Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

January 18, 2016

Happy Mutant AR not a Happy Ending For This Racer

Bummer.  The very first race I've ever quit...and after about 500 races that's not something I take lightly.

The rest of my team Unplugged Adventure is still out racing here in St. George, Utah.  I wish them all the best and hope they finish strong.  Unfortunately I forgot to leave the SPOT tracker with them so updates will have to come from the race management.

The first 18 hours of the race went really well.   I'll give you a recap of it and then let Jeff, Eric and Jon fill in the details for the final couple of days.  

Pre-Race Planning
Our first two checkpoints were on the bike.  Beyond that, we had no idea what to expect because we would get new checkpoints at each transition.  Conditions at the 7 pm race start were chilly, and going to get colder through the night.   After overstuffing our gear in our small team bin, we were anxious to get out there and start racing...waiting around is frustrating for everyone.

Section 1:  Biking 25 miles

Not too cold yet as we started off, on a paved flat, fast section through the town of Washington and and then gravel up onto the Warner valley plateau.  Unfortunately it was dark, so we couldn't see the nice scenery around us, but with days ahead of us everything would be revealed.   Checkpoint 1 was about a mile off the dirt road.  Jon led us out at a fast walk, even as he navigated with a compass through and around cactus and other scraggly desert bushes.   We found the sandy wash we wanted, and walked uphill to the checkpoint.  Lights of other teams were around us, but as some of them had chosen to ride their bikes instead of walk (our map had no roads in the area so we had taken a safe route), so we couldn't rely on other teams to show us the way.   The wash turned into a narrow rocky stream bed, and even in the light of our headlamps it looked pretty cool.  

Back on our bikes, we navigated around the roads to the first transition.   With ATV trail junctions everywhere it wasn't easy.   With a little moon, if we were confused we would cover all our lights and look for hill shadows sticking up above the horizon to see where we were in relationship to them.   In tricky intersections this really helped...navigating at night is a lot harder than in daytime.  

Section 2: Trekking 18 miles

At the transition, we got the next set of 7 checkpoints and fairly quickly were ready to head out. Jon had put his head down and plotted all the coordinates on the map with accuracy and precision.   With only three hours on the bike, we hadn't eaten or drank much, so our packs were still full and ready for another section.   Our first checkpoint was on the Honeymoon Trail, which we reached about midnight.  Eric was unexpectedly quiet on the walk, and it turns out he was counting his steps to help us navigate!   Every 240 right footsteps, he would call out "quarter mile" and keep counting.  This helped us find tricky intersections at night without the help of GPS or phones.  What we couldn't see in the dark, unfortunately, were the dinosaur tracks and petroglyphs scattered around the area.  

While counting, Eric pulled out his trail mix, which I guess was some Turkey Bites mixed with gummy bears, and groaned when he realized the meat had caused the gummies to melt into everything else.  It sounded and looked pretty gross, and in transition he ended up throwing the whole mess away, which was a good portion of the food he had packed... Uh oh.

The honeymoon trail had taken us into Arizona, and then climbing up the Hurricane cliffs took us temporarily back in and out of Utah.  It's fun to cross state lines!   Once up on lower Little Creek Mesa, I took over navigation and led us around the maze of little gravel roads and cross country.  Our team was traveling quickly together and keeping a very consistent pace.  I could look at the map, tell the team to look for a turnoff road in 8 minutes, and 8 minutes later there it would be!  Luckily for Eric, step counting wasn't necessary for a while, so he could talk and eat without a silent count in his head.  A few times we had to set off through the trackless desert (aside from a stray cow pie), and there Jon always had the lead with a steady compass line straight as an arrow.  On Checkpoint 6 we popped out right at the flag after a mile of stepping over an around cactus and through small washes...pretty amazing.  

At Checkpoint 7 our luck soured a bit...we spent 30 minutes searching for a checkpoint that turned out to be missing...I'm sure we had gone right to where it should have been in the first minute too.  But that sometimes happen in races, and we were relieved that all we had left to get back to the transition was a steep descent back down Hurricane cliffs.  The map showed a mass of cliffs with a stream cut through them....we took a chance there was a decent line, to avoid walking miles out of our way.  It was difficult, but we were able to find a steep rocky place to get down.  

Section 3: Biking 45 Miles

Light was showing in the west as we walked out the bottom end of the cliffs into transition.   There we got more checkpoints and back on the bike.  It was COLD...over the night we had put on almost all the clothing we had with us.  I couldn't keep my hands warm with trekking poles, so I had put them away and tucked my hands in my armpits.   We weren't eager to spend too much time outdoors and not moving, so rather than plotting all the points, we knew the first one would take us into Over the Edge bike shop in Hurricane.  Gathering up more food, water, maps and supplies for 12 hours, we rode 12 miles down into town and got breakfast at a cafe.   Food and warmth allowed us to thaw our feet up, change socks, look at the maps (we had forgotten one back in transition and so used a commercial map instead...ooops) and strategize.  

If the race so far had been relatively flat, today made up for it.  Our first climb was up onto lower Gooseberry Mesa.  The gravel roads, which had been frozen hard all night, were starting to thaw in the late morning, and we all got our first dose of mud splatters going downhill to the Virgin River.   Unfortunately we bypassed some really great single track...we were starting to realize that ground conditions weren't very good, and didn't want to mess up the trails by riding on them and leaving ruts.   We didn't realize until a little later just how bad conditions really were...more on that later.  

