2011 END-AR 24 race report
Here’s how the “toughest race in North Dakota went down –
Prologue – “Knock Knock.” Teams starting: 18
Ten minutes to 2 pm on August 27th, teams were given two ‘maps’ – a satellite image of Frostfire Ski resort and a straight line schematic showing distance and direction from a start location for seven prologue points. The points could be visited in any order and each one consisted of a laminated photo of a famous (or infamous) ‘celebrity’. Teams had to record ‘who’s there’ and then return to the start location, check in, pick up their mandatory gear, and head downhill on a gravel road for about a mile to CP1, on the banks of the Pembina river. The fastest teams finished this section in about 25 minutes while the slowest teams must have gotten lost as it took them well over an hour to solve the riddle. One team had multiple members stung by wasps, an unfortunate situation as one of them was highly allergic. They withdrew from the race and drove 30 minutes to nearby Cavalier and the emergency room – reporting back later that they were all ok.
Section 1 – “Initiation.” Teams starting: 17
Teams reached CP1, blew up their pack-rafts, and headed down the Pembina River. They were required to travel on the river for the next four miles, passing CP2 on a mid-river island, to arrive at the confluence with the Little South Pembina River. At this point teams exited the river to find a severely overgrown snow-mobile trail that took them to CP3 (in a mud pit) and continued all the way to CP 5 (trail junction). Between CP4, which was visible from the trail between 3 and 5, was the first of the courses three photo-checkpoints – a dilapidated warming shelter. The photo-checkpoints were not marked on the map and teams had only a photo clue and general instructions (i.e. between 3 and 5) to locate these CPs. After CP 5, a barbed wire fence crossed the old trail which teams were not permitted to cross (private property). They were faced with a choice of bushwhacking back to the river and pack-rafting 1-2 miles to another good trail system and CP 6, or trying to bushwhack the same distance, possibly hitting trails that might or might not exist.
Three of the top four teams chose to return to the river. Most of the other teams opted to bushwhack, feeling the river would be slower. Most of these latter teams got miserably lost and ended up being forced to cross ‘the mother of all bogs’ – a foul smelling chest deep monstrosity of sucking mud. Once teams located CP 6, a reasonably good trail led to CP 7 where it petered out, leaving teams to once again decide whether to take back to the river or look for overland passage to the base of a broad and rather indistinct ridge that climbed steeply up to CP8/TA1 at the Masonic overlook, just outside of Walhalla, ND.
It took most teams two or more hours longer than race organizers anticipated to arrive at CP8/TA1, with even top teams coming in an hour later than expected. One team with withdrew upon reaching CP8 due to a pinched nerve.
Section 2 – “Snow mobiles vs. Cross bikes.” Teams Starting: 16
Teams picked up their bikes and road on rolling double-track along the bluff top to CP9 and then picked up section line roads for 4 miles to CP10, located in an old pit quarry. From there it was four more miles of section line to CP11, an out and back half mile jaunt along deteriorating trail that finally forced teams to dismount and descend into a sheer walled ravine for several hundred feet. The ravine, particularly in the moon-less darkness, had a surreal quality and seemed very out of place in the middle of the otherwise flattish landscape.
Teams then remounted and rode another mile plus before reaching a screaming gravel descent where they lost about 400 feet of elevation to arrive at CP12. What comes down must go up, and the teams were immediately greeted with a 400 foot ascent up newly graveled (big raquetball sized stuff) that proved unrideable for all but two racers. Six more miles of section line road brought teams to CP13 - 50 feet up a bluff at an old quarry site. The bluff was steep enough to require the use of hands to climb, and was the last of the four “team punches” – special CPs that every member of the team had to physically visit in order to punch the tyvek wristband they’d been issued at registration.
From here things got interesting as the riding got more technical and all of the racers reached CP 13 after dark. Riders headed down into the main Pembina river gorge on steep, banked, and sometimes severely rutted snow-mobile trails, passing another photo CP (a pair of ATV trails ‘pointing’ up a small hill) enroute to CP15. The difficult riding slowed things down for most teams with a few teams even resigning themselves to walking huge portions of the ‘technical’ stuff. CP15 also proved a challenge to find, as many teams got disoriented in the network of trails. CP16, where the now overgrown trails crossed the Little North Pembina river, marked the end of the section. One team withdrew at CP 12 and another at CP 16.
