Frozen hell of Allegheny National Forest or Two-below-duo 2011.

Last year we didn’t know any better. Pigeon clays? Nighttime orienteering? It sounded like fun that time. Not any longer. Another cold night in the woods… Another 16 penalty laps for missed targets (ok, maybe 14 if we are lucky)… How many times we vowed not to participate in another race and how many times we broke the promise… What is it? Lemming suicide? I have no answer.

“It’s pretty much like winter in Moscow” – said Max after getting out of the jeep in Warren, PA – “I’ve never liked it. Can we go back to Pittsburgh?” No, I answered. Treat it as a rehearsal for the Canadian winter, which might be even uglier depending on a province we’ll end up this summer. Having said that, I pictured us lost in the woods: the ambient temperature is -24C, we are tired, frustrated and have 20 more checkpoints to collect… Maybe a beer or two will help to get rid of this vision? Alas, there was nothing drinkable in the bar of “Holyday Inn”: they had only Bud light” on tap. Another ominous sign that the race will turn out bad… And so it did.

Stage I: bike 5 miles – run 4 miles – bike 5 miles.

Step by step, heart to heart, left right left
We all fall down like toy soldiers
Bit by bit, torn apart, we never-er win… 
Eminem, “Like Toy Soldiers” 

I was wondering why Frank called it “biking”. The ATV trail was covered with deep snow, and all we could do was to drag the bikes along. Why bother with bikes at all? Frank could have ordered us to weigh the bikes and bring a sack of potatoes of same weight. A live piglet would have been even better since a bike is a mobile creature with a character, not a lifeless object. “What studied torments tyrant hast for me”? Apparently, different kinds – our race directors are very resourceful, and it was just the beginning.

In ten minutes after the start Max informed me that his nose was dead frozen. I wasn’t impressed. My hands were clutching the handlebars in a tight grip, and I couldn’t feel a finger. Who cares about noses or ears? They serve cosmetic purpose and are not essential for everyday functioning. Anyway, at the end of the first bike leg our appendages thawed out as expected unlike our water and food supplies. All water bottles were solid frozen. I nearly broke the remnants of my teeth by nibbling on the cap. All energy gels acquired consistency of cement. Why nobody printed a warning on the package that “the product is not suitable for consumption in low temperature”? Jerky rules! It doesn’t freeze; it’s not sweet and has enough calories. Of course it makes you thirsty but thirst is a powerful stimulus to move faster.

We managed to ride 500 meters or so on a ploughed road, which was very enjoyable. Somehow, first “biking” portion ended, and we switched to trail running. Without an extra load (AKA bike) it was a piece of cake, and only one thing spoiled my mood a bit: the necessity to “bike” back. There was no ploughed road on the second biking portion – we made the entire way on foot. Eminem’s “step by step” kept playing in my head. It is about us. Slowly tumbling through the piles of snow pushing the bikes… is there the end?? If I had believed in anything it would have been a good version of hell. Frozen hell. I have other versions in my mind – a pathology resident hell, for example. The guys loved it. Ok, back to winter theme. Picture this:

Twilight. Blowing wind and moderate amount of snow falling from the sky. (I could have made it a blizzard, bit in such hazardous conditions you won’t be able to see around, which is essential to feel totally miserable). So the falling snow is not that heavy but it is always in your face. The snow on the ground it ankle to knee deep. There is a very faint path through the plains and woods, and it is always uphill. You drag the heaviest bike ever made climbing up slowly… step by step… The path twists and turns, and you hope to find something different around the corner every time but it is the same landscape… minute after minute… hour after hour… eternity after eternity… and you give up and slow down and then have a glint of hope and push the bike harder… but it never ends… never…

I shared my vision with Max and he suggested switching the marching order. Now I was looking at Max’s shoes and a rear wheel of his bike, and moving forward became easier. We caught up with a team, which number I didn’t remember. I didn’t even bother asking their names in spite of the fact that we raced together the entire last season. They let us pass and kept behind. At the end we finished 7 seconds in front of them, which wasn’t quite fair. At some point we met Frank, who informed us that we were very close to the finish line. 15 minutes or so he said. Well, 15 minutes in “Franks” maybe. It was more like ages. I asked acidly whether we were obliged to bring the bikes for the orienteering stage. It would be a lovely addition to the night stroll in the woods. My irony was wasted in vain: arguing with Frank is like questioning my ex program director. Eventually, it was all over. We finished fifth - 15 minutes or so behind the leaders. Although, as I mentioned before, only seconds separated us from the friendly team, which saved us on the next stage.

