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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Reality Check

Route 66 Bicycles' Dan Fuhrmann has put on some pretty cool rides lately: a Black Friday ride I had to skip, January's Joe Dirt ride, and yesterday's Death by Gravel. This latest event, a 92-mile odyssey through the gravel roads of the Mark Twain National Forest near Steelville, MO, was rich in scenery and elevation change and tough enough that midway through, given the choice between "Give me gravel or give me death," I'd have had to think hard about my answer.  Though I struggled early and often, my Momentum Racing teammates didn't give me the option of dying (or quitting); instead waiting for me at turns and hilltops, being positive and encouraging, and sometimes quite literally pulling me along.

With a long ride this year of 55 miles, I knew I was unprepared for the leg shredding DbG promised, but my Dirty Kanza training has been anemic at best and has to ramp up if I want any hope of finishing again this year. Even if it would be a tough day in the saddle, at least we'd be able to enjoy a beautiful spring day on our bikes, right?

Ummm...maybe. The forecast definitely had the potential to be nice or sub-awesome.
It was hard to drag myself out of bed at 4:15 a.m. in order to be in MO'Fallon by 6:15 to meet up with our carpool group, but once I got into the car I was excited to once again be up at a ridiculously early time to go ride bikes. Momentum had a 6-person crew going -- Jeff, Joe, Melanie, Mickey, Shaun, and me -- so we spread out in two cars for the trip to Steelville, arriving in plenty of time to get ready, say hi's (always my main priority, but I was particularly happy to run into Ron and Shawn, who are fairly local and my main hope if I found myself in need of a car ride back), and still roll out with the main group.  The forecast (cool and breezy in the morning, high in the high 50's, chance of rain) made dress a little tricky, and our choices ranged from full coverage to shorts and a light jacket.

The wind hit us as we rode out of the parking lot, and while it was considerable its influence was muted by the terrain; the bigger impact was of the elevation. It was clear from the first hill that I was the weakest climber of our group, and while that's not rare in my world my ego did suffer a little extra sting because for once I wasn't the only girl in the pack.  I'd say the majority of female cyclists in the St. Louis area are faster than me, but since I don't typically ride with them I don't suffer from the direct comparison. At DbG, on the other hand, I had a back-row seat to see Melanie crush hills I struggled up (and, later, walked) and finish, unassisted, a ride I needed significant help on, all while being cheerful and pleasant and fun to be around.

While I'd fallen behind the group early on, I wasn't alone. This little sweetie followed along for about two miles, only dropping me after beating me to the top of yet another hill and perhaps going off in search of better competition.
The guys were waiting at the top of the first set of hills, a pattern which would repeat itself over the day, and at that point I was able to keep up just fine as long as the road was flat or downhill. Clearly I need to look for a route more tailored to my strengths, so if you know of an Escher-esque gravel race, let me know.

I'd like to go downhill both ways, please.

Shaun, Mel, and Joe in front; me, Mickey, and Chris in back. Jeff taking the picture.

While my riding was sub-par, the scenery was anything but, and I rode along happily savoring the beautiful surroundings and comfortable weather.

Like riding through a painting...
I enjoyed the hills slightly less...

Recovering after a climb

There were quite a few low-water crossings, but the water was low enough to prevent any drama.

I think this was the most water we rode through.
Death by Gravel wasn't a race or paid event, just a free hey-let's-all-get-together-and-ride-this-awesome-route, so there weren't any official aid stations. Instead, the course ran past a couple of options for refueling.  The first was a gas station at about mile 38.

Jeff, Melanie, Joe, Shaun, me, Mickey
The plan had been for us all to stick together for the whole ride, but I wasn't positive it would play out that way. Good intentions don't always work out in the face of wildly differing paces, so I'd made sure to actually be prepared and load the course onto my Garmin.  In the end, this was totally unnecessary, because the guys and Melanie repeatedly stopped to regroup.  It's a good thing, too, because it took me until that gas station stop to figure out how to get the screen that would show me directions. We all had varied Garmin issues, so Mickey's homemade cue sheets were invaluable. (Mine were especially helpful in my back pocket, where they stayed all day.)

I might be getting a little predictable...
The gas station was right on Hwy 8, which led right back to Steelville, and I jokingly/not jokingly wondered aloud about riding back on the highway.  "You aren't taking 8 back," Mickey scoffed, and that was that. I wanted to ride the whole thing anyway, but with as much as I was struggling in the first half I took Mickey up on his tow offer and rode much of the remaining 50 miles with his help.

