Hitting rock bottom at the Gold Rush World Championship Qualifier

Written by Cyril Jay-Rayon
Created Date: Wednesday, 05 October 2011 00:00

After completing an expedition length adventure race, you find yourself reliving parts of the race for weeks following such an intense experience. The journey you go through is so profound that memories percolate at random times after returning to normal life. You might be engaged in such a mundane activity as grocery shopping when a vivid memory pops into your mind. Sometimes you don't know why the memory surfaces while other times you see the connection. The simple sight of an eggplant might trigger the memory of the purple bruise on your teammate's leg after an unwelcome crash or the hallucination you had one night that eggplants were hanging from trees (I've had stranger hallucinations). The vivid memories that inhabit your mind bring back all sorts of emotions and feelings you experienced during the race. Joy, awe, satisfaction, exhilaration, camaraderie, disappointment, frustration, and pain are only some of the sensations that weave themselves into a tapestry of emotional ebbs and flows. During these long races on little sleep, it is not uncommon to experience emotional extremes in a matter of just a few hours.

The Gold Rush Mother Lode World Championship Qualifier was no exception in the sense that it brought about strong emotions. What was different though, for me, is that after the first day, only three emotions permeated my world and these were at the less enjoyable end of the spectrum, misery, frustration, and disappointment.  I felt miserable because halfway through the race, I could no longer take full breaths, my throat was on fire, and coughing sent pain throughout my weakened body. I felt frustrated because my mind was still clear but my body produced no power, and I felt disappointment because I ruined my team's chances of winning the race after leading it early on.

My recollections are dreamlike. When memories pop into my mind or I think back, talk to teammates, or look at photos and videos, I wonder how it could have been me at the race. Is that me in the photo? Did I really look like that? Did I really feel that way? Was I really that slow? Did it really take 2 teammates to tow me? Of course, I know I was there and the emotions were powerful, but now, it all feels surreal. Adventure racers who've raced for years have an innate ability to forget or downplay the suffering they had to deal with in previous races. How else would we come back for more. That's why, although I believed my experience at the Gold Rush was the worse in my 10 years of racing, I wasn't sure I'd feel the same in hindsight. Well, it's been 3 weeks and I've had plenty of time to reflect on my experience and compare it to other experiences and I can say with certainty that I hit rock bottom during the race. This was the most miserable I've ever felt and I was humbled. I came into the race with flu like symptoms and left with Bronchitis, Laryngitis and a persistent flu that took 3 weeks to recover from. Despite a healthy appetite, I'm still trying to regain the weight I lost during the ordeal.

However, what I failed to recognize but now clearly see is that, despite the circumstances, the team pulled together and crossed the finishline together. And, in 3rd place no less. I have a deep appreciation for what my teammates did for me to help me along. I know they were deeply disappointed but they never complained. They showed incredible patience and focused on what they could influence. I feel grateful and proud of what we accomplished. Had I been racing solo, I would have most likely quit because I was moving so damn slow to be reomotely competitive. But, in a team, quitting is not an option. It forces you to endure beyond what you could handle alone. Although none of us, least of all me, wanted to go through this, we've become a better team for it. I, for one, will carry with me the memory of how helpless I felt and will try to show more empathy and patience for any teammate that falls ill.

So how did the race actually unfold? Here's what happened as we embarked on a journey across the majestic Sierra Nevada from the friendly town of Bridgeport on the eastern slopes to the quaint town of Columbia on the western side of the Sierras.

The race took teams on a 280 mile course (some of us added extra miles with our navigation choices) across the Nevada Sierra Mountains. We had 78 hours to get to the finish line by completing running/trekking, mountain biking, ropes works (ascending and descending), and paddling sections. When we got our maps and reviewed the challenging course, we knew that getting to the finish line before the cut-off would be challenging let alone trying to win. The team was comprised of Mari Chandler, Matt Hayes, Aaron Rinn, and myself.

The race started on a beautiful sunny day downtown Bridgeport with a short run around town. In true adventure racing style, the race directors found a muddy river for us to cross less than 5 minutes into the race. This meant that we started our adventure with wet shoes full of grit, classic!

