27 July 2012

Throwback Race Report: 2010 Thunder Rolls 24hr AR

Note: I wrote this in 2010 after finishing The Thunder Rolls 24hr adventure race, my second ever 24hr race (first one was LBL Challenge). For awhile it was posted on the Mid-Rivers Adventure team website but now that has folded so I'm posting it here. Why now? Because I just found myself a team for the 2012 edition of the Thunder Rolls and I'm super excited! More details soon, but for now, enjoy!


3-person coed division: Bill Langton, Gary Thompson, Emily Korsch
This is the start of the 12-hour, but the 24-hour race looked similar.
Photo from  http://team-virtus.com/tag/the-thunder-rolls-adventure-race/

Gary and Bill pick me up in St. Louis Friday morning after we had pre-loaded Bill’s van with bikes and gear Thursday night. We drive up to Oregon, IL with only a few stops, and arrive at race headquarters (Camp Lowden Boy Scout Camp) about 3pm. We check in, each paying an extra $28 for mandatory pasta dinner, camping, and USARA fee, collect our much-heralded fleeces and learn about the bike drop. (NB. This race’s base registration fee of $185 is advertised as the cheapest in the Midwest, but I beg to differ.  LBL’s race fees are $155 for early registration, and LBL's shirt ($12) and meal ($8) were optional. Don’t get me started on the extra gear we had to provide ourselves for Thunder.) We quickly stash our schwag bags and head over to the climbing wall to practice ascending, a skill that was announced for the race about 3 days ago. Thankfully the ropes guys have four ropes open and they provide really great instruction and advice, and ascending doesn’t seem to be all that hard. After practice, we decide to complete the bike drop in daylight so we head over to Dixson, IL. After unloading the bikes, we discover my rear derailleur has been bent during transport and will not shift into the larger half of the cassette. Momentary panic! However with some gentle bending to the hanger we mitigate the problem. Relief! Tires are filled, tows are attached, bike shoes are stacked, and we leave the bike drop with barely enough time to grab dinner at Jimmy John’s before returning to Camp Lowden for the pre-race meeting and maps distribution. We end up with six 1:24,000 maps and a Camp Lowden trail map. Most are pre-plotted but Gary and Bill do have to throw a couple of the CPs on the maps too. We route plan and strategize until about 9.30p and then go outside to organize gear. It’s always amazing how fast this time goes and in a blink it’s 11.30p, and I discover my main headlamp will not turn on. I run to the dining hall to check the battery, which comes back fully charged. We swap out cables, nothing. No light. Again, momentary panic sets in, but my teammates and I consider the race layout and, given our anticipated slow paddle time, it’s probable that we will not be biking in the dark. Maybe I’m not totally screwed. I will take my mini-headlamp and hope for the best because it’s now time to assemble at the start line. (One of the special features of Thunder Rolls is the midnight start! So, it's almost like a 36hr race since we begin with a sleep deficit!)

RUN (CPs 0-1)
Quick road run to start the race while geared up with a pfd, pack, and paddles. I was cold at the start but now I’m dripping (ahem, I mean GLOWING) as Bill and I push the pace to stay near the lead pack and avoid congestion at CP1. We get to the designated parking lot and I punch while Bill selects a boat, one of the infamous yellow plastic “canoes”. We wait for Gary to catch up so we can begin the portage down to the water. Teams are everywhere and by the time we get going we’re close to the back.

About the only good thing I can say about the portage is I’m glad it’s at the beginning of the race. These boats are awkward and, at about 100# a piece, not easy to manage. Gary and I grab the front and Bill takes the back. We try just about every method of portage here in the mile down to the water...hand carrying, slings, towing, dragging, nothing makes it easy and FINALLY we see CP2. Except, it’s not really a boat ramp, just a wooded bank down to the river. We thread the boat through the trees to the water and jump in for the looooong (20mile) paddle.

CANOE (CPs 2-4)
GPS track of the opening run, portage, and paddle from Midwest Mountaineering:  http://tmmar.blogspot.com/2010/09/thunder-rolls-24-hour-adventure-race.html 
Ready...set...paddle upstream! For three miles! The nav for this leg isn’t complicated but keeping the boat moving is. About half-way through the trip (still in the back of the pack) we see some lights floating at the water level slightly upstream. Turns out it’s another team, capsized. Our team immediately transitions from “paddle to the CP” into “rescue” mode as we approach the other boat, hook it up to a tow, and drag it to the western bank as the team kicks alongside. It’s not an easy task as the current is determined to keep them mid-stream, but after a lot of grunt paddling we drop them off, make sure everyone has adequate food/clothes still left, and keep on our way. Turns out this team was wearing their packs so no gear or calories were lost...amazing! After the rescue mission we resume our slow journey upstream, having lost about 25 minutes and 1/2 mile from the point where we picked them up, but the delay was well worth it. Any other team would have done the same for our boat, I am quite sure, even if they were leading.

The rest of the upstream paddle is without incident and we finally reach CP3, grab the punch, and turn downstream for the remaining 17 miles. It’s a cold night (for MO) and I have to put on wool (!) tights, my rain jacket, and fleece hat to stop shivering. The night is clear and beautiful, winds calm, and we get to enjoy the sunrise on the river (even if that meant we were slightly behind schedule). I have my first encounters with AR sleep monsters and start seeing bright green highway signs on the river bank. I won’t even begin describing the considerable pain each of our asses was in because there’s just no way to get comfortable in those boats.

