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.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

2012 Frigid Infliction: GMARA – West Bolton VT

The New England winter weather up to the week preceding the race had been wimpy and disappointing, but a major snow event a week or so earlier drastically changed that and gave us an extreme winter playground perfectly timed for race day.  We were excited to test ourselves again among the wooded hills surrounding Bolton Valley ski resort.  We had a good time last year and some success, winning the 3-man division and coming in 3rd overall.  Hopefully it was not a fluke.

The weather was warmer, overall, than last year but was fickle all day, with gusty winds and intermittent snow and rain making sure the race lived up to its moniker.  The pre-dawn start found us skiing by headlamp to pick up a single checkpoint (CP) and then to a transition area (TA).  As with last year's race, the tricky part was that the CPs were indicated on 30-year old topo maps with no recent features or useful indication of the existing trails.  We were also provided with Bolton Valley's XC trail map, so one had to repeatedly cross-reference between the 2 maps.

The mass of racers (80-90 people, 34 teams) took off at 5:00 AM in search of CP1, located about 450 ft above the starting elevation (2040 ft) on what appeared to be a relatively easily found trail.  Darkness, early jitters and the absence of trail signage confused the majority of us.  Our team ended up ascending an adjacent downhill ski slope which appeared to eventually connect to a trail which led to the area of the CP. We were pleasantly surprised to find it just off the ski slope, much closer to us than we thought it was going to be.  Ours were the first tracks at CP1, which was encouraging.  After poking around for a bit, we couldn't find any strong lead on a trail to take up to TA1 and so we decided to ski-whack westward until we picked up one of these trails.  Breaking a trail on skis in 3 feet of snow through dense forest in hilly to steep terrain was slow and challenging and pretty damn fun; we soon picked up Gardiner's Lane trail, which we could follow up to TA1 at 2680 ft. Dawn had broken and the legs were still fresh and this was an enjoyable ascent to a campfire and GMARA volunteers at Bryant Cabin.  Here we ditched the skis and continued on foot (postholing) for the next two CPs (2 and 3).  These CPs were not far away, but they were off trail and trying to move through 3 feet of snow without skis or snowshoes was very slow and laborious; we had to crawl on all fours to avoid sinking in the snow at several points.  Luckily for everyone but them, Untamed NE had broken a rudimentary trail to both CPs since they were the lead team at that point.  After picking up those CPs, it was back to the TA to change into the snowshoes we had been carrying and get CPs 4-7 in any order.  We were in second place, a few minutes behind Untamed at this point.

We, unlike most of the teams, took a clockwise approach to these CPs, picking up 6 and 7 first.  We were tempted to follow Untamed to 4 and 5 first, but decided to strike out on our own rather than leech off of their reliable navigation since they had just done all the work for 2 and 3 and had little advantage to show for it.  We were the first team to CP7 which we found quickly with some good nav.  CP 6 was buried in dense forest on a steep summit at 3320 ft.  This was a fairly tough nav in barely penetrable terrain, but we also were the first team to this point, seconds ahead of Untamed, who were getting the CPs in the opposite direction.

A hectic bushwhack to the trail and then bombing downhill on trail to CP5, about 550 ft lower on the mountain.  There was a well-beaten track to this CP by this point. Then it was a steep 350 ft climb on Devil's Backbone trail up to CP4 on a foggy Stowe View, followed by a steep downhill plummet on snowshoes back down to the TA.

Arriving at TA3 prior to 10:00, we had the option of trying for a bonus CP on skis.  We had been burned badly in a previous race going for bonus CPs and we didn't even consider it this time, though if we had evaluated it more closely, it appears to have been a relatively easily found point and we probably should have gone after it.  Anyway, next for us was a long downhill ski to TA 4, with easy navigation and a long 1450 ft descent.  The first third of this descent was on backcountry XC trails which are about 10 feet wide.  Trying to control your speed on a steep narrow downhill trail on skis with no edges involves (for us anyway) a ridiculous mixture of snowplowing, ski pole dragging and intentional falls, making for a hilariously sketchy ride until we got to a flatter groomed trail which led us the remainder of the way to to TA4.

Having skipped the bonus CP, we were first to the TA.  Untamed got the bonus and arrived 5 minutes after us.  Now it was time to ditch the skis and switch back to snowshoes for the remainder of the race.  We were now the poor suckers in the front of the race.  Although its nice to be doing well in the race, being in the front in the Frigid Infliction means that you are breaking trail and navigating for all the teams behind you since your track is obvious in the untrammeled deep snow.  

