We Eat Dust And Like It

October 20, 2010

WEDALI Wins 2010 USARA National Championships

WEDALI finished the 2010 United States Adventure Racing Association's (USARA) National Championships in 1st Place after almost 23 hours of racing, claiming victory to the top spot amongst a competitive field of 44 teams from throughout the U.S. The team mountain biked, orienteered, and paddled their way to victory near the town of Hidden Valley, nestled in the scenic Laurel Mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania. Below is a race report from the October 15 event, written by teammate Molly Moilanen:


2010 USARA Nationals Race Report

Hidden Valley, Pennsylvania

Over the past year WEDALI neglected its blog and failed to write a single race report. Between work, school, racing, training and traveling, our rehashing of each race’s highs and lows was done primarily on road rides and trail runs with teammates and training buddies. Snapshots of races can be found on our attackpoint logs, but to hear an in-depth account of a particular race, score-o section, pack rafting nightmare or mystery team challenge, you have to bike with us at Murphy or run the hills at Theo. OTNT (orienteering Tuesday night training) is where we swapped stories of our adventures and found inspiration to rally for next weekend’s race.

But if any race deserves a written race report, it’s the 2010 USARA National Championships in Hidden Valley, Pennsylvania. My 2010 AR season is over so instead of hitting the trails, tonight I’ll tell the story of one of the most memorable days of my entire life – the day WEDALI (We Eat Dust and Like It) won the USARA National Championships.

Background: WEDALI was born in the spring of 2003 when Justin (Biz) Bakken, Paul Bronkhorst and Scott (Erl) Erlandson met at a ropes clinic and a local orienteering meet. Ellen Farseth joined the team in 2004, followed by Scott (Scooter) Lund, Molly Moilanen (me) and Jason and Andrea Nielsen from Battle Creek, Iowa. Over the years, Amy Vroom, Darin Soukup, Andrew Kroese and Tom Puzak have also raced with WEDALI, making our team better (and taller). WEDALI is more than an AR team. To me, WEDALI is magic. WEDALI is inspiration. WEDALI is family.

October 14, 2010, 1:28 p.m.: I sit in a conference room somewhere in Minnesota country, watching the minutes tick by as my Board of Directors argues about the best ways to “measure success” as we kick-off our next strategic planning cycle. When the clock hits 1:30 p.m., I race out the door like Cinderella in a new pair of trail-runners. Miraculously, the next eight hours go as planned and at 9:30 p.m., I unite with my teammates – Biz and Erl – in Hidden Valley. The boys arrived around noon and spent the day prepping our team for the race. This is WEDALI’s twelfth race of 2010, so we have a good handle on our pre-race ritual. We crawl into bed before midnight and deposit some sleep hours in the bank, a rare commodity before a thirty-hour adventure race. Feeling confident about our pre-race preparations, we set our alarms for 6:20 a.m. and snooze until 6:30.

October 15, 2010, 6:55 a.m.: Erl heads up to headquarters (HQ) to collect maps and stake out a table for UTM plotting. Biz and I arrive shortly after 7:00 a.m., ready to plot and select our course. Before we start plotting, Biz copies forbidden routes from a set of master maps hanging on the wall. Tracing the maps is more tedious than expected and requires focus and precision. By the time we start plotting UTM coordinates, we’re behind. The team next to us – Team Granite, who won Nationals last year – is already working on their route selections. I remind myself to focus on OUR maps and OUR race. Finally, with all 15 of our UTMs plotted, Biz digs in. By triangulating information from three sets of maps, he determines the path we will chase for the next 23 hours.

