Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Race Report

ARFE-SmartWool: Good in all Weather

Team ARFE-Smartwool for this race is Kristoffer Nielsen, Erin Nielsen, and Chris Edmundson. Kristoffer filed this race report.

We met up at Chris's house in Newton, MA on Wednesday night, packed everything in the A4 wagon and the following morning (early) we hit the road for Georgia. The total trip took slightly longer than expected at 18hrs, but we arrived at Meri and Ed's home in GA with enough time to get a solid night of sleep. They are very gracious friends of Pamela, our crew who while we were driving, had flown in from Boulder for the race.

On Friday morning we were up and about at around 9am in sunny, warm Georgia. We decided that a short 45minute run would be good to get our joints and muscles moving a bit after the long trip down in the car. Running through the 'burbs of GA was great fun, weaving in and out of interesting neighborhoods, rail road beds, and small sections of woods. In true adventure spirit we even managed to find a long black pipe to run on that spanned a section of forest floor. After getting back from our run, the four of us crammed into the wagon with all of our gear bulging at the seams and headed 45 minutes north to the canoe pickup.

We arrived at the race registration / check-in at around 2:30pm. The process was smooth and relaxed without any useless gear check or anything of that sort. We loved the fact that we got our map early and while Chris and Pamela got the bikes tip top, Erin and I plotted the course's checkpoints and decided on route choices. This was our first experience with a map of this size, a 1:24,000, 36in x 46in monster! It was so large that we could have used it as a sail during the paddle, or perhaps as our emergency blanket that was required as part of our mandatory gear.

Note to race directors: Bigger maps make for a need for bigger hotel rooms and tables.

By the late afternoon it was quite apparent that the race as it plotted out, was going to consist of lots of elevation gain and long bike and trekking legs. The race was going to be won by whichever team had the legs for the hills and the ability to withstand the high temperatures. Being a North East team that currently has 3 feet of snow on the ground and usually relies on navigation as much as fitness, we were a bit worried. There was, however, an 8-kilometer "orienteering" section that broke up the bike and we knew that that would be to our advantage and help us to stay in the mad-dash, horse race.

Dinner, provided by the event directors was excellent, the meeting was short and to the point, and with that we got another great night sleep which allowed us to be very well rested for what was to come.

We were at the race start by 7am. Chris and I got the portage wheels on the boat and tested it to make sure everything was in good order; it was. The race was to start with a 1-mile run prologue, which only one member of each team needed to participate. While Erin and Chris got a few last pieces of gear in order I ran around a bit to get warmed up for the sprint I was about to participate in.

Soon, all the runners lined up at the entrance to the parking lot on the starting line awaiting the starting gun for the out and back prologue. We were off, and by the turn-around point I had managed to work my way up to around tenth place. As we rounded the cone and came back down the road towards the awaiting teams lined up with their boats, I managed to pass several people and by the time I reached the end I was in third place, having completed the mile in roughly 5 minutes 20 seconds. Chris and Erin had the boat ready to roll in great position and as soon as I got back we were off on the 500 meter portage down to the lake.

Boats on Wheels...what an innovative idea!

We reached the water in 3rd place but as the paddle started towards CP1 we were passed by several teams right off. Shortly after CP1 Enduraventure and Infiterra Sports also passed us. By this time we were in around 6th or 7th place where we would stay for the remainder of the 4hr paddle. CPs 1 through 4 were very easy to find and consisted basically of a flat water, out and back to various finger like extensions of the lake. Enduraventure, the only team towards the front with a aluminum speed machine managed managed to pass everyone on the water and put an impressive 27 minutes on us by TA1.

Our transition was efficient and the fastest of all the teams in just over a 1 minute. We off on the bike which was hilly from the start as we worked our way 10 kilometers up to CP6, also the start to the so called orienteering section. This O section was made up of 3 CPs that could be collected in any order each separated by several kilometers. As we were getting our running shoes on and pulling all unnecessary gear out of our packs EMS came rolling in and it was clear to us that they were ready for a fast day of riding. They had made up nearly ten minutes on us just in that short bike leg up to the O section. We headed out quickly deciding to collect the CPs in what turned out to be the opposite order from most other teams (9,8,7). A few teams including Infiterra had chosen the same order however within short time of quick and efficient navigation we had passed them and were in front heading towards CP9. Our strategy for the race was to exchange the map between us every few CPs in order to keep our minds fresh and accurate. It was working. We cleaned up CP8, found an unmapped trail heading out of the ravine towards CP9 and despite Chris showing early signs of weakness from sun and heat, we were in overall good spirits and confident with our racing. CP7 was collected as well with ease and then we headed back up through a broad saddle to the road that lead into the bike drop and CP10(formerly CP6). We were pleased to discover that we had made up great time and were now in first place. With Enduraventure having arrived at the beginning of this O section over 30minutes before us we were excited by our execution but knew they and other teams would be on our heels before long.

