This year, to keep things exciting, I decided that it was time to step outside of my familiar ultra running community and introduce myself to some of the other branches of the world of endurance sports. I wasn’t exactly sure at first what my options were, so I spent quite a bit of time online looking for various challenging, long-duration races. Eventually, I stumbled across adventure racing, something I had never heard of before, and decided that would be my first foray into new territory. To make things even more interesting, I signed up for a winter adventure race, The Frigid Infliction, hosted by the Green Mountain Adventure Racing Association.
I learned that an adventure race is an orienteering race involving a variety of disciplines. This particular race was originally planned to feature navigation with topographical map and compass, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, “post-holing” (on foot without snowshoes), and a ropes course element. However, thanks to El Nino, the skiing element had to be cancelled at the last minute due to insufficient snow cover. :/ The other key thing about an adventure race is the surprise factor. As a racer, you don’t know anything about the course ahead of time. The only information you get pre-race is a list of required gear.
A friend of mine, Michelle, was easily persuaded to be my teammate, and we enjoyed being the most inexperienced newbies to ever race an adventure race. Because neither of us had ever even used a compass before, we decided to hit up the free navigation clinic on the evening before the race. We learned a lot of valuable tips and tricks for orienteering as well as the basics of using a topographical map and compass.
On the morning of the race we met for a pre-race briefing at 4:30 a.m. Then, we were given some time to assemble our gear before the course maps were handed out. We got a USGS topographical map of the Bolton Valley area, as well as a map of the Bolton Valley ski trails and an instruction sheet listing the various checkpoints, how we were to travel to them (on snowshoes, on foot, ect.) and in what order.
The topographical map with checkpoints marked in red
We were given about 10 minutes to study our maps, plan our route and get ready to go. The first leg of the race was a “choose-your-own-adventure”, with 5 checkpoints that were assigned different point values. We had to locate enough of these checkpoints to collect a total of 10 points and then return to the start/TA1 (Transition Area 1). Michelle and I had NO idea what we were doing, but there was one checkpoint worth 10 points, and it seemed logical to us that it would easier to find one checkpoint than 3 or 4 of the lower value ones, so we set our sights on checkpoint #1.
Getting ready to head out!
The race start was a little anticlimactic compared to your typical running race. Some people took right off, but many hung back, still planning their route or putting their snowshoes on. I barely noticed the start at all because I had just discovered that my snowshoes were not in working order. At all. It took several frustrating minutes and a bit of ingenuity with a knife and a spare hair elastic, but we finally got them to a functional state and were able to head out.
The snowshoe fiasco :/
We had learned in our navigation clinic that sometimes it’s helpful to follow streams or rivers to a checkpoint instead of trying to cut a path through the woods. The checkpoint that we were looking for was located near a stream, so we thought we would just follow that stream up the mountain and be all set. We found the stream right away, but both sides were closed in with thick undergrowth, so we were forced to walk on the ice in order to follow it. This was fine and dandy until I broke through the ice and got soaked up to my knee with icy water. Did I mention it was only 5 degrees that morning? :/ We retreated to a nearby ski trail and got out our maps to figure out plan B. It looked like we could get most of the way there by following the ski trails (note to self: trails always trump streams), and then we’d just have to search around in the woods nearby to find the checkpoint.
The sun was just starting to come up as we approached the area of the checkpoint in question, but the benefit of daylight did little to help our cause. We saw many other teams wondering through the woods all over the place up there, but no one seemed to be finding anything. We thought maybe we had gone too far, so we circled back to a spot we had passed earlier. Through pure luck, we happened upon another team that had just found the checkpoint, and they pointed us in the right direction. It was way up a cliff and almost impossible to get to. I think it’s safe to say we never would have found it without help!
By the time we made it back to the start 2 hours had elapsed already, and we still had 15 checkpoints to go! We were relieved to find out that we were in about the middle of the pack, so our complete and utter cluelessness hadn’t hurt us too much yet.
