04 October 2012

Race Report: 2012 Checkpoint Tracker National Championships 28hr

NOTE: This has been a really tough race report to write...Andrei and I came into Nationals with great mojo: we'd won (or been on the winning team) for 4 adventure races this year. We were fit. We had the support of friends both at the race and at home. And best of all, we didn't have any pressure - GearJunkie/WEDALI was shouldering most of that. But despite all of these positive signs, we didn't have a great race. We're both proud of what we did manage to accomplish (28 hours of racing is nothing to sniff at), but we know there was another level of performance that we didn't achieve. So there's my pity party for this post, and I hope that by writing it I can pull some lessons learned from the experience and be ready to crush it next time.

ALSO NOTE: all times and distances are approximate. 

After 2 days of recovery from Berryman, Andrei and I hit the road on Wednesday afternoon for the drive to West Virginia. We make it all the way to Charleston, WV before running out of steam so we sleep there for the night. In the morning, we pick up our boogie boards from the Charleston Wal-Mart (I ordered them online and had them shipped there), along with a few other race purchases and then get back on the road for the ~1hr drive to ACE Adventure Resort. We pull in about 1pm and nothing really is happening, so we take a short hike around the resort and do a little gear prep. About 2pm, the rest of the Minnesota contingent (GearJunkie/WEDALI, Blind Squirrels, and Gnome Hunter) arrive in Oak Hill (the closest town) so we meet up with them at the hotel and start the real gear prep. We have to check in our bikes and 2 duffles of river gear tonight so it's time to make sure everything we need is in the proper place. Once we think we've got everything sorted, it's back to ACE for check-in at 6p. We turn in our medical forms and in return are loaded down with an armload of swag from Eco Bottles, Tasc, and Swiftwick. We also have to demonstrate our throw bag skills, and when I head over to that station I am surprised to meet Mark Lattanzi, one of the course designers and friend of my blog buddy Abby. Mark is probably a little weirded out by my enthusiastic greeting but nonetheless he helps me get my throw bag skills in order. After that, we collect a rented wetsuit for Andrei and get the bikes set up. Then disaster strikes...my Stella 300 won't turn on. It's been wet out all day (in fact the bikes have been getting rained on since we arrived at ACE) but that's no excuse for a $250 light to suddenly bug out. I disassemble the lamp and try to sort things out, and get it to turn on but only intermittently. Andrei checks things out and gets the same result. This is stressful. I mess around with it a little more until it's time to go to the pre-race meeting at 8.30p.
ronnny angell.jpg
Ronny answers questions at the pre-race meeting. Photo by Stephen Regenold.
The meeting goes like almost all others - greetings from Checkpoint Tracker, information about the races' sponsors, etc. And then Ronny Angell from Odyssey Adventure Racing takes the floor. And he is ON FIRE. I've never raced one of Odyssey's races before but it's clear that Ronny is over the moon about hosting a national championship race. His enthusiasm is contagious and I'm totally excited to race tomorrow. He gives us an overview of the course but no maps will be distributed until 6am tomorrow morning. After the meeting it's back to the bikes to see if my light is magically fixed...it's not. So Andrei borrows a hipster cyst from Biz which will at least satisfy mandatory gear requirements, and we take Stella back to the hotel to do some surgery.

Back at the hotel, we are consumed with putting food into plastic baggies, putting the plastic baggies into larger plastic baggies, and then putting the large plastic baggies into our packs. I'm bringing 5500 calories of pretzels, cola gummies, jerky, croissants, oreos, almond butter/banana sandwiches, Probars, chocolate espresso beans, nutter butters, and Charleston Chews (for local flavor). There are 666 calories of CarboRocket waiting for me on my bike, and we have some more food stashed (legally) in Duffle 2. We disassemble Stella and try to dry her out as best we can, hoping that in the morning she will be less cranky. I also decide to wear my new Swiftwick Vibe Twos for the race instead of my planned wool socks. It's a bit of a risky decision but I know my feet will be wet the entire time, and at Berryman Biz suggested I try a pair of thinner socks (along with my standard application of Hydropel) to reduce maceration. I'm asleep by 12:30a or so.
Me and Andrei working on maps. Photo by Dave Swanson.
Race morning means a quick shower and driving to ACE with Andrei, Biz, and Jason and Ryan from Blind Squirrels. Gnome Hunter is not far behind, and we all pick up maps a little after 6am. We don't have any plotting to do (thanks Ronny!) so it's just getting our minds around the course and route selection. This process is always tough for me...you're looking at a bunch of maps, with a bunch of information, and you have to pull out exactly what you need and hope you remember it. My general principle in these sort of situations is to let the navigator dictate what they want on the maps. In Andrei's case, he highlights/writes less than I personally would, but I've learned in our 4 previous races that that's his style and it's worked out great so far. We have two big question marks on the course: the orienteering relay (we don't have info on distances yet) and the bike/trek rogaine that will sandwich the riverboarding in the morning. I eat my normal breaky and Andrei chows down on the ACE cafeteria fare. Pretty soon, it's time to load up buses for the trip to Wood's Ferry. Andrei and I are in bus #2 (because we are in the second wave of boats, oh the logic!!) and we have another morning snack and Gatorade while trying to stay calm. It's raining and really foggy, but the temperature is warm (65-70F). Our guide Kevin goes over rafting safety again and I start to get nervous. I've only been whitewater rafting one other time, when I was a kid in Colorado (on vacation with my grandpa), and I remember being scared a lot. And we'll be hitting four Class V rapids today. Yikes! After about an hour on the bus, we unload, pee, and wish everyone good luck.

