After a yearlong hiatus from the racing scene, River X Racing has announced it will host its eighth season of paddle racing in 2021.
Local race directors Rob Horton and Mike Varieur made the difficult decision last fall to suspend the Algonquin Outfitters Muskoka River X (MRX) races indefinitely. “The 2019 races were very demanding for Mike and I to put on,” Horton says.
“After seven years, and sixteen events, with non-stop event planning, we needed a break,” Varieur adds. “But the time away allowed us to reflect, re-energize, and consider fresh ideas.”
They both describe the opportunity to create new and challenging experiences as the inspiration that brings them together to collaborate. “We quickly rekindled the excitement Mike and I share for hosting adventure-based paddling events. When it comes down to it, it’s that excitement that motivates us to dedicate our personal time to these races,” Horton explains.
“Huntsville is an amazing town for a lot of reasons, one of which is the paddling opportunities available here,” says Varieur. “We encourage people to recognize that world-class paddling exists at their doorstep, and for the 2021 race, we wanted to showcase Huntsville with a fantastic new 110 km course.”
The new Algonquin Outfitters Huntsville 110 race route will see paddlers circumnavigate Huntsville’s 110-kilometre, four-lake system in the fastest possible time. The race will start at Hidden Valley Resort, where teams will paddle from Peninsula Lake to Fairy Lake, through town, and then into Lake Vernon. Paddlers will then race upriver on the Big East to Arrowhead Provincial Park, and then return downriver to circumnavigate Lake Vernon. From there, they will pass through town again and head to Port Sydney via the Muskoka River and Mary Lake. After passing through the Brunel Locks a second time, teams will then return through Fairy Lake to circumnavigate Pen Lake before racing towards the finish line at Hidden Valley Resort.
“The event is completely different for 2021. It’s a new course and a new format. It is not an expedition race like the Muskoka River X,” Varieur explains.
The Algonquin Outfitters Muskoka River X Classic, at 133 km with 20 portages in under 24 hours, has been famously touted as the “hardest one-day canoe race in the world” (Canoe Roots magazine), has been named the best SUP race in Eastern Canada (Get Out There magazine), and won race of the year several times (Ontario Marathon Canoe and Kayak Racing Association).
“The 2021 race will be just as challenging, and definitely just as exciting,” says Varieur.
“For the first time in paddle sport racing, we are hosting a pursuit start. This is adopted from Nordic sports, in which start times are staggered over a four-hour time period, based on a handicap assigned to each category. The slowest categories start first,” Varieur explains. “The result will be a fast-paced challenge to stay at the front of the pack, or chase down the leaders, and promises an action-packed end to the race, as the gap between teams close, and the competition heats up to see who will be crowned first to the finish.”
Also new for 2021 is a team-based competition called Team Champs. It consists of two partner teams, from any watercraft category, who will race against other registered combined teams, and will be eligible for combined results and awards. The racing categories will be similar to past events, so spectators will be able to cheer on kayakers, SUP paddlers, and those racing solo or tandem in canoes.
Other aspects of their traditional racing format will remain unchanged. “We are staying true to many of our main principles, including ultra-marathon distances, paddling at night, and prohibited use of technology, meaning teams can only navigate using map and magnetic compass. There are no GPS maps or phones allowed to guide their way when the fog settles in, or after the sun sets,” says Varieur.
The pandemic has changed the landscape of not only sporting events but all participant and spectator events across the country. The race directors both said COVID-19 regulations underscored the planning of the new race.
“When spring came, with COVID-19 restrictions in place, and the paddling season started again, I felt a desire to host an event that the paddling community could still be excited about during the pandemic,” says Horton.
“COVID-19 presents some very challenging situations for event organizers for sure,” says Varieur. “Thankfully, paddling inherently supports many of the required guidelines for social gatherings, as teams naturally social distance once they are on the water.”
There are other changes to the typical racing format, which will align with current pandemic conditions. New for 2021, and for the first time in River X Racing, support teams will not only be allowed but also required for race teams, in response to public health regulations.
“All racers will be required to have a support they define as within their social bubble who can help them when they need it,” Varieur explains. “If a team decides to withdraw from the event, the support team is responsible for transportation, as opposed to event staff or having a bus, as was the case in previous years.” Race directors say that search and rescue will be available for emergencies.
There are still uncertainties about what the pandemic situation will look like a year from now, but Horton and Varieur will continue to evaluate that. “We will make more firm decisions around pandemic regulations and compliances closer to the date,” Varieur assures.
Asked about the response from the paddling community about the recent race announcement, the race directors share having received plenty of positive feedback. “We are very grateful and fortunate to have a loyal following,” says Varieur.
2020 has been a year of unprecedented event cancellations, including many established races around the world. Many sport enthusiasts are eager for events to start up again. “Paddlers are looking towards next year for some racing action,” says Varieur. “Already teams are starting their training plans. Just this past weekend, one team was on the water here in Huntsville scouting the course, posting about their experience and prepping for next year.”
Events like the MRX also support tourism and economic benefits for the area. “Participants come here to train throughout the season,” he says. “Over our previous seven years of hosting the Algonquin Outfitters Muskoka River X, the spotlight has been focused on Huntsville both nationally and internationally. Huntsville has received substantial recognition as a world-class paddling destination.”
Both race directors are eager for the 2021 race. “It’s a great way to showcase the beauty and opportunities available here.”
Watch for registration to open at muskokariverx.com
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