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Monday, September 29, 2014

The one that got away (The 2014 Berryman Adventure Race)

I love adventure racing. Love it. Love being out in the woods all day, love doing stupid-long races. Love paddling  mountain biking and trekking through the woods and following the map my navigator through the middle of nowhere to reach that orange and white flag. I even love poison ivy coming home with scratches, scrapes, and bruises, the sick souvenirs of war stories I can tell over and over again.  Love race reports and pictures, evil race directors and wonderful volunteers. Love the fantastic AR community and the way that the top teams are super cool and friendly even when you're nowhere near their class.

Most of all, I love my teammates. I have the best, most fun teammates in the world. And I've been very lucky, in cases where my regular teammates aren't able to race, to have had the chance to race with some other great people, most recently competing as "Age Before Beauty" with my buddy Chuck of ROCK Racing.  We raced together last month at Thunder Rolls, where a combination of my lack of fitness and a sucktastic canoe left me in "just get through it" mode for the second half of the race.  I showed up for Berryman 6 pounds lighter and with a month of solid training behind me, and we agreed to try to stay in "race mode" and see how well we could do.

Our trainwreck of a pre-race day was topped off by my worst night of sleep since the night before Dirty Kanza; I checked the clock at least once an hour.  The silver lining, of course, is that it's pretty easy to get up early when you aren't sleeping anyway.  We were in and out of the bike drop before it got insanely packed and back at race HQ in plenty of time to beat the morning rush to the porta johns and then stress over food.

"I'm not sure I have enough."

"Well, it's only twelve hours..." (Actually 16, but who's counting?)

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Just before 7 a.m. the pack gathered before the BonkHard arch, Gary said go, and we ran down the first sketchy, rock-strewn trail of the day.  Worried about face-planting, I kept my eyes glued to the ground, seeing my typical trail run view: Chuck's heels.  In what seemed like no time we were at the first CP.  I jogged past it, congratulating Chuck, "Way to go!" and waited for a moment before I realized that I was the one with the passport and needed to punch before we moved on.

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We popped out onto a gravel road and headed uphill.  The rising sun was shining through a light fog, just a beautiful morning.  Runners ahead of us faded into the mist...it was such a cool adventure racing sight.

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Guess you'll have to take my word for it. Race mode is not conducive to good pictures.
As we jogged uphill, we passed one of the other two-person co-ed teams ("That's Going to Leave a Mark"), and they started running too.  They were to become a familiar sight for much of the day.  Chuck found our attack point for the next checkpoint, and we dove back into the woods, clambering through underbrush reminiscent of Thunder Rolls before gratefully moving into clearer area. Our nav was clean, and I was pretty excited to run into the always-speedy Off the Front team on our way to the pond checkpoint.  From there we cut through the woods, across a field, ran down a gravel road, and then cut into another field towards the silo checkpoint.

Ground gargoyles



The field was flat and we could see TGTLAM ahead of us, so we started running towards the silo.  We'd been told that our feet were going to get wet during that canoe leg, but our shoes were dew-soaked before we'd gone a few yards.  "Watch out for ground gargolyes," Chuck warned as we ran through the grass.

For what? He's half deaf, but I was the one who wasn't hearing right.  "Watch out for groundhog holes."

Chuck: Maybe more than half deaf, but luckily I have awesome teammates who are always more than willing to make sure I don't miss out (listening to the pre-race instructions, sitting on the right side for mapping, translating conversations with other teams, re-telling jokes with the volunteers, repeating bike leg stories) over and over and over with never a complaint.

It's very nice of Chuck to put such a positive spin on the fact that I tend to repeat myself.

That made more sense but wasn't nearly as entertaining.  We joked as we ran, "Watch out for ground gargoyles.  They will mess you up!"  And another recurring theme for the day: "Ground gargoyles are assholes!"
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Photo credit: BonkHard Racing
We were closing in on our competition, but the field seemed to go on for-ev-er, as evidenced by the fact that I couldn't muster a smile for the camera.

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"Are we there yet?" (Told you it was a pretty morning!)
The checkpoint was INSIDE the silo, a climb made even more fun by not being smart enough to take off my pack.

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Good times...
We punched the passport and then ran off in search of the canoe put-in, where we saw our friends Dave and Amanda for the first time and got the news that the first canoeing CP was now a trekking one (apparently the canoes were late, so Gary had to make an on-the-fly course adjustment). After getting that last one, we headed back to get our canoe.

