Three veterans, two days, 39.4 miles, and lots of fun
By Zach Detweiler, Mike Lara, and Nate Davis
The three of us signed up for a two-day orienteering race put on by Rootstock Racing called The Stockville in the Pennsylvania woods. Zach has done this type of race before, but this is new for Mike and Nate. To hear us talk about the race, listen to these two podcasts, which can also be found on your favorite podcasting app by searching “Strong Towers”:
Friday, October 11, 2019 (Day before the race)
5:48 PM Making the final adjustments to our gear. Our bags are packed with two days of food and clothing for possible cold and rainy weather. My bag weighs 30 pounds and somehow Mike’s only 25 and Nate’s only 20.
7:30 PM Completed a final run to Underarmour for a few last articles of clothing. We ate a great spaghetti dinner and recorded our conversation for the Strong Towers podcast. The conversation felt like therapy as we all talk about our nerves and why we were doing the race. It was a great reminder that we were doing this for each other. We wanted to spend time doing something hard with fellow men of God.
Saturday (Race Day 1)
O’dark thirty Wake u, get dressed, eat a bacon, egg, and bagel sandwich, and get on the road for the 45-minute drive to the starting line.
7:00 AM We get our maps. Three sheets of paper showing 29 marked points. I start looking at the big picture to make a plan. To hit every point, we will need to cover 26 miles (assuming we travel a perfect route) in 14 hours. Know that hitting every point isn’t in the cards for us (only three teams ended up achieving that), it comes down to strategy. What can we accomplish? The minimum for day one is 8 points covering 13 miles.
8:00 AM Off we go! The first thing to learn about this type of racing is to trust yourself and your team because people will go in all directions. Today, we decided to skip the first three optional points because they were in the opposite direction as the rest of the race. When only the Dad at 9-year-old son makes the same decision as us, it is easy to start second-guessing our plan.
8:14 AM Approaching the first point M1. I always think finding the first point is hard. What details are on the map? How far have we traveled? Did I mention no one else went the way we did? But after skirting a local’s property to avoid waking someone up on a Saturday morning, we find it. Yes! Here we go!
08:48 AM Time for the first bushwhacking (going off-trail through the woods). We hit the next point easily.📷 📷
09:23 AM The next point is in the bag. This is easy peasy, right?
09:45 AM Now we are walking in circles in the woods. I am not sure what happened, but the GPS track shows us walking in a circle then backtracking. Did I mention this was all with just a map and compass? We finally get the point and are done with the easy start and are off to get three optional points that are off-trail and on steep terrain.
10:43 AM We went downhill to the next point and got it easily. Now we need to head through some thick, muddy brush and up a steep hill with no good landmarks to tell us we are climbing the right hill. This was the first big teamwork moment. Nate says, “I think it is over there” as he is pointing the opposite way I am walking. Or should I say stumbling since this hill is steep enough and thick enough that walking really isn’t the right word to describe how we are moving. I consulted the map and disagree but think it is worth trusting Nate and Mike’s opinion. We turn around and guess what? 30 meters later, there it is! Did I mention you need to trust your team?
11:23 AM Our first big physical test. The contour lines are so close together they look like a solid block. Time to climb 500 feet of elevation in just a half-mile. Here we go!. My calves are burning and my heart pounding. It feels like this is never going to end, but it does. We get the point and soon are scrambling across a rock slide and down the other side of the hill.
12:25 PM We are back on the trail!!! We have now napped 8 points and after 4.5 hours of racing are working well as a team. But should we call this racing? We haven’t seen a team in 4 hours!
1:15 PM We got an easy point just off the trail and are now heading to heading to a mandatory point tucked along a very small stream. This should be easy right? Oh, wait, water helps plants grow, and they all wanted to grow here. The good news is we started seeing other teams. The bad news is they were going in every direction. As soon as we would see someone, they would say, “Is there a trail that way?” We were pushing our way through the thick vegetation hoping we would not walk past the checkpoint amidst the overgrown thorns and bushes. After a while, we got it and backtracked to the trail.
