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Monday, September 19, 2016

Race Report: Muskoka River X (Sprint - 80km)

Wow, what a race.
Just Started - we're the bottom left boat, I'm in yellow!
80km of paddling and portaging through Muskoka.  A series of lakes followed by the great Muskoka River, over a dozen portages (some as long as 2km!) around waterfalls and dams... 12 and a half hours... oh and that's just the "sprint" distance!  There's a longer version that continues back upriver throughout the night.  Oh and an even longer version that starts the day before!

Whew.  Here goes.  Warning: very long race report!


Before you even start, there is all of the preparation.

Equipment:  There is a list of about 20 items you need to have with you throughout the day.  Most of this is for safety (fire, water, warmth, first aid, etc).  Lighting for night paddling.  Nothing in the list seemed particularly heavy, but once we had it all assembled and in the boat... whew!

Navigation:  The day before we were given a series of maps and course notes, detailing where we'd find the portages, checkpoints, and waypoints.  We used the coordinates to mark up our maps with all the notes we thought we'd need throughout the day to find our way, as well as bearings for the lake.

Food:  I made a batch of my homemade energy gel, then watered it down into a single water bottle.  This was most of my calories for the day - that's it.  I know solid food causes me trouble, and I didn't want to frig around with mixing Gatorade mid-race!  That one bottle had over 1000 calories.

Hydration:  I brought a full 2L jug of Gatorade.  Mid-race I mixed up another 2L but just lake water (purified using tabs).  And I ended up finishing up my partner's Gatorade at the end rather than mixing up more water...

Maps:  As you can see in the picture - there's some work to do with maps.  Written instructions for waypoints and portages need to be plotted onto maps.  Compass bearings need to be figured out.  A pint of Muskoka Detour needs to be drunk (optional but highly recommended).

The Start

7:10am - just after sunrise, we all showed up just outside the Algonquin Outfitters store in Huntsville.

It was a really large field starting in the tandem group, and we all had to funnel into the Muskoka River within about 50 feet of the startline... so we were a bit nervous.  Especially after some of our adventure racing starts in large fields, where boats are going sideways and smashing into each other like crazy!

We started on the outside and a bit back.  It ended up being completely fine, we had just a good wide line and stayed out of trouble.  It was going to be a long day, no sense blowing it into turn 1.

Huntsville from the Lookout - not raining!  Nice.

The Early Lakes

From the short river section we dumped out into Fairy Lake, a smaller but beautiful lake (they're all beautiful up there!).

Aaaaand the rain started in earnest.  We knew it would rain most of the day, but by the time we found ourselves in Penninsula Lake it was really dumping.  The water sloshing on the bottom of the boat threatened to dump us right over... fortunately we were close to the first portage!

At this point we were doing OK.  12km in, there were a bunch of teams ahead of us and a bunch behind - we were kind of mid pack, and keeping up with a lot of the boats we felt we should be keeping up with.

Portage #1 (1.7km)

This is the beast... a long portage, primarily uphill from Penn Lake up to Lake of Bays.  The only saving grace is that it's paved road, but it's a big hill.

We had learned a hot tip (or so we thought!) that using a shoulder strap was the way to go.  It had worked OK the weekend before... but we weren't racing, and I don't think we really realized how slow we were.  But when you have teams flying by you, you realize in a hurry you're not going quick enough!

Problem #1 - I had fastened my strap to the wrong part of the boat, and it was too short.  About halfway I just had to stop and fix it, that cost a minute or two.

Problem #2 - when the strap is over your right shoulder, your left back does all the work.  When you switch, your right back does all the work.  We had to switch a lot just to keep from seizing up - it didn't work at all.

Problem #3 - our boat was heavy... with all the water and gear, it just was too much to carry the way we were doing it.

Next year we'll likely go with one guy carrying the boat in the traditional way (shoulder using yoke above head) and the other guy carrying the gear.   And we definitely need to get the overall boat/gear weight down.

At least there were only a dozen portages to go!  Haha gah.

Lake of Bays

The good news is the rain stopped.  The bad news is the wind didn't.
Start of our Lake of Bays Hell Adventure
This lake is big, and with the strong wind the waves were something else.  It was a beast.  And we would be on it for 22km...

We can usually average above 8km/h on flatwater, all things being equal.  Instead we averaged 6.6km... with the headwind and waves, it was a struggle the entire time.  I'm actually surprised we're even that fast - at times I'd look down and see 4km/h!  We have come a long way in bad conditions (we're no longer petrified to even move), but other teams seem to have been able to keep better momentum despite the conditions.  Still some things to learn, always!

