It has been some time! I update most of my happenings via Instagram now, but there are many things that I should talk about more in depth, so here I am, back on my website! Thank you for your patience…
If you follow me on social (I hope you do!) or have heard me talk on a podcast or in person, you’ll likely know that I have been adventure racing for a few years. I have yet to elaborate on any of those experiences, so I hope you enjoy this recap of my most recent race, Wilderness Traverse, which took place in Ontario, Canada between August 24-25, 2019.
What is Adventure Racing?
Adventure Racing has been around for decades, yet many are unfamiliar with the sport. The races range from less than a day to over a week, with expedition length races (3+ days) as the focus of the world circuit. A considerable amount of training is needed to prepare properly for a race; it may be time consuming, especially if you have a full-time job and also if you don’t live in an area conducive to training. (Hello, NY!) The cost of gear, races and travel may be its’ largest deterrent, though if you’ve ever thought about signing up for an Ironman, it’s on par with that; in fact, some of the races are cheaper (especially if you break it down per day) and I believe you get more for your money going to an adventure race. It’s one of the most unique ways to explore remote areas you’d likely not travel to.
How does Adventure Racing (AR) work? It’s a team sport, with 3 or 4 person teams on a mission to finish the fastest while locating all of the checkpoints (CPs) on the maps given… using ONLY the maps and a compass. There is no GPS. *GASP* (This is actually what drew me to the sport, as I was nicknamed “Navigator” at a young age.) There are different divisions teams may compete in, though usually in order to compete for the largest accolade, teams must have at least one female member. Strong women are a commodity!
AR is a multi-discipline sport, which includes trekking/running, mountain biking, paddling and abseiling/rappelling, if available. Occasionally, a race will include other disciplines or special challenges. Each race is quite unique from the other in that the distance, amount of legs and order of disciplines varies greatly. Since there is no set route, it is up to the teams to decide how they will proceed. Some maps may have trails and roads, some may not; in many cases, you find yourself bushwhacking your way around because that’s the most effective way to stay on bearing (in the direction you need to travel) in order to find a CP. I’ve done races as short as 20 hours up to almost 6 days in length. Sleep? Good question. I calculated I slept about 10-12 hours during that 6 day race. If you’re in it to win it, don’t plan on sleeping much, even in a 72-hour race.
Wilderness Traverse 2019
Wilderness Traverse is one of my favorite ARs to date; my strength is multi-day racing, but as I’ve discovered the past two years, Bob Miller, the race director, has a skill for creating wonderfully challenging courses, which teams have 30 hours to complete. The turnout is always large (over 30 teams raced this year) and it is highly competitive.
This year, I joined a partly new team - Team Raid Pulse/Ciele. My teammates were Jean-Yves (JY), whom I raced with last year on Team Snowpants, where we came in 2nd place at WT, and two new teammates, Jean-Francois (JF) and Yannick, who raced on Team Ciele last year, placing 5th. What’s great about a niche sport is that everybody knows everybody; JY, JF and Yannick are all friends and have developed a friendly rivalry over the years.
I arrived in Ottawa Thursday afternoon, and for once, I did not have to rush to unpack and set up my gear. Thanks to new luggage allowance policies on Delta, allowing me to take my bike as a piece of normal check-in luggage, I managed to pack everything into a carry-on and my bike box. I even had time Thursday evening to go for a ride on local trails, which coming from somebody who lives just outside of NYC, was a treat! For reference, I ride the same 5.5 mile loop over and over for the majority of my regular training. It’s a great trail, but it’s quite monotonous, especially when I need to get in a 30 mile ride. Not only was it great to be on new trails, but it was great to be able to thoroughly check my bike. For anybody who has never traveled with a bike, it is essential to get in a solid test ride. Last year, I made a saddle height error and lost a lot of power due to half an inch of lost saddle height.
With everything unpacked and repacked, we were ready to head off to Dorset, Ontario, Friday midday. The area where the race took place was just as I expected based upon last year’s experience; beautiful forest covering rolling hills, broken up with lakes in every direction.
