If there's anything better that anticipating racing with GearJunkie/WEDALI, it's getting a ride to the race with Jeff, Carrie, and David from Alpine Shop. Since my teammates Andrei and Erl would be coming from Minnesota, I didn't want to drive solo to the race (or, more accurately, didn't want to drive home solo after the race), so I bummed a ride with Alpine Shop and it was a fun 6 hour road trip to Mount Carroll, IL. We get to YMCA Camp Benson, the race's HQ, about 5pm and I am able to check in and meet up with the boys. Andrei and I are good buddies from 2 previous races together (Extreme Breakup 10hr and MNOC Adventure-O 8hr) but I had only met Erl briefly in July. I wasn't worried, however, since Alpine Shop could barely contain their enthusiasm for his excellent AR skills and attitude on our drive to the race.
We get our gears sorted the best we can without having maps and then at 6.15pm we go to dinner in the camp's dining hall. The trouble with a race starting at midnight is it's hard to gauge how much and what to eat for dinner. I just nibble on the bread and pasta since I had been eating well all day anyway. We catch up with other racers including Rachel, Mike, and Scott from Bushwhacker - another team that will certainly be vying for the win. Soon after dinner, race director Gerry starts the pre-race meeting. He's clearly been waiting for this moment all year as he enthusiastically greets us and previews the course. We receive 7 maps at the meeting and are told we will receive 1 more just before the start, and 1 more on the course. Erl finds a quiet cabin for Andrei and I to plot CPs. I am rusty plotting the first few, but as we progress through the course I get my brain back and it goes smoothly. We have a little arts-n-crafts session with scissors, packing tape, highlighters, sharpies to get the maps/passport all ready for racing. Then it's back out to the truck to do final prep on food bags, the paddle drop bag, and our packs. Since the first leg of the race is a coasteering leg that guarantees to get us soaking wet, we decide to wear back-up clothes and shoes to the start, and then change to our real race kits once we finish that leg. At 11:30pm, we converge to the Start/Finish line and receive the coasteering map with CPs 1-10. We make final tweaks with gear, get our glowsticks glowing, take the obligatory race picture, sing the anthem, and get set for the midnight start.
TREK 1 (COASTEERING w. RAPPEL), CPs 1-10, 4.5 mi, 2:27
Go! Erl leads out the pack down the race-mandated road route to CP1 (on a 1:24k map, not shown). We are in the lead and the pace is high, but sustainable for me. Because all CPs in this race must be obtained in order, we know we will be in a crowd for the next few hours so we pay close attention to each other's location and stick together like glue. Andrei spots CP1 before anyone else and not-so-subtly whistles at Erl so he can punch the passport. Of course, the entire herd hears the whistle so it's mass chaos. Fortunately, Erl punches quickly and we splash into the creek for 3 miles of coasteering. The creekbed alternates between ankle deep and neck deep, muddy and rocky. Bushwhacker starts to pull slightly ahead but I'm worried that if I push our pace any more, the weird water walking motion will trash my quads for the next 20 hours so we decide to stay steady. I find the ideal water depth to be either ankle-deep (runnable) or hip-deep (quasi-floatable). A couple spots we have to swim and I stick close to Andrei who isn't that crazy about water (and the triathlete in me kinda likes the thought of swimming). We have some difficulty with CPs 4 and 6, and when we finally locate CP7 at the entrance to a cave, we run through surprisingly cold water for 360' before arriving at the punch. Our plan to hustle to CP8, the rappel, is in tatters and we are in 7th or 8th place. Fortunately, we are able to get on a rope after only a few minutes' wait and I plummet down the 100' cliff face as fast as I can. Once off the rope, I belay my teammates just in case they need it. Andrei follows, and Erl bats cleanup for the team, landing with a splash in the water and we take off for CP9. Bushwhacker is out of sight but Alpine Shop is only a few minutes ahead as we run to TA1.
TA 1, 7 minutes
We arrive back at Camp Benson to transition onto bikes. Normally in races, we wouldn't ever take time to completely change clothes, but since we knew we would be soaking wet from the creek, we've planned to change into a dry race kit (GJ/WEDALI shirts, tri shorts, and trekking pants in pack). The volunteers at this TA certainly get more than they bargained for as we all just drop trou and change...right there. My headlamp started acting up on the run back from CP9 so Erl and I jet off to his truck to find a spare (he's uber-prepared and lends me one of his, which is awesome). Andrei gets his maps sorted and we are off, still only minutes behind Alpine Shop. Their red blinkies are beckoning for a chase!
