Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Rock and Ice Report

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Pre-Race

We arrived in Yellowknife three days before the race start, giving us time to settle in and meet our media host Brian Desjardins. Brian would be kept busy through the week with all of the media needs/wants and perhaps a few headaches! Brian put in some long, long days for us, and is a great guy – very mellow with a dry sense of humour.

We were graciously accommodated by Chateau Nova Suites, and had a cushy last night of luxury before heading down to the Matrix Village for the race. It is amazing the little community they constructed for us right out on the ice - a true little Athlete’s Village.
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Our Italian Friends
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Our first night in Yellowknife we had the opportunity to meet some of the media and racers from around the world at the Black Knight Pub. We found ourselves at a table with the Italian contingent. This would be the start of a special friendship that would develop over the next week or so. Fransceso (Checco), Pietro and Katia were all here to take on the 6-day foot/snowshoe race, while Gabriela (Ela) was to document their adventures on film. They are all so warm and friendly, and each very accomplished people. Luckily for us, their English is very good, and it was amazing how much it improved each day.

Day 1 – Let the Games Begin

This race had me nervous, but I kept telling myself that if I got through Day 1, it would all be okay. This was the longest leg, and it felt like venturing into the unknown. Would my clothing be okay? Would my body wake up from the long slumbering taper I had given myself? Did I forget anything? These and other unanswered questions badgered me. To make it harder still, the wind was very strong and we had to head into it for almost the entire day.

Despite all this, I started off feeling good, even though the first lake crossing was a challenge in itself. I started without my snowshoes, figuring my Kahtoola microspikes would be fine for awhile. Eventually I started breaking through the snow more and more, so about half way to the first checkpoint I pulled over to throw on my Dions. By this time I was settling into a rhythm and feeling more confident. It felt good to be running, and I kept reminding myself to look around and soak in the scenery of the beautiful North.

There were some neat moments early on when the media helicopter went flying by, really low to the ground. It certainly added an impressive exclamation point to what a great amount of thought, effort and planning went into this race.

A few hours in and the weather started to throw some more challenges at us. It had been snowing lightly, but now it was starting to come down a lot harder, and blowing in our faces. One lake crossing left me struggling to see as my eyes got all puffy and it made me disoriented. Finally I got to the next portage and rested in the wind for a snack and drink.

Later, as I was starting to wind my way through another of the welcome portages that separated the long windswept lakes, I was surprised to come up on Derrick. I feel sick even writing this now, because with the benefit of hindsight I see so clearly what I refused to believe at the time. Even with a pulk weighing him down, if Derrick is anywhere near me in this race, something is wrong. We struggled over the last endless lake together, trying to keep our spirits up as we fought the wind and whiteout conditions. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t having the day he wanted, so I forced myself to stay positive. I kept saying that we just had to get this day done, and it would all get better.

Right before we reached the stage camp he said he was going to drop. I cried a bit but then pushed it away and said he just needed some rest, that this was a tough day last year for him too, and not to decide anything yet. I kept insisting tomorrow would be a better day, but a little more of the reality had seeped in.

As for the Italians, this day saw Checco’s pulk break and he unfortunately dropped out at the final checkpoint. Pietro also ran into pulk problems, but he was able to use spare parts from the broken sled and continue on. Katia, all maybe 110 pound of her, is a fast runner who is sponsored by Inov8, but was overwhelmed by the heavy sled and was forced to drop with the knee problems it was giving her.

Day 2 – The Highs and Lows

Emotionally, this day wrecked me. Derrick was continuing to struggle and starting to know that things weren’t going to turn around. I didn’t want him to drop, but I realize now how selfish I was being. I kept insisting things would get better, and at Hidden Lake checkpoint he stopped to tend to some blisters and encouraged me to go ahead. I felt confident he would return to the course as the racer he really is, and in no time catch up and pass me. In the meantime, Lisa Broughman was having a good day and I felt the need to pick up the pace to stay ahead of her.

I was having a good day physically, but still the lake crossings and deep snow were relentless. The weather was perfect, sunny with wind at our backs; it was just the ideal temperature and I often had my gloves off. By now it was getting tougher to keep fueling, but I set my watch for every 15 minutes and alternated snacks, hydration, or whatever I felt I needed. Peanut butter cups were a nice treat, and didn’t freeze. The timer helped to keep my focus on small sections, as I felt I needed some mental help at this point. I looked behind me several times hoping to see Derrick. Coming into Jennejohn stage camp was the coolest sight, with the ring of teepees set up just out from a gorgeous outcrop of rock.

