Wilderness Traverse 2011 (race report)

It finally rolled around again…our second kick at the can. Last year we took on the inaugural Wilderness Traverse as our first attempt at a 24-hour race, and, quite frankly, it kicked our collective asses. It sent Mike home with a broken ankle, and myself and Dave home with bruised egos. Fast forward just over 14 months, with a newly assembled team of myself, Mike, and new arrivals Marcus Olson and Chetan Mishra, and we were ready to go knock that monkey off our backs.

Friday afternoon we scooped up the crew, our tons of gear, and made the trip to Minden. We got up north early, and decided to stay at Motel Minden to organize our gear bins before heading to the race headquarters. The good times had already started with lots of laughs, and a surprise loot bag provided by Marcus, for all the members of Bugs In Teeth. The jewel of the prize pack was some sweet lady-bug bike bells that we all mounted on our bikes. After we finished organizing our gear bins we headed to the race location, dropped off our bins and bikes, and snuck in a dinner before the race briefing and map handout at 8pm.

Team enjoying some downtime before the maps get handed out

We had been eagerly anticipating getting our first look at the maps, as all pre-race conversations from the two race directors clearly implied there would be some epic, make-or-break treks and navigation routes that would be sure to test each team. We weren’t disappointed when we got the maps, and after the Q&A period was done we rushed back to the motel to start our planning. In one of our first great displays of teamwork, Mike mapped out the first trek and bike section, I started mapping out distances and time estimates for each leg, and Marcus and Chief started working on the canoe and portage section. We worked on them until 1:00am (one of the downsides of being a less experienced team…everything takes us so damn long), and then decided it was time to wrap things up. We mac-tacked all our race papers, and narrowly avoided having the Chief loose a finger as one of his digits got stuck to the mac-tack (he screamed out as though he was bitten by a cobra). It was a very near miss, and one that he will (thanks to us and our copious amounts of heckling) never forget. We hit the beds at 1:30pm, leaving us with 3.5 hours of opportunity to sleep…

Race day alarms went off, and we booted to the race headquarters. We all shoveled down some breakfast, and jumped on the bus to head out to the race start location.

On your marks...get set....

The start of the race would be a long trekking section, that would take us through four CP’s (checkpoints), and was estimated to take teams between 6-12 hours. Given we knew we could get in a bad head-space if we got off to a bad start, we had planned to take longer (but safer) routes for the first two CPs. So for CP1 instead of taking a route directly towards the CP, that would have us navigating through a 4km section of swamp and forest, we decided to take a longer, but much safer run down a number of roads and trails. We thought there would be at least a few teams that might use the same option, but once the gun went of it was clear there was only a few of us. Regardless, we stuck with our decision and headed off for what was around an 18km run to CP1. We managed to get there in about 2 hours and 15 minutes, and did start seeing some teams that had come from the other more direct route, so we started to feel our decision was still the best one for us.

From here we took another set of trails to locate CP2. We seemed to be going along pretty well, but at one point we passed a team going in the opposite direction as we were, and we heard one of their members say to another that we must have already grabbed CP2…which we hadn’t. It wasn’t until a few minutes later, when we noticed a dead mole on the ground, that we had seen before (of all things to save us), that we realized we may have somehow got turned around. Mike figured out what happened, and redialed us in. We got back in the right direction, and managed to secure CP2 without any problem after that. It was here we found out we were currently running 34th, out of 40 teams…which didn’t go over to well with the team. However we kept reminding ourselves that we were only racing ourselves, with the goal to finish. None of the other teams mattered (at least not openly).

CP3 was the next up, and it turned out to be an interesting one as it involved the first serious chunk of bushwacking for us. Mike cut a bearing, and we started making our way through the bush for a 2.5km trek to hit a lake that we would use to keep our location. However when we got to the lake, which was somewhat cigar shaped, we realized we had hit it directly in the middle, rather than at the one end where we planned to make our way around. At this point, I knew the obvious suggestion was going to be made…do we trek all the way around the lake, or just swim across. Given I swim about as well as a rock, I took some convincing by Mike and Marcus that this was a good idea (unfortunately I did know it would be the fastest option….blargh). So we each filled up our waterproof sacks with air, put them in our backpacks, and started on our way. Surprisingly Chief, who is actually an exceptionally good swimmer, took even more convincing. I think once he realized we were all half way across the lake, that we weren’t coming back for him (that and Mike yelling at him that he was going to swim back to the shore and drag him in if he didn’t get his ass in the water). The best part was once we were all in, it felt SO good. We fluttered our way across, and were once again on our way with a good feeling we had managed to save time and enjoy the swim at the same time. Mike once again nailed the nav, as we came into CP3 by hearing and seeing teams leaving the same CP. We checked in at the CP, and then headed down to the lake to fill up our water reservoirs while the CP staff checked our current ranking….29th. Even though we had not planned on concerning ourselves with our ranking, it did put some extra skip in our step as we headed out to find CP4, which would be the first transition area (TA) for the race.