RAFT 1 (CP 1, 10 miles, 10:35a - 12:30p)
Gauley River Map. Source.
We are teamed up with 3 other 2p coed teams in our raft, along with our guide Kevin. We are last to put-in, and then Ronny counts us down with his megaphone. We're off! The first couple miles go well and I'm relieved to feel the water temperature is comfortable. The guides warned us it could be 55-60F (IMCdA temps...not fun) but it's much warmer than that and I'm happy in my wetsuit. We start to hit the Class V rapids at Koontz Flume and Five Boat Hole, and to my surprise they are FUN, not scary. Like really fun. We leapfrog with boat #4 from our wave but it's hard to gain much of an advantage in the flatwater without totally overexerting ourselves. Our boat adopts a front-4/back-4 paddling strategy, allowing everyone to get some rest. It's a weird dynamic...we are all in the same boat but also competing against each other with different race strategies. The team in the front prefers a long slow cadence and the rest of us prefer a high fast cadence. There are some passive-aggressive comments going around but for the most part we are working together.
Not our boat, but I'm sure we looked the same. Photo by Vladimir Bukalo.
We hit Class V Lower Mash in stride and then finish up with a fun ride through Pure Screaming Hell. The rain has refused to let up as we reach the take-out, setting the stage for a soggy race. The water on the Gauley was slightly lower than anticipated, which when combined with our laborious TA (wetsuits off, race clothes on, packs located, duffles unpacked and then repacked and loaded into gear trucks, shoes on and GO!) puts us at about 2 hours of racing by the time we leave CP1 on foot.

TREK 1 (CPs 2-6, 15ish miles, 12:30p-6:00??p)
CP1 (raft take-out) to CP2 (telephone pole). All travel on gravel roads/doubletrack.
Can I just brag for a minute about my badass friends??
Here's GearJunkie/WEDALI hauling out of CP1.
Photo by Chris Radcliffe.
Our first task is to haul ourselves up and out of the Gauley River Gorge. It's a 1700' climb up to our next CP so we jog where we can and walk the rest. We bounce around with a few teams here, some 2-person and some 4-person but none that we recognize. We are both feeling good as we climb and put ourselves into race mode. After we crest the second ridgeline, we see some familiar packs up ahead, and Andrei claims he can smell a Minnesotan from a km away. Sure enough, it's our friends the Blind Squirrels, and we are happy to see each other! We travel together until CP2 and help each other up the tough bushwhack to the telephone pole. As we descend back to the road, my right knee starts feeling funny. It had been twinging a little before this but I had just brushed it off to minor, early-race creaks. Now, it doesn't feel so minor, and I ask Andrei for the first aid kit to take some meds before continuing. Molly (on Blind Squirrels) beats him to the punch and shares some ibuprofen as we leave CP2. I'm nervous about taking too many and repeating my sour stomach from IMCdA, but I know I have to do something because we've got a long way to go. A long way downhill to go, in fact, almost to the shore of another river before we see our bikes at CP6. And, my knee hurts worse when we go downhill. We have to let Blind Squirrels race on ahead as I gingerly pick my way down the ridge. I feel like a huge wimp but it's finally so bad that I have to stop and take the ACE bandage out of our first aid kit and wrap my knee. I also find a stick to use as a trekking pole. Other teams pass us too, but at least Halfwaythere.com takes a minute to admire my (clean) butt. Andrei is an absolute saint through all of this - reminding me that we still have a long race to go and we just have to keep moving steadily. I know it's his worst nightmare to be slowed by a teammates' injury but he gives no outward sign of frustration or panic...just encouragement and willingness to accommodate our new slow pace. Andrei, I know I thanked you on the course already but I'm thanking you again here.

