Chilly Start to 2023
Wow! No race reports since 2021!
Well, 2023 hasn't started off according to plan, so maybe it's a good year to start recording the ups and downs of the race team once more after another terrific Adventure Addicts race down near Appomattox, Virginia. If you aren't doing Michelle and Liz's races, you are missing out on some of the most enjoyable races out there. They are well designed and directed, and they offer some of the best route choice, strategy and navigation. We may be biased as such events play to our strengths, but we also love Michelle and Liz as fellow RDs because they design creative events that really offer something for everyone, regardless of level. This year's Chill Adventure Race was no different!
OK, let's get the best part of the race out there first: our new teammate Paul Miller is terrific!
We already knew this, and Paul has raced several times with the team over the last 12-15 months, but he was eager to get to work during the off-season, and his commitment to preparation and racing hard paid off. More importantly, he is just a great person and teammate, and it's always wonderful when you find a new friend who fits in with the team dynamic and culture as seamlessly as Paul does. So, regardless of everything else, the weekend was a win!
Now, the...downright awful...Abby tore her calf LITERALLY 200 meters or so into the race.
We left the start line on foot on a short trail run into the woods. We had to leap a small stream, and upon pushing off, something popped. And that was that. It didn't take long for us to determine that this wasn't a twisted ankle that would calm down with a few minutes of deep breathing and gentle walking, and Paul and I carried her and helped her hop back to the start. Obviously not the way you want to start a race, but more importantly, not the way you want to start a season. With a handful of races, an ultra, an expedition race in the amazing Faroe Islands, and more on the horizon for 2023, we are just crossing our fingers the news isn't absolutely terrible. (and word just in, it sounds like she avoided a season-ending injury. It's torn, but she should be able to bounce back within a month or so. PHEW!!)
The silver lining, for me and Paul, was that the injury happened at such a time that we were able to essentially just restart the race. Since we were within earshot of the start line and hadn't made it to any CPs, we were permitted to shift into the two person all-male category. Racing officially wasn't the most important thing, but it was nice of Michelle and Liz to recognize and allow this. We lost 15 minutes of race time, but we were able to then go out and race our race.
This year's course was essentially broken into two segments: a foot and bike loop from the start. There were also nine "wildcard" CPs that could be attacked anytime, anyhow. We laid out a foot loop that would incorporate two of these wildcard points, and we planned to tackle the rest from bike. After a fair bit of debate, we decided to run first as we didn't want to get stuck out on that foot section if time ran out...and because it was VERY cold, which just didn't sound all that fun on the bike to start.
Once we were off for real, we made steady work of the foot loop, and we slowly roped in some teams, though it was difficult to really tell what anyone was doing since there were so many different route options and strategies. We stayed positive and focused, and despite sub freezing temperatures, we weren't bothered by the cold. Roughly halfway through, we caught up to Bash Brothers who we knew were one of the favorite teams to win overall, and we crossed paths with TanZ, another team we expected to be dueling it out for the top spot (though, I don't think they saw us). As it turned out, TanZ was looping in the opposite direction, while we ultimately ended up leap frogging with Bash Brothers for the rest of the stage.
As we wrapped up the trek, we felt great. We had an efficient stage, we had made up the lost time it seemed, and we also benefitted from TanZ having skipped a CP by accident. They lost some time running back for it, which gave us a much needed cushion considering our own lost time.
With six hours or so to go, we felt confident in our ability to clear the bike stage, but unfortunately, we were not able to move the way we wanted to through the stage thanks to yours truly and a few factors that slowed our progress.
In the face of these issues, we just moved steadily and, we felt, efficiently. Our nav was sharp all day, and we had a blast cruising around the bike course. Halfway through, we still felt confident that we would sweep the bike course. We had been inching up on Bash Brothers for the first hour of the stage, catching up to them at bike drops for CPs, but our paths finally diverged and we largely rode on our own for a couple of hours.
The highlight of the ride was our bikewhack from CP 16 to 17. We actually were able to more or less ride our bikes off trail, pedaling...albeit slowly...for 90% or so of the whack. We saved several miles of road riding, and the journey was a beautiful one. Not long after that, we saw TanZ for the first time in several hours just as we headed in to drop our bikes and take care of a loop of four wild cards (A-D).
And here we entered a time vortex.
