Have Dental Floss, Will Travel

Mapping the world, one waxy strand at a time…

USARA National Championships 2011, Part 2: Operation Stealth

Yesterday I got called out not once but twice for not putting up Part II of the race report.  Sorry Julie and Sean!

Two weeks of traveling ended early Sunday morning and I’ve been playing catch up ever since.  But enough with the excuses.

So!  Where was I?

Ah yes, we’d just finished our three-hour bikewhack, changed Brent’s tire, and beelined for the boat put-in.

“Give it to us straight,” I said to the wonderful volunteers manning the boats.  ”We’re in last place right now, aren’t we?”

“Last place?” she replied as we put together our paddles and selected our canoe.  “No, you’re in third!  See, one, two three,” she said, pointing to each of us in quick succession.

We were as confused by that response then as you may be reading it now.

“You’re somewhere in the middle of the pack,” said another volunteer coming up behind her.

Okay, we thought, middle of the pack.  Maybe we can work with that.  With three additional orienteering sections, two paddles, and two more bike rides, we still had a lot of room to make up ground.

We pushed off from shore and began to make our way down river, choosing lines carefully through the pockets of swift rapids.

Not a picture of us - substitute Team SOG, the eventual national champions, for me, Sean, and Brent (note that Brian, middle, is actually wearing a GOALS hat!)

With Brent at the stern and Sean powering up front, we were moving smoothly over the rocks and bumps.

And then…

“Left!  Left!”

“Which left?”  Go left or rock left??”

Before Sean had a chance to respond, the front of our boat nicked a buried obstacle, and we ricocheted sideways into an oncoming stretch of white water.

“Paddle paddle paddle!!” Brent yelled.

The boat bounced right, then left, then spun around so that we were facing the rocks we’d just passed over.

“Hang on!”

And with that, Brent whipped our boat around, narrowly avoiding an impressive rock wall and catapulting us off another before we were facing downstream again, gliding smoothly through still water.

I wish I had a video of his masterful James Bond-esque maneuverings, because words can’t do it justice.

We hooted and hollered as we fell back into our paddling rhythm, and several kilometers later, we found ourselves pulling onto the shore for the next orienteering loop just as another team was shoving off.

“What place are you guys in?” we asked them curiously.

“We’re pretty sure eighth.”

Eighth?  Interesting… Maybe we’re not doing quite as badly as we initially thought.

With darkness falling, we transitioned to foot, pulled out some food (Elio’s pizza!), and made our way up the road toward our entry for the first point.

Now, it was time for stealth.

When we were first emailing with Sean, our Knoxville friend suggested that we come up with some sort of code word to alert each other when we’d found the checkpoint without tipping off any teams that might be in the same general vicinity.

At first, Sean suggested “skittles” – as in “Abby, can you bring me some skittles over here?”

This made me laugh out loud.

Later, we decided that “Do you have the map?” was a little bit less conspicuous.  But the sentiment was the same –  with several spots that we wanted to reclaim in the ranking, we needed to be as quiet and strategic as we could in navigating our way through the dense terrain.

Brent led us to the first point smoothly and then we headed to the second, opting for off-trail travel over the longer road route.  We got two, three, and four with ease, losing one or two teams that had been following the same route and running back to the boats for our second stint on the water.

Knowing we’d be paddling after dark and not wanting to risk serious chill, I pulled on my rain pants and rain jacket and hopped back in the middle of the canoe.  We pushed off and quickly saw a team ahead of us flip over in the oncoming rapids.

It was tough to see the line in the dark, and not wanting to suffer the same fate, we opted to portage the boat along the narrow bank next to the rapids.  Twenty meters downstream, we got back on the water, thinking we’d be good to go.

Ten minutes later, we hit another small patch of whitewater.  We got through the first rapid, and then the second.  It looked like we were golden.

And then we tapped a large rock.  Not hard, really no more than a small nudge.

But it was just enough.

We all clawed helplessly as our boat tipped and began to take water.  We pulled and pulled to right ourselves, but we were no match for the filling canoe.  Before I knew it, we were in the water, with helmets floating one way, paddles floating another, and our gear – and ourselves – saturated to the core.