Where's the Checkkpoint?
Without the right map, we futilely searched for a checkpoint at the river until the race director happened to drive by and point it out to us...it was in the right spot but rather hidden...the clue was "large rock" in a forest of rocks!   The race director had been driving up to one of the next checkpoints, but turned back because the gravel road was too muddy.  That started to clue us in about how our day would go.  

The muddy descent down to the river gave us time to stare at our next ascent up to Steamboat mountain.  The three miles of paved road up to the top of the mesa was super steep...we all geared down to our granny gear and pedaled for almost an hour.   Looking out from a rest break, we could see the next checkpoint would make us climb up another steep mesa, and the one after that, climb back up on Gooseberry Mesa.   I like suffering as much as any other adventure racer, but I like a little adventure with my racing.   I could see that with the trails too muddy to ride, our adventures for the day would be limited to  suffering up a lot of steep hills.  

Finally atop Steamboat Mesa, our checkpoint was to be found out on the Flying Monkey mountain bike trail.   But it was immediately obvious that even the gravel road to the trail was impassable.   We tried to ride the road, and within a hundred feet, my back tire had locked up, the frame so full of mud that nothing could move.  Our next option was to hike to the checkpoint and leave our bikes behind...but with a few people around, we left a teammate to guard them...race rules or not, nothing is worth having our bikes stolen.  

The walk to the checkpoint sucked the life and energy right out of me.   A few inches of snow hovered on the ground in the forest, and the gravel road was a rutted mess which coated our shoes with mud and got our feet wet...just what we didn't need on a cloudy day that never seemed to warm up.  Even the ground under the snow was soft and muddy, and along the way we had to jump across a few washes, which looked like rivers of mud inching along the ground.   It was, I feared, an example of what we would find the rest of the day on the course, until the ground froze again during the night. Back at the bike, I had to scrub my wheels off with snow to get them to turn enough to ride back down the hill.  

The conditions added to my frustrations with the race organizers (I don't mean to complain but this race fell way short of my expectations).  In short, we had very limited gear storage in transition, meaning that we hadn't been able to bring much at all in the way of spare clothing and warm sleeping gear.  With temperatures hovering around freezing, any moisture at all would make us really cold.  So wet feet was a problem, especially with the transitions being outside in the freezing temperatures.  It's hard to warm up without dry clothes and a warm place to transition, and to top it off we knew we wouldn't have anywhere warm to sleep that night (we had planned on nodding off for a few hours at least).    

Plus there didn't seem to be much adventure in this race.   It was advertised as having some caving, ropes, and canyoneering sections, but all we had seen was a lot of biking and walking.  I race for fun and adventure.   When it becomes just survival, and long distances without any purpose, I fail to see the point of it.   I do that myself when I'm training, but when I pay for a race I do have expectations that the organizers should provide what they stated they would.  

So I made the decision to pull out of the race.  I didn't need to slog through another 48 hours of hiking and biking to prove anything.   A race of this length takes a lot out of me physically, and if I wasn't enjoying it on some level, then there is no reason to waste the time and energy.  Apologies to my teammates for not following through my commitment to the team, and I hope they are going on to have a wonderful rest of the race!
The guys with a flask and beer at the finish!

Post-Race Note:  It's Monday morning (40 hours later) and my teammates have just finished.   I found them at the finish line to see how the rest of the race went.  After we parted ways, they climbed back up to Gooseberry Mesa as the shortest way to get to the next TA.  On top, they found the mud so deep that they alternated riding, carrying, and cleaning their bikes off with snow to get the wheels to keep turning.    Evidently another team in the same area had decided it was faster to walk to the checkpoints and left their bikes.  After coming back to their bikes 4 hours later, they found the mud completely frozen and were unable to change gears anymore!

My team then passed a cold night in transition, trying to get a bit of sleep.  But outdoors without sleeping mats or warm bags, they said they shivered by the fire for a while before continuing on.  Eric was getting a few blisters too by now.

I'm paraphrasing here a bit as I don't know all the details.  The route took them to lower elevations, where the mud changed to deep sand atop Sand Mountain.    Several checkpoints on a night trekking section seemed to be MIA, with one team searching for 4 hours before giving up.  Whether the flags where there or not, the locations were not on "handrails", meaning next to a trail, junction, fence or other geographical feature which can be used to navigate to it.  Without a GPS, finding a point on a random tree in a forest, or a random rock on a cliff, is quite challenging and not terribly fun either.

More biking sections brought them back down to the Over the Edge bike shop in Hurricane, where they were really happy to have a hot cup of coffee.  They also stood atop Molly's Nipple, a prominent landmark on the cliffs above the town.  On Jeff's Birthday, no less! He called his wife from the top of the apply named landmark, but I'm not sure if he said where he really was....!

After a third cold night spent outside, the team skipped the final trek and biked to the finish about 8 am.  They were happy to see hot breakfast and I'm sure by now they have enjoyed a hot shower and will be asleep for the rest of the day.  They were pleased they had continued to the finish, and said they had seen some great scenery, but mentioned the deep sand in some of the trekking sections had been tough on their feet...not to mention the mud.

I had a great time racing with the guys and wish it could have been in a better run race...they were upbeat, smart with the navigation, and easy to get along with.  Jon, Jeff and Eric, I hope to see you again somewhere!

Turkey Bites and Gummy Bears do not store well together! 
Sunrise on Day 2

At the Start

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