TAT CN Header

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The calm before the storm: Thunder Rolls part 1

The race began with a 1.5 mile midnight hike through a river, stumbling and slipping over rocks and logs we couldn't see beneath the churned up water.  The subsequent bike leg brought us to a parking lot where we put in canoes just before dawn for the beginning of my unhappiest 7 hours ever in an adventure race.  And even when I was crying in the canoe or, later, struggling up steep hillsides through thickets of nettle, or clambering through mud in tree-clogged reentrants, or learning yet again that trees do not make good fireman poles, I never once wished I was anywhere else.

There's something special about Thunder Rolls.  It could be the race director who'll give you a heartfelt hug and then celebrate making you cry.  Or the legion of amazing volunteers who get as little sleep as the racers do.  Or maybe it's the fantastic facilities of YMCA Camp Benson: pre- and post-race dinners, hot showers,  and an air-conditioned cabin for after the race? Yes, please! Then there's the terrain of the region: multiple rivers, towering bluffs, punishing gravel roads, and ridiculously steep hillsides.  Of course it's a combination of these things, all of which lay before us as we stood at the start line.

Chuck: Kate is so right (Man, I love the sound of that!), there is something totally special about Thunder Rolls and Camp Benson.  The feeling of welcoming and excitement created by the volunteers, other racers, and the camp itself make this the most fun and challenging race of the entire year.  The only thing she may have forgot to mention about the terrain are the acres of lush, head-high, hand-cultivated, and genetically-enhanced nettle that Gerry has imported from some secret lab just for our enjoyment.


Gerry counted down the time and then sent us off to the spot where we'd start our 1.5 mile coasteering leg.  The path was marked, which made it all the funnier when perennial front-runners Alpine Shop came running up behind us, having missed a turn.  It was reminiscent of my very first 24 hour race, when Luke snapped a picture of us leading Tecnu (3rd place at Worlds this year).

That's us in front of Tecnu.  What this picture fails to show is that they'd lost their passport and had run back to find it.  It also fails to show that they eventually won the whole thing.  But what's important is that it shows us in the lead. :)
 Of course Alpine Shop too passed us quickly (though you'll have to read Emily's report to see how their race went) and soon enough we too were stepping into the river.

Chuck and Keith coasteering
For the most part the water wasn't too deep, though there was one section where I chose the wrong line and had to do a little swimming.  Looking up and seeing Chuck carefully holding the waterproof map case about his head as he walked a slightly shallower section, I suddenly had a sinking feeling as I remembered I was carrying our race book (with all the information and CP clues) in a ziploc baggie.  A used ziploc baggie.  Thankfully it held up and our book emerged unscathed.  Our friend Donovan wasn't so lucky.

These were his maps. (Photo credit: Donovan Day)
We found the three river CPs without much trouble, though it seems a lot harder to judge distance in a river than on land, and we were all really happy to finally be able to climb out of the water and head to the bike drop.

We had a relatively quick (for us) transition.  Being in dry socks and shoes was wonderful, and we pedaled off in search of CPs and, eventually, the canoe put-in.  I really struggled as we hit the first hills; I haven't spent much time on a bike the past couple months, and it showed.  Eventually my breathing got under control, and then the bike leg was pretty enjoyable.  Chuck was flawless with the navigation, and before long we were turning on to the "bridge out" road that would lead us to our first bike CP.

It always makes me laugh, the kinds of places we end up in adventure races.
As we pedaled, the surface transitioned from smooth gravel to the sketchy, rutted variety and dead-ended at a tree-lined grassy path that looked more like a stop on a haunted hayride than a road.  It didn't look right.  Chuck checked the maps while Keith scouted ahead briefly, reporting back that it ended in a field.  We were turning around to see where we could have missed a turn when another team rode toward us.  Chuck and their navigator conferred, the other team confirming that there was nowhere else to have gone, and we all decided to try going forward.

Sure enough, we found that the road did go on through the trees just past where Keith had stopped.  It's easy to forget that our regular definition of road isn't adequate for AR purposes, where "road" can indicate pavement, gravel, farm roads, jeep roads, forest service roads, and the like.  I still remember riding trails with Chuck and Travis during the CAC, struggling on the singletrack and hanging on by a thread to reach the road they promised ahead, only to dump out on to uneven, rocky, uphill doubletrack  It was not a happy moment.

