A Weekend in Paris...
I'm sure that's not usually how a race report starts, but that's what it was...well, kinda. James Duncan, Dan Brooks, Ryan Ezell and I met up at James' office parking lot on Friday at noon to load up Dan's van with our mountain bikes and gear to head to Tennessee for our first attempt at the Natchez Trace Adventure Race. We all had entered the exciting world of adventure racing for the first time last year at the Coosa River Challenge (a very novice friendly event) and kind of expected the same. At least I did.
James was nice enough to use some of his hotel points to get us a nice room at the Hampton Inn in, you guessed it, Paris. Paris, Tennessee "home the world's biggest fish fry" not Paris, France home of the Eiffel Tower (see image below of a German tourist proudly posing in front of the city's monument;-).
Since we arrived at our destination early enough to check in at the race, we headed straight to Natchez Trace State Park at the Adventure Race headquarters. Eager as we are, we were the first to check in and receive our race t-shirts. All other information regarding the actual race would not be shared with us until race day, just prior to the start of the race. After taking a brief look around of where to head to in the AM and where the transition are (TA) would be located to drop of our bikes, we headed to Paris to check in to our hotel.
After a dropping off our bags and gear in our room, we headed out for our pre-race dinner. We all agreed that pasta would be preferred and luckily, Paris hadn't fallen victim yet to the numerous chain food restaurants. Instead, we located a little place called the "Olive Pit". Hmm, I wonder if that has anything to do with a certain Italian restaurant chain of a similar name. Surprisingly, other than the meager house salad that only consisted of lettuce leaves, the food was very very good. I stayed with my staple food, Fettuccine Alfredo with Chicken. All of us opted for the desert and I had the raspberry cheesecake, what else;-)
Once we arrived back at the hotel, we knew we had to double-check and repack our gear bag for race day. The RD made it clear that we must carry ALL gear listed on the race's gear list unless we were willing to receive a one hour penalty if we failed to present any of the items during the race, if asked for them. That meant much heavier bags than we initially anticipated. For some of us, Ryan and Dan, that also meant squeezing the last bit of air out of any piece of gear they were trying to force into their little Camelbaks. Hey, Dan even considered cutting his beanie in half just to save weight and space. Fortunately, we were able to deter him from destroying a perfectly fine piece of winter garment. Once we packed our bags, we pretty much called it a night in an effort to catch as much rest as possible before the big day. After all, this would be the longest race duration for both Dan and Ryan. James and I had a little more experience because of ultrarunning. By the way, since we only had two beds in our room, we had to share beds. On that note, Ryan, thanks for explaining rather than showing me what a "Dutch oven" is;-)
We all got up around 6AM to pick up continental breakfast in the hotel lobby before heading to the race. Thankfully, our mountain bikes were still attached to Dan's van. That might be expected had it not been for James deciding to leave the key in the lock that was supposed to keep Ryan's and my bike securely on the bike rack;-)
We arrived at the TA with plenty of time to spare, at least I thought so. I was using a hard tail mountain bike (without any front suspension either) that I had never used before. This bike was also equipped without toe clips that I had never used before. When I finally decided to take it for a spin, 20 minutes prior to race start, I realized I probably should take them off since I was struggling to get clipped in and really didn't know how technical the course would be. I secured the necessary tools from a team setting up right next to us (thanks again, guys!) and proceeded to remove the toe clips, just in time to make it to the race start.
After a brief team captain's meeting with the RD and his team, James and Dan came out of the headquarters to share the instructions with us. James and I had teamed up as team "Ultra Scouts" (see our adventure race passport below) and Dan and Ryan were team "/Cancer". Unfortunately, the race organizers didn't understand the slick word play here and instead of "Slash Cancer" Dan and Ryan were known as team "Cancer". Who knows what message that sent to other teams.
Just as James explained the first challenge to me (tying ourselves together with the 15 ft cord we were instructed to bring and proceeding to a given point to receive our map with check points), the RD blew the horn signaling an early race start (see map below, zoom in to see check points).
