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.

Friday, October 26, 2012

USARA National Championships Oct 12-13 Catskill Mts, NY

The USARA National Championship race included an open (i.e., non-coed) division this year for the first time, this year's race location was fairly close to us (4.5 hr drive) and we had qualified for it by virtue of our last 2 races.  Therefore we thought we'd give it a shot.  This would be our longest race yet, a 30-hour event running from 8:00 AM Friday to 2:00 PM Saturday.  Race HQ and the host hotel was the Hudson Valley Resort and Spa, an immense concrete monolith rising incongruously from the rural landscape of the southern Catskills.  The most interesting thing about our stay there was a simultaneous very well-attended line-dancing convention, which, along with 165 adventure racers, brought two very different demographics together. Puzzled stares were the norm on both sides.  The race would begin with a 2-hour bus ride away from the hotel in Kerhonkson to the west end of Pepacton Reservoir and we would canoe, mountain bike and trek all the way back with 18 "mandatory" and 46 optional CPs to pick up along the way.   

5am wake up for breakfast and last gear check.  Maps were not distributed to the teams until 5:30am.   Breakfast was provided by the hotel and gave the options of scrambled eggs, hash browns, fruit, cereal, coffee, and bagels.  The spread was big and certainly not what we were used to for our 12 hour format races.  This time since there was going to be a long 2 hour bus ride to the start of the race, we ate well. 

overview map
As we arrived at the Pepacton Reservoir outside of Downsville NY, the rain started.  The initial clothing choice was augmented with warmer layers.  A captain’s meeting was called and another set of maps was distributed.  In uncommon fashion the race directors also mentioned that the OPs (optional points) could be obtained by a single team mate for the initial canoeing leg.   This would allow other team members to paddle to another point and save time.  We packed our backpacks into the team’s dry bag and used that as the middle seat. 

Everyone gearing up for initial leg of the race on Pepacton Reservoir, which appears to be a little on the empty side.

Rob gearing up for the first leg of the race.

A wet start was announced.  All teams needed to line up along an underwater rope strung to a buoy.  The 55 canoe start was impressive.  The gun sounded and everyone laid into their paddles. 
Starting line
 We had decided to grab OP YY to start.  Mason picked up the point 300 vertical feet up the north bank and returned in good time.  Unfortunately he left with both passports, leaving Rob and Nick unable to paddle across to OP A.  Rob and Nick stayed in the canoe, in the chilly morning breeze.  White caps formed out on the reservoir.  Luckily the wind remained at our back.  We headed south across the waterway to grab an easily located OP A just a few hundred feet off shore.  We left OPs B and C alone and focused on picking up OP D.  This was another easy find along a reentrant/stream bed.  Another traverse to grab OP E.   We decided to unload Mason and Nick for OP F, leaving Rob time to paddle around the point for pick up.  The nav was pretty easy from the drop point.  The forested incline up to OP F was interesting.  It looked as if cleared farmland was allowed to revert to forest 20-30 years ago, with a few gnarled old trees in a sea of saplings and nothing else in between, resulting in an open forest-meadow combo with a few apple trees and ornamental shrubs mixed in.  The descent back to the reservoir after punching the CP was fast and steep.  Now the mile long paddle to TA1 began.  
We exited the water and carried the canoes uphill to the CP.   We were allowed to leave PFDs, paddles and the dry bag at this TA.  When we opened the dry bag we were surprised to see a puddle in the bottom.  Mason’s hydration pack mouthpiece had separated and leaked the entire contents of his reservoir.  This was going to be an issue but we had water to share.  Luckily everyone’s gear and more importantly change of clothing was double bagged and not affected.  A gear check requiring phone and medical kit was necessary.  We changed into our bike shoes, grabbed a bite, stowed our sneakers, ignored the cold rain and left on bikes.  This segment was going to be a good uphill trudge starting on paved road leading to an unpaved steep ascent.  We took off at a solid pace only to flat within the first mile ... on pavement.  A copper wire wedged itself between Nick's rear rim and the tire sidewall.  It lacerated the tube but didn’t damage anything else.  While we changed out the tube multiple teams cruised by us offering sympathy. 

