This was going to be a fun one, we flew down to Maryland and stayed with Eric’s sister on Friday, then woke up at 3am on Saturday to head to Stokesville, VA for a 7am start time on the race. Eric had found this particular rogaine, and we both decided it would be cool to attempt solo so we could get better at our individual weaknesses. Given the light AR schedule we had this year, doing a pure rogaine seemed awesome, since the required gear was super minimal, and the entire race would be on foot.
07:00am - 08:25
After arriving at the Stokesville Campground in the George Mountain National Forest, we went right over to the main hut and said hi to Mark and Theresa, the co-directors. After signing our waivers and checking in we got our first look at the maps and I got really excited. There were tons of checkpoints all over the map, lots of them were within half a kilometer of each other, which meant lots of interesting route choices (and of course the excitement of consistently hitting points!) Mark gave us a quick briefing about the northern part of the course being “really thick” and a few trail closings on the southern part of the map. In addition to that, and much to the chagrin of the racers, he let us know that the checkpoints weren’t reflective and the maps weren’t waterproof. This makes things extra tricky because at night, reflective checkpoints are fantastic and easy to see if you happen to glance your headlamp over them, even from hundreds of feet away. No reflective tape means you’d have to be really close to the point to see it, thus upping the challenge of the course. Secondly, he said the maps weren’t waterproof, which was going to make things interesting as they were pretty large, and it was slated to rain pretty much the entire race, really opening up at night. Finally, we were told that each CP was worth the 10’s digit (meaning CP 31 would be worth 3 points, 92 was worth 9, etc.) This immediately made it clear that the high value points were going to be important to hit (even though they looked to be in harder places to reach.)
It was time to mark up the map and figure out what I was going to do. There appeared to be a lot of vertical gain across the course, with many of the points on mountain tops and down in ravines, and the contour lines were pretty steep (40 ft each). This meant it was probably favorable to try to stick to roads and ridgelines when hitting clusters of points, rather than straight bushwhacking, as that kind of vertical would tire me out quickly. It was a bit tricky at first to try to figure out how to tackle the course, as there were tons of options, but I made a few decisions which narrowed down my choices. Most of the points were on the lower half of the course, so I decided to start by covering that portion as it would be during the day, maximizing my potential point gain. It also allowed me to make some trickier routes directly over some mountains, as I’d be able to keep a bearing better during the day.
After plotting what I thought was a pretty good route, I asked Eric if he needed anything else. He just said he needed some more time on the map, so I prepped to take off. It felt really weird to leave Eric at the start of a big race, after years of embarking on these adventures together. I knew it was going to be a great challenge for both of us, and would only serve to make us better as a race team. I hoped we would run into each other a few times on the course just to see how the other was doing!
08:25 - 11:45 (6.7 miles)
Off to the races! I threw on my race clothes, and started to hit points in the lower SE quadrant of the map, slowly weaving my way west along the southern portion. I intentionally ignored 31 and 32, even though they were unbelievable close to the start, because they were low point values, and I figured I could grab those if I had time when I returned the following morning. The nice thing about the way the started was that it staggered all of the racers, so you weren’t all going out at the same time. It opened up the early part of the course and made it much less congested with racers which was nice (often early in ARs you are all grouped into a giant mega-pack hitting the first few CPs due to relatively obvious route choices, with this I was alone from the start, totally on my own.) The first 4 points came naturally, and it felt great to land on them so fast. I could see others in the woods hunting in slightly wrong spots for points I had already hit, and it felt great to hit a navigational stride so early. I was trying to move at a solid jogging pace at this point in the race, and everything was clicking. After point 52 I went ENE to 33, and this one gave me trouble. I was what I thought was the correct re-entrant, at the right altitude, but for the life of me I could not locate the CP. After triple checking the map and running up and down hills for 15 minutes, I called it quits and said I could always come back in the AM. This was worth only 3 points, and I decided my time was better spent leaving this one, and taking extra time hunting for a 9 pointer later in the event.
