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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Hellbender 16-hour

Note: Commentary provided by Bob (in green) and Mickey (in red). Chuck was on vacation and settled for telling me what a great job I'd done and going back to kayaking Lake Michigan.

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When Bonkhard Racing cleared their schedule for 2015, Missouri was left with only one adventure race for the entire year, December's Castlewood 8-Hour.  Thankfully the Rolla Multi-Sport Club stepped up and planned a 16-hour race in the same general area as the much-loved Berryman AR.  Chuck and I had originally intended to race in Kentucky that weekend, but shorter drive/longer race won out over longer drive/awesome location/one of our favorite race directors.  The rest of the team was unavailable, but Bob and Chuck's son Jacob joined us on a 4-person Virtus squad.

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Hellbender was an apt description. Though the name actually references an endangered aquatic salamander native to Missouri, the temperature was definitely of the hellish variety. Heat warnings had been issued for the area, and the forecast high was 97. Perfect weather to lounge by the pool or in the air conditioning...or, you know, spend 16 hours racing outside.

Pre-race check-in and meeting were both held basically across the street from the hotel, and in between was a restaurant where I could get my usual pre-race BBQ pulled pork...always a good start.

Mickey: One of the perks of this race was the free 1-night hotel stay prior to the race. Thanks again to the Rolla MSC and the Rolla Area Chamber of Commerce for the tourism grant that made that possible!

We were given one large waterproof map as well as several smaller supplementary maps. Typically race instructions specify the order and mode by which CPs can be obtained and by which mode (CP 1-5 in order by bike; CPs 6-10 any order trekking); this course was "choose your own adventure" style: points could be found in any order and by any mode. This kind of thing is a nightmare for me: too much strategy. Chuck and Bob were much more excited about it.

Bob did some last-minute running and then worked on bikes while I helped Chuck plot points.  Our very first point, for the start/finish, was in a wildly different location than indicated by the directions to the bike drop. After re-checking our work twice, we decided to deal with that point later. We plotted our remaining points with no issues and then checked with some other teams about the questionable start/finish.  Carrie had already emailed the race director about it, and he quickly sent out the correct coordinates.

Race morning came early...3:45 alarm to be on the road at 4:30 to be at the bike drop by the time it opened at 5. Adventure racing is definitely not the sport for people who love their sleep. Mickey: Having to stay up late the night before a long race planning/strategizing is definitely one of my least favorite parts of AR.  In a must un-Virtus-like move, we were actually on the road as planned, but our bike drop journey wasn't exactly smooth as I had trouble following the directions. Thank goodness I was only navigating to the bike drop! Lori and Jacob, who'd stopped on the way for coffee and donuts, actually beat us there.

We dropped our bikes and some food for later in the race and then headed for the race start. There was a good hike from the parking area to the start/finish, and the fact that it was all downhill was absolutely no consolation because we knew that a) we'd be trekking right back up it and b) at some point we'd be repeating the quarter-mile stretch while carrying a canoe.

After a group picture and some last minute instructions, Kevin said go and we went. We had decided to go after two trekking points near the start before setting off in the canoes. It made sense to grab them since we had to go back uphill for our canoe anyway. Chuck led us right to both, and I enjoyed the benefit of letting Jacob be the one to punch the passport, something that's always my job (and constant worry after losing it at Stubborn Mule 2014) on a 2-person team.  All too soon we were lugging the battleship-weight canoes back downhill.

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Not as fun as it looks.
Photo credit: Rolla Multisport Club
Mickey: That portage sucked, big time.

Bob: A 1-kilometer downhill canoe-carrying hike sounds really cool until you have to actually do it. But hey, at least the boats were really light and nimble on the water. (sarcasm)

Kate: I'd like the record to reflect that it never sounded cool to me.

We put into the river and enjoyed a delightfully short paddle to the attack point for our next trek. There was no beaching area to speak of and faster teams had already staked out the limited space where canoes could be dragged, so we tied ours to the exposed root system of a tree on the river bank, stepped into the oozing mud, and clambered uphill.

