04 October 2010

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In Short
First, let me start by saying that this is not my usual race report. Usually, it is about me, myself, and I and my experiences in ultra running and running in general. However, this time, I entered an event as a team member. My fiancee Anya joined me for what would be our very first adventure race ever. While I have done endurance events before, duh, this was my fiancee's first ever endurance race. And let me tell you, she did great. What initially looked like a "fun little family friendly event with a little bit of running, biking and kayaking" turned out to be a grueling 6 hour endurance challenge, at least for us. However, once we finished this race, there was definitely a feeling of relief, relief to have been able to finish this race. But above all, there were feelings of elation and accomplishment. Anya had only done one 10k race and a few 5k races until this point and to be able to keep going for 6 hours was just an amazing feat and I counldn't be prouder to call her my team mate. Especially considering the personal challenges she had to deal with during this race.

Getting Our Bibs
We arrived at Coosa River Adventures, the host of the race, shortly before 4pm Friday afternoon. Race registration, bib number pick-up, bike and kayak drop off were to take place between 4-8pm. When we finally figured out were to fo, we were actually second in line to pick up our race packet. After receiving a nice technical shirt with the event logo on the back, we proceeded to mark our mountain bikes with our team number. Afterwards, we loaded them up onto one of two U-Haul trucks that were going to deliver the bikes to the transition area the next morning. Since we didn't bring our own kayak or canoe, we were supposed to just grab whatever was left at the boat dock at the day of the race, once we got to that section of the race. Well, it really didn't matter since neither one of us had ever canoed or kayaked before. I wonder if it was a good idea not to practice this prior to the race. Well, the same goes for the mountain biking. While we did hit the local trails a couple of times together, we really didn't "prepare" properly for this section either. Considering all of the other challenges spread throughout the race, which I will describe later, we really only were properly prepared for the trail running section, which was the shortest leg (3.5 miles) at the beginning of the race.

After loading our bikes onto the truck, we decided to hang out for the pre-race dinner and briefing that was to follow, providing a brief compass clinic for the orientiering portion of the race and explaining the race course and the undisclosed challenges the race directors and their team had come up with for this year's edition. Since this was the largest crowd ever for this event and since the tried a new registration process, the dinner and pre-race birefing started later than originally expected, so that Anya and I did not head back to the hotel until after 8PM. However, we did not leave until we did get the scoop on what's to be expected for the race from the hosts and previous participants. We did make one final change in our gear planning. While we had brought our own brand new and shiny PFDs, we quickly opted to go with the rental versions we had paid for as part of our kayak rental after the infamous "mud pit" challenge was revealed. Apparently, racers are required to submerge themselves in a mud pit while crawling through various tubes, but more (or less) about that later. Since we did stick around for almost 4 hours, we did manage to meet up with everyone else from "Team Huntsville". In all, there were three male teams, one female team and one co-ed team (us), and almost all of us were new to this type of racing. Finally, to keep with the spirit of "just having fun", Anya and I did enjoy one ice cold beer from the keg that the hosts generously provided. While I am usually looking for a beer at the finish of a race, I certainly won't turn it down at a pre-race event either;-)

The Morning Of
Anya and I had set our alarm for 6AM to grab a light breakfast in the hotel lobby. The breakfast area was already buzzing with other race participants trying to fuel up before the race. Even thought he race wasn't scheduled to start between 8:30-9:00AM, we needed to be at the race finish for the pre-race briefing and the bus shuttle to the race start (see picture below).



After trying to listen to the briefing (my mind was already on the trails) all 250 or so adventure racers boarded the school buses that were going to take us to the race start at the Swayback Bridge Trailhead. After a short 20 minute ride, we arrived at our destination. Anya and I quickly located our bikes and placed our drop/transition bags next to them. We had placed our helmets and bike gloves (for MTB leg of the race), 2 bottles each of Gatorade (for transitions), hat and sunglasses (for kayaking and other challenges) inside the bags. In addition, I took on the role of team mule, picking up a 2 liter hydration pack as well as some gels, salt tablets, Ibuprofen, bike repair kit and the all important compass before we transitioned to the mountain biking leg of the race. I figured we wouldn't need any gear for the 3.5 mile trail running leg and the rope challenge we would encounter during this leg. Before the actual start of the race, we still did find the time to get everyone from "Team Huntsville" together for a quick photo op (see picture below, Anya and I are the two kneeling in the center of the picture).



