I grew up in New England, and I suppose some of my interest in Adventure Racing stems from countless Saturdays and Sundays rambling through the woods, creeks and hills behind my parents’ house in Western Massachusetts. I’d bike on trails with my small, rigid-frame, kid’s bike I can barely handle today on a much bigger bike with full suspension! I’d meander through the trees and brush, without the slightest hint of how to use a compass, and in the summers I spent 7 weeks at a time at a summer camp buried in the mountains of Vermont, going on hiking and canoeing trips throughout the northeast. Needless to say, I’ve wanted to head up north for an adventure race since I started racing two years ago.
What better excuse than being on a five-week road trip through New England? A quick search of racing organizations turned up GMARA, and luck would have it that they were running their annual Bitter Pill, a 12-hour adventure race in the green mountains near the quaint, New England town of Waterbury, Vermont. http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&msa=0&ll=44.379637,-72.735157&spn=0.040856,0.050211&t=h&msid=118196526489578984627.0004545a71de1c076898d&output=embed&s=AARTsJra_f7wsRxdZ7GY-qmletuMf6sbJg
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It didn’t hurt that the Ben and Jerry’s factory was also two miles from the start line.
Putting together a team was another story. Lots of back and forth over email failed to turn up a third teammate for Abby and me, and then she decided not to race! Back to the drawing board, since I was more than determined to get a race in back home. After getting Tracey on board, we found a third teammate through GMARA. There are always question marks racing with someone new and far more when the person is a complete stranger, so pulling into the parking lot at the Cider House, I was none too sure about what I’d find with this Dan guy.
Dan Smith is a local to Burlington with a law degree and potential political aspirations, and he signed on after talking briefly to Tracey a week before the race. Abby and I were traipsing about Montreal by then, so other than a few hurried emails, we didn’t get much of a chance to connect. I admit, I spent some time google-stalking, but I had a hard time finding much about Dan Smith from Burlington. I found a race report or two with him in it, but nothing definitive to give me a sense of who this guy was.
Abby and I arrived early for registration, and after signing in we figured the GMARA staff would point us out to Dan when he arrived, as they know him quite well. Actually we came to realize that everyone seems to know Dan. Most of the racers know Dan, including EMS who have trained with him some. People out for a quiet dinner at the Cider House the night before the race knew Dan. Dan knew who lived in what house on obscure backcountry roads as we biked through the course on race day. I began to ask myself who this guy really was! But I digress…
Sitting in the parking lot, working on my bike, I looked up every time someone walked by, trying to decide which guy was Dan. Not that I had any idea what he looked like; I guess I assumed he’d have his name on his t-shirt or a tattoo on his forehead. After an hour or two of fiddling with gear and waiting, up comes Dan, and of course, I had seen him walk by our car at least a dozen times over the past hour. And I’m happy to say, I was immediately at ease and by the time we parted after meeting up with Tracey, registering and eating dinner, I think we knew we had made a good choice agreeing to race with this Green Mountain Man. To put it simply, Dan turned out to be a tremendous teammate. For someone who had not been training, he was more than strong enough to keep up with us, and most of the time we were struggling to keep up with him.
What had begun as worry and concern was quickly replaced with comfort, and by the end of the race, my biggest regret was that Dan doesn’t live closer to home. 24 hours after meeting him we’d made a great new friend and found a terrific teammate whom we’d race with again in a heartbeat (here’s hoping Dan agrees to drag himself away from his busy life up north for some fun at Nationals with Tracey in November!). While the race itself was tremendous, this was the highlight for me, and ultimately this is why adventure racing is such a tremendous sport. Despite the fierce competition, you never know whom you will meet and the friends you will find. Embarking on such a grueling challenge with someone you have never met and putting so much trust in his or her hands is frightening to say the least, but when it works, it is one of the most amazing things one can experience. Dan made this race for us in many ways. He filled in when we were looking for a third to race with in the co-ed 3 division. He undoubtedly helped us race one of our best races of the year, and he was everything we could ever hope for in a teammate. Without revealing too much about him, if you’re from Burlington and happen to see Dan Smith’s name on a future ballot, vote for him. Trust me, you’ll be choosing the right guy!
Alright. Enough about Dan:)
The race was a terrific one, to say the least. A well-planned course provided varied challenges including some intense flat-water paddling and a short swim across a reservoir. GMARA’s staff was tremendous; they proved knowledgeable, well prepared and incredibly supportive to all the teams. The local racers in Vermont are passionate and fun-loving folk who are a pleasure to race alongside, and the competition we faced from EMS, Berlin Bike and Untamed/ Fitness Together (a.k.a Wicked Pissah) was too much to handle.
