I have not been doing much adventure racing in the last year. Life has just gotten busier with work and my kids getting more active in extracurricular activities. So, when Julie Standing called and asked if I wanted to travel with her and Joe Lee to Arkansas to do a race none of had done before, I quickly said yes. Both Joe and Julie race for team Massey's in Louisiana. I myself race on team Vignette from Texas. We commonly convince Julie to come race with us in many of our Texas races so I certainly owed her a few races under her long time team name. Joe and I had never raced together prior to this race, but I have known him for quite a few years. The format for this race was a non-supported 12 hour race somewhere near Little Rock Arkansas. The agreement was we were going there just to have fun which means none of us had to worry about doing area research or trying to be in too good of shape (I always need an excuse).
We all drove to Little Rock Friday evening before the event. It was about an 8 hour drive for each of us. We met at the race site check in and quickly passed all of the gear checks. Frank, the race director was super friendly and was very happy to answer all of my questions about his race format and other items. This was very helpful as not all race directors will take the time to answer questions from teams they don't know. The pre-race meeting started promptly at 7 pm with a quick thanks to the sponsors and really very little information overall. The important items were if you had a support crew (race had listed no support crew needed!) then you could sleep longer in the morning. If you did not have a support crew (we did not), we would have to do a bike drop about 3:45 am, then drive to the start line. The start time and location was announced during this pre-race meeting to be at 5 am with a 14 hour race cut off. No course maps were handed out at all, which is nice as we were all tired and ready to get some rest after the long drive. We headed to the hotel after pre-race meeting to do our last minute re-packing. I decided not to spend any time researching the area, as it would be more fun to just be surprised. The one thing I could quickly tell is that we would likely start off on foot, and then paddle to the bike drop.
It was rather cold as we left the hotel. My truck was reading a brisk 36 degrees. Being from Austin, TX, I am used to morning temps in the 90's so this was a bit of a system shock. Bike drops were done right on schedule. Since we had no support crew, we were allowed to drop food and water with the bikes, along with all of our climbing gear. Supported teams were also allowed aid at the start of the paddle, but that was early in the race, so not a big disadvantage at all for us. A couple minutes before the start, we were given last minute instructions and the captains were called up for the start. This is how I like adventure races to start. We were given a map and a course sheet with all of the UTM coordinates for our checkpoints. This required plotting, and I feel I am pretty efficient at this. Our strategy was to plot out the whole course, give it a quick look-over to make sure it made sense and get going. Most teams had set up tables and a transition area at the start line, but it was cold, and I was not acclimated so, we all just hopped in the back of my suburban and we plotted maps on the floor of the vehicle. It was nice as it was warmer in there than outside. Joe called out coordinates, and I plotted. The first leg was trekking around Pinnacle Mountain State park (PMS) with a trip up to the top of Pinnacle Mountain. It was rather difficult to understand the topography of that mountain from the map other than it was crazy steep. All the contour lines just seemed to overlap, so making out any sort of shape or ideal route was out of the question.
We hopped out of the suburban fairly quickly and it appeared we were the second team out of transition and we were right on the heels of the first team. It was cold out, but as usual, the first thing we did was start climbing a very big hill, so we all warmed up quickly. It was very dark outside as there was almost no moon. We hit the first point right on which always builds confidence. We missed the second point by a small amount but I quickly recovered and we found it. We lost less than 5 minutes with this snafu, but that allowed the first team to move out of sight and a couple of other teams to catch up to us. From there we were near another couple of teams for the next couple of points, but we hit them all right on with our plan. CP 8 had me a bit concerned as it was simply on the side of Pinnacle Mountain. It was not really on any actual feature from what I could tell (a common theme for several of the points in this race). Going up the mountain was rather steep and Joe and I quickly slowed our pace. Julie is a machine and quickly jumped up ahead of us. This was a real bummer, as 2 teams ahead of us missed CP 8, but I managed to spot it. We had to yell to Julie to come back which was a clear indication to all the other teams around us. It was OK, as we were still the ones to find the CP, so we all smiled. The other teams were nice racers and thanked us as all the teams were slightly off course and would have blown past this one for sure. CP 9 was at the peak of the mountain. I suspect it would have had a beautiful view in the daytime, but in total darkness there was no reason to hang around. There was a volunteer at the top telling us we must follow the marked path down the mountain that led to CP 10. This made me nervous as I am always scared we would pass up the CP.
The descent was extremely steep. It was just hopping down from boulder to boulder. Julie was like a mountain goat and just hopped down at super speed. Joe and I were much more cautious with our personal safety. Julie continually reminded us we moved like a couple of grandpa's, but we did manage to pass 2 more teams on this decent. As I was beginning to get even more nervous about passing up CP 10, Julie told me to just chill out that she was standing at the CP now and just come on down. After CP 10, the mountain leveled out a bit so we were able to pick up the pace. Unfortunately, I overlooked a CP on the map and we blew right past it. The good news was that we were only 50 meters passed it, when I noticed so we simply turned around and had to walk uphill to the CP. This could have been much worse. The only negative was that a couple of teams did not repeat our mistake and they leapfrogged back ahead of us again. (There were a bunch of CP's on this one mountain all very close to each other and my labeling of one CP was interfering with this CP 11 - yeah, that is my excuse!). The next few CP's were simply guiding us to the canoe put in area. We had one canoe for the team and were required to use the provided paddles. We had to portage the canoe about 150 meters to the actual water, but that was pretty easy. Julie was all chipper, so I let her carry my end of the boat part of the way so I could come up with a paddling plan.
