As defending champions, Bill and I had a simple burden this weekend; anything other than a repeat would have been a disappointment. The Grizzlyman is a great race precisely because of the open course, consequent reliance on strategy, and the inherent uncertainty this creates. Points accrued from checkpoints determines finishing order, with time only used a tiebreaker. You could be beaten by someone finishing after you, and not seeing anyone else on course for hours means nothing when it comes to predicting the quality of your finish.
When I got my race number Friday afternoon, I knew it was all but a foregone conclusion.
Strategy is the defining factor at this race, and the most important reason Bill and I have now won twice. Last year we had a great strategy which played to our strengths (i.e not running), and this year we managed to do the same. While the race has been in the same area for four years, and our resultant familiarity is useful, the location of checkpoints and overall strategy changes significantly from year to year. We had 59 checkpoints again this year, and in contrast to last time they were weighted, with more remote stations being worth 2 or 3 points. Success or failure at this race begins Friday night a little after 7pm; the minute passports are handed out. We repaired to a campsite 15 minutes away, busted out our secret weapon, and proceeded to plot points with unprecedented accuracy. By 11pm we had eaten dinner, plotted our points, and had solid tactics and strategy for the next day. I slept well in the back of the truck as it kept drizzling.
Last year we had several moments which cost us time, aside from the numerous tricky checkpoints. One was my flat tire on the way back to the boating transition. I setup stout tires with lots of Stans last month. The other was Bill’s urgent use of a tree in the dark an hour after starting. This year I set my alarm for 3:50 and made potent cowboy coffee to get things moving before the 5am start.
We had decided on something of a gamble first thing; a detour in the dark on the way to our bikes to pick off a deceptive 2 pointer. It was less than a mile from the road, but placed in an area we knew to have been logged somewhat recently and thus be a perfect example of the terrain which makes the Lubrecht forest such ideal adventure racing terrain. There are enough trees left standing and shrubby new growth to limit line of sight, no distinct landmarks or handrails in the terrain, and lots of crap to trip over. Neither Bill nor I do this stuff at any other time during the year, and while I fancy myself a good navigator in the woods, the eyes-up practice of efficient off-trail travel is poor practice for precision orienteering. For this reason, we make limited use of bearings and rely heavily on our altimeter watches, hitting the correct contour and walking it to find the station. Last year this was pretty imprecise. This year greater experience and confidence in our plotting had us hitting most points quite close to dead on. That first point in the dark set the tone for the rest of the day, and we were excited and relieved to find it within 30 minutes of leaving the start.
The bulk of the day was nondescript in its efficiency. We got our bikes and spent hours in the fog and drizzle riding to a corner in the road, hiking up or down (usually up) to punch a station, then hiking back down to repeat. We fueled well and kept a steady pace with no futzing or downtime. It was consistently damp, and had the wind picked up modestly would have been quite cold. My sore shins remind me that many of the hikes through the woods were, up and down, impressively steep. We played to our strengths, namely not running, and got the job done.
As the day wore on we had only three navigational complications. Towards the early afternoon, as the sun came out and things warmed, we cut sideways across a steep hill, riding an old logging road and deer trails to set up for two more checkpoints. Hiking up for one, we realized we were on the wrong ridge. Cutting over without loosing or gaining any elevation, we hit the correct ridge at the right spot and spent perhaps an extra 2-3 minutes on our detour. The second mishap was the only point we had to look for twice, and (in contrast to last year) the only point which was in an outright sneaky location. We could have found it with a bit more time the first go, but needed to get in our boat before 2pm (the river section is only open for 4 hours, and being worth 10 points is essential for success).
Two years ago the Blackfoot was running very low (~800 cfs), and I paddled solo in a canoe, working hard to dodge rocks but making up lots of time with my faster hull speed. Last year we rented a tandem ducky and had an innocuous run at slightly higher (~1300 cfs) flows. This year the river was rocking at 4000 cfs, and the main rapid was big enough that I would not have run it in a packraft. We kept the ducky pointed straight and had a clean run until the last wave of the last rapid, when my laziness let the back end get tugged briefly by the hole which put Bill and I in the water. I popped up to see Bill right in front of me, also holding the boat in one hand and the paddle in another, and we were back in and paddling for the takeout before we had drifted 20 feet. It was a good way to get the salt off my face.
After we took out it was back on the bikes to get the checkpoint we had missed earlier, and as many more as time allowed. We had a good plan to get a solid nest of points in the final hours, but it required a grind up 1000′ on a dirt road which put me into a dark and slow place. We topped the climb and got several more stations, but the watch was counting down and we had to leave ourselves a buffer for the unforeseen, and gave up searching for one and rode past another in the name of prudence. As it turned out we had enough points to win without that final jaunt, but it’s good practice to keep the hammer down all the way, and I went further into the cave spinning out my top gear trying to hold Bill’s wheel on the flat, tail-winded road back to the start/finish. One 300 meter section turned 90 degrees into a crosswind, which combined with my lack of drafting skills almost had me blow up for good. But we made it, were tired, cleaned up, had yet another memorable spaghetti dinner, and I slept very well on Mo’s couch.
While experience made the difference for us, it was less the experience of having been on the course before than the experience of working efficiently as a team and trusting each others pace and judgment. We consistently played to strengths without really thinking about it, and questioned the route when it needed to be questioned without drama or delay. It was excellent to win, but even better to finish knowing we selected the best route for us and raced it as well as we were able on that particular day.
It’s going to be a 24 hour next year, right Josh?