Sunday, November 6, 2016

Howl at the Moon

An adventure race!  It has been too long!  Dave asked if we wanted to "Howl at the Moon" as 2x2 person teams (with him and Leslie) and we were excited to be getting back to Texas in time to join them.  It was an overnight race at Colorado Bend, sounds like the perfect way to jump back into adventure racing.  Most of us had some kind of injury to nurse, including a broken rib (Leslie), a tweaked hamstring (Dave), and a chronic hip pain (John), but we all thought we could muddle through, no problem if anyone needs to take it slow.

After a brief pre-race adventure with my front brake (thought it was fixed, then it wasn't, then we had it fixed again) and digging out some gear I haven't used in a while (where the heck are our UTM plotters?  Oh, at the bottom of the bin, right), we were ready to roll.

Goofing around for some pre-race photos:

The pre-race meeting concluded with a 2-minute trivia quiz, at least we knew a couple of them thanks to John's music knowledge, and my one contribution which related to the cities of The Tale of Two Cities.  Dave and Leslie guessed better at the rest than we did, so they received their map and checkpoint list first.  A couple minutes later we joined them at the table for a round of speed plotting (thank you Michelle for this excellent photo):

We weren't plotting UTM coordinates, just trail intersections and points of interest from the park map, so we were flying through the pages really quickly.  We made one decision, to get the first set of trekking points in the clockwise order so we could reach the caving section early and hopefully avoid any lines.  OK, let's run!

In case anyone wants to follow along with the commentary of the next several paragraphs, here's the map for our first trek - the starting line is at the top/center where there's a symbol of three people under a roof:

I got us pointed toward the correct trailhead.  Then I proceeded to turn right at the very first intersection, thinking the left turn was to go down to the boats parked at the edge of the river.  Leslie took off at a fast clip and I tried to keep up.  Seeing as we were going uphill, and seeing how Leslie was running faster than I've run uphill in quite some time, it was all I could do to focus on my breathing.

Wait, did you say we were going uphill?  When the first checkpoint was supposed to be along the RIVER trail that you would expect is overall mostly flat?  This minor detail did not go unnoticed on our team, but for some reason we all just shrugged and continued running.  Uphill.

Trail intersection - and checkpoint!  Passports punched, what's next?  Left turn, more trail running.  Shouldn't we be going uphill now, and instead it's slightly downhill?  Dave was pretty sure this was weird.  My brain, in oxygen debt, started churning in the background.  Still, we kept running.  Even when we passed the Tinaja Trail after a short ways and neither I nor Dave could find it on the map.  Huh, that's weird.  Sure are a lot of weird things going on, must be Halloween weekend!

At this point, Kip back at home is probably thinking, wow, I've gotten myself lost at Colorado Bend before, but I think these people might top it.  Just wait, there's more!

So, we continue running at a good clip, I'm feeling better because it's no longer uphill, but at some point I have to slow down from the crazy fast pace (I thought my teammates were injured?  Somehow they are still ALL outrunning me).  We hit another intersection and we expect to see checkpoint 12 there - but we find no obvious checkpoint.  Dave wants to look around to find it for later.  I want to file that info away and deal with it in a later leg.  We glance briefly at the sign and verify that we are on the Cedar Chopper Loop, and we continue straight, the logic being that it wasn't actually an intersection but a pipeline crossing or some such ridiculousness.  John notices reflective markers and files that information away for later.  We have a brief discussion about which way we should have turned or should we go back?  No, continue on.  My brain is certain that something fishy is going on, but it just - can't - figure out - what?

Dave wonders why it is taking so long to run 1.3 miles between checkpoints 4 and 12.  Ah, but here is checkpoint 12, finally!  Yes, we verify that it is CP 12, and we are finally at a known (and actually correct) location.  Good thing we didn't look too hard for CP 12 back there (I reconsidered that statement later).  We continue around the Cedar Chopper Loop, another 0.6 miles.

