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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

No Sleep 30 hour part 4: Enter sandman

Great title for part four. I had to play this in the background while reading:  Enter Sandman

It was dark at when Chuck and I rolled into TA2, a road/trail junction near the One Horse Gap area. It had taken us 5.5 hours to cover the 24 miles of the previous bike leg, a whopping 4.5 mph average. Granted, much of that time had been spent stopped, staring blankly at maps, or riding really slowly as we doubted our course; and yes, we'd actually covered more than 24 miles thanks to our reroute. At that pace, the remaining 38 miles would take us nearly nine of our remaining ten hours.

We'd considered trying for at least one of the Trek 2 points if there was one relatively close, but Mike's Hike and Bike came in from their trek while we were figuring out the route for the remaining legs. Hearing that the No Sleep team was still on the second trek, they commented how hard it would be in the night. That wasn't particularly encouraging given the difficulty we'd had in the early morning darkness, and none of the points were very close. The last nail in the trek 2 coffin was hearing that the next bike leg, a mere 14 miles, had taken perennial powerhouse (and eventual winner) Alpine Shop three hours. In the daylight. It seemed quite clear that our best move was to get back on the bikes.

Trek (CP 20-23 any order) -- 8 miles

One of the awesome things about adventure racing is the opportunity to change disciplines. As I referenced earlier, another bike leg sounds fantastic when you're tired of being on your feet. Pedal for hours and even paddling a canoe starts to sound appealing.

This, basically.
Photo credit: Chris Radcliffe
Given these facts of AR life, while leapfrogging the trek may have kept us on track to be official finishers, that insurance came at a cost. We'd just spent over 5 hours on our bikes and were climbing back on without an extended break. It's not like 5 hours of biking is a big deal on its own; I've spent a ton of time on the bike this year, but somehow this race had evoked next-level chafing. Maybe it was that long trek in bike shorts, maybe it was an over-reliance on the A&D Ointment I'd expected to help, but as I settled back onto the saddle I flashed back to a tale from the Virtus vault and had a new understanding of Bob's suffering (and subsequent decision).

Luke: At one point, the chafage got bad enough that Bob walked behind us with his shorts pulled down to his knees. He was "letting it all hang out", so to speak.
Bob: I feel like I should mention...I was the guy who never showered in gym class, electing to smell like a jockstrap over standing around in a shower-room with my business out in the street. Fast forward 20 years and here I am walking in the woods waiting for my junk to burst into flames. I enjoy a brief reprieve while I'm "airing it out"...

There's plenty more to the story, and that whole race report is totally worth reading, but suffice it to say I now totally got it. Not quite enough to walk around pants-less, but enough to think about it.

Bike to TA3/Shelter House (CPs 24-26 in order) -- 14 miles

We pulled out of TA2 just ahead of Mike's Hike and Bike. Fearing I was going to have to walk up the big hill we'd ridden down on the way in, I'd hoped they would leave first so as not to witness my shame, but I ended up riding the whole thing. Our teams leapfrogged back and forth for much of this bike leg, one team passing while the other stopped to check maps and then vice versa.

We all initially made the same wrong turn and then reset and arrived at the correct road at about the same time. Chuck and I plunged ahead while Mike's rode a little further on the main road to make sure they were at the right spot.  We'd been warned about how gnarly this stretch -- appropriately named "Bushwhack Road" -- would be, and it was as bad as advertised.

Initially, I wasn't impressed. I mean, it was basically an overgrown doubletrack dirt road, super rocky but no worse than the cemetery road Chuck and I had summitted earlier in the day. Plus, it was basically flat. We found checkpoint 24 (road/trail junction) with no problem, and then Chuck estimated what our mileage should be when we reached the turn to CP25.

"Wait, didn't we rule out 25?" I asked. After looking at the long, steep out and back required to get to that checkpoint, I'd been advocating to skip it since the pre-race meeting.

See...not highlighted, because we weren't going there. Like I said, a lot of climbing. 
Chuck's point was that, going for CP25 or not, it would be a good collecting feature to know where we were. We could game-day our decision once we got there. With that, we continued down Bushwhack Road.

I was pondering how much easier the road was than we'd been warned when we hit the first mud puddle. The first of many. Some we were able to ride through or around, but others spread the width of the road and were 10 feet long. We did a lot of walking, slopping through or carrying our bikes around soupy mud that smelled progressively worse with each puddle. I mourned my new brakes with every scrapey rotation of my filthy wheels. At one point, as we were all off the bikes again, I told Steve from Mike's Hike and Bike that after this leg they should change their name to "Mike's Hike-a-Bike".
Really shitty picture of Chuck carrying his bike through the mud puddle. I'm standing in water, and you can see the reflection of his blinky light in the water up where he is, too. (10:15 p.m.)
All this slow progress and bike carrying made it really hard to judge distance, but I thought I heard Chuck say that we'd passed the turnoff to CP25 (good riddance) and later he marveled, "I can't believe this took Alpine Shop 3 hours. We're making really good time."

Now, had we been thinking, we might have paused to consider the likelihood that we, in the darkness, were crushing the time that our elite friends had logged on this inhospitable stretch during the daylight. For some reason, most likely because it was close to 11 p.m. and we'd been racing for nearly 24 hours and it was a lovely thing to believe, this never occurred to us.

Slightly ahead of us, we saw Mike's HAB made a right turn off the road, which had finally gotten less muddy and terrible. "Why would they do that?" Chuck asked, looking at the map. "Oh! This must be our turn!"

We passed a sign listing names, and the words "War Bluff" caught my eye; that sounded familiar for some reason. I was so happy that we were almost done with this bike leg that I didn't even mind the way the road kept going up...and up...and wow, this is really steep. It was hard to even push our bikes up, and clearly the Mike's team had the same thought because we came across their bikes lying on the side of the road.

I was confused. Why would they leave their bikes behind if we were on our way back to the real roads? Chuck clearly had the same thought and started looking again at the map. I mentioned the sign at the turn, and he said, "Wait, it said 'War Bluff'?...This is the trail to CP25!"

Grrrr, another freaking nav error!  Everybody makes a mistake once in a while, but this was getting ridiculous.  I was getting really frustrated with myself.  I just wasn't able to get into my normal focus/map immersion zone for this race.  I kept wandering back through Jeep scenarios and senseless  internal dialogue "What will we do about the Jeep - rent a car. rent a truck, call a tow, call Lori, hitch a ride".  "Oh shit, were we were supposed to turn there?"   Luckily I have an awesome teammate who hunched over the maps and helped talk us through these rough spots with honest encouragement and not a bit of blame.

If we were relying on my nav skills we'd be lost forever, so there's no judgement from me.

So much for skipping that one. I think I took the news pretty well. We completed the trek to the top, and even in the darkness it was clearly a really cool spot. I'd love to see it in the daylight, especially if I got a ride to the top.

The climb was bad, but even worse was the dispiriting realization that, rather than being almost finished, we were only about halfway through this bike leg. Thankfully, the ride down was much easier than the push up. Before long we were back out on the road, which, even more thankfully, was exponentially better from that point on. We hit CP26 (bridge) on our way and then, after one missed turn, rolled into TA3 in Golconda at around 12:30 a.m.