I didn't mind this road at all, especially when the barriers blocking off the bridge reflected in our headlamps.  Success!

We lifted our bikes over the tree blocking the "road", and Keith led us onto the bridge.  Where he promptly stepped on a nail that poked right through his shoe and into his foot.  My heart sank for him; here he'd almost missed the race, and now he'd hurt himself.  I was afraid he was going to drop and leave me and Chuck to finish unranked, but instead he toughed it out and only mentioned his foot when one of us asked him about it. He was pretty darn quiet for a while though.

Not sure why this bridge needs repairs...looks good to me.
I wasn't too worried about stepping on a nail since, unlike Keith, I had hard-soled bike shoes on; however, I was a little afraid of rolling a tire over one and opted to carry my bike across.  We punched the passport, got the heck off that bridge, and rode on.  There were some big hills, at least a couple of which I had to walk, but we found our next CPs without incident and before we knew it we were pulling into the canoe put-in, staffed by our Tardy Rooster friends Dave and Leisha.

We laid down our bikes and shut off the lights.  Volunteers would be transporting them to the canoe take-out, so we could leave our bike shoes clipped to the pedals but had to take our helmets.  Chuck grabbed our paddles and paddle bag (I grabbed the paddles just fine, but left the paddle bag!  Somehow in the transition shuffle I left it laying in the grass still full of all the food and water we had planned to use for the second half of the race), while Keith, being the the first one ready since he didn't need to change shoes, set to finding a canoe.

Having found that spending too long in bike shorts can be bad news, I opted to change into pants before the paddle, hoping that maybe my shorts (still soaked from my coasteering swim) would dry while we were in the canoe.  That, as it turned out, was not to happen.  In fact, almost dripping in the pre-dawn humidity, we were the driest we'd be for the next 18 hours.  "Make sure to look your boat over carefully," Dave warned us.  "One of them has already come back because it had a hole in it."

Thankfully, our hull was intact. Unfortunately, other parts were not, which we learned shortly after shoving off into the darkness sometime around 5:30 a.m.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Thunder Rolls 2014: Prelude to the storm

This was to be my third time at the Thunder Rolls 24 hour adventure race and my first time there without Team Virtus. My teammates weren’t able to race this one due to life and important hair appointments and the like, but luckily Robin was busy being a good mom on race weekend, leaving Chuck in need of a partner.  When our Team Godzilla teammate Keith joined in, I was delighted to finally (for the first time ever) be the youngest on the team and jokingly suggested a team name of Age Before Beauty.  

While my regular team is...um...punctuality-impaired, I knew I couldn’t count on Keith and Chuck to show up late and made sure everything was ready in time for us to meet up at my house on 10 a.m. Friday morning.  Sure enough, Chuck pulled up right at 10, but even after we’d loaded all of my gear Keith was still missing. This was particularly concerning in light of the last email we'd received from him.

Chuck assumed he was joking; as you can see, I was a little worried.

We were both worried by 10:20 or so and were scrambling around trying to get Keith's number from a friend when I realized I had it.  No answer, so I left a message: "Ummm, Keith? Chuck and I are a little worried because we're here loaded up for Thunder Rolls and you're not. Maybe you're just running behind, so give us a call and reassure us."

Since that number hadn't helped, we started trying to track down his work number, and after a bit I tried calling him back again. This time he answered. "It's today?? I took off next Friday! I thought it was next week."

"Well," Chuck observed and I passed on, "The race doesn't start until midnight. You can still get there."

"Nope," Keith said flatly.  He was disappointed and apologized to us, but we were bummed for him. He was missing out on everything; we were just losing a teammate (and now I was going to have to be the one to take care of the passport) but could still race. 

We'd stopped for lunch about an hour and a half down the road when I got a message from Keith. He'd changed his mind and was going to make it happen, but he wouldn't get to camp until 8 or so.  A three person team once again, we finished eating and headed north.

