Friday, February 13, 2009

2008 USARA Nationals - Blue Ridge Goergia

Prerace meeting was at 05:45 at the Gazebo (Gaaa Zeee Bo) in the town square. We were warned, “do not be late for this briefing”. Blue Ridge is a small town in the north Georgia hills with real friendly people. We had been given the maps and UTM’s the night before and had planned most of our routes. All we were missing were the coordinates of the start and the UTM’s for the prologue rogaine section. These were handed out at the pre-dawn briefing at the gazebo along with instructions to board the train. This had got to be a first, a mystery train ride to the race start and a train driver with a beard like uncle Jesse from the Dukes of Hazard, denim overalls included.
All aboard in our comfortable seats we began to plot points and make use of the facilities. We were heading north along the Toccoa river valley, which we knew we would be paddling based on the location of CP2. The train ride was about 35mins and we had about 20mins to kill at the start line waiting for 7am and Troy to figure out how to use a shotgun. Race started with redneck yell and a boom from the gun (the cartridge from the round was later presented to team Delta Force that slept in and missed the train and had to run the 6mls down the tracks to the start). The 3pt rogaine was pretty straight forward, it was on a new golf course under development and we made it back to the river for a chilly knee deep crossing after about 35mins.

Leg 1 – Paddle on Toccoa River
The paddle was about 14mls, the river would have been great if there was some more water, but the extended drought in the south east had kept the levels fairly low, nowhere near as low as Nationals in Missouri last year but we still hit our fair share of rocks (sometimes visible, mostly submerged). A couple of times we had to get out and push off, one time we got righty stuck on some rapids and Phil pushed us off and we floated away down river leaving him standing in the cold water. He eventually managed to catch up, but not before his legs were well and truly frozen (FYI Phil from Michigan only wears shorts when racing). After we passed through Martinsville at the Tennessee state line the water was flat and the river eventually widened into the Ocoee lake. This is where the teams who carried double blade paddles (in lieu of the race provided single blades) had an advantage. Because the water levels were so low the lake had a different shape than the map, so we came up on the boat take out WP1, a bit sooner than we expected. Total time for paddle was about 4hrs. After dragging the boat out of the lake and through a thicket we had about a half mile or so to transport the canoes up to CP-1 boat drop where army reserve personnel were on duty to load them onto trailers. Most teams carried the boats turtle style over the shoulders, we dragged ours down the grassy median using tow belts and carried them over the rough gravel. We passed 3 or 4 teams with this technique and it wasn’t nearly as tiring as carrying the canoes.

Leg 2 – run to bike drop
After catching up on some food and drink on the start of leg two (4hrs in the boat with minimal fluids and food) we had a good trail run along the Ocoee river to the boat drop. With some efficient bush whacking we made a short route of it before we hit the trail along the river which was used for the 1996 Olympic white water course, the dam was not releasing water so it was practically empty. It was a well maintained trail and we made good time. It was shortly before we got to Thunder Head campground (where we had dropped the bikes the night before) that the rain began. We had been expecting thunder showers, but it turned out to be persistent rain. We cruised into the transition and picked up our bikes and topped up our camelbaks at a spigot in the camp ground. It was a busy transition with lots of teams about.

Leg 3 – Bike
We knew the initial bike trail was a steep single track ascent, we managed it pretty well and made good time, at the top of the trails (Tanasi trail system) we snagged CP4. After that it was winding jeep roads mostly up hill before a long and fast downhill. We were up in the clouds at this stage and that coupled with the rain it made for very mud spattered downhills. It was impossible to wear eye protection without misting up so I made do just squinting a lot and riding with one eye open when I got dirt in the face. It was a 10ml slog to CP5 at the top of another hill, by the time we got there we were in a big group of teams again. Next two CP’s were going to be tougher, they were not on any trails that appeared on the map, but the clue said they were on, or just off a horse trail. We took a gamble on a lesser jeep road in the general direction and came across a side trail with lots of bikes laying around. We dropped out bikes and headed up the “horse” trail about 500m and snagged CP6. It was only on the way back reading the clue for CP7 that the penny dropped that if we followed this trail another 2mls we should hit the next CP. So we got back to the bikes and doubled back in the trail past CP6 again. The trial was rideable in places, but with the carpet of all leaves, constant rain and greasy logs it was pretty technical. We made good time travelling with two other teams, constantly leapfrogging. Jackie and Phil rode really well and we made it up a steep-steep hill to CP7 at the summit. From there it was mostly downhill on the single track to the next bike drop at CP8. It was close to 5pm and getting dark so we made it just in time, plus we were all feeling the cold from the rain and dropping temperatures.