Paddle (CP 27-30 any order) -- 12 miles

We'd already decided to skip the paddle, instead taking a leisurely break from our saddles, changing into dry socks, and enjoying some Ramen noodles while lying on the ground. Mike's HAB was just putting in when we arrived and returned just as we left, so we certainly had time to go out and get at least one paddle CP.  In retrospect, it seems kind of lame that we didn't, especially since we heard the creek paddle was pretty easy, but at the time it felt really good to just rest a little.

Bike to TA4/Goose Bay Shelter (CP 31-33 in order) -- 24 miles

As lovely as our break had been, getting back on the bikes was a fresh hell. My sweaty shorts pressed against my raw skin, making everything sting and burn. I stood on the pedals as much as possible, but this made every time I had to sit hurt anew. The trick was to just settle in and take it -- after a while the pain would dull -- but this was easier said than done. We walked the first hill out of town just because I couldn't bear sitting on the saddle, and once we got back on the bikes every shift in position was accompanied by whimpering and wincing.

Eventually I took some ibuprofen, and while that eased the pain it created a new problem. No longer tortured into wakefulness by the electrifying sensation of a power sander to my genitalia, I fought to keep my eyes open.  Every time we stopped for a map check or to re-fold maps I'd lie my head on my handlebars, desperate for a moment or two of sleep. And every time, just as I closed my eyes Chuck would ask me a question or need me to hold a map.

Of course, Chuck had slept even less than I had the previous morning and had the additional mental strain of navigating and all day long. If anyone deserved a nap, it was him.

He steered us through the bike leg, and things went well until we arrived at the corner where we'd plotted CP31 and couldn't find the flag anywhere. We made a turn and rode a little further...it totally matched what we should see after the CP. We backed up and retraced our steps. Everything checked out. We returned to our corner and rode the opposite direction. Everything pointed to us being in the correct spot...everything except the absence of the control flag. Meanwhile, neighborhood dogs were going crazy barking as we rode back and forth.

We returned to the corner to look again, running into Mike's HAB there. Chuck asked if they had 31 plotted there, and they did. We went off again to look for the flag. "What are you looking for?" their navigator asked.

"The flag."

"There is no flag. This is one of the clue CPs."

Further evidence of just how tired we had gotten In fact. I seem to remember a conversation about shadow squirrels and inflatable mylar lambs during this bike leg?

I have no memory of the mylar lamb comment, which was apparently mine.

I was the one with the clue sheet (buried in my pack). It was my job to know and remember this kind of detail, and I'd totally forgotten about it. Huge fail. Thank goodness we ran into them, or we'd have missed getting credit for that point even though we were there. As it was, we probably lost a half hour or more.

We had to write the answer to the questions on the passport.
Chuck did a great job on the nav through the next points. We ticked off CP32 (road intersection) and then made the steep, steep climb to a cemetery to find a date on a gravestone (CP33). Chuck kept talking about seeing ghosts, and the fogged-up windows of the little church there added a spooky touch. I just wanted to get our CP and get out of there.

Smooth nav aside, this bike leg wasn't without minor drama. About to turn onto a gravel road out in the country at 3 a.m., we pulled aside as a car swerved around a corner and stopped. An obviously drunk guy was very interested in what we were doing in the middle of the night. "We're bike racing!" Chuck told him, not even attempting to explain adventure racing to that audience.

Haha. That guy had his excitement level cranked to maximum.

Next up, we passed the house party/bonfire where our buddy and his equally drunk girlfriend had probably been. "Hey, come have some beers with us!" someone called. Normally we'd be up for a drink stop, but this time we declined the invitation and rode on.  There were some fun, slightly sketchy downhills, and then we were rolling on a lovely, level road into the forest, into the park, and back into the TA at 5:04 a.m. Our Alpine Shop friends had just come back in minutes before, having nearly cleared the course.

Trek (CP 34-43 any order) -- 10 miles

There were an additional 10 points to plot, but with less than an hour before the race end we figured we wouldn't have time to do any trekking by the time we finished plotting. And, really, we were both very OK with that.  29 hours of racing was plenty for us.


The first order of business was to shower and get out of our race clothes, so we made the short trek over to the campground showers, where at least the girls' room had unlimited hot water (and a super high shower head, which was a big treat. Usually they hit me at about shoulder height). Apparently the guys' showers only ran for a few minutes before they had to push a button to start the water again.

So unfair.

We got back just in time for a delicious breakfast of French toast, fruit, and sausage, and then awards were announced. Not surprisingly, Alpine Shop had won the overall race. Also not surprisingly (because we were the only team in it), we took first place in our division. But out of 7 teams who started, we were one of only 4 official finishers. Not being fast, you really had to race smart (and be lucky...no health issues, no mechanicals) for that, and we were proud of our race management.

1st place 2p coed
We got the Adventure Medical Kits .9 kit as well as awesome paddles handmade from reclaimed old barn wood with the race name and a Shawnee National Park quarter in the handle. Thanks to John Haddad for making such cool awards.

Nap time!  
Post-race we crashed in the tents we'd set up what seemed like days before and got a couple hours of sleep before Chuck's wonderful wife got there, having driven 3.5 hours from home, picking up a car battery on the way. I babysat bikes and gear while they ran into Golconda, returning triumphantly with a working Jeep. We fought to stay awake for the drive home, then slept the sleep of the dead once we got there. Well, after I helped Jacob with his math homework, anyway.


Reading over all of these race report installments, I'm afraid it doesn't come across how much I loved this race. We had a terrible pre-race and probably struggled more on our nav than in any other race we've done together. I was nervous on the cliffs in the darkness, terrified on the rappel, and so uncomfortable on my bike for the last half of the race, but physically I felt strong, which was a huge lift after struggling so much at Thunder Rolls. I had a blast and saw so many cool, beautiful places.  If you weren't there, you really missed out. No Sleep puts on a first-rate event. I'm already excited for next year's race.

Yes!  like Kate said, even with all of our struggles this was a fantastic event.  I definitely want to do it again. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

No Sleep 30 Hour part 3: Bermuda Triangle

Note: If you're just starting this saga, you're going to want to first check out our prologue, part 1, and part 2 to get caught up with the action.  

Chuck and I had just trekked for about 10.5 hours, spending the majority of that time with wet feet. I had extra socks but didn't want to waste them in damp shoes. By the time we arrived back at TA1, slipping my pruney feet into dry socks and bike shoes was sweet, sweet relief.

Bike to TA2/Road-trail junction (CPs 14-19 in order) -- 24(?) miles

I was thrilled to give my sore feet a break on the bike leg right until I lowered myself onto the saddle and realized just how chafed I was from trekking all that time in bike shorts. While not (yet) agonizing, it wasn't pleasant.  We took gravel roads to the road/trail intersection where we found CP14 (lower left-hand corner on map below). From there the trail diverged: singletrack to the left, doubletrack to the right; with apologies to Mr. Frost, we took the path more traveled, because it was faster and easier.

Our intended route is highlighted in orange. 
We followed the doubletrack until the turn for CP15 (reentrant), a quick singletrack out-and-back made longer by some seriously muddy sections of trail. Pedal, pedal, splat. Pedal, pedal, walk. Before long I managed to bury my foot in the slop; my long-anticipated dry socks had lasted maybe an hour.

