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The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.

- Alexander von Humboldt


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Athletes

Apr 09, 2018

Snow, Mud, Sweat and Tears: An Actif Epica First

It’s the middle of peak winter in Manitoba and tears are rolling down my face in pain and despair.

WRITTEN BY

Gaurav Madan

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.

© Kevin B Desaulniers

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.

Read the news report about Gaurav’s epic accomplishment of becoming the first Indian-born runner to complete the Actif Epica.

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.

© Dan Lockery

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.

© Dallas Sigurdur

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.

© Michael Milner

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.

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Columns

Jul 04, 2018

How I Became a Runner

This article originally featured in a print issue or the Outdoor Journal.

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WRITTEN BY

Rachel Toor

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It’s hard to start running, but eventually the sound of your feet on the pavement, on the trail, on the earth – starts to sound like music. Rachel Toor recounts how she became a runner.

Let’s begin by admitting that when you start, it’s awful. After you lace up your new running shoes for the first time, step into your short shorts with the built-in panties, pull on a tee-shirt made of recycled plastic bottles or some other technical material that will, eventually, start to stink in the armpits no matter how often you wash it, when you head out the door for that debut run, you might feel good for the first few minutes. You might even feel great. You might hear Bruce Springsteen singing in your own head that tramps like us, baby we were born to run.

For those first few minutes.

And then everything will start to hurt. Each leg will feel like it weighs eight hundred pounds. You will appreciate oxygen in a way that you only appreciate things once they’re absent. Your heart will pound so hard you’ll think it’s as detectable as the organ in an Edgar Allen Poe story. It will tell the tale of your woe. And you will, make no mistake, feel filled with woe.

You may have been told to start out by walking fast to warm up and then running for a limited time, four or five minutes, maybe. Alternate walking and running, you may have been told. But you never knew minutes could last so long. You don’t think you can keep going. You never appreciated how nice it is to walk. You can breathe when you walk. Breathing is a good thing.

Your eyes may water. You may make wheezing noises. You may think you’ve coughed up a chunk of your lung.

All that money you spent on buying the right gear, the right clothes and shoes and maybe even a new big old ugly GPS plastic watch? Wasted. Halfway through your first run you decide you’re going to give it all away. That new tee-shirt won’t have a chance to get stinky, not from your pits.

Somehow, though, you make it through. You’re out there for however long you thought you should be. Maybe it’s ten minutes, maybe twenty, but you’ve done it. You feel a little good about yourself. You think maybe you could have gone a little longer.

Until the next morning when it hurts to get out of bed. You hobble around and nurse yourself with ice cream and think, What a silly idea that was. I’m not a runner. The next day is even worse. How can you be more sore the day after the day after you’ve run? Because that’s how it works.

But for whatever reason—stubborn pride, those few extra pounds around the middle, an upcoming reunion—you put on those sporty clothes again and venture out, once more into the breach.

Weirdly, it’s easier this time. You do the walking parts a little faster, run a little slower, and it feels almost good. Twenty minutes goes by and you think, Hey, this isn’t so bad.

Slowly, slowly, running becomes something you do.

Some days it’s good. Other days you can’t believe how hard it is. Some days, you have to trick yourself to get out the door. You don’t want to go. So you say, Maybe I’ll just put on my running clothes. You say, Maybe I’ll just go for ten minutes. You say, Maybe I’ll take it really easy and run extra slow. But once you get out there, you’re kind of happy. You like the way the air feels against your skin. You notice the call of birds you can’t identify. Your body begins to recognize the motion, the clip clip clip of your feet on the pavement, on the trail, on the earth. You settle into breathing.

Sometimes, you’re able to let your mind wander. You’ll find yourself thinking of people you’ve left behind. Or conversational topics you want to broach. You end up figuring out the solution to a problem you hadn’t quite realized you had.

Sometimes, you will put on headphones and run to the rhythm of a band you love, you’ll listen to a singer whose voice jabs you in the heart, and your mind will go effortlessly blank. You’ll be able escape from yourself.

Sometimes, you will meet a friend. You’ve been running enough now that it’s not impossible to talk. You would not have believed this could ever be the case, but in fact, you are able to carry on a discussion with someone whose company you enjoy. You might end up running farther than you thought you could. You might make a date to go again. It might become a weekly ritual.

Sometimes, you will want it to hurt. You want to make whatever emotional pain you’re feeling—the breakup of a relationship, a death, a failure—manifest. You will want to take it out on your body. You will enjoy the physical challenge of pushing yourself into agony. You will run so hard you think you might start bleeding from your eyeballs. You’re pretty sure you might collapse. You tell yourself that the German philosopher was right: that which doesn’t kill you does make you stronger. You pull out a bunch of other clichés about sports you’ve heard and realize that clichés are almost always true.

Sometimes, you will have a bad run. You will not be able to account for it. You will have gotten enough sleep, eaten well, be rested and healthy and nothing will have changed, but sometimes you just have a bad run. Even after you’ve been doing this for years and know to expect it, you are, nevertheless, always surprised when it happens.

Eventually, your body will change and harden and reconfigure itself. You will look down at your legs one day and not recognize them. When did they become so muscular? When did the jiggly bits stop jiggling? Where did those extra pounds around your middle go? You haven’t been dieting. In fact, you’ve been eating more than you used to. You’re hungry all the time. You start to see food as fuel.

Eventually, you will begin to recognize other runners. You will run past them on the street and raise a hand in greeting, which they will return. You’ll notice people wearing those big ugly GPS plastic watches with their civilian clothes. You’ll start to pay attention to race shirts.

Eventually, you might even start to enter races. You will be surprised that you get faster at each one. You’ll try different distances. You’ll wonder: Could I run a marathon? You’ll realize that you could. Of course you could. You might even want to go farther. You see the possibilities.

And eventually, running will stop being just something you do and instead it will have become a part of who you are. A runner.

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