By: Robin Rongey & Chuck Vohsen
It’s September, and those on the Adventure Racing circuit know what September means, it is once again time for the Berryman Adventure race. The race comes in two distances, the 12 hour and the 36 hour. The Rock Racing crew originally thought about doing the 36 hour, hoping to rack up Checkpoint Tracker points to try and qualify for Nationals, but since we made Nationals early on, we didn’t need the points. With me (Robin) completing an Ironman 4 weeks earlier and also having a fractured foot, and Chuck completing a half Ironman just one week prior to the race, we decided that the 12 hour race was probably the better choice.
On Friday we left for the race at noon, pulled into Bass River Resort around 3 pm, setup camp and checked in for the race. We talked to Laura one of the Bonk Hard Racing directors, she said this was going to be a great race. We got our really cool dry fit race shirts with the image of a donkey lying on his back with his legs straight up in the air, like he was dead, I thought by the end of the race, this would be a fitting image for us to be sporting.
We headed to the bike drop, it was about a 45 minute drive. We left the bikes at the YMCA of the Ozarks, it was a beautiful place.
After dropping the bikes we drove into Potosi and ate dinner then headed back to camp. We both wanted to call home, but we were in such a remote area that we had no cell reception, so we drove to the top of a hill where we finally got one bar and called home, just in case we fell off a cliff or anything, it was our last chance to talk to our families. Back to the campsite we went for the pre-race meeting. We were given the usual rules and instructions with one note added by the park ranger, we were to be careful, there were lots of rattlesnakes and copperheads out sunning themselves in the weather. We should be on the lookout and not step on any. GREAT! I hate snakes. We received 4 maps and a clue sheet with UTM coordinates then headed back to our campsites to plot points.
A short note, a friend of ours was doing his first adventure race, he was doing it with 3 friend who also had never done anything like this before. Not only did they sign up for the 36 hour race, but they found a sponsor…. Wait for it….. the team sponsor was POW/MIA. Does anyone else think it’s funny that a team of new racers is going to attempt a course that usually only advance racers should do and the team’s name is Prisoner of War /Missing in Action. Well we gave them all the tips we could think of and said a prayer that they would make it out of the woods alive.
Back at camp, we plotted points and marked out our strategy, triple checked our gear and headed off to our tents to try and sleep. At 5 am Saturday morning we were both up, packing food and water, pulling on jackets because it was cold, around 50 degrees. It was also foggy and misty, it seemed like the air was really thick and it was hard to see much of anything.
We headed up to the start line where we encountered the crowd of racers waiting for the bus. One volunteer had a hammock hanging on the pavilion and was sleeping through all the commotion. Jason gave us some last minute instructions and one was not to use a certain route to checkpoint 16 because it bordered some private property and the last time they had this race here the owner was not happy and said he would be shooting the next racer that came near his property. Lucky for us, we had not planned to take that route in the first place. The buses came, we loaded up and rode to the bike drop. On the way, I ate little white powdered donuts, that is my pre-race food of choice, Chuck had an oatmeal cookie. Even though we were dropped at our bikes we didn’t start on the bike, we headed out for the trek. The first mile or so of the trek was a steep uphill, but we kept running when everyone was walking so we passed a ton of teams.
We found the first CP pretty fast, it was down in a deep and rugged reentrant and many of the teams missed it, they were wandering around the woods, looking for it, while we were heading to CP 2. At CP 5 we were at an overlook, it was beautiful. Chuck walks right out on the edge. It had to be over a 100ft drop to the rocks below. I guess he was practicing for the rapelling section at Nationals.
The trek went so well, we were running right to each checkpoint without any problems at all, we saw others wandering around, it made us think we were really on our game.
We got checkpoint after checkpoint then after CP11 we headed across a floating bridge and off to a mystery event. We turned a corner and saw it, a giant rock climbing wall. One team member had to climb the wall and then rappel down. We decided it would be Chuck because he has longer arms and legs and more arm strength, so he put on the climbing harness and climbed the wall like spider man.
When Chuck came off the wall, we grabbed our packs and headed to CP 13 which was the bike drop, but still we weren’t going to bike, we were told to map a new point using some coordinates that were on the table. We used our normal method of reading and plotting and were done so fast we passed several teams here. As Chuck finished the map coordinates, I took off my arm warmers and put them in my pack, then I grabbed some cookies, oh and they were good cookies, Oreo’s with one side chocolate and one side white, I’m not sure if they were that great or I was just starving, but I thought I was eating a gourmet meal. We took off running up that same big hill we did to the first checkpoint. We turned right into the woods and headed up the hill, we came out at some kind of climbing thing, but did not see a checkpoint. We were looking for the usual orienteering flag, but it was really a mystery event. I saw a Porta John and ran in, too many people to just stop in the woods to do my business. As I came out of the Johnny, Chuck yelled to me and pointed, there was a very tall pole with a zip line connected, it was the mystery point. Since Chuck did the first mystery event, I was up for this one. I’m a little afraid of heights, so this was a bit scary for me. I climbed up hoping I was going to make it to the platform before one of the pegs failed and I fell to my death.
I know, it was probably perfectly safe, but it’s hard to be rational when you are scared. By the time I made it to the platform, my whole body was shaking, then the guy on the platform with me gets me all hooked up and tells me to sit down and scoot out to the edge with my legs hanging over. I thought, he has to be kidding, he wasn’t. Finally after taking my death grip off the pole, I made it to the edge of the platform, I closed my eyes and just went, as soon as I started moving I opened my eyes and realized that I wasn’t going to die. I was actually having fun. Chuck said I talked the entire way, I probably did, but didn’t remember, until he showed me the video he had taken on his camera.