Leg 4 – Trek
CP’s 9-12 could be punched in any order so we opted to do them in reverse, hitting CP12 on the top of muleback hill first. It was a good plan, but a tough climb up to the summit in the clouds again. Lights were pretty ineffective in the misty conditions, but we managed to get the CP dead on. It was cold and windy on the summit and the rain had intensified, luckily the next CP was down in a river valley. We tried to bushwack down a draw, Texas style, but it was a bad plan. It turned out to be way to steep and full of greasy rocks and slippery logs, we spent most of the time sliding on our behinds or grabbing stickers to stop our falls. We gave up after awhile when Phil had the bright idea to try descent on the ridge back. It worked a treat and we picked up the pace again. When we got down into the valley we were at the back of a property with lights on and the friendly local was out to greet us and helped us on our way when he finally figured out that we were looking for orange and white flags in the woods. We thought it was obvious, but to a non-AR person I guess not. We filled up on water at his horse stables also. It had a nasty sufur taste, but it was easier than going to the stream and using purifying tablets. These local folks were real friendly. Turns out the dude at Double D ranch had stumbled across CP11 earlier in the week and thought about taking it home with him. Luck for us he didn’t. We snagged CP11 and CP10 in quick succession and then found a clear route over a ridge to CP9. Some other teams going from CP9 to CP10 were getting lost on the convoluted horse trails. From CP9 it was a slog on the jeep roads back to the bike and CP13.

Leg 5 Bike
This bike leg was just a long long uphill followed by a downhill to a campground and the CP14 bike drop. About halfway there we came across a group of supporters around a fire and camping out in the backs of minivans. It was great to see the locals out to support the race. I guess it was getting on towards midnight when we rolled in to this TA. The rain had stopped and the sky cleared meaning we were still wet and the temperatures were dopping.

Leg 6 Trek
The trek was only 3 CP’s, one of which was a half mile from the TA, but the other two were a good 9mls. We made good time though the night but stupidly made the mistake of not paying enough attention on the nav and following a couple of teams who got themselves lost down the wrong trail. We were the first to notice and double back, but it cost us 20mins. After a couple of river crossings we picked up CP15 and then made the decision to take the most direct route to CP16, even though the trail only went half way and the rest looked like a tough and steep bushwack. Or so I thought. Turns out the trail became a road (not on the map) at some stage, but it meandered uphill in the right direction so we stuck with it, not without our doubts and an aborted bushwacking attempt. It went on and on and we got sleepier, but eventually we hit an intersection that we assumed was off the map. We took a left and went on a ways more and then ran into a team coming towards us. Turns out our mystery road dumped us out not too far from the CP, we just needed to have turned right and not left. We all got CP17 together and headed back to the bikes. At this stage, Jackie was waking back up from her 3hr nap (not really) and the no-doz we scrounged for her from another team worked. Now it was my time to get sleepy. It was a long downhill back to the bikes so we picked it up to a jog to try keep me awake. It worked, sort of, and we finished the leg in 5.5hrs.
In hindsight it would have been better to skip CP16/17 and use the 4 plus hours to get some extra points on the last monster bike leg.

Leg 7 Bike
Back at the remote TA, it was after 5am and we got out for the final leg of the race. An epic bike with 11CP’s up for grabs. We had 7hrs to complete. Phil fixed a flat and we were on our way in the pre-dawn light. After the initial up hill we found a sweet single track trail along a creek towards CP21. There were a lot of nav options on the last leg and no matter which route you made there would be doubling back on yourself. CP21 took 30mins to locate when we got there and CP22 probably took 40 to find. Some of the trails and features were majorly different from those on the 1982 dated map. Seeing as we were making slow work of the bike nav, we decided to pick up the pace and start making our way towards the finish, which was still a long ways to go over terrain that could be slow going. Turns out we found a couple of asphalt roads and made some good time to CP28 at a fire station and CP29 down by the railway tracks. With the CP’s we had skipped we cut out maybe 10mls of biking over some steep terrain. CP29 to the finish involved 2mls of mandatory riding along the railway tracks. It was a form of torture at this stage in a race and we suffered at 5mph on the sleepers, but we were glad we weren’t cutting it too close to the 30hr race cut-off. I can imagine some teams underestimated how slow going the tracks were. Later when talking about the railway tracks the race director (Ron Zadroga) said he wasn’t trying to kill us, just hurt us a lot.

Race finish was at the town hall in the middle of Blue Ridge. We cruised in on our bikes and the volunteers were out to take them off us as we made it up the steps to the finish. We came in at 28:17hrs , 25th place out of 80 teams. Only 6 teams made all the CP’s. Our goal had been to make it into the 20’s after finishing in the 30’s last year. So all in all it was a success.


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