Over the weekend my brother and I slogged through the US Bushwhacking Championships in Blacksburg, Virginia.
If you don't care to read any further, the short of it is: we whacked lots of bushes, got the tar kicked out of us in return by lots of bushes, saw some scary animals, learned to hate power lines, fell asleep for a long time during the middle of the race (including some in the middle of a road), and got lost quite a bit.
Report From the United States National Bushwhacking Championships
The Questionable Value of Following Power Lines in the Dark
This is a report from Jeff & Jon who raced in the US National Bushwhacking Championships held on September 3-4 in the mountains outside Blacksburg, Virginia.
Jon and I entered as team: “A Navigator and His Lawyer” (Jon’s the navigator – you can guess who I am). The race was a 24-hour rogaine (an orienteering race with checkpoints assigned varying point values – the goal is to amass as many points as possible) held in some seriously steep terrain in the Virginia Piedmont mountains. Jon’s a former professor in the University of New Hampshire’s kinesthesiology department, teaching wilderness navigation and other map related classes, so he’s got high quality map-reading skills. He also has fitness from running most of New Hampshire’s 4,000 foot+ peaks this summer. I’ve done lots of 24 hour long mountain bike races and adventure races in the past, so while my fitness may not the best right now (I’d been running 20 minutes a week to get in shape for this race), I knew what we needed to do to survive. Our respective jobs were : Jon did the navigating, I’d do everything else (i.e., keeping Jon awake – I didn’t keep up my end of the bargain (see below)).
We set our goal for the race within reason–to get an event t-shirt. I’m glad to say we succeeded. The rest of the race, well…
Jon flew into DC from New Hampshire on Thursday night before the race. I had to work Friday, so Jon did some sightseeing while I did some lawyering. We didn’t leave my apartment in McLean, VA until nearly 7 that night for the 4.5 hour drive to Blacksburg. To stay awake, we rocked out to NWA most of the way – Straight Outta’ Compton!
On our way through Blacksburg (home of Virginia Tech Univ.), we stopped at a grocery store to get water and Red Bull and watched with some amusement as underage beer transactions took place in the store and parking lot. We finally got to the race campground at 12:00 and snagged 7 hours of sleep before registration.
After registration, we looked over our maps. After reviewing and plotting possible courses for 35 minutes, Jon realized that I’d oriented our maps incorrectly. I’d mixed south and north and had we not reoriented ourselves, we would have been running off in the wrong direction. That worried both of us.
Jon pointing North - or is that West?
The approximately 60 race checkpoints (valued between 30 and 90 points each) were interspersed on Brush Mountain and Sinking Creek Mountain with a large valley between the two and a river and road running through the center of the valley. The valley was approximately 14km long in an east/west direction and about 6.5km from mountain top to mountain top in a north/south direction. The road made for a good handrail and split the course in two. A great many of the points had no marked roads or trails leading to them.
We decided to get the points in the southwest quadrant of the map first, then try to get some in the southeast section. None of these had any trails to them, but the points on the other sections of the map seemed to have trails, so we wanted to do those during the nighttime when we were tired. That plan didn’t work out so well…
At the start, we went west on the road and nearly every other person went east. Given our early map-reading difficulties, this made us a bit nervous. But we decided not to question our strategy and so we fast hiked 4km to the first checkpoint (#38) and started up a ravine in the woods. We immediately found that the woods were covered in mega-spider webs, with some spiders making funnel shaped webs – the web and the spiders looked big and nasty enough to haul someone down. I dared Jon to stick his finger down one of the funnels, but he declined.
We hit the next couple of checkpoints spot-on (#33 & #32) and invented a new sport – scree-skiing – while heading down into a ravine to get point #80. We found our background as ski-racers really served us well in getting quickly down to the bottom– just let it slide! We sweated up a steep climb to the top of Brush Mountain to get a high-value point (#88) and scree-skied down to #34 on our way back to the road. We quickly and fairly accurately hit #70, # 67, and #54, all of which were somewhat near the road and the river that paralleled the road.
