How to begin a race report on the best race finish in a 13-year run? I have thought of all sorts of quirky ways to get it started. Jokes, foreshadowing, rote description, comparison to my first USARA Nationals experience 12 years ago when my team came off the first leg in something like 72nd place out of 80 or so teams…Instead, I went back and looked over my report from last year’s National Championship, my 100th navigation based race. I’ll start it there:
“While Rootstock 2 didn’t win any accolades this time out, I at least walked away knowing that one different angle of a headlamp beam and we would have been right there behind [Rootstock Racing 1]. We weren’t [though], and that reality will always be there for me, but sometimes the growth, emotions, and lessons that come out of the failures in AR are worth much more than the fortune and glory.
I can’t say I finished on the podium at the National Championship for my 100th race, but I am a better racer for it, and sometimes the race you compete in is more about the other people around you and the lessons learned or relearned. Your teammates and their experiences, and in this case my extended teammates and what they accomplished, sometimes are the real moral of the story.
And now we head off into the fall. My season is over. I have some work to do to figure out why this year didn’t go so well for me even if it did on paper. I actually felt more like myself this weekend than I have felt all year, but I have some planning and work to do. I don’t know whether I will race one more race or 100 more, but I’m grateful to all of my teammates and the entire community of adventure racing for making me a better person.”
Well, I raced five more times this year, and while last year was an amazing year, this year may have been even more incredible. The team had an exceptional year with seven victories and three second places on the USARA circuit. Additionally, we finished in second place in two major expedition races: XPD in Tasmania and Untamed New England.
While all of this was incredibly rewarding, my sights were set on Nationals for literally the past year. Jim, Brian, and Abby’s victory in Pennsylvania last fall was eye-opening and inspiring. To be honest, Nationals was never a race I seriously contemplated winning; the race has a long history (twenty years in 2019!) of fierce competition. Six teams (not always under the same name: Tecnu/AMK; Wedali; Granite/EMS; MOAT; Team Traveler; and Rootstock Racing) have combined to win fourteen of the nineteen championship races to date, meaning that very few people win this race. I can list dozens and dozens of racers I look up to as better racers than I am who have never won this race. I also know that our team has never been nor ever will be the fastest. We will never be able to outrun or outbike the fastest teams on the course, and we will never be able to race at the truly elite level of four-time champions AMK/Tecnu.
That said, this is adventure racing, a sport where truly anything is possible. Watching and cheering our teammates on as they won last year stirred an incredible assortment of emotions in me, and I think for Joel and Nicki who raced with me as Rootstock Racing 2 last year. First and foremost, we were overjoyed to watch them win. As previously noted, we were also left with a bigger than usual black hole of “would haves” and “should haves” and “what could have beens”. But we also were bestowed with a deep desire to reapply ourselves for 2018, to train harder, to sharpen our skills, and to do what we as a team have always done best: take care of each other, have fun, and work together to achieve at a higher level than we can by ourselves. We had an amazing season of races to set us up for the big one at the end, and we were excited to get out there and take a shot at defending the team’s championship in 2017, get Abby and Brian back up on the podium as repeat champions, and replace some of those horrible memories that had been gnawing at Nicki, Joel, and me for the past year. Of course planning in Adventure Racing is often a waste of energy…
Before we could even get to the start line, we ran into some issues.
First off: who would race with whom, and what would our strategy be? Last year, we had two squads. We felt one team would be stronger physically than the other, and while we raced together for the first section of the leg, we quickly split up afterwards. The rest was history.
This year, everyone had really worked so hard to get ready, and there was no easy way to split up the teams into an “A” and “B” team. The issue became more complicated when Jim found out he would be unable to race. We were fortunate to replace Jim with the extraordinary athlete and teammate Jesse Tubb, who graciously joined the team with the perfect Rootstock attitude of doing whatever with whomever. Thereafter, we had a lot of back and forths on the team composition, and we ultimately settled on an “A” team of Abby and Brian with me navigating. Joel, Nicki, and Jesse would race as Rootstock 2, but we would more or less stay together.
That said, we made deliberate decisions to not assist each other in a number of ways. The Rootstock 2 team proved stronger on the paddle and they paddled off on their own. When someone needed food or if someone needed a tow or gear carried, we determined we would only help people on our own team. Yes there is benefit from traveling as a 6, but we also determined that barring a major problem that was unfixable (injury; illness; major mechanical) the two teams would stand by each other. We just like racing together too much, and with teams limited to three, there was no way to balance the teams in a satisfactory way. As it played out, we did hold each other back a bit in regards to speed at different times, but we came up short of actually splitting up.
This all said, we ran into a second problem: health. I came into the race after a week of being sick, and Abby was not feeling herself either. I was rather frustrated by that. Looking back at last year’s report, I felt so crappy for much of last year but felt good at Nationals. This year, I worked harder than I ever have to prepare, and I felt great throughout the season, only to run out of gas at the climax of the year. Of course…
We had about 20 minutes to look at the maps. The course looked big: about 120 miles or so, maybe more. And it was complicated: several embedded sections, many, many route options, plotting on the clock at CP 1, some unique orienteering sections, one of which allowed teams to break up, and another that had some very specific rules in some very difficult terrain. And again, 20 minutes to try to process as much information as possible. In short, up until the very last hour of the race, we never felt like we had a full grasp on what lay ahead or what we would do next. It was incredibly engaging, fun, and rewarding as a racer, and for a team that thrives on route choice, strategy, and navigation, it was a course that played well for us in that regard.
But it was also a course that had significant riding, and we knew that this would privilege a few other teams over us. As always, we would need to make good decisions, take care of each other, and stay sharp with the navigation. In those rushed 20 minutes, we did manage to dig into google a bit, and we took note of three places where unmapped trails looked to be useful. I quickly drew them on, and we headed out into the darkness to the start line for what turned out be one of the best day-long courses I have ever raced.
We Take the Lead
The race started, and we had a frantic dash to the boats, in the dark, loaded down with paddles and dry bags. We reached a beach a half kilometer or so from the resort, situated ourselves and then portaged the boats across a narrow peninsula to open water. By the time we pushed off, the sky had lightened enough to see…nothing. The entire lake was fogged in, the water eerily silent. Even with a few other top teams launching right around us, the plumes and clouds of vapors billowing off the water seemed to mute out the sounds of the race, and everyone vanished. For the next hour, we paddled on a bearing, correcting constantly as we were going for broke and straight lining several kilometers north without the aid of sight or shoreline to guide us.
After some time, a bank of trees emerged out of the mist. We paused for a moment; we were looking for a wide channel that would connect out to the main body of the lake, but we also could lose time by entering one of a couple of arms that would take us away from our actual route. I had timed our paddle, watched the compass, made some calculations, and I determined that we most likely had not gone far enough. My teammates agreed, and so we cautiously made a turn based on that assumption.
Within four or five minutes, I knew we had in fact misjudged our rate of travel: we were flying, and we had nailed the crossing and hit shore exactly where I had wanted to. We turned around and returned the way we had come, losing maybe ten minutes to the mistake. We suspected Untamed New England and some others would have nailed it, and some did. Many more teams, however, lost a much more significant chunk of time to the blind paddle, so we were OK with our lost time.
When we reached the inlet for CP1, we found a handful of boats ahead of and several more landing around us. We found our way to the CP, where some volunteers were waiting with UTM coordinates for the rest of the section. We made quick work of plotting and now we had a clearer sense of the paddle: There were two embedded foot loops, one at our current location, and another an hour or so further east on Lake Monroe. We set off for the first loop, completing it in good time and making up ground on the handful of teams that had come in before us.
As we pushed off into the water, we found ourselves three minutes behind Untamed and the two Checkpoint Zero teams. For the most part, we held even with these teams for next leg of canoeing. Rootstock 2 pulled ahead and actually closed the gap on the leaders, while we more or less held steady behind them. We paddled hard and reached the furthest paddle loop in an hour or so. One team (Quest I believe) was trailing behind us, and as it turned out, this would be the pack of teams that ultimately jostled for position for the duration of the race.
We made quick work of the second loop, and we pushed hard in places, ultimately hitting the water in first place, a position we held for the two hour paddle back to TA1. Once again, Joel, Nicki, and Jesse pulled away from us, and Untamed closed in. We reached TA first, but only a few minutes separated our three teams after a short portage up and over a peninsula.
Once at TA, we made quick work of the “Triple Triple”, a nice orienteering challenge. This leg was worth three checkpoints, but there were three sets of three checkpoints. To earn a point, a team had to collect all corresponding points (9A, 9B, 9C, etc.). Teams could bike, paddle, or travel by foot, and we could break up. We took a quick look at the map and determined that we would split into three, two traveling by foot and the third by bike. 45 minutes later, we were back together and off on our bikes, still in first place and extending our lead by a few minutes.
There Goes the Race…
From here, the course truly blew up. There were multiple route options and strategies that came into play, and literally until the end of the race, it was not clear how the compiling decisions had affected the field. We had decided to bike to the next TA in Story via a southerly route. We would collect a number of the harder to navigate points and leave a few for the return. Untamed and Checkpoint 0 took a similar route, but they collected two of the three points we left out for our return. That said, I think they also benefitted from a faster route. I’m still not certain, but thanks to our google sleuthing, we had found two spots where we were going to gamble on some unmapped trails. In retrospect, both of these decisions hurt us.
The first decision came at CPs 15 and 16. On the map, one would have to drop bikes and do a small foot loop or out and back for the two points from a major, fast road. We had found a trail that made a loop around these two points and seemed to link up with a road. While we rode this trail, all seemed great: it was ridable and did take us right to CP16 (CP 15 required a bike drop regardless). Later on, however, it became apparent that we had lost time on that trail loop in part because the “road” that it met up with turned out to be a circuitous single-track trail. Other teams dropped bikes, went in and out and the stayed on roads while we were on trails that did not always allow us to move all that fast. Alas…
At CP19, Untamed biked us down. Britt was crushing the bike as we knew she would, and Dave and Chris were rocking along behind her. We let them pass, knowing that we wouldn’t keep pace. With this information in hand and the realization that our bike trails had hurt us instead of helping, we realized we had given up the lead.
There was nothing to do but plough ahead, and plough we did. CP0 passed us on a trail toward the end of our route to Story. Once again, we rolled the dice on an unmapped trail network while they rode off on a longer route to the TA. All things went well for 10 minutes or so as we rode down a trail into a small valley. At the bottom, the trail vanished; we ran into a bewildered group of back-country campers, and then we spent 45 minutes to an hour hike-a-biking along a stream and up and over a ridge.
At that point we were on the Story O-Course, and we ran into Rib Mountain who also were having a great race. I’m not sure who was more bewildered to see us: the campers or Rib. We said hello, a bit defeated, and then we bikewhacked down to the TA. And yes, if possible, the volunteers and race directors were even MORE surprised to see us than the campers or Rib had been. You win some and you lose some, but you always have good stories.
Bottom line: we had lost our chance. Nationals is too deep and too fast. We had gambled on a couple of trails. One of these SEEMED to work but didn’t, and the second just left us with a lost hour and a nice story. Untamed was almost an hour ahead at the TA AND they had collected two more checkpoints than we had. CP0 rolled in as we left, so we were still ahead of them in time, but they too had two more CPs from the bike leg that we needed to find on the way back to the lake.
Additionally, three or four teams including Rib, Quest, and the strong all male team TJ79 Moziatex had done something completely different: they had bypassed most of the bike points on the way to Story, opting for a fast, direct route that then provided them with daylight for the challenging O-section. They had been out in the woods for 2-3 hours already by the time we arrived. So, Untamed seemed to have a stranglehold on the race if they nailed the nav in Story, and who knew who was actually behind them in what order among the rest of us.
Spirits weren’t bad, but I think we were all a bit resigned at that point. What had started off so well had changed. Not because we had screwed up nav or had any problems but because we had, perhaps, gotten a bit too focused on this additional information before the tech and outside maps lockdown. This happens all the time in our sport: sometimes this information is priceless, and sometimes it ruins your race. At that moment, it felt like the latter.
So, we set off into the unbelievable terrain of Story, Indiana. The O-course was a unique one: a “Dogbone Course”. Frankly, it makes me tired just trying to explain it, so just go read about it here if you don’t know what this means. The land around Story is nothing but reentrants, spurs, narrow ridges, and streambeds. It is a labyrinth, and we were starting it in the dark. To start the section, you had to navigate to a start punch up on a ridge, half a kilometer or so from the TA. As we worked our way up to that, I said to the team:
“WOW…This is going to be REALLY hard. It could really be a nightmare.” Just getting to that start punch took some teams 1-2 hours.
Once we found the start, we locked in. We had two bobbles that probably cost us 20-30 minutes or so combined, but we still came out the other side with the third fastest split for the section. Considering that we did the whole thing in the dark, that the two teams with faster times had an hour or so and two+ hours of daylight, and that we had our lowest physical moments of the race during this stage, I was thrilled with how it went. Unfortunately, one of the two teams that beat us was Untamed, and so we left the Story TA now racing definitively for something other than a win. It just remained to be seen where other teams were.
Picking up Steam
It was also during the Story section that we came close to breaking up…actually, I don’t think we did, but I was just run down and was strongly suggesting it. Being sick the week before and racing hard had sapped me, and all the normal tricks weren’t bringing me back. 600 calories of food in an hour? Nope. Extra hydration? Nope. At some point, I strongly encouraged Joel, Nicki, and Jesse to take a shot at running down Untamed, but after a fair bit of conversation, we stuck it out together. We kept up a steady pace, Brian relieved me of my mandatory gear and some extra food, and we kept pushing.
By the time we were on our bikes, I felt marginally better. I never fully rebounded, but it was enough that we ripped along roads to the northernmost mountain biking loop. We had a blast in there, seeing Rib, confirming that Rib and Quest had done the first part of the bike in a very different fashion, and realizing that maybe we had somehow knocked some time off Untamed; at CP25, we learned we were only 15 minutes behind them. It was clear that they were doing something different than we were up there, and we didn’t see them, but it gave us a little bit of energy. The trails on that loop were fantastic, and the ride out once we had bagged the three points was joyous: a long 5km single-track descent. Not only was it fun, but it also gave me a further break to recover a bit more and get some more fuel in. We also crossed paths with CP0 as we exited the trails, confirming we had opened up at least an hour or more on them in Story. We started to calculate that second and third place was possible depending on Quest and Rib.
With that, we refocused and knocked out the rest of the section in good time. We picked off our three remaining CPs, I survived a gnarly wipeout on a “gravel” road (more like a road of rocks), and we weathered the expected sleepiness that started to plague a few people. Oh, and my vomiting all over the side of the road. There was that.
We crushed the roads and bombed back down to the lake and boats.
And we found that we were in first place…
The finish looked straightforward: paddle back across the lake. Get your boats back to the beach where we started. Huff it back to the lodge. Check in, and then knock out a short loop of four foot points.
But it’s adventure racing, so of course, it wasn’t that easy.
First off, the wind picked up, and getting back across the lake was a bit tougher than expected with a near capsize or two.
Second, as I noted, this was a course that always kept us guessing. We just didn’t have time to process things before or during the event. Therefore, when we reached the beach, we really were not completely sure what to do or where to go. While Untamed (or anyone else) could have been closing in on us, we knew they were at least 20 minutes or so behind since we couldn’t see them, and we really didn’t want to lose the race because of hazy guesswork as to what we were supposed to do. Instead of rushing off, we dug out our course book and took a few extra minutes to get it straight. Once we had done that, we officially dropped our boats and headed back to the lodge.
After checking in and confirming that we were, indeed, the first full course team back, we set off on the last trek. Still no sight of anyone on the beach. My legs were done, my energy gone, and of course, the 3-4 KM loop was not as straight forward or fast as it looked. There was a maze of unmapped trails, field and tree lines that didn’t line up with the map, and walls of thorns and brambles too. It felt like it would go on forever, but with the final CP punched, we ran it into the finish, confident that we had held onto the win.
As it turned out Untamed reached the final TA about 40 minutes behind us. We ultimately ended up winning by an hour. Quest made a strong push, finishing a few minutes behind Untamed, and the Checkpoint Zero crew came in not that long after to round out the podium. Rib was further back, but they had a stellar race as well and were the seventh and final team to clear the course.
In retrospect, I think our more direct route to Story may have won the race for us, but perhaps in ways we didn’t plan for. While we did lose time in places on this route, by leaving a couple more points out, we didn’t have the temptation to look for a more direct way back to the TA after the northern loop of bike points. They couldn’t have know it (just as we couldn’t have predicted that our unmapped trails would fail us), but Untamed and Checkpoint Zero both lost chunks of time trying to find an alternate route back, a route that looked riskier to us from the start but something we too might have tried if we had collected the other CPs already (CPs 21 and 24, by the way). It didn’t seem worth it to us while we frantically studied the maps since we would be riding back near those CPs regardless, and I think that these decisions from 15-20 hours before the finish were what allowed us to come back and win despite our own lost time earlier in the race. This said, I still haven’t actually seen CP0 or UNE’s routes, so I really am just hypothesizing. Really, I’m still just trying to explain how we managed to come back considering our failed gambles and the fact that we had more controls to pick up at the end.
Ultimately, words really cannot capture the ups and downs of Adventure Racing. It is impossible to truly weigh all the variables and then analyze them for every team as each team is so unique. That said, it is an amazing feeling to win this race. For Abby and Brian, they did it again. For the rest of us, we exorcised our demons from 2017 in true AR fashion: “Race until the finish line. You never, ever know what might happen.”
Every eighteen months for the past ten years, when Geocentric Outdoors announces the new dates and location for their famed expedition race, Brent has come down with the XPD Blues. You see, the event has been at the top of his bucket list since he dove into the world of multi-day adventure racing, but as a teacher, their spring/fall rotation meant that he would never be able to make the trip to the other side of the world, to experience the wild and rugged Australian landscape, the ace organizational reputation, and the famed mid-camp.
And then, the 2018 schedule was released, and he discovered that the 10th running of XPD fell over his spring break. We talked about trying to field a team (the race fell just enough over my spring break as well to make it potentially possible, thanks to the generosity of my colleagues), and then when I decided that two multi-day races in one season felt like too much, I suggested he try to put together a team on his own.
