Years of transformation have led up to this point. Where once a brainy teenager had dreamed of straight A's in school, now an admittedly less confident athlete looked to a goal that seemed larger than life, a dream beyond anything that ever seemed possible to someone who struggled to run 3 miles without stopping just 10 years ago. I was about to do the Eco-Challenge in Sabah, a state in Malaysian Borneo, in August 2000.
My brother, Kip, and I had been running for a years, working our way from 5K's to marathons and a couple ultra marathons in recent months. We had many successes, including a fun trip to the Boston Marathon and an enjoyable first 50-mile race. We had experimented with triathlons and I had been so bold as to enter and complete an Ironman distance race in 1999. Together we believed our strength was our endurance on our feet.
Last year we met John Beard as we began our fledgling adventure racing career. We were looking for a teammate for the Hi-Tec Adventure Race in Dallas and through emails found another Austinite who was looking to have some fun and learn about the new sport. John has had years of experience in the outdoors with Texas A&M, including paddling experience and trips to the Grand Canyon. He also complemented the team with an attitude that focused on having fun while trying hard and working together. The race was a resounding success, with the team working together and having a blast through some interesting special tests like the Crisco wall.
A couple months later, Kip found out that Eco-Challenge was having open registration for the 2000 race in Sabah. We had been watching the Eco-Challenge on television for many years, imagining what it must be like to do something of that magnitude, and in absolute awe of the people that make it through. I'm sure most people have the same reaction, amazement combined with a questioning of whether maybe, just maybe, I could do something like that too someday. Kip and I discussed a logical plan of starting with shorter adventure races, learning about this sport that intrigued us, and perhaps beginning to submit a yearly application to Eco-Challenge starting in 2002 to eventually make it through the strict admissions process a few years from now when we might be ready to try something so daunting.
That all flew out the window with open registration and no selection process. Kip convinced me that it was the chance of a lifetime. John needed no such convincing, and there we were at 10 a.m. on September 1, 1999, trying to get our entry fax through the phone lines to the Eco-Challenge office. The line stayed busy for a couple minutes so we went to our backup plan of sending an email, with no guarantee of its safe arrival. Then we waited. And waited.
Finally, news! There were SO MANY entries right at 10 a.m. that a lottery would be held among the 100 or so American teams for 35 spots. More waiting. Then the list of 35 teams came out and we were not on it. I felt disappointment mixed with some amount of relief. Then the waiting list came out and we were number 3. Oh my. It wasn't a sure thing, but it was good enough to make us think we actually had a chance. And that became the theme of the next 8 months.
As we began to believe that we might eventually get "the call" from Tricia Middleton, we started planning for the big event. And what planning it took! We began with a search for teammate #4 using a detailed selection process (pages and pages of an intensive questionnaire and a quick interview at Fresh Choice of the top candidate). Darran Wells had skills to fill in the gaps of our team's abilities, with National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) teaching experience including ropes and rock climbing and jungle navigating experience in the Peace Corps in Africa. He also has a personality that matches very well with the rest of the team which was the main concern for all of us. We did not want a gung-ho teammate who was out to win at all costs. We were wary of teaming up with someone who would become frustrated with our pace or destroy the great team dynamics we had started. Our main goal was to finish, do it as friends, and have a good time along the way. We believed Darran felt the same way and we were thrilled to have him join us.
With several other questionnaires from Austinites, we also decided Jason Mittman would be a great addition to the team as an alternate for the race. He is a strong mountain biker and team player and he agreed to help us find sponsorship even if he did not get to race in the Eco-Challenge. He is also a lot of fun and has entertained us a great deal over the past year. We have raced together in shorter races and he has helped me through some very tough times, especially in the mountain bike sections. We were very happy to find two great teammates from Austin through our search last December.
In February we ran the Motorola Marathon. John and I had been dating since August and I took the opportunity during the marathon to ask John to marry me - and he said yes! We are planning a non-traditional wedding at the top of a mountain in Vermont in September.
Then we trained and looked for sponsorship. And we waited. Every couple of months Tricia Middleton would send an announcement that one more team had gained entry off the waiting list. Finally we were at the top of the list! So we waited. And trained. And waited. And looked for sponsorship.
It all came together near the end of April. Vignette Corporation, an Internet software company in Austin, had decided to sponsor an adventure race team to embody their company ideals of taking calculated risks, being adventurous, and exploring the world. We were extremely lucky that one of the people in marketing knew Darran's sister and found out that we might be going to the Eco-Challenge. Several meetings later, we became Team Vignette. To top it off, we finally got "the call" and Tricia was telling me we needed to book plane tickets to Kota Kinabalu as soon as possible! There was much ado and rejoicing over the phone system that week in offices all over Austin.
That led to frantic preparations as we gained access to information about the race, the required gear, and travel requirements. We were already taking scuba and sailing lessons so we weren't completely unprepared but now it hit home that we better learn everything really well. Gear and clothing purchases kicked into high gear. Talks with the media were scheduled. Patches were hastily sewn on backpacks and singlets by newly-found (and very proficient) seamstresses. I made many, many to-do lists which eventually were combined into a "list of lists" that was pages long. Tricia strongly recommended having a female alternate, so we signed on Clair Melton, an expert mountain biker and athlete, in that role. Somehow we managed to continue doing our jobs over the summer, but every other part of our lives went on hold.
Too quickly, we needed to pack everything in 5 large gear boxes, 4 bike boxes, and a ski bag (for our paddles). Soon we were all flying off to Borneo, taking 3 planes, 5 flights, and a day and a half to get there. We stayed in the Magellan Sutera, a very nice resort hotel where all of the race preparations were taking place. It was odd to be relaxing there before and after the race, in an atmosphere that contrasted greatly with the conditions on the course. But you certainly couldn't argue with it!
We worked our way through the registration procedures, acing the swim test and having no issues with required gear checks. Sometimes it pays to be detail oriented to the point some would consider extreme (among other words). Eco-Challenge organization was impressive in every fashion. We had no questions at any point about the required gear or what they wanted us to do with the various gear, food, and bike boxes. All of the volunteers were wonderful and helpful and we had little stress to deal with beyond imagining what the race would be like. Oh, except that our secret weapon, the vacuum sealer, died while Kip was in the middle of sealing peanut M&M's so we didn't get to package much of our food the way we wanted. At least our spare socks and batteries were already sealed and dry.
Amid a wind/rain storm we boarded buses for a 10-hour overnight trip from Kota Kinabalu to the eastern side of Borneo. At 6 a.m. we stumbled off the buses near Silam to find our bikes ready to be assembled at the main gear staging tent. We spent an hour putting them together, spraying them with Pam and adding mud flaps in anticipation of a muddy ride. Then we turned the bikes in and got back on the buses for the final short ride to Semporna, the site of the starting line.
We had a brief introduction to our new mode of transport, the Perahu outrigger canoe. Picture a large wooden canoe, add a mast, a sail, and two outriggers connected by three pieces of bamboo to the main craft. There wasn't much more to it and people seemed skeptical of the boats. But at least everyone was dealing with the same equipment.
After a quick lunch, equipment gathering, a boat briefing, and boat loading, we launched the boat to paddle around the dock to our starting position. The afternoon would be spent getting to know the boats in a Prologue sail across the water to a small island where we would spend the night. It was a relaxing start and we smiled and waved our paddles in the shape of a "V" for the cameras flying overhead. Finally, after some fanfare, we were off!
The first afternoon went smoothly for Team Vignette. We were positioned in the back of the sailing pack so we paddled slowly, following boats out to sea and keeping our distance to prevent stupid boat collisions. Finally we were able to put up the sail and take advantage of the tail wind. All over the bay sails were going up and boats were taking off. It was quite a sight! The beginning of this Eco-Challenge was the most relaxed race start I have ever seen (and it continued into the actual race the next morning). Once the sail was positioned and tied, there was nothing to do but steer, sit, and watch the fleet spread out ahead of us. We even managed to avoid the reef on the right side of the course where people were grounding their boats and having to walk them a fair distance. Good map reading enabled us to stay in the channel and sail around many of the other teams, coming to the island an hour later as one of the first 10 teams to arrive.
I guess a little humility was due after that. Other teams had seen problems on the water, from outriggers breaking to boats swamping, including a couple boats which had to be towed in. People scurried over the island making adjustments to their boats. We decided our boat was fine and left it the way it was, but it was interesting to watch other teams adding reinforcements and higher sides to their boats. The only thing we wished for was a spinnaker sail which appeared to help several boats move quite a bit more quickly.
Darran and John were helping another team bail out their boat when our first race problem occurred. The boat moved in the water and landed on Darran's big toe, so hard that the nail ended up falling off! It hurt Darran the rest of the race and we couldn't believe it happened the very first day. The only good news was that he didn't need to walk on it much for a couple days so it could heal at least a little.
We received a race briefing that night, along with the edict that the team captains had to split up their team into two sets of two people without knowing what each set would be doing and without discussion with our team. Our team would work well in any pairing, so I decided to split us up based on our previous discussions about ocean swimming which put me and John in group A and Kip and Darran in group B. They handed out instructions which detailed the next sailing section and how the teams would be divided up the next day. They also allowed us to turn in some of our large stash of water bottles. They transported them further along the course in order to lighten the boats for people who were having problems with boat swamping. We turned in many of our bottles and were glad we were a fairly light team compared to some of the larger bodies around us.
We slept in hammocks which were quite comfortable, only to be awakened by a squall in the middle of the night. We had been warned of squalls, sudden storms that blow in very quickly and without warning, defined by strong winds and driving rain. Luckily most squalls last about 30 minutes and then leave. But we were not looking forward to dealing with one in the middle of the ocean, at which point our instructions were to take down the mast and get out of the boat to try to prevent it from swamping.
The next morning we awoke to calmer weather and a tail wind. After a quick breakfast and one false start, we were off for good. The race was on! We were heading for a set of islands to the east and searching for an orange buoy supposedly 2K away from the southern tip of the far island. There was no exact location for this buoy, which turned out to be an accurate way to describe its movement throughout the morning. The lead boat was flying a kite instead of using any sail at all, and they sped off into the distance. We watched the sail for a long time as their boat went around the tip of the island and kept going a long way. We took the inside course, staying closer to land than many of the other boats which went way to the right. We were sailing right over the reef but tide was high so we were well above it. We believed that most other people were avoiding the reef after running aground on one during low tide in the Prologue. As we sailed along wishing for a kite we watched other boats and tried to figure out where the buoy was located. Finally a couple boats looked like they were coming back, after dropping off the two group A teammates for a jaunt around the island. Group B had to paddle the boat back west to the other end of the island chain to wait for the first two teammates to hit PC's 2 through 7 (Passport Controls). We realized that the buoy must be quite a ways past the last island and we started looking for a way to it.