BIKE (CPs 4-9)

GPS track of the first bike leg from Midwest Mountaineering:

Finally, the take-out appears and we transition to bikes in a not-so-speedy manner. The last-minute fix we performed earlier on my rear derailleur seems to have worked and I will continue the race with no shifting issues. This leg is an uncomplicated 20-mile road ride with a few hills but nothing epic. Bill handles nav, I punch, and the two of us alternate leading out the tow line for Gary. We leapfrog with a couple of teams here and there, but it seems no real advantage is gained for anyone. On the final approach to CP9/TA2, Bill puts in a major tow for me and Gary since we have decided he will be the one with the maps at the next leg, which is...

The Nachusa Grasslands, photo courtesy Team Virtus 

...radio orienteering! We knew something was up for the race when Gerry (race director) added walkie-talkies to the mandatory gear list, the longer the range, the better. Of course it was up to the teams to provide these ourselves. I mean, who doesn’t have 32-mile range 2-way radios in their personal gear stash? Well, now I do. At the pre-race meeting the details for this leg were revealed: 12-point O-course, navigator stays in TA with maps and a radio, and remaining teammates take the passport and run the course with no maps, just the other radio. The other interesting factor is the terrain is a dedicated grasslands run by the Nature Conservancy. Evidently they tend to be very private about access to their land, however they welcomed us adventure racers because we would simulate buffalo trampling through the tallgrass. The first 3 checkpoints we hit right on (I would say they are about orange level) and I start to get optimistic, even galloping through some of the grass while trying to think buffalo thoughts. However, my buffalovian happiness is short-lived as Bill sends us up a thorny, briary, stickery slope to CP14. He’s lucky Gary had the radio otherwise I would have demanded another route (and after the race, Bill says he would have refused the request, citing HTFU). After some significant thrashing, we grab the punch and thankfully set out back into the grasslands for 15 and 16, each with minor bobbles but nothing terrible. Then, we have more trouble with 17. The clue is “deerstand”, which we find, but there is no punch in the vicinity. I even climb up the thing to check at the top. Nothing. We thrash around the area and after about 30 minutes, find ANOTHER deerstand about 200m away with the punch. A mis-hang? Gary thinks so. 18 and 19 are fine as Bill vicariously navigates us through Gary’s favorite terrain (subtle). Then it’s back to the thorns and briars for 20 and 21. This time, the gnats want to join in the fun and I have an entourage following my every move. Since I need some Cleopatra practice anyway (for the upcoming packraft), I grab a branch of something and start fanning myself as we pick our way through the prickly veg. I’m sure Gary thought I was a total bug wuss, but it did help keep the gnats from eating my soul. We find both checkpoints, punch, and take a jeep trail back to the road. Gary takes a catnap while I quickly run out-and-back for 22 (located at the same infamous deerstand as 17) and then we head for home/TA2. The long way. The looooooooong way. For some reason the concept of taking short but unmapped trails through the grassland eludes us and we take the paved around-route, easily tacking on 30 minutes to our already tiresome trek. We do find a little bit of trail magic as a farmer has set out water and cookies, but that hardly improves our pace and Bill is just about jumping out of his bike shoes when we get back.

CPs 23-27)

There’s no way around it, we are way behind schedule. Once our Radio-O passed our estimated 2.5 hours, we knew that as a team we would have to cut some checkpoints and/or entire sections. During the transition we decide to still go get all the remaining bike checkpoints since the terrain looks manageable, we can share our energy on tow, and we would still roll into TA4 with a full passport. At that point we plan to inflate our packraft, stick it in the water, and immediately take it out, which would allow us to still get 2/4 CPs on that leg. We also decide to place priority on the ropes section since it is a unique feature of this race. With our modified race plan in mind, we head out on the bikes for a leg quite similar to Bike 1 in distance and terrain: mostly paved and not too hilly. We catch up with a 2-person coed team and chat for a while. They eventually move ahead, but that gives us the privilege of watching them completely blow by CP24. Keeping in the good samaritan theme of the race, Bill sprints (uphill!) to inform them of their error. They double pack to retrieve the punch, thanking us, as we continue on our way. CP27 leads us to a statue of Chief Black Hawk himself, and we have the pleasure of riding seemingly the only bike trail in northern Illinois - a 100m stretch of dirt double track. Hallelujah. On the final approach back to Camp Lowden, the 2-person coed team catches us, passes us, and then continues straight down the road as we make the turn into camp. This time we are not so generous in our navigation advice and let them keep biking the wrong way.


As we pull into TA4/HQ, we discover the inevitable: we have been short-coursed, missing the (previously unannounced) packraft cutoff by 24 minutes. No more paddling for us, but we are still allowed to trek and do ropes. Quite honestly, we are relieved since it would have been a monumental effort to maneuver that raft upstream with our proposed strategy, Gary and Bill paddling with me playing Cleopatra (gold headdress not included, too much weight). We take a luxurious FORTY-FIVE minute transition and head out into the woods with the intent of grabbing any checkpoints we can, hitting the ropes, and making it back to camp on time and uninjured.

TREK (CPs 33-37, I think we skipped some)

Map and GPS track of the final trek from Midwest Mountaineering:
My buggy entourage from the Radio-O has followed us somehow, except this time it’s mosquitoes and they are out for blood. After about 15 minutes of continuous swatting Bill relents and digs deep into his pack from some bugspray. I’m sure we would have cleared the remaining controls at this point if he had just applied some himself and then run ahead 10 feet, forcing me and Gary to chase, but he is the magnanimous sort of teammate and shares. So we continue walking. We punch 33 in a sandy creek bed, wade through what seems like miles of nettles, and then enter a nice rocky reentrant which leads straight to 34. We get ourselves out of the woods just as dusk is beginning to fall, and decide it’s in our collective best interest to make a beeline to the ropes, complete those, and then just finish this darn race. The sun completely sets as we push through the cornfield out onto a gravel road. We take the road for a short while and then dive back into the woods to hit the ropes, and on our way Bill declares, “Well, if we want another checkpoint, there’s one (36) about 200m off the trail RIGHT HERE.” Sure enough, we hack into the prodigious undergrowth and return shortly with the punch. Considering it was completely dark at this point, and the trails are not shown on our topo map, the team was very happy with this little bonus!

