Have Dental Floss, Will Travel

Mapping the world, one waxy strand at a time…

Hitting the Fan

The title of this post came to mind at roughly 5:05 AM on Saturday morning, as I began narrating my race report in my head.

We had peeled into the Bolton Valley Ski Resort – the site of the Green Mountain Adventure Racing Association Frigid Infliction – about half an hour earlier, trying to recover from the early morning snow and a wrong turn up to the mountain that delayed our arrival, and in that time we’d completed registration paperwork, “organized” gear, eaten breakfast, hit up the bathroom, glanced at maps, and – 30 seconds before the start sounded – discovered that none of us seemed to be able to get into our cross-country skis.

Let me back up…

The biggest winter adventure race in the country, the Frigid Infliction combines snow shoeing, post holing, cross-country skiing, ropes, and, of course, map-and-compass navigation. After making the trek to Central New York for our first CNYO Snowgaine a few years ago, Brent and I began eyeing this Vermont event, and earlier this winter we decided that this was the year to make the trip. We convinced GOALS teammate Tracey to make the trip up from her home in Massachusetts and readied ourselves for a full winter of training.

The only problem?

There was no winter to be had…

Which meant:

(1) There was no opportunity for snowshoeing.

(2) There was no chance to learn how to cross-country ski.

(3) We had no reason to pull out any of our winter gear.

All that is to say, when Brent and I left for Vermont on Friday afternoon with a car filled with unsorted gear that hadn’t been used in a year or more, we were probably the most unprepared either of us had ever been for a race.

So when the the start sounded just after 5 AM Saturday morning and teams shot past us on skis, there was little we could do but laugh.

Photos c/o GMARA

Fumbling in the early morning darkness with fierce winds whipping all around us, we eventually fought our way into our bindings and, with no other teams in sight, we set off on the first leg of the race, an uphill climb to the first TA.

But remember that whole “learning to ski” thing that never happened over the winter?


Within half a kilometer, I had abandoned all attempts at skiing and instead opted to carry my skis and poles up the mountain as I post-holed my way through the shin- and knee-deep snow.

Fortunately for me, Brent and Tracey were both rather rusty as well and I was able to match their strides with relative ease as we slowly made our way to the top of the ridge. Still, we surprised ourselves. We began catching teams at the first split, and Brent, who hadn’t had a chance to digest the course before the start, made a quick decision to turn left up a trail – instead of following most other teams to the right – that brought us to the transition with only a handful of sets of skis in sight.

Buoyed by the thought of making up so much ground, we staged our skis in the snow and pulled out our snowshoes. I think I had one shoe on and was loosening up the other when a volunteer came over to see what we were doing.

“Guys, this is a post-holing leg,” she said, “not snowshoeing.”

Right. So much for a quick turnaround.

We pulled off our shoes and stashed them in our packs and took off into the woods for the first CP.

Well, “took off” might be a bit of an overstatement.

With snow hip- and waist-deep by this point and nothing but our ski boots to prevent us from breaking through, we labored slowly, with Brent up front doing the hard work and me and Tracey following close behind.

Trails were off-limits for this section and we quickly discovered that crawling on all fours was the quickest and easiest way form of travel. So off we went, slithering through the featureless snow with nothing more than Brent’s expert nav skills to guide us.

Before long, we came across a set of ski tracks that seemed to be heading in the right direction.

“My hope is that these are from the person who set the point,” Brent said as he paused to catch his breath.

“I was thinking the same thing,” I replied.

We followed the tracks for several minutes, and sure enough, they led us straight to the orange-and-white flag. When we arrived, it was clear that no other teams had reached the CP yet, but because there were two checkpoints in this leg of the race and they could be collected in any order, we all assumed that everyone else had opted to go for the other one first.

We made our way toward the next flag and as we were getting ready to go back into the woods, we found Molly, Dave, and Jason of Team Untamed beginning the trek in.

“Hey Molly!” I said cheerfully, greeting my friend who I hadn’t seen since the previous summer. “How’s it going so far?”

She offered a big hello and a weary smile that left us wondering what had happened to leave them feeling down so early in the race.

Instead of just following in their tracks, Brent led us down a small hill, where we broke through the tree line and began crawling toward the point. This lower attack gave us a more direct line to the CP, but it also made for slow, labored travel as we attempted to traverse the rolling terrain through waist-deep snow.

Brent continued to break snow most of the way, and when I took over several minutes later, I realized just how hard he’d been working for the past few hours. Clumsily, I picked my way through the mess of branches and up and down the shallow ravines. We finally began to hear voices and looked over to see several racers gathered around the flag, just 15 feet above us.

Though travel had been slow, Brent’s strategy had worked well. Now all we had to do was get to the point.

Easier said than done.

