BC Epic 1,000 Race Recap
On June 29th, at 7am, 50+ riders left Merritt, BC, to ride a mostly gravel and dirt route to Fernie, BC, known as the BC Epic 1,000. The ride gets its name because there are 1,032 km – or about 640 miles if you’re an American that struggles with the metric system – between these two towns.
For a copy of the BC Epic map, click here.
I had the goal of riding this route firmly planted in my mind sometime in March, while I was in the middle of my training for the Boston Marathon. Since the Boston Marathon was April 15th, I knew it would have to be a quick turnaround for me to get into decent shape for this ride, but a little over two months felt like just enough to get into somewhat competitive bike shape. So as soon as the Boston was over, I completely switched gears with my training and started hitting the bike hard. Almost every weekend included an 80+ mile ride on Saturday and/or Sunday.
In the month of May, I was riding over 200 miles each week, with interval and hill training built in. Overall, I think I prepared about as well as possible with the time I had. Shortly after the Skull 120 race on June 15th and a little bikepacking trip that didn’t end up panning out as planned, I tapered down my mileage leading into the final week before the race.
Race Day: Day 1 – Merritt to Summit Lake
Race day started with a few words from the race organizer – Lennard Pretorius – who also happened to be racing this year, and then we were off. Ultra-endurance bike races don’t start like normal races do, with people jockeying for a front spot and trying to push an early gap, and this ride was no exception. The BC Epic started out more like a group ride, with people chatting about the ride, their preparation, and generally trying to talk out their nervous energy. 640 miles is a long way, and the pain of the experience likely won’t come in the first day if you’ve properly prepared.
Still, after the first 50 miles or so, there was a lead pack of about 8 or 9 guys, with me and a handful of others trailing a few miles behind. After things started to spread out a bit, I ended up riding for about 40 miles with a guy named Derek, a BC native and Cyclocross racer. He was putting out some pretty good speed at the beginning, but his Dynamo hub was having some issues, and around mile 70, in the first resupply town of Princeton, he had to take a quick pit stop to get things sorted out. So it was time for me to ride solo.
While in Princeton, I had to raise my seat up because it felt like it was too low, and this continued to be a problem for me throughout the afternoon. I’d stop and feel like my bike was riding about a size to small, and then raise my seat to find that everything was back to normal. It turned out that I had greased my seat tube too much right before the race, and after figuring this out, I stopped at the Whole Food Market on my next resupply town of Penticton, at around mile 140. Once there, I popped my seat tube out, removed as much grease as I could with my grease rag, and then carried on. This would turn out to be my only ‘mechanical’ of the trip. Yep. It was smooth sailing for me.
As I began the slow and steady climb out of Penticton, I had passed a number of riders throughout the day. Unbeknownst to me, there were only 6 riders ahead of me, and I caught one just as he was popping out of one of the trailhead pit toilets along this climb. This rider – Phil Higuera – quickly caught up to me, and then he and I rode together up the slow climb out of Penticton. After settling into the climb together, we eventually caught another rider and organizer of the race, Lennard. It turns out Lennard had a pretty bad crash on his ride into Penticton, and his elbow was really beat up. But Lennard is about as tough as it comes, and he also happens to be a doctor, so while others urged him to go to the ER and get stitches, Lennard opted to finish the race with about 7 bandaids holding his arm together.
While Phil and I held a steady pace and would slowly pass by Lennard every once in a while, we also would take periodic breaks for pictures or a route check. Lennard, on the other hand, rode more consistently and almost never stopped between resupplies. Thus, every break that Phil and I took (which was not many) allowed Lennard to temporarily catch and pass us on the trail. Eventually Phil and I kept ahead of Lennard until we caught two more riders – Mark and Seth – and all four of us, with periodic run-ins with Lennard, rode together through what was officially my first experience with night riding.
It was late, probably 11:30, when another rider caught up with us – Robert Bigelow-Rubin – and we were now a gang of 5: Robert, Phil, Mark, Seth, and me… again, with periodic run-ins with Lennard. It was sometime after 12pm when we rolled up to Summit Lake, and Mark, Phil, Robert, and I decided to call it a night. Seth and Lennard both carried on through the night, neither one stopping to rest until well into the next day.
In total on that first night, we covered 197 miles, and over 6,700 feet of climbing. The terrain included lots of chunky and rutted gravel and dirt roads, with some hike-a-bike at the beginning, but otherwise all rideable terrain.
