This year my friend Rhonda-Marie Avery took on yet another new challenge - this time of becoming a race director - by hosting the first (and hopefully annual) Oracle Trail Race in the Durham Forest located near Uxbridge, Ontario. This event was organized as an extension of Envisions, an initiative to facilitate outdoor experiences and adventuring for other-abled athletes. Having had the privilege of getting to know/be bullied by Rhonda-Marie, both as a training partner and accompanying her as a guide runner for part of her journey to run the entire length of the Bruce Trail I knew that I definitely wanted to participate in this race even though it would really only be another workout on my training schedule for the Ottawa Marathon.
I admit to have lolly-gagged in advance of the race, particularly when it came to actually completing the registration form. While I had already determined that on Feb. 13 I'd be running in this event, I had a lot going on (mostly involving preparation for the community theatre performance I was in called "Weekend Comedy") and was happy to drag my heels all the way up to the week before the race before submitting my credit card info. At least that was the idea until Rhonda-Marie messaged me on Facebook to let me know that she was about to cap the number of entrants and that I needed to get my butt in gear if I still intended on making the confirmation list ... and so I skimmed in under the wire.
The really big to-do before the race involved the trail and ambient conditions. Word had gotten out that the course was pretty icy in the weeks leading up to the race, and while we knew that some kind of supplemental traction aid was a requirement (according to insurance regulations I'm told) it was another thing to have had groups who ran practice runs on along the actual single track report back that it could be dicey footing. And for an added bonus a significant cold front was scheduled to push through on race weekend bringing windchill temperatures in the ballpark of -40°C and colder ... so the key for a successful day was going to be equipment, equipment, equipment.
photo courtesy of Christina Blackley, renowned RunNinja!
Although I had a number of friends from Barrie who were planning to run the Oracle as well (at various distances - there was a 5k, 15k and 25k option) and some who were going to be assisting at aid stations I opted to travel down alone because I would need to hustle right back into town to help with my daughter's birthday party and then get ready for a show performance in the evening.
Pulling into the parking lot near the entrance to the Durham Forest I was honestly astounded at how many people (based on the number of cars) had actually followed through on their commitment and shown up to race/help in the frigid tundra conditions. I was thoroughly impressed, and felt no small amount of pride to be lumped in with this crazy lot!
The check-in and kit pick-up was quick and easy - a small loot bag of goodies was handed to each registrant along with a bib, but no chip for timing. Although this was slated to be a chiptimed event the chips would not adhere to the bibs because of the super-freezing temperatures and so the race would be manually timed. At the table for the 25k runners I spotted my friend Keith who was helping out as a volunteer - I'd thought initially that he might be running but when queried about it he responded rather plainly "no, this (weather) is nuts". Maybe I should have taken a hint from a prolific 100-mile finisher and Western States 2016 entrant about the sanity of running on a day such as this was - alas, ego got the better of me once again and I happily trotted off back to my car to stay warm and wait out the additional 40 min. before start time.
After gearing up appropriately and making the requisite last-minute dash into the bushes, I left my van to head to the start line (about 500m away). Little did I realize upon nearing the crowd readying for the starter's mark that I'd left my race bib in the vehicle, so I wound up completing a speedy warm-up by returning to nab my bib and arrive back at the start line a few moments too late. The pack had headed off down the opening double-track section of the course and I was tailing trying to catch up with the four fat-tire bikes that were trolling for stragglers at the end of the group. Right away this didn't bode well as it meant (a) I was using up some unnecessary energy just to join the group and (b) that I would have to weave and waggle my way through on single track sections of the trail to try to find some runners that would be carrying on at a comfortable pace for me. I managed to do both within the first 15min. of the race, but I'm sure that that expended a bit more energy than I intended to use - the upside was that I got nice and warm fairly quickly.
The first 8km or so that I ran was mostly a 'head down and keep moving' affair as I strove to find one or two other competitors who were tackling the course at the pace that I thought was appropriate for me. I also was battling the fogging factor in my ski goggles, even after having tried applying dish soap and buffing it clear as a means of applying a DIY anti-fog coating - but I suppose that if road de-icing strategies fail when it's -21°C or colder I shouldn't be surprised that it would happen to my goggles.
And then the race came unravelled ...
After about 9km of running the small pack of four guys I was running with all found ourselves at the start/finish area - and while we knew that the course was a figure-8 configuration we weren't supposed to criss-cross at the start/finish ... which meant that somewhere we got discombobulated and missed a turn. The strange thing was that we were still following the race trail markers, so somehow we cut onto the final segment of the race course.
