Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Adventures in Saipan: Cartagena and The Fire Swamp

Tuesday - 3/9/10
On Tuesday I attempted to ride the XTERRA Saipan bike course. Zac and I parked at the American Memorial Park (AMP) beach where the transition area would be, and I headed out on my bike with nothing but a cartoon map from the race website (Here it is: XTERRA Saipan map) and part of the map from the hotel. The hotel map is very similar to the one provided for Disneyland, with cute pictures showing where places like McDonalds are located. So if I got lost in the jungles of Saipan I could always find my way back to a McDonalds.

The start of the course was pretty obvious in that we would be riding out of the park and up Navy Hill Road, which is a paved road. I reached the intersection at the start of the road and waited for the light to change. In front of me was a huge hill, and I had no idea how long it went on for. The light changed and I started climbing. The climb went on and on at about as steep of grade as Gates Pass or Mt. Lemmon. This was going to be fun to climb right after the swim. I knew I would have to make a turn off of this road to the left at some point, but had no clue when.

Somewhere on the climb on Navy Hill Road.
I stopped on the side of the road at a shady part where trees completely tunneled over the road and there were vines hanging down. I checked the map again, hoping my cartoon map had morphed into something more helpful but to no avail. I continued the climb, now completely wet with sweat like I had just done the swim. Up ahead there was a phone pole with a blue XTERRA arrow pointing to the left. Yes! This means the bike course must be marked! The arrow was pointing to a gravel road on the left next to a yellow bus stop structure. The gravel road continued to climb. At the very top I looked for more arrows, but didn’t see any and decided to continue down the road. I realized this road was a “residential” road because there were shanty structures off of the road. At one point I passed a group of people parked just off the side of the road under a shack structure. I was going fast downhill so there was no way I was stopping. At the bottom of the hill I was forced to stop. I was now in someone’s driveway of their shanty. Their shanty was to the right, so that obviously was not the right way to go. Straight ahead there was jungle and I didn’t see any way through there. To the left was a small opening in the jungle, so I dismounted and walked forward a bit. Overhead was an old school phoneline stretched haphazardly across. There was a lot of debris and trash on the jungle floor, and up ahead there was a bunch of rusted metal barriers blocking the path. I felt like I was in the jungle scene in “Romancing the Stone” except there was no Michael Douglas (from now on I refer to this area as Cartagena). I backed out and decided to go back up the road. I climbed as quickly as I could and got back to the bus stop intersection.

I pulled out my map and decided the only way to continue was to keep going up the paved climb, despite what the only blue XTERRA arrow I had seen had told me. As I climbed I passed more shanty houses, then some houses that were somewhat normal. I reached the top of another hill and saw in faded spraypaint on the road the words “Trail Run” with an arrow. I figured this may have been part of last year’s trail run course, so I continued on. I flew down the hill and reached a fork in the road. The left fork turned to dirt while the right fork was paved. I rolled up the paved fork for a bit until I saw the words “private property” marked on a phone pole. I turned around and waited for a truck to pass before heading up the dirt road, which was still marked Navy Hill Road, the original road I had been on.

This dirt road led into the jungle, and I didn’t get far before I hit the horrible smell of human waste and decomposing trash. There was another shanty on the right, and there were 50 gallon barrels everywhere, some which were burning with smoke. I determined that this may be this person’s restroom and trash burning area, so I turned around. Once I did I saw blue XTERRA arrows on the phone poles. What? Apparently this was part of the course, and now I was going the correct direction. I got back to the intersection and saw a blue arrow pointing to go up the paved driveway marked “private property.” More climbing, but at least there were more arrows to follow.

Following the arrows in the jungle.

I passed a goat house where goats were bleating at me as I rolled by. At the top of the hill the arrows indicated to go left. I could see the beach below and took a quick picture before continuing on.

The beach through the trees before the final descent.

The arrows didn’t lead to any trail, and instead seemed to cut through the side yards of people’s houses. I reached an old Jeep road doubletrack and started on a steep descent. I reached a clearing but had to stop quick because there was a house below and 4 loose dogs heard me and came running out and barking. I stood and waited and the owner came out and yelled at the dogs and tried to corral them inside. As soon as it was clear I continued down, and the blue arrow was in this lady’s front yard. The arrow pointed down the driveway, so I rode down that, which turned out to be quite rutted and technical for a descent. Finally I hit a paved road marked Sugar King Hill, which took me back to the park.

Just as I was going to go back to the park to find Zac, I saw 2 guys on bikes in race clothing sitting at the intersection at the start of Navy Hill Road. I looped around and pulled in behind them.

Me: “Do you guys know where the course goes?”
Them: “Yeah, follow us. Are you here for the race?”
Me: “Yep. First time here.”
Them: “You from Ireland?”
Me: “No, Tucson Arizona.” (Do I sound Irish?) “Where are you from?”
Them: “England.”