Fast forward six months, after the USARA champs and my change of heart about two expedition races, after Eric Caravella signed on and my family called – out of the blue – with an offer to hang out with Zoe for two weeks in March, after recent Hong Kong transplant Ryan Vangorder cleared his schedule, we were en route to the Philadelphia airport in my dad’s red pickup. The bed of the truck was packed with gear bags and bike boxes, and the cab was filled with three frantic racers, trying to navigate the site for the Electronic Travel Authority after the discovery that we needed a visa to visit Australia.
Thanks to the typical Schuylkill Expressway traffic, by the time we made it to the airport, we were collectively $60 poorer but with text message confirmation that we’d be able to enter the country upon arrival. Crisis averted.
A few hours later, we boarded the first of three flights for the forty-hour door-to-door trip (complete with an Arnold Schwarzenegger sighting at LAX) to St. Helen’s, Tasmania and the start of the 2018 XPD Bay of Fires Adventure Race.
We arrived in the sleepy coastal town on Friday evening, built our bikes at the sprawling race headquarters, and headed off in search of dinner at the only open restaurant on the main strip – a pizza shop that took two hours to bake two pies.
From there, it was off to the retro chic of the Queechy Cottages and the beginning of a frenzied 36 hours of final prep.
Going into the race, we had some general performance goals, but mostly we were focused on enjoying the journey that Geocentric would undoubtedly offer us. Though the field was small, we expected a strong lineup of local teams, and we knew it was in our best interest to focus on our own race and not get caught up in the competition. We wanted to trek through the Tasmanian bush, to avoid two-wheeled collisions with wombats and wallabies, and based on the recommendation of our friend, Aussie-expat Kate Matthews, to sample a few savory pies along the way.
We learned at check-in on Saturday morning that Legs 1 and 3 (both short coastal paddles) would be canceled due to high winds. Consequently, Legs 2 and 4 were modified as well. None of the changes dramatically affected course flow or time projections, so we didn’t worry too much about swapping out gear or re-sorting calories.
Lockdown began at 8:00am Sunday morning, which meant we had two hours to study maps and take in the course. Based on the limited information we had before the race and the short time we had to distill the different legs, I estimated that if all went well, we would finish around 4:00pm Thursday afternoon.
At 10:00am, we boarded coaches for a short bus ride to a “surprise” location (a section of beach on the modified Leg 2). There, we were greeted by town officials for a quick welcome, and following an unceremonious countdown, we were off!
LEG 1 – Beach Run
We began with a 10-15km beach run/coasteering leg along the Tasman Sea. I hate the adrenaline surges of fast starts like this, but I knew it would be relatively short-lived, so I put my head down and followed the guys down the beach and across the sand dunes to retrieve seven lettered CPs, each of us punching on individual wrist bands as proof that we’d been there.
There was lots of jostling among the top several teams here, but at some point we left the beach and found ourselves alone on a beautiful stretch of trail — green and lush and rolling, and exactly what I pictured Tasmania to be. We popped out onto a rocky point of the beach and discovered that we were momentarily in the lead, but then we entered a technical coasteering stretch and I fell back a bit on the slick rocks.
Toward the end of that stretch, I slipped awkwardly, cutting open my left knee and cranking my right. I shook it off and we continued on, sprinting down the beach for the last CP and then backtracking along roads to the TA. The last kilometer or so, though, I noticed sharp pains along the outside of the right knee. Ryan grabbed my pack and we continued to run hard, coming into TA within a few minutes of the leaders. I tried to put it out of my head, but it was hard not to think back to Ireland, where IT band issues took a huge toll on my race experience.
We built our bikes and set off for a short ride through the Scamander Forest…
LEG 2 – Hike-a-Bike
This leg began with the same ferocity as the previous one. We spun through a couple steep climbs before the solid line on the map turned dotted and the dirt road devolved into muddy jeep track as we lugged our bikes up steep pitches and across cliffy creek banks. The challenge of these short opening legs was that we didn’t settle into a sustainable pace — we worked our way through the terrain with a frenzy usually left for 12-hour racing.
There was more on the ground than the maps offered, so Brent (with Eric on the second set) carefully led us through the various junctions, gaining confidence on the terrain as we clicked through the CPs. Just after checkpoint 7, Eric picked up a subtle five-way junction that led us straight down into a valley and through a network of trails, with teams going in every direction. We turned right and continued on our way, hoping to avoid notice of other riders. A couple kilometers after the junction, we ran into the Wild Yaks, who we knew to be a strong Aussie team, in search of the elusive CP7. We pointed them in the right direction and continued on our way, crossing back onto roads and nabbing the final two points – on either side of a small bridge – as we sprinted into TA to drop our bikes and ready our paddle gear. We were hanging in 4th-ish place at that point, but with the exception of the Antelopes who had already opened up a commanding gap on the field, everyone was right on top of each other.
LEG 3 – Up-River
This paddle took us about 13 kilometers up the Scamander River to the next transition, without any checkpoints along the way. Ryan and I took one boat, with Brent and Eric in the other, and this configuration worked out well for the duration of the race. We expected that the Aussie teams would be significantly stronger on the water, and so we were only a little bit surprised when the Wild Yaks came barreling by us just a few minutes into the section. Maybe we shouldn’t have given away the location of CP7, after all!
About halfway through the paddle, Brent suggested that we cut off a section of the river with a quick portage across a grass flat. It was a risk, he told us, but a relatively low stakes one, and maybe we’d gain a little bit of time.
We pulled off the water and dragged the boats to the next bend. It was a bit further and slower than we’d anticipated, and we may have ended up losing a little bit of time, but it wasn’t significant either way, and it was a nice break from the headwinds and unfriendly currents. Plus, Eric and Brent spotted the first wildlife of the race in the grass — a wallaby, hopping across the field!
We made quick work of the rest of the leg and arrived at the next TA having given up relatively little on the rest of the field. One of the volunteers told us he liked our decision to portage and appreciated seeing teams taking risks out there. A reminder of how good the Open Tracking system is and how attentive race personnel are to those small details!
LEG 4 – Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
This first longer leg also offered the first measurable route choice of the race. Early in the stage, we could either ride directly through some of the dashed trails on the map, or swing around a wider jug-handle, adding roughly 8km but potentially limiting elevation and sticking to the safer and presumably faster roads. Given what we’d encountered on Leg 2, we decided that the additional distance might be worth it if we could ride the whole thing while others were hiking through mud.
We got to the first intersection – the point of decision – with the Nordic Island team just a hundred meters behind us. Thinking about what others might be planning and just generally getting a bit disoriented, we ended up turning right, off-course entirely, instead of staying straight to pick up the longer route. Brent caught it quickly and we were able to cut the distance on a mountain trail back up to the road, but it was a messy, steep climb that required a fair amount of energy to lug our bikes up and over the ridge. At least our blunder rewarded us with another wallaby sighting, this time a near-miss as it darted out in front of Ryan while we screamed down the road.
Within half an hour, we were back on our intended route, and we sped through those additional kilometers to the first checkpoint. We learned later that the dashed road was perfectly rideable, so teams that took the more direct line did make up some time, but given the information we had on the map and the conditions we’d seen earlier in the day, none of us regretted the decision.
We arrived at the CP – a short out-and-back to a cemetery – just as darkness was starting to fall, and encountered several bikes converging. For the next couple hours, we found ourselves leapfrogging back and forth with a handful of other teams. During this stretch, I also became a bit of a zombie. It was only 7:30pm on Night One, but I just couldn’t keep my eyes open. I ate. I caffeinated. I tried to talk to my teammates, and to engage with the other racers around us. Nothing worked. I’m not sure if it was the travel and jetlag, or the general fatigue I’d been feeling pretty intensely in the weeks leading up to the race, but I simply couldn’t stay awake. I shook myself out of sleep several times on a long descent, and counted myself lucky that I hadn’t fallen into a ditch. Ryan came up next to me and started telling me stories of past races, and gradually I pulled it together, but it wasn’t what I wanted to be dealing with in the first hours of darkness of a 100-hour race.
Back on the course, several teams were still riding together and jockeying for position, but as we made our way toward the original plot of CP13 (the checkpoint had been amended before the race), everyone blew up. We took a route that led us on a short bikewhack through the forest, and when we emerged there, we started losing teams, one by one. In the final kilometers, we found ourselves all alone, no idea whether we were ahead of or behind the pack, but continuing to focus on our own race and belt out Bohemian Rhapsody under a blanket of stars.
LEG 5 – Hike-a-Boat
We arrived in transition, surprised to find ourselves in second place. Wanting to maintain that momentum, we shook off a pokey TA, packed up our bags, gathered our paddle gear, and received instructions for the revised start of the next leg, what was to be a 38k paddle that was slated to take roughly 10 hours. It seemed that the first 5k of the river was so low and strewn with obstacles that course testers had deemed it impassable, so instead we were to take the road to the police station in town, and then turn north from the “old jail” onto a farmers trail that would take us through the marshes along the water and lead us to CP15, the new boat put-in.
Except that the police station and jails were not the notations the volunteers highlighted for us on our map. And turning north from the old jail would have put us on the opposite side of the road from the river. It took 30 minutes just to figure out our way out of the TA…
…and that is how we found ourselves picking our way through dense riverside thicket, climbing through electric fences and barbed wire, and knocking our paddles on braided trees and branches. But, if you squinted and turned your head just right, you could kind of make out a rough trail. There was no flagging or any other markings, but the volunteer in TA had mentioned the marshes, and we figured as long as we stayed along the river, we would get there eventually. And while it was sloggy and annoying, we assumed that since everyone was doing the same thing, we couldn’t really complain.
After three hours of this, we looked up toward the off-limits road and spotted what seemed to be four headlamps, traipsing along at a solid clip. We beelined for the lights, and eventually crossed paths with our friends, the Wild Yaks, who had found a true farmers trail that went through the cow pastures along the road. We abandoned our earlier effort and continued along their route, putting a small gap on them as we shuffled down to the water at first light.
We set up the boats, punched the CP, shoved off, and quickly discovered why this leg was meant to take so long. For the next eight hours, we alternated between pulling the boats over shallow rocks, lugging them around, over, and through massive obstacles, and paddling into swirling wind gusts that someone told us topped out at 120kph. I’d never seen water do what it did there — literally shooting spray off the river as though someone had flicked a finger on the surface and set off a cyclone.
It was a hard effort, especially for Ryan, who commandeered our boat while I carried the paddles and gear, but it was also a beautiful river, and we caught sight of quolls (cat-lemur-monkey marsupials), pademelons (tiny kangaroos) wallabies (including one who appeared to walk on water at one particularly shallow spot), and even a platypus, which Eric spotted as we were counting down the final kilometers.
With the winds continuing to kick up, we were happy to be done when we pulled into the TA at 1:00pm. The Yaks had passed us earlier, a spot where we’d lost the river entirely and lugged the boat through high grass, but we knew they weren’t too far in front. Excited for what lay ahead, we swapped our paddle gear for our trekking kit and embarked on what we knew would be one of the crux legs of the race.
LEG 6 – Big Ben
The section began with a handful of kilometers of climbing on roads, a good opportunity for us to eat our rehydrated meals and get our legs under us before we entered the forest for what was essentially a 35 kilometer bushwhack.
When we left the road, we started with a steep climb up to a ridge, where Castle Rock loomed over the valley below. At the top, the winds rivaled what we had encountered during the 2016 tropical storm in Ireland, and after a few minutes of fighting the sharp gusts we dropped down to sidehill around to a spur, which would pull us up to the next CP. We had already been moving steadily, but the surge of adrenaline that hit when we caught and passed the Yaks boosted our pace further.
By then we were watching the clock, aware of the quickly diminishing daylight. Initially we wanted to get to the first CP before the sun went down. Then we sought to make it to the top of the next ridge, to be able to see the expanse ahead of us. When we got there, there was still about 90 minutes of usable light, so we made it our goal to the get to the attack of the next point, an old and unused railroad bed. We were moving well here, with Brent and Eric managing the maps near flawlessly, and with conditions still favorable we found the old mining bed with relative ease. We continued on for the next hour (spotting a Tasmanian Devil or two along the way!), before we had to pull out our lights. We paused to reorient and wondered briefly if we’d gone too far, but following the First Rule of Adventure Racing, we pushed on another couple hundred meters and came right onto the point.
From there, it was just a quick whack out to a road, which we followed for the next 90 minutes or so, to CP20 and the base of the climb up to Ben Lomond.
While we walked, we worked over our sleep strategy. We were going into Night Two and one of the hardest sections of the course. We considered risking it and pushing through to the next TA, but it was windy and cold — with forecasted snow up top — and there would be limited options to stop if we got ourselves into trouble. That, coupled with the fact that the monotony of the road was wearing on our energy, prompted us to find a place to sleep before the ascent.
We poked around for a little while before ultimately bedding down right near the CP. We had our bothy and our bivvy sacks, so we made do okay, but it was a chilly few hours. Three hours later, we packed up and began the steep climb up the boulder field to the alpine ridge, saying hello to the four-man team of DASH, who had just arrived at CP20 and were looking for a place to sleep.
Eric and Brent worked together closely on the maps, pulling each other – and us – onto the right spurs and ridges, following the contours and creeks as they swept around the heathered, rocky landscape, overlaying a plateau of water courses. We trekked under a spectacular sunrise, boulder-hopped through an early-season snow, and communed with more wallabies as we made our way up to CP21. It was just a stupendous section.
At the CP, we were greeted with energetic race volunteers, who suggested that we “not dilly dally” into transition. My knee was smarting pretty good by that point, especially as I pulled myself through the thick, tall heather, but my spirits were high and my energy was good, and so I handed off my pack to Brent and we all picked up the pace a bit and shuffled down the final rocky slope to the TA, housed in a piping hot ski hut. We arrived still in second place. Our energy flagged just a bit as the warmth of the hut drew us in, but after a few minutes we refocused our efforts, built our bikes, and shoved off for the biggest ride of the race, 115 kilometers with 2500 meters of elevation.
LEG 7 – Blue Derby
The leg started with several kilometers of screaming downhill, and as with Night One, I found myself falling asleep on each straightaway. I made it down to the bottom, but not without jerking myself awake several times. When we got to the valley road, we paused to pull our rain jackets off, and entered an impromptu rap battle to keep ourselves fresh. I think Eric and I stole the show with our rousing rendition of the Fresh Prince theme song.
In West Philadelphia…
For the next several hours, we rode along paved valley floors and up and down steep fire roads. We were pacelining, moving well, navigating smoothly, and enjoying the scenery. Craig and Louise joined us briefly on one of the long climbs and got an excited earful about all the animals we’d seen, and we spared a few minutes during a bathroom stop to nab a round of ice cream cones in town. It was really just great.
I also started focusing specifically on descents, letting go of my brakes and following the line of whoever was in front of me. It had the double benefit of speeding us up and keeping me awake on the long drops, and would come into play at the end of the race.
We spent some time debating whether to stop at one of the many pubs and cafes along the route (conveniently and convincingly plotted on the maps), but decided instead to maintain our momentum and continue on through the end of the leg. As dusk started to fall, I became aware that I was starting to fall behind on calories — a combination, I think, of the advil I was taking for my knee and the fact that none of my food was remotely appetizing — but I was still feeling good and riding well.
(Something I realized during this event — I’ve typically treated expedition races as a series of 12- or 24-hour races in terms of nutrition, with the same monotonous bags of performance food and snacky stuff prepped for each leg. While that’s worked some of the time, more often than not it’s led to fueling issues. Now that I’ve named it, I’m excited to work on it for Untamed.)
The last section of this leg took us on a 12-kilometer climb up to the top of the Blue Derby Trails, one of most famous mountain bike parks in Australia. We were to ride the Blue Tier, 18km of single track, offering stellar flow, big drops, wide berms, and rock gardens — pretty much everything you could ask for on one ride, all in pristine condition. I had been looking forward to the section but expected that the flow-happy guys would all ride substantially quicker than I would, so my plan was to stay at the rear and just have them wait for me as needed. After settling in, though, I found myself comfortably hanging off the back, enjoying the rhythm of the trail and the sharp focus of the technical terrain.
Everything was going smoothly, until two kilometers from the finish, when Eric rode head-first into a low-hanging tree. He bounced off the back of the bike and fell flat on his back in the middle of the trail, his bell sufficiently rung. I called Brent — our resident WFR — back to evaluate. Brent took him through the injury protocol, and luckily Eric was totally fine, but we took that last stretch a little bit slower and coasted into TA at 11:00pm, an hour too late to enjoy the famed Weldborough Hotel Pub (which we heard about from just about every person we encountered, as the race wore on).
We went back-and-forth for a few minutes but ultimately decided to get another two hours of sleep in TA. It wasn’t the ideal place for it, but we didn’t know what we’d find on the trail, and we thought that curling up in the big U-Haul would give us some protection from the elements.
Already depleted nutritionally, I should have eaten something hearty before I went to sleep, but I was feeling rushed to lie down and take advantage of the time, so I had a few bites of Eric’s spaghetti-o’s and curled up in my sleeping bag, shivering through the next two hours and waking up in pretty bad shape.
LEG 8 – F’ing Flagging
The guys helped me through transition, and we walked out a little while later, mountain meals in hand (and one in my pack, because I couldn’t seem to wrap my stomach around eating something substantial and instead opted for a lighter oatmeal packet to start), ready for the next long trek. The Yaks came in as we were getting ready to go, so we knew that we had at least a couple hours on them, assuming they elected to sleep there as well.
Based on the course schematic and time projections, we had planned seven hours for this trek through the myrtle forest. Those time estimates quickly went up in smoke. We started with a bit of a nav bobble in the cow pastures, as Brent was more focused on his mountain meal than the maps, but righted ourselves into the forest in search of the infamous pink tape, which we would attempt to follow for the next 25 kilometers.
The first challenge was sticking to the tape at all, the heavy darkness making it near impossible in places to spot the next marking. In this early stretch, I was a bit of a zombie, but soon enough the guys put me on tape-spotting duty, and that worked out well, as it woke me up and gave me something to focus on, and allowed them to concentrate on bearings and contours without getting mucked up in the flagging.
We started moving relatively efficiently and made our way to the area where the first CP was meant to be, at the base of a “big tree” on a spur off of the flagged route. And there we wandered for hours, spoking outward from the pink tape to make sure that someone always had eyes on someone who had eyes on the pink. It was unrelenting, and we were positive we saw other headlights in the area. Ultimately, after half a dozen different attacks, we made our way out to a road – our only known point – and then walked down to our elevation and painstakingly followed a bearing 900 meters back in. By this point, it was daylight, and we were able to see the land and the features, which helped immensely. Eventually, Eric dropped into a reentrant and worked his way up, hitting the flag dead on.