Near the end of the lake, we were finally finding some shelter from the wind and getting some speed when wummmmp we got beached on a rock.  We weren't all that close to shore, but just below the surface was this large rounded rock.  We wiggled and used our paddle, finally got free... I wonder how many boats have knocked that one?

Finally the end of Lake of Bays came, and we emptied out into a small narrow section, protected from the wind.  The waves died down and we were able to finish off the lake and paddle into Baysville...  almost 3 and a half hours later.

Baysville Portage


Muskoka River

We went through the checkpoint reasonably quickly and around the first of the Muskoka River dams.

The river is spectacular, especially the north end of it.  It's hard to really do it justice in words, and we were racing so sadly, no pictures.  But it's really wonderful.  True wilderness for most of it, no cottages, no people (other than the gaggle of paddlers one Saturday a year!).  I would love to have taken time to check out the waterfalls and rapids, the rock, the trees... but we had a race to win.

(Haha @ win...)

Portages, Bloody Portages

The portages... oh, the portages.... somehow I was expecting something more like a nice take-out area, a pretty obvious trail, and a nice place to put-in.  I was very much disappointed - most of the early ones especially were really rough.  We really struggled getting in and out of the boat, getting it up and keeping moving.  Every portage we lost time.

After a particularly nice waterfall, there was a section that the race directors had identified as "rocky and fast".  The water really sped up, and we were whisked down river... it was great!

The Flip

... until we saw a rock much too late... we were carried side-on into it and whoooop, over we went.

SCARY!!!  Yep.
Note to self - when you write "SCARY" on your map because the race director says so, it's best to pay very very very very close attention!

I couldn't touch the bottom consistently, and when I could the current was just too strong to stop.  We were carried down the river, while watching some of our gear go faster down river - including my $300 carbon paddle!  COME BACK!!!

We finally got over to the shore, righted the canoe, got back into it with what gear we had and the chase was on to our stuff.  Fortunately it all had collected in this little bay sort of thing where the river turned.  We recovered everything we actually needed (including my paddle) and were back on our way.

The Missing Map

Somehow I managed to lose track of where we were on our maps.  I'm not sure if I skipped one of the maps (they were numbered) or what happened, but there was a period of about 3 portages where I just didn't know what to do.  We stupidly followed other teams or tried to follow signs, but we never seemed to make the right choices.

One was particularly bad... we had seen two other teams go left, so we went left.  The trail split, one way having a "private property" sign (and it was blocked further up by trees).  The other way lead to a really slippery rocky put-in... we chose that.

 (Edit: after comparing our GPS to the map, we actually were on the correct side!!!  I'm not sure if we were supposed to maybe go further down the trail??  But the teams we saw on the other bank, river right, had a much easier time of it... next year, we're doing that!)

The rock shelf was at an angle and slippery as all hell, and lead to a put-in right at the swirling pool at the bottom of a waterfall.

Shin ouchie
So of course in all of this crazy stuff, I managed to slip and smoke my shin, hard on the rock.  As I fell my armpit caught the edge of the boat, have a nice bruise there now... war wounds!  The shin was bleeding pretty bad, but I figured it would stop on its own (which it eventually did).  So yeah, that sucked, but it was pretty consistent with how all of our portages went.

At some point (I can't remember when) the skies opened up again and soaked us.  Well, soaked us more, we were already pretty bloody wet... the rain actually stopped bothering me pretty early on, it was easy enough to ignore when the boat wasn't full of water!

Downriver and Dams

When we finally got a bit further downstream, there was a break in the portages and we could just paddle for about an hour.  That was where we started passing some teams that had overtaken us during our portage nightmares!  We could hold our own paddling at least.

One team in particular passed us twice on portages - finally we went by them on the water and put some distance between us and them.  I figured we'd need it, since we'd give it back at the next portage!

We got to the first of 3 dams (Mattiasville).  This was one of the few that actually went well, we made reasonably quick work of it.

The next dam, though... ugh!  The instructions said signed portage on the left.  We got out at the signed portage at the left.  The team behind us went past the sign, right up to the bridge/dam and got out there instead - passing us, while we farted around bushwacking for a few minutes.

This was just how things went for us, all "dam" day (see what I did there?).  We couldn't get it right, whether we were following other teams or the instructions, it just went wrong time after time.

Last Portage...

Back in the water, life was good, we were not only pulling away from some teams but started to see a few ahead of us!  We had no way of knowing if we were actually racing them (ie. if they were doing the 80k), but it was encouraging to have good pace late in the race.

... and then we came to the last dam.  It's huge, and had a 1.4km portage to go with it.
Muskoka Falls.  Looks nice.  We didn't see it, too busy racing!!!

