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USARA Nationals 2009 Race Report

aka "Team Vignette goes for a century ride"

October 23-24, 2009
Pilot Point, TX
By Marcy Beard

(Photographs courtesy of bobcat13 photography, and Tracy Jones.)

I enjoyed the USARA Nationals race in Missouri two years ago, so when the race came to Texas and it didn't conflict with our urban clue race championships like last year, I definitely wanted to try it again. Dave, John, and I had been training well all year, and we looked forward to competing with some of the best teams in the nation.

Unfortunately, John injured his knee playing rugby the previous weekend. Kip graciously agreed to race in his place, although he had not trained for this at all, and hadn't even been on a bike since August. We were happy to still be racing, so we set out to experience the course and do the best we could, but not worry about our placing. Ideally we wanted to clear the course if possible, which meant managing our speed from the beginning.

The race started with a short run to our bikes, and we jogged easily in the chilly morning air. No sense in going crazy right off the bat. We gathered our bikes and hopped on for some pavement miles. As soon as we came to the first small hill, I slowed to maintain an easy cadence. Teams flew by us, but it was good practice in ignoring everyone else and doing our own thing from the beginning.

We rode through Pilot Point and then north through Tioga. With so many cyclists around us, even though we weren't pushing, it was easy to hook up with a group here and there to take turns leading the way against the headwind. Occasionally we felt good enough to push ahead to join another group. Then we'd start up a hill and I'd back off the pace and let people by. Back on the flats, our skinny tires made for some easy riding and we tended to catch back up. It was a pleasant morning, we got to talk a bit, the sun came out (ahh!), and it turned into a beautiful day.

Around an hour and a half later we arrived at Johnson Branch Park and the bike drop/paddle put-in. There were oodles of bikes already there, but at least we weren't last. It took us a couple minutes to unhook our paddles from the bikes, set up the sling seat in the canoe, pee, and punch the passport, but we got underway eventually.

Paddling north and between two small islands, we could tell that the wind was going to be a factor. It was blowing from the northwest, and while we were told to hug the shoreline as we headed north and then eventually east, that didn't keep the wind away from us completely. The shoreline certainly made a difference, as every little inlet that we crossed felt more like open water than expected. It didn't take long for that wind to kick up some waves! But even right next to the shore, the wind came over the tops of the trees and tried to move the canoe around. A relatively short and wide boat with three people loading it down, this type of canoe was hard to keep in a straight line. Dave was hard at work from the beginning, steering the best he could.

My first task was to get comfortable in the canoe. We had set up the sling seat with knots to hold it in place, so at least it didn't move one bit and I could sit on a relatively solid piece of nylon. A big improvement from past sling seat experiences (thank you John!). Still, I never much like the middle seat because it feels less stable. After hours of dealing with this in the waves, I eventually got used to it. It helped that I took over the navigation partway in and had something else to think about.

We also had plenty to look at in front of us, with all the colorful canoes making their way north. Watching a few other teams using double-blade paddles, we were really happy with our single-blades. It's what we prefer anyway, but it seemed a good choice for the type of boat and the difficulty of steering in the wind.

It wasn't hard to figure out the location of the first longer inlet. We followed boats, watching a couple already leaving the inlet and heading toward the subsequent checkpoint. I think we spotted the Knights of Ni, doing great and moving well. As the inlet narrowed we passed a bunch of teams heading the other way, and it was fun repeatedly greeting them with "good morning!" Several tight turns and veers later and we found the bridge with CP2. It was also nice to be out of the wind for a bit.

Each inlet had a bunch of flooded, dead trees that were mostly easy to avoid. We didn't run into any that were just under the surface of the water, so that was a plus. But where does Terra Firma find these lakes with dead trees all over the place?

We saw one team park their canoe, looking like they were walking to the CP or just coming back from it. I questioned whether that was legal, as we had been told we needed to bring our canoes to all the paddle points. The rule was likely there to keep teams from punching the paddle CP's from their bikes (we biked in on the road just above CP2, for example), but it seemed it should apply on foot as well.

Heading back we met more teams, including a few from Texas. Howdy! We cut across to the other half of the inlet, paddled north, and scooted under a bridge to find CP3 on the left. It felt like we were moving pretty well, slowly passing a team here and there. It's not like these boats have a high max hull speed, but we seemed to be making decent time. I was really glad for all the paddle workouts John and I have done in recent weeks as I tried to help the best I could from the middle seat.

We came back south to a bit of a tail wind (whee!) and rounded a corner next to another little island. Waves from the side rocked us a bit as we continued northeastward and across the lake some more. The next inlet was quite a bit longer than the previous set, and we didn't see boats coming back out of it for a while. Finally we caught glimpses of paddle flashes in the distance.

We stayed on the west side of the next inlet for a while. The wind seemed mostly in our face, and the checkpoint was on the east side of the inlet, but it still looked like the waves were less severe where we were so I kept us from crossing over right away. I spent some time studying the shape of the land on both sides of us, trying to read our progress and gauge where the checkpoint might be. This CP was going to be more difficult and we didn't want to spend any more time on this lake than necessary.

As we got closer to what I suspected was the correct spot, we saw canoes going every which way - north, south, into the inlet that I liked, back out again, with no clear indication of which teams had found the point and which ones were still looking. I got concerned, now trying to read the hill contours across the way. Finally Kip mentioned that there was a car driving across the land above the inlet I was looking at. Well, that seals it! I could see only one road on the map, and that's where we needed to go. Let's do it.

We paddled cross-wind and into the inlet. There was a mess of boats and paddles flashing around inside the draw on the northeast corner where the checkpoint should be. Canoes popped out of there, a couple heading south and a couple others coming toward us to dock on the north shore. Wow, talk about confusing.