We were all relieved, but also pretty deflated. So, Brent circled the wagons. “Okay guys,” he said, “what do we want to do here? Are we going to meander through the rest of the day and see where we end up, or do we want to race?” We looked at each other and nodded emphatically, the pep talk having its intended effect, and then we picked up our pace as we trekked up and over a ridge to the second half of the section — more pink flagging along the Rattler Range to Ralph Falls.
Brent spiked that point perfectly, and as our energy buoyed, we began to run along the muddy path toward the next CP. That is, until we paused for a bathroom break, and when we began again, we somehow followed the wrong pink flagging back around in a loop, finding ourselves back at the CP we’d just visited. It had only cost us 30 minutes, but once again, it was pretty deflating. Our pace slowed, and we trudged along through the rest of the section, intermittently losing the flagging and having to pause to reorient.
The leg ended with a descent into a creek, before climbing back up to the viewing platform at Ralph Falls. As we ascended up from the creek, race ref Igor popped out of the bushes. “Busted!” he yelled.
We all looked at each other in horror, wondering what we could have possibly done, until Igor started smiling at us. We dissolved into delirious giggles, answered a few questions from the media person accompanying him, and pulled ourselves together to run the last kilometers to the point and into the TA, astounded to find that we’d maintained our second place position.
As we were building our bikes, DASH came rolling in. Ryan pulled a couple leeches from his shoe (hangers-on from the muddy ridgeline creeks) and we picked up our pace and shoved off for a 100km ride to the beach.
LEG 9 – Wombats and Wallabies and Possums, Oh My!
This was a pleasant and not particularly noteworthy ride through the Tasmanian farmlands. Once again, we opted to avoid stopping at pubs or cafes, but since I knew I needed different food from what I had, we made a quick pitstop at a grocery store, where I walked out with a banana, a liter of milk, a few snowflake rolls, and a chicken and camembert pie. I ended up largely ignoring the milk, but I shared the rest with the boys over the next several hours and got a needed boost of energy for most of the ride.
We rode past cow pastures, Brent yipping and yelling and inviting herds of cattle to chase him down the roads. We chatted with local kids, who asked what “shock systems” we were riding and told us that they liked living in small towns because there were fewer kidnappings. You can imagine the number of references to Antoine Dodson’s “Hide Your Kids, Hide Your Wife” tv spot that came in the miles that followed. We passed back onto forest roads, where we established a great system, with Ryan and I riding steadily while Brent and Eric alternately sped up and slowed down as they managed the maps. We were never out of eye- or earshot of each other, but it allowed us to maintain efficiency while keeping sharp focus on the nav.
After the last CP, Brent masterfully whacked to an invisible trailhead (“I wonder how many teams that’s going to get,” we mused), which took us out to the main road for 20 kilometers leading straight to Musselroe Bay and the start of the final trek. By that point, he had been so focused on maps, that when the nav let up, he started to fog over. We paused at a little school in Gladstone to get some food in him and regroup. Brent needed a short nap, and never one to pass up sleep, I curled up next to him in the bothy and woke up 15 minutes later with an uneaten cheese sandwich in my hand.
Brent settled back in quickly and we continued on our way, through what was essentially a wild animal park of wombats, wallabies, possums, and even a little owl, all darting out across the road. It would have been a ton of fun, but I woke up from our nap still pretty tapped out, and spent those 20 kilometers dry-heaving on the bike as I slogged down the road.
Brent has dealt with those empty-stomach heaves before, so he and I strategized about a recovery. Start by nibbling on crackers. Maybe graduate to teddy grahams. Just keep taking in small amounts, until you’re settled enough to take in more. And gradually, that’s what I did. First on those final kilometers to the TA, then as we transitioned, and then into the next leg. I was never totally on the other side, but I got myself stable enough to get through the race without further compromising the team.
LEG 10 – Bay of Fires
When we arrived in transition, we took note of the fact that there were only two sets of bike boxes there – ours and DASH’s. This meant that the Yaks were likely not close enough to worry about any longer. We made it our goal to get out before the four guys came through, and had our most efficient TA of the race to that point, breaking down our bikes for the last time and loading up on food for the 40-kilometer beach trek along the famed Bay of Fires.
It was 1:45am when we left TA, which meant that we had to contend with five hours of darkness along a nondescript sandy beach. It was an undiscovered form of torture. We all dealt with some variation of sleepmonsters, from reading messages in the seaweed to sleep-walking dangerously close to the surf. Ryan pulled out his iPod shuffle, which we rotated among us, we belted out more Queen (and a little bit of Peter, Paul, and Mary) into the dark sky, and we ended up taking two 15-minute naps in the sand. It wasn’t much, but it got us through the night.
To add to the challenge, all the lugging and lifting of the past three days had taken a toll on Ryan, and his central back muscles simply gave out on him, reducing him to a hunched-over lumber for the entirety of the trek. He gave up some gear to Brent and his pack to Eric early, and alternated between leaning on one of my shoulders (an advantage to the team’s height disparity!) and using one of my poles.
His capacity for suffering was truly remarkable, and while we weren’t moving quickly, his drive for forward progress buoyed the rest of us considerably.
Once the sun did come up, we spent a fair bit of time looking behind us, waiting to see another team. And sure enough, just as we were rounding the final bend along Shark Bay, we spotted four dots in the distance. We picked up our pace then and shuffled the remaining couple kilometers to a channel crossing, Jared Kohlar joining us with random factoids and questions for his Facebook Live audience.
At the channel, there was a kayak, PFDs, and paddles on either side, and we had to figure out how to get all four teammates to the opposite bank. Wading and swimming were prohibited, even though we’d gotten there at low tide and could have easily walked across. As we approached, Brent and Eric worked out a strategy — they would paddle over in the first boat and pick up the other, then return to bring me and Ryan over before paddling back across to drop off the first boat and cross one last time to get themselves and the second boat to the TA.
It was a Mensa-like puzzle four days into the race, but they executed it with relative ease, and before long we were zooming through the TA and onto the water.
LEG 11 – The Sprint, Part 1
This paddle took us across the protected Ansons Bay for a checkpoint and then up a narrowing river to a dam and the takeout, a total of 11km. Despite the low tide, we moved well and egged each other on with competitive spurts. At one point, I saw a brown speckled fin just in front of our boat. I thought I’d imagined it, but I later learned that teams had seen both stingrays and small sharks in the water. I’d like to think that I spotted one of them.
Despite the fact that DASH was behind us and closing, Brent found himself falling asleep as we worked our way down the beautiful, winding river, mercifully sheltered from the winds. So, he doused himself with helmets full of cold, salty water, and in keeping with our race week mixtape, he and Eric entertained the entire field with a final rousing duet of Bohemian Rhapsody as we rolled around the bend into TA.
Knowing that Ryan is considerably faster than I am at building bikes, and that he wouldn’t be able to lug the paddle stuff, I suggested that I focus on gathering gear and he work on our bikes. It was a good system, and I ended up getting to my bike just as he was finishing up his. We worked together, having to play around with my rear thru-axel (a new non-quick release, after several instances last year where the quick-release came unspooled while I was out riding) but otherwise moving quickly through TA. We rode out about five minutes after DASH arrived; all that was left between us and the finish, 35 kilometers of forest roads.
LEG 12 – The Sprint, Part II
From the moment we left TA, we were on fire. We sprinted the flats and the hills. I pedaled ferociously and Ryan and Eric helped with intermittent pushes and tows to get over the humps, knowing that’s where we had to make our move. We kept expecting a screaming downhill, but none ever really manifested, instead just short bursts punctuated by more rolling hills. I capitalized on the descents I’d focused on during the previous two days, attacking those short drops with everything I could muster.
The system we’d set up earlier continued to work well, with Brent focused entirely on the maps and the three of us maintaining pace. Halfway through the ride, I started noticing that my gears were jumping, and a couple kilometers from the finish, Ryan asked if I was aware that my rear brake was rubbing. I was, I told him, but I figured that it had just been knocked out of place after four days of racing. Not worth worrying about now — let’s just get to the finish. Only later did I realize that the rear thru-axel had never caught, and it was hanging precariously out of alignment the entire ride, the whole time we were willing ourselves on with “no mechanicals, no mechanicals.”
About 10 km from the finish, we left the fire roads and hit tarmac. There, we picked up our pace again, flying through the hill towns, looking behind us every few minutes for a glimpse of DASH. I was pretty sure I was going to throw up from the exertion and adrenaline — it was awesome.
Finally, we turned onto the main road in St. Helen’s and screamed toward HQ. We pulled in at 3:00pm – just over 100 hours after we began, and exactly 60 minutes ahead of my projected schedule – to raucous cheers from XPD staff and volunteers. I teared up a little bit as we took pictures under the arch (a rarity for me in an expedition that my first tears came after the finish), and then we sat down on the winner’s couch and waited for pizza. “You guys got here a little faster than we were anticipating,” we were told. “It’ll be about 10 minutes.”
We spent the next two days sorting gear, doing laundry, eating our way through St. Helen’s (I highly recommend breakfast at the laundromat cafe), and enjoying the generous hospitality of our new Aussie friends. Not an hour passed without someone offering to pick us up, transport our bags, meet us for a meal, or take us on an adventure.
The closing ceremony Saturday evening was, as always, a celebration of the sport. We swapped stories from the course, chatted about races long past with Alina McMaster, and daydreamed about adventures to come. Craig and Louise invited each team to share an anecdote about their time in the woods. They revealed a commonality in the power of teamwork, the satisfaction of Type II fun, the dangers of wombats, and the wonderful, rugged wilderness of Tasmania. Thanks to those of you following the race on Attackpoint, we shared our chagrin over learning the true Aussie meaning of our team name, and our retrospective musings over what locals must have thought as we rode through town with Rootstock emblazoned across our chests. “Hide your kids, hide your wife…”
Our thanks to Craig and Louise and the entire Geocentric Outdoors team. Our experience, from before we left Philadelphia to hours after the shuttle dropped us off at the Launceston airport for the return trip home, was a testament to community spirit, appreciation for adventure, and attention to detail. We’ll be watching eagerly for the announcement of the next editions of the race, and hoping that we can keep those XPD Blues at bay. We still have yet to experience mid-camp, after all.
And of course, a huge shoutout to our sponsors. We are forever indebted to Kanpas compasses, Foot Kinetics lubricant, Astral PFDs, Thorlo socks, Loksak map bags, Lupine lighting, Autopilot map boards, Trailnuggets bars, and our newest partner, Dirtbags bike bags, for keeping us fueled, healthy, comfortable, and moving in the right direction! These are some of the finest outdoor companies out there, and we’re honored to serve as their ambassadors for the sport of adventure racing. Get in touch if you have any questions about their products!
The 2017 season came to an amazing close for the Rootstock Racing team this past weekend. Our old AR friends and family from GOALS ARA hosted USARA Nationals, and their course did not disappoint. The field was deep, and the terrain was physical. Unlike some years, 2017’s course really emphasized navigation, and when we saw that we knew it would be our kind of race.
Despite conversations about training weekends in the general vicinity of the course, we never ended up making it into the woods, so the course was as new and fresh to us as it was to anyone else. We had two teams lined up at the start with Abby, Brian and Jim racing as Rootstock Racing. Brent, Joel, and Nicki raced as Rootstock Racing 2. Both teams were shooting for a strong finish, and if the “A” team had a good race, we had a chance to finish first in the USARA national rankings.
Long stories short, both teams were in strong positions to finish on the podium 2/3 of the way through the race. At that point, Rootstock 2 ran into some issues that caused them to fall back, but Abby, Brian and Jim kept on rolling, all the way to a National Championship title, securing the rankings and also winning the award for the fastest orienteering section.
For complete reports on both teams’ races, check out Abby and Brent’s respective team reports:
This caps off an amazing season for the entire team which included 10 podium finishes and 9 wins, not to mention a satisfying performance at the World Championship and a wonderful trip to race in Iceland.
As always, a special thank you goes out to all of our sponsors. Kanpas compasses, SOURCE hydration, Foot Kinetics lubricant, Astral PFDs, Thorlo socks, Loksak map bags, Lupine lighting, and Autopilot map boards. These are some of the finest outdoor gear companies and products out there, and we are eternally grateful to have had their support this season.
Here’s to more adventures ahead!
Preamble: Whoa Nelly! This is a long one, but aren’t all of my post-expedition race ramblings? Before I dive in, thanks to all who put any effort into reading this account of the World Championship of Adventure Racing. When you get bored, just look at the pictures:)
And a special thank you up front to our amazing sponsors: Source Hydration for keeping us going in the parched Wyoming desert, Foot Kinetics and Thorlo Socks for keeping our feet healthy as we marched and mashed across mountains and the Continental Divide, Kanpas Compasses for keeping us found when others wandered or drifted, Astral PFDs for being light and cool when summer sun tried to beat us down, Lupine Lights for never running out of juice, Loksak for keeping our maps dry, and Autopilot for being the best map boards around. We can’t race half-as-well without the great gear and support from our terrific sponsors.
OK, now for the story…
Westward Bound: For over ten years, I have watched the Adventure Racing World Championship from afar. As a teacher, it is nearly impossible to take off the requisite time to compete in the biggest event in our sport, but I have lived vicariously through the power of GPS and the ever increasing and diverse reporting that is broadcast through social media. Obviously, this year was a different story with ARWC falling in the summer months, and additionally, the race was coming to the United States for the first time thanks to the hard work of the Adventure Enablers and their team, so sure enough, Abby and I would finally be going!
Unfortunately, the month leading up to the race did not go as planned. In short, our wonderful dog Lupine, whom I had found fourteen years ago on a road-trip out west, took a turn for the worse, and we made the hard decision to put him down not long before my scheduled departure for Wyoming and Cowboy Tough. It was a devastating period of time for me and derailed my final weeks of targeted training. Emotionally worn out, I loaded up our car with our gear and started driving out to the Rockies in the middle of July. The silver lining: our remaining ten-year old dog, Phin, would accompany me west.
We had a wonderful week of adventure as we headed west, highlighted by a crushed car door thanks to a late-night cow stampede in a National Grassland, a wonderful day hike with Legendary Randy in the Black Hills, and exploration of Cuyahoga and Badlands National Parks.
After dropping Phin off with good friend Denise Mast, picking Abby and Zoe up in Denver, and then spending the next week in Yellowstone and Jackson Hole with Abby’s family, we felt ready to race, somewhat acclimated, and eager to get to Casper to meet our teammates Andy Bacon and Mark Lattanzi.
Casper Calm: Usually, the days before an expedition race are a bit fraught and overflowing with tasks and chores. In this case, we had plenty of time, and we worked our way slowly through packing our gear bins, sorting food, going out for steak and pizza dinners with good friends, taking a short day hike on Casper Mountain, and soaking in the hotel hot tub. I know some felt a bit stir-crazy, but after a long month of emotional chaos and driving, I was glad for the few days of relative peace with little to focus on other than sorting gear.
The requisite ARWC parade started at the gear-staging yard and meandered along the Platte River, leading the field of nearly 60 teams from approximately 20 countries into the heart of Casper. There we were unleashed to visit a variety of downtown establishments, a brief tour of Casper that saw us dressing in western costumes, riding a mechanical bull, sampling local ice-cream and taking pictures with various local signs and symbols, including a poster of the looming eclipse, a sight that is apparently going to be best viewed in Casper Wyoming.
We finished the evening with some local BBQ, and then headed back for a final night of rest.
To the Line: Things took a turn back at the hotel. Denise had come up from Denver for the start of the race, and she had Phin in tow. Delighted to see him and wanting to relieve Denise for a night, we brought Phin into our room. Abby fell asleep rather quickly, but I was wired and unable to drift off. After some time, not only was I wide awake, but I was riveted by the sounds of a pacing dog. And then a vomiting dog.
After doing my best to clean up after him (thankfully this initial deposit was small), I turned to ear plugs and was finally able to knock off for a fitful three or four hours of sleep. Not the best way to start a six day race.
When Abby shook me awake, she revealed that we had swapped our sleep patterns, and now the room smelled rather nasty as Phin had been sick a fair bit more while my ear plugs blissfully blocked the sound of vomit, pacing, and diarrhea that had broken Abby’s sleep. We only had 30 minutes to get ourselves up and ready and to the bus.
Other than throwing on my clothes and grabbing my remaining gear, I spent the entire time running about, digging up cleaning supplies, sopping up the mess until the final second, and then running off to the bus where I collapsed with the stack of maps they handed out upon departure. That saying about getting to the starting line? Doesn’t usually include cleaning up after a sick dog. Thanks Phin.
The rest of the morning passed quickly. Six hours after boarding the bus in Casper, we jumped off at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, maps marked, bagged, and organized into groupings that we would deposit in gear bins as we would see them along the course.
It was a beautiful day, and we quickly found our old teammate and friend Ali Bronsdon who had agreed to come out to take photos of the team over the course of the race with the assistance of her brother Todd. The atmosphere was happy and upbeat with dozens of our AR friends from home and abroad all eager for the gun to go off following some words and wishes from the Governor of Wyoming. We staged our packs and walked to the line.
Stage 1-2 – Into Hell: Well, I have no doubt that my blown last month of training affected me for the start. Neither did the fact that the first two legs of the race were under hot sun at altitude with 1000 feet of elevation gain in the opening handful of miles help my cause. And I’m pretty sure it didn’t help that despite our discussion to take it easy, we pushed a faster pace than we needed to or maybe should have. Whatever the reason or excuse, I had a miserable start to the race and my mind was in a bad place when we finished the first two stages.
Those first two stages were really one relatively short and easy run: we first ran a loop on various trails under the ski lifts of the Mountain Resort, thankfully without our packs. Still, it was a relatively fast three miles with quite a bit of elevation gain and loss, and by the time we returned to our packs, my legs and lungs were gassed.
We then retrieved our packs and set off for a flat seven mile run on a sidewalk to the start of stage three where we would begin packrafting. We had specifically discussed running tennish-minute miles on this second stage, but we set off much faster than that, and I immediately fell behind. Before long, Andy was shouldering my pack, which helped a bit but didn’t fully relieve the strain on my body. Before long, my stomach felt off, and I was having to dig so much deeper than I would have expected for such a short stage. Considering that foot travel is usually my strength, I was a bit terrified that the race would turn disastrous for me in the day(s) ahead. What was wrong with me?!
