Originally published as a bi-weekly blog series on the Subaru Primal Quest website in 2005 and 2006
December 4, 2005
Ask adventure racers why they do it, and you’re likely to get a number of predictable but meaningful responses. We do it to test the limits of our minds and bodies; we do it for the pride of accomplishment after great physical effort, pain and discomfort; we do it for the camaraderie and teamwork; we do it to see beautiful places and experience exotic cultures.
Blah, blah, blah. It’s all good stuff, and it does truly mean a lot to me. But I tend to focus on the more eccentric side of AR. I live for the random hallucination, the 3:00 am sleep-deprived and garbled comment that induces hilarity on the team, the surrealistic midnight encounters with strangers who have no idea what four dirty people with backpacks and ice axes would be doing carrying their bikes through impenetrable brush in the middle of the night on a mountain top. I love the time a teammate saw me lying on the ground with my feet up on a tree trunk and thought I was the Madonna with babe-in-arms, and the time I sang “Rubber Ducky” to stay awake until my teammates threatened to throw me out of the boat. I especially love the time during last year’s Primal Quest that I woke up, mid-sentence, in motion, to find myself asking my teammates if there would be any basketballs at the transition area. Now that’s good stuff. I feel bad for people whose entertainment comes from TV.
That doesn’t mean that Team Tango doesn’t have goals this year. We’ve added two new members since the 2004 PQ event, and I’m darned excited about both of them. With an even split between serious military types and recreational Colorado types, we should have the perfect mix of skill, experience and attitude to do our best in this race. See our profile if you want to hear more about that.
But here’s what I really want to talk about today: what a challenge it was to make that video! When the first PQ update came out, asking us to submit team videos for PR purposes, we blew it off. With the two halves of our team split up across the country, one half in Miami and the other in Colorado, I figured it was too hard and not worth the effort.
Two weeks later, we changed our minds–three days before the deadline. I drove to my new teammate Russ’s house in Steamboat Springs, Colorado during a major snowstorm, taking three hours to make an hour and a half drive. The plan was to film the two of us, overnight the tape to Miami so our teammates could add their piece, and hope they could overnight the tape again in time to make the deadline on Wednesday. A risky proposition, given that Fed-ex doesn’t do overnight from the mountains of Colorado.
“I wrote a script!” Russ announced as I walked through the door.
“Really?” I asked, incredulous. I hadn’t even thought about what to say. Somehow, I thought it would just happen.
Russ’s wife Clay, a woman nearly as funny as Russ himself, walked into the kitchen and slapped a bottle of wine on the counter. Chardonnay, my favorite. “You’ll need to start drinking right now,” she advised me. “I’ll be in the living room getting the video camera set up.”
Thank god for Clay. Russ and I watched from the couch, stupefied, drinking, as she navigated the wilderness of video camera technology. We tried to practice a couple of times. When I had a few glasses of wine down the gullet, I decided I was now brilliant enough to come up with a theme.
“So!” I said. “I’ll give a serious introduction to the team and our background, and you can break in every couple seconds or so with a funny one-liner. What do you think?”
Russ nodded. “That’ll work,” he said. “But I’m not sure how funny I can be on cue.”
“Nonsense,” I sputtered. “You’re always funny.”
I had paced Russ in the Leadville 100 last year and I knew this to be true. Seventy miles into the race, utterly spent, dry heaving and staggering and incoherent, Russ had still managed to crack me up with a running litany of jokes and one-liners. I had delivered him to his next pacer in a state of hilarity, despite the freezing temperatures and the fact that it was 3:00 am.
But alas, it was true. In front of a camera, trying to be funny on cue, Russ was about as funny as I am. Which is to say, about as funny as a turd in a punchbowl. Clay watched, worry lines furrowing her brow as we did take after take. Each one got harder, more stilted, less entertaining. Finally, we threw up our hands and delivered the tape to Clay for transfer to the Miami half of the team.
We did have one or two good moments. As I described our teammates, Luther and Blain, one an Infantry Officer with a Special Operations background and the other a Special Forces Officer, Russ broke in, “and I’m just kind of your basic ‘special’ myself.” We can’t tell you if our Miami teammates have redeemed us because we haven’t seen the rest of the tape yet.
Next year, if someone wants to lend us a couple thousand dollars, we’ll hire a media company to do a proper job.
One more thing. In case you haven’t read our team profile yet, it’s important for you to know that Tango is not some team name I thought was cute. Tango is my best friend, a 15-year-old dog who has been with me her entire life. I thought it important to report this fact before our team name potentially changes due to sponsorship. If Tango had any money, she would make sure she got to keep the lead spot on the team name. Right now, however, she’s mainly focused on keeping control of her bowels and getting me to feed her dinner early.
Tune in next time to hear about the results of Team Tango’s efforts to pursue sponsorship.
December 29, 2005
Ever wonder how a team with new members manages to get ready for a race like Primal Quest when the team members don’t all live in the same state?
It’s not easy knowing your teammates have nightmares about turning on their computers every morning. But email is a wonderful thing, all the same. The emails don’t fly out of control all year, just at certain critical times: when the updates come out, when the gear list is published, when the certifications are due, when the website is being built, when we’re planning training weekends. And of course, they fly frantically for about a month right before the race. Once, during that period, a teammate from last year who shall remain nameless sent me a note that said, “If you send me one more freakin’ email today, EVEN JUST ONE, I will check myself into the local psychiatric clinic and you will have to find a new teammate for the race…”
I’ve certainly met people who are anal enough to make me look easy-going. Engineers, accountants and their ilk. I guess I just haven’t met any of them in the AR world lately, because I seem to be the most detail-oriented person around these days. I make gear checklists, action step checklists, budgets, tracking sheets. My teammates often have to remind me that they have real jobs and can’t sit around reading my checklists all day. I just seem to have this uncontrollable fear that we’ll forget something important if it isn’t on a checklist posted on my bulletin board.
This year I discovered that my new teammate Russ has conference call capabilities. Not those jerry-rigged kinds of conference calls where one person tries to string a bunch of lines together and inevitably loses one or two callers, but a real conference call line with a toll-free number and a code. Of course, I still had my checklists in front of me, but we could actually speak to each other about them. We even had Eddie, our first official alternate, join us on the call.
Luther is in his element on a conference call, because it means he gets to be the gearhead he truly is at heart. He says things like, “I recommend that everyone buy a new bike light that has compatible batteries with an adapter to go from NiMH and NiCad, and weighs .06 ounces less than my carburetor exchange tube with the duoflage discriminator.” Or something like that. At least on a conference call I can say, “What?” several hundred times instead of sending more emails.
Russ is in his element too, because it means he can say things like, “Am I still on the team?” and sound funny instead of paranoid. His other favorite line, when Luther starts talking about the weight of our gear, is “My _______ weighs almost nothing, which will be great when you guys have to carry me off the course…”
We haven’t gotten to know Blain that well yet, but my sense on our first call was that he was just listening and soaking it all in. Blain is our most experienced racer, but also the one person on the team who hasn’t raced with any of us before, and in fact hasn’t even met two of us in person yet. I worry about the day he does. He’s already seen the photo of Russ on a bad hair day, so the worst is over. But he hasn’t even begun to experience the worst of my out-of-control email days.
The topic of our first team conference call, was, of course, Holy Certs! Not sure if I’ve had a race with that many certifications before. I think it’s a good thing, however, to make sure racers are truly prepared. Don Mann’s reputation for certain finish ratios is not to be taken lightly. I opened the call by saying, “Do you think we can make an action step checklist with plans and due dates for each cert?”
“I’d like to go through the gear list first,” Luther said, “because we need to clarify the specs on the length and material required for each lanyard, and I want to make sure that none of our webbing weighs more than .0003 of an ounce this year.”
“Party on,” answered Russ. “Am I still on the team?”
Maybe these conference calls will get a little more focused as they go on…
January 17, 2006
One of the challenges of the 2006 Primal Quest is its early start date. For a September race, I’ll usually plan four months of 24 – 72 hour races leading up to PQ and presto, instant training. With the race in June, however, it’s hard to get in a lot of races beforehand. I live in the mountains of Colorado, where trails are snow-covered until late June or early July. There’s plenty of snowshoeing or cross-country skiing to be done, but that doesn’t exactly get you ready for long-haul biking or paddling. Besides, heaven forbid that I should have to get out there all by myself and have actual training days. It never works. With no teammates beside me for distraction I’ve always got some kind of excuse for cutting the day short. I have errands to run. I’m too cold. My dog is lonely at home by herself. There’s a glass of wine with my name on it somewhere, calling me.
Pondering my dilemma this fall, I got the idea to go south in the spring for a tune-up race. I called a few local teammates and pitched the idea of a four-day Costa Rican race in April called Between Two Continents, Between Two Oceans. They liked the idea, and we registered a team.