With nobody between us and the possible CP location, we headed in. We had to push/pull the canoe between swamped trees and under vines, a bit of a tangle. The guys questioned this, but I looked ahead and spotted the checkpoint. Score! Kip jumped out with the passport and got the punch for CP5. We backed our way out of there, very thankful we managed to time it just right so we didn't have to work around other boats.

We all had to pee pretty badly, so we scooted across the inlet and docked on the opposite shore. Phew! We checked out the growing group of teams across the way and theorized that they were attempting a portage across to the next inlet. I checked the map, but was concerned about the access on the other side. Texas is not known for friendly landowners who don't mind if you traipse across their property. More likely they will be shotgun-bearing and surly (and yes, we have run into them in the past - scary!).

So we continued south, with a crazy-fast tailwind now. It blew us quickly down to the bottom of the big inlet and back to the main lake. A couple teams headed toward us, obviously doing the points in the reverse direction (since we could get these paddle points in any order). We turned the corner and enjoyed some quiet water for a while. Very nice.

We passed a canoe docked on the shore with no people present. We stared at it for a while, as it was a Buffalo canoe. I'm now fairly certain that a team pulled over and ran up the road to get CP5. Another rules question. I mean, jeepers, with the lack of much running in this race, we would have welcomed the option to get out and run a few miles to cut off some paddling, but we just didn't believe that was legal.

Eventually the calm water ended and we were paddling upwind again. I kept track of the shape of the shoreline and gave Dave things to aim for to keep us on a mostly optimal route. He was able to steer pretty well into the wind, working hard the whole time. We tended to zigzag as we switched from paddling on the left to the right and back, but at least Dave wasn't braking at all in order to steer. It did make for some funny moments when it seemed we were deliberately aiming at dead trees in front of us, but we mostly missed most of them and pinballed off a couple. I only shrieked once (that I remember), so Dave must have been doing something right.

At a major land jut-out we saw teams coming to the lake from the left, obviously finishing a portage that apparently worked without anyone getting shot. Team MOAT 2 had been just behind us at CP5 and now they were just ahead of us, so the portage also saved teams some time. Ah well, too late to dwell on that now.

It took a while, but as we neared the bridge we finally started seeing teams coming back toward us from CP4. The navigation into this point was relatively simple, especially with all the teams going in and out. We pushed on toward the back of a side inlet, aiming for another "draw" like the last point. In fact, it was supposed to be on the "west side of draw" and fairly far back into it. So we started in cautiously, checked to our left as we weaved through trees and vines. Finally we reached shallow water where we docked and jumped out.

We checked further up the draw, but didn't find anything. Dave looked back to see teams coming in and leaving right away, so we backtracked to the start of the mess. The checkpoint was actually more in the middle of the area and much closer to the lake than expected. It didn't help that the CP's were basically a wire with flagging tape hanging off it. For the most part we saw them OK, but they were not nearly as visible as standard orienteering flags.

We were rather miffed to lose time on something so simple, but it wasn't much time and at least Kip and Dave got to pee while they were walking around (yes, again! Our team was super well hydrated during this race). We started back southward, now needing to get back to our bikes. It was a long, long ways back, and there was a 3 pm cutoff for getting off the lake. We had never seriously considered that we might not be able to get all the paddle points, as we were moving well, passing a couple teams here and there, and had not made any mistakes beyond the slight time waster at CP4.

However, we were suddenly wondering just how close we might come to the 3 pm cutoff. Paddling south, we didn't see nearly as many teams on the water as at previous CP's, so obviously other people had skipped CP4 because it was so far away. Well, nothing to do now but paddle some more.

A tailwind helped us move rather quickly south, and we took the opportunity every time we hit calm water to recover and relax our hands a bit in preparation for the next major windy section. When we got back to the main lake I started counting kilometers and calculating time remaining. It was not yet clear that we were going to make it, but we all had high hopes.

We had been told to hug the shoreline (except we could cut across inlets) because of the wind. A direct route back would certainly have been shorter, but also certainly very difficult due to major waves from the side the whole way. We stayed relatively close to shore, and with every inlet we passed we had to battle more wind. It started out more as a headwind, but gradually turned into a side wind.

We managed to keep a decent line across every inlet, fighting across the large opening south of CP5, and eventually coming to the kilometer-long crossing at the mouth of CP's 2 and 3. We pulled up behind a small island for a break first. We drank water and I downed half an Ensure. Time to go!

We aimed across at a path parallel to a line of large wooden pylons sticking out of the water. This put us perpendicular to the wind, but Dave kept us at that heading and didn't try to correct. At least it was blowing us more left, which was where we were going anyway once we got across. Somehow the waves rolling at us from the right didn't bother me too much - I guess after 5 hours you can get used to some things.

Finally we neared the opposite shore and turned south. Time was ticking away. With wind partly from the back now, we picked up just a bit of speed. Our shoulders, hands, and butts were really ready for this to be over! I was pleased to calculate that we were going to make the cut-off time, especially accounting for the 7 minutes that the race started late.

We pulled into the take-out, quite relieved to be done with the lake. The race clock read 7 hours, 46 minutes (the cut-off was 8 hours), which meant we had been paddling hard for 6 hours and 15 minutes. Phew!

Kip hopped out and pulled the canoe forward so we could follow. I tried to hop out but managed only a hobble. Once on land I used my paddle to support myself, as I found myself taking backward steps instead of forward ones like I wanted. My legs weren't quite ready for that transition yet! We straightened ourselves out, managed to get to our bikes, punched CP6, and had a bit of food before riding gently away.

I spotted a bathroom along the park road, so we pulled over to get a bit of water from the faucets and use the toilets. Much better, now we're ready to move. We found the trailhead, punched CP7, and Dave stopped to refold the map so we could see where we were headed next. Ah yes, the first bike trail of the day.