CP 38)

We arrive at the ropes in the dark, about 10pm, and there is no line. Great! This leg consists of a 100’ zip line and subsequent 50’ ascent. I get all my gear on first and hook into the zip line. The ropes coordinator tells me it’s cooler without the headlamp, so I switch that off and leap from the cliff into darkness, zipping down to the ground below. I have to traverse the last 50’ to the waiting un-hookers, who give me somewhat contortionist instructions on safely unclipping from the line. Once untangled, I hike over to the base of the zipline cliff, tie into the ropes outfitted with two ascenders, and proceed to ascend up the sandy cliff I just jumped off of. While I’m doing this I hear Bill and Gary successfully make their zip and begin to follow me up the ascent. Bill and I are first to the top where we quietly collect our gear in preparation for the push to the finish.

CPs 39-46, we definitely skipped some)

Once Gary completes his ascent and sees Bill and I ready to go, he decides to wear his climbing gear the rest of the race as we make the final push to the finish. As a team, we are in a tough position mentally. We know we have skipped a large number of checkpoints and were quite slow on some sections. We have also been awake for about 36 hours and racing for 23. But somehow we all summon the energy to run back to the finish line and spend 15 minutes hacking around in the briars looking for one last checkpoint, 39. I’m in charge of time and keep calling out the minutes remaining as Gary and Bill tear around the spur. I let things run down to about 6 minutes left until the cutoff, then we pull the plug without a successful punch and sprint for the finish line. We cross the line, take a quick picture, and turn off the race brains.
Bill, me, and Gary just after finishing.


Well, we were done. I’m not sure any of us was entirely happy with failing to clear the course, but overall we did as much as we could. After crossing the finish line and taking the obligatory team photo, we were treated to pizza. And by pizza, I mean easy-bake oven pizza with slices the size of tortilla chips. With a 10-minute wait between each one. So I asked if I could take a whole pie and the volunteers said no. I was starting to get a little whiney at this point (24hrs of racing might have contributed...), but as usual, my teammates came up big and Gary offered me TWO of his PB&J sandwiches. Definitely hit the spot. Another great benefit of this race location was on-site, hot showers and camping. We all sorted and packed our gear, showered, and basically collapsed in the tent around 2am. The next morning we jumped in the now extremely smelly van, grabbed a rather large breakfast at a diner in Oregon (IL), and headed southward towards home.
Looking back, it was disappointing to miss as many checkpoints as we did. However, I think the race was a learning experience for me especially, as well as the team. We all kept a positive attitude (at least, outwardly!) for the entire 24 hours. Everyone kept good nutrition & hydration so we didn’t have cramps or GI issues at all. We were able to help two teams out on course, one from actual danger and one from a lost checkpoint. And most of all, no injuries. We finished 
10th in the 3-person coed division, and 21st overall. I think were were the final team out on course as pretty soon after we finished, the race director announced the 2010 Thunder Rolls course was officially closed. Pin It

23 July 2012

2012 MNOC 8hr Adventure-O Details

One of my goals with writing race reports and details posts from my adventure races is to help people who are new to the sport. When I started racing in December 2009, I had no clue what I was getting into and scoured the interwebz for information. I couldn't find very many helpful pages. There was (and probably still is) little to no information on what actually went on during the races, and how the racers coped with navigation/terrain/gear issues. So I'm trying to provide a little insight into each of my races with these follow-up posts. Hopefully some budding adventure racers will stumble upon them and be inspired to come race! Or, maybe more experienced racers can offer their critique so I can improve. Comments are easy to leave, so please use them!

Here are my lessons learned from the MNOC 8hr Adventure-O. Which my team won. Boom!
Jason, Dave, me, Andrei. We made a good team but we are not good models.
On the bike at the bike drop: 
In pack:
  • 1 package peanut butter crackers (190 cal) 
  • 1 Snickers bar (270 cal)
  • 1 flask EFS LiquidShot (400 cal)
  • About 15 Hammer Endurolytes (shared between team, other teammates brought some as well)
  • 2L water in bladder
One thing I learned from IMCdA was the importance of keeping my engine well stoked with calories. During the Ironman bike leg, I brought what I thought were too many calories, and still ended up needing more (during training, 250 cal/hr was fine but I needed about 300cal/hr on race day). So I did not want to repeat that deficit for the MNOC Adventure-O. And I almost succeeded. I certainly packed enough calories to make it through the race easily. But when we left the bikes for the last time, I neglected to finish my second bottle of CarboRocket and left the almost-full flask of LiquidShot behind. So I had about 500 calories of "men left on base" if you will. Also at this TA, I refilled my teammates' bottles but didn't even think to check my own bladder, and then ran out of water on trek immediately following. Fortunately, Andrei covered for me, finding 500mL of Powerade in his pack that I desperately needed, then I was able to refill the bladder before the second paddle. The warm temperatures experienced on race day also influenced my eating - I ate my Snickers early, after the first paddle, and then stuck to CarboRocket, LiquidShot, and plenty of water for the rest of the race to minimize the chance of stomach issues.


