Team Vignette qualified for the USARA Nationals by winning the Too Cool "Spread Your Wings" race in May. I have never before had the chance to go to Nationals, so I certainly was not going to pass it up. John agreed that it could be fun. Kip was talked into it without too much prodding, because the race used canoes instead of Sevylor boats and the fact that Jason Elsenraat, the course designer, has a good reputation for fun and interesting courses.
John and I used the opportunity to take our first trip in our travel trailer, and we drove up a few days early to scout and bike the Berryman trail. We were impressed with the beautiful foliage - the fiery orange woods and bright sunny days made for happy spirits. I had a lot of fun playing on the Berryman, as it is just my speed and really good practice for me. We attempted to paddle the Courtois Creek, but the outfitter we tried basically refused to let us because we would be "walking our boats" most of the way. Wouldn't we prefer to paddle on the Meramec? I couldn't figure out how that would fit into the race course, so we decided to just wait and see what Jason would hand us. Our most fun afternoon was at a local orienteering meet where we met the friendly team Alpine Shop and got to run around in the woods for a couple hours.
Kip flew into St. Louis on Halloween, we picked him up, Thursday we went to the YMCA Trout Lodge to check in and register for the race, we ate, we prepped gear, we went to the pre-race meeting, yadda yadda yadda. The highlight was our excellent room with a door leading out to the lake and the start/finish line. A beautiful setting, and we are now officially spoiled for pre/post race accommodations.
The rest of our story is pretty much as dull as my lead-in paragraphs. At the post-race meals, other people regaled us with hilarious tales of their experiences. So with apologies to anyone who didn't want them to be made public, I'm including the highlights in this report.
We received the maps at 5 a.m. on race morning, and although I was too excited to sleep really well, at least I was lying in bed instead of staring at maps overnight. We plotted the points, got a good overview of the whole course, and then focused on the first orienteering section. It involved several miles of running around Sunnen Lake, and we decided to carry as little as possible. In the pre-race meeting, Jason had said it was OK to tape food to your bikes at a bike drop. Since food/water was the heavy portion of our packs, we taped most of it to our bikes (making sure we each had the capacity to carry at least 50 oz of liquid, per the gear list). The required gear was plenty light, so we were happy with that choice.
The race started at 7 a.m. with one team member running up a hill to pick up our passport and the other two running 500 meters to pick up a canoe and paddle to a meeting point further up the lake. John started near the front, while Kip and I were content to set more of a medium pace amid the group of paddlers. I saw Shaun and Dave from Team MOAT fly by us, but I will save them the embarrassment of explaining what they were doing starting from the back of the pack.
Kip and I reached the boats and found them stacked 3-high, waiting for a hoard of frenzied racers to fight over them. We decided that the left side had the least amount of controversy, so we took ownership of a canoe (after getting two boats claimed out from under us) and pulled it off to the side. We realized that we had 3 paddles already in the canoe but we needed to pick up 3 PFD's, so Kip ran to get them while I guarded the boat. The PFD's turned out to be a huge hassle - it was difficult to get the clips open, and we couldn't go anywhere until we had them on. Finally we were off, back into the frenzied hoard.
Oh, I need to mention that it was below freezing on race morning. Frost on our bike seats, frost on the grass. Dense fog on the lake. At least the lake paddle portion wasn't terribly long. But it was soon obvious that it would not be easy. The paddles were many inches too long, we hadn't used straight blades in forever, and the boat was super short. Steering was a challenge and speed was hard to come by. I was fighting the boat almost immediately.
We took a bearing toward a jut-out on the other side of the lake, hoping to pass the upcoming island on the left side for a slightly shorter route. It also would have been the route of the fewest boats, as many people stayed closer to the near shore. It was impossible to see the island because of the fog until we finally got a glimpse of some treetops fairly close in front of us. My steering went awry at the wrong time, pulling us right just as we caught sight of the whole island and realized that those treetops were on the far right side of it. We ended up passing it on the right, back in the mix of the many canoes.
