Monday, June 11, 2012

Mountain Man Adventure Race

A few weeks ago I got an email, inviting me and anyone else I could round up from the Reality Bikes mountain bike team to participate in the bike and trek events of the Mountain Man Adventure Race Series this past Sunday. Hmmm... Running around in the woods, followed by riding around in the woods... Those are two of my favorite things. With my family out of town, except Iz, who certainly wouldn't want to sit around all day while I screwed off in the woods, I wasn't sure if the timing would work out or not, so I put the idea on the back burner, but with the date approaching, and my mom in town unexpectedly, things appeared to be taking a turn in the general direction of adventure. I signed up.

The day before I'd gotten a good warm up, crawling around all over Jones Creek but I'd also gotten eaten alive by chiggers. My god, it was bad. I probably had 20 or more bites. Iz, as it turned out, had even more, as she was wearing tights and a form-fitting shirt, and if there are two things that chiggers love, it's tights and a form-fitting shirt. I didn't yet know this because my mom had picked her up the night before, but looking at myself in the mirror, I could only imagine how bad she'd gotten it, and wondered if exposing her to that many bugs could be considered child abuse.

There was nothing I could do about it now though, and chiggers or not, I had a mission ahead of me, jumped in my car and tore ass up to Dawson Forest.

The misty morning fog was still hanging around as I neared the parking lot.

 Misty Morning

And then it hit me... I'd written myself a note: "Get a watch and cash" and stuck it between my wallet and phone. In fact, I even had the note in the car with me, and yet, I'd still failed to follow its instructions. This is the level of intelligence I'm working with here. Woohoo! It was 6AM though, and I had plenty of time to drive all the way back to within 3 miles of my house, the nearest place you can pick up a watch, and then drive all the way back another 15 miles out to Dawson forest.

I didn't know if I'd need the watch or not, but I've only done two adventure races before and in the first one it was assumed that you'd have one, and not having one put me at a serious disadvantage. I picked up the cheapest watch they had.

 Cheap Watch

Hey, it tells time, right? That's all I needed.

Check-in was familiar, very much like a mountain bike race.


That was about where the similarities ended though.

I received a map with checkpoints all over...


It was so familiar, yet still so foreign. I usually have a map with me when I'm screwing off in the woods, but not when I'm racing, and my maps are usually far less detailed. You know that dream where you show up to the wrong class in high school but you don't realize it at first. I kept having that feeling. I kept having to fight the urge to take my bike down off the roof. It was great actually. It's been too long. I've been needing this.

We assembled for the pre-race meeting and Ben gave us the run-down.


The Mountain Man AR series is really targeted toward beginners like myself, the race is short, course is small, the checkpoints are relatively easy to find, and before the start we all got a crash course in navigation and a couple of hints.

During all of this, a dog was running around the lot. I think it was the most friendly dog I've met in the last year or two.

 Friendly Dog

It would find a stick, walk up to the nearest person, drop the stick and smile, in so much as a dog can smile, prancing about, barely able to control it's excited anticipation. This was so cute that virtually everyone would throw the stick and then the dog would bring it back to someone else. I'm not sure if it was taught to do this or if it figured it out on its own, but that dog had the perfect game plan. He did all the work for you and didn't bother you more than once every 5 or 10 minutes.

Best strategy ever.

The trek event was first. I'd planned my route, I was ready to go, I hoped I knew what I was getting into but I had no illusions about coming in anywhere but dead last. This was actually somewhat comforting. No pressure.

You know that guy though, that shows up to the bike race with the flat pedals, baggy shorts and 100oz camelback, doesn't know any better and hasn't accumulated enough experience to even recognize the differences between himself and the other racers? That was me. Looking around, everyone looked vaguely different from me, but I couldn't distinguish any way that they looked similar to each other. I couldn't even tell who was experienced and who was a rookie. I was certain that I looked out of place but I couldn't tell my how much. I was out of my element. And again, it felt good - something I've been needing.

"Bearing 266 degrees! 400 yards. Go!"

