It was 6:30 PM. The 2012 running of the GOALS ARA Cradle of Liberty had started nine hours earlier, and I was stationed at a TA with half a dozen volunteers at the Mount Penn Fire Tower, in Reading, PA.
We had been sitting there for two hours, based on earlier projections of when the first teams could show up, but so far there were no teams in sight.
A few hours earlier, we’d sent one racer to the hospital, following an allergic reaction to a bee sting. Within the hour, we’d be making the decision to cancel the overnight 20-mile paddle, after our Water Safety Team alerted us to dangerous conditions on the river.
On paper, it might sound like the race was a categorical disaster.
But paper is a funny thing.
When Brent and I began planning the Cradle last November, we were both aware of our constraints. Brent was balancing graduate school with a full-time job. I had a two-hour commute to and from work and was in the midst of a book project, on top of teaching. We were both already committed to an ambitious racing schedule for the spring that would require diving into an intense training plan on January 1.
We were ready to devote the time necessary to design and direct a 24-hour race, but we needed to tailor it to accommodate our already bursting day-to-days. This meant that we had to find a course that was relatively close to home, that still satisfied the conditions adventure racers look for in a race – solid parks, fun trail networks, and a healthy dose of navigation – and that didn’t tread over familiar GOALS terrain.
These parameters set into motion a course that followed the Schuylkill River corridor between Valley Forge and Reading, a course that would travel through six distinct parks, would feature eleven discrete sections, and would offer participants the opportunity to gather more than 115 checkpoints, when all was said and done.
The race began on Saturday, June 2, at Evansburg State Park, where registration opened at 5:30 AM. The night before, we were out in the pouring rain until close to midnight, setting flags. As we ate our convenience store dinner (the third or fourth Wawa sandwiches of the week) in the car at 10:30 PM, I turned to Brent.
“So, we’re not doing this again next year, right?” I asked, repeating what had become our mantra for the previous several days.
“Definitely not,” he affirmed.
Still, we were both excited when we pulled into Evansburg at 5:15 AM on race morning and connected with Anne and Bill Gibbons, owners of the GOALS organization. And after a smooth check-in – every single team had their maps (maps #2-#10, anyway) by 7 AM – and a detailed team meeting where we tried to cover every contingency, we bussed racers to Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site for the opening prologue and the first leg of the day.
Between the two of us, Brent and I have upwards of 80 races under our belts, and we worked hard to draw from those experiences as we planned the Cradle. And in terms of race management, we both agreed that if there’s one rule that stands out above all others, it’s consistency. Be clear on the rules from the start, and don’t veer from them during the event.
But of course, when your pre-race briefing runs a few minutes over, the school bus is a couple minutes late, there’s a roadblock en route to the start, and a national parks ranger wants to chat, you have to improvise.
We’d told racers that morning that regardless of the official start time, any and all cutoffs would remain in force and the official finish would stay at 9:00 AM Sunday morning, as noted on the instruction sheet. But by the time we gathered everyone at Hopewell, it was nearing 9:30 AM, and we wanted to allow teams a full 24 hours on the course.
Okay, then. New plan, we told participants. Cut-offs would stay in place, but we would extend the finish time to 9:30 AM. “Did everyone hear that? Are you sure? Are you positive?”
And with that, we counted down from ten and sent racers off on the opening separator, a three-leg relay that would have teams collecting their passports, a handful of UTM coordinates, and Map #1, for the Hopewell section of the course.
The race consisted of a combination of mandatory and optional checkpoints. Except for the final section back at Evansburg, each CP was worth one point, but teams that missed a mandatory punch would automatically be ranked below every team that retrieved all of the mandatories, even if their total number of points was significantly higher.
We designed the course so that if the top teams in the country ran an absolutely perfect race, they may have a chance at clearing all of the points in the allotted 24 hours. It was a big course with intensive navigation – we estimated anywhere from 70-120 miles in total, depending on route choice and the number of CP’s teams went for – and there was the potential for error at every turn.
It was our hope that all of the teams would remain out on the course for 24 hours, regardless of how many points they ended up accruing.
We knew it was going to be a long day.
As the teams finished the opening relay and headed into Hopewell for a foot loop, volunteers began unloading bikes from the U-Haul. Racers had four mandatory CP’s and as many as nine optionals to get on that leg of the course, and we anticipated at least 1.5-2 hours before we saw any teams back in transition.
It was the beginning of hurry-up-and-wait.
