Thursday, August 16, 2012

"You wanted to play the game, can't cry when the game plays you." This is my story of racing in the 2012 Gold Rush Motherlode

Last years video of the GRML (me on a trekking decent)

Team Sole / GRML 2012
Nathalie Long, Aaron Boatman, Karen Lundgren, Paul Romero

Just getting off a 72 hour shift from Fire and I'm driving to meet the team 170 miles away in Boulder City, jumping on the Team Jordan Rig and then driving the rest of the 600 miles, together, into Bear Valley, CA (the host city of the event, located in the Sierra Nevada's). NOW Van
Really excited about racing with two of my newest friends and motivational coaches Paul Romero and Karen Lundgren who have just returned from the North American Outfitters EXPO.  I feel a little history about Paul and Karen (AKA PK) is required for you to understand what I got myself in to.  PK have spent most of there lives in competition and exploration around the world.  Both have summited the tallest peak on every continent and made professional careers out of endurance racing.  Ever heard of the 13 year old boy who conquered Everest... Yeah thats their son, Jordan Romero.  So in short these people are the real deal they are not your weekend warriors they are true professional athletes.  It's an amazing opportunity and thrill to be chosen to race along side them.  Our 4th teammate is Nathalie Long from Quebec, Canada, at this time I really don't know much about her except she is an incredible paddler and is just returning from an 12 hour flight from Australia where she just competed in an 18 Hour long Kayak race and placed 3rd.  Just to state the obvious this is the first time this team has ever met in person or raced together.

Driving up we got acquainted, Paul made some friends at McCarran Airport and we all did some zumba dancing in Tonopah among other things.  We arrived about 11PM and quickly setup camp in a parking lot and grabbed some zzzzzzz before the pre-race check-in the following day.  Morning came early and another crappy sleep for me.  As the day progressed we prepped a ton of gear, patched up some broken stuff, fixed Nathalie's bike that customs beat the crap out of, made a plan of attack for the race, tested out a few things and did all of our pre race check-in requirements.  

Nathalie and I testing our boat skills in the pool.
Rope Safety check
At dinner we grabbed all of our 7 - 36"x36" Nat Geo maps and plotted our initial course so we could pack accordingly for the upcoming Transitions.  The race panned out like this... 28mile paddle, 145 mile mountain bike, 103 trek, 7mi packraft orienteering section almost 300 miles broken up in to 5 sections.  Did a little last minute gear and map things and were in bed by 1230AM.

Day 1
Chaos at the start
Directions were simple... Get a kayak and paddle as fast as you can to each of the 5 CP's (Checkpoint) and oh yeah don't forget to hydrate its 104 degrees out today.  

So here I am paddling with Nathalie, in the top 4, trying to get in to a good rhythm and stay with PK who have probably only logged about 2,500 hours in a kayak together.  Nathalie and I bickered at each other for about the first 2 hours of the race until it was decided neither of us wanted to fight and when we actually worked together it was obvious to me we were the fastest boat on the water.  By CP3 the lead team, Team Columbia, had made an incredible mistake and lost their passport (which in this sport is your punchcard that proves you reached each CP).  This was sad for them and bitter sweet for us as we now moved up into 3rd place.  For a piece of paper to determine a teams performance is ridiculous.  Did they not hear in pre-race meeting that if you loose your passport to punch the map?  The language barrier was definitely not in there favor as they were a Spanish team from Spain.  

As we paddled on it became evident the heat was a huge factor.  My stupidity left me without my normal PFD with built in hydration so a quick access water source wasn't available and my pack was in my drybag in the front of the boat.  I drank every bit of the 2 bottles, I brought, over the 5 1/2 hours it took us to complete the 28mi paddle.  I could see other teams gulping water as they paddled and I was worried how this would play out on me later.  Nathalie shared a bar or two with me so I felt I would be ok.  

I can't fully explain the nerves and intensity that comes along with racing an adventure race.  Racing solo its up to you, racing on a team I, personally, feel added stress to do more and become a "team player."  For this race I was trying so hard to be on point.  I was trying to go above and beyond and push for my team and I sacrificed my own hydration / nutrition and it was about to bite me in the ass.  

Almost to TA1, Kayak finish
As we hit TA1 and transitioned from paddle to Trek I was excited we were in the front with two of the biggest teams on the west coast Technu and Yogaslackers.  We heard a rumor Team Columbia recovered their passport and were right behind us.  Back in to race pace we crossed a river and started a huge, HOT, uphill slope that put everyone in the hurt box.  Race pace is a term I use when you are moving as fast as fucking possible, seriously if you can run, then run, no excuses in race pace.   

