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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Hellbender 16-hour

Note: Commentary provided by Bob (in green) and Mickey (in red). Chuck was on vacation and settled for telling me what a great job I'd done and going back to kayaking Lake Michigan.


When Bonkhard Racing cleared their schedule for 2015, Missouri was left with only one adventure race for the entire year, December's Castlewood 8-Hour.  Thankfully the Rolla Multi-Sport Club stepped up and planned a 16-hour race in the same general area as the much-loved Berryman AR.  Chuck and I had originally intended to race in Kentucky that weekend, but shorter drive/longer race won out over longer drive/awesome location/one of our favorite race directors.  The rest of the team was unavailable, but Bob and Chuck's son Jacob joined us on a 4-person Virtus squad.


Hellbender was an apt description. Though the name actually references an endangered aquatic salamander native to Missouri, the temperature was definitely of the hellish variety. Heat warnings had been issued for the area, and the forecast high was 97. Perfect weather to lounge by the pool or in the air conditioning...or, you know, spend 16 hours racing outside.

Pre-race check-in and meeting were both held basically across the street from the hotel, and in between was a restaurant where I could get my usual pre-race BBQ pulled pork...always a good start.

Mickey: One of the perks of this race was the free 1-night hotel stay prior to the race. Thanks again to the Rolla MSC and the Rolla Area Chamber of Commerce for the tourism grant that made that possible!

We were given one large waterproof map as well as several smaller supplementary maps. Typically race instructions specify the order and mode by which CPs can be obtained and by which mode (CP 1-5 in order by bike; CPs 6-10 any order trekking); this course was "choose your own adventure" style: points could be found in any order and by any mode. This kind of thing is a nightmare for me: too much strategy. Chuck and Bob were much more excited about it.

Bob did some last-minute running and then worked on bikes while I helped Chuck plot points.  Our very first point, for the start/finish, was in a wildly different location than indicated by the directions to the bike drop. After re-checking our work twice, we decided to deal with that point later. We plotted our remaining points with no issues and then checked with some other teams about the questionable start/finish.  Carrie had already emailed the race director about it, and he quickly sent out the correct coordinates.

Race morning came early...3:45 alarm to be on the road at 4:30 to be at the bike drop by the time it opened at 5. Adventure racing is definitely not the sport for people who love their sleep. Mickey: Having to stay up late the night before a long race planning/strategizing is definitely one of my least favorite parts of AR.  In a must un-Virtus-like move, we were actually on the road as planned, but our bike drop journey wasn't exactly smooth as I had trouble following the directions. Thank goodness I was only navigating to the bike drop! Lori and Jacob, who'd stopped on the way for coffee and donuts, actually beat us there.

We dropped our bikes and some food for later in the race and then headed for the race start. There was a good hike from the parking area to the start/finish, and the fact that it was all downhill was absolutely no consolation because we knew that a) we'd be trekking right back up it and b) at some point we'd be repeating the quarter-mile stretch while carrying a canoe.

After a group picture and some last minute instructions, Kevin said go and we went. We had decided to go after two trekking points near the start before setting off in the canoes. It made sense to grab them since we had to go back uphill for our canoe anyway. Chuck led us right to both, and I enjoyed the benefit of letting Jacob be the one to punch the passport, something that's always my job (and constant worry after losing it at Stubborn Mule 2014) on a 2-person team.  All too soon we were lugging the battleship-weight canoes back downhill.

Not as fun as it looks.
Photo credit: Rolla Multisport Club
Mickey: That portage sucked, big time.

Bob: A 1-kilometer downhill canoe-carrying hike sounds really cool until you have to actually do it. But hey, at least the boats were really light and nimble on the water. (sarcasm)

Kate: I'd like the record to reflect that it never sounded cool to me.

We put into the river and enjoyed a delightfully short paddle to the attack point for our next trek. There was no beaching area to speak of and faster teams had already staked out the limited space where canoes could be dragged, so we tied ours to the exposed root system of a tree on the river bank, stepped into the oozing mud, and clambered uphill.

Bob: I actually thought climbing the roots was pretty fun, but yeah, the mud was rather deep.

Kate: He thought it was so fun he went back to do it again (and to get the supplemental map we'd left in the canoe).

We found our first CP relatively quickly and then initially overshot our attack point for the next one. Once we realized our mistake, we found it pretty quickly and began hiking UP.  Woodson K. Woods Conservation area is full of access trails -- basically a wide swatch of semi-mowed doubletrack -- that we used to navigate to the 5 or the 6 checkpoints we tackled in this section.

We found CP4 relatively quickly, then initially overshot our attack point for 5 before finding it and having a nice uphill hike. While the two look fairly close on the map, they didn't feel close at all, which may give you a feeling for how very long the trek between 5 and 7 felt.

When we finally reached the reentrant where 7 was plotted we had a terrible time finding it, trekking back and forth along the side looking for the flag. The clue was "hillside", and it looked to be plotted about midway down. We spread out and followed the reentrant looking in the middle: no luck. Again looking higher: nope. Thinking maybe we'd entered too soon we went back past where we'd started: nothing.  Finally, on our last attempt (by which time I was thoroughly sick of traipsing along the side slope), I happened to glance across the reentrant and see the flag hanging on the opposite side from where we had it plotted.

All that extra searching may have set the tone my mood on this trek. It had taken us what felt like a long time to near the point and then forever to punch it.  We saw Mickey and Andy, looking none to happy themselves, on the trek between 7 and 6 (or 8); despite being a much shorter trek, that too felt endless.

We went 4 - 5- 7 - 6 - 8 - 9 - 10
Mickey: There were some seriously long treks between CPs. We chose to go from CP4 to CP6, and the trek was over 2 miles.

I was grumpy about the long treks to such spread out points.  I'm much happier with more frequent reinforcement, and I'm sure the heat and my sore feet colored my attitude.  I've spent very little time running this summer, and that's most obvious on trekking legs: once my strong suit, lately they've become much less enjoyable. Trekking in wet shoes and socks just added to the fun.   I tried to at least act positive, I was very crabby on the inside. I joke that my role on the team is "chief morale officer", which was far from the truth during our trek.

6 and 8 were thankfully near each other, then we had another long trek to get to 9, where we punched the flag to the sound of a raucous party going on at a nearby campground. From there we hiked out to the road and race-provided water drop. I'd emptied my Camelbak on the way to 9, and though I still had one bottle of water in my pack, I was very happy to have a full tank again.

With one checkpoint left on this section we opted to walk the shoulder of the highway to get to our final CP. We bagged that, seeing both a 2-p team from Texas and Mickey and Andy in the woods. We were able to top off our water on the way back to the canoe and after a brief detour made it back to the canoes right around 2.  The volunteer in a kayak at this point warned us that most teams were taking about 3 hours to get from that point to the canoe takeout, information that was of concern because there was a 5:00 cutoff and we aren't a particularly speedy paddling team.

In light of the cutoff, we decided to skip all of the paddling points and head straight to the take out, but even with a deadline looming, we took some much-needed time to cool off in the river before climbing back into the canoes and heading downriver.  And then...disaster.

Bob and I have paddled together before, most notably in the above-referenced Castlewood 8-hour. Starting temps that day had been 10 degrees, but it had probably warmed up to 15 or so before we got onto the river. Anyone who knows me knows I'm not a fan of paddling, and paddling a river in freezing temperatures, where tipping could very well be a survival situation, was very frightening. And we did great. That was one of my favorite race paddles ever.

