She Said: Exorcising Demons
I used to keep a blog, and on there I’d write exhaustive accounts of all my races. I’d dissect every detail, reflect on how I felt, the team dynamics, the adventure and the race and everything in between. In recent years, I’ve gotten away from reflective narratives in favor of quick and dirty play-by-plays on Attackpoint, but the 2017 USARA National Championship seemed like race worthy of a proper write-up. And I sat down several times over the past few days with the intention of doing just that.
Except I couldn’t seem to put words to paper. I’m a storyteller by profession, but this story felt hard to tell – complicated. There was more to it than just 26 hours, 2 minutes, and 17 seconds in the woods, more context, backstory, so many pieces, so much coming together, so many layers to this one little race.
Layer One: the team.
The Rootstock Racing team has seven active members, and we knew that we would be fielding two squads for Nationals this year. It took us several months to sort out who would be racing, but ultimately it came down to me, Brent, Brian, Jim, Joel, and Nicki.
For various reasons, Jim and Brian ended up on one team, Joel and Brent on the other. We just had to sort out Nicki and me. It’s rare that Brent and I don’t race together, rarer still that we both compete in the same event on different teams. Plus, Nationals would be Brent’s 100th race, and could be our 50th together.
But Brent hadn’t been feeling 100 percent for most of the summer, and I’d been training harder and racing stronger than ever before. In July, we realized that we had an opportunity to overtake the top-scoring teams in the national rankings with a solid race, so we wanted to put together the strongest team we could as the points-scoring squad. And it’s hard to bet against Jim Driscoll in that department. So, after a whole lot of back-and-forth, we decided (I decided? Brent encouraged? There were lots of conversations…) that I would race with Jim and Brian, and Nicki would join Brent and Joel as the second Rootstock team.
And we started a tally of the number of people who asked us if there was “trouble in paradise.”
Layer Two: the organization.
Before starting Rootstock Racing in 2015, Brent and I raced for almost ten years under GOALS Adventure Racing Association – the host organization for the 2017 USARA National Championship.
We directed several races for GOALS (we were actually set to design Nationals this year – in a different location – before we parted ways), Brent captained the team, and in general we both became adventure racers there. We’ll both always be grateful to Anne and Bill Gibbons and will always feel connected to the GOALS community – and so there’s always a little bit of added anticipation, competing in one of their events.
Layer Three: the family.
As parents, Brent and I are deeply committed to maintaining and fostering identities that go beyond Mommy and Daddy, and to modeling that for our three-year-old daughter. We adore Zoe and love our unit of three, but we also both have full and demanding careers, and we both spend a lot of time and energy on Rootstock – as both race directors and racers.
And we’re exceedingly lucky to have supportive families and a huge community of friends who are happy to spend a morning, a weekend, or a couple weeks with Zoe while we’re playing in the woods.
But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy or smooth, and the last six weeks have been challenging for her, between our twelve-day stint in Wyoming for the Adventure Racing World Champs, the start of the school year for everyone, and a new schedule for me that involves being away from home far more than any of us is used to, especially after being on sabbatical all of last year. She was crying before we even pulled into the school parking lot Thursday morning, and when her friends tried to comfort her by reminding her that mommies and daddies always come back (her class is working on empathy this year!), she responded hysterically, “but my mommy and daddy aren’t coming back because they have to go race!”
Not five minutes later, her teacher sent me a text with a picture of my smiling kid, playing with her dolls, but my heart was already torn to pieces. I almost hung up my race pack right then and there, and I was a bit of a mess on the drive up to Lake Harmony that afternoon.
Layer Four: the personal.
In August 2016, following a particularly rough time at the Itera Adventure Race in Ireland, AR and I almost broke up. I had spent the five days of the race physically, nutritionally, and psychically beaten down, and I lost just about all the confidence I had in my ability as an athlete and a teammate.
Once I started contemplating moving away from the sport, I started to think about what the rest of my life would look like without AR as a centerpiece. And let me tell you what a wormhole that can be, when one of your teammates happens to be your partner…
Instead of letting myself fall in too deeply, I followed the suggestion of my Itera teammate, Mark Lattanzi, and reached out to Sarah Goldman, owner of Action First Coaching. Sarah describes Action First as “mindset coaching for the hard stuff,” and that’s exactly what I wanted – guidance in figuring out what happened along the Wild Atlantic Way and how to reclaim a little bit of my racing prowess. I worked with Sarah for three months, and while I didn’t have the opportunity to compete again during that stretch (family and life took over), with her help I put together a new toolkit to draw from when shit got hard on the race course.