We nabbed the points without any real issues, but I think we went through our one real lull, feeling some fatigue. The loop took a bit longer than we expected, and once out of it, we found that time had melted away. As we left, TanZ was getting started, and we had also seen Bash Brothers' bikes, so we knew things might be tight. That said, it seemed clear that we all had done different things, and we had no idea where things stood.
We set off for the final 90+ minutes of riding, and when the clock ticked down to 60 minutes, I really started analyzing time estimates as it was increasingly clear that it was going to be close. Also knowing that tired legs and an inefficient bike would make it hard to maximize speed and really be able to turn it on, it became evident that we were likely going to have to drop one of the finals CPs, an out and back for CP6.
This is often one of the roles Abby take on: timekeeper. She checks the team on big picture decisions if time is tight. As the minutes slipped by and we conducted periodic time checks, her voice became louder and louder that there just wasn't time for fortune and glory. Disappointed to drop it, but knowing it was the right thing to do, we rode in to the finish having cleared all but one CP. Knowing we lost 15 minutes to start and probably another 15-30 minutes from what was essentially a six hour mechanical, we were at peace with that. And we only had six minutes to spare, so it was a wise decision for us.
As it turned out, both TanZ and Bash Brothers did clear the course, but they both came back several minutes late meaning we secured the overall win after penalties were factored in. It was a bittersweet win knowing Abby was hurt, and it was frustrating not to be able to ride efficiently on the bike, but it was fantastic to build more rapport with Paul.
We worked well together, and even without a second set of maps, he contributed in meaningful ways to the navigation, catching a couple of issues and putting in the extra work to punch most of the CPs. Our route, as it turned out, seemed to be dialed in. I think bits may have required some slower travel, but it seems we traveled 5-6 miles less than Bash Brothers, and 18 miles or so fewer than TanZ. We knew those two teams were likely to be faster than us anyway, but considering our limitations on the bike stage, this ultimately made the difference.
And Abby's voice, telling us to skip that last CP!
Huge thanks to all the volunteers working with Liz and Michelle to make it happen, and as always, it was so great to see so many friends, old and new, playing in the woods. Special shout out to our teammate Joel Ford who raced with team TBD and took third place in the mixed gender division. Here's to a great 2023!
The Rootstock team rounded out its 2021 season this past weekend, when Jim, Karyn, and I (Abby) traveled to northeastern Vermont for the GMARA Hard Fall. It's a gorgeous part of the country and an outdoor playground that deserves a fantastic race. This was the first 24-hour race hosted by GMARA, and as far as I know the first bigger race RD Tom Martin has directed. Though there were some wrinkles to work out, the organization was wonderful, the bones of the course were awesome, and Tom has a great eye for creative strategy and route decisions. The first 24-hour race Brent and I directed was a 36-48 hour course, and knowing that Tom is a good navigator who had this amazing area to work with, I'd been expecting something big and bold. That's what he delivered. I'll be eager to take part in the next one.
We left Philly mid-morning Friday and had an uncharacteristically traffic-less drive up to Lebanon, New Hampshire, where we'd planned to have dinner with Alyssa and Matt on Team VERT and camp in their driveway. About 45 minutes into the drive, I realized that I'd forgotten to pack the middle seat for the canoe. We contemplated reversing course, but decided to pick up a milk crate along the way instead. We got to their house around 4pm and spent an hour sorting gear and repacking before we realized that the car keys had disappeared. Commence 2.5 hours of unpacking and repacking every single bag in the car and calling Subaru Roadside Assistance for help before Karyn found the keys by headlight in a patch of grass none of us remembered walking over.
That coincided with VERT returning home from dinner with takeout for us, so we ate quickly and were in the iKamper before 9pm. Got a solid night of pre-race sleep and pulled out of their driveway for what should have been a quick hour up to the race. Except the Dunkin Donuts nearby was understaffed, so we were trapped in the drive-thru line for 45 minutes for three bagels and cream cheese and ended up pulling into check-in ten minutes after they started giving out maps. At least DD had a milk crate for us!
We grabbed our maps and found a table to begin sorting. It was apparent quickly that it was a giant course, but we had no time or distance estimates, so we planned our route as we normally would and figured we would adapt as needed along the way.
LEG 1 - Lake Willoughby Paddle
The bus departed at 9am and we had a quick ride up to Lake Willoughby for the start. Two minutes before the clock began, Tom announced that he expected that top teams would need about two hours more than they had to clear everything. We didn't have any time to process that before we started a whitecapped 8km paddle across the lake.