Finally, checkpoint 3.  And everything erupts, as Leslie exclaims, "we've been here before!" - what the heck?  But it was our first smart move of the night (thank you Leslie!), because if she hadn't noticed that, we would have continued on not realizing that we had thought we had punched CP 4 when really we had been at CP 3 earlier and not looked closely at the mark on the punch. (Apologies for that convoluted sentence, but it matches the wacky situation so I'm leaving it)  So we still needed CP 4, which was now WAY out of the way.  And the kicker was that we had just run the entire Cedar Chopper Loop and ended up back where we started.

That was enough to start me laughing hysterically, although I think I held it in initially at least.  For some reason on top of being completely and utterly flabbergasted that we, as a group, managed to do this and not realize it for so long, to ignore so many clues and never stop to figure it out, and to put ourselves in this situation of being in the middle of the trekking loop while still needing CP's at both the far ends, well... it was weirdly funny.  In a "I can't believe it" kind of way.  And also "I'm going to have to put this in my blog, dang it all" kind of way.  So there it is, we were idiots.

But wait!  There's more!  Our Hour of Stupid wasn't over yet.  The race had started at 8 pm and it wasn't quite 9.

We circled halfway around the loop, AGAIN, with me giggling the whole way around, imagining what people will think of us and what the rest of the team is thinking of us right now.

We found the intersection that really in fact was an intersection, followed the reflective markers that John had wondered about that really were important, and ran a short way to the entrance to the cave.  A nice park ranger checked us in and John and Dave donned helmets to squeeze through the narrow rocks.  Leslie normally jumps at this kind of thing, but she didn't think her injured rib would appreciate it.  And I always let John do the fun stuff because he actually thinks it's fun.

So we're looking at the map and walking around to meet the guys at the cave exit, when suddenly we catch word that this checkpoint didn't even OPEN until 9 pm.  And it was pretty much exactly 9 pm when we arrived.  My mouth dropped open so far I'm surprised it didn't hit limestone.  Are you telling me that we missed a key detail right at the opening gun when we were still standing at the table in the above photo?  And somehow we managed to screw up so royally that we got here right at the right time?  Which would have been at least a little OK if we had already gotten CP 4.  It was all too much to comprehend.

Kim, racing as solo team RunLab, blazed through the cave right behind John and Dave and then took off while we finally paused briefly to make a plan.  A plan, yes, that is a great idea!

The out-and-back to one of the far points had to be to CP 4 at the end, so we turned our attention west and aimed for CP 2.  After briefly talking about bushwhacking through the middle of the loop (because who wants to run it again, even for old times sake?), we got smart and went with Leslie's idea to take the road around and forget the trail for now.  Excellent choice.

Out on the road we had time to hash out what had just happened.  It seemed now that we were past hour 1 of the race, everyone got smarter again.  And calmer.  The hex was over.  That couldn't happen soon enough.

We were only slightly concerned about the bushwhack from the road down to the drainage, but that went well and it turns out that Leslie is as good as John in finding a decent route through vegetation.  Now Dave and I had two choices for ways to go, such luxury!  One fence to "hop" over and we were at the bottom, pushing through a bit more cedar crap (ah, cedar, how I didn't miss you) and coming to the edge of the large tinaja.  It turned out to be a big water-filled depression and it was really pretty.

We circled around, cut down to the trail, then I had a minor conniption fit when a bag of SPIZ started leaking while it was sitting in the back mesh pocket of my pack (I have a system, I should have insisted on following it).  John came back and sprayed off the back of my legs, then we drank the SPIZ and went to catch up with Dave and Leslie.

Well.  The rest of the leg was boring and straightforward.  Trail out to the road, across the road and trails down to Gorman Falls for CP 1, and then - oh right, we have to go back through the TA, that's embarrassing.  No way to avoid that, just make it quick - "Hi, we're not done yet, be right back!"

It was a lovely, FLAT run along the river.  With a slight hiccup when we didn't immediately figure out the trail up to the top of the rock at the cave, well, John had figured it out, but our shouted miscommunication slowed us down for a minute.  Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things.  Like why we were there at that moment in time in the first place.  I noticed some reflectors and we stored that info in our brains for later.

Back to the TA, hey there are only two teams ahead of us (I guess if you're going to run in circles, at least do it quickly!).  Kim was leading, followed by Vamanos, a team of 3 guys, all having read the directions carefully and done the longer part of the loop BEFORE reaching the cave at/after 9 pm like you were supposed to.  "What happened to y'all?"  I didn't really want to talk about it right then, let's rehash it all in great detail in my blog later, why don't we do that instead?