Along the way, I also learned about Jen Segger at Challenge by Choice. I’d first heard Jen’s name when she joined our teammate, Jim, for the Adventure Racing World Champs in Australia last year. Jim, Jen, and the Team Bones crew raced to an 8th place finish, so I knew she had to be a ridiculously strong athlete herself. Then, a few rockstar AR ladies mentioned that they were working with Jen on performance coaching (and a few guys as well, but I was particularly struck by the fact that so many of Jen’s clients were women). I’d been hearing more and more about adventure racers working with coaches to develop a training program, and I was semi-intrigued by the idea, having a background in competitive swimming and knowing that I thrived under the direction and guidance of a coach. But it seemed expensive and unnecessary for where I was in the sport, and after I mentioned it in a passing comment to Brent sometime over the fall, I pretty much forgot about it.
But Brent didn’t, and at Christmas, I opened one of the most thoughtful presents he’d ever given me – a copy of Angela Duckworth’s Grit, an incredibly sweet and encouraging card, and three months of coaching with Jen (many have joked since that this was also a gift for himself, because he was getting a stronger teammate out of the deal). Jen and I began working together in January. I was immediately struck by the intention and purpose behind every workout, and I loved knowing that there was a holistic plan to get me through the season. For those three months, I did every workout, almost exactly as prescribed, and when I lined up for the start of the Shenandoah Epic in April, I was in the best shape of my life.
Twenty-six wet, muddy hours later, our team crossed the finish line for the win, and I felt like a new person. I was confident on my feet, had power on the bike, worked through sleepies and energy dips without letting them get inside my head, and was an active and present member of the team. In short, I was the racer I wanted to be.
I emailed Jen and asked if she had room on her roster for me to stay on through the rest of the season, and I dove into several months of high volume, high intensity training. I was perpetually starving, I was always exhausted, I was a little bit obsessed with data – and I was loving it. I continued to see the personal results that the training afforded, and our team continued to put up strong performances against tough competition. It was, without question, the best season of racing that I’d ever been a part of.
But still, the hangover from Ireland continued to linger, and as we made our final preparations for the AR World Champs in Wyoming, I started to doubt myself again, especially on a course that I knew wouldn’t play to my strengths, and with two of the teammates I’d raced with the summer before.
It turned out that I felt fantastic at Worlds (I didn’t even have to dig into the toolkit Sarah and I had developed over the fall, because I never reached the shit-got-hard moment.), and our team had a great race, especially given the physical format and relatively light nav.
All that was left for the season was USARA…
These layers were on my mind as Brent and I drove up to Lake Harmony on Thursday afternoon. But as soon as we pulled into the parking lot at the Split Rock Resort, we dove into the pre-race frenzy – registration, bike drop, briefing, and packing before falling into bed at 10:00pm, layers long forgotten.
At 5:00am the next morning, we received our maps and saw for the first time what the race would offer. We would begin with a paddle around Beltzville Lake, followed by a monster bike ride and two lengthy treks. It was a big, physical course, but it also looked like there would be opportunities for strategy and route choice, and plenty of technical navigation. We were ready.
After a short bus ride and half an hour spent setting up boats and fiddling with gear, teams walked 50 meters up a small hill for the start. USARA custom includes a prayer (which always feels a little bit ironic to me, with the race – more often than not – falling over Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur… but I digress…) and the National Anthem. After waiting several minutes for the piped-in music to begin, Mark Lattanzi looked at me with a smile. “Let’s do it, Abby.” Mark counted us down and then the two of us kicked off an a cappella rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Everyone else quickly joined in, cheers ensued, and with that a new Nationals tradition was born.
When the song ended, USARA President Troy Farrar fired a cannon to start the race, and everyone sprinted to their boats. The paddle included 8 CPs along the lake, plus a small embedded foot section where teams could divide up to retrieve 9 additional points. The two Rootstock teams had decided to stick together through that o-section, to take advantage of the strong navigators on both teams. Jim, Brian, and I were one of the first teams onto the water, with Brent, Nicki, and Joel close behind. We hit CP 6 on the opposite shore and then turned left and headed up the lake. Quickly both teams fell into step with each other, and we ended up sitting in 4th or 5th position and tucking in behind Rootstock 2, who were speeding through the water with their combined paddling prowess and Brent’s masterful boat handling.