We followed it past several turn-offs to campsites, finding it to be muddy but not terrible. We dismounted several times for the larger puddles and mud baths, but rode a decent amount. Dave followed the contours and we located the right turn we were looking for, right about the same time that the Knights of Ni passed us going the other way. We had not seen them at the last paddle point, and now they asked us whether we had gotten all the CP's on the lake? Yes, just barely, we replied. We theorized that they had skipped CP4 (they had, because of some nav issues at CP5 and because they figured the course was long enough that many other teams would be skipping points later in the race).

Toward the end of the trail we were riding, well actually walking, through a muddy field. It didn't last long before we came upon a road - right next to a house. Now how did that house get here? I had not noticed any roads coming down to this area. Well, obviously there are some, because a team rode by just as we were nearing the pavement. That was useful!

Arriving at CP8, the volunteer lady was basically like "well, it's about time you got here, Team Vignette", which I didn't take too kindly to but tried to ignore. She wasn't the first to assume that we were going to be vying for the lead, but 1) just because we're pretty good in Texas don't mean squat on the national level, 2) we had gotten all the paddle points while other teams had skipped CP4, 3) we weren't racing other teams, we were simply doing our own thing with our own goals this time, and 4) that Checkpoint Zero poll was just for fun. So, whatever, leave me alone. Hopefully I kept most of that to myself at the time!

She also asked whether we had taken the trail or the road to get there. Like, nice of you to let everyone know that it's possible to take the road instead of letting everyone figure it out for themselves. One more thing to not think about.

We found a spot for our bikes, dropped our helmets, and jogged down the road toward a trekking section. It felt great to be on our feet for the first time. This part of the park seemed to be mostly unused - the road was grown over, and there was a lot of underbrush. We found an intersection and turned left toward CP12 ("house foundation"). We could get these trekking points in any order, so we elected for a clockwise direction and the closest points first.

Here is where we noticed a well-worn track from all the teams ahead of us. I pace counted and turned left at the right spot, made quite obvious by the diagonal track going that way. We found CP12 without issue and followed the tracks southeast from there. When the underbrush got worse, the tracks more or less disappeared. We kept on the bearing, spotted the shallow draw we were looking for, and found CP11 there.

More southern movement through more underbrush. We came out on a faint road running east/west, so we turned left and peered through the bushes to the right to try to find the large old gravel pits. When it got easier to push through the vegetation, we went over to see a large berm that appeared to be the edge of the old pit. We didn't see any gravel, but the shape of the berm seemed correct.

We followed the berm (and now racer tracks again) around to the left, picking our way through vines and eventually crossing water that went up to our thighs. If there was any doubt about whether this portion is normally underwater, the huge floating ant pile (with a bunch of desperate ants clinging to it) pretty much made it clear that the area was recently flooded from the rains.

CP10 appeared on a tree, easy enough to spot once we got close. We climbed out of the swamp and started west toward the other side of the peninsula. I knew we would have to detour around a big inlet, but it was easy running as long as we followed the tracks in front of us. So we stayed with them, taking a right when other teams tried to the left. We spotted water in front of us and veered right to avoid it.

It seemed we should be around the inlet, so we looked for a way to move back south. Team iMOAT was coming out of the thicket, greeting us and telling us to ready our body armor. Well, that sounds like fun indeed. We headed in, following something that was more like an animal path by now. It got thicker, and I wondered if we shouldn't have gone completely to the edge of the lake before trying this? But if that way had been clear, I imagine iMOAT would have come back along it instead of popping out here.

Suddenly we saw water to the west, and unfortunately it wasn't the lake but the inlet (for real this time). I couldn't imagine how that had happened, but there we were. Dave led the way through the water, finding that it was waist deep but passable. At least we were wet already, so any thoughts of dry shoes were long gone. It took us some time and a bit of swearing but we got across to solid ground again.

Let's try this one more time. More vines and prickers and thick brush, ugh. We noticed huge thorns on some of the vines, way bigger than we had ever seen in Texas. I was glad to be wearing tights and poly pro still, although they didn't completely keep the prickers from scratching me. We eventually got close to the lake and could hear huge waves crashing on the shore. Glad we're off the water anyway!

More pushing through crap, more swearing, no good route to be found. I was really curious what the race directors were thinking in terms of showcasing Texas: Hey! We have giant thorns, windy lakes, muddy trails, flooded fields, and so far the only nice part has been the bike riding on pavement. If you're from out of state, trust me - there are better aspects to racing in Texas, it just didn't happen last weekend at Nationals!

Finally we found a bit of an inlet and I spotted the checkpoint across the way. Dave bushwhacked his way over there to punch CP9. Nasty little bugger of a checkpoint, I must say. We turned back north, followed racer tracks and animal tracks here and there, ducked under and around trees, and tried to keep our spirits up since we were almost done with the nastiness. Eventually we came out back near CP12, which was fine with me because I knew where we were and it was all easy trekking to get back to the bikes.

We found out later that we were the second fastest team through that section - what? Really? What do you know! It certainly helped having plenty of teams go through in front of us, as it wasn't like we sprinted around the place. What this section really did for us was provide even more motivation not to miss any checkpoints - after all the work on the lake, and now getting to CP9 and back, we didn't want that to be for nothing.

Back to the bikes, back on the road. For me it was an easy decision to take the road around and skip the trail back. If nothing else, less mud means less chances of having bike problems. Goodness knows we would need our bikes for many hours to come. Kip told us that his biking legs weren't doing so well, which was a concern again because of how much biking remained. Dave agreed to hook Kip up on tow, which helped keep him in the slipstream behind Dave's bike and gave him some pull, especially up the short hills.

A couple teams passed us on the road so we said howdy and didn't worry about it. Once we got back to the main road we turned right, rode back to Johnson Branch Park, and went into the parking lot for the trailhead. The checkpoint was supposed to be hanging in one spot, but a couple watching the race told us that the volunteers had departed and moved CP13 to the same location as CP7. Well, that could be confusing, thank you kind people. Not sure what the deal was with the volunteers doing that.