Everyone else got ready to bike.  I stood reading the entire set of rules and checkpoint pages we had been handed at the start, because really, one leg of messing things up was all I thought I could handle.  John refilled my Camelbak, plopped a helmet on my head, stuck the helmet light battery in the back of my pack, and handed me some SPIZ to drink.  Thank you John!

OK, no more surprises that I could find in the instructions.  Only a bit of a question of one CP location and the query of whether we should ride clockwise or CCW.  I knew that the trail on the south end was gnarly, because even though we haven't been at this park in many years, somewhere in the back of my mind was the thought that "this trail is going to suck."  There were different preferences involved, in the end we went with the CCW option because some of us planned to actually ride down the thing (maybe it wasn't as bad as I remembered?).

Off we go, biking in a race!  Such novelty for me and John.  The uphill on the road went pretty well, I wasn't going fast but steady enough.  By the top several of us were getting bits of foot cramps and had to ease up a little.  I guess we ran pretty hard recently or something.  The good thing about going CCW was finding CP 9 at the entrance to the Gorman-Windmill Connection Trail (I'm not sure how Dave knew that the dirt road was the "Maintenance Road" but it was - oh hey, it's on the map that Too Cool linked to before the race - which we were allowed to look at beforehand but couldn't have in TA - so I guess you just had to remember it - good memory, Dave!).  From there we could ride around on roads and not have to take the trail across looking for the checkpoint.

The paved road ride was nice, we noted with fond memories the section we had jogged to CP 2, our muscles loosened up and stopped cramping, and soon we were at the Spicewood Canyon Trail.  We saw a bike parked by a tree alongside the trail, still have no idea what that was doing there (we were wondering if Kim was running an out-and-back to CP 8 but we never saw her).  The trail started out off-and-on rideable for me and occasionally I even felt sort of in flow with my bike.  That didn't last very long, soon I was running my bike through the rocks and trying not to be too much of an anchor.  John hung with me so I'd have some company, thank you John!

CP 8, check.  The rest of the way down was pretty horrendous.  Art (co-race director) mentioned later that a valid strategy could have been to return the way we came, back to the road, and to ride around.  For me that likely would have been faster.  It was too technical to even run with the bike in most places, just lots and lots of rocks.  I started calling up a clearer picture in my mind of when I had been here previously - oh right, I had previously said to myself "I'm SO glad I'm trekking on this trail and I don't have to bring my bike through here!"

As I struggled through the 1.6 miles down the hill, teams started coming toward us, having chosen the clockwise option.  Amazingly, Tammy and her teammate were riding.  Uphill.  Respect for that.  Other racers were pushing their bikes in some sections.  I had decided early on that what was most important for me was to not get down on myself about this - I have a tendency to do that when I have trouble biking, and a much better strategy is to try to stay positive.  It helps me get back on the bike when it actually is rideable.  And helps motivate me later to practice more instead of avoiding it altogether.

Finally the bottom, phew!  We saw a team that was probably Vamanos just heading away from the area of checkpoint 7 as we got down there.  We rode west along the river briefly then all got off to look for CP 7 at "point of interest #1" - Spicewood Springs Creek.  Dave kept telling us we were looking for a river overlook, so he headed toward the river (oh, I see now that point of interest #7 is a River Overlook so maybe that was the confusion).  John and Leslie headed up the hill, which made sense based on the rough map location.  I figured I would round out the compass points by continuing west, but then John called out that he had found it up high.  Excellent!  That was not an obvious checkpoint location, for sure.

Ah, finally some fun riding on a super easy trail.  We rode along the river, through the very long camping area with tons of cars and tents - wow this place has changed since I saw it last!  We saw deer standing motionless staring at us from the lawn.  Then back onto the river trail, so much easier and fast.  I had been hoping so, otherwise all those teams going the other way were going to kick our butts on this leg.

CP 6 was off to the right, then more riding on the fun little trail, little ups and downs and finally with some sort of speed on my part.  We passed a couple teams, they must have been competing in the shorter sprint race.  We also saw Vamanos again, passing each other a couple times and I think we ended up slightly ahead by the end of the leg.