Dave with his big pack, Andrei, Jason, me with my tiny pack. This is during our 10-minute boat cleaning hold.
This was the first race where I have been able to carry a tiny CamelBak. Usually I use a 24L GoLite pack in order to fit mandatory and personal gear. But this race had a minimal mandatory gear list, and most of that went in Dave's and Andrei's packs. When we had to carry our running shoes on the biking legs, I put one in Andrei's pack and one in Jason's. My tiny CamelBack made it easy for me to carry extra stuff when my teammates were struggling. I think we all at one time or another were carrying someone else's pack or paddle or PFD. That was definitely one of our keys to victory - shifting the load to whomever was feeling best at any particular point in the race. It was not be uncommon for packs to switch people every 5 or 10 minutes. And we didn't stop for this switch - it was done while walking or jogging. Constant forward progress. One intangible requirement to this strategy is your team's ability to trust that an individual's moment of weakness will be embraced and supported by the team. It would be easy for any guy I race with to think "Oh, I'm a guy and Emily's a girl, she shouldn't have to carry my pack". But, the finish line only counts the first 4 pairs of shoes that cross it; it doesn't care which shoes carried what. So anything you can do to make your team move faster, do it.

Also, check out GearJunkie's post about keeping cool in the same race!

The punchcard necklace and punchcard.
Sort of like the Extreme Break Up 10hr AR, I didn't have much to do with navigation during the race. Andrei handled maps on foot, and Dave/team handled maps on the bike. All I had to do was punch the punchcard at each control to prove we were there. So, here's a picture of it. The cards came pre-marked with letters. If they hadn't, I would have taken my own sharpie and written in the checkpoint codes in the boxes to make things easier to see. When I'm punching, I use a little rope necklace that attaches to the punchcard, then I wear it around my..wait for it...neck. I can shove the punchcard in my shirt while running/riding/paddling, but then it's easily accessible when we hit a control. I don't have to worry about zippers staying zipped. Dave brought a hole punch and duct tape to the race so we made a reinforced hole (and back-up) and we were good to go. This race also used e-punching for the TAs only. I thought this was a really cool idea and allowed the results, complete with splits, to be posted immediately after the race. Pin It

17 July 2012

Race Report: 2012 MNOC 8hr Adventure-O

After our success at the Extreme Break-Up Adventure Race in Kansas, Andrei and I have been planning on doing another race together in 2012. However, I took 3 months away from AR to prepare for Ironman Coeur d'Alene, and July looked like the first chance we would get to race. Fortunately, Andrei's home club MNOC hosts an 8hr AR near Minneapolis with a reputation for tough navigation and great terrain. Even though it's a super long drive for me, I thought I could work in some family visit time (my parents and grandparents are in Duluth, and more relatives are in Cedar Rapids) on the way. He rustled up some teammates and soon enough we had a committed, 4-person coed team!

The maps waiting for teams to pick them up.
My drive up to Minnesota is pretty uneventful, I load my bike in the backseat and hit the road alllll day. About 5:30p I roll into my host Erin's house in Afton, and I'm psyched to get to stay there; her house is lovely and quiet and has awesome people and dogs living in it! Andrei comes over soon after I arrive and gifts me a coveted MNOC buff, so nice! We drive over to Afton State Park to check out the bike drop location and the ski hill - it looks intimidating! Hopefully we will not have to bike straight up. After we get back to Erin's, we chow down on some delicious pre-race pizza (my tradition) and hang out until Jason and Andrea arrive. Meeting them is surreal. I've read articles (and magazine covers!) about their Primal Quest success with WEDALI, heard about them through the AR grapevine, and now I'm lucky enough to race with one of them tomorrow! Jason is on our team, gearjunkie.com, and Andrea is racing as a last-minute sub on GearJunkie/WEDALI who we will probably be chasing all day. I won't get to meet Dave, our fourth teammate, until tomorrow morning but I know he's raced with WEDALI before too, claiming victory at a past Berryman Adventure. I'm pretty stoked about this team. As Andrei wrote in a pre-race email, "its also gonna be fast race...so stay on y toes :)".
Just before 8:50am.
Race morning is pretty basic - my gear is already sorted so I just eat my usual breakfast and coffee and we drive over to Afton State Park for the bike drop and then Kinnickinnic State Park for the Race HQ. We park right next to GearJunkie/WEDALI so get to joke back and forth with them in the time before the race. I also get to say hello to other MNOC members that I know from last year's Possum Trot and meet a few new friends as well! Pretty soon it's time to line up behind the maps and get this party started.

TREK 1 (CPs A-E as B-D-C-A-E, 3.3 km redline, 33:17)
First map - short trekking section through Kinnickinnc State Park
At 8:50am, Tom allows the teams to pick up their map packet and get to work on planning routes. We learn there are 6 maps and a 2-page long cluesheet...lots of information for an 8hr race! Quick thinking will be a key to success today. We grab a picnic table and get to work planning routes. We get through the first three maps only before Tom shouts "GO!" We abandon route planning and take off, fully loaded with packs, PFDs, and paddles on a short out-n-back to grab checkpoint B. I'm a little nervous that we haven't even looked at navigation on the largest trekking section, but I'm trusting Andrei to handle everything. The trail to B is steep, rocky, and slippery from the humidity, and trying to make it down in one piece while carrying paddles is difficult. I am on punchcard duty today so once we gain sight of the kite, I hand off my paddles to Andrei and scramble the last few feet to get the punch. Then we climb back up the gnarly trail in pursuit of checkpoint D. We have to run through a few patches of stinging nettles here and it won't be the last time for the race. Running through nettles isn't physically hard, but it requires mental strength to convince yourself that the stinging is trivial and I focus hard on making it through this section quickly. Andrei leads us cleanly to D, I punch, and then we are off on a more open route using roads and trails to C and A. The day is already warm but I am almost thankful for the heatwave we've had in St. Louis because the temperature doesn't seem to be bothering me. We even have some cloud cover from time to time. This is great! We punch E and then run parallel to the bluff until it's time to descend down to the put-in. We punch TA1 in first place and start assembling paddles and selecting boats. Today I am using a borrowed Epic Active Touring 4-Piece Carbon Paddle from my friend Brian at Epic Machinery. I hop in one boat with Dave, and Andrei and Jason are in the other.

