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.