Saturday, November 25, 2006


30 hours, 6 minutes, 45 seconds is how long it took me and my team to finish my first-ever 24-hour adventure race a couple of weeks ago.

it was hard.

we covered about 125 miles, climbed about 17,000 feet, got rained on, frozen, didn't sleep, smelled really bad, and finished third.

it was UNBELIEVABLY fun and i fully plan to win one at some point.

the full, boring, and very long details are below.

(if none of the terms i use make sense, there are definitions here).


The day got off to an inauspicious start with a barn owl committing complicated suicide by flying through the wheels of several of the bikes on the roof before wedging itself into mine.
And it was raining. Ugh.

We were on our way to the start of the Gold Rush 24 Hour Challenge in the Sierra foothills and I was excited and apprehensive; it was my first 24 hour race, the weather wasn't looking good, and I'd slept very poorly the night before.

On the other hand, we had a great team; our navigator Oliver Pohl was a very experienced athlete, Donato Polignone (DP) had been racing for years, and Mari Chandler was known to be blisteringly fast, in addition to which she got big points for signing up for her second 24 hour race ever with 3 guys she'd never even officially met. I was the only weak link and hoped I was up to the challenge. Jonathan Owens, another very experienced racer was crewing for us, despite having a broken rib, so we were all set.

The course had 28 CPs and looked long; as Oliver was planning the route (with me watching over his shoulder to see how it was done) he mumbled something about it looking more like a 30 hour race than a 24.

The rain let up just before the start (although it looked ready to start again any second), and a few minutes after 8:00 a.m. we were off!

We started off with a short trek with 2 CPs, the first of which was on top of a steep hill less than a mile away. To get there we had to run across the shoreline of a lake which was covered with ankle-breaking rocks, and I slipped, fell, and cut myself almost immediately. As my teammates helpfully pointed out, I was now officially having fun.

We bushwhacked up the side of the hill, my heartrate maxing out, did a short class 4 scramble and found CP1. Back down the other side of the hill, through a campground, out across the dry lake bed and across a very muddy creek and we had CP2.

Back towards the start now, with the rain starting again and people pulling on jackets we hit the shore of the lake where the boats were, punched CP3, and started putting on our paddling gear.

Despite the fact that we were only 100 meters from the start this was an unassisted TA. We'd had to lay out everything beforehand, and weren't allowed to leave anything behind even though Jonathan was right there and eager to help.

We hit the water about 8 minutes after True Grit and 1 minute before Thin Air and got to work. Within a few minutes Thin Air came flying past us in their beautiful wooden triple, while we wallowed along in our plastic doubles like bath toys.

About 45 minutes into the paddle we had to beach the boats and trek to 2 CPs, both of which were up above the lake. As we made our way up the fire road that snaked along the hillside we looked for other teams coming back and didn't see any, but caught the occasional glimpse of Thin Air ahead of us.

All of a sudden they disappeared, and we started looking around in the very thick brush for CP4. It wasn't there, and now teams were coming up behind us, but they weren't finding it either. After thrashing around for far too long, Oliver headed back down the hill a bit, and there it was, right where it was supposed to be. We'd pay for that little debacle later, but in the meantime we had to get to CP5.

That was no problem, and we traveled with Team Big Bear to the CP (and were able to see Thin Air already far out on the lake) and back to the boats.
We were in the water before Big Bear, but after a bunch of other teams, and before too long Big Bear came steaming past us.

DP and I were in one boat, and Mari and Oliver in another, and DP and I couldn't keep up with them. The paddle is my weakest discipline, but this was a little ridiculous. Eventually, tired of lollygagging around, Oliver put a towline on our boat and things went better, mostly because the towline helped us stay in the wake of their boat.

The rest of the paddle was uneventful except for some rain, and we actually managed to pass another team on the way to CP6 where we would leave the boats for good. Before we could do that though, several things had to happen; we wouldn't hit another TA for about 12 hours, during which time we'd bike, hit the ropes course, trek, ropes again, and then bike, so we had to pack climbing gear, trekking shoes, food for 12 hours, and clothing to keep us warm after nightfall, and the temperatures would drop quite a bit as the storm moved through and the clouds cleared. But before we could even get on the bikes, we had to get them across the lake, and there were rules: our crew person was only allowed to cross the lake once each way.

Jonathan figured that the quickest way to do it would be to put two bikes on the bow of each boat, held by the person in the front cockpit, while the person in the back paddled. Drop off the bikes and the front people, paddle the boats back, pick up Jonathan, back again to drop off the two racers, and then Jonathan towed one boat back across.

