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Mapping the world, one waxy strand at a time…

Reflections on the US Adventure Racing National Championship

It’s been a million years (or two) since I posted here, but this past weekend, we competed in the 2017 USARA National Championship, and it was a race worthy of a real report. I posted it on the Rootstock Racing team blog, and wanted to add it here, too, for posterity.

If there’s anyone who still looks at this page, feel free to read on…

I used to keep a blog, and on there I’d write exhaustive accounts of all my races. I’d dissect every detail, reflect on how I felt, the team dynamics, the adventure and the race and everything in between. In recent years, I’ve gotten away from reflective narratives in favor of quick and dirty play-by-plays on Attackpoint, but the 2017 USARA National Championship seemed like race worthy of a proper write-up. And I sat down several times over the past few days with the intention of doing just that.

Except I couldn’t seem to put words to paper. I’m a storyteller by profession, but this story felt hard to tell – complicated. There was more to it than just 26 hours, 2 minutes, and 17 seconds in the woods, more context, backstory, so many pieces, so much coming together, so many layers to this one little race.

Layer One: the team.

The Rootstock Racing team has seven active members, and we knew that we would be fielding two squads for Nationals this year. It took us several months to sort out who would be racing, but ultimately it came down to me, Brent, Brian, Jim, Joel, and Nicki.

For various reasons, Jim and Brian ended up on one team, Joel and Brent on the other. We just had to sort out Nicki and me. It’s rare that Brent and I don’t race together, rarer still that we both compete in the same event on different teams. Plus, Nationals would be Brent’s 100th race, and could be our 50th together.


Our first race together, October 2007

But Brent hadn’t been feeling 100 percent for most of the summer, and I’d been training harder and racing stronger than ever before. In July, we realized that we had an opportunity to overtake the top-scoring teams in the national rankings with a solid race, so we wanted to put together the strongest team we could as the points-scoring squad. And it’s hard to bet against Jim Driscoll in that department. So, after a whole lot of back-and-forth, we decided (I decided? Brent encouraged? There were lots of conversations…) that I would race with Jim and Brian, and Nicki would join Brent and Joel as the second Rootstock team.

And we started a tally of the number of people who asked us if there was “trouble in paradise.”

Layer Two: the organization.

Before starting Rootstock Racing in 2015, Brent and I raced for almost ten years under GOALS Adventure Racing Association – the host organization for the 2017 USARA National Championship.

We directed several races for GOALS (we were actually set to design Nationals this year – in a different location – before we parted ways), Brent captained the team, and in general we both became adventure racers there. We’ll both always be grateful to Anne and Bill Gibbons and will always feel connected to the GOALS community – and so there’s always a little bit of added anticipation, competing in one of their events.

Layer Three: the family.

As parents, Brent and I are deeply committed to maintaining and fostering identities that go beyond Mommy and Daddy, and to modeling that for our three-year-old daughter. We adore Zoe and love our unit of three, but we also both have full and demanding careers, and we both spend a lot of time and energy on Rootstock – as both race directors and racers.


And we’re exceedingly lucky to have supportive families and a huge community of friends who are happy to spend a morning, a weekend, or a couple weeks with Zoe while we’re playing in the woods.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy or smooth, and the last six weeks have been challenging for her, between our twelve-day stint in Wyoming for the Adventure Racing World Champs, the start of the school year for everyone, and a new schedule for me that involves being away from home far more than any of us is used to, especially after being on sabbatical all of last year. She was crying before we even pulled into the school parking lot Thursday morning, and when her friends tried to comfort her by reminding her that mommies and daddies always come back (her class is working on empathy this year!), she responded hysterically, “but my mommy and daddy aren’t coming back because they have to go race!”

Not five minutes later, her teacher sent me a text with a picture of my smiling kid, playing with her dolls, but my heart was already torn to pieces. I almost hung up my race pack right then and there, and I was a bit of a mess on the drive up to Lake Harmony that afternoon.

Layer Four: the personal.

In August 2016, following a particularly rough time at the Itera Adventure Race in Ireland, AR and I almost broke up. I had spent the five days of the race physically, nutritionally, and psychically beaten down, and I lost just about all the confidence I had in my ability as an athlete and a teammate.

Once I started contemplating moving away from the sport, I started to think about what the rest of my life would look like without AR as a centerpiece. And let me tell you what a wormhole that can be, when one of your teammates happens to be your partner…

Instead of letting myself fall in too deeply, I followed the suggestion of my Itera teammate, Mark Lattanzi, and reached out to Sarah Goldman, owner of Action First Coaching. Sarah describes Action First as “mindset coaching for the hard stuff,” and that’s exactly what I wanted – guidance in figuring out what happened along the Wild Atlantic Way and how to reclaim a little bit of my racing prowess. I worked with Sarah for three months, and while I didn’t have the opportunity to compete again during that stretch (family and life took over), with her help I put together a new toolkit to draw from when shit got hard on the race course.

Along the way, I also learned about Jen Segger at Challenge by Choice. I’d first heard Jen’s name when she joined our teammate, Jim, for the Adventure Racing World Champs in Australia last year. Jim, Jen, and the Team Bones crew raced to an 8th place finish, so I knew she had to be a ridiculously strong athlete herself. Then, a few rockstar AR ladies mentioned that they were working with Jen on performance coaching (and a few guys as well, but I was particularly struck by the fact that so many of Jen’s clients were women). I’d been hearing more and more about adventure racers working with coaches to develop a training program, and I was semi-intrigued by the idea, having a background in competitive swimming and knowing that I thrived under the direction and guidance of a coach. But it seemed expensive and unnecessary for where I was in the sport, and after I mentioned it in a passing comment to Brent sometime over the fall, I pretty much forgot about it.

But Brent didn’t, and at Christmas, I opened one of the most thoughtful presents he’d ever given me – a copy of Angela Duckworth’s Grit, an incredibly sweet and encouraging card, and three months of coaching with Jen (many have joked since that this was also a gift for himself, because he was getting a stronger teammate out of the deal). Jen and I began working together in January. I was immediately struck by the intention and purpose behind every workout, and I loved knowing that there was a holistic plan to get me through the season. For those three months, I did every workout, almost exactly as prescribed, and when I lined up for the start of the Shenandoah Epic in April, I was in the best shape of my life. 18076560_1765299576829767_9122002293247156138_o

Twenty-six wet, muddy hours later, our team crossed the finish line for the win, and I felt like a new person. I was confident on my feet, had power on the bike, worked through sleepies and energy dips without letting them get inside my head, and was an active and present member of the team. In short, I was the racer I wanted to be.

I emailed Jen and asked if she had room on her roster for me to stay on through the rest of the season, and I dove into several months of high volume, high intensity training. I was perpetually starving, I was always exhausted, I was a little bit obsessed with data – and I was loving it. I continued to see the personal results that the training afforded, and our team continued to put up strong performances against tough competition. It was, without question, the best season of racing that I’d ever been a part of.

But still, the hangover from Ireland continued to linger, and as we made our final preparations for the AR World Champs in Wyoming, I started to doubt myself again, especially on a course that I knew wouldn’t play to my strengths, and with two of the teammates I’d raced with the summer before.

It turned out that I felt fantastic at Worlds (I didn’t even have to dig into the toolkit Sarah and I had developed over the fall, because I never reached the shit-got-hard moment.), and our team had a great race, especially given the physical format and relatively light nav.

All that was left for the season was USARA…

These layers were on my mind as Brent and I drove up to Lake Harmony on Thursday afternoon. But as soon as we pulled into the parking lot at the Split Rock Resort, we dove into the pre-race frenzy – registration, bike drop, briefing, and packing before falling into bed at 10:00pm, layers long forgotten.


At 5:00am the next morning, we received our maps and saw for the first time what the race would offer. We would begin with a paddle around Beltzville Lake, followed by a monster bike ride and two lengthy treks. It was a big, physical course, but it also looked like there would be opportunities for strategy and route choice, and plenty of technical navigation. We were ready.

After a short bus ride and half an hour spent setting up boats and fiddling with gear, teams walked 50 meters up a small hill for the start. USARA custom includes a prayer (which always feels a little bit ironic to me, with the race – more often than not – falling over Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur… but I digress…) and the National Anthem. After waiting several minutes for the piped-in music to begin, Mark Lattanzi looked at me with a smile. “Let’s do it, Abby.” Mark counted us down and then the two of us kicked off an a cappella rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Everyone else quickly joined in, cheers ensued, and with that a new Nationals tradition was born.


When the song ended, USARA President Troy Farrar fired a cannon to start the race, and everyone sprinted to their boats. The paddle included 8 CPs along the lake, plus a small embedded foot section where teams could divide up to retrieve 9 additional points. The two Rootstock teams had decided to stick together through that o-section, to take advantage of the strong navigators on both teams. Jim, Brian, and I were one of the first teams onto the water, with Brent, Nicki, and Joel close behind. We hit CP 6 on the opposite shore and then turned left and headed up the lake. Quickly both teams fell into step with each other, and we ended up sitting in 4th or 5th position and tucking in behind Rootstock 2, who were speeding through the water with their combined paddling prowess and Brent’s masterful boat handling.