Day 2: Summit Lake to Castlegar
That night I hardly slept at all. I elected to only bring a bivvy and sleeping pad to sleep in on this ride, and it turns out, it’s REALLY hard to keep your toes warm in a bivvy. While I don’t think the temperature ever got into the 30’s, my toes felt painfully cold all night, and kept me up for most of our 3 hour ‘sleep.’ When 3:30am rolled around, I was eager to get circulation back in my toes and get the day going.
I left a little before the others because I knew that nature had some unanswered questions for my bowels, and I wanted to get a bit of a headstart on the group so that I could respond. As I rode solo in the early morning, I saw my first and only for sure bear sighting of the trip. A black bear ran across the gravel road about 30 feet in front of me, clearly trying to get as far away from me as possible. It happened so quickly that I didn’t have much of a response to the sighting at all. I guess that about sums up how alive I would be if the bear had come busting out of the brush and aiming for my jugular.
The four of us reconvened and once again rode most of the second day together. Having ridden through the night, Seth was well past all of us, and Lennard had about a 15 mile lead on us from the night. One of the two leaders dropped out in the night, leaving a lone rider up front and ahead of Seth: Tom Hainisch. That meant that there were three riders ahead of our little team of four riders.
As we rode throughout the day, all of us had little aches and pains arising. My left ankle was starting to swell up and get pretty painful, Mark also had a swollen ankle but was pretty stoic about the whole thing, Robert’s achilles were bothering him, and Phil had some knee pain. Misery loves company, though, and since we all were hurting, it only made sense that we all keep pushing through it. We also all began a pretty strict regiment of Advil, which helped a lot in all four cases.
Afternoon turned to evening, and it was clear, to me at least, that Lennard’s 15 miles was holding somewhat strong. Whenever we would roll into a town with cell phone reception and check Trackleaders, Lennard still had a 10-15 mile lead on us. If we wanted to catch Lennard, we would likely have to do it through some pretty sneaky methods.
I proposed to the group that we stop in Castlegar, which would again give us about 3 to 4 hours of sleep, but then try to make a big push through the rest of the race, with no breaks to Fernie, about a 260 mile ride. Although tentative at first (heck, I was tentative about this as well), we all agreed that it was worth at least trying in order to get ahead of Lennard and into that 3rd place position.
We arrived in Castlegar, resupplied on food at a gas station, and snagged a hotel for the night. I stayed with Mark, and it was only in the confines of our hotel room that he showed me the damage done to his ankle throughout the course of the day. It was completely swollen, and he couldn’t put any pressure on it. I told him to get a good night’s sleep (a little less than 4 hours), and see how it’s doing in the morning. I took a shower, did a quick 5-minute icing of my own ankles, and then passed out in my bed.
In total on our second day, we rode a little over 180 miles, and climbed over 4,300 feet.
Day 3: Castlegar to Fernie
We all agreed to be at the entrance to our hotel at 3:45, so that we could quickly go to Tim Horton’s for breakfast before carrying on with our day. When Mark and I woke up at 3:15am, Mark’s ankle hadn’t improved, and he couldn’t put any weight on it at all. It was a hard conversation, but it was clear that scratching from the race was the only option for Mark, so we said our goodbyes, exchanged numbers, and I met back up with Phil and Robert, our party of 4 now only a party of 3. After inhaling some egg & cheese breakfast sandwiches at Tim Horton’s, we all left Castlegar for what we hoped would be our final push.
Just passed Castlegar is some relatively tame singletrack trails, where we all got ourselves lost a few times before popping out onto some more easily navigable gravel roads. Our railroad grade riding was over, and the steep climbs and descents felt a little foreign to our already tired legs, but we quickly adapted. After a few more miles of gravel, our road once again turned to singletrack, and this time, the singletrack was TECHNICAL. Super steep and sandy descents on a cliffside that bordered a lake meant that we all treaded carefully throughout this section.
All of us, that is, except Phil. Phil is a killer mountain biker, and specializes in ultra-endurance mountain bike events. He basically cleared everything on the trail, and was patiently waiting for Robert and I at the end as we both grumbled and cursed our way through what felt like a never-ending ribbon of hell-trail.