BIKE 1, CPs 11-12, 16 km, 58 minutes
|The first part of Bike 1 - TA1 (red triangle) to the western edge of the map.|
|The second part of Bike 1 - we were on the southern pink line, then took a left on the N/S road into CP12/TA2.|
TA 2, time included in TREK 2
After a choppy but uneventful bike, we roll into TA 2 at 3:32am, about 20 minutes behind the leaders (Bushwhacker). We change into trekking shoes, get our lights sorted, and check the race guidebook to see if we need our ropes gear or not. It does not list "Individual Ropes Gear" for this section so we are happy to leave it with the bikes. As Alpine Shop runs out of TA just ahead of us, we hear them talking about ropes gear and are confused as to why they are carrying it. We check the race guidebook again, nothing has changed, so we stuff 2 cans of Monster into our packs, and take off into the night.
TREK 2 (w. ASCENT), CPs 13-30, 9km, 4:13
|1:15k LIDAR map of Trek 2 - CPs 13-30, must visit in numerical order|
|G. Scott! This is the friendly face we ran into at the top of the cliff. http://morrisphoto.smugmug.com/AdventureRacing/Thunder-Rolls-2012/25031380_J4mtQn#!i=2051080611&k=rLMPtjC|
TA 3, time included in TREK 2
We get to TA3 at 7:45am and the volunteers inform us that we're in second, about 10 minutes behind Bushwhacker. We are sorry to have let the lead slip away, but thankful that our mistake was easily correctable, and vow to pay more attention to CP clues in addition to the race guidebook. A quick shoe swap and it's onto the bikes.
BIKE 2, CP 31, 2 km, 10 minutes
It's a short, easy, paved bike ride down to the Mississippi River and the put-in at Marquette Park in Savanna, IL.
TA 4, time included in PADDLE 1
We arrive in Marquette Park and start getting our paddling gear ready. The race provided a paddle drop so our paddles, PFDs, the throw bag, and a bunch of food had been delivered to the put-in so we didn't have to carry them. We are still confused about if we need ropes gear on this leg or not, so we decide to pack it just in case, figuring the weight penalty won't be that bad in a boat. We are also able to fill up bladders and calories, and Erl instructs us to "drink the shit out of this paddle" because the day is warming up and we will be exposed for the next 4 or 5 hours. Also in this transition, I try to say hi to a volunteer's dog, because animals give me a boost during races. I stick out my hand to let him sniff me, and he does, looking all interested and cute. Then, out of nowhere, he decides I don't smell good, growls, and bites my hand! Ouch! Thankfully it's a minor bite and the owner is right there to scold the dog. I feel really bad; I don't know if I was wrong for trying to pet the dog, or what. So I just return to my teammates and tell them what happened. In typical AR fashion, they ask "Are you bleeding?" I answer "No". "Can you paddle?" "Yes." "Okay, put a glove on and let's go." So we went!
PADDLE 1, CPs 32-35, 17 km, 3:59
The first CP is upstream on the Mississippi River, but I don't seem to notice a current. Maybe that's because I'm riding in the middle seat of our plastic banana boat, with Dre in front and Erl in back. I'm not much of a help here anyway, but Erl assures me that he does notice when I stop, so I just focus on matching Dre's tempo and we scoot along towards the CP. There is some discussion about whether we should beach at the creek mouth (southwest of the CP, an easy attack point) or closer to the shore (due south of the CP, a harder attack point). In the end we see Bushwhacker up ahead who has beached at the creek mouth, so we decide to do the same and get a split on them. They are gone by the time we arrive, and the river disintegrates into a shoe-sucking mud flat. No worries, now our boat won't float away, and we run as a team up the creekbed to the bridge. It's a short, relatively easy run with minimal mud and downfall (two common cons of creekbeds) and we punch easily. Then it's back in the boats and we discover we are about 20 minutes behind Bushwhacker. As we leave, we see Alpine Shop approaching, and estimate they are about 20 minutes behind us. And they are good paddlers. So we hustle onto CP33, which is across the river. That route is easy enough, but on the way we discuss the route from CP33 to CP34, a point in the race that Gerry (race director) took time to highlight as "a potential turning point". We have two options:
- SAFE: an around-route back into the main shipping channel. avoids potential bad mapping of islands/marshes. however, longer distance and choppier water/wind conditions. also more motorized boat traffic.