It was about daybreak as we hit the water. Still very cold and I knew getting out of the boat later would mean being rather cold for a little while. I suspect we were the fourth to sixth team on the water (I think there were a total of about 30 teams doing this long course). We did launch pretty close to one other team. This paddling reminded me a lot of the Louisiana swamp paddling as we were dodging in and out of cypress trees a good bit. There was a good bit of fog on the water that was very cool looking but did not help to make navigation any easier. The waterway twisted and turned and we did a good job of picking efficient lines. We passed one team pretty quickly, then eventually caught and passed one other team. I did make a navigation mistake about halfway through. We were going around a few islands and I turned down one area too soon. It only cost us a few minutes, but the previous boat we had passed jumped back ahead of us. CP 15 was under a bridge about half way through the paddle. There were some nice volunteers there cheering us on. We punched the CP, and moved on. The remainder of the paddle was pretty easy as the waterway opened up. The only negative was we were traveling east and the sun was rising. This was super bright for sure and I did not have my sunglasses handy. We even managed to spot a biking CP along the paddle course that we would need to punch later. We finished the paddle at the bike drop location.
There were several CP's to be found first on foot. I really liked this as I needed to warm up a little. (When you are paddling, your legs tend to get very cold as they are not working. When you start moving again, all that cold blood tends to make your whole body cold for a short period.) As we ran off from the boat drop, Nate, the course setter stopped us and said he needed to look at our maps. Apparently a team or two ahead of us had plotted the course wrong in this area. We had plotted it all correctly and were off. The first CP was not far. It was at the entrance to a "tunnel" this was a huge drainage pipe that had to be about 10' in diameter. The next CP was plotted directly through the tunnel and so we headed in. Once we turned out lights on, we could see the CP hanging a hundred meters away. We exited the tunnel on the other side then followed a creek up to the next CP. We did pass one team coming back from this CP, so we all said hello. We punched this final CP for this trekking section and turned around to start running back to the boat drop. We arrived back at the boat drop, in third or fourth position (I think). From there, we transitioned into bike gear and were required to put on our ropes gear before leaving.
Only a minute or two from getting on the bikes, we were at the rappelling section of the course. This was a bridge over the river we were paddling on. Joe then informed us he had never actually rappelled before. He did fine and we all flew through this section very fast. Now it was onto bikes for a ride. We rode across the bridge we'd just rappelled over and into a nice park. We were warned to be cautious of a running race going on. We were riding about even with one other team. The topo map did not really match up to the area we were in, so we had to slow for me to get out the supplemental map. Just then, we came around a curve, and a volunteer told us to drop our bikes. We were now in the middle of a "mud run" event. We were required to run across part of this mud course to punch our next CP. This was fun, and since we were all already wet, it was no big deal. The next couple of bike CP's were easy and all in this park. After punching the final CP in this park, it was time for a longer ride back to Pinnacle Mountain State park on mostly paved roads. We took off and I figured Julie and Joe would really whip up the pace, so Julie put me on tow. Fortunately, they were not going that fast, so I did not need to be towed long. We quickly passed the one team we had been riding with and we were off. I decided to take my turn up front in the pace line so I moved on up. We were zipping along at 20+ mph when I heard the most sickening sound any biker can experience. It was the sound of Joe and Julie violently crashing to the ground. Joe had ridden up next to Julie and accidentally ran into her causing them both to slam into the pavement. Julie took the most damage and had a torn up shoulder and hands. The team behind us stopped and offered assistance (thanks!). Amazingly, there was no serious damage. Both Julie and Joe were back on their bikes quickly and we continued our biking from there. We pulled into the next CP in PMS Park right behind the team that had stopped to help us. From here, we were required to ride the marked mountain bike trails and punch the CP's along the way. We were faster on trails than the other team, so they nicely let us pass and we did not see them again. The trails were constant up and down with lots of big rocks. Both Joe and I got tired near the end, so our pace certainly slowed (of course Julie kept yelling at us slackers to speed up). We punched all the CP's on this bike course and popped out at the trail head not far from the TA. Now it was a nice downhill ride to the transition area. At TA, we were informed we were the second team back.
We were given another map with some pre-plotted points on it. I would call it sort of an orienteering map. I think it was just a very blown up version of the topo map as it was nowhere near as clean and crisp as a standard orienteering map. We quickly dropped some excess gear (climbing and bike gear), and headed out. The fist point was easy but just up a very steep section of mountain. From there, we had a few points that were really not on what I call a distinct feature like I am used to, so I was a bit cautious with all the approaches. We hit them all just fine. As we approached the final point we actually saw 2 other teams come running by. This was not good. It looks like my conservative approach on this last leg had burned us with less than 1 km to the finish!! Nothing to do but find that last CP and get to the end. We hit the last CP right on and started jogging to the finish. The 2 teams that came past us a few minutes earlier now passed us again and told us they missed this final CP. This certainly energized us all and we sprinted the final distance to the finish line. Our efforts for the day earned us an overall 2nd place finish. Less than 5 minutes later, the other 2 teams finished.
We had a great team and thankfully Joe and Julie were not injured more seriously in their crash. The race organization had put on a good quality race. We drove to a nearby park and got a nice hot shower. We headed back to the finish line, but since we finished the race in less than 8 hours, it was going to be quite a wait until the awards ceremony. We all decided we would skip the awards in an effort to get back home to family. We thanked the race directors then Joe and Julie set off to Louisiana, while I headed back to Texas.
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