We handled the conditions well enough, chasing Strong Machine for the first half and then leading for the second. NH Trail Vets hugged in close behind us for most of it. Mason told Jim that any time they moved off our tail, they were getting swamped with water. We learned later that they were in good company: several boats either capsized or filled, leaving carnage on the water. A number of teams stopped to offer assistance, including our friends on Electric Mayhem and Fire Breathing Rubber Ducky Fun Machine. We heard the stories from Electric Mayhem on the way home. It sounds like it could have been a pretty dangerous situation, but luckily everyone came out unscathed and were able to continue racing.
LEG 2 - Trek
This section included a whole bunch of checkpoints, each worth somewhere between 25 and 100 points. Every 100 points was 1CP, and teams would be considered clearing if they got 900 of the 1100 points out there. We had talked about a few different routes ahead of time that were all predicated upon clearing that 900 number. I questioned that approach when we were in the boats and suggested a cluster to skip, but in the commotion on the water, we didn't really get a chance to think it through, and I didn't bring it up again when we transitioned - definitely my mistake in not speaking up.
We started through our planned route and were moving well, but the woods were thick and the elevation was substantial, and it became clear quickly that we would need to adapt. The problem was that our original course committed us to a route that was pretty inefficient if we were leaving things out there. In the end, we left with 500 points/5 CPs and headed out on bike for a "mystery section."
LEG 3 - Corn Maze
Alyssa had texted me earlier in the week to point out that one of the event sponsors was a dogsledding company, leaving us wondering whether the mystery section would be some sort of sledding challenge, but it turned out to be a big community corn maze! (We never did find out what was up with the dogsleds...). We got there around 3:30pm, and there were still a lot of families roaming through because the race entry didn't officially open until 4pm. So, we slowed to a walk and did our best not to disturb the paying customers. The section included two loops on bike and one on foot, all set up as a memory-o. The first point was a bit of mystery - "go south and trust us that you'll find it" - but it worked out okay. Strong Machine was finishing as we arrived, and Cliff told us that they'd never laughed so hard on a race course as they did in that section. We had a few moments ourselves, but it sounded like they may have had more fun :)
LEG 4 - Kingdom Trails
When Brent and I rode the Kingdom Trails this summer, it was about the most fun I'd ever had on a bike. So when the race sent us the KT waiver last week, I was SO excited for the chance to return. But I confess, it wasn't my favorite section. Between the bulky packs (lots of mandatory layers - all of which we ended up using by the end of the race), the micro-nav through the trails, and the way the course was laid out, we never quite got into a groove and found the flow that I had enjoyed so much in August. Some of the CPs were great; others left us questioning our life choices (the pine tree on the edge of the marsh... that was surrounded by pine trees; the "nasty thicket" where the circle on the map was entirely comprised of nasty thicket; the one that required us to hike our bikes up a 600-foot climb on a trail that didn't allow mountain bikes...). By 9:00pm - we couldn't believe we'd only been racing for eleven hours by that point - we once again found ourselves needing to leave behind points, creating a less-than-ideal route. Our section ended with three lengthy out-and-backs and the aforementioned 600-foot climb up the red trail. We passed Strong Machine, who were coming down from the top sans bikes - clearly a more optimal route - and learned that they had crushed the section. We were a little bit deflated but continued on and made relatively quick work of the descent into the overnight trek.
LEG 5 - Off-trail Trek
You needed to arrive on this leg by 2am to go out, and there was a suggested 3:30am cutoff to depart. I don't recall what time we got there, but we knew in advance that there was no way we'd be able to cover 8+ kms of entirely off-trail travel in the time we had. This was the first section where we made good decisions ahead of time about what to skip, and we set ourselves up for a solid westerly loop that would offer us (I believe) 7 CPs.
I had cooked myself a bit on the earlier hike-a-bike, and after spending half the race eating voraciously - couldn't seem to get enough calories in - my stomach turned on me a bit. I poured a coke into my bike bottle and nursed that and a bag of animal crackers over the next couple hours to get myself out of the hole. It never impacted my race or the team, but I could tell I was right on the edge.
We had been looking forward to this section from the start - we typically enjoy overnight footwork, especially when it requires bushwhacking and challenging nav - and overall the section went well. Jim's navigation was solid throughout the race, and he and I had been working the maps well together all day, and that continued here as well. We did get tripped up on one CP - a three-meter boulder - after taking a line off the wrong creek. We ran into Strong Machine there again and all searched together for a little while before we decided it was misplotted and continued on. They caught up to us again a few minutes later and Cliff said, "you're going to hate yourselves. You were twenty feet from the point." Worse yet, Karyn had literally been standing on the boulder... twice... but she left so we could re-attack.