- RISKY: through the slough (pronounced "slew"). channels/islands may not be as mapped. water levels variable, may encounter mud flats. difficult to relocate if lost. but, shorter and probably calmer water.
Back at CP 33, we beach too early and have to wade across a creek, climb over railroad tracks, and scramble up a loose rock wall to get the punch. Good thing Dre is bang on the maps and we spot the flag almost immediately. Back across the creek, and into the boats. It's decision time, and one glance at Alpine Shop's boat approaching, having made up 5 minutes over a short paddle leg, is all we need to push the score to RISKY: 2, SAFE: 0. We are going for it.
And the decision pays off. All through the slough, there are fishing boats with more-or-less friendly locals out enjoying a beautiful morning. We chat with at least 4 boats who advise us on the turns, and just the fact that they drove their motorized craft up here proves that we can get through in this dinky plastic canoe. I almost feel like we're getting escorted through the slough, and it's awesome. Dre feels reasonably comfortable with the maps, Erl keeps us speeding along, and we start to believe we can catch Bushwhacker (who we think took the SAFE route).
|Photo is from a previous race but just stick me in the middle and that is what we looked like.|
TA 5, time included in PADDLE 1
We get back to the take-out at 11:54am, about 10 minutes behind Bushwhacker, and Alpine Shop is nowhere in sight. We joke with Bushwhacker's Scott about stopping at a nearby Pizza Hut for lunch and ask him to save us a table; he agrees. Pizza sounds awesome right now but we settle for some delicious baked beans offered by the TA staff. Thanks!! I use the brick-and-mortar bathroom and happen to catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, mid-race, in the GearJunkie/WEDALI shirt already covered with dirt and burrs. And I'm grinning. This is really happening. We still have confusion about if ropes gear is required for future segments, the race guidebook indicates YES but Gerry is there in person and he says NO. So we decide to trust his verbal instruction and leave the harnesses with our paddle drop bag. I do not pet any dogs.
BIKE 3, CPs 36-38, 21 km (2:59)
Now it's time for the longest biking leg of the race, basically a largeish loop on country roads. Thanks to Erl's attention to hydration and nutrition on the paddle, we are feeling awesome and ready to go chase down Bushwhacker. Dre and I are particularly excited, but Erl insists that we continue our steady pace. We know our strength is in the woods and we will wait to make a move on the two treks remaining. So we continue at a firm but comfortable pace. There's nothing really exciting about the bike leg...we stop a couple times to sort maps, double check turns, and consume e-caps. After 90 minutes or so we arrive at the Rall Woods TA.
This TA is supposed to be unmanned but there's a family having a picnic in the parking lot who tells us "our friends" came through just a few minutes ago and left their bikes in the weeds. It takes a few minutes to figure out that they are not working for the race, they are just having a picnic, but the intel is appreciated all the same. We stash our bikes behind the parking lot sign, change shoes, and then dash into the woods in pursuit of Bushwhacker.
TREK 3, CPs 39-41, 3.5 km
|Short but very climby Trek 3|
As we arrive back at our bikes, we are motivated to finally have the race lead with only a few legs to go. We are changing gear, and Alpine Shop rolls in. They tell us about an unfortunate route choice on the paddle (they chose RISKY also but it did not payoff). They are obviously dismayed that we are leaving the mini-trek instead of starting it, but they are encouraged to hear that Bushwhacker may be within reach. We finish up the chat and I grab my bike to ride away...except the front tire is completely flat. Oh no...not a reply of the Extreme Break Up!! I have a tube and get to work changing it. There's one minor snafu with the valve stem, but I fix that and the CO2 seats the tire quickly and correctly. Huzzah! I stash my tools and we boogie back onto the gravel road.
BIKE 4, CP 42, 6km
TA 6, 9 minutes
We arrive at TA6 at 2:53pm and get set preparing for the last trek. Dre checks out the maps and tells us "This is gonna be so easy, we'll be on trails most of the time and it's not that long. We're almost done!" A few minutes before we're set to leave, we hear gravel crunching and look up to see Bushwhacker riding in. They are hanging tough and we are gonna have to nail this trek to keep the lead.
