Have you heard the news?? Eco-Challenge is back! Televised adventure racing at its best! But I digress. This post isn’t about Eco-Challenge. It is, however, a post all about a recent 24-30 hour adventure race that I just took part in, Wilderness Traverse. The linkage is that the whole reason I began adventure racing, and indeed my entire athletic ‘career’ was thanks to watching Eco-Challenge so many years ago. That show opened my eyes to true adventure and challenge in the great outdoors, and I HAD to get into it and experience if for myself. 16 or so years later, here I am, writing yet another race re-cap for this blog! Anywho, read on for a telling of the tale of my race in Parry Sound!
Greetings friends! So, what does a fellow do when he is 4 weeks between 2 major ultra trail running races? Why, sign up for, and race in a ‘shorter’ adventure race of course! As the title implies, I was looking for a little redemption after a botched attempt at the earlier Raid Pulse adventure race in May. At that time, I was a little over-confident, and ended up with a major orienteering snafu costing me huge amounts of time. I was determined not to make the same mistake at the shorter 4 hour event this time around. When the race is only 4 hours, you have even less of a margin of error if you’re trying to get on the podium. So how did I do? Well, read on and find out!
When you last heard from me, I was gallivanting through the hills of Bear Mountain, NY, struggling through my first trail run of the season, which also happened to be my first race of the season. Fast forward 2 weeks, and I was back out there competing in another race. However, I opted to go back to one of my other passions, Adventure Racing! I figured that since my foot has been a problem, I should dive a bit back into multi-sport racing. So with that, I found myself at the start line of one of my favourites, the 8-hour Raid Pulse Adventure Race with many old friends. Although it was my first AR in 2 years, I had high hopes, and was racing solo. Whatever the course may hold, I knew either way, it would be fun. Did it all go to plan? Definitely not, so read on to learn more about his adventure!
Greetings friends. I’m pretty excited to be able to write a blog post about a race I recently did in Pennsylvania. Why? Well, for starters, it was a 44 hour adventure race. Also, I have never been to Pennsylvania for a race. And finally, it was because this race was not even on my radar until a few weeks before, when Deanna pointed out a post on Facebook from a friend stating they were seeking a team-mate. Had she not encouraged me to throw my name in the hat, I wouldn’t have even raced a multi-day AR this year! How sad would that have been? Read on for my tale of climbing mountains on my mountain bike over and over again….
48 Hour races (44 in this case) in the AR world are one of the best challenges for a middling team. You have enough time to get into real trouble and/or make some really great decisions to help your standing. Anything can happen, and you definitely start to hit the wall of sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion. Going into a 48 Hr race, you know you will not sleep, so it is all about smart decisions and figuring out as much as you can in advance, so you are not planning when dead tired. Unfortunately, this race didn’t really allow you to use that strategy, and in my opinion, this race was more like a multiple stage orienteering race than a pure adventure race.
What do I mean by that? Well, here are a few things. First, the maps. They were huge, and not marked. We got them 1.5 hours before the start, along with a very brief (<1 page) instruction sheet. I started trying to furiously plot the points on it using the UTM co-ordinates before realizing they had master maps posted on a wall of a building. Unfortunately, all teams were trying to copy the maps at the same time, making it VERY challenging to transcribe, and also prepare all your gear, since it was the first chance we had of seeing the order of events. Oh right, and I should mention that I was in the navigator role so that my teammate Brad could focus on doing filming of the event, and my other teammate Jessica could focus on the fact that this was her FIRST RACE >8 hours in length!
Matters were made worse by colder-than-expected weather, forcing organizers to completely re-imagine the course a day earlier! They had to cancel rafting, swimming, and ropes sections right off the bat, forcing extra mountain biking on us. As a result, we also only got instruction for about the first 20 hours of racing. The next sections would be revealed to us later (or maybe just made up as we got there??).
So, where exactly was the race and what was it? Well, this was the Equinox Traverse Adventure Race, and took place in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania (near the Maryland and West Virginia Borders). This region features many state parks and state forests, leaving lots of options for adventuring. It is also very close to the highest point in Pennsylvania, Mount Davis, at 3,200ft elevation. While we did not climb that feature, we DID go up and down MANY >2,000 ft climbs during the course of our race.
So, back to the start line. Maps now marked and roughly folded to fit into my map carrier on my bike, we straddled our mountain bikes to get ready for the rolling start as a group. We had a roughly 2k road section where we were to stay together before we were cut loose to hammer to the next transition. This section was a taster for what would become a theme of this race. On our bikes. Climbing long sections, then bombing down others. On a combination of roads, gravel roads, fire tower road, trails, and singletrack. Not to spoil the surprise, but we basically spent ~35 of our 40 hours of the race on our butts doing this!! Not everyone was as ‘lucky’ as us, as you’ll learn.
Our first section didn’t feature any real CPs to be punched, just a nice bike section to the first transition of the day, where we were switching to trekking. We started the bike leg at 9am, and got into the first transition at 11:15 am. You can click here for detailed results and times for the race. At this point, we took the time to organize food and maps before heading out. We didn’t want to overlook anything, as we only had until 6pm to get as many CPs in this area as we could, and we wanted to get them all. This area featured some great trails and elevation gain giving us impressive views of the area. I wished I could pull out my camera and snap pictures, but my hands were full with maps and compass, navigating and keeping us on track. We quickly discovered that there were plenty of trails not indicated on the maps. When trekking, I can say that I personally HATE that! The easiest is to take a bearing and just bushwhack in my opinion. When you have myriad trails, you have to take educated guesses on which might help, and decide then to abandon them.
