I consider myself to be an extremely lucky guy, for I've had the chance to race with Marcy and John Beard in so many different races. Marcy is my sister, and John is her husband (they met by email when we were searching for an adventure race teammate, appropriately enough). Marcy is a wonderful organizer, a top-notch navigator, and has been our voice of reason as team captain since we started racing. And John is an incredibly strong racer, always upbeat, never tired, and seemingly talented at every race discipline there is.
But now they're gone! Marcy and John have moved away to France, for at least three years, to help Motorola set up a new fab. At least, that's what Marcy's doing, John's just tagging along for the ride and getting to hike in the Alps on a regular basis, the lucky bum! The two remaining members of Team Vignette that are still stateside, Jason Mittman and myself, were left to form a new team. Fortunately, our many years of racing made this task relatively easy, as we already know many local racers. Steve Daniel used to race on Team Gatorbait, which we've had a friendly rivalry with going back for several races. His team had recently scattered, too, so good timing allowed us to hook up with him.
Our fourth teammate for this race was going to be Tammy Killebrew, who is an expert mountain biker who is just getting started with adventure racing. Unfortunately, Tammy stressed her shoulder while practicing paddling a week before the race, so we had to find a last-minute replacement. Very fortunately for us, Leslie Reuter happened to be free that weekend, and was willing to join our team. Leslie is another expert mountain biker, who, like Tammy, is just starting to get into our sport.
The four of us drove east across Texas, getting to know each other along the way. I hardly knew Leslie at all, having only met her for about two minutes before this trip. But it turned out that we all seemed to share the same attitude towards racing: We were all flexible, and easy going, but determined to see how well we could compete as a team, and it seemed like we'd get along nicely.
We arrived in Martin Dies Jr. state park, and setup our tent and easy-up. The race was already going better than we'd hoped, as we'd been expecting it to be raining all day Friday and into Saturday. But the rain held out for us, making it much easier to stage all of our equipment. Rodney Skyles, the race director, had stepped away from the camp, so we decided to drive into town and get a hot meal before the mandatory race meeting.
After an excellent meal at a diner in Jasper, we headed back to the race site. Still no rain, how lucky! I personally would rather it rain during a race than beforehand when you're trying to setup! At 9pm Rodney briefed all eight teams that the race would start at a surprise time between 2 and 6am. Unlike the SWEAR races we used to do, the Men of Steel races actually gave everyone 10 minutes to get up and get ready before the race actually began. We were actually a bit disappointed at this, because fast transitions are one of our strong suits. Oh well, at least we wouldn't have to sleep with our shoes on!
Rodney had mentioned that the race would start with a special test, and cryptically added that we'd be tempted to cheat during the test, but were warned not to, as we would be watched. We guessed that that meant the first test would involve some of us being blindfolded.
Once we were satisfied that all of our gear was as ready as it was going to be, we settled in for bed. Ten minutes later we heard something rustling in our gear outside, and Jason jumped out of the tent to scare away whatever critter had been trying to get into our race food stowed outside.
We were awakened just before 3am by the sound of a car driving into camp. We didn't know if it meant the race was about to start, or not, but we decided to at least get up and munch a little food. The heavy rain that the weather forecasters had been predicting had apparently been reduced just to a minor shower during our sleep, and it looked like we might have a dry start after all. We left our tent and ate under our easy-up. Sure enough, at that moment Rodney blew an air horn to signal the race start. Well, at least we were already ready! Didn't even have to rub the sleep out of our eyes. We just dumped the rainwater out of our canoes, then walked on over to the start.
Rodney called forward just the navigator from each team. We all received one UTM to plot, and then the rest of our teammates received blindfolds. Hey, we guessed right about the blindfolding part! I scurried back to our area to plot the point, Steve was going to help me, but they said that only the navigator could look at the maps for this point. No matter, it was only one point, so it was no big deal to just plot it carefully by myself and double-check it three times, as I certainly didn't want to lead my blindfolded team the wrong way!
I was the first of the navigators back to the start, ready to lead my team out of there. Our team was having some problem with the blindfolds, I'm still not certain what, so another team managed to get started before us. Turns out that team was some long-time friends of ours, Team Austin, which included Randall Huebner and Robyn Cantor. We took off hot on their trail. Jason had the good idea of having our team hold onto a rope, so I could lead us around just by dragging everyone in the direction we needed to go.
