Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Actif Epica and The Order of The Hrimthurs (Part 1 of 2)

It has been said that some create their destiny. For others, it seems, their destiny finds them, regardless of how many times they veer far from the path. It has certainly been the latter for me. Many times I have read about the great adventurers and how as a child they were mesmerized by the adventures of Ernest ShackletonAmelia Earhart or Hillary (not Clinton, the mountain climbing one). They knew, after reading the stories and being mesmerized by the pictures, that they would , like their new found adventuring heroes, lead a life filled with adventure and exploration.
If indeed our destiny calls to us from somewhere beyond our perception, I was very adept at ignoring it. Looking back, there were a few signs. Uncle Bill was a retired WWII fighter pilot and I would sit at his feet for hours listening to his dog fight stories. Eventually shot down, he would share tales about prisoner of war camps in a far off country and his eventual liberation by General Patton. He never claimed the journeys to be his own, but rather those of "Big Jerry". Maybe it made the stories a bit easier for him to tell using a different character name.

Growing up in the city, I was always curious as my Uncle Bob would head out long before sunrise, occasionally returning with a deer that had fallen to his homemade longbow. He would speak of sunrises, the sound of the forest and the almost magical quality the outdoors would provide. His library was full of books about great hunters and the big game they pursued in far away places. During the summer of my 12th birthday, Uncle Bob, for some reason invited this "punk kid" who he feared would never amount to much, to the boundary waters to join him and his sun for a week of hiking, canoeing and fishing. The crystal clear waters of the north, the violent tug of a northern pike on my line and the stories of the animals that called this place home, captivated me. It was the first adventure of my life.

Returning back to Iowa, the memories of the north faded fast and the "punk kid", still trying to reconcile his parents recent divorce, was back on the road to nowhere. There was no sense of destiny, no direction, nothing.  Fifteen years later, two drunk drivings and too many bad choices to recount, I found myself in an alcohol rehab center. This was the last Y in the road. Get clean or die. It was an incredibly tough journey to get back to square one. I had traveled hundreds of marathons from myself. The goal was simple, but to get there I had to remain focused on the moment. One Day, one hour, one step at a time. These lessons would later serve me well. What I couldn't know then and am just grasping now is that the seeds of adventure that lie within us all, once watered, never die. They may lay dormant, waiting for the light, but they never disappear. The second adventure of my life was underway. I had embarked on the never ending journey of self exploration.

The frozen landscape of The Actif Epica surrounded me and the 100 mile journey I was on provided ample time for random bouts of  joy, pain, doubt, exhilaration and reflection.

35 years ago my Uncle had brought me to the boundary waters of Canada, opening my eyes to the wild places and now, here I was racing my Specialized Fat Bike in the middle of what seemed an Arctic desert. I owe him and all that have helped encourage, inspire and educate me a huge debt of gratitude. It is one of the many beauties of these races. Seemingly everyone here has had someone or many some one's help them get here and because of that, are very willing to help all those who dare step into the unknown.

The Actif Epica is held each February, finishing in Winnipeg, Canada. Temperatures regularly drop well below zero and the wind howls across the frozen plains. Wind chills can be -30, -40 or even lower. Make a mistake in this race and frostbite, hypothermia or worse is a real possibility. Weeks earlier, at the Tuscobia 150 temperatures plummeted to -15. Two weeks later would be The Arrowhead 135. Many, planning to do the Arrowhead 135 were unable to do so. I know of two people who went to the hospital with frostbit eyes. Another racer spent three days in a burn trauma unit and will never be able to race in the cold again. Thankfully, he was able to keep all ten of his toes. No disrespect to ultras held in the spring, summer or fall, but make a mistake here and ten minutes later you may have lost feeling in your fingers, nose or ears...forever.

The starting pace was fast, but not unbearable. I made the decision to stay with the leaders as long as possible. Navigation was a real concern here and staying close to a local or two would help minimize the chance of getting lost. I can't be sure, but even armed with cue sheets and GPS, I'd bet you nearly every one stopped a few times to make sure they were still on track. The bank clock in St. Malo (the start town) read -25 as we bussed into town. The wind was out of the south,which would serve us well later in the race, but the first 20k or so we were going right into the teeth of it. -20, -30, -45, whatever the hell the windchill was, it was damn cold. Everything had to be covered. Everything. Goggles were a must. Eyes wouldn't last ten minutes exposed to these elements. What I love about these races is that one mistake, one oversight can end a race. The environment is SO harsh. The payoff is that if your systems are all as they should be, you get to play in the wildest of places. My goggles have never given me a bit of trouble, even in the -15 temperatures at Tuscobia. Yet, with each passing mile, they were freezing, slowly reducing my field of view. Eventually, I couldn't see a thing. I'd stop, spit into the glasses, clear a small slit and pedal my ass off into the wind to get the back wheel of the leaders, just in time to stop and do it again, and again until the effort became too much and I was forced to ride on solo. Once the turnaround was made, maybe 15 miles or so into the race, with the brutal wind at my back, I could get rid of the goggles. The first checkpoint was back at the hockey arena where we started. Once inside, investigating the goggles, I realized the magnetic lens was not completely popped in. The small slit along the top had allowed the freezing wind to find its way into the goggles and freeze them from the inside out. Like I said, one mistake, one small oversight in these races can end you. I left check point one all systems go. The dilemma had cost me many places in the race but I was here for more than just an attempt a high placing...

This concludes part 1 of  2 - "Actif Epica and The Order of The Hrimthurs". I hope you enjoyed it and will follow the blog.

Tomorrow night - Part Two of "Actif Epica and The Order of The Hrimthurs."

Thank you for reading.

Dream Big Dreams,
Steve Cannon

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