USARA Nationals, Kerhonkson, NY, 10/13/12
Team MOAT – Nathan Winkelman, Jason Winkelmann, Kathy Hudson
7th Place Coed
Little fat sausage links ~ brings to mind the start of a great breakfast for some. For me though, it is my feet. I just got home from 24-hour Adventure Race Nationals. I don’t know why they bother to call it a 24-hour race, when in reality, it has a 30-hour cutoff; this year’s course kept my team hostage for 28.5 hours. Just as my sausage swollen toes have subsided, only 48 hours after crossing the finish line, so too will the memories fade as I recover. The old saying, “Pain is temporary”, is true, and I guess that is what keeps us all coming back for more. If we remembered the pain, it might make it harder to sign up the next time. The nerves in my toes are still dead, but the numb and tingling sensation should go away in a few days as they regenerate.
My schedule is pretty full from putting on about 25 events this year, giving me very little time to race myself. It forces me to be very selective with my race choices, and lately, it has only included about 3 races a year. This race required many days of endurance training. It also required constant support from loved ones. All my training spent for the last six months for this race has been in the Texas heat. Needless to say, it was great for my endurance and how to handle the heat over an extended time, but not so good in terms of clothing choices to wear/carry for an extended cold weather race. You must pack everything for the entire race in your backpack, including water and food for up to 30 hours. It has been 9 years since I did an expedition length adventure race, and it is hard to remember the amount of food I eat per hour when staying up all night racing.
My teammates and I arrived in the Catskill mountains near Kerhonkson, New York 4 days early to acclimate and explore. The weather was beautiful, but the pre-race meeting the night before the race gave us the bad news; a cold front was blowing in, with rain and dropping temps.
Race morning brought a 4:30am wake up call and a 5:30am meeting to receive our race maps. This year, the checkpoints were pre-plotted, so our only job was to strategize our route choices before having to load a bus at 6am to take us to the starting line on Lake Pepacton in the Catskills up north. Each bus had 11 rows of seats for 14 teams of 3, plus all our gear. You can do the math to figure out how great this can of sardines looked. Driving to the start was not the most condusive situation for planning our race strategy, as other teams where now mixed on our row with us, and our team captain, Nathan, was on the row behind me. No matters, we got it done before arriving at the lake for the start, to the unwelcome site of a light rain and a drop in temperature. Some racers scrambled off the bus and scattered into the trees to relieve bladders, while other teams made their way down to the canoes to get the first choice of a boat….they were all the same.
We were sure to not grab the boat with the hole halfway through the outer layer, OK, maybe not all exactly the same. Then, at the last minute we received an envelope which contained information that our team would not have to stay together on this leg of the race. Normal rules for adventure racing are that your team of 3 must always stay within 10 meters of each other while on foot, so this gave us the opportunity to place Jason on shore to run to one check point inland, while Nathan and I paddled to another checkpoint across the lake to retrieve a point up a draw and then back across to rendezvous at a pre-determined spot. This worked well for the entire paddle leg, and we thought we would have one of the fastest paddle times as we had been with the top 4 canoes of the 55 teams from the time the canon fired at the start.
The start of the paddle
There were quite a few strategies between all the teams, and though we were good paddlers, our strength could not overcome the 2 teams that joined forces and got in each other’s boats, working together to find the checkpoints on the lake 25 minutes faster than any other team. Nathan had actually thought of the idea, but I thought they had told us in the pre-race meeting that helping other teams was forbidden. I was mistaken, as race management did not penalize these teams and later said, “There was no rule against it.”
So we finished the paddle to another round of rain and a 25-minute deficit to the leaders, and though our backpacks were in trash bags in the bottom of the canoe, they still managed to get soaked. As a result of the wet clothes, I spent the next 5-10 minutes in transition area switching the tights I wore during the paddle with what I thought was a dry pair in my pack, then after realizing it was also wet, went back to the first pair, before deciding one more time to switch to the other pair. Not only were my feet numb from being in 2 inches of water in the bottom of our canoe for 3 hours, but so was my brain. This was not one of my faster transitions.
