Friday, May 22, 2009

Rogaining National Championships - Mogollon Rim

Andrew and I planned months in advance to head down to Arizona for the Mogollon Rim Rogaine on May 16-17, as it was the only 24 hour event in the Western US this season. It turned out conveniently to be the "national championships" as well. For those not in the know, a "rogaine" is a 24 hour score-O event (score-O means orienteering in which you can visit checkpoints in any order, checkpoints have different point values, and whomever collects the most points and gets back to start within time allowed wins).

We arrived on Friday afternoon to the start location. Elevation was 7000 feet, temperatures were mid 80s during the day, 50 at night, with fairly clear skies. The terrain was mostly open forest with many washes, draws and gullies. We organized all of our food and gear by Friday evening. I weighed out Andrew's food with a postal scale so that he wouldn't bring too much food like last time. We also decided to come back to the Hash House (the start/end point - they also served food during the race here) just before dark if we could so that we could leave half of our food as well as our heavyish night gear, which included Andrews 500 lumen mountain bike light. We planned to light the place up at night.

They handed out maps at 9am, two hours before race start, and we sat down to plan our route. We decided to visit the northwest section of the map first, which had fewer terrain features, and I planned out a 6-8 hour loop. At night, we planned to head west and follow a series of draws to visit several of the checkpoints in that direction. Ideally, these would be reasonably easy to follow at night.

We were a bit rusty at the start, but picked up momentum as we went. We briefly stopped at a smallish gully looking for the first CP, but it was further on in a larger reentrant. We took a little while to match what we saw in the terrain with the size of things on the map. We also used thumb compasses for the first time, and although they took some getting used to, we really enjoyed navigating with thumb compasses rather than our sighting compasses.

We really tripped up at CP 91. At the previous CP, I suggested heading down the reentrant that we were in to the draw at the bottom then navigating from there. I didn't realize that there was an intersection before that, so we started navigating from the wrong point, and didn't really recover. We wasted 45 minutes and ended up bailing on CP 91 in order to find ourselves on the map again. 90 points was a lot to leave on the table, but we were anxious to put it behind us. From then on, our navigation was spot on, and we cruised into the Hash House at 6:40pm to grab a sandwich and our night lights. I decided to forgo long pants, although I did bring a windshirt/hat/gloves for the night in case we got cold and lost somewhere.

We headed west for a counterclockwise loop of the points out there. Everything was working for us navigationally, but we got slower and slower as we tired. During the 3-5am timeframe, we got really sloppy and stupid. Because we were tired, we followed an unmarked road for a while instead of a ridgeline, and then could not accurately place ourselves on the map for about half an hour while we looked for the CP. Then the on the next CP we thought we had overshot it before we arrived to the CP, and then I started reading my compass wrong, as I was looking for a NW gully instead of a NE gully. Andrew set me straight and we regrouped to come back and nail it, just as the sun was coming up. We started shortening our route a bit here in order to finish on time, and we finished our shortened route with 40 minutes to spare.

We finished with 2420 points. The winners had 2760,2750 and 2740, so we were 350 point off the winning score. While this was not completely out of our reach, we would have had to hit the 90 point CP that we skipped and then move a fair bit faster than we did so that we could have made up about two hours or so. We were 5th overall, which was respectable.

Summary: We did fairly well as far as bearings and pace counting except for the hours just before dawn. Our route choice seemed very good and we could have executed it if we were a little faster. My Salomon shoes withstood the beating - Andrew had a lot of foot pain in his Cascadias after 24 hours. Andrew stopped eating around midnight and suffered for it a few hours later. I brought just the right amount of food (after augmenting with a sandwich at the hash house), although the trail bar I had at the end was hard to eat and I would have rather had cookies. We ran out of water in the morning and suffered a little bit at the end. We could have easily stopped at a water stop that was on our original plan and probably gained 40 points on our current score, at the expense of an extra half an hour of time, putting us in much closer to the 24 hour cutoff. We started a little slow, but as we get more rogaine experience, I think that we will be able to correlate the size of the features we expect to see with the map immediately rather than after one or two trial-and-error checkpoints. I also need a little more practice with my thumb compass as I was getting confused several times in the wee hours of the morning.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Hot Times at Desert Winds Adventure Race

I headed down to Desert Winds with Peteris, Christi and Murray (Team Verve) for a weekend of navigation and technical challenges at the Desert Winds 24+ Hour Adventure Race. I had done the Desert Winds race last year and enjoy the beautiful and challenging terrain around Lake Meade, and I was hoping for more of the same. Robert Finlay, the RD, came through again with an excellent race course.

