By Brent Freedland
Adventure racing is a rollercoaster, and racing with Zoe last weekend at EX2’s 6-hour Venturequest was such a valuable reminder about everything I take for granted about adventure racing as a seasoned, competitive racer. Experiencing the sport through a 9-year-old rookie’s eyes has been incredibly rewarding for Abby and me, it has been humbling, and it has been a master class in highlighting what is important about the sport. On Saturday, things were going better than planned…until the wheels came off…and then rolled down the road…and then off a cliff…and then shattered…
And then, Zoe and I worked hard to put them back together again, shifting perspective and coming to peace with how things aren’t always about rainbows and unicorns and standing on the podium box at the end.
To be clear, Abby and I have worked very hard NOT to impose our competitive instincts on Zoe when it comes to AR, or anything else. Thing is, she has grown up watching us come home from many races with hardware, and it’s clear she feels some degree of pressure to do well because we do (she shared these sentiments during an interview with Brian Gatens for the Dark Zone Podcast, but she doesn't reflect on why). We’ve focused on the process rather than outcome, wanting to foster her desire to push herself and “race” without worrying about the actual results. But she has done better than a 9-year-old would probably be expected to, and that success clearly is driving her and her goals.
Coming off the Buff Betty 6-hour, a podium placement there, and a top ten overall finish, I cautioned her to temper her expectations for Venturequest. There were almost 100 teams and solos lining up, and a similar finish was unlikely.
“Let’s just go have fun, work together, and do the best that we can. We’ll do fine if we do those things,” I suggested. Many times. She seemed all in. And so we drove down to Maryland on Friday night, camped, and arose ready to race…Sort of. We were pretty tired…
The race began with a short prologue, which we knocked out efficiently enough, though…
LESSON 1: Zoe downed some breakfast in the final 30 minutes for race start...or rather, I made her eat more... and her stomach didn’t like running around that hard after she choked down her breakfast. I don't mind eating closer to activity, but I know many do. Don't project your own tendencies on others!
After finishing the separator, we set off on the bike, and we elected to bag one of the three optional CPs at the start. We could get the others when we returned if we had time, and we agreed that it would be better to head out to the foot and paddle sections as soon as possible.
The bike ride over to the bike drop went well enough, and Zoe absolutely rocked the downhills. I helped push the bikes up some of the uphills, and we made good time, losing ground to teams due to speed but making it up through constant forward progress. We had talked about efficiency as a primary goal for the race, and Zoe really seemed to work hard to work on this crucial AR skill, walking fast to keep up when I pushed the bikes, eating while walking, and riding steady on the flats and downs.
LESSON 2: Don’t get frustrated when you can’t do something. Even when fresh and riding well, Zoe would get frustrated when she couldn’t ride all the uphills. As we talked about, getting down doesn’t make anyone move better, and all of us have our relative limits. Whether we are a top team, a weekend warrior, 9 years old or 75, we all have our limits. When we hit them, we just make the best of it and move on.
When we arrived at the TA, we dropped our bikes and moved on, agreeing that our 2-3 minute transition was perfect. We had determined we would clear the course until we couldn’t, so we knocked off seven of the twelve CPs on the foot section before heading for the canoes. We did well with nav, moved fast when we could, and had a great time finding the flags. Zoe took the e-punch and learned how to use the dipper (and avoid the dreaded multiple beeps when punching). At one point, I took a line through the woods that didn’t fully pan out, but Zoe remarked on how lovely the woods were. Positive mindset is everything.
LESSON 3: Obviously, when you run into walls of thick thorns, life just sucks, but a lot of the time, the woods throw much thinner vegetation at you that pokes and prods. You can try to pick your way through it and spend 5 minutes getting targeted and scratched or you can just put your head down and walk through it in 30 seconds. By the end of our trek, she was definitely getting the hang of that one.
We popped into the canoes in good spirits and enjoyed a nice break from biking and running, knocking out the canoe relatively quickly. I had carried a carbon four-piece paddle for Zoe to use, as she has done some kayaking but has no canoe paddle experience. I sterned with the canoe blade, and we cruised around the small lake, bagging all four CPs. We were watching our time by this point, and we felt good about where we stood. Once done, we made relatively quick work of the final trekking points and returned to the bikes with all CPs in hand and two hours to go.
And now… now we had a decision to make. There was a 1:30pm cutoff at the bikes, and we made it by 1pm. Looking at the maps, we could either finish the full bike, which would mean five more CPs, or we could go back the way we came at the start of the race. This second route was shorter, but it didn’t look MUCH shorter, there were some big uphills to contend with on the way back, and there were no CPs. It had taken us 45 minutes or so of ride time, on fresh legs, at the start of the race, so it might take us more than that on the way back. True, there were CPs back around the start/finish to bag if we had time, but who knows.
