2011 Bitter Pill

2011 Bitter Pill

This was the first adventure race any of us had ever competed in. Eric and I had just met a couple months prior through a few friends, and on a run at work one day the subject of adventure racing came up. AR’s were something both of us had wanted to try but never found anyone else crazy enough to jump right in. I had raced the Tough Mudder a few months prior and wanted to find something even more challenging, and he was an all around strong athlete, so we took a look on the USARA website and discovered this race about six weeks prior to race day. We signed up instantly.

Sean was introduced to us through Tim, one of the race directors. Most of our friends who we asked to be our third teammate started at us in disbelief. I’ve never been told “You’re crazy” more times in my life than the weeks trying to find a teammate. Tim emailed us Sean’s info, knowing that we were still looking for a third. Sean was a first timer to AR’s, but an experienced tri-athlete, and we all went on a good cross-country training run a week before the race and seemed to be right around the same fitness level for a long distance race (short distance, they would kick my ass in every way possible, but it was fun to try and keep up with them in the woods).

Night Before the Race

A couple weeks later and more gear trips to REI than I’d like to count, we were on our way north. The Blueberry Hill Inn was hosting the event, and the inn was nestled in the heart of Moosalmoo National Park, and set on this gorgeous piece of land surrounded by mountains in every direction. We actually turned around at one point because we had driven so far into the park we thought we had missed it, and had to ask for directions from some locals. Finally we arrived, and the inn-keeper showed us to our rooms. This was classic Vermont, no locks on the doors, the friendliest people I’ve ever met running the place, and racers everywhere inside. The inn-keeper surprised us by telling us that even though we reserved one room with a cot, they didn’t completely fill the place for the weekend so we could just have two rooms next to each other. This was excellent, as it just gave us more space for all the gear we brought up.

Chinese feast the night before

The rest of the night seemed to fly by. The car was unpacked at lightning speed, and we walked across the street to the barn for check-in. Bags of SWAG were given out to each team with some cool stuff from all the sponsors, and we were given a slew of forms to fill out. We were bummed to hear that canoeing was out this year, but that waiver was replaced with a rock climbing waiver so that got us excited thinking about how it was going to be incorporated into the race. After taking a team picture (with a giant bear statue), we went back to strap our numbers to our bikes and packs, and then brought everything over to the gear check area. Gear check went smoothly, and then we went back inside the barn to wait for the navigation clinic. I was the only one in the group with map and compass navigation experience (thank you Boy Scouts), but a refresher was nice, and we wanted to make sure the entire team knew how to navigate because three heads looking at a map is way better than one. The nav session was great, lots of tips about what to look for in a map, especially when doing an AR across the countryside, so we felt pretty prepared.

This all wrapped up at about 8:45 and we were starving at this point, so we headed into town for some dinner. Now when you’re up in the middle of nowhere in Vermont, and you live in the city, you forget that everything shuts down in places like this at 9pm. Unfortunately it took us about 15 minutes to get to a nearby town, and the only place we managed to find open was a Chinese shop. It was also closing down, but they were nice enough to stay open long enough to make us some dinner realizing that we were clearly not from the area. Seeing this country-courtesy was incredibly refreshing, as you never get this in Boston, and made us even happier to be away from the bustle of the city for the weekend.

Back to the Inn we went, food in hand, and chowed down on all the food before turning in for the night. It was about 10:30, and we had to be up at 3:30am. Off to bed we went…

Packed and ready to roll for 3:30am

Pre-race

The alarms went off at 3:30am, and I probably got about 3 hours of sleep just because I was excited about the race. Eric and Sean said they got about the same, but we weren’t exactly worried about the lack of sleep since our adrenaline was already pumping. Breakfast was served at 4am, a delicious spread prepared for us by the inn-keeper, and then it was off to the rooms to grab our stuff. We took a quick pre-race picture of each of us, which looked pretty funny when you have a PFD and swimming fins attached to your pack, and then off we went to the outdoor tent for the pre-race briefing.