Bob: I actually thought climbing the roots was pretty fun, but yeah, the mud was rather deep.

Kate: He thought it was so fun he went back to do it again (and to get the supplemental map we'd left in the canoe).


We found our first CP relatively quickly and then initially overshot our attack point for the next one. Once we realized our mistake, we found it pretty quickly and began hiking UP.  Woodson K. Woods Conservation area is full of access trails -- basically a wide swatch of semi-mowed doubletrack -- that we used to navigate to the 5 or the 6 checkpoints we tackled in this section.

We found CP4 relatively quickly, then initially overshot our attack point for 5 before finding it and having a nice uphill hike. While the two look fairly close on the map, they didn't feel close at all, which may give you a feeling for how very long the trek between 5 and 7 felt.


When we finally reached the reentrant where 7 was plotted we had a terrible time finding it, trekking back and forth along the side looking for the flag. The clue was "hillside", and it looked to be plotted about midway down. We spread out and followed the reentrant looking in the middle: no luck. Again looking higher: nope. Thinking maybe we'd entered too soon we went back past where we'd started: nothing.  Finally, on our last attempt (by which time I was thoroughly sick of traipsing along the side slope), I happened to glance across the reentrant and see the flag hanging on the opposite side from where we had it plotted.

All that extra searching may have set the tone my mood on this trek. It had taken us what felt like a long time to near the point and then forever to punch it.  We saw Mickey and Andy, looking none to happy themselves, on the trek between 7 and 6 (or 8); despite being a much shorter trek, that too felt endless.

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We went 4 - 5- 7 - 6 - 8 - 9 - 10
Mickey: There were some seriously long treks between CPs. We chose to go from CP4 to CP6, and the trek was over 2 miles.

I was grumpy about the long treks to such spread out points.  I'm much happier with more frequent reinforcement, and I'm sure the heat and my sore feet colored my attitude.  I've spent very little time running this summer, and that's most obvious on trekking legs: once my strong suit, lately they've become much less enjoyable. Trekking in wet shoes and socks just added to the fun.   I tried to at least act positive, I was very crabby on the inside. I joke that my role on the team is "chief morale officer", which was far from the truth during our trek.

6 and 8 were thankfully near each other, then we had another long trek to get to 9, where we punched the flag to the sound of a raucous party going on at a nearby campground. From there we hiked out to the road and race-provided water drop. I'd emptied my Camelbak on the way to 9, and though I still had one bottle of water in my pack, I was very happy to have a full tank again.

With one checkpoint left on this section we opted to walk the shoulder of the highway to get to our final CP. We bagged that, seeing both a 2-p team from Texas and Mickey and Andy in the woods. We were able to top off our water on the way back to the canoe and after a brief detour made it back to the canoes right around 2.  The volunteer in a kayak at this point warned us that most teams were taking about 3 hours to get from that point to the canoe takeout, information that was of concern because there was a 5:00 cutoff and we aren't a particularly speedy paddling team.

In light of the cutoff, we decided to skip all of the paddling points and head straight to the take out, but even with a deadline looming, we took some much-needed time to cool off in the river before climbing back into the canoes and heading downriver.  And then...disaster.

Bob and I have paddled together before, most notably in the above-referenced Castlewood 8-hour. Starting temps that day had been 10 degrees, but it had probably warmed up to 15 or so before we got onto the river. Anyone who knows me knows I'm not a fan of paddling, and paddling a river in freezing temperatures, where tipping could very well be a survival situation, was very frightening. And we did great. That was one of my favorite race paddles ever.

I'm only talking about our successful Castlewood paddle because this canoe leg was pretty much the opposite. We looked like we'd never been in a canoe before; drunk people on the river do better than we did. We ended up sideways and backwards several times. We rammed a partially submerged tree and slid partway up it like it was a ramp (flashback to my first Berryman). And we eventually tipped...right in front of a little girl who then laughed at us. (Big thanks to the kayaker who chased down my paddle and hat.)

Mickey: In her defense, it was super funny! I wish I could have caught it on video.