From the run, we transitioned to a 15km mountain bike ride to Twin Lakes where we swam to a Check Point (CP) in the middle of one of the lakes. The bike ride was one big peleton as all the top teams regrouped and worked together to reach the lakes. Most teams opted for some form of floatation devices like pack rafts to cover the 1 mile lake section because of all the gear we had to carry for the subsequent major trek.

We arrived at the lakes leading the pack but came out of the water in 4th. After a quick transition, we caught the three other teams as we reached the first CP on the trek after a steep off trail climb. From there the top 4 teams moved quickly across rolling terrain along the Eastern Slopes of the Sierras in search of the next CPs and the Transition Area (TA) we'd reached just before sunset. During the early part of the trek, the teams leaped frogged each other but we eventually managed to open a gap followed closely by the Finnish team Lupus Extreme, Tecnu Extreme, and YogaSlackers. 

In late afternoon, we reach the first TA where we quickly transitioned to our bikes. When we left, no other team had arrived so we were off to a good start. Although I wasn't feeling great, my flu symptoms were not evident so I was hopeful that they wouldn't show up during the night. The bike section took us through the night and deep into the Sierras where we eventually reached the Sonora Pass Highway and crested the pass before enjoying a fast and furious descent to the Dardanelle campground, the site of the next TA. Riding down a paved road to the TA was a real treat after spending most of the night on dirt roads and deer trails. The start of the bike section went well for us as we moved quickly for a few hours until we reached a navigation decision point. We had to climb to over 9,000 feet to reach a remote CP and there were 2 routes to get there. Both were shown as a dotted line on the map so their quality was questionable. We opted for the shortest route but the "trail" quickly vanished once we started the ascent of a narrow valley. Being already committed, we decided that turning around to try the other trail would be time consuming and wouldn't guarantee that the other route was any better. So, we continued on our current route and hoped that the trail would reappear. If not, we'd have to hike-a-bike for about 15km, a sure way to lose the lead. The first 2,500 feet up the valley involved a lot of hike-a-bike but when we reached the pass, a narrow trail formed and we were able to ride it about 50% of the time as it weaved it's way along a broad valley that gradually climbed to the CP. After riding, walking, and losing the trail many times, we came upon a dirt road that wasn't on the map but was going the right way. Our excitement at the thought that the road would take us all the way to the CP area was short lived as it dead ended at a rustic A-frame structure. Going forward would once again involved a lot of route finding and pushing our bikes through the thicker vegetation we encountered at higher elevation away from the dryer eastern slop

When we finally arrived at the meadow and found the CP, we saw the lights of the other teams in the distance. They were approaching the CP from the other route and had made some time on us. We weren't surprised and happy we hadn't lose more time. After getting the CP, we cross paths with the YogaSlackers who were on their way to pick up the CP. The race had come back together in the depth of the night. From there we took off on mostly dirt roads to the Sonora Pass Highway. When we finally reached the TA at Dardanelle, it was almost light. We opted for a couple of hours of shut eye, a wise decision since I was feeling weak.

To our surprise, when we woke-up, the other teams hadn't come yet. We assumed that they had slept out on the wilderness. We left the TA on foot and embarked on a massive trek that took us to Eagle Peak (about 9,300ft) and then to a stunning climbing section. We opted for a conservative route to Eagle Peak along trails because I wasn't feeling so good but these soon disappeared. We were back off trail while we contoured the cliff bands on the eastern side of Eagle Peak. Our circumnavigation of the peak took us longer than expected so when we reached the summit, the YogaSlacker were already there, having opted for a more direct route through some cliff bands. It was a good move on their part. We chased each other to the ropes section a few hours away. When we reached the ropes section, the light was dimming and the rock formation we were about to climb and then descend on the other side, was stunning. The views were incredible. Seeing the sunset while on a gorgeous rock face is a moment to behold, one of many rewards of adventure racing. The rock section was long but relatively easy. When we came off the ropes, night had completely engulfed us. We turned our Light and Motion solo lights on and headed into the night in search of the next CP and the adventure that comes with it. We were only a few minutes behind the YogaSlackers and Tecnu was about to come off the ropes. Halfway through the race, no clear leader had emerged.

