This past weekend was one of my big highlights for the year: the Chippewa Canoe Triathlon. Sara, my best friend from college, first suggested we do the race in 2010. We’ve done the three events—canoeing, biking, and running—through woods and water in northern Minnesota nearly every June since then. It’s a hard race traversing nearly 50 miles: starting with 14 miles of canoe trail, followed by more than 25 miles of biking over a mix of pavement, gravel, woods road, and single track, and ending with a 5-mile foot race to the finish line. I love the race because it is so unique, so I thought I’d try to describe what its like to do it.
The race starts early in the morning in Cass Lake. More than 50 boats are launched one by one along the weedy shore and make their way to the starting line demarcated by two large orange bouys. Nervous, we ease our boat to the water’s edge, nosing the front of the canoe into the water. I climb into the bow. Sara climbs in the stern with one leg while pushing off shore with the other, and we paddle to join the line of boats.
Most of the boats have two people like ours, a mix of young and old, men and women, along with a few tough solo racers and a smattering of kayakers. There are a variety of boats, from common aluminum and plastic recreational canoes that are wide enough to keep most people from tipping out, to sleek, narrow racing canoes that lie close to the water like a kayak–the racing boats containing the fittest and most intense looking racers. The most common type of canoe is also what we use—tan Wenonah touring canoes made out of kevlar, nice and light for the 2 miles of portages ahead of us.
Boats are lined up side by side, a starting line more than 200 feet wide. There are a few moments of quiet as the last boats move into place, then paddles are raised briefly in the air and racers hoot with excitement. Moments later, a gunshot sounds, and boats lurch forward. Calm water becomes choppy and white in an instant as the entire crowd races for the highway bridge a half mile in the distance. The channel under the bridge is only 4 boats wide, making positioning critical. Getting to the front early means not getting held up in the inevitable bottleneck of boats. Sara and I dig in hard to get to the bridge, trying not to collide with other boats as we funnel down to narrower and narrower path.
Under the bridge, the mass of boats moves us along as we paddle strategically to avoid getting pushed into the cattails that line the edge of the channel. In less than a quarter mile, we clear the channel and move out into a large bay. Things calm down as we work our way into a long line of boats, each paralleling the shoreline in route to the first portage three miles ahead. Sara and I size up the other paddlers, passing them when we think we can maintain a lead, but also settle in for the long haul—we have 3 more hours of paddling and as much as 7 more hours of racing ahead of us.
We work our way across 8 lakes and winding stretch of stagnant river. I set the pace, alternating sides every 10-12 strokes in flat water. Sara follows my lead, altering her stroke to keep us in a straight line, adjusting to the wind and wake. The course includes 6 portages. The first two are quick, little hops between ponds. The next few are relatively short carries. Winding through the woods with boats overhead and muddy water dribbling down our backs, we look out for poison ivy. The last portage is the longest. Sara and I carry the boat on our shoulders, paddles in hand, down the roads through a mile of forest. If the sun is out, it has risen higher and is beginning to beat down on us on land and on water.
Hours later, thousands of strokes later, we awkwardly beach our boat at a public launch, staggering while we carry the boat onto the grass. We ditch wet shoes and extra clothes in the boat and go to find our bikes. Dry socks, different shoes, helmets, sunglasses, camelbacks, and bikes—it’s time for the next leg. We tell each other good luck and split up for the rest of the race. I bolt ahead, racing down a paved bike trail. In a mile, the route bends onto a gravel road. Two more miles and it turns into the woods and begins wilding through miles of pine and hardwood forest on a combination of woods roads and narrow trails. In the forest, I carefully ride over smaller downed wood, but get off my bike to climb over fallen branches or walk though long, muddy, un-bikeable puddles.
By this point in the race, bikers are spread out widely—I might not see anyone for a half an hour, trying to maintain my pace while peddling along a secluded sandy woods road. Occasionally, I pass a volunteer standing out in the scorching sun or drenching rain—depending on the year—wearing a headnet and pointing racers in the right direction at key intersections between swats at mosquitoes. In the last few miles of the bike route, the course turns onto paved bike trail. After miles and miles of slogging through sand, grass, mud, puddles, brush, it’s exhilirating to be back at full speed again. It’s time to surge and try to pass one more person before the run
When I ditch my bike, there is only 5 more miles of race yet—but this is the worst part. In any triathlon, the transition from bike to run is tough because of tired and tight muscles. For me, it’s particularly ugly because I am such a poor runner. Often I don’t even try, content to happily and easily cruise along at a brisk walking pace. Running, which is exhausting and uncomfortable at best, is only marginally faster—so many years I walk even with the risk that I will get passed by a competitor in the final hour.
I certainly get passed several times, regardless of whether I’m walking or running. Each time, I assess the person passing me. Are they passing me easily? Wearing clean clothes? They are probably on a relay team, running fresh in the final leg. Are they dragging, passing me slowly, smeared in lake muck? Good for them. They’re doing the whole thing too, and I’m more likely to spend some of my remaining energy to tell them good luck.
The run course never seems to end. Every year, I wonder if I’ve gotten lost and missed a turn in the woods, only to eventually find evidence that I am heading in the right direction. Every year I can hear the finish line for what seems like an unfairly long time, as I wonder when the last curve will appear and indicate the final half mile of the race. Every year, I fall into some type of intense runner’s high that makes me so incredibly happy to be alive that I just about cry. Or perhaps I do cry a little, in some wheezy sort of way as I plod ahead.
The finish line is anti-climactic, just a small group of time keepers and picnickers at a small pavilion beside a small beach. I join them, stretch out and wait for Sara and other finishers I may recognize. I am curious about my race time and place, but it doesn’t really matter— regardless of how fast or slow the race has been, how muddy, windy, hot or buggy, we’ve already agreed to do it again next year.