Back to the front of the pack it was 1,2,3 neck and neck.  Within an hour or two a member of the Yogaslackers was throwing up and a member of Technu was getting heat exhaustion.  Little by little our uphill strategy of quick burst and then 2 minute recover sessions, paid off and we were in first place pulling away.  Salt Stick Electrolytes, Hammer Nutrition Vitamins, omegas, fish oils, SFH protein, FRS, NOW bars were being consumed on a level that rivaled a cake eating contest.  I felt my body tell me numerous times your hot stop, your hot stop!!  Here I am, the guy from Arizona, who lives in the hottest part of the United States is getting heat exhaustion.  It's real I'm fading fast.  Extremely embarrassed to tell my team, my mentors and my friends of my situation and I'm struggling to hold pace.  Leaving the feelings of excitement I now find myself questioning my own abilities and if I can keep racing at this pace.  I suck up my pride and share my news and within the first 24 hours of the race my teammates are carrying my pack and offering me water.  Swallowing my pride we continue to move forward as a team.  Up and down hills through brush, ponds, river canyons, poison oak, miners camps, over rocks so slippery golf shoes wouldn't help, we moved at a race pace.   

Nathalie had a broken light in the canyon and how the hell she got through those bastard 10 miles with such crappy light is beyond me.   

Day 2 
Imagine this terrain at night.
At about midnight we transferred into day two.  One down 4 to go.  While in the canyon our team came across two different groups of yellow jackets which stung PK and myself.  As I receipted a reference to Dane Cook about punching a bee in the face the laughter didn't take the pain away.  Little bastards hurt.  I took about 10 stingers in all my encounters

I soon realized unless you were dead the race goes on suffer in silence and lets go "Team Columbia is right behind us..."  So we continued to move forward slamming our shins, ankles, knees, hips, hands, elbows and feet for another 6 hours as we endured through Trek 1's canyon river section.  

The rest of the night was kind of a blur, I know I was there but cant recall all my activities and often asked my team what CP we were on as I guess I forgot one somewhere along the way.  At about 5Am Team Columbia who were... "moving like gazelles through the canyon" caught up to us.  It gave us hope for a minute to stay with them but our team was struggling and we got separated too quickly and lost them in the final 2 miles of the canyon.  They worked the way a team should, never more than 4 feet apart, helping everyone along, synergy, it was obvious they were not amateurs and they were here to win.  

We made a risky team decision and bush whacked up a 1500 ft slope with hopes of a ridge clearing and better terrain on top.  By this time just the thought of leaving the canyon was great at any expense.  Well we got what we asked for, oh yeah this is also where we encountered yellow jacket hive #2.  The ridge had a super long almost impenetrable brush, but 2 hours later we were on a fire road and hopes were high as we hit TA2 now in 3rd place.  
Arriving at TA2
I was over joyed to finally get on my bike and make some head way in this race.  TA2 was hot, made a quick mechanical fix on Karens Seatpost, hit the much needed Technu (poison oak remover) shower and everything else went smooth.  Body was feeling 8/10 as we hopped on the bikes.   The bike section started just before noon towards the peak heat of the day.  We quickly snapped two CP's and were headed for a Campground (CG) Watersource where we would slow down our pace until sunset.  We sat and hydrated up at a CG bathroom while Paul changed his 3rd flat.  Drank a ton of cold water and sat in a self made puddle until I had goosebumps, very relaxing body was feeling great.  
Nathalie on Bike 1 after TA2
From CG we made it to a huge descent down to the Tulamoe (??) River which felt like HOT blow dryers in our face but was worth every droplet of sweat as the river temp was well in the low 60's.  We decided it was time to grab some shut eye.  We had been racing for almost 36 hours at race pace without sleep, which in this heat is pushing the limit, but we were doing it and I trusted the Captains direction.  We found some shade and called out a 2 1/2 hour nap session.  Super excited I passed out hard for about an hour and then woke up covered in ants, they seemed to like my puddle of water that I was attempting to sleep in, dammit.  I went back up to be by the team where I tried to close my eyes in a couple different spots but just couldn't get comfortable in the 100 plus degree temps.  Still got in some relax time but not sleep which was needed.  

