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.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

NYARA. The Longest Day. 24 hour adventure race. Lower Hudson area. 9/13/14

We had previously done 2 races designed by NYARA's dynamic duo Rodney Villella and Amy Bartoletti. We greatly enjoyed those events and really like the style of their races: lots of checkpoints and an emphasis on navigation and decision-making.  Ultra-endurance type competitions are rewarding in their own way but can certainly suck on race day if there is nothing but a physical grind involved. The need to engage your brain more frequently helps take the edge off the physical and makes for a more enjoyable and rewarding experience, especially if the whole team is involved in the process. Its one of the reasons AR is awesome and other kinds of races are less awesome.

We arrived Friday PM at C. Fahnestock State Park near Nelsonville, NY, met with NYARA head honcho Denise Mast and grabbed 3 beds in one of the cabins at the Taconic Outdoor Education Center - race HQ. We arrived early enough to grab a beer in nearby Cold Spring; the Eastern Standard IPA from Peekskill Brewing Company was delicious.

Racers wore these patches to honor the memory of Chad Denning.  Chad was an elite ultrarunner, adventure racer, race organizer and all-around good guy from New London, NH. He will be greatly missed by the AR community.

At registration 6:00 Sat AM, we got most of the maps and a course overview from Rodney. Then we had a few minutes to check out the race route before boarding buses for a ride to the race start in Blue Mountain Reservation in Peekskill, a town on the eastern shore of the Hudson River. At race start we were given an orienteering map of the park with 5 mandatory CPs and 5 optional CPs (OPs) on it. We were given the option of splitting up the team to get the CPs but we didn't see any obvious easy way to do so which would outweigh the risk of being separated and delayed, so we stayed together and grabbed the 10 points without much difficulty. In this race there were a total of 22 mandatory CPs and 35 OPs. Your final placing depended on how many you found, with the CPs given the most weight. We knew we would not skip any CPs and that we probably wouldn't have time to get all the OPs, so one strategic concern was deciding which OPs to skip over. In this first foot-orienteering leg and the next bike-orienteering section, the OPs were pretty tightly spaced so it was a good opportunity to stock up on OPs and not skip anything for now.

The foot-O and bike-O were pretty easy and went quickly. We finished them in about 47 and 65 minutes respectively. Having dry trails helped with riding and footing for these legs, but it would be the last time we would have dry forest in the race. One of the foot CPs was aggressively guarded by ground hornets. Rob and Nick each received several stings. The end of the bike-O was a ride through Peekskill to the kayak put-in on the Hudson River at TA2. We had covered 11.3 miles so far. Sending everyone into the woods for a ROGAINE-type leg like this was a good way to quickly spread the teams out at the beginning of the race.

Start of the paddle. Note the plush cockpit and robust back support provided by the sit-atop kayak.

Being a team of 3, we had 2 sit-atop kayaks to fill, so one of us (Rob, our strongman) had to solo in a 2-man kayak, which is not very efficient. We tethered Rob's kayak to Nick and Mason's to try to even it out a bit. The paddle route was 12 miles up the Hudson River. NYARA had timed it so we would have a gentle north current, which helped. There were no CPs on the river - so we just settled in to a 2+ hour paddle. These type of kayaks are very uncomfortable to spend any substantial time in. They are more suited to paddling 100ft from the shore to your moored boat, not actually as a means of travel. It was interesting to see the river and paddle past West Point, but, in general, this leg was a bit of a grind - no navigation or much change in terrain, little talking. We got some light rain and then a longer shower for the second half.

At the end of the paddle, just past Cold Spring, we carried the kayaks onto land and headed toward an OP that was nearby, with the clue listed as "cave". It was an odd little cave: a rough 4' diameter tunnel into a riverside bluff. The flag was at the end of the tunnel, about 40' in. As we approached the end, the light level dimmed to zero, but luckily there was a team close behind us with a headlamp so we could see a bit. There was also a young couple at the end of the tunnel, oddly, sitting there in the dark, but they didn't seem to mind our intrusions.

Mason emerging from cave

We then laboriously carried the kayaks to TA3, where we ate a bit and switched into trek mode for a 5+ mile leg through Hudson Highlands State Park. The first part was a 1400' climb of Bull Hill on trail, then to find several off-trail OPs in the backcountry. This was cool terrain. The initial ascent gave us views of the fog-filled Hudson valley and, later in the leg, after beating through some minor mountain laurel, the forest was very open and scenic. The navigation was not too difficult. We traveled mainly on a ridge through the rocky backcountry in light rain, eventually descending to TA4, where we would pick up our bikes.

Nick checking out abandoned quarry on Bull Hill ascent

Rob, a native New Yorker, and a foggy Hudson River valley
I like this picture because I look huge next to my elfin teammate.
Ready to depart TA4.          Photo credit: NYARA
After TA4, we had a short road ride to a new trail system. Partway through the road ride we stopped at a gas station to grab a couple snacks and drinks and answer the inevitable questions from other customers regarding what exactly we were doing. Soon we turned onto a trail which we rode uphill for about 5 miles into Fahnestock State Park. This linear northeast trail began as smooth fine gravel but soon gave way to lots of uphill rocks, so we had to hike-a-bike a few areas. You also needed to be careful crossing wet steel plate bridges. We grabbed a CP halfway up, a short hike from the trail, then had a small amount of road and trail downhill to TA5. Rob had a couple deer bolt from the bushes and scoot across the road just ahead of him right before we reached the TA, a little before sunset.

