Race for 12-14 hours by canoe, mountain bike and on foot with a 4 AM in-the-dark race start? Why not?! I’m not sure how my race partner Rebecca and I learned about the South Coast Adventure Race (SCAR) in Amherstburg, Ontario, but when I heard that this year’s race was going to be a longer, 12-14 hour championship edition, I was even more intrigued. We are hoping to compete in the 24 hour Wilderness Traverse adventure race in 2020, and thought this would be a perfect step up to that race from the shorter (4 to 6+ hour) races that we’ve done so far. So, we registered!
Race weekend arrived, and we headed for Holiday Beach in Amherstburg where we would be camping the night before, and the night after, the race. We were the first to set up our campsite. We organized all of our race clothes, gear and food. Then while cooking our dinner, another female team of 2 arrived and set up camp next to us. They would feature heavily in our race!
Next we headed to Mettawas Parks in Kingsville, where we dropped off our mountain bikes and my canoe.
We picked up our race kits, posed for pre-race photos, and headed for the mandatory pre-race briefing at the Kingsville arena.
We soon learned that there were 6 race maps – one huge main map (no way we could carry that around with us as is!), and 5 additional maps. Before we left the arena, we had planned our route for the race, and set it out on each of the maps using highlighters. Some of the race course would be a mandatory route, and other parts we could decide for ourselves – starting in the dark was a factor in our planning, because it would still be dark when we reached the first trekking section (the race was to start on bicycles). We headed back to our campsite, where we set about trimming the huge map with the tiny scissors from our mandatory first aid kit. We thought it would be easier to fold the map to fit it into our map bag if it was as small as possible! Thankfully we noticed that we had cut the map scale off, so we wrote it onto the map.
With our alarms set for 2 AM (!), we headed straight for bed. Sadly, I had trouble falling asleep, and in the end had less than an hour of sleep before my alarm went off. We got dressed for the race, ate our breakfast in my van, and then headed for the Essex Region Conservation Area Demonstration Farm next to Holiday Beach, where we would board busses to take us to the start line. We left our kayak paddles and transition area gear bin too, which had paddling gear and extra food. We would visit the transition area 3 times during the early parts of the race.
Before the race could even start we had a little adventure. We were on the 3rd and last school bus, which was following the ones in front of it. When the first one made a wrong turn, all three busses ended up having to back up and turn a sharp corner backwards – in the dark. Rebecca and I were in the very back row, so had front row seats to the many point turn. Where exactly were the wheel wells, and would we fall into the ditch? Our new friends sitting in the row ahead of us yelled directions to the driver (who asked for help). Quite the start to the day! The bus eventually made the turn, and we made it to the race start, albeit slightly later than expected! The race actually started around 4:30 AM, not 4 as planned.
Note: all distances are approximate. CP 1/2, 3, 4/6, 5 and CP I were manned (with volunteers) and also had SI readers. The others simply had SI readers to insert our SI cards into.
Bike leg #1: start to CP 1 (8k)
The race began in the dark, so with flashing lights on the front and backs of our bikes, and headlamps on our heads, we set out on the Chrysler Canada Greenway, a gravel trail that was pretty flat, heading for transition area 1 where we would drop our bikes and start the first trekking leg. We didn’t need to do any navigation, because we just followed the riders in front of us. When Rebecca and I weren’t riding side by side, we would call back to each other to make sure we were still close. It wasn’t too long before we reached CP 1 at Camp Cedarwin, a Scout camp.
Run leg #1: CP A-H (14k)
We dropped our bikes, changed into our running shoes, and headed north through the Scout camp and back onto the Chrysler Canada Greenway. From here, teams could decide the order in which they collected the 8 mandatory checkpoints. We decided to go in a counter-clockwise route, heading first for the ones that we thought would be easier to find in the dark. We left the ones in the swampy area (where the navigation looked trickier) until later, when the sun would have risen!
We found CP H at the end of a laneway, then headed into the woods. We ran into friends on 2 different teams looking for CP F, and together, we found it. We followed the creek to the East to find CP G, then turned back and followed the same creek past CP F, through thorns that grabbed us, and all the way to CP E. It was somewhere in this section that I rolled my ankle, but thankfully I was able to continue! Also in this part of the race, the sun came up and we turned our headlamps off.
