Starting was the victory; finishing was a bonus
Raid Ukatak Race Report
6 days/5 nights, covering 240 miles, of snowshoeing, skiing, biking, rappelling, shivering, etc.
Well, we survived…perhaps unexpectedly. The marketing director for the Expedition Racing League (Raid Ukatak is the first leg in a worldwide championship race series) apparently collected $200 (Canadian) by betting on us to finish, but I suspect he could have gotten a lot more action if he was willing to risk more cash.
After all, our team (Rugged/OneWith) did look a little sketchy from the outside. If uncertain team dynamics (meeting each other for the first time the day before the race) didn’t stop us, surely one of the bizarre incidents we experienced (broken bikes and snowshoes (two each), rescue of a dog and a cameraman (one each), a team member falling through ice up to her thigh, hypothermia, etc.) would.
front line was strong. Team captain Tim had led one of only five teams to
actually finish last year’s epic (temperatures reached –35 F and winds
screeched at 70 mph, leading to many rescues, much frostbite, and clothes
ripped by ice shards), Ellen has a deep ski/mountain
bike/adventure racing background…and lives in
Beyond that, though, the doubts began. Reluctant Ken spent more time trying to bail out than training and preparing for the race. And we ran through fourth teammates like the drummers in Spinal Tap—there one minute, and then gone in a puff of smoke. In fact, about 48 hours before the race, we found ourselves a Gang of Three once again.
But the race director offered up her friend Andra, a triathlete who had been training for adventure racing last year. With 12 hours notice, Andra scraped together the necessary gear and hopped a ride to the race to meet her fate. Brave, perhaps foolhardy, but indicative of the grit she would show throughout the race.
At our first meeting, we realized two things. First, Andra would need help getting ready: her longest previous race was two-and-a-half hours, her bike had a kickstand and thick coating of rust and muck, and her skis were hopeless. Second, television cameras were going to be in our faces for the next week: crews followed us from the moment we met at the hotel to the post-finish celebration (although mercifully, not to the drunken post-race party/rave).
covered some serious
We traveled across frozen lakes, over thickly forested mountains, up and down icy cliffs, and along river valleys. One spectacular leg sent us through a long, seldom-traversed narrow “notch” whose walls rose 500-1,000 feet above, less than 200 yards apart in places. Alas, all the teams missed out on one of the intended highlights: rappelling 600 vertical feet down to the only fjord in the East and skiing 15 miles along its surface. An icebreaker came through the night before the race, churning solid into liquid. Bummer.
Perhaps as important as the physical thrill, the race introduced us to the Quebecois passion for winter. The start drew a crowd of 500; even though we were the last to complete the race, 50 people stood in the snow and cheered us on to the finish. Every checkpoint had shelter and hot water (saving us from boiling snow every few hours); many were at private homes or hunting lodges. All offered incredible hospitality and a chance to soak up the local enthusiasm for the race. At one stop, where we planned to nap, the available shelter was a drafty, smelly barn. Then—incroyable!—someone down the road offered to let us sleep for a few hours on his meticulously clean kitchen floor, and didn’t flinch as we peeled off layer after layer of stench-ridden polypro and piled it next to his radiator. Mmm, heat.
Oh yeah, the race….
suspected we might not be contenders for the lead, the first leg confirmed that
we would have to be resourceful just to finish. What should have been a
straightforward 50-mile bike turned ugly when my (borrowed) back wheel began
unlacing itself every few miles. After two stops to re-true the wheel, Ellen
pointed us toward a gas station where we paid $10 (Canadian) to have the spokes
individually Super Glued in place.
The bike led to an all-night session of skiing and snowshoe bushwhacking, followed by our first big test: spend four hours outside “sleeping” in our mandatory survival tent and sleeping bags. Alas, about a half-mile before the test, Andra slipped and plunged her whole leg through ice into a river. Amazingly, she took this mishap quite calmly, and we took an hour “warming” penalty next to a fireplace before our sleepover, rather than risk frostbite.
And so it went, day and night, night following day, up cliffs and down rappel lines, laboring over ridges and crashing on narrow ski trails. Whenever we got close to a checkpoint, a camera crew would track us for a few miles coming in and heading out.
At first, we found it mystifying that a team always near the back of the pack would garner so much attention. Soon, we realized that the producers and race staff were enjoying our antics—they said later it was like watching 100 hours of "Seinfeld” (does that make me Kramer or George?).
Apparently, we made the local TV news the first night of the race because I was captured doing a goofy "Fish Called Wanda" imitation while unzipping the pitzips on Andra’s jacket. And then came biting an ice ball off the foot of a suffering dog....
We had a dog (and a cameraman) following us around for about six hours at one point during the race. First, we nearly had to rescue the dog from an icy river, and then we did have to help her out when she got ice balls lodged between the pads on her paws. As the camera zoomed in on me trying to dislodge the ice, Tim (seriously?) says, "When my dog gets those I just bite them off." So I did, and it worked. The dog got happy and everyone cracked up, imagining how this would look on TV.
Other moments from the race: Andra’s freewheel shattering as soon as we left one checkpoint, and Ellen towing her all the way to the next; three of us crashing our bikes the instant we turned out of a driveway and hit the “brown ice” of a frozen dirt road; the astonishing coincidence of finding a machine shop (and a patient craftsman) at the exact moment we broke two snowshoes; giving a cameraman part of the water and food we needed for an eight-hour snowshoe when the nozzle on his Camelbak fell off and he lost all his water; Tim not talking for hours at a stretch and then turning into Regis Philbin whenever a camera appeared; me getting seriously hypothermic on the last night and subjecting my teammates to six hours of contentious, incoherent zombiedom
And most of all, skiing across a lake at sunset, as the sun lit up the ice and red rocks of a west-facing cliff with the deep indigo of dusk for a backdrop.
We rolled across the finish line in ninth place (a/k/a last, but ahead of a few teams that did not finish), quite relieved to be done, but delighted with (most of) the experience. And it’s been sunny and 75 in the Bay Area for the last couple of weeks….
By Ken White Use when helpful…with appropriate reference.