Written by Brent Russell
The thisABILITY Nationals team: Brent Russell, Mary Foster, Matt Wilson.
Brent was on the 2021 thisABILITY national’s team in Wisconsin and earned the entry for the 2022 Nationals race. With Chip and Andrea participating in AWRS World Championships in South America, Brent recruited Mary Foster to navigate because he was too lazy to carry maps or put a mapboard on his bike. (Note that this was written by Brent.) The original 3rd team member wasn’t able to make the commitment, so a last minute change was adding Matt Wilson. All 3 teammates were equally paired in most abilities, pacing, race priorities, and navigation.
Tuesday morning Mary and I were to fly out of DC Dulles airport to Las Vegas via Minneapolis. It is said that half of the battle of the race is getting to the start line. When Mary and I approached the Delta service desk every employee was looking at amazement or confusion at our well packed bike boxes. Apparently the smaller plane to Minneapolis didn’t have a large enough cargo door to fit the airline approved bike boxes. The service agent, after much measuring and typing on a keyboard, rerouted us to Atlanta with a seven hour layover. It wasn’t the most ideal situation, but the alternative would have been trying to ship the bikes and reschedule flights. During the extended layover in Atlanta Mary and Brent took advantage of the trains and went to a local bouldering gym. We eventually made it to Las Vegas, got the bikes, the rental truck and checked into the hotel with warm cookies.
Wednesday Mary and I drove around in the morning getting a couple gear bins and waiting for Matt to fly in. We picked him up by 11am, got things situated in the truck and drove towards Bishop, Ca. which was just over a 4hr drive. We stopped along the way for updated team pics when Mary said “what is that?” pointing to a bunch of old weathered silhouettes of what once were buildings. My reply was to slam on the brakes and make a hard right on a dirt road leading up to a bunch rubble. After a few pics we were back on our way traveling through the desert of nothingness passing the Area 51 Visitors Center and finally making it to the turn on RD 266 towards Big Pine/Bishop Ca. Enroute we had to go over three mountain passes. We stopped at a summit of the first one still in Nevada. While doing touristy looking around and watering bushes, a white van came screeching to halt just in front of our rental. I thought we were about to let Mary get abducted. But somehow Mark Harris of Adventure Enablers/Enabled Tracking had seen us pass him on the 2 lane highway and was apparently trying to catch us for the last few miles. Three thousand miles from Front Royal he had tracked us down. We said our hellos and see ya laters and then finished our drive to Bishop. Some of us east coasters hadn’t experienced the Eastern Sierras yet and all their beauty. The small town of Bishop laying in the middle of a valley, surrounded by 10k and 11k ft plus summits was quite spectacular. It was close to sunset as we checked into the hotel and started to reassemble the bikes.
Thursday was the day of race check-in and bike drop in Mammoth Lakes at the gondola later in the afternoon. Prior to bike drop-off we took our mountain bikes for a little spin around town. Mary had a disc brake issue stemming from it being bent during shipment on the plane. While Matt and I rode around, she went to the bike shop and got the much needed repairs. Around 1pm we headed out of Bishop and headed up to Mammoth Lakes. Given the previous year’s race route and what we speculated could be the race course, we were paying close attention to what could be possible features we’d see again along the way. Once we got to check in we got our race packets, did the media interview, talked to some fellow racers and loaded our bikes onto the gondola. We were on the gondola and still not sure if we were stopping midway up the mountain or going all the way up to the top. The race schematic had us gaining 2.4k ft or so in the first leg on foot, so our assumption was that we were going all the way to the top. Midway we asked the worker which stop the Adventure Racers should get off at. She laughed and shut our gondola door. When we made it to the 11k ft summit of
Mammoth it was chilly and windy. Coming from the heat and humidity of the east coast 24hrs prior to that, it was a huge change. We had yet to see days below 90 degrees. The weather forecast for the race was anywhere from starting up at elevation in the high 30s to a mid-day paddle temp in the high 80s. We pretty much had to prepare for cold weather over nights and sunscreen during the day. After bike drop we got our ride down the mountain on the gondola and participated in the race brief. During which we only learned that anything that we wanted to know would be “revealed to you” later. Which it was. Except for those gas stations we would pass along the way. None of those were revealed to us. Thursday night concluded with us driving back down to Bishop for pizza and packing our gear bins for the morning.
