Adventure racing is an endurance sport which involves travel on foot (trekking or running), mountain bike and by water (canoe, kayak, raft, occasionally swimming).

What differentiates AR from other racing sports is the inclusion of wilderness navigation using a map, compass and common sense. There is no set race course; participants must find their own route from one checkpoint to the next. The checkpoints (CPs) are marked on maps which the racers receive shortly prior to or at the start of the race. AR also differs from other sports in that racers are part of a team of 2-4 people who travel together the entire time.

The races can last from several hours to many days and are unsupported, for the most part, which means that the racers carry what they will need (food, water, gear) in backpacks for the duration of the race.

To succeed, racers will need athletic endurance, navigation skills, mental toughness, good pre-race planning, strategic decision making as well as a strong and supportive "team" mentality.

Sound intimidating? While it's true that longer races can test even the toughest outdoor athletes, AR is a very open and inclusive sport. Beginning racers will feel welcome at nearly every event. Most races are organized so that anyone at any level of experience and fitness can participate. You can find a race near you on the calendar at the USARA website.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Wildlands Adventure Challenge, 10/12/19, Orland, ME

Like many parts of the country, fall is the best season in New England, especially for adventure racing. It is cooler, drier, the leaves are beautiful and the bugs are minimal. I'll gripe to anyone about the fact that most ARs are during the worst (for me) time of the year - summer, and that no one seems to take advantage of the PERFECT time of year for a race - fall. In Maine you also have Sundays free from hunting - this can be of concern in fall, since we often share the same lands.

So, I could not pass up this little gem of a race, put on by our friends Kate and Cliff White of Strong Machine. I roped in reliable teammate Rob and, in the last couple days before the race, the legendary Dave Lamb agreed to join us. This was a mostly welcome addition. Dave would add a top level of navigation and bottomless well of race experience. The only downside, for me, is that Dave's "out-of-shape" (which he claimed to be) is equivalent to my "peak fitness" and I was sure not in peak fitness at the moment. But, I said to myself: "It's only eight hours."  I also invoked this thought when planning food, water, clothing, etc. It probably seems like I'm setting up dramatic irony here but, ultimately, it was only 8 hours and things pretty much worked out fine.

Rob and I drove up the night before the race, about a 3 hour trip. We stopped in Belfast and scored some delicious authentic Napolitano pizza at an unassuming spot named "Meanwhile In Belfast."  We snagged a hotel in Bucksport and, in the morning, headed to the race site - Great Pond Mountain after dropping our bikes in the Hothole land parcel.

Kate talking us through the race format.     Photo: Strong Machine
Kayaks staged for the first leg, on Alamoosook Lake.        Photo: Strong Machine

After a quick race briefing and mapping session, we were off in our kayaks for the first leg. Since Dave was the best paddler among us, we put him in the single; Rob and I grabbed a tandem. Before the race we had been discussing how all of us have a habit of making a nav screwup in the first hour of the race. Saying this out loud, however, did not result in any kind of protective reverse-jinx.

Our first CP target was an island slightly South of due West, according to the map, and so that's where we headed, despite the majority of the field heading to the obvious island you could see from the put-in. We booked it far south of their (obviously wrong) tack for about 10 minutes, expecting, at any minute for this island to emerge from the background shoreline in front of us, and at times, convincing ourselves that it had. Well, it never actually did. Dave then noted that our bearing had actually been slightly South of Southwest, and we had been, basically, paddling away from all the CPs for the last 10 minutes. If there was any silver lining here, there were a couple other teams 'in the same boat' nearby. I'm not sure whether they had made a similar directional error, or whether they were just so convinced by our confident power move away from the pack. At this point we made a near U-turn and headed to where CP1 actually was (the obvious island). After this, nav on the paddle was simple and we scooped up the next points without issue. The paddle was basically an out-and-back route in a narrow waterway. To get the final, northernmost, CP would add 3km paddle - 30 minutes in good conditions. We kicked it around for a minute and then decided to go for it. Then we saw the increasing amount of weeds in the water and then we saw someone on their way to that CP out of their boat pulling through shallows. Then we reversed our decision and boogied back to the TA, grabbing one more CP that we had left for the return trip. At this point we were 5-10 minutes behind international team Monkeys Throwing Darts, who we had previously raced closely against.

Finishing up the paddle leg. Dave keeping up in his single-engine vessel.          Photo: Strong Machine
With the wasted paddle time in mind, we transitioned quickly to trek/run mode and set a serious pace. This began with jogging on dirt roads and gradually involved more and more bushwhacking in moderately dense woods. We clicked through the CPs without any major issue, but we weren't catching many of the teams that we knew were in front of us. The terrain was fairly hilly/rugged but the real climbing began when we hit the base of Great Pond Mountain, the top of which held 2 CPs. The terrain opened up to bedrock, moss, and lichen for this on-trail ascent. Although it was mid-October in Maine, it wasn't that cool of a day and I was sweating profusely while getting dropped (not for the last time) by Dave and Rob on the climb.

Bedrock, lichen and moss, as described, en route to Great Pond Mtn. summit.

Between CPs on Great Pond Mtn.

Team photo at GPM vista. Wicked fall cullah!

It was pretty up there. Nice race location.
 Really, the navigational crux of the race was working your way, off trail, from this summit to the next CP and nearby TA2, which were over a mile away through the woods. We had decided before the race, to head east along the ridge-like face of the mountain and then descend less steep terrain rather than dropping right off the southern face of the summit. Again, we engaged a quick bushwhacking pace and made good time through the woods. Looking back at our route, we were right on track, and soon we picked up the trail we were aiming for and quickly nabbed the last trek CP en route to TA2 (where we had dropped our bikes earlier that morning).

We had really hustled through the trek and made no appreciable nav mistakes, however, when we got to the TA, we discovered that Monkeys had been equally successful and still had several minutes on us to begin the final leg, the bike.