Getting closer to the point where we would pick up John, we saw racers running on the shoreline and heard people calling for their teams. Luckily Kip has a loud voice and he caught the attention of John who was patiently waiting for us. John paused to give Team MOAT a push off from shore, then came over to fumble with his PFD while we tried to set up the sling seat in the middle of the boat. We had hoped to beat John here, but obviously the run was not nearly long enough.
Eventually we took off, with John in front, Kip in the middle, and me trying to get the hang of the steering. We worked our way toward the island and docked so Kip could run and punch point A. Then it was off... wait, Kip is stuck in some vines... OK, now we're off again. It was still foggy, so we did the best we could with the bearing and trying to see through the soup to tell where point B was located on the spillway. Along the way I muttered and cursed and grunted, trying to keep the boat straight without using too much braking force. The ice building up on the paddles didn't help!
We finally saw boats heading back to the drop-off point, so we followed their course backwards to locate the guy standing on the dam with the punch. As the swarm of boats drew near to him, teams started queuing up to get their passport punched. We had done well enough across the lake to get behind only about 3-4 teams in line, with many more breathing down our necks. One boat tried to ignore the line but was loudly scolded and I believe they eventually yielded to the mob and waited their turn.
On the way back to the point where we could get rid of this hulk of a canoe, we passed below the back deck of the Lodge and caught glimpses of cheering volunteers and spectators. Fun! We also saw MOAT heading off on the orienteering section. Finally we pulled up in the reeds and the guys jumped out to pull the boat up on land, managing to do so without tipping me over, thank goodness.
We took off at a light run toward the south end of the lake. Initially we were going to go clockwise around the lake, but John astutely realized it was about a kilometer shorter to go the other way since the boat drop was down the shore from the TA. A couple other teams had the same idea, but for the most part we were taking the route less traveled. That made for a nice transition from the paddle melee into a calm, focused orienteering section.
As we were running down the road, it became clear just how cold it was. Kip was surprised to find the map case coated in ice. My fingertips started hurting like crazy and John had to help me pull off my bike gloves so I could clench my hands into fists and get them warm. Patches of our clothes that had gotten wet were now stiff and solid in various funny shapes.
We ran with another team toward checkpoint M. It was listed as a stone ruin, so we swarmed the first stone wall structures we found, and the checkpoint was inside one of them. Next was a run back up the east side of the lake, and to get there we had to cross a couple creeks. Ohmygosh, that was cold! We decided that it was probably better to get our feet wet at the start of the trek instead of at the end, giving them a chance to dry before getting on our bikes.
A road led us past a horse camp, then I convinced Kip to take a trail around the end of a spur instead of going over the top to CP L (and now I will state that it probably made better sense to go over the top). I pace-counted up the creek, while John urged us to hurry to stay within 10 meters of each other. The checkpoint was in plain view, so we punched and turned around to head back toward the lake.
We briefly searched the wrong part of the shoreline for CP J, then Kip saw the island and we got reoriented to the right spot to find the flag. It's not easy to keep a fast pace and still do accurate map work. Reminds me of many of my orienteering meets. We headed toward checkpoint H, but we had problems with distance estimates and figuring out which reentrant was which. Kip kept trying to give the map up, but we focused on finding the point instead of listening to him. Finally we got our act together, located the right ravine, and found the checkpoint.
On the way to checkpoint G, which was an easy one at the end of a cove, Kip finally got John's attention and John got the map over to me. Kip correctly determined that those of us who had prescouted should be the fastest on the map. We ran over to CP G, then walked on a trail up a spur to locate CP I at the top. It's easy when you can see the checkpoints from the trail.
The next CP wasn't quite so easy. On the way towards it we found a team studying a permanent trail map sign, and Kip joked about the "no outside maps" rule. A bunch of teams converged on the way to CP K, and we all started through the woods down to the reentrant. It was plotted near the top, so when everyone took off down the hill I had to stop and think about that. I looked over to the left and happened to spot the flag, hidden in some brush. I discretely got John's attention, pointed to it so he could punch it, and we were the first team back out to the road.