1:57 PM Decision time. We are 6 hours into the race and have 5 more hours of daylight left. We can backtrack and bushwhack up into the hills for the chance of three more points or skip them and make sure we are hitting some of the last hardpoints in daylight. We chose to skip the three points and head up our consolation prize—a one-mile climb. The climb was on a trail and then a road so it was the first time in a while I didn’t have to think. I just had to walk. We had been pretty talkative as a team most of the race. Talking about strategy and life in general. But now we were all silent, just climbing the hill contemplating, “Do I have what it takes?” That’s when it hits me, last night we talked about doing this race to grow closer to God, but with all the hustle and bustle to get the race early, study the maps, and get racing, we never stopped to pray. So there, in the middle of the climb, we paused, caught our breaths, and dedicate the race to God. It was perfect timing. We were all starting to enter into the tough mental state and taking just one minute to remember why we were doing this and who was in control was freeing. Everyone is wired differently, God has been working on me to give more to him by releasing control back to the one who really is in control. It is moments like these that remind me that his plan is better than my plan, and he will politely keep let me try to muscle my way through life. He is a gentleman and wants to be asked in. He has given us the choice to live our lives with or without him. Life with him does not mean unicorns and butterflies, but it does mean he will be with you in the struggle. I know I would rather climb a mountain with the creator by my side than doing it alone.
3:02 PM Two more points in the bag and feeling good. We just need to follow this logging road until it hits a dirt road, and we are rocking and rolling. Time for a McDonald’s hamburger. Yes, we packed hamburgers as a source of high-density calories. They should have been cheeseburgers, but I think the cashier was a little confused when I ordered 12.
3:12 PM Why is the logging road ending? This isn’t how it should be on the map. Umm…let’s just keep going this way and we should hit the road.
3:15 PM Road where are you?
3:23 PM We have found a road. What road is this? Why would you not put signs on a road? I am tired, we are all tired. If we walk the wrong way, I am not going to want to turn around and backtrack.
3:34 PM I know where were are again!!!!! Looking back this was a period of 20 minutes where I felt I was letting the team down and possibly putting us in a really bad situation of being lost and having to retrace our steps at a time when we were all getting tired. It felt much longer. I was stressed but hiding it. I am sure glad I had two teammates that supported and encouraged me. I am also glad I chose the right direction to go on the road.
4:34 PM After an “easy” two miles on the Appalachian Trail, we arrive at Camp Micheaux, which was used as a German prisoner of war (POW) camp during WWII. Now, all that is left are the foundations of the buildings. We got to drop our backpacks and do a mini orienteering course. I felt 30 pounds lighter once I took my pack off. Oh wait, I was 30 pounds lighter. We breezed through the mini-course, passing many teams. We got to see some cool stuff. From a POW's name etched on a bridge to the creepy underground mechanical room for the pool. We cleared the course in 40 minutes and were back on our way
6:02 PM Who wants to climb one more hill off-trail before it gets dark? Silence…I think we can do it? It’s now or never? Up we go. (Zach Internally: This point better be up here.)
6:20 PM We got it. Now it’s all downhill as the sun sets. Or all downhill until the next uphill.
7:09 PM Two more points in the bag. It’s now dark and we are on the home stretch. We just have to follow a trail for one mile easy. Did I mention it is uphill?
7:17 PM We just need to get to that light on the top of the hill.
7:22 PM Why isn’t the light getting any closer? I am going to smash that stupid light when we get there.
7:31 PM Finally, we are on the road. We never made it to the light at the top of the hill because the stupid light at the top of the hill was...the moon shining through the trees.
7:37 PM We pass a team that we have seen a few times throughout the day. They have gotten all the points so far. But they are going the opposite way. They make a joke and say, “You’re going the wrong way.” Haha, good one.
7:41 PM Why is my compass broken? It says we are going East, but we should be going Southeast. Um, guys, we are going the wrong way. Turn around, back up another hill.
8:15 PM We got one last point and rolled into the mid camp. We covered 23.7 miles in 12 hours and got 23 of 29 points. We are all feeling like we had maxed out our day. We could have maybe got one more point if we were perfect in our bushwhacking and navigation and maybe one more if we pushed it up to the 10 PM deadline. However, we may have not gotten one of our last daylight points if it was in the dark.