Then the light changed and they took off up the climb. I didn’t get their names, so I shall call them Fish & Chips. Fish & Chips were of course fresh and I had already climbed the damn Navy Hill once today. They of course had 2% body fat and flew up the hill, so I continued on my spin in granny gear and saw that I was in Zone 6.1 for my heart rate. Lovely. I am so screwed for this race.

So I climbed Navy Hill again and Fish & Chips were waiting for me at the yellow bus stop where the errant blue arrow showed the turnoff into Cartagena.

Fish: “Sorry about that.”
Me: “Oh no problem.” (Me trying to hide the fact that my muscles were shaking from fatigue).
Chips: “That the second time you’ve climbed that hill today?”
Me: “Yeah.”

So Fish proceeds to tell me that he spoke to the guy that is marking the trail this morning at the hotel, and this section was new and not completed yet. They were going to continue on up Navy Hill. Lovely. Apparently I should have asked Fish & Chips about this important detail BEFORE I CLIMBED NAVY HILL A SECOND TIME. I wished them well and turned around and headed back down Navy Hill. I met Zac at the park and told him why I had only done a 7 mile ride, and my fun in the jungle. He hasn’t seen the movie “Romancing the Stone” in a long time so he didn’t quite get my Cartagena reference until I explained it further. I still had another 20 minutes of riding to do according to my training plan, so I cruised up and back on the jogging path around the beach, which also happens to be the beginning of the run course. I decided that Wednesday I would try to ride the course again.

Wednesday - 3/10/10
This time I got an earlier start on the ride, starting 2 hours earlier to try to beat some of the heat. I rolled out at about 8:45 AM, and started the climb up Navy Hill road. In my head I was trying to figure out what my plan would be if the course was not marked. Unfortunately the Cartagena section led to the upper loop of the course, and that was the only way to get there. We had tried to find where the course comes out by driving up a side road in the rental car, but no luck. Just as the yellow bus stop to the turn came into view, another rider came up behind me. It was a local Saipan guy who was doing the race as a relay, and he was the biker. He had done this race as a relay the year before. What luck! A local! I chatted with him as we turned and went up the gravel road leading to Cartagena. He rolled along on the downhill and right as we got to the person’s shanty back yard he made a slight jog to the left down what looked like could have been singletrack at one point next to a phoneline. I followed him down and there was no trail whatsoever to follow. Our tires rolled over leaves of tall jungle grasses. At one point he zigged and I must have zagged because I reached an open area and he was gone. My Saipan guide was gone like a leprechaun! I stood in the clearing trying to figure out what to do. I continued straight and my bike tires crunched over the plastic parts of Japanese engine parts. Now I was in grass 5 feet tall. I pushed my bike forward, looking for any sign of a trail or broken branches. Looking for tire marks was a waste of time because I couldn’t even see the ground. The plants folded under the bike and I hoped I wasn’t stepping on any snakes. This path was no good, so I turned around, back over the crunched car parts and noticed a decaying flip flop. Great. I was back at the clearing and decided to head to the right. This took me to a crashed Jeep, which was hard to tell it was a Jeep because it was covered in jungle plants, and a decaying mattress. This was even more like the Cartagena scene in the movie and I figured for sure I would come across a crashed drug plane with a skeleton pilot inside.

I turned around and in the clearing looked left and right. Left led back up the hill I had just come down. Right led to the tall grass.

My view looking left on the "Cartagena" portion of the course. Do you see the "trail" I came down?
My view looking right in "Cartagena."

There was a phoneline overhead, so I tried the right path one more time, thinking there would be a service trail or something paralleling the phoneline. Nope, no dice. I turned around and climbed back up the hill, my legs now itching from the billion leafy green plants I had trampled through. I have no clue if any of them were poisonous, or if the bugs I was getting bitten by carried any of the crazy tropical fevers, or if the small brown flecks of material on my skin were grass clippings or micro leeches. I got back to the shanty village and climbed the hill back to the bus stop.

I pulled out my map and decided that since this section of trail was not completed, I would have to continue on up Navy Hill road to get to the road leading to the climb up Mt. Tapochau. After my ride yesterday, we took the rental car up that road and saw the intersection where Navy Hill came out. The XTERRA course continued on up the road, and after awhile we had to turn around because the road to the top of the mountain got too steep and rutted for our little Toyota Camry rental car to handle. I got back on my bike and rolled up Navy Hill road, up past the smelly shanty area. I was climbing slowly and the owner of the shanty had several dogs, one of which ran out but was thankfully chained. I was getting so sick of dogs. The island of Saipan is overrun with feral dogs that roam around everywhere.

Apparently I was climbing Navy Hill road on a busy day, because a few cars actually passed by. Some parts of the road were so steep I had to get off and hike my bike. As I climbed I reached a construction area where a new house was being built. I was now in an area that had less shanties and houses that were now made out of real bricks. The climb continued up and up, and I finally reached the intersection of the main road. Once I got out on the road I could see the ocean and I was now back on the XTERRA course. I was standing below multi-million dollar homes and condos. Very strange. Saipan is an island of extremes.

