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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Alpine Shop Castlewood 8-Hour Adventure Race

Note: commentary provided by Mickey in pink, in honor of our illustrious race director. 

In the previous 5 years I've volunteered twice and raced the Castlewood 8-Hour on three different teams, with only one repeat teammate (Bob, who raced on both Team Virtus squads I was on). This year's race added a new teammate to the list. Mickey and I have talked for a while about racing together, and it finally worked out for Castlewood. We entered the race as Type II Fun, a name that encompassed both our different AR teams as well as the experience I anticipated racing with someone so much stronger and more competitive than me.

If you don't want to bother reading the linked article (which is worth your time), type 2 fun is "God-awful when you're doing it but totally worth it once you're done".  Some prime examples for me would be Cedar Cross and Hairy Hundred.  Not coincidentally, the blame for both of these rests on Mickey, who convinced me to race them both instead of my typical "social ride" MO. I've long suspected that he has some weird "My Fair Lady" intentions towards me, only instead of turning me into a lady he hopes to convert me to someone competitive.

Mickey:  I’m not sure which would be more difficult, turning you into someone competitive or a turning you into a lady. 

Kate: I can be plenty ladylike; it's just not particularly relevant to AR. 

While both those race experiences were largely God-awful, having strong finishes (and actually winning Hairy Hundred) was fun enough to make me open to racing an AR with someone who cares more about winning than having fun.  I even started training.

And then, a week before Castlewood, I twisted my knee badly at an orienteering meet and spent the subsequent days with a significant limp. On Wednesday I messaged Mickey and warned him, "If you're wanting to RACE this race we need to start looking for a new partner for you." I didn't want to skip the race, but I really didn't want to spend it limping behind a frustrated teammate. Thankfully, he turned me down, and by Friday I was cautiously optimistic about my knee.

Mickey picked up our maps Friday night and we did our plotting at his house. We got an overview of the course and all of the checkpoints as well as maps and coordinates for the paddle and bike legs. What we didn't get was maps for the trekking legs that book-ended the race, and while we didn't know where the paddle was going to start it looked like we could expect a 6ish mile trek to get there. Once we finished our plotting, I headed across town to meet the Virtus guys at Bob's house, nominated as our weekend HQ due to its proximity to the race start.

No pre-Castlewood preparations are complete without a stop at Dewey's pizza.
I had to meet Mickey at 5:30 so we could be at the bike drop right when it opened and then hit the Wyman center before the somewhat limited close parking spots were taken. The first person we saw in the parking lot was my friend Josh, who was volunteering. Arriving over an hour before the pre-race meeting gave us time for vital last-minute preparations like giving Mickey basically all of my stuff to carry and then talking to everyone I knew.

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Pre-race team picture
Photo credit: Dan Singer
RD Emily started the pre-race meeting right at 7:15, reviewing some rules and details and then dropping the bombshell that we all needed to go down to the road and get on the buses to the start. What?? Now the distance between the race HQ and the paddle start made a lot more sense.

Surprise! Heading to the buses on a frosty morning.
Photo credit: Dan Singer
Passports and maps for the first trek were handed out as soon as we all piled off the buses at the Pacific Palisades boat ramp. After some last-minute instructions and the National Anthem, the race was on.

Photo credit: Dan Singer

Trek 1: Points 1-7 any order, ~1.7 mi, 31 min.

Since we consistently struggle with the first CP and had seen CP2 from the bus, we opted to go for the sure thing. We ran down the road and smoothly pinged 2, 3, and 1; being much faster and pushier, Mickey handled punching the passport as well as the nav.  He handed off the map to me at CP1, and I followed the trail navigated  to CP4 before giving the map back. I could have done the nav here, but my map processing is SO SLOW -- fine for practice, not so good for a race.

We cut through the woods next to a reentrant and quickly punched CP"6". I was slightly confused because the clue was bridge and it didn't look like a bridge, but I basically shrugged and assumed it was some kind of pier. Of course, another clue that we might have been in the wrong place was that our "bridge" wasn't actually next to any water; also, had we looked the CP number was actually attached to the bag as well. Suffice it to say that there was plenty of evidence for both of us to realize something was off.

