It’s the middle of peak winter in Manitoba and tears are rolling down my face in pain and despair. I collapse onto a half-frozen pile of mud in the middle of nowhere, some place in South of Winnipeg in the freezing cold midnight. I’m not even sure where I am. All I know is that I have little over 6 hours to finish this race, Actif Epica – the ultramarathon that I’ve been training for months to do.
Actif Epica is a 120 km long self-supported race in peak winter of Manitoba. Unlike other races, there is no support available of any kind, you carry all your needs like water, food, survival gear and clothes in a backpack from the start to finish. Temperatures are generally 30 degrees below freezing with winds at 50 kilometers an hour. This is among the toughest races Canada has to test your will and endurance. And on top of all of that, race officials confirmed the conditions this year were the worst they’d seen.
There are 5 checkpoints where I must report to within the 25 hour time limit – St. Pierre-Jolys (28 km), Crystal Springs (43 km), Niverville (63 km), St. Adolphe (75 km) and University of Manitoba (104 km). Sounds straightforward, but the problem is the route is not marked. I have to follow hand scribbled directions and use my GPS to find my way in a landscape I’d never been to before.
My GPS is dead so I look at the hard copy of the race directions. They suggest a left turn about a kilometer from the trailhead, and I’ve been walking for more than an hour with no left turn in sight. I’m exhausted, getting cold, and have bad blisters that are bleeding. For the past 19 hours, I’ve battered through a rough frozen lake, miles of Manitoba mud, soft deep snow and endless stretches of vast-frozen prairies – all this with a bad stomach. I’m throwing up every 10 minutes if I eat. My body has surrendered to my life’s biggest race, and I still have 40 km to run. I think my battle is over. I’m lost.
As I lay in the mud, I can hear sounds of coyotes and see an array of flickering lights at a far distance. While still trying to muster some energy to continue, I think maybe the lights could be the flood bank, the one all racers must cross to get to the Highway 200 to finish. If it is the flood bank, I think I can follow and still finish. But, if I am on the wrong trail, this is the end.
As I push my glasses up and try to focus my weak eyes on the lights, I am reminded of what got me here in the first place. Like a movie looped in fast forward, under the fading glare of those flickering lights, I can see myself sitting in front of the television, lonely in my room as a 12-year-old in New Delhi India, watching a BBC documentary on Iditarod – The Last Great Race on the planet. It’s a 1000 mile long dog sled race in dead of winter in Alaska from Anchorage to Nome in far West.
I dreamed of racing that trail one day. But how? I was short, weak and not as strong as my friends. Nevertheless, I still wanted to do it. I saw Iditarod as the greatest accomplishment a human could possibly make against nature. I thought Iditarod could be a way to prove that I was not weak. I was much more than this fragile body. But even with the will, I lived in New Delhi, so I knew I could never be a musher. Over time, I bargained with myself and said: “What if I walk that trail?” That changed everything. I no longer want to be dragged by the dogs. I want to be the dog!
And I love Canada, but compared to New Delhi, the weather is otherworldly. February was expected to be crazy cold. But, in race week, Winnipeg suddenly had a severe heat wave. I’m not making this up, I saw people walking in shorts and t-shirts when I landed. At 2 degrees, the snow was melting, roads were icy and trails were a puddle.
Landing in Winnipeg was a shocker. That was the first time that I had seen such vast flatlands. In Delhi, houses are cramped. I had never seen sideways beyond 20ft. In contrast, Manitoba stretched on beyond my imagination. During the race, I felt like I walked for hours upon hours – reaching nowhere. I particularly remember this one tree halfway through the race. I must have been walking towards it for hours. How long had I come? How long did I have to go? That tree is still standing there, teasing from far, seemingly unreachable.
“I burst into tears. I’m on the right trail after all and I have just 28 more kilometers to go.”
Already cold and wet due to relentless walking through soft wet snow that was beyond my knees deep, that’s when I started crying, laughing, feeling blessed to be here and cursing myself – all at the same time. Thinking, were those inner thoughts right all along? Am I fragile? Our truth is nothing but belief – the voice inside our head that recites the same thing over and over.
I remind myself that I flew all the way to Manitoba because I am strong enough to do this. I wrap my numb feet in a layer of plastic bag, stand up, pull on my jacket and start crawling towards those flickering lights. 15 minutes later, the trail turns left, I swim through the snow and climb up the floodbank. I see two headlamps flashing on the other side…volunteers! They shout “Gaurav, you are doing amazing. You’re almost there.” This is exactly what I was longing to hear. I burst into tears. I’m on the right trail after all and I have just 28 more kilometers to go.
Slipping my way on frozen roads with bleeding feet, I reach the final stretch of the race – The frozen Red River – which is melting. It is the final hour and I am a little over 8 kilometers from the finish. I’m running, slipping, falling on the river, getting up, running again and then again falling. I don’t know how far I’ve come. Now, only 10 minutes are remaining in my time limit and I don’t know how far I still have to go. I can see my dream collapsing right in front of my eyes. Suddenly, from under the bridge I see a young woman waving and running towards me. I think she’s a volunteer. I quickly run towards her – she thought I was her husband. Delirious from the pain, for a moment, even I thought I was.
I run harder than I had in the past 25 hours. My legs are crying in pain, my lungs bursting, my feet are numb as I crash through the door, collapsing on the ground and shouting “52”, my race bib number. I’m on the ground for half an hour, my body in complete collapse, but I’m telling myself “you made it 8 minutes before the end of the race.” I feel dead yet immortal. I was born weak. I wasn’t ‘fully baked’, or so doctors feared.
During childhood, voices in my head told me that my body was fragile. But over time and through training, I built the belief that I can do things that seem impossible. I control those voices within my head now. I accomplished my dream. I became the first person from India and South Asia to finish the Actif Epica. I stand with confidence.
Feature Image © Gaurav Madan.