We went back and forth on our route for the section, ultimately veering off from AMK, Journey, and Tan-Z as they headed for CP 8 while we went straight to CP 3 and the o-section. There, Jim and Joel took CPs 5-9 while Brent, Nicki, Brian, and I headed off for 1-4. With Brent navving and Brian punching, we made quick work of our loop, which ended with a neck-deep creek crossing back to our boats (somewhere there’s a video of me up to my eyeballs in the water, with my pack hoisted overhead to stay dry). We didn’t think to ferry the boats back toward the lake to pick up the other two guys, so instead we waited on the banks, trying to figure out what other teams were doing.

Jim and Joel crashed through the woods back to us and we shoved off quickly. “We’re the first to leave,” I told Jim as we paddled toward CP8. “I know,” he said. “It’s because everyone else portaged their boats around.” It took several explanations and a few glances at the map for me to understand what he meant, and collectively we spent the next hour trying to gauge how much time we’d lost by paddling around. At first, we convinced ourselves that we’d fallen to the back of the field. Then, Brent and Joel reasoned that other teams would have had to make up as much as 30 minutes on the 1km portage in order to be so far ahead of us that we couldn’t see them on the water. We rode a morale roller coaster back to CP1 before finally crossing paths with Tan-Z in first place and AMK right behind in second, both en route to the transition. We were about 15 minutes back, in third place. Journey was right behind. Not so bad.

We had decided that the two teams would separate once we were off the water, so when we pulled out, we parted ways with Rootstock 2 and Jim, Brian, and I ran the half-mile to our bikes. Brent and crew came up shortly after with Journey, and we all transitioned together. “See you imminently, I’m sure!” I yelled to Journey’s Katie Ferrington as we rode out of TA.

Less than a minute later, they pulled up next to us. “I didn’t mean that imminently,” I laughed, as they rode on ahead and we settled into a steady pace. We knew that we probably wouldn’t be able to match the top teams on bike, especially with the physical, technical terrain that lay ahead. Our goal was to try to hang with them as much as we could through this section, and then see what we could do on foot.

We spent the next 95 kilometers riding, hike-a-biking, river-crossing (where 1000 of my precious calories turned from goldfish, animal crackers, and sour patch kids to bags of technicolor mush), and bike-whacking through Jim Thorpe and the surrounding state gamelands. Jim handled the maps and Brian powered us through the steep climbs, ran for the checkpoints, and shouldered the extra load. The ride required a true team effort, and we drew on our various strengths and our longtime experience together to make our way through smoothly and efficiently.

Personally, I felt strong and steady on the climbs and flats, solid during the hike-a-bike, and even functional on the bike-whack. The technical descents, however, almost unraveled me. On the first drop, I endo-ed off a rock, jamming my arm and shoulder. Not long after, as we were carrying our bikes across a switchback, I rolled off a loose log and landed with a rock between my hip and my ribs (luckily, I noted, just missing the bones and instead jamming the essential organs). “I’m okay!” I yelled as Brian looked back, grimacing. And I was, mostly, but unfortunately, my bike was hurting. The derailleur hanger was bent and I lost my smallest gears. Then, my rear thru-axel, which I’ve had issues with since getting my bike in June, came loose to the point of coming out of its socket. My tire nearly slid off the axel on a particularly boulder-y stretch. Brian and I tightened it up and I kept riding, gingerly shifting gears and willing everything to hold together.

Somehow, despite all of that, we found ourselves at checkpoint 26 amidst a sea of headlamps. We dropped our bikes and bushwhacked into the point, saying hello to AMK, Journey, and Tan-Z who were on their way back to the trail. Just as Jim started to mention the advantage they all had in approaching the tricky point together, Brian’s light flashed on the reflector. Got it.

We ran back to our bikes and continued on, 10-15 minutes behind the leaders. On our way back out to the rail trail, we crossed paths with Untamed, CP Zero, and Rootstock 2. I’m sure we woke a few bears with all the whooping and hollering we were doing as they passed by.

We lost a few minutes coming out to CP 27 and then a couple more looking for 28, in an abandoned lock along the river (one of my favorite points on the course). From there, it was one more (relatively treacherous) river crossing, some bobbing and weaving through the trails, and a quick climb on roads up to TA 2.

At TA 2, we encountered two distinct foot sections – a big loop on USGS maps, and a more contained orienteering rogaine, using a DVOA map. We could do them in either order, and the o-section was timed – a race within a race. We had decided earlier that we’d start with the bigger foot section, in part because it looked more trail-heavy (potentially an easier transition from bike nav to foot, Jim said), and in part because we wanted to take on the timed orienteering with daylight on our side.

When we arrived around 10:00 PM, the three lead teams were still transitioning. Journey was first to leave and also opted for the big foot. Tan-Z did the same, running off a few minutes later, and AMK set off on the o-course. Not long after we left TA, we came across Journey, who were having issues with the first CP. “Do you know if there are flags hung on this section?” they asked. “Or are we supposed to write down clues?” They thought it might be the latter and were heading back to the TA to find out. We spent a few moments second-guessing the instructions and then decided to continue on and look for the point ourselves. Jim found it quickly, and we set off from there, not seeing our Colorado friends again until the finish line.

Jim’s navigation here was the stuff of legend. We moved easily around the foot loop, hitting almost every CP with surgical precision. Bouncing back and forth between USGS and supplemental maps, Jim guided us around the worst of the vegetation (or maybe we just got lucky… or maybe I’ve become desensitized to the prolific mid-Atlantic rhododendron). We lost a few minutes on CP 34, a “small boulder field” in a sea of small boulder fields, but we otherwise made steady work of the section. We weren’t moving particularly fast, and there were moments when we lost focus and our speed and cohesiveness dropped off, but in general we were able to maintain contact, put our heads down, and go.

That is, until CP 38. At the end of the section there was a small cluster of points around a scenic waterfall. 37 was at the base of the falls, 39 in a parking lot to the northeast of it, and 38 was marked as a rocky point in the middle of the creek below. We hit the area around 3:00 in the morning. First we took an unplanned detour from the main trail onto a rough fisherman’s path, inadvertently running into CP 39 when we were on the hunt for 38. We reoriented ourselves and got back to the creek, where we wandered back and forth along the trail for the better part of an hour, scouring every rocky surface. I was already feeling pretty low – we’d been rationing food for a few hours by that point, and the caffeine I’d taken earlier wasn’t doing its job – and the fruitless meandering had me sleepwalking along the riverbank. We were just about to call into the RD to report a possible missing flag when Shane, Rachel, and Greg of Main Nerve came up. They were having a rough race to that point (Unlucky #13, Rachel told us), and were toward the beginning of a counterclockwise route for the section.

We summarized our predicament, walked the trail with them one more time for good measure, and then, just as Jim was about to pull out the phone, Shane asked, “have you checked the other side of the creek?”

We had not.

Jim and Brian headed down to the water and I continued to walk the trail with Main Nerve. “I’m utterly useless right now,” I told Rachel, who yelled at me to Wake Up! She was right – I needed to do something. So, for the first time all season, I drew from Sarah’s toolkit – eat, caffeinate, engage. Within a few minutes, it started to kick in, and when Brian returned with a punched passport (thank you, Main Nerve, for not letting us derail our race!), he pointed out the CP on the south bank and the three of us headed off for CP40.

“Okay, guys, I’m back,” I told Jim and Brian as we ran down the trail.

“How did you bounce back?” Jim asked.

“I ate, I took some more caffeine, and you found the checkpoint.”

He and Brian laughed, and then we put our heads back down and pushed through the rest of our section, keeping our fingers crossed that our diminishing headlamps would make it to sun-up. Somehow, all three of us were low on both calories and battery life.

We ran back into TA 2, eight hours after we’d set off, to find a visibly relieved Stephanie Ross.

“Thank goodness someone is finally off that section!” she exclaimed.

“Are we the first ones in?”

“You are!”

“But AMK must have finished the o-course.”

“They did, but not that long ago. Britt’s Untamed team has the fastest time so far, around 5 hours, and Kuat is in second.”

Well, shit. Let’s go!

Jim grabbed the o-map for Hickory Run State Park and we ran off down the road. I knew that Sandy Fillebrown at DVOA had spent hours over the summer designing a section of the Nationals course, and I was excited to finally see the results of her efforts.

We hit the first 12 CPs in order, bouncing between trails and bushwhack. Jim took bearings, pace counted, calculated contours, followed vegetation boundaries, and made it look entirely too easy. I checked my watch between points, trying to project out our overall time. “The second half is harder than the first,” Jim warned when I told him we’d covered the first 10 points in two hours. Meanwhile, Brian was handing out individual sour patch kids and combos at semi-regular intervals, all of us hoping we had enough fuel to keep us going for the final push.

