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Adapt and Survive at Wilderness Traverse

Nicky Cameron / 03.09.2021See All Event Posts Follow Event
The winners on the finish line
The winners on the finish line / © Nicky Cameron

On a spectacularly hot and humid weekend in mid-August, the most amazing thing happened to the Canadian adventure racing community: a race!  After almost two years of cancelled events and the sense that training was pointless, Canadian racers (and a few select Americans) were brought together in the dream-like beauty of Ontario cottage country to suffer and triumph together in real life in Bob Miller’s 24 hour Wilderness Traverse.  It was heat-exhaustion hot, it was push-your-bike muddy, it was sticks-up-your-nose dense bush, it was painful beyond belief; and it was absolutely glorious.

The prospect of a real live race attracted the best of the Canadian race community. Some notables included last Wilderness Traverse winners Team Raid Pulse; Team Peaks and Trails, headed up by Scott Ford, who was Race Director Bob Miller’s team-mate at Eco Challenge Fiji; Bend Racing with Alex Provost and Karine Corbeil, both also Eco Challenge competitors; and Team Azimut, with ex-Olympian cyclist Lyne Bessette and her stable of Quebecois uber-athletes.

A diverse group of rookies was also ready to tow the line, most lured in by the race’s link to Eco Challenge and many of whom hadn’t even done a single adventure race, let alone one of Wilderness Traverse’s level of difficulty. The weekend promised the kind of heat that makes you feel like the climate-change apocalypse is just around the corner, and the course promised that everyone would push until they had no more, and then have to push even more.

Thanks to COVID, there were a few key differences in the race organization. Rather than all teams racing together, the 60 teams were divided into two 24-hour cohorts, Cohort 1 racing from 7 am Friday to 7 am Saturday; Cohort 2 from 9:30 am Saturday to 9:30 am Sunday. With two teams doing the same route, secrecy about the course design and the results from Cohort 1 was paramount.  Barb Campbell, a headquarters manager with a detail-orientation Germans would admire, enforced a strict gag order on volunteers and teams. 

Another key difference was the use of a central Transition Area to minimize the volunteers needed and the time spent driving around in groups together. A cloverleaf design, with all the gear needed by each team at a central “home base,” reduced logistical and COVID challenges by approximately 1 million percent. 

Normally sight of Race Director Bob is as rare as sleep during a race, only heard about and glimpsed at a distance, haggard and junk-food fueled, behind the wheel of a truck. After the start of Cohort 1, I witnessed him sitting in the sunshine outside the on-site motel room the skeleton crew of volunteers was housed in, drinking a coffee and having a quiche from a local bakery.  “This is downright civilized!” he toasted us.

Teams were each given a spot on a large field for their gear and a car (a few brought RVs) and instructions to wear masks and to stay 2 m away from racers not on their team. They were also required to leave within one hour of the 24-hour cut-off.  No hanging around to watch other teams. Racers gamely followed instructions to the letter. The field filled and emptied like a military encampment.

A New Race Normal?

The course was designed with three course options: a Challenge Course (three sections); an Explorers Course (four sections) and an Expedition Course (five sections).  Completion of any of the courses counted as completing that particular course, with the attendant glory and ranking over those who did not complete; however, the more sections completed, the higher a team’s overall ranking. Sections only counted towards final ranking if they were completed entirely. Teams had to be back at the central TA/finish line by the final race cut-off to ensure their results were included in the standings at all, so there was a strong incentive not to attempt a risky lengthy extra CP.

The final COVID twist was the lack of a pre-race briefing and map handout.To avoid the close contact involved in a pre-race briefing, as well as ensure no map leaks to Cohort 2, there was no pre-race briefing, and maps were handed out an hour before race start.

COVID has taught everyone that things that seemed impossible pre-COVID can become standard.  Working from home? Impossible. Now? Standard. Bob and Barb and the rest of the Wilderness Traverse team implemented a number of innovations in how to run a race with the bare minimum crew of volunteers and administration – it will be fascinating to see how much of it sticks.  I heard zero complaints about the central TA. Most teams seemed to love the reduction in planning it required – and once COVID is over the social element it facilitates would be a bonus.

