July 29, 2010

Dusk 2 Dawn 2010

by: Chuck Vohsen

Robin and I have teamed up for about 10 adventure races now, they have all been in the 8 to 12 hour range. For the first few races our goal was just to finish, the next couple we wanted to finish and get all the checkpoints, and the last couple we’ve wanted to finish and place well. We’ve been accomplishing this progression of goals well enough that we have been itching to try some longer races. But I had never tried night time navigation and, well, I had self-doubts and plenty of what-ifs. We had been looking for the right opportunity to say ‘WTF’ and just go do it. So when Bonk Hard Racing put the Dusk 2 Dawn race on the 2010 calendar, we decided it was the perfect interim step to take before a 24 hr. We registered before we could find an excuse to talk ourselves out of it.
Bonk Hard sent an email update the week of the race to warn of some road construction in the area and to let us know there would be a pre-race bike drop. We had figured on a four and a half hour drive to Perry State Park, so we left with enough time for detours and bike drop before the pre-race meeting. The email also said something about high-water and flooded boat ramps. I’m sure Robin would have planned differently if she had known that all the park bathrooms were underwater. She looked like this for most of the race:
We were about a half-hour away from the park when we drove through a monster thunderstorm, wind, rain, and lightning. Most cars on the highway were pulling to the side to wait it out. We drove on laughing at the idea of canoeing on a dark reservoir with this storm pushing it into whitecaps and navigating by lightning strikes. (not the funny laugh, this was the nervous ‘we are going to die’ laugh). Luckily, we drove north out of the rain. We checked in at race HQ, picked up our race shirts, and instructions for the bike drop. The drop was across a bridge on the east side of the reservoir. We drove over and picked a picnic table to lean our bikes on, and taking advantage of previous race experience, we also left a gallon of water there. We spent a few minutes looking over a posted map of the trails in the area, and started guessing what the format of the race would be. Using the clues we had seen (canoes at HQ, bike drop at the start of singletrack, and previous racing experience) we talked out the plan a few different ways. Talked it over more, changed it again, and finally decided we had outsmarted Bonk Hard this time and knew the race format ahead of time. We would go on a short trek, then canoe to the bike, ride the singletrack, then some more trekking, and bike back to the finish. It was comforting and confidence building to know all this ahead of time.

We were entirely wrong. Jason called everyone over for the pre-race meeting and the first thing he says “Guess you’ve all seen the bus by now and know you will be driven out to the race start”. So much for outsmarting Bonk Hard, haha, we should know better. He told us that a lot of his original course was now underwater so he had changed it to match the flood conditions. He went over the usual rules and time cut-offs. Pre-plotted maps were passed out and half the teams climbed on the bus to the start, the other half waited for the bus to return. We spent our wait time productively and went over the maps plotting a course with highlighter, and making notes.

The bus ride was only about 10 minutes. It took us a few miles east of the bike drop. I was glad we waited for the second bus, we got that good planning time in, while teams on the first bus had to stand around in a field. Some of them looked anxious from waiting around by the time we arrived. Laura led us all in a prayer, Jason lined us up and said “Be safe, have fun, and GO”. We would trek to 9 checkpoints before biking.

The mass start run turned south down a little used road which deteriorated the further we ran, by the time we turned off to bushwhack over to the trail, it had just about disappeared. We ran trail all the way to the first checkpoint picking the right turns at a few trail junctions. Robin always takes the passport and keeps track of time. So she punched #1 and we were quickly off for CP2, deciding to take the slightly longer trail, instead of bushwhacking cross country. The trail could be run, so it was going to be faster, bushwhacking would be shorter, but much slower. We ran around a corner and came face-to-face with Ken and Chris and their TesteMax team. Ken is a fantastic navigator. First thing I thought was, I must be going the wrong direction. But they asked about CP1, we told them we already got it right up the trail behind us. I figured I must have gotten lucky and hit it just right.

