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I keep telling myself that this is going to be my last expedition race... but for some unknown reason I always seem to come back for one more. Am I addicted to Adventure Racing? Aren’t we all addicted to AR? There is something mysterious about AR that leaves us wanting more every time. And frankly I think that it’s this quest of the unknown that adds to the desire to participate and excel in the next race. As if from one event to the other, the growing challenges are feeding the addiction and the need to participate becomes stronger than reason. I cannot help but think about it all the time, it is now become a part of who I am.
We started to think about going to Expedition Alaska towards the end of 2014. We decided to make it a project and our team had then been training really hard throughout the next 6 months in order to be as ready as we could possibly be for the level of adventure ExpeditionAK was promising to give. Despite efforts, one is not safe from injuries. One month from the start our secret weapon and the soft spirit of the team, Ursula Tracz, injured her ankle during a training event in Ontario. This was devastating news for all of us, but we had to plan for her replacement. Saying that finding an experienced and equally ready female adventure racer is a hard thing to do 5 weeks prior to an expedition race is an understatement. We reached out to many top female racer we knew as there was just no way that we were passing on this race. For us the race started at that time. Game on! Putting a team together is the first challenge of adventure racing. The Equilibre lies in each of its member’s skills, strengths and weaknesses. It is never easy to find a girl teammate who is willing and prepared to endure such things. The physical pain of being out there in the wild and the mental stress of being with us tree French Canadians clowns. Chelsea Lutrall from Colorado, USA who had raced against El Capo (Alex) in Florida Sea 2 Sea in 2014 was able to fill in last minute. Chelsea was thrilled to be joining the team and fit right in with our wild spirits.
We landed in Alaska on June 23rd. We did some shopping in lovely Anchorage the following day and were ready to go by mid-day. The organization had plan on providing transportation for the teams late evening that day. We were not delighted by the idea of waiting all day. Someone from our team had the old school but brilliant idea to contact a local radio station and ask them to broadcast live our request for a ride to the Princess Mckinley Lodge. It took about 5 minutes and we received a call from a generous family offering a ride! What a cool way to get in touch with local people! We soon were on our way with some amazingly kind people, that was a good start and the luck we were hoping to carry on with during our stay in Alaska.
After 4 days getting gear organized, doing crevasse rescue crash course, bear talk with a wildlife specialist, wilderness first aid course and the famous team parade (that we almost missed) we were ready to board the bus to the race start on the shore of Eklutna Lake.
The race started with running a half marathon along the lake, then up to the base of the glacier. Before we engaged on the glacier, we were told that the longest continuous glacier segment in adventure racing history had been in Patagonia Expedition Race and was 8 miles long; the Eklutna glacier was 20 miles long, more than twice the distance! A glacier of that magnitude is a wild place to be when you try to go fast and light. In fact it is a pretty wild place to be period. I am speaking for my team and this first segment was probably the scariest and the most technical thing that I have ever done in a race. We reached CP1 and CP2 in good spirit with the leading teams. It felt great to be with these teams and we were having a good rhythm.
At some point we realized that Chelsea was not feeling very good. She was suffering from asthma but seemed under control. On a way down on the glacier, we spotted some big cat tracks (cougar or lynx). I remember telling my teammates: « Hey guys! Let's follow the tracks ... I am sure that this big cat will take us down the glacier safely ». We didn’t. Half an hour later, we found ourselves in crevasses country with no more tracks to follow. I wish I could explain this scenery, the number of crevasses and how deep they were but you’ll have to visit Alaska I guess. Being roped up, we knew that if someone fell, the person behind had to jump the opposite direction and hang on their ice axe on the ground. I would say at this specific time and place, we were moving at a pace of 0.5km/h at the most. It was a terrain extremely difficult to navigate where many experienced racing in its most critical way, including ourselves.
Out of the crevasse land, we arrived into some kind of avalanche slope (without the avalanche hazard) where we were able to slide down on our bump and self-arrest with our ice axe when we felt we were going to fast or when there was a river to close to us. Fast, fun and scary at the same time, but clearly the fastest way down! From that point, we had a 6 km on the ice left before exiting the glacier for good, but Chelsea had really tough time breathing.
As Unfortunately, Marco from Columbia Vidaraid fell in a deep crevasse and got injured enough so that and team Columbia Vidaraid had to withdraw from the race. AR legend Mike Kloser was around at the time skinning his way making sure of the route. We helped him flagging a safe lane around the danger zone. A 30 minutes time credit was hand out to us for helping out. We climbed the last glacier part under a magnificent moon but were barely moving as Chelsea’s conditions had deteriorated badly.
