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, June 3, 2021

Two Rivers Adventure Race, 36 hr, Morris PA, 5/29/21

 With COVID wiping out most of the races for 2020, this was our first big race since 2019. It would also be our longest to date. We had an idea of the type of terrain that Rootstock Racing had in store for us, having raced in this area for the 2019 2RAR (report here). Steep hills and rushing creeks and rivers would make up the majority of the backcountry. The one race condition that was unknown was the weather. Memorial Day could bring anything from summer heat (please no) to prolonged cool and wet spring conditions. As race day approached, I was very excited to see that we would be blessed with the latter.

Temps would range from 40-58F with scattered rain.  This may sound dismal to most folks but compared to the possibility of dealing with the massive efflux of fluids and electrolytes on a warm race day, cold and wet would be just fine. There are more ways to manage too cold than too hot.

On Friday we checked into our rental cabin in Morris and spent the evening planning gear logistics for the morning. We got a decent night of sleep before waking at 5:00 to load the cars, shove food and coffee into ourselves, drop the bikes on the course, and drive to the race start in remote Masten, PA. All went according to plan and we were ready and waiting for the race start at 8:00.

Prolog jogue

Leg 1 of the race would be preceded by a quick prologue on foot - finding 3 simple, nearby flags in the Masten Campground area. The intent was to spread the teams out a little so that it wasn't follow-the-leader conga line to begin leg 1. It was a bit too short and easy to accomplish much, but it helped some. It was interesting to see some teams sprinting around at 5k pace to begin this 36 hour race.

So far, we had only received the map for Leg 1. This would be a unique one. It was primarily a river  leg...but on foot. The mandatory and (unmapped!) optional checkpoints (CPs) were placed to keep you in, or on the banks of, the river. The river was Rock Run, which cut a gorgeous ravine through the woods, over cascades, falls and rock ledges. The recent rains filled it with ample swift, cold water that we would repeatedly ford (and fall into at least once).

Typical Rock Run scene. Note little orange flag (CP) in center, over the falls.

Between the mandatory and optional CPs, we found all 16 points in the scenic river gorge. The usual procedure was to hike as fast as possible along the river edge/bank until it became a rock wall, then ford the river and continue this procedure on the opposite bank.  Because there were unmapped CPs in the ravine, you could not stray far from the river course or you might not see one of them. Rob was blazing down the river in this section, finding every CP, and it was all I could do to keep him in sight while navigating the slippery, uneven terrain. We met and passed a few teams on this section. 

Finally we found the last river CP and climbed out of the gorge and shuffled the rest of the leg on roads. Pre-race, I was wondering if the number of CPs to find, combined with the very technical terrain would put us behind time estimates. Instead, we finished the leg quite a bit faster than expected, averaging a surprising 2 mph over these 12 miles.

The downside was (at least for me), that your legs took a bit of a beating moving quickly through this atypical landscape. Feeling discomfort in both knees, with possibly 30 hours of race left was disconcerting.

Rob bagging a riverbank CP

 rolled into TA1, in Ralston, at the 6.5 hour mark. Here we received the rest of the maps for the race and switched over to bike mode. Coming in wet off Leg 1 (the result of an accidental full-body immersion) and stopping our forward progress, I was soon shivering and needed to start riding before we had time to map/plan our entire route for this second leg. Leg 2 was the longest bike leg. Their estimates were 37 miles and 7ish hours. This slow pace suggested that we would be facing big hills, technical terrain or tricky navigation. It turned out to be little of all of those.

After a few flat miles of pavement, we began a ~1000ft climb on quiet gravel and paved roads. Any lingering chill from the TA burned off quickly during the ascent. This would be a recurring theme for the whole race: get cold in TA (and some downhills) and sweat on the ascents. We modulated this by donning/removing hats/buffs and un/zipping our top layers. I wore the same clothes for the whole race: two 1/2 zip Smartwool baselayers under a weatherproof shell, and tights and undies on bottom. The only changes were to throw on bike bibs for the bike legs and changing into dry shoes/socks/gloves when possible.

