The Equinox Traverse was one of those absurd goals Eric and I set back in January, a race we signed up for saying “Yeah this is gonna be awesome, we’ll be totally ready in 7 months.” Since we were going to be doing a series of smaller races, and the the NYARA Longest Day a month before this, we figured that post-longest day we’d be completely ready to tackle a 48 hour adventure. However, after finishing the Longest Day, we were left so beat up and exhausted we were almost ready to give up on the Equinox, give it another year of training and then try again when our bodies were in better shape.
But as the date grew closer, we realized that there was no way we were really ever going to be “ready” for a race that long. We had done enough races by that point in time to know almost exactly how our bodies were going to react during the race, and this, we were told, was about the longest length race you can do without needing sleep. So, just like jumping feet first into the Bitter Pill the year before, we decided we were going to go regardless of how “ready” we felt we were, we were just gonna jump right in.
As usual, we took this race as an opportunity to stock up on new gear. After having the worst headlamp imaginable on TLD (The Longest Day), I sprung for a massive 1500 lumen waterproof bicycle headlamp and a spare battery pack (since we’d be racing two nights. This thing had more light power than most floodlights on houses, it was insane. I also figured since we’d be traveling for 46 hours I’d need a bigger pack to hold more gear so I sprung for a nice new 48L Mountain Hardware bag. I also purchased something which I had been eyeing, but wasn’t sure if I needed, some ultra-light hiking poles to assist in any super long stretches of hiking in case my legs needed a break.
Eric was awesome and said he would drive to this race, which was awesome since it was about a 8-9 hour ride to get out to Hidden Valley Ski Resort in Western, PA. On the way down we fueled up at Five Guys burger for lunch (spectacular by the way), and on the way out noticed some wear on my back tire. Specifically, some of the little nubs on the tire had ripped off. I wasn’t sure if they were like this before, but I had been riding the bike pretty religiously recently and it had been fine, so I just assumed that it was like that when we packed the car. A few hours later we made a stop for gas in central PA and noticed that even more rubber had torn off the tire. It was so old that the wind whipping over it as we were driving down the highway had stripped off huge chunks of the rubber. We were concerned, because we could not ride on this tire, it would have popped mid-race, and we didn’t have a spare.
I pulled out my phone and looked for any bike shops that might be nearby, not expecting much, but managed to find a place called Merv’s Bike Shack about 15 minutes away. We called the number to see if they had any mountain bike tires, and the gentleman who answered said they did but they were closed. He said if we came in the next 30 minutes he’d open the doors for us though so we could get the tire, talk about nice customer service! This bike shop was indeed a bike “shack” but the man working the desk was super nice and gave us a great deal on the tire since we were clearly in a jam. Yet another race where the locals were great to work with!
Crisis averted, we continued on and reached Hidden Valley Ski Resort around 6:00pm, right in time to check into our hotel room and then wander down to check-in to get our info packets. We were incredibly pleased to see that maps were included in our packets, which was great since we’d never gotten maps this early before, but that feeling quickly slipped away as we realized that not only were the maps not marked with checkpoints, but there was a sheet of paper with UTM co-ordinates of all the checkpoints. We had never dealt with UTM before, but it’s essentially a more accurate version of latitude/longitude lines, not too tricky to figure out, but when you’re plotting 45 checkpoints it becomes time-consuming, and you DON’T want to make an error when plotting. No wonder we were getting the maps the night before, we were going to have to mark all the checkpoints ourselves, and then plot the routes we intended to take in order to reach those checkpoints.
We went out and got a pizza, then went back to the room and spent about 3 hours plotting checkpoints, and then highlighting routes we thought were reasonable given our skill level. After this we did a final gear check and packed up our bags, then got a few hours of sleep before waking up for race day.
We woke up and went to get some breakfast at the hotel before driving down to the start point (which was conveniently right where we checked in the night before, and a few minutes from our hotel.) At breakfast a couple guys stumbled in who were chuckling about just getting there and needing to mark their map. Eric and I were glad we weren’t in that situation, as the race started in about 90 minutes and it took us hours the night before to get everything marked properly.