Stage 3 – Riding the Snake: Had we gone into a big bike ride or a massive trek, I would be willing to bet that the first full day at least would have been a disaster, but thankfully Stage Three was a 20 mile packraft down the Snake River. I took a couple of minutes to gather myself in transition, finding a bathroom, eating and drinking, and helping Abby get one of our two packrafts ready. We hit the water ranked somewhere in the mid-high 30s, and we set off down the river.
The Snake turned out to be a savior for me, though I still noticed some bizarre and distressing signs: cramping in my arms and core, sensations I’ve never experienced, plagued me for the last hour of the paddle. Still, my legs were able to recover and relax, and we made good time thanks to our great Alpacka Gnu boats and our experience packrafting in New England, Alaska and around home. We passed a number of teams on our way downriver, and we also all agreed that the paddle was a blast as we floated through the various braided, glacial channels of the river. It wasn’t Alaska, but it was still a blast and a great way to ease into the real race to come.
After reaching the TA, we found we had moved up a few spots. I focused on more food, liquid and electrolytes, and thankfully we would be starting Stage Four as the sun began its final descent. I wasn’t quite right yet, but I knew that once we made it to dusk, I’d come alive. Heat has never been my friend, and the combination of heat, altitude, and the fast start had depleted me so much faster than I had expected. The Snake had allowed me to begin a restoration, and I was cautiously optimistic that the fall of night would finish the job.
Stage 4 – Death March: Being relatively local to the Adventure Enablers’ home-base, having competed in many of their shorter events, and having followed previous editions of Cowboy Tough, we knew this race wouldn’t be our cup of tea (at least not for Abby and me). Adventure Enablers races tend to privilege physical power, speed, and strength. If you want a race that has more challenging and interesting navigation and more off-trail opportunity, you’d be better off with Untamed New England.
As we expected, the first long trek was quite straight forward. Yes, there were a few general route choices, but for the most part one followed a trail out of the TA and more or less stayed on trails the entire 40 miles to the next TA. And with no checkpoints on the stage, it felt rather monotonous for long stretches.
Thankfully the trail shot us up into the mountains immediately, and for the first two-three hours we had spectacular views of the sun setting over looming ranges of peaks and valleys in all directions. Once darkness fell, it proved to be a long night as we slogged along the ridge. We considered dropping off it once or twice, but the trail was relatively clean, so we continued along, playing leapfrog with a number of teams as the hours ticked away.
For me, I was at my strongest. Sure enough, as the air turned cool, I came alive and the pain and poor performance under the afternoon sun gave way to strength and energy. And it couldn’t have been at a better time. Andy and Mark had shouldered more of the load coming out of the TA, and both found themselves struggling significantly with the altitude. While they had come out a few days early, we had been out for a week or so longer, and both Abby and I felt noticeably stronger and better as we traversed the ridge at elevations largely above 9000 feet. So it was that Abby and I took added weight and I was also able to help tow for portions of the night. We couldn’t move as fast as we wanted to, but we worked well as a team and still maintained a solid pace through the night.
As we neared dawn, we rolled the dice a bit and dropped off the ridge. We were out of water and had been for a while. Dropping down meant we would add some distance, but we hoped that finding water sooner and then having gentler terrain would be worth it. In retrospect, we probably should have just stayed along the ridge. Most of the teams we were with were still in TA when we finally did arrive at the end of the trek, but I suspect we lost an hour or so by dropping down.
Alas, the water was refreshing, and the trail in the valley was a fair bit kinder than that on the ridge. As we neared the end of the trek, the sun was beginning to climb, and we were excited to head out on bikes. A quick look at the map suggested 4-5 km to go, but the trail proved to be far longer than that, and what should have taken 30-40 minutes went on forever, a rather dispiriting end to a stage that had left us battered and bruised.
Stage 5 – A Nap and Move: We had stopped for ten minutes on the trail that morning, but we hadn’t slept yet. We built our bikes, transitioned and headed out on the first bike, an 80+ mile ride, largely on sealed roads that would culminate with some single track. We started off with a water stop and then motored out of the mountains. Before long, I felt myself dazed and heading toward sleep, a combination of simply being tired but also the effects of the afternoon heat and sun reasserting its grip on me.
20 or so miles into the ride, we stopped at a mapped store. I quickly assumed the position of the dead on the small shaded lawn outside the establishment and passed out. The others fussed, ate, dozed a bit, but generally waited patiently while I recharged somewhat.
When they woke me, it was 4:30 or so in the afternoon. I was able to stay awake thereafter, but the heat was still slowing me, and I was unable to do much other than draft along in the pace-line, and even then I was working harder than it seemed I should have to. At some point we met up with a man riding on the CDT, exploring and preparing for a possible run at the Ride the Divide next year. It was a welcome break, as was a brief encounter with James Thurlow at a CP in a town along the way.
As we neared the end of the road riding, we stopped for a few minutes so I could get more calories and electrolytes into me. It was a welcome and important respite, not quite on par with the Snake, but definitely useful in setting me up for the night. When we started again, we met up with Wedali, and we spent the next 45 minutes or so riding and chatting with them, a good distraction until sunset.
Soon thereafter, we turned off the pavement and onto a dirt road for a long moderate ascent into the foothills of the Continental Divide. We rode in with Wedali, finding a control along the way, hunkering down during a lightning storm that exploded a few hundred meters above us, and then losing each other as we neared the first single-track segment of the race. We rode ahead, and while we would be close throughout the race, we basically didn’t see them again until the race was over.
As it turned out, we had entered the first significant nav challenge of the race. On the map, a small trail network would bring us to CP 6. All looked rather straightforward. As it turned out, this wasn’t true at all, and after riding for some time, we were surrounded by wandering teams. We knew where we were (and realized that we too had missed the logical turn), and despite the fact that teams were largely heading back the way we had come, we elected to push on. We knew we had missed the intended trail, and rather than poking around for what was likely not as obvious as it seemed, we decided to move forward to use various other trails to cut up to our intended route.
While other teams clearly had looked into the general area we headed toward, most had abandoned the effort for whatever reason, but we slowly worked our way forward, finding trails that soon had us alone once again and moving in the right direction. It took a bit of time to lock-in on our location, and we ended up taking on a relatively short 20-30 minute bike-whack, but in the end we moved relatively efficiently to the control. I suspect there was an even better way to do it, but we made up hours (and for some, hours and hours) on a number of teams that were either ahead or just behind us.
We rolled into the TA in high spirits, knowing we had made up some time, and ready for our first real sleep of the race. We ate some race-provided cheeseburgers, piled into a tent, and shut our eyes for three hours. I didn’t get much sleep, and while the others slept more than I did, overall it wasn’t the best rest of our race careers. Still, it was a bit of dozy rest, and we felt more awake when we rose and filed out of TA in the pre-dawn light. Some of the teams we had been with at the end of the bike section had only recently come in.
Stage 6 – CDT Shenanigans: Next up: another 40 mile death march along the Continental Divide Trail. Thankfully, there were a few CPs on this trek to break it up mentally, and we knew the trail would not be as easy to follow as on the first trek. Still, the RDs had plotted the CDT on the map, and looking at it, anything other than following the orange line seemed foolish.
The trek started off well enough with an easy stroll up a road and access trail to a junction with the CDT and the first control. We left TA with Peak Life, and when we reached the first control we found we had caught up to the Italians from Freemind. From there we had a few hours of fun, following the orange blazed CDT. Sometimes it was quite easy to follow, but at other times it would disappear. At one point we tried to shortcut off the trail only to find our friends DART had done something similar. Things began to become a bit wonky, roads and trails not quite lining up, the CDT proving to be rather elusive for quite some time. But we managed to traverse the terrain well enough and sometime in the late morning we converged with DART and the Italians on the orange-blazed track once again.
For a while, we traveled together, and then we hit a crux point of the trek, one that seemed to really throw everyone for a loop. On the map, the orange-marked CDT shot off a road. We stopped at the right place and watched as Peak Life (missing for several hours at this point but now reappeared) headed off in what turned out to be the “right direction”. DART had stopped somewhere behind us, and Freemind was shortly behind.
Unconvinced we decided to stay on the road, and sure enough we soon saw more orange blazes. Ah hah! we cried, and we picked up our pace hoping to prevent Peak Life from seeing they had turned off too early. Freemind followed for a bit, but they soon peeled off, stopping to examine the maps further. For another 10-15 minutes we followed orange blazes, and then they vanished. By this point we knew we had gone too far, and we stopped to analyze our options.
Ultimately, Mark suggested the blazes we had followed were old ones, no longer valid thanks to the periodic reroutes that are famous on the CDT, a logical supposition. We discussed staying on the roads, longer but perhaps easier. But ultimately we decided to go back. We hadn’t gone that far past the split, and the trail would be much faster. So we turned back.
Long story short: the “trail” as mapped by the RDs was not a trail any longer, if it ever was. I know a lot of teams lost hours in what came next: a solid bushwhack along a mountainside, several kilometers in length, which passed through a forest of deadfall and across several wet, swampy reentrants. The scale was small, so there were plenty of potentially distracting spurs, reentrants and knolls to slow folks down. Once we got ourselves oriented and accepting that there was likely no defined trail to actually use, we set off at an efficient pace, and we made good time through the woods.
It turned out to be a delightful section as we were off trail for the only real stretch of the race, and the woods and spurs of the mountains were beautiful, if dusty and hot. At one point, we found the bed of an old trail, indeed the one that had been mapped. It was littered and crisscrossed with dead trees, but for a kilometer or so, we were able to make out and follow the tunnel through the trees before we lost it and gave up on finding it again.
Eventually, we reached more defined trails, linking up once more with DART before losing them again on the way to the next checkpoint. Once we had found that point, we descended to a campground where we parked ourselves at a picnic table to feast and mentally gather ourselves for the second half of the trek.
As it would turn out, the fun of route-finding ended for the day. The lion’s share of the rest of the trek was along the ACTUAL CDT, a trail we had not seen until we hit the campground. The trail was easy to follow, blazed in an entirely different manner than what we had seen, and mindless. For an hour or so, we had the luxurious company of a couple who were thru-hiking the trail, and this was a welcome distraction for us as we weathered fatigue, heat and sore feet by conversing with them about our various parallel adventures. DART had fallen behind somewhere, and at some point, we let Freemind sneak ahead of us.
After night had fallen, we hit a control high up on the Continental Divide; our hiking friends had pitched their camp somewhere near the pass, and the Italians were curled up in space blankets nearby. We descended the backside of the range, navigating down a trail into a network of infuriating and poorly mapped trails and roads. Mark and Andy took lead on getting us through this series of trails, and despite the confusion on the map and on the ground, they kept us moving in the right direction. We finally reached the final CP, a road, and the welcome smile and headlamp of Ali who came out to greet us.
From there, we had a final hour or so trekking to the TA, located in the Ghost Town at South Pass City. We checked in, Mark and Andy took the requisite shot of Wyoming bourbon, and we curled up with a few other snoring teams in the warm bales of the small hay barn nestled in abandoned settlement. I had my wires crossed when packing so was without my sleeping bag, but I was able to get warm curled up under a few bales of hay. It was without question one of the best nights of sleep I’ve had in an expedition race, and four hours later we were up with the sun and heading out on the bike, clearly in better shape than most of the other teams in the middle of the pack and creeping our way up the rankings.
Stage 7 – All Cylinders: For, I believe, the only time in the entire race, all four members of Rootstock Racing felt right and good. The morning was cool, we were rested and over the altitude, and we were inspired by the fact that we had been moving up and had a great sleep under our belts whereas some fellow teams were clearly not as rested since they had slept out on the trek. We rode out of TA ten minutes or so behind DART who had come into TA while we slept, and we quickly passed them.
The first half of this bike ride was all on roads, and we motored along in fine spirits. After the first of three big climbs, we descended on dirt tracks into a deep valley, riding alongside a beautiful, red-rock canyon, and plummeting down to a river crossing and a control. There we found Peak Life. Like DART and the Italians, they too had slept out in the mountains, and they looked worn. We passed them by, and we wouldn’t see them again for the remainder of the race.
After the river crossings, we had a long steep climb. We had to push a bit here and there, but we rode almost the whole way to the next pass before another roaring descent. One more climb, the sun now beating down and Mark’s tire flatting, costing us 20 or so minutes. But we managed well, and before we knew it we were cresting into a final mountain pass, punching a CP and then zipping along for an hour of fun, rolling, single-track. Sadly, the trail was littered with dead mice, remnants of teams’ passage in the darkness the night before, and at one turn in the trail, we skipped around a cow leg, possibly the work of a mountain lion.
Dead animals aside, the hour long roller coaster ride down the mountain to Sinks Canyon was fantastic, and we were in great spirits as we ripped down the paved road on the valley floor to the TA, the Middle Popo Agie River cascading and crashing beside us. My mouth and eyes were open wide, grinning and beaming as we whipped along; we had heard that champion Seagate took six hours to knock out this ride. We’d roll in around 6 hours and 20 minutes, including Mark’s 20 or so minute bike mechanical.
We were blazing, and Sinks was absolutely stunning. The course might not play to our collective strengths, and while we were pleasantly surprised by the nav moments we had experienced, it still wasn’t anything to get all that excited about from a navigational standpoint. But what a beautiful journey we were on through the state of Wyoming. And now we were in one of the actual highlights of the course. We were ready to play.
Stage 8 – Over Hill and under Stone: First up was a quick rappel. We were allowed to go up sans packs, so we grabbed a bit of food and our harnesses, and we climbed up a flagged trail for a 200 foot or so rappel off a cliff opposite the TA. Ali kept us company, snapping pictures and asking questions as we worked our way up to the top. We joked a bit with the volunteers who remarked we seemed in far better spirits and condition than most, and we made quick work of the rappel. I descended last and took a brief moment to stop halfway down the face to take it all in. I should have taken longer.
Down at the bottom, we set off for the next challenge in the Sinks: a short caving section. By this point DART had rolled into TA. As we worked our way through the caves and back to TA, the Italians would appear as would another strong American team, Quest AR. For now, however, we were enjoying the canyon, and we made our way to the cave.
The entrance to the cave was flagged and barely visible, a small squeeze down into a boulder field on a side-hill. Once inside, we descended through an old metal grate, and then we had to follow a lightly flagged path through a series of tunnels, drops and squeezes. At times, the passages were tight, sometimes open enough to stand. The walls were beautiful, rippling whitish-grey rock all around, polished and chiseled from the rise and fall of the river’s waters, and as we descended deeper into the labyrinth we could hear the faint sound of the rushing Popo Agie.
Eventually, we reached the checkpoint, and before we turned back we poked our heads into a hole in the ground down a side passage. Below us, the river was rushing down an underground passage, the noise of the water a steady thrum. Smiling, we talked to our friend Brian Leitten and another media persona from Sports Illustrated before heading back to the surface.
Back out in the warm air, we made our way back to our bikes with a brief pit stop at one of the amazing natural features of Sinks: a pool where the Popo Agie emerges from its underground journey, and one which was full of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of enormous trout, all swaying in the current.
It was a spectacular two hours: mountain biking in, rappelling off the canyon’s cliffs, and crawling beneath its rocky floor. Ahead of us loomed the monstrous 165 mile bike. I think we all had been either dreading it or perhaps to some degree ignoring it, but now it was time to begin the massive ride east. We TAed quickly and headed out for Lander, agreeing we would take a bit of time to stop in town for some real food while we got the rest of our gear and food in order for the next 24 hours. Oh, what a day it would be.
Stage 9 – The Nothingness: After some pizza, ice-water and a bit of quiet but active rest in Lander, we set off on our bikes for the beast. The first bit was relatively quick and on pavement, though we fought a headwind for the first hour or so. Eventually, we turned off the tarmac for a big loop out into the hinterlands. The next few hours were nice enough as we rode by remote ranches and further picturesque, Wyoming scenery, but as dusk fell, we found that enjoyment of the scenery had given way to the reality that we had a very long and relatively desolate ride to complete. Spots on the road offered up dispiriting and hidden layers of semi-dried mud, and the dramatic landscapes of the day had evolved into more featureless, endless, sweeping terrain.
Night fell, and we found ourselves, surprisingly, alongside the strong Kiwi team, Sneaky Weasel Gang. We jostled for a while before they seemed to escape, though somewhere along the way we would pass them again for good. Hours after dark, we found ourselves once more with our old friends DART at a rest-stop, again out on the tarmac. We took a quick ten minute nap in the warm bathroom before setting off into the night again, saying goodbye to DART as they huddled into the bathroom behind us.
And so began the nightmare of what I came to call “The Nothingness”. For hours, we biked into the night, up a seemingly never-ending but gentle incline, into a steady though lenient headwind. The road and terrain around it were void of any features save for the occasional jackrabbit and the rare flash of headlamps on the blackened horizon. Sleepiness settled in, our pace was dismal, and morale was flagging.
As we punched CP 24, it was clear we had to change the narrative. We needed sleep and our mental faculties were beginning to fray. A sign pointed down the road to some sort of old livestock station. We had already identified that stretch of road as potential sleeping ground, and the sign offered a glimmer of hopeful confirmation that maybe, just maybe, we would find a bit of shelter in what appeared to be a complete wasteland. We biked on.
And sure enough, emerging out of the depths of night, a structure of some sort caught our headlamps, our drooping eyes widening ever so slightly. We turned off the main road and found ourselves beside an old, sprawling barn structure. We gingerly rolled out of our saddles and walked inside, finding the barn a bit of a ruin with dead vultures and other animals littering the stalls. Dozens of old glass bottles of animal antibiotics littered the corners of the barn along with a fair bit of refuse and other unidentified shapes and messes huddled in the shadows. We carried on, hoping for something a bit better than what we were seeing.
I walked outside again and headed for the two small trailers we had seen. Poking my head inside I found animal excrement and garbage. I continued on.