We decided to link a few points together – they included lots of up and down – but they looked like they’d make a good loop before getting back to the hash house. We hit #74 easily, but got lost for nearly an hour trying to hit #46. We thought we were in Hazelnut Hollow, the base of which the point was located, but couldn’t find the point. We got to the river at the base of the ravine and went up the next ravine further east, which had a road running next to it. We thought that the footprints and trampled grass indicated that we were on the right track – wrong. We finally gave up and headed back to the river when we ran out of water. We were ready to go back to the hash house when we saw another ravine even further east. Jon said “We’d be fools to go up the ravine.” Of course, we went up the ravine - right to #46. We picked up ##43, 65 and 60 in relatively quick succession, but by the time we returned to the road an hour later, we were starting to stumble and weave.
Bushwhacking at its Best
We finished our first loop back at the hash house. We’d been out for 5.5 hours, of which we’d had no water for 1.5 hours. On the hike back we realized to our dismay that we’d left all our water in the car with all of the windows up. Hot water is not satisfying after running in 80 degree weather. We ate some food, fixed up our feet (some of my toenails were already starting to fall off) and listened to some of the 6-hour racers talking after their finish. One team in particular was quite verbal and used lots of technical sounding orienteering terms. Jon overheard someone say they "spiked it" in reference to something or other.
If anyone can tell me what “spiking it” means in orienteering parlance (if such a term exists), Jon and I’d greatly appreciate the guidance because for the next 18 hours we used “spike it” for multiple uses; from uses possibly linked to orienteeriing, such as navigating directly to the checkpoint, e.g., "You really spiked that navigation," to less likely uses, such as describing a run in with a tree while scree-skiing, e.g., “That slide was awesome until I spiked it into that four foot diameter tree.”
We headed out for our second loop and immediately got lost. I think we were still laughing too hard about “spiking it” to pay much attention to the map or compass. I think Jon spiked a few spiders on the way out. We weren’t laughing as hard after hiking nearly 600 vertical feet up the wrong ridgeline. We eventually found the right ridgeline and got #36 – a hell of a lot of trouble for low points. We started to crack on the way up to #53 and were really hurting by the time we’d slogged up and over several ridgelines to get to #87. It was so bad we had to break into our jellybean reserve – actually a mixture of jellybeans and Red Bull – it tastes just as good going down as coming back up!
Stumbling Our Way to #87
When we got to #87, we decided to bag our plans to get a few intermediate points and decided to hit the fireroad at the top of the Brush Mountain ridge. We got to the top and headed down the road where we met up with two other competitors and traded some knowledge.
They told us that the map was drawn incorrectly (or the trail had been relocated since the map had been drawn) and at point #90, the Appalachian Trail was just down the road (it was shown as intersecting the ridgeline off the edge of the map). Thus, instead of bushwhacking, we could take the trail all the way back to the road. Our side of the conversation went something like this:
Jon: “If you want to get to the ridge where checkpoint 87 is, you can just follow this road down to the skidder. Turn right at the skidder and that’s the ridgeline for number 87. Just follow it down.”
Other competitor[Confused look]: “Skidder?”
“You know, cherry-picker.”
I guess “skidder” is a generally known term of art for northern New Englanders. In case you’re not privy to that type of knowledge, a skidder is a big front-end loader type tractor used for logging. I believe it derives its name from its use; it drags cut logs out of the woods. While a cherry-picker isn’t synonymous with a skidder, is also used in logging to pick logs up and put them into trucks. Jon thought the logging linkage would bring on some realization of what he was talking about, but no dice. I hope he figured out where to turn.
After our conversation (these guys were just about the only people we met in the woods all day), we headed down the road and Jon perfectly paced off the steps to the ridgelines where #61 and #79 were located. By the time we were heading down the ridge to get #79, time it was nearly 8:00 pm and starting to get dark.