Section 3 – “the Gauntlet of Darkness.” Teams Starting: 14
Racers now had to leave the comfort of the fire at CP 16 to head upstream along the Little North Pembina drainage. The creek bed was filled with boulders and still flowing with a small stream – definitely technical hiking. There were no trails but lots of evidence of wildlife: Moose and coyote foot-prints, bear scat, and even a few cougar tracks. Bats flew overhead and beavers blocked the way, staring down racers as they approached the first of a half dozen beaver dams that would be encountered along the six or so miles of creek walking. A mile up the creek teams encountered CP17 (in the same location as CP12) and were treated to another fire and Coke and Mountain Dew generously donated by the city of Walhalla. The lead teams passed CP 17 just before 1 am and were moving fast. Back of the pack teams did not arrive until after sunrise the next morning.
From CP17 to CP 20, teams continued picking their way up the winding stream bed, alternatively boulder hopping and wading waist deep through beaver-made ponds to make progress. It seemed to take forever and many teams reported taking short ‘naps’ in the middle of the night or having hallucinations caused by sleep deprivation during this section. CP20 was located where the creek once again crossed a dirt road. Only four teams reached CP20 before 6 am, the cutoff for continuing onto the long course. The rest of the teams had to climb out of the drainage on the dirt road and run about a mile and a half to the rim of the main gorge where they descended steeply for about a mile to reach CP 21 on the Pembina river. One team withdrew at CP 17 due to an ankle injury.
Section 3a – “The Long Course.” Teams Starting: 4
The long course started with another half mile of creek walking to a small spur creek that shot off the main creek just before an old bridge spanned the river bottom. Checkpoint LC1 (long course 1) was located a short distance up this creek. Most of the Long course teams completely overshot the mark here, feeling they hadn’t gone far enough when they hit the bridge (in their sleep deprived state they must not have consulted the scale on the map). From LC1, teams climbed out of the spur creek and picked up an overgrown road for a few hundred meters until it dead-ended in an huge old pit quarry. Here teams were treated to 75 foot high dunes of crumbling shale in a strangely rain-forest like setting. Eventually the “road” picked up on the far side of the quarry and ascended up to the last E-W section line road south of the Canadian border.
Teams ran this for about two miles until it terminated in a corn-field on the rim of the main Pembina gorge. They were directed to the southern point of the field where they had to take and hold a bearing of approximately 240 degrees for about 1000 feet of steep and thick downhill bushwhacking to hit a hidden pond and the next checkpoint. From here it was another 1000 foot bushwhack to a good snowmobile trail that they took about a mile up the gorge to an old Texas crossing of the river to the manned LC3. To get to LC4, racers had ford the river and then pick up the correct of two trails heading away from LC3 towards Canada. As the trail petered out another ford was required to reach the checkpoint. Teams could then either inflate pack-rafts and paddle back (through one of the best ‘rapids” of the course) to LC 3 or return on foot and deploy the boats there.
A 3-4 mile paddle took racers to a small creek/draw that joined the main river that required a very attuned navigator to locate. Teams had to head up the creek which was very narrow, steep sided, and choked with deadfall for about a quarter mile before taking a bearing and bushwhacking out of the creek basin through extremely difficult terrain for another quarter mile. The bushwhacking climbed slopes of ‘vertical swamps and ponds’ that had to be experienced to really be understood. Finally a trail was reached as was LC5. An easy downhill run on trails took teams to a clearing and LC6, located within a few minutes of CP21 where they rejoined the regular course.
Section 4 – “Rollin’ on the River.” Teams Starting: 13
After checking in with the volunteer manning CP21, teams inflated pack-rafts and began floating down the river. Many of the teams had brought cheap ‘Walmart –style’ boats and were left to deal with one or more of their craft having been rendered un-useable due to run-ins with some of the rapids on the initial river section.
Several more sets of easy (but fun) rapids were encountered on this stretch of river en-route to CP 22. CP23 was the final photo checkpoint and the most challenging one – the checkpoint was 200 feet up a creek entering the river that was identified only by the picture. Several of the teams missed this CP, floating past it and deciding to take the time penalty rather than try to ford back up the river to look for it.
The final checkpoint, CP24, was back where they’d dropped their bikes – where the Little North Pembina joined the Pembina River.
Section 5 – “Sting.” Teams Starting: 13
The final bike leg was very short – only about 3.5 miles. The fun part was that the last mile was a big steep climb, all the way to the finish line.
Note: My hard drive crashed while i was writing this and with it went tons of un-backed up digital stuff, including the maps for the run section, short course, and long course, which is why they aren't included. Bummer. Don't worry, there will be more cool maps to look at next year!