King of the Mountain leg
Our next leg of the race was a mountain bike section – a very long mountain bike section. The first 6-miles was timed, to see who was the fastest to the top of the mountain (there was a special award for this). We were going to go for the “King of the Mountain” award, if it didn’t cost us too much energy expenditure. It was a blazing start, and we passed several teams who had started just in front of us with faster transition times. Then Nathan put me on a tow rope (a small dog leash attached to his seat post and then carabineered to my bike handlebar stem), but the tow rope was too short and held my bike only 2-3 inches from his rear wheel. I felt uneasy, and within a few minutes, had taken it off. Then, I heard this familiar noise of tires humming and another bike coming from behind. When I looked over, it was Team Tecnu, using a double tow system. Kyle, their team captain, was connected to the guy behind him, who was connected to their girl in the back. This was very impressive as they rode by, and there was nothing we could do about it but admire them. Our King of the Mountain hopes diminished. Nate dropped his chain and our hopes ended. No worries though, we knew we were in the running and in the top teams, so we continued on, navigating to all the checkpoints and optional checkpoints along the bike route. The race is all about who finds the most checkpoints. You are ranked first by number of checkpoints, and secondly by your time. Of course, you must finish within 30 hours, or be penalized by the loss of one checkpoint for every minute you are late. No GPS units are allowed, only the topo maps given by race management, and your compass.
The dirt trails and old jeep roads were covered primarily in a layer of slick rocks and secondarily by a layer of multicolored leaves on top, making the rocks hard to see. Negotiating this section was harder than I thought it would be, as all the trails were also mushy from the rain. I began to warm up so I took off my rain jacket. As luck would have it, the skies began to dump a light snow/sleet mixture right after I had put my jacket away, and though it was cold, Jason reminded me of how truly epic this was; I agreed.
Navigating in the forest
The checkpoints on the bike leg were not along the trail, but rather, you needed to ditch your bike and run into the woods for 100 to 300 meters to get them. I honestly don’t remember a single checkpoint being easy – especially the ones requiring you to descend steep hills or gullies in mountain bike shoes, go in creeks and then climb back up. However, Jason was spot on with his navigation, and we quickly cleared this section. The bike leg was long however, as we were rode for most of the daylight hours. We broke several items (Jason’s bike bag, Nathan’s waterbottle cage and a rear derailleur). We rode into the next transition area with about 2 hours of daylight left.
Now to a trekking/navigation leg, with an award to the team with the fastest time to complete this section. We started with dry feet, so at first, were careful not to run through the creeks and marshes. We came to a marshy crossing that was just wide enough that I was concerned about clearing the jump. I watched as Captain Nate cleared the jump landing safely on the other side, then Major Jason next with a few inches to spare, then me, in all my glory, running fully speed only to hesitate at the last moment and fall short, landing squarely in the swamp mud with the suction of it pulling my right shoe off. Nathan yelled at Jason to grab it before it disappeared forever to the swamp gods. Thus became the theme for the day, that Jason just couldn’t have anything nice, as his dry gloves were now covered in swamp mud. We cleared all the checkpoints in this section in less than 1.5 hours.
However, Team Sog stole our thunder by a couple of minutes. No worries though, as we were still upbeat that Jason was spot on for every point. I remember him asking me to take a 1300 meter pace count (We’ve measured how far we travel per step in varying conditions) as we followed his azimuth and thinking we would never pop out of the woods at the right spot. This is where we surged through thousands of laurel bushes, so thick we often had to yell at each other to know where we each were. We struggled against this native plant to stay on our azimuth (bearing or direction). It was a good feeling to pop out in the open forest at our checkpoint at the end of that maze. At one point, we were all standing with in 5 meters of each other, and Nathan didn’t even see a checkpoint that was 3 feet from his head. Fortunately Jason did.
We returned to transition and our bikes and headed out again. Eventually we made our way to a small restaurant on a backcountry road in the dark. There we found familiar faces (our support crew and the race directors), warm food, a bathroom with toilet paper, an instant cappuccino machine, and a warm fire. I indulged in all but the fire, as Nathan pushes the team out the door never wanting us to get too comfortable.
It was hard to leave the warmth of the restaurant, as we had a fast downhill to follow where my shaking body and numb hands had trouble turning on my helmet lights. What should have been a screaming downhill was more like an earthquake shaking descent where I didn’t know whether my body was shaking more than the bike. It was very cold.
Here we left our bikes again for a 9-mile land navigation section on foot. For us, it felt like 20 miles, as we often were on our knees, and yes, even my belly, crawling under more sections of laurel bushes. Nathan got stabbed in the eye with a branch, and we all hoped his cornea wasn’t scratched. We helped a few other teams during this section who were lost, and after the last checkpoint, got slightly off bearing ourselves and popped out in a neighborhood forcing us to run some roads back to the transition area. The volunteers wondered why we were coming from such a weird direction. Oh well. This transition area included warm soup that smelled a bit strange, but I didn’t care as it was at least warm.
