The Subaru Primal Quest 2004 race in the state of Washington has been dedicated to the memory of Nigel Aylott, of team AROC. With his team leading the race, he was killed by a dislodged boulder in the orienteering section. And we were forever changed.
In many ways, this race had unexpected twists and turns. The notoriously rainy weather of the Pacific Northwest turned sunny for almost every day of racing. Sections we thought might be cancelled were not, and vice versa. Something as simple-sounding as orienteering became dangerous. Biking would have been easier without bikes. A course that should have been the longest, most difficult PQ to date was completed by mere mortals in under 6 days, including over a full day of rest. Never let it be said that adventure racing is boring!
Team Vignette congregated in Seattle, after John and I flew in from France and Kip, Shaun, and Kelly drove the van/trailer up from Austin. We all had our own versions of a long trip, so it was good to have a couple days to finish shopping at REI, Walmart, and several kayak shops. A quick drive to Anacortes led us to another hotel room where the gear swapping/organizing continued. I was pretty excited to be back at the San Juan Islands after an unintentional “scouting” trip in the form of a sea kayak tour a couple days earlier. The area is beautiful, with lots of small islands and wildlife.
After a complete unload and reload of the trailer, a “bilge pump scramble” to come up with our last piece of required gear, a couple hours sleep, and a quick trip to the best donut shop on the planet, we arrived at the rendezvous point with the rest of the teams. Bleary-eyed racers and crew drove their vehicles onto the ferry chartered just for us – which I thought was pretty special. A short boat ride, then a drive around Orcas Island, and we were at our temporary home, Rosario Resort. Previously a large mansion and grounds, it is a beautiful place to hang out for a couple days.
We jumped right into skills testing as one of the first teams scheduled (it was good to be a “V” team this time). The water folks drilled us in everything from currents and buoys to river rescues and radio protocol. Time to get wet! Dressed in dry suits with our best poly pro and fleece underneath, we performed a couple rescues (tip the boat over, get out, help each other back in), then hung out in the 49 degree water for 5 minutes before swimming our boats to shore. Easier than expected.
Change, dry off, next station – ropes… this went pretty smoothly except for some last-minute adjustments on the ascender gear. Then the rest of the day was filled with interviews, medical checks, feet inspection, GPS review, and so on, until we finally got signed off, at which point I think we collapsed in bed. The highpoint was our PQ team interview, where John asked Kelly to fill in for him (because John is shy on camera), so we acted like Kelly was part of the team and tried not to laugh and give away the joke as we were answering questions.
Happily, we had the whole day Friday to continue the gear shuffle, gear box setup, and another complete unload of the trailer. Kelly worked on our bikes (I think he gave each one a complete tune-up), JC showed up and helped move stuff around, and then eventually we found it was time to sleep again.
Saturday was the Prologue, a brief warm-up “race” that determined our start times for Sunday morning. Waves of 6 teams would start every 2 minutes the next day, not a huge gap considering the total time we would spend racing. But we were jumping out of our skins from tapering and eating a lot, so it was nice to have an athletic endeavor to calm us down. Shaun and I paddled out hard, with Shaun giving me great tips on how to improve my kayaking stroke and be more efficient. It was fun to see the top teams near the turn-around point, and then we did some drafting on the way back to conserve energy. I asked Shaun if we were going to paddle that hard during the race? Sure hope not, phew.
As we landed, our crew ran out to help us. Kristi and Mike appeared out of nowhere, and when I asked for some help in removing my paddling gloves they stripped me down to my running clothes and handed me back my jersey. Wow, that is some crew! And away we went, with John towing me up the hill.
The run around the lake was fun, all on trails. I love running on trails. We passed several teams, scrambled over a creek next to a pretty waterfall, and continued at a good pace. At the transition area, John and Kip took off on bikes. Shaun and I hung around, ate and drank a little, tried to stay warm, and watched other teams. It was fun to see the elite racers come flying in on their bikes, do a quick transition, and then take off.
Kip and John made good time even though the course was long and a bit muddy. No shoe changes, just stand up the bikes and go – the whole thing felt like a Hi-Tec sprint race. We were solidly in the middle of a group of 6, so we ran easily to the finish where Kip did a cartwheel and everyone cheered. That was fun!
Race Start and Sea Kayaking
I’m sure we did more gear work after that (we could have done it for days, I imagine), then it was time for the pre-race briefing. The guys focused on setting up the boats while I sat through the presentations and took copious notes. The river part sounded terrible – lots of dangerous log strainers that you had to know about and avoid from half a mile away, swift current, and lots of debris. There was a chance this section would be cancelled, and I held out hope during the whole first half of the race that this would come to pass. The glacier section sounded excellent, including a potential 200-foot ice rappel. Even though I’m not fond of ropes sections, I thought this would be really cool.
“No map work required” = spend an hour jockeying for position to copy points onto several maps that were not pre-marked. John brought me food while team captains bargained for the right to copy points off each other’s maps. Finally, it was done; all that was left was to start the race! We got a decent amount of sleep and then scrambled to get the boats and ourselves completely ready. Race morning dawned bright and clear, perfect weather for sea kayaking.
More scrambling, figuring out how to pee while wearing dry bottoms and a spray skirt, and begging a volunteer to retrieve a strobe from the hatch that was supposed to be attached to a PFD. Finally we waited quietly for the race to start. Minutes ticked away, while Shaun recalculated current flows in his head based on a later start than expected, and then the first wave was off! Several minutes later it was our turn, so we jogged down to the kayaks, jumped in, and were on our way. Phew, it gets a lot easier once you are on the course and have a more narrow focus. Just get to the next checkpoint…
Or in this case, the first checkpoint. In both of my previous expedition races, our team has experienced some type of disaster/meltdown in the first 24 hours and in the first section (just before or just after CP1). This time I was hoping to push that out further, at the very least, or possibly even avoid it. So we paddled along, trying to draft behind other teams when possible. Paddling for me was made easier by having to wait for Kip/John several times. The guys soon decided to hook the boats together so Shaun was effectively pulling all of us along. What an animal on the water.
We greeted other teams, everyone making their way west along the bottom part of Orcas Island. We saw a ferry waiting to dock, and realized it was waiting because there was a charter ferry sitting in port carrying a bunch of RV’s and OUR CREW – from the deck of the boat came tons of cheering as we passed by. That was cool.
Everything was straightforward to CP1, following teams, easy nav, flat water. At the checkpoint I jumped out so I could drink half a serving of SPIZ (premixed and in a mesh bag attached to my spray skirt). On the way again. The next part was a northern journey along the edge of the island. Here we saw seals – heads bobbing in the water, hanging out and watching us until we got close, and then quickly disappearing. We got good at spotting them from a distance and it made for excellent entertainment, helping me partially forget that my arms were tired and we had a long ways to go.
A whale-watching boat zoomed by and people who must have been race volunteers yelled “Go Vignette!” The water got a little choppy from boat wake and wind, and around CP2 I was feeling uncomfortable with the waves coming from the side of the boat. Shaun counseled me on “loose hips” and I remembered John’s directive to trust Shaun with everything on the water, so I tried to relax as we continued forward.
The next crossing to Sucia Island to the north was the most difficult part of the day, but somehow I got into a groove with the waves coming over the front of the boat. Shaun took the current flow into account and aimed us left of our destination, which put us at a good angle diagonally into the waves. We paddled harder as the boat gently rolled over the minor turbulence. As a good distraction, a team ahead of us appeared to be headed toward the wrong island, so we had something interesting to talk about. I started counting from 1 to 100 in my head several times, in time with our paddle strokes, for something to concentrate on instead of thinking about being tossed around in the waves. Shaun continued to monitor my form and make adjustments, telling me to “Pop, plant, pull” with my paddle.
Kip and John saw something flash that appeared to be a dolphin – how neat!! I sure would have liked to have seen that. That’s what I get for being focused on staying upright (quite unwarranted as far as fears go, I’m sure). Partway across the waves got smaller but their movement changed into a “confused sea” from all directions. Then everything got calm as we moved into the shelter of a nearby island. A safety boat stopped by to check on us and we responded by patting our heads to let him know we were fine.
Shaun had fun picking out the little rocks and tiny islands that were masked by larger landmasses behind them unless you were looking at them from a particular direction. His compass bearings were right on, and eventually we were paddling into a calm cove at Sucia Island. Halfway done with the paddle! We jumped out to pull the boats over the short portage to CP3, various racers took pee breaks, I downed some more SPIZ, we chatted with the cameras a little, and then we glided back onto the water. Time for an easy paddle for a few minutes before crossing back to Orcas Island.
The afternoon sun shone as we headed across the water again. Everything was calm, we were paddling with the current, and we were happy. We talked a bunch while watching the far point of the island, way far east in the distance. Boats in front of us seemed be almost there but never quite reached it. This lasted quite a while, and I started picking out points on the shore to track as targets. These seemed to go by at a decent rate, so I was satisfied that we were indeed moving OK.
Eventually the boats ahead of us disappeared, then we turned the corner as well. Paddling across a small inlet, my arms and my stroke felt great, the sun was on our faces, the water was smooth as glass, CP4 was right in front of us, and everything was right in the world. One more pit stop/SPIZ break. Race folks put lights on the backs of our boats and we were on our way for the final push to the first transition area. Here we saw Leslie and her team, Perseverance, for the first time of the day. They left CP4 right behind us.
We followed a couple teams across Rosario Strait, and I scanned the horizons for signs of any big boats. Good timing, no boats to be seen except the kayaks around us. One team ahead of us looked like excellent paddlers, pulling away from us quickly. I pondered why they were in the back of the pack with us (we were running in the low 40’s, placing-wise). Another team stayed ahead of us even though one boat contained uncoordinated paddlers, which was rather frustrating. We chatted with the team called Jim Class, named after the similar-sounding fun school activity and because their captain’s name was Jim.
The fast team veered off to the right around a small island, while we kept a steady course aiming just off the point of land mid-way to CP5. Eventually we reached the point as the sun was dropping, and Shaun took a bearing toward a nondescript part of the distant shore just below the main peak in the hills above. He continued to focus on our target as lights began to come on along the coast. As it grew rapidly darker, we started to wonder exactly how we were going to find the landing point. Nothing looked like a TA, no big lights, no glow sticks. Meanwhile, the speedy team veered left and started heading north.
A couple safety boats trolled by, leaving wakes in their paths (I could have done without those), then John pointed out a green glow stick in the distance. It was slightly right of our heading, so we aimed in between our original target and the glow stick. We were feeling pretty good about this when the green light moved, a red one appeared, and then the boat to which they were attached took off. Oops. There were no teams to follow ahead of us except the one going north, we hoped erroneously.
I theorized that the lights were attached to a safety boat that had been hanging out near CP5. We paddled onward, Shaun double-checking everything on the map, and the 4 of us just hoping we were right. And if not, just hoping that we would hit land soon so we could jump out and figure out where we were. There was a glow of lights in the trees above our target, and I could only wonder if the TA and RV’s were hiding in the forest.
The current may have been working against us a bit, or maybe our sense of time was skewed from the darkness and wanting to be off the water and wondering if we were going the right way, but this part seemed to take a really long time. I started counting to 100 again, to see if I could make my mind slow down. That worked until I had done it a few times and it became apparent that this really was taking a long time. Sigh.
Finally the reflection of the lights on shore started lengthening and we were actually moving toward land. Yay! From a ways out, we started yelling to see if we could make anyone on shore react. Nothing until we were really close, then at last a flashlight shone in our direction. Thank goodness. We slid up on the boat ramp and a PQ volunteer came to greet us. Shaun’s nav on the water truly rocked.
Transition to Trekking
As much as we didn’t want to be sitting in the boats anymore, it was also difficult to stand and move around. We were told to empty everything off/out of the boats and carry it with us up a trail. No sign of our crew, apparently we were required to do this ourselves. We all started pulling pieces from the deck and opening hatches to grab all the gear. Luckily we had brought a couple huge mesh bags, so we were able to load everything into those for relatively easy lugging. I took a couple paddles, I think, and after a last check to make sure we didn’t leave anything on the ground, we were stumbling up the road.
My right hand started to hurt a bit and I couldn’t squeeze anything. At least walking got easier as we moved. We found the trail and worked our way up and down, several hundred meters until we arrived at some campgrounds. Still no obvious TA, but we saw various people roaming around, some of whom helped point us in the right direction. Anticipation in seeing our crew made us excited. Finally we found the check-in spot, Shaun signed us in, and one our crew arrived. Yay! In the darkness among the trees, it was easy to see why the TA was not visible from the water.
