I had one major goal in taking on the 2009 NYARA Longest Day (and Night): to finish.
This plan was nearly derailed about 9 hours in, when I found myself physically unable to negotiate the swelling white water of the Esopus Creek in an inflatable inner tube with a wooden platform for a seat.
Attempt #1: I set out with my kayak paddle and make it 20 yards down river before ricocheting off of a log. I fly out of the tube, and hit my (thankfully helmeted) head on the bottom of the creek. I surface and flail about for 20 seconds before I can get my bearings and claw my way to shore. The tube is never to be seen (by me) again.
Attempt #2: After race organizers and volunteers calm me down, and Keith (one of three teammates who went down the river before me) finds his way back to shore, I pick up a second tube and head back to the water, attempting to push off as far from the shore as I can. I make it about 25 yards down river before ramming into a strainer – a pile of logs and debris that sucks in white water (and anything else that gets too close to its mouth). My right leg gets lodged under a log and the more I fight to free myself, the further wedged I get. My rain pants fill with water and snag on a branch. After what feels like several minutes but was likely about 30 seconds, I stop panicking, regain my composure, and blow my whistle. Now I know why they mandate that those things get tied to our PFDs! Bess and Keith come down along the shore to rescue me, and Keith pulls me out of the debris to safety. We walk back to the put-in a second time. This time, we manage to save the tube.
White water – 2. Abby – 0.
The Longest Day was a 27-hour long adventure race set against the backdrop of the southern Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. This is the second year I’ve done this race (last year was a 12-hour), and though I’m a loyal member of Team GOALS
and a big fan of GOALS-sponsored events
, I have to admit that the racing Gods have smiled upon me most during NYARA
(New York Adventure Racing Association) races. And this year was no exception.
GOALS fielded two teams for this year’s event, though due to injury, Tracey Robertson, adventure racer extraordinaire, had to pull out at the last minute, so we shuffled our lineups. Originally I had intended for this to be a fun, no-pressure outing. I had dropped out of a 24-hour race last summer due to illness, and I just wanted to make it through an overnight event successfully. Brent was planning on pushing the pace with the big guns – Bruce and Jon and Tracey – while I would be casually strolling with Keith and Chris, exceedingly talented racers who were willing to chill out for a day of fun in the woods.
When Tracey pulled out, though, we reformulated the teams so that I would be racing with Bruce, Jon, and Keith, and Brent and Chris – the fastest on their feet – could attempt to take on the field. I knew that this wouldn’t be quite the no-pressure day I’d anticipated, but I was excited for the opportunity to race with such seasoned pros and looking forward to testing out the stylings of Billy the Kid
The day started off with a rather leisurely 3-hour, 12-ish mile flat water paddle. The sit-on-top kayaks weren’t particularly comfortable, but I enjoyed the trip down river, as I got my bearings and eased into the pace of the race. Bruce was the ultimate boatmate, guiding us straight down the river and spicing up the trip with the occasional chitchat.
At 10:00 AM, we switched gears, donned our helmets, and clipped in for a 50-mile biking leg, about half on smooth rolling streets and half on fire roads and technical trail. I struggled a fair bit over the rocky terrain, and walked my bike with my teammates up a number of hills, but overall that first bike section went well, save for a few minor snafus – my mysteriously missing back brake pad, Bruce’s sidewall tire blow out (on tubeless tires), and a hard fall that left Keith and me wondering for the rest of the race whether I’d fractured the heel of my hand (just a bad bruise/sprain, as I learned at the ER this morning – splinted for a few days and then I’ll be back to biking within the week!). But I felt stronger than ever on the roads, and for the most part was able to keep up with the big boys with no problems. The tow-line made a brief (5 minute) appearance as we neared the transition to the white water, but otherwise I pedaled my heart out, all on my own. I was really proud of myself – and of Billy.
And then came the tubes. And the white water. I thought I was a goner.
After my two failed attempts, there was nothing that could get me back in that water, and Keith wasn’t too keen on a second try for himself, either. We reasoned that if we could walk the six miles (I was still in bike shoes at that point, so running any real distance would have been challenging), we would still be official, and we could just meet Jon and Bruce for the big trekking leg. We set off down the road, but after about 50 yards saw our two teammates – tubes in hand – trudging toward us.
We had a brief team powwow, and Bruce and Jon decided to call it a day. They thought that we’d be unofficial if we continued on without completing the paddle (after several conversations with the race director, this is still up for debate), and didn’t feel like another 16 hours in the woods with nothing to show for it. Their big event for the season is a 72-hour race at the beginning of July, so this one was just a tune-up for them anyway.
I was determined to finish, though, and Keith was happy to stick with me. We accepted a ride to the tube take-out (at that point, after Bruce and Jon left, there was no question that we’d be unofficial), and after changing into fresh clothes and socks (thank you to Bruce for lending me a pair of dry pants!) and renaming ourselves Team Logjam, we set off on foot.