Unfortunately, the wind was picking up and it created breakers where the water went from deep to shallow. We were in the shallow part and it appeared that we needed to go across to the deep portion to get to the buoy. Before we really had a chance to think about this in great detail, the breakers loomed and we turned the boat to go almost straight into them. That little boat tried its best and it lasted through several breakers, but the waves were too strong and we soon were swamped. I remember John stating "I'm out" (of the boat) and the next wave did us in. The left outrigger, the heavier one, broke off from the boat and we were left floating in breakers, clinging to the boat and the broken outrigger. Bailing was fruitless as wave after wave broke over us. We looked toward shore and sighed. We had no choice but to swim the boat in.
In previous Eco-Challenge broadcasts, every swamped boat meant an ocean rescue and the end of the race for that team. No one said this, but I was definitely concerned that it was to be our fate as well, two hours into the race. Bucking this idea, Darran called for us to put on our fins (required gear for this part of the race) and we started swimming toward shore. All our gear was tied into the boat so it floated along with us. I was sure our food was mostly soaked but nothing mattered except to get out of that situation and attempt to get back into the race.
I don't know how long we swam. A couple times someone climbed onto the boat to get out of the water and paddle a little. We lost a couple river knives and almost lost the throw rope but rescued it (and we needed it later!). Waves were continuous and bailing was fruitless. We saw a couple helicopters overhead with the "eyeball" camera but they were mostly focused on other things so we figured at least we were not the biggest story on the water. Finally we approached the shore. We tossed all the gear onto the rocky coast and pulled the boat in to bail out the water. The guys got creative with duct tape, baling wire, and webbing to lash the outrigger back onto the boat. We didn't know what would happen, only that we had not been pulled out of the water or rescued so we were still in the race.
After repairing the boat we pushed back into the water and slowly paddled around the tip of the island, staying in shallow water away from the breakers. We saw other teams paddling the other way and running along shore in groups of two. We cautiously stayed away from other boats on one side and breakers on the other, looking again for the elusive orange buoy. As we got to the far side of the island, two boats with four people each and something bobbing in the water were coming toward us. We stopped paddling, mystified, until someone in the other boats yelled that this was the buoy we were looking for. Apparently it was floating all over the ocean and had drifted within several hundred meters from shore. Boats were chasing it everywhere but somehow we got lucky and it came to us. John and I promptly took our gear, jumped in the water, and kicked for shore with fins on. Kip and Darran turned the boat around and headed back for a long paddle to a later checkpoint where they would wait for us to show up and work on repairing the boat.
After a short swim, John and I reached the shore again, sans boat this time, and walked a short distance up the beach to reach PC 2. It was exciting to see our first real checkpoint since the real start of the race, all the more so when we weren't sure we would even see it at all. There we received more instructions with directions up to PC 7 where we would meet Darran and Kip again. It started with a trek around the island and a water crossing over to the next island for more walking. We plotted the UTM points on the map and started off, not sure how far back in the pack we were but grateful to be on dry land for a while.
We followed the coastline until it became quite muddy, then proceeded a little further inland toward a small village. All around the leeward side of the islands we encountered residents of fishing villages and we were greeted by scores of exuberant children telling us "Good luck!" "Hello!" "All the best!", even an occasional "I love you!" which was pretty funny. Some people would point the way along paths above the water which were easier to walk along than the shoreline and many would smile and wave at us. We tried using our limited Malay vocabulary to say "Thank you!" (Terima Kasih) and "Good morning" (Salamet Pagi). I wish I knew how to say "Excuse me", as we sometimes walked right through people's yards and even interrupting a volleyball game that was in progress. We tried to go around but they would happily motion us to go through and wish us luck. It was wonderful to be treated so well by everyone we met.
The crossing from island to island was only waist deep so we waded across without getting the packs wet again. Then we continued along the north shoreline of the next island, the largest of the three in the cluster. This island had several steep peaks that we had seen all the way from the starting line and we would have the chance to hike up between some of them. After reaching PC 3 on the shoreline we started up and over the island for the first elevation change since the start of the race. It was an easy trail to follow, steep but not difficult. Partway up we met a cameraman who was playing with a centipede, trying to get a good photograph. He asked if I would mind backing up a few steps, then walking up past the bug while he filmed my feet. That was pretty funny. So if you see some sneakers next to a little centipede in the video, those feet could be mine.
We reached the top, had a discussion about the location of the next PC, and then proceeded down the other side to find PC 4 at the bottom right where it was supposed to be. From there we got instructions about the snorkeling section and took off trekking toward it. We could see an orange buoy (stationary this time) in a small bay next to a boat so we put the packs into trash bags and swam out to it. John dove down about 10 feet to identify an object at the end of a rope - it was apparently a flat orange item, like part of a life jacket. Rather strange, but at least we accomplished the task. We continued swimming across the bay and took off the fins after reaching shore. By now the tide had risen again so there wasn't much coastline left. We resorted to "coaststeering" along the edge, a new sport for me which involves wading in waist-deep water and climbing over boulders to move along the shoreline. It's much slower than walking during low tide but we had little choice. One team moved at the same pace by staying in the water and swimming to the next PC, which we thought was pretty smart.
PC 5 was well-visited that night. We started there as it was getting dark, then proceeded up a "trail" to go over the island one more time. This particular pass between two peaks was higher than the last one and had no trail to follow, regardless of what the volunteer said about starting at a trailhead at the bottom. The trail quickly disappeared and we were left to decide how to best get up the hill. The hill soon turned into a very steep slope with rock faces forcing us to rethink our direction many times. We reached a water source partway up and had multiple discussions with other teams about the lack of a good trail. Then we saw a large group of people coming DOWN toward us, telling us there was no way up in that direction. That confused everyone even more. By the time it was completely dark, there were teams going every which way all over the side of the hill. Lights were shining in all directions, people were yelling, and we didn't know where to go. John and I tried one path to the left and it quickly became very steep with a perplexing drop-off to the left that didn't seem to be on the map, plus we were now heading in the wrong direction. So we came back down and tried to the right. By this time I was feeling ill so we stopped for a couple minutes. We decided to go back to the beginning of the trailhead and to try again to follow the trail, still believing that a trail actually existed and that we just lost it somehow. However, as we descended we realized that we were going a different route and suddenly there were rock faces all around us. It took some serious clambering down rocks and between crevasses, with other teams following us, to finally make it back to the bottom a while later. We came out directly on top of PC 5. At least I felt physically better by this point.
OK, time to try again. We went back to the trail head, followed it until the trail became obviously overgrown, and tried to figure out how to find it again. John decided we better fill up on water before we risked running out, so we climbed to the water source and filled the camelbaks from the pool. We met two Canadian guys, James and Ralph, and talked about trying to follow the trail. They came with us as we tried again to climb to the left up a possible trail. But it became very steep and I didn't want to get stuck up there, so we came back down.
By this time, hours had passed and the tide was receding. Many teams camped for the night at PC 5. John and I slept briefly, then got up as it started to rain and walked back along the shoreline to the bay where we had snorkeled. The island was very narrow at the inside part of the bay, so we followed the shore until we came to a low pass to cross the island there. It became extremely swampy and we had to walk through nasty mud and dense trees, but finally we came out of it, smack onto a path! The path led us right over the island to the rocky shoreline of the north side. We followed the shoreline in the dark to PC 6.
There we woke up the volunteer and told our story. He seemed amazed that we had found an alternate route and said we were the first team there in quite a while. After that there was more walking along the shore as the sun came up. We hiked over rocks, through more villages, through waist-deep water, along paths, for several kilometers until finally we came to the end of the island and we could see PC 7 across the water. We put the packs into garbage bags and waded/swam the short distance across to our excited waiting teammates! Other teams sat and watched as Darran and Kip helped us move our stuff into the boat. I found the Canadian team and told them that James and Ralph were OK and they were coming soon (later we found out that they took the same route we did). Then off we sailed, together again!
The next set of instructions led us to several small islands. Kip and Darran had been one of the last teams to arrive at PC 7, but they still found enough repair material from the supplies handed out by Eco-Challenge to strengthen the outrigger repair job using small rope. The outriggers actually ended up much more balanced after the heavy one broke and the connectors had to be shortened, although we were concerned about the reliability of the boat for the rest of the race. It turned out to be quite a solid boat - if you stay out of big waves.
The first island was small and very pretty with lots of sand. We got to pick up some of our water bottles, then off we sailed again. The tailwind was wonderful and we had a quick, fairly easy journey across the ocean. We talked about what each half of the team had missed while we were separated. Darran and Kip got to see the lead teams come through PC 7 and take off sailing. During the night they were told there was a strong likelihood of a storm with large swells coming, so many teams that were reunited opted to stay until morning and we were only a couple hours behind them. The storm had never appeared, just the brief rain that had woken us up from our nap at PC 5.
We also decided that there never was a trail over the hill from PC 5 to PC 6, that we were supposed to climb the terrain, no matter how steep, find a way around the rock faces, and then slide down the other side. The next morning the rest of the teams apparently figured this out as well and eventually everyone else made it over the hill. I was quite glad for our course modification and for trying things until we found something that worked, although the thought of Eco-Challenge asking us to climb something that steep made me think twice about what was likely to come.
As we paddled from PC 8 to PC 9 we always watched the horizon for signs of squalls. The weather became my overriding concern on the ocean, something I worried about needlessly because there really wasn't anything we could do about it anyway. Either we make it with good weather or we do the best we can with bad weather and hope the boat survives. In my best moods, I came up with a phrase that I think originated from Mark Burnett in the pre-race briefing... "It is what it is." This phrase served me well throughout the race, accepting that things are sometimes going to be difficult, tedious, unknown, and possibly dangerous. I could either give up in the face of potential problems that I couldn't see yet (not an option) or keep going to find out what happens and deal with it. I was still the most cautious person on the team (and probably one of the most cautious in the whole race, sometimes to the annoyance of my teammates) but at least once we made a decision I would accept it and move on. And on. And on. And we were still in the easy portion of the race!
PC 9 was on another small island where we realized we were running neck and neck with Team Playboy Extreme. This became the story of the afternoon. They could sail well and tended to move ahead of us on the water. They also paddled to move faster, while we were just thankful we didn't have to expend too much energy and had time to eat and nap. At each checkpoint we moved through faster and took off ahead of them. They had to deal with cameras and interviews everywhere they went, which slowed them down and distracted them. We may not be on the USA video much, except in the background behind the Playboy Bunnies, but it was nice to be left alone to concentrate on the race.
In late afternoon we reached PC 10 on another island chain where we portaged the canoe a short distance and Kip and Darran received their instructions for trekking and swimming. John and I sailed the boat to the other end of the two islands, thankful for a rest, while Kip and Darran were excited to finally be moving on foot after waiting for much of the first couple of days. They had a short trek over the first island, then a very long swim with fins across a channel and into a bay on the second island. From there they climbed a steep trail, went to two spots at the top of a high ridge to read off of plaques, then went down the other side and eventually ended up where we were waiting.