By that time we assumed Strong Machine had several CPs on us, but nothing we could do but continue executing our race. We finished our loop - not before coming face-to-face with a porcupine! - and transitioned back to bike for a short ride to the Passumpsic River.
LEG 6 - Bike
This should have been a short and mindless ride, except we decided to get cute and shave a couple kilometers from the expected route, and we bit ourselves in the butt. After retracing our ride out of the Kingdom Trails, we got to a road intersection. The intended route would have us turn left for about 6 kilometers of rollers to the TA. But if we stayed straight, there was a road about 2 kilometers downhill that looked like it should connect to main route. After flying down, we spent 15+ minutes puttering around (possibly in people's backyards... with a very large skunk watching us), before giving up, dejectedly climbing back up the 2km, and then adding the 6km we should have just done from the beginning. We looked on google maps and the tracking map later, and the street view seems to indicate that the road connected, but on the satellite it shows up as a nondescript trail up and over a cliff... I struggled to stay awake over the last fifteen minutes and ultimately resorted to reciting kids' books (which came easier than songs) to avoid falling off the side of the road.
LEG 7/8 - Passumpsic River Paddle + Ride to Finish
The race ended with a paddle/trek down the Passumpsic and a few minutes of road riding to the finish. You had to be on the water by 5:30am in order to begin the section, presumably because the RDs expected that teams would need 4.5 hours to complete the paddle + ride, without getting any CPs along the way.
We got on the river around 5:25am, and I immediately came alive again. I had a blast negotiating the shallow, twisty river from the front of the boat. When Jim and Karyn got sleepy in the pre-dawn fog, we sang show tunes and watched a beaver swimming alongside our canoe. Given the time crunch, we decided to leave the two clusters of foot CPs, focusing on moving efficiently and nabbing the two points on the water.
But when we hit the third portage, we saw all of our bikes waiting for us. It turned out that they decided to cut the paddle short and have teams bike the last 9km to the TA and continue onto the finish. I'm sure most teams were relieved to be off the water, and it was probably the right decision for the race as a whole, given how the day had played out, but we were pretty frustrated by the change, in that we'd made decisions based on the time cutoffs we'd been given at the start of the race. We chatted briefly with the RDs, who recognized the consequences of the decision for a select number of teams, and then hopped on our bikes to try to clear the last three foot points from the bike.
With renewed urgency, we dropped our bikes and took off, running for the three points in our bike shoes. We criss-crossed with VERT at the top of the climb. They had approached the loop in reverse so that was their last point. From there, we grabbed the last two points and then jumped on our bikes for the last 5km back.
We had plenty of time to get there so weren't planning on gunning, but then we passed Strong Machine and Cliff yelled, "thanks for making us race!" That lit a bit of a fire, and we roared through the final couple kilometers into St. Johnsbury School and the finish. Strong Machine was 2-3 minutes behind us. We guessed by then it was just a moral victory, but still a fun sprint to the finish.
In the end, our delayed decision-making was our undoing. We finished one point behind VERT, who took second place, and two points behind Strong Machine, who pulled off the win. Huge congrats to both those teams for a strong and smart race. We loved sharing the podium with close friends.
This was the last event of a very up-and-down season of racing for me. I have lots of thoughts as I catch my breath and start to think about 2022, but the biggest takeaway is a need to figure how to pare down some of the busy in my life so that I can actually enjoy all of the things that stay a little bit more.
I am not going to lie, we had high hopes for a top finish at the USARA National Championship this year. We didn’t feel that we were the team to beat due to the depth of competition, the unique terrain that would undoubtedly favor local teams (I better understand why some of the very best navigators in the country all come from the midwestern region now), and because, as always, we are never the fastest or strongest in the field. For the record, WEDALI had our vote, but we also believed that Rib, Quest, two Bend teams, Bones, and our two Rootstock teams all had various compelling reasons to gun for the podium, if not the top spot, and there were a host of other teams (Karta, Silent Chasers, AR Georgia, Strong Machine, Deviate, and more) that could easily move up the rankings with a clean race if some of the other teams faltered.
