Well, I was all set to write a fun “the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly” race report about this weekend’s Yough Extreme, but apparently Laurie and I have been spending far too much time together, because yesterday afternoon when I opened up my google reader, I found her race report: The Good, the Bad, the Yough Extreme. She pretty well captures the trials and tribulations of Saturday’s race (right down to the moonbounce-of-a-boat that we had to paddle across a pancake-flat lake… well, maybe more like waffle-flat. There was the occasional light breeze that lazed across the water, I guess).
So instead, a down and dirty report of our ten-hour adventure in the ever-exciting Ohiopyle State Park.
For the 2011 Yough, Brent and I were joining forces with GOALS teammate Chris and free-agent extraordinaire Melissa. Chris and Melissa have raced and trained together a fair bit, and Chris, Brent, and I have teamed up on several occasions, so we had a good sense that we’d all be compatible for a joint effort.
Chris and Brent and I raced together for the first time at the Yough in 2008. It was my third adventure race ever and my first longer than a sprint. I looked around at the mountains of Ohiopyle in doe-eyed wonderment – before tripping on a rock and quickly learning that I should keep my sights trained on the technical trails. The early fall left me with a cranked knee and a bruised sternum, but I pulled myself together and followed my teammates around in the woods for a third place finish.
After taking 2009 off from American Adventure Sports events, the three of us teamed up again for last year’s Yough, a disaster of a race that ended early when my lungs abandoned me after a particularly harsh couple hours on the rushing Middle Youghiogheny River.
I learned subsequently that in addition to needing an updated regimen to contend with more-severe-than-I-realized asthma, I had also been racing with a systemic infection and a broken and fractured tailbone. A little bit of consolation, but really, only a little.
So, this weekend, I was ready for redemption.
Race registration began at 7 pm on Friday night, and Melissa and Chris generously agreed to get us signed in and pick up our maps so that Brent and I could head straight to our digs for the night, allowing us an extra couple hours of time to work. We left Philly at 3:30 PM and took productivity to a new level on the four-hour ride out: I drove and Brent read aloud my chapter and his paper so that we could dissect paragraph organization and comma construction.
By the time we arrived to the cabin in southwestern PA, we had a grammar contact high.
We assumed that we’d take a quick peek at the ever-familiar maps (historically the American Adventure Sport courses have stayed pretty much the same year-to-year, and Brent has participated in at least half a dozen of their races over the past few years), and then turn in early for a full night of sleep.
Then I got a text from Laurie, asking about the paddle leg being shortened…
…followed quickly by the arrival of Chris and Melissa, who came from registration armed with news of a last-minute course change.
That’s right – for the second time in as many races, high water levels had forced designers to re-route the race just hours before the scheduled start (we would come to learn the next evening that for the Yough, they actually didn’t even have the new course finalized until after we’d set off on the first leg).
And, for the second time, these changes resulted, for us, in a better race experience than we’d anticipated going in.
The 2011 Yough Extreme would begin as it usually does, with a 5k sprint through the woods to gather our checkpoint passport for the day. From there, though, instead of the quad-groaning ride up and over technical Sugarloaf Mountain trails, we would be hitting the towpath for a fast 11-mile ride on the flat, hard-packed gravel trail running alongside the river. We’d be paddling in a flat reservoir, instead of on the rushing Middle Yough, and then we’d ascend on bike up the infamous Firetower Road, a steep, rocky climb leading to the summit of the mountain. From there, we’d drop our bikes and head out on foot for a long orienteering loop, before flying down the Sugarloaf trails to the finish.
It was just different enough to feel fresh, without totally overhauling our plans for some pre-race shut-eye.
The race began at 8:00 AM Saturday, and just like last year, I struggled a bit to find a rhythm on the opening sprint, lagging behind my teammates a few meters as I willed my lungs to stay in control of themselves. For the second half of the prologue, I grabbed the elastic line hanging out of Chris’ pack and focused on the rocky trail as my teammate towed me the final mile.
