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Chapter 6: The Start



“Okay, let me explain the rules!”

Sara Vlug had a firecracker of a voice that quieted the murmur of gathered racers. It was 9:15 AM. The race was set to start in fifteen minutes. Standing in a black windbreaker and fleece, with a sun visor containing her red hair in the breeze, Vlug delivered a final set of instructions to the idling athletes. At the sound of her “Go!” they would run down Sand Cove Road, do a loop of Taylors Island, follow the beach back, and ascend the cliffside trail to the Sheldon Point barn. Twosomes and solo runners would retrieve their mountain bikes there and continue along the next stage. Follow the map, Vlug told them, and watch for volunteers and course marshals. These helpers would be stationed throughout the park, at intersections along the busy highway, and at South Musquash Road, where a logging road led—as previous competitors already knew—into a boggy and nearly impassable miasma.

“Remember, this isn’t a triathlon,” Vlug added. “We’re not out there to wipe your noses.”

The racers nodded. That’s why they were there, for an adventure. The sixty-eight competitors, save for a handful of lean and cocky high-school boys, didn’t look like the stereotype of the extreme-sports enthusiast: the tattooed and spiky-haired eternal teenager from Mountain Dew ads. Their ages ranged from seventeen to seventy and averaged out in the mid-thirties. The two-person teams and solo racers included university undergraduates, medical school students, army cadets, college instructors, fitness teachers and physiotherapists, pulp mill and refinery workers, several computer and high-tech consultants, a dozen business managers of various permutations, an insurance broker, a packaging designer, a forestry worker, a funeral director, a government biologist, and an air traffic controller.

In this crowd, Vlug could spot friends and repeat customers. Mark and Shawn, up from Halifax. Rob, a local paddling legend. Bob, her dad, and Mac, his running partner. Dana, a kayak sales rep from the States. And standing out amid the winter-white faces, Boon Kek, the student from Singapore. Others, like René Arseneault, she recognized from the store. Many had signed up for the first time. Most lived in the Saint John or Rothesay area. A few had driven from Bathurst, Moncton, Fredericton, and other towns north or east of the city, or around the horseshoe of the Bay of Fundy from Nova Scotia.

The year before, the kayaking section had been the race’s first stage, with paddlers setting off from the beach in Irving Park for twenty-five kilometers along the Fundy coast. Afterwards several runners and triathletes had complained about leg cramps and tight muscles from being squeezed into a cockpit right off the start. For the 2002 event, the organizers had shortened the sea kayaking to twelve kilometers and made it the last leg instead, one that would conclude on the lawn of the Vlugs’ house.

That Friday, Sara Vlug and Jayme Frank had hosted an introductory kayaking course. Only one team had shown up. Earlier that morning, after completing registration, the race participants had listened to Frank deliver a five-minute briefing about kayaking safety. He had demonstrated how to cinch the nylon spray skirt around their waists and over the kayak’s cockpit. He had pointed out the rescue tools that would accompany each boat: a hand pump, a throw line, a life jacket, and a safety whistle. “These are very loud and people can hear them,” he had said. The single kayaks, more narrow and prone to tipping, would also include a paddle float. Frank had shown how to use this inflatable device in case of a capsize. “Are there any questions?” he had asked. There had been none.

Vlug reinforced his message that the bay was a serious body of water. “The water is extremely cold, so be careful,” she warned. “If you need help, blow your whistle or go to shore. If you hear someone blowing a whistle, or if someone capsizes, stop and help them. If you don’t, you’ll be disqualified and banned from any races we organize in the future.” The racers nodded and shifted in their running shoes to keep their muscles warm.

“Most of all, have fun,” said Vlug, “and we’ll see you in Dipper Harbour for the barbecue and awards!”


THE MAIN ATTRACTION of any outdoor race is the challenge of traveling up, over, and around wilderness obstacles. It’s a rare chance to feel immersed, even lost, in nature. The reality tends to be more prosaic. In almost any wilderness race, aside from a few exotic multi-day international events, the terrain might lead competitors beyond the concrete and steel of the urban grid, but it can rarely be described as pristine. (A smaller subclass of events, which inspired the TV success of CBS’s The Amazing Race, occupies city streets or suburban sites, with competitors leaping from canoes into subway cars or even rappelling down office towers.) Over the last quarter-century, cheap airfares and eco-tourism have complicated the search for authentic backcountry experiences. Even the most remote regions of the globe, from Mount Everest to Antarctica, have become fair game for package trips and wannabe adventurers. To stand out, an organized expedition race must concoct a mixture of the natural and unnatural that feels both novel and challenging to connoisseurs of ready-to-wear wilderness thrills.