We picked up a couple easy CPs along the way, climbed and descended some more and headed toward the town of Blossberg. A short detour into town would be our only chance to grab food from a store. Rob and I decided that a cup of gas station coffee and a snack was worth the side trip. Since it was a Subway-equipped gas mart, it had a sit down area. We each had 2 cups of coffee and a bit of food. "A bit" in Rob's case was 3 slices of pizza. 

We also took advantage of this warm dry space to pull out the maps and have a strategy and map markup session. After a half hour or so, we climbed back onto our bikes and scooted out of town just ahead of the annual Coal Days Parade. 

With the morale status bar back near full, we did a little more road riding to reach a network of trails on mixed use land north of Arnot. We met up with a few more teams here including our fellow New Englanders of Strong Machine. We were happy to team up with these guys for the bulk of the bike-O here and on the ride to TA 2, navving and chatting together to good effect.

TA 2 arrival

TA 2 was the start of the big night trek - the navigational crux of the race. This patch of the Tioga State Forest held 1 mandatory CP and up to 23 optional CPs. This was the main leg where teams who were navigating well and moving fast could pick up extra CPs and climb in the rankings. We started by mopping up some easier, closely spaced CPs in the central part of the course, mostly around really nice waterfalls and streams. Then we began attacking the more peripheral points in a counterclockwise fashion. 2 issues arose at this point:

1)  The night before we left, Rob found out that the battery of our trusty altimeter watch was dead. It's one of those old school watches that you take to a jeweler to get a new battery. Rob watched some videos and fiddled with it a little but it still was not functional. So, while driving to PA, he used Siri to get in touch with the helpful proprietor of a mall-based jeweler in NY. This was not far from our driving route, so he headed there and in short order the guy had the watch up and running. Once we started to actually use it, however, it became obvious that the altimeter was nowhere close to functional (Yes, we know they work on barometric pressure and that the weather was bad. It wasn't that).

2)  I had folded the map in the map case in such a way as to cover up 4 distant eastern CPs. By the time we realized that those were actually there, we had crossed all the way over to the west side of the course and were pretty much stuck on that side of the map unless we wanted to majorly backtrack. This cost us at least one quick CP (AA).

Despite these factors, we were actually nabbing these things in pretty short order. On our way west, we hit CPs S, R and Q without much issue and headed to P, in a big marsh about 1 km away. As we approached it in the early AM hours, Rob's typically brisk ground speed began to flag and soon I was in the unusual position of pulling the train through the woods while Rob descended into a sad bonky place of GI distress. He spotted a fawn in the marsh-side grass and then mom nearby, and then took a few minutes of rest while I fetched the surprisingly distant CP in this marsh that stretched the better part of a km. After a little more down time, Rob was back on his feet and gradually regained an adequate level of mojo. This was not a turning point, however, because next we encountered our first big nav problem. Despite knowing exactly where we were, setting a compass bearing and following it closely, we never hit our next target (CP O) which looked to be in broad, shallow reentrant. We wandered around left and right, trying to identify this terrain feature but we never could, using up time and draining the morale bar.  

Looking back at our GPS, post race, both times we set a bearing on Rob's compass, we ended up on a course about 20 degrees left of our target. So, I think it was a compass problem but who knows; even with a good compass, tired night nav can always go South (insert cheesy joke here).

At this point we were at some poorly-defined point in the woods and needed to get found and resume our previously effective racing. I directed us toward a trail that we were sure to hit if we were anywhere near where we should be. This worked and soon we were southbound on a fast trail. We didn't really know which trail we were on but then we spotted and shamelessly followed a 2-man team to checkpoint FF on trail.  Then we decided to bushwhack west for a km to a trail that would serve as our attack point for 2 or 3 more CPs. We hiked west for a long time, then some more, then more. No trail. I recalled the well known fact that you almost always haven't gone far enough when you're trekking at night and we continued, finally finding a trail. This trail degraded to a moat, started meandering in a wrong direction and eventually disappeared. It hadn't been the right trail. Now, after following this unmapped trail, our location was again non definitively known.