PADDLE 1 (4 km redline, 29:20)
Paddling map.
There are no checkpoints to punch on the paddling leg, just getting from one state to another. It's soon clear that I am not the best paddler; Andrei and Jason have to wait for my boat several times. But I know I will only get slower if I stop and pout so I just keep making paddle-like-motions with my arms and pretty soon we are at the take-out. The punch is on the top of a flight of stairs so I jump out to take care of that quickly. When I turn around, I see an amazing sight - the boys have stacked both boats on top of each other and are carrying them UP the stairs to where I'm standing. Studs. We confirm with the volunteers that we're in first place and then jog about 1/2 km (7:00 minutes, includes canoe take-out time) on trails to the Afton Alps Chalet, site of this morning's bike drop.

BIKE 1 (6.5 km, 23:27)
Start at TA3, then to CP1, then to CP2, then to TA4 (green highlighter added after the race).
We quickly transition to biking shoes/gloves/helmets and are on the bikes in no time for a long, tough climb out of the Afton Alps Ski Resort. Before the race, Jason warned us that he is still recovering from a serious bike crash last year. In the middle of the hill, he asks Dave for a tow. Dave replies that he is pretty maxed out, so I ride up next to Jason to try and keep him company in the suffering of climbing. Instead of chatting, he gives me a huge push, so much that I almost catch up with Dave. I know for certain that I'm racing with top-notch teammates...even when they are hurting they are finding ways to make the team faster. This is the heart of adventure racing and I feel honored to experience it. 
The race director, Tom, seems determined to make his racers hurt since he has placed the biking checkpoints on this leg to maximize climb. Our second point is underneath a bridge at the bottom of a large hill, so we fly down, punch, and then turn right around and climb back up the thing. Then we have some more paved rollers that take us to our next TA.

TREK 2 (CPs F-H as G-F-H, 1.7 km redline, 24:15)
Short little trek in the middle of biking.
We spot this manned TA on the side of the road, and ride into the ditch to drop our bikes. The trek is short, but we decide to still change shoes and we are out in a flash, still in first place and without seeing any other teams. Andrei navigates everything cleanly (a theme for the day). We see a few other teams who have chosen different routes (including The Beautiful People doing the trek in their bike shoes!) but when we return to our bikes, we are still in first.

BIKE 2a (3 km, 14:04)
After a quick transition, it's back onto the bikes and back to the Afton Alps Chalet. As we are climbing back up the rollers, 2 cyclists pass me and Andrei. They are fast. My heart flips into my throat, scarcely believing that we are getting passed at this speed. But as the cyclists come fully into view, it's clear that they are not adventure racers. In fact, they are on road bikes, out for a training ride. No wonder they are so fast. My heart settles down and we proceed to the Chalet. As we descend back into the ski area, we see lots of teams still on their way up to CP1. Some of them are walking up the monster hill. We try to encourage them, but I know it's disheartening to be in that situation (I've been there...paddle leg at Mission 2010 when, ironically, it was WEDALI passing us on an out-and-back and giving the same encouragement).

BIKE 2b (CPs I-N in order, 6.5 km, 1:09:48)
Afton Alps mtb map. This was really tough to nav on.
Now, it's time for the part of the race I've been looking forward to the most: singletrack! I've worked hard on my technical mountain bike skills in the last 2 weeks and I'm eager to put them to the test. And turns out the trails in Afton State Park are known for being tough, both technically and physically - they weave in and out of ski runs, interspersing rocky woodsy sections with exposed steep climbs. Bring it on! But first we take time in TA to pose for photographs - I think everyone is a little nervous about the upcoming section so we dally longer than we should. And as we roll out, GearJunkie/WEDALI (Justin, Erl, Andrea, and Stephen) rolls in, lighting a fire under our wheels! Unfortunately, we take that fire and shoot straight up the ski hill when the trail we need is actually along the base of the run, whoops. A quick turnaround, fast descent, and now we are riding behind GearJunkie/WEDALI for the first time all day.
Yup, we're in the middle of a race, jus chillin.
This section is tough. Not only are the trails challenging, it's hard to match the map up to what's happening in the real world. We stop several times for team map-looking sessions to try and figure out where we are. We are riding well as a team, everyone is handling the techy stuff, but there is just no flow to the mandatory route. The only comforting fact is as often as we are stopping, we see GearJunkie/WEDALI stopping at similar intervals. I'm not sure if it's for nav issues or the heat, but either way, I'm glad we're not losing too much ground. Speaking of the heat, it really starts to hit us during this section. Jason has been excellent about keeping us on top of our electrolyte consumption, but we are still struggling with the rising heat index. My body is handling it okay (guess riding on 105F days got me acclimated) but I know it will continue to be an issue for the rest of the race. 

Yeah, we're rockin the lead, crushing this hill, total superstars (R-L Dave, Jason, Andrei, me)

Uh, guys? See that other team? They're going the other way. Can someone check the maps?
On our last checkpoint in the section, we make our first major nav error. The trails aren't lining up like they should and we blow past the entrance to a side trail we need. Trouble is, these trails are uni-directional, so we can't just turn around and backtrack. We have to repeat about a 1 mile loop to get back to the correct junction. GearJunkie/WEDALI made the same mistake right in front of us, so we make an 8-person choo choo train to reride the tricky loop. Finally, we punch checkpoint N, and roll back to the Chalet to drop our bikes and set out on the longest section of the course. Looks like it's going to be a two-team horserace to the finish line.

