Wilderness Traverse - The Race Part 1

<Author's Note: So much happened out there that I have decided to split this recap into two streams. The first will deal with the races at the front of the field. The second will pull out some of the many, many stories of adventures experienced by other teams.> In a race that has had its fair share of cold-related DNFs, the move from August to October for Wilderness Traverse 2015 had racers discussing and worrying about the weather even more than usual. Conventional wisdom is that you can stay warm as long as you keep moving and stay dry-ish. However, that's a tall order when racing Bob Miller's creations, as the terrain is both difficult to navigate and has so many water features that one might be tempted to trek in wetsuits. Which reminds me... Those racing last year could have used some scuba gear, as the deluge that drowned the course overnight was epic. I have never heard the word “biblical” used so often. Kinda glad I missed it. Kinda. However, in typical adventure racer style, when it came right down to it they collectively said “screw it, we'll sign up anyways.” The race was sold out – again - with 42 teams set to take on the 2015 course. The inaugural edition in 2010 had just 19 teams, although stacked with talent. The second edition in 2011 saw the same quality, but this time with a sold out race of 40 tough teams. If that's not testament to the quality of Wilderness Traverse, then I don't know what is. This year was shaping up to be special. It would be the first time in 4 years that we'd have the only 2 navigators to win the premiere coed division going head-to-head again. Pete Cameron had led team Untamed New England to the win in 2010. Benoit Letourneau's Pentathlon des Neiges (translated into “snowpants” for Anglophone convenience) had come down and wrested the title from the defending champs in 2011. That year, Team Salomon, the 2011 version of 2010's Untamed New England (team names change a lot) made a big early navigation error, dropping over 1 hour behind the leaders. They chased gamely to the end, managing to move up into 2nd spot 29 minutes behind Snowpants. This year would be Cameron's first chance to avenge that loss, and everyone watching knew it would take an almost flawless race to dethrone the champs and reclaim Bob the Beaver.

Since that first win, Benoit's squads have gone on to claim the trophy for 4 consecutive years. Not just winning coed, but winning overall. It's been an amazing feat of dominance and consistency that included an epic head-to-head race with then World #3 ranked Team Tecnu. The two teams arrived together at the final transition, but Tecnu had left their tracker at the previous TA and had to serve a 1 hour penalty, denying all of us what promised to be a sprint finish for the ages. Given this history, most pundits had team O-Store.ca (new sponsor for Snowpants) as the odds-on favourites to win the coed division, and likely the race overall, for the 5th year running. Challenging them would be not just Team Salomon, but another team of old faces in a new lineup: Running Free. We've already covered Salomon: this was the return of Pete Cameron from France with a cobbled together team of strong individual racers from Quebec (Jean-Yves “Novak” Dionne), Alberta (Mike Brown of Wild Rose), and Ontario (Shannon Miller, wife of RD Bob Miller). Running Free also had a very strong and experienced roster: Harper Forbes, Bill Logie, Scott Ford, and Denise Rispolie. Scott had been on Team Salomon back in 2011 – adventure racers are nothing if not promiscuous. A last-minute withdrawal by Denise due to illness saw Running Free move into the all-male division, where they would now be challenging 2 time men's winners Pullin Foot. This team had been a solid favourite to take the men's division again, but would now have their work cut out for them. You can see the complete list of teams by clicking HERE.

The Start

Liza, Benoit, Alex, and Vincent set to go for the 5-peat

This year racers would be faced with another LeMans style start: a 5 km trail run to their bikes would be followed by a short ride to a trekking loop where they would need to pick up 2 CPs. The logistics involved likely kept some of the top teams up, trying to figure out how to do these 3 early transitions as quickly as possible. Here's an AR-geek decision tree for this:

“- head to our rustic cottage to get set for race and roll my eyes at all of my nerdy teammate's talk of gram weights of shoes, lumens on lights, and how awesome our TA set ups are. Wow, this is different that the dog's breakfast that is FB et al's prep work” - Team Salomon “- a$$head teammates make me ride to CP1 sans bike shoes to save a paltry 4 seconds of TA time and now my arches hurt.” - Team Salomon All was as expected at CP1: Running Free 1st, O-Store 2nd, then Salomon, Canada AR, and Pullin Foot tied for 3rd. The first mini-trek looked easy on paper, and teams were moving fast early on: a perfect recipe for mistakes... Leaving the trek first was Running Free, who had opted for the safer, faster, but longer out-and-back route option and established a 5 minute gap over the field. The Milton Basement Racers were running 2nd, and Attack From Above came out in 3rd. Canada AR maintained a strong position in 4th. Right off the bat, 3 of the pre-race favourites had made errors: Pullin Foot were 12 minutes off the lead, Salomon 15, and O-Store 21.

