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Squamish adventure racers face more adventure than planned due to COVID-19

Pandemic spreads during one race and prevents another
Training day with a pack horse. "Oh how nice it would have been to have these two off the start line," Nichole Murray said. Photo courtesy of Nichole Murray

COVID-19 had a definite impact on two local adventures, though in opposite ways.

Squamish's Nichole Murray has just finished her time in isolation after successfully completing the Gaucho Derby, a 10-day, 500-kilometre multi-horse race in Patagonia, Argentina.

When she left on her trip on Feb. 25, the coronavirus was a thing happening somewhere far away, but in the 12 days she was without internet access in the mountains of Argentina, the virus spread around the globe, something she found out immediately after crossing the finish line.

"It was disappointing, a little bit. We didn't even get an hour to sit in emotion of what we had just accomplished. Or just to hang out with everybody," she said, of the scramble after the end of the race on March 14. Racers from around the world were frantically trying to find flights home.

"They spent the next couple of hours trying to get flights and then all of a sudden, everyone was just gone. I think many of us just wished we were back in the mountains, away from the insanity," she said.

Getting back to Canada was less complicated for Murray than it was for some others, for example, participants from the U.K.

Argentina shut its borders to people coming in, but she was able to leave, while travel was being curtailed in other countries already.

One of her connecting flights home, though, was cancelled and she paid more for the journey back than she had anticipated, having to take what was available.

But she made it home to Squamish where she was then in isolation for 14 days.

"I got home OK, which is the important thing," she said, noting she followed all the instructions she was given when arriving back in Canada in terms of staying away from others and has not had any symptoms of the virus.

Since April 3, when her isolation ended, she is able to go to the store and back, at least, she said.

"I don't know it is going to change a whole lot of what I can do, other than I can go buy my own wine," she said, with a laugh, as she watched out the window of her home as a friend dropped off a bottle at her gate during her phone interview with The Chief.

In terms of the actual race, Murray said it was very chaotic, being the first time this exact race was staged. It was full of unique challenges—none of which she regrets facing.

Participants were given two horses that were swapped out with fresh horses along the route. Murray said the first two she was given were "the worst two horses ever."

"One of my horses was rearing up in the air—that is like what you see in the Black Stallion when they are standing with their feet way off the ground—the one horse was constantly rearing every time. I had to slow him down because the one that kicked me wouldn't come," she said with a hearty laugh.

"Within the first half an hour I had been kicked, I had fallen off, I lost a horse."

In the process of finding the lost (and later found) horse, she ended up having to backtrack to an earlier post and missed a bit of the race, but that turned out to be a good thing as bad weather hit deeper in the mountains, exposing other racers to a snowstorm.

Some were running out of food and didn't have warm clothes.

"Some had to be helivaced out for hypothermia," she said.

So instead of the race continuing on, organizers reset and sent racers on a looping course rather than along linear points on the map.

This meant that the mostly solo adventure she hoped for was more groups moving together, she said.

But Murray persevered and finished the race — luckily her next horses were "amazing", she said, and the scenery was breathtaking.

Overall, she sees the adventure as a positive one.

"It is like with anything, right? The problem always is, if you have expectations, then you can be so easily disappointed and then you spend your time wishing that it was like you wanted it to be, instead of going, ‘Well, I had a completely different experience and it was different, but it was still great.’"

While Murray did get to have her adventure, Brackendale's Dan Van Drunen's race was postponed before it began.

The information technology professional has been chosen for the 2020 Fjällräven Polar expedition, a 300-kilometre expedition through the Scandinavian Arctic, with dog sleds.

On Dec. 13, he found out he was the first Canadian to be chosen for the adventure.

Mid-March he received an email from the Fjällräven organizers that the race would be postponed this year, given the circumstances related to COVID-19.

Of the 28 participants, some were in countries already ravaged by the pandemic, and they would not have been able to attend the race, as they were under lockdown orders.

The race is postponed to 2021, but the participants chosen for this year will all be included again.

"I wasn't surprised by the decision," Van Drunen told The Chief April 2.

While not shocked by the decision, he was already close to being packed and ready to go when he got the news. He had spent months buying and organizing all the items he needed and seeking advice and information about the race through the Scandinavian Arctic.

He was supposed to leave about nine days after he got the news. But all is not lost, he said.

The chosen participants have been able to get to know each other even better through their private online chat channels.

"This might be a blessing in disguise, a little silver lining, to get to know each other a little bit more before actually meeting," he said.

This story originally appeared in the Squamish Chief on April 3.