[It's Kip here: Marcy gave me permission to fill in some of the missing details of the story, and to occasionally provide my own perspective on some things. During the first team split up, Darran and I had the easy part: We just paddled the boat around the islands and then waited all night for Marcy and John to finish their trekking adventure. The two of us got to sleep much longer than we'd planned for the first day of the race!
The tables were turned during this second team split up, as Darran and I had to climb a couple small peaks on the island while Marcy and John got their turn to nap. So we zipped along the coastline of the first island, until we reached the channel where we had to swim. We waded into the water and started putting on our fins for the long swim, when we suddenly realized we were surrounded by spiny black sea urchins! These submerged creatures had long quills that would sting you if you were unfortunate enough to brush up against them. We were lucky we hadn't stepped on any!
We carefully finished donning our fins, masks, and snorkels, and then slowly swam out across the channel. We had to swim gently in the shallow water to keep from brushing against the hundreds of sea urchins that carpeted the ocean floor. Eventually the water got deeper, and the swimming got easier. We made our way into the bay of the second island. A snorkeling cameraman took underwater pictures of us as we went by.
Darran and I actually managed to pass another team during the swim, and we stayed ahead of the ever-pursuing Playboy Bunnies, which was a big surprise for us as we were Team Vignette's slower swimmers. We hit the second island ready to go. We charged up the hill, determined to get as much of the trek done as possible while it was still daylight. Once we'd climbed up to the ridge between the top mountains, Darran had the idea that we should leave our backpacks behind so we could cruise to the first hilltop, as we'd have to come back along the ridge anyway.
So, off we went along the top of the ridge. It was a bit tricky to stay on course, as it was hard to see the contours of the land through all the vegetation. To make things worse, Darran started feeling sick. So to make things mentally less stressful, we temporarily joined up with some other teams that were progressing along the same ridge, and traveled with them to the peak. On the way back along the ridge, Darran's condition worsened to the point where he was vomiting, so we stopped to rest for a bit. We weren't sure if it was food poisoning, or heat exhaustion, or what. At any rate, he didn't feel like resting long, so we started moving again until we were united with our backpacks. We traveled over the second peak and then started the descent down the mountainside.
During the descent I led us astray off the side of the ridge, and down into a side drainage gully. When we realized this had happened, we decided it wasn't worth turning back, as traveling back up the gully would have been very difficult, and we knew we could just travel around the coast of the island when we made it down to the water. Halfway down the hills, Darran stopped to vomit again. Another team that had also taken the same bad route as us stopped by, and figured out that what Darran really needed was electrolytes. They graciously gave him some Gu gel which really helped him out. He slowly regained his equilibrium as we picked our way carefully down to the water.
We had to travel along the shoreline to rejoin Marcy and John at the PC. Since we were carrying our snorkeling gear anyway, Darran opted to swim alongside the shore, and the cool water helped his condition out a lot. I walked along the shore, until we finally rounded the island and saw a veritable fleet of boats waiting along the shoreline. We found the Passport Control person, and went to wake up our teammates. -Kip]
John and I ate, then he put up the hammock for me to sleep. I was zonked and very glad for the TLC. Too quickly, he woke me to say that Darran and Kip were back, although Darran had been sick and low on electrolytes during the night. Kip and I weren't feeling well either, but we all elected to get started on the last sailing section anyway. Most of us just sat there, recovering, as John steered and sailed and we occasionally helped by paddling. We still had some tail wind although it wasn't as strong and we were turning more to the side of it. The Perahus had no keel so we could not tack into the wind, but we could use the wind all the way to 90 degrees of our heading if we put the sail in the right place. But at that point we needed to paddle if we were going to go anywhere very quickly.
As the sun came up we passed an island that we had decided to skirt in case a potential storm came up. We had been told about a storm at PC 11, but it never materialized and when we could see the horizon in the morning we realized we would be OK in open water. So we sailed by the island and then headed north to the last sailing PC for that section. As we went by the island we saw another boat and competitors on the beach and asked if they were OK. They told us they were looking for water. We barely had enough for ourselves so we wished them luck. It turned into a long morning for us so hopefully they found a water source to keep them going. Later a boat was looking for them and we told them we saw them on the island.
We paddled more that morning for the longest stretch of water yet. We saw a couple boats way in the distance, one of which turned out to be Playboy Extreme again. We knew the color of their sail by now. We used the wind the best we could and eventually reached land and PC 12. It was the first time we had access to our gear boxes and we got to see Jason and Clair!
We also received our first set of emails from people who had been writing in to cheer us on. Family and friends from all over the place had been writing notes to us - and we were lucky enough to have access to it during the race. What a booster! We didn't have much time during that transition but everyone skimmed the pages of wonderful encouragement. Just the thought of people "watching" us from afar was a neat feeling.
There was no food in the gear boxes (that would come later, as we were required to carry all of our food for each half of the race) so we focused on the gear we needed for the next section. What, no climbing gear yet? Huh. And no scuba yet either, that was a perplexing combination for us to mull over for the next several days. OK, so we can put away the snorkel and fins for a while - no more salt water, yay! However, the most disturbing part was finding out that we needed to be concerned about the condition of the Perahu for later in the race. Oh dear, I was really hoping to be off the ocean for good. Well, what do I know?
We also were allowed access to the showers! Washing off the salt water and rinsing out the clothes felt really good. We prepped the bikes, plotted the bike course, chatted with people, ate some food, hoped the brief rain shower would let up, and tried to prepare for the next leg. Suddenly Darran came back from taking a nap to tell us that something bad had just happened to someone on the bike course. David Laux, a racer we knew from Houston, had crashed and punctured his lung. They were holding racers from leaving PC 12 and the helicopter was on the way to get him. We were stunned to hear it. Without much news except that David was being flown to KK, we were released to leave for the bike course. We finished getting the bikes together and put my pack on the rack on the back of John's bike so I wouldn't have to carry it. The first cutoff time of the course had been revealed - we needed to finish the bike course by noon tomorrow (21 hours away) and Jason believed we could do it.
The Bunnies left shortly before we did. We heard an interview where they said "We're surprising a lot of people," including us. The bike course started with 8K of single track following flagging through fields and little villages. We took it easy since it was wet and slick, and we walked the steep hills of the single track. It was cool and cloudy and the rain had mostly stopped. About half an hour later we came upon Playboy Extreme moving slowly up a hill, talking about how tired they were. We passed them and that was the last we saw of that team.
We rode up some of the jeep trail hills, but partway up one particularly steep hill we got off to push the bikes. Of course, the helicopter with the "eyeball" camera came over the hill right then, capturing us in our glory of walking up a hill. Lovely. At least they also filmed us riding on the other side, and the post-race footage showed Kip pumping his arm in excitement, so perhaps that sequence will be good enough to make the final cut. That would be cool.
We made it out of the single track area and came down to another jeep road. At that point we passed another team who was waiting for a teammate and the woman spotted my pack on John's bike rack. She commented that it was really great that he was helping me like that. I told her I thought so too. I wondered later if her comment was also intended for her teammates to learn from.
After one last long steep uphill we reached a cross-roads and spotted a couple small stores. We could not resist the opportunity to purchase sodas and ice cream! Boy, that tasted really good. Energized again, we took off down a decent "real" road that would last for several hours. After a slight slowdown to discuss a turn-off that actually didn't exist (we were going the right way and didn't believe it until an Eco-Challenge truck pulled up to tell us we would be on that road for a LONG time), we started cruising. It was a very nice ride into the evening. The hills were short, the surface was pleasant, the cloud cover kept the air cool, and we were happy to be off of the water.
We stopped briefly to eat and met another team going by. We were loosely following the map and the odometer matched what we were calculating. We were heading deep into the jungle and before it got dark we were treated to glimpses of some beautiful, green scenery on either side of the road. After dark we slowed down but still kept moving at a decent pace. We started hearing sounds that Darran identified as various birds or monkeys. It was quite enjoyable for an adventure race bike ride.
Of course, all good things must come to an end. Eventually we thought we should have reached the next turnoff, based on the odometer and altimeter readings and we began second-guessing whether we missed something. The discussions took a lot of time and energy, but each time we decided we had to keep going and see what was around the next bend. Some time later, we finally did reach the turn-off. It was VERY well marked and impossible to miss, as they had flagging across the road so we couldn't go straight if we wanted to. We felt a little silly about it, at which point we blamed the instruments (the altimeter and odometer were both out of calibration), but it was time to move on to the next challenge.
We were told we were headed for the swamp section of the bike course. Darran and I put on the leech socks we had purchased, everyone put on their gaiters, and we headed down a trail that started slightly muddy and just got worse from there. We expected any minute to be deposited in the middle of a deep swamp. At least then we could have gotten it over with. Instead we dealt with a muddy track that went over a hill, turning a few times, and making our bikes slip around. I even did an entertaining end-over-end face-first into the mud, which was a new experience for me. Well, if you have to go over the handlebars, mud is a good cushion to land on. I was fairly proud of my newfound "muddiest rider" status at that point. However, it didn't help my diminishing confidence in my biking ability. We took it a little slower, partly because the mud got deeper, and worked our way down along the river. We reached PC 13 a couple hours later and talked with a groggy volunteer who told us there was drinking water in the stream down the way. It was pretty putrid so we skipped it. There were a couple teams trying to sleep but we didn't want to stay in that muddy place any longer than necessary so we left.
The course deteriorated for the next couple miles. Apparently the recent rains and the number of bikers on the course had washed it out quite a bit. On one particularly steep uphill it was all I could do to push my bike up through the deep mud without sliding backwards 3 feet for every step I took. Kip made it to the top first and came back to grab my bike (thanks again Kip!) and then helped John too, as the additional weight of my pack was making his bike difficult to push. We had to sit and rest a little while after that hill. Then we shared the experience of going over and under logs while slogging through calf-deep mud with another team who looked about as thrilled as we felt. The mud sucked your shoes down and made you hope you had tightened up the Velcro straps enough to keep them on your feet. In the middle of all of this, I started grinning. This is the Eco-Challenge! We are slopping through mud in the middle of one of the toughest races on earth! Ian Adamson and John Howard went through this stuff. Jane Hall slogged through this mud. It was all pretty comical and made the experience easier to accept.
Once we got out of the mud we realized that we had conquered the so-called swamp. We've been through a worse swamp (albeit without bikes) in East Texas so we considered ourselves lucky that it was just deep mud and not waist-high water with mud below it. We also finally got a glimpse of leeches, little worm-like creatures that were now trying to get into our shoes. They were a little icky but nothing worth fretting much over. Still, I always focused on removing them as quickly as possible, probably with a look on my face that said something like "eew, gross!"