And then, I found myself standing before what we came to call a modernized covered wagon. From a distance it appeared to be in the same mold as those rolling carriages that crept west centuries before behind oxen, cattle, and settlers, hell-bent on surviving the long journey across the Great Plains. Up close, it proved to be a sealed up trailer in disguise. I opened the door and found a bunk, complete with a thick mattress, and another foam pad on the floor. The trailer was complete with a small wood-burning stove, and while it might be tight, it would suffice. We piled in and quickly passed out for what may be the best sleep I have ever had in an expedition race (I know, right on the heels of another sleep I waxed on about…).
After waking once, maybe twice, and electing to go back to sleep, we rose just before dawn. Four hours of warm, comfortable, sheltered sleep had done us good, and we quickly dragged ourselves out into the surprisingly warm night air. We set off on our bikes, seeing a couple of teams within a few hundred meters. Sure that some teams had passed us while we slept, we knew we would have a good race before us, most likely with our friends from DART but also sure that teams like Quest, Wedali, and others that we had seen over the last two days would be either ahead of us or breathing down our necks.
While we rode better, it still felt like something was holding us back. I personally just didn’t seem to have much power as we continued to ride through the vast open desolation. Periodic Pronghorn sightings momentarily distracted me from the massive bike, but the end seemed too far away to grasp, even after 16 or so hours of riding (and sleeping).
After a break at CP 25, a control manned by two kind and generous medics from NOLS, we set off once more, the sun creeping higher and higher, the endless washboard ruts continuing to jar our minds and bodies alike. DART and Quest, we determined, had indeed passed us overnight and were on their way toward the last segment of the bike leg. We rode on, hoping to catch a glimpse of them but unable to do so.
Finally, sometime in the mid-late morning, we emerged in a town, checked into another manned CP, and continued on to the small ghost settlement of Ferris. And it was somewhere around here that I began to bottom out.
It began at the manned CP on the tarmac road. The volunteers, knowing teams were in low spirits and exhausted, took the approach of trying to cheer us up. While I appreciated the effort intellectually, emotionally, I was ready to unload on them. All I wanted to do in that moment was embrace how miserable I was feeling, how hot it was getting, how long the ride had been, how uncomfortable the permanently embedded pebbles and grit in my ass really was, and how it was nowhere near over. I was done with the biking; I didn’t want smiles and good cheer.
And then we rode into a headwind that was perhaps the stiffest of the ride. Yes, we were on pavement for a bit, but it was painfully slow going, and by the time we turned out of the wind and onto the dirt road to Ferris, I was wiped physically.
And then we entered the oven.
And then I was done.
I think the rest of the team was feeling the heat too, but we rolled to a stop for a ten minute shade break so I wouldn’t roll up with a tumbleweed and call it quits. There was no shade to speak of, but we did manage to find some in the shadows of the small chemical plant partway to Ferris. And so we sat in the cooler shade of the plant, ignoring the signs warning of noxious gasses and fumes, trusting that the stiff wind and limited exposure would be enough safeguard. It was remarkable how much of a difference the shade made, and I felt restored enough to ride on ten or so minutes later.
We set off for the final stretch to Ferris. We took a small detour when I decided in my half-baked frustration to lead us on a “short cut” trail I was sure would cut-off a switchback in the road. Fifteen minutes of bushwhacking later, we pushed our bikes back onto the road, my teammates patient enough with me, Mark’s punctured tired not so much. On we rode.
Finally, we rolled into the final checkpoint of the leg in the ramshackle buildings of Ferris. Photographers and friends Legendary Randy and Chris Radcliffe were waiting, and we took a short break there to fix Mark’s tire, drink, and eat. The final ride in had become more interesting with great, rolling, white sand dunes all around, framed by mountains on three sides, and it was about then that I began to realize that we had been in a landscape eerily reminiscent of a Mad Max film: desolate beauty with unsettling, rough, toxic, industrial remnants of civilization. My spirits and energy, oddly enough, were returning.
From there, we took off. We made our way through a network of sandy roads and side trails, and the riding here proved to be the absolute best of the segment. We rolled and soared along toward the mountains and a canyon that would direct us to the TA. We made good time, spirits as high as they had been in 24 hours, and soon we were on the final long descent to the TA, marveling at East Wind as they came blowing by at one point an hour or so from transition. Once in TA we found DART and Quest both there in addition to the Japanese, and we hunkered down to pack up our bikes and load up for what was technically two packrafting legs, but what was really one long one that we expected would take the better part of a day.
Stages 10-11 – Toward Casper: As we rode into that penultimate TA, we all remarked how it felt like we had broken a barrier. We had knocked off two foot-mashing and mentally exhausting treks. We had quickly and easily conquered the 35 mile bike to Sinks Canyon that boasted 6000 feet of elevation and had people planning to spend a day hike-a-biking. We had outlasted the massive ride through the great Nothingness of Wyoming. And we had weathered the sometimes harsh climate and environment of Wyoming’s vast, windy, arid expanses. Admittedly, we had and would continue to luck out when it came to our timing with the explosive weather that other teams had to suffer through more so than we, but still.
Now, the end was in sight, and the rest seemed metaphorically downhill, if not literally so.
Of course, this meant that a nasty surprise was in store, beginning with the rapid onset of a Wyoming storm. Thankfully we were on our way to the water, unlike several teams who were sitting in their small floating bathtubs out on the reservoirs and in the canyons of the packraft stage when the storm broke. We were on our way down to the Pathfinder reservoir, so we hunkered down under our packrafts for twenty minutes or so before nervously continuing on, lightning flashing and striking in the near distance.
As we descended, we saw Quest and DART not far off. For a while we paralleled each other, all of us heading toward the first checkpoint of the stage. They were off-trailing, while we were on the correct trail, which theoretically would take us straight to the control. For the record, I have checked this on the tracking, and indeed, I had us traveling the right trail from the get-go, but alas, distraction, altered water levels and who knows what else would derail our steady progress and efforts to pass Quest and DART for the first time in a day or so.
As we traveled the trail, we noticed something odd: on the map, the control was clearly plotted along the trail, but it also was within a couple hundred meters of the reservoir’s shoreline (on two sides moreover). In addition, the control had an odd clue, “West side of Pathfinder”. Did this mean it was on the water? Or was it on the trail as plotted?
We asked these questions over and over again for the next several hours. One thing we knew early on: the trail we were on was clearly NOT heading toward the water as it did on the map; we could see this as the path traversed high ridges with clear views of the reservoir below. DART and Quest, still off-trail it seemed, seemed to be thinking something similar, and we came across another trail that headed off in a line toward them and the shore. Perfect, we thought.
We headed off the main track, and soon we were in the marshy low-land that lined up perfectly with where the checkpoint ought to have been. Without replaying the entire two or three hours of frustration, we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening light searching fruitlessly for the control. All three teams. Everyone had good, logical ideas explaining why we weren’t finding it and where it ought to be. Finally, around dusk, we broke off from DART and Quest and headed back up onto the spurs to the west, convinced we had sorted it out.
Unfortunately, we hadn’t. But as darkness fell, we ran into NV Journey who had come in a couple hours behind us but who similarly seemed confused as to where to look. By this point, we determined that had we simply stayed on the original east-west trail we had been on at the beginning of this fiasco, we would have located the control and been across the reservoir by now. We settled on heading back the way, blaming altered water levels for the mix-up.
Fortunately, we were right to do so. In the process of crossing paths with NV Journey, I shared this thought process and our lost hours with them, and they followed behind. They very well may have come to the same conclusion at the same time, but considering the fact that they expressed confusion themselves, I was a bit disappointed to sort it all out with them alongside for it.
By this point, DART and Quest had figured it out themselves and they had disappeared, getting a jump on us for the next segment of the leg. We quietly inflated our now gritty packrafts, and we set off in pursuit. Normally, I’d struggle to stay awake at this point: we had a 2.5 hour paddle in the dark on night five of the race, but I was locked in and engaged. I knew the others were tired, but I also knew that if we nailed this relatively featureless paddle in the dark, we might make up some of the lost time on those ahead of us.
For the next two and half hours, we rafted in the dark, primarily lit up with glowsticks as a thick cloud cover blocked the moon and stars. Such paddling is some of my very favorite, and it always reminds me of my first time packrafting at night in Untamed New England, 2012. Every half hour or so, I’d stop us and check the shore, measuring distance through time. If we weren’t careful, we would drift and we could easily miss the proper cove where the dam and next control were located. As we progressed, we could see other teams scattered about, and as we narrowed in on the correct location, I guessed that we had made up the lost time.
Sure enough, we had. Fatigued and a bit mentally strained, we pulled out at the Pathfinder dam, and we sorted out what to do. The next segment was the rather mysterious Fremont Canyon. We knew there was whitewater. We knew there were obstacles. It was dark. We were collectively tired, and not all in agreement as to our comfort levels taking the thing on in the dark. Furthermore, Olof showed up having finished the race hours before in third place (awesome job AMK!!), and he suggested the canyon was a challenge even in the daylight. I THINK we also learned that Team Canada had torn TWO Gnus in there, also during the light.
BUT, we had passed DART and Quest, and we wanted to keep the pressure on. Ryan from DART suggested they were going to rest until daylight, but most of us felt that the canyon was being blown out of proportion a bit. It was a guess, but an educated one. We decided to continue.
Getting down to the water below the Pathfinder Dam was a bit of a tedious exercise, probably made slower by the fact that we were tired with some of the lowest team energy of the race due to the uncertainty of the canyon in the dark. As we finally put in, we saw Quest come down to the water, confirmation that we had moved back ahead of our cohort of teams.
The Fremont started off benignly enough, the biggest obstacle being shallow water. We splashed our way down the river, our minds steeling themselves when we finally entered the canyon proper. Objectively speaking, the next hour or so was beautiful and unique as we worked our way down the boulder-littered canyon. While I know many teams tried portaging the majority of it, we took the opposite approach, paddling as much as we could. We did elect to skip one or two spots, more because we couldn’t see anything. We also paddled some of the biggest rapids, including a solo run of the one class 3 rapid; Mark and I dropped Andy and Abby off, but we both wanted to run the narrow, twisting shoot of water complete with a drop of several feet. It was a blast.
But we also had some hairy and straining moments. Any time we did portage, we found the rocks and boulders to be slick, slippery and treacherous. Abby fell once or twice, one time taking a swim. Already tired, it was mentally taxing to say the least.
The biggest test, however, came during one bigger-rapid run in which we had to navigate a series of fast turns. Andy and Mark led, making it through safely, but unfortunately, Abby and I got hung up on a boulder and turned over. We were separated, me floating down and around the boulder, Abby getting caught with the one loose pack we had and the boat. The water was frigid, not Alaska, glacial frigid, but breath-taking nonetheless. I knew as I floated down the river, forcing myself to remain calm and taking in my surroundings, that if I was as cold and shocked as I felt, it must be tens of times worse for Abby. And I couldn’t see her yet.
When I found an eddy and shallow spot to settle, I turned back and saw her on the boulder.
“Let go of the boat!” I yelled. Nothing. She seemed frozen in place, or else she misheard me ( learned afterward it was the latter).
“Let go of the boat!” I yelled again. “You’re going to have to swim!”
She finally heard or registered what I was saying and let the boat go. I was able to catch the raft and stabilize it while she then swam down to me, Mark and Andy watching the entire thing from further down-canyon. We were able to get ourselves back in the raft and continue on, cold, but intact. From above us we could see Quest and perhaps one other team scouting the canyon on foot. This would be the last time we’d see Quest, and with the exception of one more encounter with NV Journey, the last time we would see any of the teams we had raced alongside for most of the race.
From there, we paddled downriver, rain spattering us, the sky beginning to lighten. Terrified we would miss the take-out, we slowed to make sure we didn’t, and thankfully we managed to find it. We trekked up and out of the canyon, warmed ourselves up, checked in with a medic who had been watching our progress, and then we continued on with what was at times a rather animated trek and at other times a stumbling, sleeping march of the dead. As the morning sun began to truly burn off the cold from the canyon, we found ourselves inflating our boats one last time for another reservoir crossing, this time on the much smaller Alcova.
At this point, NV Journey made a brief appearance, giving us a momentary jolt that banished thoughts of a quick sleep. We woke up, packed up and set off across the Alcova, knocking off a quick CP, effectively portaging a mandatory stretch around the Alcova dam and putting back in on the North Platte River. We peeked behind, but we saw no sign of NV Journey, and according to the splits, we put time on them and other teams on every segment of the race after we found that first checkpoint back on Pathfinder. Now it was on us to stay awake and move.
Off we went, paddling down the North Platte. It was a bit of a brutal four hours. At some point I stopped paying close attention to the map, so we didn’t know how far we had gone or how much farther we had to go. At one point, we gave into sleep, closing our eyes and drifting downriver, waking here and there as our boats would bump into the shore before spiraling back into the river’s current. We half-expected that DART, Quest, Wedali, or some other team would come blazing by, but no one came.
I struggled for much of the last hour or so of the paddle, drifting in and out of sleep but somehow managing to keep some power in my strokes. When we finally did reach the TA, it was a joyous relief, and our TA was blazing fast. Several short course teams were there and seemed to have been for a bit of time when we came out of the river. While we didn’t pass any of them in TA, we were hot on their heels when we left, and no other teams were in sight behind us.
Stage 12 – The Mountain: The final ride to the finish was rather straight forward. Ride up Casper Mountain. Find the control. Ride down the other side into town. Punch one final checkpoint, and head to the finish line. It was a long ride up, but we rode relatively well until the very end when I once again began to struggle to stay awake. Thankfully we didn’t need to stop, and just as we hit pavement it began to rain.
As I noted, we were fortunate with weather; a number of teams ahead of us, and several not far behind were caught on the ascent to Casper Mountain in steady rain that turned the roads into an unspeakably thick and I believe bike-damaging mud. Some teams elected to turn back, riding all the way down and around the mountain, only to ascend again from the other side on pavement. Some pushed their bikes for hours. One team decided, wisely I believe, to strap their bikes to their packs rather than accumulate more mud on their trusty steeds while pushing. We managed to ride right up.
The final CP was rather vague, and I know several teams lost some time searching for it. We were able to figure it out efficiently and we coasted down the mountain by ourselves, staying just ahead of the rain and true cold. Once in Casper, we quickly navigated to the final control before heading into the finish, the only hiccup coming when Mark tried to convince me we had missed a turn when we hadn’t.
Finished: And so it was, nearly 126 hours after starting with 10 hours and change in sleep, Rootstock Racing finished ARWC 2017 in 22nd place. Before the race we had said that anywhere in the 25-30 range would be a respectable and good finish in this deep field of teams, especially considering this race would not play well to our strengths. Anything above that would be gravy.
While I personally would have loved more nav and off-trail travel, there is no doubt that the course exceeded my expectations. It was an amazing journey across Wyoming, we took in some spectacular terrain and sights, and there was enough problem solving when it came to routes and maps that the course didn’t get nearly as monotonous as it could have. Sinks, the Snake, and the final packrafting adventure were exceptional legs in my mind, and while the trekking (normally my favorite part of AR) was more like slogging, the land we traversed was magical.
Throughout the event we crossed paths with terrific teams. Highlights and special shout outs to: Wedali who cruised along with us and lifted our spirits on the second day. Freemind Italy who we found ourselves alongside for much of the first half of the race and who we trekked with here and there on the elusive CDT. And DART Nuun. From the Snake River until Fremont Canyon, we crossed paths, shared stories, and felt each other’s fatigue and pain on countless occasions. All the way until finish, we expected to see them come whizzing by, and while they didn’t this time, it was wonderful sharing so much of the course with them.
Special, special thanks to Ali and Todd. Seeing smiling, familiar faces was always SUCH a huge lift. Ali took some amazing photos of the team, but the camaraderie was invaluable. Whether it was the middle of the night or after a good sleep, their presence always made us smile and was a welcome distraction from the endless hours and miles of plodding or spinning. Thank you guys for coming out to cheer us on and capture us at our dirty best!
Finally, this was one of the best XPD experiences I have had, and this is largely due to the great team we had. While Abby and I had only raced with Andy Bacon once, it was clear from before the race started that teammates don’t get better than Andy. Together with Mark, we were a well-balanced unit. It would have been nice to get everyone going physically more than the one time we did, but we more than made up for it with exceptional teamwork and experience. Thank you Andy, Abby, and Mark for helping me out in the warm days and helping me make it until dark day in and day out, and thanks for a tremendous week in Wyoming.
Sea kayaking and adventure racing conjure images of boiling waves stoked by unpredictable tempests, airborne racers thrown from the safety of warm cockpits into crashing surf, adjusted courses and canceled sections to the sorrow of many excited RDs. Rarely do such paddles work out the way they were dreamed of, the conditions never seeming to reflect the glorious days of scouting that are captured in enticing color photography and then used to lure adventurers near and far to sign up for and travel to a race.
As we drove up to the Maine Summer Adventure Race, we had enough information to suggest we would likely start on the water with the promised sea kayak, but the weather forecast was spotty at best. We wondered if our epic journey north from Philadelphia would pay us back with a shortened course lasting a mere five or six hours rather than the coastal journey along Maine’s stunning coast as promised by our friends Cliff and Kate from Strong Machine Adventure Racing, still new kids on the block when it comes to race directing but ones we trust to put on a high-quality event.
As the pre-race morning unfolded, questions continued: would the weather (forecast slightly improved) hold? Would the mist clear? Would the hour and a half delay thanks to a lost bus ruin the current’s push from the well planned convergence of race and high tide?
Thankfully, the AR gods conspired to reward Kate and Cliff’s hard work, and while the lighting may not have been picture-perfect, nor the tide as strong in our favor as they had hoped, the race started with a glorious paddle through the islands and channels outside of Boothbay Harbor. Abby, Tamela, and I navigated cleanly along the coast, picking off checkpoints, holding close with the chase pack (all were chasing Untamed New England who led from the gun), and spying ospreys as they flew overhead and landed in their nests perched on lofty posts and stands along the coast. We even had the pleasure of a brief encounter with a curious seal as we approached the first control. The journey had been worth it.
Competitively-speaking, we went into the race expecting to be left behind early by Untamed New England. A strong team of seasoned AR veterans and national champions, they had a notable advantage right off the bat as they were outfitted in two tandem kayaks. Our line-up of three was more a finesse one with me, Abby, and Tamela together weighing less than half of Jeff Woods, and we knew we would potentially lose the race on the paddle, figuring they might put half an hour or so on us. Biking too would be a challenge; during last year’s race, the Untamed team (a similar team to this year’s squad) opened up 45 minutes or so on us. We had our work cut out for us.
