Monday, October 18, 2010
USARA Adventure Racing National Championship
Never Give Up...
Sometimes things don't go as planned. Sometimes they do, but your plan backfires. Sometimes you are forced to dig deep and rally and race your guts out with a furious tenacity all the way to the finish line, only to have your dreams crushed at the very last moment. That, folks, is adventure racing.
Over the weekend I raced the 2010 USARA 24 Hour Adventure Racing National Championship with my usual DART-nuun teammate Mari Chandler and a "new" teammate and navigator Kyle Peter. We raced as Team Tecnu Extreme-StaphAseptic. This would be the second time since 2004 that I would race with a team other than DART-nuun. Mari and Kyle have raced quite well together in 2010, and going into this race they both had over twelve 24 hour races under their belts for the season. In fact, just one week before Nationals they raced together at the NorCal Racing Whiskeytown 24 Hour Adventure Race...and won. Needless to say, they are a well-oiled machine and both on great form...Terminators. Going into the race with a win streak racing with Mari of 6 or 7 races, and with a super-strong Kyle Peter navigating, we were confident that we had the tools to achieve our singular goal of winning.
The field was stacked with several former USARA national championship-winning teams: Team iMOAT from Texas (2006 & 2007 Champions); Team Granite (2009 winners); Team EMS (2005); TecnuExtreme-StaphASeptic (Sean & Mari won with DART-nuun in 2008), and dozens of other top contenders who had qualified at regional adventure races around the United States.
The event was hosted by the Hidden Valley ski resort in Laurel Highlands, Pennsylvania, and directed by American Adventure Sports, one of the oldest adventure racing companies in the United States. I was particularly impressed with the race director, Doug Crytzer, who has been directing adventure races since 1998, around the time I got started in this sport. In Doug's previous career he was a Master Sergeant with the 82nd Airborne. My kinda guy! His no-nonsense, totally genuine style reminded me of my early adventure racing mentors from my Navy days, who happened to be former Army Delta Force and Navy SEALs. These people are different, and these are my kind of people. "Take Care of Your Teammates" was repeated more than once.
You can see me in black/white/red at the start faking straight and cutting left, then climbing up the ski hill. Kind of a painful way to start a "29 hour" race!
After 4 hours of racing, we had a lead of approximately 40 minutes after hammering the first bike section which included plenty of long, steep climbing. In a cruel twist of fate, our hard-earned lead turned into a 1hr10 deficit to first place when we misunderstood the bike-paddle transition & banned-road instructions and struggled through a bushwhack to the paddle put-in. What we had interpreted to be the "intended" route on the map turned into a very slow, arduous and potentially deadly bush-whack in our carbon-soled mountain bike shoes on the lip (literally) of a concrete cliff (long dam drainage, 30' sheer drop) with very poor loose-dirt and pricker-bush footing along a steep slope.
The race directors spotted us as we approached the end of the cliff (which lead to another smaller cliff) and started running towards us, waving their arms, terrified that we would fall. After yelling back and forth and explaining how we got there, we managed to find the least-precarious spot to downclimb the loose rock, which was not easy in worn-out carbon-soled bike shoes and packs sloshing around...We carefully spotted each other, as tree and shrub trunks and roots were our only handholds in a very sketchy, super-exposed moment. Doug yelled "YOU ARE NOT RACING RIGHT NOW!" and you could cut the tension with a knife. But we made it down.
After we got down and started running towards the boats, we were stopped immediately and told we had to arrive WITH OUR BIKES. Which were stashed 2 miles away at the start of our ill-fated bushwhack. Apparently we mis-read the instructions and assumed the road to the paddle put-in was banned, and that the bushwhack was the intended route. In the pre-race instructions, we were advised to bring a bike cable-lock of some sort as we would have to stash our bikes at some point in the race, somewhere people might be hiking or hunting. The place we stashed our bikes seemed to fit that description perfectly. Alas.
We had just lost quite a bit of time with the slow bushwack, and as we "debated" briefly with the Doug the RD, we saw teams arriving to the canoe transition, coming in HOT on their bikes. We were told we had to run back to our bikes, which would mean a couple miles through town. Damnit.
We had our running shoes with us in our backpacks, so we quickly swapped shoes and did the "run of shame" back to our bikes, which were stashed in the woods. As we cantered back to our bikes, approximately 10 teams passed us as they rode towards the canoes. The look on their faces was either shocked consternation or smug amusement.
When we did reach our bikes, we noticed the race organization had a vehicle at the trail-head, stopping teams from taking the risky (and wrong) bush-whack. About 90 minutes too late for our team! Doug told us he honestly never expected teams to deduce that the bushwhack was 'intended'.
Back on our bikes, we hammered back to the canoes, and started the paddle NOT in first place, but 10th or 11th. In our hurried transition, we managed to pick the slowest canoe out of 20+ boats pre-staged next to the put-in ramp (they looked similar but were in fact different). We actually paddled a beater red COLEMAN canoe, the kind your grandpa would take you fishing in back in the 70s or 80s. The other canoes were not by any means "fast" boats, but the difference in hull speed was noticeable as we struggled to make the old boat "go" with our trusty EPIC carbon kayak paddles.