Already, we were off to the races and James and I took a commanding lead....of 20 seconds. After a quarter mile sprint to receive our map, we proceeded to the first real check point. And this is where the problems...uhem fun...started.
James and I are both sticklers for detail. The instructions clearly stated that we had to locate first check point "inside" a barn. As a result, we used up our commanding lead very quickly, spending this time to check not one but three barns alongside the jeep road we were instructed to follow. Other teams with less attention to detail quickly decided to check out a much larger area around the barns while James and I continued to search "inside" the various barns multiple times. Once we gave in to the masses, we followed another team down a steep hillside and finally located the check point about 100 feet below the first barn we had originally checked. By the time we stamped our team passport, we had been passed by a few teams. That didn't matter, though.
James and I were confident in our trail running abilities and the first leg of this race would be trail running with some road running peppered in. We figured we could make up the time lost in this leg, and we did. We passed at least 5 teams between the first check point (CP-34) and the next check point (CP-30), much of whom were basically hiking this part of the race rather than running it. CP-30 was located down the same Jeep road about 1200 meters from the last check point. Since the race did not allow any type of GPS device, we needed to start using our orienteering skills to navigate from CP to CP. Thankfully, James was a scout and much more comfortable using maps and mapping tools than me.
We arrived at CP-30 and quickly moved on to find the next one. At this point, James's sense of direction and map skills came in handy again, because I wasn't sure where to go. CP-31 was next on our list of instructions. The Jeep road we've been traveling on seemed to just end right in front of us. However, crossing over a fallen tree, the Jeep road had turned into a single track trail that we needed to follow across a creek. This section was fun, lots of technical up and down along a dried out creek bed. Once we got closer to the location on the map, we started looking for another fallen tree that was supposed to indicate the location of CP-31. We were not disappointed.
To find the next CP-35, we followed the same trail until it intersected with the Power Trail. Once there, we continued on the Power trail until we hit Parsons Road. Going west about 350 meters on Parsons Road, we turned onto Derryberry Trail. CP-35 was located just down this trail at the point of a fork in the trail. Now we were ready to head back to TA-1.
We headed back towards Parsons Road and turned west, where we would eventually approach TA-1. Once we arrived at the TA, we handed in our race passport to be checked in by a race official. He held on to our passport until we retrieved our mountain bikes for the next leg of the race. A small group of racers was now tasked with the mystery challenge. We were instructed to move on to do the mystery challenge at a later time.
We headed back down Parsons Road until we reached the Red Leaves Trail entrance. The first CP-1 on this trail was located right at the Parsons Road trail entrance just about 700 meters from TA-1. The next 5 check points to be collected would all be located along the Red Leaves Trail and the rules stated very clearly that teams had to stay on the trail to collect these CPs. This particular piece of information is a very important tidbit related to comments following later in this report. We continued down Red Leaves Trail for the remaining CPs.
We started to watch for another road crossing as that would indicate that the next CP-2 would be appearing after about 950 meters. This trail started seemingly nontechnical. Within a few yards, in turned into the most technical trail I have ever ridden on a mountain bike. Granted, I am a novice mountain biker, but this trail was by no means easy. The ground was covered in leaves and pine needles, making it almost impossible for tires to grip. When there weren't leaves there was mud getting the bike stuck. When neither leaves nor mud interfered with our riding, it was steep climbs, steep drops, no real trail to ride on or actual gaps in the trail, basically forcing us to dismount our bikes every minute or two. It was tough...and it was never ending. And I loved every minute of it, I truly did. This was no picnic and I felt like a real adventure racer. After collecting CP-2 which was basically dangling above my head as we rode down the trail, we moved on to CP-3.
This one was a little tougher. It was located just off the trail and when James approached it, he thought it was the wrong CP. At the top of the red and white striped tube (all CPs were identified like that) hanging from the tree there was the number "23", not "3". As James let go of the tube and it swung around, I noticed another number at the bottom of the tube, "3". This had to be the correct tube, the 23 on top must have been a remainder from another marking from a previous race. It was pure coincidence that I noticed the number at the bottom. Had we proceeded hoping to find CP-3 further down the trail, this would have been a fatal mistake.