I look surprisingly happy for being up by 4am

The race organizers thanked all the sponsors for their support, and they announced that while they were unsure leading up to this race if they were going to have it again due to some organizational restructuring, they were in fact going to be back. This was met with applause from everyone, and it was nice to hear if we survived this day we could look forward to coming back. Sean and I were taking a look at our competition around the room, and we figured we were likely one of the few all rookie teams in the field. Most people seemed to know the race organizers from years past, or had stories from other GMARA events, so we pretty much knew that there was no chance of us doing great, we just wanted to see how far we could push ourselves (also, the fact that less than 25% of first time AR racers finish, led us to believe we were in for a battle.)

For those who don’t know how the scoring works on these events, you have a set number of checkpoints on the course, and essentially you race against time to hit as many controls as possible. You must reach certain areas by a given cut-off time, and if you miss the cut-off you just continue on to the finish line (so that racers aren’t on the course until midnight or later.)

First look at the maps in the dark
Eric, also ready to roll

Captains were called to the front to collect maps and instructions, and we were given 10 minutes to look over the map and directions, stage our bikes, and head to the start point. Eric went to grab the packet, came back, and we opened the map to see what was in store for us.

Start – TA1

Maps are merely a suggestion of reality

The first task was to hit CP’s 1 – 6 in any order and return to the Inn for TA1 (transition area). It was pitch black outside so we all had our headlamps focused on the map. We decided to start by going to CP2 first, and then we would navigate counter-clockwise around the start point to hit the rest of the CP’s (2-5-6-4-3-1). This seemed like a good idea because there was a single trail that led to CP2 and then to CP5, which would be easier to navigate in the dark, opposed to CP1 which was located up a series of trails. Also, thinking we were being smart, it looked like we could cut southwest across a field from the start to meet with a road that would take us to the trailhead.

We staged the bikes and wandered over to the starting line, and at 5:00am the whistle blew and we were off. About 1/3 of the people looked like they were going to attempt CP1 first, while the rest were going our way. We booked it across the field when we ran into trouble…

Mistake #1: Roads are king

It was confusing to us why most of the other teams ran to the road by the inn first, and then south to the road that we were cutting through the field to reach. About a quarter mile in we hit dense brush, followed by low lying land that was soaked from the night before. Our nav skills were sound, as we emerged on the road, but we were greeted with the twinkling headlamps of 50 other runners who got to that point in the same amount of time, and were completely dry. Well… at least we got that mistake out of the way early.

Running in the dark
"Wait, where the hell are we again"

It didn’t particularly matter that we got wet early, because as soon as we hit the trail, it was bordering a marsh and half the trekking was in ankle deep water anyway. The clue for CP2 was that it was in a felled tree, and it was just past a trail junction. We quickly made our way past groups who were stopped looking for the CP in an open marshy area, but it seemed like it was way to early (and we hadn’t seen the trail split yet) so we continued on. Soon enough, we found the split, and then saw a bunch of headlamps congregated in the woods, and saw CP2 hanging from a tree. Finding the first CP felt incredible, and made the adrenaline pump through our veins even faster!

Based on the map, it looked simple to reach CP5, simply follow the trail to a large open area. This was where trouble #2 happened, since we stumbled out of the woods onto a road before hitting the CP.

Mistake #2: Maps are merely a suggestion of reality

We panicked, and thought we overshot the control, and took a look at the map. Sean pointed out that there were power lines running overhead, so we should see those on the map. We did, and realized that what we thought was a property line on the map was actually a trail that we traveled to the road. There was another team with us at this point, and they decided to go along the road to CP5, we decided to double back and find the trail we missed and take that to the control.

Running back we passed about 8 teams making the same mistake we did, and they were looking at us like we were crazy for going backwards. Being a competition, we didn’t say a word, and found the path we missed blocked by a couple of downed trees (and pretty invisible unless you were paying attention). Then it was a quick half mile or so and we found the field and CP5.

Next up was CP6, and we learned our lesson from the start of the race that roads are king. There was a trail leading to CP6 from the road directly to our east, but we opted to hit the road, then jog along it due south, turn east on another fire road, then north on the next fire road. This worked incredibly well as we absolutely flew down the roads, and realized that travel on gravel was much better that what may or may not be a groomed path in the woods.

