The Short Version:
90 degree temperatures. Saturating humidity. 30+ miles of running. 70 miles of biking. 20 miles of paddling. River ferries and tomb guards. Tailgaters and phantom eye charts. My first end-o. My first successful 24-hour race. A 20-minute nap. An overall win. Nationals qualifiers. A nationals-qualifier jacket.
The Long (Long) Version:
2010 brought the Cradle of Liberty back to Philadelphia after a three-year detour to northeast Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, and I, for one, was thrilled for its return. I had been hearing about the 24-hour event in and around the city since I began adventure racing, and was hoping for the opportunity to do it.
The race began at Fairmount Park’s Memorial Hall, constructed in 1876 for the city’s centennial celebration. It was close to 90 degrees when Bruce and Brent and I walked to the starting line at 1 PM, and as we set off for the (very) short prologue run down to the river and back, we were aware that we’d have to be vigilant about hydration if we wanted to finish this race in one piece.
Though the field was small, there were a number of strong teams competing, and we knew we’d have to push hard and race well. Brent came up with the idea of doing that initial run in our bike shoes, which turned out to be a great strategy as we were the first team out of transition following the prologue.
From Memorial Hall, we rode straight to the Belmont Plateau (site of the infamous tailbone injury), and I battled a few mental demons as we traveled the windy single-track trails to pick up the first checkpoints of the day.
We crossed paths briefly with the second GOALS team – Jon and Chris and Melissa Rice – but otherwise didn’t see anyone until we left the small park en route to a short urban bike section that took us from the Philadelphia zoo, to the University of Pennsylvania, to the site of the epic Pat’s-Geno’s cheesesteak rivalry, at 9th and Passyunk.
Because the first half of the race took us through the city, the course designers had to get creative in making sure teams got to each checkpoint. So, rather than punching an orienteering flag, we were told to write down the year that the Penn Relays were founded, or the date that the zoo’s gatehouses were constructed, or the price of a Geno’s cheesesteak (with tax). This all went smoothly during that first biking section, but once we got on foot, it caused a bit of confusion.
From Geno’s we headed north to drop our bikes and pick up the clue sheet for a several-hour foot-o section that took us all over Center City. We arrived at the Gift of Life building at 3rd and Callowhill to find out that we’d opened up a short lead on the other teams, but given the competition, we knew we’d have to keep pushing to maintain it.
We had two options at the start of the foot section: we could either head east, over the Ben Franklin Bridge to the ferry depot in Camden, New Jersey to pick up the first two points, or we could start west, toward the Eastern State Penitentiary and the Art Museum before making our way southeast toward Rittenhouse Square, Independence Hall, South Street, the Mummers Museum, and the Chart House pier.
We opted to take the latter approach, and made our way across the city. Though the maps were a bit hard to read because of the scale, we had a decent sense of where we were going, and we ran steadily through the first several points.
Our first fumble came when we reached Rittenhouse Square, at 19th and Walnut. Brent had plotted the point in the center of the park. The clue read “Ribbit! Who carved me?” but we couldn’t find a frog anywhere. Ultimately, we found ourselves standing in front of a bronze lion. “Well,” said Brent, “it’s a french sculptor. I bet they were trying to be clever – ‘frogs’ and ‘french,’ right?”
Though it would turn out to be the wrong statue, the logic was sound, so we wrote down the name of the artist and ran east toward the Avenue of the Arts, where we were supposed to record the fourth line of an eye chart. We got to Broad and Spruce and looked around, having no idea where this eye chart would be. We looked at the buildings, the theater postings, and the bus depots. We checked out the murals and the storefronts. After ten minutes, we called the race director to find out if we were missing something. “It’s a 12-foot-high poster,” Marc told us. “You can’t miss it.” And so we kept looking. We ran north to City Hall, and south to Bainbridge. We asked passersby, street vendors, and ticket takers. Everyone said that they’d seen it, but no one could tell us exactly where it was. Another ten minutes passed, and we called Marc again. “It’s not here,” we told him. “What should we do?” By that point, he was as confused as we were. We hung up with him and waited. He called back a few minutes later. “It was taken down,” he said. “There was a huge poster at the University of the Arts as of 24 hours ago. It was there for weeks. And they took it down. You can still see the bolts where it hung.”
The perils of racing in the city.
After that half-hour delay, we took off for Independence Hall (to find out when the Supreme Court met there), and then booked it south to find out how many draught beers Blarney’s stocked, and how much an adult admission ticket was at the Mummer’s Museum.
It was at that point that we realized the challenges of racing in familiar territory. We had all been talking about the prospect of a ‘home town advantage’ for this race, but it quickly became clear that too many opinions – too much familiarity – can be a problem. With three people contributing to the navigation, we found ourselves turned around on more than one occasion, and we were slowed several times by differing opinions on route choice. While the local knowledge certainly helped me psychologically – in that I didn’t have to rely as much on the navigator to know where we were and where we were going – from a strategic and speed perspective, it didn’t ultimately make much of a difference.