Arriving at Camp Benson is like coming home to a family reunion.  Lots of teams keep coming back, so you get to know each other; plus, having volunteered at adventure camp for the past two years, I've become good friends with most of the volunteers.  There were lots of hugs and hellos as we got checked in, dragged all of our gear to our cabin to find that we were roomies with our Lupine AR buddies.

Paula and me before the race
The weather was hot and ridiculously humid, so we opted to skip the ascending practice. We've both got some experience, and we decided we'd be better off saving our energy for the actual race ascent.  Instead, we got our packs together and were feeling weirdly prepared way early.  Chuck and I left our bikes at the nearby bike drop as soon as it opened and got back to camp in plenty of time to enjoy the pasta dinner.  To be honest, as we drove back into camp I did have a brief moment thinking, "I do not belong here," before pushing it aside and going to meet our friends.

Eating with our friends Donovan, Todd, and Brian
We were so busy hanging out and talking that we missed the very beginning of the pre-race meeting. Luckily, we got there before any important information was given out.  Gerry handed out the race books and gave us an overview of the course.  My favorite part was his explanation of one of the bike CPs: "You're going to go past a sign that says 'Bridge Closed', and it is closed, but you can get through. It's been on a list to get fixed for like 7 years, and it's falling apart. There are some places you could fall through, but don't worry...it's not the most dangerous thing you'll be doing tonight."  

Reassuring words, indeed.

Looking over the course, I saw some things I wasn't crazy about.  Starting with coasteering meant our feet would immediately be wet; a 22-mile canoe leg -- that's a big portion of my least favorite discipline; the placement of ascending at the end of the race, when our legs and arms would be fried; and a mandatory trip down the luge, which I've managed to avoid for two years.  Yikes.

I might have been feeling slightly intimidated.
Chuck got the maps while I secured us a spot at one of the tables, and we set to plotting points. I love getting to read the coordinates and be part of the route planning process because then it gives me a good idea of how the course fits together.  As I read coordinates, though, I couldn't stop yawning.  I'd been up since 6 a.m., was getting ready to race for 24 hours, and I was already tired.  Awesome.

We got our route figured out and did some strategizing; meanwhile Keith showed up and got all of his stuff taken care of, taking a little teasing from people who'd heard of his mix-up. "Oh, you're the guy who thought it was next week?"  I'm sure that coming in late he felt a little at sea, but he handled it like a champ. We were all ready in time to lie down and rest for a little bit. I closed my eyes but never did manage to sleep, and before long it was ready to line up for the start.  

Me, Chuck, and Keith
We stood at the start line, 24 hours of racing ahead of us, and then Gerry's countdown ended and it was go time.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

San Diego or bust (day 1)

Day 1:

We left town at 4 a.m. on July 17.  I hadn't made it to bed the night before, my sleep a casualty of procrastination plus Jacob's last baseball game. Of course he had an 8:00 game the night before we left! I chased Jeff to bed around midnight so that at least one of us could safely drive the first shift.  I actually think I could have managed for a few hours, but once he claimed the driver's seat I was out, waking up four hours later around Kansas City.

Daniel teaching Jacob how to play Magic.
We'd planned our first day to be a long one, hoping to knock out as many miles as possible so we could get to the fun stuff sooner.  Daniel's presence was a triple bonus: it was great to spend some time with him, we had three drivers, and he and Jacob spent a lot of time playing cards together or playing Pokemon.

Colorado: not quite as colorful as Jacob's outfit.
Highlights were reminiscing about Dirty Kanza as we passed through the Flint Hills and entering Colorado. The low point was nearly running out of gas in BFE.  I looked over as we passed through Eads, CO, (population 622) and observed, "We're pretty low on gas." This is much more typically a Kate issue than a Jeff issue; my car spends most of its miles in the bottom half of the fuel gauge.  With our readout giving us about 30 miles til empty, we looked down the road for a gas station and saw...nothing.

We continued on our way west hoping for better luck in the next town, but the atlas showed that town was even smaller.  Some nervous googling showed that there was, indeed, a gas station in Eads, and since we were pretty much screwed if the next town didn't have gas, we turned around.  The fuel gauge read 6 miles til empty when we pulled into the address yp.com had listed.  There may have been a gas station there 20 years ago, but there certainly isn't anymore.

