DISCLAIMER: Long and drawn out. These races are very personal. For some reason I have an insatiable desire to find out what I am truly capable of. I find it fascinating that things I once thought of as impossible are actually possible with enough hard work, stubbornness, and intestinal fortitude. Sharing these endeavors is very difficult for me for fear of being judged. I realize that I am not the best at putting pen to paper, but that fear is out weighed by my gratitude of those that have come before me. Not only have their reports played a huge role in my development, but they have also motivated me to dream big and go after those dreams. If I can play even just a small part in motivating just one person to go outside their comfort zone then it is worth it. My words cannot begin to explain how difficult this race was. Hard to believe warm conditions can make the shortest flattest race the most difficult of the 3, but it absolutely did.
It’s 3a.m. as the alarm sounds. I awake in not only a strange house, but a unfamiliar country. I’m in Canada for the first time, and it is very foreign to me. While some things are similar many are unfamiliar. My normal morning routine is off because we are house guests of a family we really don’t want to bother. Amazingly these folks so graciously opened their home to three of us on our quest to join the Order of the Hrimthurs. Mark Smith is also with us and this is going to be his first winter ultra. His in laws are from Winnipeg and are our hosts for the weekend.
By 4a.m. We make our way to the center of the city where the race will finish. There we stuff ourselves like sardines along with our gear on an old school bus. It’s a 2 hour ride to where we get dropped off to start the final leg of our journey. We arrived at starting point just before 6:30. I have yet to have my morning coffee. This makes me extremely nervous. When you start every day with coffee your body expects its morning dose of caffeine. Not to mention the other things morning coffee helps, but let’s just say that it can really throw a loop in the plan when you are about to venture out on a 100 mile journey by foot where the facilities are few and far between.
This is the first time the Actif Epica http://actifepi.ca/the-race/race-bible/ is offering a 162km or 100 mile option to their race. 16 of us brave souls gather outside a tiny community center in a town that can’t be any larger than a dot on a map. As the clock strikes 6:30 we are told we can go. We are already a half hour behind when we were supposed to start according to the race website, but as Ultrarunners most of us take great pride in being able to go with the flow and adapt to whatever difficulties come our way. This is a very minor one at best. The only worry would be that this could bring us dangerously close to the early cutoffs because as in most races the early ones can be tight.
This race is unlike most races as the course is not marked. This is new to most of us and it really throws a wrench into my plans. I had a GPS unit but I had absolutely no idea how to use it. The other option for navigating the course is to use cue cards and some sort of distance tracker. This is how I planned to go but this too seems to be troublesome because many of the turns are onto unmarked trails or roads. This wouldn’t be to bad if you only had a few turns, but our cues sheets contained 5 pages of turns.
I quickly changed my plans and hope to find someone going my pace with a GPS and team up with them. I had originally hoped I could team up with Paul since we had spent many miles together already at Arrowhead. The only problem was that I didn’t want to hold him back if he decided to go out fast. He’s a much faster runner than me. Mark is as well and from the get go I can see those two decided to work together and go out fast. Them and one other guy take off and open up a gap right away. Not thinking I could keep up I hang back near the front of the main pack still trying to come up with a good navigation partner.
I find myself with Chuck Fritz whom I’ve known for over a year. He’s also a former Marine and he actually did this race last year. I spent the weekend last year tracking his spot device during that race. So I knew he had what it takes to finish this. It was fun getting to hang out with him for a while as we have a lot in common. Soon we find ourselves heading off road onto the first of many untraveled trails. It’s already warming up nicely but this proves to be a huge problem as it makes the deep snow very slow going and arduous.
This is us the day before the race checking out the conditions of the first section of trail. I had heard people describe portions of this race with the term post holing, but it didn’t take long before I got to experience it first hand. Post holing is when the snow is deep and you basically sink up to your knees or even mid thigh with any given step. What makes matters worse is that with a crust on top of the snow you just never know when you would be able to stay on top or when you would break through and sink. I found myself doing two things, wishing I had brought my snowshoes, and trying to step lightly. Stepping lightly was only wishful thinking for a guy that normally tips the scales at over 200 lbs. Not to mention the fact I was carrying another 20 lbs of mandatory gear, food, and water on my back.
It wasn’t long before I was asking myself what the hell had I gotten myself into. Usually that takes 25 miles or so, but here it happened only after a few miles of post holing. Take a look at my face in one of the early sections of post holing. This was a look of concern to say the least.
At this point I was in 4th place with Chuck right behind me. After a couple more miles the pack closed what little gap Chuck and I had opened. This was a beautiful section of trail that followed a river bank. After an extremely difficult and long section of post holing we came back onto a dirt road. The road was a nice reprieve, but it only lastest a few minutes before we were back on a trail leading down to a swinging bridge that crossed the river. Before heading down the river bank a group of 8 or 9 of us gathered at the top where water and snacks had been left under a small canopy with a bench. Those that had snowshoes sat down to put them back on. The swinging bridge was very unique. Apparently it was made mostly from old tractor parts.