Once everyone was in the woods, Brent took off for a full day of point-setting – we had been able to hang roughly 75% of the flags the week before, and he planned to finish up the final few sections during the race – and with the blessing of Anne and Bill, I took on the role of general race manager.
My first task?
Take some of the volunteers down to one of my favorite CP’s in Hopewell.
We wanted the race to highlight the historic heritage of the region, and Hopewell Furnace seemed the perfect place to start.
Just a couple hundred meters from the TA stood an impressive stone structure, once an active hub of ironmaking. On either side of the Furnace was a narrow dark tunnel, and when we were exploring, we found a missing brick in the bottom of the right passageway. In the hole we placed a plastic bag filled with lit glowsticks. Teams were to retrieve one of the lights and hand it in when they transitioned to the next section.
I’m not sure whether teams were quite as impressed with the CP as Brent and I were…
Though the race had started half an hour later than anticipated, we still had a schedule to stick to.
So at 10:45, I left Hopewell and drove the five miles to the entrance to Birdsboro Waters, site of the next TA. Volunteers were scheduled to arrive at 11 AM, and I didn’t want to leave them waiting.
When several weeks earlier I had sent out an email to friends and family soliciting help for the weekend, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What we ended up with was an embarrassment of riches, with at least half a dozen volunteers at every TA – lots of wonderful friends, ready for action.
But of course, when I greeted my friends at Birdsboro and apologetically delivered the news that racers were still probably about an hour out, I wasn’t surprised when they took it in stride and settled in to enjoy the day.
Lots of volunteers
Finally, just before noon, I received a text from Bill, still stationed at Hopewell.
“First team is back but lost maps. Call me.”
A quick conversation revealed that one of their packs had snagged on a branch, and the zipper had opened. It seemed that the group was missing both their overview topographical map and Map #2, for the Birdsboro section of the course.
“Okay,” I told Bill, “they’ve got two options. They can either find their way to Birdsboro and I can give them new maps here, or they can wait for me to drive back to Hopewell and deliver them.”
“They’ll wait here,” he responded after conferring with the team. “They want to know what the penalty will be.”
“Brent and I need to figure that out,” I told him. “I’ll let them know when I get back to Hopewell.”
And with that, I called my phone-toting husband (a true anomaly for the man who refuses to own a cell phone) and got back in the car for the ride back to the start.
We quickly debated the merits of a time penalty vs. a point penalty and ultimately erred on the side of time, given that we hadn’t made the repercussions of lost gear clear in the race briefing.
“An hour?” I asked. “Half an hour?”
“Half an hour, I think,” Brent said. “But let’s check with Bill to make sure he agrees.”
I turned into the Hopewell parking lot ten minutes later to find Bill pulling out.
“One of the racers was stung by a bee and she’s having an allergic reaction,” he relayed urgently. “I’m going to pick her up and evaluate the situation.”
Not wanting to delay the medical care, I quickly confirmed our penalty plans and watched Bill drive off before handing the replacement maps over to the waiting team and explaining the results of their infraction.
It would be a half hour time penalty, to be assessed after the race ended. They would still have the full 24 hours to complete as much of the course as they could, but if another team tied their point total, the penalty would be taken into account for placement.
In hindsight, we all agreed that it may have been too modest a penalty, but Brent and I felt strongly that without fair warning of the consequences, we weren’t comfortable doling out a harsh punishment.
As the grateful racers rolled out en route to Birdsboro, Bill pulled back into the parking lot.
“Is she okay?” I asked, before realizing that the injured racer – a friend of mine, in addition to a participant – was in the backseat.
She seemed reasonably stable, but had a spreading rash and was a bit woozy when she stood. After calling back over the Birdsboro – where we’d unintentionally and serendipitously stationed both a doctor and a nurse – we decided that she would drive back there with me so that our impromptu med staff could check her out and determine what to do next.
We returned to TA #2 as the first teams were transitioning back onto foot. In Birdsboro, they had a lengthier loop consisting of six mandatory CP’s and an additional seven optionals. It would be roughly 9 miles in total, if they cleared it.
To access the park, teams had to cross two creeks, both of which were rigged with wire cables.
I only saw one team elect to traipse through the water. The rest took advantage of the cables to preserve their dry socks as long as possible.
