2021 Shenandoah Epic
By Abby Perkiss:
I write this race report 30,000 feet in the air, somewhere over the Plains en route to the Pacific Northwest and Expedition Oregon. It is my first plane trip in seventeen months, my first multiday race in nearly three years. A combination of pregnancy and COVID have largely pulled me away from racing since September 2018, when my Rootstock teammates and I last stood atop the podium at the USARA National Championship.
My life and my relationship with the sport have, in some ways, transformed since then. Brent and I now juggle two kids with busy careers, and we moonlight as members of the new leadership team that took over the US Adventure Racing Association in 2020. I have spent the last fourteen months working from home, tethered to my computer with a rambunctious one-year-old puppy as my only office mate. I’ve traded the twelve hours a week I used to spend commuting with afternoons of zoom meetings disrupted daily by a curious toddler and an impish seven-year-old, who until a few weeks ago no longer had after-school childcare (thankfully, they have been in school for most of this academic year – something I don’t take for granted in the Long 2020), and meetings that don’t fit into the work day consume most evenings during the week. My time and energy for focused training have diminished as well. In the spring and summer of 2018, the last time I felt at peak fitness, I competed in two expedition races and routinely logged thirteen to fifteen hours of activity each week. Now, I’m lucky if I can top out at ten hours.
It was within this context that Brent and I drove south for Virginia and the Adventure Enablers’ 2021 Shenandoah Epic. As much as I’d longed for the return of racing, now that I was fully vaccinated, I also found myself feeling unsteady – nervous, out of practice, and positive that I had packed all the wrong foods.
We arrived at the bike drop at the familiar Shenandoah River Park – the start/finish of so many past editions of the Epic – to find a few dozen friends sorting gear, lubing chains, and pausing for cautious fist bumps or giant bear hugs. As someone who hasn’t been around more than a few people at a time in fourteen months, it felt like the first navigational challenge of the weekend – simultaneously surreal and wonderfully normal.
After we staged our bikes, we drove around the Massanutten Ridge to Caroline Furnace, the venue for this year’s race. This sprawling summer camp offered the perfect site for a pandemic-edition event, with ample space for folks to spread out throughout the grounds. We connected with the rest of our team, Jesse Tubb and Brian Reiss, and readied our maps and gear for what we expected to be a relatively straightforward, if physically punishing, tour of the Shenandoah Valley and the steep ridges on either side.
The next morning, teams gathered on a large field for a luxuriously civil 9:00am start. The race would begin with a quick separator before we traversed up, along, and over Massanutten and down to the river for the paddle put-in. We had decided the night before that we would push through these first two legs and then settle in and try to maintain a steady effort for the duration. It was a bit of a different strategy from our typical Rootstock approach, which tends to veer toward conservative at the start and then making up ground as we go. But Brent (and, with a little bit of coaxing, the rest of us) felt confident that we had the legs and the muscle memory to sustain it.
And so it was that we found ourselves flying through the trail network at Caroline Furnace, collecting fire-making materials from seven staffed CPs, all at fire circles scattered throughout the grounds. It’s no secret that my lungs and legs hate sprint separators, the combo of the fast pace and the race-start adrenaline surge throwing all of my systems into overdrive. Still, I was prepared for the hurt, and unlike previous races where I let it get the better of me, I found myself rolling with and through the discomfort, settling in on just this side of redlining.
Half an hour and one bobbled CP later, we raced through the TA seconds in front of our teammate, Nicki Driscoll, this time racing with Full Send, and our friends on Strong Machine. Before the start, I had stowed my small Ultimate Direction running vest in the front pocket of Jesse’s Hyperlite, and he carried it through the first couple checkpoints on the run up Massanutten so I could recover from the prologue. We continued pushing just past our typical race pace, enjoying the spring mountain air, the cloudless skies, and the crisp morning temps. The fifteen-kilometer trek passed quickly, and when we descended the ridge, we found ourselves alone at the transition to the boats. Jesse Spangler, racing solo, was a few minutes ahead of us on the water. We wouldn’t know how far back the next team was for another couple hours.
The paddle took us twenty-eight kilometers down the west branch of the Shenandoah River and included two small embedded foot sections – a nice opportunity to stretch our legs and capitalize on one of our team’s consistent strengths in AR: land navigation. Jesse and I paddled together in one canoe to get in a bit of practice for Oregon, and those early miles passed quickly.
It was during the first stretch on the water that I begin to realize that something felt not quite right. My typical racing personality is chatty and extraverted, but here I found myself lost in my own thoughts and struggling to add to the conversation. I was grateful for Jesse’s easy storytelling, veering between the existential and the mundane; he didn’t seem to notice my uncharacteristic quiet. Still, I felt unnerved.
We pulled off at the first foot loop – four points over a few kilometers – and quickly ran into Jesse Spangler, who was searching for a CP. This would be replicated many times over the next twenty hours. Jesse held a decided advantage on speed and power; Brent’s nav kept us mixing it up with him from checkpoint to checkpoint.
As we returned to our boat, we crossed paths with Full Send, Untamed New England, and Strong Machine, as well as soloist Brent Russell. We estimated we had roughly twenty minutes on this pack. We shoved off and kept pushing through the remaining kilometers on the water and the second foot loop, gradually extending that lead.
The takeout brought us to the Shenandoah River Park, where we’d dropped our bikes the previous afternoon. There, we had another short foot loop and then a longer mountain biking loop over smooth rolling trails before departing for a monster bike back over two ridges to Caroline Furnace.
