27 July 2012

Throwback Race Report: 2010 Thunder Rolls 24hr AR

Note: I wrote this in 2010 after finishing The Thunder Rolls 24hr adventure race, my second ever 24hr race (first one was LBL Challenge). For awhile it was posted on the Mid-Rivers Adventure team website but now that has folded so I'm posting it here. Why now? Because I just found myself a team for the 2012 edition of the Thunder Rolls and I'm super excited! More details soon, but for now, enjoy!


3-person coed division: Bill Langton, Gary Thompson, Emily Korsch
This is the start of the 12-hour, but the 24-hour race looked similar.
Photo from  http://team-virtus.com/tag/the-thunder-rolls-adventure-race/

Gary and Bill pick me up in St. Louis Friday morning after we had pre-loaded Bill’s van with bikes and gear Thursday night. We drive up to Oregon, IL with only a few stops, and arrive at race headquarters (Camp Lowden Boy Scout Camp) about 3pm. We check in, each paying an extra $28 for mandatory pasta dinner, camping, and USARA fee, collect our much-heralded fleeces and learn about the bike drop. (NB. This race’s base registration fee of $185 is advertised as the cheapest in the Midwest, but I beg to differ.  LBL’s race fees are $155 for early registration, and LBL's shirt ($12) and meal ($8) were optional. Don’t get me started on the extra gear we had to provide ourselves for Thunder.) We quickly stash our schwag bags and head over to the climbing wall to practice ascending, a skill that was announced for the race about 3 days ago. Thankfully the ropes guys have four ropes open and they provide really great instruction and advice, and ascending doesn’t seem to be all that hard. After practice, we decide to complete the bike drop in daylight so we head over to Dixson, IL. After unloading the bikes, we discover my rear derailleur has been bent during transport and will not shift into the larger half of the cassette. Momentary panic! However with some gentle bending to the hanger we mitigate the problem. Relief! Tires are filled, tows are attached, bike shoes are stacked, and we leave the bike drop with barely enough time to grab dinner at Jimmy John’s before returning to Camp Lowden for the pre-race meeting and maps distribution. We end up with six 1:24,000 maps and a Camp Lowden trail map. Most are pre-plotted but Gary and Bill do have to throw a couple of the CPs on the maps too. We route plan and strategize until about 9.30p and then go outside to organize gear. It’s always amazing how fast this time goes and in a blink it’s 11.30p, and I discover my main headlamp will not turn on. I run to the dining hall to check the battery, which comes back fully charged. We swap out cables, nothing. No light. Again, momentary panic sets in, but my teammates and I consider the race layout and, given our anticipated slow paddle time, it’s probable that we will not be biking in the dark. Maybe I’m not totally screwed. I will take my mini-headlamp and hope for the best because it’s now time to assemble at the start line. (One of the special features of Thunder Rolls is the midnight start! So, it's almost like a 36hr race since we begin with a sleep deficit!)

RUN (CPs 0-1)
Quick road run to start the race while geared up with a pfd, pack, and paddles. I was cold at the start but now I’m dripping (ahem, I mean GLOWING) as Bill and I push the pace to stay near the lead pack and avoid congestion at CP1. We get to the designated parking lot and I punch while Bill selects a boat, one of the infamous yellow plastic “canoes”. We wait for Gary to catch up so we can begin the portage down to the water. Teams are everywhere and by the time we get going we’re close to the back.

About the only good thing I can say about the portage is I’m glad it’s at the beginning of the race. These boats are awkward and, at about 100# a piece, not easy to manage. Gary and I grab the front and Bill takes the back. We try just about every method of portage here in the mile down to the water...hand carrying, slings, towing, dragging, nothing makes it easy and FINALLY we see CP2. Except, it’s not really a boat ramp, just a wooded bank down to the river. We thread the boat through the trees to the water and jump in for the looooong (20mile) paddle.

CANOE (CPs 2-4)
GPS track of the opening run, portage, and paddle from Midwest Mountaineering:  http://tmmar.blogspot.com/2010/09/thunder-rolls-24-hour-adventure-race.html 
Ready...set...paddle upstream! For three miles! The nav for this leg isn’t complicated but keeping the boat moving is. About half-way through the trip (still in the back of the pack) we see some lights floating at the water level slightly upstream. Turns out it’s another team, capsized. Our team immediately transitions from “paddle to the CP” into “rescue” mode as we approach the other boat, hook it up to a tow, and drag it to the western bank as the team kicks alongside. It’s not an easy task as the current is determined to keep them mid-stream, but after a lot of grunt paddling we drop them off, make sure everyone has adequate food/clothes still left, and keep on our way. Turns out this team was wearing their packs so no gear or calories were lost...amazing! After the rescue mission we resume our slow journey upstream, having lost about 25 minutes and 1/2 mile from the point where we picked them up, but the delay was well worth it. Any other team would have done the same for our boat, I am quite sure, even if they were leading.

