In the mid 1980’s my mother came to me with a newspaper article about an upcoming meet of a rather peculiar sport. It was the first time for a national event to be hosted in the St. Louis area. “Hey, I’ll bet that you two would like this” she said to my brother and I. The article featured people running through the woods in rather peculiar clothing, while carrying a map in their hand. I tended to pay attention to my mother on such things as she had a knack for knowing what we might like. She didn’t send me to very many things as a child, minuscule by today’s standards, but when she did, she usually hit the mark. This particular event was called Orienteering. It is a navigation race through the woods. The best people do it with great speed; track, injected with more thinking and strategy.
It was indeed a hit. Not only was the sport fun, but it also had a rather like minded community. After a few years, my navigation skills got reasonably good but my fitness was not. This combination can make the sport a little more boring and thus, I quit for a while. Luckily, by the mid nineties, I got into running and biking more seriously and found that orienteering had become great fun again.
In the year 2000, one of my orienteering buddies suggested that we compete in a rather new sport called adventure racing. He had done one before in Brittish Columbia in a televised event put on by Mark Burnett of “Survivor” fame. This new sport combined the skills of wilderness running, mountain biking, paddling, navigation, navigation and more navigation. Too many people discounted the last three. It is a team event of three or four people per team. Luckily, in my opinion, it was required to be coed, something that not only brought women into the sport, but it also introduced a measure of balance. We proudly named our team “The Orienteers”. Ken, Yvonne and I traveled together for several years until changing life situations started to mix things up.
Early on there was some frustration with adventure racing, enough to wonder if I wanted to do any more. Then, a couple of things changed for the better. One, adventure racing became more professional as a sport, more standardized, got some bugs worked out. More importantly, I learned to enjoy the training and the doing of the sport, and thus, took some of the importance off of the end result. Early on, as with many things in life, proving yourself in a test is a major push. Later on, the art of doing your craft is.
The many years produced countless race adventures, so many of them good in their own right. Sometimes, quantity is the death of a good story. When you do something once, it’s a story. When you live in a certain way, it’s just your life. It starts to get hard to keep track of what goes with what.
Even though we were focused on completing the course as quickly as possible, we did manage to show great appreciation for many things through the years. “Oh wow, look at that!” someone would blurt out as we saw a big orange moon lifting off the horizon late at night as we crested a mountain ridge. We would reach a remote little waterfall that most don’t get to see, see a bald eagle snatching a fish out of a lake with its talons as it swooped down next to us, all while we were paddling a raft made of pool noodles and twine. We would endure being freezing cold but manage to deal with it. My most powerful memories tend to be connected to night time. I don’t think that I enjoyed the night time racing more than daytime, actually much less so at that time, but the added focus, both mental focus forced by increased navigation difficulty, and visual focus forced by only seeing only what’s right in front of you. These two things help etch events into your brain. Perhaps this could be a rather complicated metaphor for all of life.
Another metaphor might have to do with moderation, or perhaps it should be ‘be careful what you wish for’. Too much of anything leaves one nostalgic for the other, wishing for ‘the good old days’. After trudging through the woods for more than 20 hours, we came to a campground late at night. As we were moving through as quickly as we could, with our big, bright headlamps, we went by people sitting around a campfire, quietly talking. I thought to myself ‘wow that looks nice! I sure wish I was doing that right now.’ Of course I enjoyed the things I did, but too much of anything can be hard. Now I sit around a campfire and think to myself ‘wow I wish I was moving through the woods right now, exploring the world in the dark’.