The alarm went off and I was already up.  I filled some bottles for the team and we were off on to a big fire road ascent.  We had gotten passed by 2 teams during our rest, but they looked like they were still in the hurt box with the hot weather.  Back on the bikes we passed the two teams back within an hour and were off on our own again making smart decisions and moving at race pace for Team Columbia.  The night went on and on and on and on and on.  Fire road after fire road, up and down and up and up.  We never saw lights of Team Columbia which was kind of discouraging.  I was having a hard time towards the end keeping up and wasn't communicating much with the team as I was starting to bonk pretty hard about 3AM.  Initially, I was hanging back to stay with Nathalie then all of a sudden I was in the back and couldn't recover my muscles to keep up the pace of the team.  Nathalie sprouted some legs from, I don't know where and was at the front of every climb we faced.  A few arguments came from the separation gap between the faster riders and myself.  It may have been induced by being tired, hungry, thirsty or the lack of communication...whatever, I didn't enjoy being the weakest link on the team and expected more help where as my team expected me to be faster.  I understand both sides.  I sold myself as a much better athlete than showed up on race day and I also understand on a team you take the good with the bad.  Getting kicked while your down mentally and physically makes you question your teammates loyalty to you and is extremely frustrating but that is a little of the PK style, nothing soft and gentle about it suck it up and pedal princess.  For my personality the para-military approach works most of the time and although at times it feels like a cattle-prod I pedaled on as hard as I could.  I said all of about 10 words over the next 5 hours.  

Thoughts in my head were simple.  I was no longer on a team where just mere standard performance was acceptable.  I was not on a team that stopped for 3 hours of sleep every 20 hours.  I was on a team that raced for one thing only, to win.  Where I had always made jokes saying I'd like to know what its like to be the weakest link on the team these past couple days have humbled me to that quote.  So I pedaled on and took it one crank revolution at a time.  

Map error on the bike leg.  For each section we would only grab the maps that we needed.  As we reached CP16 we realized we did not have the next map which would lead us to TA3.  Oppsie...  Luckily CP16 was on a distinctive single track where tire tracks were obvious.  With a little tire knowledge we were able to make out 3 obvious tire brands and the team followed the Maxxis Crossmark, Panaracer Fire and Specialized Fasttrak for the next some 8 miles on dirt and asphalt to the TA.  It's pretty awesome to think back to this part of the race, it was almost like stars where aligning for our team to keep pushing the pace.
Arriving at TA3
Arriving at TA3
As we reached TA3 I was wrecked.  My head was messed up.  I could barely talk as I was so frustrated and fatigued.  I told Paul I needed to have a team discussion.  We asked everyone to leave our site and we chatted for a bit.  I said I feel like crap, I can't pull my weight and I feel like I'm slowing the entire team down and I don't belong here.  Words can't describe what its like for me personally to feel when I let someone down, I pride my self on helping others and this race I've needed help to move forward more than not.  I told them something is wrong and I feel like a bobble head doll.  What was the cause?
Histamine flush from 10 yellow jacket stingers, lack of sleep, lack of good food, lack of water, heavy pack, lack of confidence, lack of fitness, nerves from trying to impress my friends... right now it felt like it was all of the above.  The conversation made my team more aware of the weak link but really didn't change how I felt physically.  I packed up my stuff, walked around in circles all over the place and then it was time to get back to racing so we did.  

Due to the excessive heat and so many teams being short coursed the course directors removed some CP's from the course.  At this time only Team Columbia, Team Sole/GRML and Team Technu were on the full course.  My goal was to keep pace and jog when I could.  Paul was off running ahead like a bird dog on a mission and I just didn't have it in me and would tach out trying to stay up.  Super frustrated the entire team stops and again I have everyone's attention.  I'm not joking here guys I'm fucked up, I need help.  
The Gazelles
I gave Paul my pack and I start walking down the trail towards the CP.  The team divides all my gear and we get back to racing.  Within an hour its Nathalie's turn to suffer and she starts getting cooked from the heat too.  PK initiate a new team strategy and I think it starts to sink in that the team can't maintain this pace.  As we push on a discussion takes place and it was decided PK needed to guide Nathalie and myself more closely with our nutrition, supplement and water intake.  School was officially in session.  I reply i'll do whatever it takes to move forward I just need some energy in the tank and a pace where I can recover.  Race pace was kicking my ass.  At this point I'm eating team food, drinking team water and about 2-3 hours in I'm feeling back to race normal which is 8/10.