Stage II: nighttime orienteering 

And it's so damn cold, yes it's so damn cold,

I know it's hard to believe,

But I haven't been warm for a week;

Chris De Burgh, “Moonlight And Vodka”

Over the past season we’ve learned that we are not good at anything, especially if a task requires some brain work like using a compass. Orienteering is our weakest point: idiotic mistakes we make every time ruin our performance in pure physical activities like biking and running on a well-marked course. We probably have to try relay if somebody takes us as teammates. There haven’t been any volunteers so far:).

We started with course “B” and wasted hours on bloody #35. Max suggested getting there by trails. I declined. It would take ages! Why don’t we cut through the woods using a compass? Needless to say, I failed to find the checkpoint that way and we had to return back and use the trails and someone’s help. The most unpleasant surprise awaited us at the checkpoint. While Max was punching the card I looked around and found our tracks 20 meters away from the flag! I missed damn thing by 20 meters! “You should have kept to the left, I told you” – said Max. I wanted to strangle him at that moment. We got a new punch card for course “A”. I remembered some of the landmarks from last year, which helped a bit. At some point we met our morning companions who didn’t mind our company tonight. Third team joined our group. I had a feeling they had enough just like us. Orienteering in pack is easy: keep up with someone, who can count the distance and use a compass, punch the card, chat about this and that – I quite like it:). Max doesn’t. He thinks it is not a fair game. I agree with him in real life but in the middle of the night my principles are flexible:). Without being lost, all six of us headed back to the finish. “Moonlight and vodka, takes me away”… I spotted a bottle next to the fire, where cheerful organizers were having good time. Although I had stoped drinking this spirit by the age of 21, I would have gladly accepted a shot. But nobody offered us anything but another punch card and a strict order to be back by 11.00 p.m. I didn’t realise it was that late. We wasted so much time on cursed #35… We had an hour to finish the course but we never did. Max twisted his knee and was limping pretty badly. I suggested us quitting with what we have. If Frank says that we cannot take part in the last stage due to missed checkpoints, let it be. It appeared, Frank had already decided to switch the stage into “rogaine” format. Good news for us: Max will probably have time to recover by tomorrow morning.

In summary, this year we did even worse: 4 hours 33 minutes and 4 missed points. We are a hopeless case especially in comparison with Stacey (team “Fortitude”), the only solo female racer. She had never done orienteering before but she successfully collected all the points and finished precisely at 11.00 p.m. She should have been awarded a title of an IronWoman.

Stage III: duatlon (running and target shooting)

Max was in a horrible mood in the morning. He didn’t care about upcoming stage at all because his knee didn’t get any better. I tried to bring him to his senses: if he concentrates on shooting, there will be less penalty laps to limp through! A week before the race my attending Todd took us for “shotgun lessons”. At the end Max could hit 65% of the targets consistently. As for me, I managed to learn only how to hold a weapon (“keep your face on the gun, damn you”). Let me tell you, it was a big achievement. Todd declared that I have been the most useless pupil so far and all he expects from me at the event is to hold a gun properly. I promised not to let him down. He had high hopes for Max though. Max argued. He said he would have a stage fright. Neither of us lied to Todd. I did hold the gun as best as I could and even hit a “pigeon”. Max had a stage fright and missed all but one:). This time we couldn’t even compensate for lousy shooting with faster running: Max was hobbling miserably in the snow, and there was nothing I could do to save the situation. I wish I had concentrated on Todd’s instructions rather than on a cigar he gave me at the beginning of our shooting practice:). Needless to say, we were the last who left the penalty lap course, and at the end Max twisted an ankle of a “good leg”. After the race he was limping on both lower extremities, I had to do all driving back to Pittsburgh.

“Did you win?” – asked the guys at work. Sure we did. We have been awarded a bunch of medals. Co-ed teams are hard to come by in winter: there were only two this time, which made us automatic winners in each and evert “discipline”. I wish there was a beer equivalent for each shiny decoration:).

P.S. We ARE NOT taking part in 2BD next year.

P.P.S. Well, unless we’ll end up in Toronto – it’s kinda nearby.