This proved to be a worthwhile strategy. There were only a couple CPs that I whiffed on, and for each of those they were low point values, on which I spent no more than 15 minutes before bailing. The longest CP of the entire race to find (after I was in it’s approximate location) was 30 minutes (I’ll discuss this later), but every other point took no more than 15 minutes of hunting, and generally on average 5 minutes once I landed nearby. I attribute this to the compass skills I had acquired through the many years of ARs, and a fantastic new tool my wonderful wife had gotten me, a Suunto Core altimeter watch. I had used other altimeter watches in the past, and had found them useful to +/- 100ft of where you actually were. I had been told that Suuntos were remarkably precise, and was interested to see how this stood up over the course of the day. Early on, it seemed quite accurate, and I began the race by trusting that +/- 100ft figure I’d always had in the back of my mind. A great additional resource I figured, not perfect, but great to prevent false summits. You’ll hear how it continued to serve me as the day continued.
Also, the early strategy of sticking to roads/trails for the majority of early travel, and then only breaking off at known attack points allowed me to move quickly, and always gave me a clear “out” if I got turned around during the race.
After coming down from 33 I actually ran right into Eric! He said he got a bit turned around at the start, but once he really focused on the map he started nailing the early points. I knew he would be cruising on this lower portion of the course as he can basically run forever, so I knew I had to keep being on point with my nav. I continued onto 62 and 43, then back to the road, and then up a re-entrant to 53. I decided from here it was better to head right up the mountain to a trail and then take the trail to point 85. From 85 I went down to 98 and ran into Eric again, then trekked back up to the mountain trail. At this point I realized 2 things. Contour lines were really, really, really steep. 98 probably would have been better to attack from 64, and then gone back to 64 and the trail afterward. Walking back up from 98 was a massive pain in the ass due to the slope. Secondly, Eric was flying on the trails, and I knew he was going to be ahead of me for most of this early leg.
The rest of this leg was spot on. I went to the trail bend by 61 and then went right up to 61, then dead reckoned to 87, and finally nearly due W to 54 which was a beautiful overlook into the next couple parts of the race.
11:45 - 15:15 (6.6 miles)
The original plan was to come down from 54, go over the river at the marked crossing and climb the hill to 63. This would have been a great plan if there was a bridge. Instead, I was greeted with a 15 foot wide river, 2 feet deep, flowing at a nice pace with slippery looking rocks at the bottom. I first thought I would skip this river crossing and continue south to 71, as my feet were pretty dry and keeping them taken care of this early in the race was important. I thought that Eric probably would have thought the same thing and skipped this river junction. There were 6 other places where I had to cross on the map, and I had to assume that they were also crossings without proper bridges. Knowing at some point my feet were going to get wet, I decided to cross, telling myself that I would have to be very aware of how my feet were doing later on given that they were getting soaked this early. To make it really worth my while I decided that I’d go north and grab 78, then grab 63, as 7 points would be very valuable. After hitting 63 I crossed the river again to find 71.
Who did I run into at this point but Eric, running along the trailline trying to find 71 as well! He was doing well, running all over, but was having trouble getting 71 (and I was right, he did skip the prior river crossing!) We decided we’d team up here for old time sake and get 71 together, and then once we got back on the trail he tore off westbound to the next river crossing. It was fun to see him on the course, as there were very few people I had crossed paths with so far.
Next up was 35 which was a pain to get to (again, vertical was crazy here.) In hindsight, it would have been better to hit 71, then cross to 63, then slowly make my way over to 35 and take the steep way down to the trail then to 72. Lessons I would take to heart as the race went on. The rest of this section went slowly and smoothly, 72 and 64 were easy to find. The trail by 92 was supposed to end according to the pre-race briefing, but it actually existed and took me right to the ford marked on the map. In order to figure out where to cross to get to 92 I basically just hiked right along the river and counted the re-entrants (3rd one on the right!)
I hit 92 spot on and ran into an AR team from Oklahoma I had met a few times before, they were also planning on doing 24 hours so it was nice to chat with them for a bit. Their plan was to head back to the hash house and get some warm food when night hit, which I had opted against when plotting my route. I had planned going into the race that I probably wasn’t going to return, the extra food weight was easily worth the extra points I could hit by staying out the entire 24 hours.
