“This may be a bad omen.”
It was Saturday afternoon, about 2 PM, and we were organizing our gear in preparation for the 5 PM race start. Brent was digging through the mess of bags and bins in search of his trusty waterproof map case, a must-have for an adventure racing team’s lead navigator.
“I think I may have left it at home on top of Phin’s crate.”
Not only did this leave open the question of whether the map case would be in one piece when we made it home the following night (there’s a reason that the dog stays in a crate when we’re not home, after all). It also left Brent worried – he never leaves crucial gear at home. What did it mean for the 24 hours to follow?
By the time the race started three hours later, though, we were all in good spirits, omens forgotten, ready to focus on the task ahead. At 4:55 PM, the race director handed out the preliminary points to be plotted. Often, races will begin with one team member sprinting to a given point, picking up the first map, and sprinting back to the rest of his (or her) teammates to begin the journey. At the Cradle, though, the director instead kicked off the race with each team plotting the first four checkpoints of the course. Though I was unable to assist Chris and Brent as they set about creating a navigation strategy, I enjoyed this starting ‘separator.’ Rather than the adrenaline-induced panic that often comes with an early sprint (even if I’m not the one sprinting), this start required focus and concentration, so that when we began running five minutes later, teams had already begun to spread out and we could find a steady pace reasonably quickly.
The race started off with a 12-mile run en route to Lake Wallenpaupack for the canoe put-in. Along the way, we had to navigate our way to two different checkpoints – orange and white flags with punches attached that participants use to mark their ‘passport,’ the card that they carry with them throughout the race to track their route and prove to officials that the teams did, in fact, complete the course.
We started off running at a good clip and made it to the first checkpoint with ease. 45 minutes into the race, though, I was overcome with intense waves of nausea. I ran through it at first, but was quickly reduced to a run/walk combination, then to a run/walk propelled forward by a tow system attached to the back of Brent’s pack, and for the last couple kilometers, a run/walk with Brent carrying my pack and his. Brent diagnosed it as dehydration and heat exhaustion. I was dubious at first – it wasn’t that hot, and I thought I’d had enough to drink that day. As the night progressed and the symptoms worsened, however, I came around – especially after a bottle of gatorade 22 hours later finally put me on the road to recovery.
Towing is an integral part of adventure racing. Throughout the course of an event, team members are required to stay together. Some races designate the maximum distance between teammates as as 10 meters, others 100 meters, but the point of these races is to complete the course as a unit; thus, a team is only as fast as its slowest member. For teams participating in the premiere race divisions – coed 3- and 4-person – this often means that teams are competing at the speed of their one female member. That being said, competitive teams will often increase the speed of that teammate by attaching a tow system from the strongest person to the slowest. Some of the fastest teams in the world will spend the entire race attached at the waist, pulling each other along on bike and on foot. The experience can be demoralizing at first, until you realize that (a) it’s for the benefit of the team as a whole, and (b) this doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re weak; it simply means that other members of the team are stronger. Since men tend to be faster and stronger than women, it follows that the woman on the team will often find herself bungeed behind her teammates for hours on end.
This is a picture from a race earlier this year, as Brent towed me to a first-place divisional finish (yes, for better or worse, I’m generally the one to get towed… earlier that day, Bruce – also pictured – towed me up some brutal hills on the bike).
Back to the race…
By the time we got to the paddling section, nausea had given way to spasms, which quickly took a turn for the worse. An hour into the race and I was buckled over with sharp, shooting pains ricocheting through my core.
A great way to start my first 24-hour race, huh?
We pushed off on the lake and began a flat-water canoe section. Though we’d lost some ground on the top teams during the early run, we were able to pick up speed on the paddle. Thanks to Brent’s mad navigational skills, we found the third and fourth checkpoints with relative ease, and by the time the sun began to set, all but the first two teams (both ranked teams in the US Adventure Racing Association) were in sight. We were closing in. We broke open our glow sticks and pulled out our headlamps and headed for shore.
We made it to other end of the lake at 10 PM, covering the 15-mile course in just over three hours. Next up, plotting the remaining checkpoints and biking 45 miles (or hike-a-biking, since we were forbidden from riding in state gaming lands) to the course’s main event – a foot orienteering course that the race directors estimated would take the top teams 6-7 hours to complete.
