Baptism By Mud

Patrick's first adventure race was the 36-hour Berryman Adventure Race...on a team made of completely of AR newbies.  My brother Jim and I also began with Berryman, and though it was only the 12 hour version, the race director commented, "Why you'd want to start with a race called 'a real ass-kicker', I don't know." Berryman was, indeed, a bit of baptism by fire.  I really tried to do better by my sister-in-law.

When Kristy told me she wanted to do an adventure race this year, we'd chosen BonkHard Racing's Smithville Challenge, a late-spring 8-hour on a course rated at the easy end of their difficulty scale. It sounded like a gentle introduction to this sport I love, and the date lessened the chances that any potential nav errors would result in hypothermia and gave us time to train together before the race.

BonkHard's surprise absence from the AR calendar this year left us scrambling for a replacement, and the Physically Strong Adventure Race seemed to fit our purposes: only 8 hours, light required gear list, not too far of a drive, and no schedule conflicts.  The benefits outweighed the limited window for training and March's notoriously unreliable weather, and the addition of Patrick and Chuck greatly decreased our chances of getting lost forever in the wilds of Mendon, IL. 

Race check-in was Friday night at Saukenauk Scout Reservation, the Boy Scout camp hosting the race as a fundraiser.  Free lodging was available in cabins on-site; we'd jumped at the accommodations but been less than thrilled when pre-race communication indicated that scout regulations required men and women to be housed separately.  Chuck arrived first and texted us to say that the cabins were "like 3 miles apart", which I wrongly assumed was an exaggeration.  While this wasn't a huge problem for our team since we'd brought two vehicles, that's typically not the case and could have been a headache.

We took our coordinates and 1:15,000 USGS map into nearby Quincy to get dinner and do our plotting and route planning.  I lived there for a few years during college; apparently it's changed in the subsequent 20 years because I didn't recognize anything.  Patrick got a lot of mileage out of my past residency; one of the recurring themes of the race was his insistence that I'd grown up in Quincy.  

He was the instigator of another such theme as well. Somehow on the drive to dinner the topic of "The Diarrhea Song" came up. 

Apparently he and one of his daughters have some bizarre fondness for the song (one not shared by his long-suffering wife, Beth). "It has a lot more verses than you realize," he told us. "I bet tomorrow we'll come up with all kinds of adventure race-related ones."

After eating some sub-standard Mexican food and mapping our race, we left our bikes at the bike drop and went to our separate cabins. For the boys, this entailed walking about 50 feet. Kristy and I had a three-mile drive but were much closer to the start line the next day.  After a long night of not much sleep, we met back up around 5:30 a.m. for a light breakfast and pre-race meeting before the 6:30 start.

Pre-race team picture...and yes, Kristy really is almost that short.
The race directors took us down to the fire ring for some last-minute instructions and information about the "scout challenges". These included fire building, tomahawk throw, slingshot, and archery; to get credit for the checkpoint teams had to complete the challenge. A bonus was awarded if only one team member was needed to complete the task.  With that, they asked, "Any questions?" and hearing none, told us, "Ok, go!"

Trek 1: We started on foot with a run to the bike drop, and while Chuck had originally planned to run up the road he made a game-day decision to cut through the woods when almost everyone else did.  We initially started down the wrong road before correcting our course and crossing the swinging bridge over the camp lake. This was very much not my favorite part of the race.

Taking a picture while attempting not to pee my pants in fear and while accusing all of my teammates of intentionally making the bridge bounce...I can multitask with the best of  'em!

Once we were safely across the bridge of terror, we had a short run/walk along some seriously muddy camp roads to the bike drop where (hallelujah!) there were other bikes there besides ours.  We added a little air to Kristy's low front tire and headed off on the first bike leg.

Bike 1: There were two basic route options: flatter (but potentially mushy) gravel or hilly but partly paved. We opted for paved after the soul-sucking ride Chuck and I had last weekend on soggy gravel. When you're riding on some gravel and your bowels start to unravel...

Kristy still smiling after the hilly section
Chuck led us to our first checkpoint, where he added some air to my very low rear tire while I punched our passport, and as we were about to leave Kristy noticed her front tire was flat.

Once that was handled, we headed off for CP2, watching the lead teams coming back towards us.  There had been a typo in the coordinates, causing everyone to plot the CP a kilometer closer than it was, but the combination of the error being on the bike leg (way faster to cover that distance on a bike on the road than on foot in the woods) and the clue being "bridge" (relatively obvious if you're at a bridge or not) kept that from being disastrous.

Snack break at CP2
I tried to be conscious of time and remind people about eating and drinking regularly. In my first few adventure races, Luke was always having to check if I was on top of nutrition and hydration, both of which make a huge difference over a long race.  I may have come off slightly like a mother hen.

CP2 was basically an out-and-back, so we retraced our bike tracks, seeing the strong bike team of "Orienteering to the Bar" as well as our friends Dave and Jules as we headed back to the turn out to CP3.  We rode a couple big hills up to a beautiful cabin in the woods and our first bonus event, the tomahawk throw.

