Friday, February 24, 2017

Actif Epica and the Hrimthurs

It is probably a cop out to say I don't know where to begin with this blog entry. I thought if reached this point it would be easy and write itself. Maybe I need time to reflect on what has just transpired. Completing this series of races has been the hardest thing I have ever done. Each race by itself was extremely difficult and stacking together in a 6 week span added to that. I am very tired, aching and sore physically. Mentally, I haven't wrapped my mind around what this all means. And I don't know if I can describe the emotional state but maybe some of that will be clearer in my recap on the race

Actif Epica the final step in completing the Order of the Hrimthurs, a series of winter ultramarathons. After getting accepted into Arrowhead last fall, I decided to give it a shot, a very long shot. Up until this year only 3 people had done all the races on foot in the same year. 14 finished Tuscobia on foot. Of those, 7 finished Arrowhead. 6 of us would be at the start line of Actif Epica.

On my way to Winnipeg

The potential future Hrimthurs (I'm the giant in the back)

Actif Epica was a big unknown going in. No of us had run the race. The race was 120 km in previous years but this year they were adding a 200 km version for bikers and a 160 km for runners. Either version of the race would count towards completing the requirements of the Order. Unlike most races, this course would not be marked, so it would be necessary to use a GPS and cue sheets with a list of turns to navigate. From the GPS data provided for navigation, the course appeared to be very flat.

After completing Tuscobia and Arrowhead, I felt that I had done the difficult part. Actif Epica was shorter and flatter. There was less gear required. The weather forecast called for temperatures into the low 30s so the cold would not be a problem. Sure it is a 100 miles but it is flat and much of it on roads. I had just spent 64 and 54 hours in the last two races, so a 35 hour cutoff would feel like nothing. This race was in the bag.

I arrived in Winnipeg Thursday evening and was able to relax most of Friday. I did go out to pick up a new jar of peanut butter to meet the calorie requirement, since my original jar from the previous 2 races was taken by TSA in Detroit. Who knew you couldn't fly with peanut butter? Gear check went smoothly and it was then I was told that I didn't need to carry 2000 calories the whole way, but just have it when I started, so I had plenty and hadn't needed the peanut butter.

The pre-race meeting was a bit of reunion for the six of us attempting to enter the Order. We sat and listened to the description of the course which started to sound concerning. Any section where the bike racers had to walk their bikes meant it would be bad conditions. The warm weather would mean sinking into deep snow and there would be several very sticky, heavy mud areas.

We boarded a bus around 4:30 AM Saturday to be taken to the start line. The original route (120 km) racers were dropped off first. We arrived at our start point a little after 6 which was the planned start time, so the start was delayed to 6:30. Due to the expected warmer weather, I tried to dress minimally, tights, a wool shirt, a thin pull over and medium weight running jacket. Waiting to start I felt cold and wanted to get moving in order to warm up.

We rolled out at 6:30 and followed several dirt roads for the first couple hours. There were some sections of two track on the edges of farms where the footing was not ideal but not too bad since temperatures were below freezing and the snow was solid. I felt decent early on but could still tell I had 400 miles of racing in my recent past. By the time I reached 10 miles I could feel the blisters starting on the balls of my feet. Way too early for that.

The first water stop was around 15 miles into the race. The section immediately before this was a solid 2 miles of trail that was total hell. The crust of snow on top would support several steps before giving way to sink in knee deep. Even walking in a previous runners footsteps was hard. This was slow, difficult and frustrating work. Up until then the pace had been good. I arrived at the water stop warm and tired with a long way to go.

The next section was better but still had occasional stretches of difficult snowy trail. My feet were gradually getting worse. My shoulders ached badly from not being used to carrying a pack full of gear. I just wanted to get to St. Malo, which is around 26 miles in and where the 120 km race started. I arrived at the checkpoint at 3 PM, 8 and half hours into the race. This was going to be a long day.

Leaving St. Malo I fell into pace with Randy, who was also going for the Order. This would be a lucky break after what happened a couple hours later. We were moving along decently, talking a little bit, when my GPS watch that I was using for navigation, beeped to tell me the battery was almost dead. Damn. But this was OK because I had a handheld GPS purchased just for this race to meet the gear requirements. So I pulled out the handheld, turned it on and tried to bring up the route file. It wasn't there. I was sure I had loaded it on and checked it before I flew out but it wasn't there. Now I had no way to navigate through the rest of the race. From what I had seen so far, I knew I couldn't do it with just the cue sheet turn directions. I was screwed. Was all my effort and work going to end like this? This was way too early in the race to stick with someone the rest of the way. I did not want to hold anyone up because of my incompetence and bad luck. I told Randy that all my navigation was dead and didn't know what to do. He took out his handheld which I had not seen him use and told me to use it for us since he couldn't figure it out. Looked like we were a duo from now on.

The sun was setting around this time. I kept telling myself I only needed to get through one night, not 2 like the last couple of races. All I had to do was grind until the sun came up again and everything would be OK. These are the lies I tell myself. Unfortunately I had been yawning since early int he afternoon. This was not a good sign going into the night.

The night was long, moving from checkpoint to checkpoint. Luckily, I was with Randy and we talked which helped the miles go by and helped me stay awake, which became a real struggle. At the stops I took in caffeine. I started to take Excedrin to help dull some of the pain in my legs, shoulders and feet. The blisters would become painful on uneven footing but I knew if I endured it long enough they would become numb again. Thankfully, there were hardly any issues with deep snow since the night became cold enough to firm up the snow but the footing was still not good.

