A Bitter Pill to Swallow: Adventure Racing with GMARA
The adjectives were piling up at the finish line of the GMARA Bitter Pill 2012 Adventure Race two weeks ago: “Brutal. Cruel. Sick. Grueling. Really tough.”… followed by the most often-repeated phrase of the day — “That was awesome!”
You need a certain tolerance for pain when you sign up for a race with the Green Mountain Adventure Racing Association, but the appeal is obvious: Hardcore bragging rights (oh, and a day spent navigating through some of Vermont’s most beautiful areas). And at least you get to pick your poison, whether you prefer stumbling around in the dark (try a Murky Excursion), skiing, snowshoeing, and postholing your way through a winter race (that’s the Frigid Infliction), or going all out in a combination swim-bike-trek-and-Tyrolean-traverse for the Bitter Pill Challenge, held July 28 in the beautiful Moosamaloo National Recreation Area.
Nineteen teams of three came out for the 25-mile race across land, water, singletrack and waterfalls, and since no previous experience was required, the teams at the starting line were of all ages and experience levels. There’s really only one make-or-break element: If you can’t navigate using a map a compass (no iPhone or GPS allowed!), you probably won’t make it out of the parking lot.
The premise of adventure racing is pretty simple: Each team receives a USGS map 10 minutes before the race begins with 15 pre-plotted checkpoints (CP1-15), three bonus checkpoints for a reduced overall time, and specific instructions about the order in which you collect your CPs. The first team in each three-person division to stamp their passports at all 15 checkpoints and make it back to the starting line, wins. Teams are required to stick together at all times, and must carry certain items like first-aid, water, a good knife, PFDs and bike helmets. Other than that, you’re on your own.
Since EMS was a race sponsor and DJ and I had volunteered to help for the day, we were camped out at transition area 2/3 during the race. The first racers were scheduled to arrive at our transition at around 6 a.m. to drop their bikes and head out for the swim part of the course — but first they had to wade through three swampy, murky beaver ponds to reach the first three checkpoints. (Keep in mind that it’s barely light outside at this time.) Racers arrived to our transition area dripping wet and covered in mud, no doubt cursing race director Shawn Freebern for the soggy intro. But hey, it’s not called the Bitter Pill for nothing!
DJ and I had set CPs 5-9 earlier that week, so we had to bite our tongues when several teams headed off in the wrong direction to CP5, a nice little bushwhack up to Chandler Ridge that served as a precursor to the swim out to CP6 and CP7 in Silver Lake. And while teams may have been cursing the mandatory PFD on the bike and hiking sections, no one was complaining about its buoyancy when swimming a half mile with packs, shoes, helmets and other gear strapped to their backs.
After a few quick and dirty CPs that required some scrambling, trail running and woods navigation, racers arrived at the Bitter Pill highlight: The Tyrolean traverse at checkpoint 11. Burlington-based climbing center Petra Cliffs set up an awesome traverse that spanned the Falls of Lana, challenging any racers with a fear of heights, but offering amazing view of Lake Dunmore. The photos don’t really do this element of the race justice — the vistas were spectacular, and well worth a pause in the middle of the traverse. I was parked at the bottom of the waterfall to catch the action, where it became clear that the lighter, smaller racers had a definite advantage. Unofficial bonus points were awarded to the racer who high-kicked his way across — but the participants who leaned way back into the harness and scooted across upside down definitely had a speed advantage.
The rest of the race was a combination of trekking and mountain biking, with a sweet singletrack segment along the Chandler Ridge Trail that a lot of people loved — except maybe the guy whose chain broke mid-ride, necessitating a six-mile hike-and-bike.
The final checkpoint (not including three bonus CPs) was on top of a cool rock that was an island in a sea of stinging nettles, best described by this Bitter Pill trip report: “CP15 – My god. I knew nothing about stinging nettles before this. Boy, did I get the full tour. Minor nuisance, they say. Lasts 10 minutes, they say. It started post bushwhack descent with the slow onset of an inexplicable, intense burning sensation from the thighs down. It then blossomed into 20 minutes of just shutting my brain off – had to hand Ian and Keja the map and just be mindless for a few. Didn’t know what was up until I brushed against another and instantly recognized the sensation. Stupid plants. Turns out it’s straight-up histamine they inject. It’s not even like you need to react to anything and bring your own histamine to the party [Expletive]. At least it’s not a gimpie-gimpie. Twenty minutes into the MTB leg and I was fine unless I brushed my leg.” —Team Sink, Trip, Crash.
After a parting insult of an 1,100-foot elevation gain in the final bike segment (again, thanks race director!), teams crossed the finish line back at Blueberry Hill Inn battered, bruised, bleeding — and ready for hot showers and a beer. The event concluded with the awards presentation and some seriously tasty smoked pork and other fare by Bevo catering. Untamed New England crossed the finish line first with an adjusted time of 4:39 (each bonus checkpoint subtracted an hour from the overall time); for the full results, click here.
There were some pretty beat-up looking racers crossing the finish line, but nearly all of them were grinning ear-to-ear after a hot shower and a beer. Trail notes, scratches and bruises were compared, as well as a few bad-luck stories (like the rider who had three flats during the course of the race, or the aforementioned racer with the broken chain). Other racers swapped tales about bee stings, blood and the unanimously detested stinging nettles — and nearly everyone left with a hearty “see you next time!” The dates haven’t been set for next year’s pain-fests, but Freebern estimates a Frigid Infliction for March, and a Bitter Pill in August. Tune in here for more info — and start working on your navigation skills immediately.