Bumper boats and the adventure route

After spending 22 miles in a broken canoe seat at Thunder Rolls, my main priority was finding a canoe with two functional seats.  Luckily enough, one was on the ground next to the canoe pile. Score!  We loaded our packs in and shoved off, just behind our competition, who had arrived at the put-in just after us and transitioned faster.  Our pursuit was interrupted by a quick trip into a log on the opposite riverbank.  I was wondering what the heck Chuck was doing until he spoke up: "That wasn't me!" One of the canoes behind us had pushed us to the side.

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Traffic jam! That's us in the middle of the mess. (Photo credit: BonkHard Racing)
We got back on track and did our best to move away from the other canoes.  Paddling is probably never going to be my favorite part of adventure racing, but even I had to enjoy the scene around us.  Peaceful river, sun shining through rising fog, and lots of other canoes in sight.  Being right in the mix was really motivating, and I tried to keep up a good paddling pace.

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Race mode in a canoe doesn't preclude good pictures unless you take too many and your partner starts hitting you with his paddle.
We worked to close the gap between us and That's Going to Leave a Mark and were approaching striking distance when we came to a crossroads of sorts.  On the left, a fallen tree blocked the river; on the right, racers ahead of us were getting out of their canoes for a short portage.  We decided our best option was to try to cross the log; failing that, we'd jump out of the canoe, pull it across the log, and hop back in.

It was a good plan, right until we ran up on the log and I hopped out on the other side into neck-deep water.  Chuck's side wasn't much better.  Our quick portage became a slow swim towards the gravel so that we could climb back in, much to the amusement of our buddy Bill and his teammate Nathan. "I wish I had a camera!" Bill called back.  I wish he had, too. It would have been a good picture.

 Chuck: A great example of "Bad decisions make the best stories".  I am so glad we took the alternate route.

Sooooo, our strategy wasn't the most productive and we never managed to catch up with the 2-person coed team we were chasing, but it was fun and the cool water felt good.  And despite our creative routing, our first paddle leg was only ten minutes slower than eventual winner Alpine Shop.  We were pretty pleased with that.

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Coming into the takeout after paddle 1. Photo credit: BonkHard Racing

Which way is North?

The canoe TA was manned by our friends Carrie Sona, Ron from Team Roadkill, and Ron's wife Stephanie.  I usually only see Ron at Berryman races when I'm lost in the woods, so it was a nice change to know where I was when I ran into him.  We told them about our swim and then headed off on the second trekking leg.  There were 16 CPs available here, including three that were worth two points.  We hiked off in search of CP22, not following our "run the roads" plans but setting a fast pace up the first hill.  In fact, we passed TGTLAM there, slowing to talk for a moment and introduce ourselves since apparently we'd be seeing plenty of each other over the day.

We moved ahead to our attack point and then cut off into the woods in search of our reentrant. The angle we were taking didn't really match up to what I remembered from when we'd plotted the map, but usually that just means I don't know what I'm talking about, so I kept quiet. Following our bearing, we came to...nothing...and eventually ended up back on the road we'd come in on.  We headed uphill for a second go at the CP.  I could tell Chuck was bummed, so I tried to cheer him up, but my cheery "Hey, this hill seems familiar!" didn't go over that well.

We got to the top again and reattacked.  Still nothing.  In most races I have no idea what time it is; I just follow along, happily ignorant of the fact that it's 3 a.m. or we've been trekking for 6 hours or whatever.  Chuck usually races on ROCK Racing with Robin, and she's the timekeeper for them.  On this third time he and I have teamed up I finally bought a watch and so was able to tell him, "I'm not pushing either way here, but just so you know we've been looking for the CP for over an hour."

That was enough for us to decide to skip 22 and move on to the next checkpoint.  We didn't go straight there, but we got it, and then we found a couple more (can you tell I don't have the map in front of me?).  CP17 was on a hilltop, and we initially attacked down the wrong ridge (spur?) before realizing we were on the wrong side of the reentrant.  Downhill from us, we could see a 4-man team who'd made the same mistake and then hiked across the reentrant.  Instead of tackling the steep sides, we backtracked until we could cross at a shallower point.  Once on the other side, Chuck led us right to our CP. We then headed back across the trail and walked straight to CP20.