From CP12, we hit (I believe) 17, 16, 13 – where we crossed paths with Tan-Z and realized that we’d somehow put 2-3 hours on them – 14 and 15, and then straightlined north to the dam below 18. “We have three points to go,” I told the guys. “If we can do it in 45 minutes, we’ll be in under four hours.”

3 hours and 48 minutes after we set off (ultimately good enough to win the race’s orienteering award), we ran back into TA 2 to resounding cheers.

“You’re the first team to clear both sections!” someone yelled.

“Yeah, Rootstock!!” Sandy exclaimed, popping out from under the canopy. So nice to see her there! We thanked her for the great section and sprinted back to our bikes, saying hello to our friends on Team Strong Machine, filling water, passing around a bag of cashews, throwing wet clothes and shoes into our packs.

“How far back is AMK?”

“They’re been on the foot long enough to be back by now,” Stephanie replied, filming live on facebook.

“They left here at 5:07AM,” Carrie Sona reported.

It was just after 10:00.

“Let’s do it!” Brian yelled, and we raced out of TA for the final 15 kilometer push to the finish.

Well, raced may be a bit of an overstatement. None of us had much power in our legs as we spun up the rocky trail. And I discovered that I’d lost more gears on my bike. And my stomach was rumbling. And my feet were sore. And I was positive that Untamed or AMK was going to sprint by us.

“Head in the game, Perkiss,” I told myself.

We dropped our bikes and ran in for CP 42.

No Untamed.


Leaving CP 42

We rode the grass path to CP 43.


We hit the road and climbed the last hill to CP 44, Split Rock.

“There it is!” I yelled as the flag came into view.

“Abby, do you want to punch?” Brian asked me.

“No way,” I told him. “You’ve done the heavy lifting all day. You’ve earned this last one.”

Brian dropped his bike and ran to nab the final point as I looked over my shoulder one more time.

No one.

We turned around and rode the last kilometer to the finish, crossing the line just after 11:00am as the 2017 USARA National Champions.


As we finished, I began thinking again about all the different things that had come together in the build-up to this race – the challenges, the soul searching, the excitement, the anticipation…

Anne Gibbons, with whom I’ve shared so many races over the last decade, greeted us at the line with an enormous smile and an even bigger hug. We hung out at the finish for half an hour before riding back to the lodge for a shower. 20 minutes later, I got a text from Kate White of Strong Machine that Untamed had finished in second place.

We drove back over to await the arrival of Rootstock 2 and got to cheer on the rest of the field. AMK was the next full-course team to cross the line, at 1:30pm. WEDALI came in a little while later, the only other team to clear the course.

An honor to be in the company of these three other teams.

Brent, Nicki, and Joel rode in at 2:00pm, having had a near-flawless first 18 hours of racing before things unraveled a bit at the end. Brent had tears in his eyes as he recounted hearing from AMK’s Olof that we’d won.

Meanwhile, I was still trying to wrap my head around it.

Later that day, my friend Mary text me: “Is Zoe there?! Think how the phrase ‘My mom was a National Champion Adventure Racer’ is going to influence her.”

You have no idea how much I needed to hear that,” I thought.

And then came a message from Sarah. “Abby I would say that your demons from Ireland are officially exorcised!! Congratulations, national champion!!!!!”


Maybe adventure racing and I aren’t breaking up, after all.

This race capped off a remarkably special season for our team, and I want to thank the whole Rootstock Racing crew – there’s no one else I’d rather run around the woods with. And Brent, for being a true leader, my favorite teammate (sorry, guys), and an incredibly supportive partner. And GOALS ARA, Jeff Bell, Sandy Fillebrown, and USARA for designing an awesome championship course. And my parents, for taking Zoe on a playground crawl across Philadelphia for the weekend. And the entire adventure racing community – I am profoundly grateful to be a part of the AR family.





The Most Boring Team in Alaska

These guys lost a team member to an asthma attack.

This group lost three paddles and two packs on Day 2 of the race.

He had foot rot.

She had hypothermia.

He fell into a crevasse and had to be airlifted off the glacier.

At the awards banquet for the 2015 Expedition Alaska Adventure Race, RD Dave Adlard’s color commentary of the rankings read as a triage report of the trials and tribulations that each team suffered en route to the finish line at the base of Mount Marathon, in Seward.

“And in sixth place,” continued Dave, “GOALS AR.”

Silence. No maladies. No calamities. No near-misses. No sexy stories to share with the rest of the field.

We stood up and walked to the front of the pavilion to collect our medals.

We were officially the most boring team in Alaska.


Seven days earlier, we had lined up on the banks of Lake Eklutna alongside the nineteen other teams that had descended upon Anchorage from around the world, ready to take on the first running of Expedition Alaska.

For months, Adlard had been taking to facebook to warn the world about the dangers that this race would offer – the exposure, the glacial travel, the rushing whitewater, the animals. This would hearken back to the days of Eco-Challenge and the Raid Gauloises: a race the likes of which the AR community hadn’t seen in well over a decade.

And he had adventure racing icon Mike Kloser and packrafting guru Roman Dial to vouch for it.

Roman Dial

Dial leading a pre-race packraft training

Before the race, we spent four days sequestered at the Princess McKinley Lodge, just outside Denali National Park, going through crevasse rescue school, packraft training, and bear safety workshops.

So when we stepped off the buses at Lake Eklutna, we knew that there was the potential for catastrophe. But just how seriously should we be taking Adlard? Would this really be – as he put it – as “epic-er” as he claimed?

Following a quick countdown, we ran through the inflated arch on the banks of the lake and set off on the prologue of the seven-day race – a twelve-mile trail run to the foot of the Eklutna Glacier.

We settled into a steady pace through the valley alongside our friends from Team NYARA and took in the striking scenery. Though the trail was smooth and flat, we were surrounded by sharp snow-covered peaks with cascading waterfalls. Somewhere far off in the distance, we could hear the echoes of the rushing creek coming off the glacier.

Running along Lake Eklutna

Running along Lake Eklutna

We paused briefly for a photo at the first checkpoint – the beginning of what would become our pictorial passport for the event – and again to pick up our glacier gear a handful of miles later.

And then, just as Adlard had warned, the race suddenly turned from mundane to magnificent.

We rounded a corner, bushwhacked a short distance, and found ourselves on the edge of a violent glacial river. There was no way around it – we had to figure out how to get across in order to continue up the rocky mountainside to the ice.

We found a spot where the river was broken by a sandbar. Jon stepped in first, and then Brent, and Bruce and I followed in quick succession. The water was frigid. Not chilly. Not cold. Take-your-breath-away-toes-tingling-skin-reddening frigid. We were in it for all of a minute, but when we made it to the sandbar, I found myself doubled over, hands on thighs, trying to take in air.

Still, we’d made it halfway. The trip from the sandbar to the far bank couldn’t be any worse, right?

Once again, Jon and Brent scouted the area, and they quickly determined that the water was too deep, too fast, for us to make it over safely. We were stuck in the middle of the river, our only option to retrace our steps.

NYARA's first unsuccessful attempt

NYARA’s first unsuccessful attempt

We traveled up and down the bank, taking our time, looking for the route that best minimized our risk of injury. This tactic set the tone for the entire race. With a collective 40-ish years of adventure racing experience among us, Bruce, Jon, Brent, and I charted our way across Alaska carefully and steadily, doing our best to manage the course, rather than allowing the course to manage us.

Finally, after two more failed crossings, we joined forces with NYARA, who were also struggling to find a safe route. As a unit of eight, we slowly conga-lined our way to the far bank. We learned later that several teams were swept downriver, and two found themselves unable to get across at all, ultimately turning around and skipping the glacial trek entirely.

From there, we sidehilled up and across a steep boulder field to the waiting microphones of the impressive camera crew, charged with producing a four-part miniseries of the race for national television. There, at the mouth of the glacier, we pulled on our harnesses, laced up our crampons, tied into our rope, and set off.

Ascent to Glacier

The ascent to the glacier

We had just finished the prologue.


Brent has written an hour-by-hour account of our Expedition Alaska experience, so rather than reinventing the wheel, what I’ll offer here is a rundown of the highs and lows of each section of our seven days across the Kenai Peninsula, with a few choice stories for good measure.


The High

Ice Climbing

Team NYARA, successfully negotiating the crevassed approach

The entire glacier leg was pretty spectacular. From the broken crevassed ice that we had to climb to get to the snow-covered traverse, to the experience of trekking across an expanse of white in the twilight of the Alaskan night, we couldn’t have asked for a more Alaskan start to Expedition Alaska.

Glacier - 2

A team tied together on the glacier

Given that, though, the first seventeen hours that we spent tethered together as a unit of four was without question one of the highlights of the event. More than anything else in my racing career, this experience epitomized what it means to adventure race. Being literally tied together, ten meters apart; pulling each other in as we climbed up and over jags of ice; letting out line so that each person could safely leap over deep crevasses; traveling together across an other-worldly expanse; feeling so completely in the moment that it was impossible to consider what the next seven days might hold. It was that magical moment when the team became better than the sum of its individual parts.