Following a quick convenience store pit stop to restock our water and gatorade supplies (it was three hours into the race and we’d already gone through upwards of 130 ounces of liquid apiece), we ran back north for the final checkpoints on the Philly side, and then headed over the bridge to Camden. We slowed down a bit on the bridge, walking for the first time since the start of the race, and when we crossed into New Jersey, we realized that we had ten minutes to get to the final checkpoint – at the ferry depot – and catch the next boat back to Philadelphia.
The clue sheets had listed the ferry times as every hour on the half hour, and told us that we were welcomed to use the service. We opted not to head to Jersey to start the foot section because we knew that we’d get stuck for twenty minutes waiting for the boat. We hadn’t planned to take the ferry at the end, either, assuming we’d just run there and back, but since the timing worked out, we welcomed the prospect of a brief (air-conditioned) respite. We picked up the pace through the throngs of drunkenly annoying country music fans tailgating at the tweeter center, nabbed the final point (Klondike – the logo at the top of the ferry depot’s vending machine), and raced onto the boat just as it was about to pull out.
There were some pros and cons about urban racing.
Con: the Camden tailgaters
Pro: the looks on the faces of the Geno’s cheesesteak customers when we biked in looking for the price
Con: the traffic and car exhaust
Pro: an entire ferry-ful of people cheering us on as we ran off the boat when we landed in Philly (this, of course, was made more entertaining when we got to the top of the dock to find the gates locked – as we waited patiently for the crew to make their way up to unlock it, we chatted with the race directors who happened to be there taking pictures).
Once the gates opened, we raced back to the transition, jumped on our bikes, and pedaled west toward Manayunk and the Wissahickon Gorge. We had six bike checkpoints to pick up along the technical trails before the 20-ish mile ride west to Evansburg State Park for a night foot orienteering section.
In a sense, we got lucky, in that we were able to tackle much of the Wissahickon section while it was still light out, but this also proved challenging, as the checkpoints were marked with low-lying ribbons and higher cat-eyes, designed to catch the glint off a racer’s headlamp. In daylight, they looked like little more than patterned bolts affixed to trees.
We arrived at the first checkpoint, an eighteenth century stone tomb in the middle of the woods. We expected to see the marker outside of the structure, but instead encountered three hash-smoking 20-somethings. They were clearly protective of the historic site, and initially tried to convince us that they’d spotted the ribbon several yards up the trail. After looking around and checking out the trees, Bruce wandered up a little ways, and Brent decided to appeal to them directly. “Did you take down the ribbon? I know that it happens all the time, people taking things down without realizing that they’re important.” He meant it to be an innocent question, but the lead protector took it personally. He took a step forward and tightened his grip around the large stick he was carrying. “Are you accusing me? Where do you get off accusing me?”
Brent apologized quickly (if not particularly genuinely).
“You better be apologizing to me,” the guy went on. “And not just to me. You should be apologizing to this guy,” he said, pointing to the plaque outside of the tomb. “You go into his resting place without even reading the sign? That’s disrespect, is what that is.”
“I’ve read the sign plenty of times before,” Brent said, not trying to hide his frustration by that point.
“Okay,” I said, trying to mediate as Bruce came back down the trail. “We’re really sorry. We didn’t mean to accuse you.” I looked at the one girl in the group for a little help, but she returned an icy stare. “We’ll go now, sorry to bother you,” I continued. “Just to give you a heads up, there will probably be a bunch of other people coming by over the next few hours.”
“Thanks,” the third guy said. And then, under his breath, “we’ll stay all night to protect it.”
We rode down the trail a ways toward the next point, and stopped to call the race directors again and tell them about the encounter. They sent someone out to check for the ribbon, and called us back several minutes later to say that the cateyes were in place but that the ribbon, was, indeed, missing. We were already a couple miles away at that point, having picked up two additional points, but we went back to record the pattern of the cateyes, and found that our hash-smoking friends had gone on their way. No one else spotted them during the race.
I was beginning to feel rather low by then, and struggled a bit as we headed uphill on the roads to the next point. We rode back into the park and climbed up toward the famous Indian statue just as dusk was setting in. As the three of us fanned out to look for the flag, I downed some calories and a few more electrolyte capsules. Thankfully, they took effect quickly, and I was ready to roll as we turned on our lights and headed down the rocky trails.
I hit one more small snag during the technical section – quite literally, as my front tire caught on a root and I flew over my handlebars. My first end-o. I was more surprised than anything else, and took a minute to dust myself off before getting back on my bike. I had a rock-sized bruise on my left quad, but was none the worse for wear as we continued on up and down the roads and trails to collect the last few points.
Brent and I both ran out of water during this section, and as we all paused at the transition at the Valley Green Inn to refill, we were greeted by a couple of eight-year-olds. The inn was hosting a wedding that night, and the boys clearly found the race far more interesting. They were hanging out with volunteers and giving us the scoop on the other teams they’d seen. “Three groups have come in so far,” they whispered to us. “You’re going to have to work pretty hard to catch ’em, but I’m sure you can do it. We’ll let you know if anyone else comes through.”