Also not us (and not in the dark), but you get the idea

We gathered our stuff, righted the boat, and took stock of the damage as we pushed on down river, not wanting to stop for too long and risk getting cold.

Amazingly, we didn’t lose anything (except most of my race food that was left), and even better, by paddling hard for the next couple hours, I managed to stave off the chill (and the asthma flare-up that would inevitably come with it).

Brent paid careful attention to the bends of the river and we turned our headlamps off as we nabbed the two remaining checkpoints with ease, not wanting to give away our position to the remaining teams on the water.

When we pulled into the next TA, we knew that we’d passed a team or two on the second paddle leg, and we were beginning to get a sense of our position.  A volunteer told us that 11 or 12 teams had gotten on their bikes before us, though we weren’t sure whether all of them had cleared the course to that point.

The entire course was ROGAINE format, meaning that every CP was optional, and the top teams would be those who found the greatest number of flags in the shortest amount of time.

We took a few extra minutes at that TA to reshuffle gear, change into dry shirts, and fix our last flat tire – this time on my bike.  I was already running low on calories and beginning to lose my appetite for race food, but my energy was buoyed by a couple of Tastykake chocolate cupcakes and I was ready to ride.

Knowing that we’d be beginning with a steep hill, I wasn’t so worried about warmth at the outset of the next section, but I opted to leave my rain jacket on over my dry shirt to combat the sharp winds on the long descents that always followed the climbs.

Sean clipped back on tow and we took off, energized by the possibility of a top-ten finish.

This next bike section included a combination of dirt roads and trails.  Navigating in the dark, Brent called out rough distance estimates and I logged the measurements on my bike computer.  We worked as a team and we got our system down to a science.  We’d ride to the entry point and then fan out in the woods to search for the point.  I’d run up to the point and the guys would ready the bikes and figure out what was coming next.

Flags were hung under rock ledges, atop natural benches, and up steep re-entrants, and Brent’s map-work was spot on.  We were focused and determined in a way I’ve rarely experienced in races – and GOALS is a pretty focused team.

As we pulled away from the final CP en route to the next transition, Brent asked, “so what did the bench look like?  Was the area cool?”

“You know,” I responded, “I have no idea.  I was so intent on punching the passport and getting out of there that I forgot to look around!”

We pedaled onward to the final short orienteering leg, dropped our bikes, and set off into the woods again.  This time we’d be descending deep into a valley for a loop around Natural Arch Park.

We ambled down the stairs and headed left, opting for a clockwise rotation.  We saw several headlights through the brush and made sure to keep watch for frantic excitement – a sure sign that a flag had been spotted.  We’d had a number of instances already in the race where our hard work had paid off for teams immediately behind us, and if the opportunity arose to let another team do the work, we were happy to take advantage of it.

We knocked out the first two points quickly, but as we began the ascent back up toward the TA for the final CP, I turned around to a familiar sight.

Brent had been working on a clif bar for the past several minutes, and it wasn’t agreeing with him.  I looked back at the trail to find him bent over in dry heaves.

There were a few expletives thrown out between bouts as he recalled the end of our race in Costa Rica, and we slowed a bit as he steadied his stomach.

“What’s with this?” he wondered aloud as we made our way toward the flag.  “Until this summer I’d never had any stomach issues, and now I can’t seem to avoid them.”

We set him up with some gentler food and kept moving toward our bikes, grabbing the point on the way and gearing up for the final ride.  The volunteers had sandwiches waiting for us upon our return, and we each grabbed one eagerly, ready for some real food after 20 hours of race fuel.

A few bites in, though, Brent was bent over again, Sean was queasy, and I was struggling with the foreign cold cuts (I’m still a pretty pathetic non-vegetarian, according to Brent).  We apologetically threw them away and set off.

The last 25 kilometers were on some of the smoothest roads I’ve ever encountered in a race, and we rolled through the ups and downs, grateful for the easy return.

“You know you’ve got a good race director when they give you pavement for the final ride,” said Sean as we zoomed along from CP to CP, dodging the many unleashed dogs that were prowling the neighborhoods (no pitbulls, Angela, but plenty of barkers!)