We went back and forth on our route for the section, ultimately veering off from AMK, Journey, and Tan-Z as they headed for CP 8 while we went straight to CP 3 and the o-section. There, Jim and Joel took CPs 5-9 while Brent, Nicki, Brian, and I headed off for 1-4. With Brent navving and Brian punching, we made quick work of our loop, which ended with a neck-deep creek crossing back to our boats (somewhere there’s a video of me up to my eyeballs in the water, with my pack hoisted overhead to stay dry). We didn’t think to ferry the boats back toward the lake to pick up the other two guys, so instead we waited on the banks, trying to figure out what other teams were doing.
Jim and Joel crashed through the woods back to us and we shoved off quickly. “We’re the first to leave,” I told Jim as we paddled toward CP8. “I know,” he said. “It’s because everyone else portaged their boats around.” It took several explanations and a few glances at the map for me to understand what he meant, and collectively we spent the next hour trying to gauge how much time we’d lost by paddling around. At first, we convinced ourselves that we’d fallen to the back of the field. Then, Brent and Joel reasoned that other teams would have had to make up as much as 30 minutes on the 1km portage in order to be so far ahead of us that we couldn’t see them on the water. We rode a morale roller coaster back to CP1 before finally crossing paths with Tan-Z in first place and AMK right behind in second, both en route to the transition. We were about 15 minutes back, in third place. Journey was right behind. Not so bad.
We had decided that the two teams would separate once we were off the water, so when we pulled out, we parted ways with Rootstock 2 and Jim, Brian, and I ran the half-mile to our bikes. Brent and crew came up shortly after with Journey, and we all transitioned together. “See you imminently, I’m sure!” I yelled to Journey’s Katie Ferrington as we rode out of TA.
Less than a minute later, they pulled up next to us. “I didn’t mean that imminently,” I laughed, as they rode on ahead and we settled into a steady pace. We knew that we probably wouldn’t be able to match the top teams on bike, especially with the physical, technical terrain that lay ahead. Our goal was to try to hang with them as much as we could through this section, and then see what we could do on foot.
We spent the next 95 kilometers riding, hike-a-biking, river-crossing (where 1000 of my precious calories turned from goldfish, animal crackers, and sour patch kids to bags of technicolor mush), and bike-whacking through Jim Thorpe and the surrounding state gamelands. Jim handled the maps and Brian powered us through the steep climbs, ran for the checkpoints, and shouldered the extra load. The ride required a true team effort, and we drew on our various strengths and our longtime experience together to make our way through smoothly and efficiently.
Personally, I felt strong and steady on the climbs and flats, solid during the hike-a-bike, and even functional on the bike-whack. The technical descents, however, almost unraveled me. On the first drop, I endo-ed off a rock, jamming my arm and shoulder. Not long after, as we were carrying our bikes across a switchback, I rolled off a loose log and landed with a rock between my hip and my ribs (luckily, I noted, just missing the bones and instead nailing the essential organs). “I’m okay!” I yelled as Brian looked back, grimacing. And I was, mostly, but unfortunately, my bike was hurting. The derailleur hanger was bent and I lost my smallest gears. Then, my rear thru-axel, which I’ve had issues with since getting my bike in June, came loose to the point of coming out of its socket. My tire nearly slid off the axel on a particularly boulder-y stretch. Brian and I tightened it up and I kept riding, gingerly shifting gears and willing everything to hold together.
Somehow, despite all of that, we found ourselves at checkpoint 26 amidst a sea of headlamps. We dropped our bikes and bushwhacked into the point, saying hello to AMK, Journey, and Tan-Z who were on their way back to the trail. Just as Jim started to mention the advantage they all had in approaching the tricky point together, Brian’s light flashed on the reflector. Got it.
We ran back to our bikes and continued on, 10-15 minutes behind the leaders. On our way back out to the rail trail, we crossed paths with Untamed, CP Zero, and Rootstock 2. I’m sure we woke a few bears with all the whooping and hollering we were doing as they passed by.