Like They Do on the Telly

Among the racers spread out in their designated spots, frantically reviewing their maps, were several rookie teams. The lure of the Amazon series Eco Challenge is both glorious, for drawing new people to the sport, and terrible, as Wilderness Traverse is arguably the most difficult 24 hour race in North America.  It is always run in wilderness locations, with a minimum of road travel, and demands significant navigations skills.

Cohort 1 included Farm Team, a collection of friends who, due to COVID delays, didn't receive their new adventure racing bikes until July. "The bike shop owner called us and said 'I have bikes. Not the bikes you ordered.  But bikes.' The team took whatever two-wheelers were on offer and admitted they still weren’t comfortable with the clipless pedals.

Dream Team, in Cohort 2, was another complete newbie to the sport. Team captain Glenda Nadege-Pierre bristled at the suggestion that the event was a big challenge. “We’ve done some navigation. We’ve done a Rogaine. We know what we’re doing.” Another notable rookie team was “Team Operation Rob My Ass”, a collection of five dudes following their one super-fit friend into the adventure of a lifetime. Their raucous vibe gave them the vague air of a frat party, and indeed, one asked for a light after an initial swim on the trek.

The first section of the race was a trek through a forest full of blown-down trees and dense brush. One racer actually ended up with a stick in her nose. “It bled for a little while after that,” she commented. It was already hovering around 30 degrees at 8 am for Cohort 1 and even hotter for the Cohort 2. The sun felt like a brand if you were silly enough to step out of the shade.  Smart teams re-routed to include as many swims across small lakes as was possible.  None of the race time estimates were met, and everyone ended up back at TA with candy-apple red, or worryingly pale faces. The heat had already taken its toll on several racers. The chocolate milk available at the finish line sometimes came up as fast as it went down.

All except one of the rookie teams dropped out in the first section.  Most lasted approximately 10 hours on the course. Farm Team made their way back to the TA after dark after 14 hours on the course, full of jokes and a new-fired love for AR that inspired anyone who heard it. “I cried when I saw CP 1” said one team member. “I was just so happy. Guys,” she began to tear up remembering “there it is.” Operation Rob My Ass was carted back in a pick-up truck full of dudes. “We deserve the truck!” one of them wailed in chagrin. Another unidentified rookie team was seen sprinting along the road back to camp in the evening, having ditched their packs by the roadside and speeding along like dehydrated camels scenting water.

Ontario Lake Country – Paddles and Portages

The paddle section was a welcome change of pace – a slight breeze ruffled the water and cooled the sweat on racers’ bodies. Ontario lake country is best appreciated on the water. The scale is huge and somehow calming -massive rocks reflected in the water, tall pines with dancing arms, and long delicate needles. Racers surged past cottages, from lakeside shacks to hillside mansions, to deep wilderness on a winding stream reminiscent of a mangrove swamp. Don’t underestimate the wilderness here, even with all the fancy cottages. One volunteer went for a swim and found himself about 30m from a black bear that had just wandered out of the woods. 

Bob didn’t let anyone get sucked in by the scenery for too long, though – the “paddle and portage” section left many shoulders in pain from the frequency and length of the portages.  I am continually amused and amazed by the sight of a strong racer casually swinging a 17-foot canoe on their head and then running off with it. One can imagine cottagers spying ‘canoeheads’ in the woods or making their way down a road at night, with headlamps giving them an even more otherworldly look.

In Cohort 2, Team Peaks and Trails picked up a decisive lead on the paddle. Scott Ford and Jack Van Dorp are famed paddlers, and the intensity in the team was evident. I watched them come out of the water on one of the unending series of portages, and they were on the trail before the boat had even lost momentum from gliding into the shore.  A battle blew up between the two speedy Quebecois teams sitting in 3rd and 4thplace– Raid Azimut and Bend Racing arrived at the portage at the same time, engaging in the little-known sport of canoe fencing as they jockeyed to be on the portage trail first.