We got the punch and rode back to the main road, turning back west and riding three kilometers to the entrance to a ranch/vineyard. A volunteer told us to hurry up and punch CP14, which I didn't understand - why the rush? But we did, then placed our bikes on the grass amid the myriad other bikes already hanging around. We went inside to use the bathroom (of course!) and get more water for the Camelbaks.

Then it was time to start the orienteering course (and really, that's when we should have punched CP14, but we didn't really have much concern for our time in any particular section, especially since we hadn't been told they were keeping track and ranking teams). I took the new map and planned a CCW route that should get us the bulk of the points before the sun disappeared.

We started with LO8 (LO for "Lone Oak Vineyard", I think). I tried to determine why there was a red dashed line surrounding the orienteering points, and when I didn't find any rules about staying within the boundaries, we cut the corner and took a direct route across a couple fences and across the field. It was easy to spot the CP with other racers going to and from a solitary tree. Not to mention a solitary racer who had left his team down in the draw to punch the point, but who's counting?

From there we went down the draw for a quick punch of LO9 and further down for LO10. Fast and fun! They also used real orienteering flags for these points, much easier to spot. From there we went northeast over a rise and down to another draw to find LO7. LO6 was just north from there in yet another draw.

I was looking to get LO5 next, so I told Kip and Dave we wanted to go north to the ranch boundary, hopefully find a fence to follow, and then go west from there. We had to fight through a bit of underbrush but we soon spotted a barbed wire fence. It looked like easier movement on the other side of the fence so we jumped over and followed it to the left.

Here's where we made our most major boo boo - I didn't look at my compass, and Kip and Dave both saw that we were going south but neither spoke up to ask about it. We went over a rise, the distance seemed right, and there was a checkpoint on a tree. I got suspicious when I thought I recognized the scenery, and rightfully so - we were back at LO10! Major oops. But there's no sense crying over every mistake, you just keep on trying 'til you run out of cake.

OK, let's go get LO3 next instead. We headed northwest to find the pond that we had already seen earlier. This involved crossing a draw with a bunch of prickly vines, and that took some time and a bit of pain and my apologizing profusely. The O-course hadn't been designed to go through much underbrush, but I managed to take us there anyway. Sorry guys!

Somehow it actually took us a minute to locate the pond, crossing paths with a couple teams going perpendicular to us, which probably seemed odd to them. Soon enough we spotted the pond and LO3. Let's try LO5 again... we went northwest some more, climbed a small hill, and found LO5 right where it was supposed to be. Enough fooling around now!

I filled and mixed a SPIZ as we headed south down and back up to LO4 on a big oak tree. Only two left; Kip took a look at the map and mentioned that he could get us to LO2 - go for it! We tried a dirt road but it was super muddy, so we jumped over to the boundary fence line (the real one this time). Kip took us right to LO2, no problem.

The last orienteering point was in a draw, and we got a bit confused by a pond that seemed to be on the map but actually wasn't. We didn't go far out of the way and soon we had punched LO1 and were heading back to the bikes. It was still light out, bonus!

We got a bit more water, I took my turn in the bathroom, and then we were ready to mount up again. Marilyn said hi (nice to see you there!) and mentioned that the Werewolves weren't there yet but we expected they would be soon. Time for some more road riding. We put on more clothes, Dave hooked up his towline to Kip's bike, and we were off.

It gradually got dark as we rode north on the road. I knew we still had at least a couple hours before we got back to TA, and we were now out of solid food. Dave and I could survive on another SPIZ or two, but Kip doesn't do well on a liquid diet. I wondered whether there just might be a convenience store at the next intersection, wishing I had thought to look when we rode by there earlier.

So for the next couple miles I hoped and hoped that there was a store. A bright billboard became visible in the distance - it could just be a billboard, or it could be a sign for a store. More hoping and hoping. We finally reached the intersection and I called up to Kip and Dave to ask if that looked like a store over there? It was smaller than a gas station, but it was lit up. The billboard had a giant picture of a hotdog, and when Kip saw that he said he could eat a hotdog. Let's go see!

Yep, it's a store! I verified that I was carrying some cash (that would have been sad if not) and we parked the bikes in search of food. The store people seemed pretty excited to see us - "Come on in!" - we didn't quite expect that kind of reception, given our rather grungy state, but it sure was nice. They didn't have any hotdogs (bummer), so Kip decided to try a corndog instead. Wow, that was really good! I should have had one myself. Dave and I went for the warm oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, also amazingly delicious. And I'm pretty sure it wasn't only because we were hungry. We topped it off with Gatorade and some dark chocolate peanut M&M's.

They told us we were the first team to come in the store, but we thought other teams behind us might also be interested in getting some warm food. They offered to make chicken for us! We declined in the interest of time (seeing as we were already standing around for a few minutes as it was). What an excellent stop - we haven't had a good mid-race convenience store stop in years, and I sure miss them :)

I asked Dave how he was doing, and he said his legs were a bit tired. I wondered if I might be able to help by leading the paceline? It's not something I'm normally in the best position to do, but in this case he said it was worth a try. So we headed out, shivering for a bit after the warm store and eventually getting some body heat going again. I pedaled to the front of our paceline and took off in high gear and high spirits.

Not being sure what pace would be good, I went for the highest that I could sustain for a while and that seemed to be OK with Dave. Occasionally up the hills he asked me to back off a bit, since that was where Kip needed the most help. Otherwise we flew along, tearing up the kilometers. We quickly passed a 2-person team who had come by while we were in the store.