We lost a few minutes coming out to CP 27 and then a couple more looking for 28, in an abandoned lock along the river (one of my favorite points on the course). From there, it was one more (relatively treacherous) river crossing, some bobbing and weaving through the trails, and a quick climb on roads up to TA 2.
At TA 2, we encountered two distinct foot sections – a big loop on USGS maps, and a more contained orienteering rogaine, using a DVOA map. We could do them in either order, and the o-section was timed – a race within a race. We had decided earlier that we’d start with the bigger foot section, in part because it looked more trail-heavy (potentially an easier transition from bike nav to foot, Jim said), and in part because we wanted to take on the timed orienteering with daylight on our side.
When we arrived around 10:00 PM, the three lead teams were still transitioning. Journey was first to leave and also opted for the big foot. Tan-Z did the same, running off a few minutes later, and AMK set off on the o-course. Not long after we left TA, we came across Journey, who were having issues with the first CP. “Do you know if there are flags hung on this section?” they asked. “Or are we supposed to write down clues?” They thought it might be the latter and were heading back to the TA to find out. We spent a few moments second-guessing the instructions and then decided to continue on and look for the point ourselves. Jim found it quickly, and we set off from there, not seeing our Colorado friends again until the finish line.
Jim’s navigation here was the stuff of legend. We moved easily around the foot loop, hitting almost every CP with surgical precision. Bouncing back and forth between USGS and supplemental maps, Jim guided us around the worst of the vegetation (or maybe we just got lucky… or maybe I’ve become desensitized to the prolific mid-Atlantic rhododendron). We lost a few minutes on CP 34, a “small boulder field” in a sea of small boulder fields, but we otherwise made steady work of the section. We weren’t moving particularly fast, and there were moments when we lost focus and our speed and cohesiveness dropped off, but in general we were able to maintain contact, put our heads down, and go.
That is, until CP 38. At the end of the section there was a small cluster of points around a scenic waterfall. 37 was at the base of the falls, 39 in a parking lot to the northeast of it, and 38 was marked as a rocky point in the middle of the creek below. We hit the area around 3:00 in the morning. First we took an unplanned detour from the main trail onto a rough fisherman’s path, inadvertently running into CP 39 when we were on the hunt for 38. We reoriented ourselves and got back to the creek, where we wandered back and forth along the trail for the better part of an hour, scouring every rocky surface. I was already feeling pretty low – we’d been rationing food for a few hours by that point, and the caffeine I’d taken earlier wasn’t doing its job – and the fruitless meandering had me sleepwalking along the riverbank. We were just about to call into the RD to report a possible missing flag when Shane, Rachel, and Greg of Main Nerve came up. They were having a rough race to that point (Unlucky #13, Rachel told us), and were toward the beginning of a counterclockwise route for the section.
We summarized our predicament, walked the trail with them one more time for good measure, and then, just as Jim was about to pull out the phone, Shane asked, “have you checked the other side of the creek?”
We had not.
Jim and Brian headed down to the water and I continued to walk the trail with Main Nerve. “I’m utterly useless right now,” I told Rachel, who yelled at me to Wake Up! She was right – I needed to do something. So, for the first time all season, I drew from Sarah’s toolkit – eat, caffeinate, engage. Within a few minutes, it started to kick in, and when Brian returned with a punched passport (thank you, Main Nerve, for not letting us derail our race!), he pointed out the CP on the south bank and the three of us headed off for CP40.
“Okay, guys, I’m back,” I told Jim and Brian as we ran down the trail.
“How did you bounce back?” Jim asked.
“I ate, I took some more caffeine, and you found the checkpoint.”
He and Brian laughed, and then we put our heads back down and pushed through the rest of our section, keeping our fingers crossed that our diminishing headlamps would make it to sun-up. Somehow, all three of us were low on both calories and battery life.
We ran back into TA 2, eight hours after we’d set off, to find a visibly relieved Stephanie Ross.
“Thank goodness someone is finally off that section!” she exclaimed.
“Are we the first ones in?”
“But AMK must have finished the o-course.”
“They did, but not that long ago. Britt’s Untamed team has the fastest time so far, around 5 hours, and Kuat is in second.”
Well, shit. Let’s go!
Jim grabbed the o-map for Hickory Run State Park and we ran off down the road. I knew that Sandy Fillebrown at DVOA had spent hours over the summer designing a section of the Nationals course, and I was excited to finally see the results of her efforts.
