Previously I referred to the “brutal beauty” of winter on the prairies. Actif Epica 2016 was certainly personally brutal and personally beautiful.
The beauty: people, People, PEOPLE! From Friday night’s pre-race meeting at the Belgian Club thru Saturday night’s finish line festivities at The Forks in downtown Winnipeg, I found immense contentment through connections. A reunion with Gregory McNeill, as well as meeting others whom are Facebook friends provided a fine entry to weekend. Listening to the adventures of Sue Lucas, Steve Cannon, Leah Gruhn, and David Ristau was sheer enjoyment. Their descriptions of rides created precise pictures in my mind. The conversation with Dwayne Sandall (race director) as he brought me from the Niverville Checkpoint back to The Forks was informative, personal, and invigorating.
Not to be outdone were the wonderful, hospitable, local residents serving food and encouragement at the checkpoints. (I made 3 of 5 checkpoints). Alongside the local residents were the numerous Actif volunteers who gave of their time, their cheerfulness, and their dedication to this fine event.
The brutal: where should I begin? The -17 degree start wasn’t too much of an issue this year. The 2015 event began at -22F with a -40F windchill. I was much better prepared this year. Clothing was well tuned in, as was headgear and footwear. In 2015, I rode my Pugsley.
This year I was on foot. The issue that continues to plague me is maintaining comfortable hands. I had a 3 layer system with a chemical hand warmer on the back of the outer glove that is Gore-Tex, but not Gore Windstopper.
Most of the time I was fine. When my calorie supply dwindled (no fuel for the internal furnace) I noticed my fingers beginning to get cold. Time to consume calories. Right, but that means taking off my gloves and getting fingers more chilled. Within minutes of eating my hands were fine once again, until the wind speed began to rise. When I needed to face the south wind directly or when going in an easterly direction my fingers began to chill significantly. Even though the temperature reached 0 and continued a slow climb, the southeasterly winds kept climbing, too.
Another factor that beat upon me was the icy build up on some roads and trails. I had brought a pair of grip enhancers, but after seeing a number of the roads on the Friday drive to Winnipeg, I left them in the vehicle believing that they wouldn’t be necessary. I was wrong. Numerous times I slipped on the ice. As I pushed off on either foot, I would catch myself before I fell, most of the time. These surprises in motion caused noticeable, but not significant strain on my legs. In the final miles of my journey I twice fell completely and solidly on my side. Add to this the undulating nature of trail sections that traverse minimum maintenance field roads. These were a mixture of snow cover, packed and slippery snow, and tire imprinted, rough, frozen chunks of Manitoba soil. My ankles had a significant work out and in some directions that they weren’t prepared to assume.
Finally, Sue Lucas mentioned as I visited with her on Friday afternoon that the gravel would beat up my feet. She was biking this year, as previously she was on foot. One major reason for the bike was the merciless pounding from the gravel. I run and trek on gravel many times, what could be the big deal? Sue was correct. Something about the crushed rock gravel makes it difficult to endure after a number of hours.
I was feeling well after the Crystal Springs checkpoint, in large part due to the great hospitality of the Hutterites, who allow us to come to their colony. Substantial breads, chicken soup, and the special treat that one of the residents brought out: sliced ham.
I had nutrition, a good attitude, and a couple of pieces of ham tucked away for the 12 mile trek to the next checkpoint. I was pleased with my pace, but I also knew that I had many miles yet to go.
I was by myself, as I had been for the majority of time since the 7am start. Following Checkpoint 2, I was slowly gaining on a group of runners. I wanted to get connected with them by the Checkpoint 3.
I felt that their presence and the distraction of fellow foot people would boost my perspective and give me guidance for the miles that lay ahead. All was going according to my plans, but the ongoing prairie was beginning to mess with my perspective. I stopped to eat a piece of ham, drink some warm water, enjoy peanut M&Ms, and continue on my way. This might have taken too long, but I needed the time. I looked myself over as I set out for the push to the next checkpoint. A major portion of the remaining miles included a 4+ mile stretch that would mean the southeast wind beating on my face.
My fellow trekkers were about .25 mile in front of me. I sensed that I could catch them by Checkpoint 3. I looked down on my backpack belt to retrieve my water bottle and in so doing noticed that my GPS device was gone. I stopped and felt in my pockets and reexamined my belt. The Garmin was not with me. I knew I had it where I had stopped to eat and drink which was about 2.5 miles behind me. Decision: leave a $200 electronic device on the prairie or turn around and look for it? The device is relatively small, it’s grey and black in color. It was moving toward sunset and I had been on some dirt minimum maintenance road. I had gone about 1.2 miles into the steady winds. In the miles past Checkpoint 3, I would need to rely more fully upon the GPS. I turned around in search of the device. I located the Garmin and was significantly relieved. I placed the device in a zippered pocket, as I knew how to get to the next Checkpoint. I ate more ham, drank more water, made some yellow snow, and headed back into the wind. I could not see the other people, as darkness was setting in and they had gained a lot of distance as I made a 3 mile detour. In an attempt to make up some time, I pushed a little harder on the snow packed and at times chunky, frozen clumps of dirt minimum maintenance road. To my surprise and disdain I pushed off an unseen ice patch and fell on my side. At least it wasn’t the side where the Garmin was zippered into a pocket. This hurt!! Getting up I pushed forward. It wasn’t too long before I tripped on a frozen clump and almost did a face plant. Trying to make up for lost time was futile on this part of the trail. It was here that I came to the realization that I needed to simply make it to the next checkpoint. I was beat up, frustrated, and no longer mentally in the event. I couldn’t conceive of being in the dark, in the cold, and by myself for another 11-13 hours. I made it to Checkpoint 3 in Niverville and ended the journey. The race director was coming out to look for me, as the two people on whom I was gaining told him that I was right behind them. He was worried that I hadn’t come into the Checkpoint previously. I was grateful to realize that people are looking out for one another. It’s part of the ultra culture in many aspects or at least in the aspects of ultras where I find myself.
Dwayne gave me a ride to The Forks (finish line). I was able to visit with and welcome finishers, congratulating them for their extreme efforts and perseverance. I also applauded Ryan, as he rode his 9zero7 to the finish line. It was good to see the Finish Line. Maybe next year I’ll see it from a different perspective?
Overall, Actif Epica is a well run and hospitable event. Both years in which I have attempted the course the temperatures have been extremely low. I was pleased with many aspects of my training and gear choices. I simply wasn’t ready to overcome the obsticles.
I also spent significant time at the two Checkpoints. Cutting off some time may have provided me more cushion and possibly a different attitude later in the journey. However, I enjoy meeting people, learning about their lives, and thanking them for their willingness to be of help in these events. As of now, I’m not ready to give up the meaningful social and interactive part of ultras just to cross the finish line. Actif Epica may have won, but I too came away with much more than I brought!