We hit the really large power lines at the bottom of the ridgeline and headed back up hill to get #82. These were really major power transmission lines with towers a few hundred feet tall and a clear-cut (or so we thought) under the lines. When we looked towards the top of Brush Mountain, we saw little to no vegetation in the way. When we got going, however, we found that there were valleys in the power lines, filled with really dense scrub-brush and people camping.
When we hit #82 we decided to stop, regroup and fix our feet. I had some huge blisters and couldn’t pop one of them with my knife, so Jon dug at it while I squeezed. Inevitably, it popped and blew puss all over Jon’s face, hair, and ears. He said that he’d had worse things happen in the past (he’s a certified wilderness EMT), but if we hadn’t been brothers, I think the team would have ended right then and there, especially, since he had a large knife in his hand.
Heading up the power lines to #42, we got incredibly lost while trying to avoid campers and their dogs in one of the valleys. Incredibly lost, because we couldn’t believe we’d lost the power line cut. We made the mistake of going by “feeling” and wandered around in the woods for 45 minutes trying to find the lines, by looking up through the tree canopy with our weak headlamps. We thought we were far to the south of the lines, but decided to head south and uphill for 3 more minutes to see if we could find the lines. Our conversation went something like this:
Jeff: “You know, these checkpoints really show up at night with their reflective tape.”
. . .
Jon: “Have we gone 3 minutes yet?”
Jeff: “Only a minute so far – I don’t think we’re going the right way. Let’s turn around and go back to the road.”
Jon: “Let’s do the 3 minutes.”
Jeff: “Holy s_! There’s checkpoint 42. Where the hell have we been?”
Lo and behold, around the next tree was the checkpoint. We hadn’t even been looking for it, but somehow stumbled on it. It turned out we’d been within 30 seconds of it several times while looking up into the tree canopy for the power lines traveling overhead. Jon took a picture of me with a big grin and the #42 tag in my hand, as if I’d been a big game hunter with a trophy kill. I really spiked that one!
Jeff Spiking #42 (soon after the photo was taken, he took a big bite out of the checkpoint)
We slogged back to the fireroad at the top of the mountain and hit #51 and #90, which were both on the road. When we got #90, we were out of water and it was 11:15 pm. We stumbled down hill on the Appalachian Trail for nearly 1.5 hours and by the time we got to the road at the bottom, we were both cooked and both Jon’s headlamps had died. However, we did get a nice close-up photo with a ‘possum who ran up a 3 foot high tree next to the trail trying to get away from us. I don't think that oppossums are the smartest animals, but then again, neither were we at that point…
While we were laying in the road looking at our maps (by this point, we’d started laying down anytime we stopped), we realized that the hash house was approximately 10km away by road and at the rate we were stumbling, it was going to take us nearly 2 hours to get back. Ugh. We decided to get a few points on the way back, just so we wouldn’t have to come back.
The next checkpoint (#44) was in a cemetery, which was a bit creepy at 1:30am, but we had to get it, as it was near the Farm Branch River (our last name is ). We weaved all over the road during the next 4km to the church where checkpoint #37 was located. We were both even more stupid at this point. Generally at this point during races, I start thinking about food. Jon said he was thinking about pizza. This was the first time that didn't want food and my greatest desire at that point was for a lawn chair. Odd…
I wandered all over the woods and playground looking for the point, while Jon looked around the building. We were slumped on the front stairs, about to give up, when I looked across the street and saw the checkpoint sitting right there. Jon said he’d seen the point, but thought it was a no-trespassing sign.
On the 2km lurch down the road to the turn off for #31 where the power lines crossed the road, I saw two owls watching from a branch near the road, and we saw the eyes of groups of other unidentifiable animals. Kinda creepy. We also learned that only I could see the eyes in the woods. Not sure if this was because Jon’s headlamp was dead, or what, but I’d guess it’s the latter.
