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The Wild 24 Hour Race

So this was only our third (my second) major race this year, but it sure didn't seem like we were out of practice. We captured a solid 2nd place finish with a convincing performance in the orienteering section at the end. Even though second place really means first loser, finishing within an hour of WEDALI is a victory in many people's eyes, including ours. And we were even ahead of them for a time! But first things first.

Brian, Dave, Val, and I made up the main team, and Rick and Chris raced as GH 2. Race headquarters was at the Black Bear Casino and Hotel off I-35 and Hwy 210, so it was quite obvious we'd be using Jay Cooke for at least some of the race - and I had some ideas about other nearby areas.

The pre-race meeting was 2 PM on Friday, and afterwards we loaded our ropes bag and paddle bag into a trailer and got on the school bus for a rocky, dusty drive to the start in the middle of the Nemadji State Forest.

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The first section was a 18-mile trekking loop to get five CPs in the western part of the state Forest. We started facing west along Net Lake Rd, and as soon as Jason sounded the start signal, Brian jumped out at a run and we all followed him. WEDALI was on our shoulder, and a few other teams were keeping pace. We ran about a mile and a quarter down the road, and then turned left onto the Munger Trail for a short way, crossed the Net River, and turned onto the Continental Divide Trail. By this time WEDALI was the only team visible, but no doubt others were close behind but not visible because of the twists and turns of the trail. We didn't slacken the pace as we both ran into CP 1 at a wooden shelter a couple miles down the trail.

Our overall pace started to slow down here, but that's just because our initial pace wasn't sustainable for more than what we'd done. The distances out in this area were pretty long. We had to go another four miles and through some active logging (sneaking around the side of the logging truck blocking the trail) to get to CP 2 at a trail intersection. Then it was another five miles to the next intersection, where we found CP 3 and Ian waiting with his bike. During this whole section, WEDALI hung just off our shoulder - sometimes I could look back and see all four of them, sometimes I saw no one, and sometimes I only saw Molly, sans pack, who stayed ahead a little to bridge the gap and make sure we stayed in sight. All eight of us were starting to feel the pace, but we all knew that our little "battle" would do well to put a gap between us and the rest of the field, so we perservered.

The Munger Trail to CP 4 was a shorter leg, and we turned left to get back out onto the forest roads and onto the home stretch to the first TA. It was nearly sunset by now, and we knew there'd be no problem getting onto the bikes before full dark (although the CP placement wasn't at all difficult on this section.) We unsheathed headlamps as we jogged into CP 5, and ran into a fellow sitting next to a campfire and his RV who didn't quite know what was going on and what that orange thing hanging on the tree was. We didn't have much time to talk, so we just said hi and warned him that others would be through in the next half hour. Then it was only a half a mile down the main road to get back to the bikes. We were the first team in. It was mostly dark, I had my headlamp on, none of the others had theirs turned on yet. As we ran the last 30 meters towards Gayle at CP 6/TA 1, I shouted something back to my teammates, and I think from the reaction at the TA - just maybe - that they were surprised that the team wasn't WEDALI (which would have been the obvious guess).

We had an OK transition, and I took a couple of seconds to tell Gayle and Jason about the guy near #5. I later learned that Jason had gone down there to check on the CP and fell into a 20-minute conversation with the guy, who was pretty cool about letting a bunch of people run through his campsite after dark.

Then we headed out on bikes to the east, cut off on an ATV trail about a mile down, and then looked for the turn onto a motorbike-only trail. The trails were all quite technical, with sand, rocks big and small, roots, wet spots, and in some places ruts from the ATV tires. It took a lot of concentration to ride them in the dark. CP 7 was on a small saddle that was completely invisible at night, so we just biked the 4-foot wide motorbike trail until we ran into it, then bailed out to the main forest road and around to duck into CP 8 a few dozen meters down another trail. WEDALI caught up to us shortly after this, and passed us when we paused at the split between the Munger Trail and the Yellow Birch Trail. I went ahead a little to try to keep them in sight, just as Molly had done earlier on the run, but when we all hit a steep sandy uphill, they managed it cleanly but Val hit a spot of deep sand and had to dismount. The pause was just enough for them, and they must have scented a little weakness because they picked up the pace at the top. I followed, but not for long since I started to pull ahead of the rest of my team. Oh well, that's how it goes.

