by Brent Freedland
It was my birthday last weekend, and I was rewarded on the big day with a fantastic National Championship hosted by USARA and GMARA. I’ve competed in this fast and furious race fourteen times now, dating back to 2007, and this year’s race out of Smugglers Notch is up there with NYARA’s spectacular Catskills course in 2012 and Steph Ross’ 2011 beautiful first edition in Kentucky as my favorite USARA Nationals. From various interactions and discussions after the race, it seemed that I was not the only one holding the race in high regard. More on the actual event in a bit.
Finishing the race on my birthday was a fun little twist, and a big thank you to all the racers, volunteers, media personnel, and spectators who wished me a happy day in my sleepy stupor. What a surprise every time someone reminded me what day it was out in the woods on Saturday morning, and I was tickled green (pun intended) to share the stage with my birthday buddies, Steph Ross and Chelsea McBride, for a post-race serenade. Thank you.
This year’s Nationals ended up feeling like a capstone of sorts for me as I have been struggling with my relationship (as a racer) with the sport for a while now. I don’t know any experienced adventure racers who don’t have stories of tormented moments on the course. We love this sport and all the amazing experiences it offers, but it takes a LOT to continue to do it race after race, year after year. I started adventure racing when I was 24 years old, and I’m closing in on 20 years in the sport.
According to USARA executive director Michael Garrison’s quick analysis of this year’s Nationals field, I’m still a couple years shy of the average age of the 180 or so amazing athletes who took on the steep mountains and dense wilderness of Vermont this weekend. I’ve competed in well over 100 events, most of them at a relatively competitive level, and for a while now, I’ve really been struggling to figure out what I want out of this sport and whether I want to just focus on race directing instead of competition.
It's been a complex struggle that dates back to 2014 or so…yep…a decade….
At that point, Abby and I had been racing with GOALS ARA for quite a while and that chapter was closing. The old guard of our team (amazing mentors such as Bruce Wong, Jonathan Neely, and Tracey Roberston) had stepped back from the sport and then mostly retired (Jon has somehow retired 73 times since 2014…). For a few years, the team was in flux, with teammates coming and going and a lot of guest racers. The synergy we had with our original GOALS team wasn’t quite the same, and it was then that we decided to start Rootstock Racing.
Rootstock immediately injected a new energy into our racing, but I still struggled somewhat as I found it hard to prepare the way I wanted to race at the level that we expect to compete. In short, I found myself floundering to balance the frustrations of not being able to put the time in and then struggling at races physically with the rest of life’s requirements: parenting, partnering, working, race directing…
I just wasn’t having fun.
And then my amazing teammates Brian, Abby, and Jim won USARA Nationals, and it was SO exciting and inspiring to see our team of gritty racers rise to the top. You see, I have long said that Rootstock is all about smoke and mirrors. People think we are much faster than we are, much stronger than we are. In fact, when we are at our best, it’s because we are a team of competent navigators who also have a good eye for strategy. We work well as a team. We make up for a lack of true top-level speed and power with teamwork, and when Abby, Brian, and Jim won that race in PA, it marked the beginning of a 3-4 year stretch during which we rarely lost. We could mix and match our teammates, and it didn’t matter as our team was just locked in and essentially interchangeable.
In 2018, after another surprising National Championship (It’s worth acknowledging the reality that the US Nationals race scene has really evolved over the past 5 years, and the competition is so much deeper and elite than it sometimes has been), we were riding high as a team, and we also added two 2nd place finishes at major expedition races: XPD in Tasmania and Untamed New England. A second-place finish at 2019 Nationals in NC to the amazing Quest Adventure Racing team felt pretty good, too.
Day 1 of Untamed New England, 2018. We were running in second place and feeling good as a team, riding along after a strong opening stage during which we kept an impressive Untamed New England team in sight through most of the leg. We were fit and ready to race…and all I could think of was wanting to drop out of the race. I just wasn’t feeling it, and the feeling was familiar. It had waned a fair bit with the team’s success, but something else was nagging at me.