(NOTE: We opted to use our own paddles vs. the race organization's canoe paddles, since this seems to be faster for our team. The downside was that we would have to carry the 3 kayak paddles throughout the race for ~24 hours. We opted to use EPIC's 3 piece paddles, which broke down and fit into our larger-than-usual packs.)
One of the areas where we actually gained time on the canoe section was when we would portage (HARD) over sandbars, taking short cuts and one long beach (mud) run-up to the furthest checkpoint. Apparently dragging this boat across soft sand and mud was faster than paddling! The weather changed from 50s, calm and sunny to 40s, rain and 30mph NorEaster winds every half hour or so, which was slightly amusing since we are quite accustomed to training and racing in "poor" conditions.
The highlight of the paddle was portaging over the last penninsula, instantly leaving behind the 30mph winds and cold rain, only to be greeted inexplicably by sunny sky, calm water and a very low, obtuse rainbow on the near horizon. Team WEDALI was in the area and we all broke out into "DOUBLE RAINBOW!!! DOUBLE RAINBOW!! WHAT DOES IT MEEEEEEAN??
By the end of the 11+ mile canoe we would find ourselves back in the top 5, and once on the bikes we rallied back to 1st place in relatively short order. While we made up the lost time rather quickly with Kyle's ace navigation and some harder efforts, we couldn't help but think that our original 40~ minute lead could have been nearly 2 hours with our race pace. Rather than wasting mental energy lamenting our mistake, we focused on what was IN FRONT of us, not what happened behind us on that cliff...
Fast forwarding to the end of the race, a "challenging" night orienteering starting and finishing at the finish line,
WEDALI (We Eat Dust And Like It is the acronym!) navigated flawlessly and moved swiftly, never giving up. Those Minnesotans are Tenacious! Their team has won just about every race in the Midwest this year, and after 8 years of consistently racing together they have the experience to know how to handle these situations. Our team made only one navigational error between orienteering CPs 6 and 7, and actually realized it and made a correction after about 20 minutes. We backtracked to cut our losses and set a new bearing before continuing at full-speed. This trekking section was in thick brush before dawn, and the maps (as usual) did not exactly match reality. We seized any opportunity to run, and kept the intensity high to the very end.
After maintaining a ~45 minute lead all the way until the end of this last, 9 checkpoint, ~6 hour orienteering section in the middle of the night, WEDALI managed to sneakily out-maneuver us in the final few CPs and managed to win by just under 6 minutes. We had no idea they were that close until we hit the last CP atop the ski slopes. "WEDALI was here 6 minutes ago"...WHAT!?!? We had encountered them earlier in this orienteering section, but took different routes somewhere along the way.
As the sun rose we sprinted down the Hidden Valley ski slope to the finish line only to hear the confirmation that the Minnesotans had crushed our dreams, finishing 5 minutes and 40 seconds or so before. This was perhaps the closest finish in USARA history. You could hear the sound of the deflating balloon when we crossed the finish line. Or maybe a whoopie cushion.
We heartily congratulate Team WEDALI for not giving up, remaining confident and focused and for putting on a navigational "clinic". In an adventure race--or any endurance competition--you can never predict what adversity your competitors will face. Mr. Murphy of Murphy's Law fame is ALWAYS along for the ride, and he holds no favorites.
Several top-contending teams like iMOAT, GRANITE, BERLIN BIKES or EMS would normally have been right there battling for the lead on any other given day if not for their own unforeseen adversity. After 22 hours and 47 minutes of racing through some of the gnarliest terrain Pennsylvania has to offer, it was a tough way to lose.
WEDALI and Tecnu Extreme-StaphAseptic shared a table at the awards ceremony, drinking Yeungling lager and comparing navigation mistakes and bike mechanicals (dealing with a frozen/locked pedal was a new one) over pumpkin pie. The comaraderie you sense in the sport of adventure racing is beyond anything I have experienced in sport, and can only compare to my military training. The shared notion of "I can't believe we are doing this/I can't believe we just did that/When can we do this again" sums it up in my opinion.
One great thing about a crushing defeat like this one is you learn much more from your losses than wins. In this instance, WEDALI showed what can happen when you DON'T GIVE UP. DON'T EVER GIVE UP!
I can honestly say I am more motivated than ever after this dream-crushing loss.
Fire in the Belly, baby!
My 2008 National Champion trophy remains lonely on the bookshelf...until next year in Kentucky! Yep, it was leaked that the location of the 2011 National Championships will be somewhere in the Bluegrass State.
LASTLY, I am taking on a few more coaching clients this fall/winter for the 2011 season. If you are interested, email me at:
sjclancy (at) yahoo (dot) com
Whether you are interested in detailed weekly coaching and email correspondence, personal training (if you happen to live near Boulder, CO), a long-term general training plan, or consulting, we can work something out on a case-by-case basis at all price-points.
All athletes are different and there are no cookie-cutter-plans that I repackage and sell. If you want to take your racing to the NEXT LEVEL, then we should talk. It doesn't matter if your goals are specific to Adventure Racing, Ironman triathlon (in conjunction with your masters swim team), Ultramarathon running, Ultra-distance mountain bike racing, or just getting off the couch and getting active again, it doesn't matter.
Life gets busy. Make the most of your available training time. This is not a dress rehearsal!