Cain's Quest, Canada's longest endurance snowmobile race, pushes both participants and their machines to the extremes.
Just two days in to the race, there are already 12 teams scratched from the roster.
On Mar. 17, beginning at 10 am, participant's months of preparation finally were put to the test as they sped off from the starting line and began their 2800 km journey.
This year, the route was the largest Cain's Quest has ever seen. It takes racers through 7 Labrador communities, through some of the most relentless terrain, with remote checkpoints along the way.
Despite some hefty prizes being on the line, including two brand new Artic Cat snowmobiles that will go to the team that places first, along with a total of over 70,000 dollars in prizes to be won, participants still say their primary focus is crossing the finish line, no matter how quickly or what in place.
The night before the race began, The Aurora caught up with some of the participants to discuss how they were feeling in the final hours before embarking on the most challenging race in Cain's Quest history.
Jason Paul and his wife Coreen, 30, from Labrador City, are blazing some metaphorical trails along with the ones they will be clearing on their sleds this year. The couple, which comprises Team 39 in the race this year, is the first couple to compete in the race's history, with Coreen also being the first women to take on the grueling challenge.
After seeing her husband compete in the race in 2009, and working as support for participating teams two years in a row, Coreen just couldn't sit on the sidelines any longer.
"She always wanted to do the race," said Jason. "She talked me into it."
While she understood she would be the only woman to ever take on the quest, Coreen says she never expected the reaction that she has gotten.
"I feel like a movie star," she said. "I've never gotten my picture taken so many times. But it's great; I'd like to give as much publicity as I can to the ladies because a lady can do it just as much as a man can do it."
During the interview, a fan approaches Coreen, telling her there's no room to pack makeup in Cain's Quest.
"You won't find me wearing any makeup," she laughs.
Jason, who competed in Cain's Quest 2009, says that his experience, combined with his wife's enthusiasm, makes them tough contenders for the race.
"Every time you are involved in Cain's Quest you learn something new," he said. "Everything is always changing; the routes change, the weather changes, the competitors change, so you always learn. I made some mistakes in 2009 that I won't make again this year, but I'm sure we'll make a bunch of new ones."
As for what they hope to accomplish together, the response is unanimous.
"Our goal is the same as everyone else," he said. "Just to finish. The race is known to take out 50 per cent of the teams; so finishing is a big feat. I feel confident that as long as our machines hold up, we can place well. But again, so many things can happen."
When asked for any final words, Coreen keeps it simple.
"I love you," she says to her husband with a smile.
Outsiders taking on the outdoors
Cain's Quest isn't just enjoyed by Labradorians. Snowmobile enthusiasts come from across the country and the world to participate in the world-renowned race.
Chad Dow, 27, from Farfield, Maine and his partner Russ Griffin, 44, of Jackman Maine, travelled to Labrador West this year to take part after getting a glimpse of the adrenaline inducing race in 2009.
"I came out for the 2009 race as support for the team that won that year," he said. "I thought it was a pretty mind-blowing thing. I've done snow cross and a bit of cross country racing before, so I just decided to give it a try this year."
With weather being milder in his hometown this year, Mr. Dow says he is looking forward to getting out in the snow.
"This year we haven't done a whole lot of sledding because we haven't had a lot of snow back home," he said. "But we get enough in to get by. This race will definitely be more miles than I've ridden all year."
While he says he has discussed the race with participants who have competed before, he feels that the only way to truly know what its like is to experience it for yourself.
"I've talked to a few other teams, but you're never going to really know until you're out there," he said.
Going into the race, he says his team's strategy is a simple one.
"We plan to go steady and try to stay within reach of the lead," he said. "We'll see how it all goes."
Most importantly; however, they just hope to cross the finish line.
"You've got to finish before anything else," he said. "That's our main goal. We just don't want to make any dumb decisions. We want to be there at the end of the race."
Mark Simms, 35, is a first time competitor of Cain's Quest, but his partner George Rogers, 58, has competed four times without ever taking first place. Both men, from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, who make up Team 5, say that their different perspectives give their team a unique advantage.
"It certainly helps me," said Mr. Simms. "There are so many things that can go wrong in this race, so when you have someone who has been there before and worked through it before, it makes a big difference. George has been in every situation, so I'll draw on that experience. I'm excited and ready to go, and he keeps me toned down a bit. He reminds me to stay attentive."
As a first time participant, Mr. Simms says he's learned a lot about what it takes to prepare for such a difficult race.
"It's a really long process," he said. "We started out planning our map work in the fall, then we started working on the sleds in December, and then we started scouting. So we've basically been non-stop since December."
Mr. Rogers, a veteran of Cain's Quest, says he is happy to use his previous knowledge of the race to his team's advantage.
"Every year you pick up on a few tricks," he said. "You learn them mostly from your competitors, things that they did that worked or didn't work, you pick up on that."
As for what he thinks is the most important factor for success, he says it's all about attitude.
"I think the biggest thing is having a lot of determination," he said. "Just keeping a positive attitude and being able to overcome all the sleep deprivation and weathering the elements," he said.
With four Cain's Quest races under his belt, Mr. Rogers says that each experience leaves him hungrier for the prize.
"It's a challenge," he said. "If you never win, you always feel like you should. Every year there's one little thing that goes wrong, and you start thinking ‘If I fix that, I'll have a better chance'," he said.
While competition is stiff this year, with professional racers taking part in the quest, Mr. Rogers says that he feels his team's determination will set them apart from the rest.
"We push," he said. "Over the last five years I've learned the only way to beat those professional riders is to push them. Most of us here in Labrador, we hunt and fish and we go out sledding on the weekends for fun, so it's hard to beat a pro rider. The only way to do it is to take them out of their game plan. So my plan is, whoever is in front of me, I'm going to push them at every checkpoint. If they stop along the way for gas or a can of peanuts, I'm going to pass them and keep on going."
As for what they ultimately wish to accomplish, Team 5 agrees with the others.
"To finish this race is such a major accomplishment," said Mr. Rogers. "There are some really good riders here, from pros to people who have been riding in Labrador their whole lives. If you beat them, then you can pat yourself on the back because you've done a tremendous job."