7:55 a.m.: Erl makes his way to the start line to catch last-minute instructions and to represent our team for the national anthem and pre-race prayer. Biz and I hunch over the plotting station debating whether to take the shorter two-track or the longer paved road from checkpoint to checkpoint. Realizing the race is seconds from starting, I panic. “Biz, let’s go! You can finish this later. They’re starting!” Biz remains focused and assures me that taking a few extra minutes now to choose smart routes and organize our maps will pay off later. By the time we reach Erl at the start line, the race is underway. In the distance, two minutes and thirty seconds ahead of us, we see a mob of animated adventure racers in clean, multicolored jerseys making their way up the grassy green ski slope in pursuit of the first orienteering map. Filled with cinnamon raisin bagels and adrenaline, WEDALI kicks into high gear. We bound across the field and up the hill. Biz and Erl each take one of my hands and together we close the gap on the mob. Robyn Benincasa, the grandmother of adventure racing, had accompanied everyone at the start. When she spots us closing the gap, she bursts out laughing. “It’s WEDALI. What’s going on? Where have you been?” After failed attempts at sarcasm, we explain that we needed a little extra time on the maps but NOW we’re ready to go.

At the top of the hill, a volunteer hands Biz the map for the prologue – a nine-point micro-orienteering section within the immediate Hidden Valley vicinity. With Biz dialed on the map and Erl focused on punching the control flags, we tick off the checkpoints (CPs). We navigate to controls placed by building, parking lots, ponds, hillsides and gullies. Pushing the pace, we make it back to the HQ with the top teams.

With our rough morning and late start behind us, we change our shoes, throw on our helmets and bike out of the transition area (TA) with the leaders embarking on the first of many long and hilly bike legs. With bikes in “big ring 12,” teams fly out of HQ at 18mph but are quickly slowed by a mandatory route consisting of muddy, slippery, steep single-track. We ride as much as we can but get stuck pushing our bikes through some sections. Hitting CP1, we reunite with teams that selected a different allowed route. Looking discouraged, Biz claims that our route would have been faster if he wouldn’t have taken a few wrong turns on the maze of trails. “We’re all good, buddy,” Erl reassures Biz as we ratchet up the pace on the gravel road. We do our best to stick with the uber-bikers but resist the temptation to bury ourselves in the first hour of the race. Between CP1 and CP3 we bike with a number of teams, including some friends from the mighty Midwest – Proformance and Bushwhacker. We arrive at CP2, the top of a ski hill, alongside Trackers. On the way to CP3, Biz explains that once we get to the general area of the flag, we can ride a single-track trail or bike around on the road and bushwhack to the control. We survey the single-track trail and decide to go with option B – bike around and bushwhack.

Teams Tecnu Extreme/StaphAseptic and Bushwhacker opt for the single-track and we follow Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) around on the road. We leave our bikes and slip into the woods a few meters behind them. Feeling the need for some energy, I pull out a strawberry Uncrustable from my pack and enjoy the first sugary bites. Suddenly, I snap to attention. I hear the baritone voices of EMS’s male teammates in front of us yelling “Hey bear! Ho bear!” followed by the loud crunching and crashing of breaking branches. I freeze in my tracks with a half-eaten PB&J in my hand. A moment passes. I regain my breath and sprint toward the protection of my teammates. “Holy shit! Did you see the bear?” “I didn’t see it, but I heard it and I think it wants my Uncrustable.”

We are with two other teams on the hunt for CP3, and all of us expect the flag to be along the stream. Biz eventually spots the control on the top of the 12-foot riverbank. Using vines and rocks as hand and footholds, Erl climbs to the top of the riverbank to punch the CP. We bushwhack back to our bikes, keeping our eye out for bears, reconsidering our route choice.

We push the pace to CP4 and CP5. We enjoy mixing it up with two-time National Champions, iMOAT. They are an awesome team from Texas riding made-in-Minnesota Salsa bicycles. Sweet!

