It was unthinkable to consider quitting but utterly overwhelming to imagine suffering for another 100 miles.
A 10 min walk to the bus pickup and we encountered... no bus. There were a bunch of vehicles in the parking lot with participants who were being dropped off, those who were leaving their vehicles there for the day and others like us who had a short walk from a hotel.
Long story short, the race directors were unable to make contact with the transport company to find where the bus was and it was evident that by 5 am, it wasn't coming so they made arrangements to transport us to either St Malo or Emerson (depending on which distance you were doing) by vehicle.
The bus was to leave Winnipeg by 4:45, arrive in Emerson by 6:15 and the event would start at 7:00. I planned to eat my overnight oats and hopefully catch a few minutes of sleep on the bus. With 3 of us in the backseat of a vehicle, making small talk about events, bikes, nutrition and gear, sleep was not a possibility. I did eat a bit though.
Our arrival at Emerson was then very rushed. It seemed to me that we were the last to arrive and most of the others were almost ready and anxious to get going. Rushing is not ideal. Bathroom, final bike preparations, checked the air pressure, moved nutrition around. With all the changes, sitting, then rushing, I was feeling a bit harried but was thankful the start was only mildly delayed.
We officially set off at 7:20 after a group photo of the 14 of us taking on the 200 km route. Temperature was around -16 C. We were instructed to stay close together for the first few miles.
The first 20 miles were basically riding hard drifts or pushing and it took around 3 1/2 hours.
Ridgeville check point was at a small cafe in the very small town of Ridgeville with very nice people who offered drinks or food and any other assistance. I was planning only to fill my hydrapak but upon taking off my jacket to get to my pack, I saw my shirt was soaked and decided to grab extra shirt #1 from my bike to change. I ate part of my cinnamon bun and a banana and 15-20 min after arriving, we left.
The fall I had was like the straw that broke the camel's back. Everything just added up. I kept telling myself that I knew I needed to eat and I would only look to getting to the first check point so I could get some food in me. I was discouraged. The ride so far seemed much harder than I expected and my legs were sore already. While the stop didn't fix everything, it helped. I wasn't great but I was better.
I'm not certain why I hit the bottom so quickly. A crash and burn is expected but all my experience up until this point, falling into the hole has happened at a much later point.
15 mile to checkpoint 2 Senkiw. That was all I was going to think about. Looking at the cue sheets, it seemed this would be a nice leg and I was very excited to see the swinging bridge. The cue sheets show only around 4 miles that are not on gravel. Looking at this even now, I am still stumped because this leg was anything but easy. I was told by a fellow rider behind me that he thought this was the toughest leg. Though the pushing seemed to go on forever, the scenery was beautiful along the river and the sun was bright and warm.
We were greeted at the Senkiw checkpoint by a couple cheerful ladies who offered us a hot drink from their tent. We declined and continued to the bridge. It was interesting getting my bike up the few steep steps under the guide wire to get on the bridge. The bridge did indeed swing and it was better than I imagined.
There was another mile of pushing then gravel roads. A few more clouds now, a beautiful temperature of -9 C but a strong NW wind that came as a surprise to us. I was sweated up again from so much pushing and was now getting cold.
Check point 2 Senkiw to St. Malo, checkpoint 3 was 11 miles. We decided that though we probably had wet gear, we didn't want to stop for anything more than a bathroom break and a hot drink. The offer of hot chocolate sounded so nice and I asked if it could have a bit of coffee with it. I am not a coffee drinker but I thought it would help to have some. I had been drinking water with Nuun energy and it works very well for me. No big energy surges or crashes and no jitters.
There was a feeling of relief arriving at St Malo. This is the start of the 125 km distance, which is what we did last year. There is some comfort in the familiar.
St Malo to checkpoint 4 at St Pierre Jolys was 18 miles; one of the longer legs. We predicted we would be there around 5:30-6 so it was the perfect time to change, eat a warm meal and get ourselves and bikes ready for the remaining ride in the dark.
