making it easier to navigate along the water. Unfortunately, it was also light enough to notice that we had a couple shadows, in the form of two canoes following and catching up to us. One of them turned out to be Leanne Mueller and Harper Forbes’ team Running Free, another strong contender. The other team was X3, an all-male team we’d have to watch for. It was clear we’d dropped our pace a little bit, but we couldn’t seem to get any faster. We counted on some good portaging coming up.

Sure enough, upon popping out of the lake, we had a solid portage system set up. Mark and Adam shouldered the boat quickly and jogged up the trail while I grabbed the seat and all the paddles and trotted after them. The end of the paddle leg involved a portage up to a river, then a river paddle / walk to the far end for the put-out, where we once again had to undertake a portage. This one was a bit trickier, with a scramble up big, wet rocks to get up to the road and ultimately the transition zone. For this one, Adam did the heavy work by grabbing the boat on his own. He was a machine on the rocks. Others were apparently not so lucky, judging by some stories. We jogged up to the transition, eager to get on the bikes and tear it up on the way to the orienteering leg, which we’d hoped would be our chance to get ahead, counting on Adam’s strong navigation skills. We ended up arriving at the transition in 5th place, behind 2 solos and only 2 teams.

We didn’t have the absolute fastest transition, but our 8 minute time in and out was well spent I think. we put on dry shirts and other clothes, grabbed food, and geared up with all we’d need for a possibly long day. It looks like other teams cut this time to as low as 5 minutes, but overall, I’d say we were pretty quick getting back out and on the road. The first bike section was pretty straightforward, involving a good hard bike along gravel roads until we got further from ‘civilization’. We’d taken a little bit of doubletrack, but nothing major. During our push, we managed to pass one of the solo racers, so we were now sitting in 4th. At CP5, the course finally veered off into something more challenging. This was actually the ‘advanced section’. This section had us riding a recently-smoothed-over ATV trail. Apparently, as recently as a week ago, this would have been much more difficult and involved a lot of bike-whacking (carrying bikes). However, due to ATV traffic, the majority of the trail was quite rideable (albeit a little slow). In retrospect, most teams commented that doing the advanced section was actually easier than doing the standard section, which involved more bike carries. How ironic.

The good news is that we had no issues at all on this part of the track, and pulled into CP6, which was the bike drop, in a solid 4th place. 5th place, a solo, arrived right with us. At this point, the time gap between us and the 1st place team was 10 minutes! Time to work hard. We quickly put on our trekking shoes, dropped helmets, and hit the bush. This was our chance to forge ahead. A good orienteering leg can shuffle up race results quite easily. It wasn’t long before we spotted both the teams ahead of us, Running Free and Raid Pulse. All of us were headed to CP7, the first point. The description was ‘point of high elevation in a clearing’. Not a very descriptive location, and not a lot of features to work with. We opted to do a straight bearing, and fan out a little left and right to keep our eyes open. We also sort of joined up with Adrian (solo), and basically vectored right in on the CP. We were the first two teams to punch it. Sah-weet. Without much noise, we ran off to get to the next point, so that others wouldn’t see us near the CP. At CP8, we caught site of Raid Pulse…behind us! Double sweet. By the time we headed to CP9, they were right alongside us, and we crashed along through the woods hoping the other would make a mistake. We all converged on CP9 basically at the same time.

However, that’s where we made a critical decision that paid off for us. There was an ATV trail near where we’d been. It didn’t strictly stick to the direction we were supposed to go, but we stuck to it and ran, hearing Raid Pulse in the woods next to us at the start. It led us straight to CP10, which we picked off quickly, and followed another ATV trail to take us towards the final CP in the trek, CP11, which was placed in a really large swampy area. We spotted it probably 800m or more away, and just crashed our way through the swamp to nab it. Once again, we bushwhacked a short bit, and grabbed another ATV trail which we guessed would take us straight back to our bikes. And guess what? It did! We were the first team out of the trekking section (tied with Adrian, who’d stuck with us), taking 1hr and 6minutes to clear the 5 CPs. The next fastest times were 1:24, so we had 8 minutes on the next team when we hopped back on the bikes. We knew this wasn’t a big lead and that we’d have to push hard to stay ahead, especially given Raid Pulse’s strength on the bikes. We dug deep and pushed hard. Adrian had already gotten a bit ahead of us, but we seemed to be keeping up a good pace. Until….