I'm only talking about our successful Castlewood paddle because this canoe leg was pretty much the opposite. We looked like we'd never been in a canoe before; drunk people on the river do better than we did. We ended up sideways and backwards several times. We rammed a partially submerged tree and slid partway up it like it was a ramp (flashback to my first Berryman). And we eventually tipped...right in front of a little girl who then laughed at us. (Big thanks to the kayaker who chased down my paddle and hat.)

Mickey: In her defense, it was super funny! I wish I could have caught it on video.

When we weren't struggling to avoid strainers and gravel bars, we were slamming into the large submerged rocks that for whatever reason I could not see despite the clear water) and slaloming around the crowds of people out enjoying the river in the heat. ("Enjoying" here defined as "sitting in the middle of the best paddling line".)

Bob: I'm gonna blame the turning issues on that heavy ass canoe...it was like piloting a school bus. And then when people who would see us coming and literally sit in the middle of the river...well, I'll admit that pissed me off a little bit. All that aside, it was a nice time on the water.

Meanwhile Chuck and Jacob smoothly negotiated all obstacles and spent most of the paddle waiting on us to get our shit together.  It probably would have helped our speed if I'd accepted the offer of one of Chuck's paddles, but even though I know kayak paddles are faster I really prefer canoe paddles. So basically I chose slightly more comfort over improving team speed, which was bad race strategy and selfish on my part.

Bob: So selfish.

Other than the billion people on the river, it was a beautiful day to be out in canoes. Granted, it would have been even nicer with a cooler and some drinks and multiple stops to swim, especially at the very pretty Maramec Spring Park, which due to our time limitations, we sadly passed without even a picture stop. We did, at least, take the time to dip our hands into the lovely cold water.  Bob spent the last hour or so of the paddle feeling really sick. Finally reaching the canoe take-out was a relief: for me, so I could stop paddling, and for Bob, because he was finally able to throw up.

Photo credit: Rolla Multisport Club, people who are much nicer than us and therefore opted not to document Bob's suffering. 
Bob: This was a particularly rough moment. I'm just glad I could kneel in the cool river water and barf instead of laying on the side of the road. I puked enough to be nervous about all the calories I was losing, but the fish seemed to enjoy their surprise lunch.

In light of our suboptimal paddling performance, we were surprised to see Mickey and Andy still at the canoe takeout, but Bob wasn't the only one suffering in the heat.  Andy had to drop due to heat exhaustion, so Mickey asked if he could continue unofficially with us.

Mickey: Thanks again to the RD and Team Virtus for letting me keep racing. I needed the MTB-O and night nav practice. I was glad I was able to help a little, too.

We had a slow transition but got to chat with Alpine Shop and Kuat who were at the bike drop at the same time (after getting loads more CPs on the trek/paddle).  I'd left plenty of food with my bike, none of which sounded good, so I jumped at the chance to rummage through Jeff's leftovers. Unfortunately, nothing there caught my eye, either. I have a really hard time eating in the heat and hadn't put a lot of thought into my race nutrition ("it's only 16 hours"), so I was stuck with plenty of calories and nothing remotely appealing.  This was not a recipe for a successful bike leg.

I caught sight of my AR friend Ron, who was volunteering, as we pedaled away.  "Have fun riding up the hill!" he called.

The bike leg started with a 150 foot climb, the beginning of which Strava tells me was about a 13% grade. I made it to the top, but I was suffering by the time we stopped to regroup and really struggled from that point until the sun started to relent around 7:30.  Bob was still recovering from his bout with the heat, so Mickey's offer to tow was much appreciated.

Bob: I could never describe how much I appreciated that tow. For a long time after I threw up, I was just staring at my handlebars or whatever was directly in front of me, turning the cranks and trying to keep moving. Any time we'd hook up the towstrap, I'd get nearly instant relief. The boost in my speed and morale was incredible. The fact that it benefited him in no way to make such a kind gesture speaks volumes about his character. 

They quickly shot off with Chuck and Jacob close behind, while I (somewhat tearfully) attempted to close the growing gap. I was so frustrated by being the slowest one.  Mickey circled back to check on me.  "This heat is killing me. I can't keep up. You guys are going too fast." (I know I complained about the heat; I'm not sure whether I said the rest or was just thinking it, but I was definitely thinking it.)  He towed me back to the group, but while I'm a huge fan of the tow on his cross bike I don't love the mountain bike one and was very skittish; once caught up, I opted out for the rest of the race.

Chuck and Mickey navigated us flawlessly to the first couple of CPs (one at an "old intersection" and one down a doubletrack trail that was thankfully much better mowed than the ones we'd been hiking earlier in the day.  Again we bounced back and forth with Kuat and Alpine Shop; it's always a highlight to run into the fast teams on the course, even if our faster friends are much further along in the race than we are.

Bob: Riding next to the Sonas during this stretch of the race was definitely a highlight of the day.

We had to beat a 7:00 cutoff before the Forest City trails in order to get credit for any of the singletrack CPs, and we were the last team(s) to arrive before the volunteers closed down and left.  They had a big cooler with Gatorade and water and ice.  Having something cold to drink for the first time since 6 am was glorious.  Even better, since they were going to dump the ice I stuffed as much of it as I could fit into my sports bra. Around that point I finally started feeling human again.

Another big hill led to the trail system; we then took a minute or two to make some decisions. The final race cut-off was at 10:30; missing that would cost us 1 point immediately plus one point for every 5 minutes we were late.  Looking over how far we had left to ride after the trails (guessing around 24 miles), we chose two fairly close CPs on the singletrack.  I was really excited to ride Forest City because I've heard such good things about them, and the first couple hundred feet did not disappoint. That's about all we rode, though, before Jacob flatted. The first tube was bad, so the guys had to rechange the flat. It only took maybe 20 minutes, but we'd been cutting it close on having time to tackle the trails, so we reluctantly decided to bag the singletrack and head back the way we'd come.

Mickey: And we STILL haven't ridden Forest City!

We were able to pick up a couple more CPs as we passed through the town of St. James but lost a chunk of time looking for one that we never did find in the city park.  Finally we had to cut our losses and ride for the finish line, again picking up some CPs on our way.

The Rolla/St. James area has some serious hills, and it felt like we rode all of them. Along the way we came across a team who was doing their first adventure race and was struggling with the nav in the dark.  (Bob: I mentally checked out somewhere in this section. Like, gone.) We all continued together, now riding eight strong. There was much regrouping at tops of hills.

Eventually it became clear that we were not only going to miss the cutoff but miss it by a wide margin. I began to fantasize about some kind stranger driving past with a truck big enough for all of our bikes, a quick ride back to supper and cold drinks and a shower.  I knew even if such an opportunity presented itself I'd have to pass, but it was a nice thought.

As we neared the camp hosting our start/finish, we saw a van approaching.  "Hey," Chuck exclaimed as it stopped near us, "That's my wife!"   She was the vanguard of the search posse forming to track us down, the rest of which was assembled at the end of the camp road.  "We were just about to come look for you!" someone called.  In retrospect, we should have called the race director to let him know we were fine, just moving more slowly that we'd like. That said, we probably wouldn't have had a cell signal anyway.

SO ready to be off of our bikes, we made our third (and fastest) trip down the road to the finish line and crossed through the arch at 11:29 p.m., almost exactly an hour past the cut-off.

Bob: I made a wrong turn and slammed my bike into a brick building right before the final turn. I though it was a shortcut. It wasn't.