We greeted Team Werewolves of Austin on the road going the other way, then we carefully worked our way toward CP F. My pace counting wasn't quite dead-on, but when we spotted a team coming off a spur back to the road we had to check it out. Team Alpine Shop met us at the checkpoint, then I believe we took off in different directions.
Our route took us on roads north and then west. John mixed up a SPIZ for me, although he had to figure out how to unfreeze the water in his Camelbak hose first. Kip led us down a reentrant to the boulder where CP E was located, and we may have seen Team Alpine Shop coming up the reentrant and then leaving right ahead of us.
We relocated the road, John astutely figured out that it was a different road than the one we wanted, we relocated the correct road, then we were on our way down the hill. A side trail took us directly to CP D where we ran into Team Alpine Shop again. Hi again! I had already decided that trails were the way to go down to the lake, while Alpine Shop took a cross-country route that put them temporarily behind us.
We ran across a camp, down some stairs, and down a steep hill to CP C in a gully. From there is was a short run across the spillway and a bridge and back to CP1 at the Lodge. Robyn Benincasa was greeting the teams, that was cool. It seemed like we were doing pretty well, since there were a lot of bikes waiting around and we saw only a couple other teams in transition. We found out later we had done the first leg in 2:41, in 16th place of 77 teams. A good start.
With food and water restashed in our packs, we jumped on our bikes and headed out, following the sidewalk to avoid the hilly road through the Lodge area. Onto the main road, we had a brief glitch in figuring out our first turn, but John got the map unfolded enough to figure it out, and we were on our way up the hill. A couple teams passed us on the roads, but we weren't concerned with pushing too hard. We're not strong cyclists and it was early in the race.
It was fun greeting Julie and Team MOAT II somewhere around CP2 at a road intersection. One of the guys thought I was Julie at one point and gave me a huge push up the hill. What a pleasant surprise! They soon left us in the dust, and we pedaled onward. John kept our place on the map as we passed a transmission tower and some big powerlines, and then past an intersection to CP3 at the junction of the Berryman Trail. Not that we could have missed it, with the cars, volunteers, and racers there.
The instructions told us to ride on the trail to CP4, so we downed some food and headed off, letting a couple teams go on ahead of us. I was surprised to be keeping up with the woman of one of those teams, and eventually they pulled over to let us pass. That doesn't usually happen in my life. It felt good to be back on the trail, with its fun little descents and mostly easy switchback climbs. We passed a team repairing a flat tire, and soon they were back on their bikes tearing past us. We gladly moved over to let them by, as obviously they were better than their current placing showed.
When we found them again working on a tire, Kip asked them if this was the second time this had happened. They replied that it was the FIFTH time they were working on it. Ouch. We gave them our condolences and again let them pass when they were up and moving fast a bit later.
We located CP4 at a switchback with a bunch of racers milling around. It soon became apparent why - there wasn't a punch there, but a sign stating that the actual CP was in a different place. It listed a set of UTM coordinates and said we could get there however we wanted. We pulled the bikes over, got out the UTM ruler, and plotted it on another section of the Berryman. Interesting!
Pondering this, we rode the rest of the way down to the road and then had a quick discussion about the instructions of following the trail vs. getting there on roads. We decided the latest instructions overrode the initial instructions to stay on the trail, and turned left to head up the long paved hill. At the top we took a right and carefully followed the bends in the road until we were at the top of a spur John had deemed to be the correct one.
Leaving our bikes against a tree, we trekked down the spur until we hit the trail. I looked right and spotted the CP - nice job, John! On our way back to the bikes we ran into a couple other teams with the same idea. John had scouted a spot to jump from the road over to the trail on the other side, and just as we were about to roll into the woods we saw a team on that very trail, just 10 meters away. Neat! It was the easiest bike-whack ever; we didn't even have to get off our bikes.
A quick little bit of trail got us to CP5 where we found the fast team changing a different tire. We felt really bad for them, and I hope they figured out a way to finish the race with so many bike problems, but I don't know if they did. We rode back up the trail (per instructions) and greeted a couple teams coming toward us. Some racers said hi back, although some were more aloof. It wasn't quite the same jovial atmosphere as we have seen in other races, but I guess if people want to be totally serious, that's their choice. Team Alpine Shop were happy and friendly whenever we saw them, including on this out-and-back section.