CP 2-3-4-5.
We are significantly slower on our way to CPs 3, 4, and 5, but any little uphill gives my knee a chance to rest. My best guess is I overworked some muscle in my right glute/hip during the rafting, and now it has manifested to instability in my knee? The ACE wrap is helping a little but every downhill is a crapshoot...some hurt a little and some hurt a lot. We take the Cliffside and GSYP trails through Hawks Nest State Park as mandated by race rules, and I'm pretty bummed to miss out on running this techy singletrack. There is a race photographer on the trail and I feel pretty embarrassed to be caught walking in front of the camera, but there's nothing I can do about it. Once we make it down to CP5, we know it's only a short rail trail climb up to TA where we will get on our bikes and I'm crossing my fingers that my knee can tolerate pedaling. We know we will be biking back through CP5 so we drop some of our non-mandatory food and water in the woods to lighten our packs for the last little bit of this trek. When we get to CP6, we see our bikes and something even better...a familiar face!! Chris from MN is volunteering and she greets us enthusiastically. We go through a quick gear check, I unwrap my knee, and we hop on our bikes for the descent back down to CP5.

BIKE 1 (CPs 7-8, 12mi, 6:00p-8:00p??)

Within a few hundred meters on the bike, things are good. "I'm money, Dre!" I exclaim since my knee is feeling normal and I'm ready to rock. While we were walking on the last section, I was also busy stuffing my face with calories so now my energy levels are high and I'm ready to crush the bike. We cruise down the gravel road in pursuit of a 4-person team just ahead, Endeavor Adventure Racing, who hails from Florida. They hit the singletrack ahead of us as we retrieve our stash of food from CP5, and then we catch back up a few kms later. I feel really guilty for riding this stretch of trail in these super wet conditions (oh yeah, it's still raining). It's obvious some group has put a lot of work into bench cutting and armoring and we are rutting it up like crazy. But there's no other option so we keep pedaling. CP7 is an obvious house-size boulder just like Ronny promised it would be. We pop out onto some pavement that takes us down down down to the New River where we cross underneath the New River Gorge Bridge. It's dusky, and quite foggy, but we can still see some of the trestle and it's just beautiful. Thanks, Odyssey, for routing us through here! Then, we face a long climb up the other side of the gorge. We stop to put on lights and then hop onto another piece of trail and continue our climb all the way to CP8. We have a few navigation errors here in picking the correct trails but we fix them all pretty easily.

TREK 2/SWIFTWICK TT (CPs 9-10, 4k, 8:00pm-9:00pm)

As we roll into CP8, we are greeted by a party. An honest-to-goodness party hosted by Swiftwick and their employees. They have lights, music, hot chocolate, coffee, and candy for us. It's awesome. This part of the race is a special running TT - the times will be recorded and the fastest teams for this section only will receive prizes at the awards banquet. Normally, I would brush off this incentive in favor of not burning matches for later in the race, but Andrei and I are both eager to feel like we're racing (because we really haven't been up until now) so we decide to go for it. A quick change into trekking shoes and we are sprinting down the trail. There is one junction to deal with and, unfortunately, we misinterpret the map and pick the wrong trail. Andrei realizes it quickly, however, and we bushwhack a short distance back onto the intended trail and haul towards CP9. My knee is feeling much better which is another incentive to boogie - let's try to get as much distance covered as possible before it starts hurting again. We punch CP9, make an about-face, and run back to the Swiftwick party. I'm checking my watch as we cruise down the trail and we make it back in 37:06. We think that's a winning time for our division but we won't know until after the race. Regardless, it feels awesome to run again and our spirits are high. I visit with the Swiftwick crew after we finish and they convince me to ditch my standard PI arm warmers in favor of some brand-new Swiftwick ones...I don't need much convincing!! I proudly put on my new (dry!) gear and rejoin Andrei at the bikes, where we also meet Blind Squirrels finishing up their TT. For some reason, our TA is really slow (my socializing doesn't help either) and we finally are forced to leave the Swiftwick party.