We drove down to the start point, and I realized I was clearly doing something wrong. I was wearing my nice new pack with enough stuff in it to last 48 hours, but most of the other teams just had smaller 24L packs (which I’ve only used for 24-hour races). I asked one of the other teams how on earth they were planning on supporting themselves for 48 hours with those bags, and they said that there was a gear drop before the first biking leg, so they’d be able to store gear there and then pick it up when they transitioned. Ah ha! Eric and I missed the fact that there’d be a drop (basically the TA was right at the start point, after the first hiking leg), so we could just leave a bunch of gear in the car and get it on our way back. I quickly pulled out my trusty 24L pack and swapped all the essentials as quickly as possible and made my way over to the start line just in time.
The weather was also looking like it was going to cooperate wonderfully for the first 36 hours or so. Clear skies for Friday and Saturday, with some storms possibly moving in Saturday night. The chance of precipitation was very low, so we weren’t even worried for those storms. A good weather forecast is always a good sign!
10:00 - 12:00
Hiking Leg #1 - 30.20 miles (Map)
At the start we realized we’d be walking a little ways across the road to a trail head where the race would officially start. As we were walking over there the guys who showed up late made a funny comment about how their goal was “Don’t end up on the CNN missing persons report” to which Eric and I responded we were hoping on the same thing. We started talking some more with these guys and they were hilarious. Their names were Aiden and John, high school buddies who had done a few of these before, and as we were chatting we realized that we had raced against each other before at the Bitter Pill in VT, which was their first race ever as well! We started talking about the map and our proposed route to CP1, and Aidan realized that they had mis-understood the CP’s, and marked a number of the checkpoints incorrectly on the map. We decided that since neither of our teams were trying to win anything (nor did we even have a shot, since some of the fellow racers in the 2-man division were sponsored/some of the best racers on the east coast), and just trying to finish the race alive, we’d team up and work together.
This was singlehandedly the best decision we made on the race. Not only did having four people give us all more people to talk to, but as shit started hitting the fan later in the race, having a large support team and extra gear was essential.
So, the race began with all teams heading towards CP1. CP1 was nestled in the woods about 5 miles north of our current position. There were a series of winding trails in the woods that led up to the CP, but there was also a dirt road that took an extra mile or so around the main wooded area to the CP. The woods seemed like an invitation to get lost early (see, Eric and I finally learned our “Roads are King” lesson) so we stuck to the road and floored it. We were off to a great pace, with only a couple other teams in sight who also decided to take the road, including some solo racers. I give the guys who did this race solo mad props, I don’t know if I could mentally handle it, so watching them beast it was impressive.
Sure enough, my nav skills were starting us off great, which was the polar opposite of TLD, and we managed to beat a bunch of the pro teams to CP1 and check in. With our first CP under our belts, we were feeling great and set our sights on the rest of this first hiking leg.
12:00 - 20:00
Hiking Leg #1 - 30.20 miles (Map)
Our next goal was to get to 1A (an optional checkpoint) which was about 4 miles west of us. Looking at the map, it appeared like one of the fire roads would lead us right to it, so we backtracked to the road and started hiking along it. We were slightly concerned because a bunch of other teams were backtracking entirely to get to the trail system we were just on, even though it seemed like the roads were shorter and faster.
Soon enough, we made it to 1A and beat a number of the other teams to it. One of the big name teams (NYARA) even asked us how we got there so fast. The fact that we were picking great paths, and being asked about how we were moving so quickly was awesome, considering we were total rookies only a year ago. We were also extremely pumped because this was the first race we hit an optional checkpoint, and we had plotted routes that should take us to several more. As usual, I started my regiment of electrolyte tablets hoping that I could keep away all cramps. In addition to doubling up on the tablets I was putting them into my CamelBak as well, just to make extra sure I didn’t cramp up again.
We then headed west along the north side of the highway hoping to intersect what looked like a trail that would lead us right to 1B, but we realized that the trail didn’t seem to exist, and the only way we were going to be able to cross the highway would be to crawl through a drainage tunnel to the other side. Since we were still super early in the race, we veto-ed that idea and decided to skip 1B and continue down the highway to CP2. We really didn’t have a sense of how far we could go on the terrain and what our time was like, so we were aiming to finish the first hiking leg within 10 hours.