At this point, since leaving P, we had found one CP in 2 hours, mostly while practicing the morale-depleting activity of low-confidence bushwhacking. We could certainly keep grinding out here but there we no more easy "honey-holes" of CPs left and it would take a bit of time to even determine exactly where we were. I wasn't navigating well, we weren't moving well, so we made the decision to call it a leg and head back to TA rather than risk wasting more time doing this. A big trek leg still lay ahead of us, during Leg 5, in daylight, where our time would be better spent.

I pointed us in the rough direction of the TA (which ended up being luckily on target), and we descended to and forded Babb Creek to get there. On the way, Rob spotted a big blond porcupine in a short tree.

I'm not sure whether these light-colored porcupines are a PA thing or whether he was an anomaly. By the time I had fumbled my camera out, it was much higher up the tree, resulting in this stunning wildlife photo (look out JS O'Connor!):

While hatching our bail-out plan for this leg, we also decided to use a lucky secret weapon that Rootstock had unwittingly given us.

While spending a little sleepless time Friday night, it occurred to me that the race info we had just received stated that we would ride through Morris during bike Leg 4. Morris is tiny and our cabin was in Morris. So....our cabin would be within a minute, two max, of the race course. If we rode through at the right time, it would be a great place to grab a quick power nap. We had left the key under the mat just in case this strategy worked out.

It was now about 4 AM and Morris was a speedy, level to downhill ride from our current location in TA 3. The timing would be perfect. Within an hour of leaving TA, we had the coffee maker set, a 30 minute alarm set and had fallen instantly asleep on our beds.

By the time we rode back out to finish Leg 4, dawn had broken, coffee had been gulped and the morale status bar was topped off - woo!

We finished up the rest of this leg, which was really just a way of getting us to the beginning of packraft Leg 5. This involved a surprising amount of elevation gain for the short distances which we were covering.  The big hurdle was a steep 500 ft climb. We were sad when Rob realized, inspecting the bike maps on the board, that we would be tackling that same climb on our way to the finish line during Leg 6. One thing that I have found to be true is that Rootstock races do not tend to let up, you will not find many gimmes. A CP that looks to be just off the trail will be 50ft down a technical ravine, a final 10 mile bike leg on road will steeply gain 900ft, and so on.

We reached TA4, the beginning of the packraft, early Sunday morning. This would entail a long hike, mainly on trail, carrying packrafts and paddle gear, followed by a float down Pine Creek, back to this same location. When we got to the TA, energy and morale were high. We began to look through the pile of paddle gear bags and bins which had been trucked here for us to resupply. Our box was not initially apparent and after a thorough inspection by us and the helpful volunteers Kate and Joel here, it was confirmed to be absent. After some discussion, we came to the conclusion that it must have been swept up with the paddle gear from the preceding 15-hour race. This meant that it was sitting at the finish line, a 20+ minute drive from here. Joel took off to fetch it for us and we camped out at the TA in our bike stuff, gradually cooling off while biting midges nibbled our faces. After an hour (which was naturally subtracted from our race time), Joel returned with our gear and we made quick work of packing up our rafts and paddle stuff, eating/drinking quickly and setting off in trek mode.

There were a few optional CPs to try for on this leg but they were distant and off-trail. Tackling the full on-trail trek and adjacent CPs was going to be lengthy (11 miles on Western Rim Trail) and plenty for us. We took the quickest route to begin, back along the rail trail we'd arrived on. Starting the trek, with heavy pack on, I was really feeling the knee pain which had begun during Leg 1. I fished out my ibuprofen stash to find that there was only one 200mg tablet left. I resignedly took this and we continued trekking down the rail trail. A km or so down the trail, I looked down on and saw two Advil tablets sitting there on the ground - thanks to whatever NSAID fairy dropped those for me!