Another fast TA and then we were off. Most of the riding was on gravel roads - passenger vehicle grade as well as rougher decomissioned logging roads. The rest was on a couple stretches of singletrack and summit trails with bare granite surfaces. One limitation for riding this area was the absence of many loops, so there were many out-and-back CPs to obtain (see GPS track). Everyone was feeling the earlier running in their legs, especially me, on the frequent climbs, but we just kept grinding away.  Several times during the bike, we crossed paths with Monkeys, always just a few minutes ahead of us. We could not seem to close on them. After essentially exhausting the rideable terrain of the Wildlands parcel, we were spit out onto Rt. 1 for a speedy trip back toward the start/finish, grabbing a CP along the way, with a slight bobble and another encounter with Monkeys, still a few minutes ahead!

The last task was to ride a newly NEMBA-installed downhill trail near the finish. This would obviously be preceded by some kind of substantial climb. We had another nav bobble here and then we hit the uphill to the trail - a hike-a-bike that was really kicking me and Rob in the crotch at this point. We finally hit the top of the trails, rode the thing (pretty cool) and sped into the finish. Monkeys were already there chilling, so we knew we had earned a hard-fought second place.

After handing in our final passport, we were joking that we should go back and get that paddle CP we skipped. The volunteer said "Yeah that's what those guys said too: that they should go back and get CP 19."

"Wait, they skipped 19?" (19 was a bike CP)

"Yeah, I think they said 19."

"You heard them say they skipped 19?"

"I think so..."

At this point, Rob sees the passports sticking out of the guy's pocket, grabs them and verifies that yes, Monkeys Throwing Darts skipped CP 19. Oh, cool. I guess we won, then.

 The awards get-together was a nice chance to chat with all the other racers. Strong Machine had done a great job attracting a bunch of brand-new and newish racers to this event, which was awesome to see, and to meet some of them. Dinner was pizza and a local session IPA - what's better than that after a race?

This was another outstanding event conceived and executed by New England's AR power couple and EcoChallenge survivors, Kate and Cliff White. We look forward to racing with them again!

Friday, October 18, 2019

GMARA Bitter Pill, 12 hour AR, 8/10/19, Waterbury, VT

This year's 12-hour race with Reed (hopefully a continuing tradition) was one of our first and still favorite races, the Bitter Pill. This would be my 5th BP and Reed's 1st. This year's version was in Waterbury, VT, home and outdoor playground of this year's course designer, Ross LiebLappen. Rob was tapped to join the GOALS team with Glen Lewis and Nicky Driscoll.

Per BP usual, we set a pre-dawn alarm in the hotel room. Well before this, however, around 2:00 AM, I was awakened by Reed rustling about in the room. "Dad, I didn't bring any contacts."  Hmm. And no back-up glasses either, Hmm. So, we fished his old contacts out of the bathroom trashcan, rehydrated them in tap water and popped them back in. After a few anxious, stingy, blurry minutes and one re-do, the contacts were working fine and we were back in bed for a couple more minutes of sleep before the alarm.

Once we arrived at race HQ (Blush Hill Country Club), we learned that we would be starting on bikes from here, followed by a long trek, then a short road ride, then a paddle, followed by a short trek back to here. There was a time cutoff at 3:00 to start the paddle. Since the final race cutoff was 5:30 PM, this led me to believe, without verifying this on the maps, that the paddle must be quite short. 

At 5:30 AM, we were off, zooming downhill on our bikes, which was a little chilly, but relief (?) would soon be on the way when we entered the Perry Hill trail system and encountered a flowy, bermed-out downhill section...that we would be ascending. With all concerns of coldness behind us, we spent several hours on the trails here, finding a number of on-trail checkpoints. Reminiscent of the Frigid Infliction, the CPs were marked on a topo map that did not have most of the trails, so you had to nav it up a bit to determine which trail you should be on to find the CP. We did pretty well here; Reed rode pretty well on the trails which transitioned from smooth dirt and pine needles to increasing amounts of wet, protruding roots as we passed deeper into the forest. The only significant nav snafu was that I totally forgot about one of the CPs (realizing it only when when the final detailed results were posted days later). Once we left the techy trails, we were treated to a wide mowed grass trail which was mostly smooth and downhill - nice. We rode the last half of the bike with the 2 teams composed of the Koenig family. It was nice to chat with them and see their kids kicking butt out there.

View from the flowy, grassy, latter section of the bike

Reed showing off the old "raspberry branch sawing into the elbow-pit" AR bike injury.
 Once we left the grass, we rode shortly on pavement and gravel before reaching a unique feature of the race. The historic road grade which led from our current location (n the Middlesex Notch) to the start of the trek, had long ago been submerged by busy beavers and was now a saturated marsh. There was no feasible ride-around, so it was a 1-mile hike-a-bike through the wetland involving lots of frogs, ankle- to thigh-deep water, surprise holes, and, during an ill-advised CP approach, a short swim. Although this may seem sucky on paper, we actually enjoyed this cool, scenic and downright funny section. Afterward we agreed it was our favorite part of the race.

 After we cleared this section, we had reached TA1, where the trek began. It was a well-sited and laid out trek. About 50% on/off trail, hilly and with some very pretty spots. After testing the course, GMARA had deemed a few of the trek CPs worth 2 points, a smart decision which added a little more strategic planning and fairness. Overall, we did okay on this section, my nav was far from perfect but we snagged a respectable amount of points here. The only problem was that it had taken a long time to get them, so we had to turn on the hustle on our descent to TA2 (same place as TA1), keeping the looming time cutoffs in mind.

Out of the marsh and laying out a plan of attack for the trek.      Photo: GMARA
We met some fellow granite-staters who supplied this shot from the scenic summit of Chase Mtn.

