Race

Muskoka River X Coureur des Bois 220k

Muskoka River X Coureur des Bois 220k - Photo credit Algonquin MXR Facebook
Muskoka River X Coureur des Bois 220k – Photo credit: Algonquin MRX Facebook

I was very excited to do this challenging event and I was hoping that all my training and preparation will pay off. The MRX 220 is one of my best and most rewarding experiences that I will never forget.

The Muskoka River X Coureur des Bois is a long expedition race that both physically and psychologically demanding. It is a completely self-sufficient/self-supported. You must carry all the supplies that are required including food and hydration. The course spanned over large area with exposed in-land lakes, swift-water rivers and other terrain that you had to navigate through.  You must be prepared to race over a 2-day period and in excess of 24hrs without stopping. The navigation is solely used by map and compass with course instructions that include relevant narrative descriptions of the course and a list of all checkpoints, relevant obstacles, and waypoints.

Week’s prior the expedition I made sure all my gear and nutrition were dialed in. I kept all my gear dry in a the “Outdoor Research Dry Comp Ridge” waterproof dry bag that is also lightweight and durable in addition I had a second dry bag that I attached on my board with clothes and bivy. For lighting I wanted a light that is reliable, durable, waterproof and emits a variety of light output during paddling at night with the enough battery for 20 hours. The Fenix HL60R worked great.

THE NUTRITION: The race is completely self-sufficient. I used variety of food that is high in carbs, fats and calories and that I can carry for the duration of the 2 day race. To maintain glycogen and energy levels, I used a combination of CarboPro and Hammer products including carbohydrates / meal replacement power drinks. In addition to bars, Trader Joes trail mix packs were great as they are high in calories and easy to eat while paddling. I’ve also used CarboPro VO2 Max and Salt supplements (available at Nytro Multisport) to maintain sodium levels. In addition to the 2300cal emergency nutrition bag, I had 2x4500cal of nutrition that includes bars, carb/protein powders, trail mix and dinner/ breakfast with macaroni cheese meal, 1 cup olive oil, oatmeal 2 bagels and 800cal worth of almond butter.
Hydration during the duration was simple. I used two methods of filtering water. One is with the Life Straw that is a simple filtration system that filters immediately when sucking out of the unit from the water. The second method I used is with water purification tabs that I purified 1 liter of water at a time with takes about 45min. I purified a 1liter of water at a time when needed and added it to my Camelbak with calories.

PRE-RACE: I arrived in Canada two-days prior from race day to make sure my board and equipment was ready for the race day. I picked up my board from Pilot Freight near the Toronto airport and drove to Huntsville. West Coast Paddle Sports did a great job packaging my board and advised the best way to ship my board at a reasonable price. Thursday I went to registration and received the race instruction with UTM coordinates. I plotted the 220k course on the maps provided by the race organizer. I spent the afternoon studying the course and organized all my required gear for the race.

Pre-race meeting : Photo credit: Algonquin MRX Facebook
Reviewing race course / details

The minimum required gear checklist included maps and course Details, Buoyant towline of 50ft, Navigation Lights and Signal Light, Compass, Timing device, Waterproof map bag, Dry bag, Waterproof method of starting fire + camp stove, Utility Knife, Shelter capable of withstanding wind/rain/snow, First Aid Kit, Board Repair Kit, Life Jacket, Whistle, Emergency Headlamp/flashlight, Wind/Waterproof jacket and pant set, Two fall-winter/medium-heavy weight full-length top and bottom clothing set + two (2) set medium-heavy weight socks, toque / hat that provides warmth + set of gloves that provides warmth, Sleeping blanket or equivalent, Minimum 2 L capacity for hydration, Means of making clean, drinking water for race + 24 hours, Race Nutrition x 48 hours + Emergency Nutrition minimum 2300 calories and Soled footwear sufficient for portaging.

Gear used for the expedition race

RACE MORNING: After only of few hours of sleep I got up at 3:45am ate my last good breakfast and headed to the shuttle provided by the race organizers at the start of the first day of the MRX Coureur des bois stage. It took 1h20min bus ride to get to the start – small town of Whitney in the Algonquin Provincial Park, one of the oldest parks in Canada. It was established in 1893. Whitney was covered in dense fog and the visibility was poor. Temps were in the 50’s with calm wind. I felt ready for the first stage of paddling 90km in the wilderness of the Muskoka Rivers.

Heading to Whitney in the Algonquin Provincial Park
Getting ready for Day 1 – Coureur des Bois

THE START: As everyone lined up to the start including Canoe Team, Canoe Solo and SUP Solo division, the race organizer gave the signal to start. I got into a good steady pace focusing on stoke efficiency paddling with higher cadence and applying leg / hip power to push the board forward. Efficiency is key for any ultra distance especially paddling well beyond 5+hours. The fog was present during the first 3 hours and eventually cleared with blue clear skies. As the fog cleared, I was embraced by the true beauty of the Canadian wilderness. I couldn’t help myself but think about the early explorers who travelled the same route using birch bark canoes. I had to pay attention as there were portages/waypoints. Also, I wanted to make sure I was in sight of other competitors. Many sections of the course looked the same and I had to make sure I took the right inlet. My goal was to make it to the major checkpoint before heading into the Oxtongue River where there are many shallow rocky sections.