BIKE 2 (CPs 11-17, 21 miles of LeCroy/Dalton/Adena singletrack, 9:00pm-1:00am??)
LeCroy trailhead at "O", then ride the light blue trail to "L" then ride the dark blue (Dalton) trail back to "L", then ride the green (Adena) trail back to "L", then leave at "N".
I'm relieved that we made it through the TT without knee problems and now we get to enjoy the bike again. The next 6 CPs are not plotted - we just have to find the correct trial and ride it, and the CPs will be hung somewhere along the trail. It's a cool way to ensure teams ride the entirety of singletrack instead of shortcutting it, although it always stressed me out to not know exactly where to look for a CP. Despite the simple nav required for this leg, it's really hard to find the LeCroy trailhead which we need to access the Dalton and Adena singletrack. We only find it by seeing another teams' lights disappearing into the woods - the entrance is very overgrown. Once we hit the Dalton loop we make another gear drop of food, trekking shoes, and extra water behind a tree (near letter "L", see photo), planning to pick it up later on our way out of the trail system. My lights are on their lowest setting to preserve battery for the long night and the fog keeps moving in and out, making it difficult to see the trail up ahead. But, somewhere in this section, I have a revelation...I'm a mountain biker. I don't know how, when, or where it happened, but the fearful and anxious thoughts I used to feel while riding trails have been replaced by enjoyment and peacefulness. I feel like I'm speaking the language of singletrack. Cheesy, yes, but these are the thoughts that go through your mind in the middle of adventure races. Andrei is rocking out behind me with his skinny tires, and we steadily make our way through the first 10k of the Dalton Trail. The CPs are easy to notice and we punch every one. It takes us longer than I thought but we roll onto the Adena singletrack for our final loop without any nav errors. That loop is easier than the first and when we finish, we run back to our gear drop to get "dinner" and eat it while stopped (!), sitting on rocks trailside. For me, it's a half-eaten turkey sandwich, jerky, and pretzels. For Andrei, it's a package of Pop Tarts. We split a strawberry Ensure.

After dinner, it's back on the bikes for, guess what, more singletrack! There isn't much to this section except riding along, conserving battery when possible and keep eating. We flip flop with a couple more teams here but everything is straightforward as we approach the next section, the Orienteering Relay. We are really excited for this since both of us are good navigators, which is a strength not many other teams have.

TREK 3/ORIENTEERING RELAY (CPs 18 & A-H, 1:00am - 4:30am)
I wish wish wish that I had a map to post here. Any orienteer would look at it and think "easy". Even at night, totally doable. But that is not what happened. Read on...
We cruise into CP17 and are greeted again by the friendly face of Chris!! I can't emphasize enough how nice it is to see smiles from people you know while racing. We each get a small map that has 8 CPs, A-H. We decide to each take 3 and then regroup back at TA...whoever gets back first will leave a signal (move my gloves from ground to inside helmet) and go back out for the remaining 2. Obviously I get the easiest 3 (C, E, and F) which all look attackable from the trail, and Andrei goes after A, B, and D. I go after CP C first and overshoot the trail bend right away. Whoops. But, I realize my mistake and retrace my steps, arriving back at the trail bend and start flashing my headlamp around, expecting to ping the reflective tape on the CP with ease. Nothing. I check the map again, it's plotted almost directly on the trail, I'm in the right spot, but no CP. I start mowing my way through the brush to try and find this stupid thing. A couple other racers are coming back uphill, towards the trail, and I play the girl card, asking for help locating CP C. They tell me it's hung much lower than the map indicates, and I just need to keep descending the spur. I follow their advice, and pretty soon my light picks up the CP. Boom. Goal 1 of 3 obtained.
Night run. Photo by Chris Radcliffe.
Next, CP E has the clue "reentrant" which is a favorite of mine, just find the correct one, and climb up until you hit the flag. I return up to the trail and carefully watch my progress until I'm close to the right spot. I look to the right for my reentrant. Except, I am facing just a flat hillside, with no reentrants to be seen. And it's not just a hillside, it's a steep, seemingly never-ending wall of briars and underbrush. Not awesome. But there are lights at the top and I play the girl card again, calling up to them to see if they've found E. They respond that they have not, but I take their position to mean I'm in the right place, and start climbing up to see what I can see. They call down that I shouldn't try that because the hill is very steep and probably not climbable. Uh, don't tell me what I can't do, and I claw my way up through the soggy leaves and briars. Almost at the top, I am stopped in my tracks by a good 10' earthen bank. I am not 10' tall, thus making it quite difficult to get over. But, a little scanning back and forth, and I spot a crooked tree and use it to hoist myself up. I ping my headlamp around, nothing. And, even worse, the beam starts to falter, meaning my batteries are running out. And my spares are back at the bike, not in my pack. Oh dear. I hack around in the woods for a while with my increasingly dim headlamp, and start to get nervous that my light might completely go out and I'll be stuck in the woods. CP F is supposed to be on top of this ridge as well, so I decide to look for that since I'm up here anyway. As I start to leave the area, another (bright!) headlamp appears. It belongs to a guy named Ben who is racing with Team ROC Gear-Injiji, a 2-person male squad. I play my biggest girl card yet, asking for his help since my headlamp is dying and I can't find CP E or CP F. He's already punched F, but we agree to look for CP E together. We thrash around for a while before both of us get really frustrated. We agree to go back to CP F so I can punch and then we will reattack E. That goes well, but when we end up where we think E is, nothing. It's unclear if the CP is hung above or below that almost-uncrossable earthen bank, so we drop down, scout around a little bit, and then decide to go back to TA empty handed. By this point my headlamp is barely emitting enough light for me to read my map, so I'm really grateful to get back on the trail and run towards my batteries.