We set out again for our second leg, still on snowshoes, to collect a series of 6 checkpoints in any order and then proceed to TA2. We were told in our instructions that these checkpoints were all located within site of the trail, so we didn’t have to do any bushwhacking this time. Thankfully, this set went very smoothly and quickly–the checkpoints were close together, they were easy to get to, and we had a good group of other teams around us who were eager to share information back and forth.
At the TA we were finally able to take our snowshoes off, though we still had to carry them on our backs for the post-hole leg.
At TA2 and VERY happy to be sans snowshoes!
We loved the third leg,which was an easy hike alongside a river with 4 checkpoints all in a row. Because we were off the ski trails now, it was easy to just follow the tracks of the people ahead of us and not have to constantly check our compass and maps, so we made good time.
After that we made our way to TA3 where we suited up for the Tyrolean Traverse and were treated to grilled bacon!
Michelle starting across
The traverse was a long rope strung across a ravine, which we hooked onto to pull ourselves across. It was pretty easy for the first half because we were going slightly downhill, but once we got to the middle, it was a long, hard struggle to pull ourselves up the other side.
I’m happy to be done with that!
It was way harder than I thought it would be, and my abs were sore for almost a week! As the volunteers helped us get out of our climbing gear we were told that we were the first female team of 2 to come through so far, and that if we didn’t “screw things up” we’d win one of their “pretty awesome” prizes.
This was both encouraging and discouraging–we had two snowshoe legs to go, 6 more checkpoints total, and all of them were spread much further apart than the early ones had been. We knew that there would be plenty of opportunities to “screw things up”.
Our hike to the next checkpoint seemed fairly straightforward. It was a bushwhack through the woods, and we were able to follow a packed snowshoe path from the people ahead of us. Then, as we neared the vicinity of the checkpoint, the packed path turned into many rabbit trails meandering all over the place. We knew this was a sign that people had trouble finding the checkpoint, and that we couldn’t trust any of the paths at this point to lead us in the right direction. We were debating about what we should do when we heard people below us on the hillside, so we decided to head towards them to see if they could help us. As we were making our way down, we just happened across the checkpoint completely by chance. Beginner’s luck saves the day again! We found the next two checkpoints easily, and then we just had to check in at TA4 before heading out for our last leg.
A cool tree we saw along the way
From TA4 we had 3 checkpoints left, all located on the “high peaks”, which would involve climbing about 1,500 feet before making our final descent to the start/finish. At this point we were back on the ski trails, and we were also fairly familiar with the territory now, so figuring out a route to these checkpoints wasn’t as difficult. We just followed the ski trails up as far as they would go, then followed the snowshoe tracks from there. It was a long, steep climb, but the view at the top was well worth it!
Michelle punches our card at the checkpoint in the background while another team plans their route to the next checkpoint.
The parking lot at the base of the ski trails is our final destination. Still a LOOOOONG way to go!
The last checkpoint was hard to find because it was WAY off the trail, and once again, the only reason we found it was because we were right behind another team when they spotted it. We knew we were getting really close to the cut-off time by this point, so after punching our card, we ran all the way down the mountain hoping to make it back in time.
We finished at 3:11, just past the cut-off, which meant that we lost one point from our total checkpoint value. We didn’t know this at the time (clueless!), but for every 15 minutes after the cut-off, you lose one point, so the final standings don’t depend on your time, or even whether you found every checkpoint, but how many points you have total.
Luckily, we were the only 2-person female team to “clear the field” (find every checkpoint), so we still had the most points in our division when all was said and done–not bad for a couple of girls who just learned how to use their compasses the night before! The race personnel and other participants made a big deal over how well we had done for first-timers, but really it was basically a combination of luck, people helping us, and being able to follow tracks in the snow. Still, it made us feel really good to win!
After showering at the nordic center, we enjoyed a delicious post-race dinner and had fun talking to some of the people that we shared the trails with during the day.
And then awards were presented, and we received a hiking pack full of all sorts of random goodies like socks and hats and buffs. It definitely lived up to the “pretty awesome” rating we had heard earlier.
In all we traveled 17.5 miles up and down mountains in just over 10 hours, with all but a mile of it in snowshoes. And we loved every bit of it! The race was challenging on both a physical and an intellectual level, and I loved the strategy aspect of the race.