USARA – The Final Edition
When Ed sent this final edition of our race recap over, he added that writing this has felt a little like therapy to get over a traumatic event. That being said, he also has willingly offered to do it again, so he totally is another member of the Type 2 Fun Club that I find myself in.
I will be truthful – I was dreading this part of the recap. I think Ed was kinder to me than he should have been and I was very interested in what he was going to say. I became sick halfway through this race and was ill for a week afterwards and was not myself. I am not making excuses though – this was a team event and I basically gave up. This was a new experience for me and probably my poorest demonstration of sportsmanship in adventure racing thus far. I have talked about it at length with the team and it is always interesting hearing about it from another perspective.
I make mistakes but the good news is, I rarely make the same mistake twice. It was a race to grow, rather than demonstrate athletic strength and I was proud to share it with Brad and Ed. So here is the final chapter of the race. Grab a latte, a glass of wine or whatever your pick of poison and settle in.
chapter 4: the Run
Unfortunately, there are no pictures that do night racing any justice. It was an incredibly dark evening without the moon to light the way. It was so dark in fact, that you could see the millions and millions of stars making up the Milky Way. I was always able to see where we were headed with Polaris, the north star, shining so brightly.
The run component of the race began with a decision: either we choose to do the run course first, or take on the orienteering course first. We decided to save the orienteering course for when we had daylight—plus, the run course only had 11 checkpoints compared to the 20 checkpoints on the “O” course, so we should be able to get through it quickly…
Amazingly, I felt pretty good when we started running out of the campground. My legs were beyond tired, but they still had some juice left. And my pack, even though it was filled with three litres of water, felt much lighter without my soaking wet running shoes dangling off the back.
We hit our first obstacle early though. We left the campground the wrong way, and after a few minutes had just looped back to where we started. Ok, not a good start. Let’s try again.
We needed to find a snowmobile trail leading away from the site. It took us a few minutes and some meandering in the darkness of an open field, but eventually, we found it. The first checkpoint was along a stream that crossed the trail about one kilometre from the camp. We found it relatively quickly and I went up to stamp our passport. Except I didn’t have the right passport. There was no place to stamp for this checkpoint. Crap! At the campground when we made the decision to start with the run course, we were apparently supposed to trade our bike course passport for the run course so that we couldn’t collect the last bike course CPs on the run. This was incredibly frustrating because we had to run allllll the way back to the transition and then find this CP again. UGH! 30 minutes wasted. When you are struggling with intense fatigue, setbacks like these are hard to shake off, at least it was for me.
By the time we had our first CP stamped, finally, it was near 3:30am. Two-and-a-half hours until the sun rises, and 11 and-a-half hours until the race was over. I told Jess and Brad I don’t think I can do it. It’s too long. But they insisted I could, and it will get easier when the sun comes up… great… I just had to wait 3 hours for it to get “easier”. I lacked any kind of motivation to move. To distract myself I would just stare at my watch. It was the only thing I could really see in the dark forest. I also took to finding walking sticks from fallen branches and using them to help me through the uneven terrain. The next CP we got to 20 minutes later, then 25 minutes to the one after that. At this rate, we would finish the run course at 9:30am, which made me feel a little better, and worse at the same time.
Running uphill when you are this tired is asking for trouble. The slightest incline and your breathing and heart rate would skyrocket. I could hear my blood pulsing in my temple like it was going to burst, but I was too stubborn to complain or stop. Thank god Jess said that we shouldn’t run uphill and just run the flats and downhill sections. We agreed and I took it as another positive to help keep me going. EDITORS NOTE: As I often have the privilege to do these courses with gentlemen who are stronger than me, I need to be assertive about my limitations. Running uphills with a heavy pack is not a problem over a marathon or less, but anything that requires a consistent output of energy from me over dozens of hours necessitates some energy reservation. I power hike hills in this case which often is the difference between maintaining a consistent speed on the run over the entire race or not. It is relieving to see that sometimes, my team members benefit from this as well!
Over and over we would leave the park roads and head into the forest following Brad’s bearing. It was almost magical, how we would walk/run for 20 minutes in the middle of nowhere and suddenly happen upon a checkpoint flag. Jess told me that their strength is “night-nav” and they usually can gain quite a bit of ground on the other teams who aren’t as strong at navigating. I could see why. If you were off of your bearing even by 20 feet, you would never see the flag and could spend hours longer to get through the course. EDITORS NOTE: I think I need to stop and give this credit to Brad Jennings. It has been so exciting to watch him grow so much as a navigator over the past years that I have raced with him.