I also feel compelled to say that Phil is a major team-player. He probably waited for about 10 minutes for Robert and I to make our way out of that singletrack section, but instead of using that advantage to get a lead on us, he decided to wait. It was at that point that I started thinking about my own goals for this race. Was I going to race it out with these guys at the end? Were we going to finish it together? Would one of us decide differently than the others? Yes, we had all been forced to wait at various points for each other, but we also had pushed each other at points where maybe one of us would have stopped and taken a break. Phil’s decision to wait definitely got me thinking about a ‘team’ finish rather than a race for that 4th or possibly 3rd place spot towards the end.
Regardless, after the singletrack, we reached Salmo, and then slowly climbed up a chunky gravel section, which eventually turned into a beautiful grassy meadow that, coincidentally, is not conducive to fast biking.
We endured this all the way to Nelson, at mile 451 of the race, where we opted to eat ice cream at Dairy Queen instead of race to try and catch the ferry leaving at 2pm. And yes, there is a ferry crossing in this race. And it’s actually a pretty strategic aspect to the race itself.
If you’re chasing the record, you have to arrive at the ferry on the morning of day 2 and catch the very first one leaving at 6:30am. Both Tom and Seth caught this ferry, which makes sense since both were chasing the course record. Tom was able to get to the ferry loading area hours before the first departure, and it was here that he took his first nap en route. Tom said he slept for about 3 hours prior to leaving on the 6:30am ferry which was his only rest throughout the race. Seth got to the ferry just before it left. He said he got a total of 8 minutes of sleep for the entire race.
For those of us chasing third place, though, it was a close race for the ferry. It turns out that Lennard caught the 12:20pm ferry after getting no sleep the night before, giving him about a 1.5 hour lead on us. Once he reached Castlegar later that day, he got 5 hours of sleep before heading out in the early morning hours, and then only 1 hour the following night in Cranbrook. Yep. Lennard is a tank.
As it was, we got to the ferry around 2:15pm, grabbed some pizza at a bakery, resupplied at a little convenience store, and then relaxed until it was time to board. There was another rider right behind us who we were really worried would catch our ferry, but he just missed us, and we ended up beating him by a healthy margin.
After unboarding from the ferry, the most challenging climb of the race was at our doorstep. Gray Creek Pass is perhaps the most consistently steep climb I’ve ever completed. It climbs 5,000 feet in 10 miles, with an average gradient of 8.6%.
All of us were well aware of what lay before us, and we agreed that the goal was to get to the top before sundown. After a little under 3 hours of climbing, we made it to the top, well before dark. From there, it was a LONG, enjoyable descent down to Kimberly, where we arrived well after dark, sometime close to midnight.
In Kimberly, we took a long break at a gas station, resupplying, eating, and trying to get motivated to push on. This long break almost worked out in our favor. Lennard checked Trackleaders at his hotel in Cranbrook, 15 miles away, and thought that our long break meant that we were stopping in Kimberly for the night. However, we pushed on in the early morning hours, with Lennard safely asleep and unaware of our sneaky tactics.
But fate was not on our side. Lennard woke up to a siren in the middle of the night, and he was alert enough to check Trackleaders and see where we were. H saw that we were about 2 miles out from his location. Lennard quickly checked out of the hotel and booked it back on the trail, leaving just ahead of us.
Meanwhile, we thought that Lennard was still in Cranbrook. We were about 5 miles past the town before we stopped for a quick break to decide what to do. We were all exhausted at this point. It was 3am, and if we wanted to sleep before the sun came up, we needed to make a decision right away, and all of us were feeling pretty beat. While on the fence, we decided to see if we still had phone reception to check Trackleaders. We did. And we saw the unthinkable. Lennard was 1 km ahead of us. Our plan had been to get ahead of him, sleep on the trail, and wait to hear him go by as our wakeup call. But somehow he had managed to stay just ahead of us!
That decided it. We all got back on our bikes and started riding. The knowledge that Lennard was so close kept our eyes open, and soon we were riding on singletrack again, in the dead of night, and all of us were having a great time. Lights shining, hubs spinning noisily in the night, we would later find out that Lennard could see our lights up on the hill after he had descended the singletrack. We had been close. But once we descended from the singletrack and got back onto a gravel road, we checked Trackleaders again to find that Lennard had opened up a 5 mile lead once again. We couldn’t believe it. And we admitted defeat. We decided to bed down for an hour nap as the dawn light was just creeping over the eastern hills. It was a good decision.