Kip and Shaun took off after our crew, while John and I tried to follow but in the confusion ended up following another team that was actually on the way out. Oops, backtrack, there they are. The crew had set up a tarp just for our wet stuff, and there was a lot of wet stuff. We struggled out of the dry suits, VERY glad to get the neck gasket off (it had been rubbing on most of us). Quick change, grab the “normal” (non paddling) gear that we are more used to, drink Gookinaid, eat something hot – thank you! – then we were ready to walk out of there.
I kinda felt bad about saddling the crew with a bunch of wet gear and clothes, but soon the focus was back on where we were going. We checked out and headed up a park trail in search of CP6 at the top of the hill. Mike had picked up a park trail map, in addition to printing out USGS maps and highlighting possible routes. The park map helped a bunch in matching everything to the trail signs, and we marched confidently upward along the switchbacks. John towed me and everyone seemed to be feeling good. We saw a team moving down the trail from above, then they disappeared, apparently taking a side trail toward CP7.
At each of several intersections the guys checked the maps and verified our location, taking us up trails and then finally up a road toward the top. At a flatter spot we jogged a bit, and somewhere along the line John mixed up SPIZ to keep us fueled. Everyone discussed the route choices to CP7, needing to know initially whether to head back down the trails or to try to jump off-road immediately from the top. The guys settled on two choices, both of which involved going at least partway back down the trails before either going through the woods for awhile or taking trails further down and then roads/trails back up.
We checked into/out of CP6 (somewhere around 39-40th place) while asking the volunteer which direction teams had been going. “Every which way” was the reply, which was not surprising given the number of possible options on the map. We thanked her and turned back down the road, jogging to get out of range so we could talk some more amongst ourselves. We stopped so everyone could get a look at the map, then continued running downhill while I worked out the choices out loud.
One factor: This section was listed as 8 miles and should take teams a maximum of 11 hours. 11 hours? There must be a reason for that. Next factor: PQ races have proven that Dan likes to find places where the maps are crappy and the trails don’t match up well with what is drawn. Third: What we could see so far of the vegetation off-trail did not look easy to move through, so we were concerned about speed of travel even if the contours were easy to follow. Finally: The safest choice (almost all on trails) involved an extra elevation drop/gain that hardly bothered me at all. Training in the Alps makes small hills fairly insignificant.
So we decided to take the safe route and follow the contours, distances, headings, etc. very carefully so we would always have a good idea where the trails were taking us. Done. We ran downhill some more, confused a couple teams that were climbing up, and greeted others who did not appear fazed that a team was going in the opposite direction. Quick decisions at intersections, passing by the trail to the lower lake, then on our way along a jeep trail heading south. I counted paces and yelled “hut” every 100 meters, Kip kept the total distance on his tracker beads, Shaun and John followed the bearings, and everyone watched the contours and listened to whomever was carrying the map describe what should come next.
In the shadows along the quiet dirt road, I caught a glimpse of a small bunny rabbit as it hopped away. Pretty sure that was real, as I wasn’t into hallucination mode yet. Through the trees we saw lights on the sea and Anacortes in the distance. Ah, we were off the water, how nice! A gradual climb led around a curve, past another road, still very much how it was drawn on the map. Don’t let your guard down, though, that’s how you make mistakes on trails. We peered into the woods, saw tons of thick vegetation and were glad we had not tried to take a more direct route to that point.
After a while we came to a gate. We climbed over and then came to a house. Hmm, this is where things change from what we expected to find. We walked quietly around and then down their driveway to a paved road. OK, now the map is officially out of date! The bearing said to go right, so we followed the road until it ended at a several driveways. We spent a couple minutes exploring options for going downhill, but it became apparent that everything ended here. OK, so the road has to COME from somewhere, so we went back to the original driveway and continued on downhill. And soon everything started making sense again and we were out of the new subdivision and back on track.
Down, down, down, we ran on the pavement. At the bottom would be a road that we were not allowed to travel on, so we discussed routes. There appeared to be a trail crossing the road and then crossing back later where we needed to go? Except actually John and I had mis-read the map. When we got to the bottom we briefly checked the creek to the left (crossable but lots of brush) before trying the “cross the road” option, finding that it didn’t pan out, and then returning to the creek.
Shaun found a small trail to follow upstream a little ways before it petered out and we looked down the steep slope for a way down. The ground was moist and soft, dark dirt that I imagine stays wet and rich all the time. We slid a bit to the bottom where Shaun located a large fallen tree over the small but fast-moving stream. Instead of trying to hop wet rocks, we agreed to cross on the tree. I wimped out and edged across on my butt, getting a bit wet and dirty but oh well. Climbing up the opposite bank was a challenge, lots of plants, some prickers and a rather long steep climb.
We were rewarded with a dirt road at the top, yay! Only one minor problem – which way to the trail that would lead us up to CP7? We tried going up to the left, pace counting to know when to stop. Two driveways went off to the right, then the road curved like we had gone too far. Hmm. We walked back to the second driveway and decided to try it. Immediately there was a sign to the effect of “Private! Rottweiler guards!” John and I slowed while Shaun and Kip enthusiastically claimed that the road was curving around exactly like expected.
Then a large dog started howling and barking around the next corner. I turned and started walking away, and John and Shaun encouraged me to just hold on while we figured out whether the dog was behind a fence. Ready to bolt and/or climb a tree, I waited on edge while Kip and John continued up the road toward the loud baying. The direction of travel had stopped making sense, and they verified that this wasn’t the right way. Relieved, I quickly led the way back down to the first road.
We considered running out to the main (forbidden) road to pace count back, but decided to give the first driveway a shot. We found a gate that read something like “hikers welcome, please stay on trails”, which sounded much more promising. And the road curved as expected. Soon we came upon a creek and someone noticed a wood pole with the word “TRAIL” carved into it, next to a narrow path. It matched perfectly with the trail on the map, excellent!
So it was that we were climbing up a small, sometimes faint, trail in the middle of nowhere during the early morning hours of Day 2. John put me back on tow and we steadily climbed, watching the altimeter and rejoicing that the trail followed the map exactly. More SPIZ and food, I think Shaun or Kip closed their eyes for a minute during the break, then a final push up the rest of the hill. At the top we started seeing more signs, some just describing how the ice age had affected the area and others pointing to camp sites and such.
We passed a sign facing the other way, and I glanced back to see that it pointed toward the little lake we were seeking. Cool! Hopping over a small pool, we made our way quickly along the trail to CP7 where various people were hanging around, coming in and out, etc. It is so odd to spend hours by yourselves and then come to a checkpoint with 20 people there at the same time. I think there was a fire going, but we checked in and left quickly. But not before going “Holy cow, we’re in 21st!!”
I was giggling all the way down the trail after that. It is so much fun when you make a good decision and execute it well. I did not imagine that our high placing would last, but it sure felt neat to be there. We followed the trail downhill and told several teams coming the other way that they were almost there. I recognized a couple more famous racers, which was pretty cool. In our glee we briefly took an incorrect trail split but quickly fixed the problem and were on the way downhill again.
We dropped down onto a dirt road, turned right, and Kip asked me to pace a particular distance, 500 meters or something. So I took off running to do so. After reading the map some more, he hustled to catch up and said he was surprised I had just taken off. Well, I had my running directions, didn’t think there was much to add. :) We got ourselves coordinated and started counting creeks crossing the road. CP8 (kick bike pickup) was below us and it appeared that we needed to bushwhack down the hill to reach it.
At a large drainage we stopped to assess. Racer tracks led down the drainage. A trail (again marked “TRAIL” or something ambiguous) went in a slightly different direction. And the road continued on, going the long way around the hill. We started with the direct drainage route first. Massive amounts of prickers and thick brush made us reconsider, even though other teams had obviously tried this too. Having other options, we retreated to the top and tried the trail next. It moved along a plateau but never started going downhill, so the guys thought it would just eventually go back to the upper road. I wanted to continue forward but I could not argue with their logic so we turned around. Somewhere around this time it started getting light out.
At the road we just took off running to get around the hill as fast as possible. Shaun was possibly sleep-running, but Kip and I were energized by the effects of good nav. Down and around the hill, past the bottom of the “TRAIL” (at least I was right!), and then into CP8 we ran. I grabbed my new steed, the kick bike I had met just before the race. This should be fun! For once I wasn’t the last one ready, so I chatted with the volunteer while the guys got themselves prepped for the next section. We were now in 19th place or something ridiculous. Too funny.
We shoved off and started gliding down the dirt road. Brakes on kick bikes are awesome, and I could not imagine trying to do these hills on roller blades. It only took a couple minutes to get comfortable on the bike, staying not too far behind the others in the rush downhill. At the bottom we passed a team putting on roller blades at the start of the pavement. And then it was time to follow the roads per PQ instructions.
Kip and Shaun worked together between the map and the list of roads to follow. We glided into town, crossed over a highway, asked a driver the name of the road at an intersection, and then we were rolling on a quiet side road through the country. It was a nice, calm morning, the weather was still good, and we were happy. I learned how to steer by leaning and gradually took the downhills a little faster. John even towed me up one hill, which was pretty funny. I envisioned a TV interview where they asked us what we did to jump up in the standings, and I would answer all serious-like “it was probably our kick bike pace line.”
Eventually everything gets old after doing it for a while. 17 miles on kick bikes is still a bit of distance. The roller blading team, I think from Sweden, passed us eventually and we cheered them on. They didn’t seem quite as excited about the whole deal as we were.
More roads, up a bit of a hill, over railroad tracks, trying to find an efficient push-off and cadence. Later I would end up with sore inner thighs to go with my hurting right hand, which is totally weird when you expect hurting feet to be the main challenge in an expedition race… Finally we headed toward a suburban area and saw more cars and people. Our required route took us around most of the developed area, around the town of Sedro Wooly along quieter roads.
Just cruising down the road, I heard my teammates saying something behind me and turned to learn that John had fallen asleep on the bike. As usually, it was not a big deal for him to run off the road, and it got us laughing for a while. Can you imagine being the team that has to call on the emergency radio during the kick bike section?
Heading down the last side road toward a busy intersection, we spotted the roller blading team coming toward us. Now that was odd. Racers on each team looked at the other team, then looked at each other. Kip swore we were going the right way, and I looked back to see the other team turning around. Still, we discussed something at the intersection, I guess a final verification by everybody, then waited for traffic before turning left on a busy road. Meanwhile, the other team bladed along the left side of the minor highway. We followed them a ways along the road and then spotted the next TA, CP9, in a field on the left. Excellent!
Next Up: Ride and Tie
Because the next section was going to be really long (40+ hours) and the temperature was not conducive to sleeping on the side of roads for very long at a time, we decided to sleep a couple hours at that TA, even though we would burn some daylight doing so. As we checked in, we learned that the glacier part of that section (CP’s 12 to 15) had been cancelled due to 3 feet of snow covering the crevasses. Bummer about having to skip that part! We thought the sleep would still be good at that point, though.
Our crew was happy to see us, almost as happy as we were to be there! They efficiently got us fed and restocked. We would be leaving with 2 bikes for a ride-and-tie, so we had a bit of a discussion about what that meant in terms of whose bikes we would use. Then we jumped into the van for a 1.5 hour nap. Too quickly it was over and we were back eating again, ready to get started on the next section.
Still not completely sure how to best run the Ride and Tie, we decided to use my bike and I think John’s, since I should probably ride as much as possible (perhaps switching with Kip occasionally) and John’s should work for everyone else. John might be able to run most of the 9 miles, so he ran while Shaun carried most of the packs on a bike. I towed Kip for a while, trying to keep us within sight of John.
We followed a flat trail that ran parallel to the main road and occasionally crossed small creeks. It was a nice trail, with only occasional puddles or ruts, but not very interesting. We spent the time pondering how to make our travel more efficient and faster. Eventually I suggested to Kip that I could run a little if he wanted a break, so we started switching off. It felt great to be on my feet, although I couldn’t run very fast.
At one point a big river came into view on the right and I was startled with the realization that it was probably the Skagit which we might be paddling later in the race. I strained to see what it looked like, whether there were logs floating in it, how fast it was flowing. I didn’t see much before having to catch myself from running off the side of the trail, then it was gone behind the trees again.
Further ahead, a decision was made to have Shaun ride ahead and drop all the packs off at the next CP and then come back to assist the rest of us. This made sense, because he was carrying quite a bit of weight and John could eventually use a break. John waited for me and Kip so he could get a drink from our water bottle, then we continued on together. When Shaun appeared we weren’t far from the finish – he gave Kip the other bike and ran in while Kip and John followed. I can’t recall the exact order of everything but eventually everyone got to CP10 where the other 2 bikes were waiting.
