The first thing I did after turning off the 5:30 alarm was to check weather.com and groan: 10 degrees. All week long I’d been obsessing over forecasts of highs in the low 20′s with a rising sense of dread, but the day before the race this had been replaced by a sick excitement that we were going to be racing in weather that most people — that I — considered ridiculously cold.
Fuuuuuuddddggggge (but I didn’t say “fudge”…
Because I’ve had the chance to both run and ride in temperatures below 20 already this year I felt fairly confident in clothing choices and in how I’d feel on the trekking and biking legs. I was very nervous, however, about the paddling leg, not because of clothing choice but because I had volunteered the last time CW was cold and several teams had tipped their canoes in the frigid water. If you’ve raced with me you know that paddling is always my least favorite discipline, and the cold was the ice-ing (see what I did there?) on my anti-paddle cake. Still, if I avoided things that scare me I’d probably never leave the house (or start our gas grill), so there was never any question that I was racing.
Team Virtus is never known for timeliness, but rolling into race HQ at ten minutes before start time was a new low even for us (at least in my experience). I typically avoid any type of responsibility (other than chief morale officer), but somehow I had sort of volunteered to handle passport duties. That pretty much meant I spent the entire race getting out the passport, putting away the passport, or worrying about having lost the passport…all things which could have been remedied if we’d used Orange Lederhosen’s passport-holding system (basically, attaching the passport to a badge holder on your shoulder strap. That way, it’s always right there and easily accessible), but in our last-minute arrival I’d done a lousy job of getting the passport attached and didn’t have time to fix it. We barely had time to drop our bikes and say a couple of hellos before the race started.
Bob’s navigation was flawless as he led us up and across snow-covered hills for the first four CPs.
While he made the nav look easy, walking was interesting. The steep hillsides had a thick cover of snow-topped leaves, making traction difficult and hiking downhill a lesson in gravity, momentum, and the benefits of lots of trees to grab.
I was perfectly comfortable on the trek, but my camelbak hose froze before we reached the second CP. I’d tried to blow the water back into the bladder after drinking but obviously failed. With nothing to drink I was glad that the first trekking leg was short and I’d (hopefully!) be able to drink from my bike bottles soon.
We had four initial trekking CPs and then punched our fifth at the TA (which was also race HQ). There was a big fire going, so I was able to thaw out my Camelbak hose while changing shoes. I also took advantage of the indoor bathroom while we were at the HQ. Our friends Greg, Sean, and Dave were all volunteering, and we saw them while at the TA. It’s always nice to see familiar faces while you’re racing, and we still had Luke and Becca to look forward to since they were already at their volunteer station.
Transitions are always a weak spot for us, and this was no exception. We were pretty slow getting changed, but finally we were all switched over to our bike shoes. I added a fleece balaclava and lobster gloves to my ensemble. We considered whether or not to bring our trail shoes, but all of the CPs were either via bike or canoe, so we decided to leave them behind.
This race is proof that it’s nearly impossible to make me happy. In the weeks before, I was worried because I was afraid we’d have to mountain bike in Greensfelder Park, site of a very unhappy bike leg in the 2011 race. After we got the maps and found out we wouldn’t be riding in Greensfelder, I was worried because we were going to be riding a lot on potentially icy roads that lacked the wind protection of the trails. Happy or not, we set off across the snowy parking lot and onto the road.
For all of my initial fears, the roads were actually in great condition. Seeing the Forby Rd. hill ahead of us, I shifted down into my smallest ring only to have my bike start making weird noises. Sighing, I shifted back into the middle ring and resigned myself to walking a big chunk of the hill. Instead, I surprised myself and rode the whole thing.
Bob led us straight to all of our bike CPs with no problems; as nervous as I’d been about riding on the roads, I was wishing for them once we were onto the paved trails around Route 66 State Park. Unlike the roads, these hadn’t been treated. We never fell (here), but I rode in a constant state of worry that my bike would slip on the ice. All too soon we were riding up to the canoe put-in.
I’d been dreading the paddling leg ever since the temperature stopped dropping, but we were happy to see Luke and Becca stationed here. Jim and Adam grabbed their canoe while Bob and I carried another as far down the ramp as we could. Bob had two points to plot for CPs in the river. While he did that, I put on my waterproof jacket and waterproof pants, and Jim and Adam loaded all of the bikes into the two canoes.
Even though Bob and I had carried our canoe most of the way from the parking lot to the boat ramp, we still had about 30 (?) feet to go to the river. I don’t have a lot of upper body strength, so I was dreading having to lift the canoe with the bikes inside of it. Just as I bent over to grab my end, Jim and Adam came over and helped Bob carry it instead. Yes, the race photographer did get a picture of that, but eternal shame is a small price to pay for not having to do the heavy lifting…plus, I don’t think it counts as playing the girl card if you don’t actually ask for help, right?
The beginning of the paddle was a little sketchy as another team ended up sideways in front of us underneath a bridge. I was convinced we were going to broadside them and tip, but we made it past without incident. The river was nice and smooth, and the wind was at our back for most of the ~5 mile paddle.
As much as I hadn’t wanted to get into the canoes in our weather, it was a really cool experience to paddle past snow-covered river banks. Some of the water near the banks was icing over, and it was so cold that the water droplets on my pants were freezing there. The nose of the canoe and the shaft of my paddle were completely coated in ice. Despite all this, I was surprisingly comfortable…with one exception.
