Possum Trot III Report from Mikell Platt

Excerpted from an Email from Mikell Platt:

The Swampfox Heads East (and comes back, too)


After several weeks in the homeland, it was at last time to head back west. But I had one more weekend of orienteering to sample: the Kansas State Champs and the Possum Trot. Up to this point I must say that the weather gods had been unusually good tempered, but something must have got them riled at last, because things got bad quick once I hit Kansas City. My guess is that Mark "Mook" Everett had somehow caused a catastrophic diversion of the jet stream. At any rate, when we woke up on Saturday, it was raining lightly. At least it wasn't windy or cold! But that's just the way things started out. As the day grew older, it became progressively windier, colder, and rainier. Conditions at the meet site could have only been enjoyed by a particularly deprived Canadian goose.

"Ahhh--just the way we like it here in Kansas," the Okers were saying. Head Possum Dick Neuburger was exclaiming that the conditions were near possum perfect, as usual (the Possum Trot so far had an unblemished record for having completely horrible weather.) Meanwhile, I was thinking, "Rats, do I really have to run in this stuff?" Of course I didn't have to, but of course I did.

Carefully heeding Mike Eglinski's warning that the map wasn't really much of an orienteering map in the usual sense, I resolved to never leave the thoroughly muddy trails (it was a nice sticky mud, besides, the kind that glops up on your shoes and makes it even more efficient and fun to run than usual!) which had the added advantage of minimizing time spent in the thorn thickets which pass for normal "good" Kansas woods. So I went out, and I got back, and all was well in the world. Mook tore apart the course and beat the rest of us by a huge margin. He attributed his win to a new found fondness for running through well-armed vegetation, no doubt having something to do with moving to the cactus capital of the world--Tucson--this past summer.

There was of course much speculation about what the weather would be like the next day. I was pulling for snow. That would be much better than cold rain, after all! And sometime during the night the rain became snow, so I got my wish. By morning there were several slushy inches of snow on the ground, with snow still falling lightly. Fortunately the roads weren't bad so everyone got to the meet site ok (though several of us cut it very closely--I had just enough time to put on my O'shoes and warm up for a few minutes before the start!)

The Possum Trot is widely considered the premier goat style event between the Appalachians and the Rockies. It's known for having especially nice punches, though why anyone would care I don't know. And from what I could see, the punches were no different from those at any other event. Under Possum Trot rules, we were allowed to skip any 2 legs we chose on the course, which was about 15kms or so. With a shout, we got off to a fine and snowy start!

I tried right away to see if the skips were obvious or not, and presumed the other folks were doing the same. I quickly decided I wasn't going to try to do any in-depth analysis and try to navigate along the first leg as well, especially since it seemed that there a number of likely skips but no "must" skips. The first leg was 500m through some white woods, white on the map as well as literally white, since everything was covered in snow. A lead pack of Mook, Spike, Dan Meenehan, and myself formed right away, and I decided I would follow along for the time being and skip when the others skipped if it looked ok. But leaving the first control I found myself as much the leader as a follower, so I headed for #2, which looked simple enough, just a control on the other side of a flattish hill, in some light green. But by the time we got near where the circle should be, it wasn't at all obvious to me where to head, as everything looked about the same. Instead of sticking to plan, I ran off in what I thought was a likely direction, until I found myself looking down through the trees at the pond we had started by. And I was by myself--darn! So I headed back through the brush until I found myself in a crowd of folks milling around. Of course Mook, Spike, and Dan were nowhere in sight. At length I detected 2 orienteers who looked suspiciously as if they could be at a control so I headed over that way. Yes--the control! Well, now that I was separate from the lead group I thought I should look at the skips more closely and quickly decide to skip the next control as well as #5. I set off for #4, which was an easy leg from #2--just run down to a road intersection in some planted fields, and follow one of the smaller roads to very near the control. I hit one of the roads, turned on it, and ran a good 150m before I realized I was running away from the control--things weren't going too well, with 2 mistakes already and only 2 controls punched so far! I corrected my route and took #4, headed for #6 and punched about at the same time with one other orienteer I couldn't identify, and from that point I was all by myself for quite a while. Now the woods got thicker and rougher, and I lost some degree of enthusiasm for the race. I went on around though. At #10 I only saw one pair of tracks, which really puzzled me. What had happened to the lead group? Could I really be in 2nd place after the mistakes and listless running? As it turned out, I was, but I wasn't sure then. On the way to #11, I became completely baffled by the trails at one point, which didn't make sense with the map. I abandoned the trails and tried to run on compass through a thick area, but several times I came to briar patches I refused to try to get through and so I lost some minutes before I eventually got through this mini-hell area and finally was able to read myself back into the map again. #11 was very near the parking, and the route to #12 went right by our cars. I seriously considered packing it in, since I figured by now I must have been at least a quarter hour behind with no chances to catch up. But I kept on going. To get to #12 you had to cross a field into a finger of woods for the control, and then to get to #13 you had to come back out of the woods and cross the same field. Imagine my surprise when I first started across the field and saw Spike headed into the finger! I'm now sure he must have passed me while I was at my "low" point, trying to get to #11. I didn't know it then, but Dan was in front at that point with a lead of a few minutes, and Mook was close enough behind me that I believe he caught sight of me as he himself headed towards #12.