The main road changed to wet dirt with a turn onto Mary Smith Hill road.  As the climb began, we remembered our first GMARA Bitter Pill race that threw a painful 1000 ft vertical bike climb in right after the paddle.  This climb, like that previous one, showed how living on the flat seacoast was a disadvantage.  Legs got fatigued and a short dismount was unavoidable during the gain of 700 vertical feet in the span of 1 km.  During the middle of the climb we saw our first patch of blue sky and sunshine.  Then it disappeared.  Then a light rain started.  Then a heavy rain started. Then we got 5 minutes of pea-sized hail and then back to rain on the way up to CP2.  After CP2, free miles were ahead with the wicked descent that followed.  Without glasses, the 40 mph speed on dirt road was a little freaky.  Squint too much the road blurs, open your eyelids a little and your corneas were peppered with mud.  

Initial bike leg, post-hail,  post-corneal mud-peppering.         Photo: Vlad Bukalo

Nick on 2nd bike climb.  Luckily, having sensation in your feet is not necessary for riding a bicycle.                                 Photo: Vlad Bukalo

From CP2 to CP3, after the sweet descent down muddy Mary Smith Hill Rd, across Beaver Kill and on to Shin Creek Rd, it was a relatively easy pedal  (420 ft gain over 4 miles). It seemed we were at CP3 for a while.  More clothing adjustment, eating, Nick’s chatting with the volunteers about how he likes his bike… Then off onto a private jeep trail which started out fairly gradual, then climbed 500 ft in the next mile.  A short descent led to Hodge Pond, then on some trails for OPs G, L, H and J.  All fairly easy nav  - plus there were a few teams bunched together.  Sometimes you agree with where other teams leave their bikes to find the off-trails points, but not always. 

We intended to skip OP K by taking a shorter, more southern trail to Frick pond.  As intended, we picked up OP M on the way to CP4.  We didn’t realize until later we had barreled right past OP K on the way to M. Oh well…   In general, this section of the course went fine.  We spent a little over 3 hours and missed one point, while some of the best Coed teams took 2:45 to find them all.

From Frick Pond to CP4 was about 5 miles of mixed road and trail.  I think the first trail section was where Mason got our second flat of the day.  The last 1.5 miles was up and over a little 200 ft climb.   CP4 was easy to find along the Butternut Brook.  Again, we paused here to eat a little, refold the map, and fill a water bottle from the brook.  Theoretically an iodine tab would have been a good idea.

At this point, (it was 5:20 PM – and we had covered maybe 40 of the total course estimate of 100 miles) - we were thinking about getting through the rest of the race.  Specifically, if we couldn’t make it to the Blue Hill Lodge and Café before closing time, the rest of the race would be pretty miserable.  The next CP/ TA was just a short section of trail away.  Just was we pulled into the TA, Mason discovered the third flat of the day.  No one at the TA knew when the Café closed.  Mason changed out his tube while I patched his original in case we had a 4th flat.  We decided we should skip the optional Foot-Orienteering section and proceed directly to CP7 and then on to the Café.   The best teams spent 1:25 to almost 3 hours to get the 8 OPs on the Foot-O section.  We were about a mile and a half down the trail (almost to CP7) and still seeing teams tromping through the woods.   We met eventual winners Wedali/Gear Junkie at CP7 (they hadn't skipped anything, of course), although they were still trailing Team SOG at this point.

Once at the Café, all was right with the world.  They had a fire to thaw out the gloves and bike shoes.   They didn’t seem to mind our changing our stinky wet socks in the middle of the dining area.  Nick fell asleep as soon as his head his the table.  I don’t know how long we spent there, but it was long enough to eat a bacon cheeseburger.  It took us 2:44 to get from CP7 to CP8, including the much needed pit stop.  The teams that only stopped long enough to refill fluids and swallow a slice of pizza covered it in roughly 1:10. 

The first section of bike from CP8 to CP9 was a blast, going from 2400ft to 900ft elevation with some sweet hairpin turns.  Another 7 miles of pavement would take us to our intended turn off on Sholam Rd.  Maybe the burgers were still digesting.  We overshot it by a mile (literally, plus 200ft of climbing) as our bike computer had decided to stop working and we had no good gauge of distance.  We had overlooked the turn-off because it was a dirt road and a sign indicated it was a dead end; the map showed Sholam as a paved through-road.  Huh. Once making this turn we soon found a clump of teams looking for CP9 at “top of swimming hole.”  We found a pretty convincing swimming hole – just had to keep looking downstream for the right one.  It was a short bike from there to CP10/TA4.  