15:15 - 20:15 (9.8 miles)
This next part was run, and I think I made some of my best navigational choices here. The part carved over southern Trimble Mountain and Elkhorn Mountain. My route was to go north from 92 up 73, then 84, then 66. This avoided climbing up the nasty cliff on the east of Trimble, and kept me on a night consistent altitude and bearing. 92 → 73 → 84 was a breeze, and the altimeter was insanely useful to prevent me from “drifting” while sticking on the hillside. Often when you’re going across a hill there is a tendency to drift up/down, even with a bearing set. The altimeter kept me level, and I was gaining more trust in it, it was insanely accurate.
At 84 I made my first significant route change. I was initially going to continue on and hit 66, then back to the trail, 94, then 81. However, the weather wasn’t great so I was going to lose daylight earlier. I felt it was more important to get the 9 pointers on the mountain while it was light out, so I decided to hit 66 later on when I came back for 46. This proved to be a good strategy, as I easily found 94, 37, and 96 and then made my way down to the road. Another racer and I had been criss-crossing paths a bit in this section, and we ended up meeting on the road. He was on the 12 hour course and was going to 36 next, so we stuck together heading up the re-entrant to that CP. Again, it was really nice to talk to someone, as I had only seen a handful of people all day, so conversation was welcome. After 36 we split ways as he was going back to the finish line for his race, and I bushwhacked my way to 83, then down to the road, through the campsite east, and to another river crossing where I easily went NNW to 81 and back down.
At this point, I knew nightfall was coming, so I decided to get ready. I refilled my water, got my headlamp set, and changed my food bags in my pockets so I could move for another 5-6 hours before needing another water stop.
The last 3 points in this section were easy to hit, even with the fading light. It was a quick brisk walk up the road to find the re-entrant that would take me to 88, and then a second re-entrant to 45 → 55 and back to the road. The sun had now cast its last rays over the mountain range, and I flipped on my headlamp knowing the next 12 hours were going to be the hardest, as night navigation is what separates the men from the boys….
20:15pm - 00:30 (6.7 miles)
Of course, as the sun dropped, the rain started to really kick into high gear (and wouldn’t stop for the rest of the night.) I had to throw on my rain pants, because without them every single step in the woods just got my tights more and more waterlogged, and I knew would lead to heat issues later on. I also changed into a dry shirt which was really nice, even though it only stayed dry for an hour or so.
First CP looked like a simple one to get to from the stream/road crossing, SW over a re-entrant. I plotted course and thought I landed pretty close to the point, but could not seem to find it anywhere! At one point I ran across another racer in the woods who must have been looking for the same one, as my light reflected off his backpack. I ran in a circle for 15 minutes trying to hunt this one down, mad that this was how my night navigation was starting. Then I found that “racer” again, and slapped myself in the forehead. Even though Mark said none of the points had reflective tape on them, I walked up to this “racer” only to find it was actually the CP with tape on it! Had I just walked over to look at it earlier I could have saved 15 minutes of needless searching.
Now I made my way back to the road, and set a course north of the gaging station to 93 which was easily found. Next up was to cross the river and head north to 56, but bad things happened. As I was crossing the river, I slipped, and went in up to my waist. That wasn’t too bad, as I was already soaked, but I in the rocks with the hand I was holding my map bag in and it opened up and got the non-waterproof map soaked. Pieces of it tore apart in areas I hadn’t been to before. I panicked a bit but was able to put it back together, and decided that there was no way I could touch the map again for the rest of the trek. Why were these maps not waterproof!
I made my way to the road junction, hit 68, then walked my way up to 82. I took my bearing due E to try to hit the point on the saddle, but when I reached the top I was surrounded with fog so dense I couldn’t see 5 feet in any direction. I decided to limit my searching here, because it was impossible to see anything, and even though it was an 8 pointer I would have been wasting my time if I walked more than 5 minutes in a circle.