When Lisa came in she broke the news to me that Derrick had dropped. To pull a sled that far when you’re feeling healthy is brutal enough, but to run it when sick might as well have made his pulk 200 pounds. I felt awful that I had chosen my race over my husband, and that I didn’t stay with him. If I could have snapped my fingers and been back at Matrix with him I would have. I knew though that he’d feel responsible if I dropped because of him, and I never seriously considered it. Instead, I went into my assigned tent and had a good cry, leaving Dennis and Credence with a melting down female to contend with. (Sorry guys!) Thanks to Barb and Bev for their support and providing a shoulder, and the guys from Arctic Response who generously allowed Derrick and I to speak on their satellite phone. It would have been a long night worrying without their help.

Sleep was eluding me this entire trip, and this night was no exception. I hung out by the fire until around 11 pm trying to get tired. Morten Hilmer from Denmark, one of the race photographers, was just getting himself fed and warmed up after another of his epic days on the trail covering the race. It was great getting to know Mort, a real sweet guy and such funny stories. I think he’s a real fan of Canada, especially after his first taste of our maple syrup!

Day 3 – My Finish

I woke feeling ready to go. I felt strangely refreshed, I guess from being so emotionally drained before. I made sure to bandage and tape up any hot spots and blisters so I wouldn’t have to stop on the trail like yesterday (I changed to thicker socks and covered a heel blister about 90 minutes into the first day). My mind hadn’t been in any big cut-throat racing mode or anything, but I felt fairly confident that if I ran strong today I could win my category.

That would be great, but the bigger gift was the glimpse into what I assume is the attraction to ultras. At Haliburton last fall I remember Laurie McGrath telling me to “be careful, they’re addictive”. I think the feelings that swept over me on day 3 were what she was talking about. I became a slightly different person than when I started this race, stripped down to something very basic and raw. The rhythm of my snowshoes and my breathing were all I heard, and to be moving through such an endless wilderness was truly awesome. I look forward to feeling that again, but in the meantime I carry a small piece of it back with me to curiously ponder over and enjoy.

As I’ve mentioned to numerous people already, another thing I thought about was how fortunate I am to have people in my life who would be genuinely happy for me. This sport is my hobby and I don’t expect anyone to care that much. But it’s also a big part of my life, so when family and friends are happy for me it feels good. I very much appreciated all of the messages I received after.

Hitting the ice highway was something I looked forward to all day. I took the time to peel off the snowshoes and put the spikes back on, then took off for home. It felt so good to be really running, and I was determined to savour every moment of finishing this race. When the media guys drove up alongside it was great to see Derrick who was with them, and have the distraction for a bit, but I soon needed to be by myself so I told them I’d see them at the end. (Later they told me they had a good laugh at my non-subtle dismissal.) Finally reaching the finish, it was great to get a big hug from Derrick, who couldn’t have been happier for me to have experienced this race that had gotten so much under his skin last year. We had very similar races actually, maybe because I picked his brain so much about his race last year.

It was really nice getting to know a few of the other women in my race - Lisa, Shirlee and Fumi were all wonderful and all had amazing races.

Trout Rock Lodge

With our races done, we were able to go out to the final stage camp of the 6-day race, at Trout Rock Lodge, west of Yellowknife on Great Slave Lake. We were driven in by Ragnar and Ari on giant enclosed Swedish snowmobiles, and hosted to a nice evening hanging out in the lodge. It was nice to watch all of the remaining racers make their way to the final stop before their last day of racing.

Katia was there to cheer Pietro on, and to run the last stage of the race the next day to scout it out for next year. Pietro’s snowshoes had broken the day before, but luckily we were able to shuttle out a pair for him to use the last two days.

It was fun chatting with Harold Mah from Get Out There a bit more. Harold is super outgoing and he makes you feel like a good friend right from the minute you meet him. I had heard he was a crazy adventurer, and he shared some of his stories. Really powerful stuff; Harold has seen and done a lot. For not the first time on this trip I felt very much in awe of the experiences of the people around me.

That night, at 11:00 pm Mountain Time, which is 1:00 am our home time - so it averaged out to midnight which was exactly Derrick’s birthday - we popped out of our cabin to see the Northern Lights. Wow, they were worth the entire trip right there. Trout Rock is so remote; it was a great place to see them.

The Finish of the 6-day

The next day we were at the finish line to see the end of the battle between Michael Argue and Phil Villeneuve in the men’s ski race which stirred up so much excitement over the week. Michael ended up winning, with Phil a super close three minutes behind. It was cool to be there to see Greg and Denise McHale both win their foot/snowshoe races, and Liza Pye finish strong in the women’s ski – she looked just beautiful gliding in. Jen Segger ran a gutsy race with an injury to finish second behind Denise. Inspiring performances by all of them and everyone else who finished.

Pietro finished strong in 7th place before having a well-deserved beer handed to him by Ken in Matrix Village. He is no stranger to fighting challenges in order to achieve a goal, having reached the summit of Everest in 2005. Both Pietro and Katia will be back in 2010 with some heavy tweaking to their pulk design. I predict they will be competing for some top finishes. Katia mentioned they will form a training group in order to bring more Italians to Rock and Ice next year.

