Off the top, no, the power napper was not me. However, this was going to be absolutely necessary to ensure finishing the race as a TEAM. That, my dear friends, is what adventure racing is all about. Doing the right things at the right times as a TEAM in order to get to the finish line. Of course, I’m reporting to you all on the 2012 Wilderness Traverse Race. This is the 3rd time the race takes place, and the 3rd time I participate. Also, for the third year running, I ended up racing with a completely different team. I figure as long as I keep racing with new people, I’ll eventually get ‘called up to the majors’, right? Every race more than 24 hours is a unique challenge. This one would prove so more from a mental standpoint than a physical one, but more on that later. This year, I was invited to race on a a variant of Team Spirit, a team that has been around since nearly the dawn of AR! Two of my team-mates (Dave Hitchon and Mike Popik) have reams of experience on the international, expedition-length circuit (think Eco-Challenge, Primal Quest, etc.). The third member was actually the 16-year old son (Will Hitchon) of our captain. I was also covering the event for Get Out There Magazine, and it seemed like it would make a pretty cool video to follow this rookie in his bid to complete his first ‘overnighter’. This was so true, that I ended up making it a 3-part video (See Part I, Part II, and Part III). I also took loads of pictures on course. Now read on for all the gory details!
Wilderness Traverse is designed in the classic mold of a true wilderness adventure race. There are lots of route challenges, tough terrain, remote locations, and the need to be self-sufficient for long stretches of the race. That is probably why those who take part always say they’ll be back, no matter their result in the race. Each year is a new challenge, and is exactly what we’re looking for. I’ve got to admit this is the one race that each year I not only dread, but look forward to the most. I’m always worried I might not be ‘good enough’, but in retrospect love every single minute of suffering. It’s truly good for the soul in my opinion. This year was no different and I have the race organizer and my great team to thank for it. Without further ado, let’s just jump right into the race, shall we?
Pictures from the Race
This year’s course would be split into 6 individual legs, and I’ll go over them one at a time. First up was an opening 25km paddle, followed by 25-30km trek. Rolling on next was the 30-35km moutain bike leg. From here, there was a divergence. Those who made it to a certain point before the time cutoff of 1am switched to another 20-25km trek, followed by another 20-25km bike, capped off with a 6k paddle. On the other side of the coin, teams missing the cutoff were to continue on bikes on a shortened (although no less challenging) course which increased the overall biking leg, and truncated the 2nd trek and bike legs, and once again capped off the race with the same 6km paddle. Teams had up to 30hours to complete the entire event to be officially ranked. Maps were distributed and routes chosen the night before the race. 6am saw us all at a pancake breakfast before boarding buses to get to the remote start. Our team actually had ‘local advantage’ as Dave’s cottage is in the area and had plenty of knowledge of much of the course. So much so that he had ‘guessed’ some of the course and even stashed a ‘care package’ on the assumed course for our consumption later. Did he guess right and did we get the package? Well, read on and find out!
Opening Paddle Section
The opening challenge started with a 2km running start, with all our paddling gear, to awaiting boats. There were some kevlar boats, and other royalex models. The allure of a lighter boat meant people were eager to run fast. To those ends, Mike and I took the lead for our team and stayed a bit ahead of the other two. It was all for naught though, and we ended up with two identical royalex craft. Oh well, no big deal for me, as we had agreed Mike and Dave would hand portaging duties while Will and I carried the gear (and I fulfilled my ‘media’ duties). We took a few minutes of fiddling to get our ‘paddling strap’ set-ups working (these help to brace you as you paddle on long distances). The weather was absolutely perfect and the lake was beautiful. We were already mid-pack, but that was no problem for us at all.
Over the course of the next 25km, we paddled a nice network of lakes, estuaries, swampy bits, and rivers. These were separated by the obligatory portages, both long and short. The shortest being maybe 35m, and the longest being 750m or so. We were also faced later in the paddle with a seemingly endless supply of beaver dams. These required constant getting in and out of the boats just to pull if over the obstacle, hop back in, and paddle off. We got pretty efficient at it. At one point, Mike and I tried a jumping move to clear a dam. Well, my end got over, leaving the boat balancing on the dam as we hear snapping. Luckily, it was branches, not the boat, but we decided that may not be the best approach!