This leg has an amazing beginning as you ride across a lake beside the town. Last year, the ride was rough as the lake surface was deeply rutted from the warm temperatures and lots of traffic. This year, there were vehicles, snow machines, ice fishing huts and quads all over the lake and the path was smooth like a highway.
There is a mixture of gravel roads, a bit of highway and trails on this leg. Last year, there was a bit of pushing across a field and along a trail. To our surprise, we were able to ride pretty much the entire way. Some slower spots but minimal walking. We picked up our pace as much as we could- both of us starting to get pretty cold.
I have a love/hate relationship with pushing the bike. Pushing is much slower, usually tougher going and hard on the back, legs and shoulders. But, pushing warms up the feet and butt when constant riding will get them colder faster and it is a nice change to sitting.
Arriving at St Pierre Jolys was a welcomed sight. My feet were cold and I was hungry. We were treated like royalty by the ladies there. They were very happy to see us, congratulated us on making it this far and set about to help us with anything we needed. We plugged our garmins and lights into a wall outlet first, got our boots and socks off, changed into dry clothes, reorganized our bikes getting the wet things packed into the back bags, bringing fresh stuff to easier access. A couple ladies were getting us split pea soup with homemade bannock, another used a blow dryer to try warming/drying my boots. (they are supposed to be waterproof but my outer layer of socks were slightly damp so I assumed with all the pushing and walking through the snow, some moisture got through) We were also approached by the medic who checked how we were doing and she cleaned my hand and knee scrapes and bandaged them up. We didn't rush like crazy but didn't dawdle either. They told us we were #5 and 6 to check in which was a total surprise for us as we thought we would have been at the back of the pack.
I had a moment of "oh my there is still so far to go" as I knew at this checkpoint we were at mile 67, only half way there, but those thought were quickly extinguished. I had hit the bottom, slowly crawled out of the hole and could feel myself getting stronger. My legs no longer hurt, my energy was good and I wasn't the least bit tired.
I sent a quick text to our kids to let them know we were doing fine and out we went 40 min after arriving.
The next checkpoint at Crystal Springs was 10 miles away on almost all gravel. We arrived to ribs still warm from the barbeque and a friendly welcome. Used the bathroom and back on the road.
Checkpoint 6 Niverville was 11 miles away but we were very reluctant to assume it would be easy or fast to get to based on the experience we had last year. There is a very long stretch of pushing followed by the dreaded Crown Valley Road that consisted of the worst Manitoba mud/clay/goop you can imagine. It was beyond anything I've every experienced. I knew it wouldn't be muddy but wasn't confident it would be ride-able. The field was rough with drifts but we rode the entire way and the Crown Road was just like any other gravel road. Wow!
The only problem we now had was Terry's garmin stopped working and my light was already needing a charge. The only navigation we now had was the cue sheets and the blue signs marking the path (if you could see them). Fortunately, this happened only a couple miles from Niverville and we easily found our way to the arena. We were not planning a long stop but plans changed. It was a mistake to only load the maps on 1 garmin. Next time, both will have them.
This check in point was manned by men with lots of tools, helpful advice, great stories (the pictures of Dallas's frostbitten toes being an exception) and perogies. Garmin and light plugged in. I removed my boots for a sock change as my feet were getting cold again. Thanks to a couple gentlemen (Lindsay and Dallas) for fixing my front bag up for me as it was rubbing on the front tire as a strap had come off. I mixed up my final bag of glycodurance in my camelback water bottle 1/2 full of warm water and drank it all while there. Also enjoyed a couple perogies (who could resist) as well as a cup of soup. Terry's garmin wasn't charging, seemed to be a problem with the connection. A couple more riders came in a bit after us. They weren't staying long and we decided to ride together to check point 7 at St Adolphe.