We pulled into CP 9 at the (navigable!) end of a forest road, which was manned by Jason and Megan. We saw WEDALI's headlamps pulling out along the road to the north, and followed them out and along another mile-long technical section until we crossed a creek and climbed up to another ATV trail that led us to CP 10. Then we had less than a mile to the Gandy Dancer Trail, and it was the end of the technical biking. The obstacles were pretty fun in my opinion, but the recent dry weather caused all the trails to be extremely dusty for the last four hours, and we were all parched. It didn't help that the Nemadji forest is located on an ancient glacial lakebed that deposited a huge amount of sand right in that area.

So we jumped on the Gandy Dancer Trail, and it was a little better than what came before, but still unpaved with occasional spots of deep sand and gravel. We went about five miles NE, crossed the Wisconsin state line, pedaled up to the little town of Patzau and cut north on a county road. At this point we were on pavement for good, but we were almost out of water.

Unfortunately, WEDALI pulled further ahead of us on the road ride, as we expected they would. We still drafted each other, west on CR-B and north on CR-W, and only stopped once to grab some food near the Nemadji River. I ate a pear I had carefully been saving in a ziploc bag, and it was the most wonderful thing ever. We picked up CP 11, which was just off the road along the Munger Trail where it crossed CR-W. Then we continued north and west across the Minnesota border, where we saw Jason sitting by the side of the road in his truck, watching for teams. I told him later we didn't know it would be a multiple-state kind of race. CP 12 was a clue, no punch - namely, the address of the electrical substation at the intersection of the county road with SH-23. We turned right onto 23 and headed down along the east edge of Jay Cooke to cross the St. Louis River. We were so out of water at this point that we (briefly) stopped at an overlook and a rest stop later on in hopes of finding plumbing or a pump, although we didn't expect to find much. We were right, so we ended up waiting until the paddle TA to collect a couple bottles full of nasty, brown, stagnant water from the river. Brian almost scooped up a small frog into his bottle. Nevertheless, a couple of iodine tablets and a couple of NUUNs were enough to mask any odd flavors, although the color combinations were interesting - I used one of Val's NUUN, cola flavor I think, and ended up with water that looked like grape koolaid.

We took a surprisingly short paddle TA, then tied on all the glow sticks and launched onto the river underneath a starry sky. We paddled for about 25 minutes east to get to the next boat launch, and I was starting to wake up with the change in discipline and starting blabbing Dave's ear off while Val did the same to Brian in the other boat. CP 14 was another clue, where we were supposed to discover the name of the campground just east of the boat launch. Nothing was obvious from the water, so we had to pull up to the dock, and Val and Dave both jumped out and hunted around until they found the campground sign. We could see campers from the water, all bundled up past 1 AM in the morning, but had to go out to the road to find the sign, so it took several minutes before we got underway again.

There were no other points on the water, so now it was just navigating through the river into a wider lake and finding the boat launch at Smithville. We came through the river and under the bridge from New Duluth, which is pretty cool itself; a double-decker with vehicle traffic on the lower level and freight trains on the upper level. In fact, a train even came over as we were approaching. Unfortunately, I made some mistakes once we got out into the lake. I steered us too far to the east and ended up getting confused about whether we had properly passed the dead-end bay on the left shore, so we actually went around the east side of a small island and had to come back way to the west. This is maybe the first time that I've overestimated distances at night!