Scroll ahead to 2021. The team was getting ready to compete at 2021 USARA Nationals in Wisconsin. It had been two years really since our peak, but the team had raced well in the couple of races we had participated in coming out of COVID, and many seemed to think we were a logical choice for the podium, some picking us to win. It was a race that played well to our strengths in that there was a lot of navigation and route choice. It was also the deepest field I had ever seen at Nationals at the top (though this year’s race may have eclipsed 2021).
There was pressure. And remember, smoke and mirrors. And when the smoke doesn’t work…
In short, I started realizing I wasn’t enjoying the pressure of racing anymore. I didn’t want to change anything significant, but I wanted to stop worrying about how we did, and I wanted people to stop talking about our team as they would truly elite teams because we are a bit different…maybe more than a bit different, really…than other teams who have won Nationals.
And so, for the past two years, I’ve been working toward resetting. I can’t necessarily speak for the rest of my team, but I don’t think I’m the only one who has been wrestling with some of these questions. We’ve talked about worrying less about how we do, changing the narrative when it comes to goal setting, and not paying as much attention to other teams or what we might learn in TAs. That doesn’t mean we change how we actually want to race in the woods as a unit, but as long as we can look back and feel like we all left it all out there, we made good decisions, executed nav and strategy, etc., that would be more than enough.
We hoped to get in early enough to complete the paddle in the light, and thankfully we did so with ample time to spare. The river was a serpentine waterway full of current and occasional splashes of light whitewater. It was surprisingly scenic, considering it was the most public part of the course, and the river was highlighted with one particular section littered with dramatic boulders and small cliff faces.
With the river behind us, the real race began, and things definitely ramped up. The bike ride out of the TA started off well enough, but as darkness enveloped us, we found ourselves traveling with StrongMachine/GMARA along a rugged riverside trail. Bits of it were fast, but large stretches involved steep hike-a-biking, muddy and rooty singletrack, narrow stretches of trails that wound between trees waiting to knock you off your bike, and occasional stretches in which it was easy to lose the trail in the dark if you rode too fast. It was a physical section, and it took a bit of a toll on our collective energy.
When we came out the other side, we enjoyed a short stretch of trail navigation through the Smugglers Notch bike trails. Until I bonked briefly, that is, on another stretch of trail that required more hike-a-bike than riding. With CP 24 behind us and my energy rebounding, we forged ahead and climbed out of the resort to the next TA for the first of the two monster treks. We had lost some time to a number of the other full-course contenders on this stage but found ourselves navigating well and making good time through the section, closing the gap on several of the teams. It was a wild section with a massive climb and some rocky reentrants, but we navved it well as a team and finished it up with plenty of time to get through the navigation challenge that waited for us at TA6.
Once back on our bikes, we rode up and over the Notch, a rugged, boulder-littered landscape that feels like it belongs in the Misty Mountains, and we bombed down the other side…or rather coasted as some Sleepmonsters started lobbing obstacles at us from the steep Green Mountains on either side. We finally reached the TA to find a party of tired teams, racers, and volunteers in a state of disarray. Teams were largely splitting up to complete the navigation challenge of trying to find nine checkpoints in a maze of trails that was just challenging enough to give many teams a fit or two.
We elected to each take a map and go find the three points each map required, hoping that we could all nail the nav and move on quickly. I took the longest route and did well on the first two CPs, but I botched the third point and lost 10-15 minutes in the process. I ran back to TA expecting to find Joel and Abby waiting, but instead found that Abby was not back yet. She, like MANY other racers, really struggled with the third point of her map, and she came back without the CP. Joel then took off to find that final point, and while he did, it took longer than we expected.
Back on the bike, post-dawn sleepies continued to slow our progress to the point where we stopped for five minutes just shy of dawn. That helped enough and we settled in to work our way through the final trail system in Sterling Forest. It was slow going, more hike-a-biking at times, and we were aware that we had entered the AR time warp during which time seems to all but vanish. It’s amazing how all of a sudden, one realizes that minutes have somehow multiplied into hours, so after bagging the first two CPs, we stopped to discuss options.
