36 hours after we returned from Kentucky, I boarded a plane for Denver and a four-day conference on oral history.
I just left a panel on people’s accounts of encounters with wild animals, and of course, as I was listening, I was remembering the crocodiles in Costa Rica, the bears in Massachusetts, the bobcat on Skyline Drive, and the, um, bunnies and turtles and dogs we encountered last week in Kentucky.
(Come on, you’ve gotta give me credit for that fantastic segue.)
When Brent and I left last Wednesday afternoon for the long drive to Cumberland Falls State Park, we weren’t sure what to expect from the 2011 USARA National Championships. With Bruce and the rest of the members of the GOALS network unable to race, we ended up joining forces with a Tennessee local looking for a team. Sean’s claim to fame had come in a multi-day Virginia race several years ago, when he had a head-on collision with a deer, suffered a serious concussion, and still managed to complete the event – and come in third place, right behind GOALS ARA, to boot.
Still, while Sean seemed like a solid guy with a great race resume, the lack of familiarity always brings with it questions of dynamics and compatibility.
What’s more, I had been sick in the two weeks leading up to the race, and on my final long ride had experienced such bad cramping that moving 8 mph on a flat towpath proved nearly impossible.
And then there was Brent, who’s raced in four previous USARA Nationals races, with frustrating experiences almost every step of the way.
Who knew what Kentucky would hold?
We met Sean on Thursday afternoon and quickly began preparing bikes and sorting gear. Because map distribution was held until race morning, we were asleep by 10:30 with dreams of course formats dancing in our heads.
At this point, I’ve done enough racing to know where I struggle and where I excel, and I’ve developed a bit of a rulebook to predict whether or not I’ll have a good day.
(1) I love races that start in the boats.
(2) Sprint openers and I don’t get along. Especially if they’re uphill. Especially when they lead to bike sections. More often than not, that combination ultimately leads to tears.
(3) Straight-forward courses that privilege speed and strength tend not to work as well for our team. Give us strategy, route choice, and technical navigation any day.
We’d learned enough at the pre-race meeting to know that the course would offer a fair bit of navigation (a hallmark of race director Stephanie Ross and Flying Squirrel Adventure), would include at least four foot sections, and would, we thought, begin on the water.
So when I saw the maps at 6:00 AM Friday and discovered that not only would we be beginning with a 2k uphill run, but that we’d quickly transition onto bikes for several miles of steep, rolling terrain, I felt a modicum of defeat.
“Well,” I thought, “there goes any hope of having a good first Nationals.”
But then I stopped and thought back on this past season, a season filled with sprint openers and long climbs, a season of canceled paddles and long slogs on bike, a season of feeling strong and competent on technical terrain, a season where, with only one exception, I felt like a productive and contributing member to my team.
And as I ran to the bathroom to take off my hiking pants and pull on my bike shorts, the moment of defeat faded. I was ready to race.
The course was a point-to-point format, so at 7:00 AM we boarded a school bus for the hour-long ride to the railroad depot that would serve as the start of the event.
When the cannon sounded, Brent, Sean, and I cut the trail and beelined straight up the short hill to the rail bridge above, jumping out in front for the first moments of the race.
Soon enough, of course, the strongest and fastest teams breezed by, and we ran and hiked steadily up the 2-kilometer climb to our awaiting passports and bikes. Halfway through, as I stared at Brent’s back 20 feet ahead and concentrated on slow and controlled breathing, Sean turned to me with a worried glance.
“I thought you guys start slow,” he said. “Is this slow for Brent?”
I parroted what Brent and Bruce have said to me many times: separators suck for everyone. It’s just gutting your way through them until you can slow down and settle into your own race. Don’t worry – Brent won’t be pushing this pace for the next thirty hours.
Before long, we reached the top of the climb, nabbed our passport, and jumped on our bikes en route to the first few checkpoints. Though for the early miles I found myself struggling to find a rhythm, before long we were flying down dirt roads and enjoying the lush landscape of southeastern Kentucky.
And then, we heard a groan.
Sean had popped his back wheel over a bump and his chain had snapped in two. We were stuck.
