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Monday, April 2, 2018

2018 LBL Challenge

Sometimes opposites attract, and sometimes they just race together. While ostensibly I have less in common with the hairy, hilarious guys of Team Virtus, it's Mickey and I who are truly a study in contrasts. He used to win triathlons, and I used to read a lot of books. When he struggles with something, he works at it until he can do it; I, on the other hand, make a mental note of where I'll need to walk again next time. He's strong and fast on foot and bike; I'm...not. He's competitive, while my frequent refrain is "You know we aren't going to clear this course."

I come from an AR background that values fun over fast, and he thinks that fast is fun. That could be a recipe for disaster, because in adventure racing a team is only as speedy as its slowest member. It's vital that all teammates have similar -- or realistic -- expectations, and we did. We've trained together enough that he wasn't going to be blindsided by my pace, and I fully expected to spend most of the race's 18 hours suffering.

Race eve:

The misery could wait until Saturday, though. On race eve, we got to Land Between the Lakes early enough for a shakedown ride on the Canal Loop Trail. Since my full suspension bike hadn't been ridden since my last AR in December, I wanted to make sure everything was working OK and that I remembered how to shift. Though the LBL area had been deluged with rain in the previous weeks (the canoe leg had been cancelled due to high, unsafe lake conditions), the trail was 95% perfect and super fun.

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Perfecting my selfie game. 
The pre-race meeting wasn't until race morning, so instead of poring over maps and plotting routes, we met our BOR friends for dinner at a nearby Mexican restaurant. After dinner, we checked into the hotel and readied our gear as much as possible, leaving the rest until we knew the structure of the course. The forecast, which when the 10-day window first opened had been abysmal, looked good for March: highs in the mid-50's dropping into the 30's at night. The race started at 10:30 a.m. and ended at 4:30 a.m. the next day. With daylight savings time still a week away, we'd be spending a large portion of the race in the colder nighttime hours.

Pre-race:

We got to race check-in plenty early Saturday and staged our bikes and the 5 gallon bucket per racer we'd been allowed for additional gear. Since we'd have access to the bucket after the first trekking leg, we kept about 5 hours-worth of food and left the rest in our buckets along with the fleece jackets we anticipated needing as the temperature dropped at nightfall. I also staged a gallon of water and, anticipating a wet course, an extra pair of shoes.

361 does a fantastic job with their pre-race meetings. They're usually funny, and they're always quick and to the point. By 8:30 we had our maps and course instructions and were plotting points on the hood of my car. After initially misplotting the first two, we straightened ourselves out and mapped the rest with no issues. (Mickey: Um...you know...you don't have to include every detail.)

LBL challenge 2018
Photo credit: 361 Adventures
Without a canoeing leg the course was very foot-heavy, beginning with a 10-point trekking leg that would return us to race HQ. From there, teams would ride to four different bike drops, from which we would do additional trekking legs of different lengths. There was no required order for checkpoints or bike drops; the only rule was that you had to leave your bike and trek to the points once you arrived at the drop. There were also no mandatory points once you returned to race HQ from the initial trekking leg; you could be considered an official finisher as long as you got back to the finish line under your own power and before the cut-off.

Our initial plan was to clear the first trek and then go to the northeast bike drop since it had the most CPs (7). We'd then go to the northwest bike drop and tackle that trekking leg (3CP). Since the southwest drop only had 2 CP we considered skipping it if we needed to, and then we'd finish up with as much as we could at the southeast bike drop (4 CP).

We had two main concerns: first, we'd be spending over half of the race in the dark, and Mickey has limited experience with night nav; second, some of the "roads" Chuck and I rode in this area last year were considerably worse than the singletrack, so I was very leery of trusting any kind of pace projection above singletrack speeds for the road routes. We kept our race plan fluid and wrote estimated times back to the finish from each bike drop in case we had to make changes on the fly.

The amount of time between the pre-race meeting and the start felt positively leisurely. We finished all our plotting and planning, organized all of our gear, ate a second (or third) breakfast, and still had time to organize a group photo of all the SLOC members at the race. Every morning should be so relaxing.

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St. Louis Orienteering Club representing!
Trek 1: CP 1-10, any order. 10.6 miles, 2:56


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Cool way to start the day
The first ten CPs could be attained in any order, but they formed a clear loop. We, along with what seemed like most of the pack, opted to attack them in number order. Despite starting with a run, we lost sight of most everyone by the time we'd punched the first CP.  Once we approached the bag we'd trade passport and maps; he'd punch the passport, and I'd catch my breath while picking out route options to the next CP.