It was getting dark enough on the way to CP2 that I turned my Black Diamond headlamp on. For CP2 we had to cross from the northern trail to a southern trail down the slope from us which ran along the lakeshore. We found a deserted connector two-track road the same time as another 2 person team, so both our teams ran together down the connector, I was the first one down, and found the trail ended in floodwater. We talked it over then ran back up the sloping road until we found the right spot to cross 100 meters of thick brush, their navigator leading part of the way, and I led for part of the way. There were so many spider webs, it was almost hard to believe. Every few steps another web would wrap around your head. We found CP2 on the trail right where we expected. We split off from the other team and started the run for CP3.

It was completely dark now, there was some on and off drizzle falling. The trails were wet and rocky. Robin was trying out some different trail shoes, she was sliding around dangerously. This trail was right along the edge of the lake, and in some places 20 ft above the water. She had to slow her running pace on the steep sections. I was impressed all over again with my Inov8 Roclite 305 shoes. They stick to the slickest rock imaginable.  I'm not the only one in love with these shoes.  Check out Inov-8's blog:

The maps for this race were not the usual 1-24,000 USGS maps, but much smaller 8.5 x 11 color copies with handwritten notes, and questionable scale lines. I assumed the lines for the trek map were 1K spacing. I told Robin to pace us for 2K to CP3. We ran the 2K and the map didn’t look at all right, so we kept running, I was wondering if we missed the CP when I picked up on some terrain features that made us look about halfway there. We kept running and finally found CP3, the same time as several other teams. We decided the map scale must be on 1 mile spacing.

The other teams were kind of milling around trying to decide the best way to CP4. We had punched and left in seconds. The pre-planned, color-coded route we made during the bus wait was paying off. CP4 through CP9 were scattered in an absolute maze of crisscrossing trails. The brush between the trails was loaded with thorns and poison ivy and an amazing number of spider webs. I was really happy with the zip-off long pants and gaiters we had worn. They were hotter, but the protection was priceless. We found CP4, CP5, and CP6 by trail running with bushwhacking shortcuts thrown in. We felt like we were passing other teams, but the maze of trails and headlamps flashing through the trees made it difficult to know for sure. I led us down a wrong turn on the way to CP7, it was a cross trail not shown on the map and I turned us too early. We recovered the original trail and grabbed CP7 and CP8 right away. CP8 was in a creek bed and we ran into TesteMax (not for the last time) as we were climbing up to the bike transition. We gave them an encouraging, “CP is just a little further up the creek” and we took off.

CP9 had a surprise gear check. We had to pull out rain jackets and emergency blankets. We gulped big drinks of water from the gallon jug of water we had left earlier then rode out. We pulled out sandwiches to re-fuel. Let me tell you: Peanut Butter and Honey Stinger on wheat bread is the greatest race food ever invented. CP15 was back at the start/finish, just a short ride away. We would not be back here again until after the canoe leg so we had to make a quick decision on paddles. It would be possible to ride with them in this race, but in the end we couldn’t find a good way to attach them to Robin’s pack. We’ll have to be more prepared for this next time, kayak paddles are a huge advantage. We would have to use whatever paddles were available.
After riding for about a half hour the glow-sticks started bothering me. I can’t explain it. I just had to open my pack and look for them. We were at the nearest point we would be for the rest of the night if we had to go back for them. We stopped and I dug into my pack finding nothing. I started dumping things in the road. I finally found them, three of them. Four are required gear for the canoe leg. Now, this is an example of a good team. We skipped right over trying to find fault or someone to blame, to finding a solution. Thanks teammate! Because this mistake was definitely on me. We decided that the lead we had built up was too good to give up. We took the risky choice and continued without the extra glow-stick. We talked about different scenarios as we rode. Deciding the most likely explanation was: It had fallen out of my pack during the gear check, and in the dark and transition chaos I just didn’t notice.

