Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Fall BEAST Race (6 hour Adventure Race)

This year’s fall BEAST race took place down in Tahoma State Forest, near Ashford, WA and Mount Rainier. After a couple days of rain and snow, temperatures hovered near freezing, and Sunday was looking clear and sunny. Andrew and I both wore water-proof socks, and we brought YakTrax for our running shoes for traction in the snow. I wore a lightweight long-sleeved wool shirt and a lightweight long-sleeve thermal shirt over that (I decided on two layers after I almost froze during the pre-race meeting). I also put some handwarmer packets in my bike gloves, as I often have problems with my fingers going numb in temperatures like this.

The race started with a LeMans start – a 200m run out and back to our bikes parked by the side of the road. Andrew and I ran ahead of everyone and got a jump start, although we were quickly caught by several teams behind us at the first CP. We dodged into the trees at the base of a ridge to hit CP 2 fairly quickly and got out ahead again. One of the state park managers awaited us at a huge log pile blocking one of the forest roads, and she took our picture as we vaulted over it carrying our bikes on our shoulders. I put Andrew on tow after CP 3 so that we could keep our momentum up the hills that were coming. Glenn and Mike were right behind us at CP 4, hoping we’d miss it, but we got that one quickly and moved on to CP 5, which was up one of three reentrants. It was fairly easy to see once we were in the trees. So far, everything was going smoothly. Glenn and Mike were looking strong, and Kevin/Dean, an unknown pair (to me), were also hot on our heels.

CP 6 was on the SE side of a saddle, and our bike route took us to both the north and south sides. I had originally thought that we would come up from the south side, but as we passed the north side of the saddle, I realized it was a much shorter climb from that side, and so we stopped there and quickly dispatched the CP, which lay just on the other side of the ridge. We spiked CP 7 when I climbed up a steep slope to the west side of a quarry, right to the CP.

Then came the long, long climb up a decommissioned logging road to CP 8. Andrew was really tired at this point and had trouble riding his bike up the road. I had him on tow, but a lot of cuts in the road and a few fallen trees caused us to get off/on our bikes a lot more than we wanted to. CP8 was just alongside this road, just above snow level. From there, we continued to climb, and a quick stop by Andrew caused our tow rope to snap. Then it became push-a-bike, and both Glenn/Mike and Kevin/Dean passed us before we got to the top. All of us pushed our bikes up steeply through a few inches of snow at the very top of the road. The Bike-to-Run TA was not too far away, and we all pulled into it close together. Now we were on foot.

Kevin/Dean were ahead by a short ways, but we caught up with them at CP10, where they were milling about. Andrew and I ducked left into the trees and tagged the CP while they watched and followed. Apparently their navigation is a bit spotty. They followed us to CP 11 at High Hut (elevation 4760’) and then caught up with us again in time to see us get CP 12 down the ridge. We headed along a ski trail to CP13 with Kevin/Dean 20 feet behind us, so we stopped to let them pass. Besides, the people in front had to break trail through the four inches of snow. CP 13 was right along this trail and easy to locate. Peteris and Chrisi showed up. Peteris made a back-handed compliment about what a Superman I was, so why were THEY right behind us? Glenn and Mike might have arrived also; it was getting a bit crowded.

Everyone went in different directions to CP 14. Andrew and I took the direct way straight up through the bushes, and made it to the ridge first. We followed the ridge to the high point and hit CP 14, and then we continued several hundred feet down the ridge through heavy snow-laden brush until we intersected a road. There we jogged right, found a small ski trail marked on the map, and dropped another several hundred feet to a basin below. Being first was definitely a disadvantage, as snow covered me as I knocked overhanging branches out of the way along the narrow trail. I had two fairly warm layers on, though, so I did not get too cold. We were happy to have waterproof socks on when the trail went in/through some large ankle deep partially frozen puddles that would have otherwise chilled our toes.

CP 15 was on the northwest side of a shallow hill. I missed it and headed too far north into the bushes, and while I was thrashing around (two, three minutes?), all three other teams passed us. Andrew and I picked up the pace to catch up with them at CP 16 on the next hill and CP 17 at the edge of an open field. Then we climbed up to a road that headed up to a saddle and to CP 18/19 on the other side.

At this point, Kevin and Dean, who I think were ahead of everyone, disappeared. From what I understand, they went pass the turns for both CP 18 and CP 19 and kept heading down the road a ways, and when they realized that they were too far, they called it quits (something about needing to be home by a certain time, I heard). In any case, we never saw them again.

Glenn/Mike led out to CP 19. We were allowed to get CP 18/19 in either order, and I had already decided that CP 19 had a better attackpoint if we headed there first, as CP 18 was on a hilltop and easy locate from any direction, while CP 19 was in a reentrant off a fairly straight smaller road with only a subtle curve in it. We got to the expected location and I dove into the bushes as Glenn and Mike verified their location from the road. I found the CP and got back to the road without revealing the location to others. Andrew and I bushwhacked up the slope aiming for the hilltop far above us as Peteris and Christi joined Glenn/Mike at the previous CP.

