Twelve teams lined up at the start of the 2011 GOALS Cradle of Liberty this weekend. Of those, somewhere around five finished officially.
We almost weren’t one of them.
Our team had a bit of a shakeup early on in the week, when Brent, who’s been sick on-and-off for the past month, decided that he should spend the weekend trying to get healthy instead of running around in the woods. A wise move, with Costa Rica just six weeks away (holy cow!), and luckily, Chris was able to step in at the last minute to join me and Bruce for the event.
The race began on Saturday morning with an hour-long bus ride from Promised Land State Park in northeastern Pennsylvania into the Delaware Water Gap. We would have 24 hours to find our way back to Promised Land for the finish.
The map that GOALS posted online for virtual spectators after the race began
At 9:30 AM sharp, we set off in canoes for a 22-mile paddle down the Delaware River. Teams spread out quickly, with NYARA, Remington Mountain Khaki, and us jumping out in front. We lost a bit of ground when we got stuck in a shallow patch of water, but the three teams converged on the shore about an hour later, in search of checkpoint one.
We spent close to half an hour searching for the first CP, by which point almost every team had pulled up on the bank. Finally, NYARA decided to abandon the effort (nearly every checkpoint in this race was optional) and continue on. As we followed suit, we noticed them pausing downshore, about 250 meters to the west. We followed their line and immediately saw what had caused the stop – the flag was hanging prominently off a tree, 20 meters up.
I jumped out of the boat to punch as Bruce and Chris sorted maps and gear, and a few minutes later, we were off for the next point.
Checkpoint 2, a few kilometers further south, was listed as a “navigation challenge.” Though we were given no further details, I had a hunch of what would be waiting for us. Steve, the course designer for the Cradle, had raced alongside us at last year’s Untamed New England, which included a section that had each team member completing a short solo orienteering leg. I knew Steve had enjoyed that part, and suspected that he had recreated it for the Cradle.
Sure enough, when we pulled onto the shore awhile later, we were handed a map with four points drawn on. We didn’t realize at the time that (a) all of the points were optional, and (b) each was only worth ten points, so we quickly looked at the course, and Chris, the fastest runner among us, took off for the furthest point.
This would prove to be a poor strategy. While Chris was out, Bruce and I took stock of the rest of the race, and decided that we should have skipped this section entirely in favor of the higher-value checkpoints later on.
Chris arrived back at the boat launch an hour later, heaving with exhaustion from the uphill sprint and expecting a break as Bruce and I ran for our points. Instead, he found two antsy teammates ready to dive back into the boat for the next point.
An hour later, we hit the shore for the final time, handed over our paddle gear to a race volunteer, and set off on foot.
We had a quarter-kilometer hike on the stone embankment that runs alongside Interstate 84 (it was as treacherous as it sounds) before turning up into the hills. Then it was up a 1300-foot vertical off-trail climb to the top of a ridgeline to kick off the long trek to our bikes.
Our original plan was to nab all nine CP’s in that section, which would have made for roughly 60 kilometers on foot. Ultimately, though, we elected to skip two of points, resulting in a mere 50-kilometers. I’m not sure it was possible to complete the foot section in fewer than 40 kilometers, even for teams who only went for mandatory checkpoints.
Team NYARA had gotten ahead of us on the orienteering challenge. Our hope was to catch them by the time they reached checkpoint 5, so that we could travel to CP 6 together – checkpoint 6, we’d been told, would be somewhere along a 2-mile stretch on the side of a mountain, due directly east between CP 5 and CP 7. We figured that with six sets of eyes (five of which have at least 50 years of adventure racing experience among them), we’d stand a good chance of spotting the flag.
We caught up with the NYARA crew a few kilometers after the climb, and since they were amenable to our plan, we continued on as a unit. We arrived at 5 with little fanfare, calibrated compasses, and fanned out.
It was a long, slow, and ultimately fruitless slog. We knew that we were on the right line, especially since, after more than an hour of careful trudging through the brush, we scaled a steep rocky cliff to find ourselves at exactly the trail intersection where CP 7 was plotted, but we never found the point. We learned at the end of the race that, in fact, none of the teams found CP 6.
That side-hilling took a lot out of all of us, and Chris’ feet were particularly beaten up. We paused once so that he could tape them up, and we ended up walking more than running for the duration of the trek, but he was a real rockstar, pushing through some pretty intense pain.
This season I have found myself able to mentally break down races into sections, rather than thinking of them as one long entity. It’s a welcomed shift from last year, as it’s far less overwhelming to wrap your head around a four-hour paddle or a five-hour bike than a twelve- or 24-hour race. But there we were, in the middle of a 10+ hour trek, and after CP 7, there were no distinguishable section breaks
Luckily, I had a secret up my sleeve – or, rather, in my pack.
Thanks to facebook, I knew that Bruce’s 46th birthday was on Sunday. So, after he left for Promised Land on Friday afternoon, I called his wife to ask her what about some of his favorite foods. I stocked up on oatmeal raisin cookies and sour gummy worms, and hid them in a protected pocket of my race pack.
All I had to do, then, was wait for midnight.
As soon as Sunday arrived, I pulled out the sweets, and Rodney, Amy, and Pete from NYARA joined me and Chris in a rousing round of Happy Birthday out on the trails.
“You carried all this the whole way?” asked Bruce, whose commitment to traveling light knows no bounds. “No wonder your pack was so heavy.”
Shortly after the celebration, the NYARA gang went on ahead as we paused for a little bit of foot relief. There were two more CP’s left on this section, worth a combined 150 points. We knew that we’d get #12, the 50-pointer, and thought seriously about pushing on for #13 before heading to the bike transition. Those 100 points were equal to most of the later bike points combined, so strategically it would have made perfect sense to spend the extra time on it. But it would add an addition 8-9 kilometers of trekking, and it was clear that the blisters wouldn’t cooperate.
Instead, we hit CP 12 – where we spotted what can only be described as a 50-pound needle-less albino porcupine (It looked like a giant white guinea pig… any thoughts on what else it might have been?) – and then trudged down the road the final 8-k to where we’d dropped off our bikes the night before.
When we arrived at the transition, it was 3:00 in the morning. It was raining and cold, and there was serious talk of ending our race there. Chris’ feet were rubbed raw, and his nerves were shot. The power of suggestion had me contemplating a DNF as well, but thankfully, Bruce stepped in and pushed us all to round out the day with a 27-mile road ride (which ended up being closer to 40 miles) back to the finish. “We don’t have to get any points,” he said. “But let’s finish officially.”
The trip back to Promised Land was uneventful. We spun for awhile, up and down the rolling hills, and paused occasionally for food or to look at the maps. We decided to pick up checkpoint 15 on the way, catching up to NYARA briefly in the process before they took off for more CPs. By the second half of the ride, we began to push a bit harder.
The last few miles, I was riding on fumes, thoroughly disgusted by the thought of anymore race food. The boys convinced me to veer off for one more CP, just a couple kilometers from the finish (it was a harder sell than you might think), and then we cruised into the park.
We crossed the finish line at 8:37 AM with 450 points, good for second place overall. A few other teams straggled in over the next hour, and NYARA came flying through with three minutes to spare for a well-earned win. Several teams ended up getting picked up at the bike transition, and a number of others rode back to Promised Land, finishing an hour or two after the official race clock stopped.
All in all, a grueling event that left its mark in the form of gnarly blisters and creaky joints. Still, we had a great night in the woods hanging out with the NYARA gang, and got in some solid training for Costa Rica.
Next up, a couple days in recovery mode. And then, it’s back to the trails, to get ready for NYARA’s Longest Day at the beginning of June!