When we weren't struggling to avoid strainers and gravel bars, we were slamming into the large submerged rocks that for whatever reason I could not see despite the clear water) and slaloming around the crowds of people out enjoying the river in the heat. ("Enjoying" here defined as "sitting in the middle of the best paddling line".)

Bob: I'm gonna blame the turning issues on that heavy ass canoe...it was like piloting a school bus. And then when people who would see us coming and literally sit in the middle of the river...well, I'll admit that pissed me off a little bit. All that aside, it was a nice time on the water.

Meanwhile Chuck and Jacob smoothly negotiated all obstacles and spent most of the paddle waiting on us to get our shit together.  It probably would have helped our speed if I'd accepted the offer of one of Chuck's paddles, but even though I know kayak paddles are faster I really prefer canoe paddles. So basically I chose slightly more comfort over improving team speed, which was bad race strategy and selfish on my part.

Bob: So selfish.

Other than the billion people on the river, it was a beautiful day to be out in canoes. Granted, it would have been even nicer with a cooler and some drinks and multiple stops to swim, especially at the very pretty Maramec Spring Park, which due to our time limitations, we sadly passed without even a picture stop. We did, at least, take the time to dip our hands into the lovely cold water.  Bob spent the last hour or so of the paddle feeling really sick. Finally reaching the canoe take-out was a relief: for me, so I could stop paddling, and for Bob, because he was finally able to throw up.

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Photo credit: Rolla Multisport Club, people who are much nicer than us and therefore opted not to document Bob's suffering. 
Bob: This was a particularly rough moment. I'm just glad I could kneel in the cool river water and barf instead of laying on the side of the road. I puked enough to be nervous about all the calories I was losing, but the fish seemed to enjoy their surprise lunch.

In light of our suboptimal paddling performance, we were surprised to see Mickey and Andy still at the canoe takeout, but Bob wasn't the only one suffering in the heat.  Andy had to drop due to heat exhaustion, so Mickey asked if he could continue unofficially with us.

Mickey: Thanks again to the RD and Team Virtus for letting me keep racing. I needed the MTB-O and night nav practice. I was glad I was able to help a little, too.

We had a slow transition but got to chat with Alpine Shop and Kuat who were at the bike drop at the same time (after getting loads more CPs on the trek/paddle).  I'd left plenty of food with my bike, none of which sounded good, so I jumped at the chance to rummage through Jeff's leftovers. Unfortunately, nothing there caught my eye, either. I have a really hard time eating in the heat and hadn't put a lot of thought into my race nutrition ("it's only 16 hours"), so I was stuck with plenty of calories and nothing remotely appealing.  This was not a recipe for a successful bike leg.

I caught sight of my AR friend Ron, who was volunteering, as we pedaled away.  "Have fun riding up the hill!" he called.

The bike leg started with a 150 foot climb, the beginning of which Strava tells me was about a 13% grade. I made it to the top, but I was suffering by the time we stopped to regroup and really struggled from that point until the sun started to relent around 7:30.  Bob was still recovering from his bout with the heat, so Mickey's offer to tow was much appreciated.

Bob: I could never describe how much I appreciated that tow. For a long time after I threw up, I was just staring at my handlebars or whatever was directly in front of me, turning the cranks and trying to keep moving. Any time we'd hook up the towstrap, I'd get nearly instant relief. The boost in my speed and morale was incredible. The fact that it benefited him in no way to make such a kind gesture speaks volumes about his character. 

They quickly shot off with Chuck and Jacob close behind, while I (somewhat tearfully) attempted to close the growing gap. I was so frustrated by being the slowest one.  Mickey circled back to check on me.  "This heat is killing me. I can't keep up. You guys are going too fast." (I know I complained about the heat; I'm not sure whether I said the rest or was just thinking it, but I was definitely thinking it.)  He towed me back to the group, but while I'm a huge fan of the tow on his cross bike I don't love the mountain bike one and was very skittish; once caught up, I opted out for the rest of the race.

Chuck and Mickey navigated us flawlessly to the first couple of CPs (one at an "old intersection" and one down a doubletrack trail that was thankfully much better mowed than the ones we'd been hiking earlier in the day.  Again we bounced back and forth with Kuat and Alpine Shop; it's always a highlight to run into the fast teams on the course, even if our faster friends are much further along in the race than we are.

