I wrote this after the Bonk Hard Chill 2007, this was my first adventure race, before I became a member of the Xtreme Team Rock Racing. Rock racing will be competing in this event in Feb 2010 and hopefully it will go much smoother then the first time I encountered this race.
What started out as a “spur of the moment, seems like fun, sure I will do it” kind of adventure, soon turned into something so much more. More what? Making great new friends, learning so much more about old friends, seeing just how far my body and mind, “mostly mind” could go before screaming STOP! and so much more.
This adventure begins like any other. I get an email from my friend Keith Timmins, asking me if I would like to do an adventure race. It’s a four man team and he and Mike Morrison would like to do it, but need a 3rd and 4th. This same note goes to my friend Jeff Schleicher. So I go review the race website, I think about it, and I decide, hey this sounds like fun, plus it’s December and the temperatures outside have been in the 50’s and 60’s, so this could be really fun. This was my first mistake, thinking the weather wouldn’t change much in 6 weeks.
So, I reply, sure sounds fun, then I see Jeff’s reply, he’s in also. So now we have a team and the adventure is about to begin. We plan our first team meeting at Keith’s house on a Saturday morning, and just as Saturday approaches the weather starts to change, to ice and cold. We take this in stride, oh it’s just a few days it will get better again. We meet at Keith’s and sit down to talk at the kitchen table, when Keith says, “I have bad news, I will be out of town for work and can’t do this race”. It takes us about 30 seconds to regroup and we come up with two names for a replacement. One being Jim Cedor. Jeff says he will ask Jim. Jim has done ultra trail runs, he should be really good. Jeff talks to Jim and we are back on track, Jim is in. We pay our entry fee of $110 bucks each, now we are committed.
So here we are, 4 people who have never done a full adventure race, two that sort of know how to navigate, but really have no experience, and we plan on spending 18 hours in the woods, on a lake in February. Still we aren’t deterred, we think we can finish in less than 18 hours, I mean how hard can it be to mountain bike, run and canoe around and pick up flags. We all print the gear list from the website, Oh yes the gear list, now if we had been really thinking we would have guessed that since the gear list included flares, waterproof matches, fire starter sticks and an emergency blanket, that maybe, just maybe this was not as easy as we thought it was going to be. Flares, where does a person buy flares, who knows, so it’s very lucky that my friend Keith Moore just happened to have some flares lying around the garage right next to the parked tank. Again, if a guy with a tank has flares, we should be thinking that this just doesn’t sound like something we want to do. Now we have the list of gear we need, we confer over email, split up the gear list, decide what kind of extra stuff we need, reserve hotel rooms and plan our trip to the Ozarks for this great adventure.
Some of the team members even decided to try and train a bit, Jeff and Jim trained with packs on and Mike ran in the dark with his headlamp. I on the other hand, did nothing different, I didn’t train with my pack, didn’t run in the dark with my light. I just trained a usual, which was mistake number two. Are you counting two mistakes and the race hasn’t even started.
Now it rolls around to Friday and I go pick up Jeff at the park n ride where he is going to leave his truck, then we are off to Missouri to pick up Mike at his house, so far, so good. We pick up Mike and meet Emily and his two beautiful daughters, now we have more pressure, when it was just worrying about getting Mike home in one piece it was easy, but now after meeting his family, we know we have to get him home ok. So off we go, we are about an hour away from our hotel conferring with each other about how much sleep we got worrying about the race, about what will happen if the lake is froze over, about being anxious getting in a canoe in this kind of weather, when Jeff’s cell phone rings. It is our 4th teammate Jim, he is already there and tells us that the lake is frozen and there is probably no way we can canoe. We all get this sudden sense of calmness, we are sure we will not be canoeing and of course the trek and bike will be gravy. Now do you see where I am going, this was our third mistake.
