So, where was I?
Ah yes, it was 3:00 Saturday morning. We’d just woken up in our lovely quarters at the Kingston, NY Super 8, and we had two hours to the start of registration for the New York Adventure Racing Association 2011 Longest Day.
I downed a bagel and a banana and tried to convince myself that two hours of sleep was more than enough to function during a 30-hour race. Hey, it was two hours more than I’d gotten the night before the start of Untamed last year, and that one turned out okay.
We arrived at the race start, the Catskills’ Belleayre Mountain ski resort, just before 5 AM, and before long had maps in hand to begin to put together a strategy for the day. At first glance, the course seemed reasonably straightforward. We would begin with a short separator before heading out on bike for a few hours on trails. From there, it was into the woods on foot for a long stretch of off-trail bushwhacking, ending on the banks of the infamous Esopus Creek for a couple hours of white water rafting. We’d be off the water by dark and back on our bikes; then we’d transition onto foot again for an overnight orienteering section that would lead us to the New York Zipline Adventures, home of the longest zipline in North America. Technically that’s where the race clock would stop, but to finish officially, we would need to trek a few miles to the final bike drop, and then ride the last 20 miles back to Belleayre. While there were a handful of mandatory checkpoints along the course, the bulk of the race was optional, so the finish would be decided as much by strategy and time management as it would by speed and navigation.
Longest Day, indeed.
As I’ve mentioned on here before, this is the first season where I’ve felt even reasonably competent in the adventure racing world. I’ve been training hard and racing well, and while Costa Rica is obviously the Big Show for 2011, this race was a close second for me in terms of expectations and excitement. I didn’t know how we’d stack up against the other teams in attendance or how I’d fare physically on what was sure to be a technical and demanding course, but I knew that it would provide a personal barometer for the progress I’ve made over the course of the last several months.
At 6:30 AM, teams congregated for a short pre-race meeting, and just after 7:00, we were off and running.
Well, running may be a bit of a stretch.
The separator turned out to be a short orienteering course at the base of the ski mountain. Teams were given two sets of maps with nine checkpoints plotted on each, and we could find them in any order and by whatever method we chose. Brent, navigator extraordinaire, took five of the points while Bruce and I tackled the remaining four. We got a bit turned around at the outset and took longer than anticipated to secure our set. By the time we returned to the start, Brent had been waiting for nearly 20 minutes, and most of the bikes had already left for the woods.
As has become the custom this season, GOALS ARA was off to a slow start.
We traded in our prologue passport for a new set of maps with several optional bike checkpoints already drawn on. At first, we’d intended to skip some of these early points in favor of focusing on the overnight foot section, but once Brent looked at the maps, he decided to change course (pun intended) and try to clear everything early on. The race didn’t seem clearable, but we didn’t want to get to the end with extra time and kick ourselves for missing out early on.
With Brent leading the way and me and Bruce following close behind, we knocked out those six optional bike points with ease. Brent was reading the terrain perfectly, and where we saw some teams struggling on the faint network of trails, he led us deftly from point to point, making up time with each punched flag.
That’s when the real fun began. The dreaded hike-a-bike. It was time to go over the mountain. We pushed, pulled, and carried our bikes up the 1,500-foot ski slope. The boys seemed to have no problems here, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to get myself and my bike to make forward progress with any degree of efficiency. Eventually, Bruce grabbed both my bike and his and pushed them up the mountain as I trudged along behind. That man is ridiculous.
When we reached the top, we were rewarded with a long twisty descent on single-track trails. There were a couple checkpoints along the way, but for the most part it was simply an exercise in reminding myself to lay off the brakes as I glided down the mountain. Even for someone who’s not a fan of fast technical riding, this stretch was a blast.
We hit the bottom and formed a pace line for the few additional miles to the TA. At this point, I was feeling great. I always worry about the bike legs, but we made it through the first section smoothly and were about to transition to foot, a consistent strength for our team. We traded in tights for trekking pants, pulled on our trail shoes, and set off into the woods.
