After years of hearing excellent reviews of the Eco-Endurance Challenge hosted by Halifax Regional Search and Rescue, I decided to check it out. Crash graciously agreed to join me for her first rogaine. She is super fit and a veteran of overnight adventure races and mountain bike relays so I knew she'd be a great teammate for a tough event. We were excited that other Ontario friends would be there as well - Tiny/M&M and Harps/Phatty.
E2C has been a fundraiser for the local Search and Rescue organization for the past 10 years. It attracts community volunteers, sponsors and a large crowd of participants (370 this year) to its 8-hr and 24-hr navigation events. About half the teams choose the longer event. There are different divisions - Armed Forces, Emergency Services & SAR, Public Recreational (GPS allowed, 2-5 teammates) and Public Competitive (no GPS, 2 teammates). The Ontarians had all entered the Public Competitive division. Within a division, there are no categories for Male, Female, Coed or Masters, so Crash and I went into E2C with a relaxed attitude, knowing we weren't in the hunt. (I have to wonder whether offering additional categories would attract more racers and raise more funds - unless they are already at capacity.)
The event took place on a huge tract of private land owned by a logging company - an area of low hills, bogs, small cliffs, lakes, fast-moving streams, thick forest and clearcut areas in various stages of regrowth. There was a network of gravel roads and ATV trails, some of which had been extended or left to grow in. Although we were warned that the map wouldn't reflect the clearcuts and ATV trails 100% accurately due to ongoing logging, it was much better than what we get in adventure racing, especially in the vicinity of controls. There were a couple of times at night when the ATV trails did something different from what the map said, but it wasn't too tough to figure out.
Crash and I had the luxury of 3 hours to plan our route! There were 60 controls spread out over a 200 km2 area. Only 43 of them were marked on the 1:50,000 map. We had to plot some controls ourselves using grid references or distance/bearing from another control. One high-value control was somewhere along a 1 km line drawn between two controls. We would get our final map - a 1:12,500 aerial photo - shortly before the race started, and since we knew it would contain 6 high value controls within 7 square kilometers marked on our larger map, we could plan our route without seeing it.
We worked in our car using cardboard, pins and a 55-60 km (straight line) string. Even with our shorter planned distance, we thought we would be able to reach the majority of controls so we expected that the top teams would clear the course. We planned to start in the southeast quadrant and go counterclockwise around the map. We were aiming to get all the controls on the east side of the map, then we had numerous options for how to bail to the finish from the west side of the map if we started running behind. The density of points available in the southwest quadrant was lower so we didn't plan to go there at all. The only troubling question was how to reach a closely-spaced group of three high-value points in the centre of the map. Should we detour over to the middle on our way up the east side? Or save the controls for when we're coming down the west side, knowing the detour was far enough that we would likely sacrifice them in the morning when our feet and brains were tired. Hmm, decisions. In the end, we decided to postpone them because we were keen to get to a particular point along the route by sunset; after that, there was a section where we could use roads more efficiently to assist in our night navigation.
At the start, we said hi to Harps, Phatty, Tiny and M&M, who had arrived at 1:30 a.m. on a delayed flight. We wisely refrained from waxing poetic about our touristy stroll around Halifax and the awesome pre-race lobster dinner. It was great to meet O9Man and his brother. Hope we can chat more the next time we get together!
We were carrying the largest packs of anyone who looked like they were planning to run. I had my Salomon XA Sky 30L cinched down since I hadn't been able to jam my stuff and the team gear into a 20L pack. It was deceiving since the weather was warm and sunny at the start, but the forecast said we could expect 3C and rain overnight with cold temperatures on Sunday morning. Crash and I carried extra layers, emergency bags, spare headlamps and a good supply of food. Crash eventually used all her layers in the night and I ended up with one item in reserve, so we were glad to have all that stuff even though it was painful to run.
At the pre-race briefing, they warned us about ticks. Aaacckk! All my tick racing gear (light-coloured clothes, DEET, special removal tweezers) was at home in the Switzerland packing pile; it hadn't occurred to me to worry about them in Nova Scotia. One of the volunteers told us that they hadn't seen ticks until the last couple of years.
We didn't talk with anyone else about route choice or our hand-drawn control locations (we should have checked, but luckily we'd marked them correctly). When the race began, we ran south down the road with a large group of other racers including the other two Ontario teams, who had apparently chosen a similar route. This meant we'd be unlikely to see them during the race since they would get ahead and stay ahead.