Its amazing how responsive the body is, during a race we tweak and push ourselves to unusual limits that our body rarely sees.  The food or fuel is so important.  I listen when PK talk about certain types of food yielding certain types of energy for certain types of temperatures, conditions and activities but to be honest it doesn't stick, especially when I'm already in the hurt box.  Being told I'm heavy carbs when I should be fats or vice versa....  Lets dumb it down.  Eat this and hand it to me.  Sadly that was where I was at.
Paul going light for the next section
Headed down the huge granite slabs of the Stanislaus National Park toward Pinecrest Lake I was feeling great.  I'm back carrying all my own stuff feeling great jumping in and out of pools, motivating the team, and I remember parts of this area from last years GRML so I feel like I have my bearings.  

We made friends with some kids swimming in a pool and they showed us a short cut to the shoreline trail where we then made more friends with a homeowner who filled us up on crackers, chips and rootbeer before heading out to Pine Crest Peak where I led us up the hill to the CP.  

Day 3

Headed in to TA4 I was praying for some team sleep,  Up to this point in the race I had slept a total of 2 hours with naps and eye shuts (5min breaks).  We made great time in this section.  On our way to TA4 we found a fire road short cut not on the map and reached TA4 by 3AM where we got word Team Columbia was 6+ hours ahead of us.  Dam that team is on point and I guess our short cut was more evident than I thought.  We decided to sleep and I was so incredibly thankful.  Quickly packed up all our stuff for the next bike leg, took over a huge tarp grabbed what clothes and padding we could, ate some grub and the entire team slept hard.
Paul, Karen and Myself on the bike and moving fast
Woke up 3 hours later to Mark telling us we were the only team still in the TA.  I  quickly asked if Technu came through and the answer was no.  The other teams were short course racers so they weren't of immediate concern.  I was feeling mint.  I felt so great it was as if I just had 10 hours of rest.  Gathering some race intel, we had to be at TA5 by 2PM so we had a bit of work ahead of us.  The TA director came over and told us our SPOT wasn't tracking.  Quick battery change and we were off racing.  I felt like my old self, with a little push from Paul to get this team rolling I was on it, legs were fresh, attitude was great.  I was helping everyone move forward, encouraging and gathering water when I could to help out.  We got to the first CP on our bike leg and realized we left our Passport back at TA4.  Ah crap...  Ok what do we do?  We just did an hour long descent and are on a time crunch.  The decision was made to use the knowledge from the pre race meeting and punch the map.  We also obtained the written clue from each CP and raced on.  We reached TA5 in no time at all passing some of the other teams along the way.  We reached TA5 about 115PM and saw they were cooking brauts, beans, and grilled cheese sandwich's.  Oh lord thank you for this meal.  I asked the TA director for our passport back and was told Mark knows about it continue what you've been doing I don't have it.  We unpacked our bikes and got our gear ready and everyone got some food.  

We caloried up for about an hour before 
This picture is showing the fire looking
 backwards, we saw it head on
we felt the pressure from Technu who we knew didn't rest at TA4 and was hot on our tail.  Heading in to the Stanislaus River Canyon we were ready for 12+ hours of hell but without the Poison Oak.  We noticed a really beautiful river with a lot of CFS flowing towards us chiseling out the granite.  Cold water to drink felt great and kept us cool, which reminds me I should talk about the fact that throughout this race we only treated water on the first Trek leg and ever since that drank straight from the water sources.  

We caught up to a few teams on the route and kept pushing on at a race pace.  We made good ground until about 330PM when we all saw the fire.  The granite kept the fire at bay but at this time in the race we were sure most normal teams wouldn't go past it like we did.  Shirts over our faces and moving fast we pushed passed the fire while fixed wings dropped retardant, helicopters dropped water buckets, there was an awkward time when we tried to radio for direction without success.  I'm certain the pilots called us every name in the book but your either racing or losing.  We continued to push up the river bank and crossed a time or two to test our luck and dodge the brush that at times was too thick to walk through.  Some really funny stories of us crossing the river, and sadly no pictures came from it as the GoPro was dead.  I would say canyoneering in this section was probably one of the wildest things I've done in a race and it felt great.  We pushed Nathalie super hard and so far out of her comfort zone I'm surprised she talked to us afterwards, she did great.  

