Text and photos by Loïc Olivier
Ultra races have always fascinated me, especially those that take place in winter. In a long-distance race, the weather will turn for the worse at some point. During an ultra endurance race, you’re sure to get hit right in the feels.
When winter comes, I have a tendency to read and reread some of the wild stories coming out of the Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska, and the Arrowhead in Minnesota. Trail conditions are often difficult. Epic hike-a-bikes, When night comes, temps often drop to -40C. Riders are pushing themselves for dozens of hours, fighting the urge to quit while being beaten down by strong northwestern winds. Mid-race DNFs are common.
We’re spoiled in the National Capital Region: each year, Cameron Dube organizes the Wendigo Fatbike Ultra, a winter ultra endurance fatbike race that runs through Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec over distances of 50km, 100km and 150km.
In January 2018, I decided to go for it. I signed up for my first ever endurance race: the Wendigo Fatbike Ultra 50km race.
A few weeks before the race, I revved up and increased my number of outings: big Gatineau Park rides, snirt rides on sweet Pontiac dirt roads, urban marathons rides criss-crossing snow-covered bike paths on both sides of the Ottawa River. All in all, including bike commutes, I manage to ride outside for a solid ten hours a week.
Respecting equipment : all @wendigoultra participants must have the mandatory basic equipment. Race volunteers check each participant’s equipment and if something is missing or not working, you’ll get disqualified.
For the 50km race, I need:
1- 8 square inches of reflective material on the front and back of bike or cyclist.
I stick 3M red reflective strips on the fork and chainstays of the Chic-Chocs.
2- Flashing lights (minimum 3 bulbs) at the front and rear blinking at all times, day and night. White or red lights at the front, red lights at the back.
I’ll use two simple red flashing lights.
3- 2L of water in insulated bottles.
I get thirsty when I ride, so I’ll be bringing 3L in BigChill insulated bottles. I keep 2 bottles on the the fork of my Chic-Chocs, and the other bottle will go in a feed bag on my stem.
4- Insulated foam pad, minimum size of 12X12″.
I’ll bring a small Z Seat from Thermarest.
5- Bivy bag or emergency blanket that can fend off the wind/cold.
I’ll bring a reflective emergency blanket.
In addition to the mandatory equipment, I’ll bring a change of clothes (two merino baselayer tops, a puffy coat, two neck warmer, a pair of gloves, a hat and a balaclava), food for about 8 hours of high-intensity riding (gels, Cliff bars, homemade GORP) tools, an inner tube, a pump, my phone, ID cards, money and a 35mm camera.
My goal is to finish the 50km race in less than 4 hours.
2nd week of February. We’re getting hammered with new snow everywhere in the region. I hope that the groomed trail will harden before the weekend….
Saturday is race day.
I wake up at 4:00 in the morning and have a solid breakfast. I drink a long espresso, chase it with another one, and take care of last-minute prep. Fred’s picking me up around 5am so we can get to Beachburg before 7am.
When we arrive at the Whitewater Brewery, volunteers are waiting outside to verify our equipment. An hour later, Cameron gives us race instructions.
Most participants are signed up for the 50km and 100km races. A select group is signed up for the 150km race, which should take over 12h to complete.
I’m antsy and nervous. It is -9C, the sky is cloudy and there is a very light wind. Conditions are prime for a winter bike race.
Everyone move towards the starting line. Many riders are washing out left and right, their tire pressures are too high. Almost everyone lowers their pressure before the big start.
We’re all standing there, saying nothing. All we hear is the wind.
Mass start at 8:25am. Two groups form very quickly, the first one is made up of roadies in full kit. The group sprints at full speed before lining up on Muskrat Lake, where passing is more difficult. We won’t see them again any time soon.
The other group is more diverse and impossible to typecast. The group quickly pick up a cruising pace. I pass a few riders, but it’s hard. The first group left tire ruts on the groomed trail. People are running high tire pressures. You have to stay in the middle of the trail because. If not, you’ll endo.
At the other end of the lake, 6km further, we arrive at the Olsens’ house. The Olsens are out on the balcony [egging us on]. Sounds like the next km will be a trek.
What an understatement.
The road from the Olson cottage to the concession road is steep and not cleared. Steve Olsen’s truck got stuck the day before and his son had to pull him out. You can see fatbike tire tracks in the deep truck tire ruts. There are snow angels everywhere.
I’m sweating my life away and go OTB a bunch of times. I get passed by a guy with a Gearheads kit, a bike shop from Petawawa, just north of here. I later realize that the guy who passed me is Carey Dedo, who is doing the 150km. His approach is different from that of the other riders in the first group who went all out right off the gate. This guy is clearly a diesel engine. He rides at a constant speed. Carey will in fact end up winning the 150km at about midnight, 16 hours later.
I finally get out of this hellish driveway and hit the concession road. I reach the end of my cassette in no time. The wind is picking up a little. This road is quiet, I ride in peace but have to be mindful of traffic at intersections, as we cross provincial roads.
We turn off on the snowmobile trail, an old railway line. It’s flat as a pancake. It’s as wide as a street, but it’s soft in the center. I ride on the side of the trail on fatbike tire tracks the trail. When I pedal hard, I tend not to look far enough in front of me. Unfortunately I head straight for a tree branch that hits me a few centimetres above my right eye. Fortunately, more fear than harm. I’M not wearing riding glasses today… I got lucky on this one.