Our ‘career’ was especially exciting and memorable early on, when an occasional moment of brilliance would allow us to tangle with the “big dogs”, the teams that were respected around the country. And then, a major win! We were thrilled! It was a party. And then another. Many years later, we started to dominate the central Midwest region. We became the big dogs in the area, which created a new problem. After a good number of years of success, we started to feel that it was expected of us. If you win, well that’s normal. If you lose, there is this feeling that everyone, us included, will be saying “what happened to ‘Team Alpine Shop?’, I guess they’re starting to lose it”. This sucked a little bit of the fun out of it, but only a little. Coming up in the world is exciting. The thought of going down can be disconcerting. But why so much? This has always been something that I have fought against, perhaps because of a father that qualified for the Olympics in bicycle racing but didn’t bike much after that. Perhaps it was seeing friends get pretty near the top, only to quit when rankings failed to continue their upward trajectory, or perhaps it was none of these and it was that I simply enjoyed what I was doing. Given the community that had gathered, I think that it was mostly this last one.
I desperately did not want to turn this wonderful hobby into a job. I have seen many people throughout the decades who have reached for the top and then gotten burnt out, only to not do it anymore. I was enjoying what we had far too much to want to let this happen. Therefore, though we trained hard, I had an upper limit. That being, the most I could do while still enjoying it, or without dreading it.
To this end, we kept it loose, very loose. Jeff, Carrie and I knew that we were going to do some major training event together at least a couple of times per week, but we never knew what it would be. We just called each other the night before and brainstormed about the next days activity. Enjoyment was key. We would paddle up some local river, park the canoes on the bank, run a long, wooded trail and then paddle back down. Or sometimes, we would pull the canoes behind our bikes on little trailers. These little mini adventures would keep us wanting to come back for more, which, unless it’s your job, and you have a coach, is the key to success.
What we had: A sense of team, a core group that were willing to bend and mold as needed to best fit with each other to achieve the common goal. It is important to have an accurate view of our own personal abilities, and more importantly, limitations, coupled with respect for the abilities of our fellow team mates. Also, honest and accurate communication amongst ourselves about how each of us were holding up personally, so that we could adjust the help each of us needed or was able to lend. There are indeed ways to give and receive this help and it behooves a smart team to do it. Since my role as the navigator was mentally time consuming, I tried to let my teammates handle most everything else. They took good care of me, watched out for me. I’ve seen other teams where people feel that they are best and can handle it all.
A mirror image of this is having respect for your competition. Of course we wanted to beat them, but a healthy dose of respect and humility, along with friendships makes a poor outcome much more tolerable
Be careful of win fever. I had it once, and that was a problem. We were coming off a rare win at the national championship race in Knoxville. So rare, in fact, that it was the only one. With perhaps a little headiness, I wanted a repeat. Of course we were all on board with that, but for that one race, I let my desire to win interfere with our wonderful team dynamics. Did that win fever contribute to making winning more likely? Who knows, probably not.
Adventure racing being a microcosm of life. Certain things work. Some idealistic ideas just don’t pan out like you think they would have. Often, respect for the basics creates the good performance that you would like. The antithesis of that of course being that sometimes an innovative approach works. Experience helps you sort out which is required at the time.
One lessen transferable to life is not to always keep your options open. Options can be distracting, hold you back from succeeding in your task at hand. To really go for something, you must simplify and close some doors. This is a lesson that I learned way too late in life.
Little tips: Don’t run ahead of your navigator, especially in the woods. Navigator, don’t hold the punch card and don’t try to control much of anything outside of navigating, lean on them.
Other Race Related Stories:
Click to access 16-kw-orrl-cw8-david-race-report.pdf
And an old race report written by Eric Buckley for those who like to read even more about it:
2004 Adventure Racing Nationals
Written by Eric Buckley
David Frei, Yvonne Deyo, and I traveled to French Lick Indiana for the US Adventure Racing National Championships on November 5. Although we later qualified on our own merits at Raid The Rock, we are competing as the Gateway Adventure Team, taking the slot that David earned while racing with Jason Coleman and the Sonas at Berryman.
The trip gets off to an auspicious start when I get tied up at work Thursday afternoon forcing David and Yvonne to head off without me. I arrive later that evening, missing the race meeting. Fortunately, they were able to check in all my gear, so no harm done. We spend the night in the opulent French Lick Spa which is also the race headquarters, start, finish, and primary transition area.
