Saturday, April 12, 2014. Paul Morris, Dave Wall, and myself tackled The Breakdown 15 Hour Adventure Race. We arrived on the VA/Kentucky border the afternoon before (Friday) to check out some of the surrounding trails and take in what the “Grand Canyon of the East” had to offer. It is no doubt, gorgeous.
Breaks Interstate National Park is a beautiful park and ideal for hosting an adventure race. Cabins, rooms, cottages, campgrounds, dining facility for post race dinner, conference hall for pre-race meeting, trails, views, this place had it all.
We got our maps, plotted our points, and studied our potential routes. We caught wind that the course may not be clearable at our level, so we started to brainstorm some strategic points to drop if needed. I’m glad we put so much thought into this part because these decisions ended up being some of the best ones we made all day.
6 AM. We plotted a point for the prologue and made our way down there with the masses. The field was still pretty crowded as we all crashed through sleeping rhododendron bushes that were none to pleased to be trampled. The bushes fought back with a vengeance; worse than the mountain laurel!
The field spread out as we went for CP2. Here, we made a poor route choice. We started attacking high, but changed our minds. Instead of following the switchbacks of the trail we were on, we just cascaded straight down. The rocks were covered in moss and I said to Dave behind me, “these rocks are slippery!” Right as I said that, my feet shot out from under me and I landed on my ass. It wasn’t a far fall, the steep grade caught me early, but I came down really hard on my elbow, forearm, and pinkie/hand. It felt like lightning bolts were stabbing me all up and down my arm, like all the nerves were going crazy. I could barely bend my fingers and couldn’t feel my hand. Dave and Paul were up ahead so I brushed it off, thinking the intense funny bone feeling would go away.
While on the road, I told my teammates what happened and that I would keep them posted on how my hand was doing. My elbow and forearm were fine, but my fingers were still feeling funny. Paul looked at my quickly swelling fingers and told me my ring was going to need to come off. He ripped it off my fingers while I fought back tears. He looked me in the eye and said, “You might have some broken fingers. Can we make it to the first TA and reassess from there?” Yea. I can do that.
The next hour was tough. We traversed down to this massive gorge and attempted to follow the river to the planned crossing at CP4 on some inflatable kayaks. We got cliffed-out and had to wade into waist deep water on slippery rocks and against a strong current. Finally, we had to climb inch-by-inch up to the road. Morale was low at this point. Some ground bees stung Dave and we could basically see the river crossing, but had to go way up and then way down again to get there.
We made it to the first TA and I decided that I could grip my handlebars and was okay to ride even though my hand was still messed up. We rode approximately 50 feet and then pushed our bikes up this crazy steep rocking root-y trail. I thought it was bad, but the worst hike-a-bike was yet to come. The next TA came quick and we were on foot again. We hit the next few CP’s spot on thanks to Dave’s primary navigation and Paul’s intermittent input.
All of a sudden, it got really hot. We all felt unprepared for the heat and quickly slathered sunscreen and glugged water. We dropped our first CP, #6, which was smart because afterward we heard that it was a crazy climb up to get there. We needed to save our energy for climbs ahead.
We got back to our bikes and rode, but 1.5k later we were pushing the bikes up rough terrain for what seemed like eternity. I was close to mentally falling apart at this point. Paul started towing me while we were pushing, which I didn’t think was possible, but it made a world of difference. I have never felt so close to puking in an adventure race before, but I refused to tell Paul and Dave how much I was suffering. They seemed like they were flying up the mountain as if their bikes made of carbon or something. I decided not to tell them that I was ready to heave up my Allen Lim portables, as if that would somehow make it a reality. Instead, I just kept my mouth shut and somehow we got to the top without my stomach exploding. At this point, we made another strategic decision to only go for CP11 and drop CP10 given the rough terrain and brutally steep climb up to CP11 on the ridge. For this, I was grateful. I just wanted to get to the leg named “bomb downhill” to the paddle.
After punching CP11, another team arrived, noticed our jerseys and asked if we worked at Spokes, Etc. or were sponsored by the bike shop. Turns out a racer on that team was from Annandale, VA and loves Spokes, Etc. and I couldn’t help but wonder about this small world moment atop a mountain in Kentucky. Then it was time to go and we did bomb downhill off the other side of the ridgeline more than 1,000 feet and arrived at Flanagan Reservoir in a flash.
The paddle was awesome. The breeze was up, the water felt great, and we flew to each point like there was a motor on our kayak. We got to the trek section midway through the paddle and heard from some other racers that the terrain was abysmal and just getting CP17 took them way longer than they expected. This took the wind out of our sails. Right then we made a critical decision to bail on the second foot O-course section altogether and head back towards home to bag some points closer to the finish that were too easy to pass up.
Heading home raised our spirits and we realized that we still had to move with urgency since we were racing the clock and knew it was going to be tight and every CP bagged could make the difference. We jammed through the 20k bike of rollers and hit the 3 CP’s around the Garden Hole and Waterfall as the sun was setting. Rolling into the park around dark, we had exactly 1 hour and 4 CP’s to hit.
I was starting to fall apart, having run out of food and kicking my camelback. Dave towed me up what were tiny hills compared to what we had climbed earlier, but these minor bumps in the park felt just as hard. Both Paul and Dave kept me focused on the finish line even though my stability was waning. We didn’t get to hit all the points right around the finish line, but caution won the day and we managed to avoid that alluring siren’s song begging you to sweep the final section. Better to finish with a 10 minutes to spare and 3 out of 4 CP’s in the final MTB leg (of which only three (3) other teams accomplished) than risk missing the time cutoff and have 15 hours of work go down the drain. I used up everything in my tank getting back to the finish, determined to end strong, and we did it! Turns out, we placed 4th in the Coed Division and 6th overall, earning us an invitation to USARA National Championships! Woohoo!!
The ever-friendly Race Directors, Dallas and Shawn announced at the pre-race meeting that 2015 USARA Nationals will be in this same Breaks Interstate Park area along the VA/KY border (specifically Pine Mountain State Resort Park – Pineville, Kentucky – October 1-3, 2015) – so I’ll definitely be back! This was definitely the hardest race I have done, but with great teammates and staggering scenery, I can’t complain.
Quick note: hand bruising and swelling took a turn for the worse post-race on Sunday, but eventually got an X-Ray to confirm no broken bones! Big relief. I owe a huge thanks to Paul and Dave for racing alongside me and all our sponsors for their continued support of TeamHalfwayThere. The Breakdown AR was lots of fun and well worth the suffering!