Verve showed up Friday at the start location, a day early, and we got a chance to try out our bikes on the sandy roads around Bonneli's Landing. We also trekked up some nearby hills and took a swim in a sheltered cove. We found the water cool and refreshing after being in the hot desert air. We went to bed early, ready for the next morning's start.

The race was composed of three main legs and several extra optional loops:

Leg 1: Trekking and Swimming: 30 km: Expected Time: 8 - 12 hours
Leg 2: Mountain Biking: 62 km: Expected Time: 6 - 8 hours
Leg 3: Trekking: 15 km: Expected Time: 3 - 6 hours
Optional Loop 1: Trek : 3 - 4 hours
Optional Loop 2: Bike/Trek: 2 - 3 hours
Optional Loop 3: Bike: 2 - 3 hours
Optional Loop 4: Bike: 2 - 3 hours

So, if we did everything on the fast side, we could finish the whole thing with an hour to spare. Additionally, there was a transition area (TA) between each of the main legs. A support crew would take our bags to the various TAs, and transport our bags, bikes and vehicles to the finish line, which was at some unknown location.

After a brief talk, Robert started the race at 9:40am and we were off. Our maps and passports were located at a checkpoint, CP 0, 900 meters away at a bearing of 140 degrees. My team crested a small knoll to find maps in a pile there, and we were the first to grab our map and view Leg 1 of the course. Leg 1 would take us across a few bays and inlets and ended in Temple Bar. Sweet! I had with me a copy of last year's map which overlapped with the last few CPs of our trek; I also had printed out some topo maps of the Bonelli's Landing area with the waterline already pre-marked (the waterline is 100 feet lower now than when USGS maps were made 30 years ago, so we have to redraw the coastline in the areas where we are navigating), and those topo maps covered the first few CPs. Peteris and I could both co-navigate most of this leg.

CP1 was along the near shoreline of Bonneli Bay. We dropped into a wash that led us down to the CP, with several other teams in tow. CP2 lay on the opposite side of the bay. We chose to run around the bay, as swimming across would entail putting on wetsuits/fins and inflating our boogie boards. The wind was also blowing against us. Most of the other teams also chose to run around the bay, although some people swam across. Running seemed faster, especially since the mud along the shoreline was sufficiently hardened to allow us to cross reasonably close to the water. We had to navigate around and across some side washes, but Peteris kept us sufficiently on track. We arrived at CP2 in the lead at the same time as Nuun/Feed The Machine (aka DART).

CP3 and CP4 were along another inlet, and we headed overland, trailing DART. We dropped into some washes and hit the main arm of the inlet, which was only 100 feet across, with CP3 on the other side. We dove in and swam to the other side without donning any of our special swim gear, then approach CP3 by land. DART headed south of us, and I postulated that they might be getting CP4 first, and that we consider that option. The RD had not discussed whether we were allowed to get CPs out of order. The others pointed out that CP4 was on the way to CP5, so it would not save us time in any case. "Just thinking out of the box", I said.

We headed along the ridge and dropped into a side inlet to pick up CP3. We turned around and headed back along the ridge to the south side of the inlet for CP4, which was fairly straightforward. Along the way, we passed a couple other teams that were coming the other way, having either overshot their mark or having tried to hike all the way around the narrow inlet instead of taking the 100 foot swim. We headed overland to CP5, a several km trek away. Noone was behind us.

CP5 was on a saddle between two hills among many others. We kept a reasonable walk/jogging pace going and arrived at the range of hills, a little short and north of our mark. We quickly readjusted, only costing us a little extra elevation loss/gain as we traversed a valley to the correct set of hills. We hit the saddle to pick up CP5. The temperature was rising to about 90 degrees now and Murray just ran out of water. We shared our limited ration of remaining water as we dropped down the other side of the range into a wash that would take us to CP6.

CP6 was at the base of a dry 15 foot waterfall in the wash, around which we bypassed to the left. I hiked quickly back up to the PVC pipe staked into the ground and tied with streamers to read the words on the side: Ice Water. That was exactly what we needed right now. We headed down the wash again, which would take us back to Lake Meade and some refreshing water.