So once at the hotel we check in and put our bikes in the rooms and then we are off to the race headquarters to check-in our gear. Oh but we have to make a stop, we didn’t all bring waterproof matches or a lighter, so Mike and I have to get one at the gas station, no problem, now we have all our gear. Check-in goes fine, but when they look at our flares they are confused, then the gear guys says wow you have German flares, we had the real thing not some sporting goods store look alike, Keith really fixed us up. Now we are excited and ready to go. We head back to the hotel for a couple hours to repack our camelbaks and get ready. Next we go back to race headquarters for dinner of pasta, salad and cake, then into the pre-race meeting where we are lucky enough to find places on the comfy couches and not in the hard cold metal chairs. The place is packed, everyone looks really fit and all seem to be wearing outdoor kinds of clothes, I feel a bit out of place, it was nothing like being at a bike race or triathlon, but I still feel like it won’t be an issue, we will finish easily even if these competitors have cooler outdoor gear and look like they know what they are doing.
The meeting starts and they hand out a nice North Face headband to each of us, added bonus is what I was thinking. Then we find out all the rules, where we can go and not go, about gear checks and being careful. All the things we need to know to complete the race without penalty or injury. The race director asked who has never done this before and it seems that we are the only entire team that is completely new, it looked as though some teams had some newbies, but not the entire team. Again, I’m feeling a little intimidated. Then it is announced that the coves on the lakes are froze over and scouts were out looking for new places to put canoes in the lake. We are given a map with the first legs of the race and a clue sheet and are sent home to map our route.
Back at the hotel we start plotting the course, Jeff seems to know more about orienteering then any of us and he gets us started, we all pick up the skill quite nicely and finish plotting and getting our coordinates. Finally, it’s almost midnight and we have to be at the course by 5 am. I wonder back to my room, the 3 guys shared a room and I got my own room. So they worried together and I worried alone. I don’t know which was worse. So 3:30 am comes around and I’m up and tired and my belly feels like it’s going to blow. I don’t want to tell the guys I felt sick, so I just acted like I was fine. We load the van with our gear and bikes then go into the hotel for breakfast of bagels and waffles. I tried to each breakfast but couldn’t eat much.
Off to the race, the park was easy to find and we just followed the truck in front of us, I mean who else would be out at that time in the morning when it was only 17 degrees. We found a great parking spot right in front of the cabin that was being used as race headquarters. These are cabins with no comforts of home, but it did have a fireplace and propane light that gave off some heat. We go to the race meeting, and we are all standing around the propane light trying to get warm with the little bit of heat it put off. The meeting starts and we quickly find out that the race is not going to start on time, and that the whole course has changed due to the ice on the lake. Now we are all feeling a little sick because we spent two hours of sleeping time, mapping our course and it was now useless. We are told the race will start in 15 minutes and that we as a team will have to run a mile course to pick up the new clue sheet and then will have to plot our course. Remember, this is our first time, it is probably taking us three times as long to plot the course as other teams.
We return to the van where we stay warm while we plot the course, 45 minutes later we are off. I put on my pack for the first time and almost fall over. I had no idea it was going to weigh that much. We get on our bikes for the first leg where we bike to a point to get our passport stamped and are off on a trek. We find out that at checkpoint 9 we will be told if we will canoe or not. We are hoping that we don’t canoe. We ride up and down some major hills, getting up to 30 mph speeds on the down hills. Although we have on many layers of clothes and windproof jackets and pants, ski masks, helmets and glasses, we still are hit by temperatures so cold that my head starts to ache. I try to put my hand over my forehead to block the wind, but it doesn’t help. We stop at the bottom of this hill at a road called Cassidy rd, we think that might be our turn, we decide not and keep going back up another ¾ mile long hill. We see another team turn but we think they are going the wrong way, we keep going straight. A park ranger stops us, ask us if we are just out riding. Now, I’m thinking, “what idiots would be out riding in 17 degree temperatures” I almost start laughing. We tell him we are in the race and he tells us we are on our way to the Highway, which is off limits, so we turn around and follow the road the other team turned on. A couple miles down the road we see Cassidy road, we were right we should have turned, too late now, but we should have learned to trust our intuition. This was mistake number four.