I tried to steer us around the big puddles at the start, as it's no fun starting the race with wet feet (though of course you know they'll become wet sooner or later!). We had to cross a wooden footbridge onto a small island, then travel the trail around the island to checkpoint 1 on the opposite side. It wasn't far at all, but of course we were moving slow because we didn't want to trip or run into trees.
We wound up staying right behind Team Austin pretty much the whole way. We briefly debated whether to try and pass them, but decided it wouldn't be worth it on the narrow trail, as we'd only stand to gain perhaps a minute by doing so. Rodney and other race volunteers kept running by us on the trail, verifying that everyone was keeping their blindfolds on. This tended to startle us, and my blindfolded team would ask "what was that?" as Rodney ran by. After we punched CP1, it was time to turnaround and head back to the start, and we managed to share the trail with the teams heading the other way without anyone hitting trees.
Blindfolds off! We get the instructions for the next leg, and it's mountain biking. We scramble to get ready. Turns out that there's no points to plot, we're just to follow the route on the map that we've been given, and look for two surprise manned checkpoints. Ok, easy enough. We're about to take off, when I realize that there's two loops on the bike map, and I can't remember which one Rodney said to do first. We ask a volunteer, and she doesn't know. Hmmm. We bike to the point where we have to make the decision, hoping to spot Team Austin to see which loop they do first. Alas, they're too far ahead, and have already disappeared into the night. Well, given that the biking leg is pretty short, we decide not to wait for another team to show us the way, instead we just start on the short loop first, figuring that if it's wrong, at least we didn't go very far. Not long into the loop we run into Rodney, and he confirms that we're going the right way, and Team Austin is only a couple minutes ahead of us. Luck is with us, so far.
Time to roll! The biking is mostly on the park roads. With all the rain that the park has received in the past week, most of the bike trails are closed because they're too muddy, and biking on them would tear them up. We zip around the park roads, moving at a good clip. Pretty soon we hit the first manned checkpoint, CP2, and then we're off to cross highway 190 into the south section of the park.
On the second loop we have a chance to leave the roads occasionally, and bike a couple of trails. We take longer than we probably should have to double-check that we're going the right way at each intersection, and begin to feel silly about it because the navigation here is really pretty easy. But, better to spend time verifying than wasting time backtracking. We finish the loop, getting CP3 along the way, and head back to the transition area. Even with all of our overly cautious navigating, we still manage to fly on our bikes and pass Team Austin before we get back, putting us in the lead.
The next leg turns out to be a paddling leg. Given what we know of the Martin Dies Jr. park, this will be the meat of the race, as there is a whole lot of interesting opportunities for paddling. A meandering river comes looping in from the north, and fans out into a multitude of side ponds and randomly dead-ending tributaries as it enters BA Steinhagen Lake. The area where the river enters the lake is a navigational nightmare, with many false channels, swampy grass areas, and confusing turns. The area isn't mapped very accurately, as it can't be, because the exact location of the inlets and ponds changes with the water level, and over time. At least we have the advantage of having paddled here before, so we know what to expect. However, we're not starting paddling from the place that we're used to, the boating dock, instead we start the paddling right from the transition area campsite. Our first goal, checkpoint 4, turns out to be where the first sneaky side channel hits the main river, in the middle of the water maze.
We jump into our boats, and push off. We originally plan to head due west, under the footbridge and just south of the little island that we walked around blindfolded at the start of the race. When we get to the bridge, however, we find that the water level is too high for our canoes to fit under, and there's swamp grass, which is slowing us to a crawl. So, we try to go around the island the other way, but soon run into even thicker swamp grass, which extends out into the lake as far as our headlights can see. Hmmm. We decide to just pull our boats onto the island, and walk along the trail, looking for a good spot on the north side of the island to get into the lake. After a couple of failed attempts, we finally get back onto the water after having carried our boats about halfway around the island. We paddle west across the lake towards the awaiting maze of marshy inlets that we'll have to figure out to find CP4. We see another team on the lake... it's Team Austin again, and it turns out that they'd found a way to make the south passage around the island work. Both of our teams travel along the marshy boundary to the river, trying to find an easy way in. We both explore different interconnected pond systems that turn out to be dead ends, and then try others. Eventually we rejoin Team Austin in a pretty big channel, and we decide that this must be the start of the correct route. However, staying on the correct course in the dark of night is still very tricky!