This was my first real experience with night biking, and under different circumstances, I think I would have really enjoyed it. With only a handlebar-mounted light and a helmet-mounted light to guide the way, you are forced to focus on what is directly in front of you. You have no long-range vision, so you can’t prepare for monster climbs or technical downhills. You just have to take it one step (or pedal rotation) at a time. Strong, steady riding will power you through.
At that point, though, we were 6+ hours into the race and I had only been able to eat one energy bar and one pack of electrolyte-infused gummy sharks. I was beginning to feel light-headed and woozy, but I couldn’t choke down any more food. It wasn’t going well. Chris hooked me into his tow and we made it through points 6 and 7 before we had to dismount and start pushing our bikes uphill through 2 kilometers of state game lands en route to checkpoint 8.
During the pre-race meeting earlier that afternoon, race directors had warned us about black bear sightings on the course. They’re perfectly harmless, they said, as long as they know you’re a person. We were instructed to make “human” noises on the trails to ensure that they wouldn’t mistake us for a deer. In the middle-of-the-night haze, I temporarily forgot about these directions until I heard a definitive snort not 10 minutes after we started hiking with our bikes. I still don’t know for sure whether it was a bear just on the other side of bushes lining the trail, but it was convincing enough to prompt me to (attempt to) entice my teammates into a 1 AM sing-a-long. It’s amazing how eight hours of racing on little fuel can affect your ability to remember song lyrics. I was okay with the choruses, but opening lines went out the window as I stumbled my way through Leaving on a Jet Plane, If I Had a Hammer, Piano Man, I Will Survive, and Bye, Bye Miss American Pie. Brent didn’t join in at all and Chris’ only contribution was the American Pie chorus right in the middle of the first verse. But it was no matter. My off-key renditions were enough to keep the bears at bay.
We made it to checkpoint 8 just after 2 AM and followed the instructions of the volunteers stationed at the trailhead, dropping our bikes and following the string of glowsticks 200 meters to a white and orange flag overlooking a waterfall that would have been lovely in the light of day, I’m sure. Somewhat miraculously, at that point we found ourselves in contention for third place, just under half an hour behind Team ARMD (Adventure Racing Maryland).
It was at checkpoint 8 that I made one of the harder decisions I’ve had to make in my athletic career. Admittedly, I’m not so good at knowing when to stop. As a competitive swimmer, my coach had to force me out of the water when I would show up to practice with laryngitis or the flu. He had to pull me out of the pool when I was purple in the face on more than one occasion (prompting one friend to nickname me Barney). During a 15-mile training run a few years ago, I turned my ankle at mile 12 and continued to run/hobble the rest of the way. Twelve hours later, the ER doc told me that probably wasn’t the best idea – as he was fitting me for crutches. During the 2007 Mardi Gras marathon, I sprained my knee at mile 11 and pushed through the next two miles, determined at least to finish the half-marathon.
So it was really hard – 9 hours into the race yesterday, having covered more than 50 miles with shooting stomach pains on just over 400 calories – to admit that it wasn’t my day. After a few more minutes of hemming and hawing, though, I came to my senses and asked the volunteers to call the race director (conveniently, also a friend and teammate, making it just slightly less embarrassing) to tell him I was pulling out. Marc picked me up 20 minutes later (he was making the rounds and had another sick participant sleeping in the back of his truck) and dropped me off back at the start, where I slept in my car for a couple hours and then woke up Sunday morning to volunteer for the rest of the race.
Brent and Chris continued on to the finish, officially unofficial but looking strong. It takes a lot to push through a 24-hour course knowing that none of the points actually matter. These guys are hardcore. And have my utmost respect.
They finished around 4:30 PM on Sunday. They ate pizza and drank soda and we watched the awards ceremony. Team EMS – first in the national checkpoint tracker series and third in the US adventure racing rankings, and an awesome group of people to boot – won, followed by Wedali (a great team out of Minnesota and third in the checkpoint series right now), and ARMD in third. We loaded up the car and pushed off for home around 7:30 PM.
My stomach started to come around a couple hours later, and I was finally able to eat when we stopped for dinner at the Allentown Service Plaza.
When we got home and unpacked the car, Brent found his waterproof map case in the trunk.
A few pictures from the start of the race… more to follow as they’re posted on the website.
of our gear…
Chris, having a pre-race snack