At the top of a rise we saw the lights of Tioga in the distance. Then we dropped down to cross the lake several times and the light disappeared. It seemed like we were making great time but it still took a while for Tioga to come back into view. Dave suggested that they moved the town while we weren't watching. We had been hoping to get a tailwind back, but the wind from earlier in the day was now completely gone and the lake was flat as a pancake (sigh).

Finally the welcome "Railroad Crossing" sign appeared, yay! We turned right onto a gravelly road and biked alongside the tracks, watching to the left to figure out where to cross over later after we got the next checkpoint. That turned out to be across from a ranch/restaurant that had a strong skunk smell in front of it, so we dubbed it Skunk Restaurant for future reference.

We passed a team or two as we made our way down the road, turning right and then left. Suddenly the road ended and a team was hanging out debating about the muddy trail it had turned into. Dave rode on ahead, while Kip and I took it a bit slower. I, in particular, was pushing for dropping our bikes there and running in. iMOAT passed us going the other way, and Leslie told me to "get on your bike, girl!" since I was walking at the time and trying to tell Dave we'd be faster on foot.

Dave found a long, deep puddle and turned the corner to find a bunch of bikes strewn about. He told me I had gotten my wish, sweet! Although we did have to carry our bikes over the puddle first, but I didn't mind too much now that I knew we weren't riding any further.

We started initially in a slightly incorrect direction, trying to stay on the "road" but Dave quickly realized that wasn't right. Soon we were following tracks south where teams ahead of us had again forged the way. Thank you, teams! I pace counted until it became obvious that the next "road" had a line of trees next to it. A team was coming back ahead of us, and I couldn't see any obvious landmarks to use on the way back (beyond being lucky that another team was coming, in their case). We turned right onto the trail and made notes of the trees and posts around that spot. I also counted 100 meters to some brush over the trail and another 100 meters to our next turn to the south.

We ran south while I counted some more. I need not have bothered - we ran until we found the lake. Actually that happened sooner than expected. There was a still a team ahead of us wading about, but there were also lights to our right in the area of the checkpoint. Looking over at them, Dave noticed that they were moving diagonally back toward the trail, and moving quickly (certainly not wading or swimming!). We backed ourselves out of the knee-deep water we had started into, and met the teams at the spot they hit the trail. Thank you, teams!

From there it wasn't too hard to see the outlines of trees and the general spot where the CP should be. We followed land until there was water on both sides of us, went a bit further, and spotted CP15. Actually, Dave walked almost right up to it because it was hard to see in the dark, but we got it without much delay.

We reversed our steps, greeted iMOAT 2 on the way back, found the right spot to turn north onto the field, and then... got a bit lost. We continued north and east, working our way around trees and shrubs but never finding the tracks we had followed in. We also expected to see more lights from racers around us, but it was just dark and quiet. I got a bit antsy after a while, but then Dave spotted blinking bike lights just ahead. Phew! Sure would be silly to lose our bikes at this point.

We carried our steeds back across the big puddle, I rode the rest of the trail back to the road (it really wasn't that bad, you were right Leslie!), and then we were back to normal biking. A bit more dirt road, one railroad crossing next to Skunk Restaurant, and we were back on route 377 and heading for Pilot Point. Kip pointed out our right turn at the Church's Chicken/convenience store (as opposed to the church next to a convenience store back in Tioga). Business route 377 seemed to take a while, and then we were back onto the road leading to Lantana and the start/finish. Half done, sweet!

There was a quick gear check at the barn to verify we had returned with three paddles and one boat seat, plus a punch for CP16. Then it was time to head back to our room for some food and prep for the next long bike leg. It was great to see John again, plus Michelle and Dave's kids were there. The kids were completely asleep, but John and Michelle were still up. We got food and hot chocolate, filled bladders, gathered Ensures and race food, and changed shoes. What? Team Vignette changed shoes? Well, Dave and I did (Kip just changed his socks), if only to have clean, dry feet for a little while. Ah, now my toes felt much better. You could tell we weren't in our normal transition rush!

Finally it was time to go biking back into the night. I was happy we were headed south toward the areas I had scouted earlier in the week. First order of business was to avoid the equestrian trail as much as possible. We had camped in our truck during the 24-hours-of-rain, and while lying there listening to it pour that night I envisioned that trail and knew it was going to be a sloppy, muddy mess. So we started out on the paved road back to Pilot Point, down a couple side streets, and along a back road that deadended at the trail.

Our next checkpoint was only 400 meters down the trail from there, so we left the bikes to trek to it and back. At first the trail looked really good - hardpacked sand and very rideable. I was wondering if perhaps it would actually be OK to take the bikes on it. That didn't last very long (and in fact, later we found out that this was probably the very best piece of the whole trail). Soon we were tiptoeing around mud holes.

But we didn't have to do that for long. The checkpoint was next to the lake, so we began checking the lakeshore. We jumped in too soon a couple times, eventually finding the bend in the trail that Kip said we should be looking for. That's when we located CP17, right on target. A team was coming down the trail on bikes, so we hotfooted it out of there before we gave everything away.

We ran back to the bikes, turned our bike lights back on, and exited the way we came in. Another team was riding along the trail toward us, and when I looked back they had stopped to possibly question what they were seeing. We continued up the hill, along the back roads some more, turning south again at a 4-way intersection. After riding on roads for long distances on the north side, these quick little turns were taking no time at all. We were pretty psyched.

We rode toward route FM455, stopping before we reached the intersection because we were not allowed to travel on that road east of the next park entrance. Instead we walked our bikes on the grass along a fence that was perhaps 30 meters away from the road. That lasted about 700 meters, then we were on another back road. A couple more turns this way and that, and we spotted the park road ahead of us. We knew this because about a gazillion racers in bright lights sped past in front of us.

