Eventually I drag my carcass into Stage Camp 1 at Powder Point, the farthest point on Prelude Lake. A crowd awaits me as I am the first to emerge from the swirling vanilla milkshake. The tunes are still pumping from my awesome hat with the built in headphones, so I am unresponsive as the cameras and crowd surround me. I vaguely hear, “I told you so! I told you Adrian’s son would be the first in!”, and, “I told you he was good!”. Only one word and its associated thought come to mind: Awesome – I survived. Unlike the oh so many who fell casualty to the elements on Day 1…
Stage camp #1 - Powder Point.
Day 2 dawns with a glorious sunrise as the camp rouses. The constant bustle of urgent activity really makes me realize that the race isn’t only the 45-ish km you cover each day, but equally as much what you do in the down-time. How you come down from one stage and prepare for the next. It turns out I have a 16 minute gap on Corey “Rock & Ice” McLachlan, a very comforting cushion that brings to mind various tactical approaches. A mutual, unspoken agreement is reached for the day as we both realize that our shape is similar and that any huge moves would have to wait until the final stage. So we ski together the entire race, trading leads, refueling often, chatting, enjoying the magnificent weather and landscape that is the Hidden lake burn and surrounding area. Meanwhile, Mike “the Rabbit” Argue and Phil “the Tortoise” Villeneuve wage a silent but fierce battle that favours fitness, short drink breaks, proper fuelling, efficient pulk systems, and impressive mental fortitude. And during this battle they make fun of us “old ladies” as we have tea time way too often. Every few kilometers I see animal sign out in the untouched Akaitcho territory, where only a couple snowmobiles had passed in the previous week. I spot lynx sign as it meanders through the maze of snowshoe hare paths that polka-dot the untouched, sparkling powder between the 3-foot high new growth trees. I see some big tracks and dub them as “Sasquatch”. Corey laughs. “Or maybe just moose,” I respond. The great caribou herds keep to themselves far up North and haven’t graced us with their presence around Yellowknife in many years. Some of the final lake sections are treacherous. Wind isn’t a factor, but snow depth and consistency is. We are plowing through sugar over our boots. The shuffle-bound-jog is adopted once again as mode of transportation. We keep this up for a long time, Corey seems to have recovered from yesterday and has me at the limit of my “easy” zone at times. He likes to hammer anyways. Once or twice in the last sections of the stage I stop for candy. Gummy worms are pure gold and are much better than Sharkies as they do not stick to your teeth and go down very easy. Caramilk and Rolo eggs are amazing as well, but are potential choking hazards as they are the exact diameter of one’s trachea. The day takes the same 5:20-ish as yesterday. I now have a 2nd place and 3rd place longest training sessions of all time. The day has turned mild, maybe -12 Celsius with no wind and a big hard sun. We arrive to the white teepees that are as hot as saunas and as small as bathroom stalls with 8 feet of head-room at the very center, tapering on all sides very quickly. Corey and I stand in our tent with shirts off and our torsoes above the “scorching hot” height threshold. Mikey and Phil arrive from their duel, Mikey having to fight especially hard to catch up in the last 5 km after yard-saling his pulk a few times on the final downhill that had a couple corners.
Once changed and settled we enjoy the weather, ice fish, and get our game faces on for Day 3. Race mode is on all the while.
After a night of sweaty, clammy legs, and a frozen upper body due to an opening in the tent next to my balaclava-clad head, it is time for the final and deciding stage of the K-Rock. Last night I determined the 43.5 km stage was over at 35 km, because from there on in it’s mostly ice road where you can average nearly double the speed you would otherwise ski on snow. So basically 35 km. On the day, conditions are quite good. Hard pack the entire way (no sugar!), mostly tail wind, and a snowmobile sled track that shockingly resembles a skiing track. I’m skiing evenly and slightly above my comfort zone for almost the entire race. There is little talk out there as the mood is heavy and sullen (read: competitive) just like the dreary sky surrounding us. I lead about 20 km of the first 25 km. I am the first to stop for a water refill at the 2nd last check point but somehow get filled last and meanwhile everyone takes off without me. Skating, even! Skating has been shown to average about 13-14 km/h today but consequently burns dangerous amounts of energy very quickly. Striding has shown easy averages of 11 km/h and is a more natural and efficient movement for the human body. Slightly annoyed with the pack leaving after the water mix-up, I take off and kill myself for a few minutes to get back to the front. I slow the pace to a stride and assume that they will stop so that I can take a drink of my tardily refilled thermos. Instead, Corey attacks and quickly puts about 5 minutes into me using the infamous technique of skating. I realize that this is the last realistic opportunity for him to reel in the 16 minutes. I have to dig very deep and stride for all I am worth for about 8 km of a lengthy lake stretch. Heart rate is pinned at about 170 for almost an hour until I finally catch him. The race is pretty much over now, just a matter of skiing it in. We round the corner at Dettah and hop on the ice road, escorted by a convoy of eager film crew and photographers (including my dad), leaping in and out of vehicles, doing drive bys and almost getting taken out by our skittery, uncontrollable skis as they take wide-angle laying down shots of us speeding by. We double pole it in, averaging 19 km/h the last little bit, even into a headwind. The race is now over, we reminisce of the battle and enjoy the natural high. A huge sense of accomplishment washes over me as I cross the finish line. Most importantly from having finished this thing relatively unscathed.
Over the proceeding days of the Rock and Ice I got to witness the epic battle between Mike and Phil. In a race that is decided over 6 days, 225 km of tricky ski conditions, and over 24 hours of total race time, you know it was a great race when the time separating first and second is mere minutes.
The future of the Rock and Ice is still somewhat unknown in terms of growth over the next few years. It has remained small, with the 3rd year garnering nearly 100 athletes. It helped this year that it wasn’t during Nationals, that is why this is the first year I could actually enter without a conflict. The event could potentially be great next year with proper planning. With Nationals taking place in Whitehorse next year, it could be as easy as getting word out to Canada’s skiers, setting up First Air to be shuttling athletes over from Whitehorse for the race once Nationals are done, and then back down south after the R & I as part of their sponsorship commitment. That could attract flocks of competitive racers. But still, with a price tag of $1500 for the 3-day, and $3000 for the 6-day, cost would become an issue for many of North America’s racers (over 50% discount for residents of the Yukon, NT, and Nunavut, though!). Perhaps a discount for CCC license holders might be an attractive development as well as prizes that would go deeper than top-1. With Nationals likely to be at the end of the month of March next year, having the Rock and Ice take place into April could be a good thing. Perhaps keeping athletes in the North for an extended period of a few weeks to experience the best in the World skiing that is possible on Great Slave Lake once the snow has melted off towards the end of the month.
Corey congratulating Starr on her 2nd place finish in the 3-day ski.