Untamed New England Day 4
It was about 10 p.m. on a beautiful night when we turned into the snowmobile trail network. The supplementary trail map seemed straightforward enough but we'd heard disturbing news shortly before we started this leg. Although the distance to the next CP was only about 15 km, it had taken GUATS five hours to get there! So we were alert and ready for the first sign of trouble. The trail began as a pleasant road but the honeymoon didn't last long and soon we were bouncing over rocks and logs hidden in tall grass, skirting huge puddles and getting our wheels sucked into mud pits - the usual AR trail riding that we love. We were going to head south for awhile, starting with a bit more climbing, then we were going to descend to a river where we would turn west. Everything felt right for awhile, but before we had gone far enough, the trail started turning east, then northeast, then... oh crap. Obviously, this trail wasn't going to take us to the river after all.
Earlier, we'd passed a turn-off to the west with a well-built bridge. There was nothing on our map to guide us but it was clearly a major trail and seemed like our best bet. We tracked distances and figured out our position and were thrilled when the altitudes seemed right. The trail veered south and took us down to the good quality road by the river we'd been aiming for. We followed it till it ended, then turned south again on rougher trails.
In this next small section, the topo map lied and so did the supplementary trail map we'd been given. Our destination wasn't something simple like a main road perpendicular to our direction of travel. We needed to be somewhat more precise, so we spent several hours exploring in different directions, always returning to a known point where we could get back to the river road if necessary. More than once, we figured out our general location based on an altitude that only existed in one area of the map. Another time, we found a numbered trail junction that was on our map and in one spot we found a "5" sign indicating that we were on major snowmobile trail #5, which was *exactly* what we wanted except parts of it looked anything but major in real life. None of this information helped much as we kept doing out-and-backs in different directions, eventually rejecting each route for different reasons. We looked at the map, came up with different theories, convinced ourselves of various things, listened to loon calls and theorized a nearby lake, etc., etc.
Finally we were left with one trail that we had only followed partway before taking a turn-off that resembled something on the map. (Silly us, using the map.) When we followed it farther this time, we emerged onto a huge gravel road. We'd probably been 50 meters from that road about 2 hours earlier. Arggh! Given the narrow margins in this race, this is one of our "what if?" moments. But we simply didn't have enough information to navigate through this section without considerable guesswork and luck.
The CP for this section was a cool idea - it was a pay phone at Coleman State Park. We had to call organizers to let them know we'd arrived. For the entire race, I'd carried two U.S. quarters in a plastic bag, waiting for this moment. The volunteer answered, "CP33." Kirikou checked us in then asked how many teams had been through. "Two." Aaaacckkk!!! We'd expected to drop a bunch of places after muddling around in that section but we had somehow moved into 3rd place - holy crap!! Plans for a short break were tossed aside as we dashed back onto the road and blasted up the hill to get beyond the out-and-back section and out of sight of any teams behind us.
Although we didn't learn this until the finish line, we had been given incorrect information. What the volunteer meant to say was that two teams had arrived at the Balsams Resort already. Three teams had been to the phone booth before us, so we were still in 4th place. For better or for worse, we pushed hard for the next few hours to keep our "podium position".
There were nice trails for awhile, then we headed back into rougher, hillier terrain. We were pumped with positive energy and feeling good. That is, until I found myself tipping over occasionally rather than fighting to stay upright when my tires were sucked into a muddy rut. Sleepmonsters were finally getting to me. Before this point, Harps and I had often consulted the map together at decision points but now I needed every brain cell just to stay awake riding technical trails. Fortunately, everyone on our team can navigate, and Kirikou was fully alert so he stepped in and started working with Harps. (This photo is of Bender and I didn't get to lie down at this point, but it sure shows the way I felt!)
We got out onto gravel roads and the danger level went up as we went faster and I stayed sleepy. On the way to our final CP, I asked Relentless to keep me awake by telling me about an embarrassing moment in his life. He generously complied and I remember his embarrassing story in detail and promise never to reveal it. I'm sure that when it happened, he never realized there would be a greater purpose for that red-faced moment, but it might have saved my life on the bike!
