Tuesday, June 2, 2015

FLX - Blue Ridge AR, Elite 24hr

There were about 60 teams racing this year, between the Sport and Elite division.  This was my fourth year racing in Blue Ridge and it's the first year there was absolutely no rain--this was extraordinary! EA Sports had an army of three teams representing.

Matt Rolfe (left), Jonathan Wolverton, Tim Cowan, Russell 'the Muscle' Barton, Brian Ruth, Greg Watson, and Hien Nguyen (me)

We had booked a cabin not too far from downtown, but still on the top of a mountain, where the driveway seemed like a steep 45 degree slope.  The night before a race is always a mad dash to sort gear, but we ended the evening with some good old fashion home-made grilled food.

The race started on bike in downtown, both Sport and Elite teams launched at the same time.  Russell felt the wrath of the uphills on the bike, but after a good warmup, he was back in cruise mode.  We continued biking into the wilderness from that point, picking up a couple controls off the single track biking trails before transitioning to foot.  The foot portion had a relatively quick orienteering section.  From there it was back on bike to pick up several more controls.  The landscape was scenic as usual.


CP17 and the 600ft Mountain Climb
In our second trekking leg, it was taking too long to find each control point (about an hour each for CP 11 and 12).  The trails weren't really tracking on point to what was mapped.  Brian's legs were screaming and locking up so this, coupled with mapping issues, I determined we needed skip a handful of controls on on this portion.  We got to a junction which was a great attack point to CP13.  We could not locate this one.  Many teams were searching for this and after spending too much time on it, we called it off and moved onto CP16, along a creek.

I was getting suspicious of the illustrated trails on this map, so what better than to find CP17 by taking a direct bearing to it from a known location?  That's exactly what we did.  We had a known point after finding CP16, so we took the brutal 600ft climb to CP17.  After missing CP13, I was motivated to keep an even straighter line this time.  The journey up there was measured out to be 700m long, as the crow flies.  It was probably 1200m as our legs saw it on the ground, with all of its ascents and descents.  700m is not a length that I like to take a straight bearing to in normal circumstances.  The degree of error staying straight on that path to the end is ridiculously high.  But the alternate route of staying on a trail was not even debatable--it was too long.  So straight we went.  Our feet turned into mush going up this terrain.  I did more damage traversing up on to this control than the entire 72hr Sea2Sea AR altogether.  As we got nearer, the angle of elevation got even steeper, forcing us on all fours and pulling each other up.  Amazingly, my direct bearing got us within a mere 5-10m of the control!  Greg's eyes lit up and I never saw him run up a steep wall of mountain faster than this one as he headed over to punch it.

location of CP21

Hien Wrecks Down a Rocky Mtn Road
We had been walking our bikes up to collect CPs 22-24 and opted to skip 25.  The trails leading to it was a continuous climb.  At CP24, I had preached about keeping things safe on the way down and that we didn't wanna sabotage what was a pretty good race up to this point.  Not two minutes backtracking downhill, I took a nasty wreck.

We were riding our brakes downhill, but I still tested how much speed I could carry and it was much more than controllable.  At some point, I had a decent amount of speed, saw two big rocks in my path and couldn't avoid them.  I narrowly dodged one but nailed the other which launched my bike in the air.  On the way down, I landed on two wheels, but at a slight angle, and the speed proved too fast to catch.  My body flew completely over a now turning handlebar (picture E-Honda's flying headbutt from Street Fighter).  I think my right forearm landed first and took the brunt of the impact.  Then my head crashed into the rocky trail as I saw sharp stones an inch away from my face.  My right side continued the momentum down.  I turned into a rag doll, flipping once, unable to do anything as I waited for physics to stop my 145lb body from sliding down any more.  There's a reason bike helmets are mandatory gear.  My face came out unscathed and my head didn't even hurt from the crash.  If I had no helmet, we'd probably have pressed the SOS button on my Spot Tracker :)

When all had stopped, I sat up, understanding something epic had just happened.  "Did I get this on GoPro??" was the first thought.  I took my helmet off, which had done its job alright.  No, I had not!  I quickly turned it back on to witness the aftermath.  I suffered some nasty skin tears along my forearm and hip, as well as some big deep bruises on my ribs and legs.

My crew spent 15 minutes bandaging me up, and after getting cleared by a racing team of 3 doctors that were coincidentally traveling by, I got up, made sure I still had range of motion in my body, and commanded we keep racing!

3.5hrs Lost in the Mountains
As if my wreck wasn't bad enough, we entered into an off-road trail that was supposed to lead to CP26.  Here, we met up with our other team EA Sports.  We bike-whacked over falling trees almost every 50-100ft.  It was extraordinarily slow-going.  The trail was an unkept single-track trail, if you could call it that.  Somewhere along the way, we got diverged south of the mapped trail.  None of us recalled any intersections or forks in the road before being lead astray.  Unfortunately, my mind was on my arm for the beginning portion, where we were still going the correct east direction.  Sometime an hour in, I checked my bearing and we were going northwest...and then southwest, and then east, and then repeat.