Jeff asked a trucker in the lot if there were any gas stations in town.  "No, this is it.  This is the old west, man...you gotta be prepared."

Thankfully there was a gift shop/information booth next door, where the proprietor directed us towards a gas station about a mile away.  Saved! Our tank didn't go below half full for the rest of the trip.

Home, sweet home on night 1.
We pulled into the Pueblo KOA after about 15 hours on the road, spent some time on the jumping pillow (where Daniel's favorite activity was to bounce me off of it), had dinner, and then headed to bed.  Our next days would be long, but they'd be a much higher fun:driving ratio and only one or two more near disasters.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Somewhere to rest my weary head.

Well, hello there! I haven't actually forgotten that I had a blog, but we went on vacation and when we came back life was too busy to sit down and write all about it.  Actually, with school starting up and such, life is still too busy to sit down and write, but I miss it.  That's good news to all of you who aren't speed readers because maybe it means my vacation posts will be a little shorter than usual.  Maybe.  :)

We left for our trip on a Thursday, and we started planning it in earnest on that Monday.  While the procrastination caused me all kinds of stress, I had nothing to worry about because things came together beautifully.  Our destination was Nathan's boot camp graduation at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, a short 1,875 mile drive from our house --that is, if you went the most direct route.  We did not.

We couldn't afford to fly the four of us, so in order to break up the long drive we made it a vacation road trip, stopping at lots of cool places on the way out (and a few on the way back).  To minimize costs, we did some tent camping, stayed with family and friends, ate most of our meals out of a cooler.  Never a big fan of lunch meat, I may never touch it again.

The camping was my plan; Jeff was a little bit more skeptical.  We got a pop-up camper when Jacob was a baby and never looked back.  The camper's been parked for a couple years, though, and neither one of us wanted to tow it through the mountains. That left our tent, which thankfully was still in decent shape, plenty big for the four of us to sleep in, and (as it turned out) still rain resistant.  And it gave us the opportunity to sleep in some pretty cool places, which brings us to the point of today's post: where we stayed our nights on vacation.

Thursday (departure day): Pueblo, CO, KOA.

With 13 hours of drive time on our first day, we opted for something easy.  Staying in a cabin meant all we had to do was throw our sleeping bags onto the mattresses at the end of a long day and have little to pack up the next morning.  Plus, many KOAs have that jumping pillow you see in the last picture.  Jacob loves them, Daniel loves tormenting me by bouncing me off of them, and they provide a good opportunity to burn off excess energy after sitting in the car all day.

I'd so hoped to be able to meet up with Jill, Kathy, Terzah, and Cynthia during this trip, but in the end it just made more sense for us to take a more southerly route through Colorado.  Next time!!

Friday: Morefield Campground, Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado)

Mesa verde
That's our tent in the foreground
Not particularly cheap at $35 for a primitive tent site (no electric or water on the site, but there were showers and bathrooms available a short walk away), it was hard to beat Morefield's location 4 miles inside the gates of Mesa Verde.  This was also our first campground to give us very strict guidelines on what could be in the tent (basically, us and our bedding) and what could not (food, water, toiletries) due to bears in the area.  You either had to lock up your coolers and food tubs in the car or in the bear bins located around the campground.  We didn't have any bear problems, but Jeff did think maybe he saw one running away from our campsite when he got up early in the morning for more blankets.

None of us slept well this night, a combination of the cold, attempting to balance on overfilled (cheap) sleeping mats, and who knows what else.  It was a long night.

Mesa verde
View behind our campsite...you can see some of the tents in the other loop.
  Saturday: Devil's Garden Campground, Arches National Park (Utah)

Not a bad view for $20.
In a stroke of luck, we got the very last campsite available inside Arches National Park. Another primitive site with bathrooms and running water a short walk away (but no showers), this one was almost half the cost of our Mesa Verde site.  We got no bear warnings, but Utah was WAY hotter than Colorado. Thankfully the temperatures cooled once the sun went down and we got a decent night's sleep before rising early for a hike before heading off to our next stop.