I clawed at mounds of snow and grasped for small trees as I willed my entire body up the small slope toward the CP. But no matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t make any progress. It was the first seriously frustrating moment of the day.

Eventually, we fought our way to the flag, and after a quick punch, we moved easily down the trail that had been beaten down from the teams that had opted to follow Untamed.

As we made our way back to the TA, we heard lots of chatter about an elusive Checkpoint 1. It seemed that there had been a flag on that first leg of the race up the ski mountain. In the frenzy of the start, as we were trying to recover from the morning craziness and get organized for the race, we’d misheard the directions and assumed that the TA was the first point.

Not a typical GOALS mistake, but nothing we could do about it at that point. It turned out that only three or four of the teams ever found that first checkpoint. The experienced trio of Team Untamed had blown by it as well. Now I understood why they had looked so glum.

We made it back to the TA shaking our heads and quickly transitioned to snowshoes for a drama-free loop of checkpoints. We all enjoyed finding our footing and even got to run for stretches.

As we reached the final snowshoe checkpoint, Brent looked at his watch. If we arrived back by 10:00 AM, we would have the opportunity to go out for a bonus checkpoint. We had 20 minutes to make the cut-off.

We ran back to the TA and pulled off our snowshoes.

“You’ve got two minutes to get into your skis and go,” a volunteer told us.

“Does the bonus get us an extra checkpoint or just an hour time credit?” Brent asked, reading through the race directions.  In the chaos of the moment, Brent thought he received confirmation that if we were able to get out in time, we would have the opportunity to go for an extra flag, effectively making up for the early CP #1 blunder.  We would learn later that this wasn’t the case.

The good news: we wrestled with our skis and managed to shove off down the mountain with fewer than 30 seconds to spare.

The bad news: we had to ski all the way down a mountain.

I made it approximately 10 meters before my feet flew out from under me. I stood up and tried again. 10 more meters, 2 more skis pointing up in the air.

This wouldn’t do.

So, once again, I pulled off my skis, balanced them in my arms, and ran down the mountain, laughing all the way at the show that Brent and Tracey were putting on.

There were a few close calls – some nearly-clipped tree trunks and nearly-torn ACL’s, but the two made it down without incident, and when we turned down a relatively flat groomed trail toward the bonus CP, somehow they convinced me to give the skis another shot.

I clipped in – I was becoming pretty good at getting in and out by that point – and to everyone’s surprise, I managed to stay on my feet as I slowly found my rhythm and chased them down the trail. Before long, we were moving along the path three-across.

“Look at us, guys!” I yelled. “We’re a team of skiers!”

We glided along for a kilometer or more. A competent skier came flying down an adjoining trail and when he saw us, he said, “Are you guys part of the race? You sure don’t look like you’re racing.”

All three of us nearly doubled over in giddy giggles. We were having a blast.

As we neared the turn-off toward the checkpoint, Brent paused to look at the maps and I clipped out of my skis for a quick pitstop. When I came back, my left binding wouldn’t open. No matter how hard I tried, no matter which way I pushed or pulled, no matter how much I yelled at it, it wouldn’t budge.

With that, my short-lived ski career was over.

Seriously frustrating moment #2.

Dejected, I picked up my skis and poles and trudged up the hill behind Brent and Tracey. Even though I’d carried my skis for 95% of the ski legs of the race, I was beyond dispirited.

Still, I plodded along, avoiding the deepest snow and shuffling where I could as I tried to keep up with my teammates. We climbed the final ascent for the flag and then turned for the TA.

Half an hour later, I ran down the final hill and dropped my skis on the ground. With aching arms and heavy legs, I nearly hugged the volunteer who told me that they were transporting our ski equipment back to the finish.

We pulled on our snowshoes once again and headed for the last major obstacle of the day, the tyrolean traverse.

There was a bit of a backlog when we arrived at the ravine, so we had the chance to scope out the different lines. To save time and with the blessing of race staff, Brent opted to attempt the notoriously hardest rope while Tracey and I stood in line for the mid-grade rope. None would be easy. All were graded up-hill. Brent’s was the steepest and the one that Tracey and I had chosen required racers to negotiate around a tree 2/3 of the way across.

Brent started first and I hooked in a few minutes later. Before long, we were both hanging from the middle of the ravine, side-by-side.

It was a slow process, pulling ourselves across the static rope, but I made steady progress until I hit the tree. There, the combination of fatigue and calorie deficit began to set in, and when I looked over to see my struggling husband clinging to a tree (his line really was the worst – it was no coincidence that only two other teams opted to cross it all day), I started to get a bit woozy.

I grabbed the rope and attempted to shake out my arms, and when I began pulling again, I discovered that my pack had been snared by the tree.

“Are your snowshoes tied on?” someone called from the other side of the rope.