Upon check-in, which includes a mandatory gear check, we completed packing our transition area (TA) bins and waited for the evening meeting, which would include map distribution.
Here’s the breakdown of the 10th Annual 2019 Wilderness Traverse:
Leg #1 – Paddle & Portage, 39km/6 - 10 hours
Leg #2 – Trek, 16km/3.5 – 8 hours
Leg #3 – Mountain Bike, 27km/1.75 – 3 hours
Leg #4 – Trek, 4km/0.75 - 2 hours
Leg #5 – Mountain Bike, 23km/1.5 – 2.5 hours
Leg #6 – Trek, 10km/2.5 – 6 hours
Leg #7 – Mountain Bike, 37km/2.5 – 5.5 hours
(Distance is calculated via the shortest route and times are estimated completion.)
We had two transition areas (TAs), where we would have access to one of two TA bins, to refuel and swap out gear. TA1 was after Leg #1, the paddle and portage, and TA2 was after leg #2, the first trek. That was it, which meant that we would be on our own from Leg #3 until the end of the race, so we had to plan accordingly.
I’m going to diverge for a moment and talk more about TA bins. TA bin packing is somewhat of an art. Every race has a different set-up. You need to figure out what you’ll need in terms of gear and nutrition to hold you over until you see your next bin. It tends to get more complicated for longer races and your team may have 4 bins which will rotate at various TAs throughout the race. You may go multiple legs and many hours (24+) without seeing any bins. I have made errors in the past by not packing enough food, but thankfully because it is a team sport, sharing is caring and is critical for success. Selfishness gets your team nowhere in this sport.
After packing up our TA bins and grabbing some dinner, we spent a considerable amount of time going over the pre-plotted maps (for some races, your team must plot the checkpoints themselves); we were one of the last teams to leave the meeting area, but we were confident that the time spent was worthwhile. A solid plan is important, because once the race gets started, you don’t want to spend any time double checking your planned route.
We slept quite well. I had vivid dreams of canoeing in the upside-down from Stranger Things. I wouldn’t have called it a nightmare; it was more of a creepy adventure. It could have been worse! We arrived at the race site, where a lovely breakfast was prepared… there was even a vegan option, which I greatly appreciated! Since we were going to paddle and portage for a few hours, we were able to fuel up slightly more than normal; it’s easier to digest in a canoe rather than hustling on foot or on the bike.
We awaited our canoe assignments, curious to see how a slight error in canoe rentals panned out. Canoes were provided by the race, but the vendor did not provide all of the same models, so 12 of the 50+ canoes were about 10lbs heavier. Bob did an excellent job resolving the situation. Unfortunately for us, all top teams would have one heavy canoe and one normal canoe.
I’ve never participated in a mass paddle start before and knowing that myself and my team were not the strongest paddlers, we knew we had to find our way towards the front of the pack through the first few hundred meters, while simultaneously not getting caught up in our placing.
PC: Derek Carpenter
That partially happened, as JF and Yannick both worked their way to the front and JY and I, in the heavier canoe, got stuck in a small bottleneck a few canoes back. We eventually were side by side and got to work.
PC: Geoff Allen
There were over 10 portages, ranging from a short <100m portage to almost a mile. The canoes were outfitted with a yoke, a bar that you rest on your shoulders to make it easier to carry. We quickly found out at the first portage that our heavier canoe had the yoke on backwards, so we had to turn around the canoe in order to properly carry it… just another blip to work through! I carried paddles and/or the paddle bag while the guys took turns portaging the two canoes.
PC: Derek Carpenter
During my first few ARs, I dreaded paddling, maybe it was partly due to my first AR experience, paddling down a river in torrential rain, as our canoe filled with water and almost sunk, but the more and more I do it, I realize that I actually enjoy it. I now have a kayak that I thoroughly enjoy taking out. At a race like WT, you cannot ask for better paddling conditions. The lakes are stunning and the area is known for portaging, so usually there’s a decent trail for it, though we had a few short spots where we had to navigate over a lot of fallen trees. Towards the end of the paddle, I grabbed the lighter boat and discovered that I also enjoyed portaging and was quite good at it. I will credit that to my Death Race experiences, carrying a variety of odd objects for many hours.