Moving quickly along a road

CP6 was pretty easy to find, as it was right off the fire road in large field. Then it was decision time again, the next control was at the top of the peak due north. We could either have a little over half mile trek through unknown territory going due north, or go back to the fire road to a trail which took us just east of the peak, then traverse a steep area to the peak. We opted to take the steep route, thinking that we’d rather travel 3/8 of a mile on easy trails and 1/8 of a mile up a steep slope than half a mile in crazy brush.

We got to the trail split, set our compass to due west, and started bushwhacking our way up to the peak. It didn’t seem particularly difficult, and we were met with one of the best experiences of the entire day when we popped out of the woods at the peak no more than 20ft from the CP. We thought we were navigation kings at this point, but then we saw a path leading down the mountain from the direction of CP6, and saw teams coming up a much easier trail. Even though the trail wasn’t marked, the guide at the control said that when there is a mountain peak, there is likely a trail to the top, even when one is not marked on the map.

Mistake #3: There are probably unmarked trails heading to mountain peaks

The remaining checkpoints were found pretty easily, the sun was coming out so it was nice to start seeing daylight, and the CP’s were both in river beds located about an eighth of a mile off-trail. After CP1 we jogged our way down to the inn and TA1 (about 8:00am), with the sun having just risen over the tree-line.

TA1 – TA2

Cramps and Electrolyte Pills

The next portion of the trip was to jump on our bikes and hit CP7 and CP8, in order, then bike to HB and carry/walk our bikes over to TA2. This seemed easy, and I was looking forward to just some moderate petaling over to the next TA. We filled our water bladders at the inn and were off to the next TA pretty quickly.

On our way up to the trail that led to CP7, we noticed some groups taking trails that we didn’t think were the right way, so we followed our nav instinct and ended up with a couple other groups on the correct path to CP7. About a third of the way through my legs started to twinge, but I didn’t think much of it. Then they started to twinge more and more, and we reached a section of trail where we had to hop off the bikes due to it being a bit too muddy to ride. As soon as I jumped off the bike everything south of my waist started screaming at me. You name the muscle group, it was cramping up. I drank a bunch more water and told Eric and Sean that as long as we kept riding it wasn’t bad, but every time we stopped it felt like a million knives twisting inside my muscles.

I almost never get cramps, and I was really, really pissed at myself that this was happening so early in the race. I didn’t really understand why it was happening, I had eaten a bunch of energy bars at TA1, I wasn’t thirsty and was hydrating properly, and I’ve done bike/hikes plenty of times before. I decided to just push through it, which I realized in AR’s is a terrible idea.

Have you ever crashed a mountain bike into the side of a trail because your leg cramped so bad it literally seized mid-stroke. I have, it sucks. Actually, let me rephrase, it really f****king sucks. Eric and Sean looked back at me and saw me clutching my leg and thought I broke something, and I just yelled “Not really hurt, just crazy cramps.” Thank god for awesome teammates, they came running back and started massaging my left leg, which was the worst. Seeing the look in their eyes and hearing them say “That’s not actually your muscle, is it?” as they felt the baseball sized cramp in my legs was rather… special. Also, thankfully Sean has had tons of triathlon experience and realized I probably wasn’t replenishing my electrolytes as much as I should have been, which caused the problem.

Reservoir we were riding around (and soon to swim across)
Getting off the trail at TA2, never been happier to be off a bike

In hindsight, this was 100% true. Slow burn bike/hikes are easy to handle, and I knew how to keep myself hydrated and replenished for those. But when you’ve been running the woods for 4+ hours you need something with more of a kick than Gatorade and power gels because you’re losing electrolytes at such a crazy pace. He gave me a packet of 4 electrolyte tablets, the directions said take 1-2 per hour, I took all 4. A couple other teams came by and asked if I was ok, and gave me a few more packets, and they said just take 4 per hour and I’ll be golden.