 We hurried through TA2 and jumped back on the bikes in order to get to the paddle in time. We were riding from a "notch" to a "river" and therefore I was expecting a speedy downhill zoom, however there were a couple tough climbs mixed in which slowed the progress. Still, though we reached the river, site of TA3, at about 2:40 - a decent cushion before the cutoff.  This fact led me (who, again had not looked ahead on the maps) to conclude that we would be able to finish the race on time, as long as we didn't have a significant screw-up.  We flew through the TA and were on the river, kayaking in our bike shoes and helmets, in about 5 minutes. Once we got going, I thought I would take a minute and see what this paddle was all about. I think I laughed out loud when I discovered its length: over 8 miles. The trek afterward was short but mostly uphill and involved some navigation. There was no possibility of finishing on time.

So, with this in mind, we did not go crazy and bomb past all the CPs in an effort to make the final cutoff, we stopped and got every paddle CP while moving purposefully down the river. During this, we had seen a few dark clouds approach from the West but then veer off and spare us a cold soak. Finally though, in the last mile, one of the storms bulls-eyed us. Reed didn't like it. See video below.

Fighting through the rain and new headwind, we eventually made it to the tributary which held the takeout. We didn't have to go far up the tributary (Little River) but its swift current against us was a challenge to fight. Finally, cold and a little beaten up, we made it to the takeout and daunting uphill portage to the TA.

Fun little trail to carry a kayak up.
After laboriusly depositing the canoe at TA4, we took a minute to layer up and grab food for the trek. I think there were 3 or 4 CPs on the trek, but we were already over time at this point, so the plan was just to traverse the area as quickly as possible and not get concerned about finding flags. As we ascended the gravel road to begin the trek, a big group, 4 or 5 teams together, come jogging down the road, telling us that this definitely isn't the way and that they were all going to find some other way back. I rechecked the map, determined that this must be the way and respectfully ignored their advice. Soon we were on the correct trails, as confirmed by Ross, who we met in the woods, and making steady progress to the finish. Reed even spotted a flag which we stumbled across on the way!

Jogging it in.     Photo: GMARA

In the end, we had a great day out in the woods and waters of Waterbury and Middlesex. I thought the course layout, terrain, level of nav difficulty and balance of disciplines were spot-on. Our friends Strong Machine edged GOALS in the end for an impressive win.

A super shout out (do only old people say that now?), as always, to the GMARA family and network of volunteers and sponsors who keep this race going. We'll be back!

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Maine Summer Adventure Race, New Gloucester ME, 6/22/19

Our friends Kate and Cliff White, the nucleus of Strong Machine Adventure Racing, have grown this race from an 8 hour affair in 2016 to a full 24 hours of coastal Maine exploration. Last year's 24 hour version saw Rob and Mason turn in a decent but ultimately lackluster result, beset by heat, exhaustion and, at times, an insect horde. Looking to add a new element to the team this year, we convinced Pennsylvanian Glen Lewis to join forces with us. We knew Glen from many prior races in the northeast and were sure he'd make a great addition. As luck would have it, Nick was willing and available to join as well, as a late addition. Hopefully he'd be willing to sandbag it a little on bike legs so the rest of us could keep up.

We debated about how to format our 4-man squad. Should we race as two 2-man teams, stay together, and reap the benefits of 2 sets of maps and a navigational consensus? This has been a moderately controversial but generally accepted tactic in AR over recent years. As the race date approached, however, we learned that 2-man teams would paddle in 2 single kayaks while 4-man teams would paddle in 2 tandem kayaks.  Tandem kayaks are faster (with 2 human engines) and a longer boat would be more suited for the ocean paddling planned for us. So, after a few texts, we opted to race as one 4-man team.

The race was HQ'd at the Pineland Farms campus in New Gloucester, Maine. Plenty of close parking, room to gear up and work on the maps, and a pleasant store-cafe interior made this a comfortable base of operations. We learned that this year's course would take us from our current inland location through the trails and roads of Bradbury Mtn SP, North Yarmouth, Falmouth and Portland before heading back north and ending back up at Pineland Farms. Our approach to Portland, the midpoint of the race, would be via the Presumpscot River, followed by as much Casco Bay paddling as we dared take on.

The weather was sunny, breezy to windy, warm but not excessively hot, with medium humidity: no complaints here. As a result of our cool, rainy spring, the deer flies were not out yet and mosquito pressure was mild. The ticks were very bad but they are the least irritating of these 3 defenders of the northern woods.

Parking lot gear up, pre-race. "Whatchu lookin' at?"
The race began with foot navigation at Pineland Farms using legitimate orienteering maps. As a team of 4, we would have to complete 4 short O courses. We were allowed to split up, so we each grabbed a map and set off on our individual tasks at 8:05 AM.  My course was moderately difficult, but after 2 miles and ~40 minutes of bushwhacking and running, I was back at HQ and we could begin the big bike leg.

This leg would be predominantly off-road riding, including a lot of singletrack. We started off downhill on some pretty cool trails in West Pownal, which led to a long stretch on soggy powerline trails, picking up a few on-trail CPs along the way. Following this, we made our way through the Mt. Tryon area to the somewhat rideable backside of Bradbury Mountain State Park, eventually reaching the Bradbury Mtn summit vista. At multiple times during the day, but most obviously at Bradbury, we'd see the wind raise a big hazy cloud of pollen off the trees.

Singletrack CP scene. 

Glen's thrilled to join the team! Just look at that genuine smile.

Bradbury Mtn summit vista
Then it was off to the lower, eastern part of Bradbury for a bunch more singletrack riding, with Glen accurately guiding us through the trail network. We were often crossing paths and bantering with the Rootstock Racing team in this section.  Eventually we emerged back onto road in Pownal and then into a long trail network toward Falmouth. Along the way, we hit up a friendly homeowner for a water refill at the hose. I was impressed by the amount of (mostly) rideable trail in the area and the race organizers' nifty linking of it. In the NH seacoast, there is some trail riding but it's typically knotted in small islands of undeveloped land, whereas here, you could really cover distance in a point-to-point fashion. The downside of this section, due to the rainy spring, was the frequency of muddy/boggy sections which kept interrupting the flow of the trails. There is also the fact that, despite being fun, technical singletrack just takes a lot more of a toll on you physically than, say, riding dirt roads. After many more miles of trail riding and many more CPs, we popped out of the woods in Falmouth for a short ride to the kayak put-in at TA2 on the Presumpscot River. We had covered about 31 miles on the leg in a little over 5 hours and were just behind the race-leading Rootstock team.