We had a pretty big penalty for coming in late, but at least we finished with a positive score.  More importantly, we finished under our own power: stinky, tired, and hungry, but otherwise none the worse for wear.  Despite our late arrival, there were still plenty of burgers and beer, and with all of the other finishers on their way home we plenty of seats to choose from. There were even third place medals left for us.

I'm so photogenic.
Bob: I'd like to take a moment and elaborate on the finish line atmosphere. Mind you, we finished REALLY late. The volunteers had been working all day, but you never would have known with the way they treated us so well. There was an abundance of delicious hamburgers, hot dogs, baked pies, water, sodas, and a variety of good beers. (I wasted no time getting shitfaced, btw.) There was even a prize table where you could help yourself to free gear. Even better, they gave us a ride up the hill back to our cars. A classy group of people if you ask me.

Mickey: I really appreciated the on-site, hot showers. It made the drive home much more comfortable.

The heat and the terrain definitely made this a tough race and a fitting successor to Berryman. The Rolla Multi-Sport club did a great job on their first adventure race: tough course, good maps, fantastic and enthusiastic volunteers.  We're planning to be back next year...hope to see lots of our AR friends there, too.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Council Bluff

I've ridden on the Council Bluff Lake trail a couple of times, once for my second Berryman AR and once last summer when Luke and Casey were staying nearby with their families, but I've never ridden all of the way around the lake. Like most trails I've ridden for the first time during my early adventure races, it has stuck in my head as a scary place, so when a free weekend day came up, I was eager to put that fear to rest by finally riding the whole trail.

Chuck, Jacob, Bob, and I met up near Bob's house and caravanned down to the lake, Bob and I riding together with our bikes on my fancy new  used Kuat rack. Goodbye, worn-out trunk rack! In some bizarre occurrence, Bob and I actually beat Chuck to our meeting spot, though the world was quickly set right again when I promptly drove across an intersection and onto the wrong side of a divided road on the way to breakfast...in front of a police officer, who thankfully had better things to do than write me a ticket for being clueless.

Council Bluff
Making fun of my crooked helmet.
I'd say the drive went pretty quickly, but accusations were made from the back car about me driving like a grandma, so obviously it wasn't that fast of a trip; still, we got to the lake just at the time we planned, an un-Virtus-like feat, indeed, and attacked the trail from the beach in a clockwise direction.

Council Bluff

Jacob hasn't really ridden his bike in the past two years, which didn't stop him from totally outridng me.  What he lacks in practice he makes up for in fitness and the natural fearlessness of an 18 year old boy.  Usually one of the things I love about mountain biking is tracking how far I've come from when I first started, but on this trip I felt like a beginner all over again, scared, tentative, and walking things I know I could ride.

Council Bluff
Bob does not suffer from my lack of confidence.
Having chosen to ride on one of the first hot, hot weekends of this very weird summer, we were very looking forward to hopping into the lake to cool off at the boat ramp.

Council Bluff
I opted to walk in.
After hanging out for a while and talking to the fishermen getting ready to launch, we set off again, soaked clothes providing a little additional cooling for the ride.

Council Bluff
And thank goodness for shade!
We took another water break, this time in a lovely, cold, clear creek at the connector to the Ozark Trail.  Halfway around and past the more technical parts of the trail, I finally started to gain some confidence.  Bob flatted and crashed, so I rode ahead to let Chuck and Jacob know we'd be stopping to change a tire.  They decided they needed to finish up the ride because they had plans later in the day, so they rode back to say goodbye.

Council Bluff
Doesn't look like much, but the water here is DEEP and since it's a man-made lake, there are trees down there just waiting to impale someone.

Seeing the rocky ledge near the spot Bob had stopped to change his tire, Jacob told him, "I bet you $10 you won't ride off that into the lake." Most any bet against Bob is a loser's bet, and this was too. I was very unenthusiastic about this plan. The water is deep, and I thought chances of Bob's steel-framed bike sinking to the bottom were good, not to mention his likelihood of impaling himself on a submerged tree. I was so opposed to the plan that I almost rode away, but I decided it would be better to stay and play lifeguard if needed or at least document where rescuers could find his body.

If your sentence to Bob Jenkins begins with "I bet you $10 that you won't..," you're going home a poorer man. Or boy.
Posted by Kate Lavelle Geisen on Sunday, July 12, 2015

Chuck and Jacob took off, and Bob and I were just about to leave when we heard voices approaching pretty quickly. Knowing our pace was going to be considerably slower than the oncoming riders, we opted to wait until they passed. "That sounds like Maria," I told Bob, and sure enough she and Sam rode around the corner. We talked for a little bit before the girls rode away, and then we followed.

Council Bluff
It was a gorgeous day, and it's a beautiful trail
I typically like to be in the back of whatever group I'm riding in; I like being able to see the line of the rider in front of me. This day I felt much more comfortable with a clear trail in front of me. I'm sure it also helped that we were on a far less technical section, too. Regardless, I was finally really enjoying the riding portion instead of mostly just the company.

Council Bluff
It's hard to see because of the shade, but there are quite a few rocks and roots here, and I was so excited to have ridden up it successfully that I walked back down to take a picture of it.  
We reached the last boat ramp before the beach and rode out on the dock. "I kind of have to ride off this, don't I?" said Bob.  "Or maybe I just shouldn't press my luck."

"It's OK if you're too scared," I teased, feeling much more comfortable about this spot and knowing he wouldn't be able to resist the taunt.

More magic words: "It's ok if you're too scared..."
Posted by Kate Lavelle Geisen on Sunday, July 12, 2015
His water bottle came loose on impact, so I offered to swim out and get it.  I took off my shoes and socks and hopped in from the dock so as to avoid the super slippery ramp.  Bob laughed at me as I tried in vain to keep my face from going into the water (I'm seriously turning into my mom) and then again as, after retrieving the bottle, I gingerly made my way onto the bank, squeamish about the muddy bottom, the plants, and the dead fish I saw.  Otherwise it was fun. More mountain bike rides should involve lake swims!

We made our way back to the beach and car, and then attempted to find "the bluff" on Johnson Mountain. My little Cobalt is no off-road vehicle, and if Chuck and Jacob thought I drove like a grandma on pavement they would have REALLY laughed to see me creeping up the rutted gravel.  Stymied at the top when we couldn't find the spot Bob was looking for and too hungry to look for long, we headed back down and into Potosi for Mexican food.

We probably spent as much time in the water as on our bikes, but it was a super fun day. I'm really looking forward to the next trip back. My driving probably won't improve, but hopefully I'll ride less like a grandma!

Monday, July 6, 2015

2015 Stubborn Mule 30-hour

Cable, WI, is a long drive from the St. Louis area, but it's totally worth the trip (especially if you aren't the one who does the driving!). This year the Stubborn Mule adventure race moved northwest to the Cable area, and though I was looking forward to the race before I heard about the location change, I was really excited once I started reading about the mountain biking opportunities in the area.

Chuck and Lori picked me up Friday morning and we headed north through lots of rain, an ominous echo of last year's weather that thankfully did not portend another 6-hour midnight downpour during the race.  Our hotel was about 2 minutes from the race HQ, which we scouted out between check-in and dinner at the Sawmill Saloon.  After dinner we went back to get our bikes and gear as ready as possible, a task that was complicated by the fact that we had no idea how the course would be structured.