Mountain Biking and Bike-Whacking
Shaun and I took a look at the map for the next section and studied the off-road section. We would follow roads/trails for most of the way, but from CP11 down to the river there was nothing marked. We would follow flagging to start with and then figure out the rest for ourselves. Shaun had an idea that involved following contours but we figured we should wait and see what everything looked like over there.
We drank SPIZ, ate, and set off again. Several teams were around us at this point, one passing us during the Ride and Tie, a couple more fueling up in the CP. We passed one team sleeping in the sunshine beside the road, and we saw Subaru Canada a couple times. Shaun towed me up some of the hills and we moved at a more moderate pace to recover from running. Logging trucks flew by in both directions and I was glad we were heading to a more remote area for a while.
The road led around the nose of a hill and we followed a big creek for a while. When the road got steeper we walked the bikes a bit, then we rode up and down as the dirt road traveled further upstream. Just a quiet afternoon on bikes. Shaun monitored the map and after quite a while he turned us left on an old road down to the river. At the bottom we greeted someone who might have been a volunteer (a good sign we were going the right way), then crossed on a bridge and started up a trail on the other side.
Ignoring what seemed to me like a perfectly good jeep trail, we instead took the road less traveled. It was an old trail and the main feature was repeated water crossings. Not just “ride through water” crossings, but ditches that were 5-20 feet deep, steep drops down to little streams and then steep climbs up the other side. This wouldn’t be a big deal except that we had to do this over and over again. Every 100 meters or so. This is not an exaggeration. We had 4 long switchbacks and we crossed perhaps 20 little drainages each time we traversed the face of the mountain.
John put my bike on tow and we walked, marched, pushed, pulled, and got ourselves and our bikes up that hill. Having help with my bike made a big difference for me, and the pace didn’t wear me out. I was glad for all the hill training we had done. Across the valley we could see wide areas that had been logged, completely clear of trees. “Trees and vegetation” was perhaps a theme of this race, except for the ocean sections.
After starting the last switchback we took a brief food break and marveled at the pretty evening sky. Enough of that, let’s get going. The “trail” soon changed – gone were the ditches, in their place we got lots of rocks. Nothing bad, just enough to make it difficult for me to ride any of the flat sections. The trail continued mostly uphill, across a couple flat creeks, and headed toward some lakes. Kip and I chatted quite a bit and that made time go pretty fast for me.
Right before dark we finally crested the highest elevation we would hit for a while. We went a little higher than necessary, following the wrong trail at an intersection, but John figured it out and then we were riding/walking directly to CP11. Shaun tried to ride through a large puddle that turned out to be really deep, causing him to come off the bike sideways and giving John a reason not to try it himself. Kip smartly found the rock-hopping path and I followed his lead.
It was almost dark when we reached the CP. We chatted a bit with the volunteer while we ate and looked at the map. I told the guy we might have been better off without bikes so far, and he assured us we would need them on the other side of the mountain. I was anxious to get going while there was still light, but we hung out at the fire for a couple minutes anyway so John could mix some SPIZ. There was flagging to follow out of the CP, so I led the way and we weaved around and in and out of the brush. The flagging lasted longer than we expected, and this lulled us into the idea that perhaps it would be as simple as following tracks from the teams ahead of us down the hill. It would not have been easy to pace count or follow a bearing, in any case, but we did get the altimeters calibrated at least.
When the trail started steeply down, I relinquished the lead, and John stayed just ahead of me to help where he could. There were indeed plenty of tracks to follow from racers ahead of us, as people had slipped and slid down the moist dirt and through the bushes with their bikes. John coached me on using the brakes on my bike to give me some support while coming downhill, so I worked with it and managed for the most part. On the worst drops, John brought his bike down first and came back for mine. I could see the tops of trees not too far in front of me, so I was aware that the steep slope continued for a while, but being inside the trees kept me from thinking about how far down it might be. Plus it was dark, so if I can’t see below me then it usually doesn’t bother me.
I thought I could handle this for quite a while, but all good things must come to an end eventually. We reached a creek crossing and the tracks seemed to diverge in various directions and then disappear. We saw lights from a team below us trying to figure out where to go. We put the bikes down while Shaun went left, John went right, and Kip filled a couple camelbaks with water and I helped add the Micropur purification pills. Shaun suggested going left, while John didn’t find anything promising, so we got up to head left.
At that point we ran into the bane of our existence for the next few hours – shrubbery. Not just any old bushes, but tenacious bushes about 4 feet high with lots of small twigs running in all directions. Not just running in all directions, but each particular twig was twisted and curved, without a straight line to be found. As you were pushing through them, they would invade your space and get into every opening on your bike – through the spokes, inside the frame, through the pedals, etc. And when you were done shoving your bike through that mess, invariably you would pass an innocuous-looking small tree with just enough room for everything to get through except the outside pedal. If you were lucky you would just stop short and not knock your shin into the inside pedal. Ian Adamson was quoted as saying “they might as well have given us 4 bricks and an umbrella.” So true.
So we tried to proceed left. Several small drop-offs prevented us from going straight down, so we didn’t have much choice. The map also suggested contours that were less steep to the left. The immediate thick vegetation made it difficult to get enthused about this route choice, but we did the best we could and kept moving. The team from Ireland pushed by, throwing their bikes down the slope and greeting us with a hearty hello and “how about this stuff, huh?”
Eventually we figured it was time to start downhill again. This was the easiest direction by far, as you could really drop your bike down a few feet and it would come to rest in the grass/shrubs without any trouble. After you climb down to follow it, you repeat the process and eventually get off the mountain. A couple large logs and steep drops made things interesting, and for a while Shaun and John were moving 3 bikes between them while I helped Kip get his bike through the worst part.
Unfortunately, we started downhill too soon; if we had continued more to the left we might have gone far enough to reach a road/trail partway down. Apparently that was by far the best way out of there, and we would have avoided much of what followed. As much as I try to pound into my head that bike nav can be difficult and needs as much attention as trekking nav, for some reason it’s still hard to put that into practice during a race. And so we continued straight down the hill.
I discovered that it was much easier to travel with Shaun’s light bike, so he took my heavy one for the rest of this section and I decided I needed a lighter bike for adventure racing. We still had a rack on mine for some reason, which didn’t help matters as far as weight goes. Kip’s Gary Fisher SuperCal bike was plenty light, at least.
The main challenge going down was to keep from getting whacked in the eyes too many times. I think I had my shades with me but not my clear lenses as I should have had, and we didn’t think to stop and check. Later I marveled at the many tiny bruises on the legs that didn’t hurt. Just some of the standard adventure racing injuries that you don’t see much in other sports.
All of a sudden the ground flattened out and we were at the bottom. We had been listening to the river for quite a while but now it sounded close. John ventured off sans bike to go look for it and ended up going in some strange direction so we had to call him back. Someone with the sense to look at the compass led the way and we found the banks. I don’t know what I was expecting, perhaps a nice open clearing, a trail along the water, something easier to move through. Instead it was thick brush everywhere.
We checked out the water flow and noticed lights from another team coming toward us from the left. It was clear we would need to head to the right to find the bridge to cross. The water was fast and deep enough to make everyone think twice about trying to walk across with bikes in the middle of the night. So we gathered the bikes and started picking our way through the crap along the river bank. Thick vegetation drove us to the banks to move as well as we could there.
It actually wasn’t too bad, just mud banks and little islands and some trial and error route finding. A giant mud slope made things interesting, and our friends on the other team went past us to higher ground. We followed, making our way toward a large lit area not far away. When we arrived at the lights we discovered other racers, not sure how many, some talking and others sleeping on the ground. Well, that wasn’t the bridge and it didn’t help figure out what to do next.
So we tried to continue following the river, when we hit the obstacle that may not have been there. John came to the edge of a side creek, or a bog, or a mud pit, something wet and muddy that may or may not have been crossable. We theorized that it was the creek we had crossed much higher on the hill. This is where things got weird. We tried going away from the river to cross the creek upstream. Shaun and John kept saying that there was a lot of water and mud to cross. Other teams appeared to be stymied as well. Individually our guys would make a push in a particular direction, go a few meters, then return to report that it was impassable.
Instead of staying next to the river and trying to work it out, I came up with a brilliant plan to head a couple hundred meters away from the river, turn and go parallel for a couple hundred meters, and then (if this was the correct creek we were currently next to), we should find the trail that leads down to the bridge. Nothing seemed very far away on the map, so we figured with a little bit of bushwhacking we could break free.
So for the next couple (several??) hours we pushed and pulled our bikes up the slope away from the river, trying to avoid bogs that weren’t there, working around huge downed trees, squeezing through trees and brush, lifting the bikes over huge obstacles, and basically wondering why the heck we were carrying bikes in the first place – I still didn’t believe the volunteer from CP11 that we would need them at some point. At one point Shaun stopped and watched the rest of us do a wide circle and end up not far from him, at which point he crashed across to us in about 60 seconds. It was insane.
We reached approximately our distance target and turned left. Initially the going was pretty easy, which was exciting. Then we started running into vines again, and John moved on ahead on foot to see if we were anywhere close to the road/trail that we sought. He came back with sober news – the going got really difficult ahead and no sign of paths, manmade or otherwise.
It was almost dawn, so the decision was reached to go BACK to the river (where we should have stayed in the first place) and figure out how to reach the bridge from there. Going downhill was easier but this still took some time. Light started to filter in through the high trees and we became aware of the jungle that surrounded us. What an absolute mess. It would have been difficult in a trekking section, but it was completely awful while hauling bikes.
The light didn’t make things easier until we got back to where we had been a few hours earlier. Then we were able to cross a small section of water, work our way through some closely-spaced trees, and make out some tracks of racers before us. Two teams came toward us on foot, having scouted the way to the bridge and returning to get their bikes. It was easy travel, comparatively, now that we could see the options far ahead of us. It was also sadly clear how far we had been from any road through the woods, and how the cross-country plan never would have worked.
We were fairly depressed upon finally reaching the bridge. Wet, muddy, tired, dejected. John’s wrist compass had come off somewhere during the night. We had lost a water bottle as well. We were sporting various minor cuts and bruises from bushes, pedals, and chain rings. We wondered if there was any way all of the bikes would still work. We had been pretty much all-around whacked. We started putting things back together, Shaun put the pedal back on my bike that he had removed for easier travel, and Kip filled Camelbak bladders and treated the water. John fed me some SPIZ. We were slightly in shock.
The other two teams came across the bridge in about the same mood. They stopped as well to prepare for some actual bike riding. One commented how they had been in 20th place or something at CP11 and now that was certainly shot. 20th place? We had been behind them yesterday. So we weren’t the only team that had trouble here, and maybe that would keep us from dropping to the back of the pack. This buoyed my spirits, and when we found that all the bikes were miraculously working with all available gears, we were closing in a positively chipper mood.
Off again, following an actual trail. It wasn’t much of a trail, but it was so much better than bike-whacking that no one complained. It seemed to end a couple times, but then Shaun would locate another section that continued on, behind a dirt pile or along a side trail. We crossed a couple sections of running water and I think it was here that Shaun tried to ride through one but ended up falling over, which was pretty funny to see (and I must add that Shaun is a much better mountain biker than I am, I only mention his falls because they were rare and usually spectacular).
Then all of a sudden the trail really did end. This cannot be true. Yet it is. In our disbelief (and because those other 2 teams must have gone SOMEWHERE), we backtracked, tested every possible side trail, looked into the woods, up the slope, and down to the river. We were moving quickly now, knocking off possibilities as soon as we thought of any new ones.
Then all that was left was to bike-whack again. Sigh. Another team came up behind us and jumped into the woods after hearing that we were stuck and had tried everything. We followed their path and worked our way down along the water, coming out on a rock/sand bar on the side of the river. We studied the map to come up with a course of action. It appeared that we were sitting next to the main river, and just over our shoulder was the main side creek on the map. The trail should exist (if it existed at all) further upstream and across the side creek.
The other team waded across the water and started working their way inland on the other side. I did some scouting upstream and quickly came to the conclusion that we were looking at ONE flow of water, not a river and a side creek. And we were actually on the side creek at this point. This took a couple minutes of convincing, including walking with John around the large brush piles along the bank, for everyone else to believe it. But then everything made sense, how there was less water in front of us than the previous night, and the direction of the curves. It was indeed a strange morning.
Now then. The next idea was to cross the creek and locate the yet-to-be-believed trail that should really take us out of there, honest. There was a large tree across the river, so the guys walked across, John came back for my bike, and I worked up my courage for log walk #2. At least I didn’t edge across on my butt this time.