In short, everyone knew it was going to be a grueling, fast, competitive race, and the teams with the cleanest races would likely run away with the podium. This may sound like common sense, but in many adventure races, power and speed can overcome other issues and still trump steady navigation or good route choice. As we all expected, this is how it played out. WEDALI, Quest and Rib won out with excellent if not perfect races, while the other top contenders struggled with one thing or another. Speaking for Rootstock 2, I know they didn’t feel their best physically and suffered mightily with the rest of them, but Jim’s nearly flawless navigation allowed them to clear all but one point on the course, securing them 6th place overall, an awesome finish in this field, one of the deepest in Nationals’ history.
For Abby, Brian, and me, it was a different story.
While we know a tenth-place finish in the mixed division is a respectable accomplishment (and it absolutely is), for our team, where we finish has never been the focal point. We do talk about goals and we try to set realistic ones based on our abilities, the tendencies of the course designer, and the depth of competition, but really, the only thing we really measure ourselves against is ourselves. We cannot control what other teams do or what mother nature or fortune bestows upon us. We can only do everything possible to make good choices, execute our strategy and navigation, manage our bodies and minds, and most importantly, lean on and support each other to maximize our performance.
I have seen the various online discussions about what separates top teams from the mid-pack teams, weekend warriors, or beginners. As many sager racers than I have noted, experience, navigation, and teamwork tend to round out the top of the list. I will add a variation on these points: successful adventure racers master skills and lean on their experience, yes, but I think it’s also about realizing what you are out there for.
Some of the elite racers might disagree with me, but at its core, I think AR is about racing against the course, and most importantly, it’s about racing “yourself.” AR is about mastering your mind, controlling the demons that can and will surface when things go wrong. The mental strain and drain that comes with taking on these sorts of events, the challenges of keeping multiple people clicking for as much of the event as possible, when, really, everyone is suffering in their own unique ways, physically, mentally, emotionally, and often all at different times.
The thing is, you also are not alone in “racing yourself”, because you typically have the best people in the world …or I truly hope you do…there to help you do that work: people that care about you, ones that will empathize and support you, ones that won’t quit on you. They can’t do it for you, but they can try to help you win that race. This could be a mighty gesture: hauling two full packs up a cliffy, craggy mountain (thanks Mark, UNE, 2012) or pushing you through an hour of a bike leg when a pinched nerve saps you of your power (thanks, Toby, USARA Nationals, TX, 2009). This might be a small gesture: feeding you crackers, slowly, one every five minutes, until the vomiting stops, your stomach settles, and you can start eating again (Brian, thank you. Too many times). Or a quiet, steady, positive presence to make sure you are ok when your pre-race ankle injury gives you hell on a technical mountain biking section (Abby, USARA Nationals, WI, 2021).
Since we created Rootstock Racing in 2015, we have worked hard to train and hone our skill set, yes, but more importantly, we have worked hard to finetune the most important piece of it all: the team chemistry that allows us to win. Not necessarily the race against other teams, but the race against the course, and most importantly, the race against ourselves.
As a result, we had a great run leading up to the 2021 USARA National Championship with two wins, a second, and a fourth in our last four championships, not to mention a fair bit of success in other races, big and small. And to be honest, our success has felt relatively “easy.” Not easy physically, and not always mentally (we still get tired, have low moments, etc.), but things have felt easy from a team dynamic standpoint as everything has just clicked. The results in the standings have been fun, but they have been secondary.
As it turns out, the AR Gods were apparently waiting to unleash on us a bit, and Abby, Brian, and I found ourselves more challenged than we have been in years as a team. We went to Nationals in Wisconsin with ambitions for top 5 at least, and instead we endured an unplanned seminar in perseverance and teamwork. Thankfully, we passed.
We started off well! We hit the water off the start-line first and didn’t look back. Results are not official, but I believe we were the second fastest team on the water, by two minutes, behind WEDALI. I think our short paddle was also a good one.
We nailed our transitions overall (except for TA 2, when we had to do some serious soul searching and opted to spend time working on our team rather than the course).
We made great route choice decisions that paid off on the bike to help us make up SOME of the massive amounts of time, energy, and momentum we lost throughout much of the race.
I absolutely did not master the unique land nav in WI my first time out, but I adjusted well enough for most of it, and had us clicking along as we normally do for enough to walk away satisfied, if not proud, with that.