After getting geared up to kayak the river and ocean and after strategizing our approach to the section, we lowered the boats into the Presumpscot. We had received a few, somewhat conflicting reports about this section. There were 2 issues here. 1) It was a windy day, especially on the coast and therefore the Bay was pretty rough and maybe not suitable for the inexperienced. 2) The course was running just a titch slow and there was a lot of paddling to do in the Bay, if you were so inclined. Going after all the CPs on the islands in the Bay would likely take too long and prevent you from finishing the end of the course, where the CPs were more densely placed. So how much of the paddle should you tackle? Strategic decisions like this often decide the outcome of a race and are what make AR more fun and interesting compared to the more popular, marked-course endurance events (ultramarathons, Iron men, etc.).

Ultimately we decided to postpone the decision until we got to the first CP, no too far from the mouth of the river, in a more sheltered part of the Bay, after reassessing time/speed and water conditions. The initial mile on the paddle was a ridiculous exercise in incompetent steering, at least by me. The kayak spun like a top in the river current unless you were active working the rudder. Without the rudder deployed, our boat tracked like a kiddie pool. We soon worked through this issue after portaging laboriously around the Presumpscot Falls and adjusting the foot pegs. We sped down the river, with the current and a strong tailwind, past groups of local folks enjoying the good weather. After 6 miles, we were out of the river mouth and grabbing the first paddle CP, under the bridge to Mackworth Island.

Looking out into Casco Bay, there was some chop and whitecaps but it didn't look that dangerous. We decided to head out to one of the islands (Fort Gorges) which had 2 CPs, to get the most bang for our buck (more literally, the most CPs for our time). We would have a cranking tailwind for the 2-mile trip to the Fort and an equivalent headwind for the 1-mile trip to the TA on shore in Portland.

As we expected, the water was rougher than it looked from afar, I'd estimate up to 2-3 foot chop, but mostly in the 1-2 feet range. We vigilantly tried to stay perpendicular to the waves, and were mostly successful other a couple cold ocean splashes. With baseline adrenaline levels high, we reached the beach of the Fort's island and pulled ashore.

I had actually paddled to Fort Gorges before, with my wife on a guided anniversary outing a couple years ago. It's a cool spot - a big granite fortress in the middle of the Bay overgrown with wall-top vegetation. Completed in 1864, it was never used because forts basically became obsolete with the development of exploding (i.e., fort-breaking) artillery around this time.

Inside view of Fort Gorges
We climbed in cool granite darkness up to the top of the east and west ramparts of the Fort and punched both flags before returning to the kayaks. Heading back out onto the windy, choppy Bay was a little intimidating, especially when Glen and I took 2 tries to enter the water, after being knocked sideways by the surf on our initial attempt. Once we got going, it really wasn't bad. We kept the bow pointed into the oncoming waves and after 10 minutes or so the wind had diminished significantly. We paddled fairly easily back to the take-out on East End Beach, the site of TA3.

Team photo at TA3 by Kate White
After chatting with Kate and volunteer Tom Rycroft and switching out of paddle gear, we were off onto the next leg - finding several Q&A checkpoints in downtown Portland. As Portland is the best city around for eating, drinking and all around coolness (sorry Boston), it was a little sad to cruise past all the inviting spots in town on a lovely Saturday evening as we made quick work of this pleasant and interesting leg. We love being in the forest but variety is nice too - good race design.

Portland urban trek, 'scuse me, pardon me.

More urban trekking scenes nearing Western Promenade of Portland

Peaceful urban shortcut
Soon we were checking into TA4, under the far side of the Casco Bay Bridge, to pick up our bikes and pedal along the South Portland water's edge out of town as the sun set. We were the first team out of the TA. Rootstock had decided to stay out on the paddle to get more CPs. Therefore if they could clear the rest of the course before time expired, there would be no way we could win, having fewer CPs. All we could do was keep grinding and hope they had a major mistake - not likely.

This was a pleasant ride: non-technical flat trails, scenic and cool evening weather. We cruised past shore, salt marsh, railways and patchy forest before emerging onto pavement on the periphery of the city.

Pleasant ride out of town
We continued north out of town without issue, stopping briefly to refuel at a second rate convenience store. After about 10 miles of easy road night riding on roads, we reached the Blackstrap trail system in North Yarmouth. Race staff passed us a couple miles before we got to the TA, so fortunately it was staffed on arrival. We quickly switched to trek mode for a lengthy forest night nav adventure on, and sometimes, off trail, gathering 14 CPs over about 11 miles and 6 hours. The forest in this area varied from pretty easy and open to brushy and marshy. We only saw one other team out there - Naughty by Nature, a husband and wife team on their first AR, for 24 hours - impressive. Glen's solid nav kept us on track the majority of the time and we emerged tired but successful into TA6 at 4:30 AM, still at the front of the race.

Nocturnal forest friend - flying squirrel
We transitioned quickly back to the bike for a road ride back to Pineland Farms about 20 km away. This started off well enough, but about halfway there, we had a mismatch of mapped roads and actual roads which sent us on a non-optimal route. After puzzling out our unexpected location, our best course of action was to ride back through the previously-visited Knight's Pond trail area. Once through, we were back on easy roads to HQ and the final TA in early morning sun. The final stage was more Pineland orienteering - with a new twist. There was a 4 CP bike-O map and a 4 CP foot-O map. To get credit for any CP (say, CP A on the bike-O map) you had to also find the corresponding one on the other map (CP A on foot-O map), i.e., you could only get them in pairs. We had a little over 2 hours to get this done, before the 8:05 AM time cutoff. We knocked out the 4 bike CPs in about 45 minutes but the distances, slower terrain and trickier nav of the foot-O map was taking substantially longer. By the time we had found our 3rd foot CP, we only had 15 minutes left and had to bust it to the finish line, arriving with only 2 minutes to spare.