While my teammates worked to get the bikes up the mud slope on the opposite bank, I proclaimed that I would seek out the trail. I scrambled up, over the top, down a sharp slope, and onto a trail. A real trail. Something that people have used recently, and not just adventure racing people. Woo hoo! A miracle!
I reported back excitedly that we were free! One by one, the guys got the bikes and themselves over the top and through the thick brush, finally landing on the trail. We hurried to move away from there, with Shaun riding and the rest of us fast-walking along the curvy up-and-down path through the woods. Not long after that we reached a road. Now that was a welcome sight.
My feet were dirty and starting to hurt, so I mentioned that I needed to work on them at the next opportunity, somewhere that I could clean my socks and shoes. We rode up the small road a bit, turned onto the main dirt road, and then passed a team that was coming out of the woods much higher up than where we had located the trail. One racer mentioned how that uphill part had been really difficult, and I was glad for our nav discussion stop where we were able to figure out how to find the trail.
Upon finding a small waterfall coming down from the left, I asked for a few minutes to work on my feet. John and I cleaned our socks and shoes (why didn’t I bring spare socks?), then I wiped as much grit off my feet as I could. The skin was all wrinkled and there was dirt wedged in every fold and crack. After Borneo I’ve learned that wet skin is OK (as long as you don’t tear it), but wet and dirty skin can blister like crazy. Seal Skinz would have been super for that section. If only we had known what we were getting into.
I put more Hydropel on my feet and then woke up my teammates who had taken the opportunity for a nap. A couple teams road by while we were getting back on the bikes, and no one looked very happy. Well, at least it hadn’t rained. We rode rather slowly uphill, getting our brains back in gear and our thoughts together. The bottoms of my toes and front of my feet were sore so I didn’t push too hard on the pedals.
Not far from there we started seeing signs of civilization – a couple cars, road construction. One guy told us we had a mile uphill and then it was all downhill from there. I wasn’t so sure about that (we had over 20 miles of biking left), but it sounded good. I think Shaun towed me for part of this hill and it didn’t take too long before we were at the top. Quick SPIZ break in the sunshine, John suggested putting on more clothes for the downhill, then we were off.
I enjoyed the chance to stop using my feet and to try to get my shoes and socks to dry. With all the airflow it actually seemed to be working. We flew downhill, around corners, and past all the trees and vegetation that you could ever want to push a bike through. We saw some beautiful foliage, which rather startled me (I guess it’s autumn, then?). And I wished I had taken John’s advice to put on more clothes! Chilly…
Shaun followed the map, stopping once to verify a side road to a quarry, and then again at the trail cut-over that would get us to our destination faster. Down this jeep road, I concentrated on riding well, not braking too much, and getting over the speed humps at the right velocity. Kip stopped briefly, I can’t recall why, then we soon found the end of the trail and we were back on a paved road again. Very nice.
The rest of the ride to CP16 was excellent. The sun was shining, the trees were pretty colors, the road was smooth and much of it was downhill, we were warm and drier, and we were finally moving again. It was a perfect way to celebrate a beautiful day, doing some easy peddling in a pretty place with your friends. We caught glimpses of the lake next to us and it just added to the beautiful scenery, all blue and serene. We checked out the opposite shore (scouting for the next trek) and saw fairly steep drops down to the water.
The moss on the trees was most interesting – it was brown and hung in giant strands. Occasionally I would see a funky forest creature instead of a moss-covered tree, or some other shape that was similar but not really there. It was about time to start hallucinating, I figured, and what better moss to have around when that happened.
The road eventually turned dirt, and we crossed a couple large creeks flowing down to the lake. Pretty. The very last section of road was bumpy and rutted, but for some reason our butts weren’t sore yet even after being on a bike section for 24 hours? Not your normal expedition race, I can tell you that much. We came into the checkpoint and prepared to drop off our bikes. Our placing had changed to the high-30’s, not bad for messing around in the bush for hours.
Trekking Again (or “finally another chapter!”)
Here we were allowed to leave the bikes with bike gear attached. I wanted to leave a note to Kelly and explain the broken bike light but didn’t have the pen/paper to do so. We hurried to prepare for an 11 mile trekking section while chatting with the volunteers and a couple other teams. No place to get water or leave trash, no matter. We took off at a jog, and I was supremely excited to be moving on foot without bike. On a wonderful trail, no less.
We crossed a bridge and greeted another team going back to the CP - ? I think they were the team asking if anyone had any spare trekking shoes, so perhaps their bike shoes were giving them problems. The trail abruptly ended at a creek, but the park had graciously put down a huge, long log that you could walk on to keep your feet dry. I guess this is a state full of timber, after all. I took a deep breath and walked right behind John, carefully placing my feet and walking deliberately across for log crossing #3.
Back on the trail, everyone ate and drank something and got their packs situated. We decided to start running part of the trail, and I was more than happy to lead the way. Setting an ultra-run pace, we glided easily along on the flats and downhill sections and then walked up all inclines. My feet hurt a bit but I didn’t feel like I was creating any blisters, so I paid close attention to foot placement and continued to move at a good pace.
We saw another team ahead and plotted our pass. There was a cameraman with them and they were walking, so we soon came upon them and they moved to the side to let us by. We greeted them while passing at a small creek crossing, and I imagine the cameraman caught it on film. That was cool. Still feeling fine, we continued running at a good pace.
There appeared to be a navigational challenge during this section, in that this nice park trail would end long before we reached the next road (based on our maps). On the USGS map that Mike had printed, another trail went up and over the hill on our left, coming down exactly where we needed to go. Accepting an additional 800 feet of elevation gain, we thought it would be better to take the path that was drawn instead of one that might end. We were traversing a steep slope that dropped a long ways to the lake, and moving along it without a trail would be very difficult.
In addition, the Rules of Travel for this section mentioned Glacier Lake Road as a forbidden road (although the roads were not labeled on any of our maps) and said “No swimming.” That seemed to imply that after the trail ended we might even have to coast-steer, meaning follow the shoreline by wading in the water.
We slowed a bit to keep up with the map and our exact location. After passing a known side trail, I started some pace counting and Kip started following the map even closer. We found a potential side trail, but it was weak and quickly disappeared. This happened again, and we quickly rejected it and moved on, although we were spending a bit of time reanalyzing the map. Looking at the contours across the lake from us, I was pretty certain we had passed the trail and it likely didn’t exist in any useable form.
So we changed our plan and went to a mode of following the trail as long as it was there. This turned out to be a very good thing. We reached the bend in the lake where the trail no longer existed on the map and rejoiced that perhaps we could just stay at this elevation on a trail the rest of the way to CP17. At some point Kip gave us more good news – the elevation lines on the map were listed in meters and not feet, so if we had found and taken a trail over the mountain, it actually would have involved 2000 feet of climbing and descending. We monitored the coastline below us and continued to hope that this trail would keep going.
Eventually Kip let us know that his feet were having some problems from the muddy bike whack and from the duct tape coming off his toes. He was OK to walk to the TA, but we could no longer run. I took over the map for a while, John got out our headlamps, and I ran ahead to stop and study the map until Kip and Shaun marched by and then I ran to catch up to them again. John kept us fed with SPIZ and my energy level never wavered.
In the gray light of dusk, the shapes around me started morphing into unexpected objects. I was fully aware of being sleep deprived and of the hallucinations becoming frequent and then constant. Sometimes I would look at a moss-covered tree and see a giant ape, look away and then look back at the same tree to see dancers from Cirque de Soleil. In the vegetation I saw giant squirrels, space ships, and fantasy creatures like the Ents in The Lord of the Rings. Some of the hallucinations made me laugh, and I went with the flow and stayed entertained. Meanwhile, John learned to ignore my mumblings about nothing important.
Close to dark, we passed a bunch of the very coolest plants to be hallucinating around. They had large yellow leaves that hung down at eye level, and these turned into people of all types. My favorite sight was a group of about 12 adventure racers looking at a large map on an easel next to a tent, but they were all quiet and only rustled slightly side to side. I saw a tea garden with a fountain and rocks. I kept seeing Shaun and Kip right ahead of us, but this also turned out to be a vision, so John and I hurried to catch up to them. The scariest one was of a person sitting on a bench wearing a gas mask – I had to stare at that one for quite a while to turn it back into plants again.
Eventually it got too dark to see much beyond the trail right in front of me, and my hallucinations became quick glimpses in passing. Bummer, that had been a lot of fun. Instead I tried focusing on the map, although it wasn’t easy to figure out our exact location. At a couple side trails we elected not to go down to the campsites on the water and to stay on the trail right above the lake. Pretty simple nav, really. The only thing I didn’t take into account was that our pace had slowed a lot since the sun had gone down.
I came up with a crazy theory of why we were told “No swimming” for this section – the trail would end at a small road, which took us to a larger road going directly to the TA. Perhaps the large road was the forbidden one? It went over a dam, so maybe we had to find a way across the water, and we were not allowed to swim on the lake side but had to climb down and cross the creek on the other side? It seemed a valid possibility at the time, of course now it sounds stupid. We found out later that our trail passed very close to the TA and swimming across the lake at that point would probably have been a decent shortcut. When we went by this part it was pitch black and not obvious to us.
I thought I knew our location on the map, but then part of the lake appeared in front of us and the trail curved to the left, which confused me. We hiked down to a loud creek to find yet another log crossing. No hesitation on my part this time (I can be taught, sometimes), I just followed John across while watching my step. On the other side John located the trail as it continued to follow the lake. That seemed a bit weird and I wasn’t sure it was drawn on the map. But the compass heading was good and we hadn’t hit any roads, so we continued onward. I thought we should be almost to the first road.
After a while Kip and Shaun started questioning whether we had missed something or what might be problem with the map. We continued forward as no one had any great ideas. Based on time, we believed we had gone well over 11 miles already. I walked behind Shaun for a bit and watched him trying to walk a straight line and stay awake. We could no longer see the lake and it wasn’t clear what we doing besides going forward because there were no other options.
At long last we found a trail register, where a couple PQ people (racers? crew? volunteers?) had signed in. Looks like we were going the right way after all. A couple of my teammates stood around the register and studied it, while I ran on ahead and located a parking lot. Cool! Then John figured out where the log crossing actually was on the map (it was obvious once he said it), and it all made sense. I had not taken into account such a large change in pace once it got dark.
We emerged from the woods and studied the trail signs. It was obvious where we were, but we still weren’t sure which road we weren’t supposed to be walking along. Just at that moment, a car drove up looking for a particular team. “No, we haven’t seen them, but is this Glacier Lake Road?” The answer was “yes” so that caused us to huddle and look for a plan of action for getting to the TA without walking along the road. It was perplexing. The woman called me back over and asked what we were doing – I told her we couldn’t walk along this road because it was forbidden by the Rules of Travel, which led her to apologize and say she didn’t know exactly WHAT road this was, but it was the only way to the TA, so we should just get going.
Thanks for the help… so we got going. I was moving well but I think Shaun was falling asleep and Kip’s feet were hurting. We could see lights behind us of another team just coming to the end of the trail. It didn’t really matter to us to stay ahead of them, but I still pushed the pace a little in anticipation of seeing the crew. We crossed the dam and it was obvious that it had nothing to do with the “No swimming” directive (everything was fenced off), then we moved at a good fast walk to the TA and held off the racers just behind us who could have easily passed us if they had really wanted to.
Our crew was there when we checked in, yay! We had gained 3 places and we were in pretty good shape. Then the volunteer let us know that there had been a medical emergency and the course was currently stopped. Wow, we hoped it wasn’t serious. We had already decided that we needed some sleep here, so we went with the crew to get some food before getting some rest.
The people on our crew are absolutely funny, very hard working, and incredibly helpful. Mike was a steady crew chief, working quietly and keeping things in order. Kristi was a great cook and always bubbly and seemingly everywhere at once. Kelly was our bike guru, a master mechanic who could also organize the heck out of our gear. JC helped everyone with everything and always had the latest weather report. They were a lot of fun to watch and somehow managed long strings of multiple requests from 4 racers during our transitions.
The funniest moment of the whole race was at this TA, where Kelly described his reaction to seeing our bikes that had been delivered by PQ from CP16. First he was sure that John Beard had been in a terrible bike accident. Then he decided that I was not in great shape either. But Kip – Kip must be OK, apparently his bike wasn’t too bad off. Kristi had been listening to Kelly work on our bikes and she heard him yell “Oh my god!” and “whoa!” whenever he found twigs and dirt in strange places – like crap wedged into screws. Kelly did an incredible job getting our bikes back to normal. They talked with other crews who had received racer bikes in similar condition and decided that maybe our experience wasn’t crazier than anyone else’s.