Instead, we cut across the reentrant, and here again things seemed wrong but I assumed that my cursory glance at the map hadn't given me sufficient information.  After a couple of minutes Mickey mentioned it didn't look right, so we stopped to look over the map again and realized our mistake. We hopped back onto the trail, ran past 4, cut through 5 again (checking the tag to confirm its identity), and then took a slightly roundabout route to 6. Whew, we'd made that harder than it needed to be. 

Mickey:  Totally my bad.  I got in too big of a hurry, and we paid the price.  I also didn’t realize the CPs had the numbers on them until we re-checked CP5 on our way back through.

We ran back to the TA, punched 7, and grabbed our canoe, PFDs, and paddles, putting in on the Meramec River at about 8:42.

Lessons: If something doesn't seem quite right, speak up. Incidentally, this is not the first time I've learned this lesson.1

Paddle: Points 8-11, ~7.3 mi, 1:24 

I never look forward to paddling but was actively dreading this canoe leg because over my past four ARs my canoe has tipped every other time...and this was the next "other time"...and it's December.   We cautiously situated ourselves in the canoe, and then Erl pushed us off. From the beginning it wasn't a confidence-inspiring paddle; we were frighteningly tippy and slalomed back and forth across the river. Over the course of the seven mile leg we ran into another boat at least 10 times; despite the fact that our main victims know me, I'm pretty sure they were legitimately pissed off by the time we reached the take-out.

Mickey:  I still have no idea why we were so tippy.  In retrospect, it would have probably been smarter to have me in front providing power since I don’t think I was any better with steering than you would have been.

I'm fine with an experienced paddler who can tell me what to do, but I don't actually know how to steer or anything. Since I'm always in the front, I didn't even have any words of wisdom to pass on as far as "this is what Chuck/Luke/Bob does..." It was a gorgeous morning, but I spent it terrified we were going to tip.

Photo credit: Lori Vohsen
Chuck, Bob, and Lori were stationed at a gravel beach between CPs 8 and 9 with a roaring fire and whiskey. Luke and Robby had beaten us there and were hanging out on the beach when we paddled by. They were outraged by my failure to stop and drink whiskey with them like I'd promised back when I assumed they'd be a mandatory stop; however, Mickey and I had established before the race that socializing was for after, not during, and I was holding up my end of that bargain. I also really, really wanted to get off the river.

Photo credit: Chuck Vohsen
My Virtus teammates are still pondering my punishment for skipping this stop.
Mickey:  This was definitely the right call.  The way we were paddling, the extra beach/launch would have been seriously pushing our luck, as far as staying dry.

Kate: And I'm pretty sure it was only through dumb luck we avoided tipping. 

Despite a long stop on the beach, Luke and Robby easily caught us and reached the take-out first. In fact, out of 70 teams on the river, only 7 were slower than us.

Could not have been happier to be off the river.
Photo credit: Travis Irwin
Lesson: At least one person in the canoe really needs to know what they're doing2. Like with navigation, I think paddling is something I'm going to have to suck it up and actually work on, because I don't ever want to be an a situation with two novice paddlers in a canoe again. Ironically, of Alpine Shop's AR101 series, the paddling overview was the only one neither of us attended.

Bike: Points 12 - 22, ~10 mi, 1:29 

I've been sold on the bike tow ever since Alpine Shop's Jeff Sona guest-raced with Adam and me at CAC23, but for some reason we (Virtus) have never followed through and used one in a race. Mickey had made a couple different bike tows this year, and we've spent a pretty good amount of time "testing them out" (particularly on rides when I'm wearing down).  The tow was a definite part of our race strategy, and I was thankful for it right away, as we climbed 300 feet from the canoe take-out. The combination of a pretty efficient transition and Mickey's strong bike skills helped us to pass a bunch of teams.

Rolling up to CP 13
Photo credit: Kyle Knudten
We quickly knocked off CP12 (gate), 13 (utility pole), and 14 (cemetery sign) and then approached CP15, located under a bridge beneath I-44, around the same time as another team. While they took the road around to the creek, we cut through the grass and stayed up on the bank, a good decision as the bag was hung over the rocks next to the creek.

We pulled our bikes out the other side and, instead of following the creek, cut up to the frontage road above the interstate and rode back down to the creek and CP16. The team we'd followed in the approach to the bridge was still coming through the creek and we climbed out of it and hopped back onto our bikes.