After lifting our bikes over a fence and climbing over, we got on the park road and turned the other way (since there were two checkpoints in the Isle du Bois Park that we had to get first). I led the charge toward the Kid's Fish Pond and CP18. A volunteer there asked to see our strobe and three space blankets. Dave demonstrated the blinking feature of his headlamp and we all pulled out our space blankets. The odd thing was that three racers were standing nearby all wrapped up in their space blankets. This made us wonder at first whether we were going to have to demonstrate their use? Or maybe when they pulled them out they thought, "Hmm, those look warm, we should put them on"?

We rode back to the park road and then west for a ways and down to the lake area. I caught sight of the turn-off into the parking area where the DORBA trails start. I was way pleased that the DORBA trails had been removed from the course due to the rain. Real mountain bikers I'm sure were not so happy. On the other hand, we did hardly any running, so I guess that's only fair.

We punched CP19 there, and Dave noticed that it said something like "Homeland Security - do not remove" on the checkpoint. I guess that worked, as none of the checkpoints were missing! Dave towed Kip back up the hill and we headed for the park entrance. Just past the entrance booth I veered onto a side trail leading to the equestrian trail. I had been excited to find this shortcut during scouting, and now I was excited to be able to use it.

We rode the nice (mostly dry!) trail until it met the horse trail. After a bit of sliding around on that, I called ahead to Dave that we were ditching the bikes for a bit. It was nice to get on our feet occasionally. We trotted down the trail until we found a draw and followed another team to CP20. I'm not sure which way the team went from there (I think they had their bikes) but I only saw a few bike tracks in the sand past that point.

After hoofing it back to our bikes, we rode back out to the road. We were allowed to ride route FM455 to the west of the park entrance, hallelujah! Because you see, the equestrian trail in that section is a real bear even in dry weather - deep sand, very slow going. I was relieved to avoid that entirely. On the way out to the park entrance we saw a whole slew of teams at the side of the road, obviously trying to figure a way in to CP20. I don't know how many we passed since the TA, but it had to be at least a couple.

We rode down to the next park entrance and then down to the Elm Creek parking lot. There was a team on the bike trail near us, and they seemed pretty perturbed. I could understand that - that was a tough section of trail. We reached CP21 and checked in with the volunteer, then stopped to change out our maps.

The other team rode up, sputtering something about everyone else breaking the rules. I didn't understand that, because we were allowed on that section of route FM455. The volunteer told him that everyone had ridden up on the paved roads. I then gathered that they were talking about the rule "No travel on paved roads south of FM455." Oooh, that actually made perfect sense. I had not considered that a park road could possibly be out of bounds, but technically it really was. Were the race directors trying to trick us? Or was the rule poorly written? Were the majority of the teams going to get a 4-hour penalty? None of these questions could have good answers. I sympathized with the team that had ridden that trail and wondered if we were in trouble.

Nothing to be done for it now except to continue on. I led the way on the Greenbelt trail, again riding point. I expected this trail to hold up well under the deluge of rain, and I was not disappointed. It was still hard-packed and fast, except now it had a bunch of puddles on it. Our bike tires found solid ground under most of the puddles, allowing us to easily ride through them. We got pretty wet, but at least we weren't muddy!

At a road crossing we followed the trail around and under the main road to the other side of the creek. The trail got muddier as we went south toward the next lake. At first I tried to avoid the muddy-looking puddles by going around. Eventually I followed Dave's lead and rode right through them. Much better! The trail surface was still holding up, even though it might not look like it from the mud around the edges.

We looked up at the hill on the left and saw a bunch of headlamps going this way and that. Well, we could tell where the next checkpoint was located, if not the reason for all the lights everywhere. We rode south past the hill and found a trail heading east that should approach the hill from the south. I almost didn't believe it was the right trail, but Dave set me straight. I had not found the "scenic overlook" during my scouting ride, which made me a bit worried about this point.

After riding a short way on a crappy trail, I again called a halt to the muddy biking and we parked our velos at the side of the trail to continue on foot. We tried to figure out the trail direction vs. the map, but it didn't make much sense. What was obvious was that there were racers going both ways in this direction and tons of bike tracks, so hopefully we weren't too far off.

We turned left and started climbing, joining a bunch of other racers at the top. People were looking at maps, discussing options, shining bright lights in all directions including in our faces. Hmm, this could be interesting. We studied the map and determined that the CP should be near the highpoint of the ridge, at the very north end. We took a compass bearing and worked our way through the vegetation until we were obviously at the north end of the ridge, along with a bunch of other people. No checkpoint.

We worked our way back, poking our heads and lights into various thickets and searching the area as best we could while trying not to poke ourselves with prickers too many times. Nothing. We tried both sides of the ridge, down off the north side, back to where we had started. Nothing. Suddenly it got quiet as many of the racers vanished into the night. Hmm, they must have all found it or decided it wasn't there and given up. Odds on which it was? We weren't ready to guess yet. We replotted the point and it landed exactly on the "x" highpoint on our map. It should be here, if it's here...

I found a spur heading northeast and followed it to the actual overlook (cool!). We checked all the local maximums (the CP was supposed to be on the "top of hill"). Nothing. We started back, deciding to head down and then start asking teams if they had found it. If enough people said yes, we would come back to this hill on the way back. That seemed like a decent plan.

To get back to the bikes, Dave thought we needed to go east while I said no, we need to go south. Obviously one of us didn't remember exactly how we had gotten there. Dave let me lead us south while checking the map to try to figure it out on the map. As I made my way in the direction of south, I started to realize that we hadn't yet been to this part of the hilltop. I had thought we had covered it all, but when I saw the checkpoint ahead of me, all I could do was swear. OK, we got CP22! And all because I didn't know the right way back to the bikes.

I told Dave that he was right, we needed to go east to get down! He agreed, so we headed down and found the trail just like he said. Good teamwork, that was. We discussed things as we walked back, agreeing that the other teams must have run into the CP just like we did and they all most likely had found it. Well, nothing to be gained by talking about it more at that point.

