Wednesday, November 3, 2010

2010 Checkpoint Tracker Nationals

By: Robin Rongey with Edits by Chuck Vohsen



I have no idea how to start this race report, the Checkpoint Tracker National Championships was probably the most demanding race I have ever attempted. When talking to people since the race, I have been asked, was it harder than the Ironman. This is a really hard question to answer. The Ironman was physically demanding because you just go as hard as you can the entire time, the later miles are definitely mentally tough because your body just wants to give up. CPT was physically hard due more to needing shear strength for all the climbing, in the canyons and mountains, both on foot and bike. More than the physical aspect was the mental aspect of this race, wondering are we going the right direction, are we reading the landmarks correctly, am I going to fall off a cliff and die. For me the race was so hard because of the fear factor, I was out of my mind with fear for most of the race, I just kept thinking at any moment I was going to either fall off a cliff, into the canyon, or my bike was going to slide off the side of the mountain. Chuck wasn’t as fearful as I was and he worked really hard at reassuring me that I wasn’t going to die. So, let me tell you how our adventure started. We met at the park in ride lot in St Peters, loaded up the adventure van and were off for the long drive to Utah. Our plan was to drive straight through, stopping only when we had too. We stopped for lunch at McDonalds, while still in Missouri, then again for dinner in Kansas, and there is no place to stop in Kansas, we ate at Taco Johns and it was awful. Driving through Colorado was slow going due to snow and ice. We stopped at a rest area and realized it was one of the exchanges we were at during the Colorado relay in 2009. After leaving the rest area, Chuck was driving and we were pulled over by the Avon, Colorado sheriff. I said “Chuck were you speeding?” he said “I don’t think so”. The cop told us Chuck’s license plate light was out and then ran his license to make sure he had no warrants. He also asked where we were heading, since it was 2 am. When we told him, he got all excited and told us how slick rock got its name, that back when the wagon trains came though and it would rain, the rock would become so slick that the wagons wheels would slide off. Great if a wagon can’t make it through how was I going to do it on a bike. All was well, Chuck had no warrants so he sent us on our way and just as we pulled back onto the road a mountain lion raced across the road right in front of us. Now I had to worry about being eaten while I was out there. We finally made it to Utah and turned onto hwy 128 which took us right into Moab. On our way through the windy roads, we saw a bunch of deer and a giant bighorn sheep with the big spiral horns. We drove right past the Red Cliff Lodge which is where the race started and ended and into main street Moab. It was about 7 am. We stopped for gas then picked a place called the Pancake Haus to eat. We should have known that if they can’t spell House correctly, we probably don’t want to eat there. We went in, sat down, smelled curry, looked at the menu, then got up and walked out. So Denny’s it was, we ordered way too much food, then almost fell asleep in it. Since we couldn’t check into the hotel yet, we went to a bike shop, where Chuck bought a nice outdoor research hat because he forgot to bring his. Then we hit the Adventure store and finally went to the hotel, lucky for us, they let us check in early. We also met another racer from Houston checking in and chatted about the race, he seemed like a pro, which made us even more nervous. We routinely tried to call home, but getting cell service was a trick, we finally both got through to our families to let them know we made it ok. We hung out in our rooms for a few hours trying to catch a little sleep since we had just finished a 24 hr drive. Then went for pizza and then to race check-in where we picked up our packets, maps and passport. Every other adventure race we have done has always had a pre-race meeting to go over details and answer any racer questions. This race didn’t have the meeting so we cornered the race director to ask a few questions. He was a great help. The map was enormous, and scaled at 1:35,000. In some areas the contour lines were so jammed together and twisted they looked like a giant bowl of spaghetti. Chuck started getting worried. Then we had to get team pictures taken with the skeleton. Guess this would make it easier to identify bodies later on. The first gear drop was where we would come off of the riverboard and start the long kayak leg. We were told that the only gear we could leave at this drop was our paddles. Then at the bike drop we left all of our gear for the bike, climbing