After finding 15 without incident, we retraced our steps and proceeded towards 16, described on the clue sheet as "creek trail junction (one-eyed biker)". Probably reading that information with a mental whatever the hell that means while plotting, we'd only noted the junction on our map. And speaking of the map, our route looks pretty straightforward when you look at that map I posted. Looks being the operative word.

I didn't know about the one-eyed biker clue until I read this!


While the trail overlays on the map are (apparently...you certainly couldn't prove it by us) accurate because they're taken from the race directors' GPS data, what the map doesn't reflect is other trails weaving across the terrain. Some were labeled with numbers, some weren't. It made my head hurt, and I pretty quickly checked out mentally from trying to have any clue where we were. The trails were muddy, rocky, and horsed-up; I really wasn't feeling it at the time and went through a low spot mentally as I struggled to maintain any momentum on the trails. I wish Bob or Lo was here with Chuck; he'd be having so much more fun with them on these trails. Why am I so bad at this? I'm the worst BEST race partner ever.

We reached the creek/trail junction where Chuck thought the CP would be. No luck. We explored to our right where the trail sort of ran into the creek and then petered out in a big gravel bar/logjam. Nothing. We backed up and crossed the creek at the original intersection, somewhat stymied when the trail split again soon after. Somewhere around here Chuck, looking blankly at the map, muttered, "I don't know where we are...or where the checkpoint is...or what to do."  I greeted this admission with one part quiet depression, one part cheerful confidence that he'd get it sorted out, and no parts help of any kind.

We took the high side of the split (is this right, Chuck? I don't know) and continued on to yet another creek crossing. While Chuck looked at the map, I glanced across the creek and spotted (oh, joy!) a cyclist sitting or standing near his bike. "Look! Maybe that guy knows his way around here," I said. "Let's go ask him."

As Chuck got closer, he turned back towards me and mouthed, "This is going to get weird." 

The 'guy' hadn't moved a muscle in the whole time we'd been talking and walking toward him.  Then I noticed the walker behind him...wtf?

Our would-be savior turned out to be some beat up mannequin/statue thing with two ramshackle bikes beside it. Walking around it to take in all the crazy, Chuck exclaimed, "No way!" and held out a CP marker.

"Which one is it?" I asked.


Somehow, despite having no clue where we were, we'd stumbled across the very checkpoint we were searching for.  

After getting back home, a night of sleep, and a couple of meals, I took another look at the map for this area.  Details that I missed during the actual race jumped out at me in perfect clarity.  I really want to go back and re-ride that section.

One-eyed biker...now the clue I hadn't read made sense. (4:53 p.m.)
Back on track in this Bermuda Triangle trail system, we set off towards CP17 with renewed hope, locating the correct trail just a bit behind the weird bike statue thing and heading east.  As we navigated mud bogs, creek crossings, rocks, and log jams, our confidence in the trail waned, but since it was going in the right direction we proceeded along, stopping frequently to question ourselves.

Chuck started mentioning that he thought we'd gone too far. Given our recent history, it was a real toss-up.  We'd kept going once when he was right about going too far, and we'd turned around just a bit too soon when we'd mistakenly thought we were too far.  We kept going forward in the hopes we needed to just go a little further, but the sun was getting lower, and as much as I'd struggled on these trails in the daylight I really, really didn't want to still be on them in the dark.

Eventually we retreated to our known location (the one-eyed biker CP) to reattack. There we sat down with the map. We weren't sure where we'd gone wrong, and the sun continued its downward trajectory. Looking up the steep, rocky road leading north from the checkpoint I asked, "Can that help us get the hell out of here and bail onto roads before it gets dark?"  Yes, it could. Bailing meant extra mileage and missing checkpoints 17-19, but at this point those were no sure thing and (that same old refrain) we knew we weren't going to clear the course anyway.

My relief was quickly overshadowed by the fact that our escape route required riding 195 miles (that may be a slight exaggeration) uphill on a "road" paved with chunky rock. Not big river gravel, these were more like cobblestones from hell. We reached the summit and turned onto an actual gravel road just before I could give in to tears. Thankfully, from that point on the roads became much more rideable; that, in combination with actually knowing where we were, was a huge lift.

We certainly didn't pick the flattest way to bypass the rest of the single-track.  At one point we were grinding up some giant hill, and an on-coming pickup truck slowed to a stop next to us and rolled down the driver side window:  "If ya'll wanna grab onto my tailgate, I'll give you a tow to the top."  Such friendly people in the Shawnee Forest!

Lol! I'd forgotten all about that. And there were also the two girls we ran into by the waterfall checkpoint on the trek who asked if we were with the race. When we said we were, they offered, "Do you want some help?"

Simultaneously, one of us answered, "Yes!" and the other said, "No!"  They gave us a funny look and walked off.

Stopping at an intersection, we attracted the attention of an older lady who was just coming home. Seeing us looking over the maps, she offered help. "Where are you trying to get?"

We were navigating by a topographical map with no road names, riding towards a road/trail junction more or less in the middle of nowhere. Try explaining that to someone unfamiliar with adventure racing. "Hartsville," Chuck answered, pulling a name off the map.

"Well, I don't know where that is," she replied. "But this is such and such road, and you can take it a couple miles to 145."

"That's off limits," we told her. She looked at our maps with the blank confusion I generally feel and repeated, "This is such and such road." We thanked her for her "help" and rode away.

She was so funny and well intentioned.  After announcing how she'd lived here all her life, we discovered her local geography was limited to the name of the road we were standing on and little else.  Luckily, we had a good grasp on the navigation again and didn't have to rely on her kindly help.

Despite the fact that we were totally winging it, Chuck did a fantastic job navigating our impromptu route. No longer preoccupied with fear of being doomed to wander Shawnee singletrack for eternity, I was reminded just how uncomfortably chafed I was, but when I wasn't wincing in pain on the saddle I was appreciating just how beautiful our surroundings were and feeling glad that, whatever I'd told Chuck during Thunder Rolls about skipping this race, we'd decided to make the trip.

It looks pretty bright in this picture, but sunset was definitely in progress. (7:31 p.m.)

We didn't quite make it to the TA before night fell, so we made a quick stop on the road to pull out headlamps and jackets against the rapidly falling temperature and then rode into TA2 just before 8 p.m. At 20 hours into the race we still had another 10 to go and lots of course left. But first, we had to finally get to that route planning.

...to be continued...

Monday, September 19, 2016

No Sleep 30 hour part 2

It was 3:20 a.m. on race day. After a nightmare pre-race, Chuck and I had just enjoyed a pretty smooth first bike leg and were excited to set off on our initial trek. We bid a cheerful goodbye to the volunteers at TA1 and hit the trails.

Trek (CPs 4-13 any order) -- 13 miles

Main map
We'd sketched out about the first half of the bike legs before leaving the pre-race meeting, but route planning for this first trek had been a casualty of our car trouble. With our pre-race time taken up by the simple act of getting to the race, we decided to figure the trek out when we got there. Perhaps if we'd had a little more time to look at the map we'd have decided that attacking the course in a counter-clockwise manner made most sense. But we didn't.