We felt OK taking on the rest of the bike with two hours to go, knowing that it was longer (but again, it didn’t look THAT much longer), and we’d be guaranteed to get more CPs that way. So, off we went.
LESSON 4: Could have, would have, should have… has no real place in the sport. I mean, yes, we can look back, reflect, and learn. But you make decisions, and then you live with them. In hindsight… as you will see… we SHOULD have headed back the way we came. But we didn’t. It would have been a different outcome in many ways, but we made a decision to go for it, and that’s that. When it comes down to it, both Zoe and I agreed we would have made the same decision again with the information we had (Even Abby, looking over the maps with me after the race agreed it seemed like a fine decision…)
So, we headed out. Overall, the first hour went relatively well, though we lost 5 minutes or so on a small nav error as I turned onto an unmapped trail. Sigh… And first two CPs ended up being tougher than they looked. Hardest trails of the race, trickier nav with fainter trails to follow, more obstacles, more terrain. And a bee sting…
LESSON 5: When a teammate gets stung, you all need to MOVE. You never know whether it’s a rogue flying hypodermic needle or if it’s the vanguard of a small squadron. Thankfully, I was the one who got stung, and thankfully Zoe’s decision to play 30 seconds of panicked freeze tag did not result in subsequent stings. But when someone yells “Run!” or “Ride!” you go….unless you’re on a VERY steep mountainside in a pile of deadfall in Alaska, but I digress…
We emerged out of those first two CPs and still felt ok about time as it seemed like the long route back through 16, 17 and CPB would be on faster flow trail… which it was. We were still moving well, Zoe was in good spirits, and we had well over an hour still. No problem.
Off we went. And then… I have written about this before… we hit it. The #$(@&#^ time warp that ALWAYS happens in adventure racing. Doesn’t matter if it’s a 6-hour race, a 24, or an expedition. It’s proportionate to the event, but it always happens (unless you are comfortably clearing a course well ahead of the cutoff). All of a sudden, you look at your watch and a significant chunk of time has impossibly just vanished.
Coming out of CP16, we emerged out of the vortex to find ourselves with 40 minutes left…maybe less -- I’m already repressing the next half hour or so -- and we knew we were in trouble.
“Zoe, if we really GO, I think we still have a shot,” I said, knowing deep down we probably didn’t. She took a deep breath and we set off.
It didn’t take long. There were tears. There was frustration. There were pauses to regroup. We probably lost 15-20 minutes, maybe more, on trailside therapy and half a dozen lessons in parenting. Sometimes, I deserved an award, other times I floundered. I never went full on “hard love” (more on the one moment I almost did soon), but sometimes you just can’t find the right button to push. Thankfully, we were not alone out there, and I think it helped a LITTLE that we were obviously running late with several other teams. Nonetheless, as a team we had some ROUGH moments.
BUT those moments were fascinating. Zoe was tired and sore, but she never complained about that. She never once mentioned that the finish felt so far away or that she couldn’t make it. She never wondered HOW she would make it. She was fixated on the fact -- once it was clear that it was indeed scientifically impossible to reach the finish line on time without Dr. Strange’s Time Stone -- that we were going to be late. And that we were going to lose points. And then, at a certain point, it became clear that we would, in fact, lose all of our points. And then, maybe, we would be disqualified altogether from the rankings… She just could not let go of those pre-race hopes and dreams.
No matter how many times I begged her to stop thinking about checkpoints, and the fact that we would have to skip the last one we intended to get (17; I did take her into the mill for B right at the end because it was cool -- even if we lost that point too!), and the fact that we were not just late but catastrophically late, and the fact that we couldn’t control what the other teams did or didn’t do… None of it mattered, she just couldn’t shake that disappointment.
And then, she fell. Not hard, nothing scary, but she fell off her bike trying to dismount on a hill and got awkwardly wedged under her bike. We were close to the official 3:00pm cutoff (I think, it was a literal blur for a good 30-40 minutes), and we still had a decent amount of trail left. We were about to hit a road, which was marked as out of bounds. I had been trying desperately for a long while to find some creative way to just bail out in a legal fashion to get back, but the tough thing about this final bike ride was that there were no ways out. You were 100% committed.
So, as every emotion literally poured out of her on that trail in that moment, considering that no positive coaching, parenting, or love had helped her reset (not to mention games, songs, or whooping and hollering on the bike, as she likes to do), I tried a HINT of tough love.
“Well, when we get to the road, let’s just ride it around. It’ll be long, we’ll still get back late, I don’t know what the penalty is for using it since it’s out of bounds, but we’ll be done with the trail.”
She screamed, a hint of unbound rage. “NO!!!”
