Darkness has come. Eight post meridiem on September 7th 2014, I’m alone, drinking water from a swamp analyzing a sweaty map by the glow of my headlamp. Behind me, in the distance of time, there is a lake, there are roads, there are trails. Sunrise sunset, and still. It is a sandwich that has brought me here, just past the middle of nowhere, in Frontenac Provincial Park.
October 18th 2013
Here is the Plan. Day One, I will leave Ottawa by bicycle and travel to Frontenac Provincial Park and sleep in the woods overnight. Day 2, I will run around the whole thing, then sleep in the woods overnight. Day three, bike home. For a total 264k cycle and 44k run.
I call it The Sandwich.
Some of my co-workers at Mountain Equipment Coop had gotten together to run the Frontenac Loop, a challenge known by few, which consists in connecting the outer rim trails of the park in a 44k-ish route. I had only just heard wind of the challenge myself, and a few days too late: I had missed the opportunity to book the day off from work.
In the days following, haunted by the tales of their adventure, I made up my mind to book the next week-end off, buy a map and get out there. Having no driver’s licence, my path was clear. This is how the sandwich tasted:
The Sandwich, October 19-21st 2013
The Sandwich has been Consumed! What an Adventure!
Day One. So excited, couldn’t sleep much. At 9am, I left Ottawa on my Bicycle forgetting both my lunch and my raincoat. Yikes! Little did I know that rain and lack of food were to be the main themes of this expedition. Got hit twice on my way to Frontenac Park by mega-rain/thunder/windstorms. Wahoo! I sang my way through them and managed to get a couple glimpses of the sun here and there. I felt cold and alive wearing my good old short-shorts for luck. When I got there, I soon realized I had miscalculated my meals. I laughed a bit. Oh well.. I was almost ready to eat, when a storm materialized itself yet again. So, I set up camp as fast as I could, trying to keep the important stuff dry. Locked my bike and slurped up my meal under my tarp with no ceremony. During the night, the winds were so strong I had to get up twice to rearrange my tarpwork. Yes… I had the brilliant idea to test drive an expedition hammock, for the very first time on this adventure (Expedition Hammock: a very odd contraption with a mesh roof covered by the tiniest of tarps into which you enter from a Velcro patch situated at the feet end of the hammock). I wrestled for warmth all night, but nothing could dampen my spirits. This expedition sandwiches everything I do for fun in concentrated form, and I was only one third of the way through it!
Day two. A glorious day, cool and full of sun. I chose a new spot for my camp to shelter it better from the wind and possible intruders. Then, before breakfast, my water filtration pump craps out. Whatever right?! The sun was out! I ate my breakfast aka a tiny portion of oatmeal; boiled myself some water; filled up my 620ml bottle and made peace with the fact that I was going to run for a whole day with only that much water and no food.
So, I set off and ran the whole thing. What beauty! All of Ontario’s glory in one park. The day went by surprisingly fast and when I finally closed the loop and reached my camp everything was as I had left it, untouched. I cooked myself a well deserved crappy dehydrated ragout and built a fire. I then boiled two liters of water and called it a day. The night was full of animal cries. I clearly wasn’t the only lonely and cold animal in the forest.
Day three. No breakfast. I drank the rest of the water from the night before and broke camp in the rain. I saddled up my bike and rode the 30kms to Westport. Breakfast! Then, I rode to Ottawa like a man possessed with ”Horse Returning to the Stable Syndrome” (HRSS: State of low energy and pain in which an athlete decides to just book it non-stop to get home.) One of the benefits of being wet and cold is that you are too numb to feel muscle pain. And Hallelujah for that!
After 13 hours / 300 kms of cycling; after 6 hours and 41 minutes / 44 kms of trail running, I came to only one possible conclusive moral.
Nothing is so hard that it cannot be made harder.
At this point, you may want to ask: why? But don’t interrupt, it gets better. In the summer of 2013, while being rained out for 2weeks on a climbing trip in Squamish, my brother and I decided to learn how to swim. And so, following the highly successful consumption of the Sandwich, I spent the entire year training in the Plant Bath pool, in Ottawa. Actually falling in love with a sport that had only stirred aversion and fear in me before. And it became the theme of 2014 for me: I was to complete an Ironman. The year passed as I contemplated the different races and event I could join. None however really struck me as particularly enjoyable or adventure-driven enough.
So I trained tirelessly, even while completing my very first season of tree planting, joining a few running races here and there and swimming laps at the Recreation centre in Penticton. After some research, I registered for the Peach City Classic Triathlon which took place a week after a trail half-marathon, which in turn was a week after the end of the planting season. Here’s how my very first triathlon went:
Peach City Classic Triathlon, July 20th 2014
4:50 am with barely 5 hours of restless hot sleep.. I wake up, carb up, suit up and head out to the race. I sneak around the transition area scouting for tricks on.. Well, basically everything. People have top of the line gear, by the way, and it’s making me nervous. I sort my gear out. I’m pretty confident the race will go well.
I soup up an energy gel. The race is about to start. We stand in the water waiting for the signal. The buoys seem pretty far.. and we’re off!
I barely accomplish 100m before I’m struck by a panic attack (far from uncommon for me in stressful swimming situation). I can’t take a deep breath and I can’t touch the ground and people are pushing past me by the dozens and my arms are cramping up because of the lack of O2. I look around. I’m dead last. Dead last. I was almost going to call for help. But something about the words dead last.. I have been through too much to back out. I’m getting light headed and nauseous at this point, so I start brass and backstroke. Deep breaths, thinking one two breathe like one two three plant tree. By the time I get to half way, I can swim. I. Can. Swim. Time to go buddy.