There was still some wind and it help with everyone taking turns in the front (except me for some reason) but I was very thankful the wind was much quieter than it had been in the afternoon. The temperature was around -17C and the 8 miles to St Adolphe went pretty quickly. A quick in and out stop, grabbing a drink and a GORP bar. Terry tried again to get some charge in his garmin. We were ready to leave and the other 2 riders decided to stay for awhile. We had to decide if we wanted to go by cue sheets or wait. Within the minute, 2 other riders (Pete and Tom) walked in and they were just checking in and leaving so off we went with them.
There was excitement knowing we were heading to the final checkpoint before the finish but also a sense of dread as it is a long 18 mile ride and the unknown conditions of the floodway could easily extend the time (estimated time 2- 2 1/2 hours in decent conditions) it would take to reach the U of M checkpoint. Last year, the tough part was from Schapansky Road until the Floodway was crossed, a distance of about 6 miles. It was a pushing, pole-holing in thigh deep snow experience.
Incredibly, this year, we walked almost nothing. We were met by some volunteers just before this section and then at the top of the Floodway, both offered assistance and hot chocolate. It was also in this area that we caught up to some of the 100 mile runners. My heart ached and rejoiced with them. They must have been so very weary. The 100 mile on foot distance started at 10:00 pm Friday night and it was in the early morning of Sunday so those we were passing had been running for 28-29 hours already.
I had to stop once to change lights as my front light died but the spare was in my pogies so it took very little time and I was rolling again.
The next 7 miles until the U of M checkpoint was now in the outskirts of the city on sidewalks, trails or residential streets. I was truly chilled to the bone and was worried about my right foot. I made a list of all the things I was thankful for from the last checkpoint until this one. Was very happy to ride with others and it was great that Pete knew the entire route by heart.
So glad to arrive at the U of M checkpoint. I took my bike right into the foyer (as did the others) and sat right on the floor to get my boots off. I put on my insulating jacket to warm up my core and while pulling it out of my front bag, found my half froze cinnamon bun. Mmm, a delicious snack.
I was filled with excitement upon leaving the U of M. 9 miles and we would be done. Just as we were leaving, 2 runners whom we met Friday night at the pre-race meeting, Andrew and Kelsey, came in. They came to this event from New Brunswick and I was curious if it was what they expected. Kelsey said the wind was unbelievable but they were doing good. I wished them well.
Sidewalks, streets, cross a bridge, more streets and before we knew we were crossing the St Vital Bridge. I wore my insulating layer under my jacket so I was toasty warm and truly enjoying the quietness of the city and the company of my riding companions. We rode at a nice steady pace and for once, the miles seemed to fly by. Upon crossing the St Vital Bridge, we had a steep bank to descend down to the river (I planned to walk but actually slid) then onto the river ice trail. The river trail was so much longer than I expected it to be. It was very peaceful. I was cautious of the bare patches of ice, nothing like falling 10 min before the finish and breaking your arm or something stupid like that.
All of a sudden, there it was.
On Friday, before bike check in, we rode down to the river and it was a very busy place. People everywhere skating, walking and enjoying the outdoors and now here we were- not a soul to be found, lights twinkling, a train heard in the distance, the winter air crisp and my heart so glad.
We were there. 4:33 am, 21 hours after starting but we were there.
This was a big challenge. It was tough in ways that are hard to describe. Every big event has its own challenges. There are the uncontrollable factors that change sometimes hourly in an event and no two years can you exactly predict what you will be facing that day. It's not a case of if you will need to dig deep, it's a matter of when.
I massively hit rock bottom very early in the day. But an amazing thing happened; I forced myself to stay in the moment and not get overwhelmed by looking at the end and in doing that, I slowly emerged from my deep canyon and got stronger and stronger with each passing mile. I was very happy to reach the end but honestly could have kept going. I had changed, gotten stronger, learned a lot and emerged from a tough challenge a better version of me.
When you dream big, there is always a chance you could fall. It is a long way down and then a long climb back up again but taking the chance is always worth it. Adventure is always worth it.
Part 2: Gear and Lessons Learned coming soon