We knew we could get the final two CPs, but we wanted to maximize time on the final big trek, so we elected to skip our first CPs of the race and get ourselves back out on foot. While not an easy decision, once we made it, it felt good to just move ahead on the bike knowing that the goal had shifted from the pressure of clearing the course to just maximizing the remaining trek.
At 9AM, we started back up into the mountains. At the TA, we learned that it had taken Bend almost four hours to make it up to the two mandatory CPs that roughly divided the trek into halves. We had six hours left. Determined to make a final push, we set off, taking care of some water and other needs along the way up to the first CP where we converged with Rib, Dark Horse, and another team or two on a beautiful beaver pond nestled in the mountains. It was obvious that everyone was weighing what to do with the final hours of the race, and the TA staff had been directing people to be careful, nudging the less experienced teams (and, we would later learn, some of the more experienced ones, too) to really be careful with their time. I think everyone was a bit nervous about blowing it.
After that first point, we took off and quickly found ourselves alone. We had decided on a route that would drop the three highest, most remote, and hardest points on the trek. We watched our clock, but the goal was to clear everything else on the first half of the trek and then move point by point through the final four CPs.
With no pressure except the clock, we methodically worked together to spike point after point. I led us through the terrain and manned the compass, navigating an efficient route that would minimize elevation change, Abby kept a firm eye on the altimeter, and Joel focused on pace counting. We made steady work of it and found ourselves completing the first half of the trek somewhere around three hours. We also started crossing paths with a number of other teams, which was the story of the race. We smiled, we laughed, we talked, and then we would take off for our next point.
As we dropped off the ridge and high spurs of the Green Mountains toward the final four points, we still had time to complete our goal, and at the first of the final four points (spaced out in a near linear line along a sidehill), we crossed paths with team VERT, who had been racing in podium contention for the first stages of the race. We assumed they either were still clearing the course or had dropped one or two, having started the trek well before we did.
When we learned they had dropped five points, it was a jolt and a reminder that you never know what is happening ahead (or behind) you in AR. If VERT had dropped five, who knew what the other ten or so teams likely behind the few teams clearing the course were doing? We weren’t focused on VERT, specifically, but seeing them gave us a boost, and we took off, sticking to our one point at a time philosophy, but more determined to move with a bit more urgency to sweep those last points.
Half an hour or so later, we had accomplished that goal and were on our way to the finish five hours or so after starting. It was a satisfying feeling to have nailed the trek as well as we had, only dropping the three points after leaving those final two bike points. In hindsight, we probably could have grabbed at least one of those two, but we’ve pushed things to the cutoff enough times to simply savor the luxury of running down the mountain to a busy, cheering finish line without having to risk a coronary.
Ultimately, we finished in 8th place (amazingly, 3 teams…Tower, VERT, and our team…all dropped five points and finished within about ten minutes of each other), but more importantly for me, it was the first longer race in years that I simply felt focused AND relaxed. We just had a blast. Whatever lows we had were nutritional or from fatigue, rather than being from minor mistakes or from the stress of racing against other teams. I hadn’t had this much fun in this sort of race in a long, long time, and it was a joy not to be stuck in my head, processing some existential crisis, real or conceived.
I’m sure I will have lows again. I’m sure I will question my life choices and wonder if “42” REALLY is the meaning of life or not, but after several years of working to find the joy in racing again, I feel like I did this season. The Faroe Islands and Nationals, in particular, have reminded me of just how special this sport can be. Of course, while I have worked on my mindset myself, I must give credit to my amazing teammates as well who make it all that much more enjoyable.
As always: thank you to the race directors. USARA and GMARA put together a fantastic course, and it will serve as a highlight for years to come. Congratulations to the amazing podium teams, Bend Racing, Grit, and Wedali, the only three teams to clear the course. And a special shout out to our teammates, Nicki and Paul, who raced with guest racer Travis Siendhel. I know it wasn’t the smoothest race for them, but they do what Rootstock does: persevering, making the best of it, and working their way to the finish line regardless.
What’s next? Pure AR joy as I get to race with Zoe at VentureQuest, her second adventure race of the year, as Little Rootstockers. For the rest of the team, we’ll be watching and rooting for Bend Racing and all the other American teams at Worlds. And I’ll be remembering this birthday for a while.