After traveling into the maze with Team Austin for a bit, we split up, as we decide to try a northern route while they decide to head south. Our route turns into a major channel, and heads west, and it feels like we're finally getting it right. Then, we hit the major river flowing north/south, which is what we were looking for. Alright! However, there's no checkpoint 4. There's a tree sticking out of the water with a bunch of flagging tape on it, marking the channel entrance, but no checkpoint flag. Hmmm, it should be around here somewhere. We split up temporarily, and search different banks of the river. Then, we go back down the channel a ways. We find nothing, except for an alligator which quickly disappears under the water. That was to be the only alligator we saw all day, which is somewhat boring compared to our previous trips to this park in years past, when we've encountered quite a few lazy alligators gazing at us warily from the waters!
After wasting a bit too much time searching for the missing checkpoint, I finally get with the program, and decide that we should verify whether we are where I've been assuming we are on the map. We could very well be in a different channel than intended, after all. I look at the map, and decide that if anything, we're north of where we should be, so we start heading south down the main river. Less than a minute after we do this, we see Team Austin coming up the main river from the south. They must have found the correct channel and the checkpoint! Though it's disappointing to learn that we'd been outwitted, it's good to know that we're finally heading the right way.
Downstream a ways we find the correct channel, and punch CP4. Back upstream we go, now in third place, as another team was paddling right behind Team Austin. Checkpoint 5 is a couple of miles upriver. It's slow going against the current, but at least the navigation is easy for a while. Steve, who's a veteran of the super-long canoe race called the Texas Water Safari, makes the paddling look effortless. Jason and I do our best to keep up with Steve and Leslie's canoe. On the journey upstream, we pass a refrigerator, and a pool table, both abandoned in the middle of the river. Had we been sleep deprived at this point, that would have really messed with our heads! Finally, dawn starts to lighten the sky. If only we'd had this light when we were trying to find our way in! We pass some boats pulled up onto the bank. I thought that they were just local fishermen, until they called out to ask us if we'd found CP5 yet. Oh boy, they're way off, CP5 is still a few long bends upriver.
Rodney is awaiting us at CP5. There's only one set of boats already there, so we've pulled in second place again, behind the ever-consistent Team Austin. Rodney informs us that they left out of there 11 minutes ago. We have to get to CP6 on foot. The nav is pretty easy, basically just follow the river upstream, but there's various side ponds and inlets that we'd rather go around than swim across. We start off running, glad for the chance to warm up after the long paddle.
We make good time, as the forest doesn't have much in the way of underbrush. We have to cross water a couple of times, but never above our knees. One time Leslie tried to cross a channel of water on a long branch, which suddenly broke underneath her, but we still manage to stay relatively dry. It's about a three kilometer run to the checkpoint, and then we have to turn around and return to our boats. Team Austin is moving a bit slower than us, probably walking while they eat, so we manage to retake the lead on the way there. We hit CP6 in high spirits, and quickly run back towards our boats, determined to get as far ahead of our competition as we can.
On the way back we aren't quite as successful in avoiding the side inlets. We accidentally follow the river too close, and the land runs out with the river on one side of us, a large inlet of water on the other, and a short, deep channel of water in front of us. It's either swim the channel or backtrack to go around the inlet, which will probably waste us a couple of minutes. Leslie doesn't like the idea of wasting time, so she votes for swimming, and nobody disagrees. Into the water... boy, that's cold! We drag ourselves out at the opposite bank, and pump ourselves up by telling each other that crazy stunts like that are what this sport is all about! Unfortunately, we wind up swimming again before we make it back to the boats, but at least it's easier when you're already soaked.
We reach our canoes, and Rodney's amused that Team Austin and us somehow keep exchanging the lead. Now we need to head back to the transition area, but this time we have the luxury of paddling downstream! That's so much better... it's fun to watch the shore zip by so quickly. We pass a few other teams still paddling upstream towards CP5, and shout words of encouragement to them.
In the daylight, it's much easier to find and follow the correct channel out, and this time we take a very direct route that only involves pushing the boats across one short rise of land to get back into the lake. We paddle back towards the island, and debate whether to go around it to the north again or try the south route. Since we know that Team Austin caught up with us on the way out by going the south route, we decide it must be ok to paddle. There's a section of nasty swamp grass that's slow going at the start, but after a couple of minutes we break through it and the rest of the way is easy. We pull the boats out short of footbridge, where the swamp grass gets nasty again, and head in to find out what's next.