(Self) mistake #4: Eat/drink/take electrolytes 4x more than you think you’ll ever need, because you’ll need them

I felt pretty terrible, I easily lost us 20 minutes or more with these retarded cramps which could have been easily avoided had I been paying more attention to my body, but live and learn. We jumped back on the bikes and started riding. I hobbled to CP7 and CP8, then it was fire-roads up to a trailhead where we walked our bikes to TA2. I was feeling much better at this point, and was thanking god and teammates for those pills, and we got to TA2 around 9:15am.

TA2 – TA3

Amphibious creatures

At TA3 we dropped our bikes and took another look at the map. Our goal was to hit CP’s 9-12 in any order, and return to TA3. Take note that CP9 is in the middle of an island in the lake. We decided it would be best to swim to the island, get CP9, then swim to the immediate shore where CP11 was and walk the lake edge to 11, then swim to CP12. We thought we were really smart because we had put everything inside our bags in dry-saks, so all we had to do was throw on our life vests and start swimming with our packs on.

Mistake #5: Dry-pak’s for your entire bag are the best

The bags weighed us down big-time, most teams were throwing their bags into full dry saks and then swimming with those tied to their life vests. Most teams also just had hand flippers rather than foot flippers which seemed way better. When I saw that my shoes were going to get wet regardless, I didn’t even use the flippers I brought and simply opted to swim with them on so I could avoid transitioning. We made it to the island, got the checkpoint, and swam to shore. We walked to the next CP, and then decided to do a short swim to the small piece of land directly southwest of CP11, and walk to CP12 (since we can walk faster than swimming.) I kept popping my electrolyte pills every hour on the hour to prevent the cramps, and we all ate some food to get our energy up.

Getting prepped to swim the lake
Attempting to swim with packs
The wolfpack is back

We hit CP12, and Eric commented that Sean and I sure had to pee a lot (because we had literally been pissing like every 20 minutes or so.) He was joking that we were drinking too much water because he barely had to go (forewarning, this means he was getting dehydrated, and none of us figured this out until much later.)

The rest of this area was pretty easy, we trekked south from CP12 to the trail on the map, then took that to the road. When the road turned right, we went due west to the top of the mountain, hit the CP, and then went right back to the road and back to the TA at 11:15am.

TA3 - TA4

Bad luck

To be honest, I was dreading getting back to another biking leg. The last thing I wanted to do was cramp up on the bike again and prevent us from continuing. The bike portion we had next was insanely long as well, 2.5 to 3 miles down the fire road to a trailhead, then about 2 miles to CP13, then a mile to CP14, then 4 miles to TA4.

After walking the bikes back out to HB, Eric and Sean helped stretch my muscles for a few minutes to ensure I didn’t cramp, and we hit the road. This part was actually awesome, it was all downhill and we absolutely floored it to the trailhead. In the back of my mind however, I was thinking “We’re gonna have to go back up at some point.” From the trailhead to CP13 was a lot of uphill and muddy sections, so we took it easy on the uphills to prevent any cramps that might pop up, but overall I was feeling great on this leg of the trip, relieved that my cramping issue was behind me. We got to CP13 pretty quickly, and then it was a big downhill section through the woods to CP14.

Again, this was awesome, but on the way down Eric realized he blew his back tire out and we had to change the tube. This wasn’t awful, but took some time to switch the tubes and get it blown back up. Fortunately he had some compressed air capsules to quickly inflate it, rather than having to hand pump it.

We hit the road again, the start to a long 4 mile uphill trek to the next TA. However, Eric had to jump off the bike, as he had started to feel a bit woozy and dehydrated. We all should have picked up on this sooner, but we were too focused on the race. Sean had a bunch of extra water and gave it to Eric, and we took our time to the next TA, walking uphill and coasting downhill to avoid adding any extra fatigue. At about 1:05pm we made our way into TA4.

Wet navigation
Resting before the next push

TA4 - Finish

"You gotta go up"

TA4 was at the top of a tall bluff that had a gorgeous view of nearby Lake Dunmore and the surrounding landscape. It was a steamy 85 degrees at this point and we were relieved to see that each team was given a gallon of water. Eric drank a ton and we chilled out under a nearby tent in the shade contemplating out next move.