This leg was pretty tough, honestly. Heavy packs, fatigued/injured legs and a lot of distance and elevation to cover. There were 6 CPs to get on the trek, spaced pretty far apart. One (PP) required a sketchy heroic ravine descent to Bohen falls by Rob. The rest were less harrowing but the miles were taking a toll and we really couldn't wait to sit our butts in those packrafts.

Western Rim Trail. This is how I like my mountain laurel: with a nice trail through it.

We trekked chunks of this leg with the A. Courains and a 3-man team whose name I didn't catch. After about 4.5 hours, we reached the endpoint of the trek where we would descend steeply to Pine Creek. RD Brent had warned us about this sketchy descent of a rocky streambed. He mentioned that we might bail and turn back after seeing it and that we should be wearing our helmets to be safe. He also mentioned a possible alternative, which was to descend not the stream itself, but the steep spur that formed the northern wall of its ravine. He hadn't tried it but it had seemed doable to him, from the bottom. We chose this route and it was really not bad at all. We passed 3-5 teams here who were approaching the descent or slowly making their way down the stream. Thanks Brent for the intel!

Rob ferreted out CP NN at the bottom (not a gimme!), we inflated our boats and settled into the packraft. Although the water level was such that the ride was a bit scratchy at times, this part of the race was such a nice break. We really didn't "race" it. A lot of the time we just floated downstream, enjoying the scenery and watching the many birds inhabiting the riparian habitat and chowing mayflies. I decided that the best way to describe it was being in a "bird aquarium". Rob suggested "outdoor open aviary" in response, which was laughably inaccurate.

Common Mergansers shooting some sick class I rapids.

2.5 hours later we were back at the TA. Along the way we had picked up 3 CPs. Wow, did those legs feel bad standing up from the raft to punch a CP and at the TA. I weakly hobbled into the TA where we stowed our paddle stuff, ate and drank, and geared up for a short but (as we knew) steep, uphill bike to the finish.  Bike is our strongest discipline and this was really not bad. Though now raining a bit, we had the impetus of the looming finish line and some more scenic rural roads to propel us along. We spun into the finish line at about 5:30 PM. What a relief to be done. Because of the paddle-bag time credit, we could have raced until 9:00 PM without penalty. In reality though, we (particularly me) were trekked out. My knees were an Advil-resistant wreck at this point. We had cleared the bike sections and the raft. The only points we skipped were optional trek points. We had logged ~18 hours of tough trekking and I could not have wisely done any more than that.

Our effort was good enough for 7th place overall among the 42 teams in the 36-hour race. We were very satisfied with that.

As previously, Rootstock masterfully created a cruel beauty of a course in the Endless Mountains of PA. Course design and race day logistics were super solid. This was a one of the best races we've done. We give a huge thanks to them and the team of volunteers who tirelessly work to make it all possible.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Wildlands Adventure Challenge, Orland, ME, 10/11/20

 2020 was/is obviously a year of new challenges for everyone. In the AR world, it was a year of race cancellations and postponements. A scarce inconvenience certainly, compared to the effects of the pandemic on many people, but so it is that the most recent entry on this blog was also the Wildlands Adventure Challenge, one year ago.

Using some creative ways to prevent the gathering of people, facemask requirements, no-touch checkpoints and other accommodations to minimize or eliminate the possibility of unintentionally staging a super-spreader event, the good folks at Strong Machine AR were actually able to responsibly get a race on the books in 2020.

Demand for race entry was so great, they ran the same race on back-to-back days (Saturday and Sunday). This can be attributed to the eagerness of any adventure racer in the region to do an actual race in 2020, and may also reflect a new interest in AR stemming from the recent resurrection of the Eco-Challenge TV show.  The original Eco in the 90's and 00's was a huge reason many of us started AR in the US.  Hopefully the modest success of The World's Toughest Race will have a similar effect on a new generation of racers.