We debated bailing back out, but after an hour in, we had hopes that pushing forward would eventually lead us out somewhere, where we could re-calibrate our location.  It was great to meet up with one of the USMES military teams with the same thinking.  This team was hardcore to the bones, as they had been feeding off the creek water and eating snails.  After running out of water ourselves, the creek water was sounding pretty tasty.  One hour turned into two.  Two turned into three.  We stopped a couple times to try to find our location with the use of altimeters and creek identifications.  No one was confident, however.  These 3hrs lost proved fatal to our competitive contention.

Mountain Woman Detains Us With Revolver
The clue to CP26 was "Trail and Creek Intersection".  We finally ran into an area that resembled these clues.  No controls showed up here with a massive hunt, so we crossed the creek and continued down a red-marked trail, which suggested would be more used by the public.  In the pitch dark night, we spotted a dim light far away.  Civilization!

The morale lit up!  We kept following the trail towards the light.  As we got nearer, dogs started barking.  We're finally near a paved road, at last!  Then we heard the shrills of a lunatic-like, jilted woman.  "GET DOWN HERE NOW!  ALL OF YOU!  YOU ARE ON PRIVATE PROPERTY!" she screamed.

"We're lost ma'am," one of us replied, level-headedly.  "Perhaps you can show us to a road, and we'll be happy to leave."


As we got off the single-track trail and onto her driveway (no where else to go), she ran into the house and grabbed a revolver.  Sure enough, she could shoot us all on the spot.  We were on her private land.  She continued berating us for being so lost, which didn't take much to figure out, pistol in-hand and waving it.  We kept our cool and stayed calm and collected with our responses.  That tinder could spark at any time and if it did, who knows what could happen.  Once she said something along the lines of "ahhh...you guys are the racers from Pangea," we silently shook our heads, "that m**f*ing moutain b*tch knew all along."

This marks the second time we've been shown the gun in Blue Ridge, both times when Brian decided to race with us :)  The first time was from this guy:

A couple nervous laughs there and we bolted off faster than ever.  We didn't know where we were, but her directions got us to Aska Road.  At that intersection, we finally found our way and immediately headed to Dial TA, cutting off the rest of the bike control points.  We were well past our estimated time of arrival to the canoeing portion.

Luckily Tim had his watch recording the route the entire time, so as I reviewed this GPS record afterwards, this is what I pieced together:

(click on this for a bigger view)

Night Paddle
The Dial TA was located at a small family-owned restaurant.  We refueled here with all of our EA Sports teams and discussed strategy with the remaining 8hrs we had.  I also bought some more medical supplies from their store and took care of myself some more.  One of our EA teams wanted nothing to do with the paddling at night, with potential rapids, so they decided on skipping it and biking straight to Sandy Bottom TA to start a trekking leg.  I knew we weren't anywhere near competitive anymore, so I convinced my team to do the first canoeing portion just for the experience of night paddling in rapids.  They agreed and it turned out to be better bang for the buck than any other leg we've been on up to that point.  The water was completely calm and the water depth pretty shallow in some areas.

Night Trek and the Mad Rush to the End
This was the part of the race where time was ticking and you knew it.  Everything you did had to be calculated.  I worked backwards and calculated 3hrs to leave for biking back to downtown and perhaps picking up a few biking controls along the way.  3hrs was safe to assume.  So then we were left with 2hrs to do this trekking leg.

Every control was precisely measured on the clock and future ones estimated.  We averaged finding one control every 30min on this leg, ultimately finding four, and headed back to the TA at precisely 6am (3hrs left).  Brian and his eagle eye during the day proved incredible night vision performance as well.  He was spotting controls so far away it was like he had night-x-ray vision.

On our journey back to downtown, we had a little time to fit in CP50, which was not too far off of the main Aska Road.  What seemed easy took us almost an hour to find after 4 or 5 attempts.  Optimistic Brian wanted to find more, but my calculations couldn't afford it.  That guy, full of energy, will have to wait for an expedition race in the future to satisfy his adventure race cravings.  On the flip side, I counted 40+ times he day-dreamed of beer during the race.  He would finally get rewarded soon.

After finding CP50, we dashed back on Aska Road.  This road will tear your legs uphill and reward you with the fruits of 45mph rides downhill.  Along our ride back, we noticed Greg was missing behind us.  When you're flying at that speed, cutting through the wind, you cannot hear anything, not even cars coming up.  We stopped and braced for the worst.  A minute later, Greg came riding down the road to us, noticeably shaken.  He described an incident of a car almost clipping into him, where he had to automatically veer off the road and save a death wobble in the grass.

The race ended as we coasted back to the train station in downtown where the adventure began 24hrs ago.  We had 17 minutes to spare.  I will say I miss the 30hr length of previous years!

Cruising at this speed down a road with a taco'd bike wheel is a little nerve-wracking!  But the other guys were passing me!

The race was an awesome experience for all of us, with memorable stories to be had.  Russell Barton was the newcomer to a race of this length, having only done 8hr races at most, but did great with my two month rigorous training camp I prescribed for him.  We made excellent use of our strengths and weaknesses as a team.  When one guy was hurting, we rotated strenuous jobs around to the stronger one.  Everyone had a positive adventure-minded attitude that kept the spirit high at all times.  Blue Ridge always gives me challenges as a navigator in the mountains, but I'm learning more and more every year, and I took a lot away from this one to get us ready for the USARA Nationals later this year in Kentucky.