We hit the first 12 CPs in order, bouncing between trails and bushwhack. Jim took bearings, pace counted, calculated contours, followed vegetation boundaries, and made it look entirely too easy. I checked my watch between points, trying to project out our overall time. “The second half is harder than the first,” Jim warned when I told him we’d covered the first 10 points in two hours. Meanwhile, Brian was handing out individual sour patch kids and combos at semi-regular intervals, all of us hoping we had enough fuel to keep us going for the final push.
From CP12, we hit (I believe) 17, 16, 13 – where we crossed paths with Tan-Z and realized that we’d somehow put 2-3 hours on them – 14 and 15, and then straightlined north to the dam below 18. “We have three points to go,” I told the guys. “If we can do it in 45 minutes, we’ll be in under four hours.”
3 hours and 48 minutes after we set off (ultimately good enough to win the race’s orienteering award), we ran back into TA 2 to resounding cheers.
“You’re the first team to clear both sections!” someone yelled.
“Yeah, Rootstock!!” Sandy exclaimed, popping out from under the canopy. So nice to see her there! We thanked her for the great section and sprinted back to our bikes, saying hello to our friends on Team Strong Machine, filling water, passing around a bag of cashews, throwing wet clothes and shoes into our packs.
“How far back is AMK?”
“They’re been on the foot long enough to be back by now,” Stephanie replied, filming live on facebook.
“They left here at 5:07AM,” Carrie Sona reported.
It was just after 10:00.
“Let’s do it!” Brian yelled, and we raced out of TA for the final 15 kilometer push to the finish.
Well, raced may be a bit of an overstatement. None of us had much power in our legs as we spun up the rocky trail. And I discovered that I’d lost more gears on my bike. And my stomach was rumbling. And my feet were sore. And I was positive that Untamed or AMK was going to sprint by us.
“Head in the game, Perkiss,” I told myself.
We dropped our bikes and ran in for CP 42.
We rode the grass path to CP 43.
We hit the road and climbed the last hill to CP 44, Split Rock.
“There it is!” I yelled as the flag came into view.
“Abby, do you want to punch?” Brian asked me.
“No way,” I told him. “You’ve done the heavy lifting all day. You’ve earned this last one.”
Brian dropped his bike and ran to nab the final point as I looked over my shoulder one more time.
We turned around and rode the last kilometer to the finish, crossing the line just after 11:00am as the 2017 USARA National Champions.
As we finished, I began thinking again about all the different things that had come together in the build-up to this race – the challenges, the soul searching, the excitement, the anticipation…
Anne Gibbons, with whom I’ve shared so many races over the last decade, greeted us at the line with an enormous smile and an even bigger hug. We hung out at the finish for half an hour before riding back to the lodge for a shower. 20 minutes later, I got a text from Kate White of Strong Machine that Untamed had finished in second place.
We drove back over to await the arrival of Rootstock 2 and got to cheer on the rest of the field. AMK was the next full-course team to cross the line, at 1:30pm. WEDALI came in a little while later, the only other team to clear the course.
An honor to be in the company of these three other teams.
Brent, Nicki, and Joel rode in at 2:00pm, having had a near-flawless first 18 hours of racing before things unraveled a bit at the end. Brent had tears in his eyes as he recounted hearing from AMK’s Olof that we’d won.
Meanwhile, I was still trying to wrap my head around it.
Later that day, my friend Mary text me: “Is Zoe there?! Think how the phrase ‘My mom was a National Champion Adventure Racer’ is going to influence her.”
“You have no idea how much I needed to hear that,” I thought.
And then came a message from Sarah. “Abby I would say that your demons from Ireland are officially exorcised!! Congratulations, national champion!!!!!”
Maybe adventure racing and I aren’t breaking up, after all.
This race capped off a remarkably special season for our team, and I want to thank the whole Rootstock Racing crew – there’s no one else I’d rather run around the woods with. And Brent, for being a true leader, my favorite teammate (sorry, guys), and an incredibly supportive partner. And GOALS ARA, Jeff Bell, Sandy Fillebrown, and USARA for designing an awesome championship course. And my parents, for taking Zoe on a playground crawl across Philadelphia for the weekend. And the entire adventure racing community – I am profoundly grateful to be a part of the AR family.