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Monday, March 25, 2013

High Profile Adventure Camp volunteer report

Growing up, I loved summer camp.  Well, except for my first year when I ended up separated from the friends I'd come with and didn't know anyone in my unit and the mean girls in my cabin talked about me when they thought I was asleep.  I was so unhappy that every day I wrote letters to my parents -- "I hate it here.  Everybody is mean.  I hate it.  Please, please come get me..." -- not wanting to waste a bunch of stamps, however, I waited until the last full day to mail the whole packet, and a few days after I got home, the mailman delivered my novella of misery.  Imagine my mom's delight at reading it after the fact.  Despite that slightly traumatic introduction to the wonders of summer camp, I went back the next year and loved it.

Because I started having kids at 19, I spent my prime camp counselor years parenting and really didn't give it another thought other than searing nostalgia when we took the older boys to the same camp.  It wasn't until I started stalking following the Team Virtus blog that I realized my camping days might not be over after all.  After reading their report(s) from their 2010 visit to High Profile Adventure Camp, I knew I had to go, a sentiment that their 2011 report confirmed.  I roped my brother Jim into going with me, and he and my brother and sister-in-law gave me the required ropes gear for Christmas.  Unfortunately, the 2012 edition of adventure camp was the same weekend as the LBL Challenge 24hr, which Luke, Casey, Bob, and I were racing, and I missed camp once again.  Luckily, our WTFAR and ROCK Racing friends were there, so at least I could live vicariously through their reports.

After nearly three years of reading about camp and wanting to go, this year wasn't looking good either because the purchase of my new cross bike completely wiped out my adventure fund.  I basically emailed camp director Gerry, who I'd met when he destroyed me at his Thunder Rolls Adventure Race back in August, and pleaded with him to let me come and volunteer.  Yes, I begged to be allowed to drive 5 hours to work for free; I had to be at camp in some capacity.  Thankfully, he took me up on the offer, so Friday saw me burning my last personal day of the year for my drive north.  (I'd actually hoped to leave on Thursday after work, but a combination of parent-teacher conferences and my night class blew that plan.)

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Like much of the country, Illinois is still waiting for Spring to show its face (or better yet, its temperatures).  While the late March/early April time frame of camp often brings some chilly weather, it's typically above freezing.  This year, much of Camp Benson (home base for the camp and culminating race) was covered in snow and the forecast was cold.  While I've gotten pretty good at dressing for cold conditions, that's when I'll be racing or training in them; it's a very different thing to be standing around in the cold -- for three days -- so I wasn't sure what exactly to bring.  Answer: everything.


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While this is pretty much every item of technical fabric I own, I did manage to whittle down the pile to one bag's worth.
Friday:

I made it to camp a little after noon and caught up with my friends Kim, Chad, and Dave and met Laurie and Kelly.  Since they didn't really have anything for us to do until campers started arriving at three (many volunteers had arrived earlier in the week, not to mention the prep work in the weeks before), Kim, Chad, and I went for a run.  They were planning on 6-8; I was more on the 6 side. ;-)  It was a fairly hilly run, and I dragged behind a little.  On the way back, my hip started feeling twingy, so when we passed the camp road I turned off a mile early.  Once I'd walked back I was kicking myself for not sticking it out for basically another ten minutes.  I have way too easy a time letting myself off easy.

After cleaning up, we hung out in the main building for a while watching campers check in. Laurie was helping coordinate volunteer jobs, so I asked her what she needed me to do the next day.  "What can you do?" she asked me.  Um....crickets.  Yes, I've been adventure racing for nearly two years now, but basically my role on my team is to keep up and maintain a good attitude.  My only ropes experience is from last year's Thunder Rolls, and while I've been trying to become a better navigator I'm still a long way from competent.  I ended up helping lead a group of beginners for the navigating practice the next day (and by "helping" I mean I followed along while Laurie led the group) and then helping clear the course of the checkpoints after the practice session ended.