The second control we searched for, #240, was harder to find than we'd expected. The forest was very thick in places and I couldn't imagine stumbling on that flag at night. I wondered if our race plan was too ambitious. As it turned out, we got better at reading and travelling in the terrain as we went along, and I think we would have found it more easily later in the race.
I'd wanted to do the aerial photo section during the day but it would have been fine at night since it gave us such an accurate view of the terrain. We had to look at our other map to check contours but it was great to see how open the clearcuts and trails really were.
It was tough to maintain a good pace in the bush. Even when the trees were farther apart, the footing could be risky due to rocks and deep, hidden holes between them, similar to some of the terrain along the edge of the Niagara Escarpment. My most painful injury of the weekend happened when my right leg plunged through the moss into a hole mid-thigh deep. My left leg bent very suddenly, much farther than it should have with a strained MCL. Ouch, ouch, ouch. There were many places where we moved through seemingly impenetrable forest, putting our heads down and pushing forward, clambering over boulders on hands and knees and watching out for obstacles and drops with each step. (This photo shows some of the nicest forest we went through.)
We'd thought the clearcut areas might be easier to travel through - hahaha! Each clearcut had a different character. Some of the older ones weren't too bad to walk through but we were usually walking on woody debris, sometimes balancing on several layers of fallen branches. Sometimes there were replanted trees that had grown to a good height already. I'd imagined arriving at the edge of a clearcut and being able to see exactly where we were going, like at the edge of an open field, but they were usually hilly and full of stumps, trees and rocks, so I often had to be just as careful about watching map and compass as I was in the woods.
I didn't really learn that lesson until #223 when I failed to notice a tiny trail that took a longer way around to the control while we struggled 400 m across a nasty clearcut to get there directly. From there, we had our worst bushwhack experience of the day down to #250 - a bit less than a kilometer but seemed to take forever. With 20/20 hindsight, we were always going the right way but my confidence took a hit on that leg. It was hard to estimate distance, I'd had to waver back and forth on my bearing so much that I doubted myself, and we couldn't see much in the terrain that helped us follow the map. On the bright side, we were less than 1 km from roads to the west, south and east, so at worst, we might waste time but there was no risk of getting terribly lost.
After that, we arrived at our first Safety Camp. E2C is different from other rogaines because there is no Hash House, i.e. no place to get hot food during the event. However, they have a remarkable safety net in place. A number of roads and ATV trails were marked on our map as "patrolled", meaning that a truck or ATV would come by at least every 3 hours. In reality, safety vehicles went by more often, although not so often that they got annoying, and we also met volunteers driving along several roads that were not marked as "patrolled". Any time one of these patrollers went by, they would stop and ask us if we were fine. Sometimes they would take our team name and ask where we were going next.
There were also 7 Safety Camps set up all around the map. In addition to huge drinking water containers, they had tents, chairs, campfires, communications and first aid supplies. We didn't get to Mountain Safety camp but it had hot chili - yum! There were lots of people at each Camp - parents with kids, Scout leaders with troops, an outdoor ed teacher and his students - and they all seemed to be having fun. As we arrived, a couple of purposeful youngsters would greet us with a clipboard, taking our team name and asking which control we'd come from and where we were going next. Then they'd point out the various features of their Safety Camp. It was a great feeling to arrive at these camps although there was a risk of getting too comfortable in the middle of a race!
After our stop at East Safety Camp, we sat down to revise our plans. We weren't too far behind schedule but after experiencing the terrain, we wanted to focus on trails and roads at night, even if it meant going a longer distance to get to some controls. We wouldn't be able to avoid slow bushwhacking completely but we could reduce it and choose more foolproof attackpoints. We were running a lot of the downhills on roads and some of the flats (thanks to Crash for pushing the pace!), so the difference in speed between road and forest was considerable. We decided to drop #221 to ensure we would get to the road west of #232 in the northwest quadrant before darkness fell. From that point on, there were lots of ways to use the road/trail network to access controls accurately while minimizing bushwhacking.
Lots of photos before sunset, then almost none during the night! As promised, it got cold and rainy. First a light rain - maybe it was snow for awhile - then larger raindrops and a growing wind that made it that much colder. We stopped at North Safety Camp to eat our pizza and add some layers. The guys there told us they'd been seeing ticks everywhere. From that point on, we thought we could feel little creepy crawlies on our bodies for the rest of the race - even though I never saw one for real. Within 10 minutes of leaving North Safety, we felt chilled and decided to put on just about everything else we were carrying, including rain pants that we wore for the rest of the event. Wow, did they make a difference. I can't believe my raincoat and rain pants survived 14 hours of racing through difficult bush without ripping. I was also loving my Goretex overmitts. We actually got too warm and stripped off some layers later - then put them back on again when the wind chilled us toward morning.