The Race Start
Unlike the previous years, the race organizers had decided that it would be "fun" to reverse the order in which individual racers and teams would start. Instead of the usual format of starting the first wave of the race with the fastest runners, race organizers asked All Female teams to start first, followed by Individual Females and Co-ed teams, followed by All Male teams and lastly Individual Males. Basically, the race started in 4 waves with the supposedly slowest group taking of first. That would result in lots of passing on the mostly single track trails during the running and mountain biking section as well as lead to a massive bottleneck at the rappelling section of the race. It didn't really matter to me, we were just here to have fun. Around 9AM, the first wave of runners took off, followed by the other groups in 10 minute intervalls.

Trail Running (First Leg)
Anya and I took off with the second wave of runners and we settled in a rather quick pace, Anya taking the lead as team pacer and me following. At one point during the race, we were actually in second place in the Co-ed division, fighting for first and keeping the third placed team behind us...ok, only during the start of the race (see picture below), but hey, it sounded good.



The first two miles went by rather quickly as we were running single track trails mostly flat or downhill. During the last 1.5 miles of the run, the increase in hills started to take a toll on our team and we paid the price for a pace slightly faster than planned. Well, we never really planned our pace, but we were going too fast. As a result, we started dropping back a "few" spots. We backed off our pace to regain our composure and to ready ourselves for the next leg of the race. I didn't want us to be completely spent before we started the Mountain Biking leg of the race as that would also require leg strength, even if slightly different than the running portion of the race. With about a half mile to go in the trail run, we encountered the "rope challenge", were one team member (me, selected by Anya's luck of the draw) had to cross a single rope bridge while holding on to and pulling yourself across on a rope above your head. This was a welcome break for Anya and a rather easy challenge for myself. After completing this challenge, we received our first zip tie. Zip ties would be collected at the finish line to confirm that all challenges were compelted successfully. Failure to prsent any zip ties would result in different types of penalties, depending on the difficulty of the challenge, ranging from 15-45 minutes. We still averaged about a 12 minute per mile pace, which wasn't bad at all, given that this was truly Anya's first ever trail race. We arrived back at the transition area after about 43 minutes. We both grabbed a Gatorade and drank a few big gulps before putting on our helmets and gloves for the mountain biking leg of the race. I put on the hydration pack and off we went.

Mountain Biking (Second Leg)
This was by far the toughest leg of the race for our team. While I had been mountain biking a few times in my day, Anya only had done this about a couple of times since her early childhood. She also had had a serious biking accident at that time, which made her completion of this race all the more impressive and an accomplishment to be very proud of. Of course, she hadn't told me about this until after the race, but that's another story;-) Once we entered the single track trail, the difficulty of this leg of the race became clear very quickly as well. I believe Anya had her first crash about half a mile into the course. To make things worse, we started having to pull over to the side of this single track trail about every 2 minutes, no exaggeration. This passing problem required us to pull over at the worst sections of the trail, trying not to hold up any competitor during their quest for glory. As a result, we literally must have pulled over well over a hundred times. While the time was meaningless to us at this point and it was all about finishing this thing, it was quite disheartening and disruptive to any rhythm or momentum we were trying to build. And when we did get some momentum, a tree or root or rock would be in Anya's way, trying to take her down once more. This made this section not only physically challenging, but also mentally draining, especially for Anya. But even though the trail tried its hardest to beat Anya and make her quit by beating her down with various crashes, she persevered and finished this part of the race as well, banged up, bruised, scratched and bloody. We both stopped counting her crashes after 8 or 9, but I'm sure it was many more. Yet, Anya continued and never gave up. She more than paid her dues on these trails. Just when we though we were done, we got to the "Over and Under" challenge, where both the rider and the bike had to first get over a wooden structure, then carry the bikes across a plank followed by pushing the bike under a wooden structure and crawling under after it. Luckily, teams were allowed to assist each other and that made it a little easier to get our heavy bikes across the wall. When we got back to the transition area, we dropped of our helmets and gloves, grabbed our hats and sun glasses and another Gatorade and continued down the road to our next section and challenge of the race.

