A Walk in the Woods


We did it; we got the finisher’s patch, for the first time in four attempts.

I steal this description of the race from Rooster:

POCAR is an orienteering race that is put on by Purdue Outing Club. It’s held every year in southern Indiana on MLK weekend. Most years, only about 10-20% of the teams finish the race. For most, the only racing is that of trying to finish before the cut off time (48 hours). . .

. . . Our 2010 POCAR stats include hiking 50 miles, locating all 23 check points and being out for 40 hours (3 hours of which were sleep). The race was held in the 200,000 acre (over 300 square miles; all of which were fair game) Hoosier National Forest.

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In addition to the physical exertions, the race requires translating numerical coordinates to a topographical map then finding them using any or all of: roads, trails, ridges, creeks, and compass bearings.   The points are the size of a wind sock and have a reflector on top, to find in the dark.   The rules only allow a compass and map; items not allowed are GPS, altimeters, etc.

We finished the race.  At the moment I knew we were going to finish, I didn’t know if I wanted to finish.

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You can't have your cake and eat it, too.

The elusive tale of the “unfinished” race just change directions to the race we finished once.  For whatever reason, it was a weird gulp take.  I think part of this feeling is due to my personal experience during this 2010 race where my colon decided to cleanse itself during the first six hours of the race.  During that time, I was the weak link: brain dead and slowing progression.  But, I persevered, and everything came together, as they say.

Around 3am on the Monday morning of the race, I wanted nothing more than to stop walking, stop the intense searching, and finally stop my body’s fight for sleep.  Yet at the same time, I wanted to see if it was possible to get my pants any dirtier, my clothes any smellier, and continue the camaraderie of our long friendship.

Instead we went to the final check-in and went through the most anti-climatic finish chute of all time: a bunk house of sleeping volunteers, an IOU for the patch, and a choice of race shirts that didn’t have the size I wanted.  So, at least the race prevailed with more social currency.

My confused feeling about finishing was that of a turning point.  I think what made this turning point harder is the weird confounding emotional response that happens when you combine intense physical efforts along with enduring mental exertions.

Usually, this emotional response is pure happiness.  However, this time it wasn’t.  It had a mix of roller coaster — up’s and down’s — which I think are due to my initial start.  It’s okay; I know that big picture it’s another victory.  Not just the finisher’s patch, but our friendship and health.

My immediate conclusion the morning after the race was: It is one thing to find a group of friends willing to hike with you for 48 hours in a mid-January Indiana winter; but, it’s a kinship to unanimously and immediately decide to sleep two hours in the middle of the woods in only the clothes on our back because we were temporarily lost.

Since it took multiple attempts to figure it out, here’s what I’ve learned about this race.

  • Sleep is very important in the race.  Not a lot is needed.  We slept three hours this year.  I think rest is just as important mentally, as physically.  The pale, distraught look of some teams shows how important a little rest is, to me at least.
  • Combine all maps onto the detailed topo map.  With physical fatigue comes mental stupidity so KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.  Investing 30 minutes of the race to combine maps prevents mental hang-ups that you can create by mentally overlapping multiple maps.
  • Obey the contours of the land.  Walk in creeks and atop ridges, instead of just shooting a bearing.  It’s a path of smaller resistance and a way to match the contours of the map with the land, to keep from getting lost.
  • Develop the will to get the fucking patch.  What started out as a joke became a sort of clause that no matter what, we weren’t giving up.  There will be setbacks, but keeping the mental goal in mind will help overcome the setbacks.
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2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Rooster said,

    I didn’t want to finish either. I have since dreamt about finding more points. It’s in my blood now.

    While trying not to sound too corny, I felt like we became “one” with the course. Embracing the animal/land aspect of it and making anywhere our bed made me feel like we weren’t in an uncomfortable race out in the woods. It made me feel like we were at home, which helped me not feel rushed.

    Slow and steady won the fucking patch.

  2. 2

    sllimdog said,

    When I told someone we finished in just under 40 hours, they were like, “You still had 8 hours to spare!”. I didn’t tell him the winner finished in 20 hours. As much as I just wanted to sleep, I kind of felt the same way…but only because mentally, we were ready to go 48 hours if necessary. I think why most teams don’t finish is they expect to be done before the 2nd night, which totally demoralizes them when it comes.

    One peaceful thing about Indiana woods is the lack of dominant predators. I don’t feel like I have to hide my food from bears or worry about a mountain lion jumping on my back. Judging by the numerous beer cans scattered throughout the woods, I’m guessing the hunters are the only ones the deer have to be worried about.


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