Written By: Bart de Zwart
Bart de Zwart on Winning the Muskoka River X
Not even a week after the 11-City Tour I had another very long race lined up—a very special race—the Muskoka River X in Canada. This particular race is special because, with 130 kilometers, it's one of the longest single-day expedition races in the world. It's non-stop and without support. It goes through lakes, up and down rivers, and has 20 portages around waterfalls, rapids, and locks.
And, it's cold. During the day it was 44°F (7°C) and during the night, the temperature dropped to 32°F (1°C). The Muskoka River X is special also because we weren't allowed to use GPS and had to find our own way to the finish with maps and compass. The organization gave us 20 pages with detailed maps and a description of all the waypoint, portages, hazards and checkpoints.
The evening before the start, we had the skippers meeting and got our trackers. With divisions for canoes (1 and 2), kayaks and SUP, 64 teams showed up at the starting line. The solos started first, followed by the two-person teams 10 minutes later.
When the race started at 7 a.m., it was misty, cold, and raining. I was dressed light with only race tights, lycra, compulsory life vest and rain jacket. I had my SUPskin dry suit in my pack strapped on the board along with all the food, rescue and navigation gear, clothing and water. I decided to use a relatively wide Starboard All Star (14' x 28″)just to be on the safe side on the rivers, which proved to be the right choice, as it was fast and still stable in critical conditions.
I started with a good pace and was just behind a few of the lead kayak racers when we hit the first lake. My strategy was to follow the C2's (two-man canoes), which were way faster than me, for the first 45 kilometers across the lakes. As soon as we got to the rivers I planned to pull out the maps and start navigating. The first portage, after two hours, was a two-kilometer walk/run to get to the next lake. The paddling got me warm, but the rain kept coming down, with temperatures only a few degrees above freezing. It wasn't very comfy, but hell, this was an expedition race.
The scene is astonishing during the whole race—beautiful hilly landscapes, winding rivers—true Canadian backcountry. Although we had a slight head wind at the first lakes, after the portage the wind shifted, coming more from behind, making it possible to ride some bumps. Some of the lead C2's came flying by, but I was still the lead standup paddler and was right with the lead kayaks.
At the first checkpoint, a medic asked a few questions to check if you were okay and not getting insane or too cold, and on I went, downstream this time. This was very new to me and very exciting. I was flying along the river until I saw the first big rapids. For a brief moment I couldn't see the portage exit to get around the rapids, but found it just in time before I would be dragged down them.
Nobody brought enough water for the whole race. I started with 2.5 liters. Along the way, you fill up in the river. Some purify the water, but I drink it straight from the river (don't try this at home).I tried to eat at least every hour and drink all day. This helps to have an even energy supply throughout the race without any bunking or dips. Food was probably the heaviest item I had with me. Next to the race food you needed to have 2,300 calories of emergency food with you. Apart from my liquid food (Hammer Perpethuem) I try to bring different solid foods because you never know what you'll like after 15 hours of racing, so mixing it up is key.
After about 11 hours of racing, including six hours on the river and many portages, the weather cleared up, but night was coming soon. By the time I was at the second checkpoint, it was already late in the day. From there on it was upstream.
The problem with the cold nights on the warm river is the fog. During the night the fog starts and becomes very thick. Lights are impossible to use because with the reflection, you see nothing but white around you. I still felt pretty fit, but dreaded this part because of the currents against me and, with the fog, I didn't know what to expect.
When night fell, it was pretty dark. I only used my headlamp to look at the maps or during the portages. By this point, the cards were shuffled. I was well ahead in the SUP field and was paddling together with Graham–a Canadian kayaker–who was in solid second place. We passed through some of the heavy current hazard areas where I had to give everything just to make a few meters. I could see the trees on the side passing by so very slowly it wasn't even funny. The canoes had a harder time here and some turned over.
It was getting colder and colder and the fog, thicker and thicker. At the last checkpoint I put on some warmer clothes. We were still at a very good pace and had only 19 kilometers to the finish when the moon began to come out.
Fortunately, we found the entrance to the last river without problems. However, the fog was very, very thick; all you could see were the contours of the trees. It was spooky and mesmerizing at the same time: the moonlight shining through the trees, the fog swirling around us, and every now and then, a brief opening in the fog.
With the maps we found our way to the finish. The last few kilometers were flying by, despite the fact that we couldn't see anything on the lake just before we entered the same town we left early the day before.
Graham and I crossed the finish line in 18 hours and 23 minutes. Graham took second place in kayak and I came in first place for SUP with a new record. Of the 64 teams that started only 44 arrived at the finish, with only two of six SUP competitors finishing.
When I got back to the car, I realized just how cold it was; I had ice on the roof of the car.
1st SUP: Bart de Zwart, 18 hours 23 minutes
2nd SUP: Pete deMos, 21 hours 29 minutes
1st C2: 13 hours 17 minutes
1st 18′ Kayak: 17 hours 54 minutes