From there the bike course took us up a couple hills, through more mud patches, and further into the jungle. At one point Kip and I were talking in front and suddenly a very loud "huffing" sound stopped us in our tracks. Darran told us to back up quickly, which I did, and he went to investigate. He believed there was an orangutan close by warning us. But the animal never moved and eventually we decided to keep going. Kip was thinking of stopping to sleep there, at which point I told him he was insane because obviously there was still some monkey-like creature in the near vicinity. [Actually, I wasn't "thinking" anything, I was just falling asleep because we'd stopped moving! -Kip] So we moved on.
At the top of the hill we found an open shelter comprised of raised logs about a foot off the ground with a roof made of some metal sheets. John went to fill our camelbaks with water from a stream we could hear nearby, while we all drifted off to sleep. It seemed like no time at all before John was waking us up again, although he swears he actually returned with the water and slept for a while first. So we got up rather unsteadily, collected the bikes, and continued on. Eventually we got to the top of several hills and started downward. It was starting to get light, perfect timing for trying to ride downhill. The mud finally gave way to drier surfaces, although loose rock is not an ideal medium for biking downhill. Eventually I finally got on my bike and braked my way to the bottom. Phew! What happened to our good road? We did reach a decent jeep trail that was much more rider-friendly than what we had been on recently so we were happy. The sun was coming up and we could see some spectacular views over the trees, mist in pockets of green jungle and high trees. Birds were flying and calling all around us. It was a great way to start a day.
After a few miles we returned to the dirt road and started up it for PC 14. The hills seemed longer and our shoes would not clip into the pedals at all. The Pam and mud flaps were extremely helpful in keeping mud from sticking to the bikes or getting in our faces, but we couldn't help getting our bike shoes completely covered in gunk. So the last couple of miles were a bit tortuous. Not soon enough, we reached the end of the bike section and PC 14 with several hours to spare before the cutoff time.
We spent some time cleaning up, probably wasting precious time by hosing down the bikes although psychologically it helped us feel better. We found some good junk food in the little store nearby and that was even better. Chocolate, the adventure racing food of champions! I plotted the points for the jungle trek and we dumped a bunch of stuff into the bike boxes. Mark Burnett showed up as the lead teams were just about to arrive from the end of the jungle trek and the lagging teams were about to get DQ'd for arriving at PC 14 after the deadline. He chatted with us briefly, telling us how to get on the right trail from the PC and how other teams had spent 3 hours wandering around trying to find it, which we could not afford to do right now. We needed to get to the top of the mountain by the next evening, he said. The most memorable part was when I told him I thought the hardest part of the race was yet to come, at which point he looked at me like, duh, of course it is. It really had been quite do-able up to that point, with the exception of a little mud on the bike section and some swamped Perahu's.
So we packed up and got ready to trek. We had been looking forward to this section for quite some time. It's a good thing we didn't know what we were really in for. The mud on the bike course was NOTHING compared to what was in the jungle trek.
The first section was harmless enough. We followed Mark's directions, went over a bridge and into the woods. A couple turns later, we were headed up toward our first waypoint, the top of a big hill. Darran described how hills in the jungle are best climbed by staying on ridges, fingers that go all the way from a gentle feature at the bottom to a steep ridge at the top which is the only good path up. These ridges go up and down, never directly where you want to go. You can't see very far ahead so you have to figure out the terrain, something that Darran had experience with in Africa. The first section was a trail marked with flagging tape, and we figured that it was Jungle Trekking 101, a lesson in how to move in the hills of the jungle without getting lost or stuck on a very steep hillside. However, the flagging continued throughout the whole course. This turned out to be a very good thing. The jungle section was long, the 50,000:1 scale maps were nowhere near detailed enough to explain the terrain, and we heard that the organizers decided at the last minute to flag that part of the course to prevent a huge percentage of the teams from getting lost in an area where rescue would be extremely difficult if not impossible. It did cut down significantly on the amount of navigation required for the whole race, which was disappointing because we like to believe we are fairly proficient at it, but at the same time it allowed us to finish the race which is really the important point when it comes down to it.
The trail up the hill got steep in sections but I was mentally ready for it. We used trees, vines, and branches to support ourselves and keep our feet steady. Our pace was steady and we talked about jungle navigation. Upon reaching the top we traversed a small ridge, using the throw rope once to help me down a steep gully. Another team came by, moving faster and looking happy. We went down and then back up another hill, looking down to see rivers on either side of us. The second hill was steeper coming down, but there were small trees to grab on the way down and I felt a little like Tarzan swinging from tree to tree. At least it was fun for a little while.
PC 15 was at the bottom of the hill at the confluence of two rivers. We checked in, then slid down a muddy slide to a stream where we filled up with swamp-smelling water, ate, and watched other teams doing the same thing. Then we headed to the first river crossing. The water was running fast, so they had run a wire above the river and required each person to traverse on a line attached to the wire, wearing a life jacket. We had to wait for a couple teams to cross but managed to beat the rush behind us. The water was about waist deep and pushed hard at our legs, but the traverse line kept us upright and we crossed without issue. Of course, our shoes are never going to dry.
We did a little blister prevention work, then started up the next hill. That's when we came face-to-face with the real crux of the whole race. The hill was very steep and extremely muddy. We found walking sticks for each of us to make it easier to gain holds in the slippery surface. We warned each other about trees and vines that had prickers all over them and were unsafe to grab. John started reaching back with his walking stick to help me up the worst of it, a practice that would continue for a couple days and save me from completely losing my mind.
Soon it was dark and we slowed to be sure we were following the flagging without ever losing the trail. Other teams had stopped for the night and we considered taking a nap. Just as John and Darran got the hammocks set up it started pouring torrential rain. We lay there but we got so cold we just could not sleep. So we got up, they took down the hammocks, and we started off again. We were moving horribly slowly, one step at a time, over logs, through the mud, barely able to see, but at least we warmed up quickly. John and I were really out of it by this time and Darran was leading the way. We started up yet another long, steep hill, and about half-way up John and I both called for a break. It was lightly sprinkling now, and we sat down next to each other, leaned our heads together, and promptly feel asleep. Apparently Darran and Kip decided it was time to try another real break, because they woke us up to tell us we needed to put up the hammocks. I protested a little about sleeping on the side of a steep hill, although I'd be surprised if anyone heard my feeble efforts. So when the hammock was ready I crawled in and collapsed. I think we all slept well at that point, but I just was not aware enough to know for sure.
Two hours later that night we got up and started moving again. It was a common pattern: Move until you are sleep walking, stop to sleep in the hammocks, sleep until you are shivering enough to wake up, get up and move until you get warm, repeat... We had brought the rain coats, thank goodness, but we could have used a good underlayer. Who knew in the heat of the jungle?
Through the night and most of the next day we slogged, up and down, up and down, through mud and through the jungle. The trail was obvious but disgusting. Our feet were caked and only dried out when we took off our shoes and slept briefly in the hammocks with bare feet. Occasionally a leech would take up residence on our legs or arms and we'd just flick it off. We didn't see much of the sky or the terrain around us, although we could see quite a distance through the trees in the immediate area. It didn't appear like the jungles I had pictured, although I'm sure every jungle is different. It was more like woods with lots of very tall trees and extra species of birds. We didn't see any wildlife beyond that, although Darran looked really hard for monkeys and we heard a few of them. Bugs didn't bother us, heat was not a problem, just the infernal mud. Not exactly what we expected!
Finally we started looking at the map, as there was little else to think about. We figured out that Darran's altimeter (not mine) was working well and we got a bead on our location. That didn't help much, as we were still a LONG ways from the top of the mountain. Throughout the worst of the jungle trekking we moved half a kilometer an hour. I couldn't believe how slow that was. I had to recheck the scale on the map to be sure. At least we had an idea about the terrain ahead. We kept climbing, although in the jungle you have to go down to go up a lot of times. Several times we thought we knew where we were, only to figure out we were still a ways back from there. We stopped to take a break, the only time John, Kip, and I sat on the ground in the jungle for very long. We covered up from the impending rain by putting on our thin ponchos. Darran took a nap in the hammock. Team Boogie Aspen walked by and thought we looked rather odd wrapped up in trash bags, with Darran in the hammock and the rest of us crashed on the ground. Darran asked if they had any lasagna. They thought this was rather funny but were amazed when we offered them some mashed potatoes! One of our favorite foods turned out to be instant potatoes with butter sprinkles and salt/pepper pre-mixed. Just add water for a large, filling meal. And light to carry. The MRE's were also a big hit with our team, although they were heavier. However, they were about the only food that would not leak and go bad when immersed in salt water so they were worth the weight. Plus the crackers and cookies were delicious to the end.
Anyway, after the snack we took a short nap and got moving again. The mountain had to be there somewhere, we just knew it. When we finally got going up a significant slope, not something that was going back down again anytime soon, we rejoiced. Going uphill in the mud is infinitely easier than sliding down, anyway. It probably also had something to do with Kip taking my pack and carrying it along with his, all the way to the top! Wow! Toward the end of the day we sang our way to the top to Danum Peak and cheerfully greeted the volunteer at the top. We made it! Woo hoo! The volunteer took a photo of us at PC 16, including Kip holding my pack. I think it took 24 hours to get there from the last checkpoint, unreal.
PC 17 was supposedly a short walk down the mountain to the river. We were learning very quickly to NEVER believe the volunteers. They mean well, but they based everything on what happened with the lead teams. When they told us 2 hours, it took us 4 hours. When it was supposed to be an easy walk, we had a mudfest to cross. And that's what happened along the way to PC 17. First we slowly moved down the mountain in the mud, taking it easy on the steep slope while trying to get as far as possible in the daylight. Then when we neared the bottom we had to follow the riverbed and the mud got even more deep and slippery, if that was possible. It was hard to believe. It was very tiring and depressing. By the time we came into PC 17 we weren't as happy as we had been on the mountain top. Nobody at that checkpoint was happy, not the other racers, not the volunteers. Everyone was in a daze, trying to stay out of each other's way and get a little sleep in the leech-infested muddy mess. At one point I was paralyzed trying to decide what order to do things - clean my shoes in the water, eat something, or just take off the shoes to crawl in the hammock and go to sleep. John helped me get moving and eventually we all slept. A leech fell on my chest when I was half-asleep and I remember pulling it off and tossing it away like it was no big deal. Funny how the magnitude of some problems just diminish after dealing with a day of other difficulties.
We got up just before dawn and did our second river crossing in a smaller river without the help of lines. It was actually nice, getting a cleansing from the mud for a brief time. My feet were starting to blister but after walking a short ways the blisters would go numb. We stopped so Darran could tape up my feet with duct tape before we continued on. It appeared we had one more hill to cross for that section, which was true except that once we crossed it we had to walk on the side of the hill for a ways. This was the absolute worst terrain I could imagine at that point. Every foot plant included a bit of hope that your shoe would stay put instead of sliding several feet to the right, every time you ended up sliding down you hoped that the pile of mud and leaves from previous foot plants would hold just one more time and that you would not end up sliding halfway down the steep hill. The small trees and vines were more sparse, the prickers seemed to show up more and more, other teams would pass us apparently without having the same level of difficulty as I was, and I reached my low point of the whole race. All I could think was that we hopefully had enough time to beat the next cutoff and that the trail would someday get better. It had to.