We finished eating and crawled into the tent to sleep, asking for 4 hours if the course was open again by then. Sometime in the middle of the night, our crew came to our tent, accompanied by Scott the water director and Mike the mountaineering director. They told us that there had been a serious accident, a racer had died and another was in the hospital. We were to head another TA for a meeting in the morning where we would get more information. The course was indefinitely on hold. I couldn’t sleep for a while after that, but eventually my body gave in to exhaustion and I drifted off, comforted by John’s presence next to me.
As hard as an expedition race can be, and then seeing the reality of how it can sometimes be dangerous, it’s difficult to explain that I would rather be there and in the middle of it than watching my friends and family race from afar. I was in France during PQ 2003, and it was extremely frustrating “watching” the race as it unfolded. The web coverage was great as far as getting information, but it always felt like I should be there. With the tragedy of 2004, it is impossible to imagine being anywhere else.
We slept for hours, ate a quiet breakfast, and broke camp to move to the next TA. We were in a van piled with 8 people and packs, heading out of the camping area, when we spotted a small black bear. It was hanging out along the side of the road, whoa! People threw cameras to the front seat and someone snapped pictures until the bear ambled off. That was neat.
We had time for a pit stop in the town of Concrete and ended up at an excellent café where we ordered eggs and burgers and piles of French fries and other food to-go. Then we found the TA and sometime in between my walking to the restroom and coming back, the crew had erected the Easy-up and all of the tents. Or at least it felt like it was that fast.
At 11 a.m. we attended the gathering where we learned that Nigel Aylott, member of team AROC, had been killed the previous afternoon. It was reported that AROC and Team Montrail were leading the race and were traveling together down a rock field in the orienteering section. Most or all of the racers were below a large rock when the rock came loose. John Jacoby apparently tried to stop the rock, but was not able to, and it went over his foot – he had been the racer in the hospital the night before, and now had bandages on his ankle. Other racers had yelled and dodged, but Nigel could not avoid the rock and by all accounts he died instantly.
His teammates gave tearful descriptions of Nigel, his drive, his humor, his love of the sport. Then a group from Australia and New Zealand sang a humorous version of “Land Down Under” that was tailored for Nigel, and I heard the melody both live and in my head many times in the days afterwards. The mood was very somber, but even in sorrow Team AROC was able to laugh at good memories, and my positive impression of that team from PQ 2003 was further solidified. Everyone walked to the river to toss flowers upon the water and watch them float down toward the sea.
Dan Barger, the race director, announced a BBQ later in the afternoon, then promised a decision at 6 pm about whether to continue the race and in what format. The rest of the day we hung around, talked, ate, and slept. It rained off and on, a generally dreary day. Dr. Tony got me some medicine for a cold that threatened to take over my nose and throat, and that helped. Kip worked on his feet and then slept with bare feet to let them dry and heal.
Team captains were called to give our input to the Advisory Board about race options, and I told them that we were there to see the countryside, have fun, and do our best in the race, so if we could continue racing that would be great; if not, that was OK too. Apparently Nigel’s family and many racers, including Teams AROC and Montrail, supported having the race go on, and that was the final decision. In addition, part of the prize money would be given to Team AROC, and we would have a memorial paddle after the race was over.
The race would begin again at midnight, a staggered start based on everyone’s location on the course when the race was put on hold. Nike ACG started first and we were part of a group that would depart at 5:30 a.m. The middle of the race course was removed, including the orienteering section and the difficult part of the next trek. For us, that also meant we would miss the uphill bike whack, how crazy would that have been? We had barely missed it too, since it was next on our agenda when we were told to stop racing. So the “bike whack in circles” that we did was actually a good thing, in retrospect, and only cost us about 15 minutes in terms of overall placing. However, the river section was still on!? Apparently the water flow was much better and it would be a good paddle, plus they implemented a dark zone so we could paddle the river only during the day. We were sort of “tied for 18th” at that point, in a group with teams from 18th to 35th place.
Kip, John, and I worked on maps for the remainder of the course while Shaun called his fiancée. Leslie, a friend and teammate of Kip, came to tell us that the two rookies on her team (Team Perseverance) were dropping out because their wives were worried about them. I actually could understand the point of view of the wives – it would have been a very difficult situation for me if I had been watching John race this year. On the other hand, all of my adventure racing fears constantly revolve around the possibility of getting hurt or even dying. That it actually happened to someone was a shock. But it didn’t change my fears or my methods for racing despite those fears. We were going forward. We also invited Leslie and Tom to join us, but PQ for some reason was not allowing teams of 2 join up with anyone else or continue in any manner.
It started raining and everything had been loaded back into the trailer, so we decided to head to bed and finish packing in the morning. It was only sprinkling when we awoke, and we had an efficient gear prep session. The next section (biking then trekking with a ropes section) could be long, especially if we had to wait a few hours to get on the ropes. We prepared for a nighttime bivouac on a cold, windy rock. Kristi and Mike made up some additional SPIZ bags, John helped us load up our ropes gear and helmets, and Kelly and JC got our bikes ready. And I finally managed to remember a few small things that I had been missing in my pack: my clear lenses, spare socks, Blistex, and easy access to the toothbrush. And gaiters on my feet.
Mountain Biking Minus Bike-Whacking
Right on schedule, we cycled into the darkness with a group of teams. This bike section, improvised to get everyone back on the course, consisted of perhaps 40 km of pavement and dirt road going gradually uphill toward the middle of the longest trekking section. The 3 checkpoints which required high ridge travel had been removed, but we still had a decent bit of foot travel in front of us. It started raining as we rode in a paceline, across the river and toward Darrington. Several teams took turns drafting off each other and we all made good time in the chilly early dawn.
We had not studied the maps in great detail, and although we knew we were going through Darrington, we weren’t sure exactly where CP24 was located. Instead of stopping to refold the map we were using, as a couple other teams were doing, we made an educated guess about the CP location within town. Then our crew drove by (they packed up fast!) and turned down the street with the PQ banners in front. A volunteer came running out to tell us this was actually CP32… oops! We finally looked at the map carefully and then had a better idea what we needed to do.
Onward and upward. We traded positions with several teams and continued south, Shaun towing me as we climbed more noticeable grades. It had stopped raining and I was warm except for my toes. CP24 was actually very easy to locate, on the side of the road near where it turned into dirt. We were somewhere in the mid-30’s in terms of placing. David Kelly, the race restart coordinator, had warned about some major road wash-outs along the next section and to be careful not to ride off the edge of them. So we kept an eye out.
We stopped for SPIZ but otherwise kept moving for a couple hours. The dirt road was a decent surface for riding bikes. We found the road wash-outs and walked the bikes along the edge, Shaun helping me with my bike over a big log. I wasn’t impressed with the need to be extremely careful in those sections (the drop to the creek was only a few feet), but I wasn’t complaining about the race organization’s sudden extreme concern for everyone’s safety either. There were trees over the road after that, so I tried to quickly get around/over each obstacle. A little downhill, more uphill, and eventually we reached the col and we were back on pavement. The next long downhill went by really quickly and then we were at CP28 in about 38th place.
Trekking Part III
We were doing another bike drop (this time with just muddy bikes, nothing broken or trashed). Our quick transition got us out ahead of a couple teams and then we were walking quickly up a wide park road, eating and drinking, with John towing me. We greeted the Polish team that we had seen a couple times, and one of their guys even helped push me up the hill a little ways! That was cool. They continued upward at a very quick pace and we followed not far behind.
Kip kept track of our position vs. the map and all of us concentrated on fueling up while the walking surface was easy and we were going uphill. Our turnoff onto a trail was well marked, and after a short distance on a nice trail we found a small lake and CP29. A couple times in this last section we met teams running back in the other direction, apparently with a different idea on getting to CP30 than most people were likely to take. We looked briefly at the map to understand their strategy (which was to go way down and around to spend maximum time on trails/roads but still having to do some bushwhacking) and decided to keep our planned route of col and lake hopping. There did not appear to be many nav challenges on our route, just perhaps some stubborn vegetation.
Cheerily we greeted the CP volunteers, including Dr. Tony, then quickly set off toward the col above us. We followed a minor trail/tracks around to the right to skirt some thick vegetation, and climbed over some logs to get to the base of the hill. I attempted to walk down one huge log and immediately slid down the slippery surface and landed on my butt next to it. So much for that moment of bravery. We crossed a small drainage and then Shaun led the way up the slope. We used the small bushes as handholds (they were very solid) and I was glad they actually had a use besides just getting in our way. It was a bit of a steep slope but otherwise no challenge. Soon we reached the col, actually hitting it a bit high but not bad, and I started asking the question of the day – “That’s done, what’s next?”
Next was a drop/slide to the lake in the next small valley. Again the slope was a bit steep, and the brush was either a help (something to grab onto or something to slide on) or a hindrance (slippery little stalks that put you on your behind) depending on how fast you cared to descend. Shaun followed a beat-down path from previous teams to a wet area where we crossed small streams. He moved a bit faster than I was able, disappearing occasionally but finding a good route to follow.
We toured the lake and I asked what was next. We had decided to try following contour lines around the next nose and then stay as high above the third lake as we could to keep from losing elevation that we would just have to regain right after that. Following contour lines for 800 meters to the nose was pretty easy. We even found a couple sections of woods that we could move quickly through. Then we crossed a drainage and pushed out of the woods to find a great view of what next lay ahead.
Here was a lake way below and a valley rising up on three sides. We were at the start of the left side, and our target was a small col above the end of the valley. We could see a huge rock field from the lake almost to the col, and a section of trees leading up the last section to the top. It looked pretty straight-forward from a distance.
But first, “what next” was the traverse above the lake. As we were planning this, we ran into Team No Boundaries and had a short conversation with Colleen Ihnken from the Global Extremes show. They were heading down to the lake. We started on a horizontal route, but found difficulties immediately, mostly involving small cliffs.
Looking ahead, it seemed best to go down a bit first. John helped me down a slightly difficult section. Shaun came back from a cross-route he had tried, and he thought to join us without going back up and around to follow our route. John told him he could down-climb something I would never do, and while I wasn’t looking Shaun tossed his pack down. That made me jump, but I don’t think I ever thought it was Shaun and not just his pack. Right about the same time John was helping Shaun, Kip was asking where to put his feet on the route I had come down. Too much going on at once!
We all made it down fine, and around the next bit it seemed we could travel for a while at that level. We crossed some brush and traversed under some cliffs. Shaun found a flatter part in the middle of a cliff band and we were game to try it. As long as I was partway comfortable (for that’s what I was), I wasn’t going to suggest going down to the lake. After all, we were trying to get to the ropes without being too far back in line, so it would be good to save time wherever possible.
However, the benefit of that route decision soon ended. The route now involved climbing along the rocks while hanging on to something to stay upright. I looked down, decided that if anyone fell it would just be a small drop and slide into some trees, told the guys that I wasn’t happy, but did it anyway. John was super patient, giving me exact directions for which foot and hand to place where, and he got me down. It was slow, and it gave Shaun a good idea of what I was capable of. When John suggested changing plans and heading down to the lake, everyone agreed and we quickly headed downhill.
More bushwhacking, but without bikes it was no problem – as you can see, our perspective on bushwhacking has changed drastically. Down at the lake we next followed tracks along the rocks and through the brush, heading in the general direction of the large rock field. We had to get through another section of forest full of brush and downed trees, this one also containing yellow pricker bushes that we tried to avoid. Shaun even found us a couple minor log crossing over the prickers, and since I was getting to be a pro at log crossings this was appreciated.
Another team headed off to the right, but we wanted to get back out in the open as soon as we could, so we continued more left. We emerged to see several teams picking their way up giant rocks ahead of us. The top of the valley was now in clouds. We sat for a bit on a large rock in order to eat something and drink SPIZ. Navigation at the moment seemed to be “go up”, and moving up the rocks looked slow but otherwise unchallenging. That’s what they turned out to be. Nothing like scree (yay!), just huge, very stable boulders up a moderate slope. No problem.
It was actually fun – stepping from rock to rock, climbing boulders, working our way up. I enjoyed it, and spent the time happily chatting with Kip about Urban Challenge. We saw a cameraman following another team and waved at him to come film us, but he wasn’t interested. Someday I’ll go out of my way to act it up on camera, but for now I was doing good to have enough energy just to be myself. And that’s pretty boring!
At that moment we received a stroke of luck, from the same weather gods that seemed to be with us the whole race. The clouds rose, lifting off the top of the valley and revealing close-up exactly where we were and where we needed to go. Thank you! We had been heading too far right, toward an area that looked to be fenced in with cliffs. It was the perfect time to find out that we should adjust course, so with a short traverse we were in exactly the right place. I could see a couple other teams higher than us, discussing what to do.
