First Step to The IDITAROD
Tears rolled down my eyes in pain and despair as I collapsed on a half-frozen muddy trail in the middle of nowhere on a freezing cold midnight. I could hear sounds of coyotes, and see some flickering lights at a far distance. I wasn’t sure where was I. Cue sheets were suggesting to turn left 2.5 km from trailhead, and I was walking for more than an hour with no left turn in sight. I was exhausted, getting colder, had some bad blisters, and hadn’t seen a racer or volunteer or a human for past many hours. I had battered through rough frozen lake and miles of dirt trail, soft deep snow that sucked me beyond knees, wet muddy trail, slippery town roads and endless stretches of vast-frozen-puddled prairies over past 19 hours – all with the gastric turmoil that had me paralyzed long ago. With still minimum of 40 km of running left, I thought my battle was over. I was lost.
It was 0030 hours midnight, exactly 7 hours to the finish cut-off. If I was on the wrong trail, I must go back to the beginning of Schepansky Road and find my way again; which meant, another hour of walk on a slushy-muddy trail that was getting rough and frozen. Then I’d have a marathon to run on a gruelling trail under 6 hours in dark in order to finish. While sitting on the only visible patch of cold-wet snow, hopeless, I changed my jacket, put on another layer of pants to stay warm, popped in a few sugar candies, sucked a bit of water through the tube, and removed my wet shoes and socks. It took barely 5 minutes for socks to go from wet to frozen hard as I wrapped my feet with polythene bags to protect from getting wet. Blisters on little toes were bleeding, and I had forgotten to carry any kind of tape to wrap in morning hustle. Every step for past many hours was in excruciating pain, but that was no reason to stop. I was using my phone for GPS navigation. Cold depletes battery quickly, and my phone denied to turn on to help any further. “What was I thinking when I signed up for this race? Is it really worth this much of pain? I had just run 100 miles in crazy weather two weeks ago, wasn’t that enough to cure of any desire of torturing body in cold again?” All these thoughts were overwhelming me as I sank further in dejection. I was crying, laughing, whining and appreciating the prairies – all at the same time. Under my headlamp light, I zipped my bag, strapped back the gaiters and lifted myself up thinking of my mother – my keeper on trails.
I looked in. I looked out. I looked around. I was still all by myself and decided to walk further deep on the same trail, taking a chance to find my way to Highway 200. A kilometre in, the trail turned left and I climbed the floodway swimming through the deep soft snow. I fell down a couple of times on my face in the snow in futile attempt to run being almost waist deep. “0115 hours. I don’t know how far am I, but if the trail is going to be like this, I must do something out of the box” I bit myself while taking a long look at the watch. Suddenly, two bikers passed on their fatbikes and now they were walking ahead of me. I followed them, only to find two flashing headlamps on the other end of the floodway. Tom and Dallas, the race officials, were waiting there to cheer the racers for having battered through the toughest stretch. Eyes were moist again but in happiness. I was on the right trail. I had 6 hours for 28 kilometres to finish.
I signed up for Classic 120 category of self-supported “Actif Epica”, one among toughest cold weather endurance races in Canada, to be covered on foot in extreme dead of winter in Canadian prairies where temperature often drops below -35C, on an unmarked trail with an aim to qualify for Tuscobia 160 mile and Arrowhead 135 mile foot-race in 2018. Having no past experience of running in cold and snow, I knew I had a challenge no other competitor was facing. In order to start Actif Epica, a racer must get his gear checked-in before pre-race meeting. The mandatory gear included – windproof insulated jacket and pants (other than racing gear), a whistle, magnetic compass or GPS, reflective taping in front and back, emergency edible food worth 2000 calories, 2L insulated water container, headlamp, and flashing lights for front and back. Mittens, gaiters, toque, ice cleats, balaclava were other important things a runner must have to start this race.
The race is self-supported, so you are dependent on your own for food, navigation, hydration, etc. You must finish with what you start. There are no crew or pacer or drop bags allowed on any of the five checkpoints, however, you may refill water there. The race route, which changes every year, starts from St. Malo Hockey Arena to The Forks in heart of Winnipeg, Manitoba traversing along the Crow Wing Trail, a 19th-century route to transport goods to and from the Red River Settlement on the Red River and the Crow Wing Settlement on the Mississippi River. The checkpoints where a racer must report are St. Pierre-Jolys (28 km), Crystal Springs (43 km), Niverville (63 km), St. Adolphe (75 km) and University of Manitoba (104 km). The race week took everyone, even organizers, by surprise with very warm temperatures (slightly under freezing) but strong winds. This meant, snow and ice were melting rapidly, trails were wet, deep snow was very soft, mud was sinking all in, walkways were slippery and everything was going to be very wet and cold.
We were just 4 at the Start on warm morning of February 18th who dared Classic 120 solo category on foot. While one runner started in flash, rest of us adopted a conservative approach and went slowly on frozen St. Malo lake. Soon after sunrise, we found ourselves in the knee-deep soft snow, and the battle began. It was barely 12 km in the run, and I was feeling exhausted due to relentless deep snow stretches and rough ice. Being little over 5 foot, getting stuck in deep snow was not funny. Actif Epica is a surprisingly different race for each participant. Where some sections will be easier for you, they may take the life out of someone, depending on the mode, technique and time of the day. This is what makes it different than any other race.