The ride to the start of the paddle didn't shake things up much at the top. Running Free, a strong biking team, arrived first. They pulled into TA1 at 1034, transitioned smoothly, and were gone before any other team showed up. This was a big surprise, as the top teams were not expected to have much separation, if any, at this early stage.

Pullin Foot heading out after 1st Trek Canada AR pacelining towards the Paddle TA

Finally at 1050 Team Canada AR arrived and were followed by the expected rush of contenders: 9 teams arrived in the next 9 minutes, including Salomon, O-Store, and Pullin Foot. O-Store showed itself to be the fastest biking team out there, coming in together with Salomon 20 minutes behind Running Free. Pullin Foot had lost a bit more time, now 18 minutes off the lead in 3rd place. Keeping the top contenders honest and nipping at their heels were 3 experienced teams and an impressive team of young rookies, The Warriors. For the men, Adrenaline Rush and Kinetic Konnection were having a tight race for 3rd and not out of touch with the leaders by any stretch. On the coed side, Storm Beowulf was performing well, still within reach of the podium battle. The Paddle Running Free would need every minute of their lead, as they had possibly the worst paddler in all of multisport. By his own admission, Bill Logie is abysmal in a boat. That being said, he more than makes up for it once he gets on terra firma. Needless to say, he was relegated to the dreaded middle “seat”, a position from which he would do the least damage.

Scott: Do we let Logie have a paddle? Logie: C'mon guys! Not funny.

There was a potential portage “short-cut” during the paddle, but it looked like it might be a tough slog through swampy crud. Most teams ruled it out, others took a “we'll get there and see” approach. As it turns out, only 2 teams took this option: Pullin Foot and O-Store. These contenders who had lost time early were taking a bit of a gamble to make it back up. It worked out well for Pullin Foot, who hugged the northern edge of the marsh and would go on to close 6 minutes on Running Free during the paddle. O-Store tried the same route, but tried to follow the main channel up the middle. That turned into a horrible swamp portage that saw them lose a further 28 minutes to Running Free and, crucially, 22 minutes to their coed competition Salomon.

“first major decision of the race was to go through the swampy section at the start or paddle 5k around. how bad could it be we thought - real bad as it turned out. dragging boats through knee deep swamp and fighting through the sticks was brutal. finally we clued in that the adjacent woods would be better and we ploughed through. though i haven't seen the tracking, i think it turned out quicker. ” - Pullin Foot

Many racers were very, very cold coming off the paddle, which had been super windy. Mercifully, the myriad of small islands and mostly narrower waterways prevented the waves from matching the wind. There was only one dumping, which derailed the aptly named Attack From Above (they're tall). Maybe the team's high center of gravity had something to do with it... “At one of the portages we untied the tow incorrectly and subsequently lost the carabiner. We resorted to a knot from that point onwards, but it came undone about 5kms from the paddle take out. Instead of fixing immediately, we figured we could get into the TA without it. That proved to be a very wrong call, and Julie and Cramptonite were swept sideways by big gusts near Georgina Island. Team Storm Beowulf reversed back to the tipped canoe and helped drag it to shore; by no means an easy task, as the waves were putting their own uprighted-ness at jeopardy. Anyhow, we were able to get Julie and Cramptonite warm again and in dry clothes and, without concern, they jumped back into the canoe, now firmly reconnected with a tow, to finish the paddle. The entire episode probably cost us 45 minutes.” - Attack From Above

Adrenaline Rush battling the winds Kinetic Konnection finishing a strong paddle

The competition was fierce in the men's division, with only 18 minutes covering the first 3 teams.

Running Free in at 1443 Pullin Foot at 1456 Canada AR at 1501

An impressive performance from Canada AR, who were in the thick of things heading into the crux of the race. Both Adrenaline Rush and Kinetic Konnection maintained their strong positions through the paddle, coming in at 1526 and 1532 respectively. The coed battle was also tight. In fact, 18 minutes separated the top-3 in this race as well. Despite their woes, O-Store had battled back after their swampwhack and arrived at the transition only 7 minutes behind Salomon. Continuing to impress - and in fact leading this race - were the rookies of The Warriors. Not just Wilderness Traverse rookies, but their first AR ever. Awesome!

O-Store fighting back after the swamp portage

The top 3 were just as close in the Coed division, as the gaps at the Paddle-Trek TA will attest.

Warriors at 1512 Salomon 1523 O-Store 1530

Storm Beowulf had stopped to help Attack From Above when their canoe capsized, losing some time but showing solid AR character in helping out their competition. With the 30 minute time credit they were given as a result, they were also still in the mix, finishing the canoe leg at an adjusted time of 1535. The race was now to try to finish as much of the big trek as possible before darkness fell.

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