Additionally, there were several other good coed teams and a few all male teams we were aware of that would challenge for overall placing. Ultimately, after much back and forth discussion, Abby and I paddled our tandem, and we tethered Tamela in a single kayak to our boat. For the first 15 minutes, we struggled. As expected, Untamed quickly opened up a gap on the field, and a number of other teams were pulling ahead of us too. I finally decided to use the rudder, which, while less efficient, allowed me to compensate for some of the drag and push/pull of towing another boat. Once we fell into a new rhythm with the rudder, we settled in and found ourselves holding our own, more or less.
We worked hard throughout the section, and toward the end of the leg there was an interesting mini-foot section: two points on high-points, separated by a narrow 10 meter wide channel of water. We arrived to see Untamed waiting for their runner, and we quietly cheered that they hadn’t opened more of a lead. Another full course team, the NH Trail Vets had arrived a few minutes before us, and a handful of short course teams were already there. Abby and Tamela dropped me off to minimize the time in the water, and I set off for the first point, arriving there before the Trail Vets who had paddled into the channel further than we had. I nabbed the point, dropped quickly and elected to swim the cold channel of water. There was an unmapped trail network on these peninsulas, linked by a footbridge across the water, but I figured straight line would be quicker.
I hit the water before Nick from the Trail Vets and was climbing out the other side when he splashed in behind me. I pushed up the hill and didn’t see him again. When I returned to the boat (Tamela and Abby had dropped me and then paddled across to the other peninsula), Abby reported Untamed had left 15 minutes ahead of us, maybe less; we seemed to have made up a few minutes, and we set off for the final few kilometers of paddling before the TA.
Next up was a long, linear trek with a number of optional and mandatory points scattered on and about a foot trail that essentially connected TAs. We quickly diverged off the mapped trail, finding our own way along a more linear course to the second CP. At the third control, GOALS (a two person male team for this race) caught us, charging up behind. We let them punch first and watched as they went off in a direction that would allow them to travel by trails for the next control, but we elected for a more linear off-trail route.
For the next hour or so, we were on our own, and as we attacked the final two checkpoints, we decided to roll the dice a bit. We had planned to hit these two CPs in a loop that would be longer but which would cut out a large open marsh crossing. At the last minute, we decided to gamble and we reversed it, once again traveling in a more linear course that would require us to cross the marsh. As we made our way to the second control on the edge of the marsh, we passed Untamed coming from the originally intended direction. And as we left the second control, GOALS appeared, also from our originally intended route.
We knew we had made up some time, and now it would come down to the marsh. While we have traveled through faster marshes than this one, we have also found ourselves in much worse, and we made decent time, hitting the trail on the other side and taking off for a couple of kilometers more to the next TA. We wondered where Untamed and GOALS were, knowing that GOALS would probably be behind us but unsure about Untamed. As it turned out, we rolled into the second TA several minutes ahead of anyone else, and we collected an orienteering map and set off for a loop of six or so points.
The first half of the loop went well, but as we hit the fourth point, I simply crashed. I had finished my food (having started eating my race food before the race began due to the late bus), and the heat and sweltering humidity had taken a toll. My energy began to rapidly wane, and then Untamed appeared right as I began to weaken. We slowed down for the rest of the orienteering loop, eating the remainder of what food we had collectively, trying to allow my body to recharge a bit. Sadly, I’d get no immediate boost of energy as sometimes comes with an injection of food and drink.
With Untamed now ahead of us, we figured we were racing to hold second. As I noted, based on last year’s race and the fact that we were not going to be breaking any speed records on bike as we were collectively dragging a bit, we had no expectation of catching Untamed twice, especially since the rest of the race was all on bike.
So, we settled into the bike, slowly recovering over the hour and a half road ride back to the final TA and finish. When we arrived at the final TA, we were amazed to find that we were still in striking distance and that we had only given up a few minutes to Untamed on the ride. We looked over the final map and set off with no other teams in sight.
It would be exciting to say that we managed to pull off the comeback, but we didn’t. We did cross paths with Untamed once, at a point and with enough information to assume that they would beat us back to the finish, which they did. But we managed to finish second overall by a decent amount, one of only three teams to clear the entire course, and a full 90 minutes early. Additionally, our post-paddle race time was the fastest of the day, thanks to strong teamwork, efficient navigation (and some good and lucky gambles), and fast TAs. Happy with all of this, we enjoyed the great post-race spread put on by the RDs and Hidden Valley Nature Center, the gracious and stellar hosts for the Maine Summer Adventure Race.
Ultimately, it was a good final tune-up for the World Championship coming up next month. As was true last year, Kate, Cliff, and their team of volunteers from Hidden Valley and beyond put on a great event. The terrain is fun and interesting, and this year’s inclusion of the coastal paddle was truly special and spectacular. The checkpoints were perfectly placed, and lost bus aside (which was clearly the fault of the driver, not the race), the logistics before, during, and after the race were flawless. Rumor is, our friends from Strong Machine might have a 24 hour up their sleeve for next year. If they do, it will surely be one of if not the best 24 hour races on the east coast, and barring scheduling and life conflicts it will be at the top of our list for 2018.
Special congratulations to Untamed New England; racing is always best when you are neck and neck with another team, especially one that deserves your utmost respect, and doubly especially when you can count those people as friends. It was a blast going back and forth with them all day. Congratulations also to GOALS ARA for being the third and final team to clear the course (and for keeping us on our toes as they pushed us as well) and to all those new racers who made it to the finish. It was a long course in tough summer heat, and making it to the finish regardless of placement was no small feat.
Maybe next year, we can get that picture-perfect day for the sea kayak we have been waiting for for all these years.
Thanks to our tremendous sponsors who kept us going as always: Thorlo and Foot Kinetics for keeping our feet healthy and warm in the jagged lava-rock and grit of Icelandic volcanoes. SOURCE hydration for quenching our thirst. Kanpas Compass for keeping us found. At least when we didn’t screw it up. And Trail Nuggets for fueling us and satisfying our hunger as the days grew longer.
One year ago, on his podcast TA1, Legendary Randy took an hour to discuss all things Adventure Racing with elite racer, Aaron Prince. I was particularly intrigued by Prince’s ruminations about Mountain Marathons, events I had never heard of. No, these aren’t the sort of races that span 26.2 miles of rugged trail. Instead they are uniquely formatted hybrids of fell running and orienteering. I listened intently to his stories about various Mountain Marathons, all inspired by the Original Mountain Marathon, lovingly known as the OMM. Yes, like the Yoga chant.
I told Abby to listen to the podcast, and we both immediately began fantasizing about running our own Mountain Marathon inspired event under the Rootstock banner. So was born The Stockville, arguably our favorite Rootstock Racing event.
But I digress!
It wasn’t too long after listening to Aaron Prince’s podcast that we celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary. Looking ahead, I half-jokingly noted that we should do something crazy in 2017 for our tenth. As we were married on Memorial Day weekend, we are gifted with a long weekend every year, and I thought I might be able to wiggle one day off from work so we could justify hopping a plane to Europe or something for a four day whirlwind.
May 2016 turned out to be a nexus of good ideas, though we didn’t realize it at the time. Summer and fall passed us by, and our attention was focused on directing our first Stockville at the peak of fall foliage. Sometime last fall, we were perusing the OMM website, and we noticed they were running an event in Iceland on…you guessed it, our anniversary weekend. We sat on the idea for a while, and sometime around New Year’s, we took the plunge and registered for the race.
For those not familiar with a Mountain Marathon, here’s the idea: teams of two start on Day 1 and travel to a mid-camp. On Day 2, teams travel to the finish. Some courses are linear in nature, some are score-O. Competitors carry all their gear (unlike in our fall Stockville race when we transport tents and cook gear for teams) for the duration of the event including food, and they spend the night at mid-camp.
For OMM Iceland, 2017, the course was score-O only, and teams had seven hours on the first day and six hours on the second to collect as many points as possible with controls having different point values. We were bussed to a start-line on a gravel road in the middle of rolling lava fields, mostly blanketed in a thick moss and a thicker cloud. The OMM staggers the start, letting teams go every minute or so, and we wouldn’t see the maps until our time officially began.
Ultimately, we stepped to the starting line with relatively low ambitions:
We were tired. Life in general has been non-stop, and the lead up to the race wasn’t exactly restful. We had jumped on a 630PM flight out of Newark on Thursday, but we found ourselves in Iceland five hours later, transported across time. It was 5AM on Friday, and neither Abby nor I had done more than doze for an hour or two flying across. Rather than take it easy, we wanted to make our one full, non-race day count, so we rented a car, drove the Golden Circle, ate ice cream, walked alongside magnificent waterfalls and stopped here and there to keep ourselves awake or take a quick AR-style nap on the side of the road. Somehow we made it through the day, and we did sleep heavy on Friday night. But our excitement to race was masking exhaustion.
We had “big” packs. They actually were bigger than they looked and not as heavy as some of the experienced OMMers speculated. Still, our packs were on the big side for the event, and we knew there were a number of teams that were probably traveling with several pounds less. Honestly, we weren’t expecting to be competitive, and we also chalked it up to good training for the World Championship.
The race was populated by experienced orienteers and fell runners, not to mention seasoned vets of the OMM. We’re not built to compete with such athletes, and we know it.
- It WAS our tenth anniversary. Last time we raced for our anniversary was for #2. It didn’t go so well. We laugh about that one now, and it is one of our more memorable anniversaries, but it wasn’t as much fun as it should have been. We have changed a lot as racers since then, but we both were just looking to have fun, see Iceland in a unique way, and take some pictures:)
We talked briefly before our start time and decided to look at the map for a minute or so and head out of the start area. We could plan more on the way. Here was our first “mistake”: we looked at the map as planned, set off as planned along a long stretch of road but we didn’t look at the map as critically as we should have as we jogged off. We knew that the six eastern-most points were only accessible on Day 1, and so our goal was to head out there directly. Had we examined the maps more closely, we MIGHT have adjusted our strategy slightly, and this might have led to a better first day and a better finish overall. Even then, though, I’m not positive we would have changed our route as the problems we encountered were more of the unpredictable variety. Ultimately, we had more fun with our route than we would have, had we modified it in the ways we have discussed since.
The first point was up in the foothills of a high ridgeline. The road we were running for much of the first 45 minutes or so rolled around a flat plain and junctioned with a trail that would take us close to the point. As everyone had discussed, traveling on roads and trails was usually faster and one could navigate much of the course on Day 1 simply by running roads and trails.
Well, we quickly decided to have some fun and we jumped off the road allowing several teams we were traveling with to stay on the road for longer distances. The terrain looked manageable, and we found we were able to run along the base of the foothills without slowing much. We caught some teams at the first point who had used the trails, and we were feeling good about our start.
Our second point, AK, was on a small lake high up in the volcanic ridges. On the map, a trail led straight to it. BUT…
- Problem 1: it was quite foggy and hard to see, conditions that would hamper everyone all day long making navigation more challenging. Not to mention the 20 meter contour intervals on the map which meant massive volcanic mounds and reentrants didn’t show up on the maps.
- Problem 2: we quickly learned that trails were suggested routes, often only visible with the help of painted posts…which were not always easy to see in the fog.
So, we spent a couple of minutes trying to figure out where this mapped trail was with no luck, and we finally just headed up into the mountains. What came next was a spectacular journey up and along an exposed ridge. We climbed around rock formations, found ourselves next to bubbling, unmapped geothermal pools, and totally unsure if I had a clear bead on the maps; there was just so much unmapped big terrain up there. Our pace was slow, not because of the terrain or our packs but because we couldn’t see well, and I was being extra cautious with the maps. Finally, we found the lake, and I breathed a sigh of relief as we had traversed the ridge exactly how I had wanted to after giving up on finding the trail. We had lost a decent chunk of time, but it was well worth the adventure.
And that basically was the theme of our day. We picked off four of the controls on the eastern side of the map, making better time for a while, and then we set off to travel up and over a high ridge, hoping to reach a cluster of three or so more points before taking on a long run to mid-camp. We had no idea how the “lavawhack” would go, and by the time we began we had a feeling we would be late. But again, we decided to just have fun with it, so off we climbed.
The climb up went well as we disappeared into the fog and mist. Giant formations of rock and impassable cliff faces emerged out of the haze as we scrambled up. We had a blast and managed to summit in less than twenty minutes. But as we feared, when we began to look for a way down, time sped up, and the minutes sped by as we found ourselves cliffed-out and looking for a way down.
Ultimately, we managed a safe descent and found ourselves in a massive flat space, dotted with looming formations that once again didn’t appear on our maps. I was careful to follow my compass as we wanted to head west, crossing a road and some trails for the final points of the day.
Alas, I either didn’t follow the compass well enough, or the volcanic rock was affecting the compass a bit, because we found ourselves running further than we expected, and when we finally did hit a trail, it did bewildering things. We spent 10 minutes or so trying to sort things out, and I did notice my compass was tracking rather slowly, making me wonder if perhaps we had wandered a bit. Finally, we gave up and started running south along the trail, the general direction of Mid-Camp.
Several minutes later, we found…AK. Again. And I cursed a bit. We had drifted quite a ways south after summiting the ridge. A stunning distance in fact. Our hopes of bagging those last three points evaporated in the clouds and rain, and we worked our way across another kilometer or so to pick up the road that would take us in. Our spirits were low, but we were happy to see a number of other teams running in as well. All seemed in similar spirits, and it was clear we were not alone in being late.
On the way back in, we were able to quickly pick off two easy points that would help offset our time penalty a bit. We made it into Mid-Camp 22 minutes late, which meant a 44 point penalty.
Oh well! The day hadn’t gone according to plan, but we had traveled through an incredible landscape of mountains, valleys, hot springs, and lava formations. We felt confident that we would do better on Day 2. And we now had the pleasure of camping with friends next to the ocean. In Iceland.
Mid-Camp, a grassy oasis nestled among all the lava rock, sheltered from the stony black beach by a wall of lavarock, waited on the other side of a culvert. When we rolled into camp we were surprised to see that there were a fair number of teams still out. We spent the afternoon and evening chatting with new friends and hanging out with Pete and Shari who had come across the pond as well. They were already in and had set up their tent, and once we were all settled, we compared stories, cooked and ate our food, wandered along the lava beach on the rolling Atlantic, and ate some more.
As it turned out, a lot of teams had similar issues as we did, and some came in well over an hour late. 19 of the 37 long-course teams were late, and 15 of the 21 short-course teams. Nearly 60 percent of the entire field, and many seemed to have the same issues: nav issues in the fog, underestimating the terrain, and finding themselves too far out on the eastern side of the course. We were ranked 22nd overall out of the long-course teams, and we were tied for third in the mixed category. We worked out our plan for Day 2, discussing three or four iterations of a route before settling on our final plan. And then we went to sleep.
Well, we pretended to sleep, and we were amazed that most others seemed to sleep well despite the fact that it remained lighter than it had in Alaska when we raced there two summers ago. We started packing up the next morning around 5, grateful for our expedition racing experience considering we basically hadn’t slept two of the last three nights.
After our unplanned adventures on Day 1, we felt it would be wise to play the day a bit safe, shortening our distance knowing we might drop some points that MIGHT be accessible if we took on more distance. We’d start off with a road run, bagging some easy points along the way north, before heading up into a pocket of volcanic peaks and ridges that would keep us off-trail for a couple of hours.
As was true the day before, we had a wonderful time traveling off-trail, and we found ourselves running with or around some strong all male teams. We had crisscrossed with some other mixed teams, and while we didn’t know for sure who our competition for the podium was, we felt that we were making up ground on at least a few teams. In addition, we were nailing the nav, which was made significantly easier by better visibility, and our route choice seemed more efficient than many of the other teams we observed.
With about two hours left we found ourselves alone for the first time in a while. The two all-male teams we had been with had seemingly peeled off onto a slightly more conservative track. We continued making steady progress, but as we ascended onto the last high ridge, the winds began to roar, the rain sleeting sideways. Eyebrows arched, we momentarily compared the conditions to Ireland, agreeing that we weren’t quite there yet, but steeling ourselves against the punishing conditions which were climaxing as we found ourselves totally exposed. By this point, however, we were close to done, and I at least was enjoying the elements in their fullest.
In such moments, I think of John Muir’s escapades, tethering himself to the top of a pine tree during a Sierra tempest so he could be one with the tree in the storm. I’m not necessarily interested in tying myself to a swaying pine tree, 100-200 feet off the ground, but I generally love those moments as Mother Nature totally absorbs you…Though by Day 5 of weathering gale force winds and rain in Ireland, I admit, I was over it…
As we neared the finish, we went back and forth on whether to make a run at one last point, but we ultimately decided not to risk it and headed to the finish in the center of Grindavik. We ran into the finish, a comfortable 25 minutes or so before our six hours expired, and we were thrilled to find we had moved up 10 spots to settle in at 12th overall and first mixed. We took note of the fact that a smarter and more accurate route on Day 1 might have propelled us into the top five if not higher, and even though we didn’t achieve that we felt good about our performance considering our loads and the fact that we passed ten teams on Day 2, finishing in a tie for 5th for Day 2 (based on points).
It really was a tremendous event. The race was well organized, the terrain magnificent, the community welcoming, and Iceland an amazing place to travel and play in, even if only for a few days. And when it was all over, we found ourselves basking in the Blue Lagoon, exchanging stories with other racers, soaking in the thermal, azure waters, and floating about in the mist. And that was before we headed back to Reykjavik for an exquisite seafood dinner with Pete and Shari. While it would be unfair to compare the experience to a major ARWS event, it was without doubt one of the absolute best race weekends of our careers.
Special thanks to OMM for hosting a great event and for being so welcoming to all new OMMers, and congratulations to Nick Barrable and Tom Fellbaum for their overall win. Not only were they impressive competitors, but they also were gracious in victory, and it was a pleasure to meet and speak with them about racing, gear, and common friends. We met many more amazing people over the course of the weekend, and we left with nothing but the fondest memories of our journey through Iceland. Next time, however, we might take the competition side a bit more seriously. I’ve already sorted out how to cut our base weight in half. At least.
It took me 9.5 hours to drive from Philadelphia to Williamsburg for Soggy Bottom Boy’s Sproute Adventure Race. One way. For an 8 hour race. That rule of spending more time on the race course than in the car? Yeah, shattered.
