I still have no idea how to start this story. It has been almost two weeks since we finished our race in Winnipeg and I still feel so raw from the experience. Actif Epica was the shortest and flattest event out of the three, and throughout the last 6 weeks I have looked at this race as no more than an easy long run to finish the Order. Rumor has it, it was tough, from my friends and acquaintances. I was warned not to do the race and by no means do the longer version. But I was determined and signed up for the 100 mile, and tried to convince the others to do the longer one as well. Days later when my friend and mentor asked how it went, I burst into tears. Jan asked, “you didn’t finish?” Well I finished, but that wasn’t enough to heal the wound, and I realized that just because you finish a race doesn’t mean you get this blissed out euphoric feeling of accomplishment. Sure that’s what I have experienced so far, but Actif left me feeling broken and I still am trying to figure out why. So in the retelling, I hope to reach this catharsis that I truly need. For you dear reader, I fear this post might be as boring as a long Manitoba dirt road.
Driving up to Winnipeg was a long and flat drive. We got a taste of what was to come, the 8 hours of driving across the plains was the perfect opportunity to figure out our GPS units. Actif was an unmarked course, we were given cue sheets and GPX files to load onto our GPS units to find our way. Up until this point we had been unable to load the files, the GPS Drama was the most stressful pre race scramble to date! We drove into Winnipeg and arrived at the Forks for gear check and in all honesty, by this time I was not in a good place. My anxiety level was in the red, I couldn’t calm down! It was the GPS, getting us ready, trying to make sure we’ve interpreted the odd gear requirements, and a slough of other reasons. This anxiety sky rocketed during the race meeting, as the RD’s were discussing the race rules, trying to figure out what would constitute a disqualification, and what the gear requirements actually were. I was trying so hard to calm down, but seeing the guys put me in a good place. They were all excited, Randy, Scott, Paul, Jeff, and Daniel. We had been on this journey together and now we were at the beginning of the end!
During the race meeting, we were told that as the race moves along the US border, there is a chance that one could come across a refugee fleeing the US. That particular area had seen a lot of refugees recently, and it was a cold reminder of the state of my country. We were given instructions on how to help them, give them clothes/food, and who to call. I felt proud of this place that was welcoming those who weren’t welcome in my home, and ashamed that that was the case.
The race meeting ended and we headed to the hotel, where, we finally got the files loaded onto the GPS! What a drama! We went to bed for a few hours of sleep, we needed to head to the start at 4 am. The morning came, Erik, Mom, Fred and I drove the long black drive to the start. We arrived at a town with an abandoned church, and a few other dark buildings. We were the only ones there. No bus filled with my friends was in sight and there was the anxiety again, were we in the wrong spot?! They arrived shortly after 6, filing out with a tiny blue stripe on the horizon. With the entire field out of the bus, I became aware of how small we were. Just 14 of us would go on this 100 mile journey.
Hugs and kisses to my parents, and in the quiet morning, we started our trek on a black dirt road. Mark and Paul started at a brisk run, and Erik and I walked quickly after. I had a pack on, opting out of a sled due to the plethora of dirt roads. Looking at my tiny GPS screen, we made our first turn. It would be a completely different experience from the well marked course of the Superior 100, or the wide, white snowmobile trail of the Arrowhead. We were on a road, following the blue arrow that was us. We crossed a frozen field in the beautiful morning, the openness was just gorgeous! I was in Canada! Doing one of those destination races, I felt super fancy and my belief that this was going to be a cake walk was reinforced. Erik and I walked along a dirt road, and then turned onto another dirt road, and then our blue arrow told us to turn again. Open fields dotted with abandoned barns or houses watched us pass. Places that were once something to someone.
We came to a trail, and the lead biker passed us. He was the one who checked us in at gear check and complimented my bright yellow pants. Shortly after that he face planted, head over handlebars, into the deep snow. He shook it off like a pro and began walking his bike. Erik and I, just after him, started punching through the snow. Take a few steps, then down past my knees in snow. I’ve never seen snow that deep and it was awesome! I felt like an arctic explorer! Day dreaming about the Iditarod, we slowly made our way through the field. Then we came to another field, with more snow. I’m not sure how long it took for the novelty to wear off but it wasn’t long. Each step that dropped me down was like an electric shock from my knees to my hips. I had been to the Chiropractor earlier the week before to work on my IT bands and they had felt great up to this point, but the jarring was deleting everything he had done. I tried to make myself lighter by stepping quickly which turned into a series of slightly out of control falls. Every once in a while I could hear Erik say “careful” as I slapped myself down the trail.