“Well enough,” I yelled back.

A beat.

“Okay,” she replied. “I’m going to need you to reach down and grab the branch behind you.”

I looked down to see that my snowshoe had fallen out of my pack and was hanging from the tree. Carefully, I pulled it back in and tied it to my front caribiner. A minute later, my other shoe fell into the ravine. Then the first one followed suit.

Eventually, I managed to pull myself across, and one of the many great volunteers out on the course sent my shoes across with a pile of gear. Brent and I reached solid ground at the same time and sat down to wait for Tracey, an awesome climber who made it across all too quickly.

From there, we shook out our arms and pulled on our snowshoes for the final leg of the race, a final trek up and around the downhill ski slopes and into the finish.

Race staff at the tyrolean had recommended that we attempt no more than two checkpoints here, but we were moving well and ended up nabbing three with ease. We contemplated a fourth but ultimately decided that we didn’t have quite enough time. We ran down the final descent and clocked into the finish at 2:42 PM. With the bonus checkpoint and the hour credit, we estimated that this would give us a good shot at the #3 spot on the podium.

As we sorted gear and chatted with friends, all three of us agreed that it was one of the best 12-hour races any of us had ever done. A great staff and an awesome and challenging course. The past ten hours had flown by.

GMARA capped off the event with a festive post-race banquet. We sat with our friends on Team Pain Syndicate and rehashed the day, and when the standings were announced, we cheered for our tablemates, who’d managed to nab that phantom checkpoint #1 and snag first place and a slot at the USARA National Championships.

It turned out that the bonus, in fact, did not count as a separate checkpoint and instead only offered an hour time credit, which meant no chance of a podium finish for us.  Though we were all a bit disappointed by the confusion, knowing we may have made different decisions with more information, we left Bolton Valley that night thoroughly satisfied with – and thoroughly exhausted by – the first race of the season. GMARA put on a great show, and we’re all looking forward to making the trip up again in the future (perhaps a year when we can actually train for it a little bit).

As Brent and I drove south toward his parents’ house for a few hours of sleep, I looked out the window at the piles of snow lining the road.

“The nice thing is,” I said, “I think I’ve had my fill of winter for the year.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Brent replied.


15 responses to “Hitting the Fan

  1. kari @ Running Ricig March 6, 2012 at 11:26 am

    Good lord. I’m stressed out just reading this.

    Also, what does it say about me that as I’m imagining you snowshoeing, this is what I’m picturing you wearing:

  2. Angela k. March 6, 2012 at 11:49 am

    This sounds like so much fun! Although I just imagine myself trying something like this one day and finding myself hopelessly lost in the woods.

  3. Coy March 6, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    Abby!! Holy cow! First, you can tell a great adventure story but second, I think I got tired just reading about you plowing through waist deep snow!! Then losing your snow shoe and being hungry. Do you ever have dreams about these adventures where you feel like you’re playing catch up?? 🙂

  4. Pingback: Frigid Infliction « Team GOALS ARA

  5. mallory March 6, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    Ugh what an extremely frustrating experience!!! I am glad you managed to get through it one piece!

  6. Kristy March 6, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Wow! That makes running (no, racing) a marathon seem like a walk in the park!

  7. Kate March 6, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    Oh, wow!! This sounds AMAZING. And brutal. And so fun (especially in retrospect I bet). Ugh…that last minute arrival stuff is the worst. So stressful. Glad you guys were able to roll with it.

    Btw, I love your race reports. You’re a great storyteller. I bet your students love your classes.

  8. Chris Yager March 6, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    Great race writeup! I’m glad you enjoyed your time out in the snow; your perseverance in spite of the various challenges you encountered is invigorating.

    Thanks for making the trip up to join us. Several of us are hoping to make it down to a GOALS event later this year.

  9. RunToTheFinish March 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    determination should be your middle name or maybe you two should just change your last name. that feels a little like going to do a triathlon having not been swimming in a year!

  10. Denise March 7, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    i’m reading this thinking…who spends their wknd like this?!?!? you guys are nuts! i feel so boring right now. 😉

    congrats on a fun and great start to the racing season!

  11. misszippy1 March 7, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    Ha, ha–love that concluding sentence! One day’s worth like that would do it, for sure. You guys are such studs; I love reading about all this and living vicariously through you. Congrats!

  12. Anonymous March 7, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    Wow! Awesome race and story. Start thinking palm trees, palmettos, cypress and alligators ; )

  13. Jill March 7, 2012 at 11:55 pm

    Holy smokes, girl – what an adventure!!! I can’t believe you did all that – in the COLD. And to carry your skis, to boot (it made me laugh though :)). You guys are truly amazing….I’m pretty sure I’d never tackle something like this. Nicely done!! So yeah, bring on summer!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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