We set off in the early morning darkness in high spirits. In addition to our main map (pictured above), we had supplemental maps of the Bell Smith Springs and Jackson Falls trail systems.  With most of the CPs located on or very near the trails, neither of us anticipated any major problems.


While all checkpoints were optional, the course wasn't exactly a free-for-all. John and Brian had announced at the pre-race meeting that, in order to be considered official finishers, teams would have to visit all TAs. In effect, this made all bike legs on a bike-heavy course mandatory, which in turn meant that we'd need to manage our time in order to leave ourselves the space to do 84 bike miles.

As we trekked, we tried to guesstimate how much time we'd need to reserve for the remaining bike legs so we'd know when we needed to be back at TA1. Deciding 8 mph was a safe guess (faster pace on roads diluted by what was certain to be a far slower pace on trails) meant we'd need to set aside at least 7-8 hours for our bike time. I advocated for a wider margin of safety, knowing we could use any remaining time on the ten checkpoints waiting back near safety of the finish line.

We headed to CP9 first, following upper part of the Sentry Bluff trail around to the location of our CP.  As so often happens, following the trail wasn't nearly as clear-cut as it appears on a map ("hey, here's another unmarked trail junction!"), but Chuck did a great job of keeping us on track while I followed behind, gingerly testing my footing on the wet rock.

While nervous about slipping and falling off the bluffs, I was relieved about a different worry. "I'm really glad we're doing this at night," I told Chuck, "when all the snakes are in their snakey little beds."

I laughed about "snakey little beds" for the rest of the race.  And now, reading about it again, I don't think I'm done laughing yet.

About halfway around we bid goodbye to dry feet at a fast-moving creek crossing and then began climbing up and, as we hit the big reentrant where the point was plotted, watching for it.  Chuck mentioned a few times that we might have gone too far, but we kept going on, just in case, until he realized we'd definitely missed it. By that time we were well past it and over an hour into our trek. Since we were already closer to the next CP (natural bridge) than the one we'd missed and weren't exactly sure where we'd missed it and knew we weren't going to be clearing the course, I pushed to skip it and move on. Not an auspicious start, but surely the next checkpoint wouldn't play so hard to get.

We next headed towards CP10, a relatively short jaunt further down the trail on/under a natural bridge. Assuming that the point was on top, we followed the high trail what seemed like long enough with no success. It looked like a pretty short trek on the map, so we started to worry that we'd overshot another one. Maybe it was underneath. We continued along the trail for a little more before turning around, a decision reinforced by swarming ground hornets (that's what someone else called them, anyway). They didn't sting, but being repeatedly dive-bombed by huge insects was unsettling.

We retraced our steps to the lower trail, watching for the underside of the natural bridge, a task complicated by the fact that we couldn't see past the glow of our headlamps. Look at the map, peer off to either side, move forward, repeat. Eventually we found ourselves climbing back up the other side of the trail, near the top of which Chuck spotted a metal handle and ladder rungs leading down the side of the cliff. I got a sick feeling in my stomach, terrified that we were going to have to climb down.

Chuck took a few steps and slipped on the wet rock surface, landing way too close to the edge for my comfort. Finally, just a bit past that spot, we found team Wickaway enjoying a morning snack at the checkpoint. Boy, we'd made that way harder than it should have been.  "Seen any snakes?" they asked us.

"Um, no..."

"Well, be careful. We saw a copperhead and so did another team."

This was the opposite of welcome news. What happened to the snakes in their snakey beds? What happened to snakes sunning themselves in the...sun? This was total bullshit. But at least now we had a trekking point.

Three hours of trekking to get one checkpoint. We needed to pick things up a bit. Thankfully, the sun was starting to rise, and things had to get easier with the light, which was a good thing because now in addition to being worried about falling off a cliff I was also newly afraid of snakes.

6:27 a.m. leaving CP10
Our next destination was CP13 (overlook), which was just a short trip across the creek and then uphill. Luckily, in our circumnavigation of the Natural Bridge trail, we'd already located the creek crossing to take us to CP13.  Even luckier, as we headed there I spotted a closer creek crossing, one where we could keep our feet, which had almost dried, out of the water. For all of you AR newbies, let me give you a route-finding hint: if there's an easier way or a harder way, the easier way is probably wrong.

We took the blue line from CP10, crossed the creek too early, and ended up on the wrong side.
Our feet did stay dry, but that wasn't the way to the CP, so we retraced our steps back across the dry creek crossing, found the correct (wet) creek crossing, and followed the trail to a super cool staircase and then (hallelujah!) checkpoint 13.

Another well chosen checkpoint location that No Sleep used to show off this great area.

Stairway to heaven? No, but it did lead to a checkpoint, which is the next best thing. (7:39 a.m.)
We were not doing ourselves any favors on nav, and I felt responsible. I was in the lead when Chuck had mentioned a couple times that he thought we'd gone too far on our search for CP9, and while I didn't push to keep going forward I was definitely happier with the thought that it was just further along the trail than we'd initially thought (which was wrong on the search for CP9 but exactly the case when we turned away too soon on the way to CP10). And of course it was my idea to cross the creek at the spot where we could stay dry.

I resolved to follow behind Chuck, not make any more (bad) suggestions, and listen better when he thought something was wrong.  It may have only been coincidence, but from here things got better. We navigated smoothly via trail to CP12 (creek junction), a really cool spot.

You can see the other creek coming in to Chuck's left. (8:22 a.m.)

The control is just below his feet. So pretty!
We crossed the creek and took the trail, then bushwhacked until we hit the "road", a semi-mowed grassy swath of doubletrack. The road ended up running into/along a field lined with tree stands, and while it was smooth going in the field I refused to walk there because I was afraid it was private property. Instead, we did more bushwhacking in the woods paralleling the field. Thankfully the vegetation was far more forgiving than in northwestern Illinois.

Chuck led us right to CP5 (road/saddle) and then shot a bearing towards CP6 (waterfall bottom, which we both read simply as "waterfall"). We happened along another "road" (maybe in a former life) that led in the general direction of our bearing, making travel much easier. It dumped us out on the remains of a gravel road, and we took a little time to figure out where we needed to go from there.

This was another of those times when I'm thankful that a) Chuck knows what he's doing and b) I kept my mouth shut, because I was pretty convinced -- based on the fact that I might have seen a trail as we hiked down -- that we were totally going the wrong way. Not shockingly, the person holding the map actually had a better idea of where things were, and we, 361 Adventures, and Wickaway all converged on the trailhead at about the same time.

Chuck and I quickly set off down the trail to the waterfall, reaching the top only to discover that the CP was at the bottom...something noted both on our race notes and even on the map. Some guys were swimming in the water at the base of the fall, so I called down to ask them the easiest way to get down there. They suggested climbing down on the spikes driven into a tree in front of the falls or driving partway around and then hiking down. "We're on foot," we told them.

"Oh," they were stymied. "It's a really long way."

Clearly the waterfall CP wasn't happening at this point, so we continued on to CP7, the rappel. I was very not excited about this, and as our trail followed the cliffline and I got a good view of the rock faces I was even less happy. "We're really high. This is really high. Look how high up we are." Like a good teammate, Chuck ignored my complaining and just kept leading me towards potential doom.