The final embarassment was that I messed up the approach, too. We had two maps covering the area; a 1:100,000 that included the put-in and a good portion to the west; and a 1:24,000 that included the takeout and subsequent bike over to the ropes. I stayed with the 100K map for too long, and failed to see a north-south island just offshore from the landing and blocking it from view out in the lake. The island was on the map, just very small and partially obscured by the overprinting near the TA. So I thought that the view was open, and was confused to find an island apparently intervening between where I thought the TA was and where we were. This made me second-guess our location, and by the time I remembered there was another map, pulled it out, and saw the big obvious island, we were paddling north around it and had to come back south for a least a third of a mile to where I thought the landing was in the first place! All of this happened because of the original mistake that caused us to approach from the east; most of the other teams approached from the south and had no issues with the island. In postmortem, it's interesting; but it cost us 20 minutes and allowed Beautiful People to catch up with us and take out at practically the same time. WEDALI actually made a similar mistake to ours, but they had enough of a lead from the bike section that they were gone from the TA when we pulled in.

Deep breath!

(Since we had the mandatory 10 minute wait to deflate and clean the boats.) We took the remainder of the 10 minutes to pack up our paddle gear and grab some food. When Megan released us, we ran over to our bikes, switched shoes, and picked up our ropes gear from our team bag. Then we headed out through residential streets until we found the sidewalk that brought us throught the WP and over SH-23 on the Munger Trail, which is paved this close to Duluth. We hooked up on tow and climbed gradually towards Elys Peak, following the gentle curves of the old railroad grade. We made another mistake when getting off at the SHT parking lot; we had a mandatory route to get off there and follow Becks Road up to the Elys Peak lot in order to prevent us from bushwhacking up to an overpass. We got off at the right place, but the problem was that we thought the SHT lot was our goal. We went back and forth a couple times and watched Beautiful People bike past us before we finally turned the instruction sheet over and saw what we were supposed to do. It was simple after that, and a little silly that we spent another 10 minutes, maybe, less than 1/4 mile from CP 16 - especially considering there were explicit instructions on what to do.

Deep breath!

We dropped bikes, and switched back to running shoes since a sticky sole is helpful on rock. Then we took a steep narrow trail up to a second abandoned railroad grade, this one unpaved, and jogged about a 1/2 mile southeast until we saw something unusual. It was a tunnel, apparently bored out of the south side of Elys Peak in years gone by. It was actually taller that is was wide, and a little intimidating in the dark. We walked in and went around a large rockfall, curving gently left for about a hundred meters until we heard voices and saw headlamps up ahead. Just at the far end of the tunnel was the ascent section - three ropes, on the left side, going up the full height of the tunnel and then beyond. The ascent height was maybe 70-80 feet, with the first three-quarters free hanging. WEDALI was almost finished going up one of the ropes, Beautiful People was just starting to go up one, and we rigged up as Rebecca checked us and assigned us to the third rope.

I went up first, and despite my earlier tests with the daisy chains, they were still about a half-loop too long so I wasn't really fast and had to rest quite a bit, but I did pass Chad (I think). It got easier as I was able to plant my feet on the rock wall, which offered me some upward force and also prevented me from spinning freely on the rope. As soon as I hit the wall I was able to look up and see Dan grinning at me, so we BSed as I worked my way up over some convex faces and scrambled up to the top. I clipped into the safety line, released the jugs, and headed over to join Jesse sitting on a rock face that acted as the "holding tank". We weren't allowed to proceed to the rappel until all our team members were done with the ascent, so I waited, talked with Jesse, shared some food, and enjoyed the view out over the St. Louis bay. We were looking southeast and saw all the lights of the little towns down that way; Gary, New Duluth, Smithville, Morgan Park, along with the orange skyglow of Duluth and the impressive set of radio towers surmounting the city. Way down below, we saw another freight train creeping its way across the bridge we passed hours ago. Orion was well up already, and in the east, a gray ribbon along the horizon indicated the last hours before dawn. Chad finally joined us, panting, and I offered him some chocolate and we all made jokes about "fat guys" and ropes (Chad and Jesse are both heavyset, but obviously still athletic.)