For the entire paddle, there were only 2CPs. For the first one, we actually beat the volunteers, so there was nothing to punch. Instead, we just hit the ‘ok’ button on our Spot tracker (as instructed at the briefing) and carried on. The 2nd CP is where the first problem arose. Mike had the CP punch, and tossed it up to me. I hopped out, punched the CP then clipped the punch to my PFD while running around the next obstacle in order to hop back into the awaiting canoe. No problem, right? Well, much later in the paddle, after countless dams and swampy paddle sections, I realized I had somehow lost the punch, and the attached compass. The compass loss was no big deal, as it was our backup anyway, but the loss of the SI chip meant both a monetary charge, and the fact that we now had no SI!! The team, although gently ribbing me the entire rest of the race, was gracious about the loss, and luckily, at the next CP, which was also a TA, the organization was actually able to issue a replacement SI chip. Talk about a lucky break! We’d finished the opening paddle in 10th or 11th place, and were now set to tackle the first big trek.
First Big Trek
After our paddle, we were roughly 30mins – 1hr ahead of our predicted schedule. Normally, you want to have really quick transitions. However, with a long trek ahead, and not wanting to forget anything or push Will too hard, we had a more relaxed transition. As a result, I changed every bit of clothing except for my shirt, so I was starting totally fresh. What a nice feeling. We set off with high spirits and feeling good. The first few kms were on a gravel road, giving us time to eat lots and jog a bit before heading into the tougher stuff. We were getting along well as a team and feeling good about our placing. Dave was our navigator, and alhtough we asked occasional questions and consulted the map with him a few times, we pretty much completely relied on his decision making, which made it even more relaxing from my perspective for this race.
If I had to rank or typify this trekking leg, I’d say it was a medium challenge. I’ve seen much tougher treks, but it was also no cakewalk. As far as elevation gain / loss, it definitely wasn’t all that difficult. It was rolling, but not mountainous by any stretch. Also, much of the woods were fairly easy to push through. There were only a few really gnarly alder-choked bits, and they were blessedly short. Dave had purposely chosen a route to the first CP which caught more ‘obvious’ features, making it easier than a straight bushwhack over really swampy areas. However, don’t get me wrong. There were still plenty of swamps, bogs, lakes, and rivers to cross. We’d been told to expect getting wet, as at a minimum there was a 100m mandatory river crossing.
One particularly nasty crossing involved ‘swimming’ through a swamp. Emerging from the far end, I was covered in nasty swamp juice. However, I’d adopted a new tactic with the knowledge of multiple crossings. I’d brought a big dry bag with me. At each crossing, I’d take off my gloves, hat, sunglasses, and shirt, and stuff these, along with my race bag, into the dry bag. Extra air was left in, the top sealed and presto! I had a buoyancy bag with me, and dry clothes in it. Surprisingly, this really didn’t take much time, and I think from now on, I’ll always do this. I don’t mind the wet shoes and tights, but having a dry top at the far end always makes me feel better! In one surprising twist, Mike came accross a secret grow-op near a swamp. Middle of nowhere, covered in chicken wire to keep animals away. However, there were no buds, so no, we didn’t ‘harvest’ anything 🙂 I will not reveal the location for fear of retalliation or incrimination!
For the most part, the trek was uneventful, and we kept a steady pace. We stopped at one point for a short while so that Dave could address a bad heel blister that had already popped and was causing discomfort. At the same time, I decided to address some early chafing on my hips with some taping. Preventative maintenance is one of the most important things in a long race. Small niggles soon become major issues as you get tired and things get worse. We dropped back from 11th to 16th at one CP, but by the end of the trek, were apparently back in 10th. Solid performance all in all, and we were still ahead of our schedule as we did the final swim across a river (at fear of being hit by a boat!) and jog to the transition to bikes. It was still light out, and we had another leisurely transition tending to all our needs. Time in transition was pegged at 22mins., but we knew we’d have a long, chilly ride in the dark ahead of us.