Nothing stokes my fear hyperbole like a ropes section, and I'd been particularly nervous about this one because it would be my first rappel without the watchful eyes of my friends at Thunder Rolls/Lightning Strikes. In fact, the one question I'd had for the race directors was about the qualifications of the ropes volunteers. Into whose hands would I be putting my life? Learning that the ropes would be manned by Brian from Vertical Excape Climbing Center made me feel much better. It was his job to know this stuff.

I'm smiling, but I don't mean it.
My confidence in the volunteer was scant consolation as we reached his station and got into our harnesses. Compounding my nerves was the new harness I'd bought to avoid lugging the bulk of my normal one for the entire race. I knew it was perfectly good, but all my previous ropes experience has been while wearing the other one. We have a history of not dying together.

Last-minute instructions from Brian.

I told the other Brian, "One day I'm going to have a picture on the rappel where I don't have a look of stark terror on my face." He replied, "Smile. Today is that day."
Usually at Camp Benson the worst part is going over the edge and then I feel slightly better. This time going over the edge wasn't awful. There were several feet of wall that I could walk down before I got to the overhang, but then it was a freefall. I don't know what my issue is with freefall rappels; it's not like you're actually falling. I inched my way down the rope, petrified.

Coming down... (10:55 a.m.)
At the bottom Chuck told me, "I could hear you talking to yourself the whole way down, but I couldn't make out any words. It just sounded like whimpering. What were you saying?"

"It was whimpering," I admitted.

I wish I would have gotten video with sound instead of just the pictures.  The wimpering was surprisingly loud, maybe there was some weird acoustics going on with that grotto.

11:28 a.m.
We followed the cliffline to the base of the waterfall, where we snagged CP6, then continued on to our final low CP (crevice-rock face), which was another really cool spot.

12:02 p.m.
We still had three CPs on this leg: CP10, which we'd missed, and CPs 4 and 11, which were roughly on our way back to the TA. We talked briefly about going after 11, but with our bike cushion firmly in mind decided to hold to our self-imposed schedule and go directly back to the TA. We had a lot of race still ahead of us and plenty of other checkpoints to chase.

From here we made our way back to the falls trailhead and reversed our course to CP5, then back towards 12. On the trails near CP12 we encountered a group of hikers who were really curious about the race. Naturally we stopped for a few minutes to explain adventure racing, and I think we might have gained some converts because we could hear them talking about finding a race as we hurried away.

We made it back to TA1 before 2:00 and then had another leisurely transition. Both of us had run out of water towards the end of our trek back and were very happy to fill up at the TA. I'd been trekking in the same damp socks since that first creek crossing, so my main priority was getting some dry socks on. My feet were pretty pruny. I was thrilled to get off my feet, but after 10.5 hours of trekking in bike shorts, I'd developed some pretty uncomfortable chafing. That was going to make for a super fun next bike leg.

(to be continued...on to part 3)

Saturday, September 17, 2016

2016 No Sleep 30 Hour

Our pre-race had been such a disaster that I had no emotional energy for last-minute nerves. More than anything I was ready to sink into my default stress-handling strategy: denial. Nothing like a long race to push your troubles to the back of your mind or at least give you pressing new problems to occupy it.  Shortly before midnight everyone converged on the start line for team pictures and last-minute instructions.

Photo credit: No Sleep
It's a measure of just how far my head was from the game that it hadn't occurred to me that we had no passport until one of the more lucid teams asked about it. "You'll find them somewhere along the lakeside trail between here and the bike drop," we were told, and with that the race was on.

Prologue (lakeside trail to bike drop) -- 1ish mile?:

While most of the field dashed off, we settled into a fast hike in the company of Team Wickaway and 361 Adventures, enjoying the chance to talk AR and especially the return of the LBL Challenge with the guys who are bringing it back.  That race has a special place in my heart because it was my first 24 hour race and, more importantly, my first race as a Team Virtus member, so I'm happy it's fallen into such good hands. The 361 guys took over another of my favorite races, The Fig, and kept it just as awesome as before, so I know LBL will be on my schedule for 2017.

Cool light antlers on the prologue run trek
We followed the trail to the volunteer with the passports and then continued to our bikes, where we transitioned slowly and then had to stop about 20 feet into the ride when my lights wouldn't come on; a quick check showed the cord had come unplugged. That was the first easily solved problem we'd had all day.

Bike to TA1/Redbud Campground (CPs 1-3 in order) -- 22 miles

Our first bike leg was largely uneventful. Chuck did a great job with the nav as we started on pavement and quickly transitioned to gravel. We ticked off CP1 (bridge) with no problem and then headed towards the next one. The roads became less gravel and more chunky rock and dirt as we neared the location of CP2 (crevice - failed spillway). We initially overshot it before locating the right general area and then, peering into a deep crack in the ground, spotting the reflective glow of the marker.
It's deeper than it looks; or maybe, if you're a gigantic chicken like me, it just looked deeper in person than it looks in the picture.  (1:43 a.m.)
I was on one side of the crevice and Chuck was on the other, so he had a clear view of the dismay that spread across my face as I realized I was going to have to climb into the chasm of death to get the punch. Being the awesome teammate he is (and probably not wanting to lose the 30 minutes it would take me to white-knuckle myself down and back out), he held out his hand for the passport, which I gratefully handed over.

It is a definite strength of our team to not share the same fears.  I can look into Kate's  "Chasm of Death" and know that it would suck to fall in there.  But at the same time I'll be thinking, "This looks like an awesome playground!".

I'm not sure Chuck has any fears, which leaves plenty of room for all of mine.

I'm not entirely sure why I love adventure racing so much when most of the things that make it an adventure terrify me. If it was up to me I'd be doing "slightly out of my comfort zone racing" instead, but that would make for a lame story, and as I told one of my (non-AR) friends this week, "it's so much fun once you've survived!"

Our intended route from CPs 2-3 highlighted in orange.
We're originally planned to take the more direct River to River Trail between CPs 2 and 3, but we took one look at the soft mud at the trail entrance and gave that plan a hearty "hell no". Apparently Alpine Shop was the only team to take this route and regretted the decision.

When we are plotting courses the night before a race we call these decision points "game day decisions".  After getting a real-life look at the area we generally make good calls that work out for the best.

Our final CP of this bike leg was in a cave. Riding uphill and watching for the correct left turn, I spotted a street sign reflecting in the distance. "Wouldn't it be great if that sign said something helpful like 'Cave Road'?" I mused to Chuck.

Wish granted. (2:20 a.m.)
We turned off the gravel of Sand Cave Rd. onto some doubletrack, dodging rocks and skirting mud puddles until we neared the cave. I may walk faster than Chuck on pavement, but I'm way slower than he is on trail and at this point was hampered by the last gasps of my dying headlamp. The cave was totally worth the visit. It felt huge inside. Very cool. (My picture totally didn't turn out in the dark, but here's a link with some daylight pictures and another suggesting that Sand Cave was a stop on the Underground Railroad). One of my favorite things about adventure racing is getting to visit spots I wouldn't normally see, and by 2:20 a.m. the No Sleep team had already delivered.

And they continued to deliver non-stop!  No Sleep did an outstanding job showcasing how beautiful and rugged the Shawnee National Forest is.  We got an 'insiders' tour of the area that no casual visit would ever reveal.

