It started at 4:30 am. I have run a lot of races in my time. Marathons, 100 mile ultras, and everything in between. But this was different. I had entered the 403 kilometer Expedition Canada adventure race, an Adventure Race World series event in the Okanagan Valley. Running. Ropes. Paddling. Swimming. Mountain biking. Orienteering. This was uncharted territory for me and my three teammates. And we had no idea where we were going until 4:30 am, morning of the race. We entered the lockdown room with over 70 other athletes. We no longer had access to the outside world, no internet, no phones. This was our first look at the course which would take us from the bottom of a valley to top of the alpine, over 26,000 feet of elevation gain. On an unmarked course. No GPS, no food and no water. Just maps, compass and whatever we brought with us. Four large Tupperware bins would hold our gear and the supplies we thought we would need. And our bikes? They had to be disassembled in boxes. Wheels off. Handlebars off. Forks off. We would have to assemble and disassemble them during the race. Could we do this? Probably not. Which is exactly why I signed up.
We began with a 1K swim in cold, open water. Then a hike up the famous Skaha bluffs. Then a paddle. It was getting dark when we started the paddle and the wind was kicking up. Before we knew it, we were in the pitch black and the waves were kicking up 4-foot swells. Turing on our headlamps only make it worse. All we could see were the whitecaps just before they crashed over the bow. We made it to the beach and dragged up our canoes. The boat beside us took a wave over the starboard side and instantly swamped. We watched the glowsticks on the other racers as they paddled in. Then several glowsticks disappeared. The boats were capsizing resulting in racers ditched in the water. The wind got stronger. There was a checkpoint here, maybe a 200 foot climb up on the east side of a hoodoo. One of our teammates looked at us. “I’m not going back out on that lake. That’s death there.” He was probably right. But we figured we’d find that checkpoint first, then worry about getting back. By the time we returned, the safety boat had arrived. They were evacuating us because it wasn’t safe, but they couldn’t get us from where we were, so we had to paddle out 1000 meters to another beach, where we were picked up and brought to safety. We had thrown some cheeseburgers in our paddle bag. They were amazing, if a little wet. But the race continued.
We ran. We biked. We were at the top of a technical downhill after a long grueling climb and were enjoying the decent. Then suddenly, right in front of us, a racer was down. Laying across the trail, his bike in the trees, his head wedged against a tree stump. We jumped off our bikes and ran to him. He couldn’t move and couldn’t feel anything below his neck. We pressed the SOS beacon on his tracker and waited for search and rescue. I’m a doctor and so was someone else on my team. We knew all we could do in the field was a quick assessment and then just make sure he stayed stable. Our team looked at each other, but didn’t need to say anything. This is where our race would end. We would not leave an injured racer. We would stay with him until he was airlifted off the side of the mountain. So, we took out our sleeping bags, bivy, and covered him up. I laid next to him and talked for the next hour and a half and held his hand. As scared as he was, he kept apologizing. “Sorry I ruined your race.” The race didn’t matter, only he did. He got hurt doing what we do for fun. This was crazy. The wind picked up and the rain came harder. I lay there next to him in the mud. We saw the helicopter come in and then by some miracle the wind and rain stopped instantly. It was like someone flipped a switch. We cleared a path for the helicopter so they could load him up. And then he moved a finger. Then a foot. We stayed with him for over three hours, and by the time they airlifted him away, he was moving all four limbs again. Unbelievable. We looked at each other. Now what? Again, we didn’t need to discuss it. We were still in this. Turns out our race was not done. We WILL finish this thing!
So we rode, ran, rappelled, climbed, and ended up at the top of a mountain. And then back down, 120 more kilometers until we ended up on our final 5k trek to the finish line. In the distance we saw a Jeep with its flashers on. At 2am, what’s going on? We got to the Jeep and were greeted by the team of the fallen racer. They had tracked us for the last 2 days, and wanted to be there to great us, give us high fives, and ride next to us as we trekked to the finish. Their teammate had recorded a video from the hospital and they played it for us. His neck was not broken. He tracked us and cheered for us from his hospital bed, and there were tears in his eyes as he congratulated us for finishing. He would have surgery the next day and two days later was able to walk out of that hospital. We crossed the finish line in 92 hours and 56 minutes. 4.5 hours of sleep total. 5th place overall and 2nd place men’s team. Sometimes dreams come true, sometimes you can do the impossible. And you never know what you can do until you step up to that start line.