Our first target was TA 5, where we would cross the Joiner Brook ravine on a horizontal rope (Tyrolean traverse).  Last year we crossed from E -> W with a nice downhill grade to aid us.  This year there looked to be about 10 feet of elevation gain over the length of the rope.  So the crossing was a lot slower and a lot more strenuous, but pretty thrilling.  The fun part was when you were about 2/3 of the way across and the remainder of the rope is stretching ahead of you at a 20 degree incline.  Good times.  We were the first team across and quickly strapped the snowshoes back on (TA6) and headed out to the last leg of the race.

The next 5 CPs (8-12) were on a long slope which lacked any major features on the race map, but had been developed into a ski resort since then.  So, what looked like a featureless trek to a "deck" at CP8 actually led us across roads, driveways and ultimately into a grouping of condos.  We were poking around the condos in search of a "deck" with a CP on it when Untamed caught up with us.  They grabbed this CP, manned by cheerful volunteers, first, right before us and we both headed off to CP9.  Now we were crossing the downhill ski slopes as we followed the compass bearing and altimeter reading to the area of the CP.  Our team and Untamed were now in the woods between ski slopes where it seemed the CP should be. Both teams meandered around this area for a good 20-30 minutes to no avail.  Our team ended up eventually shooting a bearing from the Timberline chairlift mid-station to get a new attack point to the CP, which we found shortly after.  We were right with Ultrabambi at this CP as well as the next 2 (10 and 11), including a nice 450 ft climb to 11.

Now it was decision time.  It was 1:30 PM. 1.5 hours were left until mandatory race cutoff time at 3:00.  One CP was left.  It was about a 2 mile roundtrip but with about 800 ft of elevation gain to get there.  We had to decide whether to go for this point and risk going overtime and possible disqualification.  We decided not to risk it, given the slow conditions and the fact that even if we made good time getting there, there was no guarantee we would find the CP in a timely manner.  Ultrabambi decided to give a token effort on CP12 but quickly turned around. We made a full-tilt run down the ski slopes to the finish line.  I'm sure the DH skiiers were wondering what the hell we were doing running down the slope with backpacks, maps and compasses flailing wildy.  We were the first team finished, with a time of 8:41 and had found 11/12 CPs.  Tooting our own horn, only 1 other team found as many CPs as we did, and they finished 55 minutes after us.  This might seem to indicate that we were the overall winners, but, as per AR convention, only coed teams are considered for the overall victory.  I don't love this aspect of AR, but the coed tradition is a good one to uphold, in general.  Its a quality that AR shares with only a few other sports, such as ice dancing.  Our 3 man team is a tight unit with a great dynamic and we love training and racing together.  We're not going to break up the team just so we can be in the "premier" division, so no point in whining about it.   

After some down time for beer and fried goodness in the lodge tavern, it was time to head down to the Ponds (an awesome space) for good conversation, food, drink and the race wrapup from race director Shawn Freebern and the rest of the GMARA crew.  They did a fantastic job putting the race together, as always, and a good time seemed to be had by all.  We were happy to accept our win in the all-male division and are looking forward to our next GMARA outing at the 2012 Bitter Pill.

Hotel room 4:25 AM

Race Start 5:00 AM 3/3/12.  That's Rob in the orange jacket and blue gaiters about 7 people deep. Photo GMARA.

Precious CP1.  Shh. Turn off headlamps and ski quietly away.

GMARA volunteers at TA 1/2/3

Surreal landscape on Raven's Wind trail above 3000ft.

About to punch CP7.

Skiing into TA4.  Photo GMARA.

At TA4

Nick ready to traverse. Photo GMARA.

Mason mid-traverse. Rob across. Nick waiting. Photo GMARA.
Not any of us, but a nice perspective on the TT. Photo GMARA

Vista from final CPs

Us and Ultrabambi at CP10 discussing whether to risk a try at CP12.

Running in to finish line.  Photo GMARA.
Receiving our prizes from Shawn Freebern, race director.  Thanks GMARA!

1 comment:

  1. Excellent writeup and great work on the course, as usual. Love the comment about ice dancing - maybe we'll add a 4-person coed division so that you have a shot at the win without breaking up the crew.

    Your photos are awesome, I'd love to add the originals to our collection - they'd look great on next year's poster. Send them our way if you're up for sharing!