Ever wonder what support crews do while they're waiting for teams to come in? Now you know: They take pictures of themselves in team gear to send to our sponsors.
Sure enough EMS, and ATP were right on us and after 20 minutes or so of having climbed up through the windy gravel roads on the way to CP 11 were passed by EMS, and then ATP shortly after. As we arrived at CP 11 and were showing them our mandatory gear, Enduraventure pulled in behind us. We thought for sure that they would pass us and it would be long before we'd see them again, however the next section of travel was a long and rough decent and so we managed to stay ahead of them, even back up the accents to CP12 and into CP13.

CP13 was a whack-a-bike coming off an easy attackpoint on the corner of the ascending road. The travel was slow through thick brush and rhododendron, about 600 meters or more so down a rather distinct ridgy, spur. We spiked the CP with ease but unfortunately made the decision to continue down the hill side to the river below where there was a mapped trail that gradually ascended back up to the road in the direction of CP14. It looked good on the map but in reality the trail was indistinct in places and very difficult to travel. Lifting our bikes over logs and other obstacles for the several kilometers it took to get back up to the road proved taxing but much to our surprise our sharp navigation and route choice, although not ideal, had us back in first place.

Far up the trail from hell, we heard a friendly whistle from behind us. I turned around and it was our good friends and fellow north easterners, EMS. We were very happy to see them and pleased to find out that they and us were now traveling together, at least for a little while in the lead. We shared some conversation as they described their unfavorable experience with CP13 and how most other teams that were ahead of us had the same trouble. We made it out to the gravel road and ascended with them for a bit. By the time we made it to CP14 they were about a minute lead that was to open up again on the way up to CP15.

It started getting dark now as we we neared the 3800ft of elevation that would bring us to the entry point to CP15, another long whack-a-bike down a broad reentrant to a rogue farm trail. Here is were the first mistake of the race took place. Pressuring ourselves to find the catching feature before sunset, we rushed the map reading and did not thoroughly cross reference with compass and elevation. As a small excuse I will say that the reentrant that we headed down was a parallel feature to the one that we should have been traveling down. We lost a painful 400ft of elevation and had gone about a kilometer before realizing that we had screwed up, and screwed up big! Having said that it could have been worse, we could have gone even further and spent who knows how long searching for a CP that did not exist. But no we knew we were wrong and did not hesitate to turn around and climb back out of the bowl back up to the road. In short time we made our way up to the next big reentrant and again dropped into the feature working our way down to the CP. We followed the terrain brilliantly and landed right on top of the flag. And, although discouraged by our bobble knowing it had put us back by a lot, we were eager to push on. Only one CP left on the bike course!

CP16 was collected simply by traveling the same road to the manned (actually two or three woman) station where we found out that we had lost an hour on our detour. Furthermore, Chris was no starting to show persistent signs of illness and the bonk. To this point he had been weak but we had maintained a good race. As we descended for a bit away from CP16 on our way to the distant TA2, we found ourselves on a ridge line with a poorly mapped trail junction. Several unmapped trails presented themselves. One followed out in the direction we wanted to go but suddenly ended, another headed out in an other direction and ended. We were worried about our teammate whom in most other races can be depended on as a powerhouse work horse, and were very hesitant on how to proceed. Erin and I stood there pondering for way to long as Chris laid unconscious on the ground, resting. We did not want a repeat of CP15's bobble. Eventually we followed one of the rogue trails for a few hundred meters and then bushwhacked down the ridge side to the trail that we later were told had continued on from the point where we were standing behind an old broken down van. I had checked this area myself twice, but apparently not well enough for the trail fizzled out much like all the other trails in that area but then picked right back up and continued on. The remaining long and fast decent down the narrow trail to the TA was a blast and perhaps my favorite part of the race despite at this point being over two hours back from the lead.

TA2 was reached and although it was good to see Pamela we had to move quickly through the transition if we were to have any chance of catching the leaders on what was promised as a 8-10hr foot march back up to the mountains we had just come from. We had an other speedy transition in under 5 minutes and despite Chris's pains we were off and running. An easy road section to CP18, and then a brutal accent up the steep slope of Smith Creek Ridge. The course director had given everyone a really long and out of the way, go-south to go-north, suggested route that we wanted no part of. So we pushed up to the ridge and began our 2 kilometer bushwhack towards the trail that would eventually lead us to CP19.

After not long, Chris was becoming less coherent and non-responsive. His eyes peered into nothingness and he looked as if his soul was gone. We were moving at a painfully slow pace and every 50 meters or so he would lay down and not want to continue. Where earlier in the race his body was telling him to sop but his mind was overriding it and telling him to keep going, now his mind was giving in too and all forward progression was coming to a halt and it seemed our race was coming to and end. Many other teams had pulled out earlier in the race because of heat exhaustion and difficulty, and Erin and I could not help but think we would suffer the same fate.

As Chris laid on there on the ground I stood over him pondering what to do. Erin looked over at me further towards the direction we were heading and looked at me with a worrying face. Although she said nothing it was as if her face was screaming "get him up, carry him if you have to. We need to keep moving!" I then sat down with him and Erin stood over us as we discussed our situation. We agreed to all stop and sleep for a few hours until sunlight broke and then try to keep going. Erin and I were fairly confident that if we could somehow just keep going and get all the CPs we would likely end up in the top five.