Teamwork makes the dream work
If you've read my mentions of towing before, you can see it in action above. There's a length of stretchy surgical tubing fed through the red pipe attached to his bike. The looped end of it is attached to my bike. It's pretty easy to grab hold of and very easy to get out of, so I'm not stuck being helplessly dragged behind in places where I'm uncomfortable (like down big hills).

This was most humbling, to be sure. Towing is a great strategy in adventure races, when teams have to stick together and share their strengths. It was moderately humiliating to need that much help on a training ride, but the fact is that the tow was the difference between me riding the whole thing and me curled up on the side of the road crying by mile 45.  92 tough miles with help still puts me ahead of half of that and then quitting.

I've been lucky for all of my cycling/racing "career" to have friends and teammates who are encouraging and helpful as I've learned and progressed, and this ride really showed me that Momentum is a continuation of that good luck. Both the towing and the regrouping meant a lot to me, and no one made me feel any less because of either thing.  Our group kept what could have been a pretty rotten day for me really fun.

We only had one minor navigational misstep all day long, missing a turn and going up an unnecessary hill. All of our Garmins insisted we were off course (which they're also likely to do when you're on course), so we rode back down and found our actual turn, which had initially looked like the driveway to a church.  Somehow riding up the wrong hill is far less demoralizing than riding downhill in the wrong direction; in our case, all we had to do was turn around and let gravity do the rest.

The second half of the route featured about 5 miles of climbing and suddenly more company.  We'd ridden with Chris most of the day, which was fun. I've been at quite a few of the same events as him, but I don't know that we'd ever talked before. Getting to talk Dirty Kanza was a nice diversion for a while.  We'd also traded places with Lo and Alice just before and after the convenience store.  In this hilly section we ran into two more groups as they dealt with tire issues.

The Alpine Shop crew of Emily, David, Carrie, and Jeff were helping out Anne (I think it was her bike) with a flat. Tara and Jamie were there riding with Anne, and Erl, who I hadn't realized was in town, came over too. Mid-ride mini-reunions are fun!  Thanks to some continuing tire issues, we bounced back and forth with this group a few times.

Mega-regroup! L-R: Joe, Shaun, Jeff, me, Mel, Tara, Jamie, Anne, Adam (?), Chris, Emily, and somebody in yellow
All the climbing was followed by some glorious descending to our next aid station, this one located at the Bass River Resort campground store.  Bass was the start/finish for "Gemini"'s first AR, so in addition to being located on a fairly flat road and featuring new food and a place to sit down for a while, it holds some pretty good memories for me.  Also, after Bass we only had 29 miles to go. 29 miles, that's like a Trailnet medium route. Anybody can ride 29 miles.

I drank a can of coke, ate a container of Pringles, and talked until my teammates ushered me out.  "Let's go...the sooner we get on our bikes, the less we get rained on!" The glorious sun that had been shining on our arrival had been replaced by ominous clouds, most likely attracted by the sunscreen Joe bought at Bass.

The Alpine Shop crew, probably sick of flats and tire boots, had decided to ride the highway back from Bass.  I was tempted. I could ride back with those friends. My teammates would be back much more quickly if they weren't waiting on me...really, I'd be doing them a favor. Mickey was thumbs down on that plan, mentioning something about me not having a ride back to St. Louis if I rode the highway back.

Yes, he was (probably) bluffing, and yes, I probably could have gotten a ride from someone else if he was serious, but I also know that he wants what's best for me. Kind of like a father figure, except that if he ever tried that "this hurts me more than it hurts you" line I'd know he was lying. I'm pretty sure he enjoys seeing me suffer.

We ride.
 Incidentally, I look way happier than I felt about riding another 29 miles in the rain.
Team Noah's Adam also opted to take the long way home, and as we all rode away from Bass he commented, "I'm feeling pretty positive about the weather staying dry." The rain started maybe 5 minutes later but never progressed beyond a light sprinkle. Definitely a best-case scenario if we had to have rain, but the possibility of more rain lent an urgency to our pace and we cruised down the roads. Except, of course, when we were (and here I really mean I was) crawling up the hills, which I increasingly saw as personal affronts.

This rock bluff lined the road for a while.
We rode through some absolutely beautiful areas. The Ozark Trail passes not too far from Bass, so the scenery made me happy just knowing the trail was near and hungry for singletrack.