24 hour races are tough, but I was feeling especially spent at the end of this one. Not sure if this was a result of the lengthy singletrack sections, the fact that Glen's more efficient nav resulted in more constant movement or some other factor but I was super ready to done. After getting changed (ahhh...flip flops) and checking into our cars, we were provided a filling tasty breakfast by the Pineland Farms cafe and enjoyed some seated time, chatting with other racers and race staff. We were only bested by the combined forces of Rootstock and our buddy Dave Lamb and were happy to receive our divisional award.

This was a terrific, varied and interesting course designed by the Whites. A huge thanks to them and the volunteers and sponsors for making this race happens. We'll certainly be back.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Rootstock Racing 2 Rivers Adventure Race, Forksville, PA, 5/18/2019

25 hours into this race, we were looking at a possible podium finish, 2 hours later, we rolled over the finish line... into 18th place.

2 years ago Mason and son Reed made the trip south to do Rootstock's 2 Rivers Adventure Race. That edition was a 12-hour, peri-urban affair. For this year, the race location had been moved to the sparsely populated rugged forests of northern Pennsylvania and the duration had been cranked up to 27 hours. Our team this year would be Mason and Rob. We drove 7 hours to Forksville, PA and checked into the comfy Millview Mountain Motel, up the road from the race start at the Forksville fairgrounds. After scoring some filling grub and a couple PA brews at the Forksville Inn and Tavern, we readied gear and set a 4:45 AM alarm for Saturday morning.

After dropping off our bikes and shortly after receiving the maps, the race began at 7:00 with a 16 mile canoe trip down the busy Loyalsock Creek in 50 degree sunny morning weather. The creek could be considered a small river, at least now, in spring, with creek waters zipping along, losing 200 feet of elevation over our 16 mile trip. Class I and II rapids were the norm during the paddle, separated by stretches of flatter water. Maintaining the canoe in the preferred right-side-up orientation was frequently challenged but we managed to successfully navigate everything the Creek threw at us with luck and a modicum of skillful route choice. Other teams were less lucky, with many flips, swamps and several canoes rendered unusable by rushing waters and rocks. One canoe was even pinned irretrievably underwater despite salvage attempts via winch. 

We had a blast on the creek, enjoying the speedy waters, scenic surrounding highlands, sunshine and abundant waterfowl. We found the checkpoints without trouble and rolled into the first TA in 3rd place.

Morning fog over a calm section of the Loyalsock Creek

A less calm section    Photo: JS O'Connor

Action shot of Mason getting soaked as the bow submerges in the rapids. This happened quite a few times. Thankfully a bailer was mandatory gear for this section.                   Photo: JS O'Connor

TA 1 breakfast food

Following this TA was a bike leg. Course designer Brent Freedland let us know that the optional checkpoints for this leg were likely to involve confusing, technical navigation and that it might be wise to pass up these in lieu of more favorable challenges later in the race. We, like most of the teams, took this advice. The resultant ride was a 40 minute cruise to the next TA in the Loyalsock State Forest where we would begin the long day trek. After snagging the first couple easier CPs on scenic waterfalls (plenty of rushing water in the woods around here) we moved on to the trickier CPs. We had the good fortune of falling in with Cliff and Kate of Strong Machine AR through this stretch, chatting as we worked through a couple CPs. Afterward, Rob and I set off to grab the next 3 CPs with only moderate delays before what amounted to a 5k road run to High Knob, a scenic overlook in the western part of the park. 

Waterfalls aplenty on this course

Ascending Nettle Ridge
Taking advantage of the High Knob vista to score a stellar selfie.

Descending steeply off the knob, we accurately picked off one more CP before heading off toward a seemingly straightforward feature which was about a 1 km bushwhack away on the edge of an overgrown marsh. Despite navigating to the correct place and actively searching around for over 90 minutes, no flag for CP E was found and we had to give up and move on. "Moving on" in this case was a 25 minute bushwhack through fairly dense mountain laurel thicket. 

Our GPS track as we tried to find CP E (blue star as indicated by Brent, post race). This is crazy.

We successfully located the next CP on the other side of the mountain laurel, on a scenic rocky spur before descending steeply on rocky terrain for a laborious return to the TA at the end of this leg. 
Scenic rocky spur

We had traveled about 16 miles in a little under 7 hours and found 9 out of a maximum 10 CPs. Relatively successful, yes, but the frustration at CP E, and slow terrain afterward had us in a bit of a funk as we entered the TA. Our moods were soon buoyed however by a sliced watermelon provided at the TA (pretty much the most delicious thing to eat/drink during a race) a water refill at the creek and getting off our feet for the first time in a while as we switched into bike mode.

This bike leg would take us primarily on dirt roads through the bucolic forested local terrain, as we picked up a few easier CPs along the way. The first major task on the bike was a steep road grade, possibly private (we honestly couldn't tell) that gained us about 700 ft of elevation over only a mile (did I mention it was steep?). After this we pretty much cruised easily on more level roads, had one more big climb (500 ft) and had a few long, fast descents. We spent a lot of this leg chatting alongside the Mercators team, who we've raced against many times over the years. While covering 36 miles, this leg was pleasant and straightforward, and we rolled into the next TA at dusk with plenty of gas in the tank to begin the 2nd half of the race. RD Brent was serving up hot grilled cheese at the TA which was worth its weight in gold at this point.