After spending a few minutes switching from bike to foot mode, eating and drinking, it was off on foot for the first substantial trekking leg for us, since we had skipped the earlier foot-O. Basically we had spent the last 10-12 hours (guessing here) riding 50+ miles on the MTB sections, interrupted only by a short (okay long) stop into Blue Hill Café. It felt really good to get out of the bike shoes and into some sensible footwear with our feet on terra firma. We hiked 1.5k or so on roads to where we would cut into the woods toward our first target, OP ZZ, another 1.5k into the woods.  A little level woods trek was a pleasure…for the first couple hundred meters.  Then we were introduced to our new least favorite plant species, mountain laurel.  This 3-8 ft high woody gnarled bush grows in very thick, barely penetrable patches.  Traversing through a mountain laurel patch is painful, annoying and most of all, slow. It is also difficult to maintain your bearing when your path is more or less dictated by trying to find any kind of seam in the stuff. It was well after dark and visibility in the laurel was not more than 10-20 feet, so you never really know where you are going other than forward.  The only upside of mountain laurel combat is that this full body workout is a good way to warm up on a chilly night. This first patch had us ensnared for at least 20-25 minutes, then it mercifully gave way to open, downhill forest and finally to our catch which was a stream at the bottom of the slope.  We had intentionally set our bearing to take us downstream of the CP so we would know which way to turn when we hit it, but the mountain laurel had thrown us off enough that this plan backfired, sending us into a swamp before turning south to find it right near where we had hit the stream.  Then it was due east to climb a 400ft ridge for OP V.  The western slope of the ridge was covered in…mountain laurel!! So another 20 minutes of fight uphill in this most evil species (at least it has no thorns) until the forest opened up at the ridgetop.  We found the CP fairly quickly and headed south along the ridge, skipping an out-and-back northern CP, to try to find OP W.  The ridge was pretty cool, quite open and with periodic Stonehenge-like rock formations and we made good time to OP W which we found on a small saddle without too much trouble.  The next task was continuing our southern course down off the ridge.  We ended up a little west of our intended course and descended 600 ft down the steepest portion of the end of the ridge. Although it wasn’t the smoothest descent, this route sent us down cliff after cliff of 8-30 ft high exposed rock ledges.  It was actually quite fun to pick your way down these, shining your headlamp down the cliff to see if there was any route down and using rock climbing skills, trees and some butt-sliding to make it to the bottom. After trekking a little through level woods at the bottom of the slope we picked up an old road which was heading in our general direction (east).  This led to other roads and paths going in our general direction and we soon picked up a north-south Jeep road which was our track to the next CP, mandatory CP11.  We were now working through frosty grassy meadows in the early AM hours to a pond where a bunch of teams were milling about getting CP11.  We spiked it and set off south again, this time to intersect a large stream with a CP about a km downstream. This stream appears to be called Vernooy Kill, on the map. This was a large stream and not easily crossed. The circle on the map for the CP was slightly (51%?) more on the west bank than the east so we appeared to be on the correct bank and bushwhacked downstream to it, through some moderate mountain laurel and pretty steep side slopes.  There were a couple teams around when we got to the CP (OP X) which turned out to be on the opposite bank, but no worries there as it was a manageable boulder-hop across the stream to the east bank to punch the passport. A quick eastward bushwhack let us pick up Lundy Road to shoot south and pick up OP Z which looked to be a pretty easy hilltop point just off the road. A short 200ft climb saw us on top of the hill but it was a good 15-20 minutes of poking around the 2 hilltop acres before finding the CP buried in a pine thicket. No gimmes here on the OPs.  A quick descent back to Lundy road, following this southeast and looking to pick up a trail just after Lundy road crossed Lyon Creek.  We found the trailhead but in a short distance the trail marked on the map was no longer discernable by us.  There were several other teams wandering around as well with no consensus on where this “trail” lay. So we gave up on the trail and reverted to open forest navigation to the CP12.  We were a little off but soon reached an obvious linear cliff feature just after dawn; this pinpointed our location on the map and we made quick time to CP 12 along with Iowans Team Skunked. Following this, it was a quick descent to a park in the town of Wawarsing where TA5 was located.
            At this TA the race staff had kindly built a fire and were grilling food for us as well as providing hot drinks.  We decided to skip the MTB-O at TA5 since there were still plenty of OPs left in the foot leg ahead and the MTB-O map was sort of cryptic about what would be involved.  Between doing the usual TA tasks and folding maps and getting geared for the bike in the breezy, sub-30º air, Mason had failed to warm at all and left the TA frozen for a windy road ride to TA6.  After a few miles, he had to stop and don a borrowed jacket from Rob which helped matters immensely.
            Shortly we reached TA6 for the final trekking leg.  This was probably 8-9:00 AM. Dropped the bikes off again and set off uphill on foot.  We did not have time to get all the OPs on this leg and so we had to pick a course to maximize what we could find in the available time.  Looking at the map now, I don’t know what we were thinking.  Instead of following a forest road south which would eventually pass very close to lots of CPs, we took a left onto a trail which clearly ended on the map and would dump us into backcountry nav.  This would make navigation harder and travel slower. If we had all sat for a few minutes and looked at the map together, I am sure we would have made a different decision, but simple things like this are not always obvious when you are tired, physically spent and trying to hustle through the TA. So, it was off to OP GG on the “top of cliff”.  We found the cliff easily but the cliffs extended for a good mile in the forest.  Our altimeter, which had given us bad info all day and which we had just calibrated at TA6 was off by a good 200 ft and we wasted quite a bit of time poking around the lower cliffs before finding the CP atop an incredible stone cliff jutting hundreds of feet above the fall foliage of the Catskills.

