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.
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.
|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.