TREK 3 (CPs O-X as P-Q-R-S-W-V-U-T-X-O, 4 km redline, 58:08)
The biggest trek of the race.
We take a few extra minutes in transition to refill water, eat endurolytes, and dunk our heads under the spigot before leaving on this scorcher of a section. We make a loose plan to swap packs as needed and for the first part it's Andrei and I with the extra loads. My left ITB is very sore, it's the same problem I had in the Ironman marathon and I'm angry it's flared up again. I'd already taken some ibuprofen on the bike leg, and I know there's nothing else me or my teammates can do about it, so I just focus on running. My stomach isn't feeling all that great either which is unusual for me, but again I can only focus on keeping hydrated and I choose to stick with liquid/gel calories from here on out. Problem is, I mindlessly left about 200 calories of CarboRocket and 300 calories of LiquidShot back on my bike, so I'm a little low in that department. I have some water left in my bladder, and 1 flask of LiquidShot, but I'm going to have to rely on my teammates to get through this section.
This is not me, but it's checkpoint R. I had to wedge myself in those roots to get hands free to punch.
I'm still handling punching duties, and the third checkpoint (R) in is one of the more fun placements I've seen - perched on a earthen bank where we have to climb up tree roots to access the punch. Fun! Every hill, cliff, bank, ledge that we have to cross, and there are lots, we are helping each other at the top with final holds and encouraging words. 

As we make our way around the loop, it's clear we are all struggling except Andrei. I run out of water, he finds 500mL of Powerade in his pack for me to consume. He carries packs. He takes the punchcard on a few steep checkpoints. And, he's keeping the navigation exceedingly clean and direct. Good job, Space Monkey!

Finally, finally, we reach the beach where our canoes are waiting to be paddled back to Wisconsin. We are all running a bit ragged here - the heat is getting to us. But, somehow, we still have the lead. The beach has a public water spigot so we refill bottles and bladders and my mind is put at ease now that I can rely on my own hydration again.

PADDLE 2 (4km redline, 30:42)
Jason and I paddling into Kinnickinnic Beach.
We all dunk ourselves in the St. Croix River before getting into the canoes. This time we've switched paddling partners and I'm with Jason in an attempt to equalize our team speed. Nice try, boys, but my paddling skills haven't improved much in the last 3ish hours. Good thing my paddle looks so awesome! We As we get going on the water, we glance back and GearJunkie/WEDALI is just putting in only a few minutes back...just like Carrie Sona told me before the race, as hard as it is to get a lead over GJ/W, it's even harder to keep it. They do not give up. So we must not give up either, and I put my head down, and paddle as fast as my inexperienced self knows how.
Cleaning my shoes after we finished cleaning the boats.
We beach the canoes at the take out and then I get to experience my first 10-minute mandatory canoe cleaning. I learn it's common in Minnesota races for the director to require each team to clean the mud/crud from their boat(s), making it easy for the rental group to pick up clean equipment. Of course it doesn't take all 10 minutes to wipe them down, so after we're done we spend the extra time resting in the shade, organizing maps for the final third of the race. GJ/W is also in their boat cleaning hold and we are simultaneously encouraging and heckling each other. I take some time to dump dirt out of my shoes and make sure socks are on straight. We are released 1 minute ahead of GJ/W and have a monumental task ahead of us if we want to keep that lead.

Our first task is to make our way up the massive paved climb from the river to the start/finish line, where we punch the mandatory CP3 and receive instructions for the 2-part mystery challenge. The first part requires our team to spell "GearJunkie" out of things we have on our person. We burst into a flurry of activity and one of the guys has the idea to spell it in nutrition product, namely gel. The race director, Tom, is on hand to officially approve this option so the boys spell "G-E-A-R" with packs and bottles and shirts and I write "J-U-N-K-I-E" with my remaining 400 calories of LiquidShot. Done. The second part of the mystery challenge is some sort of game with a hammer, stump, nail, and Kanye West glasses. I'm not really sure of the rules, but Dave understands it and completes it easily. We are doing these challenges basically side-by-side with GJ/W and I sort of feel sorry for the volunteers - minutes ago they were sitting peacefully in this beautiful state park and now they are overwhelmed with eight intense racers. Thank you, volunteers!!

TREK 3b (CP Y-CC as CC-Y-Z-BB-AA, 3.5km redline)
Last mini-rogaine. Checkpoint Z was our only foot nav confusion of the day.
We run out of the mystery challenge area and hit this last trekking section. It's still hot, but the paddle and 10-minute rest period had boosted our energy a little bit. We are still swapping packs as needed and constantly looking over our shoulders for signs of GJ/W. There are more patches of stinging nettles to run through. We take exposed trails for some of our route choices, but thankfully a few clouds have rolled in and cover the sun for short periods of time. We run into the first foot nav confusion of the day - Andrei has difficulty with checkpoint Z. It's mapped on a side reentrant and the one we're in is empty. It's not a good feeling. We decide to canvass the area - Jason heads down the main reentrant, Andrei continues up the side reentrant, Dave stays in the middle, and I hike up the main reentrant to check things out. One minute, two minutes go by. Nothing. Suddenly Andrei cries out with "Emily come here" and I am sure he's found it. I'm relieved, but also scared again because as I go up to grab the punch, GJ/W appears in the main reentrant. We have lost the meager time advantage we once had. After punching, I scamper out of there as fast as I can, sprinting though the woods after my teammates.