I had all my stuff, including water, in a small backpack that weighed close to 8 kilograms. In a race, we carry the weight of our insecurities. My insecurities included mandatory gear, change of layer, spare pairs of socks, spare batteries, energy bars, energy gels, sugar candies, a mix of nuts, salted wafers, hydration tablets, ice cleats and a toque. Soon after the first checkpoint, I got bad stomach and was reduced to walking on a relatively easy stretch. I threw up 5-6 times within an hour, and those were not good signs just 5 hours into the race. In races long as 24 hours, you have time to recover, if you are strong and patient enough. I decided to hang in there and kept sipping water. The winds peaked up, I kept hiking fast as possible to find myself in deep snow again, soon after a long break at the second checkpoint. By now, feet were cold and wet, and running was getting arduous. My GPS was acting weird from the start. It was displaying the position and route correctly, but not the distances.
The first Checkpoint at St. Pierre-Jolys
Racers must make it to Niverville checkpoint (#3) in 12 hours, in order to continue the race. The 20 kilometres between second and third checkpoint were longest of my life. I was either in wet snow that was beyond my knees or I was in mud that was denying to get off, making shoes kilograms heavier. I was soaked in water, feet had got blisters, speed was reduced to 2 kilometres an hour and the vast stretch was never-ending. I was walking towards something, but I was never reaching. Prairies are vast deceptive flatlands, and when you are going through rough times, they are annoyingly ugly. Neverville, as I renamed, was hardest to reach. I had nightmares of Crown Valley road (the muddy stretch) and Schepansky Road after the race – where I was walking on them for days, but reaching nowhere. I made it an hour under the cut-off and dried myself a bit to think of next section. It was getting colder and dark, I was far behind my estimated time, the trail was getting tougher, and blistered feet were giving up. I was mentally and physically exhausted, to say the least (halfway in the race).
“Do you want to quit?” I asked myself. For a moment, the answer came yes. But, that was just a tired-crippled body speaking. Mind wanted nothing but a finish. Giving in all will be better than giving up, I told myself. I hurried to pack my stuff again and soon charged back to the highway on to next checkpoint which was 12 km away. Against my estimate again, I reached St. Adolphe checkpoint late after being lost for many minutes in finding the dike. The lead runner, Jonathan, had stopped there owing to the sprained ankle, and now we were reduced to just three runners. The other two runners, Scott Kummer and Scott Sugimoto, were now two hours ahead of me. Many reports were there of others who had stopped due to insane trail conditions. After a lot of self-introspection, I charged on to the toughest section of the race with no knowledge of what was in store. I got lost early in the chase, went 2 km off route and walked back on the slippery highway to last known correct location and continued the race. It was a huge psychological setback to lose over half an hour being on the wrong trail. I was under 50 km away from the finish and had 10 hours to do so. The muddy trail was no longer runnable and a lot of walking was needed.
After hours of grinding in cold and dark through muddy-rough-never ending lonely sections, bolstering the lost hope without a reliable source of navigation, finding the vision of Tom and Dallas was nothing less than a miracle. “You’re doing amazing, Gaurav. You have plenty of time, keep moving!” 6 hours, 28 kilometres and I was inching closer to Winnipeg as the last batch of cyclists passed me, appreciating the grind and motivating to push. The road was very slippery due to black ice and tough to run, so I continued to walk my way to the University of Manitoba through the urban landscape. Nearly three hours later, I reached the University with a stiff cut-off to chase. Blisters were popping all the way, and feet were hurting more than ever before. I had 3 hours and almost 17 km to chase with no GPS. I was slow in first two hours as I got lost a couple of times, and sidewalks were too slippery to even walk. Getting an injury while trying to run on the complex-impossible trail was the last thing I wanted.
I finally reached the river trail and had little under 8 km to go in the final hour. The last stretch was on frozen river, which was flooding-puddle and technical to run. To muster 8 km on frozen river with a destroyed body after 24 hours of battering was something I had never done before. But, I had never ran this far in snow ever before either. I kept my head down and started a chase, which was like last of my life. I kept slipping and falling on rough ice. I stood up, walked a bit, ran again and walked more. It was another endless blank run with nothing in sight. I was 14 minutes away from final cut-off and had no idea how far was I. Far under the city backdrop, I saw someone walking down the river and waving. “Is that a volunteer?” I thought. I ran even faster and reached her to ask “How far is the finish?”
“You’re almost there!”
Almost there? People on the second mile of a marathon scream ‘you’re almost there’. “Keep running straight”, she continued “go left and climb the ramp. You’ll see”
The finish was at The Forks, the confluence of Red River and Assiniboine River. The junction was flooded, ankle deep. As I took higher fast steps splashing water everywhere around, I saw Michael, a volunteer who had just finished his shift and was anticipating me to finish. Michael wasted no time and guided me to the finish, which was still looking miles away. As I entered the finishing area, I shouted my bib number “52” and crashed on the ground. Michael wrote in his blog “It was impressive the pace a runner who just finished 120 km could still muster. Once inside, he completely collapsed onto the ground. Oh no, am I going to have to revive someone? Turns out not at all, he was as tired as expected after such a gruelling race. He just needed to put his head down for a few minutes, or 10.” I had tears in my eyes, could barely breathe, exhausted, in pain, but was constantly telling myself “You made it!”
24 hours and 52 minutes, with only 8 minutes to spare, while chasing a brutal historic trail that was never ending and unforgiving, I became the first Indian to finish Actif Epica. With this, I go a step closer to my lifelong dream of walking 1049 miles at legendary “Iditarod Trail” one day. I’ll need to work hard this year in order to get accepted for Arrowhead. This ultra goes to all the Actif Epica volunteers, fellow racers who were immensely supporting and running community in India, who helped me grow every time we partnered in crime. I had dared to dream, I endured, to conquer.
Official results of Actif Epica Finishers can be accessed here [http://actifepi.ca/final-standings-2017/] (broken link, will update when new available)
Image Credits: Team Actif Epica
Feature Image: Kevin B Desaulniers