This was a nice way for me to stay in touch with the map and feel a little more like part of our navigational process, but it didn't always go smoothly. We navigate differently; what makes sense to me isn't always as clear to him, and I still don't have enough confidence to stick by what I think when a better navigator questions me. This cost us around 6 minutes on the way to CP7, where I'd chosen the route and knew exactly where we were (as confirmed later by our GPS track) but wavered when he thought we were closer. We ended up finding the point but took a much more roundabout way to get there.

Overall, though, our nav for this leg was clean with a only a couple small mistakes that Mickey quickly caught. This was a big improvement over our performance last May at Mission, where we'd let small errors spiral into huge time sucks. We arrived back at the TA in just under three hours, loaded up everything we'd need for the rest of the race, and headed out on our first short bike leg.

Bike 1: (Race HQ to northeast bike drop) 4.8 miles, 25 minutes

I'd been looking forward to using the tow, but it took me a while to get comfortable with it again, especially on any spots that weren't pavement-smooth, and I dropped off a few times when the roads took us downhill and around turns. I'm much happier when I'm in control of my own destiny, but I know it was annoying to Mickey that I kept letting go, especially since most of those downhills led right into a subsequent climb. Since I hold the tow with my hand instead of hanging it around my stem, it's also nearly impossible for me to eat on the bike. Luckily, this wasn't much of an issue with the minimal bike time.

Since all of the bike legs were short, I'd opted to leave my chamois behind. Any qualms I had about this decision were dispelled a few miles into our ride when we rounded a corner and found the 361 team standing at a submerged low-water crossing.  A jeep was halfway through with water up to its doors. Mickey never hesitated; swinging off his bike he shouldered it, said, "You ready, Kate?" and headed across. I looked at the other team, shrugged, and followed dutifully behind.  At its deepest, the water came up to my hips. The dry socks I'd changed into at the TA had lasted me maybe 4 miles.

361 crossed just behind us, and Mickey teased them a little about getting shamed into going through the water. We then promptly missed a turn and rode up a big hill before catching our mistake, coasting back down and riding into the first bike drop shortly after 361. We punched the CP and then transitioned for our next trek. I had just finished putting on my second pair of dry socks when Mickey looked over. "You know we're going to have to cross that creek again on the trek, right?" Sigh. At that point I just accepted that I was going to have wet feet all day.

Trek 2: CP 11-17, any order. 7.4 miles, 2:10


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Trek 2. The orange line is our bike route in (from the right) and then out again (to the left).
(Mickey: Now THAT'S a beautiful plotting job!)

Once again you could get the CPs in any order. I voted for any route that avoided the creek as long as possible. Mickey led us directly to 15 and 17; we then climbed a spur and turned onto the doubletrack there, running into Scott and Kevin going in the opposite direction. More taunting ensured, followed almost immediately by a map check and the realization that we were the ones going the wrong way. I think this may have been the first time I suggested a link between the shit talk and navigational miscues.

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Powerline promised land. They are NEVER this clear!
Back on track, we tagged 14 and then followed a blissfully clear powerline cut (seriously, it was like a golf course or something) most of the way to 13. So far, pretty good, but the flat land after the CP was marshy and thorny. We retreated to the powerline, only to find this later section a veritable wall of thorns. Nope. We skipped the powerline and climbed back up to the road. Scott and Kevin, on the other hand, had a very different experience here.

We soon arrived back at the deep low-water crossing. Since my feet were already wet, I wasn't even sad about stepping in, though it felt even colder this time. The absence of our bikes made it easier to get pictures, and standing there in the middle for a couple minutes did wonders for my sore legs and feet.

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Mickey wondered aloud whether we'd be better off skipping 12, which required a not particularly friendly out and back hike. For once, I was the one advocating to go for it. "We're here, and it's still light out." I really wanted to maximize our daylight time since Mickey doesn't have a ton of night nav experience and my forte is blindly following Chuck (regularly occurring conversation after dark: Chuck: "You see how this spur narrows over there?" Kate: "It's dark out...I can't see anything.")

We started up the wrong reentrant on the way to 12 but quickly corrected. I think around here is where we ran into Scott and Kevin (again! Some teams we barely saw during the day, but we saw Scott/Kevin and 361 repeatedly), who'd done some swimming to escape the thorns and now had zero dry clothes as night fell and temperatures began to drop. Popping back onto the road, we ran into Dave and Amy and said quick hellos before tagging 11 and 16 on the way back to the bikes. Night was rapidly closing in, and we discussed what to do next as we changed into bike shoes.