I know how to follow a bearing but all I really had to do was follow the thundering herd. And I do mean follow. I've been running as much as I can bring myself to run for the past year or more now but my idea of running is nothing compared to someone who actually "runs" for real. I was at the back and glad to reach the trees. Apparently I'm better than average at bushwhacking though because I was among the leaders when we popped out into a clearing on the other side. A kid was waiting there with our passports and the race had begun in earnest.

I needed to get on track. I swear that the most difficult thing sometimes, is figuring out exactly where you are when you first take off into the woods. Parking areas seem to be built in the most convenient places - ie. the most flat, featureless places. Once you're in the woods, there's terrain everywhere to compare to the map but in the lot, you could be anywhere within a half inch by half-inch square on the map and with all the trails converging at the lot, it's easy to end up on the wrong one.

I bushwhacked a bit, got on the wrong trail heading north and rather than head south and try to pick up the trail I wanted to be on, figured I could just whack over to it. This worked out fine for about 300 yards but then I had to cross several 6 foot deep trenches. Lord only knows what their purpose was.

The whole area was once owned by the Air Force. They were tinkering with a nuclear reactor out there for some reason. The building they housed it in still stands, overgrown and cordoned off by a fence. Other than that, all that's left are the foundations of the other buildings, dirt roads and the piers of a couple of old bridges.

Whatever their purpose had been, the trenches served now only to thwart my advance. I never found a definitive trail where the map said there should have been one but I did find my way to the road that I wanted to take that trail to. Just as good.

Checkpoint 1 was at a bridge just to the north. To punch my card, I had to climb out on a section of an old support and haul the flag up by the rope it was suspended from. Either that or find some way down to the bottom of the bridge. Screw that, I hauled up the rope. I figured, if I fell, worst case, I could grab on to the rope, it looked pretty sturdy.

I jogged up the road to the next intersection, bushwhacked up to the ridge from there and hit the trail again. I traded probably half a mile of trail-running for a quarter mile of marching. It felt like a good trade. It's hard to say though, I have no idea what I'm doing really.

CP2 was across a power line cut from the trail and the cut was 100% blackberry bushes from one side to the other. Where I stood, they were taller than me by about 3 feet. Certainly at least one other team had come through already, and if not, the guy that placed the flag probably had. I searched north until I found where it looked like somebody had gone before. The thorns were only about waist high there and I made it through, but still, I got absolutely shredded. I don't think I've ever been as badly shredded as I currently am. The only plus was that there were thousands of blackberries on hand and I was able to pick and eat them almost perpetually without slowing down in the slightest.

The next couple of checkpoints were directly on the trail. If I'd wanted to, I could have just followed the trail around in a big loop, but there were plenty of opportunities to short cut it and I did that where I could. As I suck unbelievably at running, I hoped to make up for it by taking these short cuts, and they appeared to pay off. There was a team behind me that ran the entire route, staying almost entirely on-trail, and in the end, I beat them though they were decidedly stronger and faster than me.

There was one slightly challenging spot where somebody had done a ton of pit-mining and the terrain looked substantially different than the topo as a result, but all I needed to do was go north, so in the end it was a non-issue.

At the second to last checkpoint, I had to swim across the Etowah and climb between some big sheets of rock to find the flag.

The last checkpoint was in a field and the map showed a linear clearing leading directly back to the finish. I never found the clearing and bushwhacked through a near-featureless swamp of bamboo and tick weed taller than me until I hit the road not 200 yards from the finish. How I didn't get covered in ticks and die of exsanguination in the woods, I can't explain.

Well, I didn't come in DFL overall, just in my category. A couple of co-ed and female-only teams were still out on the course when I came in, and I even had 45 minutes to spare.

I probably ran 4 of the 7 miles, never more than a quarter mile at a time. Man, I'm a terrible runner. It's almost embarrassing. Actually, no, there's no probably, it is embarrassing.

The bike event started a few hours later and I ate, drank, dried out, changed clothes, rearranged some equipment and put the bike together.


I felt a bit more confident about this event. This is me, a bit more confident:

 A Bit More Confident

See, I'm wearing bike clothes and wearing them comfortably. I even have my glasses shoved into those little vent holes in the helmet. That's pro.