That left me with an even bigger dilemma—how was I going to get ready for a four-day race in April? Now we’re talking about trying to bike and paddle in January and February. The good news about living where I do, however, is that the Front Range (the Denver/Boulder area) is only an hour and a half away, and while it may be snowy and cold during the winter down there, it may also be 60 degrees and dry on some days. We had such a lucky day last weekend, so off I went with my Costa Rica teammates for a day of biking and hiking.
The truth can be painful, especially when it has to do with facing up to one’s physical conditioning. If you’d run into us that day, you’d have noticed three men, peddling casually in a pack with enough spare breath to chat about football games and the weather, and trailing far behind, a lone, pathetic-looking woman gasping like a hooked fish and occasionally managing to squeak, “Wait up, you guys!”
In desperation the next morning, I went to my boss at the Copper Mountain Ski & Ride School and demanded the next three days off, which were graciously given. I packed up my bike and my dog and headed out for the four-hour drive to Moab, my usual training grounds for getting out of the snow in the spring and fall. I’d never been there in the winter before, but the weather report said it would be sunny with temperatures in the high 40’s or low 50’s.
The weather report lied. On my first day in Moab, road-riding through Arches National Park, my friend Julie and I threw our bikes on the ground every half-hour and ran in circles, shaking frozen fingers and lurching unsteadily on frozen toes. We talked about the possibility of a car offering us a ride if we were seen walking our bikes down each hill. Julie tossed out occasional sarcastic comments about what a great idea it had been for me to invite her along. Misery loves company, so I answered, “You’re welcome.” On day two I was alone again and decided that I couldn’t possibly be expected to suffer the same temperatures on my bike. I went hiking instead, and found a dozen good reasons to quit early and retire to the bar for a glass of wine.
Day three warmed up a bit, and I found a pleasant, sun-lit canyon to ride in. On top of Hurrah Pass that afternoon, I sat on a rock with an inspiring view of Dead Horse Canyon Park spread out before me and had a stern chat with myself. No one had done this to me but myself, I pointed out. No one stood over me with a stick and said, “You have to plan an impossibly early season this year whether you like it or not.’ I had chosen this. It was supposed to be fun, for god’s sake! Then I made some resolutions. There would be no more drinking in the bar with my ski clients every day. Days off were for riding and running in the Front Range, not for terrorizing the mountain with my ski instructor buddies. Winter was effectively canceled this year. I would pretend it didn’t exist. And one way or another, I’d be ready to race in June.
January 30, 2006
Tango, my elderly, mixed-breed dog, has been our team mascot for almost four years now. It isn’t because she trains with us, or because she’s a trail dog, or because there’s anything about her that would reasonably remind you of adventure racing. It started out simply because I was sitting at my computer one day, racking my brains for a team name to enter in the Lake Tahoe Primal Quest lottery, and time was running out. Tango was sitting patiently at my feet waiting for her walk, and it popped into my head that Team Tango had a certain ring to it. Not that any of my teammates have ever agreed with me on that point. They’re usually afraid that everyone will take us for Latin ballroom dancers.
Now that I think about it, Tango got her name in a similar haphazard fashion. It was May of 1990, the day of my 25th birthday. My boyfriend at the time, Richard, had gone to the store to get last-minute supplies for my birthday party. I was sitting on the lawn at my family’s New Hampshire lake house, drinking a beer and shooting the breeze with neighbors, when he returned and dumped a puppy in my lap.
“Happy birthday,” he said with a grin. “I tried to find a pay phone to call you, but the old farmer who was giving away puppies at K-mart said he wouldn’t hold her for me, so I took a chance.”
I was furious. We already had one dog and had discussed getting a second one several months ago. We’d decided it wasn’t a good idea, with both of us just out of college and unsure where we might be living a year from now. I couldn’t yell at Richard in front of all these neighbors, but I vowed I would corner him later.
“She’s adorable!” said one of my neighbors, lifting the wriggling puppy out of my lap. I was seething, but I had to agree. She had German Shepard coloring and a little pug nose. Every time someone took her out of my lap, she struggled to get back to me. It seemed she had already decided something.
My best friend Kevin, a pilot, set about the task of naming her. He went through the phonetic alphabet from the beginning: “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie…” When he got to the letter T I stopped him.
“That’s it!” I said without hesitation. “She’s Tango.”
Richard never got yelled at. By the time I got him alone I had already fallen completely and irrevocably in love with my new dog, and she with me.
Tango will be sixteen in April of this year. She has arthritis, she’s deaf, and she can’t really climb stairs anymore without my help. Last week our vet told me that Tango’s heart rate was abnormally low and she went in for an EKG. Now we’re waiting to see a cardiologist to find out how bad the news is. But Tango has moments of gladness when I know she still wants to be here with me. She’ll spin in a circle when I carry her in from the snow and she feels the warm air hitting her face and catches the smell of her home-cooked chicken and rice breakfast. She still jumps for a treat, even though it usually makes her fall down. People may scorn me for clinging to her little life, but if she can have a pacemaker without too much risk from the anesthesia, I’ll do it.
We humans like to say, “Life is short,” repeating the cliché as an excuse for anything from “Eat dessert first” to “Let’s defy our spouses and spend ten grand and ten days racing through the wilderness.” But is anything really as heartbreakingly short as a dog’s life?
February 12, 2006
“What do you mean by ‘weak’?” my doctor asked me. “You mean you feel fatigued?”
I shook my head. “No, I mean I can’t keep up with anyone. I can’t run as fast as I used to, or bike as fast, or lift as much weight. And it seems pretty sudden.”
Dr. Oberheide looked at me for a moment as if considering whether I might be having a spell of hypochondria. I know the look.
“I guess it would be a good idea to do a full blood screen,” he said finally. “I’ll send a nurse in to take a sample. If you haven’t heard back on results by this Saturday, give me a buzz.”
On Saturday, I called from a chairlift in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
“Everything looks fine,” he said. I felt vaguely disappointed. “Sometimes there’s no telling what causes these sudden drops in performance. You did turn 40 this year, didn’t you?”
I tried to tell myself I was being ridiculous. Did I actually hope to hear that I had cancer, or that after years of Advil and Chardonnay, my liver was finally failing me? Or was it just that I hoped to hear that I had something treatable, as opposed to a bad case of aging?
I decided to call my teammates and see what they thought about this business of getting old. Luther had turned 40 earlier this year too. Blain was 41, and Russ was 46. Maybe they had some insight for me. I called Luther first.
“Do you ever think about how long you’re going to feel like racing?” I asked him.
Luther always looks on the bright side. “I sure don’t see any reason to quit in the near future,” he said. “I tend to train more efficiently and race smarter as I get older. You know, when I retire from the military in 18 months I plan to do this full-time, for as long as I still have fun at it.”
Just what I needed, an optimist. I wasn’t going to get any sympathy here. “But you don’t feel any physical effects as you get older?” I persisted.
“Travel gets me more than aging does. Not having access to a gym, eating out all the time, gaining weight; that’s what really disrupts my training.”
I nodded. I could relate to that. Having taken on some consulting work in mid-2005, I was now on the road most weeks. That’s it, I thought. I’m not getting older, I’m just traveling too much. I felt a brief sense of relief at the idea that there was an easy answer. But then I realized the problem: it’s only because of my travel job that I can afford to race this year. There must be other answers out there. I called Blain.
“When do I say enough?” he mused. “Good question. I see a lot of elite racers our age retiring now, the Murrays, John Howard, Robert Nagle. I tend to think about my own retirement during a long race, but those thoughts go away at about the same rate the blisters do. I guess I won’t quit until racing no longer feels like a compulsion to me, or when race directors stop managing to design courses that I think are awe-inspiring journeys. I think the main thing for me is that when I quit, it needs to be on my own terms.”
Quit? Who’s talking about quitting? I felt panicky for a moment. Is that how my questions sounded to my teammates–like I was looking for reasons to leave the sport, to stay on the couch and eat bon-bons? Good lord. I figured I’d better call Russ for a good dose of humor. As the oldest member of our team, he would surely put things into perspective for me.
“Being a Master is much harder because of all the gear you have to pack,” Russ told me. “You know, like Poli-grip, Metamucil, a walker, Depends undergarments…”
“Seriously!” I protested.
“OK, seriously, I was way more competitive at 23 than I am at 46. Probably about twice as much. I have nothing to prove anymore except to myself, and that’s probably the biggest difference. I need to finish a race, but I don’t care when other teams pass me. In fact, it gives me someone to talk to.” He chuckled.
“But how do you deal with feeling weaker?” I asked. “How do you keep your enthusiasm for the sport when you start to feel like it’s all downhill from here?”
“Feeling like your body has ‘left the building’ doesn’t make it all downhill, really. It just means you have to focus more on the mental challenges of the sport, and the emotional rewards you get from it.”