Heading back and thinking about dinner.
The rolling nature of the last 30 miles made staying on the tow challenging at times. Without some tension, the loop slips off my bike, so on flatter or slightly downhill stretches it requires a bit of a balancing act to stay in the right spot. I lost it more than once, but over the course of the day I did get slightly more comfortable being on tow downhill, and it helped me a little bit on my hill attacks because I had a close up view of what Mickey was doing (obviously it offered me a lot of physical assistance, but it was also like a mini hill clinic).

The last miles ticked away, punctuated by the roughest sections of road I remember from the entire day. The gravel was well-packed, but the underlying rock patches made for a bumpy ride; I'd been pleasantly surprised to how not terrible my lower region was feeling despite nearly doubling my previous long ride for the year, but this last third had me out of the saddle as much as possible.

I'm pretty sure we were the last ones back into the parking lot, after 9 hours total time and (for me, less for the guys) 7.5 hours moving time. 92 miles and somewhere between 7-9,000 feet of climbing, depending on whose Garmin you believe; mine said 7,303.  Death by gravel, indeed: fantastic route, great weather, and stern reality check as to where my bike fitness is right now.  It was a frustrating, demoralizing, difficult, and yet very fun day, and once my chafing heals, I'd love to go re-ride the route.  And I'd really love to manage it under my own power.

Things that went well: hydration, no mechanicals, and increasing confidence on downhills.
Things that went not so well: eating, and...you know, that whole "insufficient training" thing
Things to consider: I'd have been fine without the camelbak; on rides where there are enough stops built in, I think it may be time to lose the security blanket.

Big thanks to Route 66 Bicycles for putting this sufferfest together, to Jeff and Mickey for all of the pictures, and to my teammates for being awesome.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Baptism By Mud

Patrick's first adventure race was the 36-hour Berryman Adventure Race...on a team made of completely of AR newbies.  My brother Jim and I also began with Berryman, and though it was only the 12 hour version, the race director commented, "Why you'd want to start with a race called 'a real ass-kicker', I don't know." Berryman was, indeed, a bit of baptism by fire.  I really tried to do better by my sister-in-law.

When Kristy told me she wanted to do an adventure race this year, we'd chosen BonkHard Racing's Smithville Challenge, a late-spring 8-hour on a course rated at the easy end of their difficulty scale. It sounded like a gentle introduction to this sport I love, and the date lessened the chances that any potential nav errors would result in hypothermia and gave us time to train together before the race.

BonkHard's surprise absence from the AR calendar this year left us scrambling for a replacement, and the Physically Strong Adventure Race seemed to fit our purposes: only 8 hours, light required gear list, not too far of a drive, and no schedule conflicts.  The benefits outweighed the limited window for training and March's notoriously unreliable weather, and the addition of Patrick and Chuck greatly decreased our chances of getting lost forever in the wilds of Mendon, IL. 

Race check-in was Friday night at Saukenauk Scout Reservation, the Boy Scout camp hosting the race as a fundraiser.  Free lodging was available in cabins on-site; we'd jumped at the accommodations but been less than thrilled when pre-race communication indicated that scout regulations required men and women to be housed separately.  Chuck arrived first and texted us to say that the cabins were "like 3 miles apart", which I wrongly assumed was an exaggeration.  While this wasn't a huge problem for our team since we'd brought two vehicles, that's typically not the case and could have been a headache.

We took our coordinates and 1:15,000 USGS map into nearby Quincy to get dinner and do our plotting and route planning.  I lived there for a few years during college; apparently it's changed in the subsequent 20 years because I didn't recognize anything.  Patrick got a lot of mileage out of my past residency; one of the recurring themes of the race was his insistence that I'd grown up in Quincy.  

He was the instigator of another such theme as well. Somehow on the drive to dinner the topic of "The Diarrhea Song" came up. 

Apparently he and one of his daughters have some bizarre fondness for the song (one not shared by his long-suffering wife, Beth). "It has a lot more verses than you realize," he told us. "I bet tomorrow we'll come up with all kinds of adventure race-related ones."

After eating some sub-standard Mexican food and mapping our race, we left our bikes at the bike drop and went to our separate cabins. For the boys, this entailed walking about 50 feet. Kristy and I had a three-mile drive but were much closer to the start line the next day.  After a long night of not much sleep, we met back up around 5:30 a.m. for a light breakfast and pre-race meeting before the 6:30 start.