The next two checkpoints are all trekking. We'd been reasonably warm up to this point, because we'd been moving, but now that we're out of the boats and standing around in the cold wind, soaking wet, we start to get cold pretty quickly. I struggle make my fingers and brain work to plot the two points. It takes longer than normal, but at least the rest of my team has a chance to do some good eating to refuel for the rest of the race. Finally, we're running out of there, and the next closest team still hasn't finished paddling yet.
We jog up a nice trail, gradually warming up. Eventually, the trail turns away from the direction we need to travel, so it's time to bushwhack. It's easy going, though, and we're heading for a handrail that's impossible to miss: the park boundary, which is a line of trees that is prominently marked with blue and orange blazes. Then, it's up the boundary for a couple of kilometers, sprinting through the woods, looking ahead for the best route through the trees. I call for a walking break to wolf down some peanut M&M's, as I didn't eat at the last transition area while plotting the points, and need the energy. We start running again, and the M&M's quickly kick in to give me the boost I was looking for.
We eventually come to a hunting camp, which is on the map, and it's a great reference point to shoot a compass bearing to CP7. We head through the woods a ways, knowing that if we miss CP7, at least we'll hit a large stream to let us know that we went too far. We see CP7 before we see the stream, and I'm happy to discover that our bearing had us heading right into it. Spot on navigation... Marcy would be proud!
We travel up the stream, knowing that we'll have to swim across it at some point to get to CP8. We hit an old road, that crosses the stream, but without a bridge. Ah, yes, I now recognize this spot from the last time we did this race... we can go around the stream a long way to a bridge, if we wish, but it will add unnecessary extra distance. Well, we've been swimming shortcuts all day long, and so we don't see any reason to stop now. In fact, this one was convenient in that we knew we'd be coming right back, as CP8 was only 500 meters away, and so we left all of our gear and jackets on the riverbank, to save them from yet another soaking.
With all the running we'd been doing we'd gotten reasonably dry and warm, so the water felt shockingly cold. At least it was a short swim across. On the other side of the river, we head into the woods to find yet another park boundary line, then travel up it to the checkpoint. No problems, we punch it and then it's back to the stream.
As we reach the stream crossing, we see another team on the other side, apparently looking about and deciding if this is the best way to cross. This time it's not Team Austin... so it looks like another team has pulled into second place. We don't really want to let them know that this is the best place to cross the stream, but they're bound to figure it out, anyway, and we need to keep moving, so we jump into the water again and swim across to them, and retrieve our packs. We exchange greetings and chat about how fun the race has been so far. Then I overhear them mentioning CP7... turns out that they haven't hit it yet! Alright, this means we're farther ahead of them than we thought, as they still have to travel downstream and then back to this spot, because they hadn't gone directly to CP7. Good news for us, as we now have a more comfortable lead then we'd thought.
Jogging out of the area, we see Team Austin jogging in, and from the direction they're coming it's obvious that they didn't take the shortcut to CP7, either. Heh, heh, life is sweet. We jog at a brisk pace back to the TA, trying to leave our friends behind for good. Since there's only one checkpoint left to punch on our passport, we're beginning to feel like we have the race wrapped up, so we just want to get it all finished without any major mistakes, and not give either of the teams on our tail a chance to catch us.
Back to the TA without incident, except for us running past a group of hiking kids that cheer us on. Turns out that the final leg is paddling again. Hardly any biking this race; I'm guessing that they had more biking planned before all the rain. Well, we're glad that we'd left our canoes down by the good entrance to the water, past all of the nasty swamp grass, so it's easy to get back out to the lake again.
For the final checkpoint, we have to go all the way across the lake, to a small island way off on the west side of the lake. We can't go directly there, though, as the confusing, marshy, twisty maze of the emptying river lies between us and the other open section of the lake. We can either try to navigate the maze, and go straight across, or go around it to the south. Fearing a repeat of the morning's confusion and backtracking in the maze, we decide to play it safe and go around. We now know the route to travel the first halfway across, to the main river, but the other half would be uncharted territory, and could easily leave us frustrated.