and first section of trekking. We have never raced before where you didn’t have your pack with you all the time, so it was going to be a trick to make sure we had all the right gear staged in the right drop points. The team passport showed 23 checkpoints but we were only given UTM’s for the two gear drops. So we then headed to the hotel to plot the few UTM’s we received at check-in, into points on the map. This was also something new, we have never raced where you only get a few points at the start, so we knew we would be doing most of our plotting on the course, which is always stressful and prone to errors. We were trying to decide what to do about food and water, because we would be out hours before we made it to our packs. Since we would be river boarding first we had no way to carry supplies. Chuck rigged a way to attach a water bottle to his board and we thought we would stick some Honey Stinger bars inside our wet suits. I had not prepared for the order of events, thinking we would be in the water in the afternoon, I did not bring any extra tri shorts, so I had to wear my only pair of tri shorts and dryfit shirt under my wetsuit. This would be a problem because I would want to take off all my wet clothes before the trek, which meant I would have to wear tights during the trek while my tri shorts dried. It worked out ok, since it didn’t get really hot during the day. It seems like no matter what part of the country we race in Evil Race Directors want to get you wet at the beginning of every race, assuring an uncomfortable day. Race morning came. It was cold at the start we grabbed our rented Zoik riverboards, put on our wetsuits and flippers and waited for the start. One thing we forgot to do, even though we talked about it was put Honey Stinger bars in our wetsuits, at least Chuck remembered the water bottle. The gun went off and we ran down to the dock and jumped in the river. The water was 50 degrees. We headed down the river with the pack of racers, I had an issue right away, my knee pad kept slipping down, I tried to pull it back on, but after being sucked into a hole and then spit back out, it was gone, I could see it floating down the river, but was working hard just to pull myself back on my board and couldn’t grab it. I yelled at Chuck who was in front of me to grab it, but he couldn’t get to it. Another racer did see it and pick it up and give it to Chuck. There were several ‘holes’ in the sections of fast water that sucked you under and spit you back up a few yards downstream. The first wave that went over Chuck’s head was soooooo cold he came up in shock and gasping for air. The POS crappy $79 wetsuit he bought had loosely sewn seams and let in way too much cold water, he was seriously shivering before we made it to the take out. Can you get hypothermia in 20 mins? We made it to the take out at the kayaks in about 20 minutes and drug ourselves up on shore and grabbed the kayak closest to the water, then I grabbed the paddles and we were off. We started hitting rapids pretty quickly and the water was raining down into our kayak. It is a good thing that there are drain holes in the kayaks or we would have been sunk in the first 20 minutes. After about an hour we were out of most of the rapids and on flat water. We were not too happy about this, it is much slower going when paddling flat water. We were getting passed by teams and just couldn’t figure out why we sucked so bad at paddling. We shared the bottle of water, but not having food, really killed us. We had started to bonk with at least another hour on the water. We even took a couple of paddle breaks of 1 minutes long to try and recover. We saw some teams eating food and I thought about diving in their kayaks and taking it from them, but I was so weak by then, I would have just fallen in the water and drowned. We finally saw the takeout and made it in. When we asked the race official if we were last, we were surprised there were still many teams behind us and the first team in, only beat us by an hour. After 5 hours in the water, we were so hungry that we stumbled to our gear and changed clothes, it took me 20 minutes to get my wetsuit off, no matter what I did, I couldn’t get it off because I was shaking so badly. Chuck was faster, he was changed, eating and plotting points on the new map before I even had my wetsuit off. He was so cold it was almost funny seeing him sitting there repeating the same set of UTM’s over and over to himself, trying to plot them on the map with shaky and shivering hands. Finally, I had dry clothes on and I kept thinking I smelled like urine, which was really possible because both of us had to pee in the wetsuits while on the water, no time to stop and try to take it off, but soon I realized that it was the campground bathroom we were near that smelled, it wasn’t us.