But somehow, Joel and I were rewarded with an epic little adventure that one might find in a much longer race but which is rarely if ever found in sprint adventure racing. And I have a race report that may be my longest aside from those written for expedition races. Yeah, it was a crazy day in the woods!!
Before I continue, I would like to firmly and definitively state that there were some genuinely scary and dangerous moments in this event, not because of what the organization did, but because mother nature decided to add a last minute twist to the race. As a long-time racer and race director I know that these situations are very real for all those involved. While Rootstock Racing was able to weather the metaphorical…and somewhat literal…storm and have a successful and rewarding day of racing, others were not so fortunate, and our thoughts and sympathies are with those whose day ended early. Thankfully, as far as I know, everyone was and is OK, safe, and healthy, but still: we all take on risks in the sport of adventure racing, and even when you are least expecting a wild and dangerous situation, anything can happen. Those moments are intense and the gravity of such situations is not to be taken lightly. I’m just glad that the race organizers and emergency personnel were able to help all those in need.
On with our story:
To get right to it and summarize, the course overview:
- Prologue: foot orienteering with three checkpoints in a loop around the start/finish/central TA in York River State Park.
- Bike to a remote TA for a 10+km or so paddle. We had to provide our own boats. We brought a canoe as we don’t have a tandem kayak. Paddling on the York River. A canoe would be fine, right? Almost everyone had kayaks. We noticed two other canoes. Canoes…
- The paddle ended at the central TA, start/finish. From there, to be done in any order:
- Either a foot orienteering loop or:
- A mountain bike loop. Minimal navigation necessary. There were ten unmapped controls hanging along a twisty, turny, fun single track trail. Teams simply had to navigate to the trail, ride it one way, find as many flags as possible and then return to the finish/TA on whatever trails worked.
Seemed simple enough. Seemed comfortably clearable. Seemed fun. About what you expect in a sprint race. So, we got ready, and off we went.
We made quick work of the prologue and were the first team onto the bike. We put our heads down and rode the 6+ miles to the boat TA. My legs felt like crap, and I feel like I increasingly suck at sprint racing.
We made it to the TA in…second place! Chip Dodd had elected to short cut along the coast and he found a fire road that cut the distance dramatically. Frankly, we just didn’t even look at other options, partly because Mark Montague publically suggested there was no other way around except whacking along the coast. Had that actually been true, the road around was the best way to go. But we heard him say that and didn’t really look at the map, so we didn’t see the fire road. Oh well!
We transitioned fast and still managed to get out on the water first by a few minutes.
The York River is rather large. We set off in rolling but manageable water, paddling our way straight across the river to a large bay and some estuaries that housed two checkpoints. Half-way across, we noted the wind picking up. Nothing too crazy, but enough wind and water movement that paddling wasn’t too much fun and we had to fight a bit to keep our big tank of a boat in control. Once we reached the other side, we portaged across a marshy peninsula into relatively calm and protected waters.
It was a lovely 30-45 minutes of paddling and running. We cruised through the inner bay and water channels picking off the first point and then beaching to run for the second control, the right move for sure, but our legs were cramping a bit from the cold water and the fast start, and the run felt longer than it should have.
Back in the boats, we headed back toward the bay and immediately found ourselves fighting much firmer wind and waves. It was increasingly difficult to control the canoe. And we were still in the protected inner bay. We had opened a small lead on Chip and a team of two men, and it seemed that our three units would battle it out for the rest of the day. As we neared the marshy peninsula once more, I had the uncomfortable premonition that we were in store for something precarious at best and downright dangerous at worst once across the marshy spit. If things were picking up in the shelter of the inner bay, what would they be like as we tried to paddle back across the open water of the York?
Before we found out, we struggled across the peninsula, picking a poor spot for our traverse and finding ourselves having to cross several small channels. Chip and the two person team, meanwhile, took a better route and snuck through, closing the gap.
And so we set off into the wind and waves. Things had picked up considerably. Ultimately, we were supposed to paddle downriver and take out at the start/finish, but no matter how hard we tried, we continuously were pushed up river. In fact, the elements seemed to be conspiring against us, directing us back to the TA on the far shore. I had been anxious about this crossing for some time, and I began to consider the very real possibility that we would not make it back without swamping.
Several signs pointed toward potential disaster:
- As noted, the wind and waves in the inner bay were merely a preview of the harsher forces of nature waiting on the river.
- We had noted and were surprised that we didn’t see more teams as we paddled back out of the estuaries. Where was everyone?
- When we emerged into the York River proper, our eyes immediately took in the ominous sight of two helicopters flying over the far edge of the river.
- The TA was still a ways away, but we both took note of the fact that there seemed to be far more activity over there than when we had left. Far more vehicles than the lonely U-haul we had seen upon departure.
- As we made progress, we were able to see more of the TA, and all of a sudden we could make out the glimmering red and blue lights of emergency vehicles.
- Two rescue boats were chasing after the helicopters.
“Joel,” I said at some point early on, before we had actually registered all of the above, “I think there is a very real chance we’re not going to make it. Secure your bag to the boat.” We actually had this conversation back on the peninsula before we could see anything of the river itself. Even then, I was concerned. If we were swamped in the middle of the York, we’d be a very, very long swim away from shore, at the mercy of the wind and waves and tides, and in rather cold water.
“And Joel,” I continued, imagining us in that churning water with a canoe full of water. “If we end up in the water, forget about the canoe. We aren’t going to be able to save it. Swim to stay warm, screw the boat.” I think I may have used some cruder words than that.
So, we set off, simply trying to roll with the waves, jealous of the kayaks Chip and the other team were cruising along in. We talked, we watched with wonder and uncertainty as boats and helicopters flew about, we worked hard to keep the boat in line with the far shore, no longer worrying about heading down river as that was impossible. And we concentrated on trying to be as one with the waves as possible, balancing precariously as we rolled in the foam.
At a certain point, we crossed a threshold of comfort, and all conversation stopped. We had already been taking on water, and it took a considerable amount of focus to keep our balance as the burgeoning pool of water in the bottom of the boat began to affect our balance, sloshing about with every wave and gust of wind, threatening to tip us into the York’s grey waters. We vaguely took note of the fact that Chip was able to work his way downriver in his kayak. We let him go, knowing that he would establish a solid and perhaps commanding lead on us, but unable to turn downriver ourselves.
We simply had to stay afloat. Slowly we managed our way across the river, and ultimately we were able to make it to the far shore, pulling out at the TA. The two person team had passed us as well though they too ended up at the TA rather than the start/finish. Emergency personnel littered the small pier and parking lot. We counted at least ten emergency vehicles. The volunteers checked in with us as did some first responders.
It was not clear at that time what exactly was happening in regards to the race. All indications from the volunteers and emergency responders were that the race was over. A number of people had been rescued from the cold river, we learned, and three had been taken to the hospital for hypothermia. As far as I know, only 5 or 6 teams/solos made it across the river to start the morning. The rest were either swamped, capsized, directed straight down the shore to the start/finish or simply bussed back to the start/finish.
It was clear that everyone expected us to jump in a truck or van, but Joel and I quickly and quietly broke down our paddle gear and told the volunteers we would hike back to our cars, hugging the coast. We had no reason to think the race was still on, but we were cold and sitting in the parking lot would have been much worse than moving. Experience told us that though we were cold, a few minutes of walking and jogging would do the trick.
So, we quickly set out, bushwhacking along the shore line for the start/finish. We laughed that we had driven 9 hours the night before for less than 3 hours of racing, but what a bizarre, memorable experience anyway. We had fun on our way back, even swimming when we reached an unfordable creek. Why not?
A safety helicopter, clearly anxious, followed our progress for the last several hundred meters. In retrospect we imaged the following conversation among their crew:
“Hey, we have two guys here on the shoreline!”
“What are they doing?”
“Looks like they are trying to get back to the park, but they’re going to run into that estuary in 200 meters.”
“Think they’ll turn back?”
“I don’t’ know, but I think it’s too deep to cross.”
A few minutes passed as the helicopter floated above, and I was thinking to myself that this was undoubtedly one of the weirdest moments of my AR career.
“Think they’ll go for it when they get to the water?”
“No way. Too cold. Plus they have those packs on. They’ll either go back or head up stream until it gets shallower.”
We reached the estuary. Joel and I looked at each, a knowing twinkle in our eye and a brief shrug, and we were both in. Wading and then swimming across the cold ribbon of water, our breath momentarily sucked away.
And in the helicopter? Who knows? Gasps. Cheers. Curses. Name-calling. Tears. Whatever their reaction, the moment we stepped out on the far bank, the helicopter peeled away and headed back toward the TA.
A few minutes later, we reached the final control of the leg, imagining Chip had reached it 20-30 minutes before, though we had no idea. We scaled the steep bank and popped out into the TA.
That coastal trek was a highlight of the race. While the river crossing had been nerve-racking, and while it proved terrible for many, it too was a highlight. Again, I feel terribly for those who suffered in a genuine manner. For Joel and me, however, it was just another day in an adventure race. It was a brief moment, an epic moment, a memorable one. We were able to apply experience, plan accordingly, manage the situation and undoubtedly we had a bit of luck on our side. One more rogue wave than we encountered, perhaps another half kilometer of paddling with the additional intake of water that would have accompanied it, two more knots of wind, a third teammate. Any of these scenarios would have likely doomed us to the cold waters of the York.
Instead, we had a terrific adventure, and the coastal trek was beautiful. The helicopter shadowing us, eerie. The swim invigorating. We fully expected the race would be over, the TA would be dead. We assumed the trekking would be off, no maps available. But we knew what the biking course was supposed to be, so if no one needed our help, we figured we’d go for a bike ride before heading out.
But in the back of our heads, we also kept in mind that in AR you never stop unless you are definitively told to. If the race was perhaps still on, we figured Chip probably had escaped us, but we thought the two other guys might be hot on our tails as they indicated they too would hike back (it turns out they didn’t, and they sat in that parking lot, cold and wet, for over an hour before being bussed back around). We didn’t know the full story about anything, so when we crested the river bank and saw the TA in full swing (with a few stunned looking faces here and there), we immediately shifted back into full race mode.
We checked in, started with the foot section and didn’t look back.
The foot loop was wonderful. We started it with another short swim to shorten the distance to the first point since we were already saturated. And then we dried out for good, making our way steadily and efficiently through the foot section. We nailed everything cleanly and enjoyed the beautiful terrain, woods, and marshes of York River State Park. We were able to get a feel for the bike trails and even ran into two of the bike points.
We were alone for the duration of the section, except for the first and last checkpoint, and we returned to TA to quickly transition onto our bikes. For various reasons, we elected to ride the John Blair trail in reverse. We were told that the ten controls were in zones A-E, but there was no indication of where these zones actually were. We assumed A-E made up the entire trail. So we bombed out to the far end of the trail and began riding it backwards, only to discover that there were in fact two more zones. We sighed with resignation, riding some extra tight, fun single track, knowing we didn’t need to but unsure where zone E actually was. We figured this cost us any chance we had to catch up to Chip or keep our lead on the other two person male team (unaware that they had elected not to follow us earlier).
A bit frustrating, but the riding was wonderful, and once we finally reached the beginning (end?) of zone E, we found our first checkpoint. From there, we just rode. We gambled twice since we had seen a couple of controls earlier in the day and guessed we could cut off some of the twisty John Blair trail by using more established, linear ones. Thankfully, both gambles paid off, but for an hour or so, we were almost entirely on that serpentine dirt track through the woods. We were able to cleanly finish the section and then hammer back to the finish.
As of this writing, I have no idea what the official results are. But as it turned out, I believe we finished 40-45 minutes ahead of Chip, finishing in 6 hours 20+ minutes. As far as I know, along with Chip, we were the only ones to clear the course considering that the other team of two lost all that time waiting in the parking lot and then didn’t do the bike. Again, however, I really don’t know who did what!
Looking back, it was a great event. Unfortunate and unpredictable turn of the winds, but it seemed like everyone made it through, most with happy smiles and stories to tell. For those who weathered the wind storm more literally, I am relieved that all were rescued, and my thoughts and best wishes go out to those who did end up suffering more thermal exposure than the rest of us. I thank Mark Montague and his team for a really enjoyable and memorable event, and I congratulate everyone who made it through this race, regardless of how they did so. The word “epic” is usually reserved for races of longer duration and more wild terrain, but for a brief moment the Soggy Bottom Boys 2017 Sproute Adventure Race was epic indeed!
The other day, Daddy and I did my first race. I had a lot of fun, and I liked the bushywhacking. But I didn’t like the biking. But sometimes you do things that are hard. And you don’t like them. But you have to do them. And it’s funny.
Mommy and daddy do a lot of racing sometimes. And I get to stay with Pops and Savta and Marta and have sleepovers. So it’s OK. I like going to the races too. Mommy, Daddy, Pops and I were going to do a race but it was too wet. So we didn’t.
So this was my first race. Daddy and I packed some bags with our stuff. We had clothes because it was cold and we might get wet. And we had whistles. I like blowing whistles. They make noise. They’re for emergencies. And we had sunglasses. My sunglasses are pink. I have green ones too. And blue ones. And Frozen ones. But I brought the pink ones. And we brought a phone. And toothpaste. Daddy said it wasn’t toothpaste. But I think it was toothpaste. And we brought a first aid kit for cuts and booboos. And we brought a blanket for emergencies. It is very small and very shiny and keeps you warm. And we brought water. My water backpack is purple. Purple is my favorite color. Blue is my favorite color too. And I like pink. Pink is my favorite color. And we brought other stuff too. I don’t remember.
So. Daddy and I drove to the race. It was a long drive. Daddy told me all about the different states because the race was in Maryland. Not Pennsylvania. But I don’t really understand. I just say I do.
We got out of the car. It was cold and windy. I was excited but all the people said “Hi”, and this made me shy. Jeremy was there. Jeremy is always there. He always says hi. He has a funny voice and is very loud. I ran away from Jeremy. I always run away from Jeremy. He’s funny. But I cry too.
We got paper from the people at the table and went back to the car to get warm. Daddy asked me if I wanted to bike or run first. I said biking. He was surprised. I like biking. So Daddy left to put my seat on the black bike. I played in the car. Daddy doesn’t like me playing in the car sometimes. But I like it. It’s fun pretending to drive cars.
When the man yelled “GO!!” everyone ran. I ran very fast. But then I didn’t want to run anymore and Daddy carried me on his shoulders. I like riding on Daddy’s shoulders. I like when Daddy runs and I ride on his shoulders. I bounce all around. I ran a little more and then I stopped. We found the man with the maps and Daddy got a map.
So. We got on the bike. It was fun, but a little bumpy. We wanted to find five orange flags. Daddy said his bike wasn’t very good for this kind of road. I screamed and yelled and it was fun. We found the first orange flag before a lot of other people. And Daddy gave me a gummy worm. I got a gummy worm at every orange flag. Or sometimes not at every flag. But at most orange flags.
We biked again. I liked the big fields we biked in, but I was cold. I didn’t like that. Daddy stopped again and we found another orange flag. I’m good at finding orange flags. I like orange flags. One time, Daddy and I found orange flags in a cemetery. That was fun.
We biked to a big ruin. I think it was a castle. I cried. I was very cold. I wanted to go back. Daddy talked to me. We took pictures and a video. Daddy made a movie of our race. I like my race movie. I wanted to go back to the start. We only had three orange flags but I was cold. Daddy said it was a long way to ride. Daddy had a blanket. So he put me back in my bike seat and wrapped me in my blanket.
We started biking again and Daddy started telling me the Hobbit story. I like Gollum. He is slimy. He kept telling me the story and soon we saw a horse. I like horses, and they say “Neighhhhhhhhh!!” And then Daddy stopped on a bridge. And we saw an orange flag on the stream! We found the orange flag and then I threw rocks off the bridge. Lots of rocks. That was fun. I like throwing rocks in the water. Daddy and I biked some more.
One time the road ended. Daddy was trying to take me back to the car fast. But the road stopped. And Daddy pushed me and the bike up a very big steep hill. The trail was a lot of bumpy. And sometimes there was no trail. I didn’t like it. Daddy made a lot of noises. He stopped telling me stories.
We found one more orange flag at a castle! And then we went back to the start. We found eight orange flags I think!
So. At the start. I ran to the people. They cheered for me. I liked that. They gave me a new map. I took the map to Daddy and he gave me food. We sat in the car. I was shivering. Daddy wasn’t sure if we should keep racing, but I like bushywhacking.
When we finished lunch, Daddy got the backpack. And he bundled me up in the backpack. Oh! Rey! I love Rey! She is in Star Wars. Rey is my friend. Daddy took Rey off the bike seat and gave me her. I held Rey in my blanket. Daddy told me to be careful. If we dropped Rey, Daddy said we might lose her. I said we would pick her up. But Daddy said we might not know. I told Daddy we would pick her up.
We started and we ran. I screamed. Daddy kept asking me if I was ok. I was so excited. I love bushwhacking. The backpack was better than the bike. I was warmer. We walked through a farm. I made horsey noises. So did Daddy. I made donkey noises. So did Daddy.
We found some orange flags. I went to sleep. I woke up and Daddy was on top of a big rock. I looked down and got scared. But Daddy didn’t fall. I told Daddy I wanted to walk in the water. I don’t walk in the water. Daddy does. And I stay in the backpack. Daddy looked at the water, but he said it was too deep. He promised to walk in water later. So we kept going. And later Daddy walked in the water. Just like in Zion. We are going to Zion this summer. I like walking in the river.
We climbed a big hill and stopped to look down. I like looking down from the top. We found another flag and another ruin castle. Daddy told me a story about Smaug the dragon and Pete the Dragon. I liked the story. Pete the Dragon saved the king and queen from Smaug. I made Daddy tell me that story again. I like that story.
We sang some songs too. And found more orange flags. Then Daddy and I went back to the start. We ran to the finish line and people cheered for me. It was hard, but I liked it. I like when people cheer for me. Daddy stopped and pulled me out of the backpack. He told me to run to the finish line. But I fell. I tried to get up, but my feet felt funny. I fell again. And then I got up. And I fell again. I couldn’t walk straight. People were laughing and cheering. It was funny. I tried running again. But I fell.
And then Jeremy came and helped me run to the finish. He held my hand, and we ran to the finish. I like Jeremy. He is funny. And then we ate donuts.
