June 23, 2019. Do you remember what the world was like back then? An adventure race, rogaine, or orienteering event every weekend. Mingling with friends, new and old, in the parking lot as you warmed up, sorted gear, or turned in bikes and gear bins. Sitting around with a post-race beverage and plate of the best-tasting food in the world, bodies sore, bleeding, but spirits full. Most of us probably took this all for granted, at least to some degree.
On June 23 2019, I hit “publish” on my last race report, a typical, long-winded Ode to Joy to what was perhaps the best race I’ve ever done (Expedition India, btw). I would race only twice more that year, in Canada for my first Wilderness Traverse, and at USARA Nationals in North Carolina. Considering that Nationals had virtually no navigation and felt more like a glorified trail race, I feel like I haven’t adventure raced for real since August 2019.
And so, I found myself meeting up with Brian and Karyn for the 15-hour Brake the Habit Adventure Race, hosted by the dynamic duo, Michelle and Liz Faucher. Over the years, I haven’t been able to make it to most of the Adventure Addicts’ races, but they put on well-designed, creative, and rewarding events, and I was looking forward to getting back out into the woods for the first time since the Pandemic relegated us to the sidelines. I knew I would enjoy it, but I didn’t realize how much I missed our sport until we were flying along midnight roads, a full-ish moon illuminating rural Virginian roads and lanes, and a cool wind singing as we mingled with old friends from what has often felt like days gone by.
The Witching Hour
The race started at midnight, and due to schedules, geography, and pandemic considerations, Karyn, Brian, and I converged on Holliday Lake State Park separately. While unsuccessful at claiming extra sleep, I rested quietly in the back of the car for an hour or so prior to registration. We then quickly digested the maps, sorted gear, and made final preparations before dozing away an additional hour of pre-race rest, and then it was time for the pre-race briefing.
Through it all, I felt off. Not bad, not anxious, but something just felt odd about being there in that parking lot. I’m fortunate to be fully vaccinated, so it wasn’t concern of COVID. I’m quite comfortable being around people as a teacher who has been working in person since September. Nonetheless, it just felt strange and uncomfortable to be at an event again. The final minutes passed quickly, and then 75 or so racers converged in the parking lot for a short running loop that included three CPs and some legitimate navigation to spread teams out before we hit the bikes and sleepy roads of the state park and surrounding Appomattox-Buckingham State Forest.
We elected to do the loop in reverse order. I liked the route slightly better, and we also guessed that more teams would go the other way. We took off at a quick run; I led the charge, Brian and Karyn in pursuit, and a small herd of headlamps bobbing along behind, a few keeping us in their sights as we ran up a dark trail toward the first CP. In my effort to establish a small gap, I failed to keep a precise bead on our exact location, and I eventually had to reign it in, allowing a few pursuers to close the distance. Soon, I spotted the CP, we bagged it and pushed on, once again gaining some distance before being reigned in once more as we neared the second point.
At this point, we started to cross paths with the teams taking on the prologue in the other direction, and after punching the second point, we had a longer run back toward the third and final point near the TA. We started to legitimately escape the field and were feeling great about our fast start and execution of the unspoken plan to get out quick. My uncertainty from before the race had evaporated, it felt great to have a map in my hand, and we were already having a blast as a team.
As we hit the road and turned toward the TA, all lights behind us gone, Brian called “Just one more box to punch!?” My smile vanished, I slowed, and I rolled my eyes as I realized I had completely forgotten about the third point on the leg. I knew the year and a half away from the sport would rear its head at some point, but twelve minutes into the race? And so, I banked a left onto a nearby trail, now a bit disoriented as I had my sights firmly set on the downhill road run to the bikes. We charged through a small web of trails, and by some combination of luck, intuition, and rough map-reading, we made our way to the final CP without much trouble. We lost time and the advantage of being out front putting pressure on other teams, but it seemed like we hadn’t given up too much time to other racers despite the careless mistake.
Back to the bikes, a quick TA, and we headed out, charging after the eight or so racers that beat us out after our flub. The next 30 miles unfolded with little drama. One tricky trailhead aside, the route was straightforward and relatively fast. The issue confronting us now was that none of us were in race shape, especially with riding, and all the other racers at the front of the pack were all strong racers and riders. So, we settled in, focusing on a steady paceline, and simply trying to keep things close.
On occasion, it became clear that at least a few others were making minor mistakes, and when we reached the first TA, we found virtually all of the leaders still there, joined by a few short course teams it seemed. Buoyed by this realization, we TAed quickly, beating most of those there out into the woods for the big rogaine, knowing we were in position to take advantage of what felt like the crux of the race.
Knocking the Rust Off
We made quick work of the first CP, speeding away from a team not far behind us, and then we had our first taste of the glorious rhododendron labyrinths sprinkled throughout the woods. Thankfully, we had seen worse, so other than getting tangled a bit and spending a few minutes wandering about aimlessly, we made it through and got on track. Until we couldn’t spot the next CP. It was plotted on the stream in the reentrant we were walking up, but no dice. Ultimately, we bypassed it, likely missing it due to the random thickets in the reentrant and the fact that it was not quite down in the bottom as expected.
From there, we settled into a rhythm: knock off a couple of points, bobble one, knock off a few more, bobble one. The woods were more passable than we expected, though there were indeed pockets of little thorny, rhodo nightmares that would briefly ensnare us. Even then, we remarked on how much we missed a good bush-bash, torn tights, and the burn of scratched, ripped skin.