00:30 - 02:15 (3.6 miles)
I haven’t really mentioned yet what it felt like going solo vs going with a team. During the day it wasn’t too bad, in fact Eric and I both agreed after that going solo has some advantages. You have one person to take care of, yourself, which means you can stop whenever you want to “fix” things instead of trying to optimize when to stop as a team. This meant when I was hungry, I ate. When I had to go to the bathroom, I stopped. When I needed water, I refilled immediately rather than waiting until Eric needed to fill up too. When I needed to change my gear, I did it. You get the idea.
This comes with a similar set of drawbacks. No second set of eyes on the map. No second set of eyes on the trail (which I think is even more important.) I have no doubt that with Eric scouting 15 yards to my side on most of these CPs we would have found them in under 2 minutes, rather than my usual 5, and there was no way I would have whiffed on the few I bailed on early. There is also no one to push you. Eric has always been the physically stronger of our duo, and he knows how to keep me working just outside my comfort range. In this race I had to keep pushing myself harder than I remotely wanted to, in really treacherous conditions, consistently, while my brain kept saying “sit down, it will feel nice.” But this is why we both choose to do this solo, so we could face our weaknesses head on and better ourselves.
Speaking of your brain, going with a team allows you to talk to another real live person when you’re going through the crappiest conditions. There is someone to joke with, someone who is in the same pain you’re in, hell, even if you’re mentally out of it and don’t want to talk just knowing there is another person 10 feet away from you is nice. Eric and I have always joked that 1-4am is the hardest part of a race, it’s when the sleep monsters come for you, and this was the most challenging part of the entire event for me. I felt myself slipping away on the walk from 82 to the trailhead to 46. It was a dull, constant slog down a dull rocky road, with nothing but the sound of raindrops and blackness in every direction. My brain knew it could start to fade, and fade it did. I hallucinated things in the woods, rocks turned into raccoons and stones turned into frogs but it didn’t seem to affect me in any way. I remember a deer or 2 crossing the road and I just didn’t care.
I hadn’t seen a single human being in 6 hours. I’m not talking about “oh I was sitting at home all day and didn’t see anyone, but I had my phone and my Playstation”, but more of a “I live in a bubble of 50 feet of battery powered light, with darkness all around, and there have been no signs of human life/civilization since it went dark.” I asked myself as I shivered, soaked completely from head to toe, why on earth I decided to do this. I missed Steff, I hoped Eric would pop out of the woods and tell me to stop being such a wuss. I was in a dark place and I knew it, and I wasn’t sure how to recover. Everything was sore, I was bleeding out of a bunch of cuts. I fell asleep 3-4 times while walking and only woke up because my body realized I was falling over.
“Stop, and fix it”. That’s really all I remember forcibly telling myself on that cold, wet road at 2am. I dropped my pack and started singing some Jimmy Buffet. I talked to myself about what I was going to do next. I ate an entire bag of gummy worms and drained a 5 hour energy and looked at my map and literally said to myself “Man up Rick, goddammit man up!” I yelled a toad to stop looking at me funny. And then I started walking. And the monsters started to go away. And my brain started to turn back on. And I knew… I knew at that point I made it through my hardest part of the race, and all I had to do was stick to my plan for the rest.
The toads had never heard such a beautiful rendition of Margaritaville.
02:15 - 04:15 (3.6 miles)
Plans back on track, I nailed the next 2 points. 46 was easy to get to, a nice slow trail climb followed by a 50 meter climb up a re-entrant. Then I went in the opposite direction and climbed up the trail to the nearest point to 66 (remember, I had saved this one from earlier in the day.) This point was only half a kilometer out, and then it was a straight shot down to the road.
Nothing is that easy. There are lots of things that are annoying/dangerous on these races. Poison Ivy, I don’t seem to get it. Bears, no worries, I could scare a bear. Nettles, annoying but they just scratch you a lot. But rhododendron bushes, I’ve never hated something so much in my life. It took me 40 minutes to get this checkpoint, because these damn bushes were so dense I continually smashed my shins while trying to claw through them. As such, my lower legs look like I owed the mafia some money and they came to collect. Every step forward resulted in several smacks to the face, and a fresh wall of plants to battle. It’s an absolute miracle I found this CP, as it was one of the non-reflective ones. If anyone was near the mountain that night, I’m sorry for the constant slew of swears I was barking at the plants. I descended as fast as humanly possible and prayed I wouldn’t have to do something like that again, and decided that my plan of ignoring the “thick” section way north was a good idea.