I thought about that for a moment. Is that what Luther meant when he talked about training and racing smarter as he got older? Is that what Blain meant by keeping things on his own terms? Maybe they had something there.
I’d like to tell you that my conversations left me feeling better about my age. Probably about the best I can say is that I understand the importance of shifting one’s focus to stay motivated by the things you can control, rather than obsessing about the things you can’t change. What’s that old saying? Something about having the strength to change what you can and the grace to accept what you can’t. If my dog Tango could talk, she would probably tell me that it means you should keep on jumping for your treats, even when it makes you fall down.
February 26, 2006
Have you ever seen the Darwin awards? You know, those tongue-in-cheek internet write-ups about the stupidest adventure feats to naturally select a human being for extinction in any given year? Well, welcome to my world. I get to see more than just internet write-ups, and on a fairly regular basis, too.
When I first volunteered for my local search and rescue team, my main motivation was all the free training I would get for my adventure racing pursuits. Over the past few years I’ve been trained and certified in Rigging for Rescue, Outdoor Emergency Care (OEC), and avalanche safety. I’ve had weekly training and refresher sessions on wilderness survival, compass and GPS navigation, rope skills, snowmobile and ATV operation, and tracking & search. Sometimes I even get a cardio workout while on a SAR mission.
That’s still a motivation for me. But it’s been slowly supplanted by another one: the entertainment value of witnessing the staggering hubris and utter stupidity of humankind.
Take the snowboarders in Summit County this year, for example. Now, I have nothing against snowboarders, personally. I even dated one last season. But the fact is, it hasn’t been the skiers calling us out this year. It’s just been the snowboarders. They keep ducking ropes in the ski areas, which is illegal to start with, and getting hopelessly lost and/or injured as a result. Even after one of them was missing for three days and we found him a stone’s throw from the ski area boundary with an unexplained gun and badly frostbitten toes, the excessive media coverage the incident got did not seem to deter other snowboarders. A few weeks later another one did it and was lost overnight. Again, it made the papers, and again the warning was ignored.
Last Saturday at about 4:30 in the afternoon I was getting ready to go out to dinner at a high-end restaurant in Breckenridge with my friends when the pager went off. Had the dispatcher said, “Report to the staging area to evacuate a snowboarder who ducked a rope at Breckenridge ski area,” I would undoubtedly have blown off the mission and headed to dinner. That wasn’t the message I got, however. The pager said, “Report to the Nordic Center for the evacuation of an injured party.” Poor innocent Nordic skier, I thought. Must have been a bad fall.
When I arrived at the Nordic Center parking lot, Dan, our mission coordinator, gave me a quick briefing. “Pack lightly,” he said. “You’ll need to snowshoe a little way off the cross-country ski trail to get to him, but he can’t be in there too far. The Nordic Center staff heard him screaming from here.”
“Anybody else in yet?” I asked.
“Joe Ben and Warren are already onsite doing medical. I’m sending you in with the vacuum splint, they need it right away. Glen can run you part of the way on a snowmobile.”
I hopped on the back of Glen’s sled and we sped off on a wide, groomed trail following a guide from the Nordic Center staff. Ten minutes later, Glen stopped beside a set of snowshoe tracks plunging steeply off the side of the trail into a ravine.
“Take a hypo bag as well as the vacuum splint,” he told me. “They’re in a hurry, so get moving.” I’m known on my team as one of the people who responds well when ordered to get moving.
I ran down the hill, tripping over my snowshoes and toppling into the deep snow several times. When I reached the scene, Joe Ben and Warren were standing in a small clearing of packed-down snow, and at their feet, a snowboarder sat leaning against a tree smoking a cigarette. He had long dark hair and several silver studs through his eyebrows.
“I’m sure you’ve already been told, but that won’t help,” I said, referring to the cigarette. The snowboarder nodded, clearly uninterested in my opinion.
“What’s the situation?” I asked Joe Ben, our group leader and an EMT.
“Somehow, he got here from Peak 8 in Breck,” Joe Ben said, shaking his head. “He crossed the parking lot at the Nordic Center and kept going. Then he hit a tree.”
“I realized I had gone the wrong way, and I was trying to get back up from here,” the snowboarder defended himself. “I kept sliding back down every time I tried.”
“Anyway, he’s got rigidity in his lower left quadrant and a possible coccyx fracture, and we need to get him out of here and into an ambulance as soon as possible.”
“I told you, I’m not going to the hospital!” the snowboarder shouted. “I’ll walk out of here if I have to!”
I’d seen it many times before. He didn’t have medical insurance.
“We can’t force you to go to the hospital,” Joe Ben said. “But it would be a very bad idea not to.”
Warren knelt beside the patient and tried the gentler approach. “I don’t mean to scare you, but understand what that rigidity in your abdomen means. Your body is trying to protect something that’s damaged inside of you. It could be internal bleeding, it could be a ruptured organ. We just don’t know for sure, and frankly, you could die.”
“Risking your life isn’t worth avoiding a few medical bills,” I added, trying to sound concerned. In reality, I didn’t give a rat’s you-know-what whether the patient refused ambulance transport or not. I missed my damn dinner for another rope-ducking snowboarder. As if he sensed my indifference, the renegade rope-ducker didn’t answer. He glared up at us and continued smoking.
Joe Ben sent me back up the hill to help Glen with the rigging. While the distance from the accident to the Nordic trail couldn’t have been more than half a mile, it was steep, and we needed an up-haul system to get our patient’s litter to a waiting snowmobile toboggan. We tried hauling him on a straight rope-and-pulley system using sheer manpower, but it was too difficult, so we built a five-to-one mechanical advantage system. That worked but took a long time. We still had only six or seven rescue members on scene, so we enlisted everyone else we could find: three Nordic Center employees and the two helpful women on snowshoes who had originally discovered and reported the injured snowboarder. Chatting with them, I found out they were adventure racers from Ohio. Whenever you need help, seek out an adventure racer and you shall get help! We worked past sunset and into darkness. Finally, the litter reached the top of the ravine.
I strolled over from the up-haul system station to get a look at our patient. He wasn’t shouting defiantly anymore. Wrapped in the hypo bag and vacuum splint, only his ashen face was visible. His eyes were closed. I glanced at Joe Ben.
“He’s willing to go to the hospital now,” Joe Ben said.
It was 8:00 pm when the patient was finally loaded in the ambulance and we were free to go home. No chance of making my dinner anymore. Driving home, I thought about the snowboarder and how he would stack up against my other personally-selected candidates for the Darwin award over the past three years. Certainly, he wasn’t at the top of the list. There were the two young guys who got high and climbed up the Sky Chutes near Copper Mountain one early spring evening, finally getting themselves cliffed-out and spending two nights on a ledge in freezing temperatures. It took nine hours and two six-hundred-foot ropes for us to reach them, and when we did, they demanded to know what took us so long. One of them was wearing a cape, as if he had climbed up there to fly off the cliff, Batman-style.
Then there was the drunk guy on Mount Royal who called to say that he had hurt his knee and had ants crawling all over him. One already-broken arm was in a cast, and he had drugs in his system as well as an unbelievable amount of alcohol. It took us a while to find him because as we came up the trail, he spotted Joel, our Sheriff’s Office deputy, and crawled off the trail to hide. Later we found out he had outstanding warrants for his arrest.
Then there have been all the bodies we’ve dug out of avalanches, some of them snowmobilers with a penchant for “high-marking,” a stupid sport that involves driving your machine as high up a wall of snow as you can get before it runs out of power and forces you back down.
The list goes on. When I tell so-called “normal” people about my passion for adventure racing, they like to comment that they think I’m crazy. I tell them, trust me, you ain’t seen nothin’.
March 10, 2006
We are proud (and my dog Tango is sad) to announce our new sponsor, TravelCountry, whose nifty outdoor gear can be checked out at www.TravelCountry.com. I keep telling Tango that she should be a lot more interested in all that great gear than she is in keeping the lead spot on the team name, but for some reason, she just isn’t happy about it. Maybe she’s too old to get excited about gear anymore. I hope that never happens to me.
I’m writing from the kitchen table in my rented condo in Moab, where I’ve been since late February. One day I packed up Tango, my kayak, my bike and my computer and told my friends, “I’m not coming back until someone makes me.” No one has made me yet, and I’ve had two glorious weeks of training in canyonland country. Since the latest PQ update announced our host airport as Salt Lake City, I’m feeling pretty smart about it too.
Just to taunt those of you with family obligations and a Monday through Friday job, I’ll tell you a bit about my time down here in the desert. I’ve been to Moab many times before, but my friends and teammates tend to do the same things over and over, like riding the famous Poison Spider and Porcupine Rim trails. I’ve been focused on riding, hiking and paddling stuff I haven’t done before. I did some road riding in the LaSal Mountains, paddled on Lake Powell, and hiked in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. All was in preparation for the big ride, however: White Rim Road in Canyonlands NP. Just about everyone I know has ridden the magnificent White Rim before, but somehow, I’ve always missed the opportunity.
