Summer is a season when many of us add outdoor challenges to our calendars—challenges meant not only to test us physically but also mentally and our resolve to push on.
And with many of these challenges—doesn’t matter whether it’s a five-kilometer walk, obstacle race, wilderness camping trip, or endurance race lasting hours or days—preparation is key to the success.
The TRU Newsroom wanted to learn more about proper preparation for a summer challenge and chose to speak with Adventure Studies instructor Sharman Learie, who this June formed half a kayak tandem that paddled the Yukon River Quest, a 715-kilomtre trek from Whitehorse to Dawson City. He completed the journey with longtime friend Matt Kellow in a time of 53 hours, seven minutes and 57 seconds, which put them 12th overall and second in their category. Both are graduates of the Adventure program.
Their time was about one minute and nine seconds out of 10th and about 7.5 hours out of first.
In all, 66 teams registered, representing 13 countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, French Polynesia, Great Britain, Guatemala, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, and United States.
People are training for challenges this summer. What training advice can you give them?
If you’re planning a challenge or larger adventure for yourself over the summer, probably the first thing you want to think about is, you want to take a good look at your motivation. Why are you doing it? What are you trying to accomplish? Is it fitness oriented? Is it a metal thing you’re trying to overcome? You should recognize why you’re doing it and what challenge you’re looking for.
You also need to look at is whether your motivation fits the challenge you’ve set for yourself.
The next thing you need to do is the research. You need to educate yourself as much as possible about what lies ahead because there’s always the element of the unknown and that’s part of the attraction of these adventures. But the more information we can prepare ourselves with ahead of time, the more likely we are to succeed, and this comes to the notion that the challenge meets your ability.
We can gather information from guidebooks and the Internet, but nothing beats first-hand knowledge—finding someone who has undertaken that challenge and chatting with them about the most difficult part. Asking them what were some of the keys to their success, the things they would do differently and even how they prepared for the race. All of this type of information is helpful prior to ever setting foot out the door.
Gathering this type of information helps you mentally prepare for the undertaking. It comes down to making sure you’re ready for the challenge and that you’re committed to the endeavor.
Then comes the physical training aspect. I recommend a gradual, physical progression. So setting small benchmarks—whether that’s running a certain distance, climbing a certain elevation, paddling a certain distance—and increasing that in increments. This type of progression allows us to see what we’re made of, and it’s subtle testing that allows us to ascertain if we’re ready for the challenge that lies ahead. Eventually, we want to get to a preparatory challenge that is similar, if not the same as the challenge that we’re going to undertake. That one is really important—it’s important to do that because A) we see if we’re physically and mentally prepared, and B), we have this opportunity to work out the systems. Systems like how many calories do we need to be successful? How much hydration? What are you going to wear? How are you going to keep these things accessible so that you can keep going?
(Interjecting) “When you’re doing the practice big one, is it good to stay close to home?
I think so, or pick an objective so you’re not totally committed. For example (when practising for Yukon Quest) we went around Saltspring Island. We could have stopped any time.
If you’re working with a team, it’s important to train with your partner so you can work out the dynamics of that under a little bit of strain and duress because no doubt, that arises during the event. If you haven’t had the chance to address that prior, it could be an unwelcome surprise when you’re in the midst of it.
Why would you encourage people to take up a challenge?
One of the great things about adventure or setting a physical challenge, or engaging in a challenging activity, is we have the opportunity to learn something about ourselves, or perhaps for a little bit of self growth. That’s one of the reasons people engage in these things. It’s also the unknown and its’ an opportunity to test ourselves. I like to talk to my students about the tension that’s created between whatever our objective is and the individual we are, and creating the proper balance so that there’s a positive tension pushing you and providing these opportunities to grow. So hopefully you can learn something about yourself and apply elsewhere in your life. Adventure is great for self-reliance, commitment, teamwork, leadership, and overcoming adversity. All of those things, upon reflection after an adventure, hopefully can be applied in our everyday life. That’s one of the great things about adventure and challenges.
Is there something from the Quest that you can share that addresses that?
On the Quest I had some quite dark moments where I was 50 hours in, really fatigued, really bad tendonitis in my wrists, and in a giant landscape. The Yukon River is huge, it’s about three kilometres across at that point and it’s really hard to tell your relative speed. Psychologically that was hard because we didn’t know how fast we were going, and we really wanted to get to the end. We really came up against adversity and had to dig deep. One of the takeaways for me was overcoming a significant, mental, physical challenge and really being up against it and overcoming that. I hope I can take the lessons learned in perseverance, commitment, staying the course and at the same time being a good person to the people around me. When you get a little frayed on the edges—how you act under pressure—we can often lose ourselves a little bit, and I hope I can take some of those things into my everyday life when I face challenging things in the field, in the classroom, at home.
Why didn’t you quit? You’re at 50 hours. No one would blame you because that’s a lot more than most people do. How did you work through that?
At 50 hours we were close—we were really close—and maybe that was part of the tease or the torture of it all. We were both really hurting, but we were so close and I think being close to the objective helped. There’s a huge fee to get evacuated from a race like that and I didn’t want to pay the $1,000 bill to get evacuated. There’s also the aspect of finishing what you started and finding a way to finish.
What happened to me was around 45 hours, I could no longer hold a kayak paddle. The tendonitis—I had bulges in my wrists—was bad.
It’s kind of important to be able to hold a paddle (laughs).