View of the ocean from the road heading to Mt. Tapochau on the course. The small island out there is Managaha Island.

I started up the climb again, and just as I got rolling I heard someone come up next to me on a bike. It was Fish! Fish asked if I had found the course, and I told him no, I had just spent 30 minutes bushwacking through 6 ft tall grass and still hadn’t found the course. I had climbed Navy Hill instead. He said that he and Chips went back and spent some time trying to find it and eventually got to the other side, but it was a lot of work and not obvious. He asked if I had done this climb, and I said no, not yet. He told me to follow him on a fork of the road to the right. He said we would continue on the climb, loop around, and end up on this road where we would have to go left through the grass. It wasn’t marked yet so he wanted to make sure I found the trail. Fish wanted to get back to his British friends at the top, so I said goodbye and started to climb. After awhile I was sick of climbing and turned around to try out the singletrack he had pointed out.

The singletrack led to an area with tall grass, but this time there was a huge square trail cut through the grass. It was like an ad for the DR Brush & Mower had come through there. The trail was really slippery from all of the grass clippings on the ground, but there was a ton of arrows and tape to follow.

This is what a trail should look like!

Not a trail for tall people.

The trail then turned and went into the jungle, where a tunnel had been cut for the course. Vines and branches were still low overhead, so this was a course for short people, not tall guys. The course made tight turns up and down hills, and I figured there was going to be no way through these areas except to hike-a-bike. My record of 100% XTERRA hike-a-bike still stands. I’ve never done an XTERRA that didn’t force us off the bike at some point. During some portions of the course I almost couldn’t see because it was so dark from all the plants. I reached one section that I call the Fire Swamp, because it looks exactly like the Fire Swamp in “The Princess Bride,” except more green. Vines draped down in curtains and pulled at my bike, helmet, and Camelbak. This was not a race to have bar ends on your handlebars. The end of the Fire Swamp took me to the construction area of the new house, and I was now able to fly down Navy Hill road. Going this direction was much more pleasant because I could blast past the smelly shanty area. This brought me to the paved private road that I had climbed yesterday. I decided to finish that part of the course, and this time flew down the hill figuring I would be able to hold enough speed to fend off the lady’s dogs that would probably run after me. Only one shot out to try to get me, but I was on the downhill at that point. Unfortunately, trying to escape the dog made me take a bit too much speed down the technical downhill, and I was on the ragged edge of trying to slow down while getting over the rocks and ruts and not crash. I safely made it to the pavement, and took the road back to the park.

Once I got to the park, my Garmin showed 7.5 miles completed. The course is advertised to be somewhere around 30K (19 miles). So I decided to leave the rest of the course as a surprise for race day, and that race report.

Thursday - 3/11/10
All I had on the training plan was a 30 minute swim. I swam in the cove of the hotel where we’re staying, which is really shallow water so at times it was difficult to get a full stroke. The water is amazingly clear here, which is both good and bad. Good because you can easily see where you’re going, and bad because you can see all of the sea creatures below you. There are a million slug-like things that hang out on the ocean floor, and I really don’t want to step on one. That, and I’ve seen several snake-like creatures which may be eels of some sort. Anyways, my swim went ok except for getting a horrible sunburn.

Friday - 3/11/10
Today is the last day before the race, so I’m staying out of the sun and trying to do as little as possible. The training plan called for an easy 20 minute 2 mile run, which I ran at a 9:41 average pace which felt pretty easy. I was feeling good about this until I ran into the XTERRA folks at the hotel after breakfast. I met the head XTERRA guy Dave, and asked him about the run course as he was heading out today to triple check it. I asked why in all the videos and photos for this race were the runners wearing bike gloves (I packed an old pair of road bike gloves just in case). He said there was a lot of rock climbing and cliff scrambling, and they were securing ropes for us along the rock and cliff faces. He’s then telling me about foot holds in the rocks, and how he needs to check and make sure the ropes are secure. His wife and another guy are standing there waiting to see my expression and I just said, “Well, it’s not XTERRA if there’s no risk of death.” The head XTERRA dude thought for a second and said, “Yeah, that’s true.” So everyone else is telling me how we have to be careful running through the caves and tunnels and on the cliff faces. All I can think is, “Well, there goes my chance of hoping to stay under 12 minute miles, again.” (XTERRA trail runs are always difficult so my goal is a 12 min/mile pace for each race).

So race day is guaranteed to be an adventure, which will probably make my adventures on the small portion that I’ve seen of the actual race course seem like nothing.


Joyce said...

Wow - sounds like an adventure already. Can't wait for the race report!

Bill G said...

I cannot wait to read this race report! Have a great race Cap'n Elaine :)