We got back on the Greenbelt trail and continued south. We were looking for an "easement", whatever that might be. At one point we passed an open area with a bunch of bikes parked beside the trail, but we weren't sure about it compared to how the trail should go. We continued onward, eventually deciding that must have been it. No worries, we'll be back there in a few minutes anyway.

We rode south, under a railroad bridge and eventually to the end of the trail. Nice ride, now all we have to do is get all the way back! We chatted with a couple volunteers in the parking lot and punched CP's 25 and 26. Originally CP26 was a trekking point about 1 kilometer south of there, but apparently it was now underwater. Getting wet up to our waist was one thing, but we were just as happy not to soak the rest of our body as well. It was getting pretty cold, in the 40's I think, and it was enough of a challenge to stay warm.

After turning back around, Dave towed Kip pretty quickly back to the easement. We dropped the bikes and started walking east. Dave theorized that we had been riding the dashed trail and not the dotted one, which now made perfect sense. That helped us locate CP23 on a tree further along the easement. It didn't change the fact that the easement was pretty well flooded. We had wet feet already, but that didn't make it any more fun to walk through a kilometer-long puddle.

At least it was easy navigation to the gate at the end of the easement. A couple volunteers in the parking lot gave us Halloween candy - sweet! Literally! We were happy to chat with them for a moment before starting off into the woods to find the next checkpoint. I learned later that it was possible to ride a road from near CP22 down to the gate, apparently without getting on pavement. Neat trick! That certainly explains why some people had their bikes with them. So they carried or rode their bikes for a kilometer through the water, while we trekked for two kilometers without our bikes instead.

Anyway, it was only about 100 meters to a "rock outcropping", but there was a construction site in the way. We picked our way over a house foundation (could it get any muddier? Don't answer that...) and up the spur on the other side. It seemed the construction was making some changes to the terrain, but we quickly spotted the checkpoint above us and Dave climbed up to punch CP24.

Back to the parking lot, back through the gate, back along the easement (after Kip got us going in the right direction again). We were resigned about the water wading, just getting it over with and talking. We discussed the implications of the paved park road problem vs. the race rules. After running through several options, we decided to ride back the way we came down and risk the penalty. So I guess we made a decision based on what we thought the race directors were thinking and not what they had written, if that makes any sense?

We met team Werewolves going the other way, and a couple racers on both teams gave a howl. Ashley was uncharacteristically silent, but they seemed to be moving well. Back on the bikes, which were still working well, amazingly. We all said silent prayers (and sometimes audible ones when we accidentally rode over something) that we wouldn't have any flat tires or mechanical issues. We passed teams working on their bikes a couple times, and we really felt bad for them - cold hands + muddy bikes = no fun!

So we had found all the Greenbelt CP's and it was time to head back to Isle du Bois Park. We sped north, through water and an occasional bit of slippery mud. We continued to greet teams who were heading in the other direction, but people were getting less and less responsive. Occasionally we'd get an enthusiastic "You too!" to our "Good job!" which was refreshing. After several miles our wet feet got so cold they started to hurt. By the time we neared the top of the Greenbelt they were basically blocks of ice. Except Kip's feet, which were just a little cold. Kip is a polar bear.

We punched CP27 at the Elm Creek parking lot, while receiving the news that the final trek had been canceled. All I could do was drop my head. We had really been looking forward to a real trekking section where we could run and navigate and enjoy ourselves. Yes, it was nice to know that we would be finished that much sooner, but mostly we were not pleased. At least we hadn't skipped any checkpoints expecting to make them up later (because we were on pace to clear the course regardless), but other teams probably made strategic decisions based on a longer course and now they were paying a price. Not cool.

Well, nothing we can do about that now. We biked out of the park, just glad to be off the wet trail for a while. At the steep uphill we got off to walk simply to warm up our feet. It took a while, but once we reached the top our feet were much less painful. Thank goodness for circulation!

We rode back to Isle du Bois Park, stooped under the front gate (it had opened from the other direction heading out but not going back in), and along the park road back to the Kid's Fish Pond. Here was our last bike drop, our final trekking section, and the last points of the course. We punched CP28 and discussed what order to hit the next three points. Kip pointed out that CP31 was next to a pond and was probably the wettest, so we should get that one first and give our feet a chance to dry a bit before getting back on the bikes. Good plan.

Finding the area of the pond and "earthen dam" was pretty easy (except for the part where I waded into thigh-deep water before we figured out that 30 meters to the left we could step across a tiny creek). Getting to the checkpoint was not going to be so simple. We met team iMOAT as they were leaving it, and they told us that one of us was going to get pretty wet. Two other teams were there, with one guy shining a bright light in the right direction to help a couple racers figure out how to get across some deep water and then across the dam.

Kip immediately volunteered, much to my and Dave's relief. Demonstrating his polar bear qualities, Kip jumped right in, made his way across a pool, and scrambled quickly along the dam. Dave and I stood next to a racer who was telling another guy the best way to get to the next two checkpoints. I learned that the best way to the next CP was to go high and whatever you do, don't follow the shoreline. I can work with that. Thanks to whoever you were for the advice!

Kip got a bit stuck trying to bridge the last set of briars on the way back, continuing our race-long tradition of reaching a CP relatively easily and then having a devil of a time finding our way back out. I was just glad I had some time to add a poly pro layer and switch to my warm gloves. Not only were my feet still frozen but the rest of me was chilling down now too.

I took the nav for the next point, taking us directly west across an open field. I was looking for the fire road, and didn't quite hit it before running into brush, but after a minor detour we were on track. From there we went north, around the hill slightly, and then north again on the DORBA "E" trail. It was fun running on the trail (and I was still thankful that we hadn't had to ride it), twisting and turning a bit in the woods.