We left the transition area at 6:40 PM (exactly 12 hours in to the race), and headed up a mountain. Straight up a mountain. 2000 feet. With no trails to guide us. Keith’s biggest concern in continuing on as a two-person team was nighttime off-trail navigation, but thankfully we were able to link up with a few other teams that were all beginning the trekking leg at the same time.
For the next 8 hours, we bushwhacked through thick laurel, downed trees, hidden poison ivy, burly cliffs, and nasty stinging nettle. It was a party up there as close to a dozen people caravanned from one check point to the next, catching up since last season’s hiatus and sharing past racing stories. Thanks to the mad compass skills of NYARA’s Jim Kerlin, we hit the points with relative ease, and by 1:00 AM, we were clawing our way back down the mountain, another 2000 foot trail-less drop.
There was certainly a point during this section where I hit a low. From about 11:30 PM to 1:30 AM, I wondered why I’d decided to attempt a 27-hour race. I was feeling nauseous from 20 hours of energy bars and electrolyte gummies, and my eyes were beginning to sag. I wasn’t miserable; just tired from the long day, achy from my encounter with the river, and thinking about a hot shower.
And then an amazing thing happened. Around 1:30 in the morning, after a particularly biting section of stinging nettles, once my legs and arms stopped screaming in agony, I woke up. It’s hard to have a spring in your step when your steps are slowing sliding down a 2000 foot mountain, but if I could have, I would have. I had cleared the wall. And in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t actually that bad.
We made it down to the road – that glorious road – and found our bikes around 2:15 AM. After refueling, chatting with racers and volunteers (Bess came up to NY for the day to volunteer, and she regaled us with stories of other teams’ experiences), and learning of the mercifully re-routed course, we were off again.
It turned out that the first 20 hours of the day were taking teams longer than the race directors had anticipated, so in the middle of the night, they decided to cut off a technical biking section up and over a mountain pass, and instead routed us directly to the ropes. So, Keith and I were happy as clams, pedaling along the same rolling roads that we’d taken earlier in the day. In fact, we were more than happy; we were both feeling good. Maybe even great. Sure, we were tired. We took a couple of breaks as our eyes started to droop and our heads started to swim. But we were biking strong and moving well. After 22 hours of racing, we were still averaging 17-19 miles per hour, except when we were climbing the bigger hills. Billy the Kid was doing his job, and then some!
It was 5:00 in the morning and the sun was beginning to rise as we pulled into the final transition area of the race. It was a new day. We loaded our bikes into the awaiting moving truck, changed into our running shoes, and after securing harnesses to our waists, pulled ourselves across a creek 50 feet above water, on a tyrolean traverse.
The race pictures aren’t up yet, but this is the general idea…
As I got to the rocks on the other side, the climbing guide yelled to me, “Put your feet down!” I tried and tried, but I wasn’t able to reach the ground. “Here,” he said, “Since you are a bit of a wee one, I’ll give you a hand.” He pulled me toward him and I unclipped out of the harness. From there, Keith and I set off on the last section of the day – one more 1000 foot trail-less climb before a few miles of trail navigation that would take us to the finish line, where the barbeque was heating up and showers were waiting.
We had decided when we became unofficial that we would only get the mandatory checkpoints, but we couldn’t help but try for a couple optional points as we headed in. Unfortunately, we’d left the cue sheet (topographical clues to help you find the little orange orienteering flags) with Bruce and Jon, so after a few minutes of scouring the cliffs, we decided to forget about them. We hiked down the final hill and ran the last 40 feet to the finish at 8:45 AM, exactly 26 hours after we’d started.
Instead of t-shirts, the shwag bags for the race included NYARA towels, which I happily took advantage of at the state park showers a quarter mile away. We chatted with other teams as they came through the finish, and dozed a bit as we waited for the awards ceremony. Brent and Chris ended up in first place in the male-2 division and third overall. EMS squeaked by them, finishing first in the premiere coed-3/4 and second in the field. A solo racer passed them both to win the entire event. Keith and I were happy to learn that if our team had remained official and we’d taken the time we had left to find those last few checkpoints, we likely would have finished second in the coed-3/4, several points behind the national champions, but second place nonetheless.
I don’t even remember falling asleep here…
All in all, it was a remarkable day. It ranked up there for me with Ironman Wisconsin. We may not have had an official finish, but really, I’m not sure I could have asked for a better race. I felt strong. I had fun. I was reminded that even as a relative newbie to the adventure racing world, I feel incredibly connected to the community, and love that every race feels like a mini-reunion. And I proved to myself that with some more work, I may actually become half decent at this sport.
As Denise, NYARA head honcho, said in her post-race facebook update, there were some “BAMF racers” out there on the course. I’m proud to count myself among them.