Val arrived shortly after, and the rest of our respective teams in staggered fashion. Beautiful People moved on when Ellen arrived, and we didn't have to wait long for Brian to follow them to the top of the rappel. We punched CP 17 atop Elys Peak, and followed the safety line for a couple hundred meters until we could go no farther. Mike McCay was there and directed us to the second rappel line. Val went down first this time, and I followed her. It was a quick, fun zip down, with enough vertical to allow plenty of kicking off and only one ledge near the bottom. I was still a little slow because the rope was new(ish) and my ATC has a lot of friction - at some points I only had a 30 degree angle between the ropes to get adequate progress (but I suppose I'm not a "fat guy"...)

We punched CP 18 at the bottom of the rappel, jogged out of our harnesses on the way back to the bikes, and checked out of CP 19 nine minutes behind Beautiful People. Even though we would have preferred to stay ahead of them, we didn't realistically think we would gain any time on ropes, and knew we wouldn't gain any time on bikes, against them. But we still had a long rogaine section in Jay Cooke, and off-trail navigation is something our team is verrrry good at.

This section was another pavement jaunt along the Munger Trail, with a pair of grass-trail doglegs to CP 20 and CP 21 near the halfway point. Dawn broke as we pedaled this section, and I was pleasantly surprised to see some early morning fog that made it more scenic than expected. We went reasonably fast, and towed, but didn't kill ourselves to keep up with the others. We turned off the Munger Trail to take the Forbay Trail down to the Jay Cooke visitor center, and arrived at CP 22 to find that Beautiful People had extended their lead to 20 minutes.

Deep breath!

It was worthwhile not to worry, because we kicked ass on the rogaine section. We got a new passport and new map (MNOC's enhanced USGS map) with 12 points marked - 9 to the south of the river and 3 to the north. I found out later this part of the race was designed by Stephen Bullard - and he did an excellent job. The race rules stated that ranking was by points, then time, and the cutoff for this section was 4 PM, so obviously we and all the other top teams would get them all, and simply needed to do it as quickly as possible.

We went south first, in the order H-E-I-A-G-D-J-L-C. Then we crossed back over the swinging bridge and went K-F-B, finishing with a easy jog through the campground and back to the TA and CP 23 in a race-best time of 3:26, 17 minutes faster then even WEDALI. The biggest reason for this was Val - "can we run, can we run yet?" "C'mon guys, let's run!" "Uphill, swing those arms!" And did I mention she was coming off the previous weekend, where she crushed all the female competition at the Superior 50-mile, and even came in 8th place among the men's results?

We're really lucky to have such a talented athlete on our team.

We strained hard to respond to her prods, with a few comical moments when one person would start jogging, then stop just as two others started. But it was enough that, by the time we got back to the TA, Beautiful People was nowhere in sight and we had catapulted well into 2nd place. We got back on the bikes, and Brian did what he does well - get in front, break wind (both kinds), and git 'er done. We went back up the Forbay Trail, west on the Munger Trail across 210, across the St. Louis River (where we cliff dived last year) and into Carlton. At this point, we hopped over to 210 and pedaled a couple miles back to the Black Bear and the finish line solidly in 2nd place, about 45 minutes behind WEDALI.

Beautiful People took 3rd more than an hour later, Mike and Julia as "Little Sumthin' Sumthin'" took 4th overall, and Orion (including Gregg Pattison, and Molly Cochran, our teammate for MIX) took 5th. After that it was a steady stream of teams, and most of the top finishers hung out in the grass next to the finish line, relaxing on a motley collection of blankets, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, and each other so they could be there to cheer and applaud teams as they biked to the finish. That's one of the very cool things about AR - even the top finishers take the time to cheer on the middle of the pack, to talk with them, to offer advice and tips when asked, and generally be social in a way that many other sports (and triathletes in particular) don't do very often.

So it was a solid finish, with no major mistakes and some correctable minor ones. There's fertile ground for analysis here. Again, we qualified for USARA Nationals, but given both the location (Houston, TX area) and date (scheduled over orienteering champs), I highly doubt we'll attend this year. Well, there's always next year!