Whether due to Kate and Cliff's already established success in attracting new racers or because of the show, there were a lot of new racers, particularly women out on the course. This was great to see. In addition to running the race twice, they were also running a beginners' 3-hour race concurrent with the usual 8-hour affair, both days. My son, Reed (17), and I would be doing the 8-hour race, while my wife and 10-year old daughter were debuting as the NH Trailettes in the 3-hour race!

We checked in to race HQ (Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery) just after dawn, and received our (staggered) start time. We learned that the first leg of the race would be a short Score-O in the forest and trails in the vicinity. Teams had to decide how to most quickly accumulate 24 points out of the variously-valued checkpoints nearby. 

We selected a route that involved minimal elevation gain but a little bit of fine navigation. Our first target, a 4-pointer, took a bit more time than expected because when we arrived, we saw it about 30 feet below us, down an extremely steep ravine wall.  Tumbling into a gully was not how we wished to begin the next 8 hours of racing, so we worked our way around to a more manageable area to descend to the CP. The other CPs in this section were less dramatic. The plotting of the trails on the trail brochure was not highly accurate, leading to a few delays but overall, we moved well enough through this first section, finishing in 51 minutes.

We then scurried down to the edge of Alamoosook Lake to begin the lake kayak. I was hoping we'd be in a tandem kayak, faster than a single and a good way to equalize team paddling speed, but the 2-man teams received 2 single kayaks. Fortunately they were pretty nice kayaks (not sit-on-tops). There were 5 possible CPs on the lake. 3 were relatively close by and 2 of them would be take a little more time to reach. This was an obvious place where the 2 types of teams would diverge. Those gunning for the podium should grab all 5, while the rest should grab the 3 and move on to the next legs. We were surely in the latter group. Reed paddled his boat well and we scooped up the 3 shoreline CPs without incident, traveling in a pod with several other teams. 

Although not nearly as windy as was experienced by Saturday's racers, there was still a stiff breeze out there, raising a little chop on the lake. The autumnal views from the paddle were really splendid; at one point a bald eagle soared high overhead on a nice tailwind.

After only 46 minutes, we were back on land and gearing up for a bike ride. Because of the no-touch CPs and favorable exit/entry techniques, we had retained dry feet during the paddle - unheard of! Between this and the drought forest conditions to follow, we actually enjoyed dry feet for about 80% of the race.

Drone's eye view of the area around race HQ. JS O'Connor photo

Our bike ride would take us on dirt and paved roads from the hatchery to the heart of the nearby Hothole Valley Parcel. On the way we would pick up 2 fairly easy CPs in areas familiar from last year's race. We completed this ride in 72 minutes, arriving at TA3, to begin the trekking section of the race.

At the TA, we quickly changed out of bike shoes and readied some food to eat during our initial hike. It's often challenging to eat while you're riding and especially while kayaking. Trekking usually allows you to consistently use both hands to feed yourself and is a good time to tank up on calories. As we approached the first target, we hurriedly plowed through some Pringles and Fritos. The first CP was easily found after a 10 minute hike. The next would require a substantial ascent, to a small mountaintop, off-trail, primarily through a young beech forest.

It was at the time that I began to notice how great the weather was. Here I was, cranking up this hill, and, sweating certainly, yet somehow, not uncomfortable and not seriously dehydrating myself, wow! The temps in the 50's and steady breezes were providing a perfect environment for the effort level we were putting out. We never became too hot or cold at any time during this trek - a rare comfort bonus which I did not fail to mention and enjoy throughout the race. I'm sure Reed got tired of my repeated weather-related exclamations. Between the weather, interesting off-trail terrain, and the fall foliage, this was one of my favorite treks ever.

The lichen-encrusted summit near CP 10

After this summit CP, our next target was...another summit CP.  As expected, this would necessitate a substantial descent and ascent.  This part of the forest was not too bad for off-trail travel, better than average, except for being pelted by whippy beech branches.