At this point of the course, the biggest controversy of the race took place. At it could have all been avoided had the race staff decided to keep CP-4 as a check point for the 4-6 hour racers. CP 4 was located between CP-3 and CP-5 right along the trail, but it wasn't listed on our instructions so we had to skip it. As things were, most racers didn't even come across this CP. Had racers been forced to stamp this one as well, none of the folowing would have taken place. Please let me state first that I fully expect to be back at this race next year because I truly had fun and I want to do it all over again. I will also recommend it as a great adventure race to anyone who will listen, so the comments in this report are in no way meant to place a bad light on this event. They merely show that improvements can and should be made to ensure a fair outcome as much as possible. That's why I spend some time presenting some of the information James so skillfully collected and analyzed after the race completed. I am obviously paraphrasing details as identified by James, Dan and Ryan.
One can argue and make a very strong case (and rightfully so) that James and I illegally "lost" the race during this section of the course. I believe that this section of the course, between CP-3 and CP-5 determined the top three or even top 5 finishers of this event. Why, you ask? Because many teams, at least 5 according to Ryan who witnessed it, took a course "detour", leaving Red Leaves Trail after retrieving CP-3 and using roads to make their way to CP-5, where they reentered the trail to continue on to CP-6. Now, I fully believe that most if not all teams that chose this detour did so not realizing that the rules stated than teams must stay on the trail to collect CPs 1 thru 6. Heck, when James and I arrived at CP-6 seeing Ryan and Dan standing there while enjoying a snack, clearly much more relaxed and less exhausted than James and I, we figured we had been outsmarted by better teams. Only later did we realize that we might have been one of only a few teams in the top 10 finishers that actually unknowingly followed the rules. Either way, when we arrived at CP-6 exhausted we really let our heads hang when we saw that some of the other teams had passed us, even though we had been putting the "hammer down" the entire way.
James and I took a close look at the map and determined that there was only one way to make up at least a little bit of the time we had lost over these other teams, bushwhacking our way past the dam on Browns Lake Road to cut off these teams that would had back up the trail to enter the road just before the dam. While the trail section had been really tough to ride on, the next section made me forget all of that. Not only did we have to bushwhack our way through fields of briars, we also had not cross a creek, not once, but twice, and all after slashing our legs with briars all the way up to my thighs. Great feeling. I don't think you're supposed to submerge yourself to your waist in murky creek water after slicing your legs open with Briars (see results in picture below). After we crossed the first creek and I started screaming like a pansy about half way through, I was briefly ready to just cut my losses. Problem was, I didn't know how.
Wherever I looked there were more briars. There was no way out, only a way through. So I soldiered on, thinking about the "Barkley Marathons" and the many stories folks have written about in their race reports about how impossible it is to escape these thorny patches of misery. For a moment, I literally felt stuck in some horror movie, long Briar vines holding onto my bike, keeping me from pushing it forward. It was crazy. After we crossed the second creek through what felt like waist deep water because I kept losing my footing, I had decided to just keep moving forward to get out of this mess. Before I knew it, we reached the road. Now, we still had to ride a significant section of hilly country road to make it to TA-2 at Pin Oak Lodge. Once there, we would enter a canoe to collect CPs 7 thru 10 located along and across the Pin Oak Lake.
As I am checking us in at TA-2, James is checking the map to figure out the best course across the lake to collect the different CPs. I am picking up life preservers and paddles and start pulling the canoe towards the lake as James rejoins me with the best course of action. The lake portion does not require teams to collect the points in a given order. Instead, teams have to strategize how to collect the CPs. James has determined a route and it sounds good. As we head out we wonder where Dan and Ryan might be, we should receive our answer while in the middle of the lake half way through this leg of the race.