This worked out pretty well, we made our way due south to CP2, and then decided we were going to get another OPCP. There was a road that would have led us directly to this CP, but it was off limits for safety reasons (if we were caught on it there was a good chance of being penalized or disqualified.) We bushwacked our way through a small section of woods and found our way onto a golf course. A guy who worked at the country club saw us and asked what we were up to, and was incredibly intrigued by the race. He was kind enough to let us fill our water bottles at the club so we wouldn’t have to do it in a stream, and we continued off to the trail that led to the next CP at the top of a hill.
We nearly missed the trail leading off the road since it was masked by a fallen tree, and at this point we started cruising. We hit an optional CP in a wooded knoll, then bee-lined it due east to the top of a giant hill where we found another CP hidden in the woods at the top. From here, it was a quick bushwack down the hill due south to a fire road, and then we went along the fire road due east again right back to the start where we were going to switch onto bikes at CP3.
20:45 - 04:00
Bike Leg #1 - 32.75 miles (Map)
We were incredibly excited that we had done so well up to this point. We cruised through the first section in our anticipated 10 hour time frame, and had secured several of the optional checkpoints. We weren’t the last team to move through this TA either, so we knew were in good shape.
Unfortunately (and kind of hilariously), John and Aidan were already getting super chafed (also known as Monkey Butt) and went to the bathroom to put some Gold Bond on themselves. Eric and I had been using Body-Glide, an anti-chafe gel, on our sensitive areas every 6 hours or so, so we were feeling good. When they were done with the gold bond, it looked like Scarface had gone to town in the bathroom there was so much powder all over the floor. It was hilarious.
We geared up our bikes, knowing that this was the last time we were going to see this area until we finished the race. I had a fantastic dinner of Chef Boyardee ravioli right out of the can. I don’t care what Eric says, that stuff was delicious and hit the spot. I was pumped that I didn’t have any cramps, meaning I was managing my electrolytes better than prior races. The only thing that was a bit upset was my stomach, but nothing too bad.
We jumped on the bikes and flew up the fire road we had just hikes, then absolutely floored it down the other side. At the time we weren’t really thinking too much of it, but we were going to have to hike back up this massive hill in about 30 hours…
Eric did a lot of the leading on these roads which was nice, it allowed me just to cruise on the bike. He is substantially stronger than I on biking legs, and I had built out some homemade towing systems out of flex PVC piping and medical tubing which worked wonderfully when I needed Eric to give me a little tow. This allowed us to move faster as a team which was great, since I’m usually the one who slows us down on these legs.
We reached CP 2A, and it was pitch dark at this point. My stomach also started to feel terrible, and wasn’t getting better. We re-checked the map, and decided that rather than try for the optionals on this leg of the course, we would stick to the roads and just get to TA2 as fast as possible (again, since we weren’t sure about our timing.) As we started out on the roads again, it began to pour, and I mean completely pour. We threw on our rain jackets which helped a bit, but it still sucked to be biking in the dark, in the rain.
It didn’t help that at this point my stomach really started to go south. Every 30 minutes I was pulling over to go #2 in the woods because my stomach was just not agreeing with me, and this delightfully graduated into me vomiting while riding my bike every 20 minutes. I knew I had to keep water in my system because this was going to get me seriously dehydrated, so I just chugged water as best I could and slogged along behind the group. John was in pain as well, as he had some serious chafing and blisters all over, and there were several points where he and I just looked at each other and said “we’re way out of our league."
I’ve never felt so miserable in my entire life, not simply because I was physically in pain, but mentally I wanted to give up. I’ve never come so close to giving up on something in my entire life, I was certain that when we rolled into the next TA I would ask for transport back to the nice warm hotel where I could shower and sit on a toilet in peace. This in turn made me more miserable, because I’ve never given up on something like this. I didn’t know what to do, and I certainly didn’t want to let Eric, Aidan, and John down.
We finally rolled into TA4 around 4am, and I immediately ran to the outhouse they had there where my body purged every last bit of anything that was in it. I went outside, laid on the ground, ate a PBJ, and wondered what our next move was going to be. The race staff took a look at me, and it wasn’t until later in the race I found out they almost pulled me since I looked so awful.
