The 2015 team race calendar had a very empty second half due to scheduling conflicts and cancellation of The Longest Day. Despite the 16 hour drive time, USARA Nationals, held this year in Pineville, KY, was a good solution to this problem. It would be our 2nd trip to Nationals. We split the drive down to the race into 2 days. A little traffic (see pic) on the second day delayed us a bit but we arrived with plenty of time for check-in. After leaving the rolling hilly terrain along the interstate and driving toward eastern Kentucky through Tennessee, we were definitely noticing the more“aggressive” topography of the Cumberland mountain region. The area had received a solid week of rain leading up to the event; this weather pattern would persist through most of the race as well.
The cabin we had reserved at race HQ - Pine Mountain State Resort Park - was a perfect staging area; we spent the afternoon fiddling with our bikes and other gear as light rain/drizzle continued. The pre-race meeting that night gave us a little more info about the specific of the race. There was no gear box or vehicle access during the race, but there would be a mid-race “chuckwagon”, where hot food/drink could be purchased. This was very welcome news because the pleasure of freshly-prepared, hot, or cold (i.e., not from your backpack) food during an adventure race is hard to overstate.
It’s great to be at USARA Nationals, with the perennially strong turnout (170+ racers this year) and get a stronger sense of the AR community that you only see a small slice of at a regional race. A typical regional race might have one or a couple very fast teams, some pretty fast teams (us) and a fair number of casual or beginning teams. At Nationals, most everyone is a pretty serious adventure racer, resulting in a generally high level of competition.
After the meeting, we went back to the cabin for some final gear prep and set a 4:30 alarm so that we would have time to grab breakfast before the final 5:30 meeting, where we received the maps and course instructions. All of the 30 checkpoints (CPs) had to be plotted onto the map by us, using their UTM coordinates, which took some time. Then we all boarded buses and were taken to a point on the Cumberland River, 20-30 minutes away. Before beginning the river paddle, we had a short prologue on foot. A prologue is useful in AR, to spread the teams out a bit and especially when the first leg is a paddle, to avoid logistical bottlenecks. Nick was suffering from significant discomfort from a herniated disk, so we weren’t going to run unless we really needed to. We assumed a moderate trek/shuffle pace and headed off into the mud to grab a couple of the 6 available and variably-valued CPs in the surrounding forest, also involving some paved road travel, eventually down to the canoe put-in. The severity of the precipitation diminished over the course of the race; gradually going from rain showers to drizzle to mist to fog.
|Trot down to the canoe put-in|
The canoe leg ended with a mercifully short portage up the steep riverbank. We stowed our paddle gear at this TA and began a short foot section up to where our bikes had been staged. This was a good time to grab some food; it’s hard to eat or drink during a paddle and we would need some calories for the upcoming bike on park roads (paved, then dirt). It was only ~6mi but gained 1400 ft over that distance. We had a strong performance on the bike climb (“KOM” section), recording the 7th fastest time of the 58 teams. At the top of the climb, we transitioned to trek mode at the base of a fire tower. We would head out into park land, on and off-trail, to find 5 CPs in the wet, hilly forest. We did a decent job navigating this section, with only a couple minor delays. Nick starting having some serious pain partway through, but could get some relief by using trekking poles - also handy to have in some portions of this steep, wet terrain. Highlights included a STEEP climb out of a deep ravine which would not have been possible without trees and plants to use as handholds, and Rob finding a nice deer antler.
|A few sections were a little bit muddy...|
|Heading down from the fire tower to begin the big bike leg. Photo USARA.|
We finished the loop back at the fire tower and donned rain jackets for the big ensuing road descent on bikes. This downhill was a hoot - screaming down park roads while being pelted and half-blinded by stinging raindrops. We then pedaled out of the park on local roads en route to an off-road park. Off road park, in this case, means 4-wheeler/4x4 trails on a mountaintop-removal site. On the way there we picked up 2 easy road CP s and got to travel through some local residential areas varying in income level from moderate to very low. AR is more than a test of athletic endurance and navigation skills, often bringing racers through natural and human landscapes they might never otherwise experience. We were chased by 2 dogs, but neither was of concern: a tiny terrier mix and a chunky beagle.