First Mountain Bike Leg
With the opening paddle and trek out of the way, it was time to hit the bikes. Little did we know this would be a very long ride, with darkness, dampness, cold, sleepmonsters, and just when we thought it would be over, the news that we’d be riding even longer. Yup, as luck would have it, we ended up taking the short course option due to missing a time cutoff, which is what the picture above shows. We started the bike in good position and quite pleased, but things did deteriorate, and we had no choice but to slow (and even stop many times) the pace to take care of the team. In our race, this was truly the ‘test’ and the ‘crux’. I’ve been feeling pretty strong on AR bike courses of late, so I was pretty optimistic until the deep of the night descended.
It is worth giving an overview of the biking. While we did start on a road, we quickly moved off into the ATV / Snowmobile trails that pepper the entire area. Dave was on the maps, and I had our only working bike computer, so was responsible for keeping an eye on distance so that we knew when to look for trails / routes, etc. Luckily, this worked perfectly, and I’m happy to say that our actual route-finding was flawless. It was truly more a matter of the terrain and tiredness overtaking us (or rather, poor Will specifically). With each passing minute, we could only joke that this was the longest time Will had ever been on a racecourse or awake racing. The terrain? Horrendous for much of the bike. The trails were rife with bike-swallowing ruts and extremely gummy mud. We suffered several mechanical issues due to this mud, not to mention our lightweight bikes gaining several pounds in caked mud! Things were complicated by the fact that just as we hit these trails, we lost most of our daylight and had to rely on lights. This made it more difficult to spot the ‘cheat routes’ around the big mud pits, and left us more often then no ankle-deep in mud walking. The drought of earlier in the summer was slightly erased by lots of rain in the past 2 weeks, just enough to cause all this carnage!
This extra work was taking it’s toll on Will, and by 10:39pm (yep, I looked at my watch) he finally needed his first ‘power nap’. I really didn’t know what to say. This seemed pretty early to need a rest for anyone, but you could immediately see by looking at him that this was needed. We gave him a quick 10 minute nap while we ate and consulted maps, etc. The other side-effect of this tiredness was that we were forced to walk quite a bit more, as he simply couldn’t bike upright! This was the first sign that we might miss the cutoff. However, when he got back up, we pressed on, and I hoped he felt a bit refreshed. To improve things, we even popped out on a road momentarily, which is when I had a big mechanical issue. Chain suck caused by entire chain to figure 8 around the chainrings, requiring some work. Dave went ahead and got Will down for another nap while I worked on the bike. Another 15 minutes lost, as after I fixed the chain, we took the time to clean our drivetrains and re-lube to avoid more issues while Will slept.
Back on the trail, trying to press on, but not 20-30 minutes later, the wheels completely fell off Will (figuratively!). We knew he needed a real sleep, so Dave decided we’d need to give him at least 30minutes. This is when the mental game kicked in. I had expected a slowish pace, but these repeated stops and constant walking where we could be riding were hard to deal with mentally. THere was no way Mike and I were going to nap, as that would just kill any and all drive and momentum. So instead, we went up ahead and just cleaned our bikes and sat around telling stories about past races and commiserating over this unique ‘challenge’. It was obvious we wouldn’t get to do the full course, but even worse was that I feared we’d have to decide on the entire fate of our race sooner rather than later. The one saving grace here is that we had absolutely no choice but to press on to the next TA, as we were in the middle of nowhere, and were not in any danger, just sleepy. We knew Dave was also uncertain how things might play out, so one option was also that at that TA, the 3 of us would go on and Will would head back to HQ.
The other challenging part was that when Will was awake and talking, his personal outlook and attitude was rather defeatest, which unfortunately was also making it hard to keep up a good outlook and strong team morale. I really hoped he’d bounce back, as I didn’t want to have a bad memory of the race. It’s really amazing the stuff you can go through in a race of this type out there. We are all stripped to our basest emotional reactions, and you can really learn a lot about your fellow person in those situations. Luckily, it was easy to see that Mike and Dave were kindred spirits on this. The three of us had enough race experience to see all this for what it was, a rookie’s tough first race. We all wanted to see him finish.