To that point, my energy had been strong and steady throughout the race, but at 4:00 AM, without the bumpy dirt roads or grassy trails to keep me focused, I started to lose steam.  My eyes felt heavy and I worked, with decreasing success, to keep them open on the long descents.

Finally, after I narrowly missed crashing into a ditch on the side of the road, I pulled up next to Brent and Sean and asked for help.

“Guys, I’m struggling here.  I need some conversation to keep me awake.”

“I’m pretty focused on maps and towing,” Brent responded.  “Sean, can you talk to Abby?”

And without missing a beat, our new teammate stepped up with the perfect question: “So, how did you guys meet?”

Sean and I talked relationships for the next several minutes, until we pulled up to a flag hanging on the backside of a telephone pole.  I jumped off to punch and Brent dug out some slightly damp No-Doze for me and Sean.  Within ten minutes, I was flying high toward the site of our final bike point, a small cemetery on the side of the road.

From there, it was straight down to the famed Cumberland Falls and then up the kilometer-long climb to the finish line.

But of course, we weren’t anywhere near done.

By that point, it was 6:30 in the morning.  We had nearly eight hours to transition back to foot and complete the expansive orienteering section that would end the race.

We replaced the bike shorts we’d be wearing for 24 hours with hiking pants and sorted out what food we had left.

“There are 9 or 10 teams ahead of you,” the race director told us.  “And you’re looking strong.”

We all looked at each other.

“If we could finish in the top 10 after all the issues we’ve had,” I said, “I’d be pretty thrilled.”

Brent and Sean readily agreed.

And with that, we set off on foot, speculating about the possibility of a top-5 divisional finish.

Our route choice took us over a bridge across the river and then up into the hills.  We climbed to a lookout, skirted around a few cliffs, and nabbed the first few points just as the sun came up.

Then, it was time to get wet.

We needed to get back to the other side of the river, and the map noted a spot where it would be possible to ford across.  We assumed that since the race directors made it clear that this was where they wanted us to cross, we’d be traipsing through knee- or -thigh-deep water.

But that just wouldn’t be very much fun, would it?

We got down to the riverbank to find deep water and swift currents.  We skirted around a short cliff and looked for a line.  Further upstream may have been a bit gentler, but we were already waist deep, and the river was beginning to pull us forward.

“Alright,” said Brent, “here’s what we’re going to do.  We’ll cut a sharp angle upstream and swim hard.  The current will push us back, but we should be able to arc over to that first boulder and find an eddy.  From there, we’ll just take it rock by rock.  It’ll be fine.”

Brent took off first and was quickly pulled downstream.  He managed to grab hold of the boulder and righted himself, but it was clear he was working hard to hang on.

I was next.  I pushed off and quickly found myself flailing as my hiking pants and windbreaker filled with water and my pack tripled in weight.  As a longtime competitive swimmer, I was certainly comfortable in the water, but with bike gloves on my hands and shoes on my feet, I couldn’t get any hold on the water, and I grasped in front of me for Brent, just out of reach.

Finally, he grabbed my hand and pulled me toward him.

“Get your footing,” he said urgently, “or we’re both going down river!”

We held on to the rock and steadied ourselves as Sean looked on in minor awe.

“You guys are so cute!” he called.

Neither of us was sure what to make of the comment – “cute” certainly wasn’t what had come to mind for me or Brent.

We made our way across the rest of the way with little fanfare, and Sean, much bigger and stronger than either of us, followed suit with relative ease.

“To me,” he told us after the race, “that was not only an amazing AR moment, but also a great life/marriage moment.”

As soon as we were safely on firm ground again, I downed some crackers – I hadn’t eaten since the handful of sharkies I’d swallowed with the No-Doze several hours earlier –  and readied for the rest of the course.

We had 9 points left and roughly 6 hours.

Brent discovered that if he had a ready supply of animal crackers and peanut butter-filled pretzels, he could eat steadily but slowly, and his stomach settled down.  But Sean, I realized, hadn’t been eating anything at all, and when I asked him about it, he said that he’d been nauseous since the last bike TA and was worried that his stomach couldn’t handle anything more.