James and I head for CP-7 first. The instructions state that points are Rogaine. Is that adventure racer talk? Does it mean the CPs are scattered around like the volume of hair on my head? I wasn't sure, nor did I care. We made a small mistake during the search for this CP as well. Rather than looking for the point that was marked by a hole in our map, we actually went to the spot where the CP# was located on the map. As a result, we searched around the pipeline clearing for a while until realizing the mistake of our ways;-) We headed back to the canoe and decided to go for the next CP-8 and that we would collect CP-7 on our way back and to CP-9.
We found CP-8 very quickly. It was neatly located near a creek entrance just north of the underground pipeline. Now we made our way back to CP-7, paying attention to some of the other teams that were in the process of locating CP-7. This helped us just enough not to make any additional mistakes. We quickly spotted CP-7 and moved on across the lake to collect CP-9.
CP-9 was located near a No Wake Buoy, which we really never noticed as we entered the small bay on the other side of the lake. However, as we approached the end of the bay, we noticed the buoy about 30 yards inland, across a small creek that wasn't visible from the lake, but that James had to cross anyway to retrieve the stamp we needed for our passport.
CP-10 was across the lake again on the same side as TA-2. It was the last CP we had to retrieve before heading back to TA-2 for our final leg of the race. We realized that we did not have much time left. James' calculations would give us about 60 minutes for the last mountain bike leg which covered about 6 miles of rolling hills and one more CP-14 with a steep climb returning from it. We still thought we were in the running for a top three finish.
At this point, we had been racing for about 5 hours, yet I wasn't anywhere near tired. I had had two bottles of Gatorade and one salt tablet. That's it. I never used any energy gels or other food or additional drinks for the entire race. It was kind of strange, I just never got really tired. James, on the other hand, was starting to feel his recent lack of training a little. Well, you can pursue your pilot's license and train for ultras and adventure races at the same time while keeping your family sane. However, he kept us on course the entire race and he never quit. He got a little pale towards the end, but he never quit. I'm still not sure if he got pale because he was exhausted or if he got pale from being mad at me for not stopping talking to him for the last 4 hours. I was the energizer bunny and all I could do was talk and keep going. I know he was sick of it;-) But he kept going, ignoring my faint attempts of motivating our team.
We decided we had just enough time to make an attempt at retrieving the last CP-14, if we made it fast. James checked the map and we decided that we had found the proper Jeep road to take to CP-14. As we arrived at the end of the road at the lake, we realized that another team was already looking for CP-14. Fishermen close by also let us know that they had seen many other teams make their way down here to look, but they didn't know where the CP was. After 5 minutes of searching we called it quits. We headed back up the steep road in an attempt to make it to the finish before the 6 hour cutoff. We made it to the finish with about 10 minutes to spare, realizing that we still needed to do the mystery challenge to avoid another 1 hour penalty in addition to the missed CP-14.
The mystery challenge was a doozy for me. One team member needed to be blindfolded and place 52 or so pieces of a United States puzzle (generally one state per piece) in their correct place. The other team member had to direct the blind folded team member without touching any of the pieces or the map. With about 2 minutes before the cutoff, we had placed half the pieces and called it off as we wanted to be official finishers. However, the RD instructed us to continue as no one had finished yet. I am still not certain what he said exactly, only that we should continue to complete the challenge. We completed the challenge and finished the race after 6 hours and 9 minutes, covering close to 30 miles in the process and putting us in 7th place overall according to the race rules. However, James did a great analysis of the split times that clearly demonstrates (at least to him and I) that we could have potentially won the race had the race organizers been able to enforce the rules somehow. Either way, it was a great race.
As it stands, I will definitely back next year and so will James. And our team name will be, you guessed it, "Unfinished Business". This is a great event and if some of my comments sound like whining, sorry. It's not meant as a complaint, just as an observation. James and I placed an asterisk next to our official results. We know we are champions at heart;-) Thanks again to my teammate James and to Dan and Ryan for making this event a fun race with friends.
As my mind clears up, I will continue to update this race report.