Once at the off-road park, we were greeted by a gradual degenerating road surface which eventually gave way to an uninviting, overgrown, deeply puddled path that petered out in the brush after 100m. Hmm. It seemed from the map that there should be a more solid trail to our right, and after an absurd, barely possible, 45 degree uphill bike-whack, we found it, and continued with our bicycles in a more conventional manner. There were 6 CP s for us to find in the off-road park. Once you had made the climb to the top, the trails/roads were not very hilly, but, the sloppy surface conditions made for some lovely high-effort, low-speed travel (see video below). One of the few enjoyable aspects of this part of the race was the presence of a few herds of cattle grazing around the park, eyeing you with a mixture of apprehension and curiosity, while scooting out of your way. “Why is this mud-drenched human riding their bicycle straight at me?”
After spending 3.5 hrs up in the park we ripped downhill on gravel and dirt onto pavement and made our way to the next TA - the chuckwagon! The chuckwagon was held in a water treatment building. Mid-race, this was a slice of heaven. To be in this warm, dry building with super-nice volunteers and local helpers serving fresh-off-the-grill food, hot coffee and cold drinks to you was a wonderful hiatus from the course.
What wasn’t wonderful was leaving and heading back out onto the wet windy course, but the next part of the race was not too taxing: 0.4 mi hike to/from canoeing on a lake. We had to find 4 CPs on the shore of the lake, well after sunset, at this point, 12 hours into the race. We had our first significant problem on this leg, randomly having a hard time finding CP 17. I literally walked right by it while scouring the shore, but happened not to illuminate it with my headlamp and since it was hard to be 100% sure you were in the right inlet in the dark, we paddled away and had to return and re-attack couple times before locating it. This probably cost us 45 minutes or so, but we were still doing very well, having started the leg ahead of some very strong teams. After we finished up the paddle, we checked back into the chuckwagon (hamburger and coffee round two!) and then began the hike-a-bike leg.
A short road ride led to a dirt road section which was generally steep, uphill (1000ft), muddy and rutted. Little of it could be ridden for any sustained period of time. Even the eventual downhill sections were tough - slick peanut buttery sketchiness and a deeply rutted powerline descent with some rocks and wet sticks thrown in for good measure. We easily found the 2 CPs on this section and finished up on paved park roads, climbing the 500ft up to the lodge and race HQ. While on the final steep pitch up to lodge, we saw headlights just behind us and the tick-ticking of pole tips on asphalt - Tecnu was a full leg ahead of us and were now heading to the finish line for the win! On the steepest part of the climb, Kyle Peter actually passed me at one point before cutting into the woods to the lodge; he seemed to be in a hurry.
|Rob at TA 6. We got a little dirty during the race. Photo: USARA|
At the lodge, and final TA, we changed out of bike gear, grabbed food and water, chatted a bit with race staff, congratulated Tecnu, and then headed out for the long, final trek. This trek consisted of 8 CPs. 5 were west of us, not too far apart, but a few were off-trail in difficult terrain. The 3 to the east were further away but appeared to be on major trails. We started by attacking the 5 to the west in a clockwise direction. I became sleepy and hungry early on and was not much help as we explored a wooded area not too far from the lodge, unsuccessfully seeking the first CP of the leg. Rob took the helm and led us eventually to it, but not after a chunk of lost time. We lost some time on the next CP too, trying to find a way across a little river before eventually fording it and then by tracking north too soon in search of an unclear curvilinear feature on the map. Once we had sorted out these issues, we tracked straight to the the CP (21). CP 22 was not far away, off trail, and through some slow, brushy flora (mainly mountain laurel, with some rhododendron, thorns and trees thrown in). After quickly finding this CP, we were hitting our stride, but what lay ahead was going to be tricky. CP 23 lay on the other side of a 1.5 mi bushwhack. We set a bearing for the CP, knowing there was almost no chance of lucking out and hitting it; however there was a road about 200m past the CP which would be our catch feature and attack point. Several times during the first part of the bushwhack we almost bailed. This was the slowest terrain we had ever been through. It was a very steep uphill mountain laurel thicket strung through with thorns and a few sets of short cliffs. If it was going to be like this for 1.5 miles, it would take us 2-3 hours to get through. Reassessing the map, however, there was no better option; the alternative was a lengthy backtrack on park roads, so we pushed on. It's hard to appreciate the difficulty of a slow shwack via video, but...