Most importantly, it took us a long time, but we did finally win the race we always try to win and typically do win relatively easily. For the first time in a LONG time, I wasn’t sure we were going to get there. We found ourselves up against so much more than we expected (and we expected a fair bit), and despite numerous efforts to flip the magic switch, there was too much to fully overcome.
And even after 100+ events, you always learn something. In this case, we learned an awful lot.
The Bad and the Ugly
Thankfully, we didn’t have any major, major issues, but while the race didn’t go fully pear-shaped, it just felt like it dissolved out from under us after a near perfect start. No one was badly injured, no one is hospitalized with some unknown bacterial infection, and we weren’t lost enough that we couldn’t have still cleared the course and accomplished our goals of top 5. But a series of compounding issues, beginning before the race began, steadily challenged and tried to wear us down, and we almost cried uncle.
It started with a relatively serious ankle sprain less than three weeks before race morning. I rolled my ankle and was unable to bear weight for the first 24 hours. Saving you the details, I iced like I never have before, had several sessions with a couple of great PTs, invested in some fancy new shoes, and pushed myself to be mobile to give myself a chance to start the race. I wasn’t myself, unable to move in the woods like I normally do, and I was surprised to have the hardest time of it on the Stage 1-Leg D mountain bike loop, a relatively unrelenting, technical trail that had me pretty rattled considering that it hurt to kick out of my pedals, not to mention the fear of being knocked out if I had to put my foot down in the wrong spot. (And special shout out to Anna from Rib who lent me an amazing brace before the race started. Pretty sure that brace made the difference for me.)
I think it’s fair to say that none of us were where we wanted to be going in. We were all excited to be racing, felt confident in our abilities, and were psyched to be competing against such a great field, but we came in less mentally focused than usual. Physical ailments, training disruptions, family concerns, professional demands, pandemic fatigue, exhaustion from travel. All played a role and set the stage for the AR demons to wage an all-out war on us as a group.
I didn’t realize it until long after we crossed the finish line. Hour 13 or 14 of our drive on Sunday, in fact. But I wish we hadn’t started the race on time. I actually flirted with this idea but didn’t fully appreciate the moment. It was 745 (race started at 8). We had spent 40ish minutes feverishly pouring over the complex rules and course, and I was nowhere near as dialed in as I would normally like to be. I’ve done plenty of races in which you don’t have the maps for long before hand, and sometimes you don’t get them at all until you are on the official clock, but there was another level to the prep on this one. I had to go the bathroom still, bag my maps, mark up at least a bit more, and we were being beckoned to the start line.
“Hey,” I told Abby and Brian, “I need to go to the bathroom quickly, and if I miss the start, I miss the start.”
Really, the mistake we made was letting an arbitrary start time rattle us. In retrospect, I’m fairly confident that our race would have gone completely differently if we had stayed at that table for an additional 5-10 minutes and let everyone run off.
Major. Lesson. Learned. I don’t know if we’ll ever do a race again with the constellation of factors making such a decision worth it, but I think a few more minutes looking at the maps and really talking…calmly…would have saved us hours, led to different strategic decisions, and given us a chance to identify some key moves that would have likely allowed us to really maximize our strengths, something we usually do. As it turned out, once we were off the first paddle, we never felt like ourselves, and I think that was the moment we truly blew it.
As noted, we paddled really well and were at the pointy end there. We always are solid on the water, but we were even better than we had hoped for considering the competition. But in a sign to come, we spent a long hour or so, fighting against the wind. At the final CP, we finally dumped a surprisingly large amount of water that had accumulated during the stage. Presumably we picked it up from various wet reentries Brian made into the boat, but at the time we wondered if we might have a small hole in the boat. We dumped, took a look at the hull, and continued on. Foreshadowing? Perhaps.
I’ve worked very hard to hone my navigation over the years, but man did I just step in it when we set off on Leg-A. The terrain, as expected, was foreign to me, I had a hard time (at race pace) really seeing the map and terrain (is that a hill or a giant depression? No idea…but giant difference), and I made the classic blunder of not picking up on the map scale. My teammates looked at me with a concern I haven’t seen in…ever. We hit our second CP and Rootstock 2 (ten minutes behind us at the end of the big paddle) was punching it…except it was their last point…We went from being exactly where we wanted to be to being 90 minutes or more off the lead, and I bet we were in the bottom half of the field. Demoralizing for sure.