Partway down the trail, John gave me a distance from CP5 to the next checkpoint at Harmon Campground, and I tried to back-calculate odometer readings to figure out what our target should be. When we popped out in a field, we checked the map and it was obvious we needed to turn left, to heck with the odometer. The manned checkpoint was just a short ways from there. The volunteers told us that a lot of people had gone the other way and passed up the CP in exchange for some Ozark Trail time. Huh. That is the only possible explanation for being in 10th place at that point, because we had been passed by various teams along the road and trail and somehow gained 6 places since leaving the Lodge.
While we were checking in and getting a SPIZ together, the volunteers offered some Halloween candy. My eyes grew wide when I spotted a single little Crunch bar and managed to snag it without falling over my bike. Yay for chocolate! A pair of teams traveling together came up behind us as we were leaving. Based on their team numbers I suspect they were Wedali 1 and 2. I've since nicknamed them the "double team."
They biked by us as we headed up the road. I watched them to see where they turned off, and their decision to take the straight "double dashed-line" jeep road matched my choice. It wasn't the prettiest of roads, but we managed to get down it. Somewhere in here Team Alpine Shop passed us for the last time. Go get em, guys!
At the bottom we found volunteers manning CP7 and offering more Halloween candy. I did a Kit Kat Happy Dance. There was a nice spring flowing out of a pipe here, so we filled up all our Camelbaks. We were pretty sure this was the only water source on the course that didn't require treating the water, so we wanted to take advantage of it. While we were doing this, some "fast" team came through, punched, and sped off down the wrong trail. The volunteers did an awesome job of completely ignoring this and not letting on. Everyone else left in the correct direction, in any case.
The next bit was our last section of the Berryman Trail for now. It was a rather long one, so we let Kip know to expect it to last awhile. John and I had ridden this section previously, but like most riders we had chosen the clockwise direction. Now we were riding it counter-clockwise every time we were on it. I kept thinking back to the trail description that said "it is just as fun to go the opposite way, and feels like a completely different trail." True that.
We mostly had the trail to ourselves here, just doing the work up and down the constant hills. The only people we saw were a guy and his little girl out in the woods cheering (cool!) and one runner who told us that there were a bunch of teams just ahead. After a while I recognized the top of a hill and the gradual descent on the other side. When we hit a little switchback I mentioned that there was a rocky section coming up that I was going to walk. I found it right where I expected, and it actually didn't look as bad as it had going the other way, but I walked it anyway.
Leslie from Team MOAT later told us that she was biking on singletrack, possibly in this section from CP7 to CP8, when she grabbed a small tree to catch her balance. The tree responded by falling over on top of her, and Shaun responded by looking on and laughing. Where are the TV cameras when you need them?
We were happy to reach CP8, where we left the bikes next to a tree we hoped we could find later in the dark. The split sheet shows us in 14th place at this point. We transitioned to trekking mode and started off down a jeep trail while John mixed up some SPIZ. The main thing on my brain was getting to the paddle before dark, so I took off a little fast. When we hit the downhill on the Ozark Trail, I ran down even faster. We noted 6 racers coming down through the woods on the right, plus another team right behind us, and I was motivated to stay with them.
Apparently I was a little TOO motivated, because Kip and John later told me that they thought I was crazy for running fast at that point. But neither of them tried to reel me in, so it took the next uphill to put me back in my place. First we had to get our feet wet crossing a little creek. The team running with us stopped to chat with another team getting water there. The other group of racers trekked by us on the uphill and since John wasn't towing me I had to let them go.
Then we were all alone again for quite a while. We stopped at the top of the hill to discuss a plan for CP9, at which point my thighs cramped up to let me know that THEY were not happy with the fast pace. OK, OK, I get it. No more pell-mell. We (more calmly) took the trail around below the checkpoint and climbed up the side of a spur to find it. The trail didn't match the map here and we probably could have saved ourselves a little climbing with a more direct route, but at least the contours were easy enough to figure out.