We get back to TA and Ben disappears. I never got to thank him for his bigtime help..so if you read this Ben, thanks buddy!! I go back to my bike and am astounded to see the gloves still sitting on the pavement. I've been out for 90 minutes and Andrei still isn't back? What? I am really discouraged with my nav at this point and mope around TA, replacing my headlamp batteries and eating a snack. In about 5 minutes, Andrei magically appears at our bikes and brings similarly sad news...he has punched only 1 CP. Tough! But, we're so close (distance-wise) to the remaining 2 (G and H) that we decide to attack them together, then see where we land. We run down the trail (knee has miraculously held together so far) and attack H...nothing. We regroup onto the trail, and run into Ryan from Blind Squirrels who has found both of them and he gives us some pointers. We use his intel to then successfully punch both G and H in about 45 minutes, and then go back to to CP E. I'm really skeptical that we'll get it, but Andrei is motivated so I support him. He attacks just like I did, from a slight trail bend, but finds the same steep hillside with no discernible reentrants. He gets caught up in briars so instructs me to check out the next "reentrant" to the west and see what I can see. I see nothing, but Andrei stays low and encourages me to keep climbing, so I do. And climb, and climb, and.....MONEY. The bag is hung on top of the earthen bank, but I again find a way to shimmy up a rootstock and punch. The descent back to the trail is pretty dangerous and I slide for a lot of it. But, we have our 6 out of 8 CPs and decide to get out of this place before the bad nav mojo takes over our race.

BIKE 4 (CPs 23, 24, 25, 28, 11km??, 4:30am-8:15am)
Another team leaving a TA. Photo by Chris Radcliffe.
The remainder of our race is now in our own hands: CPs 19-35 are all optional, and all may be reached either on bike or on foot, in any order. We have to start the riverboard by 9am and that will be CPs 36-37-38. With those guidelines in mind, we decide to knock out some biking CPs on the way to CP36, the riverboard put-in. It's dark, still damp, and our spirits are lagging. We hit CP24 with a bunch of other teams and locate it easily on the shore of a small pond. CP23 is a real bugger though...we are still with a few other teams and we decide to attack it from the top of the reentrant. So we bike up the trail, drop the bikes, and start trekking down the slippery steep slope, flashing headlamps around as we go. Nothing. Eventually we have to go down to the bottom of the reentrant where there is a perpendicular stream, and re-attack while climbing back up. We finally find CP23 but after looking at the maps now I think it was hung much lower than shown. So we trudge back uphill to our bikes and I am in a low low spot. I want the controls to be where the map says. I want my knee to stop hurting. I want to be riding or running quickly instead of stomping through the wet woods in my bike shoes. It's amazing how adventure racing can reduce me to a toddler's temper tantrum in just a few hours. My only saving grace is internalizing my frustrations and not exploding at my teammate. Andrei is asking me a couple questions about route choice and the best I can answer is "Dre, pick something, and I will follow. I absolutely don't have an opinion or preference other than to keep moving". And thankfully, he finds a route to CP25. He's also noticed I'm pouty so he suggests that we eat "breakfast" - calories can fix a lot of things, and so can caffeine pills. I have an almond butter/banana sandwich with 200mg caffeine, YUM. And within a few hundred meters my attitude starts to turn around. We hit CP25 in good spirits and spike CP28 in similarly awesome fashion. We are back on a roll.

