We got the call from Steve Daniel two days before the race: His grandmother had died, and he wouldn't be able to race with us on Saturday. A big bummer deal for everyone involved. We started a frantic last-minute search for a replacement for Steve.
Naturally, the first person that we thought to call was Kathy Duryea, who was going to be our teammate for the 10-day Primal Quest race in September. As fate would have it, she had recently become free for the weekend, and she decided that she could join us for the race. Lucky us!
Kathy lives near Dallas, so she would meet us at the park in Tyler. We found out later that Kathy actually got to the park early on Friday so that she could pre-ride all of the mountain bike trails to become familiar with them! Mountain bikers, I'll never understand them! The rest of us, Jason Mittman, Leslie Reuter, and I, drove up from Austin in the SUV, with 2 canoes on top and 3 bikes on a rack in back. We managed to get to Tyler in time to setup our campsite before the mandatory 9:15pm meeting on Friday.
At the meeting, Rodney Skyles, the race director, announced that the race would start at a surprise time between 2am and 6am. And unlike the last Men of Steel race, there would be no warning, and no "wake-up" time... as soon as the siren was sounded, the clock was ticking. We rather liked this format, actually, as our team typically has no problems jumping out of bed and getting started quickly.
This race had an unusual item on the recommended gear list: Swim fins. We wondered whether this meant there would be a surprise swim leg, or something along those lines. At the briefing, Rodney mentioned the swim fins again, and cryptically added that they might come in handy if we "choose" to get wet. Hmmm. Our best guess was that this meant that at some point during the race, we'd be forced to choose to make a long trek around the lake or just swim across one of the lake fingers. We all decided that we'd be up for a swim if it made sense and would enable us to go faster.
We prepared all of our race gear and settled in for the night. We slept in our race clothes and shoes, as we hoped to be the first team to get going once the race started. We didn't manage to get a whole lot of sleep that night, though... we kept waking up to go to the bathroom, or to chase off a raccoon that had a taste for the sandwiches Kathy had made, or just because we couldn't seem to sleep. Plus, we pretty much kept talking all night long, like we were on a big goofy slumber party. Ah, well, sleep is overrated, anyway!
At 4am, one of us was outside the tent and happened to notice that Rodney and company seemed to be getting the start area ready, so we all got up just in case. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later, the siren blared, and the race was on! I ran over to the starting area and grabbed the map and instructions. It was a biking leg, basically just go to the trail and then follow it to 3 manned checkpoints. We quickly got into biking mode, and zipped out onto the roads before anyone else. Hooray for efficiency! In fact, as we were leaving, there were still some teams that hadn't stumbled over to the start line to get their instructions yet!
We charged along the hilly paved roads towards the trailhead. The trail biking turned out to be several long miles of technical trails, which we had to do in the dark of night. This section was very tough for me, as everyone else on my team were expert mountain bike racers, and I definitely was not. The trail had a lot of sharp turns, and steep ups and downs, and had many tree roots to ride over. It was the most grueling technical bike riding that I'd ever done at night, as I felt compelled to push myself as hard as I could, so as not to slow our team down too much. Even though I was pushing hard, and breathing hard, and mentally stressed the entire time, it was obvious that my other three teammates could have easily biked faster. But, they were all very helpful to me... one of them rode just ahead of me, so I could follow their line and avoid the obstacles. And someone with a bright bike light rode behind me to help illuminate the trail ahead. It helped a lot, even though I still did my share of falling over, and accidentally riding off the trail, and cursing.
We finally finished biking the trail and headed back towards the transition area. Even with my lack of bike skills, we'd still managed to keep our overall lead, and I was pretty happy about that. At the TA we received the instructions for the next leg, which was navigating our way to checkpoints on our feet. We hurriedly jogged out of the TA back into the night, as another team had finished the biking leg shortly behind us.