Randy caught up to us right before we got to the water drop. The group of us took a reprieve, joking and filling our water. We were at something like 15-ish miles. And I was pooped! We crossed the bridge and now were in yet another field. Erik calmly made his way and I flopped down the trail, post holing, as the guys called it. At one point Jeff and I made our way tediously through the snow, and the Canadians walked right past us in their snow shoes! Talk about a brain melter! Then we were at yet another road, my pretty yellow pants now streaked with mud, we followed the blue arrow. Erik and I had a good system, he checked the queue sheets, I confirmed with the GPS. There were a few discrepancies, sometimes there was a sign when there shouldn’t have been, but we made our way. In the afternoon sun, as a group we walked quietly down the muddy road. Then Randy yells “this is boring” and I laughed out loud. How true, where was the white winter, the beauty? I was just on a road. This was so unlike the Winter Ultras I had become spoiled with.
We got to the first checkpoint, and it was here where the End came. The end of my battle to be positive, to be a good competitor, to enjoy the journey. I found out that our pace was minutes ahead of the cutoff, that in order to finish, I could not… slow…down. And I always slow down. I fear I passed my anxiety onto others as we gathered to go. I had no idea how this was going to happen, I had no faith in my ability to maintain this pace to the end. Erik and my Mom spoke words of encouragement as we left the checkpoint.
As we headed down the dirt road, Erik, Jeff, and I were passed by more bikers offering their words of encouragement. One even let us know we went the wrong way in the first bad post holing section, and we went extra miles. What!? The day went on, passing another abandoned building or funny goat. We met up with Mark on the trail, his feet were in bad shape and they were working their way up to the rest of his body. The wet snow and mud were brutal, we offered words of encouragement and I willed his feet to get better.
We met a Real Canadian on the road who told us about the trail ahead, the sun was going down and the open prairie was just incredible! We crossed it, ate some snacks, and came to a T. The trail continued on, but to get to it, you had to cross what looked like a tiny swamp. I could smell the stagnant water, oh hell no was I dousing my feet in that shit! They were already wet and I was not going to get them soaked! We started to walk around, Erik took one step and was down to his knee in water. So we went WAY around, moving down a driveway a little bit before post holing through the brush back to the trail. As we moved back along there were signs of other riders doing the same. One more biker came after us and we helped him pick a good place to cross, that swamp was a nightmare!
Darkness finally came and after that long day, I was feeling physically ok but ready for the checkpoint. As I think now, many parts of this race are “missing” from my memory, or switching places. Either way, this is the official disclaimer of the accuracy on time and checkpoints. Erik and I walked into a checkpoint, fully dark, I think midnight, and I needed to refuel. My feet were totally wrecked. The severity was one that I hadn’t had to deal with ever, as I usually take care of them. But the conditions meant there was little one could do to “fix” them. I thought of Mark. Peeling off my socks, a crescent shaped blister was taking residence on the ball of my feet, Trench Foot came to mind. Shit. I tried to eat and relax with Erik, Jeff, and Paul, but I knew we were close to the cut off and Randy and Daniel were not in yet. The volunteers were amazing, so jovial, asking us to hang out with them and eat ribs! Then something happened, we’ll call it “It.” I decided to leave it out of my report, it’s not a lie leaving it out, but would take away from the spirit of the race which I believe to be good. The confusion of the cutoffs was becoming stressful and we four left the checkpoint and It, slightly renewed but very much working hard to get to the next checkpoint before the cutoff. I bit back tears wondering where Randy and Daniel were, and as we turned down the road their headlamps appeared! Erik yelled “get in get out!” We were getting too close to this thing.