Most ARs I've done start with a pre-race meeting the day before where you get your maps and race instructions.  That way, you go into race morning having a good idea of where (if at all) you can drop gear and food, how the race is structured, etc. Without a pre-race meeting, I filled my normal pack food pockets and stocked up my bike, then put the rest of my race food in a large ziploc bag until I knew whether I'd be leaving some behind or carrying 30 hours worth of calories with me all day. Aiming for 250 calories an hour, that seemed like a lot of food.

Race check-in started at 4:45 a.m. We received two big maps, a smaller supplemental one, and a packet of CAMBA trail maps. Chuck copied information about private property from master maps while I traced the mandatory bike route on one of the trail maps (first scanning the descriptions and being relieved to see they were rated intermediate) and read over the race book, highlighting mandatory points and time limits.  We were left with a few minutes to strategize before the pre-race meeting, where it was my job to be the primary ears for our team.

The race was largely centered around the HQ/start/finish, giving us one place we'd return to repeatedly during the day (with a bathroom! I'm not too ladylike to go in the woods, but not having to was lovely!). This made staging gear super easy. We left extra food, shoes, paddles, and bikes at the HQ and made our way to the start.

Photo credit: Stubborn Mule AR
WEDALI up front, Chuck and I waaaaaay in the back on the right. :)
6:00 am 

Trek 1: 6 CPs, may be obtained in any order, must get 4 or attempt section for 2 hours

The opening jog was a sad reminder that my summer running mileage is anemic at best, but it was impossible to be down in such lovely surroundings.

Nice way to start the day
We got off to a slightly slow start, hampered by the fact that it was difficult to tell the difference between hills and depressions on the map, an issue which might have been mitigated if the navigator's assistant (that would be me) had looked at the clue sheet and mentioned that the clue was "depression".  Oops. My bad. It's only been three months since my last adventure race, but apparently my race brain is rusty.  That little issue resolved, we knocked out the first four CPs in quick order.

Getting CP4
The Chequamegon National Forest has "over 300 miles of marked and mapped routes", which is fantastic.  It also means you may well come to an intersection of six trails spidering off into different directions.  We hit one such junction on our way to CP5 and spent a longer time that felt right hiking it towards our next CP. At one point we stopped and asked ourselves, if we're not on the right trail, where else on the map are we, but at the time we didn't make the connection that we were on a roughly parallel trail.

In retrospect, we should have stopped, thought it through, and if necessary backed up to reattack, but we kept moving forward until we hit a signed intersection and figured out where we were.  At that point we decided to bag CP5 and move on to 6. Hiking along the grassy doubletrack, we saw a black bear on the trail ahead of us.

Not too long into our race this weekend, Chuck and I came across this bear. It stood in the trail for a minute or two and then ran off into the woods. It peered over at us from the side as we passed, but before I could get my camera out again it lost interest. We actually saw a second bear later that day, maybe around 4 or 5 in a different area.
Posted by Kate Lavelle Geisen on Monday, June 29, 2015

Holy shit. A bear. One of my enduring disappointments from last year's Stubborn Mule was the complete lack of bear sightings, so once our furry friend ambled along his or her way we were as excited little kids.  Seeing a bear totally made up for missing that checkpoint and losing some time. On a high, we collected our final checkpoint and made our way back to race HQ.

Chuck:  The bear was definitely a highlight for me too.  We all watched each other for a few minutes while Kate got her camera up and running.  The bear flicked his ears a few times and shifted his weight around projecting an image of total curiosity.  Finally deciding that this IS a bear we started making some noise, then he ran off just like the experts say its supposed to work.

After each leg of the race, teams checked in and out with volunteers. This meant race staff were able to keep track of how many CPs each team had throughout the race, plus they also tracked our transition times, which is interesting information for post-race analysis (that said, while I typically love to start talking about how the race went and what we could do better next time as soon as it's over, this time most of my post-race was spent asleep in the back seat of Chuck and Lori's van).

Trek 1: 
Time: 3:27
Distance covered: 9 miles
Checkpoints: 5/6


9:39 a.m. (3:39 of racing down, about 26 to go)

Paddle 1: 6 CPs, may be obtained in any order; teams must obtain at least 4/6

We now had a long flat-water paddle on the lovely (and enormous) Lake Namakegon. I'm still no fan of paddling, but like last year, the canoes were some of the nicest I've ever used in a race. I'd say the first three-fourths of the paddle weren't terrible at all. Chuck's nav was flawless, and while we aren't fast paddlers we weren't super slow, either.

Water like glass
At one point we crossed paths with a three-person team. Since the canoes only have front and back seats, the person in the middle is stuck on the bottom unless they bring something to sit on.  I was that unlucky person last year, enduring a long river paddle which perched on my pack, so I commiserated with the guy in the middle, telling him I knew it was no fun.

"Yeah," he responded, "but you weren't paddling!"   (That's what I get for revealing my "if I'm taking pictures I can't paddle" strategy in last year's race report. :D)

This smile may not be entirely sincere. Also, not the less smooth water.
We'd toyed with getting the four mandatory CPs and then heading back to HQ, but somehow we decided to get a fifth as well. I think Chuck even left it up to me, and far be it from me to add to my canoe time, but I wasn't feeling awful at the time. That changed not long after we pointed ourselves towards that last CP. My shoulders and back were sore, my hands were hurting, and I kept shifting position because my legs were uncomfortable. Additionally, lake traffic picked up as the day went on, and it seemed like every jet ski and pontoon boat was making a point to knock us around with their wake. I was very happy to get back to the beach and out of the canoe.

Get me out of this effing boat.
Photo credit: Lori Vohsen
Paddle 1:
Time: 3:59
Distance covered: 14 miles
Checkpoints: 5/6


Happily switching from paddle mode to bike mode.
Photo credit: Lori Vohsen
Once again we checked back in with the volunteers and then prepared for the bike leg.  We had a 25-mile bike to a new transition area with a 19-CP trekking leg, followed by a 34-mile bike leg back to HQ.  We weren't going to be back at HQ until early the next morning, so we loaded up with extra food, stuck our trekking shoes in our packs, and climbed onto our bikes.

2:01 p.m. (8 hours of racing down, 22 to go)

Bike 1: 5 CPs, may be obtained in any order; teams must obtain at least 2/5 CPs

Chuck at the beginning of the bike leg

Yes! The bike leg! If there's anything I was trained for post-Dirty Kanza, it was this. We started on pavement/gravel, ticking off miles and our first checkpoint. We had to stop and check the maps to figure out the right turn for our next checkpoint, discovering at that point that we'd lost the map where we'd marked the mandatory bike route. We biked down to a trailhead and looked over the map posted there, noticing Lori's van in the parking area and looking forward to seeing her along the way. 

It looked like we could either take the singletrack or a little bit more road. "Let's take the road," I suggested, "Look how squiggly the singletrack is...the road will be way more direct."  That may have been true, but once we turned towards the trail the road got super rough.  The trail, once we hit it, was buttery smooth and so much fun. Bad call on my part, made worse by the fact that Lori was waiting to cheer and take pictures on the section of singletrack we'd missed.

Chuck:  Not a bad call on your part, I was down with it too.  It was the best call with the limited information we had.

"Is this Heaven?"
"No, this is Wisconsin."

Highest point on the trail (maybe in the area...I've forgotten now)
The trails alone made the 10-hour drive to Wisconsin totally worth it. This section of the race included the Flow Mama and Seeley Pass trails, the swoopiest fun I've ever had on a mountain bike. The three CPs on the singletrack were unmapped; you just had to keep an eye out for them as you rode. We snagged the High Point CP and then spent most of our remaining time on the trails swinging between savoring the trails and worrying we'd missed the other CPs (sometimes doing both at once, because we're overachievers like that). We did get some reassurance when we ran into another team (Marine One, maybe) at a trail intersection. "How many checkpoints have you found on the singletrack?" I asked.