After climbing out from the river bottom we encountered more open fields and what seemed like miles more post holing. I was breaking trail, but soon a Stampede of snowshoe wearing runners in a conga line make their way around me. This makes it much easier for me as they laid down a decent track to follow. Finally we make it out to another section of road. Everyone wearing snowshoes had to stop to take them off.
Me, Erik, and Kari start to make our way onwards as the others securely stow their snowshoes. Hoping the worst sections are now behind us we spend a couple hours opening a gap as we make our way toward the first check point at mile 26.45. Upon arriving Kari is already getting word that we need to be in and out as we will be close to the cutoffs at the next aid station. At the first aid station I finally get to do my business after holding it all morning. Thus far my feet are wet but I didn’t have any hot spots so I decided to not change socks. I drank a can of Pepsi, had a couple snacks, and changed my headlamp batteries. I quickly filled my hydro blatter to just over 1 liter and I was ready to head out. So were Kari, Erik, Randy, and Danial. We all left together.
This next section is 17 miles so we won’t get to the next aid station until after dark. Kari, Erik, and myself are moving a little faster than Randy and Danial, but we all stay within sight of each other most of the afternoon. Eventually we start to real in Mark. As we pass him you could tell his feet were bothering him. He already had quite the hobble going on. After a couple hours we started to close the gap on Paul as well. Once I could see Paul up ahead I started to push pretty hard in an attempt to catch him. I couldn’t believe we were able to catch either one of them because I figured we wouldn’t see them again until the finish. As Paul made a turn into an open field I made one last really hard push to catch him. Somewhere near the middle of the field I finally caught him. Once we were together at about mile 35 we would stay together right up to the finish. We made a great team. It was getting late in the day and as a road section came to a (T) we could see the trail went straight ahead but unfortunately the trail also went straight through an enormous puddle with virtually no way to go around it. Paul lead the way sinking up to nearly his knee in the icy water. Seeing that he broke through in a really deep spot I took a slightly different line through and only got a little bit wet. After that I knew my feet were going to be in trouble. 60 more miles to go and with wet shoes. I was going to definitely need to change my socks at the next aid station.
Just after dark Paul and I made it into the Sugar Shack aid station. We hear Kari’s Mom ringing her cow bell before we see the aid station. The sound of that bell will bring us overwhelming joy more than once during our travels. The aid station had some phenomenal volunteers. They were all over us trying to help in any way possible. They even offered to dry my shoes and socks with a hair dryer. I laughed and said,”thank you, but I would never put someone through something like that.” However they did get to watch as I operated on my feet before I changed into dry socks. My right foot was in rough shape already from being wet. It had developed a huge blister on the ball on my foot. It took a while but I did get it to drain before lubing my feet up and putting on my only extra pair of socks. The kids working here were some sort of Cadets, probably in their late teens. They seem pretty fascinated by my rough looking feet. Paul and I had some split pea soup and a couple cups of coffee and soon Erik and Kari showed up.
As Paul and I took off Randy and Danial made their way to the Sugar Shack. The next section was about 10 miles. This section we were alone on the trail. Toward the end of this ten mile section was the only section of trail that was marked. I think it may have been a detour, but anyways it was really nice to have a marked trail. The trail was good too and it weaved its way through one of the few wooded areas up to what I believe was a hog farm. At the hog farm they had an amazing aid station set up. They welcomed us in and had quite the spread for us. It was almost midnight so the sleep monsters were upon us. I had 2 more cups of coffee, a bowl of soup, some BBQ spare ribs, and some cookies.
Again Erik and Kari were right behind us and came in as we were finishing up our coffee.
As we were about to leave we made the mistake of asking about cutoff times. This got us all in a panic as we were going to be cutting them awfully close. We weren’t even sure Randy and Danial would make it here in time as we were being told 12:30 was the cut off. With 10 minutes to spare the four of us were out the door together. Randy and Danial were coming in as we were leaving and virtually had to check in and check out. All six of us were now together as we had 12 miles to go to the next aid station in which we had to be there by 4:30. Working together we gained some ground. We spread out but stayed mostly within eyesight. At one point we all missed a turn into a park and had to back track a bit. We arrived at the Nivervill Arena well ahead of cut off. Here volunteers had Pierogies for us. I had never had a pierogie, but I was willing to try anything that was warm and contained the calories that I was desperately seeking. They were absolutely scrumptious. Apparently pierogies are a potato dumpling filled with cheese of some sort, but damn were they good. As we were about to head out a group of runners were brought in and we’re dropping or had been pulled from the race. Mile 65 and we were the only six left on the course other than the leader. All of us other than Erik were still on our quest to join the Order or the Hrimthurs. http://orderofthehrimthurs.com/ Now more than ever we were in this together. Each of us wanting this for the other almost more than we wanted it for ourselves.