“Well, as your father, I’m not LETTING you ride any more of this trail if this is how you're feeling. I’m just not. I’m pulling the plug.”
A jumble of words, emotions. A frantic weighing of the options.
LESSON 6: It’s always better to finish. Always. After not finishing ITERA Scotland last year, I wrote about how freeing it was to CHOOSE to stop racing, and I stand by that one, as I think it was an important moment for me at least in wrestling with my own relationship with racing, goals, and expectations. But generally speaking, it’s always best to finish… Zoe quickly worked through all of this with me. She was tempted to just say “Screw it” and ride the road. Our race, after all, had turned from a race into something else either way, so what did it matter? But she decided she wanted to get through the course, ride that trail to the end, and “Finish.” So, we did.
We settled on riding out the last few minutes to the road, and then we would make a decision. At the road, we found a solo racer. She was similarly rattled by a fall of some sort, and she had run out of water. We had a good moment of commiseration, I gave her a water bottle, and we even tried to have a group hug…Zoe passed and steeled herself for the final stretch of trail, later noting that hugging strangers felt weird…
LESSON 7: We are all a family in AR. You don’t have to know someone to KNOW someone, and sometimes we all need a hug. Period… Though, yes, as a general rule of thumb, don’t hug strangers…
Whether it was the tough love, our moment of solidarity with the solo racer, or the fact that all of that more or less timed with the 3:00pm cutoff, which brought some finality to the question of whether we'd make it back, Zoe finally settled in and seemed to start to let go of everything else. We rode that last stretch of trail well, popped into the mill and punched CPB -- because, why not? -- and then we hiked our bikes up the steep final stretch of trail, emerging right into the middle of the award ceremony.
My guess is Zoe received the biggest and longest round of applause of the day, though to be fair, everyone WAS a captive audience as we rode by up to the finish line arch. Regardless, what a perfect way to end any race!
And so, we lost all 22 of our points. Dropping us all the way down toward the very bottom of the 100 team/solo pile.
Hindsight? Yeah, had we ridden back the shorter route, we very well may have been on the podium of the mixed division. Hard to say, but it seems likely we would have had time to get some points around the finish line to finish with roughly the same CP count that we had. Might have been enough for third and top quarter or so overall. There’s a lot there to be proud of. But that’s not what we did.
LESSON 8: On the car ride home, we spent a good 30 minutes talking about the race and debriefing. Considering that I was expecting her to go back to watching the iPad and napping after 2 minutes, I was amazed that she dove deep into that debrief. By the end, she was noting that the experience we had was better than podiuming... though I think she might have been tired when she chose the word “better.” But she genuinely recognized that she (and we, really) learned WAY more by finishing 30-40 minutes late, losing all of our points, and missing out on the fortune and glory.
LESSON 9: This sport is humbling. Failure is part of it, but it’s all about perspective, and it doesn’t have to be viewed as failure. As we discussed in the car, AR is about community, unplugging from the rat race and technology, communing with nature, doing things that virtually no one else does, embarking on large… or small… odysseys with our teammates (often our best friends or loved ones), and overcoming incredible challenges that then empower us to be stronger people who are better able to overcome the challenges of daily life. I don’t know when Zoe will draw on this one, but I’m sure she will, whether at school, with her brother or her friends, at her next race, or on some other adventure.
And finally, LESSON 10: Smoothies paired with waffle fries from Chick-Fil-A are a near perfect post-race meal…
While we may have flamed out, special shout out to Karyn who was lead navving for the first time and racing solo. Not to mention that she continues to rehab from knee surgery back in the spring. Karyn had a great day, winning the women's solo division and finishing 11th overall out of 97 teams! More importantly, even though we were not racing together, Karyn was a terrific teammate, leaving some trail/race magic for Zoe after the paddle, cheering us on, taking our pictures, and serving as Zoe's biggest cheerleader.
Yesterday, Zoe received a text from Karyn, our teammate who won the solo women’s division. The exchange was brief, neither Abby nor I had any influence over it, and I think it shows that Zoe is definitely building a genuine AR identity.
Karyn: How’s Zoe today?!
Me (Zoe): This is Zoe. I am doing good. How are you doing?
Karyn: Hey Zoe!! Glad to hear! Are your legs tired from all that tough riding? Mine are but my shoulders are more sore from carrying a pack!
Me (Zoe): Yes. I am soooo sore, but it is a good <thumbs up emoji> sore.
And that not only sums up AR but also puts a ribbon the 2023 race season. We started with a torn calf and ended by losing all our points. In between, we had some amazing experiences, some good performances, and as always, an awful lot of learning. The Little Rootstockers (and, organizationally, Rootstock Racing) will be out of action for a while as we set off on another sort of adventure. Seven months of international travel, world learning, and, I’m sure, a little bit of adventure.