Shortly before the start I had to refactor my entire route. All roads not coincident with a marked trail were off-limits. You could potentially walk and carry your bike but you could not ride them. Every checkpoint except 3 and 8 was along the trail. 3 was way up some drainage near a waterfall. 8 was way up in the middle of nowhere across the Etowah river and now even more so since the roads were off-limits.

At the start, we had to chase down the same kid who had our passports for the trek. He ran slowly but not so slowly that it was easy to catch him in bike shoes after already running all morning.

I passed most of the teams during the first two miles though and attacked the course like it was an actual bike race. Another team was slightly ahead of me when I got to the waterfall and if all went well, I thought I might be able to pull them in.

They were apparently following the same strategy that I was - a lasso-shaped route with an out-and-back to pick up that flag on the other side of the river. We both had to cross the river twice though, without the benefit of a ford. There was allegedly somewhere that you could cross that was only knee deep. If there was, I didn't find it.

 Etowah Crossing

(photo by Charles Oswald)

Charles was down there taking photos of us. The river was actually deeper than that. I had to lean my head back to keep my nose above the water.

A canoe was coming down river just as I was getting in. I explained what I was up to but it still must have seemed surreal to them.

As I climbed up the opposite bank, I noticed several cables secured into the bank as makeshift steps. Apparently I'm not the only one who's gone down to the river there, though the cables looked really, really old.

On the other side I had to bushwhack about 100 yards to the trail but from there I could ride.

Crossing back wasn't any easier. In fact, it was more difficult getting in. I spent a lot of time crossing. In retrospect, if I'd looked a little harder for a better spot to cross, I might have saved some time.

The rest of the bike event was straightforward. All the flags were on the trail. My bike got extremely muddy but that Pro-Gold that my buddy Bruce is pimping these days is the real deal. I started chain-sucking, applied it once and had zero problems for the rest of the ride.

At one point I ran into a trio of equestrians. The lead rider was a young girl, probably 8 or 9, with a broken wrist. A lame joke about "getting back on the horse" began to form in my mind, but nothing sufficiently clever materialized and I refrained.

Not much further up the trail I started running into riders who'd opted for a clockwise loop.

Near the end I had to stop and find the flag for Checkpoint 2. I'd passed it on the way out, figuring if I didn't just see it, then I'd find it on the way back since I'd have to ride directly back by it. It was fairly well hidden and really only directly visible from the return direction.

I did a little better on the bike event. 5th I think. Not too bad, though it might have been 5th out of only 6 or 7 teams. I'm not sure yet.

I sucked on the run and I did OK on the bike, but the biggest mistake I made all day was nutrition. I've got it dialed for 6 hour bike races, but when I'm playing around on the weekend, I eat very differently and I pretty much only drink water. This thing had the feel of "playing around on the weekend" and I ate and drank as if it were, rather than as if I were racing, which would have been more appropriate. I'll have to work on that next time.

Actually, that might not have been my biggest mistake. We were allowed to bring phones with us in case of an emergency but if we turned them on, we were disqualified. That was fine with me, so I brought mine, and then submerged it in the Etowah for like 8 minutes total before realizing what I'd done.

I left it off though, took it apart when I got home (the warranty is way expired and voided by the submersion anyway), dried it out as thoroughly as I could, put it under a warm lamp all night and reassembled it this morning. It turned on, then the screen went blank. Apparently it still worked though, the backlight was just dead. Then a while later it wouldn't even turn on any more. I managed to get the photos I'd taken off but that was it. Today, the cheapest route was to upgrade to the new iPhone 4s. Lifeproof makes an actual, no-kidding, waterproof case too, so I bought one of those. $300. The costliest mistake I've made in a while, and at a truly inopportune time. Man, when it rains, it pours.

Still, the race was fun. I need real running shoes though, and whatever clothes people usually wear. I need to actually become a runner too, to be competitive. It might take a few years. In the mean time, I'll probably do a few more of these, and probably suck, but enjoy it either way.

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