We started quizzing the volunteers at the registration tables to see if they could help us get back on track but the best that they could do was to pull out the race course map for us to consult on our own. To be honest I contemplated calling it a day right then and there so that I wouldn't be too pressed for time to get home, but I wasn't happy with just a 9km workout. As we tried to figure out where to backtrack to another three or four runners exited the woods and looked with bewilderment at us consulting the map - obviously having also been surprised to discover that they were lost.
Our intrepid group of seven or eight then re-entered the forest and tried to work our way back toward a high point where a Bell Telephone tower was supposed to be situated - and trudging our way along we came upon another group of seven runners who had no idea that they had missed the proverbial left turn at Albuquerque either.
So there we were, huddled together in the middle of the woods trying to decide (a) whether or not to keep on plugging to try to reconnect with the proper trail, (b) return to the start/finish to find someone who could provide definitive help or (c) call it quits and head for a warm Tim Horton's somewhere. In the end the majority of the group decided to head to the start/finish, but one of the guys I'd been running with during the first stretch (Jordan from Waterloo) and I decided to plug on and try to find the mythical Bell tower. As we did we found some fat tire tracks and figured that they must lead us to the proper trail path again, and so we followed it over hill and dale (no joke) until we came upon - yes - a course marshal!
A brief chat with the marshal indicated that we'd stumbled upon the main intersection of the figure-8, and that in a few short minutes he expected the lead pack to come through ... this of course made us feel horrible, knowing that we'd be joining in with the leaders when we were not with the lead group nor had we run as far as they had by the time that they arrived to our position. Still, wanting to finish up the race Jordan and I decided to let a few runners zip past us and then fall in line for the second half.
Not long after rejoining the race pack I heard a familiar voice coming up quickly behind - my friend and trail/ultra-running beast Steven Hunter. Steve was my odd-on-favourite to either win or at least take top AG runner at this race, and he was looking strong as he powered his way up to my illegitimate position in the lineup. We chatted a bit about my disorientation debacle and he noted that he had already covered about 3km more (according to his GPS watch) than I had, which I attribute to the fact that he had actually followed the correct route thanks to having participated in an 'official' practice run on the course some weeks before. I enjoyed keeping pace with him for a while until my ski goggles once again froze up to the point of near-zero visibility and I pulled off the track for equipment maintenance.
The remainder of the race was fairly uneventful and quite solitary - resuming running after some ice scraping I saw only one or two bodies in the distance and couldn't hear any footsteps or breathing behind me. To my surprise I found the remainder of the trail markers quite easy to follow, and my only concern was time as I was closing in on the self-imposed 'deadline' I'd set in order to get back home in time for my daughter's birthday party. The only real bit of nastiness in the home stretch was a steep and icy ascent up a hill within the last 800m or so of the course - I caught up with my friends Kevin and Christina (running the 15k) just before having to scramble using all fours up this slope, but after that it was a sprint-like effort to the end.
After crossing the finish line (for the second time) I immediately told the officials there who were tracking bib numbers not to mark me down as I'd not run the full course thanks to my lack of directional skills. I was then about to proceed to the tents where (presumably) the finisher's scarves (in place of medals) were being handed out along with some hot homemade chili, but a quick peek at the time told me that I needed to just keep on busting my butt over to the van to hit the road for home.
Little did I realize that I would have the race director all worried about my whereabouts ...
Certainly far from my intention, but a deliberate choice nonetheless to try to honour my commitment to my kid for her birthday (anyone remember Liar Liar?) over socializing post-race. While I was still on the late side arriving home, the good news was that my daughter was very forgiving/understanding and we still were able to make her birthday social (a roller skating party) work for her and her friends. Whew!
When the dust all settled, the results posted showed me having crossed the line in sixth place - and while that may have been true, I missed checking in at the first aid station and most definitely did not run the complete course.
Without reservation I want to thank and congratulate Rhonda-Marie and the Envisions team (and the numerous volunteers who are probably still thawing!) for a fantastic race and day out on the trails of the Durham Forest. Aside from my blunder in taking the scenic route it was a most enjoyable event and I would recommend next year's edition to anyone who is interested in experiencing winter trail running. Will I see you out there in 2017? I hope so (if I can keep my goggles from frosting over)!
Race gear for the 2016 Oracle Trail Race 25k:
- Nike Therma-FIT l/s
- UnderArmour Heatgear reversible l/s
- Nike Clima-FIT running jacket
- Skechers GORun Ultra 2 (with DIY traction studs)
- Iridēon riding tight
- Running Room Wind Run pant
- Saucony run mitt
- Smith Optics ski goggles
- lost-and-found snowmobile mitts
- Falke RU Energizing compression socks
- Ultimate Direction AK 2.0 Race Vest
- Nathan Speeddraw Flask
- Fuel-100 Electro-bites
- Garmin 305 GPS watch