Orientiering And Rock Jumble (Third Leg)
After leaving the TA, we headed down a dirt road towards Jordan Dam. This section of the race included an orientiering challenge among other things. Half way down towards Jordan Dam, we entered a check point at which we received compass coordinates to find our next check point in the woods. After a short scramble through the woods and some brier patches, we found our next check point, collected our zip ties and used the new coordinates given to reach the next point. Soon after, we arrived at Jordan Dam, where we had to do the "Rock Jumble" challenge to get to the next major challenge and transition spot. The rock jumble was basically a section of bouldering along the river shore line across large sheets of rock until we reached the boat ramp, where another compass challenge awaited us.We had to provide the compass readings for two land marks and write them down before proceeding to put on our life preservers and continuing on a steep quarter mile trail hike up to the next challenge. While only one team member had to complete the next task, both team members had to climb up the trail for the "poker chip draw" which would determine who had to do the most exciting challenge, yet. Anya had to draw a poker chip and her and I both were hoping that I had to do it. She was tired and I was excited and couldn't wait to do it. We both got lucky.

Rappelling and Canoeing (Fourth Leg)
When I reached the top of the cliff and the start of the next challenge, the line was backed up significantly. However, at this point, I did not care. Thirty minutes later, I was strapped in the harness and ready to rappel down a cliff for the first time in my life. It was cool. Once I reached the bottom of the cliff, Anya was waiting about 50 yards away in the water in her PFD, bobbing around like a buoy along with other racers. We now had to swim 250 yards or so back to the boat ramp to continue on down the river to our next challenge. Since we were in the back of the pack, we had to take whatever boat was left, so instead of a kayak, we had to take a canoe. We knew our next challenge would be on Dead Beaver Island. After about an hour orso, we started to worry. We had lost sight of other racers that we previously spotted ahead of us and were approaching our first major rapid. As we were going through the rapids, I spotted other racers to the far right of us on the river. that made me wonder as they were way ahead of us before. It slowly dawned on us that we had taken a wrong turn somewhere, but we didn't know where. Come to find out we misinterpreted one of the racer markers along the river and stayed to the right of the river rather than keeping the river on our right,as indicated my the marker. As a result, we completely missed the Dead Beaver Island challenge and the subsequent challenge as well. As soon as we exited the rapids, I was determined to get us back to the island somehow. After struggling to paddle upstream for about 10 minutes without any progress, I actually got out of the canoe to try to pull us upstream (not until first checking the river depth, of course). Like I said,I was determined....and stupid.

Of course, Anya freaked out and words like "I don't want you to drown" did cross her lips. I thought it was actually kind of funny and I realized that I must have looked pretty darn stupid, trying to pull a canoe not only upriver but through a rapid as well. Once I realized how stupid this was, I reentered the boat and we had to make the decision to cut our losses and just soldier on. Yeah, like we really needed another hour added for missing these two challenges, but what can you do. I'll just have to come back next year to do the infamous "mud pit" and "goose sluice" challenges.

The next challenge would be class 3 rapid at Moccasin Gap Island,which we mastered without any problems. After exiting the rapid, we continued on to Corn Creek Park, where we had to beach the canoe before proceeding to our next challenge, the "fishing" challenge. I used that opportunity to tip over the canoe to empty out all of the water that had collected in the canoe. By the time we had reached this point, the rapids and a near capsizing after one of the rapids had created a nice pool of water in the back of the canoe and I was sitting right in the middle of it. After a short trail run, we reached the "fishing challenge", where I had to cast a weight on a fishing pole into a hoola hop about 15-20 yards away. I hit the target with the second cast and we collected our next zip tie before continuing on Corn Creek Park trail loop back to the canoe.

Canoeing (Final Leg)
Once we got back onto the water, we knew we were getting closeto the finish line. However, we were worn out and it seemed like forever until we reached the final challenge across from the finish line. We had to paddle through an old decomissioned lock, beach our boat on a small river bank, reenter the water with our paddles and swim to the bottom of a 15 foot concrete wall, where a staircase led us up to the top. As a final challenge, we had to jump into the river from the top of the wall, swim back to our boats and cross the river for a final sprint to the finish line. This was a big challenge for Anya with her fear of heights. Amazingly, she didn't take but a few seconds to take the plunge. I am sure it was largely due to the fact that she could see the finish line ahead.

The Finish Line
Either way, she conquered her fears and we finished strong, sprinting to the finish line in just over 7 hours (penalty time for missing challenge included). It was an amazing experience and I am so glad I got to do this with my future wife. Hey, she didn't ask to break off our engagement after being my team mate in this race for seven hours. If that's not amazing, I don't know what is. We finished and we have the results to prove it;-)

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