Bob: Riding next to the Sonas during this stretch of the race was definitely a highlight of the day.

We had to beat a 7:00 cutoff before the Forest City trails in order to get credit for any of the singletrack CPs, and we were the last team(s) to arrive before the volunteers closed down and left.  They had a big cooler with Gatorade and water and ice.  Having something cold to drink for the first time since 6 am was glorious.  Even better, since they were going to dump the ice I stuffed as much of it as I could fit into my sports bra. Around that point I finally started feeling human again.

Another big hill led to the trail system; we then took a minute or two to make some decisions. The final race cut-off was at 10:30; missing that would cost us 1 point immediately plus one point for every 5 minutes we were late.  Looking over how far we had left to ride after the trails (guessing around 24 miles), we chose two fairly close CPs on the singletrack.  I was really excited to ride Forest City because I've heard such good things about them, and the first couple hundred feet did not disappoint. That's about all we rode, though, before Jacob flatted. The first tube was bad, so the guys had to rechange the flat. It only took maybe 20 minutes, but we'd been cutting it close on having time to tackle the trails, so we reluctantly decided to bag the singletrack and head back the way we'd come.

Mickey: And we STILL haven't ridden Forest City!

We were able to pick up a couple more CPs as we passed through the town of St. James but lost a chunk of time looking for one that we never did find in the city park.  Finally we had to cut our losses and ride for the finish line, again picking up some CPs on our way.

The Rolla/St. James area has some serious hills, and it felt like we rode all of them. Along the way we came across a team who was doing their first adventure race and was struggling with the nav in the dark.  (Bob: I mentally checked out somewhere in this section. Like, gone.) We all continued together, now riding eight strong. There was much regrouping at tops of hills.

Eventually it became clear that we were not only going to miss the cutoff but miss it by a wide margin. I began to fantasize about some kind stranger driving past with a truck big enough for all of our bikes, a quick ride back to supper and cold drinks and a shower.  I knew even if such an opportunity presented itself I'd have to pass, but it was a nice thought.

As we neared the camp hosting our start/finish, we saw a van approaching.  "Hey," Chuck exclaimed as it stopped near us, "That's my wife!"   She was the vanguard of the search posse forming to track us down, the rest of which was assembled at the end of the camp road.  "We were just about to come look for you!" someone called.  In retrospect, we should have called the race director to let him know we were fine, just moving more slowly that we'd like. That said, we probably wouldn't have had a cell signal anyway.

SO ready to be off of our bikes, we made our third (and fastest) trip down the road to the finish line and crossed through the arch at 11:29 p.m., almost exactly an hour past the cut-off.

Bob: I made a wrong turn and slammed my bike into a brick building right before the final turn. I though it was a shortcut. It wasn't.

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We had a pretty big penalty for coming in late, but at least we finished with a positive score.  More importantly, we finished under our own power: stinky, tired, and hungry, but otherwise none the worse for wear.  Despite our late arrival, there were still plenty of burgers and beer, and with all of the other finishers on their way home we plenty of seats to choose from. There were even third place medals left for us.

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I'm so photogenic.
Bob: I'd like to take a moment and elaborate on the finish line atmosphere. Mind you, we finished REALLY late. The volunteers had been working all day, but you never would have known with the way they treated us so well. There was an abundance of delicious hamburgers, hot dogs, baked pies, water, sodas, and a variety of good beers. (I wasted no time getting shitfaced, btw.) There was even a prize table where you could help yourself to free gear. Even better, they gave us a ride up the hill back to our cars. A classy group of people if you ask me.

Mickey: I really appreciated the on-site, hot showers. It made the drive home much more comfortable.

The heat and the terrain definitely made this a tough race and a fitting successor to Berryman. The Rolla Multi-Sport club did a great job on their first adventure race: tough course, good maps, fantastic and enthusiastic volunteers.  We're planning to be back next year...hope to see lots of our AR friends there, too.