Awesome view from CP 11. Hothole Pond is below us.

Then we needed to descend to the mouth of Hothole Pond, to find CP 12. The bushwhacking in this part was a little more slow and technical, with lots of boulders/erratics on the face of the mountain, some down trees and lots of brushy blueberries to wade through. CP 12 was an easy find on the bank of the pond and then it was time to bushwhack up the back of Great Pond Mountain to find a CP in a reentrant (stream gully). I had a little navigator's self-doubt here, thinking that I hadn't "aimed off" accurately enough because as we ascended, at length, the reentrant became less and less a reentrant (as they tend to do). But, soon enough, there was that lovely flag, after ascending just a little bit more.

At the beginning of the trek, we had been moving really well and clicking through the CPs faster than anticipated, leading us to wonder if we could clear, or nearly clear this section. The bushwhacking had become quite a bit slower for the last 2 CPs, however, and we were no longer maintaining that favorable pace. Therefore, we decided to not go after CP15 after all; we'd just head back to the trails, do an out-and back grab of 14 and then pick up one more close CP on the way back to the TA, which would give us plenty of time to bike back to the finish at race HQ.

We fell in with a couple other teams on the way to 14 on the Birding Trail with the clue listed as "Edge of Marsh."  Once the trail petered out and a marsh appeared to our right, we followed behind the train of racers to the marsh. We poked around this wet slow terrain for a little while and came to the eventual realization that this wasn't a train of racers on a well-worn track to a CP, it was just a bunch of people milling around. I had been taking a bit of a break from navigating and ill-advisedly assumed the teams ahead were on track. Standing in the marsh and looking seriously, this time, at the map, it was clear that this was not where we were going to find the CP. A little stress began to creep in at this time. We had a little time to find some more trek CPs before we really needed to get back to the TA, but not much, and now we had wasted a lot of it. I really did not want to go over the 8-hour time limit. Through the slow terrain of the marsh-side peninsula, I led us on a southward trek. The map suggested that the CP would be at the tip of the peninsula on the "Edge of Marsh." After many more minutes of grinding through this terrain, I was losing hope. I felt we had gone too far and I gave us a 5-more-minutes turnaround cutoff. Soon, though, the end of the peninsula emerged and, to my immense relief, a flag hung there. Whew.  We copied down the code word and had just started back north when I had a thought and went back to check the CP number attached to the flag. This was 15, not 14. Ohhhkayyyy. So...some more studying of the map and recalibrating to our new known location, and we were off to the actual location of CP 14, which we found right where it should be from the map. Weird how that happens sometimes.

We had spend a lot of time working around this area and hadn't left ourselves much time for the bike back BUT now we had 2 CPs to show for it - a lucky payoff for our efforts. Team morale status bar refilled to the top. We jogged and hiked back to the TA, grabbing a quick out-and-back on-trail CP along the way. We had bagged all but one CP on the trek leg in a bit under 4 hours - solid.

We transitioned quickly back into bike mode. We had one hour to make the ride back. That trip, on the way here, had taken 72 minutes. On the return trip, however, we would have more downhill and would not have to stop for any side trips to CPs. After a lengthy dirt road climb, we had an opportunity to take a shot at one more CP (21). We probably, but not definitely, had enough time. We discussed it for a minute before deciding to play it safe and enjoy a stress-free ride into the finish.

At the finish line we spent a couple minutes chatting with overall winners Untamed New England (including team members Rob and Dave who were on our winning squad last year as well). We reunited with Pam and Eliza, who had a fun and successful 3-hour race, trekking, kayaking, navigating and finishing in the top 50% of teams in their first AR.

We enjoyed socially distanced tasty burritos and beer with a few friends lakeside before heading out.

We would sincerely like to thank Kate and Cliff White of SMAR for their tremendous efforts is organizing these races under the conditions imposed by COVID-19. The entire family had a great experience and can't wait to return for more outdoor fun in 2021!

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.