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RACE REPORT: BALANCE BAR NEW YORK, 24-HOUR ADVENTURE RACE
written by: "Sean Hartman"
posted: 12/2/02


Editor's Note: History is replete with instances of would-be authors and their brilliant ghost writers.  I here put forth only an observation, and not a statement to the veracity of the claim, that the tone and writing style of this work bear striking similarity to a report written by none other than Ken White of Team Psycho - a rugged racer of blinding speed and boyish good looks – following his participation in the Boston 2002 edition of the Balance Bar 24-hour Adventure.  What you will not read in this report, among other things, is an account of Sean's bonking on the bike ride and subsequent scavenging through Ken's pack for sustenance, nor the 'cramping incident' on the kayak portage, which rendered Sean immobile standing in the water, unable to move, as his teammates actually made forward progress towards the finish line...with all the gear.  Would Hartman go so far as to rely on a teammate to write his race report for him?  And in the first person, no less?  I leave it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. –SDH.

An adventure race in New York City? Oh sure, and the events will be power jaywalking, fishing bodies from the East River, squegeeing car windows at the Lincoln Tunnel, and haranguing out-of-towners.  Better pull together a team of hardened urban warriors.

Call Jen Klafin.  Works in construction.  Gotta be tough, and undoubtedly can out-cuss a Brooklyn bar fly.  Pull in Ken White.  Guy used to square off with Tom Finneran and grew up in Jersey.  Maybe he knows a shortcut or two.  Me?  I’m scheduled for knee surgery the day after this race.  I’m ready to lay it all on the line, and then scrawl “THIS KNEE” and “NOT THIS KNEE” on my respective patellas.

It’s raining as we approach the bike drop location in Harriman State Park, about 25 miles outside of NYC.  We’re all business, rolling past the foliage, until Ken blurts out: “Wouldn’t it be cool if we bought some gourds and strapped them on our bikes for the race?”

Feeling like a dad on a road trip, I pull over.  A half an hour later, Ken and Jen finally find gourds that “reflect their personalities.”  Having doubts about team selection.  Another fifteen minutes are spent zip-tying gourds to helmets, time other teams spend preparing their bikes, scouting the terrain, etc.  More doubts.

We head to the race headquarters and finish site, a massive sports complex at the intersection of 23rd Street and the Hudson River that charges the standard rate for parking in NYC: $76 an hour, break-in insurance not included.

We heckle the competition, make three passes through the food line, gather our maps and guide books, and head off for several hours of course-plotting and map-laminating.  I’ve arranged for us to stay with a college friend, who owns a palatial loft right down the street.  We arrive with sleeping bags, plastic bins, and tons of gear.  He and his boyfriend are headed out for an elegant dinner.  Culture clash?  They are gracious; we are barbarians.

Preparations efficiently end around 2 am, just as the night club across the street begins disgorging boisterous patrons, a process that continues right up to the 4 am wake-up alarm, which is reinforced with an ambulance siren.  Ah, New York!  Refreshed and energized, we slosh through the rain to the school buses ready to take us to the starting line near Bear Mountain, about 20 miles north of the city.

In true New York style, none of the bus drivers know where they are going, and seem ignorant of fundamental traffic laws, like “Don’t drive the wrong way on the West Side Highway.”  One and a half harrowing hours later, we arrive at the starting line.

The PA announcer announces that the race will start on time: 7 am, or just 14 minutes from now.  The fast thinkers break for the bathrooms, with the dullards in hot pursuit.  200+ nervous adventure racers, four stalls—you do the math.

When the gun goes off, there are still a dozen people lined up at the rest room door.  Like true New Yorkers, those fortunate enough to have jumped the line sneer as we, er, they, run past the suckers and…into the woods for 15 miles of running and navigating.  Hey!  This is not going to be a total urban experience after all!  And what’s this?  Sunshine?  Muggy temps?  We’re psyched...until the first briar patch.

With only a few bum steers from “Mister Experienced Ken,” we navigate the first 10 miles of woods.  OLN even captures us helping a lost pro team (whose name rhymes with “Team Guinness”) find their way.  The camera does not catch us making a wrong turn just 200 yards later.

To reach the final trekking checkpoint, one team member must don one of those dorky orange life jackets and swim to an island in a scenic little pond and back.  Thinking quickly, I ask Ken his 100-yard swim speed.  No matter what he says, I can reply: “You’re faster—you swim.”  Jen and I picnic on brie and chardonnay as Ken flails across the pond, nearly colliding with a small outboard motor.  Some navigator.