I see a rider in the distance coming my way on the snowmobile. It’s Jack, a 6′ 5″ giant. His chin is glued to his stem. He means business. He’s easily 5 or 6km ahead of me and I’m not even halfway through the race. He’ll end up winning the 50km.
Then I see Rodrigo. Ice beard and big smiles. He’s obviously doing well. Then it’s Andrew, who just had a baby, and it’s not his first. That guy looks like he’s not even breaking up a sweat. So smooth. This guy doesn’t need sleep to do well on race day!
I ran into my buddy Fred a few minutes later. We exchange news: “Need calories”? “You have enough to drink”? Everything is fine. We each continue on our own.
At the end of the snowmobile trail, I reach Beachburg. I’m catching up with David, a regular at local endurance races. We greet each other and ride in line to the village arena a few kilometres away.
Quick check-in. David changes his GoPro batteries. I’m leaving without changing clothes.
I’m in the zone. I’m not riding especially fast, but doing well above 14km/h on a snow-covered trail. At this rate, I’ll finish the course well below my 4h goal.
I don’t see anyone on the trails except for a few snowmobilers. Then in the distance, I see two people standing on the side of the road. It’s a kid and his mother cheering me on! In the middle of nowhere! So cool.
I’ve been riding at a steady pace for two and a half hours. I’m thirsty and getting ready to take a sip but realize that my bottle is almost empty. I grab one of the bottles on the Chic-Chocs’ fork, but the bottle is frozen shut. I stop in the middle of the street, unscrew the lid and pour the ice water into my empty bottle. With my glove removed, I might as well eat some food. My Cliff protein bar is as hard as a rock… I take out a gel, it’s so thick I can’t swallow it without gagging. I have to eat something or I’ll hit the wall. Argh.
My bottle is starting to freeze up again. The flow rate is getting lower and lower. I have to shake it before taking a sip. I’ll do it again. I try to drink every 5 minutes but it doesn’t take long before the bottle is completely frozen again. The only way to drink is to unscrew the lid. I try to swap bottles but my 3rd bottle is now a block of ice…
Back to hell on the Olsens’ driveway…. I pedal but I screw up more often than not and end up having to push my bike. I’m running high pressure in my tires and I need to do something about it. On the dirt roads and on the snowmobile trail, it worked out fine, but on the Olsens’ hellish driveway, I’m having a hard time.
It’s not getting any better on the lake. I barely ride 20 meters before I crash. I get on the Chic-Chocs and take off. 30 meters further, I fall again. I get up, remount and start riding again.
I fall like that dozens of times. David passes by. My vision is getting blurry. I’m really tired. I have to deflate my tires but I’m afraid I’ll go too slowly. By then, poor judgement is my defacto M.O.. I continue this nonsense along the entire length of Muskrat Lake. Riding for 6km takes me an hour.
When I get to the shore, I get off the bike and push it up the hill. I see the Whitewater Brewery about a km away.
Damn, I’m so thirsty…
When I get to the brewery, I put the Chic-Chocs next to the other bikes that are lined up against the wall. Cam comes out of the brewery and congratulates me. We take a quick picture and he gives me the Event Finisher’s fridge magnet. I smile. This will actually be useful!
Inside, Rodrigo, Andrew, David and Fred congratulate me, before someone offers me a beer. The first sip is blissful.
I finished the 50km race in 3h55min and reached my goal. I could have done better if I had managed the last part of my race properly, but I guess we learn from experience.
I sit of a stool that is way too high for me and take off my tuque and gloves. I close my eyes for a few moments.
I wanted to have an experience. Well, that was quite the experience. I pushed myself hard during that race, both physically and mentally.
Big Shoutout to Cameron and his team of volunteers for having put together a stellar event. It beat me up proper. Big thanks also to Whitewater Brewery for their hospitality. Nothing beats a good beer and a great meal after pushing yourself hard.
All things considered, my first ultra endurance race went pretty well, but the last quarter of the race was particularly difficult. I made a number of mistakes:
1 – I prepared for it a bit lightly
To do well in an endurance race, you have to test your equipment and you food, and adjust as necessary.
2 – My water bottles were frozen.
Next time, I’ll start with hot water in all my bottles. I will also make sure to wrap them in a cozy.
3 – The food I brought was hard to eat
I have to try and find something other than protein bars that harden and gels that thicken. I also have to use pogies, that way I’ll be able to put on thin gloves and won’t need to take off my gloves to eat. Pogies will also allow me to keep my food warm in the cold.
4 – I brought too much stuff with me
Of course, I didn’t need to bring a camera. Next time, my phone will do the trick. For spare clothes, I’ll have to sort everything out on the spot before starting the race and leave some items aside depending on the weather.
5 – Batteries
For the 50km event, my lights worked properly because I used new lithium batteries. If I ever decide to sign-up for the 100km or 150km event, I must bring spare lithium batteries. If the lights stop working at a checkpoint, I could be disqualified.
6 – Tire pressure
I always check my tire pressure by hand, but experience has shown me that I should really test it with a pressure gauge so that I can find the pressures that work for me. If I slip and slide all over, it’s because the pressure is too high. There’s no magic here, I just have to stop and lower it as needed.
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