“How’re you feeling?” Brent asked as we came into transition to load up our gear before heading out for the remainder of the day (unlike in previous Yough’s, this year we wouldn’t see the main TA again until the end of the race).
“I’ve been better,” I told him. “But I’ve also been worse.”
I caught my breath quickly, laced up my bike shoes, and got ready to shove off.
“How about you?” I asked him.
“I’ve got nothing,” he replied.
Brent’s been battling a combination of sickness and schoolwork for the better part of the month, and his training has been next-to nonexistent. My husband has one of the deepest reserves of adrenaline of anyone I’ve ever met, not to mention a (generally productive) competitive streak a mile long, so I wasn’t worried about how he’d fare over the course of the day, but I could tell he was a bit frustrated with his body in these opening minutes.
We beelined out of the parking lot and formed a pace line with a couple other teams. I didn’t lead at all, but I felt strong throughout the 11-mile push, and ready to get on the water for my first paddling adventure since last September.
We jumped off our bikes and climbed the steep hill up and over the dam. I downed a quick clif bar, my first fuel of the day, and pulled on my PFD.
With the river cresting 15 feet higher than normal levels, race organizers moved the boat section to a large lake in Confluence, Pennsylvania. This meant that we’d be paddling roughly 9 miles on that waffle-flat water, in small whitewater rafts (or duckies) that bear a striking resemblance to bumper boats.
The sun was high and the temperatures were climbing out of their early morning 40’s, but the reservoir was filled with snow melt and spring rains and as I tried to get into the duckie and push off from the shore, I found myself waist-deep in the cold water.
The paddle was long. And painful. And not all that much fun. Not only was it my first time on the water since September; it was also my first time ever pulling with a feathered blade. Rusty doesn’t begin to describe how I was feeling.
It took more than two hours (according to the race director, a good time, but who knows?), and by the time we pulled back onto dry land, I could barely stand up, let alone attempt to drag the boat back up to the steep dam. Though it didn’t come close to last year’s attack, the cold definitely did a number on my lungs, and it took me a solid half hour of riding up the rocky fire trail to the top of Sugarloaf before I began to warm up and recover.
The ascent was long and steep, but not too terrible. I plodded up slowly but steadily, and by the time we crested the top, my spirits were high and my legs were re-oxygenated.
Plus, after half a day on bike and boat, it was finally time to run! Following our success on the o-course at the Rev3 two weeks ago, I couldn’t wait for some legitimate bushwhacking. I have no idea when or how it happened, but sometime over the off-season, I became both comfortable and competent on off-trail technical terrain. So much fun to see concrete progress!
And so, with a quick change of shoes, I pulled out my bag of pita chips – fast becoming an o-course tradition – and we took off into the woods.
There were four checkpoints, all optional, spread over fifteen miles of hilly terrain. The first two were relatively close together. After a short stretch of trail, we were bushwhacking our way through the brush right down to CP 1.
From there, El Navigator led us along a fun section of rolling trails – more running than not – to a narrow creek. The point, we’d been told at the TA, would be in the creekbed, roughly 200 meters downstream.
Brent stayed on one bank as Chris and Melissa and I ventured to the other, rock-hopping through the water as we searched for the elusive orange flag. We walked for four or five minutes before deciding that we must have gone too far. Melissa and I joined Brent on the far side as Chris ran back through the creek.
Ultimately, Chris spotted the point 30 meters up from the water, either a misspoken clue or a bad plot getting the better of us. From there, our plan was to scramble to the top of a ridgeline and find the trail that would take us toward CP 4. Unfortunately, a miscommunication delayed our regrouping by several minutes. That pesky checkpoint probably cost us about half an hour in time and a second place finish, but what can you do?
Back on track, we climbed up the hill, found our trail, and ran the several kilometers to #4 with little fanfare. Once again, we had the point plotted slightly off from where it ended up being, but it was only a couple minutes before we were back to making forward progress.
Now it was decision time.