We were still struggling with our strap set-up, now more than ever.  We had to keep stopping to switch... but we noticed despite our trouble, we actually were making up time on one team.  As we got closer we realized it was a team we had raced against before, in other races - a team that had beaten us!

But any warm feelings were immediately gone when, during one of our bumbling stops, the team that had been waaaay behind us caught up and passed by.  It was so frustrating, but we couldn't do anything about it... they just had their portaging down perfect.

Eventually we did pass the other team, so we kind of broke even on the deal.

Back into the water and a strong current to the finish.  This was now hour 12, and I felt totally fine.  It's kind of how it goes with endurance sports - there comes a point where your muscles don't hurt any more than they did before, and as long as you keep feeding the engine you keep going!  It was dusky - we'd been very literally paddling and portaging from dawn to dusk with no breaks of any significance - but I still felt good.

The Finish

We didn't manage to catch anyone in our race before the finish, but rolled in 4th in our division (of 7 teams I think).

12 hours, 14 minutes, 3 seconds.  That's a long day at the office, especially battling waves and rain all day... very proud of it.

Just off the podium, by only about 3 minutes - a lot of could-have should-have would-have.  On the bright side (so to speak) it was still light out!  Beating sundown was a big win!


What a day.  This was more of a back-country adventure than we'd really bargained for - the portages were tough, both to find and to execute!  We messed up our canoe carrying plan, and we really should have pre-paddled the Muskoka River just to know where everything was... that would have been a huge advantage (and one we later found out the guys that pipped us had!).

I really loved seeing those parts of the river, too - largely unpopulated, beautiful, peaceful.  Waterfalls, rapids, rocks, it was all just really stunning.  So if we go back next year (WHEN we go back next year!) we would definitely want to pre-paddle and soak it in prior to race day...

Simon Whitfield accepting his 1st place
Oh it was also cool that Simon Whitfield was there - I really admire the guy from his triathlon career, he had two stand-out finishes (one for a gold medal, the other for $200,000!) where he came from behind to win races, gritted it out.  Always an inspiration for me, and he's also a super nice guy.  He won the stand-up paddleboard category of our race (80k).  Also cool that people didn't bug him too much, he was just another competitor.  One with a gold medal, but hey.

The race organization was great... excepppppt the bus after the sprint.  It was 2 hours from finishing to getting back to our car and into dry clothes - it was just too long.  Most of that was spent getting eaten by mosquitos and shivering.  I don't know exactly how they can fix that, it was their first year having the distance at all, so hopefully they figure something out.  Otherwise it's better to just be self-supporting and have a vehicle of your own waiting for you.

Prizes were amazing - they gave away several thousand dollars worth of canoe and kayak, as well as a bunch of Alonguin Outfitter supplied gear.

Banquet was great.  Food was great.  Beer was great.  Atmosphere was great.  Paddling community is great.

Overall it was just awesome, almost overwhelmingly epic, even for this old Ironman.  Really cool vibe.

Our Performance

I thought we paddled really well and strong throughout the day, certainly better at the end than I'd have expected.

We really bombed the portages, though, something we can fix next year.  I think on portage performance alone we have a good half hour we could shave off our time.  If we don't flip?  45 minutes maybe?  I think we can really improve, if just a few little things go right!

So this is officially my longest ever blog post.  It was just that kind of day, lots to talk about, great new experience.  I highly recommend this to anyone - it hurts, it's long, it's a mad crazy adventure and it's all worth it.

See you in 2017!

Additional Content: Post-Race Navel-Gazing 

After I posted this I crunched the number on our portages.

The good news - we followed the instructions (accidentally in some cases!) on every one of them except one.  We should have used the island rather than follow another team... the instructions were pretty clear, but there were "no trespassing" signs on the island and a yellow sign that looked like a portage sign on the other side (which upon arriving there was actually yet another no trespassing sign!).

The bad news........... we spent 2 hours, 18 minutes portaging.

That's an eternity!!!

The second bit of good news?  We should be able to cut a lot of time from that.  I don't think a full hour is out of the question, but it will take some practice so we're out of the boat quick, traveling light, moving briskly, and back in quickly.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great recount. I don't paddle but thoroughly enjoy reading your canoe blogs. You and your partner seem to become more skilled every race. Congratulations on an awesome race.

Jon P said...

Thank-you Anonymous!

Anonymous said...

We did the 130km Classic. (boat 60, I Fought the Law and the Law Won)
It was my first time to race the MRX. I've done a LOT of paddling and portaging distance races and I've NEVER seen portages like these before. Epic. The whole race was insanely epic. Don, my partner, was excellent on portages, me, not so much. I really held us back. Like you, all I can think of is how to improve my portaging.
Bravo to the race organizers for such a well run race. And Bravo to all to gave it a go!
Susan Williams