I get out of the water in 100th place. I treat the transition like bagging up trees: multitasking a gel in my mouth while I suit up for the bike. From here on in the race, I am on a mission. The bike course is dense with rolling hills and fancy souped up bikers. My specialties. I munch through them one at a time.
Then came the hole in my planning: Can I run? I hadn’t run since breaking my toe the week before at the Dirty Feet Half-Marathon. All I knew was that my toe didn’t want to bend much and that walking on it was painful. Not much to go on..
Transition time! I had saved my secret weapon for last: a salted caramel energy gel! Alright Limpy, let’s see what you can do! One two pain. One two pain. I can live with this! I hunt down literally every runner that enters my sight. I knew they were getting drowsy. After all they didn’t have a broken toe to keep them sharp.
Long story long, I finished 34th in 2:33:16. A great adventure and one of my proudest moments, overcoming a lifelong fear of open water swimming. Definitively a landmark in my life. I wanted to share it with you all. Thanks for reading!
All things considered, I felt preeetty ready for the big one. But just how big did I want to make it? Well, two words: IronSandwich. This is what the Meech to Frontenac Challenge consisted of:
4k swim in Meech Lake, Gatineau Park
168k road and gravel cycle to Wesport, Ontario
45k trail run through Frontenac Park
And this is how it went:
IronSandwhich, September 7th 2014
Challenge Update! Swim swim swim, bike bike bike, run run run, hey I made it!
It’s been about a year since I learned how to swim in Squamish. From crowded pools to open water; from runs in -40°c to +36°c; from hooking my bike to a trainer to unleashing it in the Okanagan. This Challenge was the final flash bang to this intense journey, and what a day it was! Let me tell you about it.
530am. Not much sleep. It’s still raining. My Mom drives me to O’brien beach where I meet Colleen, my only beacon of a chance to survive the 4k of pure cold dark wetness ahead. With little ceremony (i.e. we were already wet from the rain) we set off. Colleen explains to me that once we go around one of the corners in the distance we’ll know the end is close. Swim swim swim. The pace is fast and the water is calm. Things are looking up. We finally make it around the last corner. I, as usual in these moments, start getting emotional. The funny thing about crying a little in goggles is that they fill up pretty quick. So I held back my tears, but my body still wanted to express something so, well, I puked. The wind had picked up and the water had gotten choppy since we had gone around the bend. I was freezing. I could see the end. Still, I was sick two more times before I hit that beach and once more after. Not. Too. Glorious.
Quick change of profession, and off on my bike I go. As cold as ever under the morning rain, but at least I’m on land. The land I know. I swallow up the Gatineau Park hills on my way to meet up with Matt and Zach (my brother), both will share the next 160k with me. The course I designed for the Challenge takes us through about 40km of dirt trail. Wet dirt trails. To which Matt generously sacrificed his million dollar road bike. My brother and I, on our MEC Touring bikes loaded with all the Camping and Running Gear we’ll need to complete the Challenge, were much less affected by the trails. We ride three abreast until we hit road again. Both of them are nice enough to agree to the no drafting rule I set for myself. They hang back and look at my butt for the rest of the ride.
We hit Stittsville, Carleton Place, Perth and Westport, where Matt leaves us to complete the same ride backwards. My brother and I buy supplies for dinner and breakfast and set off for the the rocky dirt road that will lead us to the entrance of the park. We both want off our bikes at this point. After a quick portage of our loaded bikes to the campsite, we can both finally breath and relax a little. The park is gorgeous.
I switch into my running gear. We take a quick look at the Map. 44 kilometres of running through highly technical trails lie ahead. The night lies ahead. I will be completing this venture alone. It’s Four o’clock. From here on, every little pain lurks in my mind like the bears and coyotes hidden in the woods ahead. Which one will it be that will bring me to a halt? As far as Ironmans go, I’m a total amateur. But running, running is my element. I have a small running backpack with some warm clothes, a map, gels and chews, water purifying drops and about 1.4L of water. Let’s run!
The most technical portion of the run is the first 3/4. I need to stay sharp. My recently broken toe won’t take much stubbing. My goal is to put as much of the park behind me before the sun sets. I have no more leg strength so i walk most of the hills, focusing on tearing up the downhills and the flats. By all standards, I’m not going very fast. It took about an hour to run the first 6k. The rain transformed the whole park into a swamp. But then, something surprising happened. Between kilometres 10 and 15, all pain subsided. I felt great! Was this my body trying to make amends for the puking prank it pulled on me in the morning? Well whatever it was I made the best of it. With the sunset and the coyote calls in the background, I made it to kilometre 28 before I had to throw on a headlamp. By then I had already refilled my bottles 5 times in nearby streams and lakes and was still feeling dehydrated. Juggling the drinking, refilling and the purifying with the inconsistent access to good water and the darkness moving in fast, was a harder task than anticipated. I drank some pretty muddy looking water throughout the night. My headlamp revealed a lot of eyes in the woods, including millions of moths and a giant porcupine that I nearly tripped on coming around corner. If I have learned one thing in all my adventures, is that exhaustion conquers all fears. It also makes unfolding and refolding a map an incredibly hard task. I made it to the camp at around 10:30pm.
The next day my brother and I packed up camp and rode the 160k back home. Just because why the hell not?
Although I did not keep close track of this, these are my approximate times:
1h30 Swim / 6h Bike / 6h30 Run (Smashing my run PB for Frontenac Park by nearly an hour.)
I am extremely grateful to everyone who helped me achieve this goal of mine.
The lessons as always, remains the same: Nothing is so hard that it can’t be made harder.
Follow along on Instagram: @etiennegabriel