USARA National Championships - Santa Barbara, CA - Nov. 3-4, 2006

Ring … Ring Where am I? Grope for phone, “Hello?” Voice on the other end, “Good morning. This is your wake up call from the Doubletree Resort…” Shot of adrenaline with the realization that this is race morning, Friday at 4:15am, and my team is in Santa Barbara ready to dive into our third USARA National Championship race. Over the past 3 years, we have noticed that the level of competition has risen considerably at the yearly championship race. We are all nervous about how the race will shake out for us, given our complete lack of ocean kayaking (of which there would be plenty), and no team experience with racing in the mountains (uhm, what is an altimeter?), not to mention the presence of the top teams in the country. No pressure!

My team, WEDALI, qualified and sent 2 teams to Nationals again this year – in 2005 this proved key to our success, to race with 6 rather than 3 teammates. This year, WEDALI consisted of Molly, Erl and Justin, while WEDALI #2 included Scooter, Darrin and me. This would be Darrin’s first USARA Nationals race, and his first race over 12 hours. He was nervous, and we were excited for him, knowing that he would love the experience. In the weeks leading up to the race, his enthusiastic emails always put a smile on my face and raised our anticipation for this last race of the year. At the airport Wednesday night we ran into Jason Nielsen, our friend from IowaActive and Nationals teammate from last year. Turns out he decided to accompany us to the race, and hang with us for the next 4 days. It was great to see Jason again, and he was an immense help with all of the race preparations. Throughout the race course he would pop-up with camera in hand – we kept looking forward to his random appearances.

We received our maps and most instructions Thursday night before the race, and spent a considerable amount of time planning our route, preparing gear, and getting bikes ready. None of us had ever done extensive navigating in the mountains, and the USGS maps that we were using had probably last been updated 20 years ago. Local teams would have a huge advantage, knowing the trail system and how to pace their race for the mountains.

After a hurried breakfast, last minute preparations were completed, and we headed out at 5am to stage our boats on the beach in front of the hotel. “Boats” is really a generous term, as each team was allotted 2 Sevylor inflatable kayaks, which we have affectionately termed “rubber duckies.” The one good thing about them is that they are really hard to capsize. Otherwise, they are incredibly slow, tough to steer, and are prone to leaks and sudden deflation. We dumped all of our paddling gear on the shore, and took off on our bikes, peddling 5 miles east along the coast to the race start. 6am and we arrive at the start of the race, and get our second set of instructions, which means plotting a few more points. We realize that instead of the 5 mile paddle, it will be more like 10 miles; we hope we have packed enough warm/waterproof clothes as we would be sitting in the duckies for a few hours at least.

6:45am – We walk down to starting line on beach, between the huge GoLite flags. A few pictures in the rising sun, 150 racers all geared up for the start, and some last minute jitters. We clown around for some group shots, and then huddle in for our customary group hug.

7am start – Coasteering and Kayaking
Count down to start – 150 racers run west a few hundred meters to spread out the pack. Our game plan was to start out at a steady pace and not sprint to stay in the front or jocky for position. This was going to be a long race and we didn’t need to carelessly expend our energy in the first hour. We were running along the ocean, trying to find the sweet spot where it wasn’t dry sugary sand, but where our feet weren’t submerged in water. There were some rock gardens to navigate, and seawalls where the pack spread out into single-file. We had our first sighting of Jason during this section, as he was waiting for us on a bridge – say CHEESE!

After about 6 miles of running, we arrived at the hotel where we had placed our boats just hours before. WEDALI#2 hit the ocean first, hopped in the boats and prayed like mad that we wouldn’t capsize trying to break through the surf. After a few attempts, we were in our rubber duckies and settling into a paddling rhythm. WEDALI caught up soon afterwards, and passed us in short order. It was apparent that Scooter and I were the slowest boat. Why couldn’t I steer this blasted inflatable contraption? Both Scooter and I were working so hard and getting frustrated with the lack of progress, but managed to stay relatively close to the others. Once we grabbed CP1 and turned around to head east, we got further and further behind. We kept trying to reason through what we could do to fix the situation, and finally Scooter figured it out; there wasn’t enough weight in the front of the boat so the waves and current just kept tossing us around every which way. As soon as I pushed Scooter’s seat forward and crammed him into the front of the boat, it was smooth sailing. Note to self: try to fatten up Scooter before next ocean paddle.