The Low



In reality, there were relatively few low moments during the first thirty hours of the race (really, during the entire seven days of the race), especially because there was no true darkness for me to worry about going deep inside my own head. I was spoiled every single night of this race.

But the lowest moment of the leg came during our final few hours on the glacier, as we slogged down, across, and up the seemingly endless snowfields, and we were just.so.tired of being tethered together. We each wanted to move at our own pace, without worrying about honing in on the person in front or tugging the one behind. The magic of the glacial floss had worn thin, and we were ready for some personal space.

By the time we all realized why we were getting crabby, though, we were off the glacier and scrambling down and sliding across steep pitches of scree and snow, the memories of the rope quickly falling away as we concentrated on not sliding down the vast mountainsides.


The High

My favorite part of this leg, without question, was packrafting the Twenty Mile Creek to the Turnagain Arm, at the very end of the section. Before we made it there, though, we had to get through a lengthy trek along the Winner Creek Trail, a strainer-laden raft down one of the tributaries of the Twenty Mile, and a couple slow bushwhacks up, over, and along the steep ridges that separated the creek from two small glacial lakes to the east, where checkpoints 7 and 8 lay.

When we arrived at checkpoint 8, we had a decision to make. This second leg of the race had been nicknamed the Soul Crusher. We had been told in the pre-race briefing that travel to CP8 would be relatively benign, but from there to the TA, we would encounter some of the worst bushwhacking, the greatest exposure, and the most serious risk that Alaska had to offer.


CP7 – take a photo of at least one team member sitting on an iceberg in the middle of the glacial lake

Adlard offered a “bailout” option, which cut off the soul-crushing part of the Soul Crusher, the entire sea kayak that Leg 3 offered, and the first several miles of Leg 4. We were one of roughly half a dozen complete teams (teams that hadn’t yet lost a member) to make the time cutoff that allowed us even to consider continuing on. At that point, however, we’d been traveling for upwards of 20 hours. We were saturated, cold, and already running low on food.

Race staff and media folks greeted us at the checkpoint, listening to our conversation and adding their own commentary. Mike Kloser told us that we should expect at least 30-36 more hours if we elected to continue on. We’d likely encounter snow, white-out conditions, and dense vegetation that would slow us to a pace of less than a ½ kilometer an hour.

If you take the bailout, Kloser said, you’re probably looking at 8-10 more hours before the transition.

Famous last words.

Making a pro/con list in our heads, we went back and forth for several minutes (and several more, over the next five days) before ultimately electing to take the bailout. With that settled, we re-inflated our rafts and set off across Carmen Lake to the mouth of a swift, wide river.

Ten minutes later, we passed two beavers, thumping their tails in the glacial water. Not long after, an eagle swooped down and unsuccessfully tried to grab a fish the size of a small child in its talons. We had to pay attention to the creek – the strong crosscurrents, the occasional strainer or obstacle – but in general we were able to look around and take in the awesome wildlife, the shifting clouds, and the majestic Chugach Mountains that surrounded us.

Packrafting into the evening down a glacial creek in the heart of the Alaskan wilderness. This is what we’d come for.

The Low

Like Leg 1, this section was largely without drama, but anytime you’re bushwhacking through the woods at one kilometer an hour, you’re bound to get down, and in the hour or two before we hit the first lake and CP7, I think we were all feeling a bit fried.

We had spent the first 48 hours racing alongside NYARA, the irony not lost on us that we’d traveled across the country to hang out with our relative AR neighbors. After a slow and cautious packraft down Twenty Mile, the trek up and over the ridge was taking far longer than it felt like it should. It seemed that every time we stopped and looked at the maps, Brent or Rodney would tell the group that we had “another couple kilometers” to go.

It felt as though we were picking our way through the woods without making any progress, on what we had been told at the start was the “easy” part of the leg.

At some point, I began to wonder whether we shouldn’t take the bailout, even though we had technically made the cutoff to continue on. I voiced this to Brent, and then to Bruce and Jon. I’m sure all of them were considering the same thing, but when I brought it up, it was in a moment of self-doubt and worry.

I don’t regret our decision to skip the Soul Crusher, but I felt a nagging disappointment in myself over the rest of the race, wondering if I’d been too soft.


The Low

Since the bailout took us past Leg 3, we seamlessly shifted from Leg 2 to Leg 4 at the Turnagain Arm in the Gulf of Alaska. The Turnagain Arm has the second greatest tidal shift in the world, and when the tide is going out, deep quicksand forms in the thick mud that’s left behind.


Mudflats on the Turnagain Arm

We had been warned about this quicksand before the race. Rumor has it that people stuck in the mud have had their arms ripped off during attempted helicopter rescues.

But going into night three, when we were operating on three hours sleep over the previous 72, when we’d been saturated and cold since 9:30pm the previous night, I wasn’t really thinking about the dangers of the mudflats.

Until, that is, I found myself stuck.

We entered the Turnagain Arm from Twenty Mile Creek by packraft around 10pm, right as the tide was going out. Before our eyes, the deep water turned into narrow channels surrounded on either side by thick mud. We weren’t allowed to set foot on the island on the north side of the arm, because it was a protected buffalo reserve, and the large animals wouldn’t take kindly to stinky adventure racers.


A quicksand rescue in the Turnagain Arm (not me)

So, to get to CP17 at the Girdwood Bridge, we had no choice but to fight our way through the Arm itself.

We rafted as far as we could, and when the water had receded too much, we stepped out of the boats on the other side from the islands and set out on foot.

Or at least tried to.

I must have stood in place a beat too long, because when I tried to lift my foot, I found that it was cemented into the soggy ground. I struggled against it, and it only got worse.

I called out to my teammates, who at first thought I was being dramatic. But when Brent walked back out to help me – by which point I was stuck up to my ankle – he, too, got sucked in. And so did Bruce. And Jon.

I was beginning to panic by this point, my breath catching each time I thought about losing my arm in a helicopter evac.

Someone – I don’t recall who at this point – called out for everyone to try to crawl. We got down on all fours, shimmying and clawing our way out of the deep, thick mud and scrambling for firmer ground.

The quicksand debacle set the tone for the next several hours, and by the time we secured CP17 and picked our way back across the sound for our second bridge at CP18, it was 3:30 in the morning, and we knew we needed to regroup.

Conscious to avoid grizzlies as best we could, we set up our tent in a parking lot on the side of the highway, set our watches for 6:00AM, and shivered through a couple fitful hours of sleep.

But chilled sleep is still sleep, and when we awoke the “next day,” we were ready to move into the heart of Leg 4. 

The High

This was a long leg, and it wasn’t without its low moments, but the last several hours more than made up for them.


One such low moment – bushwhacking through neck-high devil’s club about 50 meters from the Seward Highway, travel upon which was prohibited from racers.

It was 7:00 PM on Day 4. We had been rationing precious food for twelve hours – since midnight the night before, I had taken in roughly 700 calories. We were going on 48 hours of being totally saturated with that frigid glacial water. We had no dry clothes left. And we’d just realized that we had overshot checkpoint 20 by several kilometers.

We weren’t in great shape.

We came through a culvert under the Seward Highway and stumbled into a primitive campground. We sat down to decide whether to go back for the CP or continue on, aware that because of the idiosyncratic scoring system that Adlard uses, it may not benefit us to retrace our steps. After a few minutes, Jon and Brent got up to try to find a local who might be able to tell us what the bushwhack back might look like, since we were forbidden from setting foot on any roads.

A minute later, Brent came back.

“Come with me,” he said urgently.

“What’s up?” I replied.

“Just come with me.”

Bruce and I got up slowly and followed Brent through the campground.

“There’s food,” he continued, handing me a pudding cup.

“Where did you get this?” I asked, tearing into the treat, using the lid as a spoon and scooping the gooey chocolate-y goodness into my mouth.

“There’s a packrafting group. They’re setting up camp, and they’re making us dinner.”

We turned the corner and came upon a group from the Alaskan Kayak Academy. There were ten people or more, milling around, drinking wine, and chopping fresh vegetables for the stir-fry they had planned.

One of the guides handed me a sandwich, piled high with cheese and coleslaw and deli meat. Not something in my usual repertoire, but at that moment, I’d never tasted anything so good.

We sat down and regrouped. After the caloric euphoria set in, we decided to leave our non-mandatory gear and follow the old Iditarod Trail, now an unimproved snowmobile track, back to the missing point. I don’t think my teammates enjoyed the trek back, but I was basking in my full stomach and would have been happy doing just about anything at that moment.

Three hours later, we returned to camp, greeted our trail angels, and geared up for the next stretch of the leg, a 12-ish kilometer packraft down Six Mile Creek. The group cheered us on as we shoved off, and once again, the four of us were alone, spending our second night in a row paddling through a swift valley, surrounded by majestic mountains.

“We’re in f-ing Alaska,” I said to Brent.

“We’re in f-ing Alaska, packrafting down a river in the middle of the night,” he replied. “How lucky are we?”

