Actif’s Diverse Stage

It was time to get Ryan, gather his fatbike and gear into the van for the trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Ryan’s clean bike.

Ryan and I made it into Manitoba early Friday afternoon. We decided to explore some of the area that we would be trekking/riding for Saturday’s event. We made our way to Ridgeville and found one of the roads we would be traveling. Saying it was a gravel road would be correct. Saying it was a sloppy, soft, gritty gravel road would be more accurate.  The more we explored the more Ryan voiced that this would be a true gravel grinder, especially with the gritty debris that would coat his bike. He also lamented that the 3rd event in order to become part of the Order of the Hrimthurs shouldn’t be so easy.

We stopped the van at numerous places to test the conditions. I would be trekking a 160km (100 mile) distance with a loaded backpack, while Ryan was biking 200km (125 miles). His gear would be on his bike.

One of many places where the road ended and the Crow Wing Trail continued.

The snow was heavy and wet, as temperatures in the mid-30sF along with the growing intensity of the mid-February sun was causing a significant melt.  I was pondering whether to strap my small snowshoes onto my pack or leave them behind. Last year’s 120 km (75 miles) distance went through untraveled snow sections, but I remembered it was manageable. The more I looked at the snow while contemplating the extra hassle of the gear, I decided to leave the snowshoes in the van. Instead I would pack my Stabilicers Hike XP for the slippery times during the night when temperatures went below freezing.

Ryan woke me at 3:07Am in order to finish preparations, take in some calories, and walk to The Forks were we loaded onto the old school bus for the hour ride to our starting locations. The Ridgeville Community Center was to be my starting location. I was anxious for the opportunity to take care of last minute bodily functions before the start. No one was at Ridgeville to unlock the door at the building.  As the lyrics of a country song state, “You got to know when to hold’em.”

It was a pleasant start with the sun beginning to rise. My clothing choices were fine. The pace of the group, along with the banter was superb.  We were the back of the group. In an event covering 100 miles starting fast and taking the lead means little. The colder nighttime temperatures made the road surfaces solid without being icy.  The four others with whom I shared the morning all had snowshoes strapped to their backpacks. I mentioned that if we needed them, I would just “draft” off of their packed down footsteps.

Krystee, Randy, myself, and Jeff. (Photo courtesy of Gregory McNeill)

After a few hours with the intensity of the sun strengthening the roads were beginning to give way under my feet. Imprints were left without gritty clay or water on my boots. After a few hundred feet onto a snow covered trail the pace changed. My smart remark of “drafting” off the others was glaringly put to rest. My four companions strapped on their snowshoes and soon they were out of sight. Even following their impressions in the snow, I continued to plunge deeper into the moist snow. My pace slowed and my heart rate rose. Everything had changed rapidly. The temperatures were pleasant, the sun was bright in the deep blue sky, and I was struggling to move forward.

Deep tracks on the Crow Wing Trail both by feet and bike tires. (Gregory McNeill photo)

The 200km (125 mile) bikers were now passing me. They were pushing their bikes through this same path, but they made it look relatively easy in comparison to how I was plodding along. I spent a few minutes beating myself for not bringing my snowshoes. However, after a couple minutes of  self-pity and negative self-talk it was time to move forward because I couldn’t change the past.  After what seemed like many miles of postholing, the road to the Swinging Bridge was in sight. My boots seemed to be handling the wet snow well, as my feet were comfortable. Back on the road and a much faster pace!

Swinging Bridge across the Roseau River. (Photo by G. McNeill)

The descent and ensuing climb out of the Roseau River valley seemed daunting. The descent was slippery as the packed snow was now wet. The ascent was equally slippery for the same reason. “At least I don’t have to push my bike through this crap.” I told myself as positive self-talk. Finally after hours of plodding through snow wrapped trail, I emerged onto a gravel road. This was not only a mental boost, but a physical one as my leg strength and flexibility had been challenged by the hours of the  sheltered white wonderland.

Early afternoon road conditions.  Lower left shows foot indentations.

The first checkpoint at St Malo was getting closer, but I was questioning if my pace would be enough to make the cut-off times. Moving forward on the gritty, sloppy gravel was also less than ideal. There was no reason to look for solid footing as there was none to be found.  I thought I heard a whistling sound behind me, but I paid no attention. Soon it was loud and distinct. Ryan (fellow Gravel Grunt) was now passing me. He looked exhausted as he stopped to chat. After a bit of consoling one another we parted ways. He told me the time. I wasn’t certain how long it would take me to reach St. Malo, but I knew that the cut-off at the second checkpoint wasn’t going to be made unless I could pick up the pace significantly.

The volunteers at the St. malo checkpoint were great! High spirits and hospitality awaited, as did an indoor bathroom. Somehow when my body realized that I was within 30 minutes of the checkpoint things erupted. Wow, from needing the bathroom over 20 miles earlier my body responded by taking this out of the picture. Needless to say, my body now suggested a much faster pace. Disaster averted!

After a much needed break physically and emotionally along with encouragement from the volunteers, I headed out. The next checkpoint was 17 miles away on a circuitous route that included significant portions of snow covered trail, sloppy roads, and a slush encrusted lake.  The lake was cluttered with ice houses. I stopped to make certain I would find the exit off the lake as evening was presenting itself.  Jerry, his son, and his grandson were a delight, not only for directions but for human interaction. We enjoyed conversation for about 10 minutes, including the grandson’s description of the fish he caught. All three were amazed at what I was attempting to accomplish. I shared my perspective of the significance of their 3 generation fishing outing. After declining the use of their snowmobile to get to the next checkpoint, enjoying 3 handshakes and well wishes, I was moving forward once again.

Realizing that I wasn’t going to make the time cut-off at the next checkpoint was a reality. Now I focused on this as a training time. What can I learn? What has gone well and not so well? What have I learned about myself and others?  I continued through the darkness illuminated by my headlamp. The cooler temperatures made for more changes in traction, but it was all part of the experience. I reached the checkpoint at St. Pierre-Jolys. I was satisfied with my efforts. I was grateful for the experience. I was filled with the joy of interacting with numerous people which is one of the reasons I continue to venture to the starting line of events.

Ryan at the finish of his 125 mile experience on bike.
Gravel Grunts back home!

With winter giving way to spring in the area, I change my mode of transportation. It’s time to get on two wheels and traverse gravel roads.  I look forward to time with Ryan, as the Gravel Grunts train together. Our next adventure on bikes is the Royal 162 in Spring Valley, MN in May.

My current focus is on getting everything together for END-SURE. As race director, I want too provide a meaningful, challenging, hospitable, and memorable experience for those who come to the Sheyenne National Grasslands for their own personal reasons.

It’s not the finish line nor the medals, but the opportunity to interact with others and to grow within myself.