Luck was with us for the most part, and the route choices and trails made general sense. It helped that our destination was often the highest point in an area, so we could read the terrain around us for cues and clues. It took us a little longer than we’d hoped to grab our 2nd CP (the first was an easy grab on a small island not far from the TA). This CP also introduced us to the fact that this area was THICK with stinging nettles and briars. The best sum-up would come from a post I came across on Facebook after the event:
The only hints I’m giving away for the Equinox, is if your in the stinging nettles, briars so thick Peter Cottontail would have hard time crawling through, knee straining rock gardens, seeing occasional piles of bear poop and maybe hearing the sound of a baby rattle in the middle of the woods…..you might be close to a CP. Oh and ticks.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of pushing your way through a sea of stinging nettles, I do NOT recommend it. The going was very slow, and it definitely tested our mental fortitude. Looking at the time we’d spent already in this section, we got concerned about getting the remaining checkpoints in time, but pressed on, deciding to run to the furthest CP in the section, and making our way back. Once again, we had a slight challenge getting this one due in part to mis-reading the cue sheet descriptions. In reality, our navigation was in fact bang on, it was just finding the actual CP flags that seemed to challenge us, as they are often in an area of 100 square meters or so, and it can take time to locate them. Once again, although we were a little annoyed at the time delay, we again re-grouped and pressed on, with me adjusting our route plan on the fly in hopes of getting lucky on the next few CPs.
Luck was with us from that point for the remainder of the trek. We picked up some very useful trails, and had gotten more used to ‘guessing’ where the CPs might actually be. We also had the chance to do some classic straight-line bushwhacking, which netted us some solid progress and ending up finding the rest of the CPs on the mountain (while enjoying a few glimpses of the spectacular views). Time was tight, but we were confident we could run back to the TA in time. Luckily, backtracking was made simpler as the route I had chosen took us back to a point where we’d be able to basically just double back on the ‘right’ trails more easily. However, it was still a real push to wrap things up quick, as you’ll see by our time in at the TA. 5:56pm. Yup. 4 minutes to spare! While many teams had already left, we learned that several teams had not ‘cleared’ the section, so we took this as a small victory (and personally, I’d say in retrospect, that was our greatest accomplishment in the race).
The team was cooked from the recent effort, so time was spent re-grouping, filling water, etc, before taking off. This was perfect for me, as I had not even started planning out our next route choices on the bike, which involved plotting 3-4 supplementary maps, and preparing for a long night of cycling, much of it in remote park locations. As I sorted the routes out, it seemed very likely to me that we’d face our first true decision point on which CPs to skip, since our next deadline was 4am, and there was a LOT of ground to cover. Sadly, we mis-interpreted another little instruction on the sparse directions, which noted we had to check in at TA3 by 4am, and would not have access to any CPs north of a certain highway. Uncertain of which road that meant, we took that to mean we were not allowed to grab any more of the CPs in this whole quadrant by 4am. As we learned later (and others also made this mistake), that was not true.
So fast forward on the bikes now. I had plotted as conservative a route as I could (i.e. avoiding as many of the crazy long climbs as possible), while having a clear plan to get as many CPs as possible, while giving us ‘outs’ and shortcuts as needed in some of the parks. I was quite pleased with the plan I had devised as it should have maximized our ability to grab CPs. The plan involved working on clearing the ‘south’ area of this leg first, then working our way north before veering east to the TA. In effect, it meant we were grabbing CPs that we’d eventually (although at that time unknown to us due to not having the information yet) see again, and COULD have picked up AFTER 4am! Looking back at the maps, it isn’t clear that we would have done things differently, as the alternative was a LOT of trails and tougher biking, and we were already not that fast at this point.
I will state that although this section was now in the depths of the night, it was actually quite fun to navigate and ride. There was a good mix of route types, and enough trails and challenges that you had to be sharp, but not ‘perfect’. Given more time and speed, clearing it wouldn’t have been that difficult from a navigation perspective. However, hindsight is 20/20, and in the end, we left a LOT of CPs out on the course once we made our move to head to TA3. Some of the CPs were so far removed, and required really long slogs up or down trails that were un-rideable that losing an hour on 1 CP was quite easy. Again, we made our priority getting to the TA before that 4am cutoff a priority, as we were warned there would be ‘severe’ penalties for missing them.
Let me digress here to point out a complaint we felt is warranted here. The notion of a ‘severe’ penalty was completely unexplained to racers. There was not a single ‘rule’ about the race, nor how it would be scored or how we’d be ranked depending on these cutoffs, etc. This left us uncertain what the best choices to make would be. Rush to make cutoffs? Grab an extra CP or 2 to get more points? Would there be a short course option? Would we be disqualified for missing cutoffs? It was frustrating to have more questions than answers, especially when we were out there trying to make a decision on what to do in a pinch. So, we made the best decisions we could, and hoped for the best.
Digression over, I’m happy to say we yet again got to the cutoff with 8 minutes to spare. You’ll note on the timesheet we cut it closer than anyone else EVERY time :-). This particular cutoff was at a 24 / 7 gas station. At this point, it was FREEZING outside (like 4-5 degrees!), so we loved the heat indoors. We also loved the gas station Pizza, Burgers, and other food that we bought to fuel up. Once again, we took our grand time here. In part to fuel up, and also so that I could plot the next section, which was only revealed to us now. It involved quite a bit of back tracking, and then entering an area called ‘Bear Run’ and following what they said were orange ribbons to the next TA. We were given no information on what awaited us there, only that we had to make it there by 10:30am.