I took over the map for the next checkpoint, leading us back to the Ozark Trail. We love trails, and this one is especially pretty in autumn. I opted for following the road part of a kilometer before jumping back to the trail. We ran/walked along for a while, going over a small ridge and dropping down to the next drainage system. The trail departed even more dramatically from the map here, but since the checkpoint clue was "trail/creek," we stayed on the trail until it crossed the creek. Voila! Checkpoint 10.
John got the map back and took us up the hill to the road. His cross-country route led to some slight grumbling from those of us who are slow going uphill through vegetation, but it was short so he was soon forgiven. We ran along and pace-counted to be certain we wouldn't miss the trail crossing the road further down, hoping that any trail variances wouldn't be too severe. No problems, soon we were back on the trail and heading back down into the big drainage.
John did a masterful job following the contours and figuring out that the trail cut down earlier than the map showed. He gave me a distance to count, and he followed along on the map as we went. We both agreed on a particular side drainage, so we climbed up it to nail the CP - nice job! We saw a team disappear to the road up above us, and soon we were heading the same way.
We jogged the roads to CP12 at a pond, while I tried to refold the map for the paddle. I had this strange idea that I could get the whole length of the creek on two sides of the map so I wouldn't have to refold while in the canoe. For future reference, diagonal origami map folding probably isn't the way to go. I resorted to the "stuff it" method as we ran down to the boats.
Our transition was pretty quick. For the gear check we showed the volunteer our emergency blankets and med kit, set up the middle seat for me, found the shortest (and pinkest) paddles available, and selected PFD's that were relatively easy to clip/unclip. If only we had thought to eat something here, that would have helped later. Somehow we were back in 10th place. It was a recurring theme - teams would pass right by us in almost every section, but we'd somehow gain or maintain our placing despite that. Almost every time we passed other teams, it was by stealth. Or by interesting route decisions by other teams, I don't know for sure.
On our way across the pretty little pond, Robyn Benincasa and Patrick Harper greeted us and gave us directions for the upcoming portage. We hit the cement bank (literally - I gotta keep my shins away from the middle bar!) and jumped out of the boat. John and Kip lugged the canoe down a steep bank while I figured out the best place to put in. The creek was flowing nicely. Surely that was too good to be true. We had been told we would probably hate the race director for this paddle, so we were steeled for something heinous.
It didn't take long to understand the problem. For the next couple hours we would alternate actual paddling with pulling the boat over downed trees, walking the boat in shallow water, and lying in the bottom of the boat while we slid/pulled ourselves under large arborous obstacles. Kip and John worked especially hard and I tried to help where I could. I watched the sun diving toward the horizon and fervently hoped we could get at least halfway through this section before it became too dark to see. We were very thankful that we were at least on the water before nightfall. Many teams would not be so lucky.
Later in the dark, Team Toocoolracing would somehow take a wrong turn and end up portaging their boat upstream and back to a spot they had previously been. It was an obvious spot (like a ford or something), so they knew what had happened, they just didn't understand how. When they got back to the fork in the road, as it were, they went the other way. But all three teammates were convinced that they had seen THAT section of river before, and almost turned around again. What I would have given to be watching from the bank.
We approached CP13, looking for a wire bridge under some huge powerlines. Several other teams had caught up to us, and together we worked it out that there were more powerlines just around the corner. There we beached the boat and someone spotted the checkpoint flag up at the top of a pole. John ran to climb up and punch, apparently finding it difficult to hang on with at least one arm while using both hands to punch the passport. Thanks John!
The water was so shallow here, and the rocky bank extended for a couple hundred meters, so I ran along the shore while John and Kip worked to get the boat downstream. Eventually they told me to get in and help paddle! We were all cold after the stop at CP13, but with all the work to steer the boat and drag it over shallows, we soon warmed up again. We just didn't want to stop for anything, since we were chasing daylight. So we put off eating and drinking, with the understanding that we would need to catch up again later.