Brent negotiated the water smoothly, steering us around obstacles and through the ripples and rapids. Around midnight, twilight began to set in. We pulled off and grabbed our headlamps for the first time during the race, hanging them around our necks in case our rafts flipped and we found ourselves in need of rescue.

We shoved back off and traveled the last few kilometers without incident. We pulled off the river at a manned CP and timed out until morning, when we would transition to a guided whitewater leg along what is reputed to be the most technical and dangerous ten miles in all of Alaska.


One of the slot canyons on Six Mile

I had been dreading the whitewater section since the beginning of the race, and when I awoke on Day 5, my mouth was dry and my stomach was in knots (I’m sure this had nothing to do with the serious calorie depletion from the day before…). We pulled on the dry suits and helmets provided by the rafting company, set off for a 100 meter swim in the frigid glacial creek so the guides could test our proficiency in the water, and then got ready to go.

Whitewater Swim

Before the first swim. That was some COLD water.

Six Mile Creek runs through three slot canyons, with bigger and more technical water, the further down you go. Our guide, Popcorn, was a master at the stern. In between the rapids, he entertained us with stories of the river and his guiding adventures, but as we approached each obstacle, he became focused and professional, calling out detailed instructions and negotiating the water with hairpin precision.

Our raft made it through all three canyons without incident, including five successive Class 5 rapids to round out the trip.

And I loved it.

Once the water leveled out, we pulled off to the right bank for a photo and then were instructed to swim the last half-kilometer to the takeout, on the other side of the river.

We still hadn’t gotten used to the glacial bite of the water, but the swim was otherwise painless, and when we pulled into the TA, we were buoyed by the prospects of finally getting to our bikes, after five days of racing.

Group shot at the lone whitewater CP - we paddled with Tecnu and the Wandering Nannuts

Group shot at the lone whitewater CP – we paddled with Tecnu and the Wandering Nannuts

Sort of…


The Low

This leg promised 30+ miles of continuous single track up and over Resurrection Pass.

But first, we had to get to our bikes.

This required a sharp, technical bushwhack up and over a 4000-foot ridge. I’d never climbed or descended such a steep pitch before – there were places where I wondered whether my ice axe would have come in handy – and there were certainly moments when we were cursing Adlard for taunting us with the promise of bikes. But the trek also offered a spectacular alpine traverse that began in white-out conditions and opened up in places to still more mesmerizing views of the Alaskan canvass.

Before we made it to treeline, though, we had to pick our way up several hundred feet of a mess of alder, devil’s club, and deadfall.

Ascent to Bikes

The bushwhack up

About 1500 feet into the climb, Jon kicked up a ground nest of yellow jackets. I had been following his line through the vegetation, and so the bees trained their stingers on me and swarmed.

I ran blindly back down the hillside, leaping over logs as I swatted away persistent insects, all the while having visions of the final scene of My Girl on repeat in my head.

Eventually, they grew bored of me, and I sat down to collect myself. Somehow, I managed to stay sure-footed enough not to go careening down the pitch, but I had stings all along my jaw line and up my arm. I had never had an allergic reaction before, but this was way more bee stings than I’d ever had, and we were on a remote mountain with no bailout option in an emergency.

Which also meant, of course, that we had no real choice but to continue. I took an antihistamine and we plodded back up the mountain, careful to avoid the nest. I spent the next few hours paranoid about every twitch, and hearing a constant low buzz in my right ear.

Fortunately, aside from some swelling and itching, we made it to our bikes without issue – about six hours later.

The High

The actual ride along Resurrection Trail was great – far more fun than I was anticipating, save for my two broken pedals in the final miles of the leg – but the highlight of Leg Five was mostly definitely our trip to Hope.


Coming down the back side of the Resurrection Trail

Hope, Alaska is a tiny pinpoint of a town, a quirky outpost on the water with a handful of businesses, a local historical museum, and as far as I could tell, one restaurant.

That restaurant also happened to be the site of one of our checkpoints, and I had spent the previous two days willing it to be open when we arrived.

But every section of the course took longer than we had anticipated, and my plans for a hot breakfast gradually gave way to fantasies of a late dinner.

We rolled into Hope at 10:30 PM on day 5. We snapped a photo at the first CP – the museum – and pedaled over to the bar for the next point on the bike. We arrived at 10:40 PM and I almost started crying when I saw the OPEN sign flashing in the window.



We parked our bikes along the fence – next to at least a dozen other bikes – and walked inside. The restaurant looked like ExAK headquarters, with four teams and several media folks sitting down to eat. We grabbed the only available table and placed a giant order – 15 minutes before the kitchen closed.


The Low

Leg six was a 30+ mile flat water paddle across Kenai Lake, and if I’m being honest, this section was one monotonous low for the first 25 of those miles.

First, my family had arrived in Anchorage with Zoe two days earlier. Though we had told them that they probably shouldn’t bring Zoe out on the race course – we worried that she wouldn’t do well, seeing us for a few minutes and then having us leave again – for the final few miles of the bike leg, I found myself hoping that they would be at the next transition. We had seen Jon’s family several times throughout the race to that point, and I knew his wife, Sue, had been in touch with my parents. Against my better judgment, I convinced myself that she had gotten them out on the course and that they’d be waiting on the banks of the lake.

They weren’t.

And when we rolled into transition, I burst into tears, not realizing until that very moment how much I wanted to see Zoe. Several of the media folks took notice of my crying, and Brent quickly ushered me across the road to find out what was wrong.

When I explained that I had hoped to see Zoe there, he laughed, relieved that it wasn’t a problem with the race. We commiserated about missing her and then returned to packing our bikes and gathering our paddle gear, but I went into the next section feeling rather subdued.

And from the moment we set off, we were battling fierce headwinds, and there was little relief even in the continuous coves along the lake’s jagged, rocky edge. Brent, who had been navigating with the best of them for six straight days, now found himself unable to keep his eyes open, without the benefit of maps and decisions to keep him awake.

I realized during this leg that when Brent’s struggling, I have a hard time treating him as I would another teammate. I worry about him in a way I wouldn’t with Bruce or Jon, and I become overly cautious as a result. I kept suggesting that we pause to let him sleep, even though I knew that it would only mean prolonging the inevitable slog.

Kenai Lake

And so we continued on, swapping seats in the boats (whichever kayak had Bruce in it somehow shot way ahead of the other) and burying our heads against the sharp winds.

There were two CPs on the water, each at a bend in the lake. When we arrived at the second one, five miles from the takeout, we were all depleted. We were low on calories, low on core temperature, and low on morale.

The High

We pulled out to find the point and collect ourselves, and when we shoved off half an hour later, we were in a different lake. The biting wind had moved out and the choppy water was now clear as glass.

Bruce and I took one boat, and we paddled effortlessly down the final arm of the lake. Twilight was setting in, and I turned around to see a perfect red sun setting behind the mountains.

Kenai Lake Sunset

My sunset. The picture doesn’t do it justice.

“I came to this race just for that sunset,” I told Bruce.

For the next hour, we glided toward the TA along the Seward Highway as Bruce regaled me with stories from his previous expedition adventures.

When we pulled into transition around 2 AM, I was downright euphoric. We changed our clothes, ate some hot-ish food from the volunteers, and sat down with Adlard to hear what the last day of the race would hold.


The Low

Before the race, Adlard had told us that there were six “mandatory” sections of the race, and that once we finished the lake paddle, we would find out what options were available to us, depending on how much time we had left on the clock.

In TA, we learned that our placement for the race was relatively secure. There were some teams ahead of us that we couldn’t catch, and some teams behind us that couldn’t catch us.

Save for one team: NYARA.

We hadn’t seen our friends from New York since we came off the whitewater, but we kept waiting for them to come up on us. At that point in the race, we’d collected the same number of CPs, but we had a several-hour time credit on them, plus however much time we were ahead of them then. That meant that as long as we matched their checkpoints, we should be set.

The problem was, when we went to sleep on night 6, we didn’t know where they were.

When we awoke the following morning, Dave laid out the options:

  1. We would begin with a bike ride to the trailhead for the Exit Glacier.
  2. From there, we could:
    1. Do an out-and-back trek to a gold mining bridge
    2. Packraft to the final TA, where our bikes were being transported, and then ride to Mile Zero of the Iditarod Trail in Seward, the pseudo-finish line
    3. Bike back to the Kenai Lake TA on the Lost Trail, and
    4. Return by bike on the Iditarod Trail to the finish

We could do any or all of those legs, but as soon as we bypassed a section, it was off the table. He was clear that we wouldn’t have time to complete everything, so we had to pick and choose carefully.

At first, we decided that we would go for the trek, followed by the packraft.

We gathered our gear and readied ourselves to set off. As we were leaving, I asked Adlard about NYARA’s progress.

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about them anymore. They paddled several miles in the wrong direction last night. They had to be picked up down the Kenai River and transported back to the lake put-in. They’re still there now.”

“Wait, so does that mean we technically don’t have to do any of these final sections to maintain our position?”

“You have to get yourself to Mile Zero by 8pm tonight.”