Pre-race team picture...and yes, Kristy really is almost that short.
The race directors took us down to the fire ring for some last-minute instructions and information about the "scout challenges". These included fire building, tomahawk throw, slingshot, and archery; to get credit for the checkpoint teams had to complete the challenge. A bonus was awarded if only one team member was needed to complete the task.  With that, they asked, "Any questions?" and hearing none, told us, "Ok, go!"

Trek 1: We started on foot with a run to the bike drop, and while Chuck had originally planned to run up the road he made a game-day decision to cut through the woods when almost everyone else did.  We initially started down the wrong road before correcting our course and crossing the swinging bridge over the camp lake. This was very much not my favorite part of the race.

Taking a picture while attempting not to pee my pants in fear and while accusing all of my teammates of intentionally making the bridge bounce...I can multitask with the best of  'em!

Once we were safely across the bridge of terror, we had a short run/walk along some seriously muddy camp roads to the bike drop where (hallelujah!) there were other bikes there besides ours.  We added a little air to Kristy's low front tire and headed off on the first bike leg.

Bike 1: There were two basic route options: flatter (but potentially mushy) gravel or hilly but partly paved. We opted for paved after the soul-sucking ride Chuck and I had last weekend on soggy gravel. When you're riding on some gravel and your bowels start to unravel...

Kristy still smiling after the hilly section
Chuck led us to our first checkpoint, where he added some air to my very low rear tire while I punched our passport, and as we were about to leave Kristy noticed her front tire was flat.

Once that was handled, we headed off for CP2, watching the lead teams coming back towards us.  There had been a typo in the coordinates, causing everyone to plot the CP a kilometer closer than it was, but the combination of the error being on the bike leg (way faster to cover that distance on a bike on the road than on foot in the woods) and the clue being "bridge" (relatively obvious if you're at a bridge or not) kept that from being disastrous.

Snack break at CP2
I tried to be conscious of time and remind people about eating and drinking regularly. In my first few adventure races, Luke was always having to check if I was on top of nutrition and hydration, both of which make a huge difference over a long race.  I may have come off slightly like a mother hen.

CP2 was basically an out-and-back, so we retraced our bike tracks, seeing the strong bike team of "Orienteering to the Bar" as well as our friends Dave and Jules as we headed back to the turn out to CP3.  We rode a couple big hills up to a beautiful cabin in the woods and our first bonus event, the tomahawk throw.

Patrick throwing while Chuck observes.
Teams had to stick three tomahawks in the target in order to get credit for this CP. Patrick ("Hawk")  made short work of the first two; the third one took a little longer, but he got us our bonus point by sticking them all on his own.  We then hiked some seriously muddy trail to get CP4, alongside a creek, and then headed back to our bikes for the ride back to camp.

We easily found our way back to camp, but navigating the camp roads was a bit more problematic. Pedaling presented some challenges...


...and we compounded the difficulty by missing a turn and riding down a surprisingly fun trail that, unfortunately, was in the wrong direction.  Rather than retrace our steps, we opted to go off-trail, giving Kristy her first taste of bikewhacking (actually, I think it was my most extensive bikewhack as well). Dragging bikes through thorn-heavy woods, lifting them over downed trees and across small creeks, and pushing them uphill is even less fun than it sounds. Thankfully, Chuck's nav was back on track and eventually we arrived at the next bike drop/CP5, getting there just ahead of Orienteering to the Bar, having lost our lead with the mistake more adventurous route.

In order to get credit for CP5, someone on the team had to build a fire using natural materials and get it to burn through a string stretched above the fire pit. OTTB build their fire on top of a metal piece and completed the challenge before we did. Chuck ("Sparky") soon had our fire going, too, and we were out of the TA shortly after them.

Building the fire while we spectate
Trek 2: Neither Kristy nor Patrick have spent a ton of time on the bike lately, so I think they were both pretty happy to be on foot again.  I'm not sure how long that lasted, because we started our trek with a kilometer or more of bushwhacking through the thorniest terrain this side of Thunder Rolls.


Seems like we had to cross over creeks a few times, and we initially tried to keep our feet dry.

I inched across like I was swaying on a tightrope above the Grand Canyon, while Kristy confidently crossed like she was walking down the street, earning the nickname "Squirrel".
Eventually we gave up on dry feet, making creek crossings much faster.  We initially came out one hill too early, so we hiked a short way along the (blessedly thorn-free) road to the site of CP6, the slingshot event.  I opted to do this, not because I have any particular skill with a slingshot (much the contrary, in fact) but because we guessed the climbing tower might be a one-person challenge and thought Squirrel, our smallest and lightest teammate, might be the fastest on that (and also because I'm afraid of heights and always happy to avoid high things).

