Let me ask you a question, if you drove into a small town in Northern Illinois and saw a little roadside park with a scenic river view, would you:
A. Think oh how beautiful
B. Think oh I want to canoe on that river
C. Read the sign and decide, this is going to be a great race
If you are ROCK Racing, which would be Chuck and I, you would pick C, then you would think, I know I’m going to die. I hope my PFD will float my body back to shore.
So that is how our latest adventure race started. The Thunder Rolls AR was held in Oregon, Illinois starting and finishing at the Lutheran Outdoor Ministries Camp. The camp was great, it had lots of room for camping, a nice big dinning hall, and lots of showers with hot water. We rolled into camp on Friday afternoon, checked in and pitched our tents, even though we knew that we would not be sleeping for at least another 30 hours. We wanted the tents to be ready so that when we finished the race, we could just crash, more on that later. In our race packets we were given, mustard that Chuck loves and couldn’t wait to get, Zanfel, that I love because I knew that I would have poison ivy by the end of the race and a really nice North Face Fleece pullover that was a kind of bright green. We love good schwag in our race packets.
We ate dinner with all the other racers in the dining hall. We shared a table with the team Three Blind Mice, and listened to some great race stories while we ate spaghetti, green beans, salad, bread, berries and yogurt. I’m not much on healthy eating, but the food was all good. After dinner the fun started.
At 7 pm there was pre-race meeting, we were given maps, a clue book and some instructions, we also found out that there was going to be 55 check points, this was the most check points we have ever had in a race.
We found out that we would have nine maps, six of them (1-24,000 USGS) were given to us at the race meeting the other three (1-15,000 O-maps) would be given to us 15 minutes before the race start. The last maps we received were made by Lidar. They were really great maps, you could see things on them that you can’t see on regular USGS maps.
Chuck: The LIDAR maps were incredible. They were the best maps we’ve ever gotten for an adventure race. Awesome detail and all the land features were dead-on. Here is an example of a LIDAR map, you can see all the detail.
After receiving our maps we had to drive to the bike drop, we needed to check my tire because I was running tubeless, but having problems with the seal on the tire and air was leaking. So we ran out and put some air in my tire and hoped it would hold until we made it to the bike transition. As long as I was riding the seal was fine, but when the bike would sit for any amount of time it would leak. We put our race numbers on our Trek Superflys and checked our lights, then left a gallon of water to refill our packs when we got to the bike drop sometime in the next 24 hours.
We then drove back to the camp and went to the dining hall to plot points. We were really having a hard time for some reason and we couldn’t find the right maps, we asked team Three Blind Mice and they pointed out that there were some smaller numbers on the map. It was funny, Chuck and I couldn’t see the numbers, we both need to start bringing glasses with us. Once we saw the numbers everything went well, we had the points plotted in just over an hour.
We hurried back to camp and checked our gear and loaded it into the van, so that we could drive to the race start. We figured after the race was over we probably would be so tired that we wouldn’t want to walk back to camp, plus we had to drop off all of our paddling gear at the start.
We jumped in our tents for a 30 minute nap before the race started, but neither one of us could sleep, it was really nice getting off my feet for a while though. At 11:30 pm we were at the race start getting our last map, we quickly reviewed it then walked over to the starting line for last minute instructions. At Midnight the gun went off and all of the 24 hours teams went out on the run. There was no moon and it was pitch black out, about all we could see were headlamps flashing in the woods. We went directly to CP1 with no problems finding it. Of course since this race was setup as an Old School Expedition style, you had to get every CP in order, if you missed a CP you were finished, so the first few CPs were basically follow the herd of racers and you will get there, but as time moved on the teams got split up and went different directions, so there was no more following, you had to know what you were doing. That is unless you are me, then you just follow Chuck and say which way, when he says we need to head north, I say, which way is north. There is a problem with racing like we do, if something happens to Chuck out in the woods, we are definitely going to die because I would never get us out before we starved to death.
We trudged through thick thorn bushes, they were everywhere, all the shadows of the night made things look really scary, it was like being in a horror movie, sometimes I just wanted to hide in a bush until daylight, but I didn’t, I just kept following Chuck. After a few hours we were scratched up and bleeding from all the thorn bushes and I think I was completely wrapped in spider webs. We just stopped short of one web when we saw it shinning in our lights, the spider in the web even caught a bug and wrapped it up in his web so fast it was unbelievable.
We headed along a corn field, the corn was really high and the night was so dark, as we walked along the edge of the field, I couldn’t help but think of that movie “The Children of the Corn”, I was just waiting for something to grab me, but the only thing that was grabbing me was the thorn bushes, so many times I almost tumbled to the ground because my legs were tied up in the thorn vines. Our legs were really cut up and we had long pants on, we saw a couple guys in shorts and their legs looked like hamburger. I bet they learned a lesson or two about dressing for an AR.
We continued to find CPs without a problem, one right after the next, CP8 we found on a dead tree at the top of a small knoll. It was in an area where there were at least 8 teams looking for it, we found it and moved on, that CP gave us a big lead. We finished the first 20 checkpoint O-section and headed to the paddle. We were now 4.5 hours into the race.