Checkpoint 4 was up a steep hill and then down into a creek, which we found pretty easily. Checkpoint 5 gave us more problems... it was situated halfway down the side of a hill, but not on any obvious feature to help with navigation. We fanned out to cover the side of the hill, and found nothing, so we went back to the top of the hill to shoot a bearing and try again. Wandering along the hillside again, we saw lights in the distance as another team approached us, obviously doing the same thing as us and having about as much luck. We exchanged greetings in the night, and then realized that we were talking to Dave Poleto, a racer who also was a race director in his own right, putting on a series of races in Louisiana. In fact, we'd just competed in one of his races in New Orleans only two weeks before... small world!
Since both of our teams were obviously just wandering the same area in search of the checkpoint, we made a gentlemen's agreement that whichever team found it first would let the other team know where it was. This would actually help us both out, because the sooner we both found the point and got out of there, the less likely it would be that a following team could be guided to the right area by following our headlamps. Shortly after we struck this bargain, Leslie found the point, and both of our teams were moving again. CP 6 was up on a plateau, behind a parking area where we'd entered the bike trailhead. Again, we had to fan out to find the point, and again, our team and Dave's got it at pretty much the same time.
CP 7 was down a hill, over a creek, and then up one of the reentrants to the creek. We ran a bit, trying to lose Dave's team, and they raced beside us generally parallel to our route. Things got a little confusing when we ran into a fence that wasn't on the map, which threw me for a bit because there was a different fence that was going to serve as our handrail for finding this checkpoint. But, as I was figuring it out, Jason wandered up a bit over a small hill, and spotted the checkpoint, so we were right back on track. But so was Dave's team, who got there slightly before us. Rodney the race director was there, excited to see that the two lead teams were so close and were obviously pushing each other to race harder. At the CP was a short special test: We had to climb a knotted rope up a steep embankment. The rope was thick and easy to grab onto, so it was a simple matter to zip up it to the top.
As was becoming familiar, we again raced Dave's team to CP 8. The clue for this one was "OUCH hill", which was well-named, as the hill was covered with prickly vines that kept making us yell "Ouch!" as they caught our ankles (fortunately, most of the rest of the course was generally pricker-free). We fanned out, and found the point again, but once more Dave's team was there to punch the point along with us. Grrr!
That was the last CP for this leg, and by now the sun was up so we could see clearly. The route back to the transition area was easy to navigate, just run north across the plateau and then follow the road back to the TA. We poured on the speed, hoping that we could gain some kind of lead to separate us from Dave's team.
The next leg was paddling. As the lake in this park was rather small, they increased the paddling distance by having us go to three different checkpoints across the lake, and we had to return to the TA after each point. We got started before Dave's team, but they were good paddlers, and as the leg wore on they gradually caught up to us and passed us. At the end we were still both very close... our teams had probably stayed within a minute or two of each other ever since we'd met back at CP 5. The amazing thing was, both of our teams finished the entire water leg before any of the other teams even arrived to start it! In fact, we could see the volunteers for the manned water checkpoints running to get there before us, as we seemed to be a bit ahead of schedule! Our aggressive biking and good navigation had obviously left the rest of the field way behind us... but now could we manage to pull ahead of Dave's team?
The instructions list for the next leg was a long one... it was going to be a huge trekking section, with plenty of difficult navigation. Jason and I plotted the 15 points, which would send us all around the park, and up and down many hills and ravines. Our efficient plotting system paid off, as we got out of there before Dave's team, retaking the lead.
Up a steep hill to CP 12. Got it, good, now let's get moving again before Dave's team sees us! More plateau running, then down a long fence line to CP 13. Got it, good, now let's get out of here before Dave's team shows up! This was a recurring theme for the leg. Fortunately, CP 13 was pretty much an out-and-back type of point, so as we were coming back we could see how close to us our competition was. We got back to the top of the plateau without seeing anyone going towards 13, so it looked like all the running we'd been doing was starting to pay off.