Another 2 person coed team stopped at the same intersection. I guess they were checking their maps. We overheard part of their conversation during my frantic search: “We can go back for CP19 after we go boating.” This stuck in my memory for several reasons. One, they were in our 2-person coed division. Two, I now know they are missing at least one checkpoint. Three, Boating? Hahaha, I’m going to be digging our canoe around the course as hard as humanly possible. They were going boating, maybe a spot of tea and a nice tennis match too?

The bike was all on gravel/potholed roads. There were a few hills, but none were unreasonable. Jason had to make some bike course changes because of the high water I talked about earlier, but we found all bike CP’s with no problems. They were all at obvious intersections or bends in the road. This is where I have to digress from race reporting for a second to explain something:

Robin is training for a full Ironman. She is about 6 weeks from race-day. This is significant because she is in the BIG part of the training plan right now and is riding about a hundred billion miles a week. So saying she rode this bike section hard and fast is a monumental understatement. (Robin edit: I’m not sure if it is the ironman training or my Trek Top Fuel that made the difference, but what ever it was, I wasn’t complaining)

By the time we were a third of the way through the bike, I was reduced to hanging on her wheel, just trying to survive the killer pace. We passed teams one after the other. Almost unbelievable, but at one point she turns back to me and asked “Am I going fast enough?” Apparently she thought I had put her up front so she wouldn’t fall off the pace. I would have laughed if I could have. I just gasped, “Are you freaking kidding me? I’m dying back here just trying to hang on!”

We were out all alone and getting close to CP21 when we rode up on a team at the side of the road. One of them was laying flat on their back. We asked if everything was all right. They said sure, just taking a break. It was an unlikely spot for a break, hope no cars came up on them. We picked up CP21 hanging on a fence near the lake’s spillway, and rode east through Thompsonville for CP’B’. Then we went onto the probably the easiest CP of the night, the canoe transition at the Perry Lake boat ramp, and I couldn’t find it.

We rode into the marina with a hard-earned lead. No canoes, bikes or CP in sight. We went up one road and down another, Robin asked some guys outside a bar if they had seen anyone on bikes, “No”. Several other teams rode in looking around too. We all went down road that ended in flood water. Driving down a road like this in daylight is no big deal. It’s a real surprise late at night:

The map detail at this corner of the lake had a Corp. of Engineers symbol covering up all the roads. We burned up most of the lead we gained on the bike and finally found the boat ramp (CP22) in the south-east corner of the dam.

We were given a new map for the canoe leg. It had CP23-CP26. (Robin Edit: When we reached the canoes we were worried about a gear check since we only had 3 glow sticks, but we got lucky, first there was not a gear check and second we found a canoe that had one glow stick still attached, so we grabbed that one now we had 4 glow sticks. I don’t know if it was fate, luck or divine intervention, but just in case I gave the big guy a thank you! before jumping in the canoe.) We were lucky enough to get one kayak paddle from the pile, Robin started out with it. We made it across the lake to CP23 and found out that the checkpoint was missing. It had either blown away in the storm or been taken away by someone. On the crossing to CP24 we traded paddles and it seemed like we were making better time with the kayak paddle in the back. At CP24 Robin jumped out of the canoe into some nasty flooded shoreline with enough floating gunk to look like a horror movie, and punched the passport. Also at CP24 we found out we had been paddling next to team TesteMax again. It’s hard to tell who is around when all you can see are some floating glow-sticks. We decided to practice drafting behind them. It worked beautifully, at times we had to work pretty hard to stay in their wake, but it was so worth it. I think there is a bigger benefit to canoe drafting than even in biking. We drafted them under a highway bridge and all the way to CP25.