Again the treak to CP4 involved some more bushwhacking as we hit a few lakes for bearings, and made our way up and around them until we hit a trail that would take us into CP4. We were all anxious to get there, as access to the TA meant dry clothes, real food, and a chance to get on our BELOVED bikes. The news at the TA was good as well, as the forecast update was that the showers were expected to stop, and the thunderstorms that were originally predicted were unlikely. Marcus fired up the MP3 player, and we spent an enjoyable 25 minutes in the TA refueling, changing clothes, and readying our bikes for what was a long 85km bike section.

The first part of the bike had a 3km section of what Bob Miller calls “single-track”, but most of us call hell. The basic breakdown seemed to be ride your bike for a minute, get off and walk your bike through mud bogs for two minutes. This pattern lasted pretty much the entire 3kms. In addition, the rain had started again and seemed to actually be coming down harder rather than slower…and the sun was setting. We slogged through this section with much profanity (at least from me), and finally made it out to the next section of road was to be a nice 5km dirt road to the CP5. Unfortunately at this point the sun had gone down, and we were riding with lights, when Chief’s light immediately went out going down a hill. It turned out his battery had come off his frame, and had flew off into the bush. We all got off our bikes, scouring the bush, while the rain started to downpour. As we looked, teams passed us by and we realized we were starting to loose many of the positions we had made up in the second part of the trek. We decided to cut our losses after about 15 minutes, and just get going by having Chief ride with Mike’s light while Mike used a very underpowered trekking light. This section turned out to be very tough on all of us mentally. The rain was driving, we were soaked to the bone and very cold, our pace was slowed by the lighting situation, and we knew we had a lot more riding left. We hit CP5 in a very quiet mode, and continued on.

On the way to CP6 Chief started showing signs of struggle. He had been fighting the pace for much of the day, and things were getting worse with the rain, the cold, and the darkness. As we neared CP6 he let us know that he didn’t feel he could keep going and that he wanted to stop once we reached the CP. He was already feeling badly for slowing us down, and didn’t feel he wanted to continue the way things had been going. We had a few team talks on the route, but despite our pleas Chief felt we needed to call in. We radioed race HQ, but unfortunately due to the remoteness of the CP we needed to actually bring him back to a main road, which was back the last 5kms we had just rode in. We turned around and rode out, passing two teams going the opposite way and reassuring them that they were the teams actually going in the right direction. We got to the road, looted all the gear we could from Chief’s pack, said our goodbyes, and then headed back out once his ride showed up. For the second time in an hour we headed back up the same road. We felt we needed to make up some time so we started to push. We soon passed CP6 again, and pushed even harder up to CP7.

The weird thing is despite the weather, the cold, and the loss of a teammate…this section felt good….really good. We are all very much mountain bikers at heart, so despite all the challenges we actually started to have fun. We were pushing so hard, that not soon after we managed to catch up to one of the teams we had passed on the way down. Shortly after, we passed the second team we had seen as well, and pulled in to CP7 feeling like we had done well to make up a chunk of time.

Here at CP7, we decided to evaluate our position given the current time. Marcus had Chief on the tow line for huge chunks of the initial trek, and it was starting to catch up with him. We knew we wouldn’t likely be able to do the full course at this point, and we expected that the last section of mountain bike trail was going to be a mud-slog much like the first one was…but this one was somewhere on the order of 10km long. We decided to radio in to race HQ to see what short-course options there were. We talked to Bob, and decided we would take a road route down to CP8 to by-pass the ATV trail, and go directly to the canoe TA.

The last section of biking was interesting as we once again got very quiet, and pushed our way down some long dirt and paved roads to make it to CP8.  By now it was 3:15am, and given we knew we would short-course the canoe and by-pass one long canoe section for CP11, we decided to take our time at the TA. We once again made a change of clothes, socialized with the TA staff, and goofed off with some of the other teams there. It was there that a bit of the unexpected happened. A fellow racer who was there (Andrew Reeder), and who had started off on a team of four, had the only teammate he was still racing with call it quits. So now he was a team of one, with no other option but to pull out of the race himself. But with a strong will to continue on, he asked us if we would let him join us for the remaining sections. We had the TA staff call in to HQ, and they happily gave us the green light…and so once again we were off as a team of four – duct taped and zip tied together like many things in adventure racing often are.

Our canoe started on a 6km paddle down Raven Lake where we would exit on the end to get to a portage to Plastic Lake. Unfortunately at the exit of the lake, we found a portage sign for another lake, but with a markered in arrow and the word Plastic Lk. indicating we should take the road to reach our destination. As many teams would find out later, this was in fact the wrong route to take, and likely added an additional 40 minutes (and a significant portage) to the wrong end of Plastic Lake. Had we taken the portage route for the other lake, we would have hit Plastic Lake over a 250 meter portage, instead of what ended up being just shy of a kilometer portage to the wrong end of the lake. Blarggh! Needless to say this portage did provide some retrospective entertainment. The portage started with a long climb up a gravel road, so Mike started off with the boat on his back. As I walked behind him with the paddle bag, I noticed every so often that he would sway left or right as he climbed the hill. I just chalked it up to fatigue, as by now it was probably somewhere around 4:30-5:00am and we were all starting to feel it. It wasn’t until later that I found out that apparently he was having hallucinations where he would see puddles on the road, and was walking around them in order to keep his feet dry. Another gem of overnight racing.