CP 14 was along the side of a gully, which we found by fanning out and traveling down the gully until we ran into it. It was up and down to hit 15 and 16, but they were pretty easy to find so we kept moving quickly. We slowed down a bit for CP17, as the clue for it was pretty ominous, "Terrain on map doesn't exactly match what you see". We got into the general area, and I said something to the effect that it should be right around here somewhere, and then Kathy immediately exclaimed that she saw it. We were happy that she did, because it was some distance off of the open area that we were in, nestled amongst a bunch of trees and underbrush, and not nearly as easy to see as most of the checkpoints had been up to this point. We left the point, happy that we'd found it so quickly, and bet that other teams would have a tougher time with it.
The clue for CP 18 was "On old mountain bike trail". We ran into the bike trail that we'd biked earlier that day, which was close to the general area of the checkpoint. But, we guessed that it probably wasn't on that particular bike trail, as Kathy knew that the bike trails in the park had recently been rebuilt and rerouted. So, we scouted off the main bike trail for another older trail, and, there it was! Another tricky checkpoint that we'd outwitted!
CP 19 was easy to navigate to, just taxing to get to, as it was up a nice long steep hill. Then it was a rather long jog along the fence boundary to get to CP 20... we could have left the fence to navigate to it directly through a drainage, but decided that the fence line route made for easier navigation and running, despite the fact that the alternate route would be less distance.
We had to go around an area on the map that was marked as "out of bounds" to make our way to CP 21. As we got closer to the CP, I had us move slowly, as this area was a little confusing, with lots of little spurs and drainages that all looked alike. Then, suddenly, I recognized the area from when Jason and I had scouted out the park the previous weekend, and I knew exactly where we had to go, which was a nice feeling. Then, for CPs 22 through 24, we slowed way down, as the navigation in this area was fairly tricky. The points were on the sides of hills and streams, but the whole area was hills and streams, and there weren't many handrails to reorient yourself if you got confused about your exact location. So, we did a lot of walking during this section, but it all worked out. With careful navigation and good use of the "fanning out" technique when we were in target area, we managed to find all the points without wasting much time.
On to CP 25, which would turn out to be the most difficult point of the day for our team. The clue was "off power line". We found the power line easily enough, but the line wasn't on the map, so we didn't know exactly where we were in relation to the point. Based on the clue, we assumed that it would be somewhat close to the power line, so we scouted alongside it a ways, but had no luck. I rechecked the UTM numbers to make sure we'd plotted it in the right spot, and it matched. As the rest of the team kept searching, I studied the map and questioned the assumptions we'd been making. Finally, I decided that based on the contours of the area, it had to be higher up the hillside and farther away from the power line than we'd been looking. So that's where we went, and happily, my deductions were right, as there was the CP. Hurry, let's get out of here before any other teams see us, we said again, even though we hadn't seen any other teams since the start of this trekking section. But when you're racing, it's hard to gauge how far back the other teams are, and it felt like we'd been moving slower during the last half of the trek.
There was one last point to get before we were done. For a change, the nav to it was easy, but it was far away. I double checked to make sure we'd plotted it right before we started running, as we didn't want to run all that way for nothing. Then, it was time to run, run, run. Since we had basically done a circle around the park, and now we had to run by the TA again to get to the point, we idly wondered if there had been anything to stop us from punching this CP earlier on in this trek. That prompted me to reread the instructions for this leg, which revealed that I'd messed up a bit... for this section, we were allowed to find the CPs in any order! D'oh! Obviously, it would have been better to hit this particular CP earlier, at the start of our loop around the park. Oh well, no time to worry about it now. At least we only would have done this one particular point differently, and it only wound up costing us about 15 minutes. However, it did mean that David's team could possibly be ahead of us, if they'd chosen to do the points in the optimal order. Well, I don't think we've ever done a race without making some kind of mistake... so we hoped this error would fulfill our "mistake quota".