Friday – Race day! The best part about the morning of the race is that bin drop-off and check-in was at the park right next to our hotel. We woke up early, got some caffeine, used the facilities, and dropped off our gear. As 7am rolled around the buses showed up and we got the first two maps of the course. Some people enjoy a bunch of smaller 8.5x11 printed maps, some enjoy wallpaper sized maps. Personally I enjoyed remodeling the house after the race and these maps were great for that. We got the race rules and plotted the pro-CPs. Basically, the course was a large linear point to point race.
Legs were as follows: Stage 1: Trek up to Mammoth mtn summit from Twin Lakes Stage 2: MTB downhill off the mtn across some dirt roads to Crowley Lake Stage 3: Paddle Owens River and Lake Crowley Stage 4: Trek from Lake Crowley to Toms Place
-------------------------- 2nd set of maps here ------------------------------------- Stage 5: MTB Toms Place to Owens River gorge via Lower Rock Creek trial (Pro CPs went up hill) Stage 6: Canyoneering/Trek (Pro-CPs) Stage 7: MTB to Owens River Stage 8: Paddle Owens River near Bishop Stage 9: Trek to Finish
The first maps we had got were from the start of the race up to but not including stage 5 Bike maps. This meant we had the race rules and pro CPs listed, but not maps to make complete course decisions yet. The first couple maps were pretty straight forward nav with the exception of a few lower trail options at the lower part of the mountain. The first 2 pro CPs we plotted were on Stage 2 and down a Double Black Diamond. Not every teammate was comfortable doing west coast double blacks, so we opted to take the easier Blue “Off the Top” trail Dropping the pro CPs before knowing what the rest of the race had in store wasn’t too hard of a decision giving our single track abilities. The rest of the day until sunset appeared easy nav to paddle and trek to Tom’s Place.
The course planning was complete and the buses dropped us off at Twin Lakes with pristine views of Mammoth and other surrounding mountains and lakes. Our first surprise was Uncle Bob. Matt had relatives from the Mammoth area, and fact his parents had met and went to high school in Bishop. And now we had the best spectator at the race, Uncle Bob. Uncle Bob would periodically pop-up out of nowhere cheering us on and taking great pics. After a meeting Uncle Bob we picked up the tracker from Mark Harris and shortly after at 8:30am the race started with a quick prologue to the edge of the lake to get a downhill mountain bike trail map of Mammoth, which will help us get down the mountain once we retrieve our bikes. The race maps were detailed MyTopo maps, but those can’t include the ever changing single track trails. The first leg was the trekking leg. It went up and up and then up a little more for about 2,400ft to the summit of Mammoth Mountain ski slopes. It was a good challenging trek, at a couple points the team slowed and we dealt with some headache and stomach issues. Most of that would dissipate as we descended. We feared the weather was going to be cold that morning, but it was really perfect conditions. We could see a long ant trail of teams going up switchbacks and later some coming down on bikes. Some of the route choices we saw teams taking early on the bikes didn’t quite make sense. All three of us teammates have experience with longer races and knew to worry about ourselves and run our own race. Don’t worry about other teams and let them make their own mistakes.