Finally the trail came out at a stream that ran down to the river. We went to look at the river and we saw banks that we could walk on. Race rules had prohibited us from being in the river before that point, as there was a dangerous canyon upstream, but at this point we were free to get off that darned trail and get our feet wet if we pleased. This was a no-brainer decision. Other teams asked us what we were going to do and I heard one guy being concerned about trying it, but there was no way I was passing this up to get back on that trail. So we waded across and started walking.
The current was fast moving but there wasn't much water in the river so we crossed shallow fast moving water and deep slow sections. At some points we swam, but mostly we waded. We put air in our camelbaks and used our backpacks as PFD's. John got out the throw bag and I hung on to it and floated down the river while he towed me. The feeling was just wonderful. We even took the opportunity to run about 10 yards on shore, just to say we had run once during the Eco-Challenge. We eventually had to give up our good walking sticks as we navigated the currents, which was the only downside I could see to this situation.
Further downstream we reached a smaller canyon and the rapids were more dangerous so we were careful about where we crossed. A sharp vine caught several of us once, making a small gash in one of my fingers so we brought out the duct tape to bind it temporarily. We caught up to other teams soon after that as everyone worked out the method for getting downstream, piece by piece. It started by climbing over some rocks, then we jumped into a deep pool, walked the edge of a rock face, and then floated down through a small fast moving section to stop in an eddy. Then we'd climb back up a rock to the next section. At one point we floated through several fast sections but the water was deep with no protruding rocks and it was a soft landing in a pool below. It was fun! The fun eventually ended when the river became too fast to swim in and the trail appeared again on the left. We started following it and realized that the nature of it had improved dramatically since we had left it. Now we could walk quickly with only an occasional drainage ditch for mud slogging. After a couple kilometers it turned into a park trail, with actual log bridges over the ditches. What a luxury! As we emerged from jungle hell, we came upon a small tour group looking up into the trees. We looked up and saw our first real wildlife - an orangutan! He was really cool. He watched us and swung back and forth in the trees. We were in the Danum Valley Lodge area, a small retreat-type area with lodging and guides to help people explore the jungle without subjecting them to days of what we had gone through to get there!
And finally, to our food box! We carried it out to the back lawn of the lodge and feasted with many other hungry, tired teams. We had medical attention for our blisters. We had real bathrooms and bottled water. We were also told that we had to skip PC 19 (shucks) because the river was too high for swimming, so we were to head directly from PC 18 to PC 20. We ate a lot and repacked so we could carry enough food for the remainder of the race. It was getting dark when we got up to leave.
Unfortunately, by this time we were stuck with only two working headlights. We had been surviving on three lights plus one little photon light that John used the previous night. Now another light was dead and the photon was going dim as well. It made narrow trails difficult to walk on when two people had to rely on light from other teammates. We also left the lodge without a clear idea of where we were going, just some verbal instructions that turned out to be ambiguous. And it was dark so we could not see the river very well, although we knew we needed to follow it for a long ways. So we started up a trail, tried to figure out each intersection that we came to, had discussions with other teams, and finally came to a deck and looked up to see a canopy walk. Heck, let's go up, we said. That was really neat. We climbed to perhaps 75 feet above the ground to walk on suspension bridges between large trees above the jungle in the middle of the night. Not an experience everyone gets in their lifetime.
Well, OK, that turned out to be a dead-end, but it was cool. So we decided to go back to the lodge, look at the map on the wall that we should have inspected in the first place, and try again. Darran was concerned that we would get back and not want to leave again. But he was OK if we stayed there for the night. Kip and I said we didn't care either way and John decided that we should stop there and sleep. Fine by me! So we went back and strung hammocks under the deck. I wish I could have slept better that night, as the surroundings don't get much more comfortable than that.
John hardly slept at all, as it turned out. He came down with an intestinal bug and spent a couple hours camped out near the bathroom. He finally asked for medical assistance and they determined that he was getting dehydrated so they put him on an IV. We were supposed to get up at 4 a.m., but we woke up around 6 a.m. to see daylight and almost nobody around. We went looking for John and found him on a cot, which I didn't think was fair until I realized why he was lying there. Then I wished I had been with him through the night to help take care of him. Luckily this happened in a PC that had medical help and he would recover quickly. The medical staff at Eco-Challenge proved to be competent and helpful for everything from blisters to dehydration to dealing with emergencies such as David Laux's.
We ate a small breakfast and headed out in the daylight. The trail was much easier to follow now that everyone could see it and we knew where we were going. Trekking on a relatively flat, dry trail was such a relief. After a couple hours we came upon PC 20 and the Sampan canoes, a new sport! It turned out that we didn't lose much time to the teams ahead of us; the top portion of the canoeing section involved white water so it was considered a dark zone and any team arriving before 6 a.m. had to camp at PC 20 anyway. We arrived about 4 hours later and did not have to wait to get in the boat.
The Sampan canoe was extremely heavy. It took help from about 10 locals to move our boat down to the water. We got in and found that the water was moving quite quickly, although it didn't look like it from shore. We hurried to secure all of the gear and get into place for white water paddling. The rapids were not large or dangerous and the water was not deep, but the river ran fast and there were eddy currents and rocks all over the place. John had to be alert in the back of boat to steer us through it. A couple times we maneuvered well through rapids, only to have the front of the boat catch an eddy and spin the boat around before going through more rapids backwards. What a ride! Darran quickly realized that he needed to help steer the boat from the front position and keep it off rocks and out of backwards currents, as John did not have as much control over the boat as a normal canoe. Kip and I sat in between them and paddled hard to provide power and move the boat across currents to avoid rocks as much as possible. The boat would creak whenever we glanced alongside or over a rock and we worried about its integrity if we took a solid hit.
John and Darran quickly became proficient at steering the craft, and while I fretted and talked a lot about seeing rocks and white water ahead of us, we did remarkably well after the first couple of mistakes. Gradually I calmed down, but I came to realize during that section that I am too prone to worrying and too lacking in sustaining courage for me to really enjoy a race like the Eco-Challenge. Perhaps it was related to it being our first race, and the pressure we put on ourselves to finish at all costs made for added worry. But I also believe that I need to develop more guts to survive, heck, appreciate the challenges put forth by the race creators. If every section makes me fret or makes me scared, I'm only slowing down my teammates and jeopardizing their race while putting myself through something that is akin to minor torture. I decided during the white water section of this Eco-Challenge that I would stick to shorter adventure races and longer orienteering and running races from now on. But first, to finish this Eco-Challenge...
[Here, my perspective differs greatly from Marcy's: I think she's one of the bravest people I know! And I don't know why she believes she's in danger of jeopardizing our chances of finishing the race. If anything, I'm convinced that having Marcy as our team captain vastly improved our chances of finishing! I'm hoping that she'll eventually forget all the negative parts of this grand adventure, and only remember the good ones. Then, she'll be ready again when I try to talk her into Eco-Challenge 2001! -Kip]
Partway through the white water section, we were forced to pull over with several other teams as another boat was rescued off of a rock. It appears that not all teams were doing as well as we were in steering the boats. As the boat was finally pulled off an hour and half later, broken in half, it also appeared that the boats were not indestructible either. We napped, chatted, and watched the boat rescue from the shade. Before we left we had our time recorded in order to receive bonus time later for having to wait. We still had plenty of time to get to PC 21 and the end of the section of dark zone before night officially kicked in at 6 p.m.
Just before PC 21 was a section of water that we were required to scout. The volunteer explained how the river needed to be run in order to miss a large rock below a decent-sized rapid. We watched a couple teams run it, one doing it more precisely than the other but both making it through. Then John guided up expertly through, no problem. That was fun! A couple kilometers later we were at PC 21 in plenty of time. This PC required a portage around a small waterfall, so we worked with three other teams to move our heavy boats over the rocks. We were told that we had about 45 minutes of white water left before we could probably paddle in the dark. It was 4:45 p.m. so we thought there was plenty of daylight left.
Well, we paddled until 5:30. Each time we hit a section of flat water we expected all white water to be finished. But each time we found yet another section with small rapids. The white water diminished greatly in frequency and intensity. The rapids were barely worth mentioning in most cases. However, this was only true when you could see. We had never done rapids at night, even small ones. I had more than a couple trepidations about continuing on. But as long as we could see, we tried to get as far downstream as possible.
Not long after this, we rounded a corner in the river and came across a team stranded with their boat stuck on a rock. BAX Global had been near us on the water all day and they were one of the teams working with us at the portage. Now they were in trouble. As we passed by we yelled the ever-dumb question "Are you OK?" like there is any good answer to that. They shrugged at us. We debated briefly and then decided we had to help them. We docked our boat on the island next to them and used both teams' throw ropes to bring their team to shore one at a time. The water was so fast that each person would go under briefly while being pulled to shore. Dennis, the team captain, stayed with the boat to tie a throw rope to it. People on shore tried to pull the boat, with Dennis pushing it, but it was no use. So we brought Dennis to shore as well and started discussing ways to use the pulleys in our required rescue kits. The closest anchor was a large rock across the island, so a 3-to-1 pulley system was set up around it. No matter how hard the guys pulled, the boat would not move with all the force of the water holding it against the rock. The teams combined our four pulleys and four Prussic loops to set up a 7-to-1 system. It took several tries to get the Prussic loops to hold, especially the one that kept the system from returning to its original position after each pull. Darran rearranged the knots and rope lengths and finally got the system functioning better. Now as they pulled the boat sank deeper into the water.
For a brief time, we saw lights up river and thought we might have more boats plowing into the rescue ropes. An emergency beacon was rushed to the end of the island to warn people, but the boat apparently docked upstream and no one else came down. Then we started watching BAX's canoe as it became totally submerged under the strain. Finally, after several hours of work, the canoe shifted off the rock and floated down river! We were all very concerned about it breaking, but miraculously the boat did not leak. It was very exciting to realize that they could continue racing and did not have to use the radio to call for help. We were glad for the chance to assist and even more happy that it turned out fine.
Now back to the pow-wow about going down river in the dark. I thought about it for a while but told the guys that I just couldn't do it. I didn't feel great about that decision but at least I figured I had a good reason other than irrational fear in this case. There had been enough boats pinned on rocks for one day. They went along with my decision with no complaint and we set about to gathering driftwood to make a fire on the rocky shore. We had to use several paper products to get it started, but Darran managed to get a good flame going and we warmed up and started feeling OK for a while. After we fell asleep it started raining hard (of course) so BAX invited us to camp with them under their overturned canoe. We kept reasonably dry that night, although I didn't sleep much. Perhaps it was my decision to stay, or maybe the lightning upstream that had me concerned about rising waters on the low island, but I wandered around for a while before finally sleeping a couple hours on the "anchor" rock with John.
