How I Won the Muskoka River X Expedition Race by Bart de Zwart

Hardly a week after winning the 11-City Tour, Bart de Swart, the extreme race rider from Starboard, had another endurance race lined up, in Canada this time… and won it. Here is his account of the Muskoka River X Expedition Race…

The Muskoka River X race by Bart de Swart

The Muskoka river X in Canada is a very special race. Special because it is, with 130km, one of the longest single day expedition races in the world. It is a non-stop one without support. The Muskoka river X race goes through lakes, up and down rivers and has 20 portages around waterfalls, rapids and locks. And, because it takes place in Canada in September, it is cold. During the day, the temperatures average 44°F (7°C) and it is as cold as 32°F(1°C) at night.

It particularity also comes from the fact that racers are not allowed to use a GPS and have to find their own way to the finish line with maps and compass. 
I decided to use a relatively wide Starboard 14’x28 All Star just to be on the safe side on the rivers. Which proved to be the right choice, since it was fast and still stable, even in critical conditions.

The race is made for Canoes (1 and 2), Kayaks and SUPs. 64 teams showed up at the starting line. The solos started first, the 2 men/women-teams 10 minutes later. The evening before the start, we had the skippers meeting and got our trackers.

At the start at 7 in the morning it was misty, cold and raining. I was dressed light with only race tights, lycra, compulsory life vest and rain jacket. I had my Supskin dry suit in my pack strapped on the board along with all the food, rescue and navigation gear, clothing and water. The organization gave us 20 pages with detailed maps and a description of all the waypoint, portages, hazards and checkpoints.

I started at a good pace and was just behind a few meters of the lead kayak racers when we hit the first lake. My strategy was to follow the 2 men canoes, who were way faster than me for the first 45 km across the lakes and as soon as we got to the rivers I would pull out the maps and start navigating. The first portage, after 2 hours was a 2 km walk/run to get to the next lake. The paddling got me warm but the rain kept coming down with outside temperatures only a few degrees above freezing so it was not very comfy. But hell, this was an expedition race.

Although, at the first lakes we had a slight head wind, after the portage it came more from the back and you could even ride some bumps. Some of the lead C2’s (2 men Canoes) came flying by, but I was still the lead SUP and right with the leading kayaks.

At the first CP (check point), a medic would ask a few questions to check if you were ok and not getting insane or too cold etc. Then, I went down stream that time. It was very new to me and very exciting. I was flying along the river until I saw the first big rapids. For a brief moment, I couldn’t see the portage exit to get around this rapids but I found them just in time before I would be dragged down by the rapids. We were not allowed to run the waterfalls and rapids and most of them didn’t look doable anyway so I could have easily ruined my 14’ Starboard All Star hardboard.

The portage were exciting too. You throw your back pack around your shoulders, pull out the board and find your way to the other side, throw your board in the water and jump on again.

Nobody brought enough water for the whole race. I started with 2.5 liters. Along the way you would fill it up in the river, some would purify the water, I drank it straight from the river (don’t try this at home).

The scenery was astonishing during the whole race. Beautiful hilly landscapes, winding rivers, a true Canadian countryside.  

I tried to eat at least every hour and drunk all day. This helps to have an even energy supply throughout the race without any bunking or dips. Food was probably the heaviest item I had with me. In addition of the race food, you needed to have 2300 Calories of emergency food with you. Apart from my liquid bike food (Hammer Perpethuem), I tried to bring different solid foods because you never know what you are going to feel like eating after 15 hours of racing so mixing it up is a key thing.

After about 11 hours of racing, 6 hours on the river and many portages the weather cleared up but the night was coming soon. By the time I reached the second check point, it was already late. From here on it was upstream. The problem with the cold nights and the warmer river is the fog. During the night the fog started and became very thick. Lights were impossible to use, because of the reflection you see nothing but white around you. I still felt pretty fit but dreaded this part because of the currents against me and because of the fog, so I didn’t know what to expect. 

Some falls were impressive. You paddle up close against the current and just before the falls you pull out the board and walk around it. When night fell, it was pretty dark, there was no moon but you could still see all you needed to see. I only used my headlamp to look at the maps or during the portages. By now the cards were shuffled. I was well ahead in the SUP field and I was paddling together with Graham a Canadian Kayaker who was holding a solid second place. We pasted through some of the heavy current hazard areas were I had to give everything just to make a few meters. You could see the trees on the side passing by, very slowly and it was not really funny. The canoes had a harder time here with swifts and rapids and some turned over.

It was getting colder and colder and the fog thicker and thicker. At the last check point, I put on some warmer cloths. We were still progressing at a very good pace and from there, we were only 19 km far from the finish. The moon was coming out when we passed the last lake. Fortunately, we found the entrance to the last river on the other side without problems. By then, the fog was very very thick, all you could see was the contours of the trees. It was spooky and mesmerizing at the same time. The moon light shining through the trees, the fog swirling around us and every now and then a brief opening through the fog.

Thanks to the maps, we found our way through to the finish. The last few 4 kms were flying by, despite the fact that we couldn’t see anything on the lake just before we entered the same town we left early the day before.

Graham and I crossed the finish line after 18 hrs and 23 minutes. Graham Took the second place as a Kayak runner and I finished at the first place as a SUPer with a new record.

Out of the 64 teams who started, only 44 arrived. Out of the 6 SUP’s only 2 arrived. Here are the final results of the Muskoka River X race:

SUPers :                1st Bart de Zwart, 18 hours 23 min

                             2nd Pete de Mos, 21 hours 29 min

Canoe and Kayak : Fastest 2 men Canoe, 13 hours 17 min

                             Fastest 18ft Kayak, 17 hours 54 min

When I got back to the car, I realized how cold it was. I had ice on the roof of the car. After all, it was an amazing race with astonishing backgrounds. Exactly the kind of experience you have to do at least once in your life.

Thanks to Starboard, Supskin, Black Project Fins, Patagonia, Robijnsbv Suunto/CamelBak, Maui Jim and my wife, Dagmar who took care of the shop back in Maui.

Photo Credits MRX and Andy Zelkains

About the Author

Mathieu Astier

Mathieu is the hyper-active founder of TotalSUP and a multilingual online marketing veteran with more than 20 years of experience working for top international internet companies. His love-at-first-sight for Stand Up Paddling in 2013 led him to build one of the leading online media dedicated to SUP in English and French and to turn his family lifestyle towards the ocean.

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