After 90 mins we made it to the summit (TA1) it appeared a lot of teams had chosen the harder route down, but we were still set on the Blue route. At no point did we want to bomb down a double black diamond and take chance of having a bike mechanical and ruining our race early. The buttery smooth switchback and flow of Off The Top trail was one of the race highlights. As we lost elevation we made good route choices. At a couple of the intersections lead/faster teams who did the pro CPs would meet up and pass us. No big deal, just keep forward progress. Eventually we punched a few CPs and were on the lower part of the mountain on a maintained maze of forest roads and snowmobile trails. One of CPs was at a parking lot trailhead, and who was there? Yep, Uncle Bob. This was the first time Mary navigated us perfectly. We saw a few teams push through on different trails at some of the intersections. I’m not sure what their plan was, but I knew what ours was. We biked mostly downhill through amazing beautiful pines. We dropped onto another CP and picked up a harder packed dirt road that led to a major road crossing and a little bit of pavement. We know we had previously made good route choices because other, faster teams, were now passing us again. Replaying this on the tracker sight will be fun. We continued on the bike and pavement turned into hard dirt roads with mountain vistas all around. A few teams were stacked up here. This portion of the leg lasted a little longer than anticipated but we made it to TA2, the transition to paddle. Transition was warm and Team Pysched’s JV team of little kids was running around handing out snowcones to everyone. We had seen their farther, 16yr old daughter and 15yr old son (I think I got the ages right) out on course beating us up and down the mountain. We only passed them on the long gravel road grind when he was towing one of them. Up to this point we were still on track with our race plan. Of course Uncle Bob was there shouting encouragement and taking pics and videos. All regular CPs had been obtained, we felt we had made good nav choices, and about solid mid pack placing.
The paddle leg provided unique challenges and experiences. First, there were no CPs on that leg and no nav needed, follow the windy slow shallow river until it dumps into Lake Crowely. Follow the middle of to the lake until it dead ends into the southern shore. Additional challenges were that we had a team of 3, but two sit on top kayaks, one tandem and one solo. We had probably discussed at nausea what the best fit for the team would be in the two kayaks. In the long run we decide Brent in front of the tandem, Matt in the back of it, and Mary in the solo on tow with towrope we brought. Full transparency, I owed Mary a tow anyways from a previous race at The Longest Day in NY. Her and Misty towed me in a tandem packraft while I sat in my Time-out Tub of shame. It was a little warm starting off on this paddle, but as we made our way through the course there was one small cloud that kept blocking the sun, specifically for Matt. His biggest fear during the race was overheating. So far so good, we kept pushing. Time passed and we made it to the lake. We could see dots with paddles further south on the lake. We could see the routes they we taking and where they were going. This helped us try to keep a straight course. As luck wouldn’t have it, a headwind started picking up pretty well. Small waves were breaking over the front of the kayak. Both teammates behind me assured me they were both paddling. We saw Team Pysched hugging closer to the eastern shore. Kids in the tandem kayak pulling dad. They were making good progress. As approached a peninsula coming from the western side of the lake and someone said it was about a kilometer to go after that. I’m not an eagle eye by any means, and sometimes my distance judgement on open water isn’t the best, but I know what a kilometer looks like. That was not a kilometer. A map review later would show that the teammate was referencing a different peninsula, and the maps weren’t needed on that leg, so the map had been stowed away from the water. It became a running joke every 15 minutes that we were only a kilometer away. By the time we reached the southern shore all three of us were ready to be off of the kayak and get dry clothes on. I surprisingly was getting cold from the waves and the wind. We gathered ourselves at TA3 and received the additional information regarding the one place we could cross the water inlet on the proceeding trek.
While in TA we took note of how many bins were there, we also saw some bikes there (which didn’t make sense), and we saw a team (or two?) getting a ride in. Being a point to point race, if a team was having issues they may have been needed to be fast forward to the next TA to keep them going. Everyone runs their own race within their own abilities.