We were finally gaining back some ground on the other boats, when Scooter stopped paddling and said “I’m going to puke,” and proceeded to do just that. With characteristic thoughtfulness, he managed to aim outside the boat. We still had over 45 minutes of paddling until we reached the shore, and poor Scooter was ghost white the entire time. I kept telling him to just take it easy, don’t worry about paddling and that I would get us in. He kept on paddling though, with a few more breaks as he was trying to keep down his breakfast. Unfortunately, this endeavor was not as successful as it could have been, and Scooter heaved the entire contents of his stomach into the Pacific Ocean during the last few miles of the paddle. During Scooter’s ongoing battle with his raisin bagel, there were seals, sea lions and dolphins swimming alongside the boats. Occasionally a seal would pop up its head, look around, bark a few times, and dive back underwater. It was completely surreal as they were not more than 15 feet away.

TA1/CP2 10:41am: Biking
At long last, Scooter, Darrin and I beached our inflatable kayaks, and as soon as Scooter’s feet hit dry land he immediately felt 50% better. As we hauled the boats uphill to our bikes, Jason met up with us and said that WEDALI had been there about 20 minutes, and were still waiting for us. They had a really strong paddle section, and passed many teams along the way. At this point, the day was overcast and we were shivering cold from being soaked on the paddle section. In the TA, many teams were shedding wet clothes – all of them. This is why you don’t see many pictures from TAs, as they would lean towards the pornographic.

As we rejoined our teammates, Scooter was looking a bit less green, and managed to slam some fluids and food. We had both pushed it really hard on the paddle, and were on the brink of dehydration and possibly bonking. At this point, we had to play catch-up with our nutrition, a dangerous game so early in a long race. Would Scooter be able to boot-and-rally? Seeing as how he had taken care of the boot part (with flying colors so to speak), the rally part was in question. Note to self: Would I ever be able to eat another raisin bagel without thinking about the partially digested, ultimately rejected parts of one that decorated our Sevylor?

We started the long ascent on the mountain to CP3, leaving the TA in roughly 35th place. There were other teams near us, and we managed to pass a few. After some miles on pavement, we turned onto a gravel road, and slogged a few more slow miles uphill. Justin spied the singletrack trail that we needed to take, and we got off our bikes and started pushing since the grade was so steep and the terrain was full of rocks, roots, and stream crossings. Some sections of trail were difficult to even push a bike through; I couldn’t imagine riding it. It was getting hot with the sun directly overhead, and I was really over-exerting, heaving to catch my breath with rivers of sweat running down my legs. After having given so much during the paddle section, I was depleted and didn’t have a chance to recover during the uphill biking. Justin saw my struggle, got in front of me, and hooked up his biking tow line to my bike. This helped tremendously, and I soon was feeling refreshed and ready to dive back in. In retrospect, this was the hardest part of the race for me. We vacillated from pushing our bikes on the unridable stuff, to hopping on and peddling for short sections. I was getting frustrated with my lack of finesse on the technical single track – navigating rock gardens and psychologically dealing with the extreme drop off just feet from the side of the trail. Near the end of this section everything started to click for me, and I was again having fun on my bike. With this turn of attitude, we flew into TA2.