Waiting for us at the end of the 20 miles long glacier was a very sketchy scramble down. At that point Chelsea’s spirit had taken a serious dent and she started to talk about evacuation (we had seen snowmobile track shortly before) and wasn’t sure we were at the right place as it seemed very sketchy… We decided to set up the tent and rest for 2 hours hoping things would get better. It was the only thing we could really do. We had the jetboil so we made warm food and pulled the tent out.
We woke up a bit cold and called the race director to discuss options. Dave simply told us that he could see us on the GPS tracker and that we were exactly where we needed to be. He said « Get your ass down to the transition! ». It took us a really long time to collect the 4 remaining CPs, but we eventually arrived at the TA safe.
THE HARD STUFF
Somehow we still arrived at TA1 in Alyeska in 6th place but quite a long time after Tecnu in first. I can't emphasize enough about how great all of the volunteers have been during this race. At every transition, we were welcome with hot food and drinks and a chair for each team member to sit around a fire.
We elected to sleep again and discuss after. Unsurprisingly, Chelsea eventually withdrew from the race. Deep down we all knew that it was not safe for her to continue, but the feeling of defeat we felt at that time was so strong that one has to express it. This feeling of defeat is also part of the deal in AR, whether for an injury, a missed CP or a withdrawal. I remembered having a few tears running down my cheeks. All the commitments, our families left behind, resources involved, sponsors, money and training we invested, the time away from work… it seems like a mountain of sacrifices for such an early exit and unexpected after a great start.
What now? It did not take long for the 3 of us to decide to push forward after all, what would we be doing all week? We might as well make the best out of this trip. Now racing in some sort of sub-category, we left the TA in *9th place with some vengeance at heart going into the hardest segment of the race named the «The Soul Crusher». Back at the TA, it seemed like a good idea to bring only one of our Alpacka Gnu packraft. Let me tell you that a 2 person’s boat with 3 soaking wet guys with heavy packs on their back wasn't the wisest move. Seriously, on flat water it was manageable but on moving water, we had to take shorter breath in order for the boat not to tip over! We got to CP5 where we had to take a picture on an iceberg in the middle of a lake, lot of fun! We then took a power nap on the beach at CP6 and we moved forward into the crux of the race.
THE SOUL CRUSHER
For the following 16 miles, we spent over 24 hours and our souls got crushed many times. Thick bushes, devil’s club, scary packrafting sections with deadly strainers in the middle of the river, freezing water, ice and snow (we stayed up thanks to our Hillsound crampons), scrambling at places where falling was not an option and being cliffed out more than 50 times. We finally arrived in Whittier, tired, soaking wet, cold and «crushed». But maybe not as crushed as many others as somehow we had managed to overtake 8 teams and we now were in *2nd. Being in the race but not being fully ranked has a cooling effect when at TAs. We were quite relaxed and enjoyed taking extra time to hang and talk with the volunteers and race staff. Got to look at the bright side, we usually don’t do that when racing so that surely was an upside.
We left the transition early in the morning of July 1st all dress up with our dry suit on, ready to attack the first official paddling leg of the race (out and back). We even stopped to pick up a few donuts and much needed coffee on the way! These small things are the kind that gets our spirit back on track like you cannot imagine.
It felt good to be seating in a kayak after spending the last 2 days on our feet. It did not take very long before we started to feel sleepy (especially me) on the water, even though we were in bright day light, which is almost 22 hours a day here in the summer! The sun was warm and it felt good, but that would be he’s only visit for the entire race. The view was magnificent; there were water falls in every direction, huge glaciers dropping in the ocean, bald eagles flying around. A whale even came to say «Hi» in front of our kayaks, showing her tail as friendly wave. After 8 hours sitting in the boats with a strong headwind for the last hour, we were looking forward to getting back on our feet for next and longest section of the race with 100 miles of trekking and packrafting.
What a relief it was to come back to TA and find our second Alpacka raft had arrived and was there with the rest of our paddling gear! Again the kind volunteers had heard our tales and made sure we had all of our gear to continue on. I cannot imagine what it would have been without. Now at dusk, we reloaded our packs and changed for some not so dry clothes. We went on our way got to portage pass, then down to Portage Lake where it was again crazy windy. We took over an hour to cross the 2km lake to CP 16. At that point we had a mandatory trek (still with our Alpacka rafts) of about 700 meters on the shores of the lake on slippery rocks. An administrative thing as the parks service did not want us to go in front of the visitor center paddling in our boats. Well there where not many visitors at 4 am but we trekked anyway and went on down river on some really fun class 1 rapids for well over 10km.