Back on the road, I hopped across to the re-entrant, and climbed right up to 95. I filled my water for the last time, and prepped for the last leg of the journey.
04:15 - 07:50 (5.4 miles)
Given the time I had left, and the pace I was moving, I opted to climb up to the Grindstone Mountain ridge trail north of me, and ignore 74. There was no really obvious attack point, and 91 was easier to find.
Quick note here, the Suunto altimeter was absolutely amazing. I’m talking confidence to +/- 10 feet all day long, which allowed for some really interesting ways to attack the remaining CPs. To get to 91, I basically walked until I got to 2200 ft, then cut due north to land above 91. I then simply crossed the brook and walked down the other side until I found it. The same was true when I went to attack 86. I went north to the middle mountain trail and walked up to 2300 feet and then went north again. That type of confidence in this new tool unlocked a ton of new ways to approach points, I’ll never race without it again. It blew away any other barometric pressure based watch I’d ever used.
After 86 I had a decision to make. The sun was coming up which was nice and let me know i was in the final stretch, and I could either try to find 77 and then head back, or just head back and try to snag the two 3 pointers I left from the prior day. Because we were penalized a point per minute late, I didn’t want to chance it and decided to head back. This was a good idea because it actually took me a little longer than I expected, and had trouble finding 31 anyway so having a bit of time near the end was good. I made my way to the finish with 30 minutes to spare, exactly the type of buffer I was hoping for.
The first person I saw as I entered the finish area was Eric, and at first I thought I was hallucinating because he actually started after me. I wasn't hallucinating, and he had come in just an hour earlier as the cold was starting to get to him and going after a few of the father checkpoints would have been risky for him. I probably looked like I had been dragged through a few river beds (well, I had been..)
I turned in my sheet and quickly threw on dry clothes and came back to scarf down post-race grub and heat up by the fire. My feet and hands were…. Interesting. After being constantly wet for 12+ hours they had started to peel and fall apart in different ways, I knew recovering/walking would be fun the next day.
Mark finished calculating the scores and threw them on the board. Eric looked at me and said “Dude… you won the solo.” I couldn’t believe it, out of all the 24 hour teams (solo and multi) I pulled down 3rd place, and I did flat out win the solo! Turns out my route choices were really solid, and my decision to prioritize large point CPs and skip the smaller ones was clutch, as many other teams scored more CPs than I, but my point values were higher!
Eric and I both talked about our experiences, and 100% agreed that it was beneficial to solo this one. It forced him to get better at navigation, and it forced me to push myself to a physical level I normally wouldn’t have. We took a nap and went back to his sisters, and took them out for a nice big “thank you” meal and we ate about a million calories of food, then slept before our flight early the next morning.
Biggest take-aways from this course:
- Second hardest race I’ve ever done, bested only by Untamed New England. The physical/mental endurance combo while racing solo made it unbelievably hard, and the vertical gain was unexpected.
- Value points over absolute # of CPs. Time-box looking for low value CPs. I’m convinced this is what led to my win.
- Prioritize bushwhacking to daylight hours. I planned this, and it paid off.
- In the future, bring contact paper in case the maps aren’t waterproof. You will appreciate it when you fall in a river at 10pm.
- I hate rhododendron bushes.
- At night you’re basically flying blind with a set of tools. Trust the compass, trust the terrain, trust the altimeter. If your brain says “this is north” but the compass points elsewhere, trust the compass.
- Altimeter is a way more useful tool than I predicted. Consistently calibrated, it opens up tons of route options.
- It’s a mental game as always, your brain will tell you to stop in tricky ways. Learn to battle the monsters.
- The value of a team. As with every race I went to a dark mental place. Looking back at the years of racing with Eric makes me appreciate and realize how important it is to have a teammate who knows how to push you just hard enough, and to have someone who can help you when the sleep monsters come out. This is an important realization not only for racing, but for deciding who you surround yourself with in real life.