We all left together just after 4 a.m. Now the cutoffs would no longer be hard cutoffs so we were able to put that stress behind us. As we spread out again Paul and I ran into a couple navigational problems. We made a right turn using my cue cards onto a dirt road that was clearly the right road according to the cue sheet. After a half mile or so Paul says,”we were supposed to go the other way.” We stop and I double check my cards. I assure him it’s right. However Paul’s GPS clearly says it’s the opposite direction as my cue sheet. Now this could have been bad and we could have just as easily parted ways because we both felt strongly about which way we needed to go. However we were in this together and if one of us was going to get lost we were both going to get lost. We went with Paul’s GPS, but that made us back track the 1/2 mile back to the intersection. After a few more turns we realize both ways would have got us to were we needed to go, but never the less we lost about 15 minutes and added a mile to the course. No big deal. Just a better value for our money. It didn’t take long and it happened again. This time the cue sheets brought us down a hwy heading into town. Paul realized his GPS was telling us we should have gone straight to what looked to be a paralleling frontage road. This time we chance it a stay the course instead of back tracking. Erik, Kari, and the others go the other way and follow their GPS. It wasn’t long and we were turning off the Hwy and climbing up onto a dike and back on GPS course. On top of the dike there wasn’t much snow but all the bikes and runners ahead of us had left tracks in what must have been slush. Now it was frozen, uneven, and very unforgiving. It felt as if we were running barefoot on a gigantic cheese grater. All of our feet were taking a beating from being wet so long. For me each step was excruciating. After a mile or so we made it to the Pharmacy aid station at mile 73.
It was nice to be in the company of these winter warriors. As we sat there we all knew we only had about a marathon left to go. The volunteers again took good care of us. I had a couple hash browns and some coffee.
One of the volunteers tried to explain that he would be sitting at the end of the spill way waiting for us. I had know idea what a spill way was but we were about to find out. We all left together again and it was a couple more miles on top of the gigantic cheese grater before we had a couple miles of roads. Finally the roads gave way to the vastness of the spill way. As far as the eye could see was open fields with a tractor path zigzagging its way across and towards the dike off in the horizon. As the sun came up the frozen ground gave way to what is known as Manitoba gumbo. A slippery almost impenetrable black mud that collect on your shoes as if being weighted down by cement. Every few steps you would have to try to knock it off he soles of your shoes.
Once again our groups had spread out just a bit. Finally after a few hours of this torture we were at the dike. This meant back into the deep snow, but the surface was still hard enough to mostly prevent post holing. We had about a mile of following tracks laid by the shorter race runners and bikers as we made our way along the dike. Near the end we heard that glorious cow bell. We high five them as we pass by. We aren’t allowed to use the bridge to cross the spill way but they do have a path marked to go under the bridge. Once we climb out of the spillway on the other side it seems as though we are on the outskirts of the city. We will only have road ways and sidewalks for most of the way to the finish. After the crap we had been through that was a welcome relief. Paul and I were making pretty good time. We could no longer see the other four behind us, but we knew they were still close. Some of the neighborhoods we go through along the river are really nice. It’s a nice change of scenery from the vast nothingness of the country side. As we make our way onto the U of M campus we can’t for the life of us remember what the building was called that we were looking for as the last aid station. My cue sheets had the wrong final aid station so we were at the mercy of the GPS. Before long we heard more cow bell which brought a smile to my face. Kari’s Mom told us we had a surprise waiting in the final aid station. As we walk in Mark is there waiting for us. Even though his race didn’t go as planned there he was to support us in our final push to the finish. Such an amazingly selfless act of Brotherhood.
We didn’t stay long as we were beginning to smell the hay in the barn. As we were heading out Kari and Erik were just arriving. As we get outside Randy and Danial are also arriving. All that is left is a 6 mile section of mostly sidewalk and then 3 miles of riverside trails. As we cross a bridge Mark is there to direct us through a park. Paul and I start to pick up the pace. We are ready to be done. Normally we would finish the last section on the river, but because of the warm weather the city closed the river ice trails for safety. A race official was at the other end of the park to guide us to the final trail since it was a last minute change. As we got close I texted Scott (who ran the shorter race) so he would know we were getting close. As Paul and I climbed up from the river trail into the Forks court yard it was almost fitting that a band was playing. With a huge smile we see Scottie waiting for us. Finally with much relief we cross the finish line side by side. We made it. We were about to enter the realm of legends and the Order of the Hrimthurs.
The rest of the crew was not far behind.
Every one of us that went to Actif Epica in search of the Order made it. I find that remarkable and a testament to the toughness of the people that make it this far on this quest. This is a bond we will share forever. I am honored to call these folks my friends.
DREAM BIG THERE ARE NO LIMITS!