If any doctor reads this blog, we’d like to get a professional answer to this question: Why is it impossible to pee and paddle at the same time? We both had to pee so bad, but our bodies wouldn’t let us until we sat still. So you know what we were doing during those paddle breaks.

Chuck wasn’t very happy with this new map. It was a color copy of what looked like a google-earth satellite view with no contour lines to show elevation or terrain details. But it was all we had to go on. One thing I realized the entire race was the beauty all around me, it was amazing, I couldn’t help but just stare at the scenery. When we left transition starting the trek into the canyon it was the same, I couldn’t believe I was racing in a place as beautiful as this. We climbed into the canyon, after eating back at transition we started feeling much better, although our packs were so heavy it was no easy task. After climbing for a while we came to the mystery event, it was a climb up a rock face, there was a line of people waiting to go up, so we had time to put on our climbing gear and Chuck did a little more work on the maps. He transferred all the points off of the google-earth thing and put them onto the topo map. It was finally our turn, Chuck went first and I followed, when he cleared the first anchor, and yelled “Clear”, I started up, after the second anchor, I was stuck, there were no more foot holds and the rock was just a flat face, I was starting to panic, but the guy below me yelled up to me, “use the rope and your feet only” I was trying to use my knees to help me up. That bit of advice got me moving and I was quickly on top. We trekked over to a traverse across the face of the rocks, Chuck hooked on and went across quickly. His INOV-8 shoes were sticking like glue to these rocks. I followed and was much slower, I think I was making fearful sounds the entire traverse, wonder how I was ever going to get home alive. we had to shimmy down into a crevice and I just knew I couldn’t make it, but I did, we were off heading for another checkpoint. I’m not sure how Chuck could put up with my fear, but he seemed to take it in stride. We trekked with our climbing gear on because we didn’t want to take the time to pull it off then put it back on later, plus it didn’t seem as heavy on my legs as it was in my pack. We trekked through the desert like atmosphere and made it to the next checkpoint. Since the rope sections of the course had such long lines to wait in we had to make a decision on whether to skip checkpoints and take the penalties so we could make the cutoff times at the climbs or skip the climbs and take those penalties. Since we don’t get to climb much in the Midwest we decided to skip checkpoints and do all the climbs. It was probably a bad decision for our total time, because we would have gotten more checkpoints and fewer penalties by skipping the climbs. We wanted to make sure we had fun and did everything, so in the end we made the right decision. We trekked more and finally saw the traverse, Chuck has a way of picking up the pace when he sees someone in front of him, so he takes off when he sees a couple other teams heading the same direction, he is jumping off rocks that we have no business jumping off, he points out other lines so I don’t have to jump as far, we are almost to the ropes when I can’t keep up anymore and as I try to jump off a rock I hit my knee and elbow, then make a really wounded animal sound and wipe a few tears from my face and keep going. When I make it to the top of the canyon, I survey my injuries and decide that at least I have blood and bruises to show for it.



Now we are on top of the canyon wall waiting for our turn to go across the traverse. It sounds like we have an hour of waiting so we eat and drink. The longer I’m there the more scared I become, at one point I thought I was going to puke. A guy was out on the ropes halfway across and couldn’t pull himself any further, they had to do a rope rescue to pull him in. My thoughts were that is going to be me. We had pre-planned that Chuck would cross first and I would come after, but when we got to the ropes they didn’t like they way Chuck’s gear looked, there was a twist in his belay loop so he had to take it off and change it around, so I went first. I had planned on turning on my helmet cam for this, but was so nervous that I forgot. I made it as far as I could and my arms were so tired I would have to stop and put my arm over the line and rest. I could see the rock behind me and yelled to the guys working it, asking how far I had left, they said 20 feet and coaxed me in, telling me 10 feet and then two more pulls and I could put my feet down. I made it, I was shaking, but I made it. I got off the rope and went to the safest place I could find on the top of the rock to wait for Chuck. Chuck made it over much faster and we headed for the rappel, we got there just as they were closing down and were able to get our passport stamped, but they didn’t allow us to go down the ropes. We were now on our way out of the canyon and it was getting dark, we put on our head lamps and started trekking. A couple teams came by and the lights they had were so much better then ours. We knew then we needed more light, we stopped and changed batteries and that helped some.



