Sunday, December 6, 2009

Bull Mounain Mock Adventure Race

Yesterday, I did the Mock Adventure Race at Bull Mountain. It was my first adventure race. Greg and Zach, the race director and president of TBARC respectively, were very accommodating to my noviceness. Thanks so much guys.

The start/finish was at a camping area near Winding Stair Gap. It was snowing and about 29 degrees when I arrived.

 Snowy Parking Area

There were remnants of a bunch of old buildings all around the camp. I'd seen them before, but that was way back before I paid any attention to such things. Was it a farm? An old lodge? A CCC camp? Whatever it was, it wasn't built too terribly long ago. What's left is all concrete and brick.

 Winding Stair Gap Ruins

There were 3 parts to the course; a west trek, a bike loop and an east trek. The west trek and bike checkpoints were already plotted on the map. Greg handed out the coordinates of the east trek checkpoints right before the start. You could plot them whenever you want, but you had to start the trek from bike checkpoint 4.

I don't remember what logic I used, but I decided to do the bike loop and east trek first, return to the start, then do the west trek in the dark.

I dressed in my cold weather Freddie Mercury kit: a bright red knicker-bib, red fleece jersey and red fleece jacket, emblazed with BOR logos and green fire. The other racers were wearing black tights and solid color jackets. I'm so used to the cycling crowd, I forget how crazy our gear looks when removed from that environment. But, hey, I know that kit works well in the cold, so I went with it.

The race started with a short prologue. We ran up the road and through the woods to the top of a little knob, picked up our passports and ran back to the start/finish. I say "we ran", but really I mean that everybody else ran. I ran about 100 yards and those muscles that you use to lift the front of your foot started hurting really bad. They'd given me problems on the last day of hiking in the smokies so they're probably just overworked, but man was it painful. I was worried my race was already over, but on the bike, you don't use those muscles at all. Maybe if I pushed through it, they'd recover before the trek sections.

I was dead last getting back to the start, but I passed the other bike riders in minutes. The bike loop went from Winding Stair to Hightower and down FS69 to Frozen Branch. CP1 was supposed to be at Frozen Branch. I jumped off and looked for it for about 5 minutes, then Greg came driving up. He'd forgotten to hang it. Hah! I climbed Frozen Branch to Williams Gap to pick up CP2. The ribbons were there, but the punch was gone. CP3 was way up Frank Creek, and fortunately, it was actually there.

Halfway down to Gaddistown, I had to brick it up big time. I stopped on the east side of a little knob, and just my luck, a guy and his son came driving down the road at 3 miles an hour, right then. I was able to cover up with my jacket, but I still got some funny looks.

My chain started sucking on the climb up FS15. It was so cold and wet that the links were freezing in a kinked position and getting jammed. I juiced it with Tri-Flow, but it didn't help much. CP4 was at Cooper Gap. There was also a clipboard that you had to use to sign in and out for the east trek. At the top of the paper, it said "Time". I needed to put the time of day on the clipboard. I guess I should have brought a watch or something. I guesstimated using the sun, but it was so cloudy, I could really only tell which gigantic cloud the sun was behind. 1:15 maybe? That's what I put down.

I plotted the east trek points. One was on a footbridge near Devil's Kitchen, another was at the top of a knob near Deep Gap and the third was on top of Hogback Mountain. No problem. I stashed my bike down the hill southeast of Cooper Gap and took off. I'd originally considered bringing my hiking shoes, but they're heavy, and when I go exploring the woods, I hike for miles in my bike shoes. I can't run in them, but I can't run anyway, so that didn't matter. I walked down FS42, took Deep Gap Road, picked up the first 2 checkpoints, ran into some other racers on the way back, found out what time it really was, bushwhacked up to Hogback, picked up the third and walked back up the road to Cooper Gap. My shin muscles didn't give me any problems. It looked like I'd be ok for the west trek later.

The other racers had done the bike loop backwards from me. I'm not exactly sure why I didn't do it that way. It just felt right to do it the way I did. I wasn't afraid of climbing Winding Stair, but everybody else I talked to that day said they did it the other way to avoid that climb. It might have been faster the other way. Hmmm.