One thing we were really happy about is that we hadn't carried our own paddles throughout the race just for this section. We're better with singleblades anyway (and those are much harder to carry than doubleblades that break down into smaller pieces), and we were just tickled that we were in a rental boat using rental paddles. We abused them to no end. John would lean on his paddle to get his weight out of the boat and give us a better chance to scoot across the gravel below our butts. We pushed and pulled the canoe over trees. Kip said we would have thrown the boat over a dam, given the opportunity.
Once we got under route 8 and into the second half of the paddle section, things got a bit better. The river was much clearer of brush/trees and slightly deeper in some places. We still did a fair amount of dragging, but I could stay in the boat most of the time while Kip and John kneeled one leg on the boat and pushed off with the other leg. Amazingly we still were pretty warm.
It still took a long time, and eventually it was too dark to see. We pulled over to grab our headlamps, glow sticks, and a couple cookies. We were getting pretty hungry by then. I could tell by the map that we still had about 4 kilometers to go. Soon we realized that the next challenge would be steering in the dark. Kip (in the front of the boat) couldn't turn his headlamp on, because he would just be lighting up the paddle in front of his face. John asked me if I could locate the bright Fenix flashlight I had bought for the race, and luckily he had stashed it in the top pocket of his pack. Once I started pointing it upriver, John had a much easier time figuring out where to go.
To do this, though, I had to stick my arm out to the side past Kip's body. I couldn't paddle at the same time. All I could do was switch arms from time to time. Since I wasn't working anymore, now I got cold. I huddled and shivered and pointed the light. A team just in front of us pulled over, either because I was annoying them with the bright light (although I was trying not to shine it right at them), or because we could help them navigate better from in front of their boat.
Finally we came across a low ford where we lay back and glided underneath. A few more meters and we found the takeout. Yay! We spent a few minutes putting on all our clothes and getting something to eat. A couple teams were camped out around a wonderful warm fire, with gear spread out everywhere. I backed into a spot and tried to hold that position without getting jostled aside for a couple minutes while John finished getting ready, then we were on our way. We were looking forward to warming up by running.
Thank goodness it wasn't nearly as cold out as it had been at the start of the race. John wore his wet gloves to try to get them to dry out before getting back to the bike. We all had wet feet and legs. Walking/jogging along the road felt good and soon we were power-walking up a long hill. Another team came by and we exchanged greetings. Now that I think about it, many racers were quite friendly; it was just a few people that ignored our pleasantries that stood out to me.
The next CP was easy to find, so we took the time to recover and just chat a bit. For much of the race we had to concentrate on route finding and other things, so we had been quieter than usual. This was a nice break. We located CP15 and headed north on a dirt road, back to concentrating on pace counting and the map.
Along this road later in the night, Team Werewolves would come upon a racer who was hypothermic and mentally out of it. His teammates were trying to support him and keep going, but it was clear that the guy needed help. So the Werewolves built him a fire and tried to call for help. Without phone reception, they promised to send back help as soon as they found volunteers on the course. And with that, they continued on.
Apparently they were successful in getting help back to that team, at which point those racers were whisked away and I believe the guy was OK. However, they left the fire burning. The next team upon the scene was Team Toocoolracing. Frank is a fire marshall, and the sight of an unattended fire made him angry. They put out the fire and continued on.
The best part is that we were sitting with both teams the next day when Tom of Werewolves asked Toocoolracing if they had seen a guy by a fire in the middle of the night. The smoldering looks on their faces was perplexing to us until the whole story came out, at which point I guess both teams felt like tracking down whoever had walked away from that fire the night before!
Unaware of the impending drama at this very location, we did our little pace counting exercise, found the jeep road we were looking for, and ran down the hill. We found CP16 at the bottom, and then followed flagging (per instructions) to CP17. We had a route choice discussion, with our preference being to climb up the hill on the other side and find a jeep trail to follow over and back down to a trail to CP18. Kip suggested we continue along the unmapped ATV trail in front of us (which actually had more flagging on it for a little ways) to see where it went. So that's what we did.
