A not-atypical conversation in our house:
5:30 Monday morning – alarm goes off.
Brent: What does that say?
Me: 5:30 AM. But why did you set the alarm?
Brent: Um, because I have to go to work today…
Me: Oh right. I thought it was Sunday.
I suppose that’s what happens when you wake up at 5:30 AM Saturday and don’t really go to sleep until 8:30 PM Sunday…
This weekend had us in the foothills of the Catskills for the 2012 running of New York Adventure Racing Association’s The Longest Day.
Five years ago, I stood at the paddle TA of this race (then in its 12-hour incarnation) in absolute awe. Brent – my husband of one month at the time – was in his second season of racing and it was his first event outside of the Philly area. I was seeing an adventure race for the first time because the race coincided with a drive up to Massachusetts for a wedding, so I decided to see if they needed any volunteers. As the racers flew in on their bikes and grabbed their kayak blades, I turned to NYARA head honcho Denise Mast and said, “there’s no way I could ever do anything like this.”
Hard to believe that was half a decade ago…
With Bruce out of commission for this year’s race, Brent and I teamed up with Brian Reiss of Adventure Pocono fame, and Team ARMD’s Joel Ford. We had raced with Brian last year at the Rev3 Epic and I had joined Joel and the rest of the ARMD crew two years ago at Untamed New England. While none of us knew quite what the day would hold, I was confident that as far as team dynamics were concerned, we were in for a fun 24 hours in the woods.
Before the race – too cool for school…
The race began at 10:20 AM on Saturday morning with a short relay separator. Half of the team members were to follow a loop in one direction, the other half would run in the opposite direction, and when we passed en route, we were to hand off a small plastic easter egg, which would be used to mark attendance later in the race.
Joel at the start – thanks to “Extreme” Prestige Worldwide Photography for some great shots!
At go, Brent and I joined the 60-odd other runners gunning through the grass to the trailhead. It shouldn’t be news at this point that I hate sprint separators at any race, and this weekend was no different. By the time we reached the halfway point, I found myself gasping for air. I knew that if I just pushed through it and got to the true start of the race, I would be okay. In the moment, though, I wasn’t sure how I was even going to make it back to the trailhead.
Photo doesn’t lie…
Of course, fifteen minutes later, the separator ended, and with our pink egg stashed snuggly in the top of my pack, we took off down a railroad bed for the first section of the race.
We’d learned earlier in the week that there would be some unique scoring rules for this year’s race. The event was broken down into several distinct sections, and for teams that cleared all of the flags in a given section, there would be bonus points awarded to the final tally. Because the course consisted of a mix of mandatory and optional CP’s, there would significant strategy involved in every decision.
When we received the maps early Saturday, Brian and Brent noted that there was more opportunity to maximize points in the first half of the race, so with that in mind, we set out to clear the early sections and go from there.
So as we took off running alongside the railroad bed with Brent setting the pace, I knew without question that we’d be pushing the pace in those early hours. The only problem? I wasn’t recovering.
In fact, I ended up spending the first six hours of the race wondering what I was doing out there. Sure, there were some totally logical reasons for my early fatigue – the lack of sleep in the days before with a 4:30 AM wakeup call to make it to graduation on Thursday morning, a rough semester that had ended just the day before, the fact that we’d raced seven times in the preceding eleven weeks – and yes, we were gunning from the start. But that didn’t stop me from beating myself up as we ran up and down the trails of the Shawangunk Ridge.
Because of the nature of the course – the combination of optional and mandatory CP’s, the amount of route choice each section required, and the possibility of those bonus points – we had no real sense of how we were doing in this early section. So when we pulled into the first TA to learn that there were two teams in front of us who had cleared the first loop (SOG, who’d come and gone nearly an hour before, and Calleva, who checked in only moments earlier), we were happy with our progress.
We refilled our bladders – completely dry after only four hours of racing – and transitioned onto bike. For the next 15-16 hours, we would be jumping in and out of the saddle as we rode, pushed, and lugged our bikes up and down the steep terrain from checkpoint to checkpoint and section to section.
The ride out to the second loop began on roads, and I felt immediate relief as I pedaled along the smooth asphalt. We paused for a couple points before crossing a wide creek and heading back into the woods. And once again, I began to sag. “Dammit,” I almost said out loud as I hiked my bike up a particularly rocky trail. “If I’m so much better at riding roads than trails, I should just stick to f*ing triathlons.”
Of course, everyone was hiking up those trails. And everyone was sweaty and dusty and laboring for breath. But sometimes it’s really hard to get out of your own head.