After what seemed like hours, but it was much shorter, we came to a long corrugated pipe, which was a drain under the railroad tracks, we walked through it and popped up on the road just a hundred yards from the transition. We were greeted at the transition by volunteers and asked if we had seen more teams, apparently there were multiple teams lost in the canyon that had to be found by search and rescue the next morning. Now we had to get on our bikes for a ride to the other side of Moab. We made it to the bottom of what was to be a long climb, stopped where there was a street light to look at the map and while there was offered a ride to the top of the hill by some local dude in a pickup truck. We declined, and he said “You sure? It’s a long way up!” I really wanted that ride. We headed uphill for several miles and ended up at the Slick Rock transition point. There we found out we could bike or trek the next 8 points, we chose trekking. Chuck plotted the maps with no help from me, I couldn’t see the locations, I’m not sure if it was due to my eyes getting bad with old age, a low sugar bonk or just not enough light, but I was no help.  Chuck laid down on the ground and plotted the points using the great plotting tool that Brooks-Range had supplied to all race teams.  I managed to stop shaking long enough to get a picture of him planning the route with highlighters.  One of the tricks we've learned from other races.



We walked off into the pitch dark at about midnight and picked up CP 21

pretty quickly then went on to CP 20, but could not find it, we had to be right on top of it but the points were really well hidden in here. The terrain was what you call bouldering, we climbed boulder after boulder, mostly really large ones, at one point I had my body plastered to a boulder with my feet sliding out from under me and was about to cry because I just knew I was about to fall to my death. I’m not sure how I made it up that, it was all kind of a blur, but I think Chuck grabbed my arm and pulled me up. Chuck was getting tired and looked bonked too, I saw him stumbling along on one giant boulder and told him he looked drunk.  We ate a couple of Honey Stinger waffles and recovered enough to go on.  We continued to trek and our lights started going dim, we made a decision to skip points and go back to transition because if we lost our lights we would have been out there all night, and not made the next mandatory time cutoff.. The moon had finally come out, but was too small to help. So we only got 3 out of 8 points in the slick rock section. Back at transition we plotted a new point for CP 23 and were told that it was mandatory and also that it was all uphill to the checkpoint, It was on the top of the 8900 ft Lasalle Mtn but all downhill after that for a 14 mile ride right into the finish.

We rode uphill for miles, we had estimated that it was going to be 13 miles to CP 23, so the first time I looked at the mileage on the bike computer and saw we had only been riding for 6 miles, I was more than distraught, I was starting to feel like there is no way I can finish this. We kept riding and riding in the complete dark with nothing but our bike lights shining on the dirt road. We went for a long periods of time without seeing other teams, no houses, no powerlines. The only sign of civilization was this narrow dirt road that went up and up. The sun finally started coming up and every small rise in the road would trick us into thinking we had made it to the top, only we’d reach the rise, and see more climbing. We came across a muddy singletrack trail that when we planned the route last night looked like it would be the fastest way to the checkpoint, but once we saw it we decided to take a rock road instead. Our thought was that the rock road would be easier to ride even if it were a longer distance. Just as we made the decision a solo girl came up and told us to take the trail, we said we had other plans and she seemed almost mad because we didn’t agree with her, telling us it was further with more climbing. We followed our own instincts and took the road, soon she came up behind us and was taking the same route. It was more climbing and more distance and I had just about decided that I couldn’t go any further when we saw the hard road. I was thinking that we were almost to the checkpoint, but it was another 5 miles uphill on the road until we saw the checkpoint.

