I know I’ve got a lot of catching up to do on here – we’ve raced a total of six times since March 1 this year, spent a week traveling through North Carolina and Tennessee, scaled two high points, and planned a 24-hour race (not to mention chaperoned a high school camping trip) – so I thought I’d start with the most recent and work backward.
This past weekend saw the 2012 running of the American Adventure Sports Yough Extreme, a 10-hour adventure race in southwestern Pennsylvania’s Ohiopyle State Park. This was my fourth time participating in the Yough, and each year I’m reminded that this is a race of strength and speed. It’s a linear course with relatively little in the way of navigation and strategy; to do well, you need to pound your way up and down Sugarloaf Mountain once, twice, sometimes three times throughout the day.
This year, Brent and I teamed up with Brian Komoroski, a veteran of GOALS sprint and 12-hour races who recently moved to Pittsburgh.
At 2 PM Friday afternoon, our friend Bill, who was racing in the solo division, pulled up in front of our house with his mom’s SUV. Bill had recently installed a new roof rack on the car, and the plan was to load all three bikes up top, pile in all our gear, and swing by Brent’s school en route to the PA turnpike.
We made it through the 7 miles of suburban roads unscathed, all the while joking about the new and untested bike rack. We picked up Brent and swung toward the highway. And then, not 10 miles later, a panicked Bill pulled over onto the shoulder.
“A tire just flew off the roof!”
“Sure it did,” Brent and I responded.
“No really, there’s a tire on the turnpike.”
Brent turned around to peer through the back window.
“Um, there really is a tire on the turnpike.”
We all jumped out of the car and looked up.
“Whose is it?” I asked, before noticing that the claw that had been holding my front tire was now conspicuously empty.
Brent took off down the shoulder. I sprinted after him.
Somehow, the wheel had rolled off the top of the car and, when it hit the ground, continued rolling across all three lanes, coming to an upright stop when it hit the median.
I ran the 100 meters back to where the tire had come to rest, and when a brief lull in traffic presented itself, I sprinted across. I grabbed the tire and, holding it close to my chest, leaned back as cars whizzed by not 18 inches from my nose.
Within a minute, the pre-rush hour traffic broke again, and I took off for the safety of the shoulder.
Brent, who had paused briefly to tie his sneakers, looked on incredulously.
“I didn’t even see you run across until you were on the other side! What were you thinking, doing that in those shoes?”
I looked down at my feet, and sure enough, I found them covered in bright orange crocs.
We laughed and walked back to Bill, still standing by the SUV in disbelief.
Miraculously, the wheel seemed unscathed.
After loading my front wheel and Brent’s securely in the trunk (Bill’s was still attached to his bike), we got back in the car and headed west.
Little did we know that our highway adventure was a preview of what was to come.
Four hours later, we pulled into the parking lot of Ohiopyle’s Wilderness Voyageurs and unceremoniously registered and received our maps. As in previous years, the 2012 course promised lung-burning sprints and quad-groaning climbs as we traveled up, down, and around Sugarloaf. Starting at 8 AM the following morning, we would have ten hours to collect eight checkpoints between start and finish.
Brent, Brian, Bill, and I headed out then for a quick dinner and a full night’s sleep in our own private tented cabin in the park’s campground. Kudos to Bill for that find!
The next morning, following a brief pre-race meeting, all participants congregated on the pedestrian bridge across the Yough River and got ready to run.
Lots of photos taken on the course, but so far only the pre-race and start shots are posted.
In keeping with custom, the race began with a 4-5 mile sprint for the first CP.
We’re tucked in behind the girl in zebra tights
Following the early surge, I settled in a few meters behind Brent and focused on finding a controlled, manageable pace. I generally hate these early sprint separators, that necessarily bring with them the bursts of adrenaline that threaten to give way to breathing issues, but this one went reasonably smoothly. A short time later, we returned to the TA, punched our second flag, jumped on our bikes, and began our first ascent up Sugarloaf.
I will say again that if you like tests of speed and strength, the Yough is a great race for you. For me, however, it proved to be a mental battle in the early hours of the race to commit to the day. It was our sixth (and shortest) race in 9 weeks, and my energy lagged as we climbed up and up the steep, technical trail.
Brent had said that it would be a 5-kilometer ascent, so when my odometer read 5k and there was no end in sight, I fought hard to ward off grumpiness. At 6k, I was getting desperate. At 6.5, I remembered that Brent had measured the 5k from the trailhead, rather than from the TA. At 7k, I finally caught a glimpse of the open field and the Sugarloaf warming hut, the site of CP 3.
We dropped our bikes, and as we took off on foot for the next section of the climb, Brent noted that his rear wheel was soft.
“We’ll need to change that when we get back,” he said.
But that was still a few hours away. Neither Brian nor I thought much of it.
The next CP sat near the summit of the mountain, and after a few kilometers on roads and trails, we hit it cleanly. From there, we had a decision to make. We could follow the rolling trails around to the boat put-in, or we could cut down the side of the mountain to a flat canal path, and run the remaining handful of kilometers to the next TA.
Bill was traveling with us at that point, and the four of us headed for the adjacent powerline and began the slow bush-whack down to the water. The descent was relatively moderate at first, but the further we went, the steeper it became. At times, we were sliding down the rock- and log-strewn cut at what seemed like a near 90-degree angle.