04:00 - 08:55
Bike Leg #2 - 9.37 miles (Map)
However, that PBJ sandwich seemed to hit the spot, and I decided to press on to CP5. A little sidenote here about what happened to me that prior night. After much discussion with the race crew after the race, and talking about what I was eating, it was very likely that I was actually over-doing it with my electrolyte replenishment. I was not only taking my Endurolytes every 30 minutes, but had electrolyte tablets in my Camelbak. This probably threw my body’s Ph way out of whack, so rather than cramping, my body just decided “hey, you need to purge everything you have to get back to normal.” Once it did that, I was pretty much good to go.
I actually started feeling 1000x better at this point, and threw back a 5hr energy in addition to the PBJ. There were no optional checkpoints to hit on this bike leg, just needed to make it to CP5. The rain kept coming and going in waves, but at this point I actually started to enjoy it, what a great story this would make! My bike wasn’t really co-operating on the way to CP5 though, and I blew out 2 tires on the way there, forcing us to use the rest of the CO2 we had brought along. Any more flats and we would have to hand pump which would suck.
Eric did most of the navigating in this leg, and it was spot on. John was feeling better now that it was getting light out (this was making all of us feel better, knowing we had made it through the first 24 hours or so.) Aidan kept cracking jokes which kept us all laughing, and we made our way all the way over to CP5.
CP5 there was a nice campfire which we warmed up at, and I used it as a spot to change my socks, tri-shorts, and to re-lather BodyGlide and Hydropel to my feet. Hydropel is one of the greatest inventions on the planet, which I discovered shortly before this race. It’s a gel that you rub into your feet every 12 hours, starting 24 hours before the race, and it essentially water-proofs your skin. It prevents chafing, and prevents pruning, which can lead to blistering. It was working spectacularly and really was quite an amazing product, I’ll never to another race without it.
As we were leaving CP5 we got some interesting news, we were the only 2-man teams left in the race. All the other teams had to drop due to injury or fatigue. While it’s never good when people are injured (nothing serious we were told, just some sprains), we were excited knowing that all we had to do was cross the finish line at this point (still 23 hours away) to claim victory in our division!
09:15 – 11:57
Hiking Leg #2 - 9.03 miles (Map)
We parked our bikes at CP5, and the route to the next checkpoint was over a couple fire hills, and based on the distance, would take a solid 3 hours to get there. This was a problem, since CP6 had a cutoff at noon. If we got there by the cutoff, the next leg was by kayak with several CPs along the river. If we missed it, we would have to hike along the river, missing all the CPs that were only accessible by boat. Not only did we not want to miss the CPs, but Johns feet were in serious trouble. He had blisters appearing on blisters on the back of his feet, and we all knew that if we missed the kayaks there was little chance of us making the hike to CP7 from CP6. We all needed that leg rest in the kayak.
Not much to be said other than we booked it as fast as possible up the main hill, and back down the other side. I was back at the helm navigating, and picked the most direct route possible. We knew we were going to be cutting it extremely close. With 10 minutes to go, we knew we were in range, but still needed to move fast to make the cut. We started running along the fire road and came into the checkpoint with 3 minutes to spare, with the race crew getting a good laugh out of how close we were, and cheering us all on! We were stoked we made it in time, it meant that we could throw our gear into the double kayaks and give our legs a well-earned break.
Doug, the race director, took some great pictures of us here, and said he really liked watching us all push ourselves to the limit (since this was the first time we had done a race of this length.) He was actually great to us the entire time, cheering us on at each CP we checked in at, along with the rest of the race crew, and was always giving us some great motivational words.
Doug also gave us an option at this point. Since we were the last team that was going to be allowed on the water, if we picked up each of the CPs along the river and returned them to him, he would give us some bonus time at the end of the race. We gladly accepted the offer and pushed off into the river for the trek down to CP7.
12:15 – 16:00
Kayak Leg #1 - 8.73 miles (Map)
We welcomed the chance to lay back in the kayaks and just let the river take us downstream at this point, our lower bodies badly needed the rest. Aidan and John completely fell asleep for about 15 minutes while we were coasting. We picked up the first CP and tossed it in the kayak and continued on. About an hour in Eric and I were looking at the map and realized that we didn’t really have the luxury of coasting, since we actually had quite a bit of distance to cover, both on the map, then by foot back to the bikes, then by bikes back to the finish, so we started paddling to get ourselves to the endpoint faster.