Foggy start of the MRX Coureur des Bois
Foggy conditions starting to clear – Photo credit Algonquin MRX Facebook
MRX coureur des bois – DAY 1 – Photo credit: Algonquin MRX Facebook

Halfway point to Lake Oxtongue: By the afternoon, I was 45 km along. I felt good and was on track to make it to the 5:00pm cut off of the final checkpoint. I tried to eat and drink as efficiently as possible without slowing down. I ate nuts/bars, drank lake water using my Life Straw filtration system. During the Tea Lake section, the winds picked up from the west and slowed my pace. I decided to keep my pace at “10mile race pace” so I get to the Oxtongue river entrance quicker and get more shelter from the wind. Once I arrived at the final checkpoint, medical staff asked how I felt. Once I got the green light, I embarked on the final stretch of the day 1.

Entry from portage to Oxtongue River – Photo credit: Zeltkalns Photography
Wildlife spotting on the course – Photo credit: Algonquin MRX Facebook

Based on the course outline I knew there would be some obstacles that include moving currents and shallow sections. Many times, I was forced to get off and carry my board over the shallow areas as it was impossible to paddle over these areas without damaging the board or destroying the fin box. There were times I just nailed a rock that caused me to suddenly stop and fall over the front. With the sunset approaching, I got into deeper waters and continue to paddle along the Oxtongue River. I continually had to be on the lookout for the large dead trees floating in the water. I knew I will have to paddle in the dark during the final sections of the course so I made sure I had my lights ready for when the time comes. I saw beaver, loons, and Canadian geese but no moose.

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Northern section of Head Creek Marsh - I decided to paddle it instead of the portage ro
Northern section of Head Creek Marsh – Decided to paddle it instead of the portage route

I was hoping to see a moose since I was in the heart of moose country. I was enjoying the moment even though I tried to get to the finish as fast as possible. I paddle the last 2 hours in the dark with only my light and the moon guiding me through Gravel Falls and my last portage of the day. Once I arrived at the entrance of Oxtongue Lake, I new this was the final few kilometers to the finish of the day one. I was looking forward getting into warm dry clothes, refueling and sleeping.

CAMP DAY 1 – NIGHT TO MORNING: After paddling 90km, I was cold, hungry and tight. I immediately ate a bagel and got into my down clothing, that got me warmed up fairly quickly. I had Macaroni and cheese, chips and a cup of olive oil to make sure I will replenish some of those calories. Race organizers made a bomb fire. Everyone sat and talked about their first day at Coureur de Bois. After eating and getting my gear ready for day 2, I got into my bevy and tried to get some sleep since it was an early start. I sipped on a 1000-calorie drink that includes CarboPro / Hammer recovery through the night to store glycogen and took 400mg ibuprofen to reduce some pain. The next morning came up pretty quick. It was still dark when I had to get up and get ready for Day 2 of this adventure. I had some oatmeal and bagel with almond butter. My body felt tired but I was trying to focus on the day ahead. My goal was to finish and not quit. The race organizers shuttle us to stage 2 of the 130km day with the other MRX Classic racers. Weather forecast was calling for 100% rain and possible thunderstorms.

DAY 2 –MXR 130K STAGE: The day 2 race started at 7:00 am in Huntsville. Solo paddlers started 10 minutes head of the team paddlers including SUP, C2 and C1 boat classes. I got my gear and nutrition loaded in my dry bag and board and was ready to face a long hard day of paddling. I knew the conditions will be not optimal for fast times but I was ready for finish no matter what. It was nice to see other paddlers racing the other events such as the 80km and 130km race with the 220km competitors. Top athletes such as Olympic Gold Triathlon medalist Simon Whitfield was at the start line for the 80km race. World class ultra distance SUP paddler Bart de Zwalt looked fresh from previous day 90km stage and other world class marathon canoe paddler looked motivated for the long day. The start was quick for most of the paddlers in Huntsville. My body felt tight during the first 30 minutes into the race but eventually I found my rhythm.

Start of Day 2 of the MXR from the town of Huntsville, Canada

LAKE OF BAYS: The conditions were not the best. It was raining and the wind picked up. It was 5 long grueling hours paddling into the wind. At some point, I felt as I was moving backwards.
It was very hard to maintain a decent pace. I went from doing 9km/h to 4km/h. I started to worry that I might not make the time cutoff at the first checkpoint. I was becoming discouraged but I kept paddling hard to make it to Bayville. At one point I tried to keep up with another C2 team The Rural Planners” and that helped to monitor my progress. It was a long/tough 30km paddle and I had another 100k to go. After arriving at CP1, I was exhausted.

