Snowgaine: 8th Time is the Charm

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.

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Enjoying a nice winter day in the swamp

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

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There was some snow…sometimes…

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.

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Why do teammates always crouch down for photos with us?

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…

 

Chilly Cramps

By: Brent Freedland

Photos: Most photos courtesy of Vladimir Bukalo

abby-2

Wondering whether we are back in Ireland

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.

team-3Granted, 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!

teamWe 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!)?

prologueThe 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.

mark

Frozen bikes, frozen hands, Winter is Here

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.

brent

The legs are still working

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.

abby

Abby napping on the prologue…or you know…trying to breath…

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.

team-2Thankfully 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!

And so it Begins

This past weekend marked the 2016 debut for Rootstock Racing‘s Adventure Racing team. While we technically raced for the first time at the USARA National Championship last October, this was the first Adventure Race of our first full season, and it felt great to get out in the woods. We all remarked on the fact that we have never waited until June to compete in the season’s first adventure race, and we therefor weren’t surprised that we had some kinks to work out.

Before we get to this past weekend’s race, a brief recap:

Rootstock Racing is a new race promotion company in the Mid-Atlantic, and the core of our team has been racing for decades for various teams, though primarily for Adventure Pocono, GOALS ARA, and NYARA. In Kentucky last October, Abby, Brian and I made our debut and finished 8th overall in a strong field at USARA Nationals, and our teammate Jim raced with a strong GOALS ARA squad to an amazing 2nd place finish. We didn’t really consider this our official unveiling, but it was a great end to the 2015 season and a promising beginning to the next phase of our adventure racing careers.

While we didn’t get any early season adventure races in this season, we did compete in two long rogaining events. Abby and I teamed up with John Courain and ran ourselves into the ground to take 4th at CNYO’s Snowgaine in March, and then Abby, Jim and I won the 24 hour Get Stoked Rogaine at the end of April.

I’ve come to love rogaines, but nothing is quite like Adventure Racing, and we were excited to finally toe the line this past weekend at GOALS ARA‘s 12 hour Cradle of Liberty. There was a fine field of racers with two strong Rev3 teams, two more from GOALS, local speed-demons Lamprey Systems, and the New-to-East-Coast-Racing Strong Machine among others. We knew we would have our work cut out for us, and indeed, teams were jockeying back and forth all day long in the humid summer haze.

The race started off well and we took an early lead. After the long paddle on the Lehigh River, the race blew up with teams scattering in a dozen different directions. We settled into our own race and set off from the river for a terrific section: a series of six checkpoints scattered on a pocket of islands. We biked to the islands, swam back and forth as we retrieved the controls, and ended by carrying our bikes across the river.

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On the far shore, we secured our PFDs and other kit and commenced the rest of the race. Technically, there were five sections left, but for the most part they all blended together into a big biking rogaine. We dropped our bikes here and there, hiked-a-bike a bit, bikewhacked when we needed some additional adventure, and generally speaking made steady progress through the course.

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Well, steady if you don’t count the hour or so of lost time on

W3 when I decided to misread the contour lines, leading us higher than the control into a maze of thorns and brambles that ensnared us for what seemed to be an eternity. At this point, we were on the heels of one of the Rev3 teams for the lead, and an hour later we found ourselves surrounded by teams at W3. I was convinced we had blown not only a chance at the win but several more places at least.

And it was steady if you ignore the countless minutes we seemed to lose with uncharacteristic miscommunications: “Come this way!” I’d shout. And then I’d wait. And wait. And wait some more. “We heard you say ‘STAY'” Abby and Tamela would say several minutes later as we reconvened. Or the times when I would look back and see them right behind me only to somehow lose them on a turn a moment later. In almost 100 races, I have never had such communication problems in a race before.

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Steady if you ignore the lost time from our literal reading of rules that I guess were not meant to be read literally and more lost time from various other frustrating navigation blunders.

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With less than an hour left, we realized we would have to give up on clearing the course. We modified our final route and picked off what we could, unsure that we would even make it to the finish line in time. Somehow we managed, finishing with less than five minutes on the clock, and claiming second place overall despite the various issues.

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We estimate we easily lost two hours on this course with our various issues, but we were still happy with the results. It’s always good to work out the kinks earlier in the season, but these races happen, and thankfully we have another race or two before ITERA in August.

As always, congratulations to our friends from Rev3 for another great race and the win, and likewise, congrats to Lamprey for taking third in a deep premier field. Brian and Derek from GOALS put together a really interesting race with some terrific riding, great use of swimming (hard to do in AR) and a really fun “Hide and Seek” section toward the end of the event.

And of course, special thanks to our sponsors:

Hikegoo – We lathered up our feet before the race began and then raced with wet and gritty feet for almost twelve hours. Six feet, no blisters. That’s a victory in itself!

Kanpas – I tested out their newest elite competition compass, and wow was it great and amazing at tracking. Too bad I forgot how to use it!

SOURCE Hydration – We made good use of the Source/SAWYER mini filter combo. We probably should have consumed another 50 liters of water considering the heat and humidity, but quick fills and drinking cool water without chemicals was a joyful reprieve from the sweltering weather.

Thorlo – Our longest sponsor, their socks deserve credit for our blister-free and comfortable feet as well. Seriously, after ten years in Thorlo socks, I never have problems…as long as I wear Thorlos.

And finally, a special shout-out to Champ Systems. We were in our full kit for the first time, me in my bike jersey and Edge bike shorts, Abby and Tamela in the Apex run shirt and lycra bottoms. They were comfortable and sharp and we somehow managed to escape the race without any chafing. I can’t remember the last time I could write that!