We finally make it to check point one, we take off a layer of clothes and stick them in our pack because we know we are going to be running for a while. We go into the cabin to get our passport marked and while we are there we hold our frozen water tubes over the fire to try and melt the ice so we can get a drink. We had no idea that the water in the tube would freeze up. Someone in the cabin gave us a good piece of advice, he said after you take a drink blow air down the tub the push the water back so that it won’t freeze. This was probably the best advice we got all day. Off into the woods we go and we see some teams coming out of the woods, and not far in front of us. We are excited that we are not that far behind. We trudge through the snow covered woods and see many foot prints of others that have been there before us. Ah, you are thinking that foot prints are good, we can just follow the prints and find the flag, wrong! The foot prints turned out to be a bad thing, we were steered wrong many times by trusting the footprints rather then ourselves. You will see how that worked against us later. Anyway, we find the checkpoint, figure out our position and off we go to the next check point.
We are getting warmed up and things seem to be going well and its fun, we are really having fun. All of the sudden someone yells deer and two of the fastest moving deer I have ever seen came flying right past us. They are moving so fast they look like thoroughbred horses racing, it was a doe and a buck, the buck had about 8 points and was very large. I was thinking, this is so great, I’m so glad I did this.
So now back to work, we are watching the compass and moving along. Jim was a great compass guy, he could look at the compass and run at a pace I had trouble keeping up with and he would end up right were we aimed for. So we are getting close to our plotted area and we see others in the same area, so once again instead of trusting ourselves we stop before we thought we should have and start looking around. No flag anywhere. We find a guy wondering around lost, he wants to use our emergency cell phone to call his partner, I think this is illegal, but we couldn’t leave him there. So we reorient ourselves while the guy talks to his partner and then we hear the partner whistle and head that way. We find the flag, but we wasted a good 40 minutes doing it. Then Jeff gives us some bad news, he has lost his fleece jacket somewhere and has no idea where, it fell off his pack. We decide we will have to take the hit at gear check for not having it, rather then back tracking to look for it.
All along the way, I’m stopping to pee, these guys on my team, I don’t think they pee at all, I don’t know how they hold it. I would say “guys I have to stop to pee, I will catch up”, but here is the problem, my gloves are so sweaty and wet inside that every time I take them off I have to work so hard to get them back on that I don’t want to take them off. So if I stop to pee, I’m going do anything else I need to do while my gloves are off. Like grab food out of my pocket or tie my shoes. I felt bad because they were always waiting for me. Like a trooper I keep trudging along bringing up the rear. I’m jogging to keep up with their walk, wow they can walk fast and I can’t keep up unless I jog.
We regroup and off we go, wow we find the next one pretty easy and we also find a turtle shell with no turtle in it, again I think is someone trying to tell us that this is no summer vacation. It seems that Mike has an eye for the flags he is the first one to spot them almost every time. Off we go though to the next check point, oh no, not again. We stop too early, doubting our experience and walk around aimlessly for another 45 minutes then decide we stopped too soon and have to go further. So now we stop and remind each other to eat, my shoe is untied again, but I don’t want to take off my gloves so I try to tie it with the gloves on, I can’t, so Jeff has his gloves off and he ties it for me. I feel like a little kid, Jeff has no idea how much I appreciated him tying my shoe. I stand there thinking how well we are doing as a team helping each other out at every turn, depending on one another, this is fun I thought, we are going to make it. Now we are off again, we hike down to the valley and back up a big hill, and guess what, there is the flag. We can’t seem to learn our lesson about trusting ourselves. Hopefully this would not happen again.
So now we go across the hill we find the road and cross it, we find the lake, and I finally spy a flag, the first one I found. It is across two fingers of the frozen cove. We find a place to cross the first finger, I sink in the mud , but am lucky my feet don’t get wet. Then we cross the second finger, it a longer jump, Jeff grabs my arm and pulls me across, again I’m lucky my feet don’t get wet. Wow, we found the flag in 20 minutes, a record for us.