Mickey:  Our route choice here saved us a ton of time and effort.  Teams were really struggling to get their bikes up to the road from the creek at this spot.  Score one for pre-race prep! 

From there, we rode back up the frontage road to CP17, located at an outdoor fireplace behind the Holiday Inn. At the time I thought it was kind of a weird place to put a CP, but reading Emily's RD write-up later I realized the bike leg had been designed to keep racers on the safest possible route. This particular CP took us through the hotel parking lot instead of a major intersection, one example of the kind of thought involved in race planning.

We rode through the Holiday Inn parking lot and started up Allenton Rd, another big climb. I quickly realized I should have taken off my fleece before hitting the hill, so we stopped to shed layers before starting the biggest part of the hill. I was very, very thankful for the tow, which made the climb significantly less terrible.  Once in Greensfelder Park we planned to maximize our use of pavement and gravel, having gotten the lay of the park the night before by comparing our race map to the GORC map of the park trails.

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Appreciating the fact that 18 was close enough to the road that I could legally wait for Mickey there and wondering where the nearest bathroom is...
Photo credit: Bobby French
We took the pavement to get close to CP18 and then retraced our steps to attack CP19 from gravel. The gravel road wasn't where we'd expected, so rather than look for it, we bikewhacked to 19 from a nearby radio tower. Success!

Our route to CP20 took us on the first off-road surface of the bike leg, a mostly doubletrack trail along a ridegline. I had plenty of opportunity to practice my log-riding skills as the trail had multiple fallen trees across it. We found the CP without any real issue other than Mickey riding right past it when he saw one of the BOR teams ahead.

He may have towed and navigated and carried all my shit, but Mickey totally didn't perform in the race photographer department. Thank goodness so many awesome photographers were out there to pick up his slack!
We were then supposed to follow a pink-flagged trail towards CP21. This was slightly confusing because there was quite a bit of pink flagging in the woods near that point, but Mickey got us on the right trail and we quickly reached CP21, which was hung in a teepee. From there, we rode down a super fun grassy doubletrack that suddenly turned into a treacherous mudslide. About two swerves in, I climbed off my bike and walked it the rest of the way down, followed by the BOR crew, some of whom were crazy enough to stay in the saddle.  At the bottom of the hill we rode onto Forby Rd and then back up to the Wyman Center, all checking into TA3 at about the same time.

Mickey:  I’m so glad that muddy section was right at the end of the bike leg.  My poor bike was a mess, gunked-up with peanut butter mud.

Kate: I'm so glad I'd brought an additional bike for the weekend so I didn't have to clean mine before Sunday's mountain bike clinic.

Lessons: Towing is awesome, as are efficient route choices

Trek 2: Points 23 - 34, ~5.6 mi, 1:56


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Heading off on the final trek.
Photo credit: Stacey Hagen
We opted to run these points counterclockwise. Mickey again asked me if I wanted to do the nav, and I again opted not to for the same reason as before. I've worked hard to improve, but it still takes me a lot of standing and looking at the map and thinking, and I was afraid I'd slow us down too much. As it was, my trekking, particularly any off-trail uphills, really hurt our pace anyway.

Our nav was a real mixed bag here. We went straight to 25 and then headed off in wrong direction but corrected pretty quickly and only lost about 2 min. We ran into Brenden and Steve on our way to CP27 and ended up running most of the trek together. We only needed minor course adjustments to 27, 29, and 31, but then things got a little squirrely.


We are so dumb.
Despite knowing from experience that the Greensfelder trails aren't accurately reflected on the orienteering map (and being warned of this fact by a big red note on the map!), we still relied on them in our approach to 33. We hit the wrong trail on the way to CP33 and ate about 12 minutes going the wrong way and waiting too long to stop and think things through; Mickey had actually mentioned a couple times that we'd been going too long, but Brendan, thinking we were on a different trail, assured him we weren't.

On our way back to the right way.
Photo credit: Bobby French
We retraced our steps, but continued to stick with the trail until realizing it wasn't taking us where we needed to go and bushwhacking through the woods to the CP. We found 32, 23, and 30 without much drama, but trails gave us trouble again on the way to 28.  We finally got that figured out, only to struggle on the way to 26. We ended up parting ways with Steve and Brendan here when both teams had different ideas about where the CP was (spoiler alert: we were right).  We jogged out to the road, tagged 24 cleanly, and ran into the finish, crossing at 1:41, well in advance of the 4:00 cut-off.