White Rim is a scenic jeep road that descends steep canyon walls and runs for 76 miles along the Green and Colorado Rivers before climbing back out of the canyon. The entire loop is 100 miles, and while most do the ride in two to four days, followed by a support vehicle and camping along the way, a few adventure-racing types do it in one day.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in riding the White Rim in one day is figuring out how to carry enough water. Many people rely on the kindness of campers in the canyon, but since it’s very early in the season, I knew that wouldn’t be wise. The day before my ride I took a twelve-mile out-and-back hike on the Wilhite Trail from the main road in the park down to the White Rim Road and stashed a couple bottles of water under some rocks. Now I was ready.
I parked my car on Mineral Bottom Road at 5:30 am and was on my bike by 6:00, just before sunrise. While the loop can be ridden in either direction, I thought it best to ride the 13 miles of non-scenic dirt road leading to the canyon rim while it was still dark, so I rode in the counterclockwise direction. By the time I reached the rim, the sun was up.
The first 40 miles were indescribably beautiful. The road winds along the canyon floor with the Green River flowing languidly beside it, sometimes climbing high on a wall of red rock, then descending back down to the water. Despite the crowds I’d read about in my mountain bike guidebook, I didn’t see a soul all morning.
By 11:00, the sun was beginning to beat on the back of my neck a little too hard, and my butt was not getting along well with my bike seat. When I reached my water stash I sat for a while and rested, studying the map. The road was broken up into eight- to twelve- mile sections between designated campsites or side trails, and I memorized them all before moving on.
I began to anticipate the markers with just a bit too much attention. I’d estimate how long it should take me to get to the next campsite or side trail, and if it took longer, I would decide I must have passed it without noticing. Then when I reached it I’d be disappointed. Eight miles felt like twelve. Twelve felt like twenty. I began to worry that I was going to be out riding all night. I had a headlamp and a jacket, but it might get really cold. What had I done to myself? What was the point in doing this stupid ride in one day anyway? I certainly wasn’t enjoying the scenery anymore. In fact, the canyon walls now seemed barren, almost hostile, towering formidably above my head. My back ached and my butt chafed. My shoes and my throat were full of Moab’s ubiquitous sand. I had the same annoying heavy metal song running through my head, Nirvana or something like that, over and over. There was no one to distract me from my various complaints.
I was sitting on the side of the trail, map spread before me, face buried in hands, in a state that can only be described as despair when a man and woman on bikes pulled up. They stopped in front of me so deliberately that for a moment I thought they must be park rangers checking on me.
“Do you need some water?” the woman asked me. I checked my camelback and found that it was lower than I expected. “Well…” I said dubiously, not wanting to be one of the mooching multitudes I’d read about in the guidebook.
“Here, suck this down,” the man said, handing me one of the bottles on his bike. “That way you don’t have to carry any more water. There’s a sag wagon behind us, so we have plenty.”
I took the bottle, gratefully, and we chatted as I drank. They were not park rangers, but campers on a five-day trip from Durango, Colorado. Their children were riding with them, and their parents were driving the support vehicle. They had done this trip many times before and clearly knew how to enjoy it.
“We’re camping at the White Crack trail tonight,” the woman told me. “We’ll take a side hike down to the river before dinner.”
“Do you need any food?” the man asked. “Are you OK on sunblock?”
I shook my head, thanked them. They asked a few more questions about my ride before moving on. As they rode away, I heard the man say to his wife, “It always impresses me when I meet someone like that.” I’m sure he deliberately said it loud enough for me to hear.
I got back on my bike. The next campsite was nine miles away, but it felt like five. The one after that was eleven miles but felt like six. The Nirvana song went away. My butt still hurt, but I thought of other things, like the view of the LaSal mountains that had blossomed suddenly around one canyon corner. And when I finally hit the painfully steep climb out of the canyon, most of which I walked, pushing my bike, I was still thinking about the generous couple from Durango. I thought about how some people would have been cynical about my ride, would have made comments about how I was pushing myself too hard instead of appreciating the beauty of the canyon. And others would have read the same guidebook I had and avoided thoughtless riders who hadn’t carried enough water and were looking for people to beg from. But these people had been genuinely kind, and truly interested in hearing about my experience. And then I thought about racing. Wasn’t that really what kept me coming back for more? The kindness of strangers met along the way, and the ministrations of teammates that truly cared? Sometimes what I remembered later was the wilderness experience, the pain overcome, the hard-won satisfaction of pushing the body to see what it could do. But in the end, it was human contact that kept me going. There was a good reason I’d never been interested in doing a solo adventure race before. It was all about the team experience for me, and that’s what made riding White Rim alone so damn hard.
It was 7:15 when I reached my car, just barely dark. I was still thinking about the Durango couple. When I got back to my condo, Tango had given up on me and peed on the living room carpet. Guess I deserved that. Next time I want to ride 100 miles, I think I’ll give one of my teammates a call.
March 26, 2006
Race season is upon us. Finally, I have the real stuff to write about.
My teammate Luther just returned from the Costa Rica Coast to Coast, a six day, 580k adventure race put on by a Costa Rican tour company. It was his second year at this event, racing with a team called Rock ‘n Road Cycles.
Sleepmonsters did a pretty good job of covering the race, so I kept up with it. Eight teams raced across Costa Rica: four local teams, one British, and three American. The course began on the Caribbean coast with a kayak down the Rio Pacuare, and then headed west to the Pacific coast, alternating mountain biking and trekking sections across the country until the finish at Playa (beach) Junquillal. As in previous years, one of the Costa Rican teams won. Luther’s team, although they did not do as well as their previous year’s second place finish, was happy with their race and came in fifth.
I called Luther shortly after he got back. Besides wanting to hear a first-hand perspective on the race reports I’d read, I also hoped he could help me get ready for my own Costa Rican race coming up in a couple weeks, Euforia Expeditions’ Between Two Continents Between Two Oceans.
“What was the best part of the race?” I asked him.
“Seeing the Volcano Arenal erupt,” he answered without hesitation. I had read about that in the race reports, but there was little detail. I knew from my own reading that Costa Rica has many volcanoes throughout the country, several of them active. Arenal and its surrounding national park are one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. I asked Luther what the eruption was like.
“It was our third day racing, a little before midnight,” he began. “We had been biking a long time and had slept very little, so we were pretty zonked. The Vulcan Arenal is actually a range of several volcanoes, and we were traveling into a saddle between them. It was pitch black, with no sign of sky or stars. We heard a low rumbling sound, kind of like the sound the afterburners of a jet make. We thought we must be near an airport. Then about an hour later, as we came around a corner, Mary spotted the red glow of lava flow. There were little bright spots being thrown up from the glow, and an occasional red rock came tumbling down. We were a good five kilometers away, so it wasn’t scary. We got off our bikes to watch for a moment.”
I thought about what an awe-inspiring sight that must have been. In fact, in a state of sleep deprivation, I imagine it must have felt surreal, almost like a hallucination.
“What happened after that?” I asked.
“We came into a TA in the Arenal National Park and slept, and then there was a 5k trek to Lake Arenal, where we had to paddle to a checkpoint on a tiny, hard-to-find island. We saw Kudamundis on the way, overgrown squirrel-like creatures that ran by us chattering. The paddle took some teams almost twelve hours because of wind, but we were lucky with weather and finished it in five hours.”
My appetite for Costa Rica was thoroughly whetted now. It would be my first international race, and one of the most appealing things about going international was the potential wildlife encounters.
I had one last question for Luther: “Did you learn anything that might be useful for PQ this year?”
“The heat and dryness were very similar to what we’re going to get in Utah,” he said. “We found it critical to maximize the cool time, because sometimes we moved very slowly in the heat of the afternoon. We need to be fully prepared to make our biggest gains at night and in the early morning.”
Well, that started a team argument about bike lights the next day, but that’s a story for another day. And I have a race in Costa Rica to start packing for.
April 9, 2006
I headed back to Moab again last weekend for the Gravity Play Adventure Xstream in Moab, a six to twelve hour event that I usually race solo. This year, my teammate Russ and I raced it with a team of four. It was a fun day, and good training.
We’re lucky to be close enough to train in the vicinity of this year’s PQ course. As I think back on the race and my several weeks of training in Moab over the winter, I realize I’ve learned a few good lessons that ought to be passed on to other PQ racers:
Lesson One: Do NOT run in bike shoes in the desert on purpose. In particular, don’t run in brand new bike shoes during a race just because you think you should see how the bike shoes are going to perform on hike-a-bike sections. If you must do it anyway, don’t do it in a race where the running section will be followed by a downhill bike section through Longs Canyon requiring you to clip in and stand on the blister on the ball of your left foot. And don’t do a canyoneering trip the next day that requires wading through pools of water and then hiking on your wet blisters.