But even the rocking river could not keep us awake. Must be similar to the rocking chair effect on kids… it was in the middle of the night, it was freezing cold, barely awake and from what I can remember, it was raining (or was that in my dreams?). We were on the verge of hypothermia, even with our wet-dry suits. I guess that after trekking, packrafting and kayaking with our dry suit on, «dry» was not a suitable word anymore. We eventually stopped on the side of the river to set up the tent and sleep for 90 minutes. The worst part in pretty much the entire time we spent racing in Alaska was putting back our wet clothes on after that sleep.
When we arrived at CP18, we realize that we still had a 3km bushwack instead of paddling (upstream) to reach the board walk that was supposed to get us quickly to the start of the next packrafting segment. We weren’t thrilled as we had not planned on doing that especially knowing that the cut off time for the rafting was less than 8 hours away. We went on still with spirit and a good pace but eventually realised that we just couldn't do the remaining 25km of trek-packraft and still arrive on time on July 2nd. Grief yet again! At 17:00 that day, we met up with team Yogaslakers (Aka the Yoga-trackers because they always seem to have a dysfunctional GPS tracker…) and called the race director to talk options in order to do the rafting. I am so happy that we did and lived this experience. Where else in the world would you get thrown in a class 1 rapid just to confirm that you are comfortable in white water. Words cannot describe the trills that we had on the Six Miles Creek, where you go into 3 distinct canyons of class IV and V. Our raft guide, Popcorn, made our experience memorable.
After nearly 100 hours of racing, it was now time to jump on our bike for the first time. We collected a few check points in a historic and very cute little town named Hope, some may know it from the Iditarod stories of dog sledding races. From there, we started going up from sea level to resurrection pass at over 2400 feet. Reaching the top we were delighted with some amazing aboce tree line ridge riding and incredible views of the mountains around. The kind of stuff you that remind us why we do these things. Not too technical going up, but a little more challenging on the way down. We were trying to go as fast as we could (that’s what we do right?) but with the sleep deprivation and after hitting a few big rocks we were wondering why Jonathan's (El Taupin) pedals were 2 inches from the ground? Joe's rear suspension was busted. We did slowed down to reduce the impact and to make sure that we could finish the race.
Once in Cooper Landing for TA5 and tried to locate our paddling gear for the 30 miles paddle on Kenai Lake. We searched for it everywhere, asked everyone around and the organization made many calls. After 4 hours… someone found all of our stuff in a garbage bin. Don't ask me... We gladly dry suit back on… and off we went on a really windy Kenai Lake. In order to avoid the wind, we had to hide in every single bay of the lake which made it for extra milage. I am not sure how many hours we spent on that segment, but we were there for quite a while stopping in Crown Point on the way. It was beautiful again and we did not have to use our headlamp a single time that night. We arrived at Primrose for the last transition of the race in the middle of the night, soaking wet but somehow happy. We were again greeted with good food (steak?). We got the tent out and slept for another 90 minutes until the sun would hopefully warm us out. It never came.
Expedition Alaska became even more interesting from the moment you entered TA6, because the race director was there with maps in hands and was deciding which segment he was sending you in next. There was 4 different segments that he could choose from: a trek segment to CP34, a bike-packraft segment to CP35-36, a long bike ride on Iditarod dog sledding historic trail (CP37-38-39-40-41-42) and finally a coasteering bike that none of the team ended up doing. The idea behind all of that logistic was to make sure that all the teams could arrive at the same time in Seward on July 5th in order to complete the legendary Mount Marathon race. We were able to do the bike-packraft in addition to one of the most beautiful mountain bike ride ever on the Lost Lake trail! I would honestly fly to Seward just to do that ride again. It is 6 miles of absolute fun, you go from alpine terrain, to sub-alpine, into meadows, to a pine forest, to a rain forest and end up at sea level, all of that on a single track. We were screaming like little boys the whole way down! These guys caugth excellent pictures of that place:
MOUNT MARATHON RACE
The bike ended ion Seward at Mile Zero of the Iditarod trail. We took a break before the final and last challenge of this epic race, the Mount Marathon. At about 11:15am, on July 5th, we crossed the finish line with mixed emotions, disappointment from being unranked, but happiness for having experienced Alaska and seeing what we are capable of achieving. I’ve come to realise that these emotions are what keeps us wanting more.
Thanks to all of you for following us during the race. Thanks to our families, friends and supporters, you made this race possible for us.
Hats off to Equilibre who’s been a first hour supporter our team for a few years now.
Thanks to Xact Nutrition for the amazing race fuel that is as good as it is easy on the stomach, Hillsound for the top quality crampons and gaiters, Julbo Eyewear for eye protection and kick-ass look, Alapcka rafts for the best packrafts in the world and Icebreaker for the love of merino wool. Also Nuun, Swiftwick, Salt sticks, Thule, Raid Pulse, Salomon and Out there USA.