The next morning, we wake at 4AM to setup our transition area. We can’t help but feel a little small as we lay out a lame blanket on the grass amidst the tents and canopies of the big sponsored teams. Fortunately, there is no rain in the forecast, so the disadvantage is only psychological. At 5AM we are given the race maps, instructions, and checkpoint coordinates. We spend the next two hours plotting points and deciding what gear to bring on each leg.
Just before 7AM we assemble with the 47 other teams in front of the hotel for the start. Standing in the frigid air in a crowd of competitors, each of us holding a 7-foot carbon fiber paddle by our side, one feels like part of the Gallic horde at Alesia preparing the assault on Ceasar’s ramparts as day breaks. We obviously hope for better success, or at least fewer casualties. At just after 7, the horn sounds and we all squeeze through the start gate and begin our run to the boats.
I’m carrying Yvonne’s paddle as well as my own because she’s being towed by David. Since she has both hands free, we have Yvonne carrying the punch card. This works for about 200 meters at which point she drops it (in her defense, Yvonne always uses a punch card case, so she’s not used to carrying one free). I turn around to get the card while Yvonne and David stop short and clothesline the team behind us with the tow. By the time we’ve sorted it out we’re in last place. At least we can look forward to improving our position.
I take over punch card duties and by the end of the 2-mile run, we’ve moved back into the top half of the field. The checkpoint at the end of the run is inside the ostentatious New Baden Hotel. This massive structure was the largest free-standing dome in the world until the Houston Astros decided playing baseball indoors was a good idea. The scale is so overwhelming that running inside it is somewhat disorienting. Adding to the surrealism is the fact that when we get to the center of the dome to punch, we appear to be standing in some sort of bicycle museum. It’s all pretty weird.
We grab a boat and put into the river where we will spend the next few hours. After just a few minutes of paddling, we hit a submerged branch and roll the boat. If you’ve never been dumped into near freezing water, don’t feel too bad, there are better things to do with your time. The banks are too steep to climb out, so we scramble up onto a log to right the canoe. We’re back on our way without loosing too much time, but we’ve lost a dozen positions and, as we soon find out, that has some serious consequences downstream.
Along the river are six logjams. None are big enough to be particularly dangerous, but they do form choke points where only one or two teams can get through at a time. At the first, we patiently wait in line for our turn to hop onto the logs and then drag the boat over. At the second and third, we try portaging around, but don’t really get through any faster (getting the canoe up and down the steep banks is a slow and difficult process.) At the fourth, David devises a new tactic that works quite well. Yvonne and I hop out and take the packs. With the boat lightened, David is able to paddle right up onto the logjam and pull the boat over (passing the teams waiting in line along the bank). Yvonne and I run along the bank and get back in further downstream. This method is a bit less effective at the fifth jam because the bank is so steep that getting back in is difficult. The sixth jam is quite large so the organizers have mandated a portage. By this point the teams are spread out enough that we don’t lose any time waiting.
The ambient temperature rises throughout the paddle, but the steep banks trap the colder air over the water. Most of the time we are in the shade, so our clothes remain wet. By the takeout we are all fighting hypothermia. Fortunately, the next leg is a run, and that is always the quickest way to warm up. Still, the time spent packing up the paddles and PFD’s (which the race organizers will bring to the next paddle section) is misery as I can’t stop shaking.
We start the run in around 30th place. The navigation is pretty easy, but even at nationals, any navigation slows down the back half of the field. I don’t know why adventure racers don’t take navigation training more seriously. Of course, they probably wonder why we don’t take paddling more seriously.
We have two maps for this section. With both David and I both navigating we blow through the run at full speed (well, full speed for a race of this distance) with no errors. At several checkpoints we see teams coming back the other way, having overrun the control. The run ends with a fairly long slog down a rock-strewn reentrant. This is where having all three members good at the same thing really pays off. We zoom past a bunch of teams who are delayed by one or more members not skilled at uneven terrain. Even though the run is only an hour long, we get back to the French Lick Spa in the top 20.