Putting the kid to work the next day
Trying to keep our luggage to a minimum, we didn't bring many extras in the gear department.  We had sleeping bags and sleeping mats for everyone, a couple extra blankets, and a couple lights. No cooking equipment or other camping gear.  This definitely made packing up easier.

Sunday: Zion Lodge, Zion National Park (Utah)

Crazy scenic
This wasn't a bargain-priced overnight at all, except for the fact that my father-in-law, having stayed at Zion Lodge and loved it, sprung for a night there for us.

We were on the second floor, in back
 I can't even begin to tell you how lovely it was to sleep in a bed after a couple nights on sub-par sleeping mats.


 By the time we got our stuff into the room and finished eating, it was dark outside. We just chilled in the room, slept hard, and did our hiking the next day.

Monday: Mardi Gras Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas

Somewhere on an SD card is a shot of our room and a few pictures of the pool.  You aren't missing that much.  Suffice it to say that when booking.com congratulates you, "You've booked the cheapest room in the hotel!!" it doesn't entirely feel like a compliment. That said, the room was spacious and clean, the pool was nice, and we left Vegas without being killed in our beds or bringing along bedbugs, so I was happy.

Tuesday-Thursday: Orange, CA

Thank God for family.  Because Comic Con was in San Diego the same weekend as Nathan's graduation from Marine Corps boot camp, by the time I got around to making reservation hotels like Motel 6 were running around $200/night. Hell no.  Instead we stayed with two of Jeff's uncles and drove the 1-1.5 hours to San Diego on Thursday and Friday.

Friday: Tucson, AZ

Thank God for old friends.  I actually have several family members with places in the Phoenix area, but it didn't work out for us to stay with any of them.  Luckily I was able to message my friend Kelly, my best friend from 3rd grade (when she moved to my town) until 7th grade (when she moved to Arizona) and still one of those lifelong friends you can see/talk to once every 5 years and still fall right back into the friendship. We rolled up their driveway around 11 pm and crashed in their guest room after little more than a "hi".

Saturday: Mt. Graham, Stafford, AZ

Home, sweet home for the night
 We stayed on Mt. Graham with Kelly, her husband, and their daughter.  Since James works at the Large Binocular Telescope on the mountain, they're pretty much regulars here.

Jacob and Grace spent a long of time working on this fort uphill from our site.
 The fort building opportunities shot Mt. Graham towards the top of Jacob's vacation ranking of our various destinations.  He would've spent every waking moment working on that fort, but he was thwarted by the approaching storm and lightning.

The second bear-warning site of our trip; no bears to be seen, though.
This was one of my favorite stops of the trip too, and not just because the temperature above 9,000 feet was a good 25-30 degrees cooler than down mountain.  I loved the pine forest; I loved the fact that we had the entire campground loop to ourselves.  I did not love the white-knuckle switchbacks on the road or the long stretch of Kanza-esque gravel (driven in our aging minivan).

Sunday: Holbrook KOA, Holbrook AZ

Another KOA, another cabin, and while KOAs typically have nice features like pools or the jumping pillow at our top picture, we basically rolled in, ate supper, showered, and went to bed.

Monday (Tuesday morning): Elk City KOA, Elk City, OK

It may have been daylight when we hit Holbrook; we'd already eased into the next day by the time we reached Oklahoma.  After some touring in the Holbrook area, we pointed ourselves towards home with three potential stops (all KOAs, which make up in proximity to the highway what they lack in atmosphere), knowing we'd have to commit to a destination before the offices closed if we wanted to stay into a cabin.  We settled on Elk City, our furthest option, and they just left the cabin unlocked for us with the key inside.  Our return to the midwest featured bugs, something we'd seen little of since leaving home thirteen days earlier.  I hadn't missed them at all.

Tuesday: home!

In all, we traveled for 13 days, driving a total of 4,700 miles.  Not necessarily a restful vacation, but a really great trip. I'd love to do another long road trip, maybe with a slightly more forgiving schedule, and take my bike(s) along for the ride. Maybe next year...