Seemed easy enough. 6.5 hours to bike to the next CP? Not so fast tiger. First, by the time we left, it was already 5am. Then, Jess flatted out as soon as we got underway, which I fixed as fast as I could on the roadside, but this still cost us time. THEN we made the decision to pick up 2 CPs from the previous section, now that we knew we were allowed to. We were happy to grab them, but didn’t realize the fresh hell awaiting us on the way to Bear Run. For starters, the climbing was really starting to wear on poor Jess. She was hurting and struggling, so we took some weight from her, and did what we could , but admittedly, progress on the roads was slow. The focus was on eating, drinking, and bouncing back, which she did by the time we got to the ‘entry’ of Bear Run, which was a flagged roadside trail entry. The directions just said to follow the flagging tape to the CP. We assumed that it would take a while with the mountains, but at least it should be straightforward, right?
WRONG! The flagging was pretty consistent for the first couple kilometers INTO this park, then, all of a sudden, it STOPPED! Ok, now what? We were well into the park, but with no map indicating ANY of the trails we were on (even though they were named). Once again, all we knew is that certain roads were completely out of bounds. Logically, we new that we might hit one such road, and wanted to avoid it, in case if would lead to disqualification. That meant a bunch of climbing up, looking for flagging, then changing our minds, doubling all the way back and dropping all the way down off the mountain, still not finding tape. We heard the road, worried about the DQ risk, and eventually decided to head back all the way UP, agreeing that either we’d missed flagging, or it didn’t exist, and that we should have just kept going up and around. This was definitely a low point on team morale, but the worst was yet to come.
Once we got ALL THE WAY BACK UP and a whole lot further, we finally saw another team, commenting “oh look, another team trying to follow the flagging”. They were trekking, so at least we knew what was next. They were kind enough to: a) share their own absolute frustration at this part of the race and b) share an additional map they had gotten AFTER the bike showing the trails and their names in this region. This indicated that we had to go ALL THE FRIGGING WAY BACK DOWN, and that we had been dangerously close to the TA and not known it (like 10-15 minutes away). We had lost many hours by now. Ultimately, although the cut-off had been noted as 10:30am, we only showed up at 1:21pm, but were told the cut-off was not being enforced here. Small miracles!
At this point, we got the lowdown on the next section, which was an orienteering leg in the Bear Run State Park. It looked quite easy (with the now-supplied map), but time consuming. Teams seeking to clear the whole course were taking about 4 hours to do so. Our main issue was that in order to make it to the NEXT transition, we still had a lot of biking to do, and were looking at a 6pm cutoff. We had the idea to grab at least 1 checkpoint near the TA, but after overhearing several other teams discussing the time it would take to bike to the next TA, we got spooked, and decided to pack back up and get right back on our bikes. All told, we spent 40 minutes in the TA. This was spent eating, addressing sore parts, and mapping out the next part of the race. This was the FIRST (and ONLY) chance we had access to our miniscule 40L team gear bin. It basically only had room for a little food, and spare clothes should we need it. In this TA, I was in a bit of a funk after the last major delay, and not excited about riding the saddle for many more hours. However, such is the way things go sometimes. We’d now been on our bikes from 6pm Saturday to 1pm Sunday, a total of 19 hours, and about to keep pedaling.
Once again, the route we were going to follow was a bit of back-tracking in the State Park, then we had to make a choice on how to get to the transition area. We decided to take a bit of a gamble by heading down an extremely steep ATV trail from the top of the mountain we were on down to the river, then follow this ATV trail along the river into a village before linking with the road many other teams were likely taking. What a ride! We had to stop numerous times to let our forearms have a break as well as make sure the brakes weren’t overheating or wearing out. It was STEEP! What a rush. At the bottom, we discovered our ATV track was not as ‘smooth’ as we’d hoped, so any time gain we might have had by taking the shorter route was likely offset by the slog we faced. I now hit my absolute lowest in the race. We often use a scale of 1-5 to share with the team how we feel. I reported a 0.75. However, that merely frustrated me, so I ate more, blocked out everything else (not even talking…), and just plowed on hard, taking no rest or giving me any time to get frustrated. I was determined to not make this be a factor in our race. After a little while I bounced back (as we always do), just in time for a stand-off we were NOT expecting!
Just before we hit a real road in the village we had targeted (and dangerously close to the cutoff) we realized we were about to cross a sign that said “Private Property”. A mere 500 feet from the road we wanted. And of course, the owner was on his porch, and none too pleased. We had a genuine standoff here, uncertain whether we were going to be fired upon, have police called or what. In our exhausted state, we did all we could to assure the gentleman we meant to disrespect, and were merely ‘lost’ and didn’t realize the property was private. In all fairness, this was true. From the map, this trail clearly went across state park land (free access) and was not clear that the final 500 feet might be private. We lost precious minutes before finally somehow convincing / promising him we’d leave quickly, quietly and would NEVER return. Apparently they are very zealous of property rights in this area. Duly noted. Reinvigorated by the adrenaline and fear, we roared off on our bikes, now more than ever determined to make the 6pm cutoff. A few quick route decisions, and we were pulling into the TA, seeing a sea of bikes, but no other teams. On the plus side, it was 5:59pm!!! We’d made it. Brad was ecstatic.
Just as quickly as he was ecstatic, he was crushed. As we were hugging the fact that we’d ‘made it’, the race crew clarified that we had to be on the water at 6pm, not arrive at the TA. So we had missed the paddle section! This also meant we would miss the next trekking section, since it involved trekking from the kayak pull-out BACK to this point before grabbing bikes and cycling to the finish. However, the “good news” was that we could just take our bikes and do the trekking section using our bikes before making our way to the finish. We had now been awake for about 35 hours, and on our bikes for the last 24 hours straight. We didn’t immediately see the fact that we’d get to keep biking as ‘good news’.
