Team Carpe Diem was eagerly looking forward to our first multi-day Adventure Race. It was to be the Endorphin Fix in West Virginia, billed as "the toughest 2 day Adventure Race in the US."
The five of us drove down in a suburban, towing behind a small trailer containing our bikes and gear. We’d converted the back of the suburban into a spacious sleeping area, complete with a futon mattress, pillows, and blankets, so we could take turns getting some serious sleep on the drive down and back. It worked out wonderfully, and we highly recommend this mode of travel to any Adventure Racing teams out there that need to do a long drive to get to the race site.
We intentionally arrived in West Virginia over 24 hours before the race was set to start. This gave us plenty of time to scout the New River Gorge area where the race was being held. The countryside is incredibly beautiful. The gorge itself is huge, very deep and very wide, and nicely forested. The world’s largest single span bridge carries traffic high over the gorge. The river itself is very wide, deep, and swift, with plenty of whitewater.
Arriving early also gave us time to visit some of the local gear stores, and purchase some maps that would be much more detailed than the ones provided for the race. We camped out for the night, trying to get in as much sleep as possible.
Our desire to sleep was due to the fact that the race started at 12:01am on Saturday morning. Since the race start time is when most people are used to falling asleep, many teams would be fighting sleep deprivation quite early in the race. This was one of the things that makes the race difficult. Another is the fact that the race took place on the weekend when there was no moon to provide light. But perhaps the most challenging aspect of the race is the fact that they require you to carry just about all of your gear the entire way. This includes biking helmets, separate climbing helmets, life jackets, rappelling gear, food, and so on. On the bikes we got creative with the packing, and installed a few rear bike racks with buckets to get some of our gear off of our backs.
We relaxed and ate as much as we could on Friday, then headed down to the camp where the race was headquartered. They checked all the teams in, making sure everyone had all the mandatory gear and could perform the skills necessary to complete the race. At 9pm they gathered us all together for a race briefing, and we were given our maps and cluebooks. The exact route of the race was not marked on the maps, instead you had to read the instructions in the cluebook and determine where they wanted you to go. Also, along the route there would be several checkpoints where you would have to get your cluebook signed, to make sure you were on the right track.
After the race briefing we decided to get one last nap in before midnight, and managed to doze a bit in the suburban. We got up, as fully rested as we could be, and headed for the starting line.
The event started with biking. All of our bikes were equipped with a front light and a red rear blinker. Additionally, we wore headlamps on our helmets. We went over our bike setup one last time, and were heading for the starting line, when Darran’s headlamp suddenly stopped working. We fiddled with the battery connection without success, and then went ahead and changed out the bulb (even though the old bulb didn’t appear to be burned out), and got it working again just in the nick of time. Our team joined the back of the biking pack as they started rolling across the starting line.
The start of the race was a little insane. Although everyone knows they’re going to be racing for days, and that your position at the beginning of the race doesn’t really matter, it’s still hard to contain one’s competitive nature. Teams raced neck and neck down the steep starting hills, zooming into the inky blackness. We were honestly quite glad to be out of the mess and in the back.
But, as the biking progressed, we naturally passed teams who were having bike problems, and those that wanted to travel more slowly. After a few miles we left the wonderful paved roads and started traveling on paths that were much more challenging. Over the weekend we would bike on everything from dirt to rocks to tree roots to mud to huge mud puddles. And a lot of it was at night, what fun!
We hadn’t been going too long on the bumpy sections when my bike’s front light started shaking apart. It fell off just as I was about to stop and save it. We all rushed over with our headlamps and managed to find almost all the parts to put it back together. One of the bottom screws had decided to come loose from all the bumping, which was surprising as I’d done plenty of riding with it before. Ah well, we got it back together, and clipped it back on the handlebars. The only piece of the light that we couldn’t find was a spring that held the locking lever in place, so we just duct taped the thing permanently on. The whole operation only lost us a couple minutes, and we were off again.
But my biking troubles soon returned when my front wheel hit a large rock, and I flipped over my handlebars. Luckily, I rolled well and didn’t get hurt at all, but the bucket that we’d strapped to the back of my bike had broken its attaching zipties. We pulled to the side of the trail and performed some emergency surgery. We fetched some more zipties out of one of our backpacks, and restrapped the bucket back into place. Once again, we handled the emergency very efficiently and were back on the road within minutes.
The rest of the biking went well. We went downhill quite a lot (something that would become relevant later in the race!). There was plenty of rough spots in the trails, but for the most part the trails were wide enough that passing wasn’t a problem.
We’d been afraid that the temperatures were going to be bitterly cold. In fact, the week prior to the race had seen snow falling on the course. But luckily, our weekend was comparatively warm, and so we weren’t freezing to death on the bikes.