My front tire felt a little soft. It would need some attention, but I could ride it for a while. At the Black Falls Trail, I changed the tube and wrapped up a spoke that had popped on my rear wheel. My front brake felt like it needed to be bled too. Man, why did my bike pick today to explode?

CP5 was at False Black Falls. I wish I'd brought my camera because the falls looked stunning. I made sure to take the trail along Montgomery Creek proper rather than the one that leads way up to the north end of the loop. CP6 was on Montgomery Creek, but I had trouble finding it because the map said it was at a gate, but the gate is actually a bit further down the trail. I passed a ton of racers going the other way around and after CP6. CP7 was at the intersection of No-Tell and FS28A. I just took FS28 down to 28A and climbed it rather than taking No-Tell. Again, it just felt right. CP8 was the ammo box on top of the knob just east of PR Gap. Climbing Winding Stair, I passed a dozen folks who'd done the west trek, given up and headed home. Apparently the west trek was really hard, and only had 6 checkpoints. I'd already gotten 11, easily. Maybe I'd picked the right strategy. Climbing Winding Stair was no big deal, though I didn't exactly stomp it out. It may have been faster to go the other way.

Back at the truck, I changed clothes for the west trek. I still didn't look like the other racers, but hey, whatever. I'd picked up some bagels and a cherry Dr. Pepper at the gas station on the way up that morning. I still had one bagel and half the DP, so I took those with me as well. The bike loop had taken a bit out of me, but after the feast, I felt right again.

The west trek checkpoints looked like they were all out in the middle of nowhere. I had about 4 hours left, and I could kind-of visualize a lasso-shaped route between them... Eventually, I decided to just to go for two or three and get back as soon as possible. There was still snow on the ground, and you could clearly see where folks had gone earlier that day. I ended up half-navigating, half just following footprints. Unfortunately people who got lost, also left footprints and I ended up following some of those. Navigating at night is a lot different than navigating in the day. You can't see terrain features at all, and turning on the light just makes it worse. After stumbling around for an hour, I finally figured out what I needed to do, but I wasn't confident I could do it, and I wasn't sure how much time I had left.

So that was it. I bailed back to the start/finish and hoped my 11 checkpoints would be an OK showing. When I got back, it was 7:30. I still had 2 more hours, but I honestly don't think I'd have been able to find a single checkpoint in that time.

Greg and his buddies had an awesome fire going and they were cooking "15 bean soup" over it. They offered me some and man it was good; spicy like gumbo, with a little ham in it. Definitely a one-of-a-kind moment, like drinking hot chocolate on top of Mount LeConte. Something I'll remember for a long time.

Other racers arrived steadily until the 9:30 cutoff. The one guy who could potentially clear the course still hadn't made it back at 10 when I left. I can't be certain, but it looked like I either tied for third, or at least ended up in the top 5. Not too bad for my first race.

I learned so many things, I hope I remember all of the things that I learned. I need to keep the map and compass handy, like around my neck, rather than in my pocket. I need a red light that won't kill my night vision. I need to learn how to navigate at night. I need to run, run, and run until I can actually run. I've got the cardio, but my running muscles are weak. I need a light, the one I borrowed from Greg was awesome, but it sucks to have to borrow a light. Also, I relied very heavily on knowledge of the area and trails. I may not be able to do so much of that in the future.

On the upside, the weather was nothing. I wasn't cold and it didn't give me any problems except for some minor chain suck, and even that was no big deal. My strategy was ok too. I think I got all of the checkpoints I could possibly have gotten. I might have gone the other way on the bike, but I'm not really sure about that. I'd have spent a lot more time climbing that way, even though the climbs were shallower.

I've still got the map from the race. I'd like to get back out there soon and see if I can navigate to those west trek checkpoints. I think I'm hooked now too. I'm not sure where I'll fit them in, but if there are more 12 hour trek/bike races, I'll give them a try.

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