Finally changed and finalized our route choice we were back on a trekking leg. It hadn’t been on our feet since the first leg of the morning and sunset was less than an hour away. This was a very unique trekking leg, it went right near a major highway that we couldn’t go within 50 meters of. The large orange rocks and boulders were all over reentrants with low sagebrush scattered about. This would have been the perfect place for rattlesnakes to hide. I think this is why my team let me go in front. There was another route choice that was longer and flat on a dirt road around a campground, but that’s not our style. When we were on one of the highpoints we looked back west. We could see the ridgeline of the Eastern Sierras and teams still on the paddle on Lake Crowley. The sun was setting behind the mountains and the sky was lit up in a bright orange and purple. As the sun set we switched the headlamps on. Team Pysched was around us for a lot of this leg. We exchanged small talk and I was even more impressed with their effort. If there was one spot we could have improved out navigation it was on this trek. We dropped down to an East/West road and headed east. Well, this road had a hairpin and the east way ended up heading north. We made a couple route choices and made it back to the correct section of the road. It was a sketchy down to get to that road at night, but fun. The last little trek into TA4 we got briefly stopped by the media team and interviewed by Brian Gatens of the Darkzone Podcast. I didn’t know we were on the podcast at first. I’m glad I didn’t say anything too inappropriate. We took longer than we should have on that trek, but we had time. We got to TA4 just as it was getting completely dark.
At Tom’s Place (TA4) we spoke to the race volunteers (staff) and received the maps for the rest of the race. The plan was, see the maps, plot the pro CPs, get as many pro CPs as practical and then turn around and finish the rest of the linear course. After seeing where the pro CPs were located we had a (too long) discussion of what we could and couldn’t do. Yes, realistically we could ride up the paved road on our bikes about 5km and a couple thousand feet of elevation gain to get to the first pro CP. Then keep going further on trails to other pro CPs. It sounded better if we had fresher legs. The biggest drawback was each pro CP was only worth 10 pts, and all normal preplotted CPs were worth 50 pts. So, if we wasted time getting 4 pro CPs and missed 1 normal CP on the back end of the race we would be down points for any team that just got all the normal CPs. The big question was “is it worth it?” I had separated conversations with both teammates as we were milling about the gear bins and maps getting ready. It was a lot cooler now and we had to dress for it. Bad communications by me led to confusion on what the team was gonna do. I know each teammate was getting ready for the opposite route. Finally I just had to say we aren’t going for the pro CPs, the risk isn’t worth the reward in this case. I know we had all talked about going for as many pro CPs as we could, but they were all in an almost all or nothing situation. Our time estimates had us finishing a lot earlier at this point than before if we cut them out. Sometimes ya just gotta wing it and hope for the best.
We left TA4 on the bikes in good spirits but really needed to get warm. By the map we were suppose to pick up Lower Rock Creek trail and ride that downhill for quite some time. All we had to do was find the trailhead. Between TA4 and the trailhead was a series of sandy dirt/2-track roads. We were using the mapped roads and passing unmarked and marked trails that weren’t on the map. We started heading up and up and up. We knew going up wasn’t right. Other teams were doing the same. We turned around and went back down, then back up then down, then over and back up. Finally after matching the map to the highway we decided we just need to bushwhack down the reentrant and stop wasting time. Alas we found the road and trailhead. Oddly enough there was a trail leading up to where we just came from. I reviewed our track on Strava heatmap after the race. We were all over where that trail led to, even crossed it a few time. But in the middle of the night using headlamps we could see a definitive trail in the sagebrush.
So finally at the Lower Rock Creek trailhead we bombed down some sweet single trackness. Other teams that were looking for the trailhead also finally caught up to us before we made it to the lower half. There looked to be some confusion from some teams when the trail crossed the road and made a small zigzag. We were standing in the parking lot looking at maps and at least one team went past the trailhead and up the road on the pavement. I wasn’t sure what they were up to, but in review of the tracks online, they went waaaay too far down that road and then double backed a couple times. I certainly feel for them. The lower half was more technical riding and not everyone on the team were the most proficient on big boulders and chunky rocks. There were a few non PG13 words spoken and something about wanting to ride MTBs on MTB sections. Laughs were had, in reality sometimes you just got fight through the hard times. With longer races there will always be ebb and flows of emotions. This hike-a-bike was definitely frustrating and interrupted the flow. After making it to the southern trailhead there was a great downhill on pavement. Probably about 3 miles in the dark moonlight seat post dropped and just tucked down freewheeling. Such a sweet relief and a break from reality. Strava says I had a sustained 42 mph speed. The only problem is we had to make a left turn, cross the highway and go back up another road that paralleled this one. About those low points, this was mine. That headwind that was there on the paddle, yeah it was back. I could see a team or two ahead of us at night climbing that large hill back up to the west. Their taillights just kept getting higher and higher, I just wanted to see them crest the hill of turn into the TA for the canyoneering section. It never seemed to happened. I think I swore at the wind and the hill climb at the same time. I’m sure if I could understand what my teammates were saying it would be them laughing at me. I know I would be if I were them. I’m not sure how long that climb lasted, there was one peak, a downhill and then the last climb up to TA5. It was the last climb of the race on the bike. I was happy to have it over.