Stopping there, we studied the map to decide which CPs were close enough to snag and still make it back to the canoe TA by our 4:00 cut-off.  We were still there when Bill and Nathan arrived to punch CP20 and then head back to the canoes.  After talking with them, we decided it made more sense to get the one remaining nearby CP (18) and then finish the trek early.  18 didn't come easy, though, and I think it was on our initial (and incorrect) attack that we realized Chuck's compass was totally screwed up (thanks I guess to the magnet on his pack).  That explained a lot about our struggles with the first CP of this trek.

 I tested my compass against a known good one after returning home from the race and found it was pointing about 30 degrees west of north.  I never knew a compass could just go bad.  A google search confirmed it though.  Nothing to do but throw it away and replace it.

We pulled out my compass, but it was acting unreliable as well.  Awesome.  We backtracked and reattacked down another spur, this time using the sun to set our bearing.  Even after Chuck showed me the map and explained what we were doing, I was totally unconvinced that we were going the right way.  He's the navigator, though, so I followed along, lagging slightly behind, holding my compass and watching it lazily move around as I walked in a straight line.  It wasn't until we saw our 2-p coed nemeses hiking towards us that I started to have some confidence in our route, and that's why I told Chuck that he should be the one to punch the passport.

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I'm sorry I doubted you!
We took a minute here so that I could dump all the junk out of my shoes and Chuck could take some pictures of the view.  We were pretty high up, which was a shame because the canoe TA wasn't that far away...except that it was way down.  Planning to hike back down that looooong spur, we peeked over the edge.  "Hmmmm...I think we could make it..."

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This really doesn't do justice to how steep it was.
The hillside was steep and covered with loose rocks ("These rocks are assholes!") that wanted to roll under your feet, but we picked our way down without breaking any hips in the process.  From there, it was a fairly short hike across a flat floodplain-type area to the canoes.  There was only one problem, which we both realized at the same time: "Nettle!"  Luckily there wasn't much of it, so we contemplated the pleasure of stepping on the plant and the prospect of making nettle wine.  We made it back to the TA 9 minutes ahead of That's Going to Leave a Mark, so if they went straight to the TA from CP18 our route had been much faster; on the other hand, we assumed they'd gotten more CPs on the trek and were ahead of us on points.  All the same, there was a lot of race left.

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I love this picture.
Our friends greeted our return: "Super Kate!! ...and Chuck!" The temperature had definitely climbed and we were both light on water, so we were glad to refill at the TA while discussing our team name, specifically which of us was "Age" and which was "Beauty" (obviously Chuck).  I took a moment to soak my shirt in the river before we started (glorious), and then "we" shoved back off onto the river.

River Idol

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There's no chivalry in AR, and I'm cool with that.
Unlike the more crowded first paddle leg, this time we were pretty much alone on the river.  Anybody who races with me is subjected to stories about previous races and teammates, so as we paddled I remarked, "This is where Luke would start singing, but I can't think of a song."

With that, Chuck broke into "Hotel California", and we spent the next while paddling happily down the river singing badly as we stumbled over the lyrics.  Having no other canoes in sight made it hard to keep the same kind of focus we'd had earlier, but I was still thankful that no other ears were maimed by our serenade.

There were a couple of short portages on this leg (with no "adventure option") as well as one CP, and we handled them efficiently and without incident.  We eventually passed one other 2-person coed team, and though the team we'd been seeing all day long was closing in, we stayed ahead of them into the TA which (for maybe the first time EVER), came before we were expecting it.

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Photo credit: BonkHard Racing

We hit the canoe take-out at 4 p.m. exactly, nine hours into the race.  We punched our passport and then hiked the km uphill to the bike drop. I think this is the longest I've ever gone in a race before getting to the bikes.  Once there, the volunteers gave us a new set of coordinates to plot for the bike leg back to the race HQ.  Big thanks to Dead Bronco Society for lending us a highlighter to mark our way!

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Photo credit: BonkHard
After plotting our points, Chuck looked over the map while I changed into bike shorts, filled camelbaks, and stuffed food from our drop bag into my pack.  We split a nasty Monster drink, and then we checked out of the TA, happy to finally be on our bikes.