The blackness of night on the Manitoba plains was quite the experience, just flat black sky and ground, dotted with lights in the distance indicating some kind of life. We would cross a road with no signs, that just stretched off into nothing. Jeff made a comment about not being particularly fond of smelling pig shit for 10 hours. I agreed. Behind us, I could see the headlamps of my friends and relaxed a little. Turning onto a field and uneven terrain I started stumbling and slapping my way down the trail again, Jeff and Paul’s lights quickly faded in the distance. Four or so hours later Erik and I made it to the Niverville checkpoint. It was four am, we needed to leave at 4:30 to pass the checkpoint. Holy crap I was tired! Erik got some pierogis, and we drank pop. The volunteers were again so amazing, it still brings tears to my eyes. It was the way they looked at us. I’ve never seen that before. Looking at Paul, Jeff and Erik, everyone had the same look on their faces. This was taking its toll, but we were doing it! Randy and Daniel came in, with only 20 minutes to rest and refuel. We all left together, but my legs were tightening up, and it took a long time to catch up to them. We laughed and joked a bit, talked about “It” but soon wiggled into single file. Now we just have to get to sunrise.
Eating caffeine pills, we quietly marched along, the blackness of the prairie not letting the sunrise come for an incredible amount of time. I watched our blue triangle inch along on the GPS, it had to be soon. We turned onto a road, and then missed the turn onto the trail, so Erik and I walked back, it was one block but it seemed like more! In the bright morning we made it to the checkpoint. I could feel the defeat in my face, I barely could talk to the volunteers as they gave me food and orange juice. All too soon, we had to head out once again. Then it was fully daylight and we were on a long dirt road with open sweeping fields.
*If you have to go to the bathroom on the prairie expect some delay as all the trees are connected to houses and yards. That was a dark time.
At the end of a road, there was the truck, and my Mom and stepdad ringing that bell. Mom was looking so cute in her little sweater, I was just mesmerized by how pretty she looked. Probably having something to do with how good it was to see them! She offered well wishes and words of encouragement. It helped! Still marveling at how pretty Mom was, Erik and I moved easily and quickly to catch up to the others, they got ahead of us during *. Out across a field, on some black dirt road, we trotted along. I was starting to feel good, and eating again, something I hadn’t really been doing at all. I chatted with Daniel a bit and ran to catch up to Erik. But Actif wasn’t going to let us feel good for too long, as the day heated up so did the mud. Manitoba Gumbo they call it. Every step you take adds a layer of heavy mud on your shoes that will NOT come off, I tried pushing it off with my poles, which in turn added a layer of Gumbo to them. Poles swinging wildly we “kitty-foot” our way across, the going was painfully slow. Looking down at my shoes there was an inch pancake around the soles. Thank GOD we reached the turn and the end of that hell, only to be on yet another section of post holing torture. Picking my way slowly, as it started to mist/rain, I started to cry.
There was a bridge in the distance, and I knew that was where the water drop was, making my way, a giant golden retriever started running wildly toward me. It was my Moms dog, and to see her joy lifted my spirits! I was greeted by the volunteers and my parents, we took pictures and the rain stopped. Our group, my friends and brothers in this journey, were the only ones left in the race. The conditions and cutoffs had taken their toll. But we were getting close, Winnipeg was getting close, Daniel pointed out the skyline on the last hellish section. We were doing it. Nothing was in the bag though, so off we went. Under the flood way and over the bridge, I heard someone scream in pain. This race was REALLY taking its toll.
Randy waited for Daniel, and Erik and I moved toward the final checkpoint. We were so close to the cutoff, it was time to move hard. Erik was pulling me with his words of encouragement, and we stumble ran to the college. Through the neighborhoods, I tried running as hard as I could, I could FEEL my legs were just dead weight. I didn’t know how this was going to happen. To be this close to a finish and still not know if a finish was even possible was a new experience. I folded. I let Erik pull me, he took charge of the GPS and I ran until I could only muster a slog. As we got close, Randy and Daniel appeared behind us, and we reached the final checkpoint together. Fred said it was the first time he had seen me get to a checkpoint and not smile. Sitting down I wanted no food or drink, just get that damn pack off my poor ladylike shoulders. Mark came over asking if anyone needed food, his race had ended the day before. Instead of doing what I would do which is to cry in my martini alone for 4 days, he was here! He took my shoes off, cleaned off my feet, brought me mountain dew (gross but no coke means tough decisions must be made). He offered words of encouragement, and more importantly showed me a better way to be.
Kissing my parents, Erik, Daniel, Randy and I left the final checkpoint and headed to the finish, 9 miles away. We were sticking together, my legs were gassed but I know we could maintain 2.8 miles per hour to finish within the cut off. A while later, there was Mark again, directing us to the trail, he was in full volunteer mode! Through the neighborhoods we went, the open prairie replaced by suburban Winnipeg. As we walked, a runner passed us and with a cheer shouted “hey, Actif Epica?!” I was with Daniel at the time and neither of us said a word. Not one little peep of acknowledgment. We were so deep in the pain cave, the thought of that poor runner now makes me laugh a little bit! We came to a bridge and there was Mark again, lord every time I saw him I started to cry! It was so awesome seeing him out there being such an amazing ambassador for our sport.
