When last we saw our intrepid racers, both the Male and Coed leaders were engaged in very tight races heading into the crux of the course. This section was a long wilderness trek that would test navigation as much as fitness. Time was of the essence now, as this section would be even more difficult (and slow) during the night.
"We were making good time, really wanting to nail CP11 before the extra challenge of darkness; we seemed to be on track but anything could happen." - Salomon
The big trek was from the end of the paddle at CP8/TA2 through to CP12/TA3
All the top teams were positioned to maybe finish most of the trek before darkness. If they nailed it.
MEN It looked very much as if this battle was decided at TA2. In their rush to get out of transition and resume chasing Running Free, Pullin Foot forgot one of their race bibs, which is mandatory gear. This was a 1 hour penalty, and would almost certainly put an end to any hopes they had of taking the win. From the Wilderness Traverse rulebook:
11.1 One-hour Penalties • Missing Mandatory Gear (penalty is per item) • Race Bib not worn as outer layer • Team-mates not staying within 100m of each other • Requesting a second set of maps
By the time they realized it, they had gone too far to turn around and go back to get it, so they put their heads down and dropped the hammer.
Running Free continued to move well through this leg, but Pullin Foot absolutely smashed the trek, moving fast on good routes and spiking each checkpoint. At CP10 they had close to within 6 minutes of the leaders. By CP11 they had finally passed Running Free, but there was no reason to celebrate. CP staff here confirmed what they had suspected: they were racing with a 1 hour time penalty that would be applied to their total time once the crossed the finish line. Even though they had their nose out front, they would have to keep the pedal to the metal as they'd need to finish 1 hour ahead of Running Free in order to take the win.
Coming into CP11 after a bit of navigation issues with the approach to the CP, Running Free found themselves behind for the first time. They were also informed that Pullin Foot was racing with a 1 hour penalty, which was likely recieved with mixed feelings. Nobody wants to win a race due to a time penalty, but the rules are there for a reason and every team knows them heading in. The challenge now was to not ease up and rely on that 1 hour buffer, as it could evaporate in a hurry.
"At this point I'd also realized the bearing I had been following was not the correct one, it was the 'next' bearing I was supposed to take after hitting a landmark. While not too far off (20 degrees), it was enough to push us too far north...We corrected our bearing but matching features to our top map was very difficult and while I was pretty sure I knew where we were, I certainly wasn't positive...We eventually made it to CP11, a very welcome oasis where we found the friendly 'Bent and Goose with warm soup and hot chocolate! I was so happy we found the CP but had lost almost 40mins to Pulling Foot in the process (however were also informed they had been assessed a 1hr penalty for missing jersey)." - Running Free
COED Meanwhile, the coed battle was hot and heavy as well, with the Warriors leading the 2 pre-race favourites by just 11 and 18 minutes at the paddle-trek transition. The first few kilometres of this trek were along dirt roads: fast terrain and easy navigation. The rest of this leg, however, was tailor-made for O-Store.ca, as off-trail navigation at ridiculous speeds is one of their strengths. This is where everyone watching the dots (and likely all the members of team Salomon) expected a big surge from the 4-time defending champs.
Oddly, it never quite materialized. They did not seem to be themselves, even in their element. As it turns out, this was a surprise to everyone except O-Store...
Coming into the race, O-Store knew they were not at 100% fitness and speed, due to earlier racing commitments and some unfortunate accidents during the summer.
"It would be easy to just say we were not at the top of our game to explain our lackluster performance for the 2015 edition of Wilderness Traverse but it would not be fair to the winners’ efforts and excellent execution. It’s anybody’s game. ... Liza, Benoit and I had to deal with a few bumps on the road leading to #WTRAV 2015. Liza broke her forearm (for the 5th time) and could not ride her bike for most of the summer. Benoit had a heavy ultra trail running season with Colorado’s Silver Heels 100miler in August and Ultra Trail Harricana 125km 2 weeks before #WTRAV. As for myself, 2 road bike crash took a good shot at my general form and health... At least we knew Vince would be on the top of things and as strong as ever, hammering the front spot of our riding train." - Alex Provost, O-Store
Wilderness Traverse has always come down to route choice and navigation as much as speed and fitness, so they felt they were still in with a solid shot. However, they would have much less room for error, and they had already made about 45 minutes' worth.