For my part, I let Brad and Jess sort through their feelings about this while focusing on plotting the next section on the maps anyway. There was little point to getting angry now. On the plus side, there was no way we wouldn’t be finishing the race at least, and getting out as soon as we could would be helpful, as we still had some daylight to use to find the final 4 checkpoints. I soon realized that we had a VERY long climb ahead of us, and didn’t want to share the extent of this with the team just yet, instead just encouraging everyone to get ready and head back out. Which we did, but not before witnessing the eventual winner of the race running into the TA having finished both the paddle AND the trek, and back to grab his bike to head to the finish! He had a mere 7-9 miles left on rail trail to finish the race, whereas we were now facing many more hours on trails and access roads on our bikes before getting there. If nothing, it was inspirational to see a solo racer that far ahead and winning!
Off we went! We made our way to the bottom of what was called ‘fire tower road’, a climb of probably over 2,000ft total lay ahead. Luckily, a nice old timer at his house invited us to use his outdoor hose to fill up our bladders with fresh filtered creek water. This kind of made up for the last cantankerous fellow. We were warned by him (and several other people we saw on our way) that this road was NOT friendly, and very steep. Lol. If only they knew what we’d been up to for the past 32+ hours. We slowly made our way up and up and up. When we reached the top and grabbed the 1st of the final 4 CPs, we started running across teams on foot completing this trekking section, including friends. They were a bit confused seeing us on bikes. We explained our situation, wished everyone well, and kept going. Night was now upon us again, but luckily, I felt confident about the route choices, and just settled in for many more hours of riding at a slow pace to keep us all together (Jessica didn’t have a proper light for night 2, and was a bit bagged).
For the sake of brevity, I’ll just say the last 3 checkpoints, while not incredibly hard to find, did take us quite a little while to get. The final CP involved a long ride on a fun single-track trail (usually limited to hikers, but we got to ride it), then a long road climb to a park summit. Once we finally located the CP hidden in the woods, we knew it was just a matter of downhill riding to the finish line. We had a mini-celebration up there, knowing we had succeeded.
We rolled across the finish line at 1:08am. Technically, this put our finish time somewhere in the middle of the pack, albeit having finished an ‘alternative’ course. Our category standing put us in 6th of 9 teams, and overall 8th of 16 teams, based on our points. However, more importantly, we finished the race strong, as a team, and with smiles on our face (proof above). We had raced hard for 40 hours, been awake for 45 hours straight, covered about 260 km (most of this on mountain bikes), and used our bodies to climb 25,000 feet or more of elevation! Not too shabby. I was happy to race with both Brad and Jessica, and proud to call us a ‘Team’. We had a great attitude, helped each other out when needed, and managed to show Jessica just how far you can push yourself. I’m pretty sure she’ll be back for more!
Now, as a reward for sticking with me through this really long post, I have a treat. As mentioned, Brad was filming for this race, and as a result, we have a full video of our experience. Click below to watch it. Put it on full-screen HD and see what 40 hours of racing looks like from the inside!
Well, the race season is shaping up quite nicely so far this season. I’m staying busy, but trying hard not to over-commit to racing in order to give myself to properly train for a few key events. However, it’s hard to say no to fun adventure races when I get the chance. With that, I bring you my re-cap of the ever-awesome Raid Pulse adventure race close to home. This early May race is a nice 8 hour duration, and this time, was held and hosted at Mont Ste Marie, a mere 1 hour drive from home. As a bonus, that means sleeping in my own bed the night before and after the race! Bonus.
This was, in fact, the 14th year that Thierry and his crew have been putting on events. In the world of AR, that is something to brag about. What makes it work and keep people coming back? Simple. The race is both accessible, and challenging. Top racers can put it all out there and try to clear the course to get all the advanced checkpoints, and novice racers can choose to chase less checkpoints yet still have a great day. Thierry has done an excellent job of crafting courses that can take you pretty much to the full 8 hr mark, both for the top racers and the newcomers. To make things even more accessible this year, there was even a 2-hour event, but I didn’t see any of that, given that we started before, and ended after their entire event and awards were done!
Based on the fact that the course was hosted at VeloMSM, the mountain bike trail group out of Mont Ste Marie, we had an inkling that this race would feature a fair bit of biking on the amazing trails of the region. We were not disappointed. VeloMSM has been around for a few years, quietly building up the trails around the ski hill. They have done some amazing work. This was my 3rd time racing in the area, and each time, it seems they have added to the trails, including building amazing wood berms and structures and ensuring there is a good mix of easy, medium, and hard trails. But I digress, back to the race.
Leg 1 – Mountain Biking
As mentioned above, our race began with a pseudo-remote start. For the start, we were bused back to where we had dropped bikes off on our way to the race HQ. This was about 10-12km from the ski hill, along rolling roads. The intent was to give everyone a chance to sort themselves out and separate the pack before the technical trails. After the roads, the next equalizer was the fact that most people opted to bike straight up the access road winding its way up the ski hill. This meant a steep climb, and chance to further spread out. A theme of this particular race was that pretty much all the checkpoints of the race could be picked up in any order within each leg.
For this leg, there were 8 regular checkpoints and 2 advanced checkpoints that we could snag. I had sketched out a tentative route at the briefing, but on the bus ride to the start, basically decided on the fly to try a completely different approach after the first big climb. The trick was to minimize the amount of double-backs on this section. Certain trails were 1-way only, and were scattered around a lake, so it was hard to tell on paper the most ‘efficient’ route. All in all, I’d say I made pretty good time. I learned early on that there was a faster way to get to one CP right off the bat, but only a few teams had lucked out on that (it involved a non-marked ATV trail from the original road INTO the ski hill area, where most of us got there via conventional trails). For that reason, I knew I was about 5 teams back from the get-go.