Orienteering to the Bar was already at the slingshot and finished hitting their five cans with a slingshot before I ever hit one.  Actually, every team finished this checkpoint before I ever hit a can, because after a looooooong time of me missing every shot, we gave in and Patrick and Chuck put me out of my misery by finishing the challenge. Kate ("doesn't get a cool scout race nickname"): slingshot failure.  

We took a fairly direct route from CP6 to CP7, which left us climbing up and down a lot of steep reentrants...and by "climbing down" I mostly mean sliding...occasionally on purpose.

The combination of steep sides and muddy ground made finding your footing lots of fun.
Is that Lewis? Or Clark?
On the ground right before the reentrant holding CP7, Chuck found a big section of honeycomb.

The original honey stinger.
CP7 was tucked down in a tree clogged reentrant. After I scrambled down for that, we hiked a blessedly smooth ridge, through a field where we caught sight of a 2-person male team that had been ahead of us all day, and back to the road.  We slowly gained on them as we walked down the road to the next field, our attack point for CP8. We trudged through corn stubble and entered the woods right behind them. They headed to the left, and we headed more to the right, where we spotted the flag.


Between the steep slopes and the soft, muddy ground, crossing the reentrants was tricky at times.
Our route between CPs 8 and 9 was a long stretch of field, this one full of tall grass.  Wading through all of this was reminiscent of the Thunder Rolls coasteering legs, though slightly drier than walking through a river. When you're trudging through a field and your sphincter starts to yield...

Kristy's one worry about the race was coming across a snake, and as we crossed here I wondered if this was where she'd see one.
I don't remember CP9, but somewhere in one of the woods sections Patrick had found an antler, which he carried with him as we hiked out to the road. We joked about him using it as a grappling hook on some of the steeper sections and pondered his chances of goring himself "if" he fell.

I'd like to attribute this picture to my quick-draw camera skills, but in reality he just waited for me to take it.
 Just before reaching the road, there was yet another reentrant/small creek to cross.  I slid down on my butt and then crawled up the other side. Patrick and Kristy crossed with more panache.  Patrick looked over the distance, tossed his pack across, and jumped.

I need a faster camera.
 Then Kristy came up to do the same thing. Torn between my typical M.O. of encouraging daring behavior in anyone except myself and remembering my brother's warning to keep his wife safe, I settled for a lukewarm middle ground: "You can totally do it!...you know...if you think it's a good idea..."

When you're jumping over a creek and your pants begin to leak...

She totally could do it and was promptly upgraded to "Flying Squirrel"
We stopped for a quick snack break and then walked the road towards the driveway that was our attack point for CP10.  Hearing voices to our right, we looked over and saw Orienteering to the Bar again.  They're much stronger on the bike than we are, but they're relatively new to AR and not very experienced with navigation, which was our strength, so it was demoralizing to keep being caught by them on a trekking leg.

Our teams met up at the end of the driveway, which led right between a house and a barn.  Uncomfortable with strolling past someone's house, we all walked further in search of an attack point that didn't lead us through their yard.  OTTB are all familiar faces from the St. Louis bike scene, but I'd never really talked to any of them, and it was particularly nice to exchange Dirty Kanza stories with Tara.

We punched CP10 ahead of them, and then it was time to head back to the camp for the last stretch of the race.  Trying to move forward rather than double back, we ended up at a deep reentrant with steep sides. It looked nearly impassable, so when Chuck asked if we wanted to try to battle through the thick brush along the side or cross the reentrant, I told him something like, "I don't want to go across that." He promptly climbed down into the reentrant.

Knowing exactly what had happened, all I could do was laugh and follow him.  Chuck's hearing isn't good, particularly in his left ear, and he'd misheard my answer. Crossing that reentrant was no joke, especially near the top of the other side, which formed almost a cornice of dirt. I'm not sure how Chuck got up on his own, because I couldn't have made it without him helping me.  We all got across, though, and it was certainly an adventurous route choice.

Checkpoint 11 was the archery challenge, where Chuck quickly scored the 10 points we needed to get our punch and bonus and move on.