There was only one point left, in a far off corner about 8-9 kilometers from where we’d dropped our bikes at the top of Sugarloaf. It was 3:45 PM. We estimated that we needed to make it back to the TA by 5:15 in order to get down the mountain before the 6:00 PM finish time. We thought at least a few of those kilometers would involve substantial bushwhacking, and the rest would be primarily uphill. All this, plus some dips in energy spread among us, left our team questioning whether we could successfully make the cutoff.
We hemmed and hawed for a few minutes before ultimately deciding to go for it.
We took off at a near-sprint in search of the creek that would lead us to the trail that we lead us to the gate where we’d find the point. We reached the first intersection in good time, and then magic happened.
Brent or Chris – I can’t remember which – veered slightly off to the right, and noticed a well-trodden trail paralleling the creekbed. The trail was flat and relatively smooth, totally runable. We eagerly followed it, keeping our sights on the creek to make sure we didn’t venture too far. The trail crossed a road and then disappeared for a 100 meters or so, but with just a little bit of strategic bushwhacking we were back on track.
It was in the midst of that little bit of bushwhacking that I earned my newest adventure racing nickname.
I never would have guessed this about myself, but it seems that even the most thorn-wary among us can get so focused on moving fast that they don’t notice the brambles scraping against their face.
I was semi-conscious of the pricks as we ran, but it wasn’t until after the finish that Brent turned to me and asked what happened to my cheek.
“Oh,” I said, reflexively touching my hand to my face, “that would be checkpoint three.”
“Hm,” Brent grunted, clearly impressed. “I’m married to Scarface.”
Unfortunately (or fortunately), the scratches had nearly disappeared by this morning, so I leave you with a lovely shot of Al Pacino’s mug instead.
But I digress…
Ultimately, our magical trail delivered us right to the path that would lead us to the gate. Brent and I ran on ahead just a bit, buoyed by how quickly we were moving, and punched the final point with gusto.
From there, it was just a 2k uphill climb on road and 1k jog of trail back to the bikes before the half hour rocky descent to the finish.
Chris and Melissa, the long-legged among us, walked a few meters ahead, but Brent and I kept up a solid pace as we made our way back to the Sugarloaf Summit.
“We should all eat something for the final push,” Brent called out, and I smiled broadly, remembering the cinnamon raisin mini-bagels I’d stuck in Brent’s pack the night before.
Taking a cue from Brian at the Rev3, we each decided to store some real food in the outer pockets of the other’s pack, so that he could grab from mine and I could grab from his.
Brent took sunchips from me and I reached for my bagels from him, but they were nowhere to be found.
“What happened to them?” I asked in mock hysteria.
“They must have fallen out.”
“And my pretzels, too?” referring to the carefully parceled sandwich bag of peanut butter filled pretzels I’d placed in a pocket.
“I think they’re gone, too.”
And so it was that I finished a ten-hour race on roughly 1200 calories.
We returned to our bikes at 5:11 PM and took off for the technical trail. The first part of the return trip rolled steadily along the ridgeline before it dropped steeply into the valley. It was wet and sloppy, proof that you can’t make it through an adventure race without a little bit of mud gunking up your chain ring.
We rode most of it, walked short stretches, and passed several teams struggling to get down. When I think of that mountain, I generally recall only the muscle memory of clawing my way up; I was reminded during that final push that it’s a pretty burly ride going down, too.
After the final dip, we pedaled into the parking lot TA, dropped our bikes, and ran for the last punch, clocking in at 5:53 PM, seven minutes shy of the cut-off and good for a third place finish among coed teams.
We hung around for a little while afterward, chatting with Laurie and Bill and some other friends and watching the awards ceremony, before saying our goodbyes and heading to the showers.
“I’m going to feel that one tomorrow,” I said to Brent as we made our way back to the car to begin the trip home.
“Yeah,” he agreed, too tired and hungry for a more lengthy response.
“I’m going to be a lot more sore than after the Rev,” I predicted. “And no amount of chicken is going to change that.”
“Contrary to popular belief,” Brent responded, “meat doesn’t cure everything.”
Now you tell me…