August 27, 2013

The Thunder Rolls 2013

Ok, so Chuck and I are out of shape and overweight, mostly due to current injuries or injuries we are coming back from.  We knew these facts going into this year’s Thunder Rolls, but that didn’t stop us.  Chuck had not been running due to a foot injury and I’m slowly making my way back from multiple health issues, plus 5 days before the race I get some kind of super sinus infection and had to deal with it during the race. Still we said, nothing was stopping us from doing this race, it is way too great a race to miss. Oh, and I know you are dying to hear about it.  If you aren’t you should be, it was fun, spectacular race.

This is how the race went, and it wasn’t the outcome we wanted or expected, but I’m still smiling because it was an outcome that we will take any day.  Chuck picked me up in the adventure jeep on Friday morning and we had a pretty uneventful trip to Camp Benson in Mt Carroll, IL.  

We pulled up and saw so many of our adventure race friends, it always seems like a family reunion when we go to these races.  We checked-in, grabbed our gear and headed to our cabin.  We just happened to be bunking with Team Virtus, and there is not anyone we would rather bunk with than them, well unless we added Team Lederhosen, then there would be mass chaos, whiskey and a lot of laughing.  Note that there was mass chaos and laughing, but no whiskey in our cabin without them. After dropping our gear we grabbed our climbing gear and headed to the cliffs for some ascending practice. Chuck and I climbed down the cliff using a fixed rope to get to the bottom of the ascend.

 At the bottom we got in line to do a practice ascend because we knew we were going to be doing one during the race. While we stood in line we took turns belaying people who were coming down the rappel.

It was finally our turn to ascend and lucky for me Chuck got the harder rope and I got the easier rope.  Well, there really wasn’t a difference, the rock face is just unique and I thought the one Chuck had to go over looked harder. That didn’t stop me from laughing and telling him he got the hard rope.

By the time I finished the ascend my arms were shaking so bad I couldn’t unclip my gear, the volunteer had to do it for me.  Chuck said not to worry, his arms felt like that too.  We quickly headed back to camp to grab our bikes and gear and head to the bike drop.  It was about a 20 minute drive to drop the bikes at the CP, we were also allowed to leave food and water, which was good, then we didn’t have to carry as much at the start of the race.  And when we got to the bike drop, it was like another family reunion, adventure racing friends everywhere.  We put our bib numbers on our bikes, staged our stuff, took a look at the canoe take-out and then headed back to camp for some dinner.  Dinner was family style with salad, pasta, bread sticks, fruit, yogurt and milk.  After dinner, we tried to get a 20 minute nap before the race meeting started.  We thought it started at 7:30, but apparently it was 7, because when we walked up to the lodge at 7:10 it was already started.  Luckily we didn’t miss much, because they were just talking about what Camp Benson was and we had both heard it from previous races. 

It was standing room only in the lodge and Gerry got through his instructions quickly and started handing out the maps, there were 8 of them with more maps to come during the race.  

Teams picking up maps
This race is of the expedition type which means as soon as you miss a CP, your race is over, that is the last CP counted for scoring, also if you miss the cutoff time by even one minute you no longer get scored.  In addition to these rules there was going to be 6 mandatory CP’s at the end of the race, so racers needed to allot time for those CP’s.  None of this seemed like a problem and we would just head in when there was 3 hours left, I mean the last 6 CP’s were all on the bike on gravel roads, pretty straight forward, so it was easy to plan for, - “or was it?”.  

We plotted our CP’s and marked our course then went back to the cabin to double check our packs and maybe get a few minutes of sleep.  Well we checked our packs, but we didn’t get any sleep, it was way too busy in the cabin.  

Robin getting ready to race
Team Virtus
Chuck ready to race
It seemed like just minutes and it was time to line up at the start line and get a group photo, then the gun went off at exactly midnight and it was time to go. 

On the starting line
We ran to the Fort Benson towers to collect our first maps then headed out into the woods to start collecting CP’s. As we ran by the racers we heard a “hey it’s ROCK Racing”, we turned around a guy said, “I recognized you guys, I read your blog all the time”. We love to hear that and it started our race with a smile.  

As luck would have it the first CP was across the river, so 5 minutes into the race we were knee deep in water.  Gerry did post that we would get wet in this race, so it should not have been a surprise. We were doing really great picking up points and soon we were at the rappel, it didn’t take us long to get on a line and rappel down, Chuck went first and I was right behind him.  I think that was the biggest rappel I have ever done, but it was also really fun.  I think I do better in the dark, because I’m afraid of heights and when it’s dark I can’t see just how far down it is.  Chuck is never afraid because he is insane and will do anything.