It worked pretty well, and it was interesting to see how other teams did it; some had a raft that they put the bikes on and towed (how'd they know to bring a raft?) and a couple just tied a line to the boats, paid it out from the shore, and pulled the boats back once they were empty. That worked really well until a power boat came along and severed the lines.

Eventually we were on the correct side of the lake, packs bulging with clothing, lots of teams ahead of us, and bikes ready to... hike-a-bike. We were in a river canyon, and the terrain was by turns sandy, rocky, sketchy, muddy, and sandy. We rode where we could and were able to pass a few teams and eventually the canyon opened up a bit and we hit a fire road. We blasted along that, following the river until we came to another stream we had to cross, and there was Team Big Bear.

They got across the stream before us and were out of sight by the time were all on the other side. After a fairly short ride we found ourselves at the ropes section, with two teams already waiting. We punched CP7, put on our climbing gear and trekking shoes and got in line.

This was where we paid for the delay in finding CP4 as we ended up just waiting around for about 40 minutes for our turn on the ropes.

The ropes section was a scramble (assisted by a rope with an ascender) up to the top of a cliff, followed by a rappel back down. The scramble was no problem but the rocks were covered with moss and wet from the rain which had started again, and we were glad to have the ascenders.

At the bottom of the rappel we punched CP8, stashed our climbing and biking gear in garbage bags and headed back down the way we'd come in, on foot this time.

We retraced our steps back to the stream crossing, and turned to follow it up the canyon, and this is where things got really good.

The trail was a very faint (and invisible in places) single track that followed the wall of the canyon; it wove through chaparral, stands of oak, river-bottom brambles, alders with leaves the color of hot iron, hazelnuts burnished a rich gold, and the occasional aspen radiating yellow light into the gathering dusk.

Along the way we caught and passed Team Big Bear, passed a couple of abandoned mining sites and homesteads and eventually hit a fire road, where we bumped into team Mojo coming the other way.

CP9 was right where it was supposed to be, and we headed off for CP10. We had to cross a stream to get there, and after we scouted up and down for a place to cross, Mari picked a shallow section and sloshed to the other side. The rest of us chickened out and found another place but still got wet, although I managed to keep one foot dry.

We continued up the fire road in the gathering dusk, Mari and I a little in front chatting about this and that, and keeping an eye on the tracks Mojo had left in the soft road surface. We caught and passed them near the top of the climb and continued on towards CP10 as it got dark. CP10 wasn't where we thought it should be, and Mojo passed us as we looked around in the brush for it, but we realized soon enough that we hadn't gone far enough, trekked another couple of hundred meters and there it was.

CP11 was back at the ropes course, mostly downhill from where we were, so we picked up the pace and bit and headed down. And down, and down, and down. The descent was steep, rutted, littered with loose rock, and felt like it went on forever. My left knee, which I'd been worried about, fulfilled my worries and I felt the beginnings of the tendonitis which I'd thought had healed.

By the time we hit the bottom I was pretty uncomfortable and a little worried about being able to finish the trek without shredding my knee. Fortunately the the trail was flat (we were re-tracing a portion of the bike from the end of the paddle to the ropes) and that seemed to feel ok.

We hit the ropes (CP11), scrambled to the top, rapped back down, got our bike gear on and headed up the canyon. The trail was rocky and technical and we spent a lot of time hopping on and off our bikes. At one point I went down hard; we weren't going fast but it still hurt. I managed to spear myself in the hamstring with my handlebars, my right shin was trapped between two rocks and got really badly bruised, and something (I wasn't sure what) really bad happened to my right wrist. A few minutes of walking and hopping in circles and making breathy screaming noises and we were on our way again. The next time we got off the bikes I managed to slam the bruised section of my shin against a boulder and screamed like a baby.

After another bout of hopping in a circles and cursing I was ready to go, and shortly the single track opened up into a fire road. We blasted along it until we hit CP12 (which was underneath a bridge), and while DP went to punch it we took stock of our food.

It wasn't looking good; we were down to about a bar and a half each, had at least 2500' feet of climbing up to CP13 and it was starting to get seriously cold. I felt ok, and so did Mari, but Oliver and DP weren't doing so well. We made sure they ate, shucked a few layers and started up the climb (a fire road called Briceberg Grade).