Shaky Ankle…and Bees…and Something Else is Brewing
We set off on the bike and trek leg, and overall, we did alright here. I nailed the nav well enough (compared to the first trekking leg), but I was gingerly moving through the woods, unable to push the team pace like I normally do on foot sections. On our way to the second CP, we also stirred up a ground nest, and Abby fell victim to the stinging terrors.
There was a moment when all hell broke loose as I realized that if Abby ran toward me, I would be in a bad position, unable to run due to my ankle and vulnerable to bee stings or a seriously reinjured ankle…or both. So, I shouted at my partner and best friend to run away from me in her moment of agony…sigh…
We recovered from that alright, but Abby was periodically remarking on just not feeling right. Honestly, we never fully figured out what was up, but she spent much of the race battling what we can only diagnose as issues related to asthma, some poor sleep, being mentally taxed, who knows. Sometimes you just aren’t 100%. We wandered a bit getting out of the woods, but we found ourselves jumping ahead of Bones, so we knew that despite our issues, we were in a solid place still to finish the race on our terms.
The Beginning of the End
I tanked a bit on the ride back to HQ, melting in the heat, but we rebounded well on the water and nailed the second paddle section, finishing up just before dark. In retrospect, had we reshuffled our Stage 1 legs to better maximize our skills, I think we would have been in a much different position at this point. Instead, we saddled up for what was, on paper, a straightforward section: a 20ish mile singletrack loop with unmapped flags hanging on the trail.
It wasn’t the hardest riding in the world, but it was tougher than normal, and it was dark, and we were 12 hours into the event. We were mentally and physically low from some mistakes, some unfortunate turns, and some factors that were affecting us from home. That said, all started off well. We were ahead of Bones and Karta and riding well. We picked off the first of five points, but at some point, I just lost all of my confidence. I was spooked by the technical terrain and what a fall or awkward dismount could mean to my ankle. I walked parts I knew I could ride, I had a hard time getting back on my bike, and I just wore down for a while, feeling the mental exhaustion of every sore footstep and dismount taking a toll.
Abby was a total champ, riding behind me, refusing to pass, and riding well. While I was frustrated to hold the team back and bummed when Bones finally caught up to us, I was comforted by the support and knew that I had to regain my focus for the sake of the team. Brian as always, rode along with ease.
And then…Abby crashed…because I couldn’t ride over something that I normally would have ridden. And it was gnarly. Off the trail, several feet of free fall onto a log. She narrowly missed impaling herself, but her shoulder looked rough, she was tangled in her bike, she banged up some other things…and later, we discovered she lost a screw from her one of her cleats, which impacted her for most of the rest of the section as she couldn’t securely lock in…or unlock...from her pedal.
Karta passed us, and we just could not get the machine going smoothly again. Thankfully, Abby’s fall was the key to get me going. My focus and mind shifted, and I was able to get back in a decent groove, but for good reason, Abby was now the rattled one…and as it turned out, between the rest of Leg D and what was coming on Stage 2, we just spent all night on the bike bleeding time and energy. We just couldn’t get back into a groove. We just were not ourselves.
And Then We Slept
Normally, we don’t even consider sleeping in a 24-hour race, but sometimes you need to to be flexible. When Abby slurred out that she just couldn’t ride safely, we knew we needed to reset. We pulled over, and Abby and Brian crashed for 15 while I pondered the maps and the cosmos, sorting our route to CP4.
In the pre-race briefing, Paula implied that the riding was considerably easier after the D loop. The ride for CP1 and CP2 suggested otherwise. I now finalized the rest of our route for Stage 2, purposely selecting longer but easier routes. Once the team was up and ready, the route choice paid off, and we generally made good time through the last couple of points to the TA, though we once again stalled out in an unmapped network of bike and ski trails.
We rolled into TA 4/5, mentally worn. We were firmly in race management mode now, the race for placing no longer a thought. We had actually had a relatively smooth patch following our sleep, the first time something actually seemed to go well out of the boats, even if we weren’t moving at full speed. Despite the potential turning point, we found ourselves having a hard conversation about whether to carry on and how we would do so if we did.
Those mental demons were wreaking havoc on us, each of us struggling in our own ways. Not because we were done “racing” but because of how exhausted we were mentally from life, the universe, and the meaning of everything…or maybe just the ankles and arms, the bee stings and bikes, the moments when things started to feel normal constantly being undone by uncharacteristic issues that had us all looking at each other in desperation, wondering what it would take to the right ship.