Four hours into the race, we look forward to the paddle and a break from our bikes. When our route to the reservoir dead-ends, we decide to ditch our bikes in the woods and bushwhack up the bluff to the reservoir. (Side note: we were required to bring a bike lock, so this must be our chance to use it!) Tecnu and Granite already stashed their bikes in the woods. Bushwhacker heads into the woods just in front of us and confirms that we are the lead four teams at CP6. Despite the odd location for a bike drop, I tell myself that this MUST be the right spot. All six team members from WEDALI and Bushwhacker ditch our bikes and change shoes. We scamper up the bluff, work our way over a gaping reentrant and ultimately climb down a steep drop-off to a concrete wall lining the giant spillway jetting out from the reservoir where we will pick up canoes. The spillway wall is 20 feet high, so falling would be disastrous. On the other hand, contouring above the concrete ledge looks equally dangerous. Stopped in our tracks, we scan our surroundings for the least dangerous option. We hear a voice from above: “Hey there! You have to bike around. There’s no way through here to the reservoir.” A race volunteer has heard about the teams’ route choice and came to find us. I’m filled with mixed emotions. I’m thankful that we won’t have to continue along the steep wall but confused about how WEDALI and three other lead teams all made the same time-consuming decision. Later in the day, we learn that race staff intended for us to take a pedestrian bridge to a park/campground where we would find a paved road to take us to the top of the reservoir. (Side note: I don’t know what happened but when the navigators from Tecnu [Kyle], Granite [Erik], Bushwhacker [Fredrik] and WEDALI [Biz] all take the same “misguided” route, I’d bet that the “correct” route was not as obvious as intended.)

When we arrive at the boat launch, teams are swarming in. Biz makes a beeline to the master map to copy down our paddling points. Non-navigators rush around selecting boats, securing middle seats and assembling paddles. The beach is chaotic but we manage a speedy transition and enter the water in good company with EMS, Bushwhacker, imONPoint and Tecnu. Teams ATP, Granite, iMOAT, Sog and a few others are ahead of us. Over the next few hours, my team doesn’t talk much. We focus, find our rhythm and work hard to keep our boat moving efficiently through the wind and chop. We break up the paddle legs with a few short portages across muddy peninsulas that formed because of low water conditions. The highlight of the paddle happens on our way back to the boat launch. After punching the last CP, we turn the boat around and head across the vast field of water straight into the chop, wind and rain. The rain stings my face and the cold rushes through my raincoat and signature, sexy shower cap. We spot the portage and are greeted by a clear and sunny blue sky and a wide and glittering rainbow on the other side. We launch into quoting the double-rainbow guy from YouTube providing some comic relief for our team as well as teams around us. “It’s a total complete double rainbow.” “What does it mean?” “It’s so vivid and bright.”

Back on shore, we ditch our boats and transition to bikes. Out of the TA, we are with Tecnu and imONPoint and slightly in front of EMS and Bushwhacker. Our next challenge is the “team time trial.” The team with the fastest time on this leg wins a special prize. Chomping at the bit, Tecnu quickly jumps ahead of us, and we begin a minute later alongside imONPoint. Looking closely at the map, Biz tells us not to kill ourselves because we are in for a long climb. He is right! The time trial consists of a FOUR-mile climb up a rocky two-track. We take over an hour to climb the 1600 feet. We bike a fair portion of the hill but resort to pushing our bikes when sections become too steep or rocky to stay on our bikes. We stick close to imONPoint and have fun joking around with them. “We’re totally drafting off you guys,” Biz exclaimed as all six of us push our bikes up and around a steep corner. “Let’s all get into aero and form a long draft line,” someone suggests as we shift into granny-granny trying to maintain 3mph up the rocky road.

I’m relieved when we finally reach the top. I know we haven’t set any records or won the leg, but it’s over and we made it. We continue biking for another mile on grassy trails to the next TA/CP10, a warming hut at Sugarloaf. Biz hustles to plot points for our next orienteering section. Erl and I deal with food, trash and miscellaneous gear. Robyn Benincasa is at the TA handing out jokes and pep talks.