A slower route and slower than expected speed saw them drop to 31 minutes behind Salomon by CP10.
Meanwhile, the astonishing performance of The Warriors continued, as they maintained their slim lead in the Coed race.
"That's when we kept running into THEM (The Warriors), these damn young, fit racers that felt to me like they hadn't been in this sport long enough to be racing as well as they were. It definitely seemed to present a bit of a threat." - Salomon
MEN Back to the Men's race, and we were reminded of the difficulty of navigating fast in this type of terrain. The 3rd place team, Canada AR, missed their catching feature into CP11 and kept going...and going...and going...
The fact that they decided to stay in the race and head back in to try CP 11 once they had relocated showed a ton of character, and they did in fact finish the entire trek. However, they had been out for so long without food and water - 13 hours - that they decided to end their race when they finally made it into CP12.
The front 2 teams both had drama-free ends to this leg, although it was full dark before they rached the final TA where they would pick up their bikes. Pullin Foot came in first at 2017 and, with no idea how close Running Free was, they flew through transition and knew they would have to hurt the whole way to the finish in order to have a chance.
Running Free came in at 2043: still the virtual leader but they only had 34 minutes to play with, so they too would have to push hard and were racing with almost zero room for error. This is where Bill Logie would more than make up for his unspectacular paddling, taking the maps and leading the charge.
With Canada AR effectively out of the race at this point, two veteran Men's squads were left fighting for the final podium spot: Adrenaline Rush and Kinetic Konnection. They finished their treks at 1730 and 1801 respectively. The final bike leg in the dark was more than enough race to make up a 31 minute gap, so as with the leaders, everything was still to play for.
COED The Warriors continued to hang with the big boys and girls, co-leading the coed division midway through this challenging trek. They were 1 minute behind Salomon checking in at CP11, so the teams were essentially tied for the lead. The rookies were racing like veteran adventure racers, crossing frigid water features without hesitation if the detour around looked too long. Instead, it was Salomon who was taking pains to stay dry, but (fittingly) a beaver came to their aid.
"We were still close to each other when we started to hit the marshy sections. Would they wimp out and we would jump ahead with some gutsy go-for it move where we would just crash through the muck and keep going? No, we danced around the edge, and they dropped in. We kept an eye on them as we worked our way up along a channel that seems to got deeper and more distinct... It definitely wasn't getting narrow or shallower.... until we saw the beaver dam. We dropped down with excitement, across (dry!) and zipped up the game trail on the other side." - Salomon
O-Store's yo-yo race continued, as they nailed this section, clawing back 10 minutes from the two teams ahead of them. Was this the start of their big push to the finish? There was still a lot of trekking left before the final transition to the bikes, wiht only about 1 hour of daylight remaining.
"Finally, some good news at CP11 with Richard and Angus (and their cheese crackers) as we were now roughly 10 minutes behind Salomon. We were gaining back! That was short lived as again we had difficulty to maintain speed and bearing and we got a bit of a hammer in the face when, still a fair bit away from the TA, we crossed Salomon as they were biking out onto the powerline trail." - O-Store
The Warriors finally had some navigational issues of their own in getting from CP11 to CP12, and dropped back into 3rd place. The times into the final TA were: Salomon 2120 O-Store 2154 The Warriors 2218
The strangely parallel Men's and Coed races continued, as we once again had identical gaps (34 minutes) separating 1st and 2nd. There was still very real hope for O-Store, as they had shown in the first bike leg that they were the fastest team on two wheels. And Salomon knew it.