We hit the canoe transition, put our glow sticks on the canoe and took off up the Rock River, we thought it was pretty cool for ROCK racing to be on the Rock River.
It was spooky paddling down the river in the pitch black. We had to turn off our head lamps because the bugs were so bad that we were getting gin our eyes and sucking them in our mouths and nose because the light was drawing them to us. So we paddled in the dark, watching the shadows from the trees on the water. We hit something in the water, and the canoe kind of tipped, but then we were off of it. I thought it was a log, Chuck thought it was a sand bar, but we really don’t know what it was, it was just way too dark to see it. After picking up the first CP on the river we were paddling through some low spots, which also had some low hanging branches overhead. I don’t know how I did this, but I got my paddle stuck between an overhead branch and in a sand bar at the same time, it almost clothes-lined me. I thought for sure I was going into the water, but lucky for me it just jammed my forearm into my elbow and I stayed in the canoe. Now I had something to complain about for the rest of the paddle, I kept whining about my arm hurting and had to change the way I paddled so it would hurt less.
Chuck: I got to watch all that from the back canoe seat, it was really pretty funny. I mean how can you get both blades of a paddle stuck at the same time? We were moving downstream at a pretty fast pace, she almost got swept right out of the boat. The best part was when the same thing happened again about 500 meters later on another low hanging branch.
At CP22 we had to pull our canoe out of the water up a steep slick bank and then run to the rappel. As we headed to the ropes we could see shadows on the ground, I thought there was some people behind us, that shadow looked too skinny to be mine, but it was mine, I’m going to start taking all my pictures in shadows if they make me look that tall and skinny.
At the rappel we had to hook on with carabiners and slings and do a fixed line traverse over a narrow rocky ridge to the rappel. On the way out to the rope, Chuck slipped and fell a few feet, I guess that is the reason we were clipped on. I was hanging on for dear life, I hate heights. When we got to the rappel, Chuck went first and on the way down his pack got caught up in a tree, but he got out and made it safely to the ground.
I was scared and the lady working the ropes talked me though it, once I got to the bottom it was fun, I think if we had time I would have liked to try it a second time. And as you can see, we were wearing our Hardnutz Rock Hard helmets, you know Hardnutz aren’t just for biking anymore.
After the rappel we ran back to the canoes and headed down stream to the next “O” section. We were pretty quick getting there, I love down stream paddling. We pulled our canoe on the sand near the island, ate a honey stinger waffle, punched the CP and headed to into the brush.
This time the vegetation was different from the last “O” section, there was less thorn bushes and more stinging nettle. We had a big discussion on what was worse the nettle or the thorns. I thought the thorns were worse, while Chuck thought it was the nettle. The nettle was so high we had to hold our arms up as we walked through, but even doing that our arms were still burning and my legs were even burning thought my pants.
Once again we went directly to every point, seeing very few other teams. We weren’t sure if we were ahead or behind at that point. CP26 was on a rock ledge overhanging the river, we had to scramble out on the edge to get it, but the view was awesome.
We came across a bunch of giant mushrooms, I turned around and saw chuck with one on his head, I guess that is what happens when you reach that point of sleep deprivation, you do stupid things.
Chuck: just seemed like a good idea at the time.
We finished the “O” section and headed back to the canoe and we started seeing tons of teams, the 12 hour race had started and we were seeing those racers along with the 24 hour racers. We stopped for a couple minutes to eat, Chuck had a PBJ and I had a fruit cup. It was the first time I tried bringing a fruit cup and it was really good, I will do that again. I had to eat it fast though because I thought Chuck was going to grab it out of my hand, it was almost like a vampire seeing blood. We then saw Forum Dental, we had been passing them back and fourth all day, which is good because they are usually faster than us, so we figured we were really having a good race. They got in the canoe before we did, but the way things were going, we would see them again soon.
Coming out of the “O” section we had one last paddle to finish. On the way I pulled out the camera and was taking a few pictures.
That is until Chuck told me to quit with the picture and help paddle, what nerve he has. I should have said not until you quit splashing me. Every time he would take a stroke he would splash water on my back, by the time the paddle was over I was soaking wet, good thing it had started warming up by the time we made it to the bike drop.
Chuck: That was getting pretty funny. Every time I would lift my paddle, water would sling over Robin in the front of the canoe, maybe these canoes were shorter than normal.
This is the bike drop at night, I didn’t have a shot of it in the daytime.
When we got to our bikes, my tire was low again, so we started to pump it with a little frame pump, but then the volunteer had a floor pump and let us use it, that was a life saver. While in transition Chuck drank a Monster energy drink, boy did it wake him up, when we took off on the bikes it was all I could do to stay with him. I should have drank one too. Monster was a sponsor so all the transitions had cold Monster waiting for us.
Chuck: I never tried Monster before. I know you should never try anything new in a race, but it was in coolers jammed with ice, and looked so cold and good, I had to get one. They taste kind of weird, but the energy boost thing is for real!