At the transition, we shed any clothes that are still wet and change into our cycling shoes. It’s almost noon and the weather has taken a big turn for the better. Blue skies and warm autumn air buoy our moods as we set out on the bikes. On the roads, I ride lead and navigate with David pushing Yvonne on hills. On trails, David takes over the lead duties. The navigation is still easy and we get to the end of the 90-minute leg in 15th place, having made no mistakes.
We’re now faced with the second paddling leg. After the disastrous trip down the river, we are determined to redeem ourselves. This time, we are on a large lake that requires some non-trivial navigation. I’m in the front of the boat as usual, so I get the maps. Much of the lake is filled with rotting trees. While it’s easy to paddle around the ones still standing, the stumps below the surface are harder to spot. There are several tense moments when we feel a solid bump on the bottom of the boat and wonder if we are going for another swim. The paddle takes 2 hours and, although we don’t pass any teams, we consolidate our position and finish up feeling pretty good about our effort.
Sunset is still a few hours off, but the temperature is dropping again. As we put our packs back on and remount our bikes I am once again shivering badly. Yvonne and David are both concerned, but I assure them that I’ll be OK once we get moving. The climb up away from the lake helps and after about half an hour I’m feeling fine again.
About this time we turn off roads onto trails. Unlike the trails we rode on the way to the lake (which were steep in places but generally fast), these trails are muddy and technical in spots. We have no trouble riding them, but the going is slow and by the end we are all running out of food. The sun sets just before we get back on roads. David’s disappointed that the trail network was so simple. True, there weren’t too many places to go wrong, but a few teams sure blew it. By the end of the trails we’re up to eleventh even though we rode conservatively.
David has to ride lead now because I don’t have a light on my helmet to read the map by. Yvonne is drafting off David and I’m sitting on the back of the train. After a few miles I find myself drifting off Yvonne’s wheel. Hmmm, that’s weird, focus. I push a bit and get back on. Then it happens again. And again, but this time I can’t get back on. I call up ahead and they slow down a bit. I stay with them for a while, but the next time the road tips upward, I’m off again. I can’t believe it. I’m bonking. On the bike. On the road. This isn’t supposed to happen. My sole purpose on this team is to punch big holes in the air for David and Yvonne to slip through. My only salvation is that we only have another 20 minutes to get back to French Lick.
Other than a serious blow to the ego, my collapse has not had much affect on our standing. We’re still in eleventh and are told that fifth place is less than half an hour in front of us. I’m usually the one snapping at the others to hustle in the transition, but this time I tell them that we’re going to have to hang out for a bit while I get my blood sugar back up. After 20 minutes, 7 ounces of Hammer Gel, 2 Ensures, and some Fig Newtons, we’re back on the road.
David still does the bulk of the work on the front riding out to the orienteering section. We pass one other team (finally in the top 10!) and by the time we get to the end of the riding, I’m feeling OK.
The orienteering section is laid out as a Farsta. This format is named for a Swedish town where it was supposedly invented (the Norwegians have a competing claim). The Scandinavians can squabble about the origins while the rest of the world simply enjoys it as a great way to run a race. Basically, you do two (or more) laps of a course. The course has forks and whichever fork you take on the first lap, you go the other way on the second. Therefore, everybody covers the same legs, but in a different order depending on which fork you get on which lap. It gives all the excitement of mass start racing, without letting people blindly follow around the course.
This format is particularly good for us since we hope to pass some teams and don’t want them latching onto us as we go by. David carries the maps and I take the punch card (which also tells us which forks to take). Although we have a few small bobbles, we move well and make no big mistakes on the first lap. As I’m about to punch the final control, I look at the number on the card: 8g. Hmmm, I could have sworn we were going to 8h (the other fork). I ask David,
“Which control are we at?”