It is important and I had about 160 kilometres to go and suddenly I could no longer paddle. We went from 30-minute rest breaks to 25-minute rest breaks to 20-minute rest breaks to 15-minute rest breaks—15 minutes of activity before rest, that’s how we worked it. Breaks were two to five minutes. That’s how we raced the whole front half of the race—30 minutes of activity then the front person would have a two- to five-minute break while the back person continued to paddle. And then it would switch. We never got out of the boat for a rest. But that time period of activity, because of my tendonitis, got shortened to the point where I couldn’t carry on. Here I’ve made this commitment, I’m in the middle of nowhere in the wilderness, 160 kilometres from the finish. I’ve made a massive commitment to my partner, who I’m saying at this point, ‘You’ve got to get us out of this mess.’
How were his wrists?
His wrists were fine. He was having a problem with his right shoulder. He was hurting, though probably not as bad as me. He was fighting his own internal demons, I think.
It’s funny, when I signed up for the Quest, I thought I would have all this time for personal reflection. You know, 700 kilometres of river, I’ll have all this time to figure out the meaning of life…
(Not so) you’re in the moment.
You’re absolutely in the moment. All I really thought about was how do I keep going. So what do I need to drink? How do I need to stretch? What am I going to eat next? How am I doing with my thermal regulation? How am I dealing with my wrists? When’s the next rest break? So that was interesting.
We did speak a lot. This was over a period of about three hours where I was really bumping up against not being able to go on. My partner said, ‘Why don’t we take your sea kayak paddle apart and try paddling it like a canoe?’ And I thought, (laughs) that’s crazy.’ But I did it and it worked. I duct taped my bailing sponge as a T-grip to the top of the paddle and then I was able to create a motion using my torso and dropping my top hand and where the push from the stroke came from my midsection rather than all the pressure coming on my wrists. And that’s how I completed the last 160 K. That was the solution. Here I was bumping up against some adversity and trying to find a way, and we found a way.
You MacGyvered your way out of it.
We MacGyvered our way out of that situation.
What kind of learning is that? That’s fantastic because now you can use that to teach students, the world.
In adventure that’s a lot of what we do. We always talk about improvising and overcoming, which is one of my little catch phrases. A trip rarely goes as we plan and that’s one of the reasons we engage in these things is for the unknown. We’re looking for that challenge and the adversity and the figuring it all out, and that’s really what happened in the Quest. It’s no different in adventure education in the work we do here in the department. Wrapped up in adventure is on opportunity to foster resilience, creative thinking and problem solving.
How did this challenge change you and your passion for the sport?
As far as my passion for the sport, I hadn’t done a lot of marathon paddling before. I’m not totally convinced it’s my thing, but I’m interested in taking on larger objectives in a shorter amount of time. Not sure if I’ll do it in the adventure racing context, but there’s a certain appeal to me. I’ve got a pretty busy job here, I’ve got a young family, and finding the time to actually adventure for myself is challenging. But I find some appeal in being able to jump into my kayak and maybe paddle from here to Vancouver over the weekend. Or go up to the far end of Wells Gray Park—Azure Lake and Clearwater Lake—and being able to do that in a weekend. I’m not sure I have the passion—the fever—for the adventure race, but it did open up the sport a little bit I suppose.
What from the Quest are you bringing back to the program?
Dealing with adversity, the physical challenge, being able to improvise and overcome obstacles.
Can you give an example of field trips you will take and where you will be able to grab some of what you’ve just said?
One of my primary focuses here is teaching whitewater kayaking, so we’re often in isolated, challenging areas with the students, and it rarely goes as planned. There’s some upset, or somebody is out of their boat, or a broken piece of equipment. We’re generally coming up against some challenge, so I hope the Quest is another opportunity for me to hone my problem-solving ability, my commitment.
I certainly have a perspective on adventure racing now. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert, but what the Quest did for me was take all my outdoor experience and focus it into a single event. You had to be quite focused to engage in this 55-hour, 700-kilometre race that’s very committing. There’s a lot of self-reliance and you really needed to get your systems down. In adventure we talk a lot about having these systems with our technical gear, our food, our water, and our clothing that help us be successful. The Quest really brought those points into perspective.
Can you give an example with your clothing? Was there a moment in the Quest when you were glad you had the right clothing and glad you didn’t sacrifice cost, or whatever?
Absolutely. When we came across Lac la Barge we had quite a large storm, so we had 60-kilometre-an-hour tail winds, three-and-a-half-foot waves. So it was rough. It really separated the fleet for a portion of the race. We were more heavily dressed than a lot of the racers, plus we had the whitewater background. So this allowed us—as the fleet started to scatter or went to shore to change—to push through that section of the race and give us a massive advantage. When we came off the lake, it was nighttime and it was highly recommended that we stop and get off at nine or 10 at night. We pulled off and totally geared down and put on fresh clothes for the night. In that case we put on our whitewater dry suits and dry pants and a paddling top. That was instrumental to our success through the night. We were passed by four teams at that stop, and we passed all those teams during the night because they went into the night wet and cold. They started getting mildly hypothermic because the temperatures went down to five degrees. We’re massive proponents of dressing for the environment you’re in. That was really helpful.
The other thing I think I can bring to the students is how adventure can be a driver for economic development. It was interesting to go to a smaller city like Whitehorse and watch 400 people (support teams and participants) arrive in town and what an impact that had on the town. It was interesting to see how well received everyone was by the politicians, by the local First Nations, by the businesses. The race is a big deal—and certainly when we arrived in Dawson, which is a much smaller town, when all of a sudden 400 people roll into town—it has a massive impact. I think I have some perspective on how adventure can be a positive economic driver and hopefully social and environmental driver as well.