The colder night wasn't even that cold relative to the previous races, probably only into the mid 20s. However, I was not drinking enough water. I had a 2 liter insulated flask in my pack but if I wanted a drink I had to stop and take the whole pack off, therefore, I would just keep walking instead of drinking. Dehydration can contribute to hypothermia. Knowing this, I tried to force myself to stop more often, especially when I started feeling too cold. I did end up having to put on my heavy jacket since I was unable to stay warm with everything else I had on.

The drama of the race increased at the Crystal Springs checkpoint shortly after midnight. We saw a group of runners leaving as we walked up. "Get in and get out!" they yelled at us. One of the race organizers met us at the door and told us we had to be out of the next station by 4:30 AM, over 12 miles away or our race was over. This meant we would have to do 3 mph or better over who knows what kind of terrain. We ate and drank coffee quickly and moved on.
Arriving at Niverville with 10 minutes until cutoff

I have never been close to cutoffs in a race before. We moved well toward Niverville. I kept calculating when we would arrive and it was looking like it would be very close. Shortly after 4 AM we could see some lights that indicated a town. Randy decided we should start running when we could, which we did. It actually felt good for a while. The checkpoint was eventually reached at 4:20 AM and we had to be out in 10 minutes, so I quickly ate a plate of pierogies and sausages and got up to leave. There were no more cutoffs other than at the finish line and we had adequate time to get there, so there was some relief but there were still 35 miles to go.

The sun rose and, as always, my sleepiness was somewhat relieved but nothing else got any easier. This second to last section was 18 miles and never seemed to end. There was a long road section that became very heavy sticky mud that clung to shoes and made walking that much harder. My feet felt like they weighed a ton but there was nothing to do but plod on. The wind had nothing to block it across the flat prairie. Long straight boring road sections would be followed by rough uneven trail sections that made my feet scream with every step. By now, the skyline of Winnipeg was visible but the finish was still well over 20 miles away. Only 6 or 7 more hours of painful step after step.

We worked our way into the city and made our final stop at the University of Manitoba. Only 9 miles to go. It almost felt like we were done already but no. The final stretch was over icy city sidewalks and park trails. Still no easy steps for sore feet but the finish was in sight.
One last stop
Heading out to finish this thing

And just like that (not really), we were there at the finish. The final 3 of the potential Hrimthurs crossed the finish line together while the other 3, who had already finished, were waiting to greet us. Hugs were exchanged all around and pictures taken. We were moved to warm room to get some food and drink and relax.
After nearly 400 miles, it ends
Post race decompression

I suppose that was a pretty dry description of the race but I don't know how else to present it. I could go on for pages about certain events but that would be too much for this blog. There were long hours of conversation in the night. There were quiet times when I was fighting the urge to quit because I didn't know how I could take any more of the hours I knew were ahead. If it wasn't for my goal of entering the Order I am almost positive I would have quit. Thinking about explaining to you all that I quit kept me going as well.

This race was very difficult. Much more so than I believe any of us expected. I'm very happy that I stuck it out. I have talked about this in previous posts but the people I have met through these winter ultras have been incredible:
The Runners - Through all this series I have talked to other runners on and off the trail and they help the miles go by while we endure and suffer together.
The Volunteers - At every stop they  tell us how impressed they are with what we are doing but I am amazed by their selflessness and generosity.
The Race Directors - They do very difficult work with little or no reward just to provide us with a special experience.
My Fellow 2017 Hrimthurs - I have been able to get to know these people over the last 6 weeks. Each one of them has a background story worthy of a novel or Oscar nominated movie. These are some of the strongest and toughest people I have ever met but they are also extremely generous and friendly. This race series brought us all together and I am honored to be part of this group. Jeff, Paul, Scott, Kari, and Randy, thank you. You all are some truly impressive, inspiring folks.

The new Hrimthurs. These are good people.

This adventure has come to end. I am working on recovering both physically and mentally. My feet and my muscles will heal given some time and slowly building my strength back. The raw mental nerve that has been exposed will only make me stronger in the next difficult race. I will definitely need this as I begin my training for the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, which is the next challenge.

When I first learned of this series of races I did not think it was possible for me to do it. Confidence is built over time and I have learned that the things that seem impossible at first are possible given the effort. This is not to say that it is ever easy because this last race proved it never is and to take any race even a little bit lightly is a mistake. Feeling discouraged and frustrated are normal but can be overcome by just pushing forward. I'm not superhuman or have some special gift. All I've done is taken the risk where previously I would have avoided it. Doing so has led me to learn many things about myself, some good, some bad but overall it makes my life  more rewarding and me a better person.  I think everyone can find a way to apply this to whatever their passion is and have the same results. If you do so, please share it and I will gladly follow along and encourage you. Go get it!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post Daniel, very inspiring. I was one of the 120km bikers. It was my wife and my first try at this. I saw you sitting at the table but never got a chance to talk with you. Wish I would have. After finishing, I didn't think you guys would make it over that terrain. It was no small feat. This ultra group of people is a very inspiring lot. We look forward to continuing our small ultra journey. Congratulations, recover well, and good luck with the Grand Slam.
    Terry Betcher