The final two checkpoints are clean and we are running scared as we return back to Race HQ with our completed punchcard. RD Tom inspects the card and I hold my breath, terrified that I've mispunched somewhere along the way. But, he approves everything, and gives us one more set of instructions. We have to take PFDs with us to grab one more checkpoint - the appropriately-coded DD, located in the Devil's Den.

TREK 3c (CP DD, 1.7km, 1:17:44 for 3a+3b+3c)
To the Devil's Den! It looks so boring on the map, but it's really cool in person.
We bust out of Race HQ with one thing on our minds - digging deep. Everyone is tired, everyone is overheating, everyone wants to win. The trek to DD is short, but brutal. We have to pick our way down a steep, 150' bluff to the Kinnickinnic River and cross the waist-deep, mucky water. The river actually feels great; it's still cold and revives our tired legs. On the opposite bank, there is a large swath of stinging nettles to charge through before we enter the Devil's Den - an intricate shelf-rock reentrant formed by thousands of years of erosion. Andrei is the only one with pep still in his legs so he takes the punchcard ahead for the final punch while Dave, Jason and I carefully pick our way up the slippery rocks. Once we turn around for the return to the Finish line, we see the four white shirts of GJ/W at the entrance to Devil's Den. This is going to be a painful finish - we have to charge back through the stinging nettle, back over the river, and back up the steep bluff in order to claim the win which we all want so badly. We move. Nettles...check. River...so cool and refreshing...check. Bluff...so steep and painful...check. Now all we have left is a 400m trail run to the finish. Except, Jason is getting tunnel vision and needs a tow. So I take his PFD and he holds onto Andrei's two packs and we run. There is a gust of wind and Dave thinks it's GJ/W crashing through the woods ahead of us. Freak out! Once we see the finish, I sprint ahead for the final punch. I turn around and there are no other teams coming behind us. We win!

POST RACE (final time: 6:08:15)
Andrei's GPS track of the entire race.
Only 4 minutes after we cross the finish line, GearJunkie/WEDALI comes charging out of the woods for 2nd place. We exchange high fives and congratulations, knowing both teams put in fantastic efforts on the day. Since it's about 3pm and the post-race food won't show up until 4.30pm, we decide to go back down to the St. Croix River to swim a little bit and clean up. The water is very warm but it's fun to bob around with these talented athletes. I resist the urge to swim a few strokes of butterfly and instead just doggie paddle around.
Winner winner ice cream dinner!
When I get back to HQ, the barbeque has been delivered and it's delicious. I have second helpings of mashed potatoes with bbq sauce, and 2 cans of heavenly nectar coke. My phone service is a little spotty but I manage to make contact with my grandparents who tell me they will be arriving at the park shortly. I haven't seen them since...I don't know...February?...so it's wonderful to give them big hugs, tell them all the stories from the day's race, and have them take pictures at the awards ceremony. I select a Columbia bug jacket from the prizes since it's something I don't have, and I also win a Platypus water bottle from the raffle! Score!

After the awards ceremony, most everyone packs up and goes home. Andrei and I return to Erin's house, along with Peter, and we feast on pizza, ice cream (thanks Peter!!), beer, slacklining (I'm terrible), dog cuddling (I want one), and creek standing (brrrrrr!) until the sun goes down. The next morning I pack everything up and say my goodbyes to Erin and her wonderful house, and start the journey back to Missouri. I stop in Cedar Rapids to hang out with my relatives (and their crazy adorable kids!) for a late lunch and then I'm back in St. Louis as the sun sets.

Even though this race had a dismal travel:race time ratio, I feel it was completely worth it for me. As I've written about before, I'm pretty much a free agent when it comes to AR and this race gave me a chance to meet some other adventure racers and put my fitness to the test. Hopefully I'll be able to find some teammates for the upcoming fall races. I was immensely proud of our team during this race - I hadn't known Jason and Dave before Friday but we meshed together to form a fast fast squad. We each had our problems during the day but we pulled together to keep the team going strong. And mentally we never gave up - even when some of the most talented adventure racers in the country was breathing down our necks, we kept the confidence that we could compete, and came away with the victory. Pin It