(Shannon) asked me if Liza was a good mountain biker and I had to give the honest answer: yes. Still, we figured we would fight to hold onto our lead as best we could. - Team Salomon
The Final Bike Leg
Here is the official description of the final leg of the race, from the Wilderness Traverse website.
Teams will pick up their bikes and head north to CP13 at Kapikog Lake, riding on ATV trails or taking a longer road route, then they will turn north on a snowmobile trail toward CP14 where they will need to do a canoe ferry with volunteers to cross a river. They need to reach CP15 at the intersection of two roads, then they can choose road or trail routes back to the finish line at the Orrville Community Centre.
This would not be a straight-up drag race to the finish line, as there were at least 2 major points where viable alternate routes existed. All 4 lead teams would take the first one, detouring around on pavement to avoid the shorter ATV trail. This was not unexpected, as the trail, while being shorter was also more difficult, both technically and in terms of route finding.
MEN The hunter and the hunted. The hound and the hare. Pick your metaphor.
As the hunter, Running Free would have the advantage of knowing if they were closing in or falling back when they hit the checkpoints, as CP volunteers would likely let them know. However, this being Wilderness Traverse, even a lengthy bike leg such as the one they were on only featured 3 widely spaced checkpoints.
For Pullin Foot it was stark and simple: go as fast as possible, just short of blowing up, all the way to the line.
At CP13 The Gap had crept up to 0:39. A loss of 5 minutes was bad for Running Free, but not the end of the world. As long as they could hold this pace and race clean, they should be ok. Probably.
Running Free barreling across a bridge in their attempt to keep up with Pullin' Foot
With the teams very closely matched in terms of speed, navigation would be key. Redlining it in the dark makes this extra challenging, and the pressure from Pullin' Foots' relentless pace and near-flawless navigation was making itself felt. A costly error by Running Free at CP 14 saw the gap grow to 0:45.
A small overshoot at the final CP added another 5 minutes, and it was going to be down to single-digits at the finish. Running Free must have been fighting a growing sense of doom as the ride went on, which was validated at CP15 where The Gap was all but gone, a tenuous 10 minutes remaining of what had once been a solid grasp on the race lead.
Yet again nailing the navigation, Pullin Foot pulled into the finish at 0111, having put together a brilliant race. Unfortunately, they could not celebrate, as the clock and dot watching now began in earnest. Running Free had until 0211 to get to the finish if they wanted to claim the win.
Race Director Bob Miller congratulating Pullin' Foot at the finish
Pullin Foot, changed and fed, was pacing around just inside the doors of the community centre at the finish line, checking the clock every 15 seconds, willing it to go faster. The "official" dot watchers inside on the laptops had the latest updates from the trackers and knew it was going to be a very slim margin.
These dot watchers were running multiple maps in parallel, comparing timestamps for every tracker update. We all knew that the gap was growing slowly but inexorably toward the critical 1-hour mark. Then, after CP15, Running Free abruptly veered onto a completely different route. Was this a critical mistake that would hand the win to Pullin' Foot, or was it a deliberate route choice to avoid trails and stick to paved roads?
After 10 minutes of fruitless speculation we had our answer: it was a deliberate route choice (Harper informed me that they had in fact measured it out and decided on it prior to the race).
This is what a properly designed adventure racing course should offer: multiple equally viable route choices. The fact that we were seeing the top 2 teams taking 2 different routes right at the end is a big feather in the caps of Bob Miller and Barb Campbell. Kudos!
However, as the routes had now diverged, it also put an end to the tracker timestamp maths, meaning we couldn't keep tracking the ever-growing gap between them and Pullin' Foot. All we knew was that it would be desperately close.
COED A mirror-image of the men's race, with Salomon digging deep to try to hold back a strong push to the finish from O-Store. At CP13 it looked like the defending champs' snakebit race was continuing, as they made a costly error, seeing the gap grow to 0:40.
