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Mapping the world, one waxy strand at a time…

Keystone Challenge, Day One: What a Difference a Mountain Makes


There are some days when the stars align, when you feel confident and competent, when you push hard and race strong and finish with a sense of satisfaction and pride.
Saturday was not one of those days.
When Brent and Chris and I toed the line at this year’s American Adventure Sport Yough X-treme, I wasn’t sure what the day would hold. I had been training hard and racing well and gaining confidence, but I had also been feeling pretty crummy for several days and nursing a couple nagging bumps and bruises. And I knew what I would be up against – a stacked field and a brutal course and a cold rain set to fall throughout the day.
I’ve only done one American Adventure Sport race before – the 2008 Yough, my first 12-hour outing – but I’m familiar enough with the format of their events to know that we would be starting off with a fast separator on foot, to be followed by a series of runs and rides up and down the Sugarloaf Mountain. It would be a linear race, with little in the way of navigation, strategy, or route choice. Essentially, it would be a 10-hour time trial. And, as I realized when we arrived on Friday evening, it would be against some of the best racers around.
At 8:00 AM sharp, race director Doug Crytzer sounded the official start, and all of the teams took off for a blistering 5k-ish run up and down a trail to get our passports. From the first moments of that separator, I could tell that I was going to have a rough day. We were at the front of the pack, and we set off at a pace faster than I generally hold during an interval workout. By the time we reached the top, my lungs were begging for mercy.

At the start – I’m the little one with the red bandana

The rain began in earnest as we headed back down the trail to retrieve our bikes, and as we transitioned to the first climb, I wondered how slick the steep trails would be.
I tried to settle into a rhythm as we pedaled higher and higher, but neither my body nor my mind was cooperating. There were so many thoughts swirling through my head. I was worried about my breathing, which had not stabilized from the early run. I wondered why I couldn’t seem to will my body to push harder. I knew that I was riding the technical terrain more competently than I ever had in a race before, but at the same time, I knew that I wasn’t riding nearly as well as I had been just a week earlier. Compounding the physical stresses, I was psyching myself out by the calibre of the field and the difficulty of the course. I was letting the mental pressure get to me on a day where my body couldn’t compensate.
Two thirds of the way up, I pulled my bike into a sharp turn, and my front wheel caught on a rock. I couldn’t unclip my pedals fast enough to stabilize myself, and both my bike and I took a hard fall. A bruised kneecap aside, I realized quickly that I had fared better than the Bruce-mobile. When I picked up the bike, I saw a small lever hanging off the handlebars. At first, Chris and I thought it was my right shifter, but after a little bit of investigation, we realized that it was a lockdown lever for my front fork. The compression had jammed, and the fork had locked. I would be riding down the mountain with no front suspension.
Just before we reached the top, Chris and Brent decided that we should veer off our planned course and head down a side trail that connected the mountain to an old rail trail that ran along the river. We weren’t sure how rideable this alternate route would be, but because of our slow pace and mechanical issues riding up, it seemed like a gamble worth taking. Ultimately, it was a great move on their part. The ride down was steep and rather bone-rattling on my suspension-less frame, but the trail was manageable and we moved well. We ended up cutting out some climbing at the top, and because the trails were less technical, we were able to push harder and make up some ground on the lead teams.
We got to the paddle put-in and 10:15 AM, half an hour earlier than our initial time projections in spite of the rough climb, and we quickly transitioned to the 9-ish mile trip down the Middle Youghiogheny River.
A bit too quickly, it would turn out.
I was cold and wet when we got onto the water, a bit bleary from the first couple hours of the race and still not breathing well. My lungs felt tight, and I couldn’t regulate the air coming in. I should have taken an extra minute to put on my rain jacket, but it didn’t occur to me at the time.
And I should have listened to Chris when he suggested as much halfway through the paddle. But I would have to go take off my PFD and my helmet, I told him. And I’d have to go into my dry sack. It would take too long.
Fighting a rough patch
By the time we got off the water an hour and a half later, I was shivering uncontrollably. I got out of the boat and tried to help Chris carry it up the ramp, but I was fumbling all over myself. I was shaking. I was disoriented. I couldn’t breathe, and at that moment, I couldn’t figure out why. I wasn’t really hypothermic – no blue lips or fingernails – but the cold, combined with my out-of-whack asthma and the pressure that had been mounting throughout the morning came together in an all-out panic attack. I’d never experienced anything like it before.
Each breath came out as a choking sob. Brent, relying on the emergency medical training from his days as a SCUBA instructor, tried to figure out what was wrong, and when I couldn’t explain it to him, he grabbed my pack, pulled out my space blanket, and wrapped it around me. Chris took out my rain jacket and threw that over me as well. I kept walking, trying to calm down, willing my body to relax so that I could get in some air.
“I think we’re calling it a day,” Brent said, clearly worried.
Within a few minutes, I stopped crying. My breathing began to recalibrate, though I still wasn’t able to take in much air. I was shivering, but no longer uncontrollably.
As we made our way back to the transition, Scott Pleban, whose team won last year’s Untamed New England to qualify for the AR world championships, was heading our way. I’ve interacted with Scott at a number of races over the past few years, and he is one of the most unassuming people I know. On the race course, he’s also one of the most intense, focused competitors I’ve ever encountered.
“Abby, are you okay?” he asked, breaking stride and pulling away from his team. I assured him that I would be fine and told him to keep going, not to worry about me. Even in my panic-induced haze, I was struck by his concern, and his willingness to veer off-course to check on the safety of another racer. It was an awesome reminder of just how amazing this adventure racing community can be. This was highlighted again when we made it back to the transition just as Ali, Bruce, and Luther – the second GOALS team racing – were getting ready to begin the 9-mile run down a rail trail back to the boat launch to pick up their bikes for the second ride up the mountain. Pausing to make sure we were okay, Ali handed me a dry jersey and Bruce pulled a hat over my head.
As the three of them ran off, Brent and Chris and I stopped to figure out what to do next. When we were getting off the water, all I could think was that I wanted the race to be over. But when Brent suggested dropping out, I realized that I wasn’t ready to give up. I knew that we wouldn’t be competitive (though up to that point, we discovered, even with all of the struggles of the morning, we were still in striking distance of some of the lead teams), but I wanted to finish officially. Because the orienteering section at the top of the mountain was optional, all that stood between us and avoiding a DNF was that 9-mile run to our bikes, and a subsequent 9-mile ride back to the finish.
We set off down the rail trail and settled into a run/walk/shuffle sort of rhythm. My body had calmed down by that point, but the asthma had left my airways inflamed and constricted, and every breath seemed to catch in my throat. Brent and Chris tried to make small talk as I fought off tears, frustrated that I had let my team down and demoralized by how incompetent I felt throughout our seven hours of racing. I just couldn’t get out of my head.
We made it back to our bikes and turned around for the finish, abandoning the final orienteering section. I took off quickly, wanting the day to be over. A few miles later later, Brent pedaled up next to me. “Do you realize that you’re biking two miles an hour faster than you were on this trail earlier today,” he smiled, “and you’re leading a pace line?”
I fell off not long after, but we made it back with little fanfare, cleaned up, and decided to grab some food while we waited for the rest of the GOALS contingent to finish.
I spent much of the rest of the afternoon taking stock of what happened. I can point to any number of reasons for the failed outing, all of which are legitimate. But it doesn’t change the outcome.
On one level, I felt like I regressed a fair bit as an adventure racer. The breathing problems today were real, and they were scary. But I felt like I should have been able to overcome them. And at the same time, I was proud of myself for not stopping when we got off the water, and excited to learn that up to that point, even with all of the problems, we were still holding our own against a serious field of racers. On one hand, it was a reminder that I still have a ways to go before I can race comfortably at the same level as most of my teammates. And on the other hand, even as this disaster of a race unfolded, I could tell that I had made some pretty serious strides from where I was a year ago.
By the time Ali and Bruce and Luther pulled in two hours later, having cleared the entire course, I was feeling a little bit less demoralized. I had been chatting with other racers and enjoying catching up with my AR friends, and I was ready to move forward.
We loaded up the cars, said our goodbyes, and shoved off.
We had four hours of driving ahead of us.
And another race to get ready for…
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11 responses to “Keystone Challenge, Day One: What a Difference a Mountain Makes