TA 5 was chilly and windy. It was atop the canyon that some of the CPs were in. Teams were huddled around the bins and sorting gear. The canyoneering trek section of the race had options for pro CPs and regular CPs. The Owens Canyon leg goes in a general North to Southeast direction. The far northern section had one pro CP that used a climbers trail to drop down into the gorge, this was a 15 min trek from the TA. Once in the gorge teams could transit the gorge and pick up Virtual pro CPs and normal punch CPs. Our teams plan was to go north, drop into gorge, grab the one pro CP and then back track out of the gorge and use trails/roads that paralleled the gorge. As we trekked we could drop back down into the gorge to get another normal CP. This strategy would allow us to still get all Normal CPs to clear the course and one pro point. Theory was to get the extra 10 pts to see if it paid off in the long run. We executed this plan pretty well. On our way southeast on the road a few teams passed us on bikes heading up that hill towards the TA. They looked as bad as I felt going up it. It made me wonder if they saw our headlamps way up high on top the hill and were mentally discouraged that they had to go that far up? We carried on the trek on the road and crossed over the river and continued on our way to the next TA. The canyoneering section would have been a blast to do. But at night in 50 deg air temps and in chilly water for hours was not exactly what our team was going to do for a few virtual pro points worth 10 pts each. During the daytime when you could see the canyon and footing and not worry about freezing it would have been a different option. When we got to one of the normal check points in the gorge I’m pretty sure they had said we were the 7th team to come through (not in points) and the only team that come through the canyon yet was team Psyched. Even more impressed by them.
TA 6 we transitioned back onto our bikes. The route looked pretty straight forward. Get on some dirt two-track roads and make it over to the river paddle. We were making good time until we came around a bend and seen a gaggle of lights going back and forth. There was a distinct left hand turn on the map, but there wasn’t in real life. It was just before sun up and a team had said they have been there for 90 min looking for a way across the small gorge. The banks were sharp drop-offs of about 10ft and were made up of hard packed dirt. Trying to cross was more impassable due to the water and muck that had thick reeds growing through the entire lower lying area. The map clearly showed the road crossing the low gorge area somewhere. We were trying to line the map up with the reentrants on the surrounding hills and bends in the trail. The other 5 or 6 teams were as well. As the sun came up we saw one of the lead teams come through and punch across somewhere, and they red carpeted a few other teams. When we approached that area where we saw teams crossing we still couldn’t find where the made it. I was told this was the point that Uncle Bob was yelling at the computer watching the Enabled Tracking dots on the website. Eventually we went all the way up to paved road and found a way across the gorge to the eastern side and back up on the trails. To say we wasted at least an hour of the race was understatement. Maps just didn’t match what we wanted to see, but every team had the same, so no complaints. We probably could have been more aggressive to get across or find the way we did manage to get across earlier. The rest of the ride was mostly uneventful minus the used XS Victoria Secret underwear hanging near the next CP. I’m sure there was a story how those got there, but I’m ok not knowing.
