Thank you Hannah Clarke

Thank you Hannah Clarke

Thursday, July 19, 2012

They call it Ontario's toughest mountain bike race...

I have always heard of a legendary race up in the north; more than 110 km, river crossings, hills that may as well be mountains, ferocious animals, and crazy, CRAZY guys that race these distances. This race is known as Ontario’s toughest mountain bike race: Lost in the Rocks and Trees, up in Mattawa, Ontario (about as far north as you can go from Toronto without going east or west or crossing into Quebec). I have always really wanted to take on such a challenge, and even if I don’t treat this kind of event as a race, surely it would be a grand adventure! Unfortunately though, there are no other riders crazy enough to do such a race around here.
After searching for travel partners, I found my companions in the strangest place: the lab that I work at. This summer, the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph has played host to many exchange students, including several Germans. It turns out that my friend Therese knows a couple of them, and they had their plans fall through for the weekend. After putting a “fun guarantee” on my trip, and loosely explaining the details of a car rental, some tents, and places pretty far north, I had new travel companions: Therese, Jonas, and Lisa.

Therese, enjoying a free ride northern style!

The mugshot that police took of Jonas when they told him to shave and find a house...

Lisa is quite charming!

After several setbacks, we left Guelph around 6:30 on what was forecasted by google maps to be more than a 6 hour journey to the race start.  By the first ten minutes of the car ride it was clear that I was in great company; Jonas and I talked almost nonstop the whole way up, and the girls were a bit more quiet, but that may be because they were in the back seats. After a naked (just Jonas and I) pit stop at a waterfall, and a plethora of Therese’s delicious homemade peanut butter oatmeal cookies, we arrived at the race course at 1:30 (am). Race start in 7.5 hours, great! I quickly set up the tents, to the right of the start line (had no idea where else to pitch) and was in bed before 2, only to be woken up at about 7 by the activity on the race morning.

Tent at the start line, notice the massive hills in the background...

I watched as many riders showed up, and one in particular stood out as a serious contender: Paul Guenette – winner of the most recent Ontario Cup in the expert division, He made it clear that he was there for the win, and that this was not his first time racing the race. I decided not to mind him, and to make sure I would keep an eye on him once the race started – but I was busy prepping by bike for the race!

Keeping the bears away and annoying the competitors with my bear bell!

Upon race start I positioned myself right behind Paul, and we rode together until two more guys caught us (after a wrong turn by me). There was a notable gravel road section in the first 15 km, and this was when I gauged the speed of the other 3 riders in the top pack. We let Paul set the pace first, and I was more than comfortable following this pace (but this being my first endurance event of this caliber, I had no idea how really I should ride). Two things happened when I set the pace; firstly, I got stung on the neck (right under my helmet strap) by a bee, and secondly, I got yelled at because I “would never  keep that pace for 112km”. After realizing that I seemed to have more dispensable power at my 75% of max effort, I broke away and let them catch me back once or twice, just to put an early burn on my opponents legs.
All was great and I was setting the pace for our lead group of four until I had some chain issues! Terrible chain suck between my front gears, which took about a minute of standing around getting eaten by deer flies on the side of the trail to fix. Luckily my chain was not broken, and I was back on my way – but the guys ahead had got a free minute ahead of me. I rode a steady tempo for 15-20 minutes until I caught them again, and resumed my position as the front man for the race.

The trails around Mattawa are certainly some to be reckoned with! If I wasn’t climbing up a massive hill that was full of washouts and cobbles, I was slugging through a sand section that was as though I was riding along a beach, or going through creeks and muddy rut sections. To me, all of this was quite an adventure though! Descending the hills was an art unto itself; they were all ridiculously steep, had deep ruts eroded through them, and filled with rocks the size of baseballs, but sharper, and to make matters tougher, light and shadows through the trees made it hard to distinguish where rocks began and ended. These factors (and my sweaty sunglasses), led to the untimely demise of my rear tire. About 25km into the race I had a flat tire from a rock that slashed through it. A quick assessment of the situation showed a puncture that I was sure would seal itself with some special goop inside the tire if I gave it a quick shot of air. Unfortunately I was wrong, and spent almost 12 minutes fixing a flat tire! I kept calm though, figuring that I had nearly 4 hours to make up for this blunder.
When I came past the next checkpoint, I stopped to refill my water bottles, got some food, and was told that the leaders were 10 minutes ahead. Challenge accepted. The following time-splits told me that I was 7, 5, then 2 minutes from the leaders. Sweet, I’ll catch these guys no problem! It was the next time split that was confusing and disheartening: 15 minutes. I guess there was some time split confusion, but I couldn’t help but be a bit discouraged. One good thing did happen however; there was a beautiful carbohydrate power gel in the middle of the trail on a rock, and it was full! The bike gods had begun to smile on me.
Through the constant problems with my chain (and eventually deciding that I wouldn’t be able to shift my front gears anymore to the small one), and hours of solo riding in the bush, I finally came up on Paul, who was dogging it a bit by this point.
“Come on man, let’s go!”
“I can’t, I’ve got no energy left”
“What place are you in?”
“3rd, good luck!”
Really?? I was in third place?? AWESOME! This in itself was enough to pick me back up, and put a grin on my face! It wasn’t long until I found myself in second place, though apparently the winner was “At least half an hour ahead”, and was on his way to his third victory in a row at this race.
By around kilometer 90, I was finally starting to feel the 34 degree weather. My legs would cramp any time I extended them absolutely straight, and I was constantly on the verge of vomiting. The last checkpoint was a welcome break where I took my time, refilled bottles, and ate a banana. Unfortunately, the guy who I had just passed very easily had a second wind, and he meant business. I rushed back off on my bike, and was stopped not even 200m later with the same recurring chain issues at the bottom of a hill, and while walking up the hill I was passed by someone with obviously more energy than me. I fought my way back to sit on the wheel of the second place rider, and when we got to the top of a big downhill something encouraging happened
“Pass me, I can’t ride down these hills as fast as you do, you’re nuts.”
Hey! There we go! It was always part of my strategy to let it all hang out on the hills, because as far as I’m concerned, for no extra effort, you can make time on the other guys who aren’t willing to take the risks and speed that I would.
The extra time gained on the hills was just not enough for me though, and I rode into a stellar third place finish! It looks like I’ve found my real strength: endurance racing. Next year, if I’m in Ontario, I’m coming for a win!

My companions during my race...on the way to the lake

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