We pulled over to the side of the road and the boys got to work. As they labored to tease out one of the pins and reconnect the link, teams streamed by us.
“Are you okay?” they’d call as they flew down the hill.
One team paused, but when they learned that we needed a new gold link, they continued on their way, not wanting to part with with their lone spare.
Another group stopped to help us search for our missing piece before we convinced them to keep going. “It’s not worth ruining your race,” we said, grateful for their generosity.
Finally 20 minutes or more after we stopped, Brent and Sean finagled a fix. We shoved off gingerly, praying to the adventure racing gods that the new link would hold.
“We were doing really well,” Brent said wistfully as we rolled along.
“It’s early yet,” Sean replied easily.
We fell into a steady rhythm through the first couple checkpoints, and when we pulled into the first TA, we tore off our helmets, laced up our trail shoes, and took off for the woods, seeking to make up time in the first of three short orienteering sections.
It was Brent’s first stab at real navigation since the spring, and once he oriented to the steep terrain and sharp contours, he led us smoothly from point to point. We ran, trekked, and clawed our way up and down the sharp hills and through the dense vegetation.
When we returned to the bikes, we avoided the “chuck wagon,” selling food and drinks for racers and spectators, and focused on a swift and smooth transition. The next section of the race included the King of the Mountain Time Trial – a 5+ kilometer winding climb – and though we had no intention of killing ourselves, we wanted to get moving so we could reach the top as quickly as possible.
We rode the 10 kilometers to the start and then dropped to our smallest rings. It was time to spin.
We settled into the long, steady ascent and the kilometers clicked by. At first, the three of us rode together well, but soon enough, Brent and I realized that Sean was falling off a bit. An accomplished adventure racer, in recent years Sean has spent more time focused on triathlons over AR, and with little in the way of mountain bike and trail training, during the long climb he was beginning to struggle.
We slowed down considerably as teams pedaled by en route to the scenic overlook at the top.
For the second time that day, we’d hit a significant snag. It could have presented a major roadblock, particularly since the three of us had never raced together as a unit and we were all unsure how the others would respond to the shifting dynamics.
Instead, it became a turning point in the race, the moment when we figured out how to highlight each other’s strengths, support each other’s weaknesses, and work together as a team to claw our way back into contention.
For the final stretch of the climb, Sean clipped in and Brent, who’d never towed on the bike before, began to pull as I jumped in front to lead our slow pace line. We reached the top and enjoyed the rolling ridgeline ride as we picked up speed en route to CP #5
Me running up to get checkpoint 5. This was about the time that I realized I was maybe having the best race of my life.
And at least for a few minutes, it seemed like things might begin to turn our way.
It was at that moment that we were presented with our first major route choice. We could either take a trail a couple kilometers down to the road that would lead to the boat put-in, or we could stick to the ridgeline and ride our current road around until the two connected, several kilometers away.
As Untamed New England race director Grant Killian once wrote, GOALS ARA likes to take risks, and when they pay off, they’re a team to watch out for.
Of course, sometimes they don’t pay off, and you find yourself on an adventure through the woods along a trail that no longer exists.
For the next three hours, we pushed, pulled, dragged, and carried our bikes down to the road. We went through creeks, around cliffs, and over trees. We clawed our way through thorns and holly bushes, lugged our bikes up steep hillsides, ducked under fallen limbs and around impressive boulders.
We were too committed to turn back, but we had no idea how far it would take going forward. So we just went. And went. And went.
Filling up in the creek along the way
Eventually, we came upon a house, but not wanting to risk upsetting a gun-toting Kentucky homeowner by trespassing on his private land, we ducked back into the creek bed and inched our way through the thick vegetation out to the road.
Finally, Sweet relief.
We began to ride toward the TA with the three other teams with whom we’d been bushwhacking, when we discovered that Brent had a flat tire.
Demoralized doesn’t quite begin to cover it.
It was a team effort to swap out the punctured tube and inflate the new one, and before long we were back on the flat road, pushing the pace to the river. 45 minutes later, we turned the final corner and plowed into the TA.
“Give it to us straight,” I said to the wonderful volunteers manning the boats. “We’re in last place right now, aren’t we?”
To be continued…