Near the end of the route, our cluebook guided us to the end of trail that stopped in the middle of the woods. We were required to push our bikes through the woods and underbrush, down a long hillface to get back to the main road. This was fun, if a bit difficult. Parts of the slope were quite steep, and it was all we could do to keep ourselves or our bikes from sliding out of control.
We made it through the bushwhacking section and started biking on the road again just as dawn was breaking. By the time we dropped off our bikes at the kayaking section, the sun was shining warmly. What great timing! We pulled on our wetsuits and launched our inflatable kayaks into the New River.
The river was quite fast and deep, which was awesome. At first we were worried about flipping over in the rapids, but we quickly realized that these particular kayaks were much more stable than the canoes we were used to practicing in. The kayaks were wide, and they had holes in the bottom that automatically let the water out. This was important, because the waves on the river were huge, and constantly crashing over the sides of the boat. But we didn’t care in the slightest, in fact, we were having a blast! We wound up intentionally aiming for the biggest waves, instead of trying to avoid them.
We made such good progress on the river that we had time to rest and do some serious eating, just letting the current take us along. After a very enjoyable 19 miles of river kayaking, it was over, and we changed into our running shoes.
The next section of the course had us trekking quite a long ways, to a small town called Winona. The recommended route had us following a long loop of trails and roads. Our navigators, Marcy and Darran, decided we could take a shortcut to save time. In this type of race, taking a shortcut is perfectly legal, as long as you hit all the checkpoints. So, we chose a direct route that was off trails and very steep, but cut out several miles.
We saw a couple other teams with the same idea, but I doubt any of us went exactly the same way. The shortcut led us through some thickly forested terrain, where the going was very rough. But we managed to find a way through, and got onto a trail leading us into town. When we reached the checkpoint in town and learned that we had moved all the way up into third place, we knew that our strategy had been a good one.
The town checkpoint was nice, because we had the rare opportunity to munch on some food that we hadn’t had to carry from the starting line. The volunteers gave us donuts and cookies, and we got to fill up with some fresh water that we didn’t have to sterilize. Since you obviously can’t carry enough water to last the whole race, you must refill your water from streams or lakes. As long as you treat the water with iodine, it’s safe to drink, it’s just not quite as tasty as normal water.
We started off again from Winona, feeling great. More trekking on roads, and off, led us to the top of the Endless Wall, a sheer rock face. This is where we hooked up for a 200 foot rappel. We were quite happy that we’d managed to get to the rappel while the sun was still up, it made things easier. Plus, the view was a lot better. As always, it was a little scary going over the edge (for some of us), but we’d done it many times before in training, so it wasn’t a big deal. We bounced down the wall about 40 feet before we came to the overhang, and then with a jump we were suspended in space, descending only on the rope as the wall sloped back in. It was really quite fun, and our first official rappel during a race.
The next trekking section had us following the base of the Endless wall for a few miles. We’d heard that the trail was hard to follow, but we figured since we were starting while there was still daylight we’d have a better chance than most. Sure enough, the trail disappeared when we came to a creek, and we had to bushwhack across, but we eventually found it again on the other side and kept on going.
Then we found a new trail, one that was much easier to follow than the one along the base of the wall. It was going parallel to our original trail, and so we figured we’d take it and we’d still be heading in the right direction. It was impossible to get really lost in this section, as we were traveling along a slope, with the Endless Wall above us and the New River below us.
What we hadn’t counted on was that our new trail abruptly ended in the middle of the woods after a few miles. We explored up, down, and sideways, but the trail definitely did not go any farther. We then realized this bike trail used to be a road to a mine, and that was the reason that it stopped in the middle of nowhere. We spent quite some time scouting to see if we could continue along our way without a trail. But the slope was so steep and slippery, that we decided it was just too dangerous. To make matters worse, Jason’s leg had started hurting.
Before the race, Jason had twisted his leg a little. He’d felt fine through the race for most of the first day, but now the pain was returning and getting worse. We finally decided that we had to backtrack on the trail the way we came, which is always a difficult thing to do because nobody likes to turn around during a race. We slowly traveled back the way we’d came, until we made it to the old trail by the rock wall. Heading in the right direction once again, we carefully followed the rocky trail along the wall. Jason was hobbling worse, and finally made the decision that it would be foolish to try and finish the race, risking permanent injury. After all, we needed him to be in good shape for the Eco-Challenge! He called with his emergency radio, and let the race directors know what the situation was.
The problem was, we were in an area that was so remote that it would take rescuers a long time to hike out and find us, and even longer to transport Jason to the nearest road. So, since Jason could still hobble forward, we slowly and painfully continued. He used a trekking pole to lean his weight on, and we carried his pack for him to ease his burden. Despite the obvious pain he was in, Jason never complained at all, and managed to heroically continue on at a nice steady pace.