We head out on the o-section with Tecnu and decide to trek to the top of Sugarloaf first. On the way up, I see one team member, Mari, surveying a trail map while another, Kyle, focuses on the topo map. I ask Mari where she got the trail map and she says that they were handed out while they were plotting at the hut. WEDALI never received a trail map – and I wonder if this slip will hose us. Mari shares the map with Biz, who seems unfazed, so I take a breath and focus on getting my butt to the top of the Sugarloaf. The o-section is fun and beautiful. The trees are just past their peak colors and the sun paints soft pastels across the sky as it sets.

We run the open trails and refuel on Coke and cold pizza hiking up the big climbs. Biz nails the controls and Erl keeps us moving with quick in & outs at each flag. We cross paths with ATP, iMOAT, Sog and Tecnu but are alone for most of this section until the last CP. The last flag sits in a huge reentrant lined with wet, slippery, shifty rocks. We pull out our headlamps and peck our way down, searching for handholds and stable footing. I slip, smashing my left shin into a pointed rock. Tears well up in my eyes and I manage a whimper. I breathe and think about the strong AR women who keep me going when I’m about to lose it (Ellen, Andrea, Rachel, Mari, Jen, Robyn and many more – thank you!). Like ants on a discarded apple core, I see the cluster of headlights buzzing around what must be the flag. Biz catches my eye and points back up the reentrant. On all fours, we crawl for most of the 600 feet back to the top, stopping for quick breathers and to help Erik from Team Granite who has slipped on a greasy rock and hit his head. This dude is tough as nails. Luckily he is only dazed and walks away with a one-inch cut over his eye.

When we pop out onto the gravel road, I thank the stars that everyone made it without injury. We run to the TA and concentrate on changing our shoes and getting back on our bikes for the long ride back to Hidden Valley, where we started over twelve hours ago. Biz grabs a couple of meals-ready-to-eat (MREs) of bacon and cheese sandwiches provided by the race organizers. He offers one to Erl and me but we refuse, sticking to our standby selections, Ritz cheese and crackers, Uncrustables, and Trail Mix MoJo Bars. Race staff informs us that Sog and ATP are ahead and we leave the TA within seconds of iMOAT, Tecnu and Granite. Tecnu and iMOAT pass us early in the leg and we eventually catch ATP and Sog.

Biz and Erl take turns towing me up the big grinders. Despite the interference of night-biking monsters named Rut, Darkness and Gravel, we try to limit use of our breaks on the huge descents, maximizing our momentum. We stop once with Granite and Sog to pull water from a roadside creek, and once again 30 minutes later to add Gatorade powder to our iodine-treated water. We gulp the metallic fruit punch, which actually tastes good since we’ve been out of liquids for a long time. When we reach CP1, a familiar five-way intersection, the race director Doug greets us from his cozy seat in his American Adventure Sports truck. We stop and Biz contemplates our options to take us back to the HQ. Talking out loud, he weighs the benefits of taking some single-track to a road or a longer two-track trail. Doug interrupts: “You’re almost back, and either way will get you there, but you’re just wasting time sitting here.”

Message received! We push the pace and arrive at HQ to discover that we are in second place. We’re stoked! We know a long trek is ahead of us but we relish long night orienteering sections. During races, long night o-sections are usually where we make up time or establish our lead. Biz works on maps and Erl and I deal with gear, ditching trash and paddles, swapping batteries, rearranging food and filling bladders in the warm chalet bathrooms. For some reason, we transition slowly. Thankfully ATP bursts into the chalet, motivating us to get our booties on the o-course. By the time we leave, Tecnu is 42 minutes ahead of us, ATP is 10 minutes behind us and we don’t know what happened to iMOAT, Granite or Sog – all fast teams in contention for the top spot.