I finally took the time to replace my headlamp batteries while at the cave, so our remaining miles to TA1 were well lit and happy. I've always used my hardtail for AR, but between the fact that Shawnee singletrack is far from the groomed trails we take for granted here and (more importantly) that I haven't yet exorcised the Thunder Rolls demons from that bike, I'd gone with full suspension. It was still early in the race, but I was delighted this first bike leg hadn't been marred by the horrible discomfort I felt at Thunder Rolls and that I hadn't yet had reason to regret bringing my full suspension SuperFly.

This first bike leg was perfect: long enough that we were ready for a change, but not so long that we were dying for one. Though we didn't know it at the time, that was the last time we would enjoy that sensation. Blissfully ignorant, we rolled into TA1 around 3:21, changed into trekking shoes, and headed out within a few minutes,

(To be continued...)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Team Murphy's Law takes on the 2016 No Sleep 30 Hour

There are a host of things I never want announced before an adventure race, things like "upstream paddle", "watch out for barges", "rappel", "be very cautious as you follow the slippery rocks along high cliffs", and -- new this race -- "we aren't requiring you to carry PFDs on the trek, so try and stay out of the chest and above level water when crossing area creeks". Though I heard all of that at the No Sleep pre-race meeting, it turns out one of the worst things to hear right before a race is your teammate muttering, "Why won't my Jeep start?"

After an uneventful drive and quick stop at the race start to set up tents for some post-race sleep, we were right on schedule for check-in/pre-race meeting/dinner. I had just finished congratulating myself on planning our efficient itinerary when Chuck turned the key and got...nothing. No one around, no phone service, and no success starting the Jeep. Thankfully the helpful campground host was eventually able to help us jump start it. Crisis averted, we arrived late but with plenty of time to eat and hear the course details.

Heading back to the Jeep after finding help. 
Once again No Sleep put together a race in an incredible place with great volunteer and local support, complete with wonderful waterproof maps and clear race instructions. We had quite a few points to plot, and then we spent the next hour or so route planning. Around 9:20, Brian announced that we should start clearing out, so we loaded up to finish race prep at the campground. And the Jeep didn't start.

Thankfully John, one of the race directors who most certainly had his own list of things to do in the 2.5 hours before race start, stuck around to try to jump the Jeep again. As it became obvious that wouldn't help this time, Chuck and I pondered our options. We were about 3 hours away from home in a small town where nothing would be open on Sunday after the race. Hopefully the problem was just the battery, but we didn't know that for sure. Do we start as planned and then return to the campground midway through, deal with the Jeep, and then finish whatever of the race we could? Skip the midnight start, deal with the Jeep first thing in the morning, and then start (way) late? Neither option sounded too exciting after eagerly anticipating (and paying for!) the race.

In the end John offered a ride to the race start and promised someone would get us to a town big enough to sell car batteries on a Sunday.  He shifted the race paraphernalia filling his truck so that we could load up our race and camping gear, precariously stack our bikes on top, and pile into the packed cab, looking like nothing so much as a spandex clad version of the Beverly Hillbillies.

We made our less than triumphant return to the recreation area around 10:30, just as the bike drop was scheduled to open, but since our bikes weren't quite ready John just took us back to the campground. On the way, I realized our I hadn't yet put our race number on my pack, but I knew exactly where it was: buried in the bag of race swag I'd left in the Jeep, a half hour's drive away.


We readied our bikes as quickly as possible and then John, probably wondering how he'd devolved from race director to babysitter, drove us to the bike drop. At least one mini-crisis was averted when, after lifting the bikes into the truck bed, Chuck asked me, "Do you have your bike shoes?"  After one last dash back to my tent to get said bike shoes, we hurried over to the bike drop, returning to the campground with about 30 minutes to spare before the race start.

He's a problem solver.
Our race number had slipped my mind, but John remembered and brought me a new one, professionally edited to match our original. I've been using the same pack for my entire adventure racing career, and it normally has numerous safety pins from previous races in it.  Somehow, with the pins I'd grabbed at check-in languishing back in the Jeep with our number, I only had one scrawny holdout on my pack. Chuck had none. The race directors probably had extras, but at this point in the day there was no way I was asking them for anything more.

We used a tiny carabiner Chuck had on his pack to attach the other corner and hoped for the best. We hadn't yet finished planning they second half of our race route, my bike tires had felt dangerously squishy at the bike drop (the pump was, as you can imagine, back in the Jeep), and we weren't entirely sure how we were going to get home after the race. In the grand scheme of things, losing our race number was low on the worry list.

After one last bathroom stop, we bid farewell to flush toilets and made our way to the start line, as drained as if we'd just finished racing. There was a silver lining, though: our clusterfuck pre-race was basically the opposite of our stress-free Thunder Rolls prep, and that race was a pretty low time for me. Maybe we'd just gotten all of our bad luck out of the way before the race start. Nothing but smooth sailing for the next 30 hours.

Yeah, right...

(to be continued)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Thunder Rolls 2016

I was packed the night before I left. I wasn't sick. No team member mistakenly believed the race to be the following weekend. We weren't even running late. Granted, I couldn't pick up my mountain bike from the shop until about an hour before our scheduled departure and had to spend my morning walking in order to log enough steps to ensure I'd meet the day's Stepbet goal, but that was the most stressful this Thunder Rolls departure got.

The weirdly relaxed day continued in Mt. Carroll, where we arrived on time, found the bike drop without incident (or missed turns), and had gear and maps prepped in time to nap for over an hour. I didn't feel a single nervous pang about skipping ropes practice ("meh, we've done that plenty...") and, for a person who really like to know exactly what to expect, was curiously blase about the fact that basically half of the race course was a gigantic question mark.  The uncharacteristic lack of pre-race stress was very confusing.

Gerry explained the format of the course at the pre-race meeting.
  • 4ish mile road run to the canoe put-in, where we'd do a paddle very similar to the one in our 2013 trip to Thunder Rolls (Chuck racing with Robin and me racing with Luke, Bob, Travis, and Robby). 
  • Bike to Mississippi Palisades State Park
    • Receive a map with 10 checkpoints (1 mandatory, 9 optional). Once we finished with that map, we'd return to the transition area.
    • Second map of 10 new checkpoints (again 1 mandatory, 9 optional). 
    • Return to TA and plot the next bike leg and trekking coordinates
  • Bike to Rall Woods 
  • Trek to 5 CPs (1 mandatory, 4 optional)
  • Bike back to Camp Benson, where we'd plot the remaining CPs
  • Trek to 10 CPs (1 mandatory, 9 optional)
  • Finish!

It's almost hard to believe after last year's insanely full (for me, anyway) AR schedule, but Thunder Rolls was our first adventure race of 2016. Chuck had spent the spring training for the MR340, and I'd spent the year building up bike mileage for my Motherlode attempt. We'd barely trained together for the last few months, and everyone else on Virtus was similarly busy and unavailable. We figured between his paddle fitness and my bike fitness we'd be in decent shape for the race.

Trek 1: 4ish miles, 1:14 (Midnight to 1:14 a.m.)