Beginning with an early morning paddle across the reservoir in the fading night, Untamed rocketed ahead of the pack and quickly ran from the boats to the bike pick-up, Berlin and EMS hot on their heels and us in short pursuit. For a moment all four of us shared the TA with a number of friendly, strong 2 person teams, and then we were off on the bike to the orienteering section. We had been warned to expect almost no trails and dense undergrowth, and we were not disappointed as we set off to collect 4 CPs, traveling through the northern Green Mountains and having to rely solely on terrain features and compass. For someone who often feels slighted due to a lack of actual navigation, I was in heaven as we traipsed through the soaking, stinging, ankle-threatening brush. No trails for 2 1/2 hours. What more can one ask for?
We emerged from the foot section 7 minutes behind Untamed, having somehow passed Berlin and EMS in the woods. We set off, knowing that Berlin and EMS would be after us in short order and set on picking up the 75 minute time bonus on the way to the next CP. Well, a deceptive intersection led us astray, forcing us to spend an additional 10-15 minutes looking for the optional CP and then taking us up the wrong trail in search of CP 5. When we finally realized our mistake, we turned around seeing EMS in a similar position. We then were shocked to find ourselves alongside Untamed at CP 5, and it turns out that we all had made similar mistakes, and by the sounds of it, many other teams were thrown off at this point.
After hitting CP5 and bombing down a sweet technical downhill, it was off on a long ride for CP 6 and 7 that involved a bike-whack alongside Untamed (seems to be our thing this year, and as always, I’m just not sure this one was the best idea). At this point we thought we were out front with Untamed, but we realized at the bike-drop after CP 7 that Berlin had somehow sneaked in front. I’m thinking they must have nailed that trail intersection back by CP 5… Back to the bike-whack… We climbed up a steep bank, the two of us together, and it was at the top that we split from Untamed. Fortunately, we quickly found a trail and were back on track while Untamed fell back quite a ways in the woods, a bummer as they had become more than familiar faces through the first half of the day. We made short work of the rest of the bike and rolled into the TA and bike-drop to find Berlin the only team ahead of us. We were a bit shocked by that and set off in hot pursuit taking off on the trek back to the boats and the final legs of the race. I’m still kicking myself, for at this point in my race-inspired haste I turned off the main road too soon, and we lost a significant chunk of time getting back to the boats. According to the splits in the results, Berlin smoked the run back to the bikes making it in 10 minutes. By comparison, our 31 minutes still has me up at nights! (Looking back those times and the splits from the first run, which was the route, I am still in disbelief of their speed!)
Run aside, we dove into the reservoir for an absolutely wonderful swim across to CP 8, and then it was back across to the boats and the final paddle for 8 CPS on the way to the finish. It was at this point that the epic battle that had been raging all day became more apparent. EMS had closed the gap, finishing the swim mere minutes behind us and we both set out to catch Berlin who had elected to use the race provided canoe paddles rather than use personal double-blades which they would have had to carry for the duration. It was evident that Berlin had rocked on the bike and final run, and there’s no way we could have caught them on this day, but the paddles proved to be the difference and allowed us to close the gap by the last few CPs. EMS, despite losing part of one of their paddles turned on the gas, catching us both on this final leg, and it was an all out sprint under dark clouds, through rain and denial that the thunder and lightening rolling in over the reservoir was anything more than a good light show put on by the GMARA staff.
The finish line awaited on the beach we had pushed off from in the morning darkness, and EMS ground to a stop a minute in front of us with Berlin Bike 2 minutes behind. Hugs, smiles, handshakes and good cheer greeted us, and plenty of wondrous stories and headshakes at just how close this race had been. 10 plus hours of biking, running, trekking, paddling and swimming, and only three minutes separated the top three teams. This will undoubtedly be one of the highlight races of the year, both for a great event and for the photo finish. Congratulations to EMS for once again pulling it out at the end, and I can only say I am very thankful that we didn’t agree to the proposed paddle trade with Berlin in the early morning on the water. They certainly deserved this one.
Team GOALS ARA thanks all the GMARA staff and volunteers. We also thank our friends from EMS, Berlin and Untamed for a phenomenal race, and congratulations to all those who came out to take on a tough 12 hour race and for being so welcoming to those of us from far, far away. And thanks to Abby who wished she had raced but was always there with a smile and encouragement at the TAs.
And once again, thanks to Dan.