Following the creek towards the road, we caught up with a couple of other teams, and bushwhacked our way through together. At one point, I detached another racer’s sock from a fence. After a short road section, we were back into the woods, and facing the first real test of our navigation skills. Our plan was to avoid crossing the marshy areas as much as possible, because we thought these crossings would be slow and difficult. Our plan was to follow the creek as much as we could. We took a bearing and set off. It was at this point that we first noticed the “helmet guys”. They were doing the trek while still wearing their bicycle helmets, possibly because their headlamps were affixed to them. In any case, we worked with these 2 guys to find CP C and CP D, crossing the creek, bushwhacking and being stung by stinging nettles with them. Someone from another team whipped out vinegar, saying it took the sting away. We soldiered on. Just before reaching CP D, someone on another team said to me in an Australian accent, “You’ve got a mozzie on your forehead!” I had heard the the term mozzie before, but never had someone said that to me in real life.
After CP D the helmet guys headed a different way, so we continued alone to find CP A. I started doubting our plan when I wasn’t sure we’d be able to figure out exactly where we needed to cut down the hill toward the checkpoint. We debated backtracking and tackling it a different way, but in the end decided to continue. It was here that we then met the helmet guys again. With them we reached a creek that we needed to cross (about 6 feet wide?), but it wasn’t clear how deep it was. I went down the steep bank first, quickly discovering that it was much deeper than we thought. The water went up to my chest, but it was cool and refreshing! The others followed me across, one of the helmet guys falling in up to his neck. Once on the other side, it didn’t take long to find the checkpoint.
Rebecca and I headed back the same way, and heard another team saying that they wanted to stay dry. CP B was a quick, easy find, after which we made our way back to the transition area at the Scout camp. I think it was here that we found out we were now in 20th place overall. We had passed a couple of teams.
Paddle #1: CP I + CP 2 (9k)
We put on our lifejackets, had a snack, grabbed our paddles, knee pads, bailer/rope and walked a couple hundred metres to the canoe start (the race crew had moved the canoes from Mettawas Park to the Scout camp).
With a small craft advisory in place for Lake Erie due to high wind and water levels, the paddle course was changed in the week leading up to the race. Instead of paddling on Lake Erie, we paddled from the Scout camp along Cedar Creek towards Lake Erie. There was quite a bit of wind on the way out to CP I, so much so that at times Rebecca and I both paddled only on the right side, with her doing wide sweeps at the bow to keep the canoe straight.
We got to see some of our friends on the paddle, as they made their way back from CP I. Thankfully, the return paddle wasn’t as tough. Near the end, we encountered a couple of teams of very inexperienced paddlers. One team couldn’t keep the canoe straight, both of the paddlers switching their canoe paddles from the left side to the right and back again (randomly). We wondered how they would manage once they hit the wind. A racer on another team didn’t know how to hold the canoe paddle, so I told him to put one hand on top – he thanked me!
When we reached the end of the paddle, we were amazed that we didn’t even have to do anything with my canoe – volunteers took it away for us! We were pleasantly surprised to hear that we were 22/57 teams coming out of the water.
Bike leg #2: CP 3 (23k) + CP J-K bike drop (21k)
We jumped back on our bikes and headed for CP 3, which we found easily by following the Chrysler Canada Greenway and then various roads. We were way ahead of the 2 PM cutoff (if you didn’t make it there in time, you were put onto a shorter course, skipping some sections of the full course). We were told by volunteers checking teams off a list that we were the 2nd female team of 2. What?! The 3rd place team arrived just after us.
But this is where things fell apart! We rode along an old abandoned rail line, which was very rocky but rideable, but when we left it, the roads didn’t make sense, and eventually, we had no idea where we were (not all roads on the race maps were labelled). We weren’t the only ones! It took a while, but we eventually found ourselves back on our planned route – phew. At the time, it felt like we added a lot of distance and time, but looking at the map after the race, it looks like we only added about 3k.
Run leg #2: CP J-K (3k)
We left our bikes at the bike drop, and headed off on our 2nd trek section. We ran along a path until we hit a culvert, took a bearing and headed into the woods for CP K. It was closer than we expected. We followed the creek to CP J, then I took another bearing and we headed back to the first trail we were running on. Our navigation was good in this section, and we were back on track. Phew!