Once out of my harness, I pulled on my pack and we ran back to CP 15 which was bike drop. We started pulling off pants and changing shoes, when I realized my pack was open and my jacket was falling out. Then I noticed my arm warmers were gone. I hate losing things, and was so upset about losing them, that I first forgot to pull out my sunglasses, then forgot to get my gloves out of my pack and then forgot to put my shoes in my pack. As Chuck waited patiently, I pulled my pack off one last time to put my shoes in it and guess what. I found my arm warmers, they were in a different zipper compartment. Good thing too that would have bothered me the rest of the race. Chuck seemed to be enjoying my arm warmer frenzy, he just kept laughing. *Finally we were on the bikes and none too soon for me, my foot was really aching from all the running on it, I really wanted to get my weight off it. My hip was starting to hurt from limping. Chuck was in perfect shape, nothing hurting, and I know he was going slow so I could keep up.
It seems that every race we learn something, and this race was no different. Coming off such a good trek with no mistakes, we were feeling a little too sure of ourselves and not concentrating as much as we should have been. The bike started with an uphill that just wouldn’t end. If you have ever ridden Matson hill, well put 10 Matson hills together and you would get the first part of our bike leg. As we pushed our way up miles of never ending hills, we started to realize that we might have missed the turn into the woods for CP 16, the first bike CP. Well Chuck was right again, we had missed the turn, so we turned around and rode back downhill and found the CP, but all that energy was wasted the first time up the hill, now we had to go up it again. UP, UP, UP, it seemed like forever, then we found CP 17, and finally we turned into the woods onto some single track. It felt so good to be off that road and that never ending uphill. We rode about a mile or so and a four person team passed us going the other direction, we decided they must be a 36 hour team, right after that Alpine shop blew by us, another 36 hour team, then the Bushwhacker team came by also, we knew they were a 12 hour team and very good, they never make mistakes, so we started to doubt our skills. Soon we stopped to drag our bikes over some huge downed trees, we ran into about 5 teams all looking for CP 18, some going the other direction. We decided to turn around, having some self doubt about our route. Well that was a mistake, we went back about a mile ran into more teams, discussed the issue. Finally I said to Chuck “If we had not seen any other teams here, where would you have gone” he said the way we were going in the first place, so that’s what we did and low and behold there was the checkpoint. This is a lesson we have learned over and over, don’t worry about what the other teams are doing, even if we know they are good teams, follow our plan and trust in it. With that mess over we rode right to the CP. Then we made a good shortcut by bike-whacking to the road and was on to CP 21. We were concentrating on riding the rough single track and rode right past the CP, we went about a half mile and decided we needed to turn back, just a couple minutes down the single track and there it was right on the trail. At least we only wasted about 10 minutes on that mistake and we helped another team find the checkpoint also.
We blew through the next couple CP’s and made it to the river. We dropped our bikes, ran through the gear check, grabbed a canoe, paddles and life vest and headed down to the water. When we hit the water, Chuck noticed he that he had left the map clipped onto his bike handlebars, he ran back up to gear check and unclipped it. Going into the water we were told we were the 5th co-ed team and 20th overall. We were paddling like crazy trying to catch the co-ed team in front of us, we finally caught sight of them. We passed two guys, we told them we were trying to catch the co-ed team, so the guys said, let us pay you back and gave our canoe a big shove forward. They were the two guys we helped during the bike leg. We then paddled until our arms went numb and our shoulders were screaming, but it was worth it, we passed to co-ed team with gusto and left them to try chasing us. We passed another male team and kept paddling looking back frequently to see if we were dropping the co-ed team. Soon we were at the low water bridge. Chuck said get ready to get out and pull the canoe over the bridge, I said, we can make it under, so we laid down flat in the bottom of the canoe and floated under the bridge, we only had about an inch clearance, but we made it and it gave us a big lead. The next stop was CP24 and Wendy and Jim Davis were manning it, she said we were about 4 minutes behind the 3rd place team. We were paddling so hard that we weren’t doing a good job of steering, so we kept running into the bank, trees, logs, and rocks, then it would take us forever to get moving again. Looking back, we should have slowed down and worked more on steering, just another lesson learned.
As we paddled down the river, Chuck pulled out the camera to try and take some pictures, and as he was trying to get the camera out he dropped his paddle into the fast river water. It was 20 meters behind us in a split second
He told me to paddle backwards. I said, “That won’t work, jump in and get it!” He wouldn’t do it, and said “Give me your paddle” and he held us still until the paddle floated to us. Of course the teams we passed were starting to catch us again. We once again had to paddle like crazy. We finally saw the CP and canoe take out, but no other teams, we didn’t catch the 3rd place team. We pulled our canoe up on the bank, punched our passport and ran to the finish line. We finished in 9 hours and 34 minutes. It was our fastest 12 hour race ever.
Looking back, we made mistakes, but probably only lost about 30 minutes, so we can’t complain. And hey win or lose, we still look great in our Honey Stinger/Trek jerseys.
As for POW/MIA, I know you are wondering, well they finished, and I know they have stories that will last for the rest of their lives. They did fantastic and made it back alive.
Chuck edit: This was another one of those races that make you see how important teammates are in adventure racing. We saw a four person team yelling at their navigator “Hurry up! Pick a direction! Where do you want to go! Make up your mind!” When I was having trouble figuring out why teams were going the other direction at CP19 and second guessing myself, Robin hit me with the perfect line at the perfect time: “if no one else was here, which way would you go?” And her broken foot? I could see it was hurting and just adjusted pace to match, especially on paved areas, but there was no whining, no complaining, she just sucked it up and did what had to be done. There was no blame for dropped paddles, lost arm warmers, leaving maps, or being afraid of 80 ft telephone pole climbs, just little problems that needed quick solutions. These are the things that end up making the best stories and laughs anyway.