We arrived at TA1 around 4th place, which was a great surprise, as we were expecting to come out closer to 7th-10th place. We made one small error, but that didn’t cost us much time at all.
PC: Geoff Allen
TA1 was quick. In a matter of a few minutes the canoes went down, our packs went on, we inhaled some fuel, registered the CP and ran off on our first trek to Checkpoint #4 (CP4)… so we thought. Yannick and JY were managing navigation and they are great navigators. The whole team was great at navigation, but we kept the job to two people, as three or more tends to be a crowd.\
PC: Geoff Allen
Shortly after leaving TA1, we hopped off trail and into the woods, bushwhacking, as that’s what a lot trekking legs of an AR look like. At some point, after crossing what appeared to be an old, overgrown ATV/snowmobiling trail, we went off our bearing, which spiraled into kind of getting lost. Ok, maybe we were lost... or how about we say that we took the scenic route. As beautiful as the land was, it was somewhat difficult to navigate, as there were many swamps and marshes that were not on the map, and there were no open area highpoints, so it was quite easy to think you were in one place, when you were in a completely different one.
After slowly bushwhacking for some time, much of it through thick, thorny brush that toppled over my head, we stopped at the edge of a lake that was large enough to gather some bearing. We didn’t need much thought as we overhead other teams running through the woods towards the direction of which we came. One team, two teams, etc… We missed CP4. We overshot it, but thankfully it wasn’t too far away; passing the other teams leaving it motivated us to hustle.
I don’t know how much time we actually lost, but it was a bit. After getting CP4, we immediately put it behind us and focused on the task at hand; precise and efficient navigation, and that’s exactly what Yannick and JY did. We followed our bearing, dealing with whatever terrain we encountered, and that was the plan there on out. Some of our route took us scrambling up and over massive boulders and there were some sketchy climbs, where trees provided us with the necessary handholds to hoist ourselves up.
We nabbed our next checkpoints quickly and made it to TA2, discovering that our 10 minute chase turned into a 45 minute one. In a multi-day race, I wouldn’t think too much of it, but in a race this short, that is a long time to make up. We had a fairly quick transition, JF at one point reminding us that we weren’t there to have a picnic, and we rode off on our bikes.
PC: Derek Carpenter
JF and Yannick recently came back from a cycling trip through the French Alps. If you want to feel out of your league, get behind two cyclists who took such a trip. JY is a strong cyclist as well. These guys pushed and pulled me to my limits and beyond and I am so thankful for them. I knew I would be strongest on foot, so the best thing for me to do to help my team on the bike was to throw my ego away and give them some of my gear, which is exactly what I did.
We made up a lot of time on the first bike leg, as we rode into both the first and second place (mixed) teams heading into the end of the leg. I believe the reigning champs, Stoked Oats, had a navigational error, which unknowingly opened up the door for us. Things change quickly in AR! We turned onto the final section of the leg alongside Stoked Oats, which was gorgeous single track and some hike-a-bike, mainly due to the technical aspect of being practically alongside a cliff. Unlike the previous trails, which were mainly dirt and ATV/snowmobile roads, this was terrain that made it nearly impossible to pass anybody, so all of the teams rode together into the next trek.
Dusk was fading as we arrived at the start of our next trekking leg. We dropped our bikes, swapped out our shoes, turned on our headlamps and ran off. This trek was mainly through a tight knit maze of XC skiing trails, which were easy to navigate and did not require much bushwhacking. We were efficient, continuously moving, and returned back to our bikes leading the race. Given it was completely dark when we finished this short trek, the proximity of the trails and that our lead was likely small, we made a strong effort to get on our bikes and get out of the area as quickly as possible; we didn’t want any other teams to gather where we were going by our headlamps.