The next TA, TA6 put us back on the water. Paddle and short trek into Bishop was all we had left. Our first idea was to use the towing system again on the Owens River. When we went to put the sit on top kayaks in the water we saw how fast the narrow river was flowing and how tight all the hairpin turns were. It wasn’t going to be practical to tow, but the flow was going to be enough that it wasn’t going to be an issue for the solo paddler to keep up. Matt and I were going to be in for quite a battle with Mother Nature on this section and we didn’t know it. The river was so fast, narrow, and twisting that every time we tried to turn the tandem kayak we were pushed into the riverbank. Some of the riverbanks were higher than other and one section had a large amount of over growth. This is what we would be pinned under as we tried to Tokyo Drift through the corner. I was in the front holding onto branches completely laying back trying to stabilize the buoyancy as Mary goes whizzing past and Matt yells from the back that we are taking on water and sinking. Great, I was thinking, we just have to not sink a tandem sit on top kayak on a lazy river and walk to the finish. This is how the great mid-pack elite adventure team fails and DNFs. I’m not sure how long we were stuck on and under that bank of overgrowth but long enough for another team to pass us and give words of encouragement and possibly advice. The aft end of the kayak was still sinking lower. I told Matt he needed to abandon ship to raise the aft end as I hold the branches, the captain would go down with the ship. Matt slid off the back and held on, we were able to move a couple feet into the middle of the river. Matt had never had to perform a sit on top kayak re-entry from the water, but he did it effortlessly, or maybe with a grunt or two. After that adventure we were much more careful, even back paddling headlining into turns. That squiggly river seemed to never end. We couldn’t see over the banks, it was nearly impossible to navigate to know where you were on the map. The nav wasn’t going to be hard, get in kayak and paddle to the first bridge. We were just waiting for that first bridge. I’m sure someone yelled that we one had 1Km left to go, maybe a few times. Finally around one bend we heard a vehicle on the road then we saw the bridge, and then the takeout. Another paddle with no CPs, our last punch was actually the finish.
The transition out of the kayak was uneventful, thankfully. The last leg was a trek down the road and into Bishop. The views of the Eastern Sierras in the morning/early afternoon were amazing. The finish line was set up in the park next to the hotel where we had loaded up on the buses 30 hours ago. As we were making our way into town we saw the JV team Physced and manager (mom and younger kids of the family) riding their bikes around town. Man, I don’t think they ever rested either. It’s so great to see young kids out being active. As we approached the park we didn’t sprint across the finish line. There was not another team close to us, our points were are points. We had accomplished most of what we set out to do. Without seeing all the maps until halfway through the race, the overall goals of what was obtainable really wasn’t possible. We wanted to do well, push ourselves, save energy and Matt during the warmer parts of the day and paddle, and have fun as a team. Originally we thought more pro CPs could have been obtainable but decisions on whether the 10 pts per pro CPs were worth it were definitely made. Total scores were added up and we placed solid mid-pack. Right were we should be. The 10 pts extra for the one pro CP in the canyon ended up making a difference of about 5 or 6 places for us. Really happy we went out and got that one. I’m not sure the last place we had seen Uncle Bob, but he was the best mobile fan a team could ask for. Every time we saw him you could tell the team spirits were lifted. I personally appreciate all the pictures and videos he took of us out on course.
All and all it was an amazing course. Right from the start the views and elevation were breathtaking. The single track downhill was perfect. Having a linear course there probably were some restrictions between timing and permits when it comes to course design. Our team has historically done well and make up time on other teams when we have had navigational challenges. This national’s course did not have that breakout orienteering section for us. The navigation was more point A to point B. I would have loved to have had CPs on either of the paddle section to break things up. Most of the CPs were at intersections of trails. I don’t recall having to drop bikes and navigate off them into the woods. The only bushwhacking we did was to cut off some campground road miles when we scrambled across boulders. Again, it was a great course and a great race. I think I can speak for every teammate that we had a once in a lifetime experience to see parts of an area of the country we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. Especially as a team. The highs definitely outpaced the lows.
And, ask Mary about the burro on the drive back, “HEY DONKEY!!”