Mari and I quickly found ourselves pulling away from Oliver and DP and stopped to let them them catch up and assess the situation. Oliver was falling asleep and DP was soaking wet, freezing, and slurring his speech. We forced more food into them, got DP to put on the last of his clothes,and kept climbing, taking turns encouraging DP and talking to Oliver to try to keep him awake.

Mojo passed us (again! I was starting to hate them) looking strong and disappeared up the road.

We were moving slowly enough that I was getting cold and I'm sure Mari was too, but there wasn't a peep out of her other than her conversation with Oliver (she was way better than I was at maintaining a coherent discussion at this point).

We finally hit the top, and after a few false starts in the maze of fire roads we were bombing downhill towards the saddle that would take us back up to the top of Black Mountain and CP13.

We'd been out of food for a while, but it was all downhill from CP13 to the TA and it's not like we had options so we pressed on, freezing as we descended into the saddle. At the very bottom of the saddle, right before the climb to CP13 started, and right where all the coldest air had pooled, Oliver got a flat. He changed the tube quickly, but the valve on his CO2 cartridge was either frozen or broken, and the cartridge went skittering off along the road accompanied by curses.

It was cold enough that a stop of more than 30 seconds meant getting chilled, and the shell I was wearing didn't breathe well, so I was soaked. Five layers of fleece and technical fabric were doing an excellent job of keeping at least a pound of sweat next to my skin with nowhere to go and I couldn't feel my feet or my fingers (on the upside, the cold was doing a great job of distracting me from the bumps and bruises from falling off my bike).
I'd been saving a pair of leg warmers and thick wool socks for the descent from CP13, but realized i needed them now, so I pulled them out, put them on, and was ready to go when Oliver finished pmping up his tire.

We rode for a bit more and turned off on the fire road that would take us up to CP13. Calling it a fire road is being generous; it was a chute filled with slippery shale, steep as hell, unrideable in our state, and I've never been so happy to see hike-a-bike in my life, because that meant warmth!

Oliver and Mari cranked up it like it was flat while DP and I floundered along behind, watching their taillights go up and up, and wishing they'd stop.

We finally made it to the clearing at the top, Oliver busted out the clue map to show me where the CP was and I went off to get it. As I rounded the rock I saw the CP square in my sights, a welcome, cheerful yellow, and right below it; treasure! Someone (we found out later it was RD Mark Richardson) had cached two cases of Pepsi there. I gleefully called back the good news to my teammates, and after the initial disbelief they told me to quit goofing off and bring the valuables back.

I'm not a huge fan of caffeine and I rarely drink soda, but this was heaven. We drained our cans, stashed the empties in our packs and, accompanied by the echoing sounds of our burps, headed for the TA and CP14.

Jonathan was waiting for is in the TA, and with him was Randy who was crewing for Gaelforce and kindly offered to help out. We made sure DP got dry clothes on, and then stuck him in the car to warm up while the rest of us got on dry base layers. While we were getting ready Jonathan told us that the temperature was now below freezing, and it was just going to get colder as there were no clouds in the sky to keep the daytime warmth from heading straight out into space.

We hopped back on our bikes for the short ride to the CP15 where we would drop our bikes for a 3 CP trek. On the way Oliver nearly crashed his bike a couple of times: he was still falling asleep.

We found the CP with little trouble, poured a Red Bull into Oliver, dumped our bike shoes and helmets into garbage bags for Jonathan to take to the remote bike drop where he'd leave them for us, and headed up the trail on foot.

CP16 was no trouble, just up a creek a bit, but CP17 took some work; a confusing scramble through brush and boulders along a different creek, but Oliver led us right to it.

CP18 was on top of a hill, and supposedly there was an overgrown trail that led up the hillside to the fire road that would take us to it. We couldn't find it so we just headed straight up the hill. The way was clear at first but shortly we ran into a stand of brush and began trying to thread our way through the maze of growth. Promising paths turned to dead ends and we'd have to re-route but we kept making progress. Eventually we came to a dead end; impenetrable brush on three sides and no apparent way forward. After casting around for a little while Mari spotted something, dropped to her hands and knees, scrambled for a few seconds and found the road. Sweet!

We followed her and started up the road and after few seconds Oliver said "It should be right here". We turned off the road, hiked up the hill for 20 seconds and landed right on top of the CP.

We trekked on towards the TA (CP19), I was gently hallucinating and Mari thought she was too when she spied the glow of a streetlight in the distance. The streetlight part WAS an hallucination, but the glow was from the fire at the TA. Two groggy guys got up from underneath the off-road-modded truck they'd been dozing under, chatted with us a bit and went back to bed.