Both Crash and I had some battery issues with our bright lights, Ayups and Nightlightning respectively. One of her batteries refused to work and my medium battery turned off without warning after 5-6 hours. Luckily, our extra batteries worked and we didn't need to use our spare headlamps.
We ran into Phatty and Harps in the night. We were all searching for the same clifftop control within 100 m of the road. It should have been easy but it wasn't. There were cliffy areas where a racer could push between two trees and find herself suspended in mid-air, and marshy areas where we plunged repeatedly into knee-deep icy water. Crash and I gave up and returned to the road to try a different attackpoint; that did the trick. We learned later that P&H never found it so we were sorry we hadn't been noisier when we got to the flag.
Our night navigation went better than expected for a number of reasons - increased use of road/trail, increased familiarity with the terrain, bright lights, pace counting and extreme caution when travelling on bearings. This was one of the few rogaines where I've found every control I looked for.
Crash and I both had a sleepy, bumbly period in the early daylight. This often happens to me in a rogaine but my mind comes back eventually. I had become less conversational as I focused my few working brain cells on the map and my unsteady walking. Then to wake ourselves up, we started chatting and passed a road junction that I thought I recognized, so I didn't look at the map. After another 400 m, Crash asked me what I thought about the last junction and our current direction of travel. Good thing she did, since we were headed 180 degrees in the wrong direction - oops!
When we'd revised our route before dark, we'd figured that the middle group of controls was probably off the table but we could work in the southwest quadrant, picking up as many controls as possible in an area that was less than an hour from the finish line by road. There were a couple of swift water crossings in here. Before my three trips over the Deception/Mingha route in New Zealand, these crossings would have felt more unnerving but the only issue today was the cold temperature. Even though it was light, the air stayed cold and the wind continued to blow. At one point, I went chest deep into a swamp near a beaver dam - oh joy.
We hit the 1-km Line Orienteering section in the morning and were glad to have daylight because it was tough. It was a straight line through terrain that varied from open clearcut to thick bush. We walked in parallel and looked all around. Surely, it had to be in a place where it would be noticeable. After doing most of the kilometer, we finally spotted it at the edge of a clearcut, right on our bearing - phew.
Crash began to feel as if there was no skin on the bottom of her feet. When she removed her shoes to look, she had trench foot - something that often plagues me in wet rogaines. She was one tough cookie for the rest of the race, continuing to run on her heels or the outsides of her feet, even though she was in terrible pain. I know what it feels like - as if knives are sticking into your feet. Yikes. I was spared foot problems this time but my strained MCL from the Wild BOAR got inflamed so neither of us felt too happy when we were running. We decided to grab the two remaining 100-point controls, then make our way straight to the finish. Time was tight so we did a lot of running.
We got there with 5 minutes to spare before the noon deadline and only saw one team arrive after us within the time limit. It felt like most teams had already left. There was a 20-point bonus for finishing half an hour early but I was still impressed that so few teams seemed to be running overtime. Or maybe teams were late and we just didn't see them.
There was some food at the finish but we were all invited to a roast turkey banquet at a community centre half an hour away. Yum! The top fundraisers were recognized, draw prizes were given away, and the results in each division were read out in reverse order. Because the control numbers were unrelated to the point values, I'd made no attempt to calculate our score as we went. I had some rough idea that we'd gotten over 3,000 of the 4,500 available points, so as the emcee read out the results, I kept waiting for the Tree Huggers to appear on the list. When he read the 11th place team name and it still wasn't us, Crash and I were ecstatic. Top 10, yahoo! We ended up in 5th place overall behind four male teams. We had 3,550 of the 4,500 points. Phatty and Harps took 1st place and the $1,000 prize with 4,290 points - huge congratulations, guys! Tiny and M&M would have been on the podium but two of M&M's Ayup batteries failed, so they were moving slowly with limited light and by morning, they were so cold that they had to bail to the finish. They still earned an amazing 8th place though!
The only negative to the day was that Harps and I didn't have time to get to Dairy Queen for our traditional post-race treat. Next time!
E2C was a fun, well-organized event with friendly race officials and participants and a high level of safety consciousness. We definitely got our $80 worth - even a tech shirt, which was unexpected at a fundraiser. Thanks to all the volunteers for their hard work. I hope other adventure racers will make the trip next year!