On February 15, 2014, for the third year in a row, racers from around the world gathered in the frozen winter landscape of North America’s geographic centre to bike or run 130 km of unforgiving temperatures, brutal winds and bare landscapes.
This year’s Actif Epica ultra-marathon demanded that all contestants dig deep and draw from their intestinal fortitude. Pushing the limits for all involved was the teaching lesson of the day; a celebration of human resilience, community spirit and fun.
The cyclists had to push their fatbikes through deep soft snow for many kilometers, and navigate difficult riding conditions, which were almost impossible to prepare their bikes for.
The runners risked freezing their hands and feet, and many had to pull out due to the dangers of frostbite.
Since the race covers so many kilometers — 130 to be exact — over such a wide time frame — from 16 to 24 hours — the weather conditions can change frequently. With fast wind changes, comfortably cold conditions can morph into dangerous ones. And the racers cannot escape this, for the trails are on many non-vehicle accessible roads. Once you are out there, you must either find a safety vehicle, make it to the next checkpoint, or return to the previous.
But this is Epica, and everybody who entered knew what they could be in for. The reputation of the race is growing, and the weather demanded even more respect this year.
Fatigue plays on the mind, and simple mistakes can be race-enders. A simple task such as putting a heat pack into a glove may mean a lost finger or hand. Feet become frozen, and the racers would not even know if they are in danger, due to the loss of feeling.
Race staff did a fantastic job of keeping everyone safe and relatively injury free, but they watched everyone with hawk-like eyes. The skill of the organizers of Epica, and the skill of the volunteers, cannot be overstated here.
A DNF (did not finish) happens a lot in ultra-marathon races. It’s an item that people don’t feel comfortable talking about, but it’s a reality in any sport. The fact that these racers experience it more than racers in any other sport allows them to confidently express their opinions on it. Sometimes a DNF is done to protect one’s body, and sometimes it’s just a way of ending the race prematurely. The human body is not the same from person to person, and the variations of personalities are infinite. Ultra racing is a symbiosis between mind and body, and one cannot do an ultra without utilizing both.
Craig Desjarlais, who cycled this year, ran the race last year and won it in a fast 16 hours, and who also DNF’ed in many ultra races in the past, said he’s not interested in getting sympathy from others.
“An Olympian doesn’t want Silver, they want Gold,” said Desjarlais. “Getting a finishing shirt given to you before the race is ridiculous. I would never wear a shirt for a race I didn’t finish. Nobody signs up for a race with the idea of not finishing, but you have to make a call: no race is worth a toe or something.”
“I got all offended, because I saw a guy wearing ‘Death Gear’, and he DNF’d,” Desjarlais recalled after he entered and finished the Canadian Death Race in Alberta.
Scott Burton asked, where do you draw the line when it pertains to giving awards? Desjarlais asked, what is considered an Ultra? Is it 26.3 miles, just .1 mile over a marathon? Is it 100 miles? Burton then asked, is it 1,000 miles? There are people who do all of those, and more. And there are many, many other questions that these athletes ask.
Steven Graupner, a trail runner who hails from St. Malo, trains constantly. Yet, he doesn’t consider what he does as training or racing; he runs because he likes to run, but he did do a 9.5-hour-run (about 60 kilometres total distance) in his ‘training’ for this race. This race was his second winter ultra. His first was last year’s Epica, in which he DNF’d at the second last checkpoint. “My hip flexor was damaged after Maple Grove (park),” he said.
Graupner has done a summer 50-kilometre ultra, 50-mile Spruce Woods ultra, and Superior Sawtooth summer ultra in Minnesota (northeast of Duluth). Superior is hard to train for, said Graupner, because it’s technical, with many roots, hills, and single track. He said, he searched and found something similar to train on in the Sandilands area of Manitoba.
Graupner dropped out of Superior also, and was depressed. He was down, both mentally and physically, because of it.
However, this year’s weather didn’t slow Graupner down for Epica. He went on a blistering pace to win, arriving at The Forks at 11:42 p.m., with an official total time of 16 hours and 42 minutes. Brian Weigelt from Wawanesa came in a stalwart second place with an arrival of 12:24 a.m., or 17 hours and 24 minutes, and a super impressive third place finish for Bert Blackbird from Brandon, coming into The Forks at 4:47 a.m. and a finish time of 21 hours and 47 minutes. All times and places are now official.
All photos by Gregory McNeill.
CNC citizen reporter, Gregory McNeill, ran and finished this year’s Actif Epica, while writing this story and taking these photos along the way.