At this TA, in McIntyre Wild Area, we would begin a night trekking loop with nine CPs available. None of the CPs were on a trail and many were well removed from easy navigation features. Compounding the technical nature of this task was darkness. Navigating in the woods at night is notoriously tricky, distances and terrain features become difficult to judge. We also knew, from knowing Brent's style and inspecting the maps, that there would be several very challenging flags out there. We could get the CPs in any order. We began with a pretty easy find across the rushing Rock Run. Following this was a hilltop CP which looked to be in a poorly defined "saddle" - a lower corridor between 2 soft peaks. We found it, in a very WELL-defined saddle, but it took almost 2 hours. The next 3 were on creeks and not too tricky but took some time covering distance and descending technical terrain. We then cranked steeply uphill to another pretty easy flag before setting off over several km on a plateau for the next CP, T. The map showed a stream leading right to the target but as we feared might happen, the stream broke up and essentially vanished far before we got there. We used some other features, reattacking and eventually finding it after spending a chunk of time. 40 minutes of trekking, with more technical steep descent, and we were back at the TA, 21 hours into the race (4:00 AM).

Patch of Lady Slipper on night trek, with artsy headlamp vignetting.

The final stage would be a bike back to the Forksville fairgrounds, where we had started. We had been told it would take a minimum of around 3 hours to complete this leg. But, for the willing and able, there were up to 5 optional CPs to be gained. Leaving the TA around 4:30 gave us 5.5 hours until the finish time cutoff and we were keen to scoop up as many of those CPs as we had time for. Although were technically on "roads" for the first 40% of this leg, they were more like neglected road grades that hadn't seen a large vehicle or chainsaw in many years.  So, the surface was soft, there were lots of fallen trees and face-high saplings/branches and generally uphill. Consequently, it was 90+ minutes to cover the first 5 miles of the leg, with no nav problems.

One moment of comic relief: As we near the end of this slow bike section, the "road" intersects a 10-foot deer fence. We had been through a couple deer fences on the first trek and were familiar with the little hatch you swing open to pass through. This one did not seem to have a hatch, though. We checked a couple padlocks on it but, no dice. After a minute of befuddlement, Rob climbs to the top, straddles it and I hand up our bikes which he deposits on the other side before hopping down. Once down, he places a hand on the fence and a large, standard door-size panel swings easily open and I walk on through.

Shortly, we were on pavement and zooming downhill and cruising flats, followed by some easy dirt road terrain to pick up CPs U and V with no difficulty. We still had 3 hours until the finish and things were looking promising to clear the bike leg. So we continued on rural roads and then easy forest roads to grab CP W on Bearwallow Pond. Now we had a little over 2 hours to pick up the final CPs and cruise to the finish. Given the easy terrain and easily found CPs thus far on the leg, this seemed very possible. We hadn't seen any teams around in a couple hours and felt like we were making a strong move to finish the race. 10 minutes later we arrived at the "trail" system where the final 2 CPs on the leg were located. Pace slowed immediately because of the unmaintained nature of these road grades and the non-straightforward trail layout relative to what was mapped. We were still feeling pretty good though as we dropped into a stream gully where we expected to descend to CP X at a waterfall. This is when the wheels started to come off. We were obviously tired and thus not navigating at a high level. We were also hurrying a bit because of the clock ticking in our heads. There was also a point of confusion in that there was more water on the ground than the maps suggested. The stream valley we were in had a rushing, significant flow and lots of small/medium waterfalls. It seemed like we had to be in the main stream valley rather than where we actually were - an upstream reentrant without even a blue line mapped at its bottom. Then I sighted a trail feature which exactly matched one near the CP and thought I knew exactly where we were. This was upstream from a confluence which I mistook for a very topographically similar one downstream, cementing my incorrect conviction about where we were. From this point on, we never actually knew where we were and spent too much time incredulously finding zero CPs, hiking rocky stream gullies in bike shoes and dragging our bikes through the steep woods. Because we were incorrect about our location, the bailout haul-ass-to-the-finish option was also seriously delayed. Thus, when we emerged onto a road and began riding full speed toward our best guess of the direction of the finish, we were probably out of time to make the 10:00 AM time cutoff. On our Hail Mary all-out ride back, Rob's derailleur decided to suddenly start rubbing on the spokes, stopped tensioning the chain and began dropping the chain every couple minutes. At this point it was obvious that we would be over time. Our hope of a good race finish was officially gone. We rolled into the finish line as race awards were commencing, 19 minutes overtime, hemorrhaging CPs by the minute as a penalty for our lateness.

Despite the poor official final ranking, we felt pretty good with how we raced. Only 3 teams found more CPs. We learned some lessons about end-of-race management, and like all races, logged some navigation and strategy experience. 

We loved this area for AR - rugged, forested, sparsely peopled. The designed course was also a hit - tougher nav than we usually see (not necessarily a bad thing), featured some cool terrain and was very well-organized overall. Rootstock definitely know what they are doing, we'll be looking forward to our next race with them.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Longest Day, NYARA, Windham NY 9/1/18

Rob and Mason finished off summer with a Labor Day weekend trip to the scenic low-key resorty town of Windham in the Catskill Mtns of NY. This area is a great fit with AR: rugged country with a pretty sparse population and some mountain biking infrastructure in place that the organizers would make use of later in the race.

We started off at the Windham VFW to begin a 10 AM Saturday to 10 AM Sunday race. We were bused off to the race start in Nickerson Park Campground, where we began by sloshing around in and eventually swimming our way through Schoharie Creek (really a river) for the first 3 checkpoints (CPs). This included scooting along a submerged riverside ledge and then swimming around a bend in the river. Since being overheated is my baseline for most races, I usually enjoy these adventure swims and this was no exception. The only problem was that the "waterproof" map case took on a pint of water during the swim which made the paper maps/instructions tough to manage for the rest of the race.