Off to the next check point, it’s another good find and in 20 minutes once again. We are really perking up and feeling good, we even discuss the possibility of a canoe leg, it doesn’t seem so daunting anymore. We check our watches and we have been out for 6 hours and we have one last check point before we find out if we will canoe. The sun is out and we feel some heat, we feel great and seem to have a second wind.
Here we are looking for the next check point, it looks to be east of the water tower and the clue says top of hill. We are all over the top of the hill, no flag, wondering around again 30 minutes have gone by, we can’t find the flag, 40 minutes now, no flag. We see the lake and canoes coming off. We know we will be on the water. All of the sudden at the bottom of the hill next to the lake we see the flag. Then we think it can’t be the correct flag, it’s not on the top of the hill. It was though, we think the clue sheet for that one was a little deceiving. We now start running back to check point 9, we know it’s were we left our bikes and there are roads all the way too it, but then we look up and see it. The hill looked to be as tall as the heavens and as long as the sea and we had to go up it. Jim was leading us, he is incredible, like the energizer bunny, he just goes and goes. He weighs a 155 pounds and is stronger then any of us. We make it to the top of the hill and make the turn to the next road, only to realize it is much further then we thought, but we just kept going. We finally make it back and we are sweaty and hungry. We are looking forward to a nice easy canoe leg. We go into the cabin with the warm fire place and are asked to show all our gear, Jeff says he lost his fleece jacket and the volunteer says there is one on the ground at the top of the hill. Jeff runs out and finds that it is his. So we make it through gear check with no penalty. Now we load our packs again, eat something, get our water proof gear on and head out to the canoe. We see some teams coming in and know that we aren’t last. The problem is, when we went back outside the air felt like the temperature dropped 10 degrees in the last 15 minutes. When we get to the beach, we are freezing, we put our packs in trash bags to keep them dry and throw them in the canoe.
Finally we get the heavy canoes over to the beach, hop in and take off. The wind is blowing and the air is so cold our heads hurt. It didn’t take long before our fingers were like a block of ice and we could barely hold the canoe paddle. We decide that based on the map we can dock in a cove and drag the canoe through the woods for what looks to be about 1000 meters and get it to the other side of the lake, this will cut off 5 miles of the canoe leg. We get to the cove and it is froze over so we have to dock way out. Jeff is almost sick because he is so cold and Mike says, “I really feel like crying”, now these are to tough guys and they are having problems. I’m starting to doubt my sanity at this point. I am so cold that I just start walking up the hill to see how far it is to the other side. When I get to the top of the hill, which by the way is straight up for about 500 meters, and I look down, and there is no lake. I almost started crying, I knew that I could not get back on that water, but I also knew that there was no way I could drag a canoe up the hill and even further. I go back down and the team confers, we decide that dragging the canoe is the only way, Jim says that he thinks we just need to go north a little more and we will get to the water. We decide that we will all four drag the canoe then come back for the second canoe. We carry it, and rest and carry it some more, we make it over the first hill, find a road and carry it over the road and back into the woods, then finally we see water. We get the canoe to the water and head back to get the second one. My arms hurt so bad, but I was trying not to complain because so far no one was really whining and I didn’t want to be the sissy. We decided to try another approach with the second canoe. I had a bunge cord in my pack, so we hooked it to the canoe and Jim wrapped it around his waist and started pulling, the then we tried to just push and pick it up when we had to. Once again, Jim was our saving grace, he just kept going. Two and a half hours after we docked in the cove we were ready to get back in the canoe and finish the last 400 meters or so across the lake. I was never so glad to get out of a canoe in my life.
We put our packs on and head back to the check point to pick up our bikes. Once again we found ourselves running up that same hill, you know the one that is as high as the heavens and as long as the sea. Mike said that his foot felt like an ice block and I said mine were cold and sweaty, Jeff and Jim, said that theirs were warm although still very wet. They had bought some seal socks, the socks cost an amount large enough to feed a small country, but at that point, I would have paid the price for those socks.