Not wanting to get my new gloves wet, I had switched to a different pair of gloves. By the time we reached the first river CP, my fingers were so cold that I couldn’t unzip my jacket pocket. It probably took me 5+ minutes to get out the passport, punch it, put it away, and ditch the second set of gloves for my nice warm lobster gloves. Almost immediately, my hands were comfortable again, and the rest of the paddle was great. We even managed to catch up to and pass several other teams by the time we reached the canoe take-out, which was being manned by some of my Team Revolution friends.
The canoe take-out was also a gear check. We had to show them a few listed items (lighter, emergency blanket, spare tube, and some required team gear) in order to get the punch for that CP. Once that was done, we carried our canoes up to the parking lot (I did my part this time), pushed our bikes up, and got ready for our next bike leg.
The first three CPs were located along the Castlewood flats, which made for some fun, stress-free riding along the snow-covered trails. Once we’d found our CPs, we rode to the Cedar Bluff trail, the only real singletrack of the day. Having ridden (and struggled) there this summer with Chuck, Jacob, and Dave, I knew there were some hills that would give me a hard time and some rocky sections I’d have to walk.
Our course notes instructed us to ride the trial in a counterclockwise direction looking for three unmapped CPs along the trail. We ran into several teams riding the trail in the wrong direction, and we also came across Keith and Daryl, two of my tri club friends. It’s always nice to get a hug out on the trail.
We took a short break around the midpoint of the trail after pushing our bikes up a long hill. Once we got going again, the trail was mostly downhill (wonderful) but getting sloppy and traversing the most difficult/technical section. Once we got to the rocks I couldn’t ride this summer in dry conditions, I hopped off my bike and started pushing. There were a few spots I could have ridden a little bit, but I’d have lost more time climbing on and off my bike. I ended up only about 30 seconds behind the guys.
Once we were off the Cedar Bluff trail, I felt a huge sense of relief. We’d survived the paddle, and the most difficult of the biking was behind us. All we had left was flattish singletrack and some road riding back to race HQ. Yes, we anticipated another trekking loop there, but trekking doesn’t make me as nervous as paddling or mountain biking. Leaving this section, I for once knew exactly where to go because this had been my volunteer station last year when I met my friend Dave. It was very fun to be able to contribute to the team, even if, as Adam remarked, it took me 6 hours into the race before I did.
Speaking of Dave…where was he? Knowing he was supposed to be at his station from around 10-2, I’d anticipated seeing him at the canoe take-out. Where else could he be? The question was answered as we rode up to a CP at the intersection of the Al Foster and Bluffview trails. There were Dave and his new partner, handing out maps for a “bonus” trekking leg, exactly like we’d done last year. That decision to leave our trail shoes behind wasn’t looking quite as brilliant any more, but there was nothing to do but head onto Bluffview in our bike shoes and find the three CPs.
We left our helmets with our bikes, another decision that looked questionable in retrospect. You wouldn’t think a little hike would be all that risky, but walking on the hard-packed, frozen snow in our bike shoes, all of us fell…most of us more than once. I love that trail, but it was progressively less fun with each fall, and we were delighted to get the heck off of it once we’d found our checkpoints.
There was one more trail CP, where the volunteer directed us across the highway and up Alt Road. I had very clear memories of this beast of a hill (there’s a ski area located at the top if that gives you any idea how fun it was to climb), but since I was able to ride the whole thing in 2011 I felt pretty confident in my ability to do so again this year. Of course, having no granny gear made it a little less pleasant, but I was happy to once again be able to make it to the top.
We had worked up a good sweat climbing the hill, which meant that we froze a little coming down the other side. The guys screamed down the other side of the hill while the guys flew down I spent a lot of time on the brakes. From there it was a short ride back to race HQ where Luke and Becca greeted us with cheers and smiles and Greg confirmed our suspicion that there would be a final trekking leg.
We headed inside to eat some delicious pizza while Bob plotted the 8 points left in the race. At this point it was around 3:00, and we had to be back at the finish by 4 in order to avoid a time penalty. This final leg was about a 4 mile loop, too far for us to cover in our remaining time, but there were two points within reach. Since quite a few teams had opted to skip this last leg, getting a point or two would move us ahead in the rankings.
We went straight to the first CP, which had actually been our first CP earlier in the day as well, and then Bob led us towards the next. He didn’t seem quite as confident on this one, and when we got “there”, there was no CP. We walked a little further…still nothing. Bob had been dead-on all day, so Adam suggested we check if it was plotted correctly. That was the problem…we had plotted it in the wrong section.
With all of the other CPs out of reach in the remaining time, we knew we had to head back to the finish line. I know Bob was disappointed not to get that last one, but it’s not like it was going to be the difference between us winning or not. It’s great to place as well as possible, but for all of us the real joy is in going out and spending the day racing and having fun together, and once again I’d say we were definitely on the “fun” podium.
We were hiking through the woods within sight of the finish line and discussing what a great day it had been. I mentioned how I’d had a great day despite us having to carry Jim all day (totally not true) and was going on to elaborate how much he struggled on the trekking and the singletrack (he can ride circles around me) when I tripped on a snow-covered branch and fell flat on my back. “That’s the fastest I’ve ever seen karma work!” Jim laughed.
If it was karma, I guess I’m glad it took me out before I finished picking on Jim…otherwise it might have broken my leg if I kept it up. I must have some pretty strong karma working on my side, though, to have lined me up with such a great group of teammates and a fantastic day. As worried as I was about…well, pretty much everything, I wouldn’t have missed this experience for anything. Sometimes epic days result from big struggles to push through and plenty of things that are pretty miserable at the time. This year’s Castlewood 8-Hour was the best combination of fun and epicnicity all wrapped up with a frosty bow. I’m so glad I was there.
And that I didn’t lose any fingers or toes.