When we hit the power line/road crossing, we both lay down in the middle of the road for 10 minutes or so, trying to decide whether to suffer through another bushwhack to get #31 (did you know a Camelback with air in the bladder makes a nice back rest?). I said that if Jon didn’t want to go, I’d go on my own. Thankfully, Jon wouldn’t let me go out on my own. It looked like all we had to do was follow the power lines to where they crossed a river. On the way to #31, I fell knee deep through a tangle of thorn bushes. Jon said he heard me whimpering and saying, “I can’t take this any more – let’s get out of here.” Jon persuaded me to keep going by saying that the checkpoint was right there (it wasn’t). Invariably, we lost the power lines, but through pure dumb luck, we found the point. We got lost again on the way back to the road, but eventually made it out. It’s amazingly easy to lose sight of power lines in the dark!
When we neared the hash house, Jon looked back and thought he saw a car coming towards us. The lights turned out to belong to two competitors running back to the hash house. We were both a bit amazed to see anyone running.
Our second loop took nearly 12 hours and we arrived back at approximately 3:00am.
Our plan was to suck back a bunch of food, get some water and head back out to get more “easy” points located on the trails on the northeast side of the course. While we were eating at the camp fire, we learned that there was a big fraternity party going on at checkpoint #83 and some of our fellow competitors (the guys who had run in behind us) had joined them for a few beers. We really wanted to get that point!
Jon decided to take a 20-minute nap before we left and I was to wake him up so we could get some easy points before daylight. Well, I went to wake Jon after 20 minutes, but I climbed into the tent too and fell asleep. The awful foul stench emanating from Jon finally woke me up and made me scramble out of the tent in terror at 7:30. Jon’s flatulence wasn’t as accurate as an alarm clock, but it certainly was as effective and quite regular.
Our plan at this point was to stumble out to get a few close points before the cut-off at 10 am. We didn’t want to miss the cut off – the penalty for doing so was quite stiff – losing the highest value checkpoint, plus 10 points per minute. We’d suffered too much to get point #90 to lose it.
At this point, I was shuffling along like an old man. My blisters hurt and my legs were too sore to even lift. We found #30 and headed east to a road to get #40 and eventually to get #50. Unfortunately, we hit the wrong road, and went nearly a mile uphill before we realized our mistake. We headed back down and started up the right road. By this point, we had 35 minutes of time left before the end of the race and we somehow found enough energy to run. We ran (!) uphill for 10 minutes, though a flock of 20 turkeys (I’ve never seen so many animals in one race before) and whacked through the underbrush on the power line cut ( you power lines!) to get #40. We ran back down the road to the hash house and checked in with a few minutes to spare.
Jon looked at the results and saw that we’d finished 11th overall. No idea how we pulled that off. We loaded up the Volvo and drove back on the highway to McLean – NWA all the way! After sitting in the car for an hour, I could barely walk. I showed off my old-man shuffle at a few rest stops along the way back home – I think I definitely impressed some girls (they were certainly looking in my direction), but surprisingly I didn’t get any phone numbers.
In retrospect, our planning for and during the race was a bit off. This is what we learned:
First, we underestimated how long our loops would take. We should have gone for shorter loops so we could get back to the hash house and get more food/water.
Second, we should have looked for a way to get the highest point values overall instead of trying to make loops with lower point value checkpoints.
Third, we should have brought an alarm clock so we did’t oversleep – can’t rely on Jon’s gas to overpoweringly kick in at a certain time.
Fourth, training is important. Running 20 minutes a week isn’t sufficient to build up sufficient blister resistance for a 24 hour race.
Fifth, running shorts aren’t the best for bushwhacking through brambles – long pants or gaiters would have saved me lots of lost blood.
Jeff's Legs Post-Race
Finally, and unquestionably most importantly, we should learn more technical orienteering terminology.
Thanks for reading.
– Jeff & Jon –
Team “A Navigator and His Lawyer” (team name soon to change to “O Brother Where Art Thou?”)