The rest of the upstream paddle is without incident and we finally reach CP3, grab the punch, and turn downstream for the remaining 17 miles. It’s a cold night (for MO) and I have to put on wool (!) tights, my rain jacket, and fleece hat to stop shivering. The night is clear and beautiful, winds calm, and we get to enjoy the sunrise on the river (even if that meant we were slightly behind schedule). I have my first encounters with AR sleep monsters and start seeing bright green highway signs on the river bank. I won’t even begin describing the considerable pain each of our asses was in because there’s just no way to get comfortable in those boats.

BIKE (CPs 4-9)

GPS track of the first bike leg from Midwest Mountaineering:

Finally, the take-out appears and we transition to bikes in a not-so-speedy manner. The last-minute fix we performed earlier on my rear derailleur seems to have worked and I will continue the race with no shifting issues. This leg is an uncomplicated 20-mile road ride with a few hills but nothing epic. Bill handles nav, I punch, and the two of us alternate leading out the tow line for Gary. We leapfrog with a couple of teams here and there, but it seems no real advantage is gained for anyone. On the final approach to CP9/TA2, Bill puts in a major tow for me and Gary since we have decided he will be the one with the maps at the next leg, which is...

The Nachusa Grasslands, photo courtesy Team Virtus 

...radio orienteering! We knew something was up for the race when Gerry (race director) added walkie-talkies to the mandatory gear list, the longer the range, the better. Of course it was up to the teams to provide these ourselves. I mean, who doesn’t have 32-mile range 2-way radios in their personal gear stash? Well, now I do. At the pre-race meeting the details for this leg were revealed: 12-point O-course, navigator stays in TA with maps and a radio, and remaining teammates take the passport and run the course with no maps, just the other radio. The other interesting factor is the terrain is a dedicated grasslands run by the Nature Conservancy. Evidently they tend to be very private about access to their land, however they welcomed us adventure racers because we would simulate buffalo trampling through the tallgrass. The first 3 checkpoints we hit right on (I would say they are about orange level) and I start to get optimistic, even galloping through some of the grass while trying to think buffalo thoughts. However, my buffalovian happiness is short-lived as Bill sends us up a thorny, briary, stickery slope to CP14. He’s lucky Gary had the radio otherwise I would have demanded another route (and after the race, Bill says he would have refused the request, citing HTFU). After some significant thrashing, we grab the punch and thankfully set out back into the grasslands for 15 and 16, each with minor bobbles but nothing terrible. Then, we have more trouble with 17. The clue is “deerstand”, which we find, but there is no punch in the vicinity. I even climb up the thing to check at the top. Nothing. We thrash around the area and after about 30 minutes, find ANOTHER deerstand about 200m away with the punch. A mis-hang? Gary thinks so. 18 and 19 are fine as Bill vicariously navigates us through Gary’s favorite terrain (subtle). Then it’s back to the thorns and briars for 20 and 21. This time, the gnats want to join in the fun and I have an entourage following my every move. Since I need some Cleopatra practice anyway (for the upcoming packraft), I grab a branch of something and start fanning myself as we pick our way through the prickly veg. I’m sure Gary thought I was a total bug wuss, but it did help keep the gnats from eating my soul. We find both checkpoints, punch, and take a jeep trail back to the road. Gary takes a catnap while I quickly run out-and-back for 22 (located at the same infamous deerstand as 17) and then we head for home/TA2. The long way. The looooooooong way. For some reason the concept of taking short but unmapped trails through the grassland eludes us and we take the paved around-route, easily tacking on 30 minutes to our already tiresome trek. We do find a little bit of trail magic as a farmer has set out water and cookies, but that hardly improves our pace and Bill is just about jumping out of his bike shoes when we get back.

CPs 23-27)

There’s no way around it, we are way behind schedule. Once our Radio-O passed our estimated 2.5 hours, we knew that as a team we would have to cut some checkpoints and/or entire sections. During the transition we decide to still go get all the remaining bike checkpoints since the terrain looks manageable, we can share our energy on tow, and we would still roll into TA4 with a full passport. At that point we plan to inflate our packraft, stick it in the water, and immediately take it out, which would allow us to still get 2/4 CPs on that leg. We also decide to place priority on the ropes section since it is a unique feature of this race. With our modified race plan in mind, we head out on the bikes for a leg quite similar to Bike 1 in distance and terrain: mostly paved and not too hilly. We catch up with a 2-person coed team and chat for a while. They eventually move ahead, but that gives us the privilege of watching them completely blow by CP24. Keeping in the good samaritan theme of the race, Bill sprints (uphill!) to inform them of their error. They double pack to retrieve the punch, thanking us, as we continue on our way. CP27 leads us to a statue of Chief Black Hawk himself, and we have the pleasure of riding seemingly the only bike trail in northern Illinois - a 100m stretch of dirt double track. Hallelujah. On the final approach back to Camp Lowden, the 2-person coed team catches us, passes us, and then continues straight down the road as we make the turn into camp. This time we are not so generous in our navigation advice and let them keep biking the wrong way.