Another good sign was that as I exited this area of the course, I linked up with Adam Mallory and James Galipeau, both of whom are strong competitors, and whose paths I’d crossed on the trails a couple times. We all took slightly different routes, but all started the next KILLER climb on a dirt road to the first transition. And by climb, I mean hard walk up a near-vertical road with our bikes!
Leg 2 – Trekking
The next leg of the race was what I consider my strong suit. Trekking and orienteering. This time, we had 4 regular checkpoints and 3 advanced checkpoints to go after. Once we had reached a the transition zone at the peak of one mountain, we dropped our bikes, and headed off into the bush. A quick study of the may showed that the first regular 4 checkpoints shouldn’t be much of a problem, as they were located on ATV trails criss-crossing the area. Not only that, but our maps seemed to be pretty accurate, improving the odds we could run between these CPs. However, the 3 advanced CPs were placed at much further distances, and also involved some considerable elevation gain and loss.
I grabbed the first four points, then struck out on a bearing through the bush to reach the first of the advanced CPs. In this little section, I came across a few other racers, including James and Adam once again. Once again, we had NOT taken the same route in this section, but were together in the search for this particular point. Upon reaching the first point, we agreed that the most efficient route to the next point was down a pretty steep re-entrant along a stream from our high point. While it was not necessarily advisable to go at this one alone due to cliffs, we decided that by heading down together, there was some safety in numbers.
Not long after grabbing the next CP, I realized there was a serious problem with my navigation. James and I agreed on the bearing for the next point, but for some reason, we were pointed in complete opposite directions. Shortly after, I realized my compass was completely borked! The needle wasn’t moving. At first, I thought maybe it was a magnet or something, but I came to realize that the fluid in the capsule had somehow drained, to the needle was not able to properly moved. I guess 10 or so years of compass abuse in races leads to damage. Even more surprising is the fact that I *ALWAYS* carry a spare compass in a race….. until this one! I had NO backup. I was shocked. Not only that, but I was in the bush in the most remote part of the course. I had to trust contours, instinct, and most importantly, James!
I told him my predicament, and given the fact we had the same CPs left, we stuck together until the end of this leg. At one point I remembered my watch has a compass on it, but it wasn’t quick enough to give readings, and they were only bearings, making it harder to use in a hurry.
Add all this to the fact that there was a 2pm cutoff back at the TA in order to be allowed to continue onto the next ‘advanced’ bike section, and you can understand my concern for our pace. We picked up the pace as best we could , but ended up over-shooting the TA by veering a little too far east. Luckily, we hooked back up with a trail and ran / jogged back as quick as we could. We showed up a couple minutes after 2. Normally, it would be game over, but the race organizers had decided to add 30 minutes to the cutoff. Sweet! Still in the hunt for a course clearing. No time to waste, it was time to grab a couple glasses of Nuun, plot the new advanced CPs onto my map, and head back out.
Leg 3 – Biking / Advanced Biking
Compass snafu aside, I was feeling that I was in a good position now. Not that many teams had made it to the cutoffs, and I was on track to finish and clear the full course. In other words, whatever position I was in at that point in the race should be the worst I’d end up in. With that in mind, I wanted to charge hard and see if I could pick up a spot or two. The rest of the race was bike / paddle / bike, and wouldn’t require the use of my compass, so I put that fear out of my mind. What I didn’t count on however, was how miserable the advanced biking leg would be. Ostensibly, it was on a ‘trail’, but this thing was horribly overgrown, and resulted in a lot of bike-whacking, and when riding, resulted in a lot of branches smacking me in the face. It was demoralizing. Eventually, I just closed my eyes and rode through the branches. Apparently, my wife does not approve of this technique.
There were only 2 CPs to grab, and both were super-easy to find once we were out of the really gnarly ghost biking trail. Having grabbed those, it was back onto backroads that were on the map, and the longish ride to the next transition. On the ride, I studied the maps a bit more to see if there might be a shortcut, and ended up devising a plan to cut back through the MTB trails at the ski hill and ultimately through a golf course rather than taking roads the long way around one spot. The jury is out on whether that was faster on the way TO the transition, but it would pay off later. There were a few delays as I had to consult maps and double check where I was.
Emerging as hoped by the golf course, it was a quick 800m bike to where the boats and transition bags were waiting.
Leg 4 – The Paddle
Considering I had only managed to go out once on my boat this season, 3 days before the race, and for a mere 45 minutes, I wasn’t expecting to break any records. However, I had the rush of being near the end of the race in my favour AND the sight of a lot of other racers around me. Keep in mind that these were racers that had skipped certain parts of the course, so there was the mental boost that I would likely keep up to, and/or pass them on the water. For this section, there were 3 main CPs and 1 advanced CP to grab. Looking at the distances and time, it looked pretty much a lock that I could grab them all and finish under the 8 hour mark, so off I went!
Not long into the paddle, I linked up with a few other solo racers in kayaks, and couple canoes. We were similar in speeds, so ended up paddling much of this section together. This lead to a few traffic jams near the CPs, and one spot where I tried hopping out of my boat only to discover that the ‘rocky shore’ was actually a dropoff. I dropped down to my belly button before propelling myself upwards again owing to the frigid water. Lesson learned. I decided to just wait my turn at the CPs and try to better position myself for the next ones.
James and Adam had started the paddle ahead of me (they got through the bike quicker), but I caught up to Adam on the water. James had gotten too far ahead, so we crossed paths with him on his way back to the transition. I’m guessing he had 10-15 minutes on us. I decided I had to at least stay ahead of Adam in this mini-battle we had set ourselves up for. After grabbing all the CPs, I gritted my teeth and focused on a smooth paddle stroke to get out of the water first. On the way, we also passed Deanna and Adam’s wife, who were racing as a team of two (ironic, no?).