Lesson Two: Rapids always look smaller from the road above than they do from the water. If you must paddle the swiftwater section of the Colorado River anyway, bring a skirt so you won’t sink. Bring a buddy too. Don’t do it on a windy day. If you must do it on a windy day anyway, dress appropriately for it, plan extra time, and stop complaining.
Lesson Three: Don’t ride 100 miles on the White Rim trail by yourself if you’ve already been training by yourself for almost two weeks. Let’s face it, you get sick of yourself. If you must do it anyway, don’t listen to Nirvana the day before. Let’s face it, the only thing you get sick of quicker than yourself is a Nirvana song running repeatedly through your head for 100 miles.
Lesson Four: If you’re going to paddle on Lake Powell and you’ve never been there before, ASK SOME QUESTIONS before you go. If you’re too stubborn to do that and end up at a marina that has no water, cut your losses and drive to another marina. Don’t try to drag your boat through muddy, stinky marshland studded with Coke cans and candy bar wrappers. And if paddling Lake Powell in a tippy whitewater boat freaks you out because of steep canyon walls and the lack of any rescue possibilities, turn back. There is no need to continue paddling, semi-hysterically, imagining the Lochness Monster below you and wishing your teammates were around.
Lesson Five: If you’re going to ignore a sign that says “No Facilities, Next 30 Miles” at the entrance to Canyonlands National Park, check your gas gauge first. If you can’t do that, turn back when you realize that you’re not going to make it. If you can’t do that, cut your losses and take the ride from the Bubbas in the pick-up truck rather than trying to ride your bike with an open gas can inside. Your Solomon Raid pack will never be the same.
Lesson Six: This has nothing to do with training or racing. But if you’ve decided your dog deserves a steak dinner for putting up with all the recent Moab trips, and the only way you have to cook the steak is in the microwave in your motel room, be advised that microwaves take less time than grilling. Should you not heed this advice, the steak will explode and you’ll have a mess to clean up that resembles the mess your dog makes after being left in the room for too long. That’s two reasons why I’m probably banned for life from a particular Moab motel that shall remain nameless. I hope it’s not one of the hosts for Primal Quest this year.
April 25, 2006
Most racers would have smelled trouble as soon as they realized they had registered the only four-person team on the roster of a solo race. And that the solos included the likes of Danelle Ballengee, Rafael Campos, and Paul Romero. But not me—I plunged blithely forward, dragging innocent, trusting teammates with me.
The race was Euforia Expedition’s Between Two Continents Between Two Oceans, a first race and a good first effort by a Costa Rican adventure travel company. My teammates, Dave Moon, Bruce Hall and Steve McCone, were not my PQ teammates but a whole new cadre of fellow racers I managed to dupe into this inevitable DNF adventure with me.
Despite being pulled off the course after only 32 hours, we later agreed we had a pretty good time of it all. An interesting cast of characters included Andres Vargas, the race director, a true Costa Rican adventurer; Corey Rosen, a Sleepmonsters journalist who enjoyed playing the role of the obnoxious American but took great photos; Jenny, an impressively insane woman who had chosen this 60 – 80 hour solo race as her first AR; Morgan, a quiet, serious former Navy Seal; Mauricio, a very young Brazilian on a quest to begin racing internationally; and Ligia Madrigal, one of Costa Rica’s top female mountain bike racers and a member of Team Red Bull. There were sixteen solos in all, representing the U.S., Costa Rica, and Brazil, plus a boatload of journalists and enthusiastic race staff. As the only team, we were dubbed, cleverly, “The Team.”
The race began with a short swim and a 13-mile paddle on Lake Arenal, appropriately known as a world class windsurfing destination. The solos in their single kayaks were challenged by the wind and waves, but we were overwhelmed by them. Our cockpit-less tandem boats swamped in the first ten minutes, and Dave and Steve went for a swim. Once we learned that the boats needed to be dragged up on shore and emptied every 30 minutes, we did just fine, and took a mere eight hours to cover 13 miles. We came out of the water in dead last place. Even Jenny, the rookie, was in front of us.
After a short bike to the town of La Fortuna we met Jenny in a “soda,” a Costa Rican open air local restaurant. She had had mechanical bike problems already and it was starting to dawn on her that adventure racing was hard. We also met three begging dogs in the restaurant, and after a quick dinner we set off with the dogs yipping at our heels, now a team of eight. When I saw that the dogs were in it for the long haul, I announced, “We have new teammates, so let’s name them.” Jenny named one of them Bobi, a common Costa Rican dog name, and I named the other two Dennys and Checkpoint. Dennys was a tribute to our pre-race days during which we ate every meal at a Denny’s chain restaurant in San Jose as part of the race-provided package deal. (“See you at the Denny’s!” Dave called to the other racers just before the start.)
The total trekking distance was 40k, but it was broken up at the 30k mark by our one and only transition area. This point was a third of the way through the race, and although we didn’t know it, there was a cut-off time. I don’t think anyone had even decided what time that was, let alone communicated it to racers.
Our team of eight lollygagged through the next 20 hours or so, watching the Vulcan Arenal erupt, teasing a snake on the side of the road, carrying the dogs across rushing rivers, and getting delayed by locals who tried to charge us for access to private property. We were never lost, but we took a few wrong turns here and there. We trekked through dense jungle up and over an extinct volcano, taking the checkpoint staff with us as we passed through (now briefly a team of 11), and then reached a part of the trek affectionately named the shit tunnel. It was a local herder’s trail worn down to a ditch and filled with unavoidable shoe-sucking mud and cow manure. Jenny, who was just learning how to eat for an endurance event, bonked hard and decided she’d had enough. The dogs were the only happy members of the team.
When we reached the next checkpoint, just 10k from the transition area, we got bad news. We were DQ’d. Jenny gratefully accepted a ride to the TA. The rest of us, undaunted, told staff that we would be continuing on unofficially, bought some hamburgers for our starving dogs, and continued trekking. A couple hours later, we reached the TA in the tourist area of Monteverde/Saint Elena, which doubled as race headquarters. More bad news: we were told that we couldn’t continue for safety reasons, and that was the end of our race.
But it wasn’t the end of the adventure. We pitched our tents in the TA, our home for the next three days, and got a good night’s sleep. Over the next couple days, we hiked in the Monteverde forest, where one can take in the view from the Continental Divide, and journeyed to a part of the course we had missed, where race staff treated us to three rappels through waterfalls and into a soothing green lagoon. Checkpoint abandoned us for new benefactors, but Bobi and Dennys remained faithfully with us. We watched the race winners finish, with Rafael Campos leading the men and Danelle leading the women, and a day later, we watched the last three racers finish together: Costa Ricans Ligia Madrigal and Roger Rojas, and Brazilian Marco Alcantera. The final race tally was eight solo finishers, and eight solo DNF’s. On our last night, with everyone back in the campsite, we had a feast and danced to live meringue music.
A small race field has its advantages. I’ve lived in the same county with Danelle Ballengee for several years now, but never had a conversation with her before. She doesn’t come off as the tough-as-nails personality one would expect.
“What did the dogs do all day?” I asked her when we returned from our rappelling excursion.
“They were so precious!” she said. “They curled up next to each other and slept all day.”
She fed them her leftover race food each morning, and by the time we left race HQ she was as attached to them as Jenny and me. (When we left, Dennys ran after the bus, and I shed a few tears. “They’ll be better off here than in La Fortuna,” Jenny tried to console me.)
Even more endearing was Danelle’s nervousness before the race, a nervousness completely unwarranted by her eventual top-notch performance.
“Where are my teammates?” I shouted as I boarded the bus for the race start.
“Where are my teammates?” she countered in a shaky voice. “What am I doing here alone?”
Paul Romero’s nine-year-old son, Jordan, was a major source of entertainment after his dad finished the race.
“Do you know what today is the anniversary of?” he demanded, after we’d heard Paul’s war stories from the course. We shrugged.
“The sinking of the Titanic!”
A veritable storehouse of trivia, he regaled us for hours with jokes, historical facts, and stories of his quest to become the youngest person to climb the Seven Summits. Check him out at www.jordanromero.com.
“Two more jokes, Jordan,” his dad said finally. “Then it’s time for you to sit down.”
The day after our meringue party we were scheduled to head back to San Jose, where Dave, Steve and I would have one more day before flying home. The bus was on Costa Rican time, which is like Jamaican time, so it was three hours late. When it finally arrived, it was 100 degrees inside. We thought the air conditioning must be broken, but after a while we realized the heat was on. The bus driver refused to discuss it. Then a tire went flat. We bumped slowly down a steep, windy mountain road, averaging less than 20 miles an hour on the flat. Then we heard a spray of liquid and turned to see coolant flooding the road behind us. Clearly, the driver knew he had an overheating problem and was running the heater on purpose. We piled out of the bus, exasperated.