We grabbed hold of what we could and skidded our way along the mountainside, calling out for falling rocks and debris that had been dislodged in our travels.
Eventually, we reached the flat path and shook out our quads on the gentle run toward the boats. We reached the water at 11:30 AM and set off in our rubber duckies for a nine-mile paddle on the Middle Youghiogheny River.
The water was low, with the dry spring we’ve had, but the rapids were still moving and Brian navigated well through the class-II swells. Though the three of us had never paddled together before, we reached the take-out smoothly, hitting land at an hour and forty minutes, our fastest run to date in the Yough Extreme.
We made quick time back up the mountain, running the lion’s share of the climb and trekking when it got too steep. We were in third place at that point, second in the premiere division behind Team SOG, and we felt good about our prospects for a strong finish.
As they say, famous last words…
When we reached the TA, we discovered that in addition to Brent’s back wheel going soft, my front was completely flat. We changed Brent’s without incident, but when we went to swap out mine, the new tube wouldn’t inflate. We pumped it up and it went flat. We pumped it up again, and it again went flat. Brent shot it with a CO2 cartridge and it promptly deflated.
When Brent took it out of the tire and inspected it, he found a series of small punctures along the seam of the tube.
By this point, the storm that had been threatening was right on top of us. Rain poured down and thunder rolled as more and more teams began making their way to the TA.
Brent pulled out our final spare and handed it to Brian. I turned to Team SOG’s Dan and Kristen, racing as a coed-2 that day, to see if they had extra CO2.
That’s when Brian realized that the tube had a Schrader valve, incompatible with my Presta tires and our Presta pump.
We were sure our race was over. But somehow, no coed-3 teams were coming into the clearing.
Our friends of Team Gung Ho had reached the TA minutes earlier, and they generously offered us both a tube and more CO2. This time, we successfully changed the tire and ran our bikes across the field to join the crowd pushing up the steep ascent toward checkpoint 8, on the other side of the mountain.
We alternated riding and pushing for the next few kilometers along the saturated trails. When we reached the top, we hopped on and began pulling away from the teams around us – until my back tire skidded out on a wet branch, and I went flying off the bike, hitting my helmeted-head hard on the trail.
I was disoriented at first, but recovered soon enough and climbed back on my bike, taking stock of the bruises that were quickly popping up along the right side of my body.
We continued on and Brent deftly read the trails, leading us directly to the flag in the center of a park scout camp. We made our final turn and began a steep descent to the checkpoint, when I rode over a small log. As my front tire popped up, I heard an abrupt hiss, and I was thrown over my handlebars and chest-first into the right bank of the trail.
Brian, who’d heard the hiss from 15 meters away, ran back just as I was getting to my feet. Together, we discovered the fourth flat tire of the day.
I questioned whether the wheel’s flight on the turnpike had, in fact, caused damage to the tire. Brent was sure it was just bad luck.
With the flag only meters away, I walked my bike to the bottom of the trail, and we paused to consider our options.
“We could try patching the tire with duct tape,” Brent said.
“I think this one’s pretty much shot,” I said, rubbing my chest.
Brent leaned down to inspect it more closely. ”Well, here’s your problem,” he said, holding the tube by its valve.
Brian and I looked over to see that the valve had been completely sheared off.
This is what a Presta valve normally looks like:
This is my tube:
Our best guess is that the tire nicked the log.
Duct tape was not an option.
I opened my pack to pull out one of the already-punctured tubes, when several teams converged on the flag.
Bill didn’t have any spare tubes. Team Gung Ho was out, too. Solo racer John Miller had one left. Brian, who had raced with John the previous summer, pleaded for the tube.
“If you get a flat,” he said, “we’ll be coming up right behind you, and we’ll give it back to you.”
John generously pulled out his lone spare and Gung Ho gave us another canister of CO2.
We made a quick switch, all the while waiting for one of our coed-3 competitors to fly by. When we were set, we took off for the final climb up Sugarloaf, this time on roads. It was a quick and uneventful ascent, and when we reached the top, we elected to forego the more direct Baughman Trail in favor of the gentler, less thorn-riddle, Sugarloaf Trail.
It was a wet and messy ride down, and after two hard falls, I struggled to trust myself – and my bike – on the technical terrain. I started off slowly and cautiously, gradually gaining confidence as we continued to drop. We passed one team on the trail and were building momentum, when Brent came to an abrupt stop, less than a mile from the bridge where we’d begun that morning.
“Another flat!” he screamed. I wondered if the race staff could hear him cursing from the finish line.
Once again, we were stalled. Before long, though, the team we’d ridden by moments earlier approached, and miraculously, they had both CO2 and a 29-inch tube to spare.
Five minutes later, we were dropping our bikes in the TA and sprinting the final 100 meters into the finish, 8 hours and 40 minutes after we’d started.
Team SOG had finished nearly two hours earlier, but somehow, we’d managed to secure second place in the premiere division. It seemed that almost all of the coed-3 teams experienced problems of one kind or another that day.
As usual, the Yough Extreme was a race of strength and speed – but this year’s was also a race of mental fortitude and perseverance, and it was a profound affirmation of the generosity of the adventure racing community.
One of my favorite parts of adventure racing is the team dynamic; to race well, you need solid individuals and an even more solid group. But last Saturday reminded all of us that when someone is struggling, that group expands exponentially, and we all find ourselves on the same team.