Team Ascent descended on Saguaro Lake in the amazing Tonto National Forest early in the chilly 30-something degree morning with sleep still in our eyes. The first step into the parking lot brought on the shivers as we all agreed that it was too darn cold. After the typical pre-race wandering around aimlessly and arranging of the stuff in the TA, we realized there was no gear check and drifted off to the pre-race meeting. A few trips to the bathroom later we were on the starting line ready to roll. On the line for Team Ascent was Karen Wickert, Josh Sprague, Shaun Gonsalves, and Rich Reffner, our first time together as a team.
Our strategy during the first leg, an orienteering section where maps were to be collected at 3 points around the starting area in any order, was to take a very fast pace to the point the farthest away, thinking that the crowd would be thinned out and we could get to the bikes faster. We were right, but most of the teams agreed as we ran at about 85% towards point 1 in a thick crowd. We were running next to Epi/E-Caps, so we felt good about our plan. They dropped us after the first point from sheer speed. This was a reminder that we should have towed from the start and kept the team moving as I picked up the map.
TA 1 came quickly and provided us with a sheet of coordinates to go with the maps we picked up during the first leg. We chose to plot all of the points and map a course right then and there in the TA. This cost us 10 minutes as we were slow to plot and watched teams come and go while we worked it out. Next time, we’ll need to navigate on the road. We figure it cost us 10 minutes (2 or 3 places). But we were never lost!
The bike leg ensued on a gradual climb road section that took us out of the lake basin. We set a high pace and passed 3 or 4 teams before the first CP. We tried to get a pace line going to really crank it out, but somehow the team just didn’t get it together. We’ll have to work on that one. CP1 was easy for the team to find as I rode right past it and they yelled down the road to get me back. My navigation skills really shone on that one. Josh stamped the passport as we cruised out onto the fire road and into the desert on the tail of another team and with another in front of them in site. Between TA1 and our exit of CP1, we had 3 separate chain issues, all of them luckily were not critical. What lube was that we used? Anywho…
Team Ascent, being a bunch of mountain bikers if nothing else, put the hammer down and passed another 3 or 4 teams on the long rolling climb out of the lake valley and through the turning point at CP2. It was warming up and turning into a beautiful day as the sun climbed and heated up the mars-like desert landscape. Although we hammered it, we possibly could have gotten another few minutes by towing up the steeper part of the climbs. But it was a tough call given that the climb was gradual and so rolling. The ride to CP3 was a fun one along an ATV road that rolled more like an amusement park ride than a fire road. We dropped a team that followed us out of CP2 because they didn’t know where to go next and caught up to a straggler from “the yellow team”, a 3 person all male team. After getting to where we thought a turn in the road should be, seeing the road turn to soft sand and head to the north, and citing the yellow team standing around looking confused, we chose to bushwhack across the desert straight to the east to try to intercept the next road. The desert was amazing, but the bushwhack didn’t buy us anything and maybe lost us a minute or 2 and we found the road heading south, back towards the lake. All in all, not too bad.
The turn to the south brought on the last and steepest of the climbing as we had some short and moderate climbs up the fire road and along a ridge. The view was amazing to the East as we rode the ridge peak and started to descend. “Martian Landscape” is probably the best way to describe the vibe. Very cool. The descents got faster and rockier as we bombed downhill and slowly passed the yellow team one at a time charging towards CP3. We came and went through the point at which we expected CP3 and didn’t give it a second thought because there was only one road and from the ridge top we could see everything around. We whizzed past a group of folks milling around a bright yellow extended Humvee parked on a lookout and quickly decided they weren’t there to stamp our card. At least they got a kick out of us. The ride was fast and fun over hard pack and sharp rocks. We were lucky to get no flats at the speed we were going.
We approached a steep section at high speed and quickly backed off. Shaun and I headed down in our typical “controlled fall” approach to steep, loose descents. I could hear one of the yellow guys sliding around right on my tire and feel him breathing down my neck. Didn’t mean to hold him up but hey, I was doing well for a hard tail guy. At the bottom, Shaun and I looked over the map the as the rest of the yellow guys and Karen and Josh worked their way down the hill. We faced a fork in the road and the choice was not obvious. We were also mildly curious where the hell CP3 was. But hey, we were going fast and probably in the right direction so it was all good.
After trying to be stealthy with our decision, we buzzed out of there to the west and felt good about it. The road widened and cleaned up and pretty soon we were cranking hard in the big gears. We rolled around a corner and saw a parked SUV a half mile down the road with an orienteering flag and two people looking our way. Viola! CP3 arrives. We came down from mach 3, skidded to a stop, and asked how we were doing. “5 or 6 ahead of you” is what we heard and it sounded good to us. Another 10 minutes of downhill and desert creek bed and the parking lot at TA2 appeared before our eyes.
