A Race Report: The Longest Day Adventure Race in New York
This weekend I spent 24 hours struggling to complete an Adventure Race in the beautiful woods of upstate New York. It is aptly called “The Longest Day”.
Briefly, an adventure race is looking for checkpoints based only on a topographic map and a few hints arranged in such a way as to require a combination of outdoor activities, such as paddling, biking, and trekking. You prove you have found the checkpoint by using a coded punch to poke a pattern of holes in a “passport” you carry with you. Like any competition of this kind, physical condition is important, but more than most this is a mental game because getting lost is so easy and so time-expensive. In particular, after the fatigue of a full day’s athletic exertion and working into the night in the rain, keeping track of where you might be on the map is a much harder than it is when you are fresh and the sun is up.
Although it is perhaps more a mental sport than a physical one, I had never spent so many hours with an elevated heart rate as I did in this day. I am reasonably fit but have a thick frame to begin with and am overweight; hauling my ass up those mountains was a challenge. My race partner, my good friend Bert Rothenbach, is much fitter than I — I’m afraid I slowed him down a lot.
The first leg was an 8-mile paddle in a pack raft. You had to first carry the raft a mile; I trotted for some of it. We had practiced inflating our rafts, and so put in efficiently and a little ahead of the middle of the pack. But quickly I fell behind; my weight and inexperience paddling dragged me back. I was exerting myself fully, breathing hard, but Bert was lazily paddling effortlessly — one of the rules is that the team must stay together, so we could not take advantage of his strength here.
We then began (about 45 minutes late) a 40-mile bike leg. Much of this was on easy-to-ride rail trails through beautiful country. Eventually, however, we we had to look for several mandatory markers hidden in a forest of a much rougher trails. I had never ridden a mountain bike with a front suspension before, nor ever tried to ride on trails this rough — there were cabbage-sized boulders in the trail fairly often. I was quite nervous about falling. In many places I hopped off and pushed my bike where Bert and other more experienced competitors could have ridden straight through.
Much of adventure racing is the art of navigation — deciding when to use a trail and when to go through the woods or “bushwhack” as it is called. If you do this with a bike, this is called “bikewhacking”. Bert and I decided to bikewhack about 100 meters across a steep gully. It was very strenuous; the woods were dense, rootsy, and steeply inclined — about 70 degrees, enough that you could definitely fall down the slope. Bert had to help me with my bike. Eventually, after intense effort, we may have saved 15 or 20 minutes against competitors who used the trails.
As we were riding, Bert had found a rail trail that was the next part of the bike leg. You had to haul your bike up 12 feet onto it. I was on an overpass there when I saw another team below me that were clearly looking for the rail trail we were on and not seeing it. I hailed them to give them a clue; they asked if I was no the trail. I said “It looks like a rail trail to me” because I thought it was the correct place, and we needed all the karma we could get. I didn’t want to assert more certainty than I really had. It is not uncommon for teams to help each other, which is allowed by the rules. I think perhaps those teams trying to place may not be so friendly, but most competitors will give assistance to other teams.
We got to a transition area at about 7:00 pm. The next leg was a 12-mile trek in the dark over terrain similar or worse than what we had bushwhacked earlier. The race coordinators had wisely put a 7:30 pm cutoff for leaving in place. Although technically we could have tried, I was nearly exhausted. I told Bert I was at about 85% fatigue and we decided not to try that leg. This meant we wouldn’t place and may even have disqualified us; we were not really concerned with the rules at that point.
But we had to decide: bail completely out of the race or do the final leg? We decided to try, even though I was very fatigued and not at all sure I could make it. My desire not to disappoint Bert and my hope of finishing the race overcame my fear of riding in the night and the rain and the hard trekking climb after that.
We had about a 3 hour wait to be moved with our bikes to the start of the next leg. During this time, several teams who had started the difficulty leg came back down and said it was so rough it was impassable in the dark — at least to them. I ate and drank as much as I could and started to feel better. When we were finally transported to the next transition area and allowed to start, about 12:30 at night, we discovered my bike had a flat. We had a spare tube and installed it twice before realizing it had a defective stem. This had burned about an hour. Luckily, we met a team that was abandoning the race completely and had come to the transition area to get their gear; we asked them for help and they generously donated a proper inner tube to us — perhaps the wheel of karma had turned. It took another 30 minutes to get it properly installed and we were on our way.
This leg was truly downhill for 10 miles — I had to ride my brake most of it. I know a more confident rider could have gone faster, but it was dark and raining. Also, the leopard frogs were getting busy — there were hundreds of them and we had to dodge them occasionally as we rode. I didn’t want to add to the hundreds that had already been smashed — karma is a bitch. I normally wear eyeglasses but of course in the rain on a bike they are problematic. We had strong headlights, which made it look like we were riding through clouds of golden sparks against a backdrop of shiny black asphalt.
Only the last mile and a half of that ride was uphill, but it made me further exhausted. It was now 3:00 am. Having been delayed by the tire, we were all alone in the next transition area, except for a gentle race assistant named Bruce. I think he sensed that I was in distress, because he encouraged us to rest a few minutes, helped us stow our bikes and cut my headlight off my helmet (it was zip-tied on), and encouraged Bert to carry my hydration bladder for me. I acceded to this, since I knew we would finish faster by lightening my load.
In fact, I was nauseous and couldn’t get down a nutrition bar. The last leg was relatively easy — a mere 6-mile trek in the dark with a 2000 foot elevation gain and descent. I told Bert I would have to rest, but we could surely finish it by the 9:00 am cut-off time. In fact, I rested about 15 times on the way up; whenever my heart rate would get too high or my breathing too hard I would stop for two minutes until it slowed. After a while, I started to feel better; I guess it could have gone either way.
Eventually, we made it to the top of the little mountain, just as the sun was coming up. A fog and mist had turned the forest into a spooky fairy land looking down on an ivory ocean, but I knew now we would finish the legs we had undertaken.
As I descended slowly, with trekking poles on the slippery rocks, a couple that had completed the big trek that we had skipped passed us. We chatted briefly, but they were moving twice as fast as I was. The woman said they had to boulder in a crevasse to get through. We clearly made the correct decision not to attempt that leg. (We later learned one person had gotten dehydrated and had to be rescued — I have no idea how they were rescued.) We finally made our way to ski slopes above the finish line, which were steep but easy walking, and walked down to the finish.
We reached the finish slightly ahead of the couple that had passed us. You may ask: how could we be ahead of them when they were so much faster? Adventure races typically have optional checkpoints that you can find, which give you more points at the end. The points determine the winner, not the time of crossing the line (though there are severe penalties for being late.) No doubt as we were walking down they had gotten one or two optional checkpoints, boosting their score but lengthening their trek.
We took dead last of the teams that finished. However, if you count the teams that started, our legitimate finish made us 26th out of 38. It was a good race. I’m very glad I did it; I learned a lot. I feel lucky to have been able to do it.