It was getting light now and we were almost back at the Balsams. The approach to the last CP was a long, steep climb where we mostly walked our bikes to a saddle between two hilltops. Just before the climb, Harps and I had each taken a caffeine pill and I was impressed to feel myself waking up with every step. The ride down was awesome fun, whereas just half an hour earlier, it would have been death defying. Guess I'll grab the caffeine sooner if I get foggy in future. There were signs on the roads saying "To Hotel" - what a beautiful sight! We arrived at the golf clubhouse where we'd eaten lunch a few days ago and pedalled hard with newfound energy, realizing that the ski club was only a few kms away now.
Untamed is such a well-run event that the lack of excitement at the finish line is surprising. We arrived at the ski club at 6:20 a.m. and walked inside to look for volunteers to tell us what to do next. Things had gone well over the past few hours and we expected to hear that we'd held onto 3rd place after Coleman State Park, at minimum. But instead this is where we learned that we'd been misinformed and we were heading out on the bonus rogaine section in 4th place. Rats.
We received UTMs for 10 rogaine CPs. Harps and I didn't mark them all on the map because we had to be back by 10 a.m. and they were quite spread out. The way it worked was that our rogaine time would be added to our race time, but we would be credited 4 hours for each CP we visited. In an interesting twist, we'd been advised beforehand that we could access our vehicles here, so before the race, we'd carefully set up the back of the van with 4 cans of Red Bull and 4 bottles of Boost. Those of us who had them had also set out dry shoes and socks, which felt heavenly. We dumped everything but our mandatory gear. Relentless carried mine so I only carried my pack with water. We started with a climb straight up the ski hill.
Harps handed me the map since he was using trekking poles to ease the load on his blistered feet. Partway up, Kirikou's Achilles began to burn. Relentless wasn't saying anything but he still didn't have any skin on the bottom of his big toe. Tough guys! I was lucky by comparison - just some painful trench foot on each forefoot and one minor toe blister. Videographer Randy Ericksen came up the hill with us, running ahead to get shots as if it was no big deal. Luis Moreira came up partway too. Apparently, people have more energy if they sleep - who knew?
From the top of the ski lifts, we ran a mucky trail to a saddle to pick up our first CP. Based on where the team behind us was, we couldn't finish lower than 4th now as long as we were back by 10 a.m. Then we ran a couple of kms along a high trail to Table Rock for our second CP. At this point, it was 8:07 a.m. and we were 2 kms from the finish, mostly downhill. We had almost 2 hours. The question was, do we go for a third CP - the one by Huntington Falls? It involved about 4.5 kms of travel, including a steep trail descent and a good amount of time on the main paved road, much of it uphill.
It was the kind of decision I wouldn't hesitate to make in a regular rogaine but this wasn't my call alone (although I held the map and was casually inching toward the trail junction, hoping people would follow!) We'd been out for almost 70 hours and everyone was soldiering through pain. We weren't all in agreement on the value of chasing another CP and there was well-placed concern over the risk of being late, which would mean the loss of all our rogaine time credits and a possible drop to 5th place. One team member disagreed with the concept of rogaine sections deciding adventure races and felt unenthusiastic for that reason.
I felt confident that we had enough time and argued that we should do everything within our power to get on the podium. Sure, the teams ahead of us might do this section perfectly, and we might stay in 4th. But maybe they would finish after 10 a.m. or they might only pick up two CPs, not realizing that we had time for more. With 3 CPs, we would even beat GUATS if they somehow arrived past 10 a.m. Bottom line: the odds of moving up to the podium weren't high but this was the only card we had left to play. Everyone on the team is competitive enough that in the end, we all agreed to go for it. The videographer ran after us, impressed by the drama. "This will be awesome in the DVD! That was the kind of discussion nobody ever hears!" Kirikou and I exchanged surprised glances (moments earlier, someone who didn't know us might have thought we were actually mad at each other) and he said, "I can't remember a race where there *wasn't* a discussion like that!"