The decision seemed to make good sense, until we finished rounding below the maze to the south, and hit the open lake. There, we suddenly found ourselves in a quite a scary situation. We had a large lake to paddle across, and the wind had picked up since the morning. The wind was coming from the north, and as it traveled across the lake it made the waves build up higher and higher. At our southerly point on the lake, the swells were two to three feet in height, and the experience was bordering on dangerous. One false move could instantly swamp the canoe, and lead to a long swim in very cold water.
But, we'd come too far to turn back now, so we started across. We turned our boats north, into the waves, and paddled hard just to stay in place against the wind. Then, in between big waves we'd turn the boats to the west, and travel west for as long as we dared before we had to straighten back out for the next big wave, lest it swamp us. Since it was a long way across the lake, needless to say our progress was slow and frustrating. Steve was much better at steering his boat than I, so he and Leslie made it across the lake first. Jason and I finally caught up with them as them waited for us at the shore. Well, not an actual shore of land, but they had "docked" their boat in some more swamp grass to eat some food while they waited for us.
We still had to travel north, into the wind, to get to the island checkpoint. We thought it might turn out to be impossible, given what we'd already experienced, but near the western shore the waves weren't quite as bad as when we were crossing the lake. Also, as we progressed north the waves became smaller and smaller, because we were getting to the section in the lake where the wind hadn't had enough time to whip the waves up into terrifying heights. So, before too long we could see the island, and we started scanning ahead, searching for the checkpoint.
We also saw a team, or perhaps two, crossing the lake from our east. They'd decided to find a route across the maze of the river inlets, and obviously, in hindsight, that was the right move, because now they were crossing the lake through much easier waves than we'd contended with. Until the race is all over, no lead is ever enough to guarantee a win!
Jason spotted something orange hanging from a tree just off the island. As we pulled closer, we could indeed see that it was the final checkpoint. Success at last! Normally, there's a sign-in board posted at the checkpoint where the teams write their names. However, it turned out that this checkpoint had lost its sign-in board, and the passport punch, to the heavy wind and waves! All that was left was the checkpoint flag. Well, that's what we'll mark, then, so we wrote our team name on the flag it in grease pencil, to prove that we'd been there. We'd spent so much time crossing the lake that we weren't even sure if we were still in the lead. Even if we were, the other teams were quickly heading our way.
Back across the lake. We passed two teams going the other way, both heading to the CP, and both within just a few minutes of us. There was no question in anyone's mind that we were going to have to try and find a way through the maze. Paddling back was actually laughably easy compared to the way we'd come, because we were upwind of where we had to be, so we could just let our boats go with the wind and waves and rudder them east towards the maze. We got to the land and looked for a way in. Leslie spotted a promising entry, and we all hoped for the best as we headed in. We ran into a couple of dead ends, but they weren't major, so we just kept pushing our boats over the land bridges as needed and headed generally east where we could. Suddenly, we were in the main river. And, it looked familiar from our morning's adventure. It was almost too good to be true, but we'd somehow stumbled onto a perfect way back to camp, right down the very channel marked by the morning's CP4. Oh, what a relief that was, as we were quite ready to be done with this grueling paddling section!
We went through the familiar channel eastward, and broke out into the last little lake sprint back to camp. We still didn't know if we were in the lead... it was entirely possible that another team had gotten across the lake much more efficiently than us and already finished. Only time would tell. We struggled our way through the swamp grass for the final time, docked our boats, and ran to the finish area. And, much to our delight, we were the first team there! Hooray, we'd made it! Our friends in Team Austin, who had pushed us so hard all day, arrived in second place just 11 minutes behind us, which is a pretty close finish for a 12 hour race. Congratulations were exchanged all around... the close competition had made the race very exciting, and really made everyone push the pace hard.
The entire race was a lot of fun for us, well, except for that section of high waves on the last paddling leg. Our new team all worked very well together and kept high spirits throughout the adventure. Leslie had turned out to be a natural at this sport, full of gung-ho energy and seemingly gifted at every sport that was thrown at her. I was so glad that our team had managed to race hard enough to make up for the my less-than-perfect navigation on the water sections! We're all eager to race together again, so we may try see how well we can do in the 2003 race series that Men of Steel is putting on.
This was the first race in the six race series, so perhaps we'll wind up doing them all. I'd certainly like to, as I really enjoyed the way this race was designed and organized. The course sent you around to the most interesting parts of the park, while giving you plenty of decisions to make during the navigation. It was challenging, yet still doable for new teams. My kind of adventure, so we'll be back, Rodney!