We snagged the point and turned around, and headed back to the TA. We were glad to see that we were still in the lead despite my goof-up. In fact, Rodney was pretty amazed at how fast we had completed that long section of nav. The next section would be short, but interesting: We were told to get our boats across the lake to a CP, but we weren't allowed to take any paddles with us. Ah hah! Here's where the swim fins were meant to be useful, we gathered. We quickly brainstormed ideas for the best way to get to the CP. The obvious way was to just carry the boats around the edge of the lake, but we really didn't want to do that, as carrying boats is slow and tiresome. We debated whether we should swim alongside of the boats, kicking with our fins. Then someone suggested we sit in the boats and paddle with the fins on our hands. And finally, someone else suggested that we take Jason's trekking poles, put the swim fins on the ends, and duct tape them together to form makeshift paddles. That idea quickly won us over, and we went to work crafting custom paddles with trekking poles and some sticks that we found.
We pushed out into the lake, and our "paddles" worked great! Well, some of the paddles functioned better than others, so we had to make some adjustments along the way, but for the most part we made excellent time. Surprisingly, there were several other teams paddling on the lake, still doing the first paddling section. That seemed like such a long time ago to us... were we really that far ahead? As we finished the paddling leg we were quite happy to see that there were still no teams on our tail. And when Rodney saw the handy paddles we'd designed, he laughed and told us that he hadn't considered the possibility that a team might tackle the special test that way.
As we left the lake, Jason had the good idea that we should carry our custom paddles back to our tent and dismantle them, so that any closely trailing teams wouldn't see them and steal our idea. Then it was off for the final leg: Another round of mountain biking on the trails that had hit me so hard at the start of the race. Fortunately, this time we'd be doing them in daylight. As we biked the roads towards the trailhead, Rodney passed by us in his car, jokingly complaining that he hadn't had time to set out the checkpoints for this section, as we weren't supposed to be here this early!
The trails were indeed easier now that I could see, but the many hills and bumpy roots were still tiring to me. I took it pretty easy, since there was no other teams around to race us and make me want to push the pace. Jason and Kathy would ride ahead and do a section aggressively, and then wait for Leslie and me to catch up. Leslie rode slowly with me because she wanted to save her legs for a bike race that she would be doing the very next day! (And incidentally, she ended up winning that bike race!) How did we hook up with so many over-achieving females?
We finished the trails, much to my relief, with no real problems except for a stuck bike chain that took a couple of minutes to dislodge. We victoriously crossed the finish line in 8 hours and 38 minutes. We then got to learn just how well we'd done: Dave Poleto's team finished in second place over an hour behind us, as we'd finally managed to leave them behind during the long navigation/trekking leg. And Dave's team finished over an hour and a half ahead of the third place team! It was pretty exciting to win so convincingly against a field of 24 teams, 16 of which were all male. And we beat them with two females! Girl Power!
After we finished, we showered and had an excellent post-race meal, very tasty spaghetti served up by Rodney's volunteers. It certainly hit the spot. It was a fun time to be hanging out in the transition area, as we could see the other teams as they tried to get their boats across the lake without fins: Some swam it, while other teams just put their fins on their hands and paddled with them that way. We even saw one team paddling with a tupperware box lid. It was fun to watch and cheer them on.
As we drove out of the park, one of the last things we saw was Rodney the race director, napping in his car. It was no wonder that he was tired, as we'd seen him all over the course, zipping from checkpoint to checkpoint to set things up, run the special tests, and make sure that everything was going smoothly. The volunteers said that he didn't even set the points out on the course until after the pre-race briefing, as he didn't want any teams wandering the park earlier in the day to be able to pre-find any of the points. No wonder he was tired!
We really enjoyed the layout of the course. It was well balanced between all three disciplines, had a cool special test, and had a lot of really great navigation along the way. Men of Steel continues to impress us with their great organization and fun courses, so you know we'll be back!
Finally, I'd like to thank my teammates Jason Mittman, Leslie Reuter, and Kathy Duryea, for helping me through the bike section and being so frickin' fun to race with!