I relayed this new information to my teammates as we were pedaling off to begin a 25-ish mile road ride, but no one was quite sure whether to trust it.

We decided that we would figure out what to do once we got to the Exit Glacier CP – but first we had to get ourselves there.

Sleep monsters were setting in once again, and what should have been a quick easy ride ended up getting bogged down in stop after stop, as we struggled to stay awake. We took off jackets. We paused to pee. We pulled out more food.

Finally, a handful of miles from our decision point, we stopped at a restaurant for a hot meal. Over eggs and coffee, we hashed out our options.

No one really wanted to trek, but no one wanted to lose control over our race either. We went back and forth and back again, and by the time we paid for our meal, got back on our bikes, and finally made it to the U-Haul at Exit Glacier, we were still unable to commit.

Ultimately, after wrangling for far too long, we opted to skip the trek and head out on the packraft. And as with the bailout option, it ended up being the right decision for us. NYARA was several hours behind, the rafting was a spectacular technical challenge, and unbeknownst to us at the time, because of the carnage taking place on the river, we were the last team that was offered the option to paddle.

Still, that same softness in decision-making kept coming back to me, and I wondered what it meant about me as a racer that I wanted to skip the trek.

The High

It took me a little while to warm up to the packraft, but once I did, I was treated to an adrenaline-churning ride through a twisty, strainer-filled, multi-channel tidal river that spilled off Exit Glacier and made its way to the ocean.

Brent and Jon sterned expertly, and other than one spill that Brent and I took when we slid into two competing currents, they guided our two boats smoothly down the same river that had flipped over and chewed up a number of other teams.

We got off the water at the bridge in Seward, wound our way through the woods with our rafts, and popped out onto the roads a few blocks from the TA. At that point, Sue pulled up alongside us and stuck her head out of the window.

“Abby and Brent, there may be a surprise waiting for you in the TA,” she sang.

That was all I needed to hear. After seven days of racing, in my drysuit and helmet, with paddle gear hanging off me, I took off in a run. Eric Nachtrieb, the executive producer of the race documentary, who’d spent several hours traveling with us over the course of the event, ran alongside me, asking what had prompted my sudden burst of energy.

I told him about how much I had wanted to see Zoe at the earlier TA, about her being at the finish line of the Itera in Wales last summer when Brent and his teammates crossed the line, about how grateful we were to have the support of our family to be able to undertake a race like this.

Five minutes and a little bit of searching later, I dropped my paddle and pack on the ground and sprinted over to our wide-eyed fourteen-month-old, who looked back and forth between me, Brent, and my parents several times before she really believed that we were there.

Finish with Zoe

This picture was actually taken at Mile Zero (hence the pack still on my back), but you get the idea.


The Low

When we signed up for Expedition Alaska, we were told that we could expect the best finish in the history of adventure racing.

As more details followed, we learned that this was a bit of an overstatement – yes, our race would be ending with the famed Mount Marathon – a 3-mile race up and back down a 3,000-foot peak in the city of Seward. But our “wave” of the race would come Sunday morning, 20 hours after the official Fourth of July event. And instead of the pancake breakfast and throngs of people lining the streets of Seward, we would be greeted by a handful of hearty race volunteers and the option of purchasing breakfast burritos from a cart at the finish.

Given that, the fact that the rankings had been set at the finish line at Mile Zero the previous day, and the fact that everyone was scrambling to pack their gear for our departure that afternoon, none of the racers seemed all that keen to climb the mountain.

But we had been told at the start that Mount Marathon was the one mandatory leg of the entire race – we couldn’t get our finishers medals unless we climbed up – and so we begrudgingly lined up with everyone else on Sunday morning, waiting for our “wave” to start.

The High

Though we were less than excited about Mount Marathon, we took it in stride, ran to the trailhead, and began the mile-long climb up 3000 feet of mudslick, rock, and loose scree. With nowhere to pass people and no reason to pass, we settled into a comfortable pace somewhere in the top quarter of the field, and I chatted with the racers around me about their experiences over the previous seven days.

And somewhere around the treeline, when the world opened up and we tread carefully up the steep pitch of scree, I realized that I was enjoying myself.

Up Marathon - Radcliffe

Brent on the ascent, with Seward in the background. Photo by Chris Radcliffe

Not only was I enjoying myself, I was having fun. A lot of fun.

It was a gorgeous day. The views were spectacular. I was hiking an iconic mountain with my teammates and one of my favorite groups of people in the world.

As we made our way to the summit, I thought back on our adventure over the past week, relishing in the moments – the treacherous ice, the thick bushwhacks, the immense exposure, the calorie deficits, the fierce headwinds, the packrafting spills, the bee stings, the broken pedals, the sleepmonsters, the quicksand.

We crested the top, took a picture, and then ran down the scree on the backside with more careless abandon than I’d ever allowed myself on a mountain descent.

We got to the base, dumped the gravel out of our shoes, and then ran through the streets of Seward to the finish.

Mt Marathon 2

Coming off the mountain

Over the previous seven days, we had trekked, bushwhacked, rafted, kayaked, and biked our way across some of the most magnificent and majestic terrain I had ever seen. We were cautious but controlled. We raced hard but steady. We held together as a team and, in profound ways, become better and stronger than the sum of our individual parts.

As we walked up to get our finishers medals a few hours later, we were pretty damn proud to be the most boring team in Alaska.

Good to be Back: The 2014 Longest Day

When Rodney and Amy announced last winter that they were pushing back NYARA’s Longest Day from May to September, my five-month-pregnant self jumped for joy.

By September, I would be 4.5 months postpartum and eager to dive back into racing. I knew I wouldn’t be in top shape, but I had every expectation of continuing, barring complications, to stay active for the duration of my pregnancy, and I hoped I would rebound relatively quickly.

And I did.  I ran through 37 weeks of pregnancy, hiked until the morning I went into labor, and with the blessing of my midwives and nurses, was feeling well enough to return to activity right away – gently hiking within a few days of delivery, walking double-digit days within a couple weeks, and (slowly) running and biking by the time our daughter, Zoe, was a month old.


Zoe’s first Wissahickon hike – four days old.

So, Brian, Brent, and I set our sights on September 13 as the return of our well-tested trio, and I spent the summer doing intense, targeted workouts as often as I could. It wasn’t perfect. There were the three weeks in Wales where I did only modest hiking and a whole lot of baby-carrying (way more of a workout than I realized while I was doing it).

Hiking in Blaenavon, an old iron town in southeastern Wales

Hiking in Blaenavon, an old iron town in southeastern Wales

And the relative chaos when Brent and I both returned to work in late August and I tried to squeeze what had once been a manageable 60-hour workweek plus 10-15 hours of training into about 40 hours (in part, because Zoe’s staying home with me one day a week this semester).

Last long ride (and third annual Schuylkill (metric-plus) Center with my friend, Val) before the Longest Day

Last long ride before the Longest Day (and the third annual Schuylkill (Metric-Plus) Century with my friend, Val).

But when we arrived at the Taconic Education Center early race morning – well organized and well rested, thanks to the fantastic course schematic that NYARA had sent out earlier that week that allowed us to sort our gear and food into pretty piles and still get to bed by 9:00 PM the previous night – I felt reasonably assured that I could at least finish the event. Beyond that, who knew?

After a couple hours with the maps and a lengthy bus ride to the start, we began with a creative orienteering prologue that had Brent running in one direction for five optional CP’s and me and Brian heading in the other for the four mandatory points.

We worked out our gear so that I had only a clif bar in my jersey and a bottle of water for that first section; there was more water and food staged at my bike, which I would retrieve at the end of the prologue, and I wouldn’t pick up my pack until the end of the paddle several hours later.

And so with nothing to carry, I ran easily alongside Brian through the woods, moving smoothly from point to point and even helping out with the nav in places, a new experience for me on the racecourse. We pulled into TA just as the studs of Team Rev3 – Jeff, Joe, Britt, and Greg – were rolling out, and we waited eagerly for Brent to arrive.

Me and Brian awaiting Brent's arrival at the end of the prologue. This is the only picture we have from the race.

Me and Brian awaiting Brent’s arrival at the end of the prologue. This is the only picture we have from the race.

Within minutes, the always-strong Julia, Doug, Aaron, and John, running as a joint AAS/Rev3 venture for this race, came in, and not long after we saw Rev3 pass back through TA. “Apparently we have to do these points in order,” Joe yelled as they streamed by.

Brent came through a minute later, and since we had opted for caged pedals instead of clipless, we were on our bikes and riding off shortly after.

Brent’s navigation was spot-on and we all rode smoothly from checkpoint to checkpoint, crossing paths at regular intervals with Rev3 and AAS – something that would become a familiar refrain for the next 24 hours.

I was amazed at how strong I felt, how well I was riding, how alert and focused I was. I led the charge for checkpoints, negotiated the twisty-turny single track with ease, and had a blast doing it. And when we pulled into the next TA a couple hours later, we learned that we were the first team to arrive.

“You guys are doing great!” Amy cheered as we transitioned to our paddle gear.