We all woke up feeling relatively refreshed as far as one hour naps go. In total, we all bedded down for about 8 hours. I know that I personally slept much less than that, probably closer to 6, throughout the course of the race.
At this point in the race, we were at mile 579 of 640, with Lennard a comfortable 15 miles ahead of us again. There was no one even close to us from behind, so we decided to take it easy on this last 60 miles, care for our wounded bodies as best we could, and more or less ‘tour’ the last bit of the ride.
It was around this time that Phil also voiced what he called the ‘Dawn Accord.’ He had already voiced his opinion the day before on the ferry (the ‘ferry accord’ at that point), and Robert and I had been somewhat noncommittal. His thoughts on both occasions were that we should all agree to ride out the rest of the race together, as it had been through each other’s encouragement and camaraderie that we had done so well up to this point. With less than 8 hours of sleep under our belts, and all of us feeling like we were riding with partners beyond our abilities (anxiety of influence is what they call that in the literary world), Robert and I happily acquiesced to the Dawn Accord. We were officially in this thing together.
The next 30 miles to Elko were pretty easy, with comfortable gravel and paved roads, and not so serious ascents and descents. This section allowed all of us a chance to reflect on the past 72 hours. What we would do the same. What we would do differently. What gear was needed. What wasn’t. Possible ways to avoid some of the aches we were feeling. Both my ankles were swollen at this point, Phil’s knees were hurting, and Robert’s achilles were in bad shape. These 30 miles were a chance for all of us to share our thoughts on ways we could improve our time and perform better in our next ultra-endurance event.
Eventually, we reached Elko, and the final test was ahead. There were three hills on the map, each of them SERIOUSLY steep in grade, and after beginning the first one, we realized they were seriously technical as well. Big, chunky rocks made for really slow going on the climbs. I found myself standing and trackstanding through the first climb in order to not fall of the bike or skid my rear tire out from under me. The second climb wasn’t as steep, but it had sections that were even worse, and once or twice I had to get off the bike and hike up the hill. The third climb was the kindest, even though it ascended the most. Its kindness was the result of a surface transtion: from the rugged chunky-style rock of the previous to climbs to a more conventional forest road style of gravel, plus the grade was doable. Phil and I had done most of the first two climbs together, and Robert caught up to us on the third as we finished that final climb together.
From there, it was all about surviving to the finish. There were only about 12 miles to the finish after that last climb, but we all were feeling pretty wrecked, and the mental game of finishing a 640 mile race is daunting, to say the least. We all kept soldiering on, with the occasional vocalized twinge of pain from a nerve pain in the knee, achilles, or ankle, depending on who was making the sound.
As we saw signs for Fernie, though, our spirits rose. We had made it. As we rolled up to the finish line – Fernie’s City Hall – there was an unexpected number of people there to greet us. Tom Hainisch was there, 1st place finisher and new course record holder for the BC Epic; Lennard Prettorius, the 3rd place finisher who beat us by a few hours; my wife, Trish; our riding partner who had to scratch in Castlegar, Mark, and his wife; plus some of Tom’s friends. It was a truly special ending for all three of us, as we all accounted race details, our plans to beat Lennard in the night, Lennard’s own account of the situation, Tom’s race experience, and so much more.
We all later reconvened at a local eatery to carry on the conversation. It was an absolutely incredible experience. The route is amazing. The people you meet along the way are even better. The memories are still fresh, even if they might be slightly tainted by sleep deprivation. In truth, I wish I could do it all over again.
In total on our 3rd/3rd+ day, we rode over 265 miles and climbed over 17,000 feet in elevation.
- Phil, Robert, and I finished in 3 days, 6 hours.
- We tied for 4th in this year’s BC Epic results.
- We earned the 6th fastest time recorded for the ride in its 4 year history.
- On average, we rode almost exactly 200 miles a day.
- Outside of Robert scratching in last year’s BC Epic, this was all of our first attempt at a bikepacking race. Not too shabby, all things considered.
After finishing the BC Epic, I definitely caught the ultra-endurance race bug. I think that I’ll train more intentionally over the winter months for biking, rather than train for another marathon, do some more gravel and long distance bike races in the spring, and plan to do all of this in preparation for the Tour Divide, a 2,750 mile race from Banff, Canada, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, next June. 2020 is going to be a good year.