BAYSVILLE TO BRACEBRIDGE: I took my time eating and drinking. The remaining section of the course from Baysville to Brace bridge stage was the longest and the most physically demanding. It included 11 portages around the Muskoka Fall hydro dam. It was nice to see my friend ‘Holmer’. He came to give me some moral support. He gave me tips on what’s coming and reassuring me. The conditions started to improve and I started to feel good again. I look forward to the portage sections as it gave my paddling muscles a short break and helped with the stiffness in the quads and knees. I carefully navigated the shallow, fast moving rocky rapids but the board did hit the bottom few times. I carried a surf/SUP specific repair kit that patched any dings even in wet conditions.

Check point after 5 long grueling hours paddling into the wind

After arriving the Bracebridge checkpoint just after sunset, I put on my headlamp and strobes. I also noticed that I started to run low on food. I became concerned that I might not have enough for the final 50km. There are no feed zones along the course but the rule is that you can ask other competitors for nutrition if needed. I was good with fuel for a few hours but had a full night ahead. I made myself a 1 liter of higher concentrate carbohydrate mix drink using 2xCarboPro packs and 2xHammer Pepetuum packs which can out to aprox-1000 calories. Every hour I had a 280-calorie bar or trail mix pack and sipped on the carbohydrate drink that maintain my energy levels.

BRACEBRIDGE TO PORT SYDNEY: This portion of the segment is entirely up river and paddling against the current with 5 rugged postages ahead around High Falls. The dropout rate is usually high after this point due to fatigue and paddling at night. Race organizers mentioned that usually 40-60% make it to the finish. I felt pretty good and motivated for the challenges ahead. I set my headlamp to red light mode since it improved visibility. The full moon also helps visibility, which created reflections from the trees lightened by the moon. As I approached shallow area and entered the portage entrance I set my lamp to brighter output. Temps were on the mild side with calm conditions, which was nice compared from the rain and wind earlier in the day. When I arrived some of the portages, I caught up with other C2 paddlers, which was easier to navigate during the portages. I just took my time making sure I don’t trip or fall on with all my gear and board. This also gave me time to eat something and look at the map and determine my location. I had to deal with challenging conditions where I had to carry my board in waters with the fast moving currents over the exposed rocks. At that point I was alone in the dark carefully not falling in and loosing my paddle. I got a tip from a fellow paddler prior the race to add reflective tape to the paddle in case it gets lost. I also made sure my gear bag was secured to my board with a couple of carabiners. After getting through the Balsam and Duck Chutes, there was less moving shallow areas, which I was paddling at a good steady pace. I was at this point in the zone and the body was on autopilot mode keeping my stroke as efficient as possible without wasting energy. I didn’t drink as often as I wanted at this point but wanted to get to the next check point as soon as possible where I can purified another 1 liter of water before the final leg to the finish. I started using some Carbo Pro Motivator tabs in additions to chocolate covers coffee bean which kept my mental focus and energy levels.

PORT SYDNEY TO HUNTSVILLE: I arrived at the Port Sydney checkpoint at 2:00am feeling the pain but I knew that I will be able to finish. I refueled with some bars, drank some carbs and continued on the portage towards Mary Lake. The wind slightly picked up with some downwind on the lake with the wind coming from behind, which was nice. I set my bearing and made sure I was going to the exact location where the North Muskoka River connects.

Finally, I have arrived to the final portage close to Huntsville. I was thinking “You are almost done” but I started to feel all the aches/pains and my energy started to fade. All my muscles were tight and painful but I was on auto-pilot and just kept moving my arms. That last long stretch to Huntsville felt like an eternity. I was hoping I would not pass out in the water. And then, I saw the lights of Huntsville. I summoned all my strength and paddled to the finish dock. The race organizer Mike and Rob were at the finish greeting me and congratulating on my accomplishment. I was done and I could have not taken another stroke. I thank them for being there and creating this epic event.

THE AWARD: 5 hours after I finished the awards ceremony took place at the Hidden Valley Resort just outside of Huntsville. I had some great food and shared some moments of the race with others competitors of all classes. Like other ultra events, it’s not about the prize money or awards, it’s experiencing the moments and accomplishing the finish. I was happy with my time of 36hours 42min just 4hours behind the master of ultra-distance paddler – Bart de Zwart.

TRAINING / PREP:  With over 30 years in endurance sport, I used similar approach to training as I did with other ultra-distances. I did not do the mega miles approach but gradually build the mileage to the time based training. I tried to focus on the technique and efficiency.  I did weekly interval training with the local North County Paddlers (NCP) and Riding Bumps workouts. It helped with strength and average speed. Coming from a cycling and running background, I kept my training routing with cross-training that kept me fresh and injury free while improving overall fitness. Three months prior the MXR I began more specific long distance paddles: on the 2 week build up reducing volume on the 3rd week and build up with another 2 week to allow the body to adapt the training.

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