Patrick throwing while Chuck observes.
Teams had to stick three tomahawks in the target in order to get credit for this CP. Patrick ("Hawk")  made short work of the first two; the third one took a little longer, but he got us our bonus point by sticking them all on his own.  We then hiked some seriously muddy trail to get CP4, alongside a creek, and then headed back to our bikes for the ride back to camp.

We easily found our way back to camp, but navigating the camp roads was a bit more problematic. Pedaling presented some challenges...


...and we compounded the difficulty by missing a turn and riding down a surprisingly fun trail that, unfortunately, was in the wrong direction.  Rather than retrace our steps, we opted to go off-trail, giving Kristy her first taste of bikewhacking (actually, I think it was my most extensive bikewhack as well). Dragging bikes through thorn-heavy woods, lifting them over downed trees and across small creeks, and pushing them uphill is even less fun than it sounds. Thankfully, Chuck's nav was back on track and eventually we arrived at the next bike drop/CP5, getting there just ahead of Orienteering to the Bar, having lost our lead with the mistake more adventurous route.

In order to get credit for CP5, someone on the team had to build a fire using natural materials and get it to burn through a string stretched above the fire pit. OTTB build their fire on top of a metal piece and completed the challenge before we did. Chuck ("Sparky") soon had our fire going, too, and we were out of the TA shortly after them.

Building the fire while we spectate
Trek 2: Neither Kristy nor Patrick have spent a ton of time on the bike lately, so I think they were both pretty happy to be on foot again.  I'm not sure how long that lasted, because we started our trek with a kilometer or more of bushwhacking through the thorniest terrain this side of Thunder Rolls.


Seems like we had to cross over creeks a few times, and we initially tried to keep our feet dry.

I inched across like I was swaying on a tightrope above the Grand Canyon, while Kristy confidently crossed like she was walking down the street, earning the nickname "Squirrel".
Eventually we gave up on dry feet, making creek crossings much faster.  We initially came out one hill too early, so we hiked a short way along the (blessedly thorn-free) road to the site of CP6, the slingshot event.  I opted to do this, not because I have any particular skill with a slingshot (much the contrary, in fact) but because we guessed the climbing tower might be a one-person challenge and thought Squirrel, our smallest and lightest teammate, might be the fastest on that (and also because I'm afraid of heights and always happy to avoid high things).

Orienteering to the Bar was already at the slingshot and finished hitting their five cans with a slingshot before I ever hit one.  Actually, every team finished this checkpoint before I ever hit a can, because after a looooooong time of me missing every shot, we gave in and Patrick and Chuck put me out of my misery by finishing the challenge. Kate ("doesn't get a cool scout race nickname"): slingshot failure.  

We took a fairly direct route from CP6 to CP7, which left us climbing up and down a lot of steep reentrants...and by "climbing down" I mostly mean sliding...occasionally on purpose.

The combination of steep sides and muddy ground made finding your footing lots of fun.
Is that Lewis? Or Clark?
On the ground right before the reentrant holding CP7, Chuck found a big section of honeycomb.

The original honey stinger.
CP7 was tucked down in a tree clogged reentrant. After I scrambled down for that, we hiked a blessedly smooth ridge, through a field where we caught sight of a 2-person male team that had been ahead of us all day, and back to the road.  We slowly gained on them as we walked down the road to the next field, our attack point for CP8. We trudged through corn stubble and entered the woods right behind them. They headed to the left, and we headed more to the right, where we spotted the flag.


Between the steep slopes and the soft, muddy ground, crossing the reentrants was tricky at times.
Our route between CPs 8 and 9 was a long stretch of field, this one full of tall grass.  Wading through all of this was reminiscent of the Thunder Rolls coasteering legs, though slightly drier than walking through a river. When you're trudging through a field and your sphincter starts to yield...

Kristy's one worry about the race was coming across a snake, and as we crossed here I wondered if this was where she'd see one.
I don't remember CP9, but somewhere in one of the woods sections Patrick had found an antler, which he carried with him as we hiked out to the road. We joked about him using it as a grappling hook on some of the steeper sections and pondered his chances of goring himself "if" he fell.

I'd like to attribute this picture to my quick-draw camera skills, but in reality he just waited for me to take it.
 Just before reaching the road, there was yet another reentrant/small creek to cross.  I slid down on my butt and then crawled up the other side. Patrick and Kristy crossed with more panache.  Patrick looked over the distance, tossed his pack across, and jumped.

I need a faster camera.
 Then Kristy came up to do the same thing. Torn between my typical M.O. of encouraging daring behavior in anyone except myself and remembering my brother's warning to keep his wife safe, I settled for a lukewarm middle ground: "You can totally do it! know...if you think it's a good idea..."

When you're jumping over a creek and your pants begin to leak...

She totally could do it and was promptly upgraded to "Flying Squirrel"
We stopped for a quick snack break and then walked the road towards the driveway that was our attack point for CP10.  Hearing voices to our right, we looked over and saw Orienteering to the Bar again.  They're much stronger on the bike than we are, but they're relatively new to AR and not very experienced with navigation, which was our strength, so it was demoralizing to keep being caught by them on a trekking leg.