The bike legs had more hills than I had anticipated, I mean we are in Illinois, there are no hills in Illinois, unless you go to Oregon, and then there are plenty of hills. We made it through pretty quickly, the roads were pretty nice with some sections of rock, but it was not too bad to ride on. It did however enforce my thought that I don’t want to race the Dirty Kanza, gravel is not my friend.
After the bike we rolled into the Grasslands for the last “O” section. Chuck had been worrying all night about this section, he was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to navigate in there, but it turns out that most of the navigation was no different than any other we have done. It was however all open to the sun and very hot and sandy. Sand was poring into our shoes and we were starting to feel blisters popping up. As we trekked down a hot dusty road, we could see up ahead a couple little girls in front of a house that was out in the middle of nowhere. They had a cooler of cold water and some cups, and had made signs cheering the racers on. They asked all kinds of questions and gave us candy too. It was almost like a mirage, we wondered if they were really there or we were just seeing things. Then out of nowhere Forum Dental appears, so it wasn’t a mirage the little girls and water were really there.
Chuck: When we first seen them from a distance, the first thing I thought, was maybe it’s a lemonade stand. I was ready to dig money out of my pack and buy one cup of lemonade after another. Those little girls could have made a killing off me. But how great is it that they were out there doing it for free!
We drank water out of cups that had probably been used by a bunch of racers, but we didn’t care, it was so good to have ice cold water. Then it was back to work, we picked up 3 CPs back in this section and CP40 was in what was called a tree house. I think of it more as a death trap. I told Chuck, I didn’t care if my job was to get the punch, I wasn’t climbing up in that tree house, so he did it and it even scared him. The entire rotten wooden structure shook with every move he made, plus he had to get through some really thick thorn bushes to get to it. He did it though, now that’s a good teammate, taking one for the team when his partner won’t do it.
Chuck: As soon as I saw that tree house I knew I’d be the one going up. The first time we did Thunder Rolls in 2009 we had to climb a forest service fire lookout tower. That was when I first learned that Robin’s fear of heights was for real, she did the climb, but it was white knuckled and wobbly knee’d the whole way.
After coming out of the woods we headed to a CP way far out, on the way my feet were starting to hurt so bad, I stopped and took my shoes off to see if maybe there was something in my shoe, but it was just that my feet were covered in blisters, so I put my shoes back on and kept moving. We made it to CP 44 which was a rock face, we punched it and moved on to CP 45, after walking for what seemed to be hours through grass and stickers we finally found a creek, but we walked up and down the creek for 30 minutes and could never find the CP. Now it was starting to get late and we knew we had to get to the finish line before the midnight cutoff. We knew that it would take an hour to get back to our bikes and then were not sure how long it would take to ride in. So we made the decision to go back. Team Scorched Earth that we helped earlier came by and said we could look for CP 45 with them and maybe we could find it, but we chose not too, that was the biggest mistake of the race.
So we went back to the bike transition, took off our shoes and socks and rinsed all the sand out, but it was too late, the blisters were so bad there wasn’t much we could do. We put our bike shoes on and then realized my tires were low again, so we pumped them up and headed in. We figured out a route that would be a little shorter and on less traveled roads so we headed that way, stopping at intersections to make sure we were on the right track.
A car of teenagers came by and yelled at us, we weren’t sure what they said, but we know it was probably words of encouragement. Gerry the race director also drove by and asked if we were doing ok and we said, all was good and we would see him at the finish. About 13 miles later we rolled into the finish line, happy to be finished and ready to get the shoes off our feet. Chuck had some really ugly feet, even without blisters those are some ugly feet. I wasn’t showing anyone my feet.
We had another racer take our picture at the finish line, unfortunately it didn’t turn out very well, but maybe the picture turned out just the way we felt. We sat down and chatted with Gerry the race director for a while and told him what a great event he puts on, because it really is a fantastic race, it’s challenging, but still fun, with some really fun stuff thrown in, like the traverse and rappel, it was a lot of fun even for me, “Misses afraid of heights”. Of course we had pizza, how can a little frozen pizza cooked in a pizza over out in the middle of nowhere taste so good. It’s like the best thing I have ever eaten in my life. I guess if I would eat it the next day, it might not be as good, but at that point in time, you couldn’t give me anything better. Even if there was a mouse running around under the table with the pizza ovens on it, we didn’t care the mouse wasn’t going to eat much.
After pizza we went back to camp and took showers then laid down in our tents with a plan to get up in an hour at midnight to go look at the results, but we both fell asleep. When I woke up the next morning, I yelled over to Chuck’s tent and asked if he went to the awards, he said he fell asleep. So we got up, packed up and went up the finish line to see the results. We were 4th in 2 person co-ed and 1st in 2 person co-ed masters, but what really frustrated us was that if we had stayed and gotten CP 45, we would have been 2nd in the 2 person co-ed division. I guess live and learn, we kicked ourselves all the way home for bagging it and going in without CP 45.
Oh and as we walked to the finish line we saw a baby deer.
One last thought, Chuck did the best navigating he has ever done, all the racers were talking about how hard the course was and how they had such a hard time finding certain CPs, but we went directly to every CP without problem, except of course CP 45. I think if our feet had not been hurting so bad, we would have gotten all the CPs. Look out, next year we are coming back with a vengeance.