“Come on, this is supposed to happen,” I told the other international racers. “We’re in Central America. Haven’t you seen the movies? We’re supposed to break down in a bus in the middle of nowhere.”
“Yeah,” answered Morgan, “but there’s supposed to be chickens on the bus. And people riding on top. And rebels chasing us with machine guns.”
He had a point. We found a little open air bar and ordered beer after beer. I soon forgot that we were stranded. Then I saw Corey running down the middle of the road, shouting. He had spotted a tow truck carrying Andres’ car, its owner’s head lolling out the window in an open-mouthed snore. Our bus was apparently not the only vehicle casualty of the day. A few minutes later, Andres was drinking beer in the bar with us, and another bus had been ordered.
Our last day in Costa Rica dawned bright, hot and clear, and we decided to bike up the Vulcan Poas, an extinct volcano just outside of San Jose with a national park at the top. The ride through San Jose traffic was wild, with trucks thundering by, seemingly inches from my shrinking, petrified body. The traffic finally waned as the climb began. The road was paved, but the climb was long and the hot sun beat mercilessly on my head. My stomach revolted, perhaps from drinking the local water or breathing truck fumes (or maybe it was the Denny’s?) and I didn’t think I’d make it for the first two hours. Dave put me on tow, and finally the nausea passed. After about five hours we reached the top—just in time to see the ranger closing the park gates.
“Cerrado,” he said firmly. Closed. We looked at each other and laughed. We’d missed another cut-off.
May 9, 2006
After my aborted Costa Rica race, I got worried. That was supposed to be my “put the mileage on” race before PQ. You know, the one where you get your butt over its crankiness with your bike seat on a 24-hour ride, and your back over its crankiness with your backpack on a 48-hour hike, that sort of thing. Since we were only out on the course for about 32 hours in Costa Rica, I had to look for other opportunities. I called my teammate Russ, who lives near Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
“Do you have a weekend coming up that we could get out for at least an overnight?” I asked him. We compared schedules. With a full-time job and a family, Russ has a schedule a lot tougher than mine. We settled on this past weekend, when we might be able to get out for almost 24 hours if I came to the little town of Oak Creek where Russ lives.
It was snowing when I left Summit County on Friday evening. It’s always snowing in Summit County lately. I don’t think we’re having summer this year. The snow might melt off the trails by August if we’re lucky, and then it will start snowing again in September. I’m a ski instructor, but I’m getting fed up all the same.
Oak Creek, on the other hand, was charmingly green. There was grass, and buds on the trees, and birds singing. Most of the trails still had snow on them, but there were miles and miles of rural dirt roads to ride and hike.
“You’re actually having a spring!” I accused Russ.
“Yeah, I’ve been able to get out riding for a while now,” he admitted.
We sat down to plan our night. Russ has an office on the main street of Oak Creek, just a mile or so from his house, and we could use that for a transition area without waking up his family. Since it was forecast to be about 30 degrees and possibly snowing during the night, we planned to hike all night and get on our bikes in the morning when it started to warm up. We also decided to jettison the snowshoes and keep it simple; we would hike on dirt roads.
“I don’t care if it’s boring,” I told Russ. “I just need to get some time in.”
It wasn’t boring though. The scenery was beautiful, and the hard surfaces (hard-packed dirt road and some pavement) were a painful eye-opener for both of us.
After about six hours, Russ said, “What’s that noise? Sounds like something creaking.”
“It’s my knees,” I said. “And my hips. And my ankles. Are we almost done yet?”
“I wish,” he answered. “I’ve got a blister on the ball of my foot. I never get blisters.”
Something else was an eye-opener for me too. Hike time is good talk time, and I realized that Russ, the team’s relative rookie, had been doing some serious thinking. He knew exactly what he was going to eat during the race. He’d even checked to make sure it would all fit in his one-fourth of a 48-gallon gear bin. He knew exactly what he was going to wear, and how he was going to pack it. He had lists of everything he was bringing in addition to the gear list. He had thought over every piece of gear, and every strategy for using it.
Good lord, I thought. I hadn’t been paying any attention at all, by comparison. I’d just been trying to keep up with the race updates, gear lists changes and teammate emails. I started making lists in my head of everything I needed to do when I got home.
Our plan was to hike until about 4:00 am and then start biking a little before sunrise so we could check out some new bike lights. We began a downhill hike on pavement at about 3:30, heading back to our “transition area.” Just before we reached town, we saw flickering blue lights on the side of the road. Two police officers had a couple of drunk drivers pulled over and were frisking them. As we came around the corner, one of the officers headed across the street to greet us.
“How’re you doing this evening?” he asked, cordially.
“Good, good,” we both responded.
Russ and the officer shook hands and introduced themselves, while I wondered what the heck we could possibly have done wrong.
“Just wanted to let you folks know that we got a call about you. That’s actually why we were up here, but then we ran into this other issue. Some local folks called and said there were kids hitchhiking on the road. Obviously they were mistaken.”
Russ chuckled. “Yeah, I guess we look a little strange out here. We’re actually training for a race.”
“Oh yeah? What kind of race? My nephew does a lot of triathlons.”
Russ explained. The officer asked a few friendly questions, and finally waved us on.
“We’ll be riding bikes next, so if you get any calls about that…”
The officer nodded. “Good luck! We’ll tell the next callers not to worry about you.”
We walked on. After a few minutes, I said, “Geez…I though I lived in a small town.”
When we reached Russ’s office, our cars were covered in ice and we could see our breath. I was thoroughly chilled. We sat inside for a while, ate, and stretched aching muscles. Finally I said, “I really can’t see going back out on bikes before sunrise. I’m freezing.”
Russ agreed. We stretched out on the floor for a nap, but I was so cold, even in the heated office, that I couldn’t sleep. Finally I put on a down jacket, and that helped enough for me to drift off.
We woke up at 7:00 am. It was still cold out, but the sun shone brightly through the window. We headed out on our bikes on the same dirt road we had hiked the night before, and it was even more scenic in the early morning light.
We had about six hours before I had to head home, and we used it well, biking dirt roads north of Oak Creek toward the snow-covered slopes of Steamboat Resort, through rural farmland and mining areas, and finally heading back at around 1:00 pm. I felt satisfied with our accomplishments, and especially with all the new lists our discussion had motivated me to make. Time to start thinking about the details. What kind of food would keep in an over-heated gear bin for 10 days? Does anyone make light-colored tights that would be good for desert racing? Did I really need to put handles on my boogie board?
I felt good about the training time we’d put in too. Well, that is, I felt good about it until Russ’s parting comment. “That was good for me,” he said. “It was about half my usual miles in twice my usual time.”
“Are you telling me that I’m twice as slow as you?” I demanded.
“No,” he protested. “I just meant that usually I go running, I don’t go out for an 8-hour hike.”
I guess I’ll let that comment slide…
May 24, 2006
Last weekend hosted a long-awaited event for my team: our first–and only–training weekend for the entire team. With two members in Colorado and two in Miami, all of us with busy race and work schedules, getting the team together was a major project. But an important project, because we had team members that hadn’t even met in person yet.
Prior to the weekend, I was a little worried that we might have a big disparity in experience level, pace, and race goals between Blain and Russ. But I knew everything was going to be OK when I heard Blain say, “Hey Russ, does my butt look fat in these bike shorts?” By Sunday, the two of them were so immersed in their ceaseless joking banter and their side deals about Hostess Twinkies and carrying each other’s packs that they insisted on being paddling partners no matter what paddling pace any of us were discovered to have. Two peas in a pod. Most teams are fortunate to have one designated team funny guy. We clearly have two.
The weekend began on Friday morning, when I picked Luther and Blain up at Denver International Airport and drove them to a friend’s house we had borrowed for the weekend to avoid the long drive up into the mountains where Russ and I live. We spent some time talking about the goals for the weekend before heading out for an afternoon bike.
“I think the weekend should be about getting to know each other, having lots of talk time to go over gear and logistics, and practicing some skills,” I told everyone. “I don’t really think it’s about cardio training, sleep deprivation, or being miserable. We’ll get enough of that during the race. In fact, this might be the last time we ever enjoy each other’s company, so let’s keep it that way until Monday.”
Everyone agreed, especially Luther and Blain, who were tapering for the Florida Coast to Coast next weekend. We headed for the foothills near Central City, a historic town over-run by casinos but a gateway to a labyrinth of scenic country dirt roads and trails with lots of elevation change. Russ and I had hoped that the Miami boys’ lack of altitude acclimation would give us a fighting chance of keeping up, but we were wrong, and Blain and Luther soon had tow ropes on their bikes. The topic of discussion, other than how to keep a team with different bike paces together, was navigation.
“You know, Blain’s a strong navigator—those Army Ranger types get excellent training. I think he might want to take the lead,” Luther told me as we rode behind the others.
“What do you mean?” I said. “You’re always the lead.”
“I wouldn’t mind just racing for a change, and taking the back-up role. I’ve always wanted to see how much faster I could be without my nose buried in a map.”
I shrugged. My own navigational skills are so poor that I don’t even belong in the discussion.
“Whatever the two of you decide is fine with me,” I told him. The truth is, we’re lucky to have two very strong navigators on the team who can share duties. I don’t think I’ve ever had that before.
After the ride, we found a Macaroni Grill for dinner and sat in the bar drinking beer and pouring over Utah maps. Blain traced the route that the Eco Challenge Utah had taken years ago, and Russ and I talked about our knowledge of the area from many years of racing and training in Moab. Another kind of disparity in experience level quickly became apparent—Russ and I drank two beers to Luther and Blain’s one, and watched Blain sink slowly down in his bar stool and Luther’s eyes glaze over. By the time dinner arrived, I think the two of them were just about drunk from a single beer, leaving Russ and I to wonder if cutting down on our own drinking might be a good idea.
On Saturday, we drove to the foothills town of Morrison and rigged a couple of ropes in a popular bouldering area to practice ascending. I broke out my Figure 8, which hasn’t been used in years, and rappelled down to where the rest of the team was waiting. I forgot that a Figure 8 on a 10 mm rope has nowhere near the friction of an ATC, and I fell the last 15 feet and landed on my butt. Good thing I’m supposed to be the experienced ropes guy. We spent the next few hours doing laps on the two ropes, ascending one and rappelling on the other, eventually adding a prussic to the ascending rope to simulate a knot pass. We also practiced ascending over tricky overhangs.
Over a late lunch in an Italian café, we talked about our food strategy. Finding palatable foods that will keep for 10 days in a gear box in 100 degree heat is not easy. Nothing brings out personality quirks like a discussion about food.
“Have you ever tried ramen?” Blain asked.
“Of course,” I said. “And we’ll have a stove in the food bin.”
“No, I mean have you ever tried it dry? I do it all the time. You just crunch it up, sprinkle the seasoning packet on it, and then chase it with some water. You can feel it expanding in your stomach after you drink the water.”
Russ and I exchanged shocked glances.
“I’ll try it,” Russ said doubtfully. “But I think I’ll probably stick to my Hostess Twinkies and as many sandwiches as I can make work. I’ve been leaving stuff out on the counter for the past week to see what lasts. It’s driving my wife crazy.”
“I’m going to do a lot of military-issue MRE’s,” said Luther. “They have everything you need.”
“I’m going to do backpacker meals,” I said. “They’re pretty similar. You just add boiling water.”
Clearly, we needed to have separate spaces in the food bin, but we did manage to make a list of a few foods that we could share. Tortillas with peanut butter and honey topped the list.
After lunch, we headed back to the house to transition for a night bike. A couple of us had new bike lights to try out. Despite the fact that we went to Green Mountain Open Space Park, which is probably the most urbanized bike park in all of Colorado, we found ourselves bushwhacking up a steep hill, pushing our bikes, after only an hour.
“What do you guys think this is, a real race?” I protested, gasping for air, picking cactus thorns out of my ankles. I’d had a leisurely, two-hour single-track cruise in mind when we left the house.
Sunday was hot and sunny, with temperatures over 90 degrees, the perfect weather for paddling and a trial whitewater swim. We hit Chatfield Reservoir in two duckies and tried out a couple different teammate combinations on our way around the outskirts of the lake and down a river that fed into the reservoir. After concluding that Russ and Blain in one boat and Luther and I in the other was probably the best combination, at least to start out with, we headed for lunch and a shopping trip to the Denver REI, a 100,000 square foot monstrosity that the company boasts as its flagship store. Watch out–four kids were loose in a candy store. We had hoped to find a paddle box, the one remaining large item on the team gear list that we hadn’t dealt with yet, but we had no luck. With Triall3sports sold out, it will be a challenge to find something. I found a couple personal items I’d been looking for, including a drybag with backpack straps for the swim, and a good desert trekking hat with neck cover.
One of the charms of the REI flagship store is its man-made rapid in the Platte River right outside the store, the perfect place to try out whitewater swim gear. Kids were floating the rapids in swim trunks and on inner tubes, and people stared at us as we got geared up.
“Hey Russ!” Blain yelled, as he lumbered toward the water in his flippers. “How does my butt look in this wetsuit?”
The biggest challenge, as it turned out, was steering the boards. The boys did laps while I watched, each trying different techniques. Russ got stuck in an eddy and took three tries to get out. Luther found angled fins impossibly squirrelly to use, and switched to his old straight cuts. Blain finally figured out the secret.
“You have to kick your feet enough to move faster than the water is moving,” he said. “That’s how you can steer.” Easier said than done. I wished I’d brought my own gear to try out—having done whitewater swims before, I had thought it best to sit out the event and let the boys use our one and only boogie board. It’s been a while since I tried it, and I don’t really remember what steering is like. But I’ll be going back to Moab this week and will have plenty more chances; possibly even in the very river we’ll be swimming for the race. Whatever that river might be.
After the swim, Russ needed to head home to his family.
“Hey Blain!” he yelled on the way out the door. “Do you think I’ll look good in powder blue race tights?”
Luther and Blain weren’t leaving until the next morning, so we headed back to the house for some final gear list reviews. Then, having had enough of the race discussions for one weekend, we rented a silly movie and sacked out on the couch. All in all, a very productive weekend, and one we’ll remember fondly when we’re suffering, sweating and bickering in Utah next month.
June 5, 2006
My teammate Blain, racing as an alternate on team Mighty Dog, won the Florida Coast to Coast last weekend.
My first thought after reading the Sleepmonsters reports was, “What am I doing racing with someone who wins the Florida Coast to Coast?” I never win anything. I called Blain to get the full scoop.
“Why did all the other teams miss checkpoints?” I asked. “Were they really hard to find?”
“No, it was the heat,” he said. “It was brutal. Ninety degrees with high humidity. And they made the course longer than they originally told us. We figure it was about 385 miles, and they advertised the race as being about 200.”
Heat. That’s the theme of my recent existence for sure. I’m in Moab training again, been here about a week, and if I hear one more local tell me “at least it’s a dry heat…” I’m going to smack someone.
“So, anything you learned about dealing with the heat that’s good advice for PQ?” I asked Blain. The last race update just came out, with its dire warnings about heat training.
“We pounded fluids until we felt sick in the TAs. We’d leave each TA with a belly full of water, carrying two 100 ounce bladders and two water bottles each. We had to move fairly slowly until everything settled down in our stomachs. And all that water we carried is really heavy, but it just doesn’t matter, you have to do it anyway.”
“Did you crawl from shade spot to shade spot during the day?” I asked, thinking about some of my recent training days.
“We wanted to, but we managed to keep going. We were on the Florida trail for a while, and it never went into the trees, it just kept winding around the palmetto fields, or if there were trees they had five pine needles on them. The sunblock was critical, and even then I got sun poisoning on my bottom lip where my camelback nozzle rubbed the sunblock off.”
I asked Blain more questions about the race and about racing with Mighty Dog, which he couldn’t say enough good things about, but my mind was still on the heat issues. It’s 100 degrees in Moab right now, and when you go down into the canyons it’s even hotter. One day last week I had a rough time biking the Spring Racecourse Loop, a 26-mile loop that climbs, via a difficult portage, from a canyon up a cliff to the popular Amasa Back trail. My 100 oz. bladder was empty after four hours, and I wasn’t done with the ride yet. I began stopping in every shade spot I could find, sometimes crouching beside short boulders, waiting for my heart rate to get back to normal. I had an extra water bottle in my pack, but the sports drink inside had heated up so badly that it burned my tongue. There wasn’t a soul out on the trail, and I began to get nervous.
I finally reached my car, nauseous and dehydrated, after five hours. One of the tires was flat, and I was still in a deserted canyon. I tried to get the jack out of my car, but it was somehow fastened into its compartment and I couldn’t figure it out. I still had no water, and I worried about Tango, my dog, who I’d left in our cabin at an RV park that morning. I drove down the rough dirt road, averaging five miles an hour, hoping I wouldn’t bend the rim. After about half an hour I reached the Kane Creek campground, which was almost deserted. I didn’t care about anything at that point except finding water and getting back to Tango, so I left my car on the side of the road with a note on it to say that I’d be back, and then I walked up to the only camper trailer in the campground. A man stood outside throwing a ball to two rambunctious dogs.
“Are you the campground owner?” I asked him.
“Nope,” he said, mistaking me for a would-be camper. “But you can just take a site, and they’ll be by in the morning. There are showers up in that house there. Don’t worry about my dogs, they’re friendly.”
I explained that I just wanted to make sure no one towed my car.
“Do you need a ride into town?” he asked.
I nodded gratefully. “If you’re headed that way, I’d love one,” I said. “I was planning on hitchhiking.” I had my bike of course, but I’d had enough of biking for the day.
I sat outside the trailer for a few minutes while the man put his dogs away, and then we got into his jeep and headed toward Moab.
“If you look in the dictionary under ‘stupid’ you’ll find my name in there,” I told him, relating the story of my folly-filled day.
“So you have a spare tire but you just can’t get the jack out?” he asked. “Why don’t I see what I can do?”
I hesitated, hating to be a burden to this kind stranger, but he was already turning the jeep around.
We chatted while he changed my tire–a quick look in the owner’s manual was all it took to figure out the jack issue. Rob Cassingham and his wife lived in the campground and owned a video game business in town, and he also had a printing business on the side, producing marketing materials for local tourism businesses. He gave me a copy of his driving tour brochure for the San Rafael Swell area, which was beautifully done.
“Tell your friends about this campground,” he said. “It’s a great campground, and there’s never anyone here. Not that we mind having it to ourselves, but sometimes I worry that the owner will sell it to some big resort developer.”
I promised to spread the word, and with my tire changed and my water bottles refilled, I finally headed back to Moab.
I stopped by Rob’s video game business the next day with a six-pack of beer and two rawhide dog bones. One can’t be dismissive about the kindness of strangers these days, especially in this frighteningly hot land.
June 16, 2006
Tango, my best friend and our team mascot, died early last Thursday morning. She was 16.
The end of Tango’s life was punctuated by trips to Moab. We had just come back from our January trip, a cold, miserable week spent shivering on my bike and sleeping in a Motel 6, when our vet first noticed that Tango’s heart rate was abnormally low. After two EKG’s, we still didn’t know why.
In February, we went to Moab for two weeks, planning to visit a cardiac specialist in Denver when we got back. I rented a small condo so Tango would be comfortable while I was out training every day. It was in that condo that I first noticed her habit of walking in circles to the left. She would go round and round, the way dogs sometimes do when they’re settling in for a nap, but she never lay down. She’d just keep circling until I made her stop.
I laughed about it, assuming it was another symptom of her recent doggie Alzheimer’s. But when we went to see the cardiac specialist, it was the first thing he asked about.
“How long has she been doing that?”
I shrugged. “Just a couple of weeks, I think.”
“And is it always to the left?” I said it was.
“I’m going to refer you to the neurology department,” he said. “The first thing I would suspect is a brain tumor. That could be causing the low heart rate.”
Another week later, we had our diagnosis; Tango did have a brain tumor. The neurologist said she had three to five months. We put her on a steroid that would slow the growth of the tumor and perhaps buy her a little more time.
I was already cooking her meals, but now I got extravagant. Twice a week I would broil a steak and cut it up for treats, and for something to hide her steroid pill in. Even when we went to Moab in April for the Gravity Play Adventure Xstream, I made sure to get a room with a refrigerator and a microwave so I could cook and store steak. Tango walked happily in circles to the left while she chewed her filet mignon.
In May, I noticed that Tango’s back legs didn’t seem to work properly anymore, and she would walk sideways, sometimes collapsing on her way down the hall to her food dish. She always got back up, undaunted, and kept walking. I wanted to go back to Moab again, but I wasn’t sure if Tango could handle it. With prices now at in-season levels, I couldn’t afford another condo, or even a hotel room, and I didn’t think Tango could camp in the heat. I began to worry about the timing of the race, too. What if she died while I was gone? How could I race for ten days not knowing how she was, or even if she was still alive? I’d surely lose my mind after a few days of sleep deprivation.
One morning, Tango collapsed in front of her food dish and stayed there, looking confused, leaving her steak untouched. After an hour, I picked her up and carried her into the bedroom, where I put her on my bed and called our vet, Dr. Denise Fair.
Luckily, Denise is a friend of mine from my search and rescue team. I can always count on her to take a no-nonsense approach.
“I think it might be time to say goodbye to Tango,” I sobbed on the phone. “She won’t eat, and she’s not walking.”
“How long has it been?” Denise asked. I told her it had just started that morning.
“Give it a little time,” she advised. “She may have just had a seizure. Sometimes they’ll snap out of it.”
Suddenly, Tango sat up on the bed and looked at me as if she’d understood what I said. She struggled to get up. I hung up the phone and lifted her off the bed, and watched as she marched down the hallway and ate her breakfast.
I called Denise back. “Never mind,” I told her. “You were right.”
We went back to Moab and stopped at every RV park in town until we found one that rented cheap, air-conditioned cabins and allowed dogs. Tango slept in the cooled air of the cabin every day while I went out riding and running through canyons in 110-degree heat. In the evenings, I sat on the deck and let her wander around the RV park, visiting with elderly couples. She hadn’t walked that much in a year. The lower altitude and dry heat of Moab was good for her. I cooked her steak on a Coleman stove every night, and she wolfed it down enthusiastically.
We were happy for almost a week and a half. Then there were signs that Tango’s liver and kidneys had been affected by the heavy doses of steroids I gave her every day. She was nauseous, and sometimes threw up. Her bowels were irritated. She stopped visiting the couples in their RV’s. I packed up to head home.
The day we arrived home, Tango was terribly sick. She breathed haltingly through her nose, a sign that she was in pain. She began to bleed internally. I slept on the floor with her that night, and we were up every half hour, Tango pacing and trembling and vomiting. Denise was out of town. Finally, in desperation, I called the local emergency service at 5:00 am. A patient on-call vet agreed to get out of bed and meet us at the clinic for an emergency euthanasia, and within an hour, Tango was suddenly, irrevocably gone forever. I was dazed.
I spent the day on Thursday watching movies, drinking wine, and trying to erase the agonizing images of Tango’s last hours.
On Friday, I drove to Durango for Gravity Play’s 24-hour Adventure Xstream. My teammates (not my Primal Quest teammates, but other good friends) had offered to forgive me for bailing out, but I thought the race would be good for me.
I knew I’d been wrong about that shortly after the bike section started. We’d been trekking and orienteering all night, and that wasn’t too bad. But once on the bike, I couldn’t talk to my teammates anymore, and felt trapped in my own head. On an endless climbing section, I pushed my bike and refused to ride anymore. I kept thinking about how I’d consoled myself over the past few months that although I would miss Tango terribly, I would also be grateful for the freedom I’d have when she was gone—freedom to race more, travel more, train more, and not worry about bringing her along or getting a pet sitter. And then I thought, how on earth could I have imagined that I wanted more freedom? Especially freedom to suffer through uphill bike sections like this? All I really wanted was my dog back.
I reached the top of a hill where my teammate Steve sat under a tree waiting, and I threw my bike on the ground.
“Can I tell you something crazy?” I asked him.
“Adventure racing is stupid! I have no interest in it anymore.”
I expected Steve to laugh, but he was serious.
“I’ve been there before,” he said. “I’m actually surprised that you wanted to do this race, given the situation. I give you credit just for being here. But after the race is over and you’ve had a good night sleep, you’ll be able to put things in perspective.”
“You’re probably right,” I said. “But right now, everything seems meaningless. How can I be heading out to Primal Quest in less than two weeks feeling like this? I won’t make it past the second day.”
We finished the race at 10:30 that night, almost in last place, thanks to my temper tantrums. We had been paddling in the dark with few layers, and we were freezing. We piled into my car, blasted the heat, and found a motel room.
In the morning, I sat up and looked at my teammates.
“Well, the race is over and I’ve had a good night’s sleep, and I still think adventure racing is stupid,” I announced. “So now what am I gonna do?”
After some discussion, everyone agreed that it was probably best that I not go back to Moab, which had been my plan for after the Durango race. We stopped in an internet café after breakfast and I booked a flight to New Hampshire, where my family lives. At times like these, I revert to the same instincts I had as a child. I want my mommy.
I’ve been here in New Hampshire for three days now. I watch movies until late every night, and I sleep until 10:00 am in the morning. On the first day, I spent hours putting a photo album together, raiding my mother’s attic for boxes of old photos that might have a picture of Tango in them. My mother is very patient with me and lets me tell Tango stories all day. The healing has begun.
I’d like to tell you that I’ve already found the kernel of wisdom that will keep me going throughout the race. But it’s still a work in progress, and I don’t have any clever answers yet. What I do know is that Moab will forever be linked with Tango in my mind, and when I see those majestic red rock cliffs and canyons, I will always think of her wandering among the RVs and circling to the left and eating her steak. And I will have to hope for that to be enough.
Best of luck to the 2006 teams. See you all next week.