At CP 23 we crossed paths with teams that took the trail and they said it was so bad they had to walk almost all of it, Chuck’s decision for us to take the road was the right one. All total, we had just ridden 22 miles of uphill, most of it in the total dark. Our Niterider lights saved us on this leg. We now had 1 hour and 50 minutes to get to the finish to make the 28 hour cutoff. We were now at the top of the mountain and had 14 miles of paved road going downhill. We took off and were flying down, we were hot and sweat covered, all our clothes were soaked from all the climbing, but didn’t think about how cold it really was up there, so going down it got cold fast. We rode passed several snow banks then came around a switchback and hit ice on the road, again my life flashed before my eyes. One side of the road was the mountain, the other side was a drop-off into the canyon. I could just see me crashing on the ice and dying right there. So the only choice I had was to use no brakes, little steering as possible and not pedal, just work to keep the bike upright. I made it through with a sigh of relief only to roll around the next switchback and hit another patch of ice. By this time I was so cold that my entire body was shaking, my teeth were chattering and my bike was wobbling. Chuck who has a death wish was screaming down the hill in front of me saying “weeeeeeeee”.  Ok so it's not really a death-wish, he is just so confident on the new Trek Superfly 100 that it just looks like that.  He's only had if for about two months now but he says it feels like an old friend and Trek really got it right when they designed and built this bike, or maybe it was the way The Cyclery in Edwardsville set it up.   My Trek Top Fuel was actually doing great, I could have never made it up those climbs on my old mountain bike, it just amazes me how great my Top Fuel is.

Chuck noticed I had fallen behind and slowed down. I pulled up beside him he saw me shaking and said lets stop and put on jackets, but I didn’t want to stop, I just wanted to see that finish line before the cutoff. Here is the thing, if you don’t make it in before the cutoff, you get a DNF, I was not about to have driven all the way to Utah, and put my life on the line, I don’t know how many times and get a DNF, so we just kept riding. Soon we made it to the finish line with 48 minutes to spare. I almost fell off my bike. We got our pictures taken at the finish then got food, and it was the best burger I have ever eaten in my life. I’m not sure if it really was that good, or if I was just so hungry I thought it was, but it didn’t matter. We loaded up the van with our gear, not even taking time to look at the results because we just figured we didn’t do very well because we skipped a lot of checkpoints. We headed to the hotel, as soon as we got a cell service we called home and found out that we were in 3rd place at that time based on the checkpoint tracker website. Now the website wasn’t that great because there was no cell service and no way for them to do live updates, so the updates were few and far between. We found out that so many of our family and friends had posted notes to us, which was so great to read and really made us feel good. We still figured the site was probably wrong, but decided to go to the awards party anyway, just to see. The party was great it was a Halloween theme with many people dressed up. I got a picture with a few of the racers
and even with the race organizer, Yak. The results were passed out and we found out that we were in 4th place for the 2 person co-ed division in 27 hours and 12 minutes, which was fantastic! We would have preferred 3rd place because we would have gotten prizes, but I’m not complaining, we could have been one of those teams being pulled out after spending the night in desert canyons by SAR. So bright and early Sunday morning we headed home and I mean earlier then planned. We planned to leave at 6:30 am, but Chuck was banging on my door at 5:30, he had called the front desk for a 6:00 wake-up call, but for some reason they called at 5:00, so since I was up, we left before 6:00. Now let me tell you this, I may have been fearful of losing my life during the race and after the race you would think that was over, but it wasn’t. Chuck is a terrible driver and he likes to see just how close he can get to the back of a semi truck before he uses his brakes, I think it might be like a game to him, but just to make sure I was safe I said a few prayers during the ride home. Chuck Edit: Stop it! I’m a good driver! Drafting trucks is fuel efficient! We did make good time, even with all the snow and ice in Colorado, it only took 22 hours.  Sitting in a car not moving around for that much time can really put a hurt on your legs after a long race like that.  Good thing we remembered to pack our Recovery Socks:


The final question: NO I won’t do this again, I am not prepared to race in the canyons, the mental stress was more than I ever want to endure again. As for Chuck, he has already said he will, so all you girls reading this, it’s time to put in your bid to be his partner for the next race in Moab.

One last note, this was a great event, expertly put on with the best rope volunteers I have ever known. Thanks to the Checkpoint Tracker and the race organizers for putting on such a great event.

1 comment:

  1. Great report I'm glad you lived to tell the tale.

    ReplyDelete