Bike leg #3: CP 4 (11k) + CP L (11 1/2k) + CP 5 (3 1/2k)
We hopped back on our bikes and headed along roads to CP4, which we had to reach by the 2 PM cut-off (we were there with lots of time to spare). We had a quick chat with the volunteer here, a Masters student who gave up her whole day to be there for us. Thank you to all the amazing volunteers! Then we rode the Rotary Centennial Trail (around a huge cemetery) and then a paved trail along the Herb Gray Parkway. We ran into friends on this trail too, making their way from CP 5 to CP 6. They were flying! These were great paths to ride on. We opted to go for CP L on our way to CP 5 (you could do it after if you wanted to), so we left the trail and took a dirt path into the woods behind some houses and quickly found the control. We made our way onto the paved trail again, and arrived at CP 5 at Malden Park. Here we would have two completely different activities to complete: 1) a trek relay, and 2) a bike time trial.
Run leg #3 (relay): CP N (2k) + CP M (2k) + CP O (2k)
The relay legs had to be done one at a time. We decided that I would do two legs, so I set off along a paved trail for CP M. I passed the trail I had intended to take, not believing it was the right one (it was essentially a mowed grass path). But when I reached a paved trail, I knew I had gone too far. So I took that trail, and decided to get CP N instead. I ran back to Rebecca (the shorter way), and got to relax for a few minutes and eat while she ran to CP O. I even got to use a proper bathroom with flushing toilets and a sink.
When she returned, I headed out again, this time taking a shorter way to CP M. I met a man who was nowhere near where he thought he was, so I told him he could follow me back to CP 5 if he wanted to so that he could start again. He did. This was where we saw the lead female team of 2 head for CP 6.
Bike leg #4: time trial (5k) + CP6 (14k) + bike drop (13k)
I had never done a bike time trial before (essentially, a race against the clock with one team starting at a time), let alone one after we had already been racing for 10 hours!! Before we started I asked how long it took the fastest team so far, and found out it was 11 minutes. This was somewhat comforting, knowing that we wouldn’t be doing a 1 hour time trial! We followed the painted arrows on the ground, over gravel, dirt, grass, up and down hills, around tight corners, through long grass, and right past a deer and lots of bunnies. We weren’t exactly racing! I found this section fun (it was as close to “real” mountain biking as we got that day), but was relieved to be done it 17 minutes later.
We made our way to CP 6, which was also CP 4 (the one with the Masters student). She confirmed that we were still the 2nd place female team of 2.
Run leg #4: N/A
Given the time, it was looking unlikely that we would make it through the run leg and be able to bike to finish by the 6 PM cutoff. In fact, when we reached the bike drop for the last trek section, we were told that we should bike straight to the finish. I asked how long it was taking teams to do the trek, and the volunteer said on average about 30 minutes, and that many teams weren’t finding all of the controls.
I was disappointed not to be able to do the trek section, but relieved to know that we would be done sooner!
Bike leg #5: to finish line (15k)
We continued on our bikes, 15k that seemed to take forever. By this point, my back had gotten tight and my knee was complaining. Rebecca was having her own issues. A female team of 2 went whizzing by, and we thought, what the heck?! Where did they come from and how can they have so much energy? We talked to them later, when they told us it was their first (and probably last) race like this – that they had missed lots of checkpoints.
We finally reached Holiday Beach and made our way to the finish line. We finished in 13 hours and 46 minutes, just 14 minutes under the 14 hour time cut-off. We had paddled around 9k, run 21k and biked 125k!
It was definitely the hardest race I’ve ever done. Amazing though what one can do on less than an hour of sleep!
In the end, Rebecca and I ended up winning the team of 2 females category, because the team that was ahead of us was overtime. So even though they found all of the checkpoints (including the ones on the last trek that we didn’t do), we finished ahead of them. It feels a bit strange, but that’s apparently how adventure racing works.
SCAR was very well organized and the volunteers were great. There was lots of post-race food, and even vegetarian options.
Canoes and paddling gear/transition bins and bags were waiting for us at the race finish, having been transported there by race volunteers. I even got a race shuttle to where my van was parked. Rebecca and I had had visions of having to get back on our bikes and ride to get the van.
Thank you for a great race! We’ll be back.
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