We picked up the rest of the optionals along the way, and continued our trek downstream as the water started getting more and more choppy. Eric and I were also terrible at this, at least during prior races we were kayaking on still water in lakes, but trying to steer the giant inflatable 2 person rafts was damn near impossible. There were several points where the water was raging, and we caught ourselves up on some rocks and came about 1 degree from flipping the entire raft over which would have been interesting. We ended up actually just jumping out of the kayak at several points to pull the thing along since our paddles were having no effect.
Finally we made it to the endpoint (flip free I might add). There were some spectacular rapids we made it through on the way there as well where we were launched several feet in the air over rocks due to the ferocity of the water. As we were making our way closer to the portage point several other groups of kayakers who were friends with the AAS race crew were cheering us on, knowing that we were part of the race which was cool.
At the landing point, we had to then take our kayaks and carry them about a half mile through downtown Ohiopyle, which drew some bizarre looks from passers-by. We made it back to the kayak shop where we were to return the rafts, and checked into CP7.
16:15 – 17:30
Hiking Leg #3 - 6.97 miles (Map)
CP8 was a short walk away in town, by a train bridge where there was a small ropes course. We made our way to the CP, but opted to skip the ropes course since none of us had the required skillset to safely complete it. This docked 2 points from our final score, but we knew that it didn’t matter since we were the only teams left in our division anyway. Since we were in the middle of town, we decided that we’d use some of our emergency funds to buy some real food before starting off on the next leg of the race. Entering a nearby restaurant just as it started pouring rain, we got a few cheeseburgers, sausages, and some extra supplies. Aidan was a real joker and bought me a single serving of Imodium, “Just in case.” Fortunately my stomach was doing great and I didn’t need to actually use it at all during the rest of the race.
The rainstorm passed in about 20 minutes, and we bandaged up Johns feet for the next hiking leg (about 7 miles back to our bikes), and then hit the road.
17:30 - 20:45
Hiking Leg #3 - 6.97 miles (Map)
After looking at the main map, we noted that there was a road leading due south that would take us right back to the next CP where our bikes were located, so off we went. Unfortunately, we had mis-read one of the maps at the start of the race and this was actually a restricted road. About 20 minutes into the hike, wilderness rescue pulled us over and indicated that we absolutely had to get off the road, and directed us to a nearby trailhead that would lead back into the woods. We were extremely nervous, since we thought they were going to DQ us at first for using restricted travel, but they were nice since we just made a legitimate rookie mistake marking our maps.
However, this trail area we were deposited in sucked. It was a hill surrounded on three sides by a river, and on one side by the road we couldn’t travel on. We spent about an hour trying to figure out how to cross the southern end of the river and scramble up the far bank, but we ended up just getting ourselves soaking wet by slipping on the rocks in the river, and the brush on the far bank was so dense we couldn’t find a way up anywhere.
We were desperate at this point, and knew that if we made our way back to the road, we could try and “sneak” about a quarter mile south and hope wilderness rescue wouldn’t catch us, then jump on a southbound trail back to CP9. When we got back to the road, we saw an AAS truck drive by and we flagged it down. It happened to be Doug, the race director, and we explained that we made a nav error and were directed into the no-mans land behind us, and that we could not figure out how to safely get out without sticking to the roads for at least a quarter mile or so. He asked if we retrieved the optional CPs from the river, which we did, and he said just hop in the back.
This was the best thing that could have happened. We thought he was just going to drive us to the trailhead, but instead Doug just drove us directly down the road to CP9, saying that was our bonus for retrieving the CPs for him. Incredibly fortunate that we were able to make the kayak leg before the cutoff so that we could retrieve the CPs.
We said thanks, and he said “I’ll see you guys at the finish line.” We had only one leg left, it was only 10 hours and 50 miles northeast of us, and we didn’t realize what the final night would have in store…
21:15 – 07:59
Biking Leg #3 - 43.57 miles (Map)
We took a look at the maps, and knew exactly what we needed to do. First was a quick ride back over the same fire hill that we summited earlier in the day, then it was basically taking the reverse route from the night before, back up over a few mountains to the start line. We had no more CPs to reach, all we had to do was get to the finish by 8:00am or risk getting DQed.