#13 and #14 weren't long legs, and I had more or less caught up to Spike by #14. Mook saw us running up the road from #13 towards #14, but he wasn't entirely sure who he was seeing. Spike and I took different routes halfway to #15, and his route was better, as he punched before me without my even seeing him. But I caught up again and led the way into #16. By now he had told me he knew Dan was ahead but he wasn't sure about Mook. I left Spike behind on the climb out of #16 and noticed that I was feeling more enthused now. But Spike still had hopes of trying to win, since he had one skip left and he could at least hope I didn't have any left. I got to #17 ok, and shortly after climbing up onto the next ridge I saw Dan--great, there was the lead! Or so I thought. Of course, I had no idea of what skips the others might have left, just that I had already taken my shots. At it turned out, while Dan and I were headed for #18, Mook and Spike were skipping #18 and were headed for #19. I got to #18 first and didn't see Dan, and quickly hustled to try to get out of sight. Dan, however, saw me leaving and was happy to see me head for #19 since he correctly deduced I had used up my skips.

At #19 it developed that all 4 of us were within seconds of each other. Spike had been first into the area, but had missed the control. Mook was the first to punch, and we passed each other as he headed out of the control circle and as I was headed in. Then, after I punched, I passed Dan at about the same point as I had seen Mook. Finally, to complete the sequence, Dan and Spike saw each other at the control. Probably the spread could not have been much more than 20 seconds at that point.

I had been running harder from the point I first spotted Dan., and now I pressed the pace again to try to catch up to Mook. I saw him punch at #20 and with some difficulty--the woods didn't offer the best visibility--kept him in and out of sight and was able to catch up in another 200m or so. We were together at #21, took slightly different routes to #22 but punched together again there, and then I led the way on the longest leg of the day, a leg a little over 1km long. Mook must have been right behind the whole way because when I stopped inside the control circle to see where the control feature was, he was right there and headed right for the control with no hesitation, and punched first. We had to run down a hillside in a field to get to #23, and on the way to the control circle I had scoped out how I wanted to leave for #24--there was a short trail segment that connected the field with a road which I had decided to run along part way to #24. After I punched I at once headed back out of #23 the way I had come. I expected Mook to go the same way and was surprised he didn't, and surmised he must have decided to blast straight through the woods to the road instead of using the field. When I hit the road I looked back down the road but didn't see any sign of Mook. It was my chance! I began running about as hard as I could go. From the road there was an uphill climb through another field with scattered trees and bushes, and when it was time to leave the field for the woods and the control, there was still no sign of Mook. The control itself was at a ditch junction in the top end of a little valley with a whole system of ditches, and I was a little concerned about being able to find the control without losing enough time to let the pursuit catch me up. I hit a small trail running in about the direction I wanted to go so I took it, even though I hadn't remembered seeing it when I had glanced at the map. By now I should have been close to the control area but I couldn't see the control and I hadn't been counting the little ditches I had seen. I could see the edge of a field off to one side and was thinking I must be a little above the control and right in the middle of that thought I caught sight of the top edge of the control below me--and still no sign of Mook! I punched and headed for the final control with all possible speed. 600m to go! By the time I started heading down towards the pond by the Start/Finish I realized I was going to be First Possum!

Mook came in a minute or 2 after, and after a few more minutes Spike and Dan finished--a pretty close race, all things considered.

One other special feature about the Possum Trot should be mentioned. Many, many events use a "GO" control for the final control. But as far as I know the Possum Trot is the only race to instead use a "porn" control for the final control. You just had to be there.

All in all, it was quite a fine event, and despite the weather everyone seemed to have a good time. And for that matter the weather gradually got better and better to the point blue skies even appeared.

I haven't mentioned the terrain directly but I will now do so. Most of what is around KC is spur/gully terrain with not a huge amount of relief--the valleys are usually between 25 to 50m deep. The rock in the area is pretty much all flat bedded limestone, and where the valleys cut through the more resistant layers characteristic lines of cliffs and boulders often appear. And as for the forest, well, it's all second growth and often tends to be on the thick side. There can be lots of thorns and other unpleasantries to add to the mix. I would characterize it the way an article in Rolling Stone once characterized Keith Richards' guitar playing: pure snot! (In the article it was meant as a compliment.) But you make do with what you have, and there's lots useful to be learned when your home terrains and forests are on the tough side.

To cap the day off, Dan, Mook, Spike, Mary, and myself watched the movie "Spinal Tap" and ate lasagna--what better way to end the '99 O' season!

From there it was just a long day's drive to get back to Laramie. The end.