The Fundy Multi-Sport Race was no exception. At the 2002 race, the first stage led runners through a tree-shaded arcade of rooty trails, where a misstep could sprain an ankle. Still, it wasn’t that tough. The running route looped through a publicly accessible park, owned and operated by a mega-corporation that had made its fortune hewing lumber and refining oil. The trails were padded with cedar shavings and blazed with carved posts, logos, and cute animal names for each loop. (How macho can you really feel dashing down something called the Squirrel Trail?) Once out of the trees, the runners would strike the beach and pass an exposed quarry and a quartet of radio towers. The bicycling stage took racers away from the city’s limits but not beyond its reach. The route passed a cemetery, curved around a waste-water facility, crossed a busy highway, followed an abandoned railway line, and connected with dusty country lanes. Even the difficult final few kilometers, through swampy logging roads and overgrown ATV trails, had once been part of a horse-and-cart thoroughfare that had joined early fishing settlements with Saint John. The cyclists would dismount bikes on a beachfront at the end of a cottage-lined road. Many would find wives or husbands, dads and moms, waiting there. Small children would be playing in the pebbles between the kayaks. Not the most extreme of scenes.

If any stage of the race posed a true wilderness challenge, it was the twelve kilometers of sea kayaking on the Bay of Fundy. Even here, between the scrubby headlands and coves, it would be hard to ignore the evidence of human impact. To the east, the twin stacks of the Coleson Cove oil-burning plant released white plumes that could be seen for miles. Just beyond the finish line, at Point Lepreau, the only nuclear reactor in the Maritimes jutted into the bay and fed power into the same grid. Between these energy-generating behemoths, a broad byway had been carved through the interior forest to make room for the electrical towers and lines. On the bay itself, salmon farmers had been colonizing the coast and lobbying to expand their fish pens into the remaining coves. Debates flared across the op-ed and letters pages of the Telegraph-Journal about the industrial exploitation of the once-wilderness shoreline. The paddlers would also notice smaller signs of how human hands had tamed the bay over the last century. The wooden stakes of herring weirs. The red-and-white bell buoys at the entrances to Chance and Dipper harbors. The automated beacon on Reef Point, where a staffed lighthouse had once stood. The houses and small cottages cut into acreages along this broken shoreline. And the lobster boats raising traps or returning with fresh hauls. One good Fundy gale, however, could make all these mechanical intrusions—and certainly a convoy of plastic kayaks—seem like corks bobbing on a wild and forbidding sea.

In our age of Air Miles and overpopulation, cultivating a sense of true wilderness can require a squinting effect, a sort of mental photo-cropping. You narrow your field of vision until your otherwise alert senses filter out the taints of civilization from the natural panorama you prefer to see. Once you return home, your memory can excise the hydro lines and groomed trails, the granola-bar wrappers and food-scrounging wildlife. You can almost fool yourself—and certainly others—that you’re a true explorer, even if you’ve only arrived at the end of well-trodden trade route in an overcrowded national park or kayaked a stretch of coastline with “for sale” signs hidden behind the evergreen scrim. That’s part of the appeal of an outdoor competition. A race demands a focus, a mental triage, a break from the digital multi-tasking of our workday lives. You learn to attend to the immediate obstacles ahead and tune out all distractions. Competitors see only what lies just beyond their handlebars or over their partners’ shoulders and remain blind to the street signs and buzz of traffic behind the forest’s edge. In this way, the mundane reality of a glorified treasure hunt transforms into an urgent expedition through a wild labyrinth. A mere game becomes both more serious and more fun to play.

To an outsider, the earnest pursuit of such activities can seem a little odd. In the first adventure race I tried, we were dropped off by school bus on a dirt road in the cottage country of southwestern Ontario. Then we set off for the next six hours across pockets of conservation land, through farmers’ fields (complete with wary bovines), and down the grassy slopes of a ski resort in summer hibernation. At one point, a horde of racers burst through a gap in the woods on a quest for the next checkpoint. Our legs were lacerated from raspberry thorns. Our numbered yellow bibs flapped in the breeze. Charging down a grassy slope toward our arbitrary goal, we must have appeared like a grade school dodge-ball team storming the beaches of Normandy. We felt that determined. We looked that silly. Nothing would stop us from reaching the finish line—at least until one of my teammates hit a rock on her bike, hurtled over her handlebars, and fractured her thumb. Even then, she wanted to keep going.