That meant that Sean hadn’t taken in any calories for four hours or more.  He was woozy and a bit pale, but he refused to stop moving.  “It’s only six more hours,” he said.  “I can make it.”

The guy was a machine.

One of the next CP’s was located high atop a fire tower.  When we arrived, we found Robyn Benincasa, historically one of the best professional adventure racers in the world, armed with chocolate and coke.  Sean was able to eat a few mini-hershey bars and Brent relished in a sip of caffeine.  Robyn snapped a photo of us with her phone (“What’s your email address?” she called as we ran back down the stairs) and we headed back into the woods.

Robyn's picture was waiting for me when I checked my email several hours later

Brent’s navigational fortune continued through the next several flags.  We moved steadily, maintained our strategy of stealth, and negotiated the off-trail terrain well.

We hit a couple minor snags when the saddles and hillsides and re-entrants didn’t seem to quite line up, but in general everything went smoothly for the next few hours.

We had three checkpoints left.  One was on the riverbank, another on a hilltop, and the third just half a kilometer from the finish.  Brent’s strategy was to grab the hilltop and then bushwhack our way down to the water.  From there, we could climb back up to the road and hit the final point on the way back in.

There was only one problem…

Cliffs.

No matter which way we looked, we couldn’t find a way down to the river.  We tried one route and got cliffed out.  We tried another.  Same problem.  If we’d had ropes or webbing, we were confident that we’d be able to get down, but we weren’t sure how we’d get back up.

Nearly defeated, we paused to regroup.

Sean, who was by that point nearly 8 hours without calories and had been trekking along in a daze, looked over at the maps.

“What if we just run down to here,” he said, pointing to a small network of trails roughly a mile from where we were, “and then take the trails into the point and back up to the road.”

Brent looked at the proposed route change.

“You know, I’d been thinking about that earlier, but had abandoned it for some reason.  It’s a great idea!  Sean, you may have just saved our race.”

“Wait a second,” I said.  “How much time do we have?  Can we realistically add all that distance and still make it to the finish in time?  It’s not worth it to miss the cutoff.”

“We always push it to the end,” Brent replied.  “That’s just what we do.  And we never miss the cut-offs.”

“That’s not true,” I said.

“When have we ever missed the finish time?”

“What about the Snowgaine a couple years ago?”

“Oh that,” said Brent, dismissively.  “I don’t count that one.”

Sean laughed as we gathered ourselves and made off for the trails.  With Brent in the lead, Sean clipped in right behind, and me reluctantly bringing up the rear, we ran well down the narrow trails.

The clue was “base of waterfall.”  At first, when we hit the falls, we didn’t see the flag.  Then Brent noticed a short climb off to the right.  He scurried up, with me and Sean close behind, and saw the flag set ten meters back.

Bingo.

We ran back down the trail, crossing paths with two teams en route to the point, and climbed back up to the road.  We left the trail for a short bushwhack and then noticed a small structure just a few meters above us.

Initially wary of trespassing on private property, we quickly remembered the words of the race director at Thursday night’s pre-race meeting: “This county is 80% public parklands.  If you’re venturing onto private property, you’re probably far off-course.”

That was good enough for us.  We took a chance and climbed up to the shed, which turned out to be at the back of a small campground – literally 10 meters from the road and 300 meters from the turn into the finish.

The final point was just a quick jog back into the woods – a few minutes at most – and then we were off and running down the road.

We crossed the finish line to cheers from volunteers and racers at 12:58 PM, an hour and 12 minutes before the cut-off.

When the points were tallied, we finished 8th overall, and 5th in the open division.  We were the only team to complete the bikewhack and still clear the course.

For all of us, I think, the 2011 USARA National Championships will rank up there as one of our favorite race experiences.  The course was fantastic and the infrastructure incredible, and the volunteers took every opportunity to go a step beyond what was needed.  For our part, we faced some serious challenges, but instead of letting them defeat us, we pulled together as a team and proved that the sum of the unit was stronger than each of the individual parts.

It was a wonderful end to a full season, and it left us itching for what’s next.