I recognized CP7 from last year as being along the base of a set of cliffs, so I knew that we had to swim there. First, however, we arrived at the cove at the base of the wash, dropped our packs, and dove in. Refreshed, we hiked overland around a couple bays in order to get as close as possible to CP7 before donning our swim gear. We put on wetsuits/fins, inflated our boogie boards, and filled up with enough water to get us to the TA. Swimming was a nice break from the hot desert sun. After CP7, we swam across a bay on the other side and landed on the far side of Monkey Cove, somewhere fairly close to Temple Bar marina. We bushwhacked up to the road (on which I had traveled last year), and that led us straight into Temple Bar and the TA. Our final time for the first leg was under six hours.

We spent a half hour eating, marking the first two optional loops on our new maps, and transitioning to the bike leg. The only other team to show up was Robert and Druce Finlay - the RD and his son were doing the course unofficially to prepare for Primal Quest, and were impressed that there was a team ahead of them, as they had all the local knowledge of the area and had also actually placed the CPs. They said we "scorched the course", and apparently we did, as no other teams had arrived by the time we left on the biking leg.

We traveled only about 8km to Bike CP1, a manned CP and the start of the first optional loop. I briefly felt really weak and tired on the long uphill climb, a product of lots of sun and hard work, and I looked forward to getting off my bike and back on my feet for some more technical navigation.

Optional loop 1 was about 5 miles long and had four CPs (A,B,C,D). We dispatched A and B in a straightforward fashion. We dropped down into a wash and followed it up towards C. A bobcat! We saw it bounding up the side of the wash. We took a right turn at a large side wash, expecting to find C, but it turned into several smaller washes, and we started to worry. We consulted the map and run up a small ridge between two washes for a better view, locating the CP only 20 yards away. On to D. Peteris discovers a six foot long, black and yellow reptile. A king snake! Although it is non-poisonous, we gave it a wide berth.

We need to cross several ridges to get to D, and at one point, we are cliffed out above twenty foot drops to the wash below. We traverse sideways until we can bypass it, then cross more ridges. There were at least a couple times where we thought we might be at the correct ridge, only to find that there was another one after it, and as Peteris accurately pointed out that D was at the base of the last ridge before a large flat area, we continued on, eventually hitting D without too much meandering. From D back to the CP where we left our bikes was fairly flat and straightforward, and we popped out onto the road only 10 meters from where our bikes were. The sun was close to setting. Other teams behind us were going to have a lot more trouble with the last couple CPs if they had to do them after dark, and only three other teams had shown up at Bike CP 1 in the 2+ hours that we were on the optional loop course.

We hopped back on the bikes for another 16 km of uphill slogfest to Bike CPs 2 and 3. Sandy spots drove us crazy, and Christi struggled to unclip from her pedals as she got mired in the sand, falling several times, but persevering. Night descended, and biking became more bearable without the radiating heat of the sun. We arrived at Bike CP3 (manned) after two hours, at 10pm or so. They only had two gallons of water at the CP. We used all of it to refill our bladders and bottles, as we were thirsty and somewhat dehydrated from the 12 hours of racing we had already put in, mostly in the hot sun. Robert and Druce, who had been fairly close to us during the whole biking segment, arrived soon after us and volunteered to take care of the water situation by going to get more. Meanwhile, Team Verve (that's us) headed out to do the optional CP on top of Senator Mountain.

Option loop 2 (CP E) had only one CP, and only teams that wanted to clear the whole course would attempt this one. We rode up an unmarked road to get up onto the flank of Senator Mountain, then we left our bikes and scrambled another 700 vertical feet to the top. We briefly caught some exposure while traversing a short narrow ridge to the summit. CP in hand (look in summit logbook and find out what town a particular person was from), we dropped back down a scree field to the road and bikes. Biking back down, we caught the glint from the eyes of nighthawks sitting in the roadway. We also saw a fox prowling in the night along the roadside.

We arrived back to Bike CP 3 to find that no other teams had shown up in the two hours we were gone. We now had a 2+ hour lead on the whole field as the clock struck midnight. They had gotten more water, so we refilled again and headed off to Bike CPs 4 and 5.