I reached the shore at ramming speed, hopped out into the mud, and dragged my kayak up as fast as possible…
Leg 5 – Bike to Finish
It was down to the final 4-5k of biking. I knew that I would only be out for maybe 15-20 minutes from here. As a result, I made what I would arguably call my fastest AR transition ever. I left all my paddling gear on (well, mainly just PFD). Threw on my helmet, dropped paddle off in my bag (along with my map bag that I wouldn’t need) and hopped on my bike, all in one relatively smooth movement. I was back on the road probably within a minute or two of pulling off the water. It was time to put my shortcut theory to the test again.
Word on the street is that when Adam pulled off the water, he was gunning for me, and was fighting for an equally fast transition (although he took time to take off his PFD, which I think was a bad decision). I rode back up to the golf course, and turned in, now having memorized the exact route to get to the faint trail back to the ski hill. A few other racers watched me turn with some interest, as the conventional route was to stick to the road all the way. However, this was the time to gamble in my opinion. Adam might well have caught me on the road!
Pushing hard, I emerged right where I’d hoped, in the ski parking lot. I crossed the line, relieved to see no sign of Adam. James was already there, and let me know he’d only just gotten there a few minutes before! In the end the results show me as having arrived 5 minutes after James, and Adam arriving 4 minutes after me! Our standings were 3rd, 4th, and 4th in the solo category. I’ll take it. Sad to be a mere 1 step off the podium, but there was some heavy competition in this category in this race. 1st place had beaten us all by an hour, and 2nd had beaten James by about 15 minutes. I feel the main difference had to be speed in the advanced bike section, and time lost on the trek due to the compass issue. Oh, and for the record, my finishing time was 7 hours, 34 minutes.
Time to celebrate! We all made our way to the awards ceremony to await the warm meal awaiting us. It was a tasty spaghetti with salad and bread, followed by a desert. The obligatory awards presentation, then lots of random draws. Sadly, I won no prizes that night, nor did Deanna, but I was happy just having had the chance to run yet another fun race. Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention, I actually filmed the whole event with my array of cameras while racing ;-). If you haven’t done so yet, have a look at my re-cap video below. This should definitely give you a sense of the actual race. Enjoy! Next up, 44 hours of racing in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania!
Without further ado, I finally bring you my story about racing in Leadville, Colorado at the Leadville 100 mountain bike race. This is a [now] storied event that has seen the likes of Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, and Floyd Landis try their luck in the high altitude around Leadville on mountain bikes. As it turns out, it was also a race that was on my bucket list that I wasn’t even aware should be on it! It seems the more I get involved in the racing community and travel to different events, the more I learn about amazing races in far-flung places that I wish I could do. I’ll have to settle with a handful of them, and this race now gets added to my memory banks as one of the biggies! There is of course a video review, and also lots of pictures, thanks to Deanna being there (this doubled as our vacation!). Now read on for the whole story.
Pictures from the Race
The official story starts over a year ago in the Adirondacks in NY State. Specifically, the Whiteface Wilmington 100 bike race, which was a qualifier for Leadville. I knew about Leadville, and love riding my mountain bike, so when I heard about the qualifier less than 4 hours from home, I figured I’d give it a go and see what happens. Although I hadn’t raced quite fast enough to be in the top slots for qualifying, I stuck around after the race and during awards just in case. They were drawing for extra spots at the end, and my name came up. After meeting the founder, Ken Chlouber and seeing his infectious enthusiasm, it was clear I had no choice but to say yes. My 2012 calendar was already full, so I ‘deferred’ for a year. The only downside to deferring is that my starting place was somewhat compromised. Instead of being put in a corral related to my Whiteface finish time, I would be put in the very back corral. I didn’t think it would matter much, as I really just wanted to experience the event, not go for the win . I know what you’re thinking: “Don’t you always go for the win?”. Well, yes, I always give 100%, but I’m also realistic. Being one of over 1500 racers fighting out in an internationally-renowned race with elite racers meant I had zero chance of getting on ANY podium!
Over the course of the next little while from Whiteface, I managed to parlay my way into doing some media coverage for the Leadville race, which meant at least my entry fees were covered. I then booked flights using reward points for both Deanna and I, and also tried to scare up some old contacts for places to stay. The whole goal was to try and not spend too much on this far away race, as we are counting our pennies while we save up for our wedding and honeymoon. In addition to 3 nights with friends, we booked 2 AirBnBs (if you haven’t used this service before, I can highly recommend it), and a couple nights in a motel (the night prior to and after the race). We rented a nice car, and were all set (even got an upgrade to a fully loaded Subaru Legacy for a good rate).
Deanna was also excited as she had some distant relatives in Denver, and we managed to attend a family reunion of sorts where she could talk all about family history stuff with new-found family connections. This was also her first time in Colorado. As such, we had a brilliant week playing tourist, trying out lots of local beers (and mead), and getting up into the mountains (like Pike’s Peak, Mount Evans, hiking, Red Rocks, etc.). There are, of course, lots of pictures from our touristy stuff as well. Check ‘em out! But of course, this post is meant to be all about the race, so with that little digression out of the way, let’s get back to the action!
Pictures from the Vacationing
Leadville itself is located at over 10,000’ above sea level, so going into this thing, I knew that my biggest challenge may very well be the altitude which I’d be pushing my body at. I have been fairly diligent about training and putting mileage under my belt, but there is no easy way to prepare for the altitude. I knew that I had the legs and physical ability to bike over 100 miles, but the challenge would be in doing so in the time allotted (plenty of people don’t finish every year). My race plan was simple: don’t blow up early. I would race mainly by feel, using my heart rate monitor as a back-up to make sure I wasn’t creeping up my heart rate trying to keep up with people going too fast. In the end, I also relied on the theory of numbers. I felt that if I stayed in the midst of the crowds in the back 1/3rd of the pack, I should finish right on time.