"Just one," they replied. "Everybody else has said the same thing."  Whew. 

Finishing up Seeley Pass trail

Having missed us at the beginning of the singletrack, Lori found us towards the end and got a couple of pictures on the bike. Usually in an adventure race, by the time one leg ends I'm ready to be doing something new; not this time! I could have stayed on those trails for way longer.  Definitely the most fun I've ever had on singletrack. We pulled into the TA with huge smiles on our faces.

Bike 1:
Time: 3:46
Distance covered: 24.4 miles

Checkpoints: 5/5


Trek 2: 19 CPs, may be obtained in any order; teams must obtain at least 8 CPs or attempt course for 3 hours

As we reached the TA, we saw WEDALI running back in to get more water. "Take your time," Emily warned us, "The terrain is really subtle. It's tricky."  We pulled on trekking pants, changed shoes, and reapplied bug repellent, then I topped off our water while Chuck looked over our new map.  Knowing we weren't going to be clearing the course, we immediately discounted a couple CPs that had almost no contour lines to help with the nav and then identified two different circles of CPs; we'd complete one, then re-evaluate what we wanted to do next.

And we're off!

6:15 p.m. (12 hours of racing down, 18 to go). It's numbers like that that tell you 30 hours is a long time to race.

This trekking leg was centered around the famous Birkie Trail. One section of the Birkie was overlaid on our maps,  but no other trails were. This would have baffled me, but once again Chuck nailed the nav. As we completed our first loop, we passed near the TA again on the Birkie, and stopping to check a trail map saw yet another black bear ahead of us on the trail. With dusk starting to fall, I was slightly less excited about seeing the bear, really not wanting to encounter one in the dark.

We saw one 4-person team as we hiked back onto the Birkie from our first CP of the trek, and then we never saw another person until running into the Marine team on our approach to our last CP. Here we encountered the thickest vegetation of the race, thankfully able to follow their path to the CP but having to break our own trail when we decided to go north towards the road instead of backtracking.

Chuck:  And, she really means "BREAK" our own trail, the vegetation was straight out of some jungle movie, a machete would not have been out of place.

Moving in full dark now with only the light of our headlamps to help us find the clearest path, Chuck took us slowly and steadily towards the road. At one point I looked back and thought I saw eyes reflecting my headlamp, and every time he stopped to look at the map I heard weird noises behind me.  I was increasingly paranoid about bears. While I'm not a fan of three-person teams and being stuck in the middle of the canoe, at that point I wished desperately for a third teammate so that the bear I imagined behind us could eat them instead of me.  Possibly my happiest moment of the race was when we popped out on the road unmauled.

Trek 2:
Time: 4:05
Distance covered: ?

Checkpoints: 9/19


Hike-a-Bike: 10 CPs, may be obtained by bike or foot; teams must obtain at least 2 CPs 

The TA had moved into the Birkie warming huts, which made a nice place for us to plot the CPs given to us when we checked in. This next section was billed as "Hike-a-Bike". Again we were to cover a combination of gravel and singletrack. Paula, the race director, was at the TA and pointed out to everyone that our CAMBA trail maps would help greatly to find some of the points. Thankfully the map we needed wasn't the one we'd already lost!  After Chuck plotted our points, we went over them again with the trail map, also marking that with our route. While I'd been at sea with the topo map, at least the nav on the trail map made sense to me.

11:10 p.m. (17 hours of racing down, 13 to go). 

While all CPs could be obtained by either bike or foot, what it boiled down to for us (and most teams, I imagine) was biking to the attack point, dropping bikes, and hiking in to find the point.  For our first CP, on a peninsula, we questioned ourselves and had to crawl a log over a creek three times before we went far enough to find the flag. We then somehow missed a turn to our next CP ("Hilltop"), deciding to skip it when we finally figured out where we were.

Lots of signs at 1 a.m. The large trail map (not shown) to the right of this picture was really helpful.

We found the marsh CP with only one false start, and things got interesting.  Attacking too early for CP B9 ("Lake"), we then moved off our bearing in search of our target. Being in the wrong place, we naturally didn't find it, and our wandering around resulted in a slightly disconcerting period where we couldn't see our bike lights and didn't know how to get back to the road.  I thought we might have to wait til dawn to figure it out, but Chuck sat down with the map for a minute, got things straight, and led us back out.  Once we got back on the road, the actual attack point was just a little bit further, and we and the Wolseley Wanderers located it without further drama.

Chuck:  In vegetation that thick, and that late at night, I should not have taken us off a solid bearing in some vague hope of spotting a CP.  (I wonder now, in hindsight, if that poor decision was influenced by the beginning of my 'dark time' on the bike leg.)  To our great relief, spreading all the maps out on the forest floor and plotting a safety bearing to intersect the road worked out perfectly .  This was a great lesson learned.

Subsequent bike CPs were on singletrack, and though I'd been really excited to get back on the awesome CAMBA trails (and thrilled that we'd be riding "easy" trails in the dark), the reality was less joyous than our earlier ride. The trail may have been easy, but it was also boring. My increasing sleepiness was revealed by the way my bike was weaving back and forth across the trail.  Still, I was thrilled to be on the bike rather than on foot or in a canoe.

Chuck, on the other hand, hasn't spent as much time on the bike lately. With a previous long ride of around 20 miles, he suffered quietly throughout most of this leg.  Since I had a pretty good handle on the (uncomplicated) singetrack nav, Chuck was able to retreat to the pain cave for a while, emerging right as we hit our final trail and just in time for my attitude to go south.

Chuck:  And that's why AR is such a great team sport!  Everyone goes through a time where they have to depend on their teammates.  Kate did outstanding leading us through that section.

I'd been excited about riding another IMBA Epic designee, but despite the fact that daylight had broken and the trail was easier than almost anything we have locally, I somehow began riding (and feeling) like I'd never been on a mountain bike. Meanwhile, Chuck was zipping along the trail like a kid just let out for recess.

We finally got to the end of the trail, where one of us noticed that the cover of one of Chuck's red blinkies was missing.  I mentioned that I'd seen it back on the trail, not realizing it was his. "Where was it?" he demanded, "That's my best light!"

"I don't know...it was a ways back," I mumbled vaguely, watching in disbelief as he turned his bike and rode back towards the trail.  I thought he was just joking about going back for the light, but he kept going.

"Come on!"

I stared at his back, still trying to formulate the words to nicely tell my teammate that there was no way in hell I was turning around for his stupid taillight when he looked back at me with a big grin and turned us back towards the race HQ.

Chuck: Evidence that I was out of the 'dark time' and Kate was in one. She is usually way to quick to get caught by something that easy.

Time: 7:40
Distance covered: 30-ish? miles
Checkpoints: 8/10

Paddle 2: 10 miles, 4 cps, any order; teams must get at least 1.

7:17 a.m. (25 hours of racing down, 5 to go). 

The volunteers at HQ gave us coordinates for four paddling CPs.  It was mandatory to get one, but there were three that were allegedly "pretty close together".  We grudgingly grabbed the paddles and trudged back to the canoe beach, only realizing after we'd chosen our boat that our map was back at HQ.  I sat in a beach chair and almost fell asleep while Chuck retrieved our map.