SNAP!! Adam was in front, me in the middle, Mark in the back. I heard very loud, angry cursing from behind me. Very uncharacteristic for Mark, a generally super-happy camper. The issue? On a little rise, he cranked hard and snapped his chain. For some less experienced teams, that would all but stop their momentum. However, I had both a chain tool and 2 gold links in my tool pouch, so we quickly re-grouped and fixed the chain. I think we were a little slower than we could have been, but all told, probably lost only 4-5 minutes. Ironically, based on the course, teams were now coming back from the other direction and passing us. These were teams that had taken the ‘standard course’. Several asked if we were okay, and we waved them on and wished them the best. We had a race to get back to! So far, no Raid Pulse, but we knew they’d be breathing down our cranks any moment now. That moment finally came on a gravel road, when we were just about to embark on the last technical biking section with 2 CPs AND the ‘bike portage’. It was most definitely ‘game on’ now!

For the majority of this section, we kept trading leads with Raid Pulse. Adrian was still somewhere ahead of us, but neither team cared. Every time we thought we’d lost the lead, we’d round a bend and there they’d be! A couple times they had to stop for a few seconds, and we’d do our best to race ahead of them. We jostled, joked, and talked as we pushed ourselves to the limit. At CP13, we were all together. Ditto for CP14. This was where the bike portage started. There was no doubt what had to be done. We crashed right into that swamp. It was insane. We had to carry our heavy bikes over our heads, since some steps would sink us to our necks. My height was definitely an issue. Mark and Adam were ahead (I’d paused to shoot a little video) and got our first. Adam waded 20m back in to grab my bike for me. I woulda made it, but it probably shaved 10-15 seconds off the crossing for me. Raid Pulse had also just finished, and we again found ourselves close. Pedal pedal pedal. No time to even think about route choices. Towards the end, we both opted for a trail that had an orange snow fence on the ground by it. This SHOULD take us to a road. We popped out by a house and were promptly greeted by 2 GIGANTIC and 1 Large dogs! They expressed their displeasure at our being on their land, and gave chase. No time for dog treats though.

We soon found ourselves back on the pavement, knowing we were not far from the end. The remainder would be on road and a well-worn gravel section. We formed our paceline and just hammered. To lighten the load, we were all dumping the remainder of the contents from our water bottles. We were keeping an eye out for CP15, on a gate, which marked approximately the 2k mark to the finish. Up the road, we spotted the team, and it seemed one person was dropping back. Unfortunately for us, that one person was actually Adrian, the solo. We caught up to him right after grabbing CP15, and passed him (barely), but couldn’t catch the other team. We put in a final effort, but when we finally passed through a tunnel, we saw them at the finish line. One final push, and we joined them to celebrate. Adrian was right with us, but didn’t try any last second pass at the finish. The dust settled, and we realized it was done! We’d fought, and ended up 2nd overall behind a formidable opponent, by about 30 seconds! Our 3 teams reveled in the sun, and were even treated to 2 bottles of champagne. One for 1st place male team, one for 1st place solo. It was awesome!

The funny part is that we’d finished the supposed 12 hour race in 5hrs and 45 minutes! Now what would we do? Well, lots of time to clean and sort gear, take long showers, and clean the bikes. Then, head back to the finish to cheer teams in while drinking recovery drinks (aka beer) in water bottles. The rain never did materialize, instead leaving us to enjoy the warm sun on a beautiful fall Muskoka day. We hung out and chatted with all the other teams, comparing races, etc. When the 12 hour mark finally hit, we headed to the dining hall for an amazing meal of chicken, prime rib, yorkshire puddings, potatoes, salads, etc. Pretty great meal considering the venue was a summer camp! There was also the awards ceremony and stories to be shared with other teams. Later on in the night, a group of us also headed to a nearby bar to enjoy a few more drinks and hang out with the race staff. Upon return, there was yet more drinks, and some late night wandering around the camp to the high ropes area and the waterfront. I was in bed by shortly after midnight, but it had been a very full day!

The whole race was another great experience, and thanks to the simple logistics and fine weather, the entire thing went off without a hitch, much to Geoff’s pleasure I’m sure. My team-mates were once again incredible, and I’m looking forward to tackling another race with them down the line. After all, now that I have the sticker on my bike, I’d say that I’m at least on hot standby to race with them. So ends another race story, and now, it’s time to get fat and relax for the next little while. That’s it for me till the snowshoe races start. So between now and then, my stories will likely take a more pedestrian pace 🙂

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