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Campers listening to the presentation

After grabbing dinner, we listened to Gerry's presentation about the camp and what to expect.  In his segment about laughing at yourself, he made mention of Team Virtus, showed the picture that will live in infamy forever, and then pointed me out to everyone as their teammate.  Bare ass (not mine!) picture, speedo picture, or whatever else, I'm proud to be a Virtusan, and it was nice to have a group of new people associate me with my team.  After Gerry introduced the volunteers, it was time for us to sneak off for a meeting, but we came back to listen to April and Ellie's beginning navigation session, which was a good refresher for me, too.

The rest of the evening was spent hanging out at the lodge with a bunch of other volunteers.  Though I didn't know many people, there were a lot of familiar faces from when I was at Thunder Rolls.  Gerry has an amazing core group of people who love AR and consistently volunteer for his events.  Since they're adventure racers, of course they're all awesome and good company, and I went to bed late with my cheeks hurting from laughing so much.  My 6 a.m. wake-up call rang way too early, and I shuffled up to breakfast in my Santa pajamas.  I found an empty seat near John and Ethan, a nephew-uncle duo who were there for some team building since John was going to be Ethan's confirmation sponsor.  What a cool trip!

Saturday:
Once we'd eaten, we changed and headed over to Mississippi Palisades State Park for the navigation practice.  Typically the campers are split into two groups and alternate paddling and navigation, but due to winter's unrelenting grasp the river was frozen up except for the barge channel...not a place you want to be paddling a canoe in 24 degree temps.  Instead, everyone would get a little more time for navigation and then more time on the ropes that afternoon.  Because of the varying ability levels, campers were given the choice of running the practice course on their own or going with either an advanced or beginner group.  There were actually a lot of people with no adventure racing experience, which is super cool. What a great introduction to the sport!  Laurie and I took a group of about 7 on the course.  A couple of the guys had some navigation experience in the military and one had in boy scouts; it was new to everybody else.

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Our group had the oldest (at 61) camper as well as one of the younger (at 15) ones.  It was really fun to talk to everybody as we walked to see what had brought them to camp.  Some had found it online when looking for triathlons, one couple were friends with other volunteers, one had been here before and brought his nephew with him this time.  Talking to other campers throughout the weekend there were a variety of reasons for signing up.  Having an adventure with a spouse, parent/child, or friend; a college adventure group; a women's group; and current adventure racers wanting to practice/improve their skills.  Unlike many adventure racing events, this one had nearly as many women as men; usually women are vastly outnumbered at races.

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On the trail of our first CP

While I was making conversation, I was also making a real effort to stay in contact with the map.  Even if I can't teach people to navigate, I can at least practice to improve my own navigation.  Overall, I felt pretty comfortable following along on the map, and our group did great.  The guys with a little experience seemed like it all came back to them really quickly, and the newer people seemed like it was making sense to them.  In addition, it was a really fun group of people.  I really enjoyed hanging out with them and was really looking forward to getting to see them during their first adventure race the next day.

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Spotted this bad boy near one of the checkpoints.

We had about three hours to spend out on the course; then the campers headed back to camp to grab lunch and hear the ropes presentation.  It was time for Kim, Kelly, Allison, and I to earn our keep by clearing all the checkpoints from the practice course.  It turned out we'd all basically run the exact same course, though in different order, so we all knew where about half the checkpoints were and none of us had seen the others.  Since Kim and Kelly are a little stronger at orienteering, they took the unfamiliar portion, and Allison and I took the half we'd seen.  I think both of us were a little nervous about how we'd do without somebody to follow (at least, I was for sure), but it ended up being a great experience because we had to figure it out for ourselves.

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Even though we'd seen all of "our" CPs before, we'd come at them from different directions, so it was still a little new to us.  We only had a couple of hiccups, which we figured out, and we cleared our portion of the course in about 3.5 hours.  As you can see in the picture above, Palisades isn't the flattest terrain, and a combined 6.5 hours of hiking through it in the snow definitely wore on me by the end, but it was a great feeling when Allison and I collected the last two checkpoints, high fived each other, and headed back to camp with our assigned work as well as a bonus antler (for me) and arrow (for her).  Trail artifacts are the coolest!