At last the road for us ended and we were once again coming to a trail. This time the same volunteer that had been at many of the checkpoints was there. I’m sorry I don’t know his name now, he started walking with us, and continued to walk with us for the duration of the race. He was seeing us to the finish. Soon another volunteer joined us, a young girl, who paired up with me as I walked behind the boys. We talked about the race, her school and work, and she told me how far to the finish. Another volunteer joined us on our final march to the finish. My heart swells now thinking of it, and this is going to be my takeaway from Actif. The people that walked us in were a true testament to the race, that is not a race, but is. They wanted to be and very much were a part of this, and to be walked to the finish will be a huge memory for me until death. Maybe it was because I felt so broken, and they made me feel cared for. Maybe it was because I felt big and strong and they were escorting my amazing self and my amazing friends into this realm of awesome. As we topped a little hill, there were my parents and the cow bell and it all became very real. Another volunteer joined us, and another, and then the RD came and with an amazing amount of energy walked with us chatting about where our friends were. This troop made its way to the Forks.
Daniel was a few steps behind so we stopped to wait, Randy, Erik, Daniel, and I would finish this together. From someone who previously did not like doing events with other people I will gladly eat my words, there was no where else I wanted to be. With Fred ringing the cowbell announcing our arrival, we four walked through the busy square. The young girl pointed to a spire with a Canadian flag telling me that was the finish, I told her she should do this race someday. As we came to the finish, there was Paul, Jeff, and Scott cheering us in. God we did it. I was so proud of them, of us, to do this strange and hard thing. Scott, who made the CHOICE to finish and did, the definition of mental power. Paul, his first winter ultra was the Tuscobia 160 and he made it and them all look easy. Jeff, who lives up to his name, so rock solid in mind and body during the grueling parts. Randy, whose hilarious humor is outweighed only by his true care for others. Quiet and strong Daniel, who I saw at Arrowhead breakfast and was too shy to ask him to join us, after chatting with him and hearing stories by others I know our table missed out and I’m reminded to include everyone, you never know what new friend awaits. Erik, who pulled me selflessly those last miles and who I PROMISED this was not like other winter ultras. We all did it. I can’t say anymore on the love and bond I have with these humans, because it just won’t do.
There we were, after the photographs, in a warm room, sitting in chairs, and not worrying about cutoffs. We finished with 20 minutes to spare and were now enjoying the luxury of time. Mark had the presence of mind to bring food from the last aid station to the finish, and we took our medals in a haze. Mom and Fred had pizza, and wine, so Erik and I left to head back to the hotel. I still want that pizza. Too tired and beat to pig out like a little…well piggy, it was an early night. After a restless sleep we prepared to leave and meet the boys for breakfast. That was a good idea, seeing them again, all of us on a long table eating food and laughing at how miserable we had been just a moment ago. Mom made us “mug rugs” of our Hrimthurs experience, she brought many of us to tears with that kind memento. I got a chance to thank Mark, and listen to the boys stories. All too soon we were back in the car, heading to North Dakota. Driving to the border, we passed exits that lead to towns that previously had no meaning, but now have been marked by our suffering and bonding. My legs were so tight I could barely stand. Stopping at a rest stop I was leaning on Mom trying to get to the bathroom, unable to keep my balance. This race had also marked itself on my body.
And here I am, living this again, crying again, feeling the anxiety of the cut off again. Have I reached catharsis? The beginning I think. But I know now that this race and experience is very important. I’m still working on the how, but there is a relevance here that I need to live with and listen to for some time. Until then, I reached my goal of getting into the Order. That a little over a year ago I heard Chris Scotch talk about it in the race meeting of my FIRST winter ultra and I thought, “Oh Shit” knowing I had to do it. That I’m standing on the platform of my goal and it is yet again, not what I expected. That it was not a podium of victory, but a hard march to a finish with people I actually don’t feel up to par with. That it was the shared experience, it is always the shared experience (as this loner humbly admits) that makes everything worth while. That we, none of us do this alone. And I’m not just talking about Acif Epica anymore.