The last section, the part above the rock field, was as steep as we had expected. We climbed up through some trees and found plenty of handholds on roots and limbs. The small bushes came in really handy here, because they were rooted extremely solidly and were great for support. We made our way to a tiny drainage that ran straight up to the top, and started hoisting ourselves up. A team above us asked us to wait for a minute while they finished climbing up a difficult section (in case they dropped anything on us), then they were gone and we continued.
John let me get on tow as a backup system in case I started sliding. With the mass of vegetation below us, I wasn’t too worried, but it was a nice security blanket. I stayed right with him, scrambling up the dirt and rocks. We had to pull ourselves up a bit of an overhang next to a large rock, and this took some strength (I think John helped pull me up), and then we were almost there. We took a quick little detour to avoid another steep scramble, and found ourselves on a wonderful ridge at the top. Very nice. What’s next?
We walked through a beautiful forest along the ridge until it started to climb, then we contoured around the next slope. Here was the best section of Washington woods we would find – pine trees, open space, easy to move through. We crossed a couple small rock fields and continued quickly toward a narrow spur. We had to avoid a section of land below us (race rules) and the spur would ensure that we did that.
The spur was obvious and easy to follow quickly downhill, especially with occasional tracks from previous teams. Eventually we moved off of it to the right, and the slope got steeper and we had to avoid some pricker bushes and climb over some brush. Still, pretty easy except keeping up with Shaun who was on a mission to find the trail below us. We heard voices and then Shaun stopped and pointed out a faint trail we were standing on. After a brief trail run, we dropped onto an old road, exactly where we had been aiming. Excellent nav by all of us.
Another team was also on the old road, and I think I remember a cameraman was filming them? We looked at the thick, disgusting vegetation below the road and said “let’s run around the switchbacks on the road instead of cutting across” with no disagreement from anyone. I led the way, pushing through small trees and vines that had grown up over the path. We ran fast, counting paces just to verify we were on the right road, coming around switchback corners where they were supposed to be, and trying to make good time to the ropes section which was next.
The last straight section of road made a couple creek crossings, sometimes over a big pile of logs, once over a gully where it was easiest to jump across. We looked back to find that Shaun had had a minor mishap in the gully, I believe involving a twig that came loose when he tried to grab it? Then we were running again. We discussed water supply and determined that we needed to fill a couple Camelbak bladders before going up the long ropes course, since we were all almost out.
At the last creek before CP30, we stopped briefly and did a quick fill. It was fast, but it was still enough time for a pack of 8 racers to come running by us. Bummer. Well, we couldn’t very well choose dehydration either. We dropped in the water treatment pills and jogged to the checkpoint. As we started setting up our harnesses and ropes gear, we found out that there currently was no wait to start the main ropes section, although we still had some work to do before we got to that point. We would climb up 1200 feet on granite slabs using fixed rope handlines, then another 1000 feet on the near-vertical portion of the course.
Ropes in the Dark
We had significantly improved our placing since the previous CP (currently running in the low 20’s), which meant we had gained additional time by reducing our wait for the ropes. This was great news. Ahead of us lay other time windows – the dark zone for the river plus the tide/current timing for the last ocean leg. My initial conservative estimates had us finishing the river on Saturday morning, but we were currently ahead of schedule.
For now, we had only to focus on the ropes. The sun was low in the sky as our gear was verified by the volunteers. Then we were on our way up the granite, and I was in an especially good mood because it would soon be dark. Ropes in the dark is my favorite way to do ropes. We would be climbing up “The Witch Doctor” pitch, so I started humming the song “My friend the witch doctor…” to myself.
We walked up long flat granite slabs at various angles, using one ascender and one carabiner on lanyards as a safety system and to assist in moving uphill. There were many knots to pass and some occasional interesting scrambles. The main challenge (besides occasional wet and slippery rock) was finding the right pace to continue moving uphill efficiently without getting too much out of breath, and I enjoyed this section. The best part was greeting a few of the racers who were coming down, including Robyn Benincasa’s team. One racer told us what to expect on the vertical ropes – three sections and very little overhang, just a long climb.
It was mostly dark when we arrived at the staging area, and we were told that the wait was about an hour to 90 minutes. No problem. We located a place to hang out, and although it wasn’t flat anywhere in the vicinity, at least I found some bushes to use as a brace for my feet. It was nice to have some time to eat solid food plus SPIZ, to clean my feet and change socks, to set up my ropes gear for ascending, and to put on more clothes to keep from freezing while sitting on rocks. John also replaced one of my gaiter straps that had broken off on the brush and rocks.
Kip and Shaun went right to sleep, with me and John eventually following their lead. I was drifting off when “Team 61!” was given the 10 minute warning and we all got up to meander over to the bottom of the ropes. The next part was slightly steeper than the previous slabs, and we took turns walking upward with ascenders on the rope. Finally we were at the bottom of the main ropes section. Kip and Shaun started up first, each on a rope. I believe there were two sets of two ropes available, each with 3 sections, and people appeared to be moving through it without much trouble.
I discussed using the croll/chest harness system with the volunteer and he thought it would work OK. This is the easiest way to climb up a free-hanging rope under an overhang, but if the rope was next to the rock most of the way I wasn’t sure it made the most sense. In the end I decided to try it anyway, knowing I could switch to 2 ascenders mid-rope if needed, as I had practiced both methods and switching back and forth.
Eventually Kip and Shaun yelled down that they had passed to section 2, and John and I started up. It was quickly clear that the croll wasn’t the best way to go, because I had to put my knees next to the rock for each upward push. I got it to work, but there were several minor steps involved in each upward move and it wasn’t very fast. On the bright side, my arms and legs felt great, no muscle strength required.
John waited for me and we slowly moved upward together. It was wonderful being there in the dark, with the comforts of John and a solid rock next to me, not being able to see past my headlight into the depths below me. We passed the first knot and eventually Kip and Shaun slid down on rappel next to us, Hi guys! I finally gave up on the croll system at the next knot. Switching to using 2 ascenders was easy, but I still had to add an extra knot to one foot loop to get the right length (someday I’ll have all permutations completely down!).
Finally I was moving at a good speed. This, however, required some arm work, plus standing on your toes to keep your knees off the rock. That got tiring and I was pretty warm with too many clothes on, but the last section went by quickly and then we met the volunteer with the most interesting job. He was roped in to the side of the mountain, waiting for each group of racers to arrive so he could help them switch from ascending to rappelling. He had some warm clothes on, for sure.
After some uncomfortable standing on a rock crack at an angle for a couple minutes, we were hooked up and ready to head down. John had somehow misplaced his prussic loops between the ropes check-in and repacking his ropes bag, so the volunteer let him use one of mine and didn’t make an issue of the missing required gear. The rappel was fun, all down the side of the flat rock, and pretty fast.
After another short, quick rappel section, we found Kip and Shaun curled up and waiting for us. I led the way toward the last part of the descent, 1200 feet of fixed rope back down the granite slabs. That sounded pretty easy. We were told to use a prussic as a safety device, which would give us lots of practice in untying and retying the prussic knot to pass all the knots on the way down. The top slabs were at a good angle for walking downhill, in fact running downhill if you aren’t me. I let Shaun and Kip pass me so they could move faster. Kip called to me that a particular section was a bit difficult, and John stayed back with me to help.
We should have stopped to drink some SPIZ well before this point, but our thought was all about getting down the hill and how we were moving quickly so far. I started getting hungry, and when I reached the hard part of the downhill, in fact the hardest part of the ropes section for me, it didn’t help that I was low on energy. The difficulty lay in the layer of water running over the rocks, making for tricky footing. I had already slipped and landed on my elbow once that night. There were a couple places where you needed to climb down a knotted rope to drop down a steep section while still remembering to slide the prussic along with you so it didn’t tighten up and stop. At the same time, the slippery rock made every step uncertain.
At a particularly difficult spot, I tried several ways to get down but really wasn’t happy. I climbed back up to where John was coaching me, and even tried to set up a rappel using my ATC because I knew I would be much more comfortable that way. But I couldn’t get the thick rope through the ATC and gave up on that. I told John I was hungry and tired and frustrated, and then I cried a little. My wonderful friend/husband/teammate went down first and gave me physical and emotional support that was more than enough to ease me down the rock. We moved slowly down the rest of the rope, working together to figure out each puzzle and eventually I felt a lot better.
The very last piece of rope was an actual rappel, where I learned that it really is possible to shove that thick rope through an ATC – although it took a lot of work and it was probably good that I didn’t have that knowledge previously. Ah, finally an easy part, rappelling is very comfortable to me. Slightly chagrined at letting part of the ropes section get the best of me, nevertheless I was just happy to get down. We woke Kip and Shaun again, checked out of the CP, and headed down the dirt road.
On the Road Again (on foot)
Next order of business was drinking some SPIZ. We were all fairly energized to be finished with the ropes much more quickly than expected (much less backup and a faster course than last year). And we were running on a generally downhill grade, heading toward the crew, on an actual road. It was going to be a long run, of course, maybe 8 miles, but everyone was motivated. We took turns drinking SPIZ and jogging to catch up, then as a group we picked up our feet and picked up the pace. Ah, running, something I know how to do even better than rappelling.
Of course, traveling on a road in the middle of the night has its own challenges, mostly related to staying awake and keeping your teammates awake. We sang and talked and often changed pace, we chatted about the navigation, we planned our next several sections. The only event of note was coming up to a small creek running across the road and all of us stopping in our tracks to peer at it and closely study it to figure out where the water was, so we could hop across and keep our feet dry.
John was predicting an imminent arrival at the main road, and Shaun thought he saw another team’s lights actually on that road. Based on my calculations I thought they were crazy, but I am very happy to acknowledge that it turned out they were correct. Cool, only another couple miles into town. We walked/ran with renewed vigor, soon catching up to the team ahead of us. They appeared to be carrying a female teammate who was having foot problems, I think. A car came by and asked us our team number. And then we were in town, charging down a silent side street to CP32.
On Bikes for the Last Time
The TA was quiet, and I think we actually had to locate our crew after checking in, but soon they were up and bustling around us. We dumped a bunch of the heavier gear and John and I switched back to smaller packs. While eating soup I looked up to see some less-than-happy faces, especially Kristi’s. The crew assured us that everything was OK, but as we were walking our bikes out of the TA Mike told us that Kristi’s boyfriend had broken up with her over the phone. How crass is that? She was having a really tough time, and we felt bad for her.
We slowly got our cycling legs under us as we headed north out of town. Shaun and John followed the map, looking for a particular side road. It wasn’t obvious, but the rest of the landmarks were. After going just a little too far we turned around and they located the path. It sure didn’t look like a regular road – small, rutted, overgrown. But then it merged with a real road and our direction of travel was assured.
Sunrise was on the way as we peddled slowly up the hill. Gradually we warmed up and started shedding clothes, while our eyelids were all drooping lower and lower. At one point I stopped to put something in my pack, and when Kip and I started walking again we rounded the corner to find John and/or Shaun off their bike and trying to sleep on the side of the road. I yelled “Hey, I’M the one that’s tired!” and Kip said, no problem, we’ll take a nap until someone gets cold. No arguments, we dropped our bikes and plopped down and immediately fell asleep.
About 15 minutes later, a shiver woke me up, so we all stood up, grabbed our bikes, and started moving fast to warm up. We were able to ride parts of it, and Shaun towed me so we could keep a half-decent pace. Still, another 2 teams rode by, including the Polish team we had traded places with a couple times. Nice to see you again! As we got higher up the hill, we were treated with an early morning view of the mountains where we had just been. The Witch Doctor looked really high and quite spectacular, excellent to see from afar.
Eventually the slope was easier to ride and Shaun pulled me progressively faster. I was awake enough to dodge ruts and rocks, but still managed to hit a few of them. John called out turns at a couple intersections, then along the top ridge we started riding pretty fast. Shaun and I weaved a bit to find the best road surface, and it became difficult for me to stay on his wheel because I couldn’t anticipate or narrowly avoid all the little bumps. But I couldn’t ride off to one side all the time because Shaun was narrowly avoiding all the big bumps like deep potholes. We just flew for a few minutes and I was wide awake. Finally John called a stop so he could verify the next turn, and we skidded to a halt laughing. Off tow please!!
The Polish team was coming back up the road as we headed down to the checkpoint. Not sure what that was about, until we decided they were taking a round-about route down. CP33 was at Texas Pond where we met a nice couple who seemed happy to be there. We discussed the most likely route, a trail that dropped down the side of the hill. OK, it went at an angle down the hill and probably wasn’t too steep. I agreed to try it and ride the best I could.