Blind date bike trails

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Possibly the only time in  history I've started on the trail ahead of one of the guys. And it lasted for about 30 seconds before we switched so I could see Chuck ride things before I did.
So here's how I explained these bike trails: you know how you're all excited for a date, and then the guy shows up and he's an asshole? The trails were similarly disappointing.  These were not our buff, groomed St. Louis area singletrack. They were rough, rocky horse trails, and I was really nervous and uncomfortable on them.  Ride, get off and walk a big hill, ride, get off and lift your bike over a fallen tree. Repeat.  I took a lousy line not far in and flatted my front tire badly enough that it wouldn't seal up and we had to put a tube in, and while we were there airing it up the Dead Broncos rode up and thanked us for stopping right by the CP.

The what?? We'd been so preoccupied by the flat that we hadn't noticed the flag hanging just off the trail.  That's two we owed those guys! After punching our passport, we moved further down the trail so as not to make it any easier on anyone else.  I never really got any trail mojo and was walking up a hill when Chris and Joanne passed us for good, looking far better than I did.  I mentioned not loving the trails, and she told me that that's how most of their trails were.  I guess in that respect our nice trails are a mixed blessing.

We popped out onto a gravel road and took that around to the next CP.  It was SO nice to be riding fast! We overshot our turn at first but then back tracked and hopped onto the fire road that would take us back to the trails for the checkpoint, meeting Joanne and Chris as they came from the other direction.  "Ahhh, took the easy way?" they teased.  "Route choice, baby!" we laughed.

This checkpoint was a manned one, so we got to run into Dave and Amanda again.  They punched our passport, checked to make sure we had red blinky taillights on our bikes, and then sent us on our way, warning of trails ahead that would make me look forward to Greensfelder (the local trails that most intimidate me).  Not happy news.  The next section of trail wasn't bad at all, much of it grassy doubletrack or smoother dirt, but Dave's warning stuck with me.

We found CP30(?), which was the same as one of our paddling CPs, then pushed our bikes up a gigantic steep hill.  I was dying.  Partway up, Chuck slowed down, took my bike, and pushed both bikes so I could catch my breath.  We got CP31 near a field, then headed back onto the singletrack; I think this section was some of the nicest of the day, swoopy and smooth, much more fun to ride than the rest.  We punched CP32 just off the trail, and then I had a suggestion.  I'd been watching the growing dusk with trepidation; I was struggling enough on the trails in the light, and I'm not a fan of riding even nice trail in the dark.

"What if we skip 33, just get 34, and then head into race HQ? We know there are going to be some points on the road in the next section; I'll be faster on the road in the dark than on the trails."  After some discussion, that's what we decided to do. I had somehow overlooked the fact that we actually had two more CPs before race HQ, and one important fact we both missed, despite the fact that we had it marked specially on both the passport and the map, was that CP33 was worth 2 points, a detail of some importance, as it turned out.

34 and 35 didn't come super easy, but the trails weren't the issue, we just initially overshot them both. I wasn't crushing the singletrack, but I wasn't nearly as nervous as I'd been before.  It always takes me a while to get comfortable on trails; I wish I'd just been more patient with myself rather than letting my initial nervousness get into my head and suggesting a change in our race plan based on fear rather than strategy.

Even though I didn't have a death grip on my handlebars anymore, I was still really happy to ride into race HQ at nearly 8:00, finally finished with that bike leg.  Gary greeted us: "What did you think of the trails?"

"Sub-awesome," I replied.

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Cherry picking checkpoints

Carrie took our passport and gave us a new map and clue sheet for the next section of the race. We grabbed some food to eat while plotting.  A quick scan of the clue sheet had us editing the remainder of the course: a mountain biking section on the same type of trails we'd just ridden (nope!); a trekking section (maybe); and a road section (we'll see). All of the points were optional; you just had to get them in number order (so if you got CP 4, there was no going back for 1-3).

Instead of taking the time to plot everything, we kind of roughly figured out where some of the points were.  We ended up deciding to ride roads to CP7 (worth 2 points), then ride to the trekking TA, which was also worth two points (one checking in, one checking out).  Because we had no intentions of any more foot travel, we left the additional weight of our trail shoes back at the Jeep and headed, somewhat grudgingly, back into the race.