Tremndous cliff and location of OP GG.
A few moments taking in this eye candy and then off to find our next target, OP KK.  A cliff face kept us from keeping our bearing from OP GG to OP KK and within 30-45 minutes we did not have a precise idea where we were.  We tried to navigate to a catch feature, a linear ledge to the southeast but my fuzzy AM map reading and distance underestimation left us still unsure of our precise whereabouts after almost an hour of southeast travel.  I have to say that the backcountry terrain through this part of the park was really spectacular: waterfalls in deep carved slot canyons and broad highlands covered in exposed bedrock and blueberries.

Interesting hilltop terrain around OP LL
Since we were technically lost but had a rough idea where we must be, we decided to continue southeast, as that was the direction of the next TA and there were a multitude of catch features in that direction that we should eventually reach.  Continuing, we reached a broad flat bedrock bald with a stream unexpectedly coursing over it.  The stream wasn't on the map but this feature narrowed the possibilities of where we could be and we decided to follow it south. This quickly led us back to a dense forest of low trees and blueberries that looked really slow.
We were lost, tired, wasting time and morale was low as we pondered this wall of vegetation. Glancing around, a rectangular shape behind some trees caught my eye.  “Is that a CP?” “No, can’t be.” “Is it? Yeah, that’s a CP!”  OP LL had fallen into our lap and in an instant we knew exactly where we were and had bagged a lucky CP.  As we had expected, we were very close to the descent to the rappel and CPs 16 and 17 at the top and bottom of the rappel.   Riding this huge infusion of morale, we were soon scooting downhill through some dense blueberries and laurel but eventually picked up some wet roads that led down to the stream, which we followed for a couple hundred scenic meters before arriving at the top of the rappel over the gorgeous Stony Kill falls.  Here we had to decide whether to hike around the rappel and incur a 15 minute penalty, or wait for 20-30 minutes for a rope to open up, as there were 6 or 7 teams at the rappel.  We had come this far and it would be sad to miss this spectacular portion of the course, so we elected to wait and rappel 100 feet down the waterfall.

Nick and Mason TOTALLY FIRED UP for the rappel!
Mason on rappel.
Nick on the rap'. One of the many scenic areas we got to race through.       Photo: Vlad Bukalo

After we had each rappelled, it was a quick downhill dash to the bikes for an easy 4 mile road ride back to the host hotel.  With the end in sight, we mustered a strong ride back (hello saddle sores!) and finished with a time of 28:37, having found all of the 18 mandatory CPs and 17 OPs. We enjoyed a few minutes of not racing and then headed up to our room for beer, shower, sleep, pizza, sleep: in that order.
            The post race banquet was a nice finish to the weekend, chatting with the other teams and making some deposits in the calorie bank.  We ended up 3rd in the Open division and  24th overall out of 55 teams.  It was a solid finish for our first longer race.  Congratulations to winners Wedali/GearJunkie and our NH AR stud teams Untamed New England 1 and 2 who grabbed 4th and 5th overall.
            This race was a fantastic experience for us and the course was well-designed and took us through beautiful areas of the Southern Catskills.  A huge thanks to USARA and the NYARA course designers.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful write up and it was terrific to meet you at our event! You guys did a great job and we hope to see you out in the woods sometime soon.


    Denise Mast
    President, NYARA