As we pull into TA4/HQ, we discover the inevitable: we have been short-coursed, missing the (previously unannounced) packraft cutoff by 24 minutes. No more paddling for us, but we are still allowed to trek and do ropes. Quite honestly, we are relieved since it would have been a monumental effort to maneuver that raft upstream with our proposed strategy, Gary and Bill paddling with me playing Cleopatra (gold headdress not included, too much weight). We take a luxurious FORTY-FIVE minute transition and head out into the woods with the intent of grabbing any checkpoints we can, hitting the ropes, and making it back to camp on time and uninjured.

TREK (CPs 33-37, I think we skipped some)

Map and GPS track of the final trek from Midwest Mountaineering:
My buggy entourage from the Radio-O has followed us somehow, except this time it’s mosquitoes and they are out for blood. After about 15 minutes of continuous swatting Bill relents and digs deep into his pack from some bugspray. I’m sure we would have cleared the remaining controls at this point if he had just applied some himself and then run ahead 10 feet, forcing me and Gary to chase, but he is the magnanimous sort of teammate and shares. So we continue walking. We punch 33 in a sandy creek bed, wade through what seems like miles of nettles, and then enter a nice rocky reentrant which leads straight to 34. We get ourselves out of the woods just as dusk is beginning to fall, and decide it’s in our collective best interest to make a beeline to the ropes, complete those, and then just finish this darn race. The sun completely sets as we push through the cornfield out onto a gravel road. We take the road for a short while and then dive back into the woods to hit the ropes, and on our way Bill declares, “Well, if we want another checkpoint, there’s one (36) about 200m off the trail RIGHT HERE.” Sure enough, we hack into the prodigious undergrowth and return shortly with the punch. Considering it was completely dark at this point, and the trails are not shown on our topo map, the team was very happy with this little bonus!

CP 38)

We arrive at the ropes in the dark, about 10pm, and there is no line. Great! This leg consists of a 100’ zip line and subsequent 50’ ascent. I get all my gear on first and hook into the zip line. The ropes coordinator tells me it’s cooler without the headlamp, so I switch that off and leap from the cliff into darkness, zipping down to the ground below. I have to traverse the last 50’ to the waiting un-hookers, who give me somewhat contortionist instructions on safely unclipping from the line. Once untangled, I hike over to the base of the zipline cliff, tie into the ropes outfitted with two ascenders, and proceed to ascend up the sandy cliff I just jumped off of. While I’m doing this I hear Bill and Gary successfully make their zip and begin to follow me up the ascent. Bill and I are first to the top where we quietly collect our gear in preparation for the push to the finish.

CPs 39-46, we definitely skipped some)

Once Gary completes his ascent and sees Bill and I ready to go, he decides to wear his climbing gear the rest of the race as we make the final push to the finish. As a team, we are in a tough position mentally. We know we have skipped a large number of checkpoints and were quite slow on some sections. We have also been awake for about 36 hours and racing for 23. But somehow we all summon the energy to run back to the finish line and spend 15 minutes hacking around in the briars looking for one last checkpoint, 39. I’m in charge of time and keep calling out the minutes remaining as Gary and Bill tear around the spur. I let things run down to about 6 minutes left until the cutoff, then we pull the plug without a successful punch and sprint for the finish line. We cross the line, take a quick picture, and turn off the race brains.
Bill, me, and Gary just after finishing.


Well, we were done. I’m not sure any of us was entirely happy with failing to clear the course, but overall we did as much as we could. After crossing the finish line and taking the obligatory team photo, we were treated to pizza. And by pizza, I mean easy-bake oven pizza with slices the size of tortilla chips. With a 10-minute wait between each one. So I asked if I could take a whole pie and the volunteers said no. I was starting to get a little whiney at this point (24hrs of racing might have contributed...), but as usual, my teammates came up big and Gary offered me TWO of his PB&J sandwiches. Definitely hit the spot. Another great benefit of this race location was on-site, hot showers and camping. We all sorted and packed our gear, showered, and basically collapsed in the tent around 2am. The next morning we jumped in the now extremely smelly van, grabbed a rather large breakfast at a diner in Oregon (IL), and headed southward towards home.
Looking back, it was disappointing to miss as many checkpoints as we did. However, I think the race was a learning experience for me especially, as well as the team. We all kept a positive attitude (at least, outwardly!) for the entire 24 hours. Everyone kept good nutrition & hydration so we didn’t have cramps or GI issues at all. We were able to help two teams out on course, one from actual danger and one from a lost checkpoint. And most of all, no injuries. We finished 
10th in the 3-person coed division, and 21st overall. I think were were the final team out on course as pretty soon after we finished, the race director announced the 2010 Thunder Rolls course was officially closed. Pin It

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