The next leg was a bike leg back to the transition area. We know that we have more food and water and dry clothes and can sit in the van to get warm before we go back out. So we hop on our bikes and off we go, we are heading down this giant hill at least a half mile long, probably hitting 30 miles per hour on our bikes, and I think, if I crash at least I have 4 layers of clothes on and a helmet, so I will be ok. We get to the bottom of the hill after navigating through many ice patches, snow and rock. Mike says “Robin your helmet is not clipped” I reach up and find that it isn’t, I stop to clip it and, thank God, that I didn’t crash coming down that hill. We work our way back toward the check point with each hill getting longer and steeper, I wonder how I am still moving, I am so tired and my knee had been aching for about 4 hours. Mike yells car up and we see head lights, it’s a truck coming toward us, we all move closer to the side of the road. As I’m moving over, I think “if that truck hits me it will put me out of my misery”. Quick lesson, if you think that getting hit by a truck is better then riding up the next hill, the race was probably a bad idea. Oh it was just a fleeting thought, it passed. We are elated we see the transition area.
We drop our bikes and head into the cabin, when we walk in, everyone starts clapping. I’m thinking wow, they really are supportive at this race. Then we find out that they think we are finishing the race, not just getting to check point 12. We all laughed, the first place team had already finished and they were sitting by the fire eating and being merry. I really wanted to push them in the fire. By now if you haven’t figured it out, I had lost count of how many lessons I had learned and had basically gone insane. My sanity started to come back as I changed into the dry clothes in the back of the van. The guys were sitting in front freezing because they couldn’t change until I was finished. So I finish changing grab a turkey sandwich and a diet coke and move up to the driver seat. Mike is sitting right behind me and he says “uh oh”. I look back and his toes are black. Not good, Jim sees them and says we are out. He say’s “if Kari, (Jim’s wife) finds out something bad happened to Mike and I knew and didn’t call Bullshit, I’m dead”. When I see Kari I am going to hug her, I think her power over Jim saved my sanity, I so badly wanted to finish, but I also felt so bad that I would have taken any excuse to withdrawal.
Jeff went in the cabin to tell the race officials we were going to withdrawal and they said we did well for our first try. It’s hard to feel like you did great when you aren’t finishing, but 12 hours out in the cold, is no cake walk and since we tried, really tried, I think we did do great. While Jeff was submitting our withdrawal, and Mike was trying to get his foot warm, Jim and I put the bikes on the rack. Jeff came back and we headed out to the hotel. We talked about a hot shower and what we would eat for dinner. We talked about dinner many times while we were in the woods, it was something we were all looking forward too. After a long hot shower I called home to tell my family that we didn’t finish, but we had a good time and that everyone was safe. China, my youngest daughter was really interested in the details of black toes, she found it very intriguing.
We all piled back into the van to head to Chillis for dinner, wow the van smelled really bad, but we hardly noticed it, we had smelled that way for most of the day. We get to the restaurant and order tons of food and tell the waitress to just keep filling our drinks, that we would be drinking a lot, and we did, we must have gone through gallons of tea, soda and water. I was having a hard time just staying awake through dinner, but I was not missing food. The conversation was a rehash of the entire day and we talked of doing another adventure race, maybe not in February though. When we got back to the hotel, I fell into bed and slept like the dead until the alarm went off the next morning. We loaded the van, racked the bikes and were off to Denny’s for another big meal and lots of diet coke. We rode home rehashing the day once more, changing our strategy, wondering what we could have done different. Mike gets dropped of first, then I leave Jeff at his truck and I’m on my way home. I roll into the garage at 11:15 and once again relive the day for my family.
I’m sure as you read this, you wonder if the hills were really as tall as the Swiss Alps and if the water had ice bergs large enough to sink the titanic. You might get a different picture from a different competitor, but this is my story and I’m sticking to it. If you want to know for sure you can always compete in the race next year and see for yourself. Maybe you can even talk me into being on your team. I mean how hard can it be, biking, trekking, canoeing, piece of cake.