We pulled the canoe into the point of land CP25 was on. The spot we pulled into was a logjam of flood debris. I was in back of the canoe and couldn’t see much up front so I asked Robin if there was a way to climb out to get the punch. She said “No, but there is a big snake up here.” Nice and calm. I was curious, so I said “I want to see” and took a paddle stroke forward. Not much thinking about how that one paddle stroke moved me from 12 ft away to 10 ft, also moved Robin from 2 ft away to just inches…..the canoe shot backwards…..”No you don’t!” (Robin edit: I paddle backwards like a madman to get away from that snake) We paddled a few meters west and beached in a more open spot. Robin ran up the hill and punched the passport. We paddled back out of the brushy shoreline to continue drafting TesteMax, only they were gone. They had opened such a huge gap, we never seen them again until the ramp.

We ended up turning off headlamps while on the water, I only clicked it back on occasionally to check the map. Strange as it sounds visibility was better with the lights off. I’m going to call this my second favorite paddle of the races I have done so far. It was cool and kind of mysterious paddling at night, with the moon occasionally breaking through open spots in the clouds.

Back at the ramp we found out Bonk Hard had added CP’s 28, 29, and 30 to our original map, all bike points. We transitioned fast only taking a few seconds. My legs felt like stone blocks, they didn’t want to move. I forced them to go and finally they warmed up again. We rode west across the spillway. It was still dark, and we had been riding for about 3½ hours. This is coincidentally the exact amount of time the rechargeable battery for my NiteRider handlebar light is advertised to last. It went out without a flicker or even a few minutes of dimness. I will need a backup battery for any longer races. This is not a knock on the lights, they were awesome and unbelievably bright!  Robin thought cars were driving up behind us at times.  Nope just my Niterider lights.  My headlamp was still working well, so between that and hanging on Robin’s wheel I was able to stay upright.
We were chasing two teams of red blinking lights up in front of us. We caught a two person team and passed them right before CP28. On the way to CP29 we were down to chasing a 4 person team on a slight climb, when a skunk runs out into the road between them and us. The skunk didn’t even slow down, he made it halfway across the road them turned and ran back to wherever he came from. I told Robin “We must really stink if we are chasing skunks away”.

We caught the four person team right before CP29. One of them must have been deep in a bonk and was getting a push up the hill from a teammate. This is another sign of a good team, you are in it together, and if someone is struggling you gotta pull together. It was TesteMax again! It is really unusual to see another team more than once in a race. We rode to CP30 which was the finish line. Luckily we had been pre-warned that there would be another map handed to us at the finish.

The final four CP’s were all trekking, starting with a run down the road. It was daylight when we entered the woods at the base of a hill and climbed right onto CP31. We crossed a field to hwy 237 and ran the shoulder until we entered the woods again to punch CP32, back to the road and ran to the next woods entry and punched CP33. Have I mentioned the spider webs already? We nailed every one of these points dead on. I felt good, not only with the navigating, but with the running too. We had to do a long bushwhack for CP34, so I set up the compass and followed the bearing. We were only a few steps into the thick brush when Testemax caught us again. We trekked together to some power lines. The power lines weren’t on the map, but we were on top of the same ridge the CP was on, so we trekked up the power-line ridge and punched the CP about two steps in front of TM. We trekked down a rocky descent onto the road and ran for the finish with TM right on us. They eventually fell off our tail when we hit a climb and we finished at 10:39, just one minute in front of them.

The camera that rode around in the pack with me all night wasn’t quite up to taking finish line pictures. Which sucks because we were wearing cool new Honey Stinger/Trek jerseys. Here is the blurry mess it was able to get:

Jason and Laura from Bonk Hard were there ringing bells and cheering. They congratulated and complimented us on a great race. We found out that we had finished in second place behind team Bushwhacker. It wasn’t long before the pancakes, eggs, bacon, and juice were ready. This HUGE pile of food just disappeared, adventure racers really know how to eat, and Bonk Hard does a great job of feeding us. Being second place for 2 person co-ed meant we were called up to the front for prizes. We went up and got hugs and handshakes from Jason and Laura, along with plenty of sincere “nice job” ,“way to go”, and thumbs up from other teams we have met over the past few years. Jason and Laura told us we were ready for some longer 24hr races now. I think they are right. We are ready.