Eventually, we reached the ridgeline where mandatory checkpoint #5 was supposed to be. But instead of a flag, we found a dozen racers wandering around the overlook just beyond the summit. We joined in the hunt, ultimately spending 45 minutes searching for the missing CP.
Though we never did find it – we later learned that someone passing through had cut it down before the race – the break from the hills and the company of other racers proved to be exactly the reprieve I needed. When we started up again en route to the next section, I had sufficiently recovered (mentally as much as physically) from those early hours. Aside from a few minutes of sleepiness in the middle of the night, I felt solid for the rest of the race.
The other highlight of that unexpected pitstop?
I got to see my first rattlesnake!
Half an hour into our search, as a handful of us were rooting around a small clearing, I heard a distinct shaking sound. Brian looked over and saw a 3-ish foot long, 2-ish inch thick tan snake slithering along the rocks. Several people crowded around for a closer look. If the sound of his tail was any indication, he was not amused.
He disappeared into the woods a few seconds later and I was disappointed that Brent and Joel weren’t around to catch a glimpse of him, but when they came back down to the overlook, Brent said that they’d run into a rattler of their own – and had the photo to prove it.
We all decided to take a risk and abandon CP 5 at that point. From the top of the summit, we rode down and into a maze of trails for the next section of the race – an optional Memory-O. Here, we had the first checkpoint mapped, and when we arrived there we found a map for the next point, and so on. It was a fun twist and we found ourselves criss-crossing the loop with Teams Calleva and Untamed Adventure. Once again, we had a sense of the top handful of teams out on the course, but we had no idea where we fell within that handful.
We pulled into the next TA about an hour before dark. There, we ran into race co-director Charlie Hunt, who explained the issue with checkpoint 5 and told us that we’d have a 45-minute extension on the upcoming section, upping our next time cut-off to 11:45 PM. It was unclear whether that extension would hold for the remainder of the race, but we weren’t thinking about it in that moment.
We rolled out for another short stretch of road – sweet reprieve once again, especially as a generous gardener allowed us to fill our empty bladders with his hose – and headed toward the next loop.
The next several hours are a bit of a blur at this point, but here are the highlights:
-The fast, rolling trails of Sterling Forest (I had no idea I enjoyed night riding so much!)
-The unexpected opportunity for an extra three points that had Brent swimming through a bull frog-infested pond late into the night.
This was as good a shot as I could get of Brent’s night swim. He’s that little gray spot in the middle.
-The all-night gas station convenience store we found at 11 PM. We’d made a decision before the start to leave behind precious calories and in favor of racing light, banking on the promise of refueling opportunities on the course. By late Saturday, we hadn’t passed anything for several hours and were all running dangerously low on food. While Brent futzed with maps, I ran into the store to load up for the two of us and quickly deposited four clif bars, two bags of GORP, a snickers bar, a bagel with cream cheese, and two sodas onto the counter. “That’s a lot of food!” the clerk said. “Yeah, we’re in the middle of a long race,” I replied. He promptly dropped two more bagels into the pile. “Take these too, then!”
At some point in those overnight hours, we paused for a brief pow-wow. The next cut-off was listed as 4:00 AM. We weren’t sure whether it, too, had been extended by 45 minutes, but we did know that if we wanted to get through the next section, we were going to need that extra time. We decided to take the risk. If we were wrong and ended up getting disqualified, we reasoned, then at least we would have gone down fighting for every point.
We spent the next couple hours slogging our way up a 2-mile climb to the top of a fire tower. Just a few minutes into the ascent, we passed Team Calleva running down the mountain on foot. They’d opted to leave their bikes at the bottom and trek up and back before riding around on roads to the next transition. And as the stretch of steep rocky trails kept going and going (and going), we wondered if we should have made the same decision.
Eventually, we reached the summit, wrote down the clue for the CP (1933, the year the cabin at the base of the tower was constructed) and began to make our way down. After one more short rock-riddled stretch, we were able to ride down the bulk of the mountain. Even after Brent took a nasty fall, pitching over his handlebars and landing on his wrists and knees, he shook himself off and jumped back on, pushing the pace as he negotiated the technical terrain with the three of us following close behind.
And it was a good thing. We were fighting a fast-moving clock and weren’t sure whether we’d make it to the next transition before the 4:45 AM cut-off. We pulled through Mandatory CP 14 at 4:23 AM, skipped the bike and foot orienteering loops there altogether, and blitzed the next several kilometers of trails for the TA.
We arrived with roughly 95 seconds to spare.