We arose just before dawn and started off again in the canoe. It wasn't long before we saw a couple more canoes abandoned against rocks in the river. It seemed BAX was not the only team with problems below the dark zone. I felt a little better about my decision, although I wished we could have made it past all of that before dark the night before to paddle overnight. I was looking forward to a cool night on the river instead of hot scorching day in the sun. Oh well!
After a couple hours of occasional fast water, the river finally flattened out for good. We took turns napping all day long. I had a couple hours of really good sleep on the boat in the afternoon as the guys paddled, and everyone else also got a chance to catch up a little. It was a long boat ride but went faster for being unconscious for parts of it. The sun was hot directly overhead in the middle of the day, but with only 12 hours of daylight it didn't stay hot very long. Training in Texas heat was perfect for this race. Other teams complained about the high temperatures, while we decided that it just wasn't that bad.
Toward the end of the day we paddled into PC 22. Another discipline finished! Now if we can just get back to the gear boxes so we can figure out where the ropes are located. First we had to trek a significant distance from the river back to the ocean. We prepped for trekking during the last couple miles of paddling and were almost ready to go as soon as we jumped out (our best transition of the race). We passed a few teams who were still sitting there organizing gear when we left. Then we started walking on dirt roads. Hallelujah, finally our specialty! Our feet and socks had been drying out all day in the boat and even our shoes were relatively dry, for being wet since day 1. We walked with vigor up the hills, ignoring blisters that were still healing from the jungle portion. After a couple miles we had to ford a small stream and John was the perfect gentleman and teammate as he carried me across on his back. His feet did fine the whole race and he was more than happy to try to keep my feet dry as long as possible. We passed a couple more teams at this point, which was fun.
Further down the road and after dark, the lightning that was going off behind us finally caught up to us and it started raining. Feet can stay dry only so long in Borneo. We put on ponchos and jackets and continued trekking in the rain. Partway through the trek we had to cross a plantation of palm trees. It appeared to be a well-marked trail, but somehow we managed to veer off of it with a couple other teams. We actually converged with one team at an intersection, and when there was no more flagging we knew we were off-course. The other team described flagging not far from where they came from, so we went back the way they came and discovered a side trail that is easy to miss in the dark. We watched the flagging a little more carefully after that. There were twists and turns, hills and valleys, then some jeep roads, then larger roads, and finally we popped out of the road that was the beginning of the bike course.
It was so nice to know exactly where we were. We dreamed about the little store with the soda and ice cream and hoped they would still be open even though it was getting late. We hurried the best we could to cover the couple of miles up the hill to the intersection. Lo and behold, lights at the top! They are open! There were a few teams in there and the owner actually offered dinner instead of just snacks - rice or noodles. Darran decided we should all have a plate of each! Excellent decision. We finished most of the piles of food that were brought out and Kip even found room to convince us all to have an ice cream or two. We thanked the owner for staying open until 10:30 p.m. when he usually closed much earlier and he looked so happy to be pleasing many racers that night. They even handed us garbage bags to help keep us dry, which we used to cover the packs better.
Then it was back out onto the course, including the 8K of singletrack from the first part of the bike course. We had an idea of what was coming, although it was more muddy than the previous trip through. Still, it was nothing like jungle trekking so I hardly complained except that I had several blisters festering. John towed me up the steep hills and we quickened our pace, with an oasis on our minds at PC 23. Partway through a village I turned quickly to look at a barking dog and created yet another skin tear on the side of my foot in the soft, wet skin. That had me limping the rest of the way to the PC. But nothing was going to stop us from getting there.
The PC itself was quite a sight. There were teams spread out everywhere and there was water under and on everything. The boxes were under a large tent, but the rain was coming in from all sides on the dirt ground. No one was allowed to sail due to the storm so everyone was stuck there. People were sleeping on gear boxes, in hammocks, on cots, and on the ground. We had to waken a couple people to get to our boxes but we tried to be as unobtrusive as possible.
We received our last list of instructions at this point, along with a huge set of emails from our friends and family. We quietly went through the gear list and pulled out our ropes and scuba equipment (finally!). We would be getting back in the sail boats to go to one place to trek and do ropes work, then sail to a couple islands, finish up with scuba, and then find the finish line back in Semporna. It was a symmetrical race and I liked the design. Well OK, I wasn't thrilled about being back on the ocean, but you can't have everything.
After getting our gear together I lay down on my gear box and promptly fell into a deep sleep. I was awakened to find out that they were letting boats sail. We were all groggy and decided to sleep a couple hours to avoid the rush and clear our minds. I took the opportunity to read the pages and pages of emails. It was overwhelming. While people around us were sleeping I was sitting there with tears in my eyes. We heard from people we have not talked with in years, people who had no idea we were doing this but found out from the front-page article in the Statesman or just happened to see my name in the list of team captains and wondered how many Marcy Fiebig's there are in this world. It was incredible and everyone was so supportive and encouraging. Thank you again to all who wrote and followed us!
After a little more sleep we decided to quit burning daylight and get the boat sailing. We brought more headlamps and our dive lights (which have survived a lot worse than a little rain) so we wouldn't run out of light for once. We grabbed new dry socks (it's amazing what you appreciate in the middle of a race like this) and loaded up the boat. We found that someone had snatched our good bailer out of the boat (it was made out of a gallon milk jug) but we hoped we would not need it as we pushed off from shore.
There was a definite headwind, but at least there was no storm in the vicinity. We had heard that the rest of the sailing course was closed due to high winds in other areas. We were also told to sail next to the coast in case the storm hit, but that would have involved going into a large bay and paddling several extra kilometers. After debating this for a while and looking at the horizon to see no signs of anything bad coming, we decided to follow the other 5 boats going directly toward our destination. It was still a very long paddle into the headwind. We were used to the land moving a lot faster around us when we were able to sail, so it was quite a new experience to see it all in slow motion. The threat of a storm kept us paddling hard and eventually we could see where we needed to go as we followed the boats ahead of us. The entrance to the PC was a small inlet in between swamps covered in mangrove trees.
There was a gaggle of sailboats parked at PC 24 so we found an empty place on the beach and pulled up the boat. We used the throw rope to tie it to a large piece of driftwood and got our packs together. The instructions told us to bring our ropes gear and some food for the next trek. We also heard that we should bring a lot of water. John graciously took most of the weight from my pack, including the water bladder, and carried it in his. It certainly helped, as I was already limping from blisters. Darran and I used trekking poles and that was also a relief.
We checked out of the PC and started up the road. Again it was great to be walking on easy terrain but we wished we could have taken advantage of it instead of hobbling along. We moved as well as we could, following the directions toward town. Eventually we ended up on a paved road, of all things, which actually worried me because pavement has wreaked havoc on the bottom of my feet in previous adventure races. But it felt no worse than any other surface at that point and we continued at the same slow pace. We passed one team who was coming down and they told us it had taken them 10 hours to do the whole circuit on the mountain.
Based on rumors of restaurants in the vicinity, we began anticipating another hot meal. We had enough money left for one meal and it would be the perfect time for it. After climbing toward the mountain and then dropping down into the small town of Madai, we found PC 25. The volunteer told us about some restaurants down the street so we took off in that direction.
It was getting dark as we came across a small café and found BAX Global already there. They invited us to eat with them and we gratefully agreed. Even with the language barrier between us and the waiter, we were soon chowing down on delicious chicken wings, soup, and rice. We remarked on a phrase carved into the wall next to the table, "Rock No Death." The local people all around us were curious about us but always very nice and helpful. We finished the meal by purchasing a bunch of butter cookies which became midnight snacks later on. BAX told us they were going to sleep until 2 a.m. and then start up the mountain. Dennis also gave us a couple pills to help reduce the pain in our feet so Darran and I took them. We wished the team well and started down to the caves. I told the guys that my head was rather "mushy" so they should keep an eye on me, but I was OK to continue.
We found the entrance and stopped to put on our climbing harnesses and attach all the gear. The caving guide showed up and led us up the stairs into the cave. It was neat, lots of bats flying around the large caverns. It didn't take long to realize we were also walking in bat guano instead of mud but at least it didn't smell bad. We wore our surgical masks, a new look for adventure racing. The guide told us that they had rerouted the initial part of the course so we didn't have to wade through a bat guano stream - thank goodness for small favors.
Soon we reached the rattan ladders and each of us picked one to climb. The volunteer helped us clip one ascender into our harness and the safety rope and then we were off, stretching our legs to reach each rung of the extremely narrow ladder. I'm not sure about why the ladders were designed this way, but I was thankful for the safety line. We all reached the top and clipped into another safety line to make our way through another small cavern to the ascending ropes.
Wow, what a setup! There were a bunch of ropes coming down from way up in the roof of the cavern and we could see a small patch of stars above. Bats were flying everywhere and people were hanging in mid-air as they climbed upward. The strangest part was the two volunteers, smoking and talking in accents (from South America?), nonchalantly helping each person start up the rope. We waited until there was a free rope and I went first (being the slowest of our team).
The rope was stretchy, apparently because it was so long, but I quickly got the feel of it. It was a new experience doing a free ascent this long (120 feet I think). After climbing for a couple minutes straight I realized I better pace myself as I was out of breath. I would reach, step, breath, reach, step, breath, 12 times and then rest. Occasionally I'd look around and even look down to see John coming up below me. Finally I got close to the top and came upon a large pipe that the rope lay over. Without a good foothold I had trouble getting the top ascender over the pipe. As I swung there resting for another attempt I got some help from the volunteer above me. He pulled the rope up enough for me to get the ascender moving and I had no trouble after that point. All of the guys helping on the ropes were very helpful and always watchful that people were doing things safely.
At the top I walked up to a small chamber where Team C-Magazines was resting and talking before heading out. John and the rest of our team arrived soon after that and we continued our trek as well. We were out of the caves and into clear night air. The stars above us were beautiful, the night was cool, and the path was easy to follow. Of course, every portion of this race starts out good!
We followed fixed hand lines around the rocks and up the ridge. Most of the initial hand lines were set up so we could follow the trail and after clipping into a couple I realized even I didn't need them except to run my hand along for balance. We passed a couple teams who were moving very slowly and eventually were able to make decent time. The rocks were sharp so we had to be careful, although I still managed to cut my knee once. Anything but mud, no problem. We maneuvered through little crevasses and up small inclines, weaving back and forth up the hill following the lines and the flagging. Once in a while I would clip into the rope for the more exposed areas but I felt pretty comfortable at that point.