Now we face a long descent to the New River for the riverboarding put-in. Can I re-emphasize, it's LONG. And steep...about 900' of drop. Adnrei uses the adjective "brutal". We start flying down the hill when I think that it's going to be really hard to bike back up this thing (race rules state we have to finish on our bikes). I suggest to Andrei that we drop our bikes up on top of this bluff and run down to the put-in. He thinks that is breaking race rules. I can't remember any announcement to specifically allow this kind of bike drop, so I agree with Andrei and we continue to fly down the hillside. My brakes wear out at some point and it gets scary...I am lucky to find a few level-ish spots in the road to drag my bike to a stop. I readjust the brake pads and continue rolling. We reach the riverboard put-in (CP36) just a few minutes before 8am, plenty of time to transition and get on the water.

RIVERBOARD 1 (CPs 36-37, 6.5mi, 8:15am-11:30am)
We quickly locate our gear bags at CP36 and get set changing into wetsuits, topping off our boards with air, and (surprise) eating. Andrei packed both of us a monstrous turkey-and-cheese sandwich and it tastes super delicious. There are a bunch of other teams in TA as well. Pretty soon we are kitted up and we head over to the river for a put-in about 8:10am. The water is pleasantly warm. I'm excited to try something I've never done, but I'm worried that our boards will be slow, or the rapids will be scary. But there's no other way to make it to CP37 so off we go.

Start of the riverboard on the New River, near Thurmond. Photo by Chris Radcliffe.
Riverboarding is...awkward. Our PFDs and packs make maneuvering kind of clunky, and it's hard to balance at first. But I get the hang of it and then give Adnrei some kicking pointers (thanks, Hap and Sonja, for all of those kick sets in the pool!). I manage to put together a psuedo-butterfly stroke that seems to be pretty effective in the flatwater. We hit a couple of minor rapids (really, nothing more than chop on a windy lake) and then it's long stretches of flatwater pools. Loooong stretches where I feel like I'm paying penance to the AR gods...stuffed in a wetsuit and PFD, lying on my belly barely moving down a river...let's just say I've had more fun. Andrei has some foot cramping issues so we pull off to a muddy spot on the shore (not the rocky part to avoid foot entrapment) and take his booties off, which seems to fix the problem.
Biz (GearJunkie/WEDALI) at his finest. Photo by Chris Radcliffe.
We hit one kind of big rapid which is a lot of fun to ride. There is a guide stationed before the whitewater that tells us which line to take, and we both make it through smoothly. So when another big rapid shows up on the horizon, I get excited. There is another guide pointing us river left to avoid a big hydraulic smack in the middle of the river. I start paddling left but not with any urgency, and all of a sudden I find myself on the lip of the rapids, directly on the middle line. Uh oh. I don't even have time to think before I'm slammed with water and my board squirts out from under me. Strangely, my mind goes zen, and I think, "Just reach out and grab the board before it gets away. It's inflatable, just grab it and you'll be fine." My hand makes contact with the board's handle immediately, I grab it, and manage to pull myself onto the board sideways in the middle of the rapids. It's not a second too soon, because now all I see is a wall of whitewater heading straight for me. It's got to me at least 3' tall (and seems taller when you're at river level), and I don't have any time to react before I'm in the middle of it. It's so fast, but my mind stays zen and tells me to just hang onto the board. Only a few seconds later the hydraulic spits me out on the other side, and I manage to haul myself back up on top of the board. I look around, Andrei is right behind me, seemingly haven chosen a better line through the rapids. I'm in a "did that just happen" state of mind, but we both agree it was pretty fun, and continue making our slow progress down the river.

There aren't any big rapids left after that, and we are both struggling with the slow progress. Better boards and longer fins would have helped but it's obviously too late for that now. We are excited to see the take-out and Andrei puts in a last-minute sprint to get out of the water. There are lots of teams still here too, including one dealing with a severely hypothermic member. It's scary to see but the volunteers seem to have things under control. Just as we are exiting the water, our friends the Blind Squirrels approach the shoreline, and it's another happy reunion! We also see Phil and Hilary from Michigan Racing Addicts, a team we have been leap-frogging with all day. They are super nice and share a Snickers with me and Andrei, yum! Chris from MN is also volunteering at this TA and she brings us chocolate chip cookies, nomnomnom. We check our watch and it's 11:30am...exactly three hours until we will cross the finish line. Our plan is to run back to the bikes at CP36 (riverboard put-in), collecting 5 CPs along the way. We give ourselves 2 hours to get to CP36 and 1 hour to get to the finish. Let's move!