Back in TA we learned we had not lost too much time to Kim so that was something.  The next leg consisted of 2 trekking points on trails.  My transition was quicker now that I had less to read and soon we were jogging out on Gorman Springs Trail.  The overall pace of the team had slowed enough that I could finally keep up with everyone, woo hoo!  Oh, and actually I was leading, OK, I better be sure I know where I'm going this time.

We double-checked the trail signs and Dave mentioned that we would probably be getting our feet wet in here.  Last time he raced here it was quite flooded.  This time we rock-hopped over the creek a couple times.  No wet feet, nice.  We scared up an armadillo (not the first or last we would see or at least hear that night) and Leslie squirted it with her water bottle - which caused it to do some kind of amazing flip and then run away!  I didn't see her squirt it and thought it had peed on itself, that was pretty funny.

I lost the trail partway in, and John suggested it had happened when I stepped over a log.  I had been looking pretty hard for any sign of a trail but didn't see one.  We were following an "on again, off again" kind of game trail that finally decided it was off, for real this time.  We regrouped, looked right to see a creek and a cliff, and decided the actual trail must be to the left.  John quickly found it again and it wasn't long before we had located CP 10.

Time to go uphill - no reason to go all the way back to TA, let's climb up to the Tinaja Trail above us.  Dave mentioned a possible spot on rocks through the cliff, and Leslie ran right up to see where it would go.  I'm so used to John being the one to check things out, it's inspiring to watch Leslie jump into situations to figure it out also.

We scrambled up and found the trail, following it around to the road.  We saw lights down below, possibly Vamanos right on our heels - and actually looking at the splits now, Tammy's team had beat us back to the TA in 2nd place at the end of the bike, but we didn't see them on the trek until the second out-and-back so maybe they had a longer transition?  In that case, that might have been Tammy's Hill Country team below us at the point.

A couple quick trail intersections later and we were bopping down Gorman Falls Trail.  I was enjoying running over the limestone rocks while Dave mentioned he really would rather be biking on them.  We heard cars along the road nearby and made a note of the location for the return trip.

Quick run out to the Tie Slide overlook where we found CP 11.  On the way out, Kim was coming back toward us, and she and Dave talked briefly.  He learned that she had had problems finding CP 10 when the trail ended on her (sounds familiar) and she actually had not found it yet so she had to go back over there.  On our way back from CP 11 we saw Vamanos plus Hill Country who were all moving well.

Back to the spot we were looking for, we took a bearing toward the road.  Oops, first we returned to the trail after it bent back around, and THEN we took a bearing toward the road.  Second attempt worked better, and we were soon jogging along without having to watch our feet for the next mile.  It was a good time to plan the next bike leg.

We did another quick transition and got back on the bikes to ride up the hill again.  Ow, my butt wasn't quite ready for another spell on the bike seat.  I really need to start riding regularly.  Dave was like, well, now we're leading the race so I guess we have to get serious.  Up the hill, John stopped briefly to help a couple guys who were stuck on the question of "where the heck is the Maintenance Road?" from the first bike leg, then we were on the trails in the western field area.

Where is the easy doubletrack that I thought I remembered from this area?  We were back to snaking through trees and riding (or sometimes walking) over rocks.  Dave and Leslie briefly stopped to add air to one of Dave's tires which was getting low.  I turned onto the Lively Loop trail and was happy to see that this was the trail I was looking for.  Relatively fast, totally rideable, punctuated with an occasionally rock or bump that was only challenging on my sore behind.

We located CP 13 at the far west end, then turned back east along the Windmill Trail, Dry Creek Junction, and another part of Lively Loop.  On one of our turns, both Dave and I agreed that it was the right direction, and Leslie said something to the effect that as long as multiple people agree, it's probably correct.  She might have been referring to the leg 1 fiasco...

We briefly lost Dave behind us, apparently he rode into a ditch while trying to read the map.  Luckily nothing worse than a bruised leg.  He caught up quick as we closed in on CP 14.  After punching it, we debated taking the direct, but more difficult, trail vs. riding the easy trail out to the road for the longer way around.  I think my team is catching on at how much slower I am with technical trail, because they decided to ride around.  Works for me!

