Thursday, February 18, 2016

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

"From the northern land of cold, ice and darkness come Hrimthurs (Old Norse “rime thurs”); a tribe of powerful Frost Giants. Strength, cunning and resilience are the way of the mighty Hrimthurs.
Among us today, the spirit of the Frost Giants lives on. Midwestern winter ultra racers show perseverance and power of a legendary scale. On those who complete the Tuscobia Winter Ultra, Arrowhead Ultra 135 and Actif Epica in one season, we will confer The Order of the Hrimthurs.
The names in the Order will pass into the realm of legends, a process acknowledged with a special ceremony and award. Membership in this small but powerful tribe is a lifetime honour bestowed on incredibly few." - (From

I had stumbled upon "The Order" a couple years earlier, reading "300 Mile Man" by Phillip Gary Smith.  Weeks earlier I had completed my first winter ultra at Tuscobia and had won the book. Remember earlier, that bit about how your destiny can find you? Tuscobia had taken me 24 hours on my fat bike and the thought of taking on Arrowhead 135 two weeks later and Actif Epica two weeks after that seemed insane. It was my plan to finish all of them, one year at a time. So, with that plan in mind I took the leap and signed up for Arrowhead this year, hoping to finish a race that is legendary for it's toughness. I was certain it would be the toughest single day test I had ever put in front of me and indeed it was. Month's earlier, good friend Chuck Fritz let me know he was going to head back to Tuscobia after failing to complete it in 2012 on his feet. Asking if I wanted to come along, I agreed.  Actif Epica was not even a consideration. Helen and Chris Scotch put on a great race and joining my great friend Chuck just seemed like a fun thing to do. Funny how the universe works. I was oblivious to the devious dealings my destiny was involved in. The Order of The Hrimthurs lay in wait.

Chuck and I sat in the Rice Lake Italian restaurant, minding our own business when the Scotch clan came crashing in on us. If you see them coming your way and are not wanting to get talked into the next BIG adventure, run like hell. "Your signed up for Arrowhead?" Mark Scotch asked, overhearing Chuck and I chatting. I can't be sure which of them said it first..."You gotta do Actif then. You gotta go for The Order of The Hrimthurs." The rest of the conversation was a blur. "S#*T, they're right", I thought to myself. If I could make it through Arrowhead, I had to give it a shot. The deceptive gods of destiny had done it. They had hidden in the shadows, putting "coincidence" after coincidence in front of me before revealing their true intention. 

Paul and I arrived at the "fish shack" after a 2.5 mile stretch into the wind that I am not skilled enough with words to describe. Darkness was upon us, temperatures were rapidly falling and the wind had found renewed strength. I started in on the bag of chips, Paul on the cold pizza slice.It was a full on feeding frenzy. Moments earlier, fully in the battle there was no thought of hunger. Now, at this "oasis" in the arctic, our bodies screamed for food and fluids. I handed the water bottle, filled with warm water to Paul. He chugged half of the 24 ounces, handed it back to me, I killed it and asked the kind men to "fill 'er again". I have no idea how they understood me as I made the request with a mouthful of chips, pizza and chocolates. Some stayed in my mouth, some did not. Paul and I knocked off two more water bottles before stopping, fearing we would both puke. We were both down to the most primal version of ourselves. I can only imagine what the two locals who had stopped by to investigate must have thought. Their questions of what, where, how far, and why all remained unanswered as we attacked the provisions laid before us. We apologized for our lack of decency and departed just minutes after arriving. It doesn't get any more basic than these moments. Eat, Drink, Move. 20 miles to go. It seemed we were home free. Paul was a strong rider and was on his third Actif. He knew the course by memory it seemed.

The ice tossed the bike right out from under me. Landing awkwardly, I jumped up quickly, in a bit of a panic. A loud noise came from the back wheel as I tried to get back on the bike. The cold, the effort of the day, the jolt of the crash all made detecting the source of the noise difficult. I try to slow down in these moments, rushing just magnifies the problem. Paul's blinky was drifting off into the darkness, unaware of my demise. I'd fallen onto my back derailleur somehow and bent it into the spokes. In my haste I grabbed it, jerking it out of the spokes. Luckily, I didn't snap the damn thing off.Back on the bike, I saw Paul's headlight headed back my way. Quality dude. He didn't have to do that. There is a brother/sisterhood out here though. We all know what's at stake. With each event like this I do, I fall more in love with these people. They are the toughest of the tough, and the kindest of the kind. The God's of the North had just reminded me, that here, in this place, at every turn, danger lurks. 

Entering the city limits of Winnipeg was a huge relief. The building and homes provided relief from the wind and if the forecasted snow storm were to hit, we would be safe from the visibility issues those still out in the open would face. Among them, my friend Chuck  who had accompanied me here to attempt the 125 km run course.  All who come to this race are to be commended, those that do so on foot are on course for as long as 25 hours. (Chuck would tame the beast with just 16 minutes to spare. It was one of the coolest things I have ever witnessed.)

Paul led the way off the bridge and down onto the frozen river. We had made our final turn. The river was divided into two trails, one for skaters, one for bikers, walker, and runners. A very light snow began to fall as Paul and I made our way to the finish. The Winnipeg skyline was now in view. I recognized a couple of the unique structures near our hotel and realized the finish was now a certainty. To our left, skaters gracefully approached, some holding hands, enjoying a romantic evening, others passing a hockey puck between teammates. This was the best of what winter offers. Paul was just a few bike lengths in front of me. We had not exchanged any words since dropping onto the river. Finishing an event like The Actif Epica, The Arrowhead 135 or The Tuscobia 150 change you. It is a very private moment, a time for reflection. I thought of relatives no longer here. I thanked them for never giving up on me when there was no reason to believe. I hoped they could see what i was seeing, feel what I was feeling. It was their finish as much as it was mine. I thought of all the friends back home. So many times the past 5 weeks, I had reached through my SPOT tracker, asking for their help, knowing they watched on the other end. They were my strength when I had none left.

There are no big crowds welcoming you home at these races. There are no big cash payouts. If you are really fast, you may race on a free bike pimped out with the best gear or perhaps, like me, your local bike shop gives you a nice discount because you are in there all the time getting your bike fixed. No money, no big crowds, no bright lights. No, this is for something so much more. These races offer you the chance to find yourself, the very best of yourself. They peel away layer after layer of BS until you stand bare before the challenge. If you can find the will to push, pedal, ski, run or even crawl into the unknown, the ultimate prize awaits. 

Paul and I shared a picture and a hug. There were maybe ten people in the finishing area. Sitting alone with my thoughts, someone tapped me on the shoulder. A bit startled, I quickly looked up. "Welcome to the Order", the gentleman said. He smiled, shook my hand, turned and walked slowly away.


  1. Powerful and personal write up, Steve! It still amazes me how recovery comes in many ways, at many times, to so many people, one day, one step, one revolution at a time. Congratulations and I look forward to meeting you again!

  2. What a way to end a story! Yet another brilliant tale.