We changed our shoes, put on our cold and wonderfully clammy helmets and got back on the bikes.

The bikes were different. They were just like ours but better. Jonathan, the ne plus ultra of support crews had taken the time to tune, tweak, and lube them before leaving them for us.

We knew the sun (with it's accompanying warmth) would be up soon, and we pressed on through a maze of fire roads. How Oliver got us through that mess I don't know, but he did. At one point we lost the way and Oliver took a bearing, grabbed his bike, and started hiking through the woods. Part of me was dismayed, but another part (the newbie part) was thrilled. Bikewhacking! Sweet! It helped that the forest was mostly open and we only went a short way, but I got a reminder of how long we'd been out at one point. Oliver had stopped to take another bearing and we stopped while he did so. All of a sudden, there they were: powerful, seductive, overwhelming. Sleepmonsters! "Bastards! You'll never take me for I have the power of the newbie!"

Turns out the sleepmonsters couldn't keep up with the bikes so as soon as we found the road again we lost them. CP20 was right where it should have been, as was CP21, and then we were at the TA and CP22.

We switched to a ride-and-tie here, and we'd talked about who would do what on our way in. Since my knee was essentially jacked we decided that I'd take the bike so I could ride and rest my knee. That worked out GREAT. The first half mile was uphill hike-a-bike, and the mile after that was downhill hike-a-bike. The terrain became rideable for about a quarter of a mile before realizing its mistake and reverting to hike-a-bike again, and so it went.

To be frank, this section sucked; it was all fire roads, the nav was easy, we retraced some stuff we'd done earlier on the trek, and for some reason I was hallucinating that it was raining. We got the first 2 CPs with no trouble, then forded and a stream and began making our way up the monster climb (hike-a-bike for me, natch) to CP25, baking like quiche in the sun (but not smelling nearly as good, especially in the case of DP who was having some intestinal problems, and insisted on letting the world know all about it at frequent, pungent intervals).

When we got to where CP25 was supposed to be, we found Team Bullmoose Extreme, and no CP which was weird, as all the other ones had been dead-on. We thrashed around in the bushes for a while but to no avail, and had pretty much decided to bail on it when some guys on dirt bikes came riding by. They stopped and chatted a bit, asked us what we were doing, where we were going, and so on, and then went on at great length about the cool loops you could do in the area on a bike. They pretty much ignored all of our comments about "yup, we were there, yeah, we went there too, uh huh, did that one, we've been going since 8:00 a.m. yesterday...", but they were nice enough.

After a couple of minutes one of the guys blasted away up the hill, spewing dust and exhaust behind him, and returned a few minutes later to say something along the lines of "I'm not going to tell you where it is, but there's a big bush up on that hill, and it's what you're looking for."

And he was right; there was CP25, 200 feet higher than it should have been.

The less said about the trek back to the TA the better. Suffice it to say it was boring, it went up and down a lot, it was on a fire road, there were lots of dirt bikes, and we could see where we needed to go from a long way out.

The TA was almost deserted, but Jonathan was there to make sure we punched CP26 and to tell us to skip CP27. I was pretty bummed about that because it meant we'd been short-coursed, and I'd really wanted to get every CP on my first 24 hour race. I even suggested that we swing by the CP just to see if we could punch it, but Oliver pointed out that it was probably already down, and besides, we'd be breaking the rules if we did get it.

Jonathan had everyones bikes and gear laid out, and after a pretty quick TA we were on our way to the finish. We'd been told it was all downhill, but we knew better than to take that at face value.

But sure enough, after a short climb from the TA we were bombing down a wide dirt road, my wrist protesting at the washboard bumps as we skittered over them. Oliver and I were leading, reveling in the speed and wind, when all of a sudden psssssshhhhhhhhhhttttttt: Oliver had flatted.

A quick change of the tube and we were blasting downhill again, and shortly after that we hit pavement, formed a paceline and really cranked it up. Oliver took a long pull in front, and when he pulled aside I moved up for my turn. All too soon we made the right turn to the finish, signed in, and were done.

30 hours and 7 minutes of racing got us third place and I was happy with that. (Besides, there's always next year!)

Although I've got nothing to compare it to, the race was unbelievably fun, very hard, and worth every moment. It helps that I had a great team and a fantastic crew, and if you have any doubts about doing it, set them aside and sign up for next years race, you won't regret it.