Gradually we worked our way onto an open ridge and started climbing, passing C-Magazines and moving well. After a couple hours we came upon the Tyrolean Traverse. It was a line strung over a deep canyon and we could not see what was below us. We tied into the safety line and took turns walking down to the top of the Traverse and hooking up a carabiner from our harness to the rope along with a backup lanyard. John went first and I was surprised to see just how far and fast he dropped. Then it was my turn so I hooked it up and the volunteer behind me said it looked good, just scoot my butt off the edge. My mind was fuzzy, it was dark, and there was no getting around it. So I said "OK" and slide off the edge. John called to yell "Geronimo" on the way down and I did - pretty funny. It was quite a thrill but soon I was at the bottom and another volunteer helped me the rest of the way across. John and I grinned at each other and laughed as Kip and Darran followed us down. All night it was the same theme - if I have to do something scary like that, it's much better at night with very little sleep. Then it just doesn't matter!
We still had a ways to go. There was plenty more fixed line ridge walking, so off we went. After a short time we found a rock cave where other people were already sleeping and we decided to take a short nap. We crawled further below the large rocks and I leaned against John and fell fast asleep. Half an hour later he woke me up. I really didn't want to get up, but after looking at my watch I decided we better get going so we could get off the mountain before the sun came up. Not only was it much cooler up there at night (we were told it was over 100 degrees in full sun during the day) but I was enjoying not being able to see down.
So on it went, more clambering over rocks. We climbed higher and higher on the ridge and gradually it became steeper and more exposed on each side. There were also fewer hand lines, which disturbed me because I was now ready to clip into something. We followed flagging tape and picked our way along the ridge. There was lightning in the distance, motivating me to move faster to try to outrun any storm that was coming. Many previous bouts of lightning had preceded rain storms and I didn't relish the thought of rappelling in driving rain.
Finally we reached a section that kept climbing and climbing. It was wide open but I was ready to reach the top, so we pushed the pace up it. There were people at the top and Darran called, "Hey, PC people." Unfortunately, one answered back, sorry but you have another couple hours to go before reaching the PC. Oh no! We were at the first summit but it wasn't our final destination. We could see the lights at the real peak and it looked a LONG ways away. We collapsed on a wooden deck that had been built as a helicopter landing pad for mid-mountain rescues and transportation. We chatted briefly with the volunteers and then pushed off again, hoping the weather would hold out for us.
The next section went down, of course, because you have to go down to go up in Borneo. We lowered ourselves into a wooded area and talked briefly about taking cover in case of lightning but decided it made more sense to keep moving as long as we could. There were a couple short muddy sections and more woods. At least we weren't out in the open anymore. Darran stopped to work on his toe a little and we rested. Another team passed us but we went by them once we started moving again. After some time, I'm not sure how long, we started climbing through the trees. It was good to be climbing again. I enjoy going up MUCH more than coming down. Partway up the trail we passed a shelter with benches and a roof. We mused that it must be for protection from storms (it was). And up we went.
I felt good climbing that section. There were trees all around, the path was solid and step-like, and we knew this had to be the way to the very top. My feet didn't hurt at that point although I'm not sure why. Suddenly a large "PC" sign appeared in front of us and we were there. PC 26, yay! It was windy and chilly as we chatted with another volunteer while waiting for another team to finish their rappel. The guy told us that the Canadian Mountain Guides were responsible for setting up and manning the ropes. They did an excellent job. We had a snack and rigged our harnesses for the rappel. Soon another guide appeared to take us to the ropes. We followed fixed lines down the slope and down some stairs until we reached the top of the rappel.
Each person was lowered from a platform down to a large pipe where we could stand while hooking up the rappel device. The volunteer there actually hooked it up for me - I told him I could do it, but he said just relax and he'd take care of it. Cool! I was the last of our team to come down and this suited me fine because as soon as I was ready we were told we could go. It was very dark below us. In the distance, a long way down, we could see lights from the town where we had dinner. I think the guys wished they could see around us, but I was extremely grateful that we couldn't. We started lowering ourselves, actually having to feed the rope through the ATC (rappel device) at the top because the rope was so heavy. Gradually I got used to the rope and the rock face and moved a bit faster. John would look down and say something like "wow, it's still a long way down" and I'd reply "that's great, hey this rock in front of me sure is nice." The 500-foot rappel took a long time and my arms even got a little tired. Eventually we would slide more easily and braking became normal. We just kept going and going, until finally we got to the bottom. Wow! The footage during the awards ceremony including some teams rappelling during the day and it was absolutely spectacular, just incredible heights. I will be thankful the rest of my life that we did it at night!
Then it was over and we were back on our own, continuing down a trail that was harder to deal with than the rappel itself. It was very steep and we had to use ropes with knots tied in them to lower ourselves down each section. And the mud reappeared. It was painstaking and we were rather tired of it. Then the terrain leveled out a little and we were back to swinging from trees to get down each hill. Near the bottom I felt an itching sensation on my calf so I stopped to put Calagel on it. But it only got worse and then it started burning. This was not good. Darran asked if I was OK, and I decided I just needed to move since there wasn't anything else I could do. I kept expecting it to just go away, like a fire ant sting, but it didn't.
So there I was, trying to get down a mud-covered hill with some kind of stinging nettle in my leg. I had remarked only half an hour before that I had done very little swearing that race. It was either an omen or I literally cursed myself, because it wasn't long before I was charging through the woods repeating one bad word or another. I'm not sure what my teammates thought of me, but all I wanted to do was get back to the town and maybe get some help from the people at the PC. I moved faster than I had the whole race. My leg would feel OK for a second, then the burning would start again with a vengeance. It would gradually subside, only to come back immediately. It was awful. Finally John asked if he could look at it. He actually found a thorn and pulled it out, although I'm not sure how I missed it when I was applying the Calagel. It would have been nice if that solved the problem, but my leg still burned. Kip suggested putting mud on it. Good thing we could find some of that easily! And it did help. I was able to walk more easily after that. The trail back to town seemed to take forever. We crossed some streams, went over logs, up and down, on and on.
Then we could hear music in the distance. But it certainly wasn't native Malaysian. It sounded more like heavy metal, like MegaDeath or something. Very odd. As we got closer to the village the sun was coming up and the music got louder. Not your normal rooster crowing alarm clock. It seemed to explain "Rock No Death" from the night before. We followed flagging tape up to some houses and then down the street back to PC 27 (same location at PC 25). I asked if they had any help for a stinging nettle, although the burning had finally subsided after a couple hours. Apparently other people including a Playboy Bunny had run into the same plant. They gave me some Tylenol but couldn't find the lotion that might help. Thankfully I didn't need it after that and the plant was not the one that caused pain for 6 months like we had heard about.
We rinsed off our feet, chatted with Boogie Aspen who was waking up at that time, and started our trudge down the road back to the boat. It was light out again and we were so glad to be close to finishing all trekking for the race. Darran was limping the most at this point because he had turned his ankle on the mountain the night before. I could not have gone much faster. John and I were also falling asleep on our feet. We took turns watching out for each other as cars went by to make sure we didn't get run over sleep walking in the road. I was thinking about a nap, but Kip started talking about his plan for navigating the boat by himself while the rest of us slept. I was skeptical but couldn't argue with any plan that would allow me to sleep.
As we neared the boats we found a store we had spotted on the way out and purchased water and a bottle of Coke. We were down to our last bit of Malaysian money but we were just about to leave civilization again anyway. I fell asleep next to a tree as the guys were making this purchase but they convinced me to get up and keep going. Finally we were back on the dirt road leading back to PC 28 (same as PC 24). We checked in and out, loaded up the boat, and John helped Kip get the boat out to open water. I think Darran and I took turns sleep paddling throughout the morning but Kip did most of the work. Luckily we had a small tailwind so we were able to sail for a few hours, although it was still slow going. Kip navigated, paddled, and sailed while we slept. Pretty impressive!
[We all took turns feeling strong or weak during different points of the race. I was barely able to keep up with Marcy when she got the urge to practically sprint up the last long mountain to the top of the rappel site. The start of this sailing leg just happened to be one point in the race where I was the one feeling (relatively) wide awake, and I didn't want us to have to miss such nice sailing weather if we could at all help it. One of our team's great strategies was that we did a lot of our sleeping in the boats, because as long as some (or one!) of the team members are awake and paddling, the whole team is making forward progress, while catching up on sleep at the same time. In the last couple days of the race, we passed a LOT of teams that were sleeping at the island checkpoints.
So I stayed awake and kept the boat moving forward. Which is not too terribly impressive, until you consider that I'm the absolute worst sailor/navigator/sternsman on our team, if not in the entire Eco-Challenge event. I NEVER sit at the back of the boat. And I'd NEVER done open water navigation before in my life. But, for a couple hours, I managed to keep us on a more-or-less straight path, albeit with constant overcorrecting. When the others woke up, they even said that I'd stayed pretty much on course. They were probably lying to me to make me feel better, but at least I hadn't gone so far off course that they couldn't figure out where we were! -Kip]
We all woke up eventually and I took over the steering. It was a long leg and as we neared the next island the wind shifted. The sail had to come down and the waves started getting choppy. I woke up John and asked him to steer and the rest of us paddled into the wind as the boat rose and fell in the waves. We watched other boats around us, including a couple that took a different route around the island ahead of us. It was a longer distance but might have gotten them out of the wind sooner. We elected for the more direct route, with an angle toward the island to try to get into its protection as quickly as possible. We spent the afternoon paddling until it was tedious. Eventually we made it to flatter water behind the island and I was able to take a nap again. Apparently the helicopter flew over while I was sleeping. That must have been a good shot, too funny.
We neared the next checkpoint at dusk. Mark Burnett was there to greet us which was unexpected. He remarked about the beautiful sunset behind us and said something like "isn't this a great vacation?" It really was pretty, with the oceans and the islands and the colorful sky. We chatted with Mark a little. He's an interesting character and you would do best not to take him seriously. He told us, "You are so close, if you don't finish now it's your own fault," which was a little perplexing. We also asked if they were giving out any water bottles at the PC. We had some water but would have preferred to have more just in case. Mark's comment was "Would you like some cheese with that whine?" Like I said, what a character. Getting mad is just an exercise in futility. Just go with it and be glad he knows how to put on a good race.
Off we went toward PC 30 which was on a small island. We could see the island in the growing dark as we took turns paddling and eating dinner. We got a compass bearing and thought we would be able to navigate by the lights of the fishing rigs that were stationed to either side of it. It didn't take long after it got dark to figure out that the fishing rigs were instead moving around, eventually ending up well to the side of us. So we didn't have anything solid to aim at. John and Darran went to sleep, leaving me to steer and Kip to paddle up front. Without anything to aim at, and with nothing seeming to change no matter how long or hard I paddled, it seemed like we weren't going anywhere. Gradually I started doubting where I was heading, doubting that we were moving at all. It seemed quite pointless. After trying to deal with this as long as I could, I woke up John and discussed it with him. He felt OK to steer for a while and let me go to sleep. I think Darran woke up at some point as well, but the rest of the night was pretty unclear in my mind.