We started with our typical "jog past the photographer" before slowing to a fast walk on the camp road. I always forget how hard running with a pack is, and this was a harsh reminder. Chuck seemed like he could run way longer than I could, so I had to keep being the one to ask to walk. On the other hand, all the walking I had to do for that stupid Stepbet (which I finished on raceday and won $50 in!) must have paid off because he said my walking pace was so fast that he sometimes had to jog to catch up. Pretty straightforward trek to the canoe put-in.

It's true!  A whole summer of stupid Stepbet challenge had her stomping out these crazy long strides causing me to jog along several times to keep up.

Paddle:  13.3 miles, 4:04 (1:30ish to 5:30ish a.m.)

When Virtus did this paddle in 2013 it was after a really rough start to our race and we ended up paddling in the daytime with the faster 12 hour teams passing us. The riverbank is super steep and was just as treacherous as it was three years ago.

It was just as steep as it looks here.
Photo credit: John Morris
We'd been thrilled to not be starting the race with coasteering, but here we were with wet feet just an hour into the race. There were a bunch of logjams we had to maneuver through/over and one huge beaver dam we opted to portage around. This required hauling the canoe up the steep, muddy riverbank, dragging it past the dam, and then easing it down the other side and back into the river. It was so hard.  I remember standing at the top of the bank, pulling with all my might as Chuck pushed from below, and thinking it was impossible.


Chuck and I typically canoe well together, and all of his paddle training for MR340 definitely helped make this a good leg. I typically dislike paddling, but this one was actually pretty fun until the upriver section. Rain started falling around 4 a.m., making visibility tricky at times. In a sadistic, very Gerry-like trick, he sent us past the take-out for one final paddle CP, after which we had to turn around and paddle against the current. Between the upriver travel and sore hands from the constant moisture, this last part of the paddle wasn't so enjoyable.

This was my first time with a paddle in my hands since MR340 ended three weeks earlier.  I found it really easy to slip back into that paddle technique I had worked on all summer, and ended up really liking this paddle leg.

As thrilled as I was to finally reach the paddle take-out, getting the heavy boat out of the water and up to the transition area was pretty difficult.  During the canoe leg I'd only eaten part of an Ensure and some pieces of dried mango, so I tried to remedy the calorie deficit at the TA with a PB and honey sandwich.

Bike 1: 16.4 miles, 2:14 (5:45ish to 8ish a.m.)

We had smooth navigation on the trip to Palisades, but I felt absolutely awful on the bike.  I'm not sure how much of it was due to not eating/drinking enough on the paddle and how much was being wasted from the effort of dragging our heavy canoe around, but in addition everything about my bike felt wrong. I've been riding the same bike for almost a year, but during this bike leg the fit felt really off and I was incredibly uncomfortable. It was so disappointing to feel terrible on the one discipline I thought was a strength. What made me think adventure racing is fun? I wondered to myself. And how am I going to do this for another 18 hours?  

Palisades treks: 9 miles, 5:12 (8:15ish a.m. to 1:30ish p.m.)

Coasting down into the Palisades TA and seeing Matt and Dawn's smiling faces was a huge relief. We changed into dry socks and our trail shoes, got the map for the first loop, and took off. Since we wouldn't get details on the next bike route until finishing the Palisades trek, we opted for fewer CPs in Palisades on the bet that we could get more points for our time in later sections of the course and ensure hitting all the mandatory CPs.

Strategy and planning has become one of Kate's well-honed skills. Making good decisions on which sections to spend more time in, and which ones to bail on early has kept us out of trouble and ahead of looming cutoff times.

I think what Chuck means is that I'm forever scheming about how to make things easier and avoid the parts I don't like as much. Case in point: I was already scheming to skip the No Sleep paddle while were were still planning out our route.

After the morning rain Palisades was mosquito hell. It was probably the buggiest leg of any AR I've ever done with the possible exception of the Wisconsin northwoods after a rain -- but then at least then we were on bikes.  Repeated applications of bug repellent did very little to dissuade the horrid little monsters, and we spent the entire trek swatting all over ourselves to chase them away.

It's hard to see just how tall this is from the picture.
We ended up getting 1 mandatory/4 optional points on each loop. The mandatory points were the ones involving ropes. We rappelled down the same rock face I'd had so much trouble ascending in 2012, which was pretty intimidating to me because the rock was wet from the morning rain and I was worried about my feet slipping. Luckily Dave and Leisha were at the top and Bob and Laurie were below on belay, so at least I was surrounded by friends. The ascent was surprisingly small and actually felt pretty easy.  I'm sure it was clear from the time we took to stand around and chat at both ropes sections that we were completely out of race mode.

Chuck's nav during this section was dead on. We took less direct routes over roads and trails where possible instead of bushwhacking, but in a continuation of my bike woes, this leg also felt much harder than it should have been and largely un-fun. It's totally unlike me to feel that way in an AR, especially one of my favorites, and I typically love orienteering in Palisades. I wasn't the only one not feeling the race. At one point, probably trudging uphill since that's all I remember from that leg, Chuck grumbled, "This isn't even fun. I've never said that before!" Granted, spending 12+ hours with a sulky, silent teammate isn't very enjoyable.

Bike 2: 11.6 miles, 1:43 (2ish p.m. to 3:43 p.m.)

I once again felt really slow and uncomfortable on the bike. It's hard to believe this leg was only 11 miles because it felt like 30. For the first time ever I was seriously thinking about quitting an adventure race and pondering how I could manage to do it without Chuck knowing I was quitting. Fake a mechanical? No...Chuck could fix that. Get injured? Uh, no. Oooh...I could pretend I'm cramping up. Hmmm...that might work.

Even fake cramps wouldn't have worked.  Those ^%$##*  %$$###  bloodthirsty mosquitoes would have descended on us in swarms as soon as we stopped moving.  There has never been a TR race with that many before.  I wonder if Gerry had them imported from some hellish spot in the tropics, or maybe started some super-mosquito breeding program?

Rall Woods trek: 3.6 miles, 2:24 (4 p.m. to 6:24 p.m.)

All of the sudden adventure racing was fun again. No idea what changed. Chuck nailed the first two CPs and then handed off the map to me for the next reentrant CP. This didn't go well, so I passed the map back to him and we reattacked. I felt a lot better when he also couldn't get it in a couple tries. We decided to skip it and were on our way to another CP when a team we'd helped with the mandatory CP gave us some pointers on where to find the correct reentrant. We decided to go back and, full of confidence after finally getting it, decided to also go after the spur CP. We overshot it by a long way, but luckily Chuck spotted it on our way back out.  Last of all we found the tricky saddle checkpoint and headed back to our bikes in triumph. "This is the first time I've felt like myself since the paddle," I told Chuck.

Nettle, nettle, everywhere. Incidentally, this is the first picture I took since the canoe video at 4 a.m., a sure sign I wasn't enjoying myself at all.

Bike 3: 26.2 miles, 3:49 (6:30 to 9:50 p.m.)

We enjoyed a very pretty sunset on our ride back to camp.
I was still uncomfortable on the bike, but otherwise I felt fantastic. We lost some time looking for the misplaced CP35 but eventually found it after checking back with Gerry to make sure no teams had reported it missing. Another team came by while we were looking but didn't want to wait for an answer. Since this was a mandatory point, there was no way I was leaving if the point was there. This ended up being a good move. We stopped a few times for map checks but had no miscues until we blew right past the entrance for Camp Benson, not realizing our mistake until we started seeing street signs. Whoops...never done that one before.