“We should be at 8g.”
“You said 8h.”
“I know, but we should be at 8g.”
“That’s really bad.”
“Like the exact wrong way bad.”
I go over to look at the map. Sure enough, of all the forks to screw up, this one is clearly the worst. We will have to go almost all the way back to 7 and then do the leg to 8g. At this point I would excuse any reaction from uncontrollable sobbing to homicidal rage, but my teammates offer neither. Instead, we turn around and head back the way we came. Nobody talks for a long time.
The error costs us about 15 minutes, which, in the context of 4 hours of technical night orienteering, is not that terrible, especially considering that we are still the fastest team through the section by a good margin. It does hurt just a bit to spoil some really clean night navigation on David’s part with such a dumb mistake. If it bothered him, he didn’t let on and by the middle of the second loop he’s got bigger problems: he can’t keep anything down. Near the end of the loop I offer to take the map so he can empty his stomach in peace. Not much comes up, but with nothing going down it’s only a matter of time before he’s toast.
The orienteering section moves us all the way up to third, but the fourth place team is only a few minutes behind us. They come into the transition while we are still sorting out our gear for the trip back and get back out ahead of us. The final leg is called a triad. We can take one bike and one (non-motorized) scooter. We have to stay together, but we can swap equipment as much as we want. Our original plan was to have David and I trading the bike while Yvonne rode the scooter. Now we decide that David had better be on the scooter most of the way and we’ll just go as fast as we can with Yvonne towing me from the bike. It works pretty well and David does hand me the scooter for a few short rests. We get close enough to the team ahead that we start thinking it just might be possible to nip them at the line. They clearly have more in the tank, though, and lay down a brutal pace for a few miles that we simply can’t match. With two miles to go they are a minute up the road. We look over our shoulders and, seeing no one, jog it in for a fourth place finish.
It’s 2:07AM. While we’re happy to be done, we are confronted with an unexpected dilemma. We assumed the race would be considerably longer so we didn’t rent a room for the night. Now we are cold, dirty, and tired and can’t do much about it. To the rescue comes Matt Luetje who offers us the Race St. Louis Team room for the remainder of the night. He even carries our bags up to the room. There are some small favors that will never be forgotten and this is one of them.
It’s tempting in such cases to torture oneself with what-if scenarios. What if we’d seen the branch and kept the boat upright? Being a few places further up the field would have saved us some serious time at the logjams. What if we’d accounted for the fact that the cold had us burning fuel faster than usual? David and I might have avoided the bonk (a rare condition for either of us.) What if I hadn’t misread the punch card on the Farsta? That would have been 15 minutes for free. But the truth is that all teams have problems. Last year’s champs couldn’t even finish after dumping their boat and running into severe hypothermia. Getting past the obstacles is what matters. In that respect, we did pretty well and we never turned on each other. So I’d say fourth in this field is probably right about where we deserved to be and have managed to sleep through the subsequent nights without dreaming up a thousand ways to save five minutes and get third. Certainly, getting 40 minutes for second would have been quite a stretch and no combination of factors would have had us in at 12:05 when the winning team, Hooked on the Outdoors, was finishing.
The course was a bit lean, both technically and in distance, for a championship event. The organizers had originally planned for a caving section, which would have been cool, but still wouldn’t have put the winning time anywhere near 24 hours. However, the race organization was nearly flawless, and the course layout was well thought out. On the whole it was a very satisfying weekend and a great reminder of how much I enjoy racing with David and Yvonne.
Great article. Thanks for taking the time to write it.
I always learn from your blogs, David. From this one, I understand adventure racing and orienteering a little better. Also, I learned that your dad qualified for the Olympics in bicycling! I hope you write about that some day.
I’m glad you found a sport so suited to your skills as well as the things you enjoy.
I enjoy all of your posts, but I particularly loved this one.
Great summary of an awesome sport and even greater life perspective. Well done.