The route to CP7 was primarily pavement, and after a long day of racing it was a joy to ride.  There were some hills, but the rolling terrain gave you plenty of momentum to aid the climbs.  We initially missed our turn, but Chuck caught the mistake, and then his sharp eyes picked out the CP hidden back in a little creek area off the road.  A relatively quick ride led us to the trek TA, manned by Team Roadkill's Shawn, which we hit at about 9:30, about the same time that Alpine Shop was preparing to ride away.

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Quick and dirty plotting
We didn't have to be back at the finish until 11:00, and the ride wasn't too far, so we looked over our map and discussed what we should do.  We were right here at the trek, but neither of us was enthused about the prospect of trekking in our bike shoes, and of course our trail shoes were back at the finish line.  There was at least one bike CP we could make it to, but we knew that all of the other 2-person coed teams had decided not to go out on the second section of the race at all.  Ultimately, we decided to go back rather than go for it and risk a mechanical or navigational issue (and here, too, it was me pushing to play it safe).  Even stopping along the road for quite a while to talk to Bill and Nathan on their way out, we still back at the finish line by 10:06, nearly an hour before the race ended.

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15 hours of racing and still smiling...we really did have a great day.

We waited around to see how the race played out, so we got to see the top three teams come in and cheer as Alpine Shop, Bushwhacker/Wedali, and Kuat took the top three spots.  And then we listened as Joanne and Chris, the 2-person team who we'd seen all day long, took first in our division and two other teams took second and third.  We were disappointed, having hoped to place, but still happy with our race.  It wasn't until the splits came out that we realized how close we'd come to the podium.

We'd tied with the 3rd place team on points, falling behind them because they had finished sooner.   First and second had one more point than we did.  Had we gotten any other CP we'd have been in third, and had we not skipped CP33 (worth 2 points) we'd have finished in first.  We made our decisions as a team, but don't think it doesn't sting that it was my idea to skip the checkpoint that cost us the race.

So close, but yet so far...

If the compass hadn't gone wonky we probably would have gotten a couple more CPs on the second trek...
If I hadn't been so wimpy we would have had an additional two points from CP33 on the bike...
If we'd plotted all of the points for the second map we might have noticed one of the mountain bike points that was relatively easy to reach...
If we'd brought our trail shoes we could have gone for a trekking point...
If we'd gone for those last bike CPs after the trekking TA...

Of course, there are also the if's like "if we had a mechanical..." or "if we crashed..." or "if we got lost..." that could skew the end result to a DNF instead of 4th place.  That's the thing with AR; you never know.  For example, Alpine Shop came off the second trek an hour down to the other top teams and battled back, despite the fact that Jeff was overheating. Watching him ride away from the trekking TA was a lesson in mental toughness and what it takes to be a winner.

Coming in fourth and narrowly missing the podium was a good lesson too.  One about not giving into my own wimpiness and learning that playing it safe isn't always the right choice.  The repeat lesson, though, is the best one: knowing that ultimately, the joy is in the race and not the finish. We had a great time racing together, and I can't wait until the next one.

Luckily, I don't have all that long to wait.  November 1, Age Before Beauty will make one more AR appearance, this time at the FIG/Red River Gorge American Classic, a 12-hour race in Kentucky.

9 comments:

  1. Aw, that does kind of suck. Still a great race, but you just hate to see that kind of close finish!

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  2. Tazer and I are taking a basic orienteering class in a few weeks, thinking that might be step one towards trying an AR. :)

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    1. Oh, that makes me happy! I think you guys will like it. I know you geocache, and I think it's way more fun than geocaching.

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  3. Hey, nice race! Loved all the pics and you two did really well.

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  4. I love how you explain the bike trails. Good analogy. This is so obviously your thing. Sounds unappealing to me but that's what makes life interesting is how different we all are. It's great how many types of races there are for all of us. Keep at it, Kate!!

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  5. You are really tough! Well done on yet another great adventure. 15 hours of racing is no joke. You are really Super Kate.

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  6. You are living a wonderful sport life! You are more than an inspiration. Go SuperKate, this is only the start.

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  7. Awesome race and your pics are surreal! Bummer you so narrowly missed the podium!

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  8. Great day of racing. Lots of fun crossing paths and see you guys several times. Kudos for heading out on the final map course. Hope to see you next year!
    JoAnne - That's Going To Leave A Mark

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