Camp Benson trek: 1.4 miles, :37 (10-10:40)

Chuck was feeling pretty bonkish on the ride back and we were pretty sure the other teams in our division had enough points we weren't going to catch them, so we decided we'd get the one mandatory point and call it a day. We had to cross the river and trek up a rocky creekbed, which was actually pretty fun, and we were both a little sad we'd only plotted the one mandatory point. Not quite sad enough to go back and replot any others, though (and actually, the Camp Benson CPs had to be found in order, and the mandatory one might have been the last). We made a beeline for our finish line hugs from Gerry, and so we got to be there when our friends Dave and Amanda crossed soon after.
Big thanks to Emily Korsch for grabbing my camera and snapping this picture. 
As it turned out, two of the four 2p coed teams missed that mandatory CP35, which put Dave and Amanda in first place and Chuck and I in second. Not bad considering I wanted to quit by 8 a.m. I guess I'm glad I stuck it out.  Big thanks to Gerry and all of his awesome volunteers for another (in retrospect) great race!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Over my head

Last weekend Eric planned a trip to preride part of the Karkaghne Trail, the first segment of the OT100 mountain bike race. I'm not doing OT100 because of a schedule conflict and had initially decided I'd head to St. Joe State Park to preride the Leadbelt course. Some rain in the lead-up to the weekend made me think the Leadbelt trail might be too wet, so I opted to join the Karkaghne group.

I'd never ridden that section, but its reputation preceded it and some teammates chimed in with warnings:

"Tough stretch of trail there. Doesn't see much traffic either. Be prepared for a long day. Some very steep climbs. "

 "+1000 on [the previous comment]. You'll see +7500' of vert. Expect overgrowth, especially between the race start and Sutton Bluff. You might consider parking at Sutton Bluff ($2 day use fee which includes paved parking and showers) and doing two out and backs."

I knew it was above my pay grade, but I also figured I won't get better at riding hard trails by avoiding them. I did warn the guys how slow I'd be and told them I was totally cool with them riding ahead so they could see as much of the trail they'd be racing as possible.

The campground steward at Sutton Bluff gave us the rundown on how to get to the trail and gave us an ATV trail map to supplement the OTA map Eric had picked up. Even with all this directional assistance, we still rode in circles for a bit before Randy realized that staircase leading off the trail was the trail we needed.

I was immediately out of my comfort zone, and neither physical nor mental warm-up was aided by having to do a lot of walking uphill right away. I wasn't upset by it because I'd expected to have a hard time, but there was a least a touch of Am I EVER going to get better at this??

After some climbing, I reached the bluff itself, standing high above the Black River. Taking one look at the steep slope to the left of the trail (in addition to being afraid of heights, I also clip out almost exclusively with my left foot -- something I need to work on -- which means if I needed to stop my momentum would be to the slope side). "Hell, no," I mumbled, getting off my bike and cautiously walking my bike past the bluff.  I'm sure it was very scenic, but all I saw was the trail right in front of my feet.

Sutton's Bluff (9:50 a.m.)
The guys were waiting for me a little past the bluff, and we rode together a little before they pulled ahead. I felt like I never pedaled more than 100 feet before having to stop for a rock that made me nervous or a turn I didn't have the confidence to negotiate or a downed tree or a hill I couldn't get any further up. More often it was a combination of these factors. I was moving really slowly and was glad I'd established that they should just ride ahead; that way I didn't feel any pressure because my fears weren't slowing them down.

10:18 a.m. No idea why I took this one
 Except that, when I rolled up to a big tree across the trail, there they were on the other side. "We helped each other get our bikes through and decided it wouldn't be cool if you had to do it on your own," they told me.

That was basically the end of the guys getting very far ahead of me, and they weren't having my apologizing about slowing them down. "We've talked about this before," Eric reminded me. We've had more than one conversation about how I stress out about slowing my friends down and try to remember that people who've ridden with me before already know what to expect; if they choose to ride with me again they're obviously ok with it. But still...

I was definitely glad we were all together when we reached the Bee Fork crossing. The trail ends at the water with no indication of where it picks back up again. A little time with the map and some nearly waist-deep wading gave us the answer.

Crossing Bee Fork (11:02)
Our general plan had been to ride out 15 miles from Sutton's Bluff and then make the return trip before riding some of the trail to the north of the campground. At noonish I looked at my Garmin and saw that we'd gone a whopping 7 miles. Catching up with the guys at a creek crossing I pointed out a potential problem: "You realize at this pace we're looking at a 12 hour ride? And we don't have lights."

We had a couple of bailout options. We could ride forward another couple miles to a gravel road crossing. We could ride backward a couple miles to a gravel road crossing. Or..."we could follow this creek to Bee Fork and then get on this road on the other side of it!"

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the get-the-hell-off-this-trail suggestion was mine. While I was open to either of the other ideas, I was most in favor of getting off south Karkaghne. The guys, who I'm sure would have preferred to stay on the singletrack, went along with my brilliant plan.

And it was brilliant, right up until we crossed Bee Fork, found the road just where it was supposed to be...and realized that light purple shading next to the water indicated private property. We spent about a mile walking through the (thankfully shallow) water of Bee Fork until we found a place where we could hop onto the gravel.

I'm pretty sure that's the last time they let me suggest a route, but once we were on gravel things were better. Well, as long as you think a 300 foot climb in full sun is better.  That hurt, but the subsequent mile and a half of downhill was a pretty good consolation. And even with our extended wading session, our route was definitely the fastest way back.

We took an extended lunch break at the campground pavilion before finally, somewhat grudgingly, heading to the northern section of the trail. It was like night and day from the southern part. Instead of the steep climbs followed by descents that were too scary to be fun for me, it was all flowy goodness without any of the downed trees that had punctuated our previous ride.

Since we had to eventually head back towards home we decided to ride an hour out and then turn back. The guys took off, and I followed at a more leisurely pace, still feeling a little fragile from the mental beating of the morning's ride. That quickly evaporated in the flat-out fun of the trail.  There were a few rock gardens that I walked at least part of, but overall it was much more rideable than the previous section.

Wheee! (4:46 pm)
As the 4:00 turnaround time approached, I started evaluating downhills -- There's only 15 minutes left...do I really want to have to ride back up this? I decided to stick it out and ride whatever came until 4 and had a blast on my way back. I rode much more of the rock gardens and felt way more confident than just minutes earlier. I was hoping to beat the guys back, but they caught me a mile or so from the road. I let them ahead of me and then chased.

I was so glad we'd continued riding after the rough morning. It would have been easy to quit and head home, but instead our afternoon ride completely redeemed the day, "Making mountain biking great again", as I titled my strava file for the second ride.

It was a hard, fun day, certainly not my best on a bike but another great reminder of how lucky I am in the friends I've made. Any mountain biking progress I've made can be attributed to having much stronger riders who've been patient and encouraging, and that was definitely on display on our Karkaghne ride. And if nothing else, at least this first attempt gives me a bar by which I can measure (hopefully) progress next time.