Next we headed to the ascend, the line was long, but we decided if we went for another CP and came back the line could be worse, so we stood in line.  There were 5 lines one per team at a time.  Our line seemed to be the highest one of the five, but it had a really nice rock ledge near the top and I think it helps when you can put your feet on the wall, so I was happy about getting that line.  Chuck was having problems getting up the wall, it was slow going, and after he got up, I had even more problems, it seemed like the ascenders kept getting stuck, but we both made it up.  The ascent was a lot higher than the one we did in practice.  

Robin Ascending - Photo Credit - Bob
After the ascent we headed for CP 5 and it was not an easy CP to get.  We were with another team both of us looking for 5, we found it, but to get to it you had to jump off one rock ledge to another, when I jumped I landed on my knees and oh my, did it hurt. Chuck grabbed my arm and pulled me up, he asked if I was ok, with this pained look on his face, it sounded really bad when my knees hit, I just said “lets keep moving”, I was afraid if I stopped, I would start crying, my knees hurt so bad so I just started limping along.  We found where the CP was, but at first Chuck said “it can’t be there, it’s too dangerous to get over there, Gerry wouldn’t put one there” well, yes, Gerry would and he did and of course we went and got it.  

Our next stop was the cave and we had to walk across the river in chest deep water to get to it.  I had a really hard time climbing out of the water and into the cave because my knees were still hurting, but the cold water really helped.  We were with another team and we dropped our packs at the opening because the cave is very small and it would be hard to maneuver with the packs on.  We were so caught up in the cave and all the bats that were flying around us, that we got all the way to the back of the cave and found out that we missed the CP.  We went back and found it, in a long cavern off to the left, we had to also punch our wrist bands here, but since the cavern was so narrow, we had to walk back one at a time.  It was so narrow that I had to turn sideways at one point to get my shoulders through.  We were wondering how some of the bigger guys on other teams were going to get back there. I guess they would have to figure it out. 

Once out of the cave we had to walk down river to get to the next CP, but since the nettle was so bad, walking in the river was much easier than walking through the nettle. 

At CP7 we had to climb up a re-entrant that was covered in large down trees, it was so hard, but we just kept pulling ourselves up from log to the next and the trip back down seemed just as hard as the trip up, but we got the CP and could move on. 

To get to the next CP we had to Coasteer, meaning walk in the river along the shoreline/coast, it was really hard to do.  I felt like I was drunk, every step it was a challenge to stay upright and some places the water was moving so fast it almost pulled you downstream.  In fact we were walking along and another team of guys who just happened to be a S.W.A.T. team from Kentucky were walking just behind us, I took a step and started to fall in the river, but one of the S.W.A.T. guys grabbed my arm and pulled me back up.  I was sure glad he was there or I would have been floating down the river. 

As we headed for the canoe leg, I really had to pee, I told Chuck to head to the canoe and not look back because there was no place to hide and I was peeing on the side of the road. So as I’m squatted down peeing another team comes along as they approach I’m just getting my pants back up, I just looked at them and said “sorry you had to see that”, of course they are adventure racers, they understand this stuff and just laughed. 

Our friend Brian from WTFAR was volunteering at the Canoe CP so he gave us an update on all the teams and where they were, we were happy to find out we were one of the earlier teams through the CP.  We pulled our canoe down a muddy hill and dropped it in the Plum River.  We quickly understood Gerry's pre-race statement about the canoe being a real adventure paddle, there were log jams everywhere, we had to carefully choose our lines and many times muscle our way over logs.  

We are usually slow paddlers, so we kept waiting to all the teams to catch up with us, but it was over an hour before we saw another team behind us.  It seemed like we would drop the other teams in the open water, but they would catch up when we were in the log jams.  One log jam was so thick we decided to portage our canoe around it, we saw muddy footprints so we knew other teams had done it. I got out of the canoe to see if we could pull it through and I sank to my knee in the mud.  It took me a long time to get my foot out because I was trying not to lose my shoe, the mud was trying to suck it off.  We decided to go forward with the portage and pull the canoe through the mud and over a tree. 

By the time we pulled the canoe out, there were teams lined up behind us. 

We got back on the river and headed to the takeout, finally making it there and pulling our canoe up the hill to the CP, which was the bike drop.

We sat down on the ground rearranged our packs, changed into dry socks and shoes and ate some food before leaving the CP on bikes. 