Bike CP 4 was tricky. The CP was described at being at an intersection where we were to make a right turn. However, the road to the right was overgrown, and the CP was 20 feet off the main road. We all almost went by it, but I luckily spotted it and stopped the others before they had disappeared out of earshot. We were given very accurate directions to the bike CPs that indicated exactly how many kilometers we were to go between turns or CPs, so our having two bike computers helped greatly. Teams that didn't have a bike computer suffered much more than the rest of us on the bike leg. Bike CP 5 came easily.

At Bike CP 5, the main loop required a bike portage that looked difficult. By doing an optional bike loop (optional loop 3: CPs F,G,H), we avoided the portage. The navigation was reasonably easy, and except for being confused for a couple minutes about where an unmarked road was, we sailed through the loop.

A fourth optional loop required us to follow a lot of unmarked roads, and so produced in us a wee bit of anxiety. An unmarked road lead away from waypoint 3 on the map. Did it go to checkpoint I? Yes, it did. We portaged our bikes down a hillside, then followed a 4WD road to a reentrant at which we were supposed to pick up another unmarked road. It was just a sandy wash that was a challenge to ride down (so much for the easy downhills). At the bottom, we exited on another unmarked road where we found checkpoint J. I find it very comforting to find a CP while following roads not on the map, as it lets us know we're not lost yet.

Our directions let us know that there are "a lot of unmarked roads between J and K". We follow one of them to another road, then make a few more turns before we discover that we really are lost this time. I'm not too worried, as dawn will come in half an hour, giving us a better view of the terrain. After a short discussion, we deduce where we might be and after a few more twists and turns, end up at the next CP. Whew!

Dawn arrives shortly thereafter to easier biking up another unmarked road to its endpoint, where we find the last optional CP of the loop. We are required to portage our bikes down another hill to pick up the road to Bike CP 7 and TA2.

It is light again and all the tricky navigation is over. What could go wrong now? Peteris stops to fold the map, and the rest of us stop 100 yards ahead to wait. Peteris does not show up, and when we go back to look for him, he is gone. Apparently, he went down a wash that paralleled the road and got ahead of us. I head after him for five minutes while Murray and Christi wait, but I do not see Peteris. Returning, I suggest that we follow him to the next CP. We all travel down the wash, yelling his name. The wash reconnects with the road and we continue on to the next CP where we expect to find him. He is not there. Oh-oh.

At this point, we are probably two hours ahead of our nearest competitor. The only way we cannot win this race is if we somehow cannot finish, or if we lose one of our teammates. And we just lost one of our teammates. Not good.

My worst fear is that Peteris went on to the TA, following the bike tracks of another team (other teams skipped all the optional loops and got ahead of us). And if we waited for him, and he waited for us, the clock would tick away... I made a brash decision in retrospect. Thinking that Peteris was just crazy enough to continue on, I told my teammates that we should go on to the TA. Bad, bad bad.

After 7.5 km of biking, we arrived at the TA. As you might have guessed, Peteris was not there. Crestfallen and embarassed at showing up at the TA without our teammate, we fled the TA back up the road to the previous CP. One of the support crew stopped us on the road and asked us where we were going. I responded that we went forward, he went back, and that he must be waiting for us at the last CP. The truth was slightly more egregious. We should not have gone on past the CP. I just didn't see that Peteris could have come up the road while we were going down the wash, and that we passed each other at the spot where the road and wash separated, and that our yells and calls for him went unheard.

I rode back to the CP to find Peteris riding into the CP again as well, after he had done a few loops between the CP and our previous position. I was elated. Our team, together again, rode on to the TA and the end of leg 2. It was 8am and we had 5 hours left in order to complete the final trek to the finish, which the RD had estimated would take teams 3-6 hours. As we were a fast team, we expected to complete the final leg in closer to 3 hours than 5, but anything can happen. I drank a doubleshot espresso drink. Ah... morning coffee.

Our team fell into a funk for the next half hour as we ruminated over the fiasco of almost losing a teammember, but we eventually fell back into the groove and held together well over the last few hills and ridges that the course threw at us. The last three CPs were out on a completely flat area sparsely populated with joshua trees and acacia bushes that required some fairly exact navigating using bearings and pace counts. Without too much difficulty though, we managed to walk in straight lines for a mile at a time in order to nail the last 3 CPs dead-on.

Turning ourselves to the finish line, we settled into an easy walk and congratulated ourselves on a job well done. We crossed the line in 26 hours, well ahead of the 27 hour cutoff, and we were the only team that completed the full course. Good job, Verve!.