For some reason, maybe because it had the most available CPs, we discussed going back past the TA to the Southeast bike drop. In retrospect, we had plenty of time to go in the race and it made little strategic sense to go there next, but the main reason I was against that idea was that I didn't want to cross that creek a third time and deal with the dropping temperatures in wet clothes. Instead, we decided to head to the northwest drop, where we could punch the TA and one CP that was right off a road before deciding what to do about the other two CPs there. Mickey quickly highlighted our route on the map, and then we took off.

Bike 2: (NE bike drop to NW bike drop) 6.4 miles, 43 minutes

This leg was mostly gravel but also required riding a piece of the North-South trail, some of which I recognized from last year, that was soft and muddy and not much fun. It still takes me a long time to get comfortable riding singletrack at night, and my nerves in combination with conditions made for slow going; if I wasn't walking because I'd bailed on something easy, I was walking because the trail wasn't rideable. The 1.5 miles of trail took us (me) about 16 minutes. I can only imagine how annoying it was for Mickey because I was really frustrated with myself.

I was so, so happy to turn back onto gravel. Back on the road and concerned about conserving battery life with a long stretch of darkness, I turned my bike light and headlamp to their lowest settings, immediately regretting this when we turned onto a muddy, chunky, rutted downhill that now I could barely see in my low light. If nothing else my glacial pace did allow me to spot the detour route around a gigantic mud puddle on the main road.

Trek 3: CP 18, 19, 20, any order. 2.4 miles, 1:03

The CP flag at the bike drop wasn't readily visible, but 361 found it as we finished up our transition, making it an easy grab for us. Scott and Kevin arrived just as we were starting our trek and asked where the flag was. Mickey refused to help, but as I followed him down the road I looked back at the guys and pointed them in the correct direction behind his back. (You mother&$%@er!!!)

LBL challenge 2018


It was too little, too late in the karma department. We didn't walk far before Mickey suspected we were heading in the wrong direction. At first he thought maybe the road was going to turn the correct way; when it didn't, we stopped and looked at the map again. I had a bad feeling. "Were we supposed to..." [go back up to the main road] is what I was going to continue, but before the words were out of my mouth I thought about how we'd had to go off the road to get to the CP flag and that obviously that was the orange that hooked down to the B2 circle and my idea was stupid.

As it turned out, my idea was exactly right, but since I didn't say it out loud we followed the spur longer until Mickey realized what we'd done wrong. Thoroughly irritated with ourselves, we turned around and retraced our steps, confusing some teams at the bike drop. "Is there a bonus CP down there?" someone asked.

"No, just bonus steps."

That error out of the way, we made quick work of CP18 and briefly discussed going after 19 and 20. Still nervous about our night nav inexperience and realizing that I'd somehow lost the clue sheet (which, thankfully, we found on the ground where I'd left it at the bike drop), we opted to skip them in favor of the more easily approached CPs at the next bike drop, planning to spend any extra time clearing the final bike drop. In retrospect, the were clear attack points for both CPs and we had the time to go after them. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that.

Bike 3: (NW bike drop to SW bike drop) 6.7 miles, 1:25

We'd intended to take the North South trail between these bike drops, but after the miserable first stretch on the trail I asked about detouring onto the slightly longer gravel route instead. The suggestion was made with some trepidation as a similar decision during last year's LBL put Chuck and I on jeep roads that were considerably more challenging than the trail. I was nervous about repeating that mistake, but after the trail conditions we'd already experienced, we took the chance.

LBL challenge 2018

Mickey tossed me the map so I could mark our route while he took care of some issues. Thankfully the roads were much better than I'd feared, because while the route was straightforward on paper it was less so in practice. We played a few rounds of "is this the right turn," and one total detour ("You're not the first team to hit this dead end," remarked the man parked where the road met the lake), and then had one final stretch where I trailed miserably behind Mickey, convinced that we were going the wrong way until our lights hit the reflectors of bikes already at the drop.

Mickey: What? No faith? LOL
Happy to have been wrong!