TREK 4 (CPs 38, 22, 21, 19, 20, 6.5miles, 11:30am-2:00pm)
CP37 (Riverboard take-out) to CP38 to CP22 to CP21 (on edge of map).
Our first task is to run up the river bluff, a good 800' climb, but it's all on paved road and we get to punch at a familiar location...CP38 is the same as CP17/18, the TA from our disastrous orienteering relay. Andrei and I are both moving really well at this point, full of energy and we whoop it up for the volunteers as we pass through the CP. From there, we bushwhack to CP22 and CP21 with little trouble, hitting them both cleanly. We cross a big field to CP19, where we are slowed down by a huge patch of briars and a thorn tree...a sneaky little sapling that looks all normal until you grab it and realize it's covered with THORNS!!! BLAST!!! We descend into CP19's reentrant and....nothing. Up, down, right, left, we canvass the area and can't find the flag. We don't have any time to waste so after 5 minutes of looking, we decide to bail and go for the next control. But as we leave, Andrei spots the flag and we are able to punch CP19 after all! Rejoice! CP20 is the same way...we attack it well, canvass the area, no luck, and then Andrei decides to climb a bit higher and finds the flag. Great, but now we are getting close to our self-imposed time cutoff of 1:30pm. We are gonna have to sprint the remaining 5k to the bikes in PR time to make it there with enough cushion to bike to the finish. Fortunately, it's all fire/gravel road. Unfortunately, the fire road is way overgrown, causing us to slow way down and climb over trees and through brush. Things are not looking good, but we both push on.
CP21-19-20 then to the bikes.
Once we make it to clearer roads, we are running. After 27 hours of racing with zero sleep, we both have managed our energy well enough to pull out a RUN at this late stage. It's mostly downhill, splashing through huge puddles and dodging overhanging branches. When we make it to the gravel road, the same brutal climb that wore my brake pads out a few hours earlier, we still have at least a mile to go and it's already 1:35pm. Andrei and I are still sprinting, and simultaneously discussing route choices to make it back to the finish. We could re-climb this gravel road on our bikes. It will be monstrously hard, but it's a sure route back to the finish line. Or, we find a trail that might connect us back just a few hundred meters from the finish. It's marked in a dashed line on the map though, so it might be under construction or similarly unridable. Checking our watches, we both know the riskier but shorter trail route is our only hope of finishing before the cutoff of 2:35pm. We finally make it to the bottom of the never-ending hill, TA into bike shoes, and start our last-ditch effort of becoming official finishers.

BIKE 5 (1.5mi, 2:00pm-3:00pm)
By the time we mount our bikes, it's already 2:00pm and we have 35 minutes to bike about 1.5 miles. Seems totally doable, right? Not on an unfamiliar map, almost all uphill, and on trails that may or may not exist. We quickly find our trailhead and get to work. We have some confusion with a bridge and abandoned rails, but we think we are still making good progress. Then, a creek. A big one. The map indicates the trail continues on the other side, but we can't see it, plus the creek is raging, at least 3' deep and FAST. What to do? Well, there's nothing much we can do, at this point. We have 15 minutes to bike an enormous hill. It's not going to happen.

The reality of becoming non-finishers starts to settle in as we turn around and retreat back to the gravel road. There's not point in hurrying since once we miss the cutoff, we're done (as opposed to some races who just take away CPs for each minute late). We're both really disappointed and it's hard to know how to handle that as a team. So, I do the same thing I've done for the last three years when I get upset...I ride my bike. It's a grunt even in granny-granny, but the slow sweaty progress seems to help vent. I look back and Andrei is riding too, the arduous grind that's entirely unnecessary but at the same time essential to processing our now unofficial race. We don't talk, each lost in our own exhaustion.

After a while, I feel the need to tell Andrei that I'm not angry. Not at him, not at the team, not at any decisions we made today. OK sure, we made some dumb ones, but we made them as a team and at the time we thought we were right. My hurty knee didn't help matters any. We know what we did wrong and that can only help us in future races. We have a good chat on the way back to HQ and it further cements why Andrei is such a great teammate...he has huge expectations for himself and his teammates, but failure to reach those expectations results in re-thinking the situation, not accusations or blame.