The lake was beautiful in the morning light, flat and calm with no sign of the pontoon boats and jet skis that had plagued us the previous morning.  Still, the first part of the paddle was terrible as we both fought with sleep.  A combination of chocolate-covered espresso beans and conversation helped the situation, but the paddle quickly revealed that my idea and Chuck's idea of "pretty close together" are wildly different. Still, we stuck with our plan of getting the three closest CPs, all of which needed a question answered to prove you were there, and were both thrilled to finally limp back to the beach.

Paddle done, just one...more...leg...
We were very not thrilled when we turned in our passport and answers and were told we'd written the wrong number down for one of the questions. We'd miscounted the number of 2x6's that made up a bench on one of the docks, so we didn't get credit for that CP. Rules are rules, and everyone else had gotten the question right, so it was our mistake not to get out of the canoe onto the dock and count more carefully, but I was pissed we'd done all that paddling for nothing.  Definitely my least happy moment of the race.

Paddle 2:
Time: 2:19
Distance covered: 8? miles
Checkpoints: 2/4


9:48 a.m. (28 hours of racing down, 2 to go). 

Trek 3: 9 CPs, all optional; 4.5 miles

Plotting and strategizing...and eating Pringles.

The volunteers gave us our final set of coordinates to plot for the final trek.  We knew we didn't have time to get all of them, so we picked the closest ones and headed out.  We found the first one, located on a beautiful open grassy hilltop (you'll have to take my word for it since I left the camera back at HQ), pretty quickly. The second, located at the end of a boardwalk in the middle of a marsh, proved much more difficult as we got distracted by a small marsh along our bearing. Eventually we found it, and since it was another question/answer CP, I made Chuck double check my answer.

There was one more CP in close proximity, but after the issues we'd had with our last one we decided not to take any chances with the hour we had left.  Instead, we headed back to the finish line, which we found with no problem.

Trek 3:
Time: 1:25
Distance covered: not all that far
Checkpoints: 2/9

Second in my growing set of Stubborn Mule coasters!

11:13 a.m. (29:13 total race time). 

Even better than finishing the race was the fact that we were able to immediately use the showers at the resort hosting the race, brush our teeth, and then eat. I know I've been grosser during a race (Thunder Rolls 2013!), but I've never wanted a shower as badly as I did this year.

Showers...and food (lots of food)...

...and beer. Now we're happy.
We ended up finishing first in our division and 8th overall. Had we gotten credit for the paddle CP where we answered the question wrong, we'd have been 6th overall. Either way, we had a great race.

If you have any way of making it to next year's Stubborn Mule, you really should. The location is incredible, and the race director and volunteers are fantastic. The race is so well-planned and the logistics both years I've raced it have been flawless.  Seriously.  Do this race. Your only regret will be waiting this long.

Chuck:  Oh yeah, I'm definitely IN for next year!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Muddy Kanza

Weather has been a huge factor in some of the big gravel races so far this year with Land Run's mud destroying derailleurs left and right and only one person making it past the first Trans Iowa checkpoint before the cutoff. Hopes that Dirty Kanza would avoid the curse were dashed by constant rain over Emporia in the weeks before the race. Every look at my weather app during the 10-day forecast window (and there were many such looks) was highlighted by the big red FLOOD WARNING bar at the top of the page.

Despite this, I was at peace. I had trained for a DK PR, hoping for a 17-hour or maybe, in my faintest everything-goes-perfectly-and-miracles-really-do-happen dreams, a finish time that started with 16, but when conditions made it apparent that this was most unlikely I changed my focus to adventure.  A challenging Dirty Kanza would be sure to yield good stories, and adventure racing has left me no stranger to finding fun in difficult conditions.

Wet roads at the Fig AR back in November. It had snowed that morning,so that water was COLD.
My equanimity was shaken at the rider meeting Friday afternoon when race director Jim Cummins noted that some of the water crossings were 8 feet deep. I was fully prepared to carry my bike through chest-deep water but not to swim. Obviously the promoters weren't sending anyone in literally over their heads, and he reassured us that contingency plans were in place if the waters didn't recede enough to be safely crossed.

The majority of the DK route is gravel, but there are several dirt roads which can be real issues in wet conditions. More rain hit Emporia Thursday and Friday, and the intel was that an early 3-mile stretch of dirt road was so bad that one of the Jeeps scouting the course had gotten stuck. Hike-a-bike skills were going to come in handy if things didn't dry out quickly.

Mother Nature tempered her May bitchiness with a generous race-day forecast: unseasonably low temperatures, no rain, and a relatively gentle wind out of the north (I spent a considerable amount of time with the course map figuring out exactly how many miles we'd spend riding into a headwind once the course turned back to the north: 44, if you're interested, broken up into 1-11 mile stretches). She must have woken up in a bad mood, though, because we woke to a misty morning and increased wind: the forecast of 10 mph max winds became 15 mph with gusts in the 20's at times. Not cool, Mother Nature. Not cool at all.


The morning mist was so insignificant compared to the rain we could have faced that it didn't factor into my thoughts for the day, but it could have ended my race before I reached the starting line. Shouldering my bike to descend the outdoor staircase from the hotel's second floor, I took about three steps before slipping on the wet metal and falling the rest of the way down to the ground...except I didn't fall, somehow managing to surf the stairs on my flip flops, landing on my feet at the bottom without dropping my bike or my purse. My heart rate probably didn't return to normal for an hour, but I took the incident as a sign of a charmed day.

We were at the start line early enough that I had plenty of time to be ready and lined up in the 16 hour group without any last-minute rushing.  My faster Momentum teammates were staged a few pace groups ahead of me, but I didn't have any desire to hang on to a faster pace than I was comfortable with, especially so early in a long day, and I still had friends around me.
Dirty Kanza has been such a Team Virtus thing since before I'd ever heard of it that it was weird to be there without the whole group. I was really glad to have Travis there with me.
Travis, Justin, Craig, Tara, and Chris were all right there and I could see other St. Louis area friends nearby.  Even Jim, who's much faster than I'll ever hope to be, was back there with us, riding singlespeed and hoping to avoid getting caught up in the lead-pack craziness that eventually derailed his race last year; his presence was a real perk because he gave me some last-minute tutoring in the on-the-back bike carrying style I'd first seen employed in his Land Run blog post.

The one person missing was my DK buddy from last year, Matt. We'd tentatively planned to ride together as long as our paces matched, and I knew he and his friends were also in the 16 hour group but couldn't see them. Oh, well. I assumed things would sort themselves out once we got moving. Being so far back in the pack, it was impossible to hear any of the pre-race instruction at the front, so we only knew the race was starting when the people ahead of us started to move.

Leg 1: Emporia to Madison ~73 miles - 6:47:51 ride time

A Dirty Kanza roll-out is a special thing. The street is packed with spectators, all cheering and ringing cowbells. You really do feel like the rockstar on all the DK merchandise.  We hadn't made it more than a few blocks before we stopped, blocked by one of the trains that runs through town every 25 minutes.
Photo credit: Mickey Boianoff

"Great," somebody muttered, "Now I'm not going to win."

The pack split into two lines as we turned onto the gravel roads. Damp but very rideable, they showed clear signs of having been underwater recently, most notably the large carp lying by the side of the road. In addition to being the toughest race I've ever done, DK now holds the distinction of the only time I've ever had to avoid a fish while on a bike.

Right around this point Matt and his buddies came rolling past me, so I jumped into their draft. We all rolled together until about the ten mile mark, when we hit the hike-a-bike. I stopped at the edge of the road before my tires touched mud and hoisted my bike the way Jim had showed me earlier. It was surprisingly comfortable. Crowds of people lined the grassy edges of the road, but I stuck with the group in the muddy middle.