8:40 PM Tent is set up. The race directors transported our tent and JetBoil, but we carried everything else all day. I am enjoying an excellent pasta with a meat sauce camping meal while airing out my tired feet.
9:15 PM Time to sleep after completing Day 1 complete.
Sunday (Race Day 2)
4:00 AM Teams start to wake, but we agreed to sleep in till 5:00 AM. We are all awake but are not speaking because no one wants to start the day.
6:12 AM After eating some food and packing up our tent, we are off. It is dark, and we are the last team to leave the camp.
6:50 AM We are getting our second point of the day as it is starting to get light. A few other teams are there and mention that it took them an hour to find the first point in the dark. This is when we all say you ourselves, we are glad we slept in that extra hour.
8:10 AM Two more points in the bag and looking for another. We are in an area with multiple streams and pretty thick undergrowth. The clue says “Stream Junction” should be easy right? After finding the fourth or fifth stream junction and no flag, the doubts start creeping in. Throughout the race this was the hardest point to find, we spread out about 10 yards between each of us and keep walking the streams. It is so thick that we can’t see each other, and we have given up trying to stay dry so we are walking through the streams. I am seriously considering calling off the search because this point seems unfindable.
8:23 AM Nate found it. After 20 minutes (that felt like 40), it was hanging on a small limb over the stream. We had to get within about 10 yards to spot it.
10:02 AM Another two checkpoints in the bag as we walk up the main road to get a mandatory checkpoint. I made two navigation mistakes that cost us a total of about 40 minutes. The first mistake was after some tough bushwhacking, we decided to head back to the road to attack the next point from a known location. In retrospect looking at other teams tracks, we could have saved 20 minutes if we had just bushwhacked another 500 meters instead of walking 1,200 meters on roads. Second, we overshot a point because the trail we were walking on was too nice. I only realized it when we started seeing boundary signs for the forest. We had to backtrack and pay closer attention to the micro terrain to find it. The lesson learned is to make sure you have a good backstop so you don’t overshoot too far. Also, keep track of your time and estimated distance. We had walked twice as far as we should have. But now, we were walking into a mandatory checkpoint. It is always great to see the race organizers and volunteers at these mandatory checkpoints. We fill up our waters and pull out our hamburgers as we head back out on our adventure.
10:51 AM We have two more points to our credit but are huffing and puffing after a pretty steady climb for the last 40 minutes. We are now on a section of the course where the organizer’s advice is coming into play in a big way. They told us to use all the maps we are given. What they mean is to make sure we are using the standard topographical map but also the forest map. The forest map has many trails on it that aren’t on the topographical map. This takes some work and lots of second-guessing because the maps are not the same scale and you have to keep checking both to keep your frame of reference right. However, if we can do it well, we can maximize our speed by traveling the ATV trails that are rocky and steep but still faster than bushwhacking.
12:03 PM We have three hours left to race. We just got the last three points on the ridge with ease. Traveling on the ATV trails made the navigation easier but our legs re weary. Now it is time for another bushwhack to get back off the ridge. This should be a big time saver, and it feels like there should be a trail in this area even when there is nothing on the map.
12:35 PM Back to the road. The short cut worked. It was slow going in places, but we made it in good time. We now have a decision coming up. There are two points within striking distance. One is on the way to the finish and the other is an out and back. I estimate if we just get one point, we have about 4 kilometers to the finish line. The second point would require an extra 1.5 kilometers (about a mile) of bushwhacking and climbing, which is not something we want to be doing at this point. We decide to skip the second point and finish out the race.
1:17 PM We get our last checkpoint!!! Now just time to cruise to the finish.
1:46 PM We are done and got 14 of 19 checkpoints. We covered 15.7 miles in 7.5 hours of travel time (8.75 hours of race time…remember we slept in another hour) on day 2. Over both days we covered 39.4 miles in about 20 hours and got 37 of 49 points that put us in 14th place out of the 32 teams. We are all tired but feeling good about our accomplishments. It was not about our place in the race but that we pushed ourselves and kept going. We only made a few mistakes and kept on encouraging one another. Now we get to put on dry clothes and eat some pizza. This race was exceptionally well organized and designed. The racecourse was nearly perfect with lots of route choices and challenges, which allowed us to choose how much of a challenge we wanted.