The same squinting effect applied as the Fundy race began. Sixty-eight runners kicked up the gravel of Sand Cove Road, spread apart, found their paces, chatted with partners, fell quiet, and focused on the route ahead. They imagined the miles of land and sea they would traverse. They tuned out the distractions of city life, which they had come here to escape in the first place. They tried not to see the forest—or where it had been replaced by the parking lot, the power lines, the highway overpass—for the trees. They became absorbed in the game.


EVERYONE HAD TO AGREE. That last hill was a son of a bitch.

Muscles burning with lactic acid, the runners managed to jog, walk, or stagger the final few hundred meters up to the promontory and finish the fifteen-kilometer loop of Irving Nature Park. Sara Vlug was there to welcome them. All morning she had been on the go to make sure the race started smoothly. Then she had driven around Taylors Island, snapped photos of the racers, and hustled back to the start line. She watched her father chug up the hill and urge his partner to the top. “Jeez, what a country!” the store owner and race sponsor exclaimed with a smile. The last stragglers crested the rise, passed through the checkpoint, mounted their bikes, and rode off. Sara Vlug finally had a chance to catch her breath, but only for a moment. A news reporter from the local cable channel had a few questions.

“Can I get you to talk just to me?” asked André Arseneault. “Not to the camera, because it looks too odd.”

Vlug glanced away. Long pause. The sound of the breeze rattled and popped in the microphone. She smiled and shivered dramatically for the camera.

“Okay, I’m rolling,” Arseneault said. “Just spell your name and give me what role you play in this event.”

It was nearly eleven. Vlug seemed more relaxed now that the race was under way. In another hour and a half the race leaders should reach the beach in Chance Harbour, where Jayme Frank would be waiting for them with the kayaks. Already the competition had split between the seriously fit and the seriously fatigued. Vlug gave the reporter a rundown of their race. “It’s a great way for triathletes to make the transition into adventure racing and get a little taste of following a map,” she explained. “It’s a fast-paced race. It’s not quite a triathlon because the trails aren’t marked. It’s not a traditional road, bike, swim.” With a finger, she traced the running route on a wooden map of the park.

In the weeks leading up to the Fundy race, a big concern for the two organizers had been the prospect of fog. Dense banks could make kayaking tricky and the rest of the race damp and unpleasant. In a chowder-thick mist, paddlers might lose sight of the shore. The well-churned Atlantic waters of the Bay of Fundy create some of the foggiest weather in the world. Much of it arrives in the summer months, when prevailing southwesterly winds push warm, wet air up the Eastern Seaboard until it collides with the cool bay and releases a haze of water droplets. In July, the foggiest month, Saint John can make the famous marine climates of London or San Francisco look like the sun-parched Gobi Desert. Locals claim the fog gets so dense you can lean against it. Only St. John’s, Newfoundland, with which the similarly baptized Fundy city is often confused, gets socked in with more fog. It’s no surprise, then, that the world’s first steam-driven foghorn was invented in Saint John. Or that in the 1930s, bay residents made baby formula from condensed fog, assuming the air-distilled water must be as pure as possible. (Today, the Fundy fog has become so tainted by nitric and sulfuric acid from vehicle exhaust and the coal-fired electrical plants west of the bay that its lemon-juice acidity can strip foliage from coastal birch forests.) In the 1960s, entrepreneurial locals even marketed a string of misty motels as cooled by “nature’s air conditioning.” In July of 1967, fog enshrouded the city in a wet white blanket for a record twenty-seven straight days. When the nearly forgotten sun finally peeked through again, pedestrians in uptown Saint John broke into applause.

The two organizers of the Fundy race had emailed participants a warning to bring a compass in case of foggy conditions. Poor visibility might make navigating the coastline less than obvious. The night before the race, Jayme Frank had checked the marine forecast. It called for thirty-kilometer-per-hour winds out of the southwest and a smallcraft weather warning by the afternoon, not ideal conditions for kayaking. He had discussed the forecast with Vlug. The couple had agreed to gauge the weather again in the morning. Not long after daybreak, Frank had driven the coast highway from Dipper Harbour to the park. He could see dawn spreading across the bay. The seas had looked fine. Not exactly flat, but with few whitecaps and no serious swell. He had paddled the bay in far, far worse conditions many times before. They should be good to go.

Now, as the day pushed past eleven, Sara Vlug stood in the sun as it streamed through the dissipating mist and illuminated the bay. Good fortune seemed to have shone on the race. Misty weather shouldn’t pose an obstacle to the paddlers.

“Luckily, the fog cleared up this year,” Vlug said into the camera with a laugh. “Hopefully, the wind won’t blow them over in the kayaks.”

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