“I know I’ll regret saying this later,” I responded, “but I’m not sure I’ve ever felt this good at the start of a race.”

We got onto the water and tethered together our two sit-on-top doubles, with me and Brian in front and Brent close behind. It wasn’t ideal, and we knew that four-person teams would have an edge on us, but we were confident that we weren’t going to lose the race on the water, so long as we paddled steadily.

We had twelve miles to cover down the Hudson River, and we made relatively quick work of it, though I noticed that my right hip and knee were tightening up about halfway through, no doubt because I’d only been in a boat three times in the preceding year, and it had probably been another year since I’d paddled in a sit-on-top.

Two and a half hours later (which felt far longer), we pulled onto the banks alongside AAS, who had been chasing us the entire paddle, nabbed the only checkpoint on the section (in a deep, dark cave on the river’s edge – so dark that we had to go back to the boats for a headlamp to find it), and then portaged the final 300 meters into the TA.

Rev3, we learned, had broken a derailleur and were working on a solution, but there was no question that they would recover quickly, and we knew we had to keep pushing to stay toward the front.

We set into the woods with AAS, trekking up a steep hill before shuffling along the ridges. It was raining steadily by this point, and my time away from the trails showed as I struggled to trust my footing on the slippery rocks. Still, we made relatively quick work of the section and before long were back on our bikes for a short ride to the next foot loop.

It was on that ride, eight hours in, that I began to feel the first hints of fatigue. I knew that under normal conditions, there are dips during any race and that I would bounce back sooner than later, but it had been more than a year since my last 24-hour event and I wasn’t confident that I had enough of a base to recover.

I tried to load up on calories, which helped a bit, and luckily we were off the bikes quickly enough that I didn’t have time to dwell on the fact that we still had sixteen hours of racing in front of us. AAS had arrived not long before us and were already out in the woods. No other teams had checked in.

It was here where things got interesting. The rest of the race included a substantial foot rogaine and a 30+ mile ride back to the Taconic Center. The catch was that we could approach the trek from either the north or the south, or we could divide it into two separate sections.

We had talked at length about the best strategy for us here, and because it was already close to dark by the time we arrived at the TA, we opted to do a short loop from the northern end, nabbing only the closest four checkpoints before returning to our bikes for the ride back. We reasoned that:

  1. We wanted to be off our bikes before the coldest temperatures hit.
  2. It was easier to stay awake on foot than on bike.
  3. Saving the big foot loop for the end would allow us to better gauge whether we could clear the course.

So, we headed out on the trails for a counter-clockwise loop and waited to see how long it took for us to run into another team. I noticed as we ran that both of my IT bands were tight, but otherwise I felt strong again.  And since there wasn’t anything to do about it at that point, I filed the information away to deal with later.

We hit the first point, then the second and the third before we heard voices. We assumed it was AAS, but we soon crisscrossed with Rev3, who were doing the same loop in the opposite direction. They had fixed Jeff’s bike so that he had six gears to work with and were now just a handful of minutes behind us on the course.

We got back to TA, where we learned that AAS was still out in the woods (it turned out that they split the two loops a bit more evenly and so stayed out for awhile longer, collecting more points from the northern end). After a less-than-efficient transition, we rode out into the night for one of the more painful sections of racing in recent memory. We thought that 30+ miles of roads and trails would take roughly 4 hours. But I found myself unable to keep pace with the guys, the fatigue from earlier catching up with me once again and my mental state going down with it (I later realized that my seat was also too high, which certainly accounted for some of the lack of power, but only some).

The further back I fell, the worse I felt, and by the time we made it to the hike-a-bike up the gnarled, broken trails, I was wondering why I had chosen to spend the weekend suffering in the woods rather than at home with our adorable, giggly four-month-old. Talking to our friends after the race, I learned that everyone struggled on this section, which provided some comfort that I hadn’t turned into a total wimp.

Finally, six hours later, we rolled into TA. The rain had stopped by then and we changed into dry clothes, loaded up on food, and headed back into the woods – but not before I snuck a peek at the photos of Zoe my sister had sent. That, combined with my warm fleece vest and a new pair of shoes, lifted my spirits, and I felt better as we set off for the first checkpoint.

Since I have no photos from the race, here's one of the pictures my sister sent me from her weekend with Zoe.

Since I have no photos from the race, here’s one of the pictures my sister sent me from her weekend with Zoe.

But even as I felt mentally and muscularly strong, my IT bands locked up almost immediately, and I found myself hobbling on trekking poles for the next nine hours, barely able to walk downhill, let alone run.

Still, we moved relatively steadily through the first several checkpoints and continued to harbor hope that we could clear the course – a spectacular feat for a Rodney-and-Amy race.

At 3:00 in the morning, after a near-flawless race navigationally from Brent, we found ourselves in the middle of a sea of rhododendron as we searched for CP HH. We wandered back and forth in the darkness, knowing that we were only meters away, and yet we were unable to land on it.

I began to have flashbacks to the 2012 USARA National Championship in the Catskills, when we ran a stellar first half of the race, only to get mired in dense vegetation in the middle of the night and come out with zero checkpoints to show for it.

But 45 minutes later (by which point I was a bit of a zombie), one of the guys finally spotted the point. We collected ourselves, I took a shot of caffeine, and we continued on, moving smoothly through the final hours of darkness.

Until Brent caught his eye on a branch.

He reeled back in pain for several minutes, unable to see anything. Brian tried to clear it with his hose, but it was no use.

For the last few hours of the race, we were a sight to behold: me, hobbling on my trekking poles, and Brent, the one-eyed navigator, staggering down the trail and kneeling down every few minutes for Brian to squirt him in the face with water.

At 8:30 AM, we shuffled into the finish line, having cleared all but the three southernmost points of the course, good for second place. Brent estimated that we would have needed roughly an hour to get them, and there were thirty minutes left on the clock. If I’d been able to run faster and we had nailed HH, we probably could have done it, but as it was, we felt good about the race.

Rev3 came in at the same time we did, having cleared the course. AAS arrived not long after, having gotten all but four points. Team HalfwayThere was right behind them, having also missed four CPs.

I called my sister after we finished to see how Zoe had fared the night before.

“How did it go?” she asked.

“Well,” I replied, “I had about 10 good hours of racing in me.”

“And how long was it?”

“24 hours. The last 14 were a bit of a sufferfest.”

“Are you glad that you did it?”

“Of course.”

All’s Well That Ends Well

I’m crying uncle on the marathon.  I hurt myself more seriously than I wanted to admit last summer in Scotland, limped through the last few races of the season, and took off just enough time to let the acute injuries abate but not enough to let the residual issues – namely the achilles tendonitis in my right ankle – really heal.

So when I started ramping up again for a spring marathon, my achilles quickly flared up, and for the past month I’ve been alternating between short stints of rest and marginally longer reprieves of mid-distance semi-painful runs.

Basically, I’ve been stubborn.

And I’m also not doing myself any favors.

Today, 2.5 miles into a 10-mile run, when my ankle was creaking (like, legitimately creaking) with every stride, I decided it was time to stop.

I’m really bad at letting things go – a blessing and a curse – but if there’s any chance of being able to adventure race this summer (and perhaps more importantly, in the interest of not wanting to be in a boot for several months), I’m crossing a spring marathon off my list and looking up rehab programs and strengthening exercises and indoor trainer workouts.

I’m pretty frustrated by the whole thing.

And as I pull the plug on the marathon, I’m also pulling the plug on this blog.

I started Have Dental Floss, Will Travel almost five years ago, when I was just beginning my doctoral dissertation and looking for a way to keep writing creatively as I ventured into the world of serious academic research.

I’ve had the opportunity to connect with some incredible people (please, stay in touch!!) and to chronicle some pretty amazing adventures here, but at this point, that dissertation is on its way to becoming a book, and I’m writing creatively as part of my work, and when we have those amazing adventures, recounting them has come to feel less like an outlet and more an obligation.

I’ve been thinking about shutting it down for awhile (as evidenced by more than six months of half-hearted restarts!), and this feels like the right time to do it.

We’ll still be posting race reports on the GOALS team blog, and maybe someday I’ll come back with something new to blog about.

But for now, thanks for following along.  Here’s to lots of new adventures!

Blogger Befuddlement

First things first – is anyone having wordpress issues?  Since I pushed ‘submit’ on my last post, I’ve received no fewer than 50 robo-comments that have snuck through the spam filter and wreaked havoc on my email inbox.

And speaking of wordpress…

I’m teaching a class this semester on oral history methods, in which I’m working with a small group of students to develop a pretty big oral history project to document the stories of those impacted by Superstorm Sandy.

Part of the assignment for the course is for the students to blog about their experiences of developing and implementing the project, so tonight, after we finalized the scope – and title – of what we’ll be doing, I came home to set up said blog.

Or attempt to, anyway.

Now maybe it’s just been awhile since I dipped my toe into the world of (dumbed-down) website development – I started this blog on blogger in 2008 and moved to wordpress in 2010 – but I’m rather baffled by the new wordpress platform.