We made quick work of the foot and then transitioned to our bikes. Within a hundred meters of the TA, we passed a den of baby foxes, cute enough to momentarily derail our focus as we marveled at their big ears and bushy tails. I heard after the race that by nightfall they were roaming freely on the trails, popping up to say hello to the teams behind us. We started this section by staying low, riding along the gravel rail trail to the farthest point and then working our way through the trail system on the return. We’ve ridden these trails in several past editions of the Epic, though rarely during the day, and it was nice to get a clearer picture of the park.
By this point, though I was still feeling solid physically, I was becoming increasingly aware of how long it had been since I last raced hard. I found myself lost in the discomfort of pushing, something that a few years ago felt so familiar but was now feeling foreign and unsteadying. I was in my head, narrating my own race – never a good place to find myself – and hanging off the back following along, rather than engaging with the course and my teammates.
And then, all of a sudden, I was riding through blinding tears. As I climbed short punchy hills and leaned into sharp curves, I sobbed and sobbed, broken open by the physicality of pushing myself and falling deep into the grief and loss of the past year. I let myself stay here for ten minutes, and then I gradually started to work my way back into the race. That is, until Brent turned around, took note of my stoicism, and asked me if I was okay. It was just enough to break me open again.
By the time we got back to the TA, I had recovered enough to choke down some food and join the rest of the team in psyching ourselves up for what was to come: sixty kilometers of punishing climbs, rocky ridges, and technical descents.
We started off with a few kilometers on road before turning up the trail for the first steep ascent through Veach Gap, another familiar feature from Epics past. I’ve been through the gap two or three times and had built it up in my head as something out of reach. But a funny thing happened – as we climbed, I settled in and found a comfortable rhythm, granny-gearing my way up to the top. In less time than I’d expected, we flattened out along the ridge and took in the last rays of the day’s sun.
From here, we rode several kilometers along the trail, my front tire – pumped up to a mind-bending (as in – who thought this was a good idea?) 40 PSI – bouncing off every rock. It was painstaking and frustrating, but I refused to let out any air for fear of slowing down on the (nonexistent) paved roads in the second half of the ride. Another example of my out-of-practice-ness getting the better of me.
It was around here that I realized that as I’d feared, I had, indeed, packed all the wrong food. The sweets that had looked so appealing on the grocery store shelves were becoming hard to get down, and I didn’t have anything salty to counterbalance it. What had I been thinking? I ended up surviving most of the rest of the race on coca cola and a few small chocolate croissants, and every so often I’d work on a peach ring or a York peppermint patty.
There was little distinguishing one trail from the next in my memory of the rest of this ride. Lots of rocks. A fire-tower. A sketchy, bouldery climb in bike shoes for an overnight CP. Finding Jesse Spangler’s map for the last section on the trail. Returning it to him a couple hours later. More rocks. The terrain was physical enough to prevent us from getting too cold in the near-freezing temps and technical enough to prevent me from falling too far down the mental rabbit hole of race discomfort. Still, I felt pretty beat up by the time we pulled into the final transition, traded in our bikes for running shoes, and set off a foot loop out of Caroline Furnace.
We started this section in the early hours of the morning and were sluggish and unfocused through the first few CPs. We lost time on one due to an errant clue – a CP location related to a bridge – and we got tripped up for the better part of an hour searching for a flag in a rhododendron-choked stream before sunrise. At this point, we were beginning to question our ability to clear the section, and we started to work backward through the rest of the course and triage our options.
We created contingencies – if we drop this point, maybe we can get those two. If we drop that one, we’ll have a clearer line to the finish. But as the sun rose and we found ourselves in an otherworldly open landscape – pocked by boulder fields and old burn – we found our groove again and began quickly ticking off kilometers with renewed focus and precision. We hit the furthest-most point, atop a big rock feature, and then took off running. As we got closer to the finish and the last of our CPs, we were buoyed by the sight of other teams.
At our final point, a culvert just a few hundred meters from the end, Jesse handed me the e-punch that he had been carrying for the previous twenty-three hours. You’ve worked harder for this one than I have, he said. You punch it. I descended the bank and found photographer extraordinaire Randy Ericksen, and I knew immediately that I was about to get wet. Sure enough, when I entered the small tunnel to retrieve the CP, I found myself nearly waist deep in water. A refreshingly fitting end to the day.
We ran through the chute at 8:26AM, with thirty-four minutes to spare. It was a far cry from the estimated twenty hours we’d anticipated when we set out (and we had our empty bellies to show for it). Jesse Spangler had finished twenty minutes earlier. We were the only two groups to clear the course.
The rest of this AR season is still a bit up in the air for the Rootstock team. We’ve got Oregon coming up – Nicki, Jesse, and I will be joining forces with USARA Executive Director Mike Garrison, a longtime familiar face on the race course who has become a close friend over the last year, as we’ve charted the new direction of the organization together.
From there, the team will head to our own Two Rivers Adventure Race, the Maine Summer Adventure Race, and hopefully Open Adventure’s Itera in Scotland, if the stars of public health and childcare align. As always, we’ll cap off the season at Nationals, this year in Wisconsin and hosted by Paula Waite at 180 Adventures.
I don’t know whether life will quiet down over the next few months. I don’t know whether I’ll find more balance, or eek out more hours each week to train, or get to bed at an earlier hour. But I do know that I’m grateful to find my way back to adventure racing, and to claim a little bit of normalcy in the wonderfully familiar discomfort of running around in the woods with my friends.