Finally, about 3:00pm, we pull into the finish line and tell Ronny he doesn't have to send a search party after us. The volunteers take our wristbands and passport but don't bother to count it - we are officially done but will be unranked in the results. Our friends from Blind Squirrels and GearJunkie/WEDALI are there to greet us and hear the stories of our day. I'm pretty close to tears but manage to spit out that we had a less-than-stellar day for us, even before the frantic last bike. We ask Ronny about our route choice and he confirms that the trail exists on the other side of that creek, you just have to wade through it and it can get waist-deep. So we weren't totally off our rocker with the route choice, just lacked confidence in the map. I also get to ask Biz and Tom from GearJunkie/WEDALI about their race; we had been getting reports from TAs that they were in a fierce battle with TeamSOG. Their response? "Oh, we had a pretty good day". That's it. But by now I've learned enough WEDALI-speak to know, "a pretty good day" means winning a national championship. Nice job, you guys. So proud of you!!

Now that we're finished, it's a bitter pill to swallow the realities of a disappointing race. Quite simply, we haven't had a lot of practice with it! But there's still tons of gear to be sorted and I can bury my sadness in the busywork of cleaning my bike, laying out our river gear to dry, and picking through uneaten food. It takes a while to round everything up bur eventually it's all in various piles scattered next to my car. There isn't really much time to go back to the hotel so Biz, Andrei, and I use the ACE showers, which would have been better if I'd brought soap with me (didn't realize that until after I got to the bathroom!). But clean/dry clothes do wonders and I'm even able to find a charger for my phone. I have no idea how the online tracking played out so I feel the need to tell my parents that I'm okay even though we didn't officially finish.
Awards at the post-race banquet. Photo by Chris Radcliffe.
The evening brings the Swiftwick post-race dinner/party, which is a fun affair but it's still hard to enjoy with my mixed-up emotions. I am trying to be as happy as possible for my friends who kicked some serious ass on the course today. I want to know how Andrei and I would have finished had we made it back on-time. But, Odyssey won't have that information until the results are really truly verified, so for now it's just time to shove my face full of BBQ chicken and smile. Which honestly, isn't that hard to do.

After the party, my TPOC friend Popeye has driven up from Virginia so I meet him for a beer at ACE. It's cool to see him after so many years away from camp, but he is still the same Popeye and it's nice to chat with someone outside of the AR world for a minute. The moonrise over ACE is beautiful and I enjoy telling him about my day. He helps me pack up my car and then I drive back to the hotel where I share a pizza with the few Minnesotans who are still awake.
Feet up! in the car on the way home, complete with Swiftwick podium socks (even though we didn't make the podium). 
The next day, Andrei and I drive back to St. Louis with stops in Lexington for lunch with more of my TPOC friends Sweet Cheeks, Hat, and their son (!) Rowan. We also stop at Fort Hill near Frankfort so Andrei can soak in some American history. By now we have each regained our normal cheerfulness and dissect the race with our 20/20 hindsight. I should have eaten more before my 5am bonk. We were allowed to drop bikes wherever we wanted during CPs 19-35. We should have brought less food. We are each wearing new Swiftwick items that they gave us during the race...Andrei has his calf sleeves and I have a pair of podium socks, totally baller. The phrase "next season" even starts to creep into our conversation. Yes, we have moved on. Here's to 2013!!

A few days later, we learned that our 19 CPs would have placed us 3rd in 2-person coed and 7th overall. A good lesson...even when it seems like you're behind, just keep racing your own race, who knows how the rest of the teams are doing! Pin It


  1. Great race report! Really liked the night biking pic.

    Sorry you missed the cut off but racing for 28 hours is pretty damn impressive to me.

    How did your feet hold up with thinner socks and whatever that lube was called you mentioned?

    1. Thanks, Mike!! I forgot to mention...my feet held up awesomely. They were basically soaking wet for the entire race, and the lube/sock/shoe combo was perfect for me. That is Hydropel/Swiftwick Vibe Twos/New Balance 876. Feet were a bit pruny at the finish but not sore and no blisters. Yay!!

  2. The good thing about Mark is he's just as excitable, so he probably didn't think twice about it :)

  3. Great report, I love reading the details of the race, thanks for sharing. I can feel your pain, Team Tardy Rooster has had 3 or 4 division wins now with lots of dnfs or results that were less than expected. I can say that those bad times make you appriciate the good performances that much more. Great Job!

  4. Great race report Emily! You guys had to do some crazy hard shit that I cannot even imagine. You are amazing! I can't wait to see what 2013 holds for you.

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