The second bike leg was fairly straight forward. We rode similar terrain to the last leg, though some of the trails were a bit overgrown… nothing like the feeling of your skin being torn open by bushes as you cruise along to keep you alert. That wasn’t as much of a worry as the thorns that covered the trail median, which put anybody at risk of puncturing a tire. That would have cost us precious time and thankfully did not happen. There was one memorable section of that bike leg where we came up on an area of heavily washed out road. The road flat out disappeared, leaving a gaping 12+ foot deep and 15-20 foot wide hole of loose dirt and rocks below us. I wasn’t surprised by this encounter, as that’s the nature of AR; you just deal with it. We hopped off our bikes, and with a little teamwork, we were in and out of that obstacle.
We arrived at the final trek in first place, with no idea where the teams behind us were. That’s nothing out of the ordinary. There was a wonderful crew of volunteers waiting at this CP, with a fire roaring and even some homemade vegan cookies, which I happily and quickly indulged in. We knew this trekking leg was going to be challenging; it was designed like a typical orienteering course, with a lack of trails and lots of fun terrain features. It was likely going to be a wet one; the most direct route to any of the checkpoints was through marshes and lakes, but in order to stay on an efficient course, it was the method we decided to travel.
Within minutes of leaving the CP, we were at the edge of a lake, evaluating a swim. Headlamps of another team appeared to have pulled into the bike drop area, so we had to move with urgency. The water was warm all race, but the air temperature dropped a good 20F, leaving the temperature somewhere around low to mid 50F. The first swim wasn’t long, about 25m, and it was necessary to take in order to save time. I was slightly chilly when we got out, but in a matter of minutes, I was plenty warm again, as we were scrambling up the steep side of the lake’s edge, heading towards our first CP of the leg.
I love trekking at night; I feel like I’m on a mission of sorts, which keeps me focused, yet also livens up the darkness and keeps the natural middle-of-the-night urge to rest away. We were moving and grooving well since our CP4 glitch, but there was something about this specific trek where we found some serious flow. The terrain was not the easiest to traverse or to navigate in the darkness; we were in and out of lakes and marshes, and trekked up and down steep, loose-footed ground, a lot of it off camber, but for whatever reason, we were coasting. Only once after that initial swim did we see headlamps off in the distance for a brief moment, but that was all we needed to continue on at a strong pace.
When we arrived back at the CP where we dropped our bikes, we immediately noticed a considerable increase in the number of bikes parked and teams were flowing in to start their trek. In a matter of a few minutes we were on our bikes and out of there. Again, we knew we were in the lead, but had no idea how big of a lead we held. Only the “dot watchers” would have accurate knowledge. (“Dot watchers” are those who follow live tracking online, since all of the teams carry two-way GPS communicators, also to be used in case of emergency.)
The final bike leg was the longest distance-wise, but it was very manageable from a technical aspect. Our biggest obstacle at this point was that our bodies were pushing hard for over 17 hours, so we had to monitor fatigue, meaning staying on top of nutrition and hydration, but also keeping morale up in order to continue to push hard, if not the hardest yet. Our team dynamic was ideal; we laughed a lot and we were able to immediately switch on serious focus when necessary. Needless to say, we worked through that final leg effectively pushing each other, reaching the finish line in 1st place around 4am in about 20 hours.
VC: Wilderness Traverse FB - Give them a follow!
Of course I was elated with our team’s result; it was a hard fought win. Bob the Beaver was ours! (Apparently I’m the first American team member to have earned Bob, who will be making a trip to NYC at some point before next year’s race.)
Not to my surprise, I felt warmed up at the finish and was ready for round two. Eventually the adrenaline started to subside and I bundled up for our “warm down” - a slow 5km ride back to race HQ. The moment I got back in the saddle, which was anything but comfortable because I squatted in some thorns early in the race, the only thought I had was of getting out of my race clothes and curling up in my sleeping bag. Those thoughts were shortly a realization, but not before we had a look at our GPS track at race HQ. Turns out, not only did we take quite the scenic route to CP4, but the navigation on the final trek was flawless, which contributed to why we finished the race with a large lead.