After a rather slow and confusing TA2 we hit the first special test, a situation where the entire team had to stand on top of 2 planks and walk to a point and back. We had fun with that one. Then it was back into the TA and on with the paddling gear. Shaun and Karen hit the water first and got a good start while Josh and I waddled into the water and onto the boat. We had the chance to pick our boats after the pre-race meeting and luckily ours were stiff with air pressure. Josh set a fast cadence as we set out around the point. The lake was incredible and we were making good time, passing another team on the water and within sight of the leaders. Unfortunately, I didn’t position myself well in the boat and we took on water over the aft quarter as we went. Soon enough, we had 50 lbs. worth of water in the hull. This didn’t matter a whole lot until we headed into the wind and realized that with the water weight, we couldn’t keep that kayak moving or tracking worth a . So we bailed with our hands and did the best we could. We watched one team right beside us go from the first kayak CP right back in to the beach. Oops, see you later. As we crossed the lake, we snaked out a course that covered probably twice the distance of a straight line just because I could not keep that thing tracking straight! The second kayaking CP was on an awesome little desert beach with the CP person almost hidden behind a tree. Josh and I decided to drain the boat on the shore and adjust the weight and the seats. It made all the difference in the world. We’d had too much water and the weight too far forward. The rest of the kayak was uneventful other than the fact that we had a few good laughs on the way in. We’d put some distance on a few teams.
The second special test was a slide up the Wall of Crisco. I was wishing I had one of those at home for other reasons, but back to the race . . . We killed that one and I won’t give up our secret. But next time we’ll kill it even more by sending someone around to pull from the top because, well, they didn’t say we couldn’t.
Back into TA3 to get into the trekking gear we went. We were 3+ hours into the race at this time so everyone did a gu or their fuel of choice and we hit the run. The winding course through the desert peaks around the lake was, again, awesome scenery. Marathon Man Josh set the pace early and pulled the team along at a good clip. Since this was a short race, we ran everything, flats, down, and up. All I can say about Karen is that she rips, fast and steady as they come, and keeps up with the guys with no problem. Did she out-climb one of us on the mtb leg? Hmmm. Not sure. Hahaha!
Of course, I had us totally misplaced on the map and Shaun had to correct me again. Ouch. We followed the outline of the lake and made our first good navigation call of the day by bushwhacking to the south off of the trail in search of the CP. A hundred yards or fanning out turned up the CP as the same one as the second kayak CP, except harder to find on land. The team hit the bushes for relief while Josh got the passport stamped. Our stomachs had been churning on the beginning of that run. Whew. Thanks Josh. Too bad we didn’t end up using the required shovel. That would have been cause for an action pic of whichever poor sucker had to go. Is that good teamwork or what?
After the CP we huddled for a sec around the map and set out northeast, in the general direction to the north of a peak to our right. On our way out of the CP area, we passed a somewhat serious looking Team Adventure Racing Concepts and Josh’s friend “the solo guy” heading the exact opposite direction. Our conclusion: someone is lost and we think it’s not us. Shaun led us out of there and a quarter mile later sniffed the trail out of thin air. It wouldn’t be the first time. Finally, navigation gets us one!
The trail continued in a gradual climb and then descended down across a small saddle between a peak and a ridge on the shore of the lake. Before long, the trail disappeared and we found ourselves scaling along and up a steep loose rock slope above the lake. A quick warning to everyone that a slip would result in a 100 foot fall and a swim was kind of redundant at that point. The solo guy caught us and joined us at the CP, a very cool location at the peak of a shoulder that extended out into the lake.
The next 30 minutes saw us continuing around the slope of the mountain that rose out of the lake. We arrived at the last CP with a few scratches and cactus needles added to the mix. The course out of this CP required us to shoot a bearing and pick a path that would get us approximately where we though we should be. We wanted to continue along the ridge we were on and eventually head down into the creek bed to catch the trail back to the finish. We didn’t want to hit the creek bed this soon because we didn’t know what was down there. But someone had seen a team cross the creek bed and head up the ridge on the opposite side of the valley. After double and triple checking, we kept on track. It ended up being the right call. Again, Shaun took the lead and navigated our bushwhack across the desert ridge. Picking a line was pretty much a matter of trying to avoid cactus and staying moving. Solo guy dropped us as he went higher on the ridge and faster. Lots of conversation ensued about our course but the call was to keep on track.
Eventually, Shaun started down the hillside as we approach a small canyon that looked tough to cross. We used the canyon to take us down to the creek bed as expected. Shaun had it nailed. We need to start calling him “Pigeon”. On the way down the canyon, I needed a hold to keep balance at one point and, not thinking, saw a green thing out of the corner of my eye to the right and ended up grabbing a fist full of cactus thorns. Serves me right. We found the creek bed flat and fast and passed many a hiker as we came out onto the trail at the lakeshore. The final mile was easy and fun along the lake shore. The lake water looked pretty tempting after an hour of running through the dry air. We cruised across the line at 1:03PM with an overall time of 4:28. We were the 1st 4-person coed team of 11, 4th coed team of 14, and 6th overall out of 25, pretty good for the first time out as a team.