Not me, but you get the idea.
Photo credit: Jason Kulma
We're having fun now!
Photo credit: Josh Johnson
I really felt for the people on tandems; the hike-a-bike was an ordeal for them. I had a much easier time; in fact, it was weirdly fun. My adventure mindset was in full swing, and the situation was so ridiculous that you had to laugh: not an hour into a 200-mile race we were carrying our bikes through peanut-butter mud with no end in sight.  Mud-splattered faces were only outnumbered by shoes that looked more like fluffy bear-paw slippers. Some people grumbled while others shared my entertainment. "Well," one guy remarked, "no good story ever started 'We were sitting on the couch...'"

"Right!" I continued with one of Bob's favorite lines, "and no good story ever ended 'It got hard and then we quit.'"

The mud seemed to last forever, making me even more apprehensive about my chances of making it to the first checkpoint before the cutoff, but everyone was in the same situation and there was good camaraderie in the ranks. Very occasionally someone would ride through, but I knew that was beyond my abilities. While I'm not a particularly fast cyclist, it turns out I can carry a bike pretty well. As the hike stretched on I passed a lot of people and caught up with more and more of the Momentum guys, who typically I'd never see until the finish line.

After about three miles of this craziness the mud came to an end; I knocked as much mud as possible off of my bike shoes and climbed back onto my bike. I was a little worried my legs would be tired from trudging through all that slop, but the only lingering after-effect was a gigantic blister on my heel, the consequence of a slipping ankle sock.  My relatively speedy hike had another negative consequences, though. Once I was pedaling again, rider after rider flew past me like I was standing still. This was somewhat demoralizing until I finally realized that these were all the fast people I'd passed on the HAB; typically they'd have been miles ahead of me by this point.

Photo credit: Jeff Maassen
The gravel was in pretty good shape, some muddy spots but nothing like the road where we'd carried our bikes. Now the issue was water crossings. Most of them were small, but the recent rains had me worried about washouts you couldn't see beneath the water. Approaching one, I saw a guy ride in, hit something, and fly over his handlebars. That was enough to convince me to walk it, and as others rode past me into it I felt like a wimp until a couple others crashed in the same spot.

Coming through the cattle pens about 24 miles in.
Photo credit: J. Greg Jordan
I'd lost my riding companions during the hike a bike, though for a while I repeatedly leapfrogged with Joe, Jeff, and Shaun, who were faster than me but made some stops for mechanical issues and at the neutral water stop.  I'd worn my camelbak so I could avoid stopping for water this early in the course, concerned about crowding and water availability with a stop so early into the race (around mile 32). Just past there I saw the one person I never expected or wanted to see on the course; Mickey was walking his broken bike back towards the water stop, out of the race after beating the sun last year. I was so disappointed for him but reminded him of the silver lining that now he could clean up my bike for me at the checkpoint. I'm not entirely sure he was comforted by that thought.

I rode the remainder of leg 1 by myself, but not really alone, talking with people who were riding near me or reliving memories of past trips along some of the familiar roads.  There were no more prolonged hikes during this leg, though we did have some bigger water crossings and reroutes due to high water.

Water crossing
I opted to carry my bike through the water because, you know, I hadn't done enough of that yet.
Screen grab from Dave Leiker photography slideshow
Low-water crossing on the reroute. The water got higher towards the middle and was really moving. I was very nervous walking across this. (Photo credit: Matt Gunter)
The reroutes were easy to follow, but they created confusion because I had no idea how they affected the mileage to the first checkpoint. Would it be longer or shorter? What were my chances of making the cutoff? I was skeptical that I'd get there in time and not completely broken up about that. Leg 1 was hard. I wasn't going to quit (been there, done that, didn't like the feeling), but if I gave it my best effort and didn't get there in time...well, chalk it up to a tough year. I'd join the people crewing for my Momentum teammates and do what I could to contribute to their finishes.  I had mixed feelings when I reached the checkpoint with over an hour to spare, seeing the smiling faces and hearing the cheers of not just my crew but my STL-area friends there to crew for Chris, Kate, Teresa, Lo, and Alice.

My friend Emma was crewing for me. She has years of DK crew experience as well as volunteering at many other races, and she was totally invested in my success. I rolled up to a 3-person crew, though, as Tiara (who I know) and Loralee (who I met right then) were hanging with Emma waiting for their own riders and in true AR-family fashion, jumped right in to take care of me.

With the cool temps I decided to ditch my camelbak in favor of one extra bottle in my jersey, so in addition to refilling my food, getting me full bottles, making sure I was fed, and cleaning up my bike, they also emptied my pack to make sure I had everything I needed for the next leg. I have been so lucky in all of my DK experiences to have friends who are willing to give up their time and spend the day taking care of me.  I can't even tell you how much that means to me.

Compared to previous races this year, I'd been much more purposeful and conscientious about nutrition and hydration, and it showed. I felt much less foggy than at mile 47 at Cedar Cross and overall pretty good.  As best I can tell, within 11 minutes I had on dry socks and was off for leg 2. Nearing the end of the block, I heard my name and saw Matt with his wife, Valerie, who was crewing for him. He waved me off, telling me he'd catch up with me, and I hit the hill out of Madison with lighter spirits in anticipation of company for leg 2.

Leg 2: Madison to Cottonwood Falls ~81 miles ~8:55 ride time for leg - 15:42:18 total race time
Note: all of this happened, but it may not have happened exactly in this order. The bad thing about using a Garmin over cue sheets and going with happy ignorance over paying close attention to mileage and time is that you have no real idea where on the course things happened.

There was another reroute just out of town, which meant that once again I was going to be flying blind regarding end mileage. Since I was using my Garmin for navigation, all I could see was the arrow pointing where to go, the miles remaining to the next turn, and the estimated time to the next turn. If I switched screens I could see the time or my current mileage, but I did this very rarely, preferring the zen that comes with just following the road until you get where you're going.

At the same time, I was getting a little sick of riding on my own and started to consider stopping to wait for Matt. I'd enjoy the break. I'd have company. Win-win. On the other hand, Mickey would kill me if I stopped, plus our ride-together agreement was based on us going at comparable paces. Nearly 90 miles in I was starting to wear down and wasn't positive I could keep up with the guys when they caught me.  I wouldn't take it personally if they dropped me, but I'd feel stupid to wait around and still have to ride alone.

My deliberation ended when Matt and Dave caught me at yet another hike-a-bike muddy road. Dave started riding before we did and was soon out of sight. The road became rideable even for me, but pedaling on the packed mud was exhausting and tricky, keeping momentum on a soft surface while riding in ruts. We were going slightly downhill and averaging 4 mph. I was even happier to reach the end of that stretch than to finish the first bike hike-a-bike...and way more tired.

You're going to have to trust me when I tell you it was so much worse than it looks.
Tara was at the end of the road with a broken derailleur as she and Craig were discussing converting it to a singlespeed so she could keep going.  As disappointed as I was for her, I was also a little irritated with my own derailleur for its own continuing health.  All day long the course was littered with broken bikes and shattered dreams and here my stupid bike was refusing to give me an out. We may have "joked" about "accidentally" breaking our own bikes so we "couldn't" keep going, but in anticipation of a short break the upcoming neutral water stop we moved on.

Between us and that water stop rested some pretty sketchy bridges and "the bitch", a steep S-curve climb where I didn't make it far beforewalking. Another guy rode it halfway up before giving in, only to realize "This is just as bad walking!"  We proceeded to give him a hard time about taking the easy way out and riding part way.