The o-course consists of nine controls, of which CP1-CP8 can be obtained in any order; teams must visit CP9 last. We trek up the ski slope to a community of townhomes where the first CP is located. Set in an urban location, this CP should be easy but when we find the feature, a small pond, we can’t spot the flag. We run around the entire pond searching on trees and benches for a mini-control flag. Finally, Biz’s headlamp pings the orange and white flag in the middle of the pond. Just as Erl is about to dive into the pond and swim to the flag, we realize that the control is at the end of a narrow land bridge jetting into the middle of the pond. Erl runs around the pond and punches. Our first CP has not gone as planned but now it’s time to head into the woods where we thrive.

Over the next four hours, we trek along rocky trails bagging controls, running whenever we can and fast-hiking across the creeks and up the inclines. We stick mostly to trails, bushwhacking shortcuts when the brambles allow. We see only Team Sog, who has decided to run the controls in the opposite order as us. After our eighth control, we trek back to the main dirt road where the five-way intersection is located. Our spirits are up, our legs still willing to run and none of us struggle with sleep monsters. Making our way to CP9, we see teams biking to HQ and teams early in the trek . . . but no Tecnu. Where are they? They could be an hour in front of us or a minute behind us. Unlike a triathlon, during an adventure race, you rarely know your position in relation to other teams. Solid AR teams, including WEDALI, frequently blow huge leads by misinterpreting the map, missing a bend in the trail, or selecting the less ideal route when presented with seemingly equal options. On the other hand, in the blackness of night, teams frequently overtake each other without even crossing paths. This is why you can never concede and never stop pushing during an adventure race.

We dive into the woods and ascend the last big hill to CP9. Reaching the top, we asked the volunteers manning the final CP how many teams have been through this point. “One team ran through here but they didn’t punch.” “So WE are the first team to punch?” “Yep. You’re the first team to punch.” We shoot each other knowing glances, communicating the cacophony of emotions running through our heads. Without a word, we duck back into the woods and bound down the hill, madly swatting branches and spider webs out of our way. Almost to the bottom, we spot a set of three lights heading up the hill. Again, without saying much, we all know that those lights likely belong to Kyle, Sean and Mari of Team Tecnu. They biked the previous leg 30 minutes faster than us and could undoubtedly beat us in a head-to-head footrace if it came to that. The trek to the finish was only a mile and consisted of routes that we took earlier in the race, so we knew we had to push it to stay ahead of the ghost chasing us.

Running down the wet, grassy trail, we let our feet fly but pay careful attention to each step. We cannot afford a sprained ankle right now. When we hit the hill behind the townhomes, Erl and Biz each take a hand as they did during the first minutes of the race and the three of us make our way through the woods and over the road to the familiar ski slope. We float down the hill and soar under the USARA banner. Looking around, we’re not sure what to do. Someone tells us to run inside. Someone tells us to punch the finish. I think we do both but the next few minutes are a blur. I remember hearing the volunteer who checked our punch card say, “Looks good.” And hearing Biz let out a joyous, “YES! We did it!” I remember Biz’s wet jersey smashed on my check as the three of us grabbed each other hugging and crying. I cover my face with my hands, thinking, “I can’t believe it – this is not real.” I collapse on the ground overcome with fatigue and disbelief. Eyes closed I hear, “Here they come,” and a minute later Tecnu crosses under the banner. Six minutes separate our times. Six minutes over the course of 23 hours is nothing. I know they are disappointed but they are gracious and supportive competitors ready to toast a glass tonight and rematch tomorrow.

After more than 100 adventure races together and seven trips to USARA Nationals, WEDALI pulls it off. We raced our own race, staying true to our long-held philosophy of “smart and steady.” Take time to prepare and refuel when needed. Push when we can. Keep faith in each other. Never give up.

Our friends and family in Minnesota and around the Midwest have been incredible. We are humbled by your calls, emails and Facebook posts. Thank you for all your support and encouragement over the years. Thank you for pushing the pace on training rides, joining us in the middle of winter for night snow runs and teaching us how to read a map and use a compass. We share this victory with you and want you to know that you are a huge part of the dream-come-true that we call WEDALI.

-Molly Moilanen