Roughly halfway through the loop, after having the woods to ourselves for 90 minutes or more, we ran into Odyssey Masters. Along with a few other teams, we expected Odyssey to be in the thick of it until the end, and we anticipated that the race would come down to the final checkpoint or two. To be fair, running into Ronny and Dirk in that moment helped as we had become a bit disoriented on our way to CP20. It turned out we were more “found” than expected and that we were, in fact, quite close to the CP (I was surmising that in my rusty state I had botched the approach and we were still a large ridge away from the attackpoint).
From there, everything fell into place. As it turned out, the second half of the rogaine (based on our route) was a fair bit more straightforward and travel was faster thanks to more trails and roads. We nailed the last half of the section and pulled into TA just after sunrise accomplishing our goal of taking the lead. We had 10-15 miles of biking left, and the teams who we had been working hard to hold with to start the race would now be trying to run us down.
Our TA was slowed by a tire that needed some love, but we still managed to sneak out before anyone else rolled in. A minute or two out of TA, we saw Ronny and Dirk emerging from the woods, and as it turned out, Jesse Spangler and his new to AR neighbor, Brent, finished up around the same time, as did Glen and his teammates from Adventure Enablers. We didn’t have all that information, but we guestimated that we had 7-10 minutes on Odyssey and whoever else might be emerging from the woods as we set off. Not enough time to feel comfortable since we weren’t feeling strong on the bikes, but enough to give us a surge of urgency to really start racing.
Into the Oven
The bike back started with a fun bike-O in a pine tree farm. The morning was still cool, things were a bit misty in places, and the sun was glowing warmly on the horizon. The farm was wide open and serene, and we had a blast cruising around, nailing the CPs. Occasionally we would look back or scan the wide-open grass under the rows of pines, but we didn’t see any sign of our pursuers.
As we bagged the last point, however, we crossed paths with Adventure Enablers and Odyssey. A bit perplexed to see them there, our hearts sank a bit, but we quickly puzzled out that they must be doing the section in a different order. It was an interesting decision, and while it allowed them to ride out of the small rogaine on paved roads, it added some distance. As it turned out, our exit route was more linear and the road surfaces were solid, so we cruised on, banking some additional time.
Nonetheless, we tried to hammer the roads as much as possible, hitting the final two controls and working our way back through some trails to the final TA at the start/finish on Lake Holliday. We TAed quickly and hit the water with no sign of the teams chasing us. For the final section, there were four CPs on the lake, and we had to hit them in order, which meant crisscrossing the small but scenic lake a few times. Additionally, there were two clusters of three CPs, to be hit on foot, and teams could drop their canoes whenever and wherever to hit these points. It was a fun, strategic final section, and we were pleased to have held our lead going into the section as it would allow us to assess where the competition was as we paddled.
As it turned out, we had built our lead more substantially than we realized. We hit the first CP and were almost to the second one before we saw any sign of other racers, meaning we had extended our lead to nearly half an hour. We didn’t coast, but we knew that if we stayed focused and efficient there wasn’t enough race left for teams to clear that leg ahead of us. It just wasn’t long enough. So, we savored the last hour or so of the race, enjoying the cool-water and hitting the final points on foot which included a scenic dam and spillway, a fun climb up a rocky ridge, and a beautiful, sparkling cascading stream. We crossed paths with a bunch of the rookie 6-hour racers, cheering them on, before pulling up to the finish around 1030 AM, and mercifully, before the heat turned on in its entirety.
Behind us, Jesse Spangler and his friend, Brent, took control of second place. We had been crossing paths with Odyssey for the entire race, and we had seen Adventure Enablers on the trek and the bike. We hadn’t seen Jesse and Brent since the first bike so were surprised to see them pull up in second place, 25 minutes behind us. Odyssey finished another 12 minutes or so behind them, and Adventure Enablers ended up about an hour back from us.
Considering that we hadn’t been training much, the mistakes I made on the course, and the quality of racers on these top teams and others at the event, we were pleased with the result. It’s always frustrating knowing you could have and should have shaved off another half hour or more, but our team chemistry and teamwork were as good as always. Considering that we hadn’t really done an adventure race since summer 2019, it felt like a perfect race to ease back in.
Hopefully, we build on this one going into the rest of the season, though I wish I could feel more certainty that the rest of the season will go as smoothly as this race did (from an organizational, COVID, permitting standpoint). Sadly, as I write this, stories of a fourth surge and calls to tighten restrictions are swelling. Infections, deaths, and hospitalizations are climbing back up, all reminders that we are fortunate to have the opportunity to play in the woods the way we do and also that there are more important things going on in the world at the same time. Fingers crossed as a racer that the Epic goes well in a few weeks and that we get to do the big ones we have on our slate for the year: Expedition Oregon, ITERA, and USARA Nationals, and fingers crossed as an RD that we will be able to go ahead with our Two Rivers Adventure Race in May. If only, everyone could spread out in the woods the way adventure racers do!
For me, a long night out in the woods was rejuvenating and spiritually fulfilling even more so than I expected it to be. I hope that this weekend marked the beginnings of a return to normalcy for me and my team, a surfacing from a long, dark nightmare, rather than a brief gasp of air before being submerged once more. If things don’t go as we all hope they will for the 2021 race season, at least I’ll have this one to look back on.
Thanks to Michelle, Liz, and their amazing volunteers for making the event happen. People don’t understand how hard it is to direct an event in normal times, and Michelle and Liz are among the best of the RDs out there. They managed COVID protocols well and still fostered a comfortable, communal atmosphere. They designed an excellent course that was challenging, beautiful, interesting, and fun, and they expertly balanced the 15-hour event with a sold out 6-hour one full of eager, enthusiastic new racers. If we as a community can harness the energy swelling behind AR right now and the fact that everyone is rearing to get lost in the woods, our sport is going to have a welcome resurgence when this is all over!