Though the hills of southeastern PA are relatively tame, Birdsboro offers some impressive terrain for such a small park. Several of the checkpoints required steep ascents or descents. We placed one mandatory flag at the top of an old quarry, now peppered with climbing lines. When I set the flag the night before – without a headlamp, in the middle of a downpour, with thunder rolling across the sky – I’d wondered whether it was a mistake to force teams up the gnarled climb.
It turned out that my concern was unfounded – everyone I spoke to about the point seemed to enjoy the technical scramble.
As racers were traversing Birdsboro, I sat with volunteers in the TA, checking in teams and keeping an eye on our injured participant. As the afternoon progressed, she continued to struggle, ultimately throwing up the Benadryl she’d taken. At that point, the doc on hand suggested that we take her over to the nearest ER for treatment, and with so many personnel on hand, our two media mavens for the race (one of whom moonlights as a nurse) took a break from their facebooking duties to make the trip to Reading Hospital.
Said Media Mavens, tracking the race one facebook post and tweet at a time.
After Birdsboro, teams returned to their bikes for the trip up to Mount Penn, the furthest point on the course. But first, they had to navigate their way through the Neversink Mountain Preserve, a little-known park tucked away on the outskirts of Reading and once home to several grand hotels. The buildings are long gone, but their foundations remain, and the area is littered with the vestiges of the impressive 19th century resorts.
The Neversink course took racers along old rail trestles, through the “Witch’s Hut” gazebo, atop a covered reservoir, and even inside a fully intact wine cellar, built into the side of the mountain.
Because there was no TA there, teams were largely on their own for several hours, but late that afternoon, Brent took a break from setting checkpoints to document the loop.
At some point, I got another phone call from Bill. A team member had lost her whistle – mandatory safety gear – in the woods.
Thirty minute time penalty, I said, same as the dropped maps.
By that point, I’d left Birdsboro to meet our next group of volunteers at the Mount Penn Fire Tower. Though we’d asked them to arrive at 4:30 PM, I knew that it would be a few hours at least before the first teams arrived.
Before long, though, Anne pulled into the parking lot, armed with pizza and our bee-stinged racer, now pumped with fluids and steroids and ready to help.
I have to say, as disappointed as I was that she wasn’t able to continue racing, it was wonderful to have her there as a de facto volunteer. A seasoned course designer and director, she jumped into the action without missing a beat, and as the night wore on, she became my second set of eyes as we checked passports and tabulated point totals.
It was also then that Anne brought news that we’d be canceling the paddle. The rains the week before had caused water levels to rise dramatically. When Brent and I had first scouted the river, we’d been able to walk long stretches of the course, with the water barely lapping at our calves. When we’d set the paddle-o (a small orienteering section in and around a series of islands) the evening before, the water was well over our heads (or rather, well over Brent’s head, since I cheered him on from the riverbank as he hung those flags).
For reference, the point on the bottom left here shows the water pressure when we scouted the canoe leg, just over 600 CFS (cubic feet of water per second). The point on the top right shows the water pressure on race day – nearly 9,000 CFS.
Our water safety boats couldn’t even get on the river.
Just before dark, Team SOG crested Skyline Drive and turned into our Fire Tower parking lot. After breaking the news that they wouldn’t be paddling, we explained to them what the Mount Penn section would look like.
There would be two loops, one on foot and one on bike. The foot loop consisted of three checkpoints and the mountain bike, seven. All were optional, but they had to decide which loop they wanted to start with before seeing the maps.
Volunteer Ali, explaining the two loops
There was a firm 11:00 PM cut-off to finish up at Mount Penn.
SOG decided to take advantage of the last precious moments of light and start with the bike. They were the only team who had the opportunity to do so.
Brian of Team SOG, talking strategizing.
Most racers arrived at Mount Penn between 10 PM and 11 PM, much later than we’d anticipated. Some went off to gather a few foot points. Many opted to skip both loops altogether.
When they checked out, they received the remaining handful of UTM coordinates for the course, which would get them to the now-defunct boat put-in. There, Brent and Bill were working feverishly to design and print new maps to get teams from the put-in to the take-out by bike.
Though almost all racers were disappointed that they’d be riding through the night, many seemed relieved not to have to get on the water. They’d caught glimpses of the river earlier that day and were wary of paddling the swift-moving current at night.
The view of the Mount Penn Pagoda as teams began their descent
We thought that racers would be more spread out by that point in the race, but nearly every team pulled out of Mount Penn at 11:00 PM. From there, they would ride down Skyline Drive and then back up and over Neversink before jumping on the Schuylkill River Trail to the Ganshahawny Boat Ramp.