Post Race

BHP Billiton, in addition to a whoppingly generous sponsorship of $37,000 worth of diamonds to the race category winners, threw in a flight for the winners up to their Ekati mine. The mine is located 300 km north of Yellowknife, above the tree line. We piled into a cozy Twin Otter and headed out, arriving about 90 minutes later. We could see the open pits from the air as we approached the mine, and I had Gary Tait from BHP Billiton sitting next to me for commentary which was helpful. Gary is a mountain biker, so he could relate to us doing Rock and Ice. It was interesting seeing the operation, as we have friends and family friends who work in the diamond, gold and other mining industries and have heard much about what they do and how they do it.

From the air, I was blown away because I had never seen a landscape like this before. From flying in the south you are so used to seeing the land parceled up, but here it was so untouched. Yes there is a mine here and there, an ice road there, and maybe a sparse network of snowmobile trails, but for the most part it is pristine, untouched and gigantic. Pretty much the entire flight up and back I saw absolutely no trace of human impact. It was freaking amazing and gave me some serious chills. I’m so glad I had the chance to see that.

There is no intercom on such a small plane, so at one point when we were hearing loud banging noises, the pilot sent a note back telling us it was just ice and all was fine. He didn’t look worried, so that was good to see too!

Later that night was the wrap up party hosted by Coyotes and Bacardi. After the awards and a slideshow, it was time to say goodbye to our Rock and Ice experience. An amazing time with so many special memories and people.

Piles of Thanks

In Yellowknife: Thank you to Scott, Brian, Jeff, Ken, Elaine, and the entire Rock and Ice crew; the course volunteers, who are complete angels; Ken from Matrix, Mike and his team from Arctic Response (more angels, they are), Gary from BHP Billiton, Jenni from Chateau Nova, Ragnar from Trout Rock Lodge, and all of the other sponsors; Pat from Up Here, and Bev, Shawne and Barb for kindly allowing me into your lives and races – it was a pleasure to spend such a unique time with you; Sarah and Troy Marsh for your generosity and kindness.

At home: Thank you to our parents for your help and support; to Brennan and Heather for being excited for us; to Jack, Rosemary and Duane for looking after our pets – we have a helluva lot of them and this isn’t easy!; Karen, Ken, Anna, Shannon and Reilly Dawg for the fun and comforting stops in Edmonton; Debbie and Jack for the loan of my sleeping bag and other gear, and always inspiring us with your cool adventures; Bob Duess of Duess Geological Ltd. for the use of your GPS units – they now have the race waypoints if you want to go check them out, Bob!; Buzz Burrell and La Sportiva for your generous support; Ashan of CyclePath for the great deal on race fuel; PowerMAX for merino base layers that are like miracle garments; Outdoor Research for pants that saved me from the wind; Karen Murphy for helping me train this winter, but even more for your positive energy and friendship; and Derrick, my rock.

As for that other rock that everyone asks about: During the race I had the perfect special spot picked out for it in the event that I won, and it feels really good to see it there now.

Some Pictures

Racers from many countries were represented. One notable absence - next year some of our US friends need to come!








Me on the ice road, so close to the finish














Self-portrait after the race













Travelling in style to Trout Rock Lodge














Derrick helping out at stage finish - not easy to do when you'd rather be racing










Katia having fun in the sun











One more day to go, Pietro!


















Racers at Ekati in stylish gear














Untouched landscape











K-Rock awards

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Full 2009 race coverage, including results can be found at Sleepmonsters.
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Complete race information, including 2010 registration is on the Rock and Ice page.
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Derrick's race report is on his blog.

7 comments:

David Bohn said...

Beautiful story, thanks for sharing. Congratulations on a well earned victory.

Derrick said...

Great report Sara. I enjoyed re-living the good parts again.

Love you,
D

Sara said...

I forgot to add a couple of funny moments:

Day 1 seeing a "Bubba Dropping" (Bud can) coming into the first checkpoint.

Day 2 Startline - Thirty seconds before the start, Antonio looks down at his feet, all ready to go except he has forgotten to put on his skis! He laughs his funny laugh and scrambles to get them on. Killed me, so glad I saw that.

Aaron Anderson said...

Great read Sara! Once again awesome race! Must be glad to be home though!

BarbC said...

Thanks for the excellent report, Sara. It was great to meet you and Derrick, and I'm sure we'll run into you again on a trail somewhere.

Sara, big congrats on earning yourself a diamond! Derrick, I know you will kick butt in this race next time around. You made a wise choice to put your health first, and hopefully you'll have extra energy to do other fun events this spring.

All the best,
Barb & Richard

Anonymous said...

Wow. That's a rip-snortin' read, Sara!

Thanks for the report.

Congratulations.

Steve Bonisteel

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