The toe warmers on my bike shoes are now frozen and torn, covered in a layer of ice. I break the seal of ice and the toe warmer shreds on the bottom, decreasing its insulating abilities exponentially. This is a bike-O memory section. Very challenging at night when you are tired and cold. You study a map of trails that look like spaghetti, and then without the map, you must ride to where you remember the checkpoint being. We start off and immediately lose the trail at a road crossing where there are huge mounds of dirt blocking our view. We stumble around in the woods until we see other bike lights, then jump on their trail, not knowing where exactly in the loop we are. Somehow, we find the checkpoint and now have to memorize to get to the next one. This one was much easier, but the 3rd one took the wind out of our sails. Here, in our haste with 3 other teams near us, we charge off without a good understanding of where we were going, and quickly find ourselves lost on the wrong trail. We don’t even know which direction takes us back to transition. After messing around for about 30 minutes, we decide to ride backwards to the start of this section and give up the remaining 2 points on this section of the race. We knew it would cost us the win because we would not clear the course, but in our minds, we felt we were hours behind the leaders already. In reality, it was hard to know where anyone was on this course. We should have stayed focused, waited 15 more minutes for daylight, and started over.
Moving on with the course, we then had a short bike uphill section. There were more checkpoints by bike, including one in particular where we lost the trail and it became a hike w/bike on shoulder through the laurel bushes again. Somehow it seemed ok to be lost this time because several teams were following us. We were in the same predicament together. Everyone agreed if we stayed on our azimuth, we would pop out on the road, and fortunately, that led us to the next transition area.
At this point in the race, you aren’t running. In fact, I’m not sure if what I was doing was even walking. We had 7 more hours to find 10 more checkpoints. We started this section off not with a bang, but more of a fizzle, not paying attention and forgetting to pace count and leave the trail from a known point. We eventually found the point, but this became the theme for a while.
We looked for one checkpoint up the wrong draw and after ascending 200-300 meters in altitude up the boulder filled gully, we realized our mistake and descended back down. We were so convinced that we were in the right draw that we told another team they were lost. Turns out they weren’t, and we were. This wasn’t so bad though, as they lead us right to a checkpoint we had missed earlier and then into the correct draw that we now needed to climb 200 meters of altitude back up to get the checkpoint. The first 3 checkpoints on this leg used a lot of our energy and 3 hours of our time. Now apparent that we are running out of time to clear all these checkpoints on this leg, we decided to go for only one of the 3 points at the farthest point on the course. However, we couldn’t find one of the many trails on the map that was now overgrown, so we unknowingly walked right across the trail. A small plane flew over twice, and the thought crossed my mind of a search and rescue mission. It is times like this when you are down and feeling lost that your mind plays tricks on you. Eventually, another team walked by us on the trail we were looking for and we were able to recover. We now had to give up 4 optional checkpoints on this end of the course to make the time cutoff.
Then came my favorite leg of the race. Traveling down a creek for several kilometers grabbing 3 checkpoints along the way. I no longer cared about getting my feet wet as I ran right through the middle of it. Even when I slipped on the moss covered rock, hitting hard on my hip and bouncing squarely in the water, I didn’t care. We could smell/hear the waterfall ahead, and knew we were home free after that.
The waterfall rappel
Our final 2 checkpoints were at the falls ~ one at the top, one at the bottom. What lied between was a 75-foot rappel. What a fitting end to this epic adventure! This was, no doubt, my favorite part of the race. Our bikes were waiting for us on a road near the bottom of the falls, and all that was left was a 4-mile screaming descent to the finish, where we passed 3 or 4 teams using up every ounce of energy we had left. I wish I could have moved that fast for the entire race! We ended up 7th.
I empty my pack back at the room and find a lot of leaves and pine needles, a pair of knee warmers and socks I never wore, a bag of pizza, a PB&J sandwhich, 4 or 5 bars, 7 scoops of accelerade powder, 5 Powergels, and a bag of gorp. I even have over a liter of water left. A warm shower followed and the defrosting of the feet. This is when I realized the pain I hadn’t been feeling, and could barely put my shoes on for the awards ceremony, as they now looked like swollen sausages. Races like these are nothing I would ever do solo, but somehow, when you have 2 teammates, running/walking/crawling/riding through the things we did seems possible. I always realize we can do more as humans than we think we can when I race. In all, we covered about 12 miles paddling, 60 miles of mtn biking & 28 miles trekking in 28.5 hours. We climbed over 12,000 feet in elevation gain, give or take a few extra gullies. I would consider it some of the toughest miles I have ever covered. Many of them were spent fighting our way through bushes, sticks, knee high vine grabbers, water, and rock. Would I do it again? Of course!