Once we got him back up, things started to get a bit better. We still walked a bit, but he was also being encouraged to ride a bit. I think the TSN turning point was actually when I took a nasty endo on some rocks. I went over HARD, slid along a rock, and had my bike crash on top of me. Mike stopped to wait with me while I shook it off, and we told Dave and Will to press on and that we’d catch up. When we finally took off after them, it took a LONG time to catch up. Will was slowly but surely catching a second wind, and this was an exciting moment in the race. Arriving at the next CP, we were of course well past the cutoff, and knew that meant we’d have to keep biking on the shit trails. Whereas initially Will may have been very tempted to pull the plug, he pulled something deep from inside his own suitcase of courage, and stated to his mom who was there that he’d go on with us and finish. Yup. Even though I barely knew him, I was proud of his comeback. That’s why we were team “Spirit”. We took our time getting fed and putting on warm dry clothes, and inevitably re-mounted our bikes for the next biking leg.
Here’s the ironic bit of the final bike section. While heading out, we were told the weather forecast called for no rain, but some isolated showers. Isolated indeed. We got absolutely drenched by a sustained rain shower along this horrible trail. These isolated showers were apparently ‘isolated’ right above our heads. Also at about this time, Mike and I were both down to almost no light as our batteries had either died (in my case) or were nearly dead an throwing out minimal light. However, the silver lining to this section is that while we had been passed by several teams on that last leg, we actually passed by at least 3 teams on this section, and were gaining on others! Yup, we were back, and Will was doing a great job biking on now! It was totally awesome to see!
We finished off this section by pulling into the final TA just as the sun was starting to come up. The rain had stopped, we were all still warm, and knew that all the lay between us and the finish was a mere 6km paddle. There was even still a team there getting set up for the paddle. Whereas we could have pushed here though, we really didn’t care much, and took our time. Especially since this was where our ‘special drop’ was hidden. Will and I retrieved a taped up styrofoam mini-cooler to take with us to the final portage to the finish line. On to the final paddle…
Final Paddle to the Finish
Watching the mist on the lake as the sun just starting making its presence known in the early morning was a great way to start the final leg. That had truly felt like a really long epic night, filled with physical and mental challenges. I’m happy to say that for my part, I still felt at about 95%. I’m generally good for about 40-42hrs before I get wonky, so there was no problem at all for me. Also, my nutrition had worked well, with my legs, arms, and all muscles still feeling ready for the battle. No cramping at all, and I stayed warm all night. I’m really pleased with how I feel these days in longer races. I’ve come a long way from my first DNF 10 years ago!
Once we’d fiddled with our strap system once again, and got ourselves settled in the boats, we took to the water and paddled at a steady, if not slightly leisurely paddle across the calm waters. We could see 2 other teams in the distance, but felt no need to really push. Had we been interested in that, we could have just jumped in the boats and paddled off right away, rather than getting our package and fiddling with straps. Honestly, gaining a place or 2 really wouldn’t have added to the experience (other than to say “Top 10”).
The paddle was completely uneventful, and we just enjoyed it, chatting amongst ourselves and reflecting on the great times we’d had over the past 23+ hours. When we finally got to the pull-out, we once again took our time. In this case, it was to finally open our package, which was 4 iced Heineken cans to crack open. We had a nice team moment at the waters edge. Cheers all around, cracked them open and had a few swigs (except for Will, after all, he’s underage!). Canoes planted back on their heads, Mike and Dave started the final 200-300m portage to the finish, beers in hand. It was very quiet at the HQ, with just a few people there to greet us, but it did include both Bob and Barb who congratulated us on the finish. And with that, the race was over, and there was nothing more to do than drop the gear, and contemplate a nap. We finished in just under 24 hours. It was good enough for 12th overall, and 5th in the short course group. Huzzah!
And that, my friends, is pretty much it for the race. Once we stopped celebrating (it was fairly short lived after 24hrs racing), I dropped my gear bag, headed to the car and grabbed my sleeping bag and pad. Piled into the community center and took the stage with fellow racers to indulge in a nap. It was a fitful 1-2hrs of rest before getting up to start sorting through wet stinky gear in the team bins. By around noon, we headed over to the Legion for a nice BBQ lunch, then the final awards ceremony, where stories were told, prizes were handed out, and winners were acknowledged. Pentathlon des Neiges won for the 2nd year in a row, making them the first defending champions. They had managed to complete the entire course in under 19.5 hours! Amazing, and inspiring! As for me, I’ve actually oddly got the next 3 weekends off (although fully booked!) before tackling the 3-day Crank the Shield mountain bike race. Good thing I have the time, seeing as I have a bit of fixing to do on the ole bike! Till then, have fun all!