Our teams met up at the end of the driveway, which led right between a house and a barn.  Uncomfortable with strolling past someone's house, we all walked further in search of an attack point that didn't lead us through their yard.  OTTB are all familiar faces from the St. Louis bike scene, but I'd never really talked to any of them, and it was particularly nice to exchange Dirty Kanza stories with Tara.

We punched CP10 ahead of them, and then it was time to head back to the camp for the last stretch of the race.  Trying to move forward rather than double back, we ended up at a deep reentrant with steep sides. It looked nearly impassable, so when Chuck asked if we wanted to try to battle through the thick brush along the side or cross the reentrant, I told him something like, "I don't want to go across that." He promptly climbed down into the reentrant.

Knowing exactly what had happened, all I could do was laugh and follow him.  Chuck's hearing isn't good, particularly in his left ear, and he'd misheard my answer. Crossing that reentrant was no joke, especially near the top of the other side, which formed almost a cornice of dirt. I'm not sure how Chuck got up on his own, because I couldn't have made it without him helping me.  We all got across, though, and it was certainly an adventurous route choice.

Checkpoint 11 was the archery challenge, where Chuck quickly scored the 10 points we needed to get our punch and bonus and move on.


From CP11 we had to go to the canoe put-in and then pick up our bikes after completing the canoe CPs, but we had to pass CP12, the climbing wall, on our way.  Having assumed that, like the other challenges, only one team member was going to have to climb the wall, I was dismayed to see both Scott and Neil on top of the structure.

BOR's Scott and Neil getting ready to rappel down.
 We had a fairly short paddle on the camp's pretty little lake, passing under the bridge of death on our way to CPA (at one end of the boomerang-shaped lake) and again as we headed to CPB (on the other end) seeing OTTB close behind us both times we turned.  When you're paddling on a lake and your intestines start to quake...



 Having completed the paddling leg, we had to cross the bridge again, making the unpleasant discovery that accidentally all walking in step really got it moving.  As Patrick mentioned later, it had a real Tacoma Narrows vibe to it.

As we walked the muddy trail back to the bike TA, I was looking at my watch and doing some math. We had four remaining bike checkpoints: 12 (the climbing wall), 13, 14, and 15. Since all four of us had to climb the tower and the rappel down, we guessed at least a half hour for CP12. Judging from the sloppy conditions of the camp's dirt roads and the short stretch of trail we'd hiked to get to our bikes, there's no way we would have enough time to get all of the remaining checkpoints and still make the cutoff.

Bike 2: With CP13 being pretty far in the opposite direction of the final two, we opted to skip both 12 and 13.  We got to ride our bikes a little bit before reaching a muddy hill and pushing again.  Kristy, who'd spent the whole race in good spirits but increasing amounts of grim determination over the last hour or so, asked me, "HOW do you guys do this for 24 hours?" I told her it was basically what we'd been doing all day, just keep moving forward until you're done.

When we reached CP14 in no time, my heart sank a little. If this one was that easy, we really should have gone after 13 as well. I thought it was likely that OTTB would be able to leverage their stronger biking to collect the bike points before the cutoff.  Getting to 15 took considerably longer, though, and necessitated a lot of bike pushing through mud, and in the end it was clear that the decision we'd made was their right one for our team.We had time to get back to the finish line, but not enough to have gotten either of the other CPs, so if the other teams beat us, it was because they'd raced better and not because we'd chosen poorly.

Heading towards the finish, the bridge in the background.
We got to take one final trip over the swinging bridge, this time pushing our bikes with us. This was a special kind of fun for me, as I alternated between catching my handlebar in the fencing along the side of the bridge and banging my pedal into my leg, but I was tired enough that the fear factor was pretty minimal. There was one more hill to push our bikes up and then just a short ride back to the finish line and the happy news that we came in second in our division and qualified for USARA Nationals.

Post race, we still like each other.
I had a blast and would race with this group any time. It was every bit as fun of a day as I'd imagined it could be.  Kristy in her first race and Patrick out of AR retirement were awesome in what was definitely the toughest 8 hour race (with a 10-hour cutoff) I've ever done.  The weather was pretty much perfect for a race, but the warmer temperatures made for challenging travel through difficult terrain.Far from being a gentle introduction into the fun of adventure racing, it was more of a baptism by mud.


  1. Awesome! I really happy Kristy had fun and did great. Nice to see Patrick back at it too.

  2. With the diarrhea theme and the sub-par Mexican food, I was waiting for something horrible that, happily, never came to fruition. :)

  3. I honestly can't fathom this report. Your adventures are beyond epic! I love your descriptions and pictures. And that Honey Stinger looks delicious!

  4. Qualifying for nationals? Sweet! Your sister in law must be like, "Hm, this isn't so bad..."

  5. I cannot believe what you succeed in doing and yes, your adventures are beyond epic.
    Great photos.

  6. You are amazing. Your racing schedule is pretty full and impressive all year.


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