There were four checkpoints for us to find – one mandatory and three optional – and we had about eight hours until the time cut-off at the boats. The race director had warned us that this section had taken him six hours to complete – and as he said, he knew where he was going – so we figured that unless we ran into problems, we should be fine.
The trek began with a long uphill climb and a handful of kilometers on trail before we ventured off onto a spur for some more technical navigation. We moved well through that stretch, running into several teams and admiring the lush Catskills woods.
“Are you having fun?” Brent asked somewhere between the second and third checkpoints, as we were climbing over giant rocks and through thick patches of stinging nettles.
“I really am,” I told him with a healthy dose of surprise. ”I was actually just thinking that last year, this sort of section would have killed me, but now I’m loving it.”
“I know,” he said. ”What a difference a year makes.”
With maps in hand, altimeter blazing, and compass at the ready, Brent led us to the third checkpoint with ease. We set out in search of the final flag, our spirits high.
It was somewhere during this stretch of bushwacking that I began to fall apart.
I couldn’t tell you exactly what happened. Maybe it was the heat, so different from previous races this season that were beset with cold and rain. Or it could have been the sun – minutes before the race began, I realized that we’d forgotten to apply sunscreen. I mentioned it to Brent but there was no time to remedy it. We figured we’d be protected in the shade, but we were pretty exposed on that first bike leg. It could also have been the lack of sleep the previous night, or the fact that I’d gotten my period hours earlier.
For whatever reason, I began to feel nauseous, and woozy. We were moving slowly enough through the dense terrain that I’m not sure anyone noticed at first, but I could tell something was off. We struggled to find the last checkpoint, wasting more than 20 minutes on the wrong rise before retracing our steps and finding the correct “boulder on a faint hilltop.”
I tried to snap myself out of it as we continued along, but all that was left was a sharp, off-trail, technical descent – the bane of my adventure racing existence (second only to tubing on the Esopus). I moved even more slowly than usual during that final stretch, and when we reached the bottom, I could barely put one foot in front of the other as we waded across a wide creek and shuffled into transition just after 4 pm.
This was the true test of the day. In 2009, our race ended at this very spot, when I failed my first two attempts at tubing down the river. In hindsight, maybe it was a good thing that I was feeling crummy at this point, because I didn’t give much thought to that earlier debacle as we loaded up our rafts, pulled on our PFD’s, and entered the water.
I’d never been whitewater rafting before and was given some cursory advice – stay in the boat and don’t stop paddling – but in general, I was in a haze for this entire section. At one point, Brent asked me a question (I have no idea what it was), and when I tried to respond, I could barely get the words out.
“You sound terrible,” he said.
“I feel awful,” I croaked, my voice slurred.
I held back tears as we continued down the river. There’s no way I can keep going for 20 more hours, I thought. I’ll never make it to the finish.
I may have said as much to Brent in the boat, or I may have waited until we hit land and headed into the TA. Normally, I’m a total chatterbox in transitions, especially when we’re there with friends from other teams. But this time I was silent, dreading the moment when I had to tell my teammates that I couldn’t go any further.
Finally, as Bruce began to ready the bike lights and Brent started to unload our bin, I pulled Brent aside.
“I’m not sure what’s going on, but I can’t keep going. I’ll never make it. I’m done.”
Cue the tears. Of course.
We chatted for a few minutes. He told me not to get so worked up. I told him he wasn’t hearing me. He told me it wasn’t worth getting frustrated with myself. I told him I wasn’t frustrated, I was just done. Back and forth we went. I have no idea whether Bruce knew what was going on, and I have no recollection of what Brent ultimately said to sway me, but eventually, we reached a compromise.
We would slow down a bit. We might even sleep for a few minutes here and there (unheard of in a one-day race). But we would keep going.
I wiped my eyes and began to gather my gear. I ate my wonderfully chewy Philly soft pretzel, and chatted with some of the other racers. ”First crying of the season,” I said to Denise, NYARA head honcho and a good friend. ”That’s gotta be some kind of record, right?”