It was a little before 5:00am when we reached a section of the course called the boulder fields. I think this was the coolest place on the entire course, especially at night. The boulder fields were literally that, a massive field the size of a small lake, but instead of grass, massive boulders. Some as big as cars, but most half that size. When I looked up with my light, I couldn’t see the other side. Just a vast plain of smooth granite boulders.
We had two checkpoints to get in the fields. The first at the north edge of the smaller field, and the second at the far west edge of the larger field. We hopped from rock to rock across the first field for probably 5 minutes. Somehow, not one of us fell or tripped, which in hindsight would have been detrimental. The crevices between some of these rocks were several feet deep, and with only other granite to break any fall, would surely cause a sprained or broken ankle. At the very least, it would really hurt.
Once we got to the first CP, there were two options for the second, either stay on the field and rock-hop, or go around and bush-whack. For fear of falling, we decided to take the bush, but it was so thick and knarly we quickly changed our minds and backtracked to the field. At least we knew where we were on the field and we would for sure find the next CP.
20 more minutes of rock-hopping and my mind was starting to drift in and out. I had already fallen asleep earlier while I was crouched over waiting for Jess to go to the washroom. I closed my eyes and just fell over on my face. I was starting to feel it creep in again. Sleep was not going to let me get away that easy. My eyes starting playing tricks on me and I was struggling to judge how far each rock was. The shadows from my light made the rocks dance in front of me. I was operating on autopilot and whenever I missed a rock, I would somehow react and keep my balance without falling. My head and my legs almost seemed to act independently.
I sat down at the end of the field beside Brad. “I need to sleep” I said to Brad. “Just 5 minutes, I just need 5 minutes”. It was just after 5:30am now and I was losing the fight to stay conscious. I tried to eat some more trail mix to keep my mind active, but it wasn’t working. Jess opened her pack and gave me some caffeine pills and a Redbull. I was laying down now on one of the rocks just staring at the stars. I didn’t want to move. My eyes closed and I just listened.
“You can do this Ed, you just have the sleep monsters. They are always worse just before the sun comes up.”
They were both being so supportive and understanding, and I couldn’t figure out how they didn’t seem to be as tired as me. I finished the Redbull and got back up on my feet. I didn’t feel any better, but I knew that they were right, and I just had to keep moving. The sun was starting to give the faintest impression that it would soon rise on the horizon across the fields. I followed Jess and Brad closely as we left the open rock and headed back into the thick dark forest.
We had been spoiled up until this point. The trails and forest we had trekked through were pristine and open by comparison. This forest was so dense we could only move at a crawling pace at best. And to add to the struggle, the forest floor was a mix between mossy bog and tree roots. Branches were constantly pulling my hat and headlamp off, and tearing at my pack as I would duck to crawl through a small opening that Brad would make.
We had only gone 20 meters or so before Brad yelled,
“Stop! I don’t have the map!”
Oh F!!!!… not again. Not only did we not have the map, but it was dark and we couldn’t see anything. One of the branches must have ripped it off of his bag. I panicked and ran towards Brad’s voice. If we lost each other, we were screwed. We quickly back-tracked to where we came from, scanning the ground as we went. Crawling through bushes and trees.
“I don’t recognize this, we’re going the wrong way” Brad said.
“Well which way were we headed when we left the fields?”
“And which way are we going now?”
More panic. We now had gone off of our bearing in panic and didn’t know which way the field was. The only positive in this whole situation was that the sun was starting to brighten the sky to a faint orange, and I could feel the caffeine working. We eventually found the field again and regrouped at the CP before we started to retrace our steps. But the forest was so thick, and we weren’t confident in which way we went, so we had to fan out to cover more ground. 5 minutes turned into 10 turned into 20. It was bright out now and still no map. I found myself eventually just sitting on a soft patch of dirt eating my Coffee Crisp bars. I lost hope that we would find the map. Our race is over.
We heard another team reach the CP near us and Brad quickly ran to them. Our plan was to now use one of our old maps and try to trace as much of the other team’s map as we needed to get us back to transition. As soon as they started getting their maps out for us, I heard Jess yell something off in the woods,
“I found it!”
