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Shenandoah Epic 24 Hour Adventure Race Report

The short of it: Despite a HUGE setback, Team thisABILITY came in 2nd place in our 2 person coed division and 7th overall in the Adventure Enablers' Shenandoah Epic 24 hour adventure race! Woohoo! We outdid ourselves (especially Chip) which is usually our only goal.

The long of it: We’ve had people ask us what our team name means. We usually stumble over our ‘elevator speech’ that usually includes that I (Andrea) have a son who has Down syndrome and Chip owns a business that supports people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We believe that the best way to succeed and to help others succeed (both people with and without disabilities) is to focus on what you can do and not what you can’t. So…. what does that really mean? Well… maybe this will help explain it. There were 3 things that I think were key to our success during this race. And, spoiler alert, Chip earned the MVP!

1. We owe a lot of our successes to the other racers we know. It’s pretty impossible to push yourselves as hard as you can without that rush of the competition on race day! I get so much energy from seeing everyone getting after it, too! And, even though I’d like to call out all of the great people we get to call friends out there on the course that love this sport as much as we do, I’m going to call out 2 racers specifically that we met very early on. They have also both raced as team thisABILITY, as well as in lots of different combinations of other teams – AR is like that. They each have a unique ability that sets them apart: Mary Foster is a great navigator and Brent Russell is a great runner!

Mary Foster was the first female adventure racer that I met that was racing at the time on a 2 person female team called Unconventional Ways and she was the navigator. She is the first person in AR that I thought to myself ‘if she can do it, I can do it’. Not everybody needs that, but I did back then and sometimes still do! So, in the first leg of the race (about 13 miles of trekking/trail running including the prologue) we leap frogged multiple times with Mary. She was racing as Hunting Bigfoot with Daniel Rodrigues-Agudo (who has also raced as team thisABILITY). We would pass them and run ahead only to find that they got to the point first! Then we’d do it all over again! This happened at least 3 times this race.

And then, there’s Brent... Wow! He knocked it out of the park this weekend. He races from time to time on his own to hone his skills and see what he’s made of. He did just that. We came across him at TA 2 and he was a full leg ahead of us! No surprises though, we knew he was going to smoke us on foot and he did! And, as much as we heckle each other, he’s been a great teammate. He came out 2nd place in the solo male category racing as USO Outdoor Adventure Team. It was really motivational to us to try to keep up and keep going! So, thanks, guys!

2. When we race, we have the mindset that we are going to do our best and that means we’re going to try to clear the course. No decision will be made otherwise unless it is VERY clear that we are going to run out of time. So, if you tell yourself, you’re going to clear the course, you don’t back down from the hard stuff… In other words, if you CAN do it, you better at least try. So, while we didn’t clear the course (only 2 teams did), we had the mindset that we would not back down until we had to. In this race, there was an option of taking an easier bike route that included 3 virtual points through intersections or 3 harder checkpoints for double the points. 'Harder' felt like an understatement when we got to the first of the harder points. We were 300 meters deep in a mess of rhododendron in Duncan Gap to find 5-03a. It was so dark that you couldn’t even see the two high points on either side. Holding a bearing isn’t always necessary for a point with the description of ‘reentrant’, but it came in handy for this one since the small stream meandered around among the rhodo and briars. The other two of the harder points were up on the ridge. We’ve been on similar ridges in Virginia, so were actually happily surprised that about 40% of it was rideable even though we pushed our bikes for half a mile and about 500 feet of elevation gain to get up there. And… by ‘push’, I mean that Chip pushed his bike and had my bike on tow and I was the one moaning and groaning. Thanks, Chip! Our choice paid off though because we got more points than some other teams and we did not give ourselves an out.

3. And, lastly, one of our mottos was especially important in this race: Never quit the race, make the race quit you. At about 2 am, while we were up on that ridge, Chip’s bike had a catastrophic failure. The freehub pawls sheered… In other words, the pedals were useless and no tools or extra gear or bike repair knowledge could save the day. There was nothing that could be done to fix it. Without even a bad word, Chip processed the situation in a few seconds and said it’s not fixable and we carried on. No pitty party, no thoughts of quitting, no crying (which is what I probably would have done)… Our thoughts went from the excitement of thinking we would do really well since we got the extra points to thoughts of wondering if we would even be able to get to the finish line in time. But, we never considered quitting. We had over 25 miles of biking to go and another 10 mile trekking section.

We hiked our bikes to the next CP (5-05a) and then hiked some more to get to the Woodstock Tower CP where there were some race volunteers and a campfire. Chip tried a few different options including zip-tying the cassette to the spokes, which… as you would guess, failed miserably right away. All 5 zip ties broke on the first rotation… and would have been a dangerous option even if it did work… You could hear in the volunteer’s voices (unintentionally and sympathetically) that they thought there was no way we’d make it. I think that might have even given us a little more motivation to do what we could. We noodled through every scenario of towing possibilities… but came to the realization that Chip hiking his bike on the uphills and coasting the downs was the only viable solution. And, he did just that (for 6 hours)! I have to say that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such determination firsthand in a race. No complaining, no skipping a beat… He perfected ‘riding side saddle’ which includes ‘bike scootin’ and the ‘inverted radial smoothie’. (Youtube it - you just might need it someday.) We even passed a few teams. And, a couple of times I couldn’t keep up with him on the uphill even though I was on my bike!

But… we blasted the downhills and man, were they fun! This was some of the most technical riding we’ve done in an AR. In part of that leg, we went down the Peter's Mill Run ATV trail from the watch tower to State Route 675. This section had 6.2 miles of uphill and 1.6 miles of nail-biting downhill. The downhills were steep, rock-fests and we tore past a team hiking their bikes down. It was probably disappointing for them to have to hike down after the hard climb, but good for them for knowing their ability and staying safe. I’ve walked plenty of downhills before being comfortable bombing this one… which made it all that more exciting! We rolled into the last TA with just enough time to get one last point on foot. We came running into the finish line with less than 6 minutes to spare. Phew! AND, despite it all, we came in 2nd in our division and 8th overall. Given what came our way, we did awesome! And, Chip… that guy… he does not give up! He is cool under pressure and always focuses on the positive. He embodies thisABILITY! He's like this in 'real life', too. I’m so glad he’s my teammate (both on and off the court)!

Thanks to Adventure Enablers for a great, challenging race! It was a beautiful course with a ton of variety, great white-water and all sorts of terrain. Thanks to Randy Ericksen and Vlad Bukalo for the photos and for always being at the right spot at the right time! Thanks to all of the volunteers, too! It was a seamless experience! +11

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