We eventually made it to Plastic Lake, paddled down it and hit another long portage to Sherbourne Lake where we finally picked up our first paddle CP at CP9. Given our time, we had never planned on picking up CP10 which would mean a long and tricky side journey in the dark through a number of lakes and bays. Instead, we started heading directly to CP11 which served also as TA3 where we would transition from the paddle to the final trekking leg of the race. This final paddle seemed to take forever, and although the sun had started to come up our visibility didn’t improve much due to some morning fog on the lake. Marcus and Andrew led the way, and Mike and I just continued to paddle hard enough to keep them within a reasonable distance. We also found ourselves shutting our eyes every so often, and Mike confirmed he was having trouble fighting off sleep as we made our way through this long section. Finally, we hit the end of Little Hawk Lake, where we were greeted by a number of volunteers and members of some of the awesome teams who had already finished up their race and were helping out….how cool are people in AR that they finish a race like this and then volunteer.

Changing and refueling at TA3

Into the transition, we dumped off all our paddling gear, did a clothes change to get as dry as possible, and then started off on the final section of the race, a 15km trek to the finish. This trek was interesting…and surprising at least in the way of expectations.

A few weeks before, Mike and his family were camping in this very area, and so he had made it into some of the trails that we were expecting to take on the final 15km trek. He had indicated early in the race that these would be extremely flat, well tailored walking trails where we could expect to be competing with 10 year-olds and families pushing their walking strollers as they made their way comfortably through the forest paths. So the whole time leading up to this section we kept dreaming of this nirvana that would take us comfortably to the finish line. I had half expected moving sidewalks and a Starbucks on the way. However reality didn’t match up. I should have known this wouldn’t be the case when one of the racers from a team that had finished indicated that the last trek wasn’t too bad, but that there were some good hills on the first half. Good hills is an oxymoron if I have ever heard one. So what it turned out to be was a walk up a large hill, and down a large hill…then up a large hill…then down a large hill. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. And truth be told we should have KNOWN it wouldn’t be easy. This was, after all, a Bob Miller race. Turns out Mike had looked at trails on the OTHER side of the route…not the ones we would be taking.

However despite the disappointment of not getting served a Frappucino on this section, the trek did end up being a lot of fun. A number of teams converged on these trails, and we saw many happy faces, as folks realized the end was nearing with each (painful) step. Mike continued to keep our pace high with a speed walk. Marcus kept the spirits high with constant joking. Even our substitute and honourary Bugs In Teeth member Andrew, hobbled by extremely bad and blistered feet, managed to keep things upbeat as he noted that we were keeping great speed, and showing the true spirit of AR. We hit CP12 where we ran into photographer extraordinaire Luis Moreira who snapped a nice photo of our makeshift team atop of one of the higher peaks.

Marcus, Mike, Rob and the sub...Mr. Andrew Reeder

Shortly after, things on the trail managed to calm down a bit. We all got a bit quiet as we pushed on to the end. I am sure there was some reflection on our journey, some secret internal pats on the back as we realized we were going to finish this race, and some satisfaction knowing we would do so smiling. We hit the road on the final exit of the trail, and made our short walk down the Stanhope Fire Hall where we jogged across the finish line, just shy of 28 hours after we had started. We were greeted by race director Bob Miller, who, full of smiles and handshakes, congratulated us on completing the course.

I finish this race report up over a week after the race, and the thoughts of crossing that finish line are still clear as day. It is a funny sport we partake in. The reward is so satisfying because it is so hard to obtain. Mentally and physically you fight with yourself, and hope that the will to continue wins out over the desire to pack it in and call it a day. However in the end, it is your teammates that keep you going. They keep you going because they make you laugh, keep challenging you, and because you want to keep going just as much for their sake as for yours. This is why adventure racing really is a team sport. Each person in our team, both the team we started with, and the team we finished with, played a role in getting us to the end. I can’t wait until our next big adventure together with this awesome group.

Much thanks as always to race director Bob Miller and assistant race director Barb Campbell as well as all the awesome volunteers. Also a huge nod to Luis Moreira from Breathe Magazine who was out on the course capturing the race in full photographic glory (and was the one who took all the photos in this blog). This race is so well run that it should surprise no one that it went from 17 teams in it’s inaugural year, to a sold out 40 teams (with a completely stacked field of who’s who in Canadian AR racing) in only it’s second year. This is one race that will be on our calendars every year.

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