Trek 4: CP 21 - 22, any order. 1 mi, 48 minutes

We initially started off in the wrong direction, missing the road we needed because the other team at the bike drop was sitting across it, but Mickey almost immediately caught the mistake and we nailed these points. We took the spur to 21, and then instead of going back out to the road (purple line) which I'd have done, he led us straight to 22. We then took the road back to our bikes, quickly plotted our route to the next bike drop while eating, and then headed out.

Bike 4: (SW bike drop to SE bike drop) 5.4 miles, 51 minutes

We made use of the tow and had an uneventful ride, right up until we blew past the turn to the bike drop as another team trekked up out of it. This one was on me, because as we rode by I noticed the white poles marking the pipeline, but I was the one holding the clue sheet and didn't remember for a couple minutes that the clue for the bike drop was pipeline/trail. We should have written the clues on the map as well, I should get in the habit of looking ahead at the clue for our next point, and I should come up with a better clue sheet carrying method besides stuffing it in a baggie and then into my shirt. Anyway, that little oversight cost us 8 minutes.

Trek 5: CP 23, 24, 25, 27 (26 was already punched for all teams), any order. 5.9 miles, 2:52

We took the road to CP24, where we came upon a hilariously big CP flag (I'd left my camera on the bike, but BOR got a picture of it). From there, we retraced our steps back up the road, taking the long way to 23. We'd considered taking the low route along the creek to get there but thought the attack point might be hard to pick out in the dark.

LBL challenge 2018



We initially overshot CP23, ending up one hillside west of where we wanted to be but crossed paths again with 361, who told us we were headed in the right direction. We had a smooth path back up the spur from CP23, back on to the road, and downhill through thorns to 25, which Mickey nailed.

The route between 25 and 27 featured me trailing as far behind Mickey as legal as I fought through thorns and brush. We reached 27 at the same time as 361, who opted to take the pipeline back to the bike drop. In what was arguably our worst decision of the race, we followed the spur back up to the road. The insanely thorny spur. I'm not sure whether I lost more hair or blood to the thorns, but it was awful. I was literally the closest to losing it I've been in a race, including the time I was stung all over by tracker jackers at Thunder Rolls. 361 rode past us after we finally got onto the road.

Looking at the map now, we could have followed the purple line road, which goes directly to the bike drop. We need to work on picking up on those details, especially late in the race when you tend to get tunnel vision. (Mickey: If there's any positive to our route choice, we did an excellent job hitting that spur, even while having to fight through the thorns.) Yes, and we didn't bleed out in the process. Two positives!

Bike 5: (SE bike drop to finish) 7.7 miles, 51 minutes

We met back up with Scott and Kevin at the bike drop. We knew they'd gotten one more CP than us, so unless they got really lost on the way back and came in after the cutoff they were going to beat us. Knowing how strong they are on the bike, I kept waiting for them to fly past us after we left. The trip back to the finish line was all good roads, a combination of gravel and pavement where we could maximize our use of the tow, and they never did catch us.

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We ended up finishing in 16:30, and I think even as we raced we could used that extra hour and a half to clear the course. (Total bummer. That was probably the best chance we'll ever have to clear a full-sized course. I think your previous experience with crappy roads in this area and the caution they caused screwed us.) That said, this is the closest I've come to clearing an 18 or 24 hour course. We made some mistakes, and we'd certainly have had more time if I'd been faster, but overall we did a really good job of managing our race. We made good decision, had smart strategy, and caught our errors much faster than at Mission.

Was it fun? Mostly type 2 fun. Even with a good teammate (which I had), it's hard to be the by far weaker person on a team. I spent a lot of the race frustrated that I couldn't keep up, but I always knew that he'd ease up if I asked and chose not to. While I couldn't go faster, I didn't have to slow down...I just wanted to. Most of the fun here came in pushing myself and being proud of the race we raced and of our results.

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Photo credit: BOR
This was taken during the first trek and the separation was largely because I'd been shedding a layer as I walked, but it's not an inaccurate picture of what the race was like. At one point later in the race, Mickey asked, "Are you going to walk behind me all day?" as if it was intentional. In a mark of my self control (and inability to catch up, and lack of a knife), I didn't stab him in response. 
Lessons? Mickey should stop talking shit to other people because he makes mistakes when he's distracted. (Meh.) Yes, that's his favorite part of most races, but I have to miss out on 18 hours of cheerful chatting because I don't have enough breath to talk.  We all make sacrifices. My main takeaway is to trust myself. Both times I doubted myself on nav I was right and would have saved us some time if I'd had more confidence. And in a similar vein, just maybe I shouldn't be so quick to assume I won't clear a course.

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