"AR is AR and even if our faith held on a thread, it’s never over until the end, we had no other choice than raging out of TA3 to post the best time gaps on the bike even with an untimely bike light failure that cost us a few minutes close to CP13." - O-Store
O-Store clearly faster on the bikes, but will they run out of course before closing the gap? The dot watchers hitting <refresh> repeatedly, checking timestamps, trying to do sleep-deprived math. By CP14 the gap was once again moving the other way, down to 0:29. Would their biking legs pull them all the way back? Or would they run out of race course?
I imagine Pullin Foot will forever hate the sound of cow bells. With the race being too close to call based on the tracking map, most everyone at race HQ was outside keeping an eye out for bike lights. I was just inside, watching and listening as Pullin Foot counted down the minutes. 4 minutes ... 3 minutes ... And then we heard the cow bells.
One of the guys turns to his team-mates and sums it up: “I see their lights. That's it, guys: by 2 minutes.”
The Gap at Finish – 0:58 Yup...2 measly minutes. There are literally a thousand places throughout the race where Pullin Foot could have shaved off 120 seconds. But that's racing.
They went out to congratulate a completely spent team Running Free. They had known full well that they were losing ground all the way through the ride. A savvy route choice right at the end may have got them the win, as they didn't look to have the legs for any more rough trail by the end.
A completely empty Team Running Free punch in at the finish
The first words Harper said to their rivals was along these lines:
“Excellent race, very well done. Really enjoyed competing against you guys, just wish we could have battled side-to-side for longer than a few minutes in that swamp when we saw you. The penalty sucks but you guys were the best team out there.” - Running Free
This is a sentiment echoed by pretty much everyone, but the rules are there and the penalties are there and all teams know about them before the race.
Pullin Foot made the call on the course to race with the penalty instead of turning around and retrieving their singlet. I don't know exactly where they were on the course when they realized their mistake, but almost certainly they felt that it would have cost them more than 1 hour, not to mention a ton of energy, to go back and retrieve the race bib. This isn't the first time the win has been decided by mandatory gear being left behind.
One of these years, the teams will run penalty-free and we'll be treated to a neck-and-neck duel to the finish.
Kinetic Konnection chased Adrenaline Rush throughout the night and into the morning, finally passing them and taking 3rd place by a mere 6 minutes. Another amazing performance by the apparently ageless Dan “the mountain man” Mallory of Adrenaline Rush, just missing out the podium in a talented field.
COED The trackers update and we can see that both teams are on the same route so, barring a mechanical, it's going to be Salomon for the win. A few minutes later we see their lights and the cow bells welcome them as they roll into the finish line.
They are trashed but also jubilant. Mike Brown summed it up as he grabbed Pete Cameron: “I've been racing for years, and there is no such thing as the perfect race. Pete, you just nav'ed the perfect race!”
Salomon and O-Store: Genuine congratulations and respect at the finish
Race director Bob Miller was having a sweet little moment with his wife, Shannon, who had felt enormous pressure to perform at this level. By all accounts, she rose to the occasion in a big way. It looks like we're gonna have another Miller on the AR podiums for the next few years.
It's a rare thing to throw together 4 people who have never raced together as a team and have it gel almost perfectly first time out. That's what happened with Team Salomon, as they managed to capture lightning in a bottle.
Not long after this, O-Store.ca ride up and cross the finish. There is no sign of disappointment that I can see on any of their faces. There are lots of hugs and congratulations, and anyone can see there is loads of mutual respect here.
The final gap at Finish – 0:15.
The Warriors finish 3rd Coed and 5th overall, coming in around sunrise, 3 hours after O-Store. I hope they enjoyed the race, because they'll be a team to watch out for if they come back next year.
Speaking of which, I believe registration for Wilderness Traverse 2016 is already open. This years' event will take place on September 24-25, so mark your race calendars and we'll see you out there!
Wilderness Traverse 2015 Men's Champions: Team Running Free
Wilderness Traverse 2015 Coed Champions: Team Salomon