TA2/CP3 1:29pm: Trekking
At this point, teams could visit CPs 4, 5, and 6 in any order. We chose to grab 6, 5 and then 4, trying to maximize our downhill and travel on paths/roads. We started out on a paved road, then on a trail, all the time going downhill for what seemed like a few miles. Justin and Scooter navigated to the area for CP6 – an intersection of 2 dried riverbeds - and we walked along the rocks until we found CP6. Off to CP5 – after a bit of searching, we hooked back up with the trail we ran out on. This did involve our one and only attempt at bushwhacking. We scrambled up a steep slope that was thickly covered in bushes, shrubs and trees. At points we had to crawl along on our hands and knees to fight through it. It was almost impassible for the big guys on the team – Erl and Darrin were slithering on their bellies trying to get though. Luckily the trail was just on the other side of the worst section. We brushed off and kept on running. The impassible foliage was going to change our navigation tactics tremendously. Usually Justin and Scooter worked together by pace counting, shooting bearings and liberal amounts of bushwhacking to reach CPs. We were going to have to change our strategy to use trails and roads only, as it would be much faster even though the distances would be a lot longer. We were again running on trails to reach CPs 4 and 5, which were both on hilltops fairly near each other. The trail we were on finally dumped out onto a road, and we ran it to a trail that went along a ridge line to near CP4. This was slow-going – very steep and we were thankful for our trekking poles to help us up the mountains. We hit both CPs at about 4pm, and made our way back on the trail we went out on, and eventually hit the paved road which would take us back to TA2. During these last miles on foot, the sun set and night approached; however we didn’t need to break out our headlamps. The moon was full and so bright that it was casting shadows. Once this was voiced, Molly broke out into a few choruses of “Moon Shadow” by Cat Stevens.

Our water supplies were completely out, and luckily our planned stream crossings came at just the right time. There was great access to a fairly wide, fast flowing river with refreshing cold water where we filled all of our bladders and bottles. There was another team here as well, however they had lost their iodine tablets to treat the water for drinking. Their dilemma was a bit like a diabetic standing in front of an all-you-can-eat dessert buffet; all of this abundance of the key fuel they really wanted, but could they risk it? They could take the chance of drinking the untreated water, but there was a real probability of death, or worse... After having suffered through leptospirosis after Nationals last year, Scooter and I put liberal amounts of iodine in our water supply after giving some to the other team, and killed the taste with packets of Gatorade. Pre-race, Darrin decided to try out a new flavor of Gatorade, Xtreme-Fierce-Apple-Crisp or some other such misnomer (foreshadowing). He was kind enough to split this packet with his teammate Molly (more foreshadowing). Molly has a very active gag-reflect (you can now see where this is headed). For the rest of the race, trooper that she is, Molly forced down, and unfortunately back up, untold amounts of this vile concoction. Rumor has it that she has now forsworn all types of apple pastry. Note to self: Apple Crisp Gatorade mix is evil and should be eradicated.

TA3/CP7 6:04pm: Biking
We made it back to our bikes which was now CP7, and transitioned to biking. We left CP7 bundled in our warm clothes after having taken a 10 minute break switching from trek to bike. The wind was fierce, and a few of us were shivering from the cold. We were actually happy to see that we started off uphill – anything to help warm us up and dry our wet sweaty clothes. It was completely dark, and we were biking on a paved road, somewhere between 3000 to 5000 feet of elevation. At the top most points we were biking through the clouds, and the valleys were filled with fog. During some of the clearer sections, I could see the lights of downtown Santa Barbara; it was hard to imagine we had started the race that morning on the beach – it seemed like such a long time ago. I tried to focus on the lights, but they kept dancing and flickering – apparently the sleep deprivation was catching up with me already.

We peddled for miles on the paved road, which gradually deteriorated into many potholes with minimal asphalt. There were about 3 different options from this road – 2 single track paths, and 1 two track. The fastest option looked like the one with the least singletrack and the most time on the paved road. We shot for that, and turned off onto the singletrack. The trail looked well traveled initially, but gradually it became more and more overgrown and hard to track. The trail became very steep and tough to fight through with our bikes, but it was still easy to convince ourselves that this would eventually end and the trail would pick up again. After about 20 or 30 minutes down this trail, we decided to turn back and choose another route. This found us scrambling to get back up some steep hills with loose rocks and sand. I could barely climb up it using my hands, much less be able to advance my bike. Darrin volunteered to take my bike up the steepest part, for which I was eternally grateful. At that point the bike felt like it weighed 100 lbs, but Darrin was slinging it around with ease. It is amazing how much even a little help from a teammate can go so far in reducing the physical and mental toll of a long race.