11 July 2012

Return to the Dirt

If you remember wayyyy back in March, I posted about putting on my triathlon blinders for 12 weeks in preparation for Ironman Coeur d'Alene. Well, the race happened, I did well, and now the blinders have come off. And I've returned in a big way to the world of knobby tires, rocks, and roots, and I couldn't be happier.
Start of Dirt Crit #2, I'm #77. Photo by Don, aka "bikerdad" on stlbiking forum, http://share.shutterfly.com/share/received/welcome.sfly?fid=d9e388aa93b32b09&sid=2AbuGLhs1ZtXaA
Dirt Crit #1 Results - photo by me!
On the Thursday following Ironman, I found myself on the start line of a race. Too soon? Probably. But Dirt Crits are a St. Louis mountain bike tradition, an excuse to get together with cool people on scorching Thursday nights and race like wild animals through the trails of Castlewood State Park. I had to be there. I didn't expect anything out of my legs, but I pleasantly surprised when they weren't overly sore and dare I say...SNAPPY...for the 30 minutes of all-out pedaling. I negative split each lap and almost made the podium. I was ecstatic!
SLOC Tilles Park results - photo by me!
Then on Saturday, SLOC held a sprint orienteering event in nearby Tilles Park. I was pretty sure my legs would be garbage but I can never turn down an opportunity to run on a map, especially one that's a 15-minute bike ride away. So I ran the rather unorthodox, multi-part sprint (that was actually about as long as a middle) and came out on top (except I mispunched a control so probably should be DQ'd). My left knee hurt towards the end so I knew I would be staying off of it for the next few days. Fortunately, there would be plenty of opportunities for biking!
St. Charles Trifecta, including Matson (the middle one) twice.
The Fourth of July rolled around. Time for another St. Louis mountain bike tradition, riding the "St. Charles Trifecta" which uses the Katy Trail to connect 3 parks' worth of singletrack for a 45-mile outing. Never mind the oppressive heat. I teamed up with 2 guys preparing for Leadville MTB and 1 guy from work, and we rolled out from the Mound about 8am. We cruised through Lost Valley which I've ridden a whole bunch, and then hit up Matson where I've never been. I was really impressed with the trails at Matson - GORC has done an excellent job with the terrain and it's definitely worth the huge climb to get there! After descending back down to the Katy, the Leadville guys decided to go home, but I really wanted to do the whole trifecta so HH and I kept rolling on to Klondike, where we played on the teeter totters and huge drops on the park's west side. Okay...correction...I watched while HH flew over the huge drops. I'm getting braver on the mountain bike each day but not that brave yet! On the way back home we went up to Matson AGAIN to ride the new out-and-back section (more appropriately named OUCH-and-back) and then refueled on some much needed "orange treat" and Fitz's at the Defiance Bike Shop. Last but not least we crushed the upper section of Lost Valley to make the route a true trifecta and ended up with about 60 miles. Check. The Fourth was finished off with an awesome make-your-own-burger bbq at T & C's house. I had a beer. Or two. Life is good.
Dirt Crit #2, getting squirted by Kube! Thanks! Photo by Photo by Don, aka "bikerdad" on stlbiking forum,  http://stlouisbiking.shutterfly.com/pictures/8
The Fourth was on a Wednesday, so that means the next day was Thursday, which means another round of Dirt Crits! It was just as hot as the previous week, but my legs still showed up to play. This time, I didn't ride as well technically and got myself caught behind a few crashes. I had been in contact with the first place woman but saw her slowly slip away on the final lap after all of my matches were burnt, and finished in second place. Kind of a bummer, but Alpine Shop was handing out free icees after the race and the ChaCha food truck was selling tacos! Yes please! 
Dirt Crit #2, Photo by Don, aka "bikerdad" on stlbiking forum, http://share.shutterfly.com/share/received/welcome.sfly?fid=d9e388aa93b32b09&sid=2AbuGLhs1ZtXaA
Saturday I invited myself along on a ride with members of Alpine Shop's AR team. We hit almost everything in Castlewood in a few hours, and it probably would have been shorter if they weren't so nice as to wait up for me at the top of every climb (hey, I was trying to keep HR down). Finally we couldn't take the heat any more so rode directly to the creek and flopped in. It was so cool and refreshing, we forgot about the e. coli risk and stayed there until a little water snake came swimming up, causing me and Carrie to shriek and leap up out of the water. We are such girls.
West County Trifecta, route inspiration from Ben B. Sure wish the pedestrian bridge at Route 66 State Park was open!
Sunday had me and HH itching to tackle another long mountain bike ride, so I dug up a route from Pfoodman Racing for a West County Trifecta, which connects Castlewood, Chubb, and Greensfelder parks. We started from Castlewood with a friend of his, then rode over to Chubb. Previously, I had only run at Chubb once and was kind of freaked out at the technical spots. But, the cool thing about mountain biking is that when stuff gets too hard, you can always walk it. And turns out the previous night's rain made the rocks slick as snot so there was a lot of walking. But, I made it through in once piece and I am proud to say my fear of Chubb has vanished. I still might not be able to ride the whole thing (especially not the steps) but I'm not afraid to try. The connector route from Chubb to Greensfelder is long and annoying. HH's friend was struggling with the heat and decided to bail in Eureka. So now a duo, we rolled on to Greensfelder and I rode that park better than I ever have, ever. Things finally seemed to fall into place and I was swooshing down the hillsides and grinding up the climbs and just feeling happy of myself. Not even a pinch flat on Dogwood could stop me; we changed it and kept crushing. The connector route from Greensfelder back to Castlewood is painless and even included a stop at SnoCone truck near the mini-railroad station. My, that was rejuvenating. We toodled around the Al Foster trail and western bit of Castlewood as I tried to find the entrance to Cedar Bluff loop - a short but awesome trail that has a little bit of everything packed into 2 miles. I made some nav errors here but eventually got us around in one piece and then it was a simple ride through the flats to make it back to the cars with another 60 miles.
Dirt Crit #2. Photo by Dan Singer.  http://dansingerphotography.com/ 
These last few days really hammered home the importance of "if you want to be good at something, do that thing". The always-proper Joe Friel has a good explanation of it, but I prefer Chuckie V's take. My bike fitness is good, but my technical skills were poor. So I rode a bunch of miles on singletrack. Surprise! I became a better bike handler in a few short days. And I intend to continue this for the rest of the summer since I have a lot of work to do to maintain those handling skills at race speeds. 
Dirt Crit #2. Photo by Don, aka "bikerdad" on stlbiking forum, http://share.shutterfly.com/share/received/welcome.sfly?fid=d9e388aa93b32b09&sid=2AbuGLhs1ZtXaA
But fear not, triathlon! I still love me some swimbikerun. I've been swimming a few times since Ironman and I still love the water. My goal is to hit the pool 2-3 times per week to maintain some muscle memory, then when I get back into a triathlon training cycle I won't be terribly far behind. Plus, you never know when an AR will require swimming (Mission 2010 anyone?). My TT bike had been cleaned and racked in my basement storage unit - easily accessible once I feel the need to fly down the pavement. And running, well I can't ever give that up. Basically I'm switching my training focus from road multisport events to off-road multisport events. No big deal. I am determined to have my cake and eat it too. A little dirt never hurt anyone! Pin It