After a few sets of rocks, I decided to stop and let some air out of my tires to soften up the ride. This helped a lot, and while I’m sure everyone else could have gone a lot faster, at least I was on my bike and moving. The trail turned out to be pretty decent, just a bit wet and muddy in various places. Further down we found a jeep trail, then something more like a road. We were shivering a bit when we found a logging road. Heading sorta north, we had to pull over to let a couple huge logging trucks go by. Shaun asked one of the drivers which way to the main road, and he pointed us back in the other direction. Thanks! Back on track.
There was more downhill plus more shivering as we picked up speed. I had to stop and add a piece of clothing. Finally we were at the Sauk River and back on the road we had started on the previous morning. The rest of the ride to the TA was on pavement, so we set up a pace line and Kip took a turn leading the way. I noticed fall colors on some of the trees and it was a pretty morning. And we were almost done biking!
The Skagit River
We rode into the TA and checked in. The volunteer told us we had to stay there for an hour minimum (no problem) and the crew could now access our boats because we had arrived. There were also some additional items to put on our maps. John and Shaun worked on the maps and helped the crew figure out how to set up the boats, with lots of pieces of gear in various places and all of it needing to be strapped or taped to the boat so it wouldn’t float away in case of an unexpected flip. Boat setup is always one of the more time-consuming parts of transitions.
We hurried to get on the water as soon after the required 60 minute stay as possible, but still ended up taking longer than everyone would have liked. It was just a little hard to plan for a possible bivouac that night in case we didn’t reach the second river checkpoint in time. Each of the 2 checkpoints had a time cutoff where we would have to pull over if we didn’t leave the CP in time. The volunteers were sure we would make the first CP plenty early but we had to move fast to get past the second one. The good news was that the river was flowing well but not dangerously fast, pretty much at a perfect speed for the race. In the end, we brought the dry tops but stashed them in the hatches instead of wearing them because they would be too hot on this sunny day.
Finally, after having eaten and gotten dressed in addition to all that, we were ready. The volunteers verified our boat setup and we pushed off, waving “see you later!” to the crew and turning to face the Skagit River. The current was indeed fast, but Shaun is very familiar with rivers so all I had to do was paddle, follow his instructions, and watch for small obstacles that he might not be able to see from the back of the boat. We rode some small waves and I focused on getting my paddle blades in the water as a source of stability. So far so good.
We saw a team ahead of us but never got close to them. Shaun chose good lines to optimize our speed by staying in the main water flow. My arms were actually quite happy to be paddling again, having recovered in the days since the first ocean section. I noticed one small log floating ahead of us but by the time I saw how big it actually was and thought to say anything about it we had run over it. That was pretty jarring! I vowed to be more vigilant.
Sometimes it pays to be somewhat nervous and a little fearful. I was wide awake. Shaun and I were moving pretty well, but Kip and John started falling behind. We needed to keep pushing all day in order to make the dark zone cutoff, and we got a bit worried about this. Someone suggested setting up a tow again, but I was adamantly against this on the river where we needed to be able to steer as quickly as the long boats would allow. Instead we pulled over, drank some SPIZ, and broke out the Vivarin. I took half a pill just to be sure my eyes would stay wide open. Like that was going to be a problem!
We caught a glimpse of a team behind us as well, but as soon as we pushed off we lost sight of them. Around every other corner we came across sections of rapids – standing waves, very few rocks, and avoidable if you really wanted to stay out of the faster water. We rode some of them straight through but also stayed out of the largest of the white water. And Shaun humored my occasional request to stay along one side of the waves (when it made sense) so we got most of the benefit of the current without as much of the splash over the front of the boat. It was still scary but it helped to paddle faster and to not think about things too much. Most of all, it was great to be a boat with such a strong paddler.
Coming around a corner, a huge white mountain appeared. Mount Baker! We had almost been up on the slopes of a Mount Baker glacier. We were still bumming that we couldn’t do that section. It was neat to finally see the mountain that we had gotten so close to.
Kip and John started making good time, yay for Vivarin! Shaun and I had to focus to keep up with them, so that was a good sign. Everything was in order now, our pace, our communication and steering around large obstacles, and our spirits. The river changed around every bend, giving us new things to look at and new (but small) challenges. Shaun pointed out log jams where part of the flow ran under piles of trees and into a side channel. This was the main thing to avoid, and we stayed well away from them.
After about 3 hours we slid ashore at CP35. John recognized the volunteer as Louise Cooper, a well-known racer and cancer survivor. She said it was hard to not be racing. I understand! We were riding down the river in something like 19th place, closing on the 18th ranking that we had gained and lost ten times now (or something like that). Sooner or later I would actually believe that we deserved to be there and stop giggling about it.
It was hard to get a good overview of the length/time of each river section, but Shaun was able to estimate that we would probably be off the river by dark if we kept paddling and didn’t lose focus. Enough motivation for me. We kayaked by one small town, and I realized much later when looking at the maps that our Ride and Tie section went right by there. Everything looks different from the water. Shaun told us we needed to avoid a log jam on the left around the next corner, and we yelled this info to Kip and John.
A volunteer stationed on a rocky bank (what a job!) got up to tell us to stay far to the right around the next corner; good map reading, Shaun. It wasn’t always easy to see the main channel until you got close to it, nor was it easy to spot some of the log jams vs. river banks, so the map helped a lot. At one point we even made a quick cut to the left and pushed over a shallow section to stay on a more direct route that wasn’t obvious to me.
An hour and a half later we reached CP36 with time to spare before the dark zone cutoff, and there was much rejoicing. Especially so when we talked with the volunteer – this was not the most comfortable place, of course covered with rocks but also close to a bee farm… The next team pulled up as we finished drinking SPIZ and took off. It’s funny how you can go for hours all alone on the course, come into a checkpoint and greet at least one other team.
Someone had said we wouldn’t need the spray skirts attached to the cockpit below this point, but there were still a couple sections of waves. Well, they weren’t big enough waves to get water in the boat, no problem. The mountains around us had changed to smaller hills with interesting contours. And looking ahead it was clear we were headed toward the ocean and flatter ground. Good, because the sun was getting lower.
We still had current in the lower part of the river, it just wasn’t as obvious. Small speed boats started coming by, mostly without leaving too much wake. In fact, some left no wake at all, which was curious enough to comment on. I started eating solid food instead of trying to mix another SPIZ, and was pleased that the chocolate chip cookies tasted great. Shaun and I talked about racing and training, and time passed pleasantly.
We had been told to be careful of salmon nets under one of the bridges. As we passed under the bridge I saw a few small buoys on a line. People watched us from the banks. Then we were alone again and still dodging downed trees in the water. Paddling during the day on this river was much easier than I could have hoped for, and I was very thankful for the good conditions. Besides that first log we managed to run over, we didn’t see any debris in the water and everything else (large trees, brush) was easy to see. However, I’m still sure that night river paddling would have been very difficult for me, and with the fast water flow it would have been a challenge for everyone.
We glided under a railroad bridge and then suddenly we were under highway I-5. How cool. As we went around one last very-large horseshoe bend on quiet water, we brought the boats close to each other and started talking about the next transition and how to set up for the portage. All that remained was an 11 mile “run with boats” and then a 22 mile sea kayak to the finish on Orcas Island. The main goal was to get to the ocean put-in during high tide (around 10-11 pm) in order to avoid the mud flats that appear when the water goes out. It looked like we were right on schedule. No one mentioned sleep, and I’m sure we were all thinking the same thing – get to the finish line, sleep later.
Under one last bridge, almost there. John and I had driven over this bridge two weeks before, and I had looked down at the river and decided we would probably be paddling on it. The Skagit seemed the right size, flow, and location. But all that debris? I had not been looking forward to that. Somehow, in the days since then, all that debris had been washed away and we ended up with a very nice paddle.
The Longest Portage I Have Ever Done
We pulled up at CP37, jumped out, pulled the boats into the parking lot, and proceeded to dump everything out of the boats and take off our paddling clothes at the same time, gear and clothing flying everywhere it seemed. I’m sure the volunteers there had seen many different versions of paddle-to-portage transition. I don’t know that we impressed anyone. But despite uncoordinated appearances, we were ready to go in short order. The team behind us, Team Necky, was chatting with a cameraman who appeared out of nowhere, saying something about having a secret plan for the portage. It would have to be something good if they were to pass us, as we were ready to run.
We pulled out and started down the driveway, trying to keep the boats from bumping into the ground. We had decided on one set of wheels per boat instead of two sets as PQ had suggested. John, our resident mechanical engineer, came up with an efficient setup – a chest harness made of webbing (required gear) plus a bungee cord from our tow system (he carries it everywhere) to attach to the boat. He loaded the boat with gear so that it was mostly balanced but slightly rear-heavy. And finally, Kip ran next to the front of the boat and pushed down on the front to keep the back of the boat from bumping on the ground.
Shaun started by trying to balance the boat exactly, and I couldn’t really find a way to assist him, but he kept running into problems with the boat butt dropping too far from the bouncing. Someone came up with the brilliant idea of using one of the shock cords from the boat deck as a bungee and copying John’s system, so we quickly rearranged Shaun’s setup and I was placed on permanent “boat-front press-down” duty for the second kayak.
We navigated down a couple side streets in town, drawing stares from kids who apparently had been inside until a couple minutes ago or perhaps who never got tired of staring at crazy racers running down the street with kayaks. It was growing dark as we departed from town on a long, straight, very long, did I mention very straight? road going west. One person yelled “good luck!” to us and another told us to be careful on this road. Now that you mention it, there are a lot of cars whizzing past. I checked my mental calendar and realized that it was Friday evening. Perfect, lots of post-happy hour traffic. We scrambled to grab a couple glow sticks from the boat decks plus a red blinkie from our packs, and we set up a lighting system that would hopefully help cars avoid us.
John pulled the front kayak the whole way and Shaun and Kip alternated pulling the second one. We ran for 5-10 minutes at a time, then someone would say “next telephone pole” where we would take a walking break and Kip/Shaun would switch. I glanced around for a place to go to the bathroom but found only houses and yards. Civilization for miles. At least it was mostly dark. I tried a liquor store, but the guy said no, the closest public restroom is 2 miles back where we had come from. No thanks! Instead, I found a quiet side road and an abandoned vehicle to hide my behind.
Back on track, more running, on and on, this part could get a bit boring. I grabbed the map and tried to read it, but not all roads were labeled and we had passed a couple main intersections already. Plus I’m guessing some of the names had changed? Well, anyway, our Rules of Travel told us to look for a specific road, so I made sure everyone knew to look for it. Until then, it wouldn’t be clear how far we had to go.
Oh yes, one exciting part. An interesting shape appeared on the left side of the road, and it turned out to be our Polish friends. Hi y’all! They took a look at us (of course we made sure to be running when we passed, who said the finish line is all that matters?) and they ran a bit, but were soon walking again. I was sure we would see them again soon.
Well, after passing one team, the rest was just work. After an hour and a half we found the intersection and took a right. John was going to mix a SPIZ but we were low on water. I remembered (hopefully correctly) that there was a service station at the next major road crossing, but then Kip remembered that he hadn’t brought any money on this section. We contemplated this information for a few minutes. We had the food to survive without SPIZ, but it would have been fun to visit a little store in the middle of the race. Oh well.
Bright yellow lights appeared next to the distant highway, I had been right. Shaun and John decided to get some water from a faucet in order to make SPIZ, and we would have to wait until the TA to find food beyond that and the dried fruit/peanut M&M’s. We pulled the boats into the parking lot and the guys ran quickly inside. I looked back to see what I thought were racer headlamps and we decided it was better that we didn’t have any money – we never would have gotten out of there quickly if we had been allowed to browse the shelves of junk food heaven.
Let’s go guys, those really are headlamps. That got us moving, including a dash across a busy highway instead of waiting for the lights to turn. “Car collides with kayak, driver confused but nobody hurt…” – we avoided this situation but it was funny to think about. On the quiet road on the other side we took turns drinking SPIZ and walking the boats forward. We continued to push, sometimes running too fast such that even I (who was not pulling a boat) was out of breath, wanting to get the most out of the last on-foot discipline.
I steered us around a couple of turns and toward a small town where we would find a park and the TA. We had to climb a couple small hills and I tried to help pull as much as I could. It was nice to be on a road without many cars. Soon we were rolling through town and out the other side toward the lights of the TA. I was momentarily confused when some people told us to go right (but the TA is left), then we were running on a path under the road and toward CP38.