We made it back to the start of the trail, and sat down to empty our shoes. We realized that we had to go a few miles back on the paved road, and that the race clock was ticking. We all needed a pick-me-up and Erl pulled out some rally-time Skittles to share. It was just what we needed; we hopped back on our bikes, and found the Plan B route – a 2 track road called Romero trail. At this point, I realized that my front tire was flat. My tire had been punctured in multiple places by thorns during our bushwhack. Scooter worked his magic and took out the thorns, put a new tube in, and filled up with CO2. Little did I know that there were still some thorns left in my tire, and I would deal with a slow leak the rest of the race, and become an expert at the CO2 refill.

CP8 (11:35pm) and CP9 (1:35am): More Biking
After a 40 minute downhill on Romero trail, we arrived at the campground for CP8. Our friends from MN, the Patton family, had volunteered for the race and were stationed here – it was a great motivator to see some familiar, friendly faces. As we checked in, got water and readied ourselves for the next challenge, there were a number of other teams coming in and out of the CP. We headed up some double-track/single-track and began the long uphill grind which would last a few hours to CP9. We passed a few teams along this section, and came upon the checkpoint at a bend in the road, and had to wake up the volunteer to check in. We were quickly off on our bikes again, eager to get some more miles behind us. We could see other teams in the distance by their headlamps as the lights wound up the switchbacks to the top of the mountain. We had biked about a mile when Darrin got hit by his first case of the sleep monsters. He was falling asleep and we had to stop and walk for fear that he would drive himself right off the mountain. Right away we liberally medicated him with some Excedrin and caffeinated Jolt gum. We kept him moving, but he was still falling asleep, stumbling along with his bike. Scooter and I took turns talking with him, trying to engage him in conversation to keep his eyes opened. After about 30 minutes, 4 Excedrin and 6 pieces of Jolt gum, Darrin came around and was ready to jump on the bike again.

A few more miles on the bike, and we came to the point where we had to make a decision on which way to attack CP10, which was on a spur at a trail junction. The maps didn’t really detail the trails very well, and it was impossible to know which ones actually existed. We also knew that bushwhacking was nearly impossible, especially with bikes, so we went with the safest route, on a well traveled singletrack trail. We headed downhill for awhile, and then came to a clearing in a field. We wandered around here for a bit, realized we were way too low in elevation, and headed back up the trail we had just come down. We needed to find a trail that was at about 3750’, but we thought we were missing it, so we kept going up and down the trail. By this time, there were other teams doing the same thing. We regrouped, and headed back to the open field. Justin and Scooter decided to forget about the altitude, and just look at the land features. Darrin and Justin found the correct trail soon afterwards, but by that time about 5 other teams had followed us to the open field. We decided to go in stealth mode and turn off our headlamps. As we were walking away from the pack, we looked back and saw all 15 headlamps turned toward us, watching our every move. Blast. A few teams followed us, on what proved to be the correct trail to the spur. We watched the sunrise on this trail, and witnessed what appeared to be some military training activities. Just after the dawn, there was a plane high in the sky that create a sonic boom, and looked like it disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Scooter noticed it first, and had to check with his teammates to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating.

CP10 (6:12am) and CP11 (8:14am): Yep, still biking
We finally reached the end of this trail, and the checkpoint. We were just in time to see another team coming at the CP from a different trail. Justin and Scooter looked at their maps, and knew immediately the route they had taken. Justin and Scooter had thought about taking that path initially, however the map showed that it dead-ended and it would be bushwhacking with our bikes – always a slower choice. However in this case, it could have been a faster option, but given the amount of teams searching for CP10, many had chosen the route we did. By this time, I had run out of food. My bag of frozen pizza rolls, various granola bars, and a mass of energy shot blocks were distant memories, and luckily my teammates had extra to share. Note to self: How many calories and fat grams are in an entire bag of pizza rolls?