Off we went, night was falling but we were in great spirits knowing we were at the tail end of the race. However, about an hour into the leg, things started going south.
We felt like God was against us.
Suddenly we were hearing snaps of thunder in the distance, getting closer real fast. We threw on our rain gear and within minutes it was pouring. And I mean cats and dogs pouring, rain jacket didn’t matter pouring, trails turning to mud instantly pouring, it was insane. We were practically yelling just to hear each other over the rain, wind, and thunder. The rain was so fierce, that as we neared the top of the mountain, some of the trails we had hiked just 12 hours before were completely washed and impassable, and we were faced with a decision. There was a road that led up past a trailhead that would go to the top of the mountain, but the road was deemed off-limits and we didn’t want to risk getting DQ-ed by being caught on yet another off limits road. However, the trail was literally impossible to climb with our bikes, so after 10 minutes of deliberation, we decided to just book it as fast as possible up the road, which should take no more than 10 minutes.
Away we went, and thankfully we made it to the trailhead, and the top of the mountain, without issue. However, at this point, it was raining so hard, that my waterproof headlamp shorted out completely, and I was left with a little emergency headlamp that provided almost no light, and a little bike lamp that wasn’t much help either. I couldn’t believe it, but we started down the side of the mountain, nice and slow, since the entire fire road down was soaking wet shale which was just begging us to crash.
Sure enough, I bit it three times on the way down, but got back up each time and continued on. This was until I hit one more bump in the trail, smacked into the seat, heard a snap, and saw my seat go flying off to the side. “Eric, I have a problem…” I yelled over the wind. “I think I broke my seat.” We had no clue how that much force could have been put on the seat to cause the bolt holding it on to just snap in half, but we had to try something to fix it. We tried rigging it up by duct taping it to the post, but that didn’t last very long, and finally I can to the conclusion that I was just going to have to treat the bike like a StairMaster for the rest of the night.
Hour after hour we kept slogging along, after the fire hill roads, we stuck to major roads the rest of the way back. Our nav was working well, thanks to another regiment of 5 Hour Energy, but the rest of the team started failing fast. John was completely out of it, and his blisters were so bad at this point biking was hard, so we used our tow ropes to help him along a bunch of the roads. Eric was the next to go, and started calling me Rich, Aidan “Adrian”, and John “James”. Our pace had slowed up quite a bit as well, and a fog moved in which reduced visibility to about 50 yards. Aidan asked me if I thought we were going to make it to the end and I said it was going to take a miracle to cross the finish by 8am.
I shortly discovered that I made a critical error in navigation, and took us on a 10 mile detour by missing a side road we were supposed to take. However, we were able to get back on track, and we started to recognize the roads we were traveling on from the day before which was great. I actually thought that we might have a chance at hitting the finish line in time. We made it over the final mountain, and then were faced with our last obstacle, we would have to climb the giant dirt road we flew down from the start line the day before. The clock was ticking at this point, as we had about 45 minutes to reach the finish, and I was getting so tired at this point as we were biking up the hill we all kept switching bikes so that I wouldn’t have to ride the broken bike the whole way (and I was so tired, I would have inevitably sat down on the bare pole and had some serious problems.)
I kept counting down how many minutes we had left until 8am, which was firing all of us up and forcing us to give our last few bits of energy. We hit the top of the hill with 5 minutes to go, and we all started yelling at each other to fly down to the finish line. We blew around the corner to the cabin where we started, to the race crew standing there yelling down the seconds we had until 8am, “55 seconds!” We floored it across the parking lot and crossed the finish to applause from the race group, and all I could utter was “Did we make it…” And yes, we did make it, with seconds to spare in a 46 hour long race, completely insane, and all we could do was laugh about how crazy the last two days were and celebrate the fact that we finished!
Big thanks to the AAS crew for putting on a spectacular race, and for hosting a great post-race brunch and awards ceremony (where we got to take home our champion awards for our division!)