Unfortunately we were told that we weren't going to make the TA5 cut-off, since it was already 1:15pm, the fastest team had completed this section in 2 hours, and we needed to be at TA5 by 2:30pm. It was a bummer hearing that, but we were told that we should continue and try and pick up CP's 15 - 19, in order, and return to TA5 then head to the finish.

The water had made Eric feel much better, and we decided to hit the trail and see what happened. The path to CP15 was a steady downhill path that followed a river out to the lake, it was a beautiful trail to hike along. On the way down, we passed about 10 teams coming back up the path from CP15 to return to TA4/5. This basically led us to believe that a good chunk of teams had missed the cutoff, and were simply making the trek to CP15 and heading back up, rather than committing to at least 2 more hours to collect the other checkpoints.

We got to the bottom of the trail, and were greeted with a huge exposed rock-face with the CP15 marker. We asked where the stamp was for our passport and the race official said "About 150ft above you." They had a rock climbing setup right next to the checkpoint, and one of us had to climb to the top of this bluff with our passport. Eric seemed to be the best man for the job, so we sent him scurrying up the rock face.

Eric making his way up the rock

The folks who were belaying us were chatting me up about how amazed they were that everyone who passed through the CP was still in good spirits. I explained that even though we missed the cutoff, it was an amazing day, a great race course, and how we learned an absolute ton about what to do and not to do next time around. The race officials said thats exactly what first-timers should walk away with, and come back with that knowledge next time.

Eric came back down and we decided to follow the other teams, rather than commit to the remaining CP's, we would cut our losses and head back to TA5 and then the finish line. We made our way back up, jumped on the bikes, and started the final haul back to the inn.

Seeing the finish line ahead of us, and then crossing it while Tim (the race director) gave us all high fives while locals were cheering us on was one of the best experiences ever. While it was a bummer that we didn't make it to the final lake section, we still felt incredibly accomplished that we made it as far as we did, and we were pumped at how much we learned throughout the race that we'd be able to bring to the next one.

Finish

We cleaned up, jumped in the pond behind the inn, and showered up before heading over to the tent for dinner and the awards ceremony. Talking to all the other racers that were there was great, because all the veteran teams were giving us tons of advice about what to do next time, how they had made many of the same mistakes we did, and what they did to push through to the final sections.

The awards ceremony was pretty great too. It was very surprising to hear that only 3 out of 40 teams made it to all of the checkpoints on the map, and all the rest were cutoff at some earlier point. The winning team said it was one of the best designed courses GMARA had done yet. The awards wrapped up around 7:30pm, and I instantly went to sleep. I'm pretty sure I passed out before I even hit the pillow, and didn't get up until 8am the next morning.

After that, we had a great breakfast at the inn with the race organizers again, where we chatted about their experiences with these races, and then we packed it all up and headed back to Boston.

Finish line
Best feeling ever, crossing that line

Learnings

  • Experience is key - You really don't know how your body is going to react to 6+ hours of non-stop intense physical activity until you actually push yourself to that level. The leading teams had plenty of races under their belts, and knew exactly what their body was going to do at each stage of the race. Eric and I found our weaknesses, and we know how to prevent them during the next race. Sean was a rock, his experience on the triathlon circuit prepped him for the rigors of this race.
  • Navigation tips/tricks - Stick to roads whenever possible, and there are usually trails to peaks. These are just little things that those who have navigated before would know. Our overall directional skills were sound, we just needed better situational awareness.
  • Dry bags for swimming - We thought it was a good idea to use foot fins and swim with our packs on, which was definitely the wrong idea. The best teams were using only hand fins, leaving their shoes on, throwing their packs in full dry-saks, and towing it behind them across the lake. Much more efficient.
  • Calf guards - I didn't really notice it during the race, but afterward it looked like my legs had been attacked by a cat. Calf guards would have been key for preventing a week of painful scratches from all the nettles.
  • Bike tow systems - You're only a fast as your slowest member. Words to live by when hiking, and this race was no different. Would you rather all be going at the pace of your slowest biker (aka me), or help tow the slowest biker behind the fastest, so you all go a little faster. This seemed to be a common theme among the leading teams.

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