Give me a Sign

In Cohort 1, Team Raid Pulse, winners of the last edition of Wilderness Traverse, hammered out of TA on the bike section following the paddle/portage. The ride was minimum 70 km of steep gravel and hard-packed dirt hills. Leanne Mueller, who jumped in with team Swamp Monsters on basically a whim, usually trains in the mountains of Annecy, France. “I saw the 2500 m of elevation for the bike, and I laughed – where was Bob going to find all that elevation here?  But he found it. My legs say he found it.”

Raid Pulse instantly biked into a confusing snarl of cottage roads and ATV trails that also snared all top teams from Cohort 2.  “I don’t know what’s going on,” said Bob with his typical look of mild amusement at something that is causing heartbreak on the course. “They just have to turn right about 2 km after the road turns to dirt. But they’re missing it!”

This particular mistake was so consistent, unfortunately, that a kind cottager put up a detailed note in immaculate lettering at the entrance to the property: “Wilderness Event Bikers: you missed the Slipper Lake road turn-off. Go back 1.5 km and turn left at Slipper Lake Road. Good luck and have fun. RIDE SAFELY.” Thank goodness it was such a supportive (and precise) cottager. In Cohort 1, Adrenaline Rush nailed the route (even without the sign) and snuck around Raid Pulse, turning up the heat in the race for first cohort 1 finisher.

Completing the bike course meant completion of the “Challenge” course –and a challenge it was.  Teams rolled across the finish line throughout the night, moving gingerly and in slow motion as soon as the adrenaline wore off. Third place team Team Attack from Above commented “Wilderness Traverse is a tough race. Just those three sections – that would have been a good Wilderness Traverse. But then there was more.”

More, More, More

For competitive teams, two more sections were on the agenda to complete the Expedition Course and have a shot at a podium finish. Another intense trek was next, even bushier, with even more blown-down trees to scramble over. Navigation was in the dark, complicating factors and making swimming less enticing.

In Cohort 1, only 4 teams finished the second trek;  5 in Cohort 2. The trek was followed by the crux section: a, muddy, steep, barely bikeable bike section to test already tired legs and break spirits.Team Attack from Above in Cohort 2 built up so much mud on their chains they couldn’t stop throwing their chains. They described biking by the trail entrance on their road to the finish and giving it a middle finger and a ‘never again’.  “That mud! That bike! Who designed this race?” commented second place Bend Racing at the finish.

Shannon Miller from Peaks and Trails (Race Director Bob Miller’s wife) looked like she might cry when she described flying down the steep and rutted hills. But only three teams overall completed the final bike, all in Cohort 2. In Cohort 1, Team Raid Pulse went out on the bike, but had to make the devastating choice to turn back before the far-flung penultimate CP in order to avoid making it back to TA too late and losing all of their results.

Team Captain Yannick Huneault looked grim: “We made mistakes on the bike. It was long. Longest Wilderness Traverse I ever did.” Barb threatened anyone who revealed Raid Pulse’s failure to finish section 5 with excommunication from the AR community – if their results got out, other top teams in Cohort 2 could use it to decide whether or not to try their luck with the final section.

When Team Peaks and Trails crossed the finish line at dawn after completing the final bike, almost 22 hours of racing under their belt, it was apparent that Barb’s efforts had not been in vain. They looked… concerned? Disappointed?  After all, they had been racing a phantom team that had potentially made zero errors and suffered no fatigue. “We saw bike tracks at CP 17. Were we faster? What ranking are we?” When they learned that no other teams had yet completed the full course and that they were first, Shannon Miller’s face exploded with a smile like sunrise on a humid, misty morning.

Final results:

Third place, Expedition Course, Attack from Above, 23:37

Second Place, Expedition Course, Bend Racing, 23:05

First Place, Expedition Course, Peaks and Trails, 21:57

Visit www.wildernesstraverse.com/2021 and click on ‘live site’ to see the leaderboard and tracking map.

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