We made it to the hilltop first to nab CP 18. I could hear both Peteris and Glenn talking in the woods below us, very close behind us. From here, we retraced our steps all the way back to the TA where we had left our bikes, so I put the WeGo Racelink on Andrew and we started to motor as fast as we were able (which got slower and slower as the day wore on). One decommissioned road we followed was like a mogul run with all of the snow covered cuts across it. We did manage to gain a couple minutes on the others by the time we pulled into the TA (now CP 20).

At this point, Matt and Erin handed us new maps for the “Pro Course”, and extra loop containing three more CPs that would give us bonus time, so we headed back out again trying to keep up the pace. The first CP (CP21) was at the edge of a clearing above the road, and I took a chance by bushwhacking straight up to it rather than taking another road up that required a slightly longer route. We popped out in the clearing within twenty feet of the CP. Yay! We continued along another very snowy decommissioned road that was partially overgrown with slide alder. At a hairpin turn in this road, we caught CP 22 and continued straight down the ridge through light brush, dropping 300 feet down to a ski trail, along which CP 23 was located. I could hear Peteris singing somewhere above us on the ridge. We turned left and followed the ski trail back out to a main road, and back up to the TA again where our bikes were located.

The only thing left was to ride our bikes down the main road to the finish. The RD had mentioned at race start that as the road was snowy and slippery most of the way down, we would all be charged at least 12.5 minutes on this leg, even if we did it faster, so as to discourage a breakneck race to the finish. Andrew and I passed Glenn/Mike and Peteris/Christi a minute or two down the road as they were still coming up, so we knew that we could relax on our victory lap to the finish.

Oh, and I forgot to mention all the beautiful scenery and views, including gorgeous views of Mount Rainier just across the valley. This was a beautiful race in an amazing location. Thanks to Eric Bone, the RD, for making this happen.

Monday, November 10, 2008

USARA Nationals

Matt Hayes, Julie Heidt and I headed off to Atlanta on the redeye Wednesday night for the USARA Nationals 30 hour Adventure Race. Thursday was a busy day for us, as we had to drive up to Blue Ridge, collect our bikes from the bike shop, build them, drop them off at the bike drop, pack our packs and then head out to the pre-race meeting Thursday evening. There we got the CP coordinates and two maps for the race (minus the prologue), after which we quickly headed home and got to work on route planning, and eventually got to bed by 11pm.

The next morning we woke up at 4:30am to get to the pre-race meeting at 5:45am at the park in Blue Ridge. After a short meeting, we boarded a train and travelled six miles up the river to the actual start of the race (one team missed the train and had to run six miles to the start). We were given the prologue map on the train, which included a short orienteering section, followed by a knee-deep river crossing to reach the canoes for the 15 mile canoe trip down the river under sunny skies.

Toccoa River was fairly wide and shallow, and we constantly had to maneuver around (and over) rocks. I really enjoyed this leg, as the river was pretty, but also kept us on our toes. A 3 foot high spillway blocked the river at one point, requiring a short portage. We made it off the water in 6th place. We then had to carry/drag our canoes almost a kilometer along a logging road to the canoe drop-off point, where we started our run segment at 10:30am or so.

We ran through a nice trail system for several more miles to the bike drop-off point at Thunder Rock campground as skies clouded up and a drizzling rain started.

I discovered that I had a flat tire as we jumped on our bikes, requiring a quick fix. Then we headed out on a mountain bike leg to pick up 5 more CPs. This leg introduced us to how the race navigation was going to be. CP5 was on an unmarked forest road off the main road, then CP 6 was off a small unmarked horse trail off the unmarked forest road. We followed the visible yet faint trail along the ridge to CP 7, and then dropped down the ridge to Patterson Gap for our bike-to-run transition at CP 8, at 4pm. By this time, it had begun to really pour hard. I kept my bike gloves and wool shirt in a ziploc to keep them dry, so that I could wear them at night when it was cold. The rain was not too bad, as long as we didn't stop exercising for too long.

The next section was a 7 mile trekking loop, where we could get CP 9,10,11,12 in any order. We did these in numerical order, and dispatched them fairly quickly. Leaving CP 11, we had to bushwhack 1200 feet up to a logging road. CP 12 was on a ridge in the woods, requiring an out-and-back bushwhack. We donned our headlamps as the light fell into darkness, and we were happy to collect the last trekking CP before it was too dark. We returned to CP 8/13 to pick up our bikes again at 6:35pm.

The bike ride from CP 13 to CP 14 was fairly straightforward on a main forest road, although there were a lot of ups and downs. I was a little tired from towing Julie the previous foot loop, and so I could hardly keep up with Matt and Julie on some of the climbs here. Although Julie got towed a lot in this race (using our WeGo Team Link), she really kept up and made the rest of us work to keep up as well. We were definitely not dawdling. We arrived at CP 14 at 8:16pm.