I’ve got the title and the domain down, I’ve settled on at least a temporary “theme,” and I’ve uploaded a place-holder photo until I get a more legitimate Sandy shot from one of my students.

But now I’m stuck!

I can’t seem to figure out how to change the format, or add new content (a list of authors, for instance, or an “info” tab), or edit any of the settings.

So much for blog-building being idiot-proof.

Or perhaps my capacity for even idiot-proof blog-building has been squelched by four hours in the car, a marathon day of teaching, and a leak in my office this morning that resulted in a ceiling tile collapsing onto my desk.

The sky is falling...

I’m banking on that being the case.

Because if setting up the blog is this hard, I don’t even want to think about actually collecting the stories!


I’ve been doing a lot of waiting recently.

Professional waiting.  Personal waiting.  Racing waiting.  Each is independent of the others and they’re all interconnected and it’s meant that over the past few months, my life has felt like one big holding pattern.

Last week, on an early flight to the west coast – I was in LA for a family wedding – I decided that I was done waiting.

I started easy, by firming up a race calendar for the spring and summer.  I’m looking at a two-day snowshoeing race next month, a marathon this spring, and then a handful of adventure races between May and July, before Brent and I head to Eastern Europe for 3-4 weeks of hiking and exploring .  Nothing too elaborate this year – nothing longer than 48 hours or more than 500-600 miles away.

Then I put together a training plan.  It’s not dramatically different – I’ve already been getting in long runs and speed work and the like  – but something a little more formalized, a little more on-paper.  I’m a big fan of on-paper.

And then I started “training.”

For about three days, that is – until my right achilles started complaining.

In point of fact, it had actually been complaining for a few weeks – it started the day after I raced a 9k in New Orleans in three-year-old minimalist trail shoes.  I’m not sure if it was those shoes or the Brooks Ghosts that I started wearing two days later, but my calf has been cranky on-and-off since.

I consulted with a couple friends – Jason, a college track coach/new teammate, and my new-ish running buddy Kristy, (or, as she’s known in our house, Kristy-from-the-Philly-Marathon) – and now I’m in the middle of a week-long rehab bonanza.  Lots of massaging and stretching, boatloads of icing – and zero running.  Then I’ll ease back in for a week and hopefully be back training in earnest by mid-February.

Maybe in different shoes.

I’ve pushed my target marathon back from March to April, to give myself an extra four weeks to prepare.  I’m currently eyeing the Athens Marathon in northeastern Ohio.  Not ideal in terms of location, but the weekend works well logistically and the course looks relatively fast and forgiving.

And so I guess I’m back to waiting.  But now I know what I’m waiting for.


Nearly 10 miles today, 2.5 of them solo.


Now to do something about these monstrosities…

Good for bushwhacking through the woods. Less than ideal for the streets of Philadelphia…

When All Else Fails, Make a List

I’m getting closer to pulling the trigger on a spring marathon – namely The Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach over St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

It’s relatively close to home, rumored to offer a fast and PR-friendly course, and known for good organization and fun crowds.

All good, right?

It should be – but there are a few nagging somethings preventing me from diving in.

First, there’s the fact that I haven’t run consistently in forever.  With all the racing we did in 2012, by June I found myself in a never-ending cycle of race/recovery.  For months I was either coming off an event or getting ready for one, and in the in-between I did little more than core work and regular maintenance training.  That, coupled with the ankle injury in Scotland, means that it’s really been five months since I’ve had any semblance of a routine.

Next, there’s the little matter of running 26.2 miles – alone.  I have a couple friends that will likely come down to Virginia with me for the weekend, but neither of them will be marathoning.  I’ve done a handful of marathons solo – one was fantastic and the others ranged from ‘eh’ to ‘ugh.’  I love my running buddies, love the social-ness of the sport, both in training and in racing.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that I have not run (outside) by myself in well over a year.  I’m sure I could make friends along the course, but especially coming off a couple years of concentrated focus on adventure racing – team-dom on steroids – three and a half hours, give or take, of solo running sounds a little bit daunting.

And finally, there’s that whole training-through-the-winter thing.  If the past two weeks are any indication, we may be in for a doozy of a few months.  I don’t mind running outside during it, but my lungs can only handle the cold so much.  We actually just bought a treadmill and set it up in the basement, but the first (and only) time I used it, I discovered that in order to watch TV while I run, I have to turn the volume up so high that the entire house rattles.  We inherited some sort of speaker system that Brent has since set up, so I need to test it again, and I (unsuccessfully, so far) have begun looking into wireless headphones – but I fear that I may need to find other ways of distracting myself if I’m to run inside.

First world problems, I know.

So, I’ve got some pondering to do over the next couple weeks.  The registration fee is set until December 31, so there’s nothing pushing me to sign up right now.

First up, start establishing a new rhythm.

Second, go outside on my own.

Third, stock up on magazines.

And fourth, keep making lists.

The Ramblings of an Over-tired, Over-raced, Over-thinking Adventure Racer

So, I’ve had it on my to-do list for two weeks to write a race report from Nationals.  I keep thinking about it, clicking over to my blog every now and again, even opening a New Post window once or twice.

But the truth is, I don’t want to write another race report.

Not because it wasn’t a memorable race – between the popping foliage; the rain, snow, and hail; the sub-freezing temperatures; and the broken bikes, intense sleep monsters, and navigational blunders, it offered some of the highest highs and lowest lows of the entire season.  We had a stellar first ten hours, an awesome last ten hours, and a pretty miserable middle ten hours, in every possible way.

Apparently I was having fun for at least part of the day. Photo c/o Vlad Bukalo

And not because it wasn’t a fantastic, creative, well-organized, and well-executed event – it exceeded all expectations of a race put on by the New York Adventure Racing Association… and with NYARA at the helm and Rodney and Amy doing course design, we went in with some high expectations.  Seriously, the last hour had us trekking down a cascading creek that spilled out into a steep waterfall.  It was one of my favorite sections of any race I’ve ever done.

No, the reason I don’t want to write another race report is because I’m done.

Utterly and totally done.

It was a long, grueling season.  I raced twelve times – the shortest being 10 hours and the longest 106.  All together, I was out on one race course or another for 365 hours in 2012.  Add to that a few hundred additional hours dedicated to planning the GOALS Cradle of Liberty and countless more training, prepping, and driving to and from these races – and that’s a whole lot of hours of adventure racing in one 10-month stretch.

Don’t get me wrong – in general, I had a blast and got to experience some truly phenomenal things (remember the bobcat-vs-deer encounter on Day 4 of Untamed New England, and the Dancing Man at the Adidas Terrex in Scotland?), and I’m really proud of our results.  We finished on the podium of all but one regional race, put in respectable showings at two multi-day AR World Series events, earned second place in the East Coast Adventure Racing Points Series and in the US Adventure Racing Association Points Series, and even at Nationals, our worst race of the season by far, we finished 10th in our division and 13th overall.

But over the last few races of the season, I found myself wondering what I was doing out in the woods in the middle of the night, questioning why I was putting myself through it.

There are some people who can compete in half a dozen or more international multi-day races in the span of 12 months without thinking.  I learned this year that I’m not one of them.

I said to a friend the other day that I haven’t ever wanted to race less than I want to race right now.  There is no part of me that wants to stay up all night, eat crappy food, and bushwhack through mountain laurel and stinging nettles.  I’m so tired of adventure racing that I spent one evening earlier this week looking at marathons for next spring and half ironmen for next summer (I’m not doing the half ironman.  I may do the marathon).

And – of course – I know that before long these feelings will abate.  I’ll find myself itching for a night hike or a morning of orienteering.  I’ll start stalking race calendars and coming up with training goals and off-season plans (let’s be real – I’ve already been doing this, even as I swear off AR), and maybe I’ll even make a move toward cleaning and fixing up my mountain bike.  It’s in need of a little TLC right now.

In the meantime, though, I’m going to chill out and focus on other things for a bit.  We’ve been living in a construction zone for the past six months, and we’re about three weeks away from having our house back.  I’m now officially under contract for my first book and have been having fun diving back into writing and wrapping up the manuscript.  I’m running for fun, catching up with friends, helping out with the girls cross-country team at Brent’s school, and planning trips to New Orleans and Maine and maybe Eastern Europe.

Getting ready for the Sixers home opener on Halloween night. Because all off-seasons should include Where’s Waldo costumes and spontaneous basketball games with friends.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this blog in recent months.  I’m bored with writing race report after race report (there are only so many ways to say that we spent the past 12, 24, 30, or 106 hours running around in the woods), and I’ve gone back and forth on whether to shut it down for awhile.  But I don’t think I’m quite there yet.  We’ll see where it goes.

Oh, and if you do want to read about our drama-filled 30 hours in the Catskills, check out Brent’s report here.  He’s retired until the spring, too.  But already itching for redemption.

Cheeseburgers in Paradise

A recap of the USARA National Championship coming soon.  In the meantime, watch this to learn the secret of expedition adventure racing (I’ve never partaken, but most of my teammates swear by it!)

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