  1. Lacey Nicole April 26, 2010 at 10:09 am

    ah! i was on the edge of my seat reading this. yikes and yikes. sounds scary. the panic attack and breathing probs = very serious business. i'm glad you had teammates right there with you at least.this sounds like quite the race– and that you actually ended up doing quite well. it doesn't sound like a failed attempt at all! i'm so impressed that you ran and biked to the end, and still had people to wait for– you pretty much kicked some major booty with lots of obstacles in your way. congrats!

  2. Denise April 26, 2010 at 10:53 am

    that was really scaring reading that! i can't believe you pushed on through all of that. you are so tough!!!

  3. RunningLaur April 26, 2010 at 11:18 am

    You said it well, the race truly seems like a dichotomy of knowing how fantastic you've become at this sport, but also having to struggle through. Every race is a learning opportunity, and the harder ones can only teach you more. I'm sure the next time you're out there and have doubt creep in, you can remember how you held your own alongside your team despite the forces against you. Marathon next? Hooray!

  4. Staci Dombroski April 26, 2010 at 11:19 am

    WOW!!! That is all I can say… WOW!!!

  5. I Run for Fun April 26, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Congratulations, Abby! You are a lot tougher than you give yourself credit for. So sorry about the panic attack experience, that was scary! But all things considered, you did wonderfully well!

  6. Amanda - RunToTheFinish April 26, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    nothing about that sounds like failure to me, it sounds like another amazing adventure in your life and seriously an amazing hubby who puts things in perspective

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