This whole section was taking us much longer that we’d planned, and soon we found ourselves running out of water. This was quite frustrating, as we knew the river was flowing just to the left of us, only a few hundred steep feet down. But, it was too dangerous to try and travel down to the river, so we just kept going and hoped for the best.
After a long trip in the darkness, we reached a ladder that led up over the rock wall to a trail to a road. It was no easy task for Jason to climb the ladder with a leg that wouldn’t bend, but he made it. We finally helped him along the trail to meet up with the volunteer medical help, who just happened to be our good friend Jon Judge from Austin. Jon took care of Jason, and we talked with the race volunteers a bit, refilled our water, and then we wished Jason luck and headed off to finish the race.
The weird luck in this situation was that our team was still officially in the race. Usually, if you lose a team member, the entire team can’t officially compete, although they’ll often let you finish "unranked". However, we entered with all five of us, and this race only had categories for 1, 2, or 4 person teams. It just so happens that we had signed up for the race with the four of us being one team, and Jason being a solo team, even though we intended to race the whole thing together as if we were a five man team.
So the remaining four of us, sad that Jason was hurt but glad that he’d managed to make it safely into good hands, continued on with the race. We were a bit off of the intended course, having had to take Jason to the main road, but soon we were back on track. We hiked the rest of the night through the woods, and then eventually down into the gorge again.
As dawn was approaching, Marcy and I were starting to hallucinate from lack of sleep. We decided that finish line was too far away to try and start taking Vivarin, so instead we took a quick nap. We used our life jackets for pillows, and lay down by the side of a trail, and snoozed for about 80 minutes. When we awoke, the sun had rose, it was raining lightly, and we felt amazingly refreshed. We didn’t need any more sleep, or caffeine, for the rest of the race. It turns out that you really can keep racing with only an hour of sleep a day. As long as you keep moving, you don’t fall asleep!
We crossed the river and hiked up the other side of the gorge. At the top were our trusty bikes, waiting for us for the final leg of the race. Marcy’s rear tire had slowly leaked out all of its air, doubtlessly due to a small puncture caused by the bike bushwhack at the end of the first biking section. We changed her tire and then got on our way.
When we hit some more rough trails, it was John’s turn to fall off his bike, and dislodge his gear bucket. We repaired it with some more zipties, but we hadn’t brought enough spares, so we knew we’d soon be out of luck if this kept happening. Sure enough, it broke again, and we were left with an unattached bike gear bucket. It was time to improvise. We took the pack that had been in the bucket, and wrapped it in a garbage bag that we strapped directly to the bike rack with some climbing accessory cord. We then stacked the two gear buckets together on another bike, filled them with gear, and then ran two criss-crossing bungees over them to secure them to the rack. When we’d finished, our new system was actually better than our old method of transporting gear on bikes. Of course, we’re certainly going to work the kinks out of our bike gear system before the next race!
Bike problems solved once again, we hit the trail. Or next setback turned out to be bad luck. On this particular biking section, they had let you choose whatever trails you wanted to travel on. It just so happened that we chose a trail that led to another steep trail that was extremely overgrown. Darran scouted it out a bit, and decided it would be quicker just to turn around and go back the way we’d come than to try and make the overgrown trail work out.
And so, we did, and eventually we were headed the right way again. It sure is difficult to turn around and backtrack, but it’s something you just have to get used to and not let it demoralize you. In a long race, almost no teams will chose the perfect path on their first try. Looking back, we’re happy that we handled our setbacks so well, and never got frustrated or felt like quitting just because we were no longer in contention to win.
After biking across the river again on a bridge, the next section turned into a very long uphill. It seemed to go on and on, and we realized that we were undoing all the long downhills that we’d done coming out of the camp the previous day. It was slow going, but we made steady progress. Our stronger bikers took turns towing our weaker bikers, so we could proceed as efficiently as possible as a group.
Finally, in darkness once again, we biked up to the finish line. It had taken us 42 hours and 45 minutes to complete the race. Though we finished far behind the winners, we were still very happy. Of the 51 starting teams, only 21 teams finished. We had run into many difficulties, and kept going, and felt like we had learned a lot. We met Jason at the finish, and he was doing fine, limping along on a sore leg, but one that wasn’t permanently injured. His doctor has said it will be healed in a couple weeks.
We had originally planned on camping out after the race, but then, our original plans figured we would finish while it was still daylight. As it was, a hotel room sounded too good to pass up, and so were stumbled into a Comfort Inn, showered, and slept. The next morning we hit the road for the long drive back to Austin.
In the car we discussed the possibility of crossing the river with our bikes. Since we were carrying our lifejackets with us anyway, we figured we could lash the bikes together, tie a lifejacket to them to keep them afloat, and drag them behind us as we swam the river. We decided it would have been a great idea, as it would have cut many miles off the biking section, and the water had been warm enough to do it. Maybe next year!