We had been clawing and fighting to stay in the race, to get our normal Rootstock mojo back on. We had tried everything from songs to pep talks, to quiet reflection, to emotional outbursts of favorite curse words. Sweet talk, harder talk. Quiet support, more proactive intervention. Nothing was sticking.
But somehow, the right words finally did the trick, and we were able to go. For real, as we normally do. We set off on the orienteering course and made quick work of the first five points we tackled. We were pumped, for the first time since the opening paddle, we felt like we were racing the way we knew we could. We were having fun, laughing, cruising along, and even when I finally re-rolled my ankle for real five minutes in, we were in our normal, easy groove.
Enough is Enough
And then, a final blow: I bombed CP11. Just blew it. Still don’t know how or why. I’ve looked at the tracker. It doesn’t do what I was doing in regards to compass bearings. It just doesn’t. Another magnetic anomaly, off the southern side of that map? Perhaps. Probably, more likely, it was just a bad blunder after a series of setbacks. We didn’t really need to discuss all that much. When we finally extracted ourselves, we knew it was time to cut bait, and start moving toward the finish.
We ended up dropping our first points of the race. CP 11, but then four more on the big orienteering stage. In retrospect, we probably could have scored more points overall if we had stayed in that section, but I think we all knew it was time to head home.
And that’s what we did. Initially, we thought we might drop a couple of the final bike points and try to bag more time for the final foot section. Instead, we picked some good routes and made fine time through the three remaining bike points. As it turned out, the final foot section was a fair bit burlier than we expected, and while we had time for two points, we were somewhat relieved to have stuck with the bike points, which went smoothly and actually included some fun, quick biking for the first time in the race.
Those final foot points also went well, but they proved much slower than anticipated due to dense bush, and we all were ready to be done. Still, we committed to try for a few points, managed to knock off two, and we rode home to finish in 29 hours 33 minutes, humbled by the AR gods, but oddly satisfied and full from the experience of pushing on, battling the course, fate, luck, and ourselves.
As many have said before, AR packs a week, a month, a year of emotions, thoughts, and reflection into a day long window. When things go smoothly, you ride the wave, and life is about as good as it gets. When things don’t go well, you are tossed into a seething storm of emotional breakers, peaks of soaring elation and joy, and deep dark holes of self-doubt and hopelessness.
We went to Wisconsin hoping to continue our run of podium finishes at one of the most competitive races in the country. Instead, we found ourselves questioning whether we should continue, and deeper, more existential questions surfaced thanks to those dark AR demons which are always lurking below the surface. The podium was well out of reach for us this time out, but a few days out, I am actually grateful for the race we did have. After the better part of twenty years, there is always more to learn, about ourselves and about racing, and we seemed to have learned more in one race than we have learned in the last five years. Sometimes those are the races that are the most important, and they are often the ones that you remember most fondly.
To the winners: WEDALI, and the runners up, Quest and Rib, congratulations on amazing races. As we all knew, it would come down to who ran the cleanest races, and there is no question these three teams rose to the occasion this weekend. To all of the other teams gunning for the podium, thank you as always for pushing us to be better racers. We wish we could have been battling it out as we know we are able to, but we had a blast watching you guys jostle for those next several spots. And to the many, many racers out there just looking to get to the finish line, to maximize your points, to complete your first adventure race (seriously, what a FIRST adventure race for those folks!), it was so wonderful saying hi on the trail, encouraging each other, and watching everyone finish with full hearts and wide smiles.
To Mike Garrison, Paula Waite, Steph Ross, and all of the other incredible USARA and 180 Adventure volunteers who made this event happen, thank you. The future of AR in the USA feels brighter this week than it has in a long time, and I can’t wait to see what happens next year!
Finally, huge congrats to all of my amazing teammates. To Jesse, who raced with AR Georgia, amazing job! It was so awesome to hear that you guys were doing so well, and we missed having you out in the woods with us. Jim, Nicki, and Jeff, amazing job. You guys won the day for team Rootstock and nailed it to perfection, maybe, from what I understand, more perfectly than anyone. And to Abby and Brian, thank you for not leaving me behind. We weren’t sure I would be able to race, and then I didn’t exactly take care of business with those maps the way I like to. Thank you for your patience and support. And when things unraveled in other ways, thank you for showing up. Thank you for digging deep to find a way to come back together and finally become the team we almost always are. We’ll need to redeem ourselves for this one, and I know that we will.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.