We leave Team Wheelworks, our chief rivals for the amateur division title, in our wake as we climb a section of the Appalachian Trail known as “The Agony Grind.”  Jen wanted to bushwack straight to the bike transition and avoid several hundred feet of unnecessary elevation gain and loss, but what do girls know?

Team Wheelworks is awaiting us at the transition.  They took the direct route.

Jen and I speed through the transition as Ken names our helmet gourds: Berry Gourdy, Gourdie Howe, and, in a tribute to the Big Apple, Fiorello La Gourdia.  Sigh.

The 50-mile bike section has it all: long stretches of pavement, neighborhoods straight out of Dogpatch, mansions, a shooting range, long stretches of pushing the bikes, highways...and even a few minutes of actual mountain biking.

On one of the road stretches, an OLN camera crew on a motorcycle pulls up beside us, thinking we’re among the race leaders.  What’s with the gourds?, they inquire.  “They’re festive!”says Jen.  We’re headed for prime time!

Just then, a race official pulls alongside in a van.  “If you’ve already reached Checkpoint 4, you’re violating the rules by riding on this road.  If you haven’t, well...”  We start fumbling for maps.  “Hey, you’re lost,” says the cameraman angrily, as the motorcycle zooms off to look for legitimate contenders.  Crestfallen, we pull over and realize we have to climb five miles back up the hill we just flew down.

Many hours later, we spy the Hudson River.   Eager to be off our bikes and into the kayak, we mentally relax, not realizing the next nine miles of road will climb every bluff and overlook between here and Nyack.  And just when we finally see the “Welcome to Upper Nyack” sign, we also see…another hill.  “[Expletive]!” says Ken, “Upper [expletive] Nyack?!?”

Over the hill and down to the river, we discover we are several hours behind the leaders, but somehow still the first amateur team and in ninth place!  Re-energized, we point our kayak under the Tappan Zee Bridge with visions of a quick 15-mile paddle to the George Washington Bridge.

Many hours later, the GW Bridge appears no closer than it did when we first saw it.  But mercifully, we are allowed out of the boats.  We hook up with Team Timex for a five-mile hike up to and across the bridge.  In the darkness, we find Team Guinness—lost again.  All nine of us scramble through the “party spots” and the debris lining the 16 lanes of traffic and find pedestrian access to the bridge.

We touch down in Manhattan, and consult the very specific race directions we received for this, the 8-mile rollerblading section.  “Follow the staircase around the corner, cross the street, go under the overpass, and access the West Side Pathway.”

We see nothing but a spaghetti maze of cars zooming under and over each other at warp speed, scrubby undergrowth, and a bunch of junk chairs clustered under the one working streetlight.  So begins the urban section of the race!

Picture this: nine white folks, clad in tights, matching race jerseys pulled over life jackets that must look like flak jackets, packs and helmets with lights on them, and rollerblades.  Staggering up and down stairs in rollerblades at 10:00pm on a Saturday night in “parks” filled with broken concrete and debris.  Kind of John Ashcroft meets David Lynch.  We’re asking people for directions to the rollerblading path...they’re wondering where the hidden cameras are.

Ken, whose rollerblading experience consists of terrorizing dogs and children a few times on the Minuteman Bike Path, quickly falls, and falls…and falls behind.  Prevented by the rules from using him as a diversionary sacrifice, we flail around for the better part of an hour, dodging traffic and searching for a few dozen blocks until we finally “access the West Side Pathway.”

Tugging a whimpering Ken behind us, we reach the final test: swimming in the Hudson River.  Seems the Navy left the Intrepid, an aircraft carrier, docked at 46th Street.  Having failed in their attempt to launch an attack on Hoboken from the carrier, those enterprising New Yorkers instead hung ropes off the flight deck so adventure racers could rappel down to the river.

But, due to the severe nylon shortage in New York, the ropes end about 25 feet above the river.  Which means we have to rap down and then freefall.  I jump first; Jen follows; and Ken is finally hoisted over the side by three race volunteers.  He splashes down, but only the gourd bobs to the surface. A few anxious moments later, Ken pops up as well.

Shivering, we throw on every item of clothing we can find, and blade the final mile.  We triumphantly cross the finish line in ninth place, first amateur team, at 1 in the morning.  Fifty feet past the finish line, I see—too late—a large curb.  Trying to jump it, I land in a heap directly in front of the EMTs and race volunteers.  Their eyes bulge like saucers as I collect myself and, with dignity and assurance, lead the team in for our medical check.

I’m ready for surgery, and Ken and Jen are ready for bagels.  All in all, a successful urban adventure.  Team Wheelworks, overcoming a host of mechanical and physical problems, finishes a little later in the morning.