This was a perfect plan, as the trail climbed up and became one of the trails on the map. I was able to follow intersections, John made me a SPIZ, and soon we were heading down to the drainage to follow a trail to CP18 (same as CP7 from earlier on the bike). The same volunteers were still there, this time with a fire but without any more Halloween candy. While we partially filled up our Camelbak bladders at the spring, they told us we were in 10th place. I accused them of lying to us. They also said that MOAT had come through earlier (2 hours earlier) and were surprised to hear that they were in the lead.
John let me keep the map for the next checkpoint, so I merrily took off down the Berryman Trail. It seemed like a straightforward checkpoint, but I had difficulty with the exact trail location compared to the creek crossings. My guess now is that the trail isn't mapped correctly, which shouldn't have been much of a surprise. From one creek crossing to the next I counted 300 meters, which seemed way too long (or else my brain and counting went whacko, which is always possible). We messed around with the compass bearing for a bit, then turned around to see the woods exploding with racers and headlamp beams.
Most of those racers walked right up the spur I had already decided was the right one, so we followed them and searched for a checkpoint along the way. Finally everyone decided we were too high. Some teams continued up just to be sure, while we searched downhill until it was time to check the next spur to the southwest. John had wanted to go that way from the start, so when the lower contours matched up, we headed up and weren't surprised to find the checkpoint there. Sorry for that boo boo, y'all.
The next checkpoint made us mostly forget the problems of the previous one. CP20 was in a reentrant on the way back to the bike drop, but there wasn't an obvious approach to it. We ended up following the Berryman trail to a known intersection and then dropping down a ditch to a big drainage. This may not have been such a bad strategy, except we couldn't figure out where to climb up the other side - John was looking for a side drainage but couldn't see it. So we climbed up anyway and found a little road across the ridge at the top.
We weren't precisely sure where we were along the ridge but we made the mistake of continuing forward without figuring that out. Even that wouldn't have been too bad, except we ran head-on into some thick brush that was really hard to move through. John kept working his way to the right, while I tried to understand if that made sense. Finally the brambles opened up a bit and we could see a drainage in front of us.
Based on the direction of the drainage, we figured we were still not far from the checkpoint, just 200 meters to the west of it. But we didn't want to go back into the nasty brush, so we went up to the little road, paced east a couple hundred meters, and then dropped down into the right drainage to find the checkpoint. I still have no idea where all that vegetation was hiding on our second pass. We had managed to hit the one nasty little spot on the whole hillside.
OK, that was fun (not!). Robyn Benincasa had been hanging out in the dark near the CP, watching and listening to teams finding and trying to find the flag. Team Alpine Shop apparently gave a rousing rendition of "I Want to Ride My Bicycle." I'm sure Robyn was long-gone by the time we got there. We followed the drainage downhill, climbed up the other side, and followed the Berryman Trail to the bike drop and CP21.
We had managed to lose 8 places in 2 checkpoints, although we were only aware at the time that a bunch of people had passed us and were now getting on their bikes and leaving right ahead of us. We checked in, got some food, and put some grocery store bags on our feet to combat freezing toes while biking. Everything had dried since getting out of the canoes, so we were happy about that. We had been worried about getting cold while biking at night, but that never happened.
It turned out to be a really good thing that those 8 teams had passed us on the trek. We started down the last section of singletrack, and I started having problems. I really need to practice mountain biking at night, especially while tired. I was all wobbly and all my recently-acquired control was kaput. Little rocks and roots would throw me around. So the downhills were slow. To top it off, exertion was causing my stomach to rebel, so now the uphills were also slow and I had to walk a lot of them. Blah.
We managed one wrong turn up a jeep trail. It sooned dawned on me that this looked nothing like the Berryman that I knew and loved. We turned around to find the trail going off into the woods at an angle. John told us later that he had seen the silver diamond further in the trees there the first time, but didn't know why they had put it so far off the trail. I guess we were all a little tired.
It was a lot of down and up and left and right. And a couple of big trees to haul the bikes over. After long last we started a gradual climb up a drainage and I started feeling better so I rode most of it except the really steep part. Right after that we popped out on the road at CP22 (same as CP3 from much earlier). Done with the singletrack! Kip was especially happy about that.