Even though there would be no paddle, we elected to keep this part of the course the same. That way, teams would have access to their anticipated gear and food that they’d tucked away in their paddle bags. They’d also receive fresh maps from Bill, guiding them along an additional 20-ish miles of flat riding, which they would have covered on the river.
As the last teams were pulling out, our Mount Penn volunteers headed home and the handful of us that were left made our way to Lock 60 in Phoenixville, site of the paddle take-out and the next foot loop.
With a couple hours to spare, we made a much-needed pitstop for coffee and snacks, and then commenced waiting for the first teams to arrive.
At Lock 60, racers were treated to a little bit of time out of the saddle as they took on the small foot-o to collect as many as seven points, all optional. The park was tiny, but we’d utilized it to its fullest effect, both to ensure that the fastest teams would remain on course for 24 hours and to showcase some of the unique features of the area.
One of the checkpoints was at a makeshift campsite. When we’d come upon it while out scouting, I wondered aloud whether we’d have to worry about any safety issues there overnight. But when we came into the modest clearing, Brent looked back and laughed. “I don’t think we need to be concerned with anyone hanging out here.”
On the ground, rocks were laid out to spell L-O-V-E. The trees were adorned with small stained glass hummingbirds and hearts, and tacked to the trees were biblical verses espousing peace and kindness.
We were pretty sure teams would be safe.
Though folks seemed happy for the short respite from the bikes when they arrived at Lock 60, energy levels were low across the board. Many teams pedaled into the TA and promptly dropped their bikes and laid down on the ground.
But then a funny thing happened.
The sun started to come up. Gradually, everyone came into focus. And as it happens during every adventure race, with the new day we all got an extra boost – racers and personnel alike.
This was also the first time in about 18 hours that I’d seen Brent. In the middle of the night, he’d finally set the last point for the course, and he joined us at Lock 60. But he’d missed the chance to interact with teams throughout the day and was eager to check out the action, so when the first racers returned to their bikes for the final push back, he headed to Evansburg to give directions on the next section, and I remained at Lock 60 to check in teams.
That is, until I received the next phone call. It seemed that at the tail end of his full day of flag-setting, Brent had accidentally forgotten a key piece of the Evansburg section. He needed to go back into the woods, but the first teams were expected to arrive within the hour.
“Not a problem,” I said, and headed to my car, leaving three fantastic volunteers in charge of the Lock 60 TA.
From Lock 60, teams would bike the last stretch – anywhere from 10-17 miles – back to the start. Along the way they had the option of picking up as many as ten optional checkpoints, many on a short mountain biking loop on the southern edge of the state park.
Crossing a spillway en route to a couple optional CP’s outside of Lock 60
When they arrived at the final TA, they were greeted with two orienteering challenges, both optional and worth a total of 10 points.
Option A was a Memory-O. Here, teams would have access to a map with the first point plotted on it. They would have to memorize a route there, and once they arrived at the CP, they would find a map to the next point (those maps were the critical piece Brent had left out, when he set the memory-o). In total there were six flags on the course, and they had to clear the entire thing in order to earn the allotted four points.
Only two teams elected to try it – GOALS ARA and NYARA – and both were successful.
Option B was an orienteering relay. Here, racers were presented with three loops – short, intermediate, and long. They had to designate one person to complete each loop, and only that person would receive the corresponding map. Here, too, teams only scored points for loops that were completed in full. The short course was worth one point; the intermediate, two; and the long, three.
Brent pow-wowing with the long-legged gentlemen of Team SOG
These various challenges at the end had their intended affect. The finish line was bustling right up until 9:30, when the final team ran across.
I attempted to tally the points as they came through but quickly realized there was too much activity to think straight. Instead, I escaped to the front seat of my car with Anne, and we totaled and re-totaled the scores.
When all was said and done, Team SOG emerged the clear victor. Cumberland Trail Connection/ARMD came in second, and GOALS rounded out the top three of the premiere division (for more detailed results and additional photos, click here).
After a quick awards ceremony, racers began to depart. Anne, Bill, Brent, and I – with the help of a few hearty volunteers who remained – stuck around to break down the TA and debrief about the event.
On the way home, Brent and I decided to stop for lunch to celebrate. As we toasted the past 24 hours – and the past 7 months – we returned to our conviction of the previous week.
“So, we’re not doing this again next year, right?”
“But you know, there’s this great network of parks…”
“I was thinking the same thing…”