The agony!
After returning to land, we embarked on a shortish (3-4 mi) orienteering leg through ruggedly sloped Mine Kill State Park. I screwed up finding the first of these CPs, but this turned out to be our only substantial navigation problem of the entire race, which was really fortunate for us.

Photo : NYARA

Next we hopped on our bikes and did a shortish bike-O through the Park before busting out onto roads toward the paddle leg. The course organizers estimated a staggering total elevation gain of around 15,000 ft for this race. Our GPS tracking was a little erroneous so I can't verify this but it probably wasn't too far off. Except for a few sections, it seemed like you were usually ascending or descending something significant.

We paddled on Schoharie Reservoir for about 8 miles, finding the 5 CPs on this scenic body of water. It is a protected reservoir so it is minimally developed. Apparently NYARA co-RD Eric had a heck of a time jumping through bureaucratic hoops to make this happen for us. It was a nice place to paddle, with the mountains as a backdrop for several scenic waterfalls, as well as a nice eagle sighting. The yellow sit-on-top-with-no-backrest kayaks have long been a staple of The Longest Day paddle sections. They are pretty much the least comfortable watercraft you will find.

Penetrating the logjam was an interesting exercise

Breathtaking shot of Bald  Eagle
Although the paddle was a nice break for the legs, after 2 hours or so, we were ready to be done with these boats, and it was back on bikes on quiet country roads for about 12 mi. The rural scenery on the ride from Gilboa through Conesville was like a trip inside a time capsule. Most of the farms, homes and open lands wouldn't have looked much different if you ridden through 40 or 50 years ago; a sort of unintentional historical preservation which can only occur in the absence of an economic incentive to make subdivisions and erect Cumberland Farmses. I liked it. Shortly, however, this reverie was terminated by a big (500 ft) hot, depleting bike climb up to TA4 where we would begin the monster trek.

By far the biggest leg of the race, the monster trek was, for us, an 18 mile, 10 hour hike on and around The Long Path - a length of mostly secluded singletrack trail through the forested mountains of the area. Although the trail skirts many of the mountains along the way, the RDs made sure to remedy that by placing hilltop CPs off-trail as needed, resulting in 10 or so major ascents for the leg. Except for a couple hours, this trek occupied the entire night portion of the race. The woods were fairly open and breezy and temps weren't too bad, making this leg quite tolerable despite the length (and heights). We raced well through the night with no major issues. We were alone for the majority of the time with the exception of trekking with Team NYARA-Breakaway for a mile or so and few brief encounters with other folks. Finding and including a big trek like this, in the northeast, in a 24 hour race, was a major strong point of the race course.

We strode into TA6, in Elm Ridge forest, the site of a nice network of MTB trails, to begin the final bike leg. This was around 4:00 AM. We had until 10:00 AM to make it to the finish line. We had to figure out a route to hit as many CPs as possible in Elm Ridge while still leaving time to ride to back to Windham and make it up and over Cave Mtn before rolling in to the finish line at the VFW. After cramming some fluids, caffeine and calories into our protesting stomachs, we were off. The leg started inauspiciously by me leaving the passport (where we mark all our CP punches) at the TA, costing a little time. Then we were onto the trails. They varied from annoying baby-head fields to rad bermed-out downhill rippers. We were slowed down a little by fatigue and a minor nav mixup but we made it through this section relatively successfully, if on fumes. It was nice to be on full suspension for this bike leg, as even the flowier stuff was chock full o' rocks.

After a short road ride down and UPhill, we arrived at the backside of Cave Mtn. The course finale was a World Cup downhill bike course at Windham Bike Park, on the flip side of the Mtn. As one would expect, ripping downhill from the top of Cave Mtn required that we first ascend it. Our provided route for this was a grass and dirt strip that went directly 1000 vertical ft up the mountain over only 1.5 miles (i.e., steep). We rode a couple short sections but this climb was basically a 30 minute hike-a-bike. The suckiness of this section was unmitigated by anything other than the almost laughable level of suckiness of this section. We put our noses to the grindstone, eventually passed a couple teams, and went up and over the summit around 9:00 - plenty of time to finish.

Although rocketing downward on a professionally built DH course is not in the wheelhouse of most adventure racers, us included, we managed a speedy but safe-enough descent through the park and rolled into the VFW with time to spare.

Photo: North Atlantic Dirt

After the race, we were met with more hospitality from the race crew, volunteers and VFW members, the latter preparing and serving a satisfying breakfast buffet. We came in 7th overall out of 37(?) teams and felt very good about our performance.

This was an amazingly laid out course in a great area for racing with tight race-day organization. We loved this race and give huge kudos to our RD/RO team of Aaron Courain and Eric Caravella, as well as the rest of the race crew, volunteers, VFW and sponsors - thank you!

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Maine Summer Adventure Race 24 hr, Strong Machine Adventure Racing

This was my 3rd trip north to do the Maine Summer Adventure race organized by our friends at Strong Machine. The 2016 version was an 8-hour race that Mason did with son, Reed.  The 2017 offering was a 10-hour affair we returned for. This year's 24-hour race, like the others, was based out of Hidden Valley Nature Center in Jefferson, ME and featured a Rob and Mason 2-man team. Rob had just come down with a cold but was going to tough it out.

I suffer like a dog (where does that saying come from?) in hot, humid weather so I had been anxiously watching the forecast leading up to the race. It initially looked pretty good but the forecast temps kept creeping up over the course of the week, with some increasing humidity, as I assumed it would. We had just come off a week-long stretch of crisp dry weather and cool clear nights, but I should know that race days will never fall on those kind of days.

So much suffering...
We began at 10:00 AM with a foot navigation stage at HVNC. There were 5 mapped checkpoints (CPs) plus 3 more whose location was revealed on a small map at one of the 5 CPs (which one?)  You could get the 5 CPs in any order, which was a great way to spread the teams out. We started clicking through the CPs and found the 1st map at the 2nd CP, which sent us off to the 3 unrevealed CPs. Unfortunately one of these flags was in the wrong place which led to a big logjam, as teams rolled into the mapped location and fruitlessly searched the area. This was unfortunate but did provide an informal multi-team powwow in the woods. After reaching a consensus that the CP was not there, we gradually dispersed and moved on to the rest of the CPs, which we found without much trouble.