Lessons: Um, if you know the trails aren't right on a map, don't count on them.We'd have greatly benefited from red-lining the course or relying solely on terrain features. 

Mickey:  That was so dumb.  Trusting the trails on that very same map screwed me only a few weeks ago at the TeamBOR SLOC Night-O.  Why I trusted them again, I will never know.  *shaking head* We also spent a lot of time conferring with the other team instead of running our own race. 

We had plenty of room for improvement, to be sure, but this was the first course I've ever cleared, so I was thrilled. Aside from that, the high points of the race for me were the bike leg and teamwork in general. Not only did Mickey tow me on the bike, but he also carried most of my stuff. Basically all I carried was water, food, and some emergency supplies; this made it way easier for me to run. We ran more than what I typically do in races, and I still felt pretty good.  We also did a good job of working together to problem solve our navigational missteps.

The low point, of course, was the paddle. *shudder* My big weakness was uphill trekking, where I really struggled, especially in comparison to my mountain goat teammate. I was also pretty slow going downhill off-trail as well because I was worried about falling and re-injuring my knee. Thankfully it held up pretty well with a combination of ibuprofen and adrenaline.

Mickey:  You really picked a bad time to twist your knee, knucklehead.  I did have a ton of fun racing with you, though.  We’ll definitely have to do it again, but not before we get some paddling instruction!

Kate: I'd mention how I twisted my knee after you led me up the wrong reentrant, but then you'd probably point out that you broke your collarbone when I directed you onto the wrong trail, and we don't really need to go there...though it would be fitting in light of the mistakes we made racing together. For as many ARs as I've done, I didn't do a very good job of leveraging my experience to benefit our team. That said, I had a blast. I never once wanted to push you off a cliff. 

There's a quote that starts something like "there are no new mistakes", and as proof of such I can offer you this annotated bibliography of previous AR learning experiences. Now, Mickey might wish I'd saved him from suffering the same fate, but then I'd just remind him of the wise words of William Jordan (whoever that is): "Mistakes are the growing pains of wisdom."

You're welcome.

Berryman 12-hour (2012) "Knowing more or less where we were thanks to the powerline, Jim suggested that we shoot straight east from our current location.  This way we should reach the road on the top of the next ridgeline over and be able to follow it to point 10.  It occurred to me that this might not be a solid plan since we didn't know exactly where we were, but I didn't bring that up.  This is an area where I need to step up more.  I occasionally have a route suggestion, but I'm so regularly confused by the map that I generally assume that any concerns are due to my ignorance, and I don't want to be second-guessing my navigator.  Rather than speak up, all I said was, 'Remember how we opted to take the trail to the creek rather than go directly across all those hills? Now w get to do both.'" [emphasis added]

2Berryman 12-Hour (2011) "Canoeing, as it turns out, is definitely not our strong suit...We were hilariously bad.  Neither of us had been in a canoe in over a year, but how hard can it be?  Drunk people do it all the time.  Maybe the problem is that we hadn't been drinking? Whatever it was, we were swerving all over the river and I think we managed to drag across every single low spot."

3Carnage at the Creek 2 (2013) "Jeff showed me their bike tow (basically a strap connected to the back of his bike that someone behind him could grab to help maintain a consistent team pace).  While I've never had a desire to use one, I resolved to try it.  If we were going to get the opportunity to race with a rock star teammate, we needed to take advantage of everything we could learn! ...Between the wind and the hills, I quickly became a big fan of towing systems.  Not only was it a big help, but every time that tow strap started to stretch out more it made me push a little harder so that Jeff wasn't having to drag my slow butt up the hill."

  4 Berryman 12-Hour (2011) "We started out looking for checkpoint 4, which was somewhere to the left of where it says Berryman Campground on the map.  If we had been navigating more by the compass, we might have had a better chance of finding it; however, we were relying much more on terrain features like roads, trails, elevation, etc.  Now remember, the USGS data on these maps is about 30 years old, and things change.  Thing like, oh, new roads.  We mistakenly went off down a road that wasn't on the map and looked for over an hour for number 4.  With noooo luck.  Finally (and, really, way later than we should have), we decided to cut our losses, get back to the campground so we knew where we were again, and set off for CP 6."

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