We left bikes at the TA and proceeded further into Fahnestock State Park to get one mandatory CP as well as some OPs. You could go for a lot of OPs on this leg if you wanted to, but there was another trekking leg later in the race which would allow quicker travel to most of them, so we decided to just grab 4 of the OPs at this point. We had not skipped over any OPs so far. We grabbed the first 2 OPs in twilight and then switched on headlamps - night racing for the next 11 hours! The off-trail terrain was a little worse in this area with moderate patches of mountain laurel and lots of downed trees and branches, all wet from the tapering rain we had been receiving. Our compass bearing to the third OP on the leg, CC, was true but we did not see the flag in the night fog and continued past where it was up a ridge toward CP17. After some friendly advice from Team NYARA, who we ran into atop the ridge, and after calibrating the altimeter at the CP, we backtracked to OP CC and found it without issue. Up until then we had been racing mostly alone on the course, nowhere near any other teams since the kayak put-in, which was nice. We found our final OP of the leg after descending off the ridge on trail and then returned to our bikes at TA6. We covered about 5 miles on this leg.

Next was a big bike leg with long sections of hilly road and trail. After descending speedily (and chillily with our wet bodies) for 6-7 miles we came to a steep 650 ft climb on road up Miller's Hill, crossing under the Taconic State Parkway. We have been in several races in which the directors throw a big road climb, or other big physical effort, at you, like this. These features are not a lot of fun but I am actually glad they are there. We don't have a ton of spare time to train during the week but we definitely put in our share of hard miles, year-round. I like to think that base of fitness and endurance is what allows one to absorb a climb like this in a race like this and be able to continue racing at a solid level (perhaps slightly more slowly) This was a long slow climb, giving Mason some time to think, and to realize that he no longer had his map case - it was left at the TA. We still had our map - on the bike map board - but the course instruction booklet was gone. Therefore we had no clue sheet to indicate where to find the next several CPs, just the circles on the map. Fortunately, we had read through the booklet before the race and remembered that the next CP was not a flag. At this CP we recalled that we had to copy down a date written on the back of a street sign at a road junction. This could have been a huge mistake because it was a mandatory CP and we would have plummeted in the rankings for missing it.

We then had more climbing and descending on road, as we followed Rt 301 back into Fahnestock SP. We then turned into a campground, refilled water, got some cheers from some campers and headed onto a moderately (sometime very) technical trail south to pick up 2 more CPs over about 5 miles. The first was a hike off the trail on a peninsula on Stillwater Lake - some really dense brush to get there and back. The second was relatively easily found; though we had no clue sheet, we could see tracks in the grass where teams ahead of us has entered the woods and it wasn't too far in.

Then it was back onto road for a bit, including a little 7-mile out-and-back trip that we unnecessarily made after a navigation error regarding the signage for Thomkins Corners. We had to backtrack and turn onto the correct road which we had previously blown by. It now had a new name (USGS race maps are 1978-era) Oscawana Heights Rd. This road was another climby little gem which eventually led to a dirt road ascent and then to a short trail to find CP22 after poking around a bit (again, no clue sheet). After the bonus mileage we rode on this leg, we decided to bypass OP Z, which would require another chunk of riding, and head more directly to the next and final trek stage where we would have plenty more OP targets to go after. We finished this bike section by riding a few more miles on State Park dirt roads to race HQ - Taconic Outdoor Education Center. Up to this point we had traveled 73 miles with 9000+ ft of elevation gain.

At HQ, we checked in and then were allowed access to our gear and supplies in the car. We took about 15 minutes to change into dry clothes, sit, eat, drink and strategize our approach to the final trekking leg. On this leg there were 15 more OPs available, but they were spread over a lengthy area of the park and all off-trail (there were zero gimme CPs in this race). It was now 2:30 AM and the race cut off was 9:00. We set off on a southern bushwhack to find some trails that we hoped would eventually get us close to our targets. Some of the trails were faint and not on the map, so there was some confusion there. We were also screwing up by constantly overestimating how far we thought should have traveled by now, despite ample warning from Mark Lattanzi's nav column. Because of these factors we were "uncertain of our precise location" for a couple hours to begin this leg. After backtracking on a trail we were sure we had been on too long, we spied a stream crossing similar to one we had been seeking and checked it out just to be safe. It turned out to be the correct stream/re-entrant and we had our first OP on this night hike! Finding that first OP was huge for us because now we knew exactly where we were on the map. With this info we pretty quickly and accurately began grabbing more OPs in the wee hours of the morning, finding 5 more as dawn broke and provided a nice morale boost. Our last OP was pretty close to race HQ (the finish line); we weren't 100% sure we were going to be able to squeeze in a foray to the outer reaches of the park to get more OPs and be back in time for the cutoff, so we jogged it in with a little over an hour to spare. We covered about 9 miles on this leg, on and off trail.

After gear cleanup (wow, those were some nasty garments after 23 hours of racing) and showers and a tiny nap or 2, it was back to HQ for a delicious catered breakfast, some chatting with the other racers and the award presentations. The overall race winner was REV3, who impressively cleared the course (57 total checkpoints) despite making a side trip to a nearby bike shop to replace a broken derailleur after the bike-O. Wow. We had a total of 47 checkpoints, good for a solid 1st place in the all-male division. Our overall placing, combining all divisions, was 5th.

This race was a blast. We would like to sincerely thank NYARA for all they do perpetuating the sport of adventure racing as well as all the volunteers, other racers and sponsors who make it all possible.

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