“West, east, north, south… does it really matter? We’re going to be running around in all directions (probably totally lost) tomorrow! Let’s just hope we don’t end up in West Virginia by accident.”
Those were Ali’s words as we sat in our Howard Johnson hotel room in Lexington, Virginia on Saturday night, preparing for Sunday’s Odyssey AR O-Gaine, an eight-hour foot race that saw teams running, hiking, and scrambling through the woods of Douthat State Park, with only a map and compass to guide them.
Never having done more than an hour-long orienteering race (and, for me at least, never having felt particularly competent even at that), neither Ali nor I felt exceedingly confident in our navigational abilities. And Bess, who barely knew that the red arrow on the compass pointed north, didn’t think she’d be able to contribute much.
So, as we passed the evening with a bit of virtual scouting of park maps, only one thing was certain: we knew there was a Buck Lick Trail, and we knew that we would find it, come hell or high water – if for no other reason than to be able to write about it on our blogs.
We left the comforts of the HoJo at 6:30 AM on Sunday morning and made our way to the park entrance in time to organize our gear (‘make sure you have the requisite trowel,’ Ronnie the Race Director told everyone at the outset) and find a comfortable spot to plot our points.
At 7:55 AM, we received the first ten checkpoints, and after a quick turnaround, we had everything laid out on the map and were off and running.
Well, running might be a bit of an overstatement.
For much of the first four hours of the race, we clawed our way up and down leaf-strewn cliff sides, set against the backdrop of the Shenandoah hills. It was slow-going, to be sure. We picked our way through thick brush, plodded along hillsides, and splashed through creeks.
But somehow, it was working. With Ali leading the charge, and Bess and I playing back-up – Bess discovered that she has a sixth sense for map reading – we were nailing the checkpoints. We followed contours and took compass headings, traced boundaries lines and counted switchbacks, and we found the first eight with ease.
With only half an hour left for the first section, we decided to take a stab at one of the final two points and abandon the other, but after a few minutes of scouring a feature-less hill, we realized that we were cutting it too close and headed back to transition. Still, we were in good spirits as we picked up our next set of checkpoints.
This second section covered a larger area, and we struggled to come up with a coherent strategy for attacking the checkpoints. Should we start east or west? Should we go for the bigger point values, or just grab as many as possible? We were still unsure as we headed out, laboring a few thousand feet up a trail (of the Buck Lick variety) to a ridge line. I had been sick the week before, inheriting the chest infection that Brent picked up in the wiles of Texas at nationals, and I struggled quite a bit physically for that hour-long climb. We were moving okay, but I couldn’t take in a deep breath, and my chest hurt with every attempt.
Once we made it to the top, though, we picked up two points quickly and then spent the rest of the day running with ease along the gently sloping leaf-strewn trails, hitting one point after another. We had planned to skip four points at the outset, unsure of whether we had time to nab them, but after completing our intended loop, we ran back for two of them before heading into the finish, clocking in at 3:00 PM on the nose – an hour to spare.
All in all, it was a great outing. Ali and Bess rocked the maps, and I did what I could with the compass. We worked well together, and once we found our rhythm, we moved smoothly on technical terrain. When we began the race, none of us knew what the day would hold, but I think that we all exceeded our expectations.
And as an added bonus, we learned at the end of the event that we finished second in the three-person division (not to mention first in the female-three division… though we were the only all-female team on the course).
On the drive back to Philly, we decided that combining our second place divisional finish in the 8-hour event with Brent’s first place overall finish in the 24-hour race, Team GOALS finished in 1.25 place for the day.
A banner day.