TREK 4, CPs 43-54, 7 km, 2:46
The first thing Dre does on this "easy" and "mostly trails" trek is take us straight up a hillside, through some thick underbrush. Erl and I are quick to point out that Dre's version of "trails" is much different than ours. But we eventually find a faint game trail (which was definitely over-represented on the map) and make our way to CP43. We are happy that Bushwhacker hasn't shown up from behind us, but as has been our focus all race long, we are here to race our race and not let our pacing be determined by other teams. Despite our party in the drainage ditch, the heat is starting to affect everyone and we are managing to jog only the downhill trails. Dre takes some gear from me and Erl to try and help our team speed. The bottoms of my feet continue to complain and every off-trail effort slows me down a bunch. I turn to my teammates for support - Dre reminds me that if we can hang onto the lead, we will be 3-for-3 in victories since we started racing together. Erl has delicious snacks that boost my energy, and he takes the passport for a few CPs (of course they turn out to be the ones involving tough veg and climb...51 and 52). He does this despite having soldiered through some puking issues a few CPs prior. We are all suffering, but also doing the best we can to keep the team moving forward as quickly as possible. Finally...finally...we punch 54 after a brutal out-n-back climb and pop back out onto the gravel road for the short jog back into TA6. I'm at the point where I'm hurting, but if we go faster that means the race will end sooner, so I'm motivated to get on our bikes as quickly as possible. I'm reminded of a quote from my former coach Sonja, who in preparing me for Ironman said:
"Most of your issues are going to be nonissues when you stop...so the sooner you get to the finish line, the sooner most of your issues will end."TA 7, 8 minutes
We jog into TA7, which is the same location as TA6, and see three sets of bikes: ours, Bushwhacker's, and Alpine Shop's. This is good. This is really good. We double check water, calories, everyone has what they need to make it to the finish. Erl mentions he has nuun and I have the bright idea to make my favorite drink ever...iced nuun. It is soooooo good and gives me some pep. Dre has his second genius idea of the day when he asks if it's "okay" to bike sockless back to Camp Benson. Not only is it okay, it sounds wonderful, and both Erl and I take our socks off too. My feet are so relieved to actually breathe, it feels like they have new life. And I'm gonna need it, because what we thought was a "short" bike back to the finish line is actually an 18k haul.
BIKE 4, CP 55, 18 km, 1:12
Not only is it longer than expected, it's way hillier than we remember. We biked some of these roads earlier this morning (like much earlier...3:00am earlier) but I must have forgotten all these climbs. I am a good gravel descender on the bike, but I'm not as strong climbing, so this section is tough. We are mostly quiet as well, everyone focused on staying strong, keeping the pedals turning and taking the road mile by mile. At CP55, we spot another team who has decided to call it a day and are waiting for a ride back to Camp Benson. I try to convince them to draft off of us, but in my late-race state, I must not be very persuasive since they stay put. Or maybe I just smell really bad, which is a distinct possibility. I thought I had enough fuel in my tank to make it back home, but some brief weakness tremors tell me otherwise and I slam the rest of my LiquidShot. It's a good reminder to keep doing the simple things...eating...pedaling...not crashing. We pass by the barking dogs from this morning and again Erl herds them away from me and Dre. Those dogs are gonna sleep well tonight, I'm sure they've been barking at each of the 26 teams as we pass by not once but twice. Just when I'm resigned that this bike leg is never gonna end, a familiar-looking treeline emerges and Dre tells us that it's the camp entrance. We've made it.
POST-RACE (19:08 final time)
The original plan was to clean up and drive immediately back to St. Louis with the Alpine Shop crew, but the post-race atmosphere is too fun to leave. Camp Benson has a great porch just outside their dining hall which is a mere 50m from the finish line and 100m from the showers. So we partake in the food and bev and cheer for the other teams as they finish well into the night. Gerry hosts an awards ceremony where we win USARA Regional Champs jackets, a CPT hat, and a free pair of shoes from Salomon! Just what I need, maybe this new pair (and remembering to bring dry socks) will cure my foot issues for the next race. I stay up almost to midnight, sharing race stories with speedy and not-as-speedy racers alike, and then crash in one of the cabins and sleep like a log.