Unfortunately for me, I was getting worse and our pace was slow. We were concerned that we wouldn't make the Sunday 2pm race cut-off because we still had a 130km bike section and 60 km paddle to complete. So, we opted for something we rarely do. We skipped 4 optional CPs on the trek and headed to the TA. It was a hard decision to make but the right one. We arrived at the TA first and once again opted for a 2 hour sleep. When we woke-up, both other lead teams were there and they both had also skipped 4 optional CPs. We all left together during the night on our epic ride. We quickly split up from Tecnu who headed in a different direction but we rode with the YogaSlackers for a few hours until sunrise along some excellent single track that followed a flume. At times, we had to walk our bikes on narrow planks above the  flume, It was nerve-racking at times. My sense of balance after 2 days of racing was not so good especially with a bike on my back. It was a unique experience.

When the sun came up, we had collected a few CPs and were moving well despite my state. Many of the dirt roads were railway grades so the climbs were gradual. This was a blessing because if I exerted myself too much, I started to wheeze and hyperventilate. When I wasn't pushing, I was feeling ok but as soon as I did, I'd gasp for air and cough. Not exactly convenient when your job is to exert yourself!

The bike section allowed us to get most of the CPs in any order so all 3 teams opted for different routes. We didn't see each other after the first few hours and we hoped that our route was the most efficient. Because we were moving reasonably well ( I had to be towed on all the uphills. Thanks Aaron for towing me on most uphills!), we decided to get all optional CPs on the bike section. It was going well until maybe the last 35 km when I started to wheeze even on the flats. The most insignificant exertion push me over the edge. We were so close to the TA but I now had to walk every uphill while someone pushed my bike. I was a total wreck and absolutely miserable. If that wasn't enough, it started to rain and some of the dirt roads had red clay on top which turned to a thick mud which attached itself to our wheels and frames. We were now reduced to a snail pace and the rain and cold made my condition even worse. It got to a point where I could no longer walk uphill without being towed. I had progressed from being towed on the bike to being towed walking because being towed on the bike required too much effort which resulted in coughing fits and a desperate search for oxygen. This is when we set-up the "pain train". I think Mari came up with the idea and I was very grateful for it. Riding uphill was now out of the question, so walking was the only option, albeit utterly depressing. When I walked alone, I could do so at a pathetic 2km/hr but with the help of the "pain train" we got up to 4-5km/hr uphill. Not much but better than the alternative. The "pain train" was simple. Aaron would walk his bike in front and tow Mari's bike while she would also walk and push her bike. And, I would hang-off Mari's bike town. This way, I could lean back and let them take some of my weight. This reduced my exertion and aloud me to move faster. Meanwhile, Matt pushed my bike and navigated.

Despite feeling helpless, powerless, and a total drag on the team, I knew I had one job I could still do, to keep moving no matter what. It took us almost 5 more hours to get to the TA but we made it. When we arrived at Camp Nine, Tecnu had been through 3 1/2 hours earlier. I was a mess and we knew we didn't have much of chance to catch them so we again opted to sleep 2 hours and hope for the best. We slept more in this 3 day race then any other before. Still, I felt horrible when I woke up but I knew the kayak section would be a lot easier than biking or trekking.

When we headed out on the river way towards New Melones Lake, the YogaSlackers were 45 minutes ahead of us (having passed us while we slept). Our kayak adventure was in another spectacular area and we quickly picked up the first CPs. Unfortunately for me, some of the further CPs required some hiking to get to them. Something I was in no condition to do well or fast. We did one of them but decided to skip the 2 furthest CPs because we weren't sure we'd make it back in time before the cut-off.

We arrived at the kayak take out with plenty of time to spare. All that remained was a short but steep 500 foot climb on our bikes and a quick run through the town of Columbia were the finish and the end of my misery awaited. I grind my way up the climb with the help of Mari's tow. We looked for one last CP in town and ran, well I wobbled, through the historic streets of this cool Gold Rush town.

Congrats to Tecnu for a well deserved win and the Slackers for taking second (they got the 2 kayak optional CPs we skipped and made it back with minutes to spare).

Thanks Mari, Matt, and Aaron for helping me to the finish! It wasn't easy for any of us but perseverance paid off.

Thanks as well to Nuun and all our other sponsors who made this incredible, rugged, and amazing journey possible.

For more photos, see our 2 photo albums in our Gallery section of our site:
Album 1 - Photos by 1iOpen Productions
Album  2 - Photos taken the team, Doug Judson, Adrian Crane