The course turned north (into the wind) at mile 107, giving me the opportunity to put Mickey's advice into practice: You need to stop taking the conditions personally. I definitely do that. I get tired and every hill is a personal insult. The wind is killing me. The race director wants me to suffer. This time, when the wind was in my face I used Shaun's line: I'm a knife cutting through the wind. I focused on the fact that I just had to get through this stretch before the wind was at my side again. "The good news," I told Matt, "is that we're also going to be riding up hills that block the wind."

He may be a gentleman, but not enough to let me rest in my delusion. "Not these hills! They aren't steep enough to block the wind." Isn't it just like Jim Cummins to send us up hills that don't give us a break from the wind?

The day was getting long and the miles and hills were wearing on us. Again and again we marveled, "We paid for this! Remember how we swore last year we were never doing this again? What's wrong with us?" We also had the opportunity to play Good Samaritan to a rider who was stopped along the road; after several flats he needed a tube and a pump, both of which we had, so we pulled over, gave him the things he needed, and waited for him to get his tire changed and aired up.

I think I took this while the Kuat guy was changing his tire. My hands were so disgusting. 
It seemed to take for-ev-er to get to the mile 124 water stop, and when we did there was a big crowd. There was one 5-gallon cooler with GU brew, one 5-gallon cooler that still had some water, and some of the volunteers had gone for more. This left a line of around 10 people for water. I hated losing the time, but one thing I've learned is that I have to have one bottle of plain water; I can't drink only flavored stuff all day.

As we (finally) pulled away from the water stop, my Garmin died. Having anticipated this, I'd borrowed an extra Garmin from Chuck; since Matt had the course on his (not dead) Garmin, I kept riding while I switched computers and got Chuck's going. I hadn't thought about the fact that his settings were different from mine, little details like his mileage is set on kilometers instead of miles and his readout doesn't show the time of day, so it was basically just useful for recording my track and showing me where I was going unless I wanted to do math. Which I didn't.

Matt did do the math. At this point it was around 6:45; we had 35 miles and 3.5 hours to make the CP2 cutoff. Should be plenty of time. As we rode along, he noticed, "Hey, there's Wendy!" We caught up and passed her, then she caught back up with us, so I got a chance to ask about our mutual friends before she moved on. Matt urged me to chase since he was dragging a little and knew I was feeling strong at that point. I thought about it but decided that in the long run I was better off sticking together and having company for the last leg of the race, generally a dark time mentally for me, than fighting out a couple of places in the standings. I fail at being competitive.

Photo credit: Matt Gunter
Other than Matt feeling lousy, this was a very pretty, very fun section of the race with non-terrible climbs and a nearly ten-mile stretch of downhills.  We were probably 10 miles out from Cottonwood Falls when the sun began to set enough to use our lights, and I was very glad I'd just put them on in the morning instead of waiting until the last checkpoint.  The temperature, which had been comfortably cool all day, started dropping. I was chilly, though not miserable, in my jersey and arm warmers and really looking forward to the jacket waiting at CP2, which we reached at about 9:45.

Finally warm and ready to finish this thing!
Photo credit: Mickey Boianoff
Once again my crew took awesome care of me. Matt's wife had picked up coffee, and Emma had hot chicken noodle soup waiting for me. While Emma loaded my pre-opened food and my bottles onto my bike, Loralee wrapped me in a blanket, sat me down, and changed my socks for me. Meanwhile Mickey took my bike and cleaned it up. Amazing teamwork and care from a group of people who'd been up every bit as long as I had.

Leg 3: Cottonwood Falls to Emporia ~44 miles, ~4:20 ride time, 20:02:07 total time

We'd heard conflicting information all evening. One guy told us the volunteers at the water stop had told him that the CP3 and finish line cutoffs had been pushed back an hour, which would make them 11:15 p.m. and 4 a.m. respectively. I didn't think this was necessary; after all, the course was what it was -- either you could finish it in the allotted time or you couldn't.  At CP2 our crews told us that a nasty rumor was circulating that the finish line cutoff had been changed to 2 a.m.; I'd have flipped out if that had been the case but couldn't worry about it at the time. Surely the promoters wouldn't do that. We'd also heard that leg 3 was a piece of cake compared to the other legs.

None of that was true. No cutoffs had changed for the 200-mile riders, though one had for the 100-mile group, and while the last leg may not have been as challenging as the first two, after already riding 158 miles, the only thing that would have been a piece of cake would be lying down for a nap.  Why would Jim Cummins put hills here? He must really hate us.

As strong as I'd felt for the last half of leg 2, I felt lousy for leg 3, dragging behind on flats and struggling up hills. Matt did an awesome job of checking in on me, maintaining a pace I could manage, and previewing what we had coming up.  Last year I did a lot more walking up hills than I did this time, but I was also a lot faster on the downhill side. This year's wet conditions had resulted in more than one sloppy mud hole towards the bottom, robbing me of the kind of confidence I'd felt in 2014. Even my typical exhaustion-induced loss of fear (if I crash, someone will drive me back) deserted me. Against all of my pre-race expectations it appeared we were going to finish this race. I wanted that more than a car ride.

This was a joke, but one I clung to all day, and Matt and I spent a lot of time commenting about how glad we were to be washing away the shame of our "easy year" finish in 2014.
At midnight or so I started feeling really sleepy. Not quite fall-asleep-on-your-bike sleepy, but almost. I started eating more, and that seemed to help. Another help was the roadside party set up on our way. I think it was the same family from last year, though in a different location, and I'd been fantasizing about their yard and a can of Coke when we came across them earlier than expected. They had beer, Coke, oreos, and a fire. I took a soda and some cookies and stayed away from that fire. One racer was there waiting for a ride after getting sucked into a rut on a downhill, crashing, and destroying his wheel. So close, relatively, but too far away to run or walk it in. I felt terrible for him.

Snack break over, we pushed on.  Groups kept approaching and passing so quickly that we kept asking ourselves, "How were they behind us??" But we'd had an incredibly lucky day, absolutely no mechanicals of any kind, no flat tires, no crashes, and no health issues other than just minor struggles. Many others hadn't been so lucky, and we'd been able to keep riding while they were stopped.

Finally the lights of Emporia grew nearer and nearer.  Jim Cummins just had to put us on loose gravel right at the end! He probably had it brought in specifically for us. We sped into town and onto the smooth, smooth pavement of the home stretch, through the Emporia State University campus, and down the street to the finish line, crossing at 2:02 a.m.

Getting my hug from race director Kristi Mohn
Post-race triumph
What a great riding partner!

My awesome crew...couldn't have done it without her support!

I can tell you without a doubt that this was the hardest race I've ever done, and if that doesn't come across in my writing that's because I've had a couple days of space.  It was SO HARD. And I finished, taking just one hour more than for last year's "easy" conditions. I never would have finished this course two years ago, but that DNF has fed my training ever since and made me stronger and more determined.

My determination has its limits, though. During the race, I swore repeatedly that I was never coming back and doing it again. I hadn't made it back home before the thought of not being at next year's race started to hurt. It's become a little bit like Cheers, where maybe not everybody knows my name but an awful lot do, and I can't imagine not being there. I'm not racing DK in 2016 (I can't...I have other plans and told too many people to punch me in the face if I talked about registering), though I'm hoping to at least salve my FOMO by going to crew.  But in 2017, I'll be back with a vengeance.