Gerry didn't have any work for me when we got back, so I excitedly/reluctantly went back to my cabin to get my climbing gear.  Excitedly because a big part of why I wanted to come to camp was for the ropes, and reluctantly because I'm terrified of heights...and my last time ascending (at Thunder Rolls) was the kind of experience where Bob swears that if I'd have had a knife on me I'd have just cut the rope.  It was not a happy time for me, but that's exactly why I needed to be here for the practice.  We'll be back at Thunder Rolls looking for redemption, and I don't want to be the weak link on the ropes again.  Besides, I'd already dropped some money on a new pair of climbing gloves.  I had to justify my purchase.

There was a bit of a wait for the rappel line, so I talked to one of the Eyes of the World guys for a while and then it was my turn.  Now, while this is only my second rappel, my first was a lot hairier...in a race, in the dark, into a river.  Despite some nerves before that, I'd managed just fine.  How bad could this be, right?  I was petrified.  I seriously just wanted to walk away from that edge and say "forget it".  Instead, I gave Megan several terrified glances and tried hard not to throw up as I attempted to follow her directions and sit back over the edge.  It's not that I don't trust my equipment, because 45 minutes hanging from a cliff in despair definitely taught me that my harness will hold me just fine; but actually leaning back over that edge...yikes. 

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View from the bottom

Once I was off the edge it wasn't as bad, though I still crept down the wall with all the speed of an elderly snail, and when I finally made it to the bottom I was thrilled with myself.  Off to tackle the ascend!

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Somebody else going up

Now, back in August I'd had one practice ascent the day before the race, and this had gone pretty well until I got to the top, where I just couldn't get the ascender over the edge of the rock and eventually had to basically be hauled over the edge.  My second attempt, during the race, was no better (actually, much worse).  This time was a huge improvement, though by the midpoint I was definitely wishing I'd taken off my sweatshirt.  Ascending is hard work!

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Hey look, there's me!

The actual ascending part went well (probably a result of mentally re-running my previous failure since August), and getting the ascenders over the edge finally made sense to me. I felt a huge sense of triumph and relief when I hit the top...and then it was back to the rappel.  This time I was still nervous but not paralyzed, and I felt much more comfortable going over the edge.  Got to the bottom...back to ascending.  I was wearing out a little as I neared the top, but hearing the volunteer tell the next person in line, "Just do exactly what she's doing," was a huge confidence boost.  Once again, I was able to get over the ledge under my own power.  Now to build up whatever endurance is necessary to successfully finish a bigger ascent and I'll be ready for Thunder Rolls 2013!

I ate supper with some of the guys from our morning orienteering group, and I really enjoyed talking to them about our morning and the kind of events they usually do.  After dinner was the highlight of the weekend for me, Robyn Benincasa's talk.  World-championship adventure racer, world-record holding paddler, firefighter, fundraiser, inspiration...this woman is amazing.  While I'd never heard her speak, they guys did in 2011, and many of the things they learned from her have become a part of the Virtus lexicon.  She did not disappoint.  Using stories and video (because she participated in Primal Quest and Eco Challenge events, there's much more media coverage than for your typical adventure race) from her races and life, she illustrated how winners think and, for someone who talks about how much she cries, gave the clearest example of mental toughness I've ever seen. When life gave her lemons, she opened a lemonade stand and started raising money for other people (check out her Project Athena Foundation).  Hearing her in person was worth the 5 hour drive.

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Robyn Benincasa: she's awesome

While I was listening to Robyn talk, though, I was also looking at the weather forecast and getting progressively more nervous.  Meteorologists were predicting 8-11" of snow for the St. Louis area starting in the early morning.  Reading the winter weather warning, this line kept jumping out at me: "Travel will be difficult, if not impossible."  I had visions of heading home after Sunday's race and being stranded alongside the road.  Having driven alone, I was dreading the thought of a bad commute when I was already tired from the hectic weekend.  On the other hand, it was nearly ten, I had a 5 hour drive, and I was already fighting sleep.  When Gerry mentioned that a couple St. Louis groups had already headed home to avoid the weather, I pretty much made my decision.  After checking to make sure my leaving wouldn't leave him without enough volunteers, I packed my car (thanks for the help, Chad!) and headed home. 