Anyway, you can catch all this in the movie. (I'm cringing just thinking about it...)
It was a painful descent to the falls for poor Harps, who made pretty good time using trekking poles to take the load off his hamburger feet. Relentless and Kirikou led the charge. When we got there, the description said we were looking for a flag overlooking the falls on the south cliff on a promontory. Sounded simple enough but there was a long continuous section of falling water - not just one single waterfall. There were lots of cliffs and more than one promontory. We scoured the area high and low with no luck, checked the UTM and expanded our search area a bit, then finally decided we had to start down the steep trail. The CP was either a bit lower or else we weren't going to get it at all, but it was almost the time when we'd agreed to leave, so we had to start heading to the road. I was feeling guilty for dragging the team down there but luckily the flag was spotted a little lower than we'd expected. Phew! From there, it was a short descent to the road then about 4 kms back on pavement.
The first part was a stiff climb then we descended past the Balsams Resort and headed toward the ski lodge. Once again, not much excitement at the finish line although this time Leanimal was there to cheer and take our photo.
We finished at 9:32 a.m. and had 12 hours subtracted from our time because of the 3 rogaine CPs, making our official finish time 9:32 p.m. This kept us in 4th place, 36 minutes behind Team Granite and 1 hr 13 min behind Skandia, both of whom got 3 rogaine CPs like we did. GUATS was well ahead, finishing the final bike section 8 hrs ahead of us and increasing their lead to 14 hrs with their 6 rogaine CPs. It's hard to know what this really means since Granite and Skandia may have adjusted their rogaine strategy based on what would be possible for us. But regardless, it was close and we were very, very proud of our result - 4th of 41 teams.
Huge congrats to Getawaystix, Ursula and the Benoits for a decisive victory! The trophy might not be a beaver but it's pretty nice anyway.
Their friends could hardly contain their excitement at the post-race ceremony. ;-)
A few post-race thoughts... If anyone had told us beforehand that we would be battling with the leaders for the entire race, I don't think we would have believed them. I doubt that anyone predicted it.
Although Harps and Relentless are a strong, longstanding duo, Kirikou and I come from different team backgrounds. It can take awhile to develop the routines that make four individuals operate efficiently as a unit. There is always room for improvement but I was impressed at how smoothly everyone worked together from pre-race to post-race. Some of that originated in detailed e-mail exchanges that helped us understand each other and our usual roles, strengths and weaknesses. But a lot of it just fell into place on the race course without much discussion. That's why the disagreement over the rogaine CPs took a few minutes to resolve. Until that point, we hadn't needed a mechanism to make a decision in a situation where we had different opinions. It had simply never come up.
There was never any issue with egos. If something needed to be done, someone just did it. I hadn't expected to be involved in navigation but Harps made us all partners in the nav from the start and I spent lots of time with a map in my hand or looking over his shoulder on his request. I trusted his judgement and didn't need to see the map all the time. This kind of trusting partnership with another navigator would be essential if I wanted to try to be more competitive in AR, since I am rarely the fastest racer on a team so I can't be dealing with maps on my own even though I think my nav background can be helpful at times. I'm glad I got to experience this kind of arrangement.
Kirikou, the Bush Whisperer, was an awesome practical navigator, finding good lines through thick forest at high speed while sticking to a bearing. Relentless was always finding ways to use his strength, creativity and organizational skills to make the team move faster. Everyone's mood throughout the race was positive and fun with a healthy sense of urgency. The only time anyone yelled was when there was a risk of the team getting too far apart. The only debate was the one over the 3rd rogaine CP. That's pretty good for four people thrown together for three days in just about any situation! I think the way the team worked together was the main reason we exceeded most people's expectations. We had a decent physical performance too but that alone would not have been enough.
Thanks to Team Running Free for inviting me to join them at Untamed. It was an awesome experience - very challenging and exciting and loads of fun. All the best with the rest of your season!