Our hotel was about 40 minutes from the race start/finish, so we had to get up bright and early on race day. The day before we’d gone through registration and race briefings. Once again, Ken was an inspirational force with his words of encouragement, making us all anxious to get going the next day. The medical director was also a hilarious fellow, but he was of course delivering serious messages about the risks. The final thing sorted out the day before for me was a bike. I had rented a bike for the race from Cycles of Life, a great local bike shop in Leadville. They hooked me up with a sweet 29er that I put my own seat and pedals on for the race. After a test ride, things seemed dialed in, and the fact that it was a hardtail should make it the perfect bike for a ‘road race on mountain bikes’, as this race had been referred to as.
Race morning was FREEZING! There was frost on the ground, and being ‘bundled up’ in spandex wasn’t all that toasty. I had on my wind jacket and even borrowed Deanna’s jacket at the start line, where I had to wait for 45 minutes or so before the start. The sun had not poked up over the mountains yet. However, soon enough, we were under way. The start was downhill, making things even colder for the first while. As a result, I had some early camera issues. I had 2 GoPros with me, and neither seemed to want to stay on. I had to stop a couple times to remove batteries, re-set, etc. Not a groovy start. I found myself in pretty much the very back of the entire race at this point! Luckily, there was nowhere to go but up. Both literally and figuratively. Literally because we started climbing our first big hill, and figuratively because I’d spend the rest of my day slowly making up ground and passing people.
Much of this race made its way along gravel roads, and mountain access roads, with only a few little sections of true singletrack. In that regard, it really isn’t a very technical race, just long and challenging from an endurance perspective. Climbing out of that first valley was an amazing precursor to the rest of the day. As we climbed, we eventually popped out on a dirt road high above the valley, where the sun had not quite penetrated. So while we were now bathed in warm light the valley far below was still very misty, still and cold. My racing companions also agreed with my assessment that THIS was what the race was all about. Of course, I’m sure things were a lot different far ahead of us, where new records were being pursued by the leaders. We were having amazing weather conditions for the day, and the course was in good condition, meaning that new records may be possible.
While I had no official race plan or schedule, deep in my heart, I had been hoping for a finish around 10.5 hours, with a realistic goal of 11 hours, but a stated goal of ‘just finishing’. As it turned out, I would be somewhere between stated and realistic. In all honesty, I think I could have made my secret goal, but with caveats. Firstly, I was stuck in the back of the race, meaning thick crowds, lots of bottlenecks, and difficulty making passes on tricky sections. This obviously cost me time. Also, I did stop on numerous occasions for filming duties, which also costs time. I don’t regret it at all though, as it was really nice to actually soak up the atmosphere and let the scenery overwhelm me a few times.
In order to stay on some sort of schedule, I had a little timesheet that told me time checks for reaching certain checkpoints in order to finish in a given time. I didn’t get the chance to check that out until about 60k into the race, and when I did so, I learned I was about 30 minutes behind my target time! Yikes! As a result, I had to turn up my own internal pressure to the next CP. The next section included some pretty neat bits of singletrack trail, as well as the most fearsome descent in the race, Pipeline. This is a long technical descent, very rutted out in places, and making it very difficult to pass people. I held my own while barrelling down, but one of my cameras didn’t fare as well. My GoPro snapped right off the mount and went flying off. I had to stop to recuperate it from the trail and tuck it back into my pack before heading back down the trail. I was also distinctly aware that my brakes seemed to be wearing down rapidly, and I still had another VERY long descent to make after the high point of the race.
With respect to the next checkpoint and time check, that was where my sweet Deanna was awaiting me. When I arrived, I was a bit of a whirlwind of energy. I dumped my gear, grabbed what I needed to and basically headed back out, in order to make up some time. I was legitimately worried about cut-offs already! Luckily, I had made my time back up, but was now about to embark on the long climb up Columbine Mine. This is a climb from around 10,000’ all the way up to 12,500’ with some pretty steep grades. The good news is that I felt good, and was able to dig in and push hard uphill. I actually passed a pretty large number of other racers. At one point while I was filming and providing commentary, I was accused of having ‘too much energy’. Not like I haven’t heard that before!
Of course, I have to say that the climb to the top was well worth the suffering. From the high point of Columbine, you have a commanding view of the entire area and surrounding peaks. It was absolutely breathtaking. And yes, once again, we’re talking literally AND figuratively I took a good long pause while up there to take it all in, shoot some video, re-fuel on food and drink, and chat with racers and volunteers. I was feeling a little more confident about my time now, and even though I knew I wasn’t racing fast, in my mind this was the halfway point, and I had less climbing on the second half of the race. The climb up had taken over 1.5 hours, but to get back down? About 30 minutes. It was great. And not too tiring. The most tiring thing was squeezing the brakes and keeping the bike under control.
Arriving back at the bottom of the climb gave me a second chance to see Deanna. Determined to be a little more social, I stopped fully and chatted for a few moments with her. Gave her a kiss and thanked her for all her help and patience hanging out during the day while I raced. It really was great to see her again, and agave me a little pick-me-up before I pedaled off again. Sadly, as is usually the case with a race of this distance / duration, I did eventually hit a low point, and it was between this CP and the next one. The terrain wasn’t all that bad, just a lot of rolling trails and roads to follow. Sort of a hum-drum section. The views around us were great, but there were some wicked cross-winds that you really couldn’t avoid, due to constant curves. It sapped a lot of energy out of me. I could feel my pace slowing down and energy waning. I didn’t like it one bit! But I recognized it for what it was, and kept pressing on. I knew there would be fresh food at the next aid station, and just had to get there.