CP 15,16,17 was another trekking orienteering loop, which we again did in numerical order. The Pinhoti Trail was not marked on our map, but we drew it in the night before and planned to use this trail in our loop. I felt good to have done some previous research to that we did not have to make as many on-the-fly decisions about uncharted trails. We felt really strong on this 9 mile loop. We also saw DART coming the other direction, and they were looking strong, but not too too far ahead of us. We were in 4th at this point, and felt solid.

Returning to CP 14/18 at 10:50 pm, we picked up our bikes again for the killer longer-than-eternity biking section. We could get CP 19-13 in any order, followed by CP 24, then CP 25-28 in any order, followed by CP 29 and then to the finish. Little did we know that this would take over 12 hours.

We picked a route that hit CP 19,20,23,22,21 then 24. We saw DART coming back from CP 20 as we hit CP 19, which was on top of Flattop mountain. We were close to 3rd place at this point. Julie's brakes stopped working due to mud and wetness (get disc brakes), and then she mentioned that she did not have health insurance. Accident waiting to happen? Stay lucky, Julie. On the trail to CP 20, a turn-off was extremely hard to find, and we passed it, then passed it again on our way back. After some careful mapwork, however, we found the trail, disguised by downed trees and almost invisible until we bushwhacked a short ways back into the woods. This trail quickly became a bike-carry as we constantly hiked over fallen trees. The trail dropped out onto CP 20 and a forest road. We followed this to a spot where we left our bikes to climb to CP 23 (on another hill) and back. From here, we had planned to take a trail marked on the map over to CP 22, but we could not find it. Where the trail was marked leaving the logging road there was now a 20 foot cliff, so we quickly decided to take the road to CP 21 instead. This was a long winding downhill ride that became really, really cold as we travelled along the creek at the bottom through cold, almost frosty mist. We turned off on FSR 623 to the end to get to CP 21, then retraced our path back to the main road. Only CP 22 left.

CP 22 was deceptive and difficult. We followed a road onto private land that dead-ended into a forest. An old forest service road that was completely overgrown continued on, but was heading west instead of south. We doubled back and tried again, and after a couple of false starts, we discovered that while the actual new-looking road curved from south slowly to the west past some houses, the road on the map stayed south and crossed the creek. We ducked into the woods as a few other teams were milling aimlessly around in the same area, then we crossed the creek and found the old overgrown road. After a difficult bike/bushwhack, we nabbed CP22. The sun was just rising and both we and our hopes started to warm up.

We got to CP 24 at 7am or so, after 8 full hours on the previous orienteering section. Bonfires were going and a couple teams were warming themselves by the fire. It turns out that everybody was having a difficult time and very few people had passed by who had already cleared the course. We were still in the running. The next section was going to be easier. It could also be done in any order, but the order was fairly obvious (CP25,27,26,28,29). From CP 24 to CP 25, we could either take a 3km trail or 12 km on the road. We had seen a trailhead on the previous night, but it turns out that it was in the wrong spot and was the start of an unmarked decommissioned forest service road. At this point, I think that we should have switched plans and taken the road, but after 24 hours, we were singularly minded. We bushwhacked a short bit to find the old overgrown trail, then pushed our bikes the 3km through bush and over logs to reach the FS road to CP 25. The 3km trail took us an hour to traverse.. In any case, we had a race to finish.

The last CPs were all easy to find. CP 25 required a short hike up to a waterfall and back. We headed down the road another 15 minutes to CP 27, which put us on a trail that lead to Hudson Gap. We pushed our bikes a lot on this trail, although it was much clearer than trails we had seen the previous night. Hike-a-bike was a common theme for this race.. The map showed a forest road that came within 80 vertical feet of the trail, but a group ahead of us had no luck finding the road on a bushwhack they had done, so we stuck to the trail that continued up along the river valley, now unmarked on the map. It left us right below Hudson Gap, to which we climbed right up to the CP. Only roads left now.

We followed logging roads and paved roads to CP 28 and 29. At this point, we started seeing a lot more teams, as everyone was heading back to the finish with whatever collection of CPs that they had collected so far. The very last section from CP 29 to the finish, however, was brutal. We travelled 4 miles on a railroad bed, and we could either ride between the rails (lots of jarring bumps across railroad ties) or try to ride the gravel along the edge which got very narrow most of the time and spilled off into a ditch. Once under the freeway at the south edge of town, we jumped onto some real roads and rode into the finish at 11:30am.

We finished 6th. Only 7 teams out of 80 completed the whole course. We finished in 28.5 hours, three hours behind DART/Nuun (the winners) and only 25 minutes out of third place.
The race was very tough, and I felt good too have finished it. Matt and Julie were stellar teammates as well.