Last April, roughly 100 racers assembled in Greenough, MT at the Paws Up Resort to compete in the annual GrizzlyMan and Black Bear Challenge Adventure Race.
This year’s race proved to be MUCH harder than any previous version. The race includes trail running, orienteering, mountain biking, and for the GrizzyMan, whitewater navigation.
Racers are given a sheet of coordinates, a map, and a “passport” the night before the race. During the pre-race meeting, organizers stressed the rules, shared the course safety info, and explained the open format of the race.
Racers had the evening to plot their points on their maps, and plan their route. At 5:00 a.m. the GrizzlyMan racers started out in the pre-dawn light, and at 9:00 a.m. the Black Bear Racers headed out on their course.
This year I competed in the Black Bear Challenge with my cousin Adam, on the team “Just Cuz”. We drove up together Friday afternoon, got registered, and staged our bikes at the bike “Transition Area”. We had just very little clue what to expect. We were told there would be running and biking, but beyond that, we had absolutely no idea what to expect.
We’d never visited the area, we weren’t sure how much snow may or may not be on the course, and we were even less clear about how far we might be expected to travel. All we knew was that we’d be on our bikes for some of the race, and on foot for the rest.
For accommodations Friday night, we rented a “boxcar” at the Lubrecht Experimental Forest Headquarters. The boxcar had a couple of single bunk beds, a couple of small desks, and a pot belly wood stove. There was one shared outhouse that we could find, between 15 or 20 cabin/boxcars, but no running water as far as we could find, although the website mentions a “washhouse” with showers so I’m sure there was water somewhere?
The 7:00 p.m. pre-race meeting Friday night was mandatory, although as they handed out race passports it appeared a couple of teams decided to cancel. As we got our passports, we quickly counted and noted the 16 sets of coordinates representing hidden checkpoints. The race directors stated that last year’s racers requested a more challenging format, so they responded by purchasing 60 checkpoints for the GrizzlyMan race, 16 of which were shared with the Black Bear racers as opposed to last year’s 13 GMan checkpoints and 9 Black Bear checkpoints.
They also decided to spread the checkpoints out more, and place them in harder to find locations. Thanks, guys! After the meeting, Adam and I raced back to the boxcar and started plotting points. We took our time and plotted with care as these points would ultimately determine our success or failure. Thank God I trained so hard to get all set for this adventure although there were times I wondered if it was worth all the trouble.
Plotting the points took much longer than expected and we didn’t get to sleep till around 11:30. Sleep didn’t last long, and we were up by 7 a.m., getting our gear finalized and starting to stretch out. A shotgun blast started the race at 9:00, and a pod of about 50 people started jogging away from the Paws Up Resort. As the course was completely open, almost instantly people started going their own way while other teams looked confused, not knowing if they should follow or stick to their path.
We hit the first real landmark, a culvert that took us under Hwy 200, and we broke out our compasses to start shooting bearings. A quick 1/2 mile run/hike later and we were punching our first checkpoint. Another compass bearing and a 1/2 mile run/hike and we were quickly standing over our second checkpoint (or so we thought). The checkpoint we had been aiming for was C2, and the checkpoint we were standing over was marked C3. Confused, we checked our map again and again, and quickly circled the area searching for a second nearby checkpoint?
Knowing we had to be in the right place, we concluded the race officials must have accidentally confused C2 and C3 when they were setting the course. It ate up about 20 minutes of precious time, but we were on our way to checkpoint #3 which we quickly found. At that point, we made a beeline dash to the bike transition area. Our goal was to get on the bikes and start hitting up the furthest checkpoints first and then start working our way back towards the beginning. Checkpoint #4 came and went quickly and we started navigating deep off trail towards checkpoint “T”.
Feeling confident with our early victories and navigational success, the confidence was shattered as we spent about an hour searching in vain for checkpoint “T”. Loads of thoughts started crossing our minds on what we could have done differently, or how we could have found the point any quicker, or with less effort. In the end, given our route of travel, it was just a bit too challenging to find. Despite this little setback, we had the time of our lives though if you plan a family vacation trip, other options will be far better.
We gave up on “T” after deciding it was taking too long, we didn’t want to spend the rest of the day on that single point, but giving up on T meant the next 4 checkpoints would also most likely be lost as each one used the last for the start of a new bearing. We re-plotted a course that we thought we could get a few of those points back later in our route, and we were off again, back to our bikes that we had stashed just off a trail an hour earlier.
At this point, Adam started complaining about a knee or tendon injury that was starting to flare up. He could hardly walk, much less bike so we decided to limp our bikes up the mountain to the next checkpoint. Checkpoint #5 was hidden well, just inside a shallow ravine, and by blind luck, we stumbled upon it quickly.
Back on the trail, we decided to continue to one of the highest checkpoints “V”. Checkpoint V sat nearly at the top of a mountain at about 5,040 feet. The snowpack (which we later figured out) started at about 4,600 feet. But then again, this is the harsh reality of adventure sports, isn’t it?
We decided to push our bikes to checkpoint V, and continue on towards another couple high checkpoints and then “ride” down the other side of the mountains. As we approached V, we realized the snowpack was close to 4 to 5 feet thick in most spots at that elevation, and after looking at the contour map of where we started getting into the solid snowpack, it quickly became apparent that several miles of snow travel would be required if we were to push on towards the remaining high checkpoints.
It was getting late in the day, and we were becoming more and more demoralized so we decided to throw in the towel and retreat off the snowpack. At 3:00 we were finally back on solid ground, and we started riding back towards the finish line. A solid hour later we crossed the finish line with a total of 6 checkpoints punched. But we at least finished within the time limit. 5:00 came and went and teams continued trickling in, all receiving a DNF (did not finish).
Our attitudes began to improve a bit after talking with several other teams. It appears we were not the only team to struggle through this year’s course. While several teams didn’t finish in the allotted time, most teams that did finish were far from getting every checkpoint. The combination of a super heavy snow year, and a bigger course with more and harder to find checkpoints proved to be a pretty tough challenge for all.
Once home, I plotted our approximate course and determined we covered at least 21 miles of terrain. 10.25 of the miles were on foot, 3 of which were on snow while pushing our bikes over and under fallen trees, and post-holing through razor blade sharp icy snow. 10.75 miles were on our mountain bikes. We were out for approximately 7 hours, and only spent about an hour of that time slowly searching for a difficult checkpoint. Of the six points, we did find, we found them quickly and without the assistance of seeing another team standing over the point.
Overall, I’m proud of our performance. Despite Adam’s knee injury, he persevered till the end. Given the circumstances and the amount of time we had to prepare our map and our course, I don’t feel we could have been much better prepared for this race. We missed a key checkpoint, that would have unlocked a few more checkpoints, but otherwise, I don’t feel we could have done much better. We learned a ton from this race and going into the race next year, we’ll have a huge advantage by simply having competed in it this year.