I let out a very audible sigh of disbelief. HOW? We already lost a map once and miraculously got it back, but twice? I almost wanted it to stay lost so we could just go back. We had some serious luck with us though, and it wasn’t going to give us an easy way out.
Back with our map (in our hands this time), we made it through the rest of the thick part of the forest to the trail. It was 6:30am. The next CP was significantly off the trail, but we could follow it for a while before we had to venture off. The clue was “exposed rock”. I might add that we were all tired (or at least I was) and distances on the map did not translate well to our surroundings. The map showed the checkpoint was about 500 feet off the trail, but there were huge granite spires beside the trail, maybe there was a mistake. Brad climbed up as Jess and I waited at the trail, but found nothing. Maybe we didn’t go far enough on the trail. A few hundred meters further, the trail started to descend again. This can’t be right, we need to be at the highest elevation on the trail. Back again and off the trail a second time. This time we climbed around the mountain of granite and were met by more hickory bushes. These bushes are the devil. Like jungle vines they grow to 8 feet tall and intertwine to form impenetrable webs. To push through you need all four limbs, and when you let go of the bough you’re holding, it whips back violently. Like barbed wire barricades, we painfully crossed one after the other until we finally reached a till pile of big granite rocks. This must be the exposed rock the clue was referring to. And of course, at the very top, the CP was waiting for us. How were people supposed to get to this in the dark? The locations of some of these CPs were ridiculous to me. We stamped the passport, and returned to the trail from the hickory fortress.
8:30am. The next CP was several kilometres away, and all on a trail. This was a welcomed blessing and the three of us managed to hold some kind of a jogging pace. I could tell now that Jess was struggling. I just wanted to get to the end and was running ahead with Brad, but Jess could not keep our pace. We reached the road and regrouped to find the next trail. There were four more checkpoints we needed to find before we could run back to transition. And they were all on trail thankfully. The first was easy, near a waterfall along a river we would follow to find the other three. But the trail quickly disappeared, and we suddenly were scaling the side of a ravine. Below was a 20-foot drop to the rocky riverbed, and above seemed to go straight up for what could be another 100-feet. Instead of going back, we decided to go up and climb from tree to tree. A little further above we found the trail we were supposed to be on and continued. The ground was so soft and slippery here, it was hard not to fall, grabbing onto any overreaching branch we could just to stay balanced. One more CP down, then another. Our last one located across the river at the bottom of the ravine. Running down was nice, but dreadful knowing we would have to climb all the way back up.
Now, it was nearly 10 and we still had the last two CP’s and about 4 kilometres of bush between us and the transition. If this was the trail, it would be easy to cover in under an hour, but if this was more hickory bush, we might not even make it back in time. By now, Jess was adamant that we should just get back to transition and bike to the finish. There was no point in starting the orienteering course because it was already so late, we were so tired, and we were probably ranked so low that there was no point in worrying about our placing. I never expected this attitude from Jess, but honestly, I agreed. I was in so much pain from chaffing that I had nearly gone through my entire tube of Vaseline. I was ready to pack it in too. But we decided to make the decision once we got back.
Back at the road, we assessed the map. Running along the highway was not allowed, but we figured we could follow the forest’s edge to save some grief until we got to a culvert and could cross under the highway. This was a pleasant respite for 1km or so before we crossed under into the culvert. At the other end was the second last CP, but between here and the next CP was another kilometer of hickory bush.
We tried to go around but always came to a dead end. There was no other way but through. There’s no better way to describe it. Branches would snap and fly back into your face, ripping my jacket. A slip from standing on one branch would free another that would spring back and whack your shins, like kicking a coffee table. Thorns had ripped my compression pants and a few scratches were so deep that blood was starting to trickle down the front of my right shin. Each whack I would let out a short scream in pain. The welt growing halfway up my tibia was throbbing. It looked like I had a second knee.
We kept pushing to the last CP, and then finally got back to the road that led to transition. Our bikes were waiting for us just as we left them, but there were far fewer bikes than when we left the first time. It was such a relief to see the volunteers again, and our bikes, but I had no energy left to express it. Time was running out and we had to act quickly. It was past 11am.