Last Section: Sea Kayak to the Finish
There was a buzz of energy here, from the volunteers and definitely from our crew. This was the last TA! We were doing well! We parked the boats at the check-in, learned about a couple extra Rules of Travel for the next section, and then our crew grabbed the boats. I tried to stop them because I was concerned they would pull all the gear off, but a volunteer assured me they were just moving them to our spot. We were able to do the transition with the boats next to us, very helpful.
Our crew described big waves that had made life difficult for earlier teams, while we glanced at the dark bay and saw calm water. Another stroke of luck in our timing. We ran around, resetting the boat gear for sea kayaking, putting on dry tops, lubing our necks with Body Glide under the dry top gasket, refilling camelbaks, and eating hot food. Shaun studied the current charts and came up with a plan to optimize our route. And I tossed a couple extra hats and gloves into a dry bag in case we had to pull over on an island for whatever reason. My hands hurt and I could barely squeeze anything, an interesting experience.
The crew rolled our boats close the water, we gladly gave the wheels back to them, we all jumped in and we were off! Wait, we forgot to take more Vivarin. We sat on the water while the pills were distributed. We really wanted to get this done tonight, and we had barely slept since the previous morning. Our crew watched, wondering why we were just drifting slowly backward, and then finally we were off, for real!
We had 22 paddling miles ahead of us. It was odd how my hands felt OK while paddling but hurt otherwise. Occasionally on the water my right hand would go numb, but Shaun taught me that I was gripping too tightly and needed to wiggle my fingers for a while to regain circulation. Looking across at Kip and John, with bright lights from an Anacortes power plant in the background, and totally flat water, it seemed we were flying along at high speed. Looking ahead at the dark shapes of islands ahead of us and not sure what were we getting into, it became more along the lines of “really weird”.
There were a couple other sets of kayaks on the water, all boats topped with bright USGS lights to make ourselves visible. We saw one team going far right to Hat Island, but Shaun confirmed that the better course was toward the corner of the town of Anacortes. That was where another team was headed. We eventually caught up with that team and chatted with them. It turned out to be Necky again; they had followed right behind us into the last transition and started paddling before we did. They asked if we could travel together to keep each other awake, and we were all for that. But after a conversation and then some silence, we looked around to find that we were alone again.
We heard the engine of a large boat and Shaun pointed out a giant ship in port that was being loaded/positioned by other boats right next to it. We paddled on toward a quieter area. Just as we were rounding the tip of Anacortes, we heard a boat behind us and looked back to see a large tug coming toward us. We tried to determine whether to move closer to or away from shore to avoid it, either way we were all paddling faster and I was a little worried. It became clear that the tugboat was aiming close to the docks, so we paddling out toward the channel and got out of the way.
I remarked “this is weird” about our location where boats were working late at night. Just then, a PQ safety boat pulled up and told us to get across the channel and follow the south coast of the dark, quiet island on the other side. You didn’t have to tell me twice. We were away, and a bit later we pulled up on the opposite shore for a bathroom break. John shed some clothes to cool down, while Shaun revised his travel plans.
John had been working hard to try to keep up with our boat while Kip was falling asleep paddling. Kip asked whether his lack of paddling was slowing us down (or a question to that effect) and Shaun answered bluntly “Yes.” Apparently Kip got mad at himself at that point, which helped him wake up. I was still blessed/cursed with on-water nerves and was wide-eyed awake the whole night. Shaun occasionally called out stroke rate changes, sped up, slowed down, and hummed to himself to stay awake.
We met another safety boat and the guy asked if we knew where we were; I was able to describe the name of the island and where we were headed. He gave us instructions to go around the southwest tip of the next island, go north to tiny Strawberry Island, and wait on the north side for a group crossing of Rosario Strait. There had been large boats and barges going up and down the Strait all night, and they wanted to ensure that we were able to cross safely.
As we continued westward, we watched a huge barge moving slowly along the large channel ahead of us. The moon was above the horizon for several hours and it was nice to be able to see the boats and islands quite clearly. Occasionally the wake from the large boats rolled toward us and we got a rocking, but nothing major. Rounding the island, we headed north along the edge of the large channel, aiming for some lights that seemed to be boats waiting at Strawberry Island.
However, as we slowly paddled in that direction, the lights separated and became one light on the shore next to us, another light on a distant island, and one light on a boat that looked like a safety boat. We called “Hello!” to it, but it just cruised on by so I guess it was something else. At about this point we noticed that both of our white USGS lights were really dim. Now it would be difficult to spot us from a distance. Excellent, something else to worry about and keep me awake.
Shaun and I drafted behind Kip and John for a while, but we couldn’t do it with our headlights on – reflective tape on their paddles and PFD’s was moving in crazy directions and it seemed to both of us that they were doing some kind of gymnastics. You could stare at it and believe you were going nuts. Instead, we agreed to paddle next to them and avoid getting hypnotized.
We reached Strawberry Island and made our way along the inside of the island to the north end. There was nobody there. In fact, Rosario Strait was also silent. The only noise came from me… Shaun appeared to be starting toward the other side of the strait, while I wanted to discuss this decision with Kip and John first, and it wasn’t clear to me that Shaun was going to wait even for that. While I was trying to talk our team into moving closer together to have a powwow, a safety boat motored out of the darkness. To ensure he saw us, we trained our headlamps on him.
It turned out to be Scott, the water director. I was quite happy to see him. He wanted to make sure we knew where we were going and we assured him that we did. We relayed the problem of our dead safety lights. He told us that our headlamps were working great, plus the large barge was gone, so it was OK to start across instead of waiting for other kayaks to arrive. I got the impression that we should go directly across the channel perpendicular to shore, but as we started paddling, Shaun aimed us on a diagonal directly to the next checkpoint. So we argued about this for a bit, and I’m sure Scott was wondering about our decision-making ability.
Finally I shut up and started paddling, deciding to just work on getting across the wide channel while there were no ships visible and to stop wasting time. Shaun also wanted to move north as quickly as possible because the current was soon going to turn south and slow us down. We paddled in silence for a bit. Then as we could see individual light on the opposite shore, we started discussing what we were looking for.
Shaun used a compass bearing and the outline of the tops of the islands ahead of us to estimate a set of lights that should be close to our target. I think we got past the main ship channel pretty quickly, especially with everyone’s initial motivation to get out of the way in case a large ship appeared. Then the rest of this part took a long time. We weren’t close to the big island south of Orcas, we were no longer close to the island we had departed from, and Orcas was still some distance ahead of us. Kind of like no-man’s land, er, water. It’s not easy to gauge progress when you can’t see anything to compare to.
We finally caught sight of a tiny island in the small pass to the left. We were aiming for the more northern pass, but at least Shaun could verify our location. The lights ahead of us slowly got more defined. To keep ourselves awake and to move a little faster, someone suggested that we paddle hard briefly and count strokes from 1 to 10. One of us would yell “One! Two! Three!” etc. and then at “Ten!” we would slow down and recover. This helped a lot. John started doing it up to 12. We started doing variations on a theme. And then miraculously, a flashlight shone out at us from the shore. Someone was awake at 3 a.m.! Who else could it be but a checkpoint volunteer? And how did Shaun get us there with such pin-point accuracy? I was impressed.
Somehow it felt like we sped up (or maybe we actually did), steaming toward the shore of Orcas Island and CP39. We had to maneuver between some boats at the dock, and I thought I imagined a tire in the water but John told me it was actually there. Just as we were pulling up, Kip glanced behind us and thought he saw another team approaching. This turned into a comic sequence where Kip hopped up and down trying to decide whether to pee in his dry bottoms or take the time to pull them down, while Shaun took his time relieving himself and I talked with the volunteer about how she must see some strange things in the middle of the night at the end of the race. Kip ended up taking an extra minute to go to the bathroom outside his dry bottoms, and as we were heading back out to sea we realized he had seen a white buoy light in the distance and mistaken it for another team. Anything to keep everyone moving :)
One last leg! We assured Kip that it would be shorter than the previous leg, just around the bottom of the island and into the center bay toward the finish. The trip around the bottom tip was fast, but then we apparently ran into one final obstacle, some current. It wasn’t noticeable to me, except that suddenly it felt like we weren’t moving very quickly. I thought it was just the fact that we still had a ways to go. Kip thought we weren’t moving at all, so John steered their boat next to the shore so they could see the progress they were actually making.
We passed the cove and little town from the Prologue turn-around (less than one week before!). We could see the lights of the Rosario Resort ahead of us. Lots of lights. So many lights that it was hard to determine where the finish line was located. At least it gave us something to think about as we paddled and paddled. One, two, three, four…, we counted out loud. Finally, we started passing little buoys and we could see the big tent. My eyes strained to focus on details on the shoreline. Nothing moved.
At long last, we slid the boats onto shore and cheered. We hobbled out of the cockpits and had a group hug, congratulating ourselves for finishing it together, and laughing at doing this on an empty beach. If any one of us had finished individually and no one was there, it would have been depressing. But after depending on each other and taking care of each other for many days and miles, it was fine that we finished with only each other there to see it.
Then a couple women came running down to the beach yelling “Yay! Awesome! Good job!” Our team got to run through the finish line tape and open a bottle of champagne. Our legs were moving amazingly well and would require minimal recovery. Just don’t ask me to open any jars for a couple days. We got a brief foot inspection with one of the medical people, where we noticed the finish line announcer sleeping under a table. He was awake by the time Team Necky pulled up a short time later, so everyone went out and cheered their finish.
I don’t remember much about the rest of Saturday. We slept all day and had an awesome evening meal at the resort restaurant. Then we attended a pipe organ concert which turned out to be very interesting and funny, and we learned about the history of Rosario Resort and the people who had lived there. More sleep! I saw several more teams finish, and learned that many were held up at the last TA and on various islands due to the fog that blanketed the region for much of the time over the next 2 days. I don’t think we could have been luckier with our timing.
Final inventory for me: One blister under a fingernail, one numb right hand (soon to be one right hand that tingled a lot), one sore spot on my neck where the dry top rubbed, and many tiny nicks and bruises on my legs from the bike whack section. Slightly less skin on my toes, but my feet have learned to constantly generate new skin from all of the running, etc. that we do. Overall good health and the fastest return to “normal” after an expedition race that I have experienced. This has to be at least partly attributed to the long break in the middle and the shortened course. Looking at the entire course, it must be said that it would have been a doozie!
On Monday, Teams AROC and Montrail held a memorial paddle for Nigel. They paddled out with Nigel’s ashes in a hatch in a dry bag. Nigel’s brother was there with them, and one place was left open in one of the kayaks. Many other people in kayaks lined up with paddles raised so the two teams could paddle through. Everyone came to shore, where the families hugged and then sang a reprise of “Land Down Under.” It was a beautiful day and a beautiful way to remember the fallen racer.
Our team plus Kelly and Kristi (Mike and JC took off before the van returned to Orcas Island) worked on more mundane things such as laundry, gear cleaning, and final bike work. The trailer was emptied one last time so we could figure out how to organize everything for the ride home. And we had a delicious meal in downtown Eastsound one evening. On our last day, we drove the van to the high point of the island and were treated to a stunning view of the water and islands around us. John and I did some coordination to get the vehicle across on the ferry while the others hiked down the hill and explored a cave.
The awards ceremony was fun, especially the highlight film. John had to take a late ferry and could not easily get back to the island, so Kelly filled in again when we went onstage to pick up our medals. Thank you Kelly for keeping us laughing! AROC and Montrail were honored onstage, and one of the awards was renamed in Nigel’s name. Nike ACG and Seagate had finished the race together, so they were brought onstage to share first place, along with Team Holofiber in third. Everyone moved to the manor for food and chatting and a little dancing, then we took a water taxi back to the mainland to meet back up with John. And then we all headed home.
The more I think about it in the days afterward, the more I like the race course that Dan set up this year. It lived up to the promise of “thinking required”, rewarding us whenever we paid attention and applied brains and creativity. The planned course was tough and long, with a good mix of disciplines that were integrated into the landscape we passed through. The setting was beautiful and I know we will be back to explore some more, especially some of the pretty trails. The ropes were set up well, all of the volunteers were knowledgeable and professional, and every portion that I experienced felt safe. Bike whacking, well, we need to consider how to get better at it! All told, the race really was an adventure.
And finally, notes about the tragedy. I support that the race continued onward. It gave everyone a focus and a way to pay tribute to Nigel by following in his footsteps and trying to do our best in his honor. From our vantage point on the sidelines the day after it happened, things were handled well amid the various pressures from racers, families, media, and the rest of the world. The restart organization and ruling was the fairest we could imagine. In the end, the two winning teams showed incredible class by finishing together - thank you to all of the top teams for showing us how to do it right.
Goodbye Nigel, you will be missed.