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.


  1. I can't believe that a team that had to run back for a lost passport won. There must be enough variables in this race that you are never sure who is winning or is that not true?

    1. They're a crazy fast team. That was two years ago, but this year they came in third in the world at the adventure racing world championships. But yes, the variables that come up over a 24 hour race as well as strategic decisions can make a huge difference in performance and placement.

  2. I always enjoy these Kate. Looking forward to the second installment.

  3. A true adventure this one! I love it and should actually look into doing something like that one day. Love the pic of the maps!

  4. Nothing good can come from forgetting your nutrition. That bridge crossing sounds dicey!

  5. Every time I read one of your posts I want to try AR.


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