They walked over to Bruce and “helped” him fill his water bottles as I chatted with Marc to learn that we were still in the lead. Still, there was a lot of race left. This was no time to back off.
We finished checking in and took off out of the gorge. We climbed up over Ridge Avenue before bombing down to the towpath that connects Center City to Valley Forge. I enjoyed the solitude of biking in the dark, and worked to stay on the tire in front of me as Bruce and Brent switched off leading the pace line. We picked up two more points, at the Conshohocken and Norristown train stations, and then veered off the comfort of the flat path for a 10-ish mile rolling ride to Evansburg.
We were still pushing hard when we pulled into the park – as Bruce said later, “we were moving like it was a sprint race!” – and we dropped our bikes and quickly set off for another orienteering section to collect the next eight points. Luckily, Brent was able to navigate us around some of the more technical trails, keeping us on roads for the significant elevation, but when we were in the park, we were plodding through thick bramble and thicker muck. At one point, my shoe was sucked off my foot, and filled with the dense mud.
It was around 1:00 in the morning when we got into the park, and I was beginning to get sleepy. I chased the vivarin Bruce offered me with some flat diet mountain dew, but neither seemed to make much of a difference. While we were running, I was still alert and moving well, when we walked, I felt my eyes getting heavy.
I think the combination of intense heat and hard exertion had taken a lot out of me. Apparently, it takes some practice to master the art of racing on no sleep.
We cleared the o-course and got back to transition around 4:45 AM. The sun was beginning to rise, and all we had left was a short 10-ish mile ride to the canoe put-in at Valley Forge, and a 20-mile paddle back into the city.
We were going to make it, I thought. After one failed attempt and one unofficial finish over the previous two years, I was going to successfully complete my first 24-hour adventure race.
There was just one little problem.
My eyes didn’t seem to want to stay open.
During the final bike leg, I was fine going up the hills (gratefully aided by Bruce’s monster quads giving me intermittent pushes), but when I rode down the other side, I found myself battling to stay awake. Biking downhill at 25 mph, as you might suspect, is not the best time to fall asleep. As Brent navigated the roads back to the park, Bruce laughed at my predicament and began handing me gummy candy. “Chew on these,” he instructed.
“The green ones are the best,” I told him a few candies later.
“Yeah,” he laughed again. “I’m not sure what they are. I think they’re the Operation ones.”
Lesson learned: I will be stocking up on Operation fruit snacks for my next 24-hour race.
We pulled into Valley Forge at 5:30 AM.
“You can’t get on the water until 6 o’clock,” the volunteer told us. “The park mandated a dark zone until then.”
We knew that from the start, but still, at that moment, it was the best news I’d heard all night.
As Brent and Bruce went over the maps, I laid down on a picnic bench and took a solid 20-minute nap. At 6 AM on the dot, I was up and ready, wholly rejuvenated for the final leg of the race. I felt like I could have gone all day.
It’s difficult in any adventure race to make up a ton of time on the water, and by that point, we knew that we had built up a pretty comfortable lead, so we paddled steadily but didn’t kill ourselves as we made our way from Valley Forge to the take-out back in Philly.
We chatted lazily about summer plans, kept ourselves entertained looking for turtles and checking out the flocks of Canadian geese, got annoyed by the scullers who informed us that we were paddling on the wrong side of the river, and portaged over two dams. The 20 miles didn’t pass quickly, but we eventually crossed under the Columbia Bridge and powered into the finish.
We pulled out of the water at 10:14 AM, cheered on by 75 racers who were getting ready for the start of the six-hour Cradle sprint.
Over the course of the previous 21 hours, we had each consumed upwards of 600 ounces of water and gatorade.
After checking in with the race directors and gathering our gear, we walked up the hill to our cars parked by Memorial Hall, changed out of our race clothes, and wandered back down to the river to watch the other teams come in.
In the end, we finished in first place overall, with NYARA and GOALS 2 in second and third. We qualified for the US Adventure Racing national championships, to take place in October, conveniently in western PA this year.
During a conversation earlier this season, I had told Brent that I would only think seriously about going to nationals if I were on a team that qualified with a first place finish (in nationals qualifying events, the top three teams earn slots for the race, with the first place team gaining sponsorship money to offset the cost). I knew that it would be a totally different level of racing, and wasn’t sure whether I was ready yet to take it on.
At this point, even with the win, I’m leaning against going to nationals, as I know the race director and I know that it will be a pressure-filled race on a course that will exploit my weaknesses. I’m not sure I’m up for it.
Still, it was exciting to qualify, and even more exciting to get the famous qualifying jackets – given to first place teams in the premiere division at regional qualifiers. Brent has a couple of these prized jackets, but this is my first one.
We came home from the race, took a painful shower that made us keenly aware of every inch of chafing and every scrape we received along the course, and dozed for an hour before heading out for what has become a post-race ritual this season: sandwiches and unlimited fountain soda (diet coke and coke respectively) at Fiesta Pizza.
I wore my race jacket proudly.