It was 10:35 PM when Brent and Bruce peeled into the parking lot of Wawayanda State Park last Friday night. Registration for the 2010 Shag adventure race had begun two hours earlier and maps were set to be dispensed promptly at 11:00.
I had driven to the start of the race straight from work, arriving at the park on the New Jersey/New York border just after eight o’clock with futile plans to catch a catnap before the evening’s activities commenced.
Instead, I chatted with the race director and course designers (who offered up a little blog love, titling our team packet “Dental Floss”), rehashed summer races with friends, and wandered aimlessly around the parking lot, waiting for my missing teammates to surface.
By the time the boys arrived, the customary pre-race gear-apalooza was winding down, as teams dropped off bike bins and paddle bags in the awaiting u-hauls, and checked their headlamps and bike lights one last time.
Bruce and Brent parked the car, signed the requisite waivers, and grabbed the information packet from me so that we could begin the frantic task of organizing everything.
“I thought I was going to have to race in the solo division,” I told them as we duct-taped our numbers to our bikes and bundled our paddles and PFD’s. “I’m not sure this bodes well for the next sixteen hours.”
Somehow, we managed to sort all our gear in just under half an hour. By 11:05 PM, we were sprawled out in the back of Bruce’s van, scouring the maps for the best route choices and strategizing over which points to drop.
The race was made up of six distinct sections, with each leg including one or two mandatory checkpoints and several additional optionals with varying point values. We were warned that the course was likely not clear-able; thus, the winners would be the team that secured the most points before the 5 PM cut-off.
The race would begin with a night-time mountain bike section, followed by a sunrise trek, then a short paddle, trek #2, more mountain biking, to be capped off with a “memory-o” section, in which teams would look at a point on a map and then run off in search of it, charting the route from memory.
As soon as I saw the maps, I knew I was in for a challenge.
First, aside from a short stint on familiar terrain during June’s Cradle of Liberty
, I had never mountain biked in the dark before, and certainly not in the middle-of-the-night blackness of rural New Jersey.
Second, a cursory glance of the course was enough to see that this entire race would be taking place on trails, with none of the road riding and trekking that you often find in adventure racing as you move from section to section. For the next sixteen hours, we would be ascending and descending steep, technical terrain.
And then there was the matter of the start time… The prospect of racing at – as Bruce would later say – the very time that my body was aching to slow down was new to me entirely, and I had no idea how I would fare.
It wouldn’t be long before I’d find out… At one o’clock on the dot, the whistle blew, and all 70-odd racers sped out of the parking lot.
Mountain Bike #1
We had decided early on that our strategy would be to clear the first section and then evaluate our time and pace as we moved onto the first trekking leg. There seemed to be no logical circuit for the mountain bike points, so we opted to take a short stretch of road to the first checkpoint and then cover a backwards loop through the park to the first transition area. This allowed us to avoid a potential logjam on the trails early on, and also – in theory – gave me the chance to settle into a rhythm on the bike before tackling the technical terrain.
Or so I thought…
As we beelined down the road, the adrenaline got the better of me and I began to feel my breath seizing up. By the time we hit the first trail, my legs and lungs were burning and I was working hard to calm myself down. I pulled back to regroup.
We nabbed the first point, and then the second, and though I gradually regained my composure, I never felt good, never felt like I could push the pace. I was so focused on staying upright on the trails that I wasn’t able to race.
At first, I felt helpless, unsure of how to get myself moving. And then, out of nowhere, I felt angry. Not frustrated. Not demoralized. Just downright angry, rageful even – for no reason and at no one and nothing in particular.
I was conscious enough of the sentiment to hope that it would give me the boost I needed, but no such luck. Two hours into the race, I caught up to Bruce and carefully broached the subject.
“Hey Bruce, I have a question for you.”
“So, were you and Brent hoping to get in a really good workout today, in preparation for nationals?”
“Because I’m not sure I’m going to be able to give you that today. For some reason, I just can’t get there. I feel like I’m just out for a ride, and I can’t get my body to race.”
“You’ll be okay,” he reassured me. “This is the worst time of day to ask your body to push. You’ll feel better when the sun comes up.”
I swallowed the lump that was rising in my throat and continued on, convinced that it was only a matter of time before I dropped out.
Toward the end of the section, we got tripped up navigationally and spent the better part of an hour looking for one checkpoint. By the time we found it and made our way to transition, there were only two other teams yet to arrive.
“How many teams have cleared it?” asked Brent as we pulled off our helmets and laced up our running shoes.
“You’re the seventh so far,” Jim told us.
No one said anything more as we packed up our gear and headed off on foot.
We had a decision to make right off the bat. We could follow the park road around to the first trail, roughly 1.5 kilometers in total, or shave off more than 1k by bushwhacking through a stretch of tall grass.
Wanting to make up time, we opted for the latter, and quickly set off through the brush. The first 100 meters were uneventful, and then we noticed the ground getting rather muddy. And then squishy. And then downright swampy.
Within a quarter kilometer, we were up to our thighs in dense New Jersey wetlands, falling all over ourselves as we made our way to the trail.