On the way to the road we passed Kim going in the opposite direction.  Way to go, Kim!  I thought we were slightly more than halfway through the loop at the time, but it might be a close race back to the TA.  Back on the road, over to the Cedar Chopper Loop, let's just do half a loop instead of 1 1/2 of them this time, shall we?

Starting along the trail, I found I was getting a bit more aggressive and could ride some of the easier rocky sections, stuff that I know I can do once I get some practice (like, practice that didn't take place 3-4 years ago, yikes).  This trail was the right level for me to work on getting my flow back.  I asked Dave if he could call John back to lead me around the loop.  John did a great job of helping me find good lines, calling out what to expect and when to get off.  The rocks were flatter and more step-wise in places instead of round knobs.  I was motivated to help keep the team in the lead.

We found CP 12 (again), continued around, and descended the Old Gorman Road Trail (the one we had climbed at the beginning of the race when we were supposed to be on the river trail).  It wasn't a fast ride down for me, but I rode most of it and that made me happy.

Back to TA, still in first place, one more leg!  It was a short out-and-back in the kayaks, finally on the river.  We heard there would be some portaging so we anticipated low water.  Leslie put on a jacket and waterproof pants, now that was a good idea.  I was plenty warm so I didn't think about it hard enough.

We hoofed it down to the river and slid the kayaks down the bank while I picked out a couple paddles for me and John.  Time to paddle, at least it was short, and that skill came back to us easily.  Not exactly outrigger canoe paddling, but I think my time in those boats last spring was helpful nonetheless.

It was dang dark on the water.  No moon (nor any howling), just a faint reflection of the sky on the water.  From the front of the kayak I was close enough to the surface that my headlamp picked up any rocks coming toward us and we mostly steered around them.  Except for a couple submerged rocks that hung us up a couple times.  We got closer to the middle of the river and that helped with deeper water.

We saw a few little lights from the house across the way but it wasn't all blazingly lit like earlier in the night.  During our first trek when we had noticed the reflectors leading up and into Gorman Cave, we deduced that the kayak point was probably located there.  John had looked across the river at the time and seen a couple lights we might use to help guide us here.  Well, those lights were out by the time we returned late in the dark night.  Too bad.

I pulled out a bright handheld light and started scanning the banks.  Yep, there's a little red reflector dot over there!  The bright light also helped illuminate all the rocks we had to weave through in that area.  It didn't help us pick a good way through and we got hung up a bit and had to "who's your Daddy?" the boat to get it unstuck.

We banked the boats and clambered up the muddy shore toward the trail of reflectors.  Lots of sliding around and muddy shoes, but the point was located without issue and soon we were launching back toward the array of rocks protecting this piece of shoreline.  John tried a different way through, still neither of our boats hit a clean line back to deeper water.

Paddling back upstream into the darkness, there was a single light coming toward us.  Nicely done, Kim!  Our teams gave each other a run for our money.  More paddling, me getting soaking wet from both paddles throwing water over my head.  I don't kayak enough to remember that it's not like the more comfortable (and usually dry) canoeing experience.  A jacket and rain pants would have been handy, for sure.

The guys muscled our heavy kayaks back up the steep bank, Dave coming back down to help with our boat too (thanks Dave!).  Team Vamanos showed up right as we were putting the kayaks back, well done y'all!  One last walk up the little hill and we were done.  Phew!  The race took a little longer than it should have, but it was a solid effort and we enjoyed it very much.  A good start in figuring how this team will work together.

Kim from RunLab and then team Vamanos finished not long later, followed by Hill Country Bicycle Works.  The Monkey teams squeaked in under the 12-hour cut-off, way to hang in there!

Results and splits:

Dave and Michelle left in the darkness while the rest of us took a nap until the sun came up a couple hours later.  Hanging out at the awards ceremony - I love my new purple Chamois Butt'r socks and RunLab shirt, and I look forward to a new pair of shoes - thank you Too Cool and RunLab!

Kim, our team (minus Dave), and team Vamanos - it was great racing with y'all:

Lots of fun!  Let's do this again sometime  :)

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