*Postscript: Thanks to GOALS ARA for a great event for Zoe’s first race. It was a cold, blustery day, but team Little Rootstocks persevered, finishing 27th out of 37 teams. We covered 17 miles on bike and foot. We raced for 5 hours and 47 minutes. We found a lot of orange flags and had fun bushywhacking. We told several stories. Sang a lot of songs. Ate a lot snacks…and gummy worms. Lots of gummy worms!
Hello, hello, hello, is there any snow out there?
I have raced in CNYO’s Snowgaine more times than in any other race, and it is never a race I have had any expectation of winning overall. It’s always a small field, but more often than not, it is stacked with Canadians who crush the course every time the snow is deep with snowshoes adding weight to racers’ feet. As this year’s Snowgaine approached, we expected more of the same, and we have joked over the years that we are racing to be the first Americans to the line, not to win outright. This year in Philadelphia we have had an amazing winter complete with three snowfalls totaling about four inches, so nothing different this year.
Still, we like to prepare, so Abby and I fill our bathtub with jello, don our snowshoes and high-step, precariously balancing an I-Pad with video of Touching the Void inspiring us to dig deep. We take ice baths and turn on the air conditioning when the house goes above 40 degrees. When the temperatures do plummet, we ice over our patio and do wind sprints and suicides in our microspikes. Anything we can to be prepared for the Canadian invasion. Anything to give us a chance to get our names inscribed on the famed “Broken Ski”, an iconic piece of Snowgaine glory.
Over the last month or so, reports out of East Pharsalia, New York included feet of snow, climate change be damned, and we packed our trusty snowshoes into the trunk, dug out our SOURCE insulated hoses and our warmest Thorlo socks, and began to taper for two eight hour days of snowshoeing, running, and crawling through the deep snows blanketing the woods and swamps of central New York.
And then it warmed up. And rained. And warmed up some more. By the time we pulled into the home base at the cozy Balsam Inn, complete with Confederate flags and signs encouraging artistic sexual harassment, the snow had dwindled to mere pockets of cover in the deepest nooks and crannies of the woods.
This year’s field was an exceptionally small one, with only ten teams taking to the starting line. For whatever reason, the Canadians chose to stay home, but there were still several good teams of orienteers and adventure racers to line up against including the amazing Charles Leonard who has competed in ALL 21 Snowgaines! We knew a couple of teams of orienteers and the duo of Jason Urckfitz and Lawrence Creatura would be our primary competition if all went according to plan. With memories of my cramping meltdown at the Winter Chill, we set off for a long day of running on trail and off.
Day 1: From heaven to hell
Until the end, the first day flew by. When we set off from the Inn, the weather was downright balmy with a warm 60+ degree breeze blowing through the woods. While part of the Snowgaine’s mystique is without question its typical winter wonderland setting, racing in t shirts in February was a nice experience. We set off knowing that the course was much too big to clear, and we targeted the south and east side of the course first.
For the first seven hours, all went well though the conditions changed dramatically part way through. The woods were beautiful, the creeks and marshes cold but magical. We moved well as a team, nailed the nav, and made a good decision to drop some low value points in the middle of the day, though we probably could have and should have dropped a couple more to maximize our score. As we approached the final two hours of the day, we had some decisions to make, and we had a brief powwow.
By this point, we had donned rain jackets and were trying to weather a literal storm that had altered the experience from downright beautiful to legitimately sinister. Four to five hours in, the temperatures began to plummet, and a few minutes of cautionary precipitation soon cascaded into torrential rain that stopped just short of turning to snow. As our bodies cooled, we found ourselves knee deep in one of the countless swamps we passed through during the first day, and as the rains steadily thickened the thunder and lightning rolled in, flashing and booming directly above us as we fought our way through 33 degree water, slowed by the swamps’ tussocks that for whatever reason had held thick layers of snow and ice whereas the rest of the course had let them go. We grimaced and tried not to think about how well lightning and water mix.
By the time we paused to strategize the last hours of the race and our return to base, John and I were chilled, and Abby might has well have been living in an icebox. I scanned the maps, did some quick distance estimates, and threw out the plan. No way we were getting to the best case scenario from that morning, but we could still take a shot at the points in the northeastern most quadrant. We would have to move, and we didn’t have much room for error, but I felt like we had a chance, and we could always bail on one or two of the six intended points if we needed to.
Off we went, I think all of us a bit low mentally and Abby especially unsure of the plan we
were pursuing. The first leg of this final push took us along the edge of a landfill. Unique experience, traveling along the border of a dump with trash and polluted water covering the ground.
“Inspired checkpoint,” I said at one point as Abby silently followed along and John grunted, all of us trying to breathe around the putrid smell of rotting garbage. It felt like it took ages to move beyond the landfill, but we found the control and moved on. We made good work of the next two controls. And then we had our chance to adjust. We still had an hour on the clock, and I felt like we had the time to bag two of the three remaining controls. Looking at the map, I decided we would nab the first of the controls and continue on for a lower value control just north of this first one. There was a mapped trail network we could pick up which would allow us to make quick work of the second control and dump us onto a road that would take us straight into the Inn.
Well, I probably should have changed my mind since we had bobbled that first control. It was our first slip all day, but we still managed to find the control in decent time, and I felt there was time. The trail network was a mere 100-200 meters away and then we could run the rest. We still had a good 45 minutes or so. So off we went.
And we didn’t find the trail.
We did find some orange flagging that clearly marked a little used route of travel. Must be the trail, I thought. We followed it. And then lost it.
By this point, it felt like the wheels were starting to loosen, but if we just moved and trusted the compass, we still might end up figuring it out. Alas, the happy ending I was now desperately trying to will upon us was not meant to be.
After several more minutes of wandering, I pulled the plug. I took us north, hoping to pick up the trail, convinced we had overshot the point and drifted west. We found a trail, though by this point nothing felt quite right. Regardless, it was time to run and it was clear to me that we would be cutting it very close.
When we popped out on the road, we discovered two more significant problems
- Abby’s asthma was raging, and she was in bad shape. The cold had decimated her lungs and she was struggling to breathe. We weren’t going to be able to move as fast as we’d need to.
- But that didn’t really matter, because we had only 20-25 minutes or so to cover about six or seven kilometers…and that was a big kick in the gut for me. Nearly two hours before, during my quick study of distances and the map, I had done my math. And it was wrong. I had not lined up the finish properly, and the way my map was folded, I wasn’t able to see it during the last two hours. I THOUGHT I knew where it was, and I THOUGHT my plan was safe. Maybe a bit risky, but 20-25 minutes to do a quick run back to the finish was reasonable if the distance was 3-4 km. No fun, but doable. Alas, my heart stopped when John told me it was twice as far back as I thought.
So, the wheels were now fully off, rolling away down the road toward the far-off finish. We set off grimly, Abby ready to leave me in East Pharsalia, I think, but mostly just focused on surviving. Thankfully we found ourselves further south than I expected on the road, confirming that something went terribly wrong on that last checkpoint despite my paying attention to the compass. Still, it was a long, cold, mentally exhausting slog back to base.
We rolled in 20 minutes late. Abby collapsed next to a heater and convulsed for half an hour. Had we bailed after the last found control or when things started to go south, we might have still made it back in time despite the added distance, but now we were faced with a one hour penalty for day two. And we didn’t even find the damned control to justify the penalty. Somehow, we discovered we had scored the most points for Day 1, but not by a wide margin. Jason and Lawrence of Untamed New England and Frank Boscoe and his teammate Tom Rycroft were not too far back either. With the lost hour we figured we had no chance to hold them both off for the overall win.
At least we got to sleep in.
Day 2: Magnetic swamps?
Well, John slept in, I think. A four month old will do that to you. Abby and I still woke up before our alarm despite staying up late to dot-watch Godzone. After a casual morning in the Super 8, we rolled into the start to find Barb and Mark waiting. Everyone else had set off into the woods an hour before.
Thankfully the rains had stopped, but Day 2 would present a typical Snowgaine day: snow flurries, sub-freezing temperatures all day, and there were even a couple of inches of fresh snow here and there from an overnight snowfall. The night before we had studied the maps very closely, exploring several different options, hoping to dial in our plan to maximize our seven hours and hoping that it would be enough to at least allow for a respectable finish.
We set off up the road and at the first checkpoint we found we had shaved off a few minutes from Untamed New England. We had virtually done the same points on Day 1, just in reverse of one another, and it looked we were now following them on Day 2. We figured that if we navved and moved well and could close the gap to a half hour or so by the end of the day, we MIGHT have a chance to somehow stay ahead of them in the scoring. They would need at least one big checkpoint if not two to catch us. Still, I had bobbled that first point, and for the second time I was puzzled as we wandered through marshy forest despite my paying close attention to my compass. “Damned magnetic swamps,” I muttered. We set off after Untamed still happy to have shaved off a few minutes.
But then the second point didn’t go as smoothly as I would have liked and we lost the minutes we had gained. The third point was a downright nightmare, buried in a swamp that took some time to figure out and visualize. We didn’t make a mistake per se, but it did take some exploring before we truly understood where the control was hiding. Once we sorted it, we found it in quick order, though quick order included several very long minutes in deep, frozen water that left us all hobbling and cursing.
When we punched the control we were dumbfounded to find that we had made up 45 minutes on Untamed. This was all the motivation we needed, and for the rest of the day we played cat and mouse with them. We shaved off a few more minutes on the next control and then moved ahead as we elected to cross a beaver dam while they headed around a big lake. They ran us down on a road and some trails leading to the next distant control. We made another navigation move shortly thereafter once they punched into a control one minute ahead of us. They vanished through the woods while we elected for a slightly different route which allowed us to get in and out of the subsequent control before they arrived.
Such nav games continued for the next hour or so before they broke off for two points that would add a fair bit of distance before the finish. Their route would be largely on roads, allowing for fast travel; ours would be slower as a fair portion of our remaining route would include off-road travel. We diverged, and the final race was on.
As it turned out, we made it back to the finish first. They made it in several minutes later and within a few minutes of the cutoff. We both found two checkpoints on our respective routes, and they were the same value, as were our second day scores overall. With the difference in first day scores, this meant we managed to hold onto our lead from Day 1, and I don’t think we could have possibly scored more points considering our lost hour.
It was an exciting race physically and strategically, and our head to head battle with Jason and Lawrence was a lot of fun. It helped knowing we had a 50-60 point lead (that’s what we believed though we didn’t know for certain) as it put more pressure on them to find at least one extra control and perhaps two. And so our name will be forever enshrined on the Broken Ski…though I think they should include an asterisk:
*No snow, no Canadians…
By: Brent Freedland
Photos: Most photos courtesy of Vladimir Bukalo
The last time I raced: 5 days of relentless Atlantic storms along the west coast of Ireland. I still may take the time to go back and write a report for our amazing adventure at ITERA last summer, but that is going to require some time. We had an amazing race, battling some of the worst conditions in adventure racing imaginable, and finishing the full course in 8th place, an accomplishment we were very pleased with as we managed to hold our own in a strong field of top Irish racers and elite teams from around Europe. Still, it wasn’t the smoothest race for us team-dynamic-wise, and so it was wonderful to finally get back out into the woods this past weekend for Adventure Addicts’ Winter Chill Adventure Race.
Granted, six hours isn’t quite the same as five days, but the weather was cold with temperatures hovering just below freezing, and we raced through on-and-off precipitation for the duration of the event. Thankfully, we weren’t pelted with 60+ MPH winds, but it still was a nice environmental challenge. As for the race itself, Abby and I had never done an Adventure Addicts race, and we were impressed with the very well organized and designed course. Great people, great community, great maps, great perks. It was a pleasure to finally race in one of their events!
We had been planning to drive down for the race for some time, but last week we were fortunate enough to grab a lottery slot for Cowboy Tough, the World Championship race being held in Wyoming this summer, a first for the United States. In the last few weeks, as we put together a team, it worked out that our lineup could get together for the Winter Chill, so Abby and I teamed up with our long-time XPD teammate Mark Lattanzi (though I should probably note that Mark is everybody’s long-time XPD teammate) and the amazing Andy Bacon. We have been wanting to race with Andy for a long time, and what better way to do it than twice in the same year (hopefully one or two more times as well!)?
The course was a well-conceived one with the field spreading out over the first half hour with a series of four mandatory foot CPs, largely off trail, which led us to our bikes at a remote bike drop. Coated with a thin layer of morning ice, we transitioned relatively quickly, though a couple of teams passed us as my fingers fumbled with the map board, my gloves, and pack.
On our bikes, we set off for a large loop of the amazing Little Bennett Regional Park, a sprawling expanse of hills, streams, fields and ruins. The route was relatively straight forward in that there was a point-to-point circuit of bike points. Along the way there were six pairs of foot points. In order to score points, teams had to find each CP in the pair (lettered A/AA, B/BB, etc). Our plan was to clear the course and we felt relatively confident that we could do so, so for us we did not have to think quite as much. We simply added all of the optional CPs into our loop.
This was a fun section, and we ended up taking on two significant bike-whacks, one of which had us hauling our bikes through a few hundred meters of downed trees when a mapped trail turned out to be a red herring. It seemed clear that we were one of the only teams to take on these bike-whacks, perhaps the only one, and this large one between checkpoints 6 and 7 was probably a mistake as we found ourselves with teams who found various ways to ride longer routes around. This particular bike-whack hurt us, but as always, it’s fun to do something different.
For most of the bike/trek section we were flip-flopping with three all male teams, and by the time the dust had settled, we sat in TA with the all-male ARMD team captained by the experienced Mike Berry. It was a good position to be sitting in, but we had a problem, and I knew the final foot rogaine would be a fine balancing act if we wanted to take the overall win…and hold off whoever might be right behind us.
The problem: I came into the race rather run down and wasn’t confident I’d be able to even make it to the starting line until Friday. As a teacher, I always get to test out the newest and most exciting bugs and viruses that the kids like to bring to school. And this week, I had the pleasure of housing one of the many stomach bugs we have to offer. I’ll leave out the more colorful details of my week, but let’s just say it was a joyous week of abdominal exercises and less than ideal hydration.
When we started the race, my stomach had actually been quiet for about fifteen hours, and I had taken an Imodium just in case. Thankfully, all remained quiet. I felt solid for two hours, but then I just ran out of gas. For the last 45 minutes or so of the bike, it didn’t matter how hard I pedaled, my legs just couldn’t generate power, and I found them cramping from hip to ankle.
“I feel like I’m riding hard enough to be riding about 20 mph,” I said to Mark as he pushed me up a gentle incline on our ride toward the final TA, and incline that felt like Everest. “But we’re riding about 5,” I muttered. He just kept on pushing.
By the time we reached the TA it was clear that between the state of my body, the short nature of the race and the fact that we were racing against teams that were moving faster than we were, we weren’t going to be able to “race” per se. Andy and Mark managed to keep me moving just fast enough that we hadn’t lost too much time to the other teams, and Abby helped with nutritional reminders though food hadn’t been and wasn’t helping. In a 10k orienteering foot race, we weren’t going to win on speed at this point. I could barely run as my legs just wouldn’t stop cramping.
We did in fact pass ARMD in transition, setting off at a slow shuffle as I led the way through the first two points with the ARMD guys trailing behind us. Coming out of the second checkpoint, however, the cramping intensified to the point where I willingly gave the maps to Andy, a rare moment indeed. I just needed a few minutes to settle down mentally and work on some food.
ARMD passed us here, and I told the team we had one chance. If we kept the pace slow, I thought I might have one burst in me. I wouldn’t be able to sustain anything for all that long, so we had to avoid a prolonged foot race. And I was hoping that we’d get a chance to maybe make a move with navigation at some point, especially if we were not in the lead or eyesight of ARMD. So we let them go.
We made our way through the middle points of the rogaine and found ourselves closing in on ARMD, catching sight of them. After that second point, Mark and Andy had shouldered my pack, and they did the short final sprints for controls giving me a few precious seconds to let my muscles calm down. Somehow we kept in touch with ARMD and headed up toward the third to final point with them in eyesight.
As we headed up to this control (I had reclaimed the maps by this point) we had a choice to make. You could either straight line across some terrain to the next point or drop back down from the reentrant to a trail and run it before cutting up to the control. I had already made the decision to straight line to the point because it was shorter and I probably wasn’t going to move dramatically faster by using the trail. I was curious to see if ARMD kept on into the woods or if they turned down to the trail. They elected for the trail.
I began to prepare myself, thinking this might be our chance. If we nailed the control, we might be able to head to the final control in first place, and I’d be able to give it a go. We set off at a steady trek, and sure enough we pulled into the control area just ahead of ARMD. We didn’t find it immediately, but thankfully Mark spotted it and we set off on a downhill run through the trees, ARMD on our tail.
A small nav bobble along the way and we began the day’s final ascent. My legs began to fail again, but Andy helped me up as he had been doing on all of the up-hills during the trek. A glance back here and there confirmed that ARMD was lingering behind us rather than overtaking us. We hit a trail, and I had been considering running it, but instead we kept on straight minimizing distance and heading for one more control, in a thorn thicket. We attacked it relatively cleanly, unsure of where exactly ARMD was at this point (though Mark saw them attacking from a different angle) and we popped up for a final road run to the finish.
Thankfully we were able to build and hold a small enough lead in those final moments to reach the finish line without it turning into a literal sprint to the finish. I had enough to make that final push, but I am fairly confident that was about it. We welcomed ARMD in a minute or so later and all celebrated the great and exciting race with both teams finishing right around four and a half hours with all the controls.
It wasn’t quite the day I was hoping for physically, and I wish we had been able to move at the pace I know we could have, but I was thrilled we were able to work together and strategize ourselves into the win. Ultimately, the strategy and navigation in the sport of adventure racing is so much more interesting to me than the physical strength or preparation, and races that require more of the former always are more rewarding, regardless of the results. It’s just not as much fun when you need to be strategic because your legs aren’t working!
Thankfully things worked out well for us in this one, and it was a great kick-off to 2017. Hopefully next month I won’t be so limited physically!
As usual, thank you to our terrific sponsors: Kanpas compasses for keeping us on target on an orienteering heavy race, SOURCE Hydration for keeping our water thawed and flowing in sub-zero temperatures, and Thorlo socks and Foot Kinetics Hikegoo for keeping our feet healthy and comfortable in the cold, wet, gritty conditions!