Generally I hate this kind of terrain, worrying myself silly over snakes and snappers and other such swamp things. But for some reason, that night it made me laugh. For a brief moment I became my usual chatty self, giggling as we picked our way through the mud. By the time we reached the other side, my spirits were buoyed.
I traipsed along behind the boys from checkpoint to checkpoint, looking on as they made navigational decisions, quietly taking in the surroundings. I was conscious of the loud noises in the dark around us and remembered the bear warning we’d received during the pre-race meeting, but strangely wasn’t fearful or anxious.
Progress, I guess.
Just after sunrise, we found ourselves atop an exposed rock ridge line, and looked on in awe at the lake below us. It was the first of several incredible vistas of the day, and one of the highlights of my racing career to this point.
There was a 9:00 AM cut-off to get to the paddle TA. We thought we’d left ourselves a comfortable window, but after searching unsuccessfully for a checkpoint along a different ridge top, we found ourselves with just over ten minutes to descend more than a kilometer of steep, technical terrain.
Brent, knowing that I generally pick my way carefully through rocky descents, turned to me with a renewed sense of urgency.
“Abs, if we’re going to make this cut-off, you’re going to have to run this trail like you’ve never run before.”
I knew he was nervous about making such a statement, and in past races, I probably would have reacted negatively. But for whatever reason, this time I took to the challenge.
I set off down the trail with calculated abandon. I’ve always been amazed by how good trail runners are able to let themselves go on stretches like this – it takes intense mental concentration combined with the ability to trust your feet and know that your body will follow.
It’s not a skill that comes easily to me, but for the first time I was able to approach that careful mind-body balance. I felt like I was flying.
We made it to the bottom of the hill with three minutes to spare.
I raced over to Denise – NYARA head honcho – and slapped the table in front of her.
“I’ve never run like that in my entire life! What a rush!”
Denise and I have raced together on several occasions at this point, and she knows well my disdain for technical descents. She laughed as we grabbed our paddle gear and headed for the boats.
The next two sections – a short paddle leg followed by another long trek – passed with relatively little fanfare. The boats were slow, heavy sit-on-top kayaks, and we made the decision early on that we’d bypass all the optional points on the water in favor of saving time for the second half of the day.
I realized when we got off the water that I’d only eaten 600 calories during the first eight hours of the race. Probably the product of starting the race after a full day of eating, but still not good, and likely the cause of some of the early fatigue.
I downed a bagel as we headed back out on foot, sick of the selection of Untamed leftovers I had in my pack.
The second trek had us rock climbing up a steep cliff before traversing several exposed ridge lines and bushwhacking through dense thicket back down to our bikes. My legs were ripped to shreds by the time we reached the road, and as much as I’d struggled through the first mountain bike section, I couldn’t wait to get back in the saddle.
Mountain Bike #2
The second-to-last leg of the day took us through a section of new trails, groomed specifically for mountain bikers. They were steep and technical, with tight turns and rocky obstacles.
I was able to settle into a comfortable rhythm early on, and we found the first several checkpoints with ease.
Then came the logjam – and for a brief stretch, everything fell apart.
We reached the top of a steep ascent at the same time as several other teams, and the trails quickly became clogged with bikes.
I’m a relatively timid mountain biker under the best of circumstances. With other riders on my tail and my teammates pushing the pace to put some distance between us and everyone else, I quickly faltered.
The first fall came along a narrow rocky stretch. I nicked a big boulder with my front tire and went flying, my back nailing a sharp corner of the stone. The blow briefly knocked the wind out of me and at first I thought I’d broken a rib, but after a minute or two, I stood up and shook it off.
I climbed back on and continued down the trail, working hard not to let slip-up shake my confidence.
The second fall was about a half a kilometer later. There was a steep, slick stone descent that leveled off abruptly as the hard-packed trail turned sharply. I thought I’d be able to clear it, but as my tire reached the turn, it caught on the lip of the rock and I soared into a pile of brush.
This time, both Bruce and I laughed as I picked myself up.
“How much air is in your tires?” Bruce asked, coming over to check out my bike.
“I always keep it up around 60.”
He pressed on the wheel and shook his head.
“This is fine when you’re riding on roads, but on the trails you want a softer tire, especially because you’re so light. No wonder you’re bouncing out of your seat!”
Live and learn.
We let some of the pressure out and continued on, and miraculously I managed to find a new rhythm through the remainder of the section.
We nabbed a few more checkpoints and pedaled into the final TA at 4:19 PM.
With 41 minutes to go, we dropped our bike gear and pulled on our PFD’s. One of the memory-o points called for a swim across the lake to a small island. I had been looking forward to this all day.
We nabbed the point easily and briefly contemplated attempting another before realizing that it would have no bearing on the final standings.
It was 4:42 PM. We’d had enough. With eighteen minutes to spare, we called it a day.
In the end, we earned 45 points, good enough for a third place finish behind the two NYARA teams, against some tough competition.
It was a day filled with great challenges, rough patches, and a new sense of awareness of what my body can do.
It was the hardest race I’ve ever done – and as has been the case all season, it left me hankering for more…