We couldn't believe no one had passed us on the bike, but we figured that would happen soon. We didn't know that there was a big gap behind us, courtesy of our nav problems to CPs 19 and 20 and having all those teams pass us there. It would have been more demoralizing to see them come by on the bike and not be able to do anything about it. As it was, we knew we were going slowly, but it wasn't so frustrating.
We rode on roads for a while, stopping once for SPIZ and some food. Kip told us he was getting tired and wasn't feeling strong. He tried eating more food to see if that would help. Soon we found the intersection with the paved road and flew on down to Brazil Creek and CP23. That fast downhill was the only time I was cold on the bike - brrr!
The volunteers there had a fire going and tempted us with marshmallows and S'mores, but we regretfully declined. They also noticed our "skinny tires" (we ride semi-slicks most of the time) and we told them that the tires were working great for the combination of roads and singletrack. We headed out into the night again.
Soon we were climbing a crappy jeep road that went steeply up the hill. I had forgotten to check the odometer reading, so when John said that this was our road, I was a little skeptical. But John kept assuring me that the contours and turns were good. I was just hoping to heck that it wasn't a driveway (because such was the condition of the road) up to the house with the bright light at the top of the hill. I surely didn't want to ride back down this and climb a different road further down.
Near the top I realized that the "house with the bright light" was just the moon peering through the trees. Well, at least John was right and this really was our road. After a good bit of walking, we were back on our bikes. Kip had a hard time keeping up, so I tried to slow down and be patient. Somewhere along there we saw a sign reading, "Authorized visitors welcome. All others will be prosecuted." My mind kept wanting to see just the "Visitors welcome" part. We double-checked the map, but there was no other way to go, so we quieted down and hoped not to disturb anyone who might prosecute unauthorized visitors, if that's what we were.
It was rather eerie along there, but mostly easy riding. Eventually we found CP24 at a road intersection, and I started feeling like our apparent trespassing was behind us. John helped Kip up some of the hills along the way to CP25. We knew that it was quite a long way to the next checkpoint. When we turned off road 205 onto 2639, the road surface turned all gravelly. Kip really disliked this part. Eventually we started going downhill, which was a bit easier.
I reached the bottom of the hill and turned around to see one white light that wasn't moving. Eventually that white light turned into a flashing red light (John's blinky), at which point I knew I needed to head back and see what was going on. Just then Kip rode down the hill and explained that he had fallen over. He had spent a couple minutes collecting the batteries and scattered pieces of his front bike light. But at least he himself was in one piece.
Just as we were approaching the powerline where we would find the last checkpoint, another team came flying by, riding down the hill through the woods to the right. I guess they knew about a little road right there, that was interesting. We got on a trail and followed the powerline, then dropped the bikes to scout with the other team right ahead of us. Everyone decided we needed to push our bikes through the underbrush to find the CP and get out on the road to the south. Well, I prefered to see where the little road took off to, but begrudgingly went along when John insisted that wasn't a good idea.
We found the checkpoint and watched the team disappear ahead of us. They certainly were fast. Later they told us they had slept 3 times and were having a fun day instead of pushing too hard. So in the end we got beat by a better team, which I can't feel too bad about.
We worked our way out to the road, finding that the vegetation actually wasn't too bad. Another relatively easy bike-whack. A girl could get spoiled. I popped out on the road and looked back to see yet another set of headlights behind us. OK, that's enough getting passed! I've had it! I asked Kip if we could push the last couple miles and he was game to try. So we sped off down the paved road. There were two little hills along the way, but we made it without seeing the headlights again, and we finished without getting into a sprint for the line. Yay!
We finished in 22 hrs, 43 minutes, in 19th place overall. It was an excellent weekend and a really good experience. We all thought that the racecourse was well-designed, perfectly challenging and interesting, and free from controversy (all checkpoints in the right place). Major kudos to Bonk Hard Racing for a wonderful course!
It was a lot of fun racing against some super teams from all over the nation. That was the original point of coming to Nationals, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well we did. Maybe we'll be back to try again another year.
And congratulations to MOAT for winning the whole thing - y'all rock!
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