This trekking loop ended back at the HVNC. Concerningly, I had gone through > 1L of water on this 7.5 mi trek despite cooler morning temps. We refilled some water and headed out on the first bike leg which took us on trails out of HVNC and north onto some Maine back roads 17.5 mi to another trekking loop in the Southern Garcelon.  This was a large patch of forest featuring typical New England fare of marshes, little hills and rocky doubletrack trails (ATV/snowmobile - type). After transitioning back to foot mode we headed out. We got off to a pretty solid start, checking off the first 7 CPs over the course of 5 miles of on- and off-trail hiking/jogging.

At this point, it was late afternoon and temps were maxed out. There was also the issue of bugs. The ticks and deer flies were very bad. However, the mosquito situation made the ticks and deer flies seem like a minor annoyance, especially as dusk approached. This was a close second to the worst bugs we've experienced (the worst). As we approached our 7th CP of this leg, which was on the edge of a pond (thank you Strong Machine!), I was craving a quick dip in the water and a water bladder refill. This was a scenic spot and gave us a nice quick respite from the tough conditions which had been provided by nature.

Wellman Pond. An oasis in a hot mosquito hellhole.
Sadly, this was a race and it was quickly time to leave the pond and get some more CPs in the woods, as there were 14 total on this leg. We left this CP with Joe Brautigam and trekked together for a bit before Mason unwisely decided that we should deviate from Joe's route to the next CP. I'll just summarize the rest of this leg:  2 hr 45 min, hundreds of mosquito bites, heavy losses of fluids and electrolytes, 6 miles of trekking/fleeing, and...1 checkpoint found. It was one of those legs that make me wonder why I do this and also puts me in recovery mode (body and morale) for hours afterward.

Following this, I was really looking forward to getting back on the bikes, where there aren't any mosquitoes. We soon passed the 2-man GOALS team who were roadside having tire/tube sidewall issues, and donated a tube to their cause. The bike leg took us back to small roads and was nice for a while but, having run out of water hours ago and eating minimally, I was soon falling off Rob's mercifully conservative pace and getting dropped on every hill. We kept our eyes open and soon spied a couple guys outside at a house who hospitably obliged water bladder refills at the hose. After the usual "what exactly is it that are you doing" conversation we were back on quiet roads and, soon, onto some snowmobile-type trails to get 3 on-trail CPs through unremarkable terrain. Wildlife sighting: Rob flushing a roadside hawk with chipmunk in talons; it couldn't outrun Rob's bike so it had to drop the chipmunk, who scurried away.

Next was another short road ride into the state capital Augusta, which is actually a fairly small town. Despite the recent water refill, I was still in bonk mode and urgently directed us to a McDonalds just off the route where we sacrificed some time to get some additional hydration and substantial calories. Side note: sometime during the last 12-15 years, McDonalds milkshakes became sickly sweet - we had to throw it away.

Looking rough pre-calorie rally.
After a solid hill climb up through residential Augusta, we arrived at the Bond Brook park. There is a knot of twisty rocky singletrack here. There was an enduro race at the park earlier that day (it was 10 PM now). There was supposed to be a taped-off race course with 4 obvious (and therefore unmapped) CPs to find along the way, which sounds fun. Unfortunately, when we got there, the tape had been taken down, it was full dark and we were having trouble determining our location on the convoluted park trail map. We kept re-riding sections and accidentally exiting the trail system into neighboring areas. After 45 minutes of noodling around we hadn't found any CPs but had found the bottom of the hill that led to the park (again). Even though getting at least 2 of the 4 CPs was "mandatory" for final ranking, we decided to cut our losses and move on to the next section.

We whipped downhill to the river and then onto the Kennebec rail trail for some speedy southern riding, picking up a couple CPs on the way to the next TA.  We visited a couple nice-looking riverside towns, including Hallowell, which had a hopping bar scene happening on a warm Saturday midnight and then into Gardiner, where we left our bikes for a quick 5CP urban-O on foot around the sleeping town. This included an interesting rail trestle bridge crossing (inactive, so no Stand By Me moments).

Following the town-O, we boarded canoes for an 11-mile paddle down the flat Kennebec River in the middle of the night. With the McDonalds, pleasant town-O and cool nighttime temps, I was feeling good again and generally enjoyed the calm quiet paddle. Quiet, that is, except for the occasional giant splash from jumping Atlantic Sturgeon (fun facts here).  We passed a number of teams along the way and hit the 2 CPs along the way without issue. As we neared the take-out TA site in Richmond, a lovely sunrise was in full effect, reflecting orange, yellows and purples off the placid river.

After a riverside check-in in Richmond, we paddled 2 minutes out to Swan Island, an ~ 1x4 mile island in the Kennebec. There were about 20 CPs to be found here. The island was forested but had seen extensive logging recently and also had a lot of scratchy invasive undergrowth. Fortunately the bugs were only at the "annoying" level in the early morning hours. We had to closely watch our time on the island because there was still a 15 mile ride to finish that we needed to allow for. We did fairly well here, grabbing another 7 CPs before running back to the canoe. Wildlife sighting: fawn scooting across the trail in front of us.

High tide at CP 34
Early morning beaver pond

After the quick canoe trip back to shore, we were back on bikes to the finish line, finding 2 easy CPs over the 1:15 trip to the finish line, with plenty of time to spare.

The food at the finish line was fantastic: blueberry pancakes, local maple syrup, sausages and fresh fruit hit the spot. The top finish went to the surging Rootstock Racing team, with Untamed New England as a close second. We did not have a good race, but are certainly grateful for the work put in by the organizers and volunteers. I'm sure we'll be back.