We took our time getting onto our bikes, and were delayed a bit longer as Bruce tended to a flat tire, but eventually, we headed off into the dusk.
I wish I could say that I recovered right away, but really, the next ten hours were a slog. There was a physically challenging bike section that we chased with a navigationally frustrating trek. We paused twice so that I could close my eyes, and I know that we slowed down our pace. Ironically, I felt my best biking the long, rocky, technical descents, I think because my body and mind were so fully engaged that I couldn’t think about anything else.
It wasn’t until 5:30 in the morning that I really started to recover. The sun was beginning to rise and I’d just woken up from my second three-minute catnap. It was as though a flip had switched. The nausea passed, and I was hungry for the first time since the middle of the previous day. My legs uncramped, and I was able to jog. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a world away from where I’d been hours earlier.
We nabbed the final few checkpoints and made our way to the ropes for the last sections of the race. At that point, we knew that Team SOG was firmly in first place, but we had no real sense of who was behind them. We could have been in third place, or we could have been in sixth. The night hadn’t gone well for us – in terms of speed or navigation – but we didn’t know how anyone else had fared either.
We reached the top of Hunter Mountain at 7:30 AM and punched in. From here on out, there was no clock to check, no pace to push. We just had to zip down the mountain, climb back up, trek to the bikes, and ride to the finish. Piece of cake, right?
These last few hours were a bit of a blur. We waited in line for awhile, enjoying the company of other racers and the warmth of the rising sun. We zipped down five different lines to the base of the mountain (the first, at more than 3,000 feet, is billed as the longest and highest in North America – no race photos of this part yet but hopefully they got some good ones!).
We hiked back up and began the hour-long trek to our bikes, chatting with our friends, Tracey and Dave, and relishing in the fact that we were done pushing.
“Maybe the final bike leg is a fake out,” I said hopefully. ”Maybe there will be a mini-van waiting at the bottom to transport us back to the finish.”
It turned out, of course, that the ride back – and the one additional optional checkpoint on the way – were as real as the rest of the race. And though I was sort of dreading those miles when we got to the bikes, once we set off, Bruce, Brent, and I fell into a fast pace and enjoyed zipping along the quiet Sunday morning roads.
Still unsure of the final standings, we opted to go for that last CP, which entailed a 1,000 foot climb over two kilometers of dirt roads. After the first 500 meters, we hopped off and began to push up the steep ascent. Within a few minutes, though, I felt a sharp pinch at the base of my heel. The blister that had been forming all day had burst, and while it wasn’t a big deal, it became uncomfortable to walk, so I hopped back into the saddle and spun my way up the hill, waiting for the boys at the top so we could zoom down the final handful of miles to the finish.
We reached Belleayre right around 1 PM, almost exactly 30 hours after we’d begun. In the end, that final optional checkpoint (worth two points) turned out to be a good decision, as we squeaked in for a third-place finish by just one point.
It’s now two days since the race ended, and I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it.
The course was incredible – challenging and creative and seemingly perfectly executed. Hats off to Rodney, Amy, and the rest of the NYARA crew for another spectacular adventure in the woods.
On the team front, I think we were all happy with the outcome, particularly after the trials of the night.
And personally? Well, I’m disappointed with my physical performance, but proud that (with a little bit of help) I was able to mentally push through. I wish I’d been a better teammate during the rough patches, but I’m glad I didn’t let my teammates down completely by dropping out. I’m nervous for the challenges that Costa Rica is sure to hold, but I feel stronger for pushing through the challenges that the Longest Day presented.
After the 2009 Longest Day, I wrote that it was a remarkable day. “We may not have had an official finish,” I said, “but I’m not sure I could have asked for a better race. I was reminded that even as a relative newbie to the adventure race world, I feel incredibly connected to the community, and love that every race feels like a mini-reunion. And I proved to myself that with some more work, I may actually be half decent at this sport. As Denise said in her post-race facebook update, there were some “BAMF racers” out there on the course. I’m proud to count myself among them.”
It’s funny, two years later, that tried-and-true cliche holds strong: the more things change, the more they stay the same.