From CP10, the route was all the way back down the mountain to CP8. There were 2 choices – singletrack or the double-track/dirt road we had taken up. We decided that the singletrack would be much slower, so instead we retraced our steps from last night, only this time flying at 25 mph down the twisting switchbacks. It was incredible to be able to soar down the mountain on our bikes, and this 12 mile section of downhill was a favorite for most of us. We stopped to refill water at CP8, and took off to find CP11. A few fast miles on pavement and we found the CP at a trailhead in a parking lot. The volunteer there told us that the race was extended by 2 hours, and there were rumors of short coursing. We were excited to have 2 more hours to complete this race, and headed out on the road and eventually back to Romero trail. It was about 10am, and the sun was high overhead, heating things up. We had a long grind back up the mountain, and we knew it would probably be a few hours before we hit the next CP. We shifted into granny gear and kept spinning. We had been climbing for about an hour when Biz pipes up: Biz: “I think we are almost at the top.” Scooter: “Are you HIGH?” Biz: “What, do you mean like altitude?” Various teammates: “No, like are you smoking CRACK?” It had taken us 40 minutes to descend this trail last night, and it would take us another hour of spinning in granny gear and pushing our bikes up the steep parts (for a rest) to see the end of this trail. Finally reaching the gate for the start of this trail where it dumped out onto a paved road, we passed another team. I thought “whew! A break from climbing for awhile!” Alas, we still had a ways to go to the top of the mountain and we were going straight up. More spinning in small gears, not daring to look at the bike computer to see how blazing fast we were going, and finally we made it to the top of the hill and CP12.

CP12/CP14 (11:04am): and even more Biking
It was here that we received some disappointing information. We had missed the time cutoff for the Orienteering section by 1 ½ hours. Justin took this particularly hard because the O sections are where he shines and can usually make up a lot of time on other teams. We were instructed to skip all the rest of the CPs, and proceed directly to CP19, which was a bike drop with just a short sprint to the finish line. We all were a bit downtrodden, learning that we were to be short-coursed. We were hoping to have a chance to make up time with the O section and more biking navigation, but we accepted our fate and charged ahead. Down the mountain we go! I was a bit freaked out by my mostly-flat front tire and my rear tire with a broken spoke – which caused the tire to be out of true and a bit wobbly. How fast did I dare ride this jalopy down the mountain? In actuality, the bike was probably just fine to ride at breakneck speeds (a point that Scooter kept trying to drive home); the real issue was my confidence in both the bike and my ability to handle it under non-ideal circumstances. Onward! I managed to stay relatively near my teammates on the long decent, vacillating from letting the bike fly down the straight-aways, to gingerly pumping the breaks around the tight switchbacks.

We quickly made our way down into the city of Santa Barbara. While trying to find the fastest route through the city, Scooter rides next to me and says “Now THIS is a flat tire!” I looked down and saw that he was riding on his rear rim – the rubber of the tire was completely slack. Given the short distance and his crazy bike skills, we decided to power on to the end. On our way to the finish line at the hotel, we passed a burger joint that smelled heavenly – char-broiled smoke was wafting into the street and almost enticed us off of our bikes for an unscheduled detour. We peddled into CP19 where there was another surprise gear check. We pulled out the items, and then were free to sprint to the finish line, just a few hundred meters away. But wait! There was another team just a minute ahead of us! We tried to grab our gear and hustle to the finish line, but the distance was too short to overtake them. As it turns out, they had gotten less CPs than we did, so it didn’t make a difference in our final results. On our final sprint to the end we looked a bit like the walking wounded – legs fried from all the biking, liberally covered in dirt and filth, and stinking to high heaven. We ran up the stairs to the plaza, and hand in hand and crossed the finish line in 29 hours and 8 minutes.

We would later learn that the winning team took 24.5 hours to finish the course, and there was over 30,000 feet of elevation gain. Out of 50 teams, 12 dropped out, and not 1 team finished the entire course.

(C) 2004-2008 WEDALI adventure racing