When the trail made a hard left we finally jumped off to bushwhack north/east toward the edge of the land. In another open field we paused to watch a bunch of lights moving along the shoreline below us, but I wanted to stay up high and continue though the trees. That seemed to work, as we eventually ran right into CP30. Nice.

Another team started away from the point on the bike trail, and they were walking while we wanted to run, so we cut south through the trees instead. Eventually we hit the bike trail again and decided to stay on it this time. A refreshing little jog (I was finally getting warm again, yay!) and we were back to the fire road.

I used the road to move west, trying to find a good way south around the hill. We could see only huge bushes, so as soon as I spotted the "D" bike trail I jumped on that instead. I knew it would wind around a lot, but at least it would be easy travel. The trail cut through the bushes and the field opened up nicely to the right. That's us! Heading south through the field we met team iMOAT 2 going the other way. Nice to see y'all again! That also confirmed that this direction should work OK.

Sure enough, soon we were on the paved bike path. We ran to the right, looking for a shallow draw. We slowed as we saw a group of lights in about the right area. I looked down and remarked that there was a little puddle next to the trail, so that must be the right place. We headed in, skirted a small pond, and found CP29. True to our nature, we had a harder time getting back to the trail through the vines, but eventually we made it.

We ran back along the bike path, slowing to walk up a short hill. A team came running by us with one woman towing one guy who was towing a second woman - interesting! We also passed a solo guy running the other direction - I think he was just out for a morning jog. I wonder what he thought about the spectacle of the race around him.

I used the fire road briefly to gain access to the field again, then we followed tracks and another team across to our bikes. Dave located a nice path through a line of shrubbery, and then we were back at the bike drop. It was getting light out, so at least we could tackle the next (and last) challenge in the daylight.

The last 4.5 miles were a required route, the equestrian trail between park Isle du Bois and Lantana resort. From the moment I saw this on our clue sheet the previous morning, I had sooo not been looking forward to it. I had built it up as "this is gonna suck in a major way" so we were all prepared for the worst. And yes, it sucked about as bad as I had expected.

Most of the trail was sopping wet and super muddy. We went through mud puddle after mud puddle. Dave determined that riding through the middle of the puddles was still best, but nowhere near as good as on the Greenbelt trail. The water was deep, the bottom was still mud, but it was a bit faster and slightly easier than trying to ride through the mud around the edges. When I rode hard through the puddles I did OK. Regardless, the whole experience was energy-sapping. Several teams passed us right away, but we ignored that.

The first thing we did was to discuss putting Kip back on tow. It's not easy to get towed through difficult terrain, trying to maintain your balance while getting pulled along, but Kip was game to try. If that didn't work we would be walking most of the way. Luckily the system worked pretty well, and that pair started plowing through the puddles. I was impressed with both of them. Awesome job on all the towing, Dave!

On the other hand, I had a down period. It actually happened when I started thinking about how amazingly well my bike had done for me all race, how it took all the mud I threw at it (not literally of course). I was so happy with how each time we started riding again it would sound horrible but eventually all the sand would work its way out of the brake pads and moving parts and it would run so smoothly again.

But now I was dousing my bike with muddy water over and over, just coating it completely. I went anthropomorphic, which was a huge mistake, and started feeling so bad for my poor sweet bike that was just doing the best that it could. This got me all sad, like how could I do this to my bike after how it had treated me so well? OK, I had been feeling great all race but now I must be getting a bit tired. Strange how that manifests sometimes!

So I walked around the biggest puddles, feeling sad but at least recognizing the problem. Dave and Kip waited for me a couple times. I could have ridden that trail better (and I did learn some things whenever I got on and tried riding). Eventually I resorted to speed-walking my bike around the puddles, and that helped our overall pace instead of slowly ambling along.

When it seemed like we must be getting close, I perked up and rode ahead. Yep, less than half a mile to go. I turned into "motivated girl" and rode on ahead to the gate. Kip and Dave soon caught up, and there wasn't anyone right behind us so there was that. Then I looked across the road and saw that the trail continued on through the field. Oh, that's a bummer; I forgot that the trail keeps going.

We looked across and saw only a couple bike tracks going that way, plus a whole bunch of mud on the pavement to the left. I tried to explain that the rules required we stay on the trail, but Dave was like "so how come almost everyone else took the road? We should stay on the road too." So we went with the somewhat risky move of riding the road back. No one seemed to notice or care, besides cheering us in. Well, I guess we learned a lot about rules enforcement during the whole race.

It was fun watching Dave's boys clap and cheer for us - great to see you too! We rode up to the barn, punched CP32, and we were done. Kip lay down on the grass. John took our bikes to rinse them off with a hose (thank you!). It was really nice to hang around in the sunshine. Still, I think we had a few trekking miles left in us.

We finished in 25 hours, 10 minutes, and 36 seconds, in 13th place out of 67 teams overall (including masters and one collegiate team). 23 teams found all 42 checkpoints. We were only 15 minutes short of 8th place, but of course, we weren't racing :)

We did accomplish our goals - doing the best we could, working together really well, having fun (mostly), and clearing the course. Awesome job, team! I have only great things to say about our efforts and strategy.

Critiques about the race: Lax enforcement of the rules; a couple instances where the rules were unclear; not using orienteering flags for all the checkpoints; a couple of point placements seemed to be wrong (CP4 and CP22); very little trekking (some of the biking could have been turned into trekking, e.g. CP7 to CP8 perhaps); cutting the course short mid-race when rogaine-style allows for a long course without DNF's and some teams are counting on that when making decisions about skipping points.

Normally I wouldn't harp on relatively minor problems like these, especially when the directors did a fine job of adjusting to the weather-related problems, but I expected more from a Nationals-level race. Hopefully they will continue making improvements and future Nationals races will be even better.

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