Even though I’ve still got the Philly Marathon to get through (more on that soon), we’re already getting organized and making plans for 2012.

The best part?  The return of Untamed New England – GOALS ARA is already signed up!

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17 responses to “USARA National Championships 2011, Part 2: Operation Stealth

  1. kari @ Running Ricig October 19, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    This was so fun and exciting to read! You guys are awesome even when you’re racing with someone you don’t even know. Also, next time I think your code word should be skittles 🙂

  2. Laurie October 19, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    I often wonder what married couples who don’t race together do for fun/relationship building, don’t you?

  3. Anne October 19, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    You guys are so amazing! Congrats once again on an amazing job!!! 🙂

  4. Julie (A Case of the Runs) October 20, 2011 at 11:56 am

    Wow, what a way to overcome! I’m sure the other teams who placed behind you had epic stories as well… but YOU GUYS did it!

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  6. adventureisoutthere October 21, 2011 at 8:23 am

    Spectacular!!!! I loved this amazing story of how you all worked together and once again I am amazed by what you guys do.

    I also love Brent’s ability to throw things out of consideration on a whim: “Oh that,” said Brent, dismissively. ”I don’t count that one.”

    Works for me. I’m going to just start not counting some things in my life 🙂

  7. mallory October 21, 2011 at 8:53 am

    8th overall and 5th in the division?! AWESOME!! I love the picture that the woman emailed to you. You all look incredibly happy after all of that!!

  8. Angela K. October 21, 2011 at 9:42 am

    So awesome. And I can’t believe how clean and alive you looked in that picture. I expected you to be covered in dirt, blood and water. You look like you are just starting out on a hike. And glad there were no pit bull attacks. Kentucky needs some leash laws.

  9. Jill October 21, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    I’ve put this post off reading it for a couple days because I wanted to absorb it all. Wow, I felt like I was there with ya…only staying dry :). Love your team spirit here and how you all pull for one another. What an amazing victory and I am excited to hear about your 2012 adventures!

    Nice meeting you…I hope you were able to walk around and see some sights. I had hoped to go with you guys for a bit but children called and had to get home.

    Happy Weekend!

  10. Sarah S @RunningOnWords October 23, 2011 at 11:16 am

    You guys are awesome! I really want to volunteer at an adventure race now because I think I need to see one! I can’t wait to hear about your next races.

  11. Sean "Deer slayer" O'Donnell October 26, 2011 at 7:35 am

    Brent and Abby are amazing!!! If any one is interested in doing a race with them and they respond that they should be in the top 10 (A common response for most teams just wanting to finish) You better be up to there speed. I was not and needed a lot of help (starting at about mile 5 of the race) but a true test of there strength and patience got me through the race, and we finished as a team. I can not say enough good stuff about these 2. No for real they are amazing. I have been Adventure racing for 10 years and they showed me stuff I have never seen before. When Brent executed a perfect J turn in a boat with 3 people in it heading backwards I was floored. The stream crossing that Abby talked about almost brought me to tears. I could see the conviction in Brent and the fear in Abby but when he said trust me, she did and it worked out. These are a few of the reasons I race. Thank you Abby and Brent. Just amazing. Great job. Oh and one last word. Team GOALS goes for it. Just saying.

  12. Anonymous October 26, 2011 at 9:14 am

    Abby: Sean’s mom here. What a great recap of a race! I was at the edge of my seat the whole time! Congrats on your finish. If you couldn’t tell, SEan was VERY impressed with you two. Thanks for letting him race with you. Meg

  13. Anonymous October 26, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Great recap and reading. One just has to love this stuff. Not a bad way to find out what you have in your tank. Wonderful team work. As SEAN’s Dad I have also had some experience with Adventure Racing and this was a good one. Congratulations to all of you. Bob

  14. Anonymous October 26, 2011 at 11:40 pm

    Abby – you are amazing. I am Sean’s oldest sister and have only done one very little adventure race. I thought I was tough but was ready to cry about an hour into the first bike segment. I give all women who do these things, and hang right up there with the guys, an enormous amount of credit. I really enjoyed reading your report and am glad Sean was able to race with you and provide a laugh or two. Congrats. Amy

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