I rushed to fill my water and get some calories in. Brad went to get the orienteering map and return our run course passport. We looked at where the closest checkpoints were and decided that we could get three more, maybe four. Each was within four kilometres and along the road, so there would be no more bushwhacking. I said I would only get checkpoints that were on trails, and I think we all felt the same way. But we only had 90 minutes before we reached our deadline we had set for ourselves. If we didn’t leave transition on our bikes by 12:30pm, we would risk not finishing the race in time. So we had to run.
By now, running required some deep, deep motivation. It was just muscle memory putting one foot in front of the other. My groin was in so much pain from chaffing that I had now completely emptied my Vaseline tube in my pants. Jess told me a story about someone who once used their buff as a diaper to stop the chaffing, so I said screw-it and put my extra buff down my pants between my legs. It helped at first, but the novelty wore off quickly, and now I had to deal with this crotch buff. I didn’t want to think about what was going on down there, or how painful my shower was going to be when we got back to the hotel.
We got four CP’s and made it back just shy of our 12:30pm goal. We quickly filled our bottles and loaded up our bikes. Today was much warmer than Friday and my face was burning hot. I tried to cool myself down under the faucet, but I’m sure the burning sensation was from sunburn and not just the heat.
On the bike, I couldn’t sit, especially on the trails. I would have to pedal out of the saddle the rest of the way even with the extra cushion of the buff in my shorts. The blisters were too deep. But my legs were on fire holding me out of the saddle, and my calves were shaking. I would take two or three pedal strokes, then coast as long as a could with my legs locked straight to rest. It was so uncomfortable, and by the next CP my back was starting to pay the price for leaning over so much. We collected the CP back at the boulder field that we couldn’t get on the run and continued up the ridge toward town.
Jess was struggling. We tried our best to stay as a team, and every time Brad or I would get ahead of her we waited and made sure she was ok. Jess never complained but was very quiet. I felt so bad for her and all I wanted to do was help, but we didn’t have a tow rope. There was nothing could do beyond tell her “we’re almost there”, and “you can do this”like she did for me early that morning. We reached the powerlines that marked the beginning of our decent toward town and the finish line. Only one CP to go, and it was on pavement.
I had started to get that sensation where your body knows it’s near the end and starts to give out preparing to stop. My calves were cramping and I could barely support my weight to stay out of the saddle, but I knew it was all mental and I just had to tell my legs to hold on. Last uphill. Last checkpoint. Last kilometer.
It was 2:16pm on my watch when the three of us rounded to the field and saw the finish line banner. Together we crossed, and finally got to lay down our bikes. A big group hug was shared and I exhaled a sigh of relief that we could stop. The last 29 hours and 16 minutes was racing through my mind all at once as I held on to them. I was struggling to grasp what we had just accomplished. My only thought was “never again”.
I collapsed on the ground and used my bag as a pillow and closed my eyes. Finally, I was allowed to sleep. I could feel the warm breeze on my face as consciousness left me.
After we left the race venue and had showered up (it was as painful as it was refreshing), we went out for a team dinner at the local restaurant on Harmony Lake. I probably drank four huge glasses of pop and still wanted more. My thirst was unquenchable.
Jess and Brad had to leave that night to get back to work for Sunday morning. I don’t know how they did it, but they drove back to Ontario after dinner, and Brad continued all the way back to Timmins. I, on the other hand, got to enjoy a good night sleep before my long 1,300km drive back to New Brunswick. I’ve never known such comfort or had a deeper sleep than that night.
I want to thank my teammates, Jess Kuepfer and Brad Jennings for asking me to race with them, I’m so happy I said yes (You can consider this my formal offer to race again next year, and hopefully we will do a little better).
I started with triathlon in 2008 and eventually worked my way to competing on the Ironman world stage. I have now finished my first adventure race, and want to explore the world of ultra-running. I have also made a pact with Jess that we will race Ultraman Florida together in 2019, and the Trans-Rockies Ultra Marathon. This morning she even sent me a link to a Deca-Ironman race in Switzerland, where you complete the distance of 10 Ironman triathlons in the time limit of 14 days… (maybe someday). I can’t wait to see where these new adventures take me, and I hope everyone who reads this may be motivated enough to go and start their own adventures. The friendships you make along the way may change your life.
Big thanks to Ed for taking the time to write this recap. You can see the first three editions here: