Damn, I thought I was pretty good on rollerblades. Evidently that was a naïve opinion derived from rollerblading the smooth bike paths of Washington DC. The potholed, uneven surfaces of New York were a different story, and as I approached a scary-looking downhill I wrapped my right arm around an oncoming light pole and did a little dance with it before slamming to the ground. At least I hit dirt; my teammate Mark wasn’t so lucky. It was his second time on blades, and he hit the pavement hard, just after the crest of the hill. He lay motionless and facedown for a moment, then turned his head to look at me, still lying in the dirt and clutching the lightpost, and whimpered, “I don’t want to play anymore.”
We were team Raspberry JAM, for Julie, Anna and Mark, and this was the first 24-hour experience for Julie and Mark, who had flown in from Colorado for the race. When we’d started the run through Harriman State Park that morning at 7:00 am, I’d been thinking the race was going to be relatively easy—maps that seemed to be pretty accurate, little opportunity for getting lost, and mileage that was challenging but not overly so. I’d been right up until the rollerblading, anyway.
It was an early morning start from Chelsea Piers in Manhattan, where 50 teams assembled at 5:00 am to be bussed about 80 miles north to Harriman State Park. The race began at 7:00 with a 13-mile run on park trails, and with clear, sunny weather, it was a pleasurable start to the day. We were rookie navigators and made one silly mistake that left us circling in confusion, but our recovery was quick. By PC 2, we had worked up a pretty good sweat, and Mark didn’t mind being the teammate chosen to swim to the checkpoint on one of two small islands on Island Pond.
At about 1:00 pm, we arrived at the bike transition and headed into Ringwood State Park, continuing on a southerly course toward Manhattan. We’d spent much of the run alone, but now we seemed to be surrounded by other teams, and we began to complain about the navigational mistakes that resulted from “group think.” Several times, we backtracked with a group of 10 or 12 other teams on wooded trails and along power lines to recover from a wrong turn. Our course took us along paved roads and a swampy gas line, where Mark sunk into mud up to his knees. After PC 7, we traversed the Ramapo Reservation, where the race organization’s permits depended on our willingness to push our bikes rather than riding them, so we walked the 2.5 miles in the dark to PC8. The final bike section took us along busy roads to the boat transition in Nyack, which we reached at 11:00 pm.
Race officials had warned us that the kayak section would be cold. We loaded up custom-made three-person Cobra kayaks with all of our gear, donned drysuits, and set off for the 15-mile paddle down the Hudson River. The river was calm, except for one instance where we had to travel out to the middle to skirt a jutting point. We had been given tidal charts along with our 10 maps, and we were pleased to see that our arrival had been well-timed to coincide with the tidal ebb, meaning the water would be speeding us along. Despite that fact, the checkpoints often seemed impossibly far away. We’d see a light, head for it, and be disappointed to find that it was merely a pier signal. When we finally sighted the take-out point, it seemed to get further away the more we paddled. Mark began to fall asleep, and since his paddling was about as strong as mine and Julie’s put together, we slowed drastically whenever he nodded off.
When at last we reached the take-out at 3:00 am, we carried the boat through knee-deep mud and struggled through a messy transition back to foot travel. Our gear bin was filled with mud and we had nothing to clean our feet off with. We saw some of the lead teams at this transition, long finished and stopping by to pick up their gear tubs. One of them warned us that navigating to the GW bridge could be tricky, and he gave us directions.
As we walked toward the bridge, carrying our roller-blades, Mark staggered back and forth and begged me to let him sleep for five minutes. “Let’s wait until we get across the bridge,” I suggested. I was sleepy too, but we were too close to finishing the race to start sleeping now. Julie, who was wide-awake, took Mark’s arm when we reached the bridge and walked him across, keeping him on a steady course. On the other side of the bridge, I relented and let Mark sleep. After five minutes, I woke him up and said, “You’ve been sleeping for 20 minutes! How do you feel?”
“Great,” Mark said, putting on his rollerblades, “really refreshed!”
After our first crashes, I began to take my rollerblades off and walk the tricky parts. Mark and Julie cruised on ahead, braving the hills and potholes, and even a set of stairs. We counted the streets down as we progressed toward the finish at Chelsea Piers; 180th Street, 121st Street, 85th Street. At 46th Street, we arrived at the rappel site to find that the exciting rumors we’d heard were true—we were rappelling off an aircraft carrier, the Intrepid, which was docked in the Hudson River. The ropes were set up to allow whole teams to rappel together, and we climbed over the side of the ship and rapelled together until the ropes ended, about 20 feet above the water. I squeezed my eyes shut and dropped off the end of the rope, smacking the water in an awkward, painful fanny flop. Mark, at the urging of nearby camera crews and spectators, did a graceful cannonball.
With only ten blocks to go, we left our wet clothes on and rollerbladed to the finish, arriving at Chelsea Piers at 8:20 am on Sunday. The 24-hour adventure had been only 12 hours for the lead teams, but for us, it was 25 hours. Hey, I figure we got our money’s worth.