There, we deposited that little pink plastic egg into a basket (proof of our presence – it turned out that there was no one there to make sure we’d pulled in in time), collected ourselves, and got back on our bikes once again.
Though we were quite tempted by the last big optional loop of the course – between that TA and the boat put-in was the now-defunct Jungle Habitat in West Milford NJ, an old Warner Brothers’ wild animal park that was abandoned in the 1970s – we knew that we would never make it through even the first point and get to the kayaks by 6:30 AM, the late cut-off for getting on the water.
(photo care of “Weird NJ”)
We made quick work of the next transition and shoved off at 6:15 AM for a short paddle around Greenwood Lake.
We moved smoothly enough from checkpoint to checkpoint – except for one minor communication issue. At the first flag, I jumped out of the boat to punch the control, and as I was turned around and Brian was resettling gear, Brent and Joel pushed off for the next point. We thought they were continuing on down the lake and so we headed that way as well, following not far behind a yellow kayak with two racers in it.
After 10 minutes, I looked more closely and realized that the racers in front of us had square-bladed paddles, not the rounded edges of our Werner blades. A few seconds later, we heard a distant yell from the back bank of the lake.
Brent and Joel, it seemed, had turned left while we had gone straight. After 10 futile minutes of yelling for us, they finally connected with a man in a motor boat who joined in the effort. As Brian and I turned to meet up with them, the motor boat pulled up beside us.
“Abby and Brian, I take it?”
“Yep, that’s us,” we responded.
“Your friends are back there.”
We managed to keep in eyesight of each other after that, and when we pulled off the water at 8:50 AM, we had an hour and a half to climb up to the final ridge, nab as many of the remaining optional checkpoints as we could, and get ourselves into the finish.
We took off through the small town and began the steep climb up to the ridge. Fifteen minutes later, we’d found the last mandatory point. Then we had a decision to make.
We could run the ridgeline – a rocky, technical stretch of the Appalachian Trail – a mile each way out and back for a possible two-point punch before running the final 1.5 miles in the other direction for one or two more optional flags before transitioning back to our bikes for the final short stretch to the finish, or we could play it safe and skip the out-and-back.
But of course, there’d been no playing it safe for the previous 23 hours. Why would we start then?
We took off in the opposite direction of the finish. The run took longer than we anticipated, but Brent navigated to the point with relative ease. We turned back at 9:47 AM. We had 2.5+ rocky miles to run, one more transition, and a ski slope to bike down.
I think all of us were pretty sure we’d never make it.
We’d retraced our steps by 10:01. At that point, Brent was beginning to bonk and I was pretty sure my right IT band was about to rupture. He downed a tube of shotblocks, I gritted my teeth, and we continued on. We got to the attack point for the final optional point at 10:06. There was no time to spare.
We continued on and spilled out onto the road that would lead us to the Bellvale Farms Creamery, where our bikes awaited us. Instead of wasting precious seconds slipping into our bike shoes and clipping in, we stashed them in our packs, pulled on our helmets, and took off down the intermediate slope at the Mount Pete Ski Lodge.
At 10:17 AM, we pulled into the finish. We’d left everything on the course. We had three minutes to spare.
Still, we had no real sense of placement. With so many variables in play and so many strong teams in the field, the best we could hope for was a spot on the podium.
The awards ceremony was still a half hour away, so we set about sorting gear and recapping the past 23 hours and 57 minutes.
“You know,” Joel said to me as we walked away from the finish, “you got pretty frustrated with yourself out there.”
“I know,” I replied rather absently, thinking about repacking the car and getting home, always a challenge after an overnight race.
“You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself,” he continued. “You rocked that course.”
I’ve heard this many times before (the being too hard on myself) and since it’s a hard switch to flip off I’ll no doubt hear it many times again, but something about the way he said it struck a chord. When I volunteered at that Longest Day in 2007, I’d never run on trails, had mountain biked perhaps 10 miles in my life, and had only ever been in a canoe at overnight camp. Sure, there’s plenty more I can do to improve, but I feel pretty good about where I am right now – and even better about how we are as a team.
As further affirmation of that, when we returned to the ski lodge for the awards, we learned that we’d won the race, with Team SOG in second and Rev3 in third.
Now, admittedly, we finished on top because of that bonus scoring. The monsters of Team SOG had killed the course, collecting more checkpoints than we did and covering more ground, but because we’d cleared one of the sections they didn’t, the points swung our way on this one.
Still, we worked ourselves into the ground for 24 hours. To be among the top competitors felt pretty good.