From CP11 we had to go to the canoe put-in and then pick up our bikes after completing the canoe CPs, but we had to pass CP12, the climbing wall, on our way.  Having assumed that, like the other challenges, only one team member was going to have to climb the wall, I was dismayed to see both Scott and Neil on top of the structure.

BOR's Scott and Neil getting ready to rappel down.
 We had a fairly short paddle on the camp's pretty little lake, passing under the bridge of death on our way to CPA (at one end of the boomerang-shaped lake) and again as we headed to CPB (on the other end) seeing OTTB close behind us both times we turned.  When you're paddling on a lake and your intestines start to quake...



 Having completed the paddling leg, we had to cross the bridge again, making the unpleasant discovery that accidentally all walking in step really got it moving.  As Patrick mentioned later, it had a real Tacoma Narrows vibe to it.

As we walked the muddy trail back to the bike TA, I was looking at my watch and doing some math. We had four remaining bike checkpoints: 12 (the climbing wall), 13, 14, and 15. Since all four of us had to climb the tower and the rappel down, we guessed at least a half hour for CP12. Judging from the sloppy conditions of the camp's dirt roads and the short stretch of trail we'd hiked to get to our bikes, there's no way we would have enough time to get all of the remaining checkpoints and still make the cutoff.

Bike 2: With CP13 being pretty far in the opposite direction of the final two, we opted to skip both 12 and 13.  We got to ride our bikes a little bit before reaching a muddy hill and pushing again.  Kristy, who'd spent the whole race in good spirits but increasing amounts of grim determination over the last hour or so, asked me, "HOW do you guys do this for 24 hours?" I told her it was basically what we'd been doing all day, just keep moving forward until you're done.

When we reached CP14 in no time, my heart sank a little. If this one was that easy, we really should have gone after 13 as well. I thought it was likely that OTTB would be able to leverage their stronger biking to collect the bike points before the cutoff.  Getting to 15 took considerably longer, though, and necessitated a lot of bike pushing through mud, and in the end it was clear that the decision we'd made was their right one for our team.We had time to get back to the finish line, but not enough to have gotten either of the other CPs, so if the other teams beat us, it was because they'd raced better and not because we'd chosen poorly.

Heading towards the finish, the bridge in the background.
We got to take one final trip over the swinging bridge, this time pushing our bikes with us. This was a special kind of fun for me, as I alternated between catching my handlebar in the fencing along the side of the bridge and banging my pedal into my leg, but I was tired enough that the fear factor was pretty minimal. There was one more hill to push our bikes up and then just a short ride back to the finish line and the happy news that we came in second in our division and qualified for USARA Nationals.

Post race, we still like each other.
I had a blast and would race with this group any time. It was every bit as fun of a day as I'd imagined it could be.  Kristy in her first race and Patrick out of AR retirement were awesome in what was definitely the toughest 8 hour race (with a 10-hour cutoff) I've ever done.  The weather was pretty much perfect for a race, but the warmer temperatures made for challenging travel through difficult terrain.Far from being a gentle introduction into the fun of adventure racing, it was more of a baptism by mud.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

New race on the schedule and a new teammate

Adventure racing is spreading in my family.  My brother Jim was my very first AR teammate, back at the 2011 edition of the Berryman Adventure Race, and four years later my sister-in-law has come over to the dark side.  Kristy actually started mountain biking when I did, going with me to my second Dirty Girls bike ride, but she ended up taking a break from the bike in order to provide me with an adorable goddaughter.

She melts my heart.
With Bonkhard's absence from the 2015 race calendar, our chosen race (the Smithville Challenge) was off the table, and while quite a few new options have presented themselves, none both fit  my schedule and met our race criteria. We were looking for an 8-hour race, somewhat local, on a date that was likely to have decent weather.  In the event that we raced as a 2-person team, I'd be navigating, so we needed to avoid temperatures where we could freeze to death if I got us lost.

While March weather is notoriously unreliable (as evidence, note the 5ish inches of snow we got yesterday), the Physically Strong Adventure Race otherwise fit the bill.  It's an 8-hour, and it's less than three hours away.

Kristy and I committed, and we were all set to sign up as Moms Incredibly Lost in the Forest (Team MILF for short), when my husband raised an objection. He hated the name, totally not getting the joke or not thinking other people would get it.  While I thought he was being silly, I also figured that if a guy who is cool with me going out of town on a regular basis with male teammates wants me to change a funny team name, I can respect his opinion.  The later addition of Chuck and Patrick made the name obsolete, anyway: we were no longer all moms and no longer likely to be incredibly lost. Now we'll be racing as 100+ Project.