Speaking of aid stations, I should mention that these were well-stocked, and very well run by an army of volunteers. They would offer to help in any way they could and even anticipate your needs by looking at your bottles, etc. There were a good range of food options for racers. I guess after 20 years of putting a race on, you pretty much know what the crowd wants. For my part, I actually raced on ‘real foods’ for most of the race. At aid stations, I’d eat bananas, peanut butter sandwiches, watermelon, etc. It seemed to be doing the trick, so who was I to argue? This formula is exactly how I got over my low point. When I finally cruised into the aid station, I ate a pile of watermelon and bananas. I got back out on the bike, and within 10-15 minutes, I was feeling refreshed and much better. Which is a good thing, because up next was Pipeline again. And this time, going UP the climb. Another long drawn out affair.
My new-found energy came in very handy, as did the small can of Coke I got from the fine folks of Strava along the road before Pipeline. Although the sun was absolutely blazing on us, I tackled the climb with the fresh energy of earlier in the day, and beyond all expectations, I managed to bike the entire think (save for the very first, super crazy exposed section at the bottom. I got a lot of encouragement from other riders, most of whom were walking around me. They were polite and gave me right of way as a ‘rider up’. It felt amazingly good to pedal up while others were walking. Just what my spirit needed. When I finally reached the top and started making my way back down, I felt a great weight lift. I had done some calculations, and was pretty sure I’d make it to the finish well before the 12 hour ‘official’ time cut-off. But only if I kept pedaling!
The last couple hours of the race seemed to go on forever, with a never=ending slog of pedaling up and down climbs. My fellow racers were equally feeling the day wear on them now, as we’d been out for over 9 hours already and had struggled mightily through all the challenges to date. There was one FINAL long paved climb to tackle and energy was fading again. Enter the cycling Gods to my rescue. As I was pedaling, a shiny can on the side of the road caught my eye. An unopened Coke…. Hmmm…. Should I? I circled back and picked it up, intent on getting a shot of sugar and caffeine into my system. I carefully pried the top up as I kept making my way uphill. It was well shaken up, but I was careful to not open it too fast in anticipation of that. It was also swelteringly warm, having obviously been in someone’s jersey pocket a long way. HOWEVER, the sweet nectar was like medicine for my tired legs, and helped me turn the cranks over with a little less effort again. As someone eyed my comical act from behind the whole way, I finally ventured “Well, that just shows you, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure!”. Not only did I get a boost, but I was also picking up road litter. Karma points and energy points. Nice!
Now how can I describe the final ride to the finish? Well, for starters, the inbound route is slightly different from the outbound route. In fact, it adds 3 extra miles onto the race. So in fact the Leadville 100 is more like the Leadville 103! I had been warned about that in advance, but it made me no less comfortable as I passed the last few signs announcing distance to finish. I am almost positive they were fibbing with the signs, as it dragged on and on in the gravel. However, almost without warning, we popped back out onto pavement, and I realized it was about 800m to the finish! Another right hand turn and there it was, looming in the distance. The finish line crowds and yes, a red carpet! We actually get to roll up on a red carpet to cross the line. I filmed the moment, and scanned the crowd for Deanna. I also gave a big sweaty hug to Merilee (Ken Chlouber’s wife), who was putting my finisher’s medal around my neck. She has been doing that every year at the finish line for 20 years, regardless of the weather. I truly felt like I had arrived home to my family. It was an intoxicating feeling, and very emotional.
I finally found Deanna, yelling for me from the sidelines. I ran over and squeezed her hard over the barricades, letting the emotion and enormity of the day finally crash down on me. I had just biked over 100 miles in the high Rocky Mountains and finished the Leadville 100 in 11.5 hours. And it was good! Of course, the good feeling was soon replaced with the exhaustion, but not before doing a little touring around the finish area, having a celebratory beer, and eating some tasty kettle corn that Deanna had picked up for me. When we finally got back to the hotel, I was completely beat! Deanna poked fun at me as I lay in the bed nearly motionless. I knew I needed to eat something, but was having a heck of a time getting motivated. Our final meal choice? A horrible one I’m afraid: Taco Bell. I had 4 tacos and nachos supreme. But at least it was better than nothing.
The adventure wasn’t completely over however. The next morning we had to get up early once again in order to head to the awards ceremony. After all, it was the only way I’d be getting my belt buckle, the one and only reason to actually do this race . In addition, there were the presentations to the top racers, and we were also going to each get a finisher’s sweatshirt. Not until that very moment did I learn that the actual sweatshirts were completely custom, screened with both our names and exact finishing times! They had been made up overnight! Sadly, this customization is what also lead to us having to wait hours while they sorted them all out. However, in the long run, I’m okay with the wait, as I have one heck of a race memento now .
So ends my tale from Leadville. I’m sad to say that there are so many sub-plots that I didn’t get to share with you all. The stories I traded with riders, the pleasure and the pain I saw on faces, the absolute crushing sight of seeing people cross the finish line knowing they were not ‘official finishers’ due to being cut off. The near accidents, the mechanical issues. Yes, there is a LOT more that could be written, but it would simply be too long. Suffice to say, this sort of race needs to really be experienced to be fully appreciated, and if any of you are into mountain biking, I would absolutely suggest putting this one on your to-do list. Although I’d love to go back and challenge it again, I’m afraid the cost, and fact that there are so many other interesting races to try, probably means that I won’t. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t return to Leadville. After all, I’m now part of the family there, and it would be a homecoming of sorts! Next up in the race roster? Timmins for the Great Canadian Kayak Challenge! Stay tuned for that one!