Once nightfall hit I realized my battery in my light was almost dead and forgot I gave my spare battery's to Nathalie back at Day 1 and didn't replace them.  It's the little things sometimes.  So i made forward progress but it was slow and annoying catching your feet on small rocks and off-camber slabs.  At a 5 min rest, Paul repaired his foot and borrowed my spare Swiftwick Socks, it became evident I over pack and carry way to much stuff but sometimes its useful.  

Day 4

Making my way in the dark trying to keep up by around 1AM I was extremely difficult but determined to move forward.  Nathalie got the blunt end of it as I was arguing with her about her powerful light that was dwarfing mine and casting a nasty shadow.  Just then Karen sparks up and says her light just took a shit too.  Now we are down to 2 working lights and 1 light (mine) that is comparable to a cellphone screen.  We make it on a trail at about 115AM and start blazing some serious speed and then all of a sudden we loose trail.  Some different comments were made but we never discussed the findings in full.  The river was much smaller and did we go south for awhile???  We search around for about an hour or so to see if we can retrace the trail before we made the decision to call it and grab some shut eye.  We never found the trail again so we started a quick fire, slept and froze on and off for the next 2 1/2 hours.  Woke up about 530AM to Nathalie saying we need to get up and she was right we did.  I felt great again after the sleep and could see which was awesome.  
Rope 200ft Rappel Section

We made our way following the river and found some trail cairns and signs of campers.  Some more bushwhacking and continuing to follow the river we came across a family of campers.  We chatted and ate some of their food, applesauce, broccoli, and cheese crackers...yummy.  Thinking we finally made it to the Stanislaus CG and CP31.  I asked if one of the campers would show me on the map where we were.  They pointed WAY, WAY, WAY southeast to the Reservoir.  The entire team had a look of despair as we realized we traveled way off course by about 10K.  Ah shit.  It was about
Paul diving in to the finish line pool
830AM when we got ourselves together and started our 10K run to CP31 down an asphalt road.  Having the experience of being on your feet for 4 days and then walking on asphalt sucks, it hurts, dont know why but it hurts bad, enough said.  So we ran for about 30min before we came across a race volunteer who was following our SPOT Tracker and looking for us.  He said all the teams except 1st place had shuttled past the canyon because of the fire so we might as well take the ride and oh BTW ropes closes at 10AM.  We accepted the ride and hustled up the mountain to the ropes courses where we did a 300ft ascend, traverse and 2 rappels.  

OK so we know we have to finish the race by 4PM its roughly 1PM.  Do we go for the finish line or attempt one more CP???  We decided as a team it was better to ensure an early finish and not risk a penalty.  In typical Boatman fashion I asked if I could navigate the last 10K section back to Bear Valley and the finish line.  Why not... I find a trail that used to be a trail that is no longer a trail and yes we are back bushwhacking, lol.  But staying on my compass heading we get dropped, perfectly out next the highway where we crossed and picked up a perfectly groomed singletrack that led us all the way to Bear Valley General Store.  Nathalie bought everyone an ice cream and we ran all the way back to finish line where our last CP was to grab an item off the bottom of a pool and then cross the finish line at about 315PM in 2nd place.
Team Sole/GRML 2nd Place
I learned so much from this experience about my teammates, myself, nutrition, body, setup, pace, attitude and my part as a team member.  My team raced 102 hours on less than 7 hours of sleep through record high temps in the races 5 year history.  I wouldn't trade the experience for anything.  There is no doubt in my mind that PK are some of the strongest competitors in the sport and it was priceless to grab on to their coat tails for a few days even if it cost them some time.  It was humbling to see how fast they move and there strategy to always be moving paid off as they kept us in a podium position the entire race.
I realize I get stuck on the negatives and most of my reflections of this experience are from when I had some sort of problem and I omit the good times when we were moving fast.  Everyone in the race had some sort of problem at one time or another.  Some pushed through them some were pulled through them.  This is only my 3rd expedition length race so I'm still fine tuning my skills and adding to my book of knowledge.  

There is a lot of controversey about Team Sole/GRML receiving 2nd place and a lot of the teams said some pretty nasty things that I was able to read when an email was forwarded to me from the race directors pending an appeal.  We raced one hell of a race and always had the most professional approach with nothing but the spirit of the rules and the race in mind.  We helped other teams througout the race giving away food, gear, nutrition and even advice.  I'm shocked no one had the courage to come talk to us in person while at the awards or post race and ask their questions, comments or concerns in a more appropiate setting. 

Til the next adventure

Aaron Boatman