I am immensely proud of my team and our accomplishment. This was the longest WT to date; it was challenging, yet very fast paced. I consider this race to be more of a sprint, which isn’t my forte, but now that Bob the Beaver is in our team’s possession for the next year, I’m motivated to refine my abilities in this distance to ensure his safe keeping.
A massive thank you to Bob Miller, his team and all of the volunteers that helped make this event happen. I cannot remember the exact number of volunteers, but I believe it was close to 100; that shows you the quality of the race and the people behind it. If you’re looking to break into AR, I highly recommend Wilderness Traverse.
A second massive thank you to my sponsors, The Feel Good Lab and ReCOVER. They’ve stuck by my side through a less than ideal year, and also helped me get back to full speed through some difficulties faster than I would have without their support (and products)!
Technical Talk AKA Gear
The weather was perfect. The highs were in the high 70s and the low would dip just below 50F, which we didn’t encounter because we finished before dawn. I wore compression tights, a short sleeve shirt and cap the whole race. I started the race with arm warmers on, which worked as sun protection, and ditched them at TA1. I added cycling shorts on top of my compression tights at TA2 and did not take them off for the rest of the race. Part of our required gear was a long sleeve shirt and a waterproof jacket, but I didn’t plan to use either of them unless it was absolutely necessary. My waterproof jacket was the Arc’teryx Norvan SL Hoody, a Gore-tex trail running jacket. It packs a punch for being as lightweight as it is, and I knew that it would protect me from any onset of hypothermia, which would most likely arise on the bike if I was riding soaked from a swim.
I started in my Salomon S-Lab Sense SG shoes and crew length compression socks. At TA2, I swapped out my socks for knee-high compression ones and put my Arc’teryx Norvan SL shoes in my pack. They are lightweight and drain extremely well, so given the likelihood of being in and out of the water, they would be the best choice for the latter half of the race. I used my mountain biking shoes as I always do; I’ve hiked many miles in those shoes, so it was no big deal if we were to encounter any hike-a-bike sections.
For the paddle, since my PFD does not have a hydration sleeve (I need to fix that), I used my Salomon ADV Skin 12 hydration pack, using only the bladder (1.5L) for fluid and the front pockets for nutrition. It worked well and was the perfect amount of hydration for the first leg. At TA1, I picked up my Salomon Out Day 20+4 backpack. It’s a lightweight daypack with pockets on the shoulder and hip straps. In AR, I mainly use bottles so I can swap them while riding between my pack and cages, so I used the front and hip pockets for gloves and nutrition and the side pocks on the main compartment for extra bottles.
I used my Moxie Gear paddle at a 60 degree offset. I love this paddle. I wore my NRS Ninja PFD, which is minimal, but doesn’t have a lot of storage, so adding the hydration pack was key. I decided to get paddling gloves this summer, which greatly improved my comfort, as I have a tendency to death-grip the paddle. I don’t own a “fancy” mountain bike; I’ve been riding the same aluminum Trek Superfly hardtail for a few years now. For being aluminum, it’s fairly lightweight. When I compare it to some of my friends’ high-end full suspension bikes, it’s not. I’m looking into an upgrade in the near future since I ride a lot nowadays.
As stated earlier, this is practically a sprint race in the world of AR, so my nutrition reflected that. I mainly stuck to sports nutrition, which included a variety of waffles and gummies, which I know I’m able to eat for one day without trouble, and also included sweet potatoes, a few bars, pretzels, salted nuts, Red Bull (for obvious reasons, but also because it’s one of the few things I’m able to handle if my stomach turns) and bananas, which I ate in the TAs. If this was a multi-day race, I would include dehydrated meals, as well as a greater variety of food.