 Though the St. Louis snow wasn't supposed to start until 5 or so, by which time I'd be safely in bed, I guess I neglected to check on the areas I'd be driving through.  I stopped about an hour into my drive to fill up the gas tank, and when I drove away from the gas station snow flurries were falling.  These morphed into a full-on snowstorm.  I could barely see in front of me, and I couldn't see the lines on the road at all, so I drove at a crawl as I prayed to drive out of the snow.  A half hour or so later, I did just that and was back to fighting sleep rather than weather.  Two hours later, sleep was winning.  I stopped at a gas station, took a 10-minute nap in the car, and picked up some soda and snacks to keep me awake.  By the time I hit the road again, the snow had caught me.  I had another terrible hour or so.  The snow had beat the snowplows to the road and once again the lines were invisible.  I crawled along until a charter bus passed me, and I was able to follow in its tracks.  By the time the bus pulled off the interstate, the snow plows had started up, and I made it home safely, about an hour later than I'd planned.  I've never been so happy to see my bed.   I hated leaving early.  I was so looking forward to being somewhere on the course and seeing all these people experience their first adventure race.  I definitely wasn't ready for my adventure camp weekend to be over, but I made the right choice.  We got over a foot of snow, and it took one of the St. Louis teams 10 hours to make the 5 hour drive after they raced.  Instead of braving the blizzard conditions, I was safe at home, building snowmen and snow forts.  It was a good trade-off.

 Just chillin' in my crib. #snow

So, camp.  Even as a volunteer, it was an epic experience.  Getting to spend so much time around people who are invested in introducing others to adventure racing, having the chance to share my love for adventure racing with new people, being able to watch people try new and challenging things...it was something special.  You know, as adults it seems like there are so few opportunities for us to be taught new things...you want to do something, you muddle through and learn by experience, sometimes trial by fire.  For people who want to learn about adventure racing, camp can vastly shorten the learning curve, and for people who just want to have an adventure and try something new, camp is a great place for it.  One way or the other I'll be back next year; I hope I see you there, too.

18 comments:

  1. "It was a fairly hilly run"...YES IT WAS!

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  2. Sounds like an absolute blast. I will definitely have to put his on my wish list in the "maybe someday I might actually want to learn how to do an adventure race" column. Glad you made it home safely. That drive would have had me completely stressed out.

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  3. Nice report Kate. Made me even more ticked at myself for not being able to go this year. Glad you got some ropes practice in. That's so much fun. You're still on my top ten toughest people list for doing last summer's 1st ever rappel...in the dark...into water.

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  4. Awesome recap Kate! Great idea volunteering so you could still be there and influence and encourage people that are interested in doing AR. Nice confidence boost on bothe the ropes and navigation.

    Good idea leaving early with the weather coming in. No sense putting your AR skills to the test being stranded along the highway.

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  5. Such a great "adventure" for you, so glad you got to volunteer (and sorry you had to use your last personal day...but the end of the school year is just around the corner - I think :)). You're making me laugh at the chair photo.

    I thought about you last night when I was watching this report on people in Arches NP jumping off the top of an arch bungie'd in and "swinging". It looked like your type of adventure. Until I heard a guy's "swing" was too long and he crashed to the ground and instantly died. Now I'm gonna worry about you...for something you probably were never even going to attempt. Thanks for that!

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  6. I've always wanted to go to running camp, despite the fact that my sole camping experience as a kid was very much like the first one you describe for yourself. Throw in some evangelical Christians and you might grasp the full horror and the reason I never went back. But running camp....definitely want to go someday....

    This sounds like a great time (except for that drive back). I'm so glad you got to experience it.

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  7. My son would love this. A great idea to go volunteer. I was thinking last night that if I can't do my half marathon in a few weeks I should volunteer. But will I? Who knows?
    Driving in the snow sounds awful and just go away snow. Even I who love it has had enough!

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  8. sounds like a blast and something I would love to try. I'm a pretty good navigator but the repelling would scare the shit out of me! Of course I survived ziplining so mabye I'd do ok. Glad you made it home safely!

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  9. "Novella of misery" = awesome!

    You, my friend, have adventure in your blood. As awesome, great review and great pictures. Props for surviving all that snow.

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  10. Love your post Kate!! Oh gosh and the picture that will forever live in infamy! HAHA! classic.

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    The pics are great.
    ....and poor bad boy!

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