Thankfully, the terrain opened up considerably after a little bit more fighting. There were odd corridors of open forest lined by puffy white lichen we had never experienced before, We used these as our conduit through the snarl as we continued uphill.
The lichen patches disappeared soon, but the mountain laurel/rhododendron was substantially less dense for the rest of the trek, allowing a slow but steady transit to our road, after climbing about 800ft. During this leg, Nick found a nice antler and I sighted this short-eared rabbit:
Once we reached the road, we navigated to a nipple-like bend feature and shot a bearing to the CP from there. It was only 200m away, which should have been doable, but the dense forest and steep terrain made it hard to stay on your bearing and we were repeatedly unsuccessful probing around in the area of interest. There were a few other teams around as well but no one was having any luck. Rather than continue this seemingly fruitless endeavor, we left and went toward the next CP. This was a poor decision; there were only 6 CPs left (4 of them easy on-trail finds) and still 12 hours left until the 30hr time cutoff - plenty of time to clear the course even if we spent hours more in search of 23. Very luckily for us, this mistake had no effect on our ranking.
Continuing on, we easily found the next 2 CPs as we headed past the lodge area. The decision to made at this point was whether or not to drop Nick off at HQ and continue as an unofficial/unranked 2-man team. Being on foot, especially on road, was bringing Nick a lot of pain and what lay ahead, for the next 3 CPs, was mostly that. He decided he would take one for the team and soldier on, allowing us an official finish.
We trekked on park roads for several km, then on trail/stairs to the odd Chained Rock monument in the northeastern part of the park. A 3-man team team had come up behind us at this point, so we cranked up the pace for the next section to prevent any last minute shenanigans they might be considering. The descent from Chained Rock was on a very scenic trail, with babbling brooks, a natural rock arch and some nifty stonework underfoot. We descended to the Laurel Cove amphitheater and then hopped onto a road section which led to a lengthy rail-trail hike, as we picked up the final CP before hustling up park road to the finish line right at 26 hrs.
After relaxing for a few minutes, what we really needed was a place to shower and sleep, in that order. This was the dirtiest I have ever been in my life - having been sprayed with mud for hours and sweating under a rain jacket for most of the race. The problem was that it was now 10:30 AM and we didn't have a hotel reservation. We were stoked when all it took was a quick call to the helpful and accomodating folks at Sleep Inn in Middleboro, and Nick had finagled an 11:00 check-in, so awesome.
After showers, naps and food, we headed back to race HQ for the post-race banquet. We ended up with a 2nd place finish in the Open (mens) division and 22nd place overall. Solid. Our GPS tracking batteries ran out about 10k short of the finish but we had accumulated 99.3 mi and climbed in excess of 15,000 ft, up to that point.
We were struck by how everyone we interacted with during our time in Bell County was super friendly, warm and eager to help you out. Everyone seemed to know about "the bike race" and were interested to chat about it. Despite the weather, we had a great time racing. If I had to make a criticism, it would be that there was a bit too much pavement, but that is minor, considering that there were zero organizational or technical problems evident during the race - not an easy task to pull off. Stephanie Ross and her team of Flying Squirrel and USARA volunteers deserve a huge tip of the hat for their efforts.