With her first adventure race on the schedule, my new teammate needed some experience.  She's been running as long as I have -- in fact, her question "Do you want to do this 5K with me?" back in 2010 is the reason I started running -- but hasn't spent much time on trails and even less time hiking off-trail.  The St. Louis Orienteering Club's February orienteering meet was the perfect training opportunity.  The three-hour course would give her a taste of what our race would be like and get me some navigation practice.

While we were technically limited to three hours, the course was open until 4:30. Interested more in practice than our score, we warned the meet director that we were going to try and clear the course, which would almost certainly mean we'd miss the three-hour cutoff.  "Don't worry if we're back late. I promise we'll be in by 4:30."

Gary, who knows me pretty well, replied, "You do realize it's 4:30 PM, right?"

We jogged down the park road in search of our first control, and I promptly took us into the woods too early. Thankfully I caught my mistake pretty quickly and shifted us over to the correct reentrant. Seeing some of the BOR guys further up the hill from us made me question myself, but I stuck to my plan, staying low instead of following them, and we walked right to the first control.

Kristy punching her first ever control. :)
We found the second and third without any significant issues, and then we had a long trek to 4. There were two main route choices: down along a trail through a creek bottom or up along the ridgeline.  I opted to go high; trails sound like the easier choice, but so often the reality doesn't match the map. Terrain doesn't change the way that trails do.

Once we got up to the ridge, it was a pretty smooth trip to our attack point. If we were a running team, it was a very runnable area.  I bobbled our approach a little and we did a little back and forth in the creek bottom before settling on the correct way to go, but we found the control with little problem.  Hurray!  Other navigational triumphs were twice following a bearing (basically, connecting the dots and going as the crow flies) between points; I was a little nervous about this after my colossal failure at staying on a bearing at Perfect 10, but both times we went straight to our next point.

It wasn't all smooth sailing, though. While I'd managed to stick with my own plan despite BOR taking a slightly different route to the first control, I let other teams distract me on three other legs. Seeing someone come from a different direction or start their approach earlier than I had intended threw me off, making me question myself and end up off track when I'd been going the right way. My navigation has improved immensely; now I just need to work on confidence and focus.

Kristy mentioned later that she'd been surprised by how little we were actually on trails, but she did a great job. Even though this was her first time following along on a topo map, there were a couple times when she noticed things I didn't; by the end she had a pretty good feel for the map, and I don't think it would take her long to pass me up if she got some practice. Navigation definitely doesn't come easy to me, though I think I've reached the point where I can give good input if there's a question, which has been my goal all along.

We did, indeed, clear the course, and though it took us an extra 45 minutes to do it, Kristy got a good taste of what it's like to be racing for nearly 4 hours in hilly terrain. If I'd had any concerns about her ability to hang in there (I didn't), the Meramec o-meet would have dispelled them.

With trekking experience checked off, the next goal was to get her some time on the bike.  Unlike for orienteering, however, the weather did not cooperate. The unseasonably reasonable temperatures this winter mostly left the singletrack unrideable muck, but (semi)thankfully winter decided to make an appearance just before spring hits, leaving us some solid(ly frozen) trails.


We met up with Chuck and Lori at Indian Camp Creek Park, one of my favorite places to ride, and hit the trails.  The bottom layer of ice made riding a little tricky, but the combination of bumpy surface and top layer of fresh snow left me relatively comfortable. The temperature started in the high teens but was very comfortable once we started riding.


Conditions were definitely more challenging than riding on dry dirt; snow's a good teacher. You're reminded how much it helps to look where you want to go than to stare down in front of your front wheel, and you learn about how important it is to downshift to an easier gear so your rear wheel doesn't spin out on uphills.  Still, I had a blast. If I wasn't smiling at how much fun I was having, I was laughing about how bad I am at following a line.  Last night we got another 5-6" of snow, and if the weather gods smile on me tomorrow and deliver a snow day (looking sadly unlikely), I'll be back out on my bike.

Our race is in just under two weeks, and I can't wait.  I hope Kristy has as much fun as I think she will. With the team we have, it'll be hard not to.  Chuck was my most regular race partner last year; Patrick is my oldest adventure friend, and though I don't think we've ever raced together we've done plenty of training together. I have full confidence that we're going to have a great time.