I remember docking at PC 30, being amazed that they had found it in the dark, and even more amazed that they wanted to keep going. I was SO ready for a nap on dry land. There were boats all over the island with people sleeping on the sand. It just seemed silly to keep going and I thought the guys weren't thinking straight. Mark Burnett had told us something about wind between PC 30 and 31 and that made me worried. I can't remember what I said, but I know I made it clear that I didn't want to continue until morning. John told me to organize the gear in front of me so I could lie down and sleep. I protested but he was adamant and decisive about it, something I hadn't seen before when we hadn't agreed in the past. It was perplexing in my state of mind at the time, which I guess was enough to make me lie down and go to sleep on the boat.
Looking back, that was definitely the right choice. We had flat water all night instead of a head wind, it was cool and easy to paddle, and my teammates apparently had little trouble navigating to each island in the dark. I still don't know how they did it, but it certainly was worth it. We passed a lot of teams in the last couple days because we barely stopped at all. Even though we were moving slowly without all 4 people paddling, we were still moving. Before I knew it, we were docking at PC 31 and it was time for scuba. In the middle of the night. Half-asleep. Well, heck, I think we can do this.
We asked about the tides and someone said it was high tide so we didn't worry too much about where the boat was docked. We slowly donned our lycra suits and gathered our scuba gear. The course was a triangle where we had to find objects at each corner and return to the start. The BC, tank, and regulator were already set up for us and we put everything on and headed for the water.
The rest of the exercise was fairly comedic which isn't the way you'd normally expect or want a dive to be. Kip's feet were killing him, although I don't know when they got so bad because it had been me and Darran limping up to the end of the last trek. [My feet had been bad for a while, but they'd usually been mercifully numb until the scuba section. -Kip] He could barely kick his fins without being in extreme pain. Darran's mask kept filling with water and he had to surface a couple times. I got tangled in the rope that led down from the starting buoy. We looked at each other and shrugged a lot as we tried to figure out what was going on with Darran. Finally the guide practically led us along the heading to the first point where I grabbed a small blue coin out of a basket. The next heading brought us over some coral and a huge sea turtle! That was the highlight of the night. The turtle had a large fish hanging out on its back and it turned to look at us like, what the heck is going on tonight? We found the second basket and I grabbed a yellow coin, then Darran motioned that we needed to surface. He explained what was wrong with his mask and we decided to swim back to shore from there.
As we approached the beach someone came out and started speaking to our guide in Malay. Then the guide turned to us and said "your boat is drifting!" Our boat is drifting?! We hurried to shore, with John in the lead, got out of the scuba gear as quickly as possible, and ran across the island to find out that our boat was indeed gone from the beach. By the time Darran and I arrived, John was already swimming with fins on out to the boat. I put on my fins in anticipation of helping if needed but John managed to track it down by himself. The boat was about 150 feet away from shore when he got to it. After being careful with it for many days, we almost lost it at the very last checkpoint. That would have been so stupid. OK, one more disaster has been averted. And we're done with scuba!
John brought the boat back and we packed up the scuba gear. Kip turned to us and said something like "if anyone suggests we need to stay here and sleep I think I'm going to cry" which really made us laugh. I was finally awake and it was only a couple hours until dawn so I was ready to go. There was still no wind and we wanted to take advantage of the good weather.
The guys were taking turns sleeping as the sky gradually got lighter and we could see the islands around us. We had to navigate through a small fishing village, comprised of houses on stilts over the water in the middle of the bay. Darran was steering at this point while John slept and he brought us expertly between the houses as we tried not to wake anyone. Then we started seeing white bottles floating in the water all around us. We had been warned about fishing nets in this area, but apparently we had not gotten far enough out to avoid them. We tried to stay in lanes between the buoys and we occasionally slid over the lines on either side. We watched the outriggers carefully but managed not to get caught on anything as we slowly paddled through.
As the sun came up we could see Semporna, the site of the finish line off in the distance. We could see PC 1 island where we spent the first night to the left of us. And we could also see a line of clouds looming directly ahead of us. The wind started to blow in our face. Not a good sign. We paddled a little faster to cover more distance before the bad weather hit. We made sure that everything in the boat was tied down, just in case. It was hard to believe we were so close to the end and it just wasn't over yet.
The clouds came over us, the wind blew harder, and the anticipated waves finally started rocking the boat. We weren't sure what kind of a weather front we were dealing with, as it didn't look bad enough to be considered a squall. But it certainly was not the flat water we had been blessed with overnight. Soon we were all paddling harder to make any kind of headway. Waves rocked us and we paddled directly into them. Semporna grew just a little larger in the distance. There were no islands nearby to take shelter and any refuge would have put us a long way off course. So we paddled. And paddled.
Small pieces of flotsam drifted by and compared to them it seemed like we were moving. It was more difficult to tell based on the horizon. Everything was too far away. After half an hour, then an hour, we could tell that we were indeed moving, albeit slowly. Waves grew larger and several splashed over the front of the boat every minute. We made a new bailer out of a water bottle and I started bailing every time the water rose over the trekking poles lashed by my feet. When I got the floor reasonably dry below the trekking poles I would resume the urgent paddling that everyone else was maintaining. It was the hardest we had paddled the entire race and it was quite a fitting ending to it all. My arms would start aching and I'd be thankful that the boat needed bailing again.
Perhaps three hours after the waves started, John spotted a small structure where we could dock the boat and take a rest, so we paddled hard to reach it. The waves were not as high and bailing became more infrequent. Objects on the horizon actually moved at a considerable rate. Finally we were getting somewhere! We pulled up to the wooden dock, tied the boat to it, and climbed up to get a good view of our destination. We sat, finished the remainder of the food, discussed exactly where we needed to go, and relished the thought of finally getting there. It was still windy but not as bad, perhaps because the weather was letting up or maybe we had some protection from the land in front of us.
Time to get back in the boat for one last push! We were inspired to get moving quickly and we started paddling again with the same high intensity. The shore was now moving quickly by and the details of Semporna became obvious. Closer and closer, we tried to figure out where the finish line was located, but we could only determine the general area. So we paddled, dodged a couple local boats going across our path, smiled at the local people, and looked for any signs of a big party at the finish line. We could see the buildings where we had eaten the pre-race lunch, the area where we had first "met" our steady little outrigger boat, and the bay where the race had started. Finally we could see people waiting for us on a dock and then they started cheering for us and we knew we were headed the right way. We paddled hard all the way to the dock. I think my arms were about to fall off.
But then there we were, being greeted by Mark Burnett and a bunch of other wonderful Eco-Challenge staff. They helped us unload all of our wet junk (previously known as gear) from the boat into garbage bags, labeled everything with our team number, and helped us off the boat. I'm not sure what became of the Perahu but I think I remembered to thank it for carrying us through such an incredible journey. We were offered cans of beer and Mark told us we had done a good job. Kip and Darran discussed some of it on camera while I stood back and watched the scene in amazement. We had finally made it! John gave me a huge hug and then we gathered Darran and Kip to join us. What a team! To this day I am still in awe of the entire experience and I will be forever grateful to my teammates for putting up with me and helping me through it. Phew!
We were led down the dock and around to our waiting gear boxes where we had the chance to sort through our stuff, gather some clothes and the extra dry backpack, and dump all the wet items into one box. Or maybe it was two boxes worth of wet stuff, I'm not sure. We used a lot of garbage bags that afternoon to try to keep additional items from getting wet as well. You can never have too much duct tape during a race nor too many garbage bags afterwards.
Then we hobbled over to the showers, such as they were. We were sharing a room and some non-functioning community showers with a couple other teams, so I decided to forgo the luxury for now (scuba had washed away most of the crud from the bat caves anyway) and we went to eat. Clair showed up with the best gift of all - plane tickets so we didn't have to take a 10 hour overnight bus ride back to KK! We had lunch, talked about our experiences, and cheered the next team into the finish line. Kip was limping the worst of all of us [I was fishing for sympathy! -Kip] and John was running around like a spring chicken. I went to the medical area for a diagnosis on my leg scrapes and the doctor told me to start taking antibiotics as soon as possible because there was an infection starting in one of my shins. Many things had healed during the race, except a couple large scrapes from the very first day fighting with the waves to save the outrigger. The wounds looked rather funky by now. Jason had brought some antibiotics with him, so I promised the doctor I would start taking the pills that night.
John found a race volunteer who rounded up a truck to take us to the airport in another city a couple hours away. They were taking gear to the airport anyway, so we got to go along for the ride which was really nice. We piled in and I slept the entire trip, even though the guy was apparently not the most cautious driver on the island, according to John. At the airport we checked in, waited briefly, and then boarded our plane. There was one stop on the way back but they let us stay on the plane. John and I slept through most of that trip as well. I think I stayed up for the short taxi ride from the airport to the hotel, but once we had access to a bed we collapsed again for a final time and slept for hours. It was actually strange to lie in a real bed, one of the last thoughts I had before drifting off to sleep.
Every night for the next week I dreamed we were still racing. From the first night when we were sailing the outrigger again, to a later episode when we were biking and biking, to the final dream of us paddling forever, I would dream that we were trying to make it, trying to reach some unattainable goal but we couldn't move very fast. I'd wake up and slowly realize that the race was over. One morning John woke me up and my first question was "where's John?" He was, of course, right there. Oh, I thought, then where are Kip and Darran? It was very weird. Finally about a week later the dreams stopped as I think my brain came to terms with our expedition and made up for the lack of 10 days worth of REM sleep.
The next couple days we walked around, grinning, relaxing, slowly getting our things together, and EATING. The breakfast buffet was our favorite stop. The pancakes were almost (but not quite) as good as Kerbey Lane's. Kip and I took Darran and John to lunch for helping us so much with the hammocks (always quickly putting them up and taking them down). Jason took us sightseeing and shopping in KK, something we didn't have time for before the race. Our gear boxes showed up after a couple days and we spent an afternoon cleaning and organizing them before packing them up for the airport.
Saturday night we went to the awards ceremony which was a lot of fun. The winning teams got awards and we were treated to some spectacular video footage from the race. We even showed up on film a couple times! I thanked my Eco-Challenge angel for not having to do the white water swim or see the drop below us during the rappel. We talked with several other teams and congratulated each other on races well done. BAX Global had finished along with Boogie Aspen. Tactel Ispira moved up to finish in 12th place. Billy Mattison of Team Vail talked about their problems with a sick teammate and how finishing was all that mattered after that. And the super athletes of Salomon/Eco-Internet won in just under 6 days. Incredible!
Sunday it was time to go back to the airport, a madhouse of people and gearboxes, then get on planes for the long flight home. You can probably guess that we slept most of the way back. In Austin we were greeted by a wonderful crowd of people, friends with signs and loud cheers! It was the best reception we could have imagined, and we are indebted to all those people who helped us, supported us, cared about us, followed us on the web, and who smiled and spoke happy words to us all summer and when we returned. Thank you, every one of you, for helping us make our dream come true. May we get the chance to return the favor someday!