Chris slept, wrapped in his orange space blanket, as Erin and I sat eating a dry and not so tasty burrito. As Erin rested too I laid there trying to calculate how much time we wold need to collect the rest of the CPs and make it back by the mandatory cut off. In this race if you were not back by the 30hr time cutoff you would be disqualified. I laid there thinking how cruel it would be to have raced all this way just to be disqualified on arrival. However the alternative was to skip one or more CPs and still be ranked, but be ranked behind the teams who had gotten them all. We did not know who or how many teams had collected all the CPs. What I did know was that if we were going to make it into the top 5 we needed to get them all. So, how long do we rest until starting up again and insuring we had enough time to get them all. How long would it take? We needed to let Chris rest for as long as possible or risk not making it at all.

Much to our surprise, several other teams had chosen our same route over this ridge and passed over us as we laid there on the forest floor. As the light started to break I looked at my watch and it said 7:13. At that time we got up and within a few minutes were on our way again, legs stiff from having be motionless for those hours. After a bit we started moving faster and faster until we broke into a run. We found the trail in short time and were well on our way to CP19 now. Chris had some life back in him, amazingly, and our team once again was determined as ever to get all the CPs and finish this darn race! But the clock was ticking and no time could be waisted. Every navigation decision and route choice had to be perfectly executed or we'd miss the cutoff.

CP19 came and went and we were pressing on to 20 still running. We travelled the gravel road a bit longer and then back into the woods, over a narrow saddle at 3800ft. Then up and over a summit at 4114ft (the highest we'd reach in the race) and down into a wide bowl on the other side. We dropped 1200ft into what eventually turned into a ravine with water draining through, fought our way through a short section of this rhododendrons and then into a field were CP20 hung. An unmapped trail leading out of the ravine put a smile on our faces and were again were running on solid footing.

Running down the wide trail that wound along the contours of this long river valley, we went over our route choices over and over. Again time was on our minds constantly. We decided to follow this trail until it eventually lead up to a paved road across from where our entry point to CP21 was. Again as we had hoped there was an unmapped trail that followed a large drainage 3 kilometers down the scout camp at CP21. We ran excitedly down the whole way on the narrow trail until eventually arriving at the manned CP. It was great to see people again after so long without seeing anyone out there on the course. Despite there being a raging flow of water pouring under the CP and us being out of water, we decided we did not have time to stop and refill and that we needed to keep moving if we were going to make it.

The next leg was short, but between us and CP22, the final check point, stood a steep, heartbreaking 1400ft of elevation gain. We had been talking about it for the past two ours though and had been psyching ourselves up for it. This was it, get this last CP and then it was a long but all down hill mad-dash for the finish. We started up were moving at a good strong pace. We made it to a large ridge about 3/4 the way up in a short half hour and then continued up the shallower ridge to the knob where CP22 was hanging lonely in a cluster of trees.

CP22 was ours and another gravel road wound down the mountain just below us. Two hours left on the clock to travel the remaining 6 or 7 kilometers. The sun shining hot and temps in the high 80s wore through us with every stride but we were as determined as ever to reach the line on time. We followed the road several kilometers down until we reached another large and steep drainage which we had planned to follow for a few kilometers out to the paved park road. This would be the final bushwhack and it treated us no nicer than any of the previous. It was very steep in sections and thick with brush and rhodies'. As we made our way down we passed by another team and gained a slight burst of energy. Chris had been holding it together the best he could since the early morning but finally reached a point where he had no more and passed out. Once back on his feet I grabbed his pack and we pushed him along out to the road. He grabbed onto the bungy strap on Erin's pack and she pulled him as I held and pushed him from behind. Time was cutting it close and above all we just wanted to be finished.

We traveled the road for a short few hundred meters and then hit the lake trail that wound around the lake by the finish line at the Unicoi lodge. We ran the trail as quickly as we could manage and as we made it back out onto the entrance road we could see the finish. One last hill and short trail stood in our way. We could see Pamela, our crew, standing at the top cheering us on. We made it to the top with an overwhelming sigh of relief as I handed in our passport at 1:26pm. 29 hours and 26 minutes into the race. 34 minutes before the deadline, with all the CPs. We got 4th place overall.

We would like to thank the race and course directors for a challenging event, one that we will certainly attend next year. I also want to point out and thank EMS for their kindness in sticking around until we finished. They themselves had an awesome race getting second place just minutes behind the overall winners. Having them their support there to cheer us on as we finish was tremendous. They are true sportsmen (and woman).

As always great thanks to our sponsors, SmartWool, GoLite, and Gatorade (without their Endurance hydration formula we would not have made it in this heat).

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Nice writeup Stoff! Glad you guys were able to get Chris out of there ok, sounds like an incredible race. Hoping I can get out to Crew or Shoot a race sometime soon.