We were then on our way to CP 14, where after punching it we would start a large bike O section, we figured it would take a lot of time in this section.  Most all of the CP’s were in the The Palisades Park.  It is a giant and very beautiful park, with lots of stinging nettle and also beautiful outlook points over the Mississippi river. 

We did really well up to the point where we were looking for CP 17, it took us about 45 minutes to find it, even after another team told us where to look.  We just kept getting our heads wound around the placement of the property line.  So finally we did what we should have done first and shot a bearing from a known point on a nearby trail and found it immediately. 

We continued to move through the CP’s one after the next, we were having the best race of our lives, and Chuck’s navigating was spot on. 

Remember a few pages back when I told you the nettle was awful, well I can’t say it enough, it was awful and it was so tall that Chuck would put his arms in the air to keep them out of it, but if I did that it just got the backside of my arms, so I just left them down.

Nettle up to my neck

It didn’t stop us though, we just kept moving and found some of the CP’s in really cool places like under big boulders.

We had all the CP’s in the Bike O section except for 29 because we thought it would be easier to get it from the bottom of the hill rather than the top, but come to find out, the road at the bottom was banned from use for the race, so we had to ride back up one of the longest steepest hills I have ever seen, to get to it. We did it though, the only thing we had to look forward to was that after CP 29 we got to ride back down that hill.  

The last CP on the Bike O was CP 34 and when we got there, they had ice cold watermelon for us, it tasted so good, I ate 3 pieces.  While there we got another map for a trekking O section, we grabbed the map and calculated how long we could stay out before we needed to head to the mandatory bike points on the way to the finish line.  We gave ourselves plenty of time because we understood it was a very hilly ride. 

As we rode out we picked up CP 43 then CP 51 and CP 52 and by then it was pitch black out, it was a good thing that Chuck and I both have really good headlights.  Things were going so well for us, but then we hit a road and were confused as to where we were.  Based on the map we would have been at the intersection of Ridge Rd and Heer Hill Rd, the problem was the street sign told us a different story. 

Stupid Street Sign
It told us we were at Heer Rd and Derinda Rd.  We kept riding back and forth looking for ridge road, thinking we missed it in the dark, but we couldn’t find it.  Finally time was getting short and Gerry the race director told everyone to call him if they were not going to make the cutoff.  So we pulled out our phone and called, Gerry said stay put, he was sending a truck for us. As soon as I hung up Chuck figured it out.  We should have just ignored the sign and turned left, we were in the right place, the sign was just not as it was on the map.  We called Gerry back to say we were riding in, but he said, “No stay put the truck is almost there”.  We contemplated riding in anyway, but we would have had to have the ride of our lives to make the cutoff time, in hindsight both Chuck and I wish we would have rode in anyway. 

So the Enviromark truck showed up and we were loaded in the back with our bikes and other racers that had already been picked up.  We then rode around picking up CP’s and one more team.  It took an hour to get back to the finish line. I think we were half dead or half crazy when we got there or it could have been both.

Don't we look insane - truck ride after being awake for 44 hours

Once back at the finish, we looked at the results, the team that won our division had 18 CP’s.  We had 38, if we would have finished the leg we would have had 41, so what’s the moral of this story.  Even when things look grim and time looks short, take  a few minutes to rest, eat, drink and get your mind back, then look a the map again, it may show up in a whole new light. 

All and all, it was still the best race we have ever had, it was a perfect day, a challenging course, we overcame so many obstacles along the way, we spent time with old friends and made new friends and best of all, it was a TRUE ADVENTURE. We have no regrets, well except maybe not winning the shoes.

A BIG THANKS goes out to Gerry, Camp Benson, and all the volunteers who made this race a great memory.


  1. Robin and Chuck - Great to see you and great job! Make sure you check out the WTFAR Facebook page as I have a handful of pics of you guys there.

    Hope to you see you down the road in some other races.

  2. Hi Robin and Chuck,

    I was the anonymous admirer who recognized you from your blog at the beginning of the race...sorry we didn't have a chance to meet more formally before the race, but things were busy! We, too, ran into an issue with a misnamed road (between the coasteering and the canoeing) but fortunately some